I’m right HERE because of “God,” and you are ALSO here because of “God,” but we are coming from completely different places and we embody mutually exclusive ideas… then how would we know which of us is truly “of God?”
A friend and I were reflecting on this the other day as we stood on the side of a highway holding signs and waving at cars as they drove by. We were participating in a non-protest protest, or a “Call to Love” as we came to name it, in response to the Restored Hope Network conference taking place at a church here in San Diego last weekend.
In short, the Restored Hope Network formed after the ex-gay organization Exodus International famously shut down.
(If you’re unfamiliar with Exodus, they were one of the largest ex-gay “ministries,” promising LGBTQ people that if they prayed enough or did the right things then God would “heal” them of their homosexuality. Even though time after time it is shown that conversion/reparative therapy not only doesn’t work but is also extremely harmful, there are still those committed to such approaches. Hence, Restored Hope Network’s existence.)
Months ago they announced that their annual conference would be held right here in San Diego at a local church. Grass roots efforts then began to organize as various people, communities, and organizations unified in opposition of the conference and its philosophy/theology.
Opposition to the harmful usage of reparative therapy.
Opposition to making a profit off of giving LGBTQ people false hope for “change.”
Opposition to using our city as their base of operations.
Opposition to the idea that their beliefs on sexuality represented the “Christian” position.
I was glad to lend my support, my presence, and my voice. Last Thursday night I joined other faith leaders, elected officials, health care professionals, and survivors of “reparative therapy” as we held a press conference to make clear our opposition.
In addition to the press conference there were several events planned to peacefully show opposition. There was an LGBTQ dance party in the parking lot across the street from the hotel where conference attendees were staying, designed to celebrate the beauty of diversity. There was an activist-led protest outside the church that hosted the conference, where LGBTQ people held signs declaring that they are not broken and that conversion therapy is harmful.
And then up the road a bit, on Saturday morning, was where a number of faith communities stood by the highway and showed our love for the conference goers as they made their way to the church. Letting them know that God loves them and is not asking them to change.
That was where my friend and I stood—smiling and waving—as we discussed the fascinating phenomenon of people-following-God.
“Isn’t it strange,” she said, “how we are here because of God, and they (speaking of the attendees of the conference) are also here because of God?”
Which got me wondering: when people are traveling in opposite directions in their pursuit of following God, then where is God?
Is God with us, as we stand on the road declaring that gay people are not in need of being fixed? As we declare that the Bible does not condemn LGBTQ people? As we tell our gay brothers and sisters that God loves them just as they are?
Clearly we stood on that highway because we were doing our best to follow God.
Is God with the men and women leading the Restored Hope Network? People who not only declare that they themselves have been “healed,” but are now teaching others that they can be too?
Clearly they put the conference together because they were doing their best to follow God.
Is God with those who traveled from around the country to attend the two day conference? People seeking out hope for their lives, because they have been taught that being LGBTQ is sinful and in need of being healed? People who sincerely believe that if they do it right, then God will change them?
Clearly they came to the conference because they were doing their best to follow God.
Is God with the protesters out front, decrying the abuse they endured at the hands of reparative therapy? People angry (rightfully so) that organizations like Restored Hope still exist, even when many states (including our own) have made conversion therapy illegal? People who have suffered and been marginalized so much by society and by churches, and are now determined to share their stories and proclaim their freedom?
Clearly they showed up to protest because they were doing their best to follow their inner convictions, their truths, and what they believed was right and best (I’m sure some of them might name all of that “God,” but others certainly would not.)
There was a time in my life when I would not have felt any tension in this. In other words, I used to be so clear and sure about where God was and where God wasn’t. The above scenario would have held no confusion for me, because obviously God is for “these particular people” and not “those.”
These days, I’m not sure I’m qualified to parse that out.
If it even can be.
And I get that that raises all sorts of other questions, and it demands intense levels of nuance and requires the difficult holding of tension and paradox.
But my sense is that things like nuance, tension, and mystery is what is required of us if we want to get anywhere close to understanding things like “where is God.”
Because even if I take just my own life as an example, the trajectory of my beliefs and ideas about God/humanity/sin/morality/etc has involved multiple 180 degree turnarounds. There are mutually exclusive beliefs in the history book of my faith. And I promise you that my late-teen/early-twenties self was sincerely doing my best to follow and love God, but my 35 year old self (also doing my best to follow and love God) now completely disagrees with my old self at just about every turn.
And I’m not prepared to say that God was not with me back then.
Nor am I prepared to say I wasn’t actually “following God” back then.
Which means, if there was a time in my own life when perhaps I would have earnestly supported something like the Restored Hope Network as a way to try and faithfully live out my relationship with God, then I need to also make space for those who were there last weekend.
And so… to the question of “where is God?”
With the conference goers?
With the conference leaders?
With the protesters?
With the non-protest protesters?
The answer is probably, “yes.”
So if nothing else, this sort of thinking calls me to deeper expressions of grace.
If I have seen too much, and know too much, to be able to decisively declare where God is and where God isn’t… if I no longer believe in my ability to know who God is for and who God is against… then what choice do I have but to lean in to things like love, compassion, and grace?
And as challenging as that can be, perhaps the moment we can see (and say!) that God is indeed present in the other—just as God is present in me—is the moment when we begin to embody radical love and grace.
p.s. It should be noted, if you’re new here or to my writings, then I fully believe that God–in the tradition of Liberation Theology–stands on the side of the oppressed. That God has a preferential option for the poor, the hurting, the marginalized. That wherever there is harm being done, then there is an absence of God.