Reflections on the 2017 GCN Conference
I walked off the stage as the noise of the crowd gathered. They applauded, then stood. I was shocked. I felt all right about my keynote message, but I knew it wasn’t my best. I have had a fair number of standing ovations over the years, though certainly more in the last three years than in all the others combined. Is it because I have become a more compelling speaker? Is it the generosity of the audiences I encounter? Is it because I risked everything to be who I am? I suppose it might be a little of each.
Your shadows shorten when you stop hiding. In my later years as a male it always felt like sunset, with long thin shadows falling off my wrong body as the sun slipped behind the mountains. In the darkest hours I was too exhausted to cast shadows, even in a full moon.
The effects of hiding accumulate, even when the hiding is an outgrowth of love for your family. You do not want to explode their narrative. For land’s sake, you don’t even want to explode the narratives in which you are only a bit player. Life is capricious enough without having a husband, father, boss or friend confound things further by changing genders. But there comes a time when you realize you have no choice in these matters. You will either die or become so diminished you can no longer be counted upon, or possibly even found.
Later, after you are alive again, you realize how perilous the journey was, your life hanging by a thread. No wonder people listened for the engine to turn off when you came into the garage. But then you forget those perilous days, because the order of misery tucked inside misery gets lost in the remembering. Eventually life resumes, and if you can take in its lesson, you have more wisdom, grace and power than before. You have been blessed through your trials.
When the service ended, I was surrounded by those eager to express their gratitude. I have spoken before larger crowds, but I have never received such thanks. It was overwhelming. I needed to retreat to my hotel room to collect my thoughts and take stock of my feelings. When I opened the door, there was my roommate, nestled in her bed, covers up to her neck, a look of consternation on her expressive face.
I sat down on the bed and we began to talk about her morning and mine. I settled onto the floor and finished the remainder of a chopped salad from the evening before. Our conversation was grounding. Her honesty and openness is such a gift to my life. Grounding is important in these uncertain times, when it is possible to awaken to a land in which a misogynist has been elected president.
After our talk I stood at the bathroom mirror and thought, “Yeah, I probably should have checked my hair one last time before I got up in front of 1400 people.” Then I headed down for a delightful interview with two women from Marquette University who are doing a qualitative study on how churches interact with LGBTQ members. I thought, “Where have these kinds of people been all my life?”
Next was a follow-up Q&A from the morning’s keynote presentation. I spoke from the overflow about subjects with which I am acquainted; the American evangelical church; tribal behavior; what the Bible does and does not say about LGBTQ issues; the importance of good exegesis and a healthy hermeneutic. There were lots of thoughtful questions from a gracious audience.
By five o’clock the conversations had accumulated and I was spent. With each message of thanks I had asked a little about those offering their appreciation. As I might have expected, these people were survivors of unspeakable injustice. Their very presence was a testament to the tenacity of their souls and resilience in their hearts. I had spoken to a room full of walking wounded.
Of course, I have always preached to a room full of walking wounded. What made this room different was the fact these people had dared to be open about their wounds. Then they moved beyond them, no longer ensnared by a narrative kept silent. For such integrity and courage, they were rejected. Yet they wore their hard-fought character on their faces. I wept for these people who heard me speak the words they would have spoken if only they could have found them? I had offered words that caused them to say, “Yes, yes, that is my story!” It was an honor.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why the evangelical world is frightened by these precious beings. If Jesus had wandered onto earth this past Friday, I think there’s a fair chance he would have been at the GCN Conference listening to my message, without judgment. (Well, he might have had a suggestion or two about my stories from the Gospels. I mean, he was there and all.)
I am sorry I did not speak up sooner on behalf of these courageous souls. For too many years I was hiding in the shadows, an entitled part of the majority, a privileged person attuned to the suffering within my own soul, but deaf to the suffering around me. But this is not a time for regret. Work must be done. There is a world waiting for good news.
When I reflect on the 2017 GCN Conference, I will remember all those good people with whom I spoke, like the beautiful red-haired, green-eyed mother who told me of her gratitude that someone, finally, understood her story. I will treasure the precious conversations with my dear friend, as we talked far too late into the night and slept far too little. I will think upon the few minutes stolen with Lisa Salazar and Austen Hartke, talking about our common journey. I will be grateful for Justin Lee, his coworkers, and my fellow board members willing to work so hard to make GCN strong and vibrant.
To all those people and 1,400 more, I say thank you. I can’t wait to do it all again in Denver, January 25-28, 2018.
And so it goes.