Unstoppable Grace: Thoughts on the Gay Christian Network Conference

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We have a saying in Christianity that “you will know them by their fruit.” Drawn from Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 7, the expression means that the true test of faithfulness to Christ is not in simply believing or saying the right things, but in displaying the fruit of the spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. 

“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit,” said Jesus, “and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”

I spent this past weekend with Christians bearing very good fruit. 

I went to the Gay Christian Network’s “Live It Out” conference in Chicago a little unsure of what to expect, a little perplexed that someone like me would be invited, and a little freaked out about what to say as a straight woman to a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Christians—many of whom have been severely wounded by the Church. 

But within a few hours of arriving, it became apparent to me that I had little to teach these brothers and sisters and everything to learn from them. 

I speak at dozens of Christian conferences in a given year, and I can say without hesitation that I’ve never attended a Christian conference so energized by the Spirit, so devoid of empty showmanship or preoccupation with image, so grounded in love and abounding in grace. 

As one attendee put it, “This is an unapologetically Christian conference.”

Indeed. There was communion, confession, powerful worship, and fellowship.  There was deep concern for the Word. (The breakout sessions about the Bible and same sex relationships were by far the most popular, with Matthew Vines’ session so packed there wasn’t even standing room!) There was lots of hugging and praying and tears…and argyle. 

I spoke with attendees from a multitude of denominational backgrounds—Catholic, Southern Baptist, Nazarene, Churches of Christ, Pentecostal, Mennonite, you name it.  I met gay Christians who felt compelled by Scripture and tradition to commit their lives to celibacy (Side B) and gay Christians who felt fee in Christ to pursue same-sex relationships (Side A).  And I heard story after story of getting kicked out of church, of being disowned by parents, of losing friends, of moving from despair to hope. 

“I think we connect with your work because you write so much about Jesus,” a man who came all the way from Australia said. “For a lot of us, everything about religion has been taken away. All we have left is Jesus. So we love to talk about Jesus.” 

The event wasn’t perfect, of course. As with any conference, there were tensions and disagreements, a few awkward moments and misunderstandings. But these were handled with such profound patience and grace I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. Many of these folks have every right to walk around with permanent chips on their shoulders, but over and over again I encountered nothing but grace….big, wide, unstoppable, unexplainable grace. 

I suppose this is what happens when a bunch of Christians get together an actually tell one another the truth. 

About our pain. 

About our sin. 

About our fear. 

About our questions. 

About our sexuality. 

About ourselves. 

Telling the truth has a liberating effect on everyone else in the room, and this was evident in the final night of the conference when we listened to one another’s stories: 

From the young woman who had been called vicious names since grade school and who told us that this was the first time in her life she felt safe among other Christians. 

From the brave mom who, choking down tears, told us that before this weekend she had been ashamed of her son, afraid to tell her Christian friends and family that he was gay. Now she had the courage to tell the truth and love him better. 

From the man who, after twenty years of trying desperately to force himself to speak differently, dress differently, move his hands differently, and love differently decided to finally tell himself the truth. 

From the conservative pastor who used to be an apologist against homosexuality, but whose friendship with a lesbian woman slowly, over many years, changed his mind. “Her life was her greatest apologetic,” he said, before openly weeping. “I was wrong. And when I hear about the pain many of you have experienced, I know that I was the cause of some of that pain. I am so sorry. I am so, so sorry. Please forgive me.” 

From the man in the wheelchair who, with words he struggled to form, declared, “I’m black. I’m disabled. I’m gay. And I live in Mississippi. What was God thinking?!” 

From the lesbian couple whose conservative church chose to break with its denomination rather than deny them membership. 

From the young man who said that when he finally worked up the courage to come out to his parents “it didn’t go as well as I hoped,” and in the painful silence that followed, far too many understood. 

From the denominational leader whose peers wanted him to “see what these people are so angry about" and who choked up as he said, “I’m going to go back and tell them you’re not angry. You weren’t anything like I expected you to be. I’m going to go back and tell them you’ve been hurt and it’s our denomination that needs to change, not you.” 

From the parents who said they learned, too late, to love their gay son “just because he breathes.” 
 

It was church if I’ve ever experienced it. And as I wiped tears from my eyes, I became as convinced as ever that if the Church continues to marginalize and stigmatize LGBT Christians, then the Church as a whole will suffer. It will miss out on all this energy, all this wisdom, all this truth, all this fruit. It will miss out on these beautiful people, these beautiful families, these beautiful relationships. 

I was in a conversation with someone the other day who said he wondered if perhaps LGBT Christians have a special role to play in teaching the Church how to engage thoughtfully around issues about sexuality. 

I think he’s wrong. After this conference, I’m convinced LGBT Christians have a special role to play in teaching the Church what it means to be Christian. 

After all, movements of the spirit have never started with the “right” people. The gospel has never made as much sense among the powerful and religious as it makes among the marginalized.  As I said in my keynote, what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in. 

…And who it calls to lead. 

I realize that standing with and affirming LGBT Christians—both those who identify as Side A and those who identify as Side B (though, for reasons I can explain later, I'm personally inclined toward A)— puts some of my work in jeopardy. I realize that this post will be used to discredit me and that I may lose readers and opportunities as a result.  But here I stand—not to lead, but to follow; not as a mere “ally,” but as a sister; not because I have it all figured out or have all my questions answered, but because I know in my heart it’s the right thing to do. 

I’m so grateful to GCN for welcoming me into your family last weekend. You told the truth. You extended grace. You let me ask dumb questions.  You loved me well. 

And as long as you are part of the Church, I think her future is bright. 

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