‘Show yourself,’ is the BraveNewLove theme as we start 2020 and while yes, it is the second most popular song from Frozen 2, it perfectly summarizes why BraveNewLove was started initially. The idea that good things will come by living authentically and engaging others through discussions of life, wellness and faith. One area that I sometimes struggle to discuss is my faith. I’ve debated with myself whether I even wanted to include the concept of faith in BraveNewLove, but ultimately decided that it was an integral part of living authentically when properly defined.
That said, I still regularly second guess when and how to incorporate faith in my writing because I am very empathetic to how emotionally triggering anything associated with religion can be, and while I think of those words as two separate concepts, I know they can easily blur together. One thing I was hesitant about initially, but so glad that I attended, was a faith conference last October called “Evolving Faith.” I attended the conference held in Denver, Colorado in a hockey arena on the University of Denver's campus at with my parents and was overall very happy with the experience.
As a part of the ‘Show yourself’ theme for 2020, I will be sharing some experiences associated with my visit to that conference starting with a very small story about a very big deal for me and my faith walk. It’s the story of me creating just enough space to open my faith practice to a new and powerful voice.
Looks can be deceiving.
Could the woman I was standing in front of even begin to understand how big of a deal it was that I was at a faith conference in the first place, much less be there with my parents after having come out to them multiple years ago?
Probably not, if she was making a judgement based on how I looked.
I was presenting mostly heteronormative - with my only slight gender queer flare being a longish cardigan that went down past my waist - and was all smiles. Unlike Nadia Bolz-Weber, the author I was standing in front of, I had no outward physical indications of the brokenness that I have felt and still often continue to feel inside. Nadia on the other hand has a bit of a punk rock, 'fuck the establishment' kind of vibe about her look. I don’t think she actually had a leather jacket on, but she does in my memory for some reason. Very cool - very opposite of the impression I tend to give off. She has plenty of tattoos and most of her preaching and speaking engagements contain an ample amount of cursing. She certainly isn’t like any type of Christian I was taught to look up to or strive to be, and that is exactly the reason why I was standing in front of her.
Unlike Nadia, I had no tattoos on my porcelain and freckled skin. I am definitely showing my age more now, but I still very frequently get comments indicating that I have a ‘baby face,’ and that I have an all-American innocent vibe about me despite having rounded the corner into my thirty somethings. I smile a lot because I have learned over the years that folks who smile get along better whether they want to stand out, fade to to the back, or fit in. I also think most people could probably guess - correctly - that I grew up going to church and spent my fair share of time in youth group gatherings just by my appearance alone.
How was Nadia supposed to know that the person standing in front of her was there hesitantly and with massive amounts of apprehension? How was she supposed to know that I had wrestled with my worldview and viewpoints that were taught to me growing up so hard and so long until I ultimately left the church completely in hopes to give myself the space to find who I was? How could she have known how I had unfortunately internalized all those messages of being 'less than' and undeserving to a point where it had severely impacted how I interacted with the world around me - rarely feeling good enough. That I had tried to find that validation and belonging in so many places from the bedrooms of strangers to the bottom of bottles, and to the top of my earning potential all the while cutting little parts of myself off in hopes to fit into the space I felt the world was forcing me into. The fact of the matter is that there is no way that Nadia would have been able to know all this by my appearance that day because we don’t carry our inner turmoil on the outside, but in some ways Nadia did and I had learned that folks like that usually practice the type of faith that I can get on board with.
During the time I wasn’t actively going to church or practicing my faith in a traditional religious way, the only small glimmer of that type of spiritual light that I let in was in the form of writings from an author named Anne Lamott. I’ve written about her before, but that will probably continue to happen because she has been so instrumental in how I view and express my spirituality.
Her book Traveling Mercies,* chronicles chapters of her life that include struggle with drugs and alcohol, infidelity, and the value and honor in spiritual practices like Christianity and Buddhism. She had dread locks and lived in San Francisco which caused me to find her very interesting - for a Christian, especially. She also went to a church that didn’t seem like any church I had ever been to in my years of going to churches. Unlike the ones I had seen, it sounded like the only folks that went there didn’t have much money and very few were white. They also had a black female pastor which seemed like science fiction to me based on my background, but I knew it was true because Lamott was a nonfiction writer and Traveling Mercies was a memoir.
I didn’t ever get to the point where I thought that I wanted to go to church again, but I did get to a point where I decided that if I ever had to go to one, I would want to go somewhere I could see Anne Lamott going.
On the final day of the conference, my mom had made plans for us to go eat dinner with a group of women part of a Facebook group she had joined for parents of LGBTQ+ children. The group is called the Momma Bears and they are organized by a woman named Liz Dyer. The Mama Bears serve as a support group for each other during every step of the journey of becoming affirming and beyond. They are also extremely vocal about LGBTQ+ rights and very needed allies.
In person, they are adorable and it was an extremely fun dinner with some awesomely fantastic and accepting individuals. Within not too long of sitting down, a woman across from me asked if she could ask for my story - like coming out, telling my parents, all of it - which I think would be a pretty personal topic for most people - but as someone who has committed to living openly and honestly in hopes to inspire others to do so, I knew it was part of the process. We happily talked about my backstory and hers over the course of the dinner as multiple folks began the process of learning about each others’ lives through stories.
I learned that her name was Kathy but that she went by MK and that her hair was a big part of her brand (she didn't say that for the record, that's all me) with her instagram handle being @MKwiththehair (I recommend following if you are on insta). She started and runs an organization that empowers communities in Haiti to thrive by providing a platform for local Haitian artists to sell their work. It is called 2ndstorygood and I'd highly recommend checking them out if you like unique art and supporting great causes. MK proved to be a delight to meet and get to know and gave off a positive and bold light throughout the dinner.
At one point after learning about how I never absolved my belief in a higher power and that I had clung so closely to Anne Lamott all those years as the only semblance of faith during that time away from the church, she raised her hands in joy saying “You attended the church of Anne Lamott!” I had never thought of it that way, but I liked that framing and it would make sense that it came from a woman with big quirky hair and creative dreams similar to Anne's as well.
During the culmination of many of the darkest and toughest parts of my life thus far, the Church of Anne Lamott never let me down. She never made me feel like I would be exiled or talked down to for being who I was and she seemed to portray the aspects of spirituality that I wanted to hold on to - like helping those in need and making space for those that society has cast aside. I might not have been reading her writing at the same time every Sunday or anything, but when I needed perspective on life or spirituality, she was where I would turn. Her voice was certainly a mainstay in the beginnings of reclaiming faith on my own terms.
Since attending the Church of Anne Lamott, I have joined a conventional church in what I have described to be a small miracle, but the act of attending a faith conference was still pushing it for me. I hadn’t really let too many folks into my spiritual circle even after attending church again and was hesitant to listen to others speak on faith without having vetted them beforehand. In my mind, that was a needed precaution because so far I have disagreed with most religious writing/teaching that I have read for multiple reasons many of which are somehow associated with the need to force beliefs on others.
That said, my mom really wanted to go to the conference and I said yes because I thought it would be a good thing for us to do together. My mom has been continually and faithfully exploring and deconstructing her worldview over the last few years - many times due to me being in her life - and I felt like I could do this thing with her even if it was going to make me feel uncomfortable. My dad even decided to join in on the trip a few weeks before the conference was scheduled.
I was impressed with the conference from the start and it exceeded or subverted many of my expectations on multiple fronts. Each speaker had something to say that I found interesting or thought provoking, and I was getting to the point to where I was starting to think I’d be interested in reading more of what they had to say. My mom had said multiple times that we were going to meet her heroes because she read so many of the writers’ books only signaling that their work had made an impact on her faith in some way, and I was interested in experiencing that.
That all said, I still drug my feet quite a bit with finally deciding to purchase someone’s book. It was the second day of the conference, and many of the newer books had already been sold out. After looking through what was still there, I landed on my eventual choice which was a book titled Pastrix, which featured a picture of it’s author Nadia Bolz-Weber looking downward in a sleeveless tee exposing many of her tattoos. The description noted that she was former stand up comic, recovering alcoholic who didn’t shy away from profanity in her sermons. One review noted that “Bolz-Weber represents a new, muscular form of liberal Christianity,” which sounded like my kind of shit. That description, plus the fact that I had already seen Nadia in one of the small group sessions I had attended with St. Luke sold me on buying Pastrix. I walked to the counter with my mom who bought me the book as a gift. Thanks mom!
After purchasing, we still had 30 minutes or so before the extended lunch break was finished and many folks were using that time to get their books signed. “Do you want to get your new book signed?” Mom asked as we were about to get to our seats. I normally would not want to get a book signed - mainly because I normally wouldn’t have a book in my hand in the first place, but also because I get super awkward around people who have any amount of ‘celebrity.’ That said, for some reason I’m still not exactly sure of, I said “Sure, why not.”
My mom and I turned back around to head down to the arena floor where authors all had lines formed in front of them for folks to file into to get their books signed. Once we got on the floor level with all the other folks milling around I immediately thought this wasn’t a good idea. None of these folks looked enough like me (queer) and I felt those all too familiar pulls to get out of there because I didn’t belong. Even with my current self help and mental health work, I still have a brain that is ready to sabotage me in multiple situations and when it comes to the topic of faith, I have a constant fear that I am unwittingly giving away my authority as a gay man by interacting with folks who even use the word “Christian” no matter how different their worldview may be from those of the traditionally accepted Evangelical Christianity in America. My fear is that I might become a token gay “brother” that they can use to hold up and feel good about themselves for being “affirming” while I start to quietly hide aspects of who I am again in order to fit in. It’s basically a constant fear of backsliding.
Many of those thoughts were swirling in my head when a young woman gave me a yellow Post-It note and told me to write what I wanted Nadia to write when she signed my book. “That doesn’t seem very authentic,” I thought to myself, but then after looking at the stadium floor with hundreds of people, I realized how impossible that would be. As someone who worked for a nonprofit, I knew that authenticity and genuine connection was hard to scale. I settled on “Lance” as the thing I wanted her to write in my book. Really creative, I know - definitely something someone would want to blog about later right?
When I finally got to the front of the line, I said “Hi, my name is Lance.”
“Hi Lance, I’m Nadia,” this stranger said as I handed the book my mom had just purchased for me, the book she had written, for her to sign.
“You were one of the speakers in a video series my small group watched and discussed and I really liked what you had to say.” I stammered out. It was true, but it belied what was truly happening there. That I was cautiously and apprehensively standing in front of her ready to meet the person that I was planning to give my fragile, careful faith to by reading her thoughts on God and spirituality after years of only letting Anne Lamott have that honor, and that the emotions she wore on her tattooed sleeved arms were the only signal that this was a good idea and that it wouldn't fireball in my face.
“That’s cool. I’m glad you came here today and I’m happy to sign your book.” She said as she quickly signed “To Lance” then wrote what looks like a B.
That was it. I turned to the right and saw my mom smiling. She hadn’t decided to get any of her heroes to sign one of her books, but she helped me find one for myself. When I thought about it after, I realized how much work and faith my mom put into each step of this happening from the initial ask to attend the conference to the continued conversation around potentially getting a book and eventually having it signed.
After carrying it around in my bag for a few months as I tend to do, I started reading Nadia’s book over the holiday and am about halfway through it. It has been a beautiful story about a beautiful and broken child of God sometimes lacking in judgement, sometimes funny, and sometimes full of wisdom and so much knowing. Now that I am far enough out, I can look back and be thankful for the blessing, the process of getting there, and the efforts of both my mom and myself for taking the leap to make it happen. I'm thankful for Liz Dyer and MK Brooks, two fantastic examples of female leaders who played a part in creating the community that was Evolving Faith.
I am also thankful for the sarcastic Lutheran preacher (@sarcasticlutheran on insta) who has put in the effort to share her story and live a ‘muscular form of liberal Christianity’ in such a way that a seeker like me could see the signs to know her teachings were a safe space where I could let my guard down and grow my spiritual practice that I delicately shaped and guarded in the Church of Anne Lamott for so many years.
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