Posted January 15, 2014 by Marg Herder
This post is part of my series on the 2014 Gay Christian Network conference. EEWC-Christian Feminism Today partnered with GCN to present GCN’s 2014 weconnect Women’s Retreat. Complete information on the conference can be found here. My introduction to the conference and the weconnect Women’s Retreat can be found here.
“I feel a bit disoriented,” Rachel Held Evans quipped as she started off her talk at the Gay Christian Network conference on Saturday, January 11.
She explained that she’s used to speaking at conservative evangelical events where her work is regarded with not a little skepticism. However, since arriving at the GCN conference everyone had been greeting her warmly. “It felt like a big reunion last night,” she said, much to the delight of the audience of around 700 LGBT people, family members, and allies.
She added that people kept bringing up how much they loved certain of her blog posts— the very same posts her usual evangelical audience makes sure to challenge her on!
Rachel told us the story of the first time she met Justin Lee (Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network). They were both scheduled to be interviewed for the same TV show on the same day and ran into each other in the studio. She told us how there was a rustic “hunting set” at the studio, complete with a stuffed turkey on display. On cue, the large viewing screens at either side of the stage displayed a picture of Rachel and Justin posing in front of the stuffed turkey. She described the scene as a picture of her, Justin, and a certain anti-feminist, anti-gay evangelical Christian leader our readers are likely to be quite familiar with. The audience roared with laughter.
As the room grew quiet, Rachel got more serious. She said she wanted all of us to know, “I have your back, 100 percent.” She added that she finds encouragement in us.
Next, she explained that even though she grew up as a straight Christian who believed that being gay was a choice and a sin, she later changed her mind completely. She described herself as an ally, but “also kind of a slacker,” and proceeded to display a cartoon of a figure sitting at a computer with a thought balloon that said “I’m such a good person for thinking of possibly doing that.” Again, more laughter.
Rachel talked about how the word “ally” can be tricky— sometimes allies can end up with a bit of a hero complex and do more harm than good. The word “ally” is not found in scripture, she noted, and besides, it doesn’t really resonate with her since it suggests people united by a common enemy. She said she preferred the terms “brothers” and “sisters” which suggest people united by mutual love and respect.
She asked us to consider how people always say “everything changed” for them when they found out they had an LGBT brother, child, or close friend. Everything changed for Rachel when she realized that she had lots of ‘brothers and sisters” who were gay.
Like a protective older sister, she gets really mad when she hears about churches who ostracize and hurt her gay brothers and sisters. Her follow-up statement, “I’m ready to go kick some elder and deacon butt!” received cheers and applause.
Like a proud older sister she loves to hear the stories we tell her about the good things we do.
And also like an older sister, she admitted to getting a little bit jealous when she heard about the cool things we were doing in the world.
Pausing and looking into the room she said, “I feel more like I’m in church than I have in a long time.” The audience was certainly in agreement.
Settling in, she let us know the title of today’s talk: “What’s so annoying about Grace.” It’s a play on Phillip Yancey’s book, What’s So Amazing about Grace.
Phillip is right, Rachel explained. Grace is amazing. But grace is hard and grace is messy. She admitted that it’s really hard for her to want to extend grace to someone like Mark Driscoll. “Grace,” Rachel added, “is not my default setting. It doesn’t come naturally to me.”
But then she wondered if that wasn’t the whole point. Maybe the most annoying thing is that grace is not about us. Grace is not about us being enough, it’s about God being enough!
Rachel told us she had two stories to illustrate her point. One was a communion story and one was a baptism story. She told us the communion story first.
At one time she was asked to speak at a UMC youth conference for Junior High students. Not exactly her target audience, she joked, reminding us that there was an entire chapter in her last book on menstruation! But the organizers were really sure they wanted her to come.
Rachel talked about how she’s kind of an introvert, and youth conferences are a little like hell for introverts, what with all the games and the inevitability that someone will stand up on the stage and require everyone to spontaneously hug the person on their right. But Rachel nevertheless consented to speak at this youth conference. Her preparation began weeks ahead of time. She slaved over the presentation, talked to her former youth pastor, whittled down the material she usually presented to adults; she even googled what the kids were into. All of us burst into laughter as she admitted to confusion over whether the Gangnam Style video was popular with kids because of its actual content or because they saw it as an ironic commentary on pop culture.
She continued her story. The day finally arrived, and she prepared to speak at that conference in Lynchburg, Virginia. She had us laughing again when she described how, far from being confident in her ability to address junior high school kids she was actually begging God before her talk, “Help me to do right by these kids.”
She let us know that she “didn’t completely blow it!” I think this is the Rachel Held Evans way of saying that she did well.
After her talk was over, she was asked to help serve communion to the kids. Every time she’s been asked to serve communion it has been a really powerful experience for her.
Rachel was in charge of handing out the bread. As all the kids walked past her and she handed each of them a piece of bread saying, “This is Christ’s body broken for you.” She stood there and said it over and over. She said the words to the shuffling ones, the giggling ones, the ones who came alone, the ones wearing designer jeans, the athletes, the ones who she could tell were picked on, and the ones with tears streaming down their cheeks. “This is Christ’s body broken for you.” She could see anxiety, shyness, hope, conflicts with family and friends, and insecurities in the eyes of the kids.
“This is Christ’s body broken for you.”
After she’d said that about 300 times it finally clicked.
It wasn’t about her doing right by the kids. Her insufficiency was kind of the point. Jesus is always enough. And this is what we Christians so often do. We forget that our insufficiency is always the point. “The good news is that I know deep in my bones that God’s grace is made perfect in our weakness.”
She added, jokingly, that the bad news is that God’s grace is also enough for Phil Robertson and Mark Driscoll.
What’s so amazing about grace is that it’s lavished generously on those who don’t deserve it.
At this point she spoke about the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The parable concludes, she said, with the vineyard owner saying, “Are you angry with me for being generous?”
She concluded this story by asking us how often we were annoyed at the generosity of God’s grace?
Rachel began her second story, the baptism story.
John the Baptist was a wild looking guy out in the wilderness. He was the son of Zechariah, a priest in the temple. Zechariah was in the business of doing the ritual cleansings in the temple. But people had to jump through a lot of hoops, perform a lot of different functions, in order to have the right to undergo this ritual. And some people were never allowed to undergo it. His son, John, went out and performed the ritual for anyone, in a river.
Rachel quoted Isaiah 40:3-5:
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
So the message is, “God’s coming through, so get out of the way!”
We religious types are good at building impediments. We make Christianity about being right, about rules, about theology.
She wondered if this might not be what Jesus was talking about when he said in Matthew 17:20 that with enough faith we could move mountains. Did Jesus say this because he knew that most mountains are of our own making?
Why can’t we go along with God? We’re scared that if we get out of God’s way this whole grace thing might get out of hand— just the way it got out of hand when Jesus looked out from the cross and said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
John’s cries in the wilderness could be understood to mean that people better get out of the way because God is coming through. Grace is about to get out of hand!
Grace gets out of hand again in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts of the Apostles 8.27-40). Eunuch’s were not even allowed in the temple. But Grace has gotten out of hand, and the eunuch is baptized by Philip.
Rachel reminded us that “what makes the gospel offensive is not what it leaves out but who it lets in”
Today there are many ways in which the church needs to get out of its own way. But we are all afraid that if we get out of the way this grace thing is going to get out of hand!
But God’s challenge to us is to get out of the way, to let this grace thing get totally out of hand.
Rachel concluded with a prayer, in which she asked God to help us tear down the idols we’ve built out of celebrity. She stated “We’re sorry for thinking ourselves sufficient” when in fact, only God’s grace is sufficient, and only God’s word is enough.
Related Content on Where She Is:
And There Was Singing (Sunday)
We are Broken (Friday)
There Will be Some Tears (Thursday)
weconnect – Introduction to GCN Board Chairperson Susan Shopland
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 1
weconnect – Interview with Susan Shopland, Part 2
weconnect – Introduction to Featured Speaker Reverend Audrey Connor
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 1
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 2
weconnect – Interview with Audrey Connor, Part 3
Introduction to the Gay Christian Network’s weconnect Women’s Retreat