One of the moments that stood out to me at that Calvin College “Faith & Writing” conference last year was James K.A. Smith’s line that “the discipline and regimen of historic Christian worship… [plies] and stretch[es] your imagination.” I’ve been thinking about the ways gay Christians are damaged by the “liturgies” of our surrounding culture–and by the absence of images, practices, forms of prayer which could teach us to see better.
There’s a pretty obvious commercial anti-liturgy in which bodies are on display all around us in ads, prompting us to desire other people sexually–and to be dissatisfied with them. There’s also an anti-liturgy in which all the pop songs, all the movies etc center on sex, romance, and familial relationships, the mom in the ad holding her baby in her arms: These are the normal longings of the human heart, we’re shown, whereas longings for God or for community are marginal to human existence. Only for specialists. Only for people who perceive some especially strong attraction to those things–an internal impulse, which is how we misdefine “vocation” or “calling.” The narrowing of our cultural imagination isn’t always as obvious as with “Lava,” but–we’re encouraged to long for only a very few forms of love. There’s a lot more going on in these narratives, e.g. the moralization of happiness (if you’re suffering, you must be doing something wrong!) and the use of marriage and family as a marker of success as opposed to an arena of sanctification.
But I want also to talk about the practices we don’t have. I meet so many gay Christians who have a really hard time believing that God loves and cherishes them–that He delights in us.
If you don’t believe this on some deep level, it makes every form of trust within the Church much harder for you. It’s harder to trust that God’s will is for your own good (“Lord, I love your commands”); harder to trust that the Church is His Bride and knows His heart and His will for you; harder to trust other Christians when they tell you God loves you. Harder to trust yourself: that your own experiences of beauty in the world have meaning, that they tell you something about God and can guide you to the gifts He wishes you to bring to your church.
I think actually lots of people don’t trust God’s love for them. Don’t know it in an inescapable way. I don’t think this is strictly a gay thing, that feeling that God’s love is an abstract theological claim rather than a living reality that courses through the veins of your daily life. But I’ve noticed that the absence of conviction about God’s love warps so many gay people in the Church–maybe especially the ones who have spent a long time trying to do the right thing.
I rarely spend more than five minutes trying to do the right thing (and can I just say, that can sometimes be protective? not that sin is good but like… boy, it’s much easier to trust that God knows better than I do when I am intensely and unavoidably aware of my own catastrophe. The life-changing magic of low expectations and limited self-respect, y’all) (no, I mean, I know that that perspective also messes people up, plus also it’s not good to sin just so you can know your own weakness) but you may have guessed from the fact that I’m an alcoholic that deep belief in God’s love for me is something I really struggle with. (So maybe the spiritual practice of limited self-respect… has its limits?)Anyway, my first spiritual director, back when I was really miserable and struggling very hard to quit drinking, made me do a thing. It was penance given in Confession, iirc, but basically, I was supposed to picture God looking at me. And then I had to consciously remove any aspect of that gaze which was disappointed, or unhappy–unhappy that I’d sinned, or even just unhappy that I was suffering–until all that was left was love. Like brushing the clouds away from the sun.
This was actually fairly unpleasant! It dredged up a lot of shame and also I kept trying to tell myself it felt cheesy, even though it didn’t really. But I did it. And since then I’ve found that, without my consciously deciding to do this, I’ve begun picturing God differently in prayer. I picture Him holding me tenderly, or just us being really close, and it’s all so warm and cozy and sweet, I could puke. And now there’s a tenderness in my relationship with God which I don’t think was there for a long time.
This is basically cognitive behavioral therapy, you know. Replacing false scripts with true ones. The CBT scripts I see in workbooks and whatever tend to strike me as unverifiable at best, creepy at worst–they’re all about how you’re good and you don’t screw up everything and like… who wants to think of themselves as a good person? How creepy is that. Nor do I want to spend my time assessing the relative importance of things I screw up vs. things I don’t, or attributing my good deeds to my own sparkly willpower rather than being grateful that God did all that stuff. (Have I mentioned that where other people are Carmelites or Franciscans or whatever, I’m basically just a 12-stepper? The most embarrassing spiritual path, which is just the way we like it.) But no, the point is, I end up arguing with CBT scripts when they’re “positive thinking about yourself.” What I need is a script about God’s love and beauty, a) because that stuff is fun to spend time with, eventually (after it stops hurting) and b) because I won’t argue with it.
So here is my suggestion: If you have an intellectual conviction about God’s love for people in general, but it feels super abstract and impersonal and like it only really applies to other people, maybe spend some time picturing His look of love, His solely loving gaze directed at you. It will suck at first. Power through, reinforce this in yourself, dig some new channels for your thoughts to flow down. See if anything shifts around in your spiritual life.
Maybe it won’t! Nothing “works,” spiritual peace is not a thing you achieve through better technique. But this repeated practice of dwelling in the knowledge of God’s love for me has, I think, been life-giving for me. Something like it might be life-giving for you.
I bet you thought this would be a very different pop hit about gazing that’s associated with John Cusack but I decided to pick a song I actually like