Writing has been an itch I haven’t been able to scratch this month, primarily because I haven’t wanted to be over-dramatically controversial in a time when I have a lot of busy-ness happening in my day-to-day. I wanted, however, to write about the conference before I forgot and to address something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time.
During the conference at Open Door Community Church a few weeks ago, several authors and their works were brought to my attention, adding exponentially to my ever-expanding “to read” list. The conference, itself, was refreshing, stimulating, and delightful. I was only able to spend Saturday there, but felt spiritually and emotionally enriched after just one day. Among the memorable moments were hugging and shaking hands with wonderful people, making new friends, hearing incredible lectures, and feeling uplifted by the transcendent musical performances. I hope to go back to Open Door very soon as it is quite a bit closer to our new home than my other church is. I am trying to work out a way where I don’t have to choose between them.
At the conference, I met and spoke with two of my theological heroes (Frank Schaeffer and Brian McLaren), shook the hands of three published authors I knew virtually nothing about (Tim Kurek, Susan Cotrell, and Randy Eddy-McCain–who happens to be the pastor of Open Door), and shared a few moments with one that I had only become familiar with days before (Jay Bakker).
Brian McLaren had received the “Peggy Campolo Carrier Pigeon Award” the night before, so some of the conference was deservedly devoted to praise of this genuinely remarkable human being. Before he spoke, I was blessed to spend several minutes speaking with him one-on-one. He wanted to know about me. When I mentioned my seminary journey and the time I have taken off to care for my children, one of which has ASD, he immediately related to me as a person directly impacted by autism. There is much autism in his family and he was very interested to know if our Weston was receiving the support he needed. Thinking back on my first exposure to Brian McLaren seeing the film “Hellbound?” I remember immediately remarking to my neighbor about how I liked the words and appreciated the perspective of “that guy with the kind eyes.” Then I read some of his work and found out my uncle goes to the church McLaren helped establish in Maryland (How small is our world!). The kind eyes that translated on screen are, in Brian’s case, a direct result of genuine kindness that exudes from his entire being.
During his speech, Brian addressed some issues within the church and culture, specifically regarding LGBTQ issues and the encouraging tidal wave of love, compassion, and genuine acceptance of this formerly marginalized group of people. He expanded on the Ghandi quote, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” by adding: “Then you learn to win graciously.” This is such a profoundly important punctuation at the end of that quote and one that so many, in the midst of winning battles (which I assure you, the LGBTQ community is doing in America), forget. Being gracious in victory is a true test of character and a necessary step for those of us who profess that love is the ultimate goal.
After he spoke, we broke out for lunch, but before I ate, I sought out Frank Schaeffer. I locked eyes with him across a group of people chatting, and he asked for them to allow him through so he could speak with me. Frank is one of the most genuine and kind people I have ever met and immediately gave me a hug upon hearing the impact his work has had on my journey. He, too, asked about my seminary studies and was very keen to know if Weston was receiving what he needed to be his very best, unique self. For someone who self-identifies as an “a**hole,” he’s an awfully nice, loving guy. My first exchange with him may have been my favorite moment in the entire conference.
I have never met a personal hero that I was disappointed by. Even in my old conservative days when I met Karl Rove, I found him to be kind and gracious. While I may differ with Republicans more often than not these days, I have a lasting respect for him personally. All this to say that both Brian and Frank surpassed my wildest expectations. When you speak to someone who seems larger than life and they effortlessly connect with you, it’s a special experience. Often, I feel very awkward around large groups of unfamiliar people, and, indeed, I spent much of that Saturday feeling that way. Yet speaking with Brian and Frank was a surprisingly reassuring experience and one that will encourage me to attend similar events during the future of my life-long spiritual journey.
After lunch (during which I sat with the delightful Peggy Campolo), Jay Bakker spent some time addressing the marginalization of the outcast within the church and the need for society to be loving and accepting. Bakker was humorous and charismatic and addressed the issues as, perhaps, only he could. He spent the remainder of his time talking about his relationship with Brian McLaren and his wife. If I had any doubt about the incredible human being McLaren is (I didn’t), Jay’s words would have put all of it to rest. After he spoke, I rushed over to speak to him for just a few moments because I knew I had to get home to do the “mommy thing” before returning for the evening session. Jay was kind when I told him I was only beginning this journey after being somewhat turned-off at Asbury Seminary. He recommended some authors and said he hoped I enjoyed his work.
Perhaps my favorite speaker that day was Frank Schaeffer. At his lecture later that night, he expanded beyond the marginalization of the outcast and said that our problem is bigger than that. The crux of the trouble facing people who honestly strive to follow Jesus is that the mainstream Christian community, who preach against worshiping idols, is inadvertently hypocritical in its own idolatry of the collection of books known as the “Bible.” In these communities (and, it seems, in much of American culture), this literary collection written, translated, and interpreted by man is treated as God. Folks pick and choose which of the sins they find most abhorrent. The “Ten Commandments,” the examples in the scripture, and the Jewish law is seen as much more Godly than following the words and teachings of God (in the form of Jesus Christ). Jesus did not say that heterosexuality was the ideal or that the ten commandments were paramount. In fact, what did Jesus say was the most important commandment multiple times in the gospels? That’s right: loving God with all of your mind, heart, and soul, AND loving your neighbor as yourself.
Rather than love, too many are choosing to marginalize outcasts, while professing to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” They base nearly the entirety of their approach to the world on a misinterpretation of obscure Old Testament stories (such as the reason Sodom and Gomorrah was destroyed in Genesis) and Paulian letters rather than on the actual words of Jesus Christ. My favorite quote from Frank Schaeffer (which happens to be in his book Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God) is, “Religion is a neurological disorder. Only faith is the cure.” When religion and worship of a book virtually replaces God as exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, we have a serious problem. The church has a serious problem. And, I believe, we shroud God in our own insecurities and fears, projecting our own limitations on God, rather than allowing God to be God.
As I mentioned earlier, this write-up is bound to ruffle some feathers, yet for too long, I have remained silent in my support of equal rights for all, especially in regards to the LGBTQ community. In a sense, I am having my own informal “coming out.” My support of this community unknowingly began with my love of Ellen DeGenerous’s sitcom and comedy. As a kid, I just knew that she was funny and that I enjoyed her presence in my pop-culture world. It didn’t matter to me what orientation she was and it baffled me that her personal life bothered anyone. Then, as a young adult, I met and became friends with more LGBTQ folks and experienced on a very personal level, that there was really no difference between them and me in any way that really mattered. From a legal and constitutional standpoint, the abolition on same-sex marriage in this country makes absolutely no sense. It became very clear to me during this time that, if Christians do not want their religious practice infringed upon, they cannot force their religious views on anyone, either. The freedom to marry should be extended to all consenting adults.
Until a few years ago I was still struggling with what I had been taught regarding the historical and popular Christian biblical interpretations of homosexuality. In that vein, it was my time at Lancaster Theological Seminary that allowed me to experience this community in a spiritual setting and introduced me to other interpretations of those passages in the bible where homosexuality is addressed. As I am still wading through various perspectives on this (and it is beyond the scope of this post), I will address this more in the future. Suffice to say that rape-culture and promiscuity seem to be the real abomination in a biblical (and cultural) sense. I see no biblical reason to abhor or dismiss committed, loving relationships between consenting adults of any orientation, faith, or believe system.
So that’s it. The Fall Conference at Open Door Community Church was a welcome relief and a joyful time of reflection, love, and learning that I will not ever forget. Conservative Christians say that Progressives Christians are cherry picking. Progressives say the same about Conservatives. While I find myself very much identifying as a progressive Christian (leaving political views completely out of this particular post), I would like to think we can find our common ground in love and acceptance, not merely in tolerance. I’ve said before that my son’s diagnosis was an impetus to re-framing my worldview to one where love is my first consideration, the lens through which I see people in the world. I can no longer conceive of a Divine Being who does not do the same.
I’ll leave you with an image of the shirt my friend Brian C. wore to the conference. I think it sums up my stance quite accurately: