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Friday, January 20, 2017

The Christianity of GCN Conference

Serving communion at GCN Conference. Image source.
I went to the Gay Christian Network conference because I really want to be in a Christian environment that's not awful for me. I miss going to church, but I don't go because I can't find any kind of church or Christian group that's not awful for my mental health.

I was hoping the Christianity of GCN conference would be the Christianity that I follow. It wasn't. But that's all right- it never tried to force me into believing anything, and there were parts that were really really good, parts that were so exactly what I needed.

First of all, the message of the entire conference, proclaimed over and over again by every speaker, was this: You are loved. God loves you. You are a beloved child of God. Maybe in the past somebody told you you can't have a relationship with God, or you can't be a worship leader or pastor, or you need to change in order for God to accept you- well they're wrong. You are loved and accepted and able to serve in the name of God exactly as you are.

LGBTQ Christians very commonly experience rejection from the church; they are excluded either directly or indirectly. So over and over, GCN conference preached a message of inclusion. At the church-like service on Sunday morning, the choir sang "Draw the Circle Wide" as we all had communion, and wow, that was powerful.
Draw the circle wide
Draw it wider still
Let this be our song
No one stands alone
Standing side by side
Draw the circle, draw the circle wide
Wow. So bizarre to me to hear a worship song with that kind of theme. (Maybe "worship song" isn't even the right term for it.) Over and over, all the speakers at the conference preached inclusion. Everyone is loved. Everyone is worthy. They didn't tell us we had to believe or do certain things in response to God's love. There was no altar call. There was no "God loves you unconditionally, therefore you need to make a decision to commit your life to him." The only thing we were commanded to do was continue to include others and spread the love.

So I'm kind of confused about this. I'm ex-evangelical; the Christianity I learned was always about trying to get people to believe certain things or obey God in specific ways. The pastors I knew would say that GCN's general message about God's love was good and true, but that it was only half of the story- and that when you leave off the other half, you're just preaching some deceptive feel-good nonsense which doesn't actually do any good. "The other half" being the things people are required to believe or do, otherwise their life will suck and/or they go to hell. If you don't warn people and let them know what the requirements are, maybe you're actually doing more harm than good- you're giving them a false sense of security. That's what I was taught; I'm not sure what to make of this "God loves you unconditionally" stuff when it's not followed by "and therefore it's totally reasonable for God to ask you to do the following things."

There are two possibilities:
  1. This message of love and inclusion really is the message that GCN wants us to hear
  2. GCN believes the "God loves you" stuff is only half of it, that the "here are God's requirements" part is also essential, but that many LGBTQ Christians already know it or are not in a place right now where they'll be receptive to it. Now is not the time- if we try to preach that now, it might push them away. Right now we just give them the first half, hopefully that will convince them to stick around with the church and then somebody else will tell them the second half.
I find possibility #2 to be incredibly dishonest, sort of a bait-and-switch thing. I should know, I did so much evangelism back when I was "on fire for Jesus," I know all about how to sugarcoat the idea of hell and condemnation and dress it up like it's good news.

So... could it be #1? Could it really be? I'm having trouble even comprehending that- a form of Christianity whose main message is that God loves you, a form of Christianity which isn't at all interested in forcing people to believe certain things. Wow, could that really exist? That's ... wow. I want a Christianity like that. [Note: It's possible that some of GCN's leaders and the speakers at the conference believe possibility #1 and others believe #2.]

On that note, I'd like to tell you about something that Bishop Gene Robinson said. He was one of the speakers at the conference, and was the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church. I remember when he was in the news back in 2003, back when I was a good anti-LGBT evangelical. At the conference 2 weeks ago, there was so much applause for him; he is an important role model for queer Christians who want to become pastors. To me, he had been just a symbol in the culture war, a sign of how the church is "abandoning the bible"... I had never thought about what it would be like to be told you can never be a leader in the church because you're gay, and then to see someone who proved that wrong, how powerful that would be. Anti-LGBTQ Christians don't understand how deeply their "culture war" affects the actual lives of actual people.

Anyway I want to tell you one thing Bishop Robinson said. He was talking about how he had been asked to do a prayer at Obama's inauguration, and he agonized over the words to use to make the prayer inclusive to people of different religions. He finally decided to use the phrase "God of our many understandings." Later, he heard from Jewish and Muslim people who thanked him for saying it that way.

And I just about fell out of my chair.

Did I mention I grew up evangelical? I heard all about how isn't it terrible that people water down their language to make it "inclusive," how they don't proclaim the name of Jesus because someone's going to be "offended," making some weak, meaningless prayer that's so vague it hardly says anything. Isn't it so pathetic and wrong when so-called Christians care about being respectful to other religions? Come on! They need Jesus. Don't act like those false religions are just fine- no, what those people need is to get out of those lies and follow Jesus instead.

I'm stunned, just totally stunned. I've never heard a Christian leader say it's good to be respectful to people of other religions, that it's important that they not feel excluded during a prayer at a public event. I just ... wow. This is just totally unimaginable to me. I like it, sure, but I'm still shocked. Are there churches that regularly preach such things? What would that type of Christianity even look like? Like, I want to be part of it, but it's just so unimaginable that something like that could even exist.

(Bishop Robinson also did not use pronouns for God- he never said God was a "he." I don't remember any of the speakers on the main stage calling God "he." I like that too.)

The message of GCN conference was love and inclusion. And let me tell you, it's one thing to believe that in a theoretical sense, but it's a whole different experience to see hundreds to LGBTQ Christians and allies believing it and preaching it wholeheartedly. It was an amazing thing.

But at the same time, there was a lot of Christian-culture-type language I was really not comfortable with. People talked about "God's calling" or "God's plan" or "a relationship with God." The speakers on stage would talk about something that happened to them and say "that was God"; listening to the other conference attendees, I heard many anecdotes from the "isn't it funny how God works" genre. (For example, I met a gay man whose mother has never accepted him, but now she is old and depends on him to take care of her every day. On hearing this, someone made a comment about how such an ironic situation clearly must have been brought about by God.)

Yeah, that gets all the eye rolls from me. I don't believe God actively does things in our lives. You really think that this world, a world full of systemic injustice, is the result of God intervening over and over in every Christian's life? I don't want anything to do with a God like that.

Again and again, people talked about having a relationship with God, communicating with God, how God is doing this or that in their life. There was one conversation I was part of, where this woman was talking about her job and about the kind of company she wants to work for in the future, which is sort of in a different area than her job now, but she wants to work in that area because she'll be able to make a difference in the world. She used language about how it's totally "God's plan" that she does this in the future. And then she told us about how excited she is about how some high-up person in that industry just followed her on twitter. Wow! How exciting! She only had 9 followers before that! Clearly this is GOD WORKING! God is OPENING A DOOR!

Come on. It's just a twitter follower. It doesn't mean anything.

I'm not trying to mock. I'm sad because I used to live that way. I believed I was constantly in communication with God, and I looked for meaning in every little tiny thing that happened to me. Everything is a super-huge big deal, everything is a sign that "God is working." It's so stressful to live that way.

What happens when we make a big deal out of some little thing, when we go on and on about how it's God's plan, we thank and worship God because of it, and then nothing ever comes of it? Back in college I sent out an email to a big mailing list about a bible study I was starting, and somebody called me and said she wanted to come. And I worshiped. I took it as a sign that God was totally working, God was going to do great things in this new bible study, that I was a devoted follower of Jesus right there on the front lines, that God saw all my hard work and valued it. I emailed my evangelism friends to tell them the good news. And then that girl never actually came.

What do you do with that?

(Well, the only thing you really can do is decide- with absolutely no evidence- that even though she never came to the bible study, her reading my email and calling me on the phone was a big, important step in her spiritual life, and God used it for great things even though I will never personally see those results. Yeah okay.)

It was so much stress, living that way, looking for "God working" in every little thing, constantly speculating about the meaning behind the mundane things in my day-to-day life. And sometimes it required a bit of memory loss. You know how Christians say you should keep a prayer journal so you can look back on all the prayers God has answered? I've never done that. (I kept a journal, but never organized it like a "prayer journal.") But it wouldn't have been good. What would it be like, to read back through all the things I was so excited about, where I was so sure I saw God working, so overflowing with awe and worship that I would literally bow down on the floor and pray... what would it be like to read those things, maybe a year later, with the knowledge that they never amounted to anything? (Maybe the whole "prayer journal" concept is more for "look at all the things you were so worried about, and then they never happened and you've actually forgotten about them now" rather than "look at all the things you were so excited about, how you were totally sure God was going to do certain things in the future, and then they never happened and you've actually forgotten about them now.")

All this excitement over one twitter follower in the industry "God called" her to work in... I feel sad about that. I really do.

I didn't say anything to her. I don't go around telling people that God's not actually intervening in their lives or that their "relationship with God" is bad for them. If those beliefs make them feel better, then okay fine whatever. And actually, for LGBTQ people who have been told that they're not able to have a relationship with God, it can be really good and healing for them to say they do have one. For me though, it's the opposite- I was totally devoted, followed all the rules, people admired my "relationship with God." It controlled and consumed my whole life, drove me to squash down my whole identity, my needs, and my emotions. I'm so glad I'm out of that relationship. The whole concept is really unhealthy for me now, and kind of triggering.

There was another part in the conference, where I was having a conversation about the concept of "God's calling," because one of the speakers in a breakout session had said "your calling might change" and I have no idea what they mean by that- if God wants you to do something, how on earth could that change? God changes God's mind?

Anyway, I happened to be asking this question to another random attendee, who said maybe at first God calls you to something, and then later on, God gives you a more specific direction to go in. Or maybe God calls you to do something and then later calls you to do something different in order to THROW THE DEVIL OFF.

And I was like "... I don't really believe in that."

And she said, "You don't believe in spiritual warfare?"

And, wow it would take a long time for me to answer that question. (I covered it a little bit in this post.) But wow, THANK GOD I never believed that God might "call" me to do something that God wasn't planning on me actually doing, just because God wanted to confuse the devil. Like, CAN YOU IMAGINE? That adds a whole new layer of second-guessing "God's calling." Like how's this supposed to work, I'm going to start doing all this stuff in obedience to what God said, and then satan's gonna make a bunch of plans to combat it, and then suddenly God will be like "NOPE LET'S DO THIS DIFFERENT THING INSTEAD" and satan will be all "NO ALL MY PLANS HAVE BEEN FOILED"? Like, really? That sounds like it would inconvenience me way more than it would inconvenience satan.

I'm ... wow. Still can't get over how absurd that whole idea is.

Anyway, yeah, my point is, at the conference there was a lot of talk about "God's plan" and how God did this or that specific thing in someone's life. I'm not a fan of that kind of language. But it's important to point out that, when I mentioned to people that I don't believe in "having a relationship with God", nobody tried to convince me I was wrong. Instead they asked questions and sympathized with the way I've been hurt by evangelical Christianity.

The worship time was also an interesting experience for me. When we walked in to the big "auditorium" on that first night, the song "My Savior My God" was playing. Uh. Yeah. Okay, the song itself is fine, the lyrics are fine, I don't have anything bad to say about the song itself, but ... for me, that song has the feeling of "back in 2010 when I was on fire for God" and, just, ugh.

Then the worship time started, and after a few songs, the worship leader (Darren Calhoun) said something to the effect of "I know for some of you, these songs aren't good for you. That's okay. If you need to leave for a little bit, it's okay. You can do your self-care." And that was really really good. First of all, I don't think I've ever heard a church say it's okay if you don't want to participate in this or that part of the service. I've never heard a church acknowledge that some of the songs they use might have bad associations for some people, and it's fine for those people to leave because they know their own needs. And he used the term "self-care"! That's a word I learned from the feminist blog-o-sphere, a word that goes against the whole entire ideology I learned in the evangelical church. Self-care. No, instead the church taught me to sacrifice my own needs and desires. If there was a sermon about the need to rest and take care of ourselves, it was "you need to take care of yourself or else you won't be able to serve others", not "you matter and you deserve to have your needs met."

So wow. That was really good.

And during the worship songs, I didn't really know what to do. I don't pray, and I don't sing to God, and I'm not interested in trying. I felt like the music was kind of nice though, and I wished I could be part of it somehow. So I came up with the brilliant idea of singing some kind of "harmony" part higher or lower than the melody of the song. Yeah I basically know nothing about music, but I was in a choir in college, and we had different groups (sopranos, altos, tenors, etc) and usually one group would "have the melody" and then the other groups would be singing the same words except higher or lower in such a way that they all sounded good together. (There are probably actual terms use to describe this concept. Idk. I don't know anything about music, but if you ever want to learn matlab or something, talk to me.) Yeah. So, for these worship songs at GCN, sometimes I sang the same words but either higher or lower than the melody.

I did that so I would be concentrating on how the music sounded, instead of on the words or how I feel about the song itself. Or, in evangelical-speak, I was singing but "didn't really mean it" and therefore my "worship" doesn't count. Whatever. If I was just singing the normal way, those songs would have been unbearable.

Communion was really good. I don't go to church (and I don't feel bad about it), so I hadn't been able to do communion for a long time. I know that within Christianity there are lots of different interpretations on the meaning of communion; the one I grew up with was "this is about you feeling really really guilty for your sins and sad about Jesus' death." Currently, though, my view is more like "you have a physical body that needs food, and God cares about that- your physical needs are real needs that matter." (And also a bit of "if anybody tries to tell me I can't have communion because I'm 'not a real Christian', or that my interpretation is wrong, well **** you, I'm a Christian, I have a right to be here.")

Anyway, that was the first time in a long time that I've gotten the little bread and grape juice without thinking the person serving them to me would probably not accept me if they knew what I really believe. They always say "this is the body of Christ, broken for you," but do they actually mean it's for me, or for the good-Christian-with-all-the-correct-evangelical-beliefs that they assume I am? But at GCN, I really believed they accepted me. And I may have cried a little bit. I also may have cried during the song "For Those Tears I Died."

A few other small things I want to mention: I had forgotten how American Christians have such huge misconceptions about "persecution in China." Had to set some of those myths straight. Also, I heard somebody asking people to pray for his husband to become a Christian. Ugh. (Background: My fiance is not a Christian, and I'm not okay with anyone treating that like a problem that needs to be solved.) And one of the speakers, Ling Lam, said we all have a God-shaped hole, and, well, you all know how I feel about that. (The rest of Ling Lam's talk was really really good though- it was about Jacob trying to get Isaac's blessing and how we pretend to be something we're not in order to gain approval.)

It was an environment where I could be honest about what I believed and what I didn't believe, and people wouldn't try to force me to change that. Even if they didn't agree with me, they understood what it is to be hurt and rejected by the church. And throughout the entire conference, the message of unconditional love and acceptance was preached- seriously, LGBTQ people know how to preach a better gospel than anything I've ever heard in church. But still, the Christianity of GCN Conference wasn't the Christianity I follow. There was way WAY too much talk of how God caused this or that thing to happen in someone's life, about how God "called" someone to do something, and just generally the kind of language people use when they believe in "a personal relationship with God." That's a concept that has caused me a lot of emotional trauma- honestly, I see it as all tied up with the anti-LGBTQ ideology I was taught, so it was a little jarring to hear LGBTQ Christians using those exact same words and concepts. Their experiences are different than mine (even though I'm also queer) so for them, it's possible to reject some of those teachings while keeping some others. And it can even be really healthy and good for them to say "no, I DO have a relationship with God" because of all the anti-LGBTQ Christians who told them they couldn't.

I wish I could go to church, I really do. If there was a church like GCN, I would totally go.

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Related: GCN Conference Was My First Time Not Being "Just An Ally"

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