Thursday, January 26, 2012

What I've been looking for

When I was in college I went on a short-term missions trip to Japan, where I taught English for six weeks at a small village church in Hanakawa. The congregation at Hanakawa was small, barely thirty people on an average Sunday, because Japanese Christians are a persecuted bunch. They don't pay homage to their dead ancestors at the Buddhist temple, nor do they offer prayers at the Shinto shrines imploring the spirits for good health or success. Their families are ashamed to own them. Wives risk the wrath of their husbands for going to church; children risk being disowned by parents. But when they come together for worship at church, that little group of thirty could sing. They worshipped with full hearts every Sunday out of joy and sorrow and gratitude. Twenty-five years later I can still hear the sound of their voices, accompanied by the whine of that cheap church organ, singing "Jesus Paid It All" in Japanese.

Three weekends ago gay Christians arrived from all over the country, and even other parts of the world for the Gay Christian Network (GCN) Conference to worship, learn, fellowship and break bread. And when they sang, the outpouring of their hearts carried me back to those days on the missions field. These were Christians rejected by their families and friends, whose very existence is considered a shame to society--and in this case, their churches. They were gathering to take a brief, collective breath of heavenly air before having to return to the grind of an oppressive existence. Even those who had churches to go back to said that they couldn't worship there with nearly the same freedom as they found at the safe haven of the conference. "Soon as we get back home, we'll start counting pennies to save up for next year's GCN Conference," someone told me.

I have to admit I've spent a lot of years hankering after the spiritual giants of the Christian world. I wanted to witness true faith, which I associated with passion and zeal. Maybe I wanted some of that faith to rub off on me. I would hang out with missionaries, thinking these people who gave up a comfortable life in the States to preach Christ in a foreign country had to be the real deal. I looked up to my brilliant seminary profs, feeling that anyone who spent a lifetime studying the Bible or theology must have a deep love for Christ. I've tried to grab hold of that genuine Christianity for myself. I've joined movements, studied and read, evangelized and prayed, and sold myself out for Christ numerous times. Many disappointments later I learned that outward spiritual impressiveness isn't always what it's cracked up to be, and I can't rely on other people's faith to carry my own.

And just as I'm learning to let go of all that, I come to the GCN Conference and realize that it's here where I least expected it, that authenticity I've been looking for. There was such a spirit of unguardedness among everyone that conversation and fellowship flowed easily. The name of Jesus was precious in the mouths of those who spoke of him. I could talk about suffering and sin and get quiet, understanding nods in return.

But it wasn't flashy or outwardly attractive; the faith of these people was born out of pain and doubt, of wandering and loneliness. It was almost as if the secret to faith was having a messy life, not a together one. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, some wise person in the Bible once said. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.