Even If {thoughts from the IF:gathering}

Even If {thoughts from the IF:gathering}

If Anything

If Anything

There was a day, last year, when many of the writers that I respect and love wrote about the IF:gathering. I read through the posts, and I felt a stirring, a literal tingling, starting at the back of my neck and curling into my toes.

I wanted to be there.

Those of you who have been with me a while might be surprised by this, perhaps. I’ve written about being that little girl in the corner in youth group before. My relationship with the evangelical church (or any church at all, for that matter) remains complicated.

In spite of the pain in my past, there was something about IF that I couldn’t ignore. It took hold of me and kept a firm, gentle grip. I could sense the Spirit.

According to the blogs and web copy I read, IF wanted to cross barriers of difference. Though I stand for many things, and believe a host more, I crave unity. Not the kind that dismisses the ways we disagree, but the kind that chooses to love and talk and pray anyway.

I had hope that this is what IF would do.

When Sarah Bessey wrote this post, telling us how the leadership team responded and changed plans, I was sure that I needed to go.

When it came time, I registered (not a small feat, since it sold out in 45 minutes) bought a plane ticket to Texas, and booked a hotel room with a roommate I’d never met.

Last Friday, I walked into IF, along with many other women (and a handful of men). My hotel roommate had already become a friend, and we stood in line together, waiting for the doors to open.

I was scared.

No matter how many times I listen to the Spirit, I still haven’t managed to do so without a tremor, however small.

On that first day, there were words that resonated with me, things that I wrote down to ponder, turning them over in my mind. Still, at the end of the night, in a candlelit room, after communion, I found a familiar feeling rising inside me.

I needed to find a corner.

I ended up in the lobby, leaning against a pillar, tears threatening to fall. The sounds of the worship music of past summer camps, youth groups, and Sunday mornings wrapped around me still and I found myself whispering to God. What am I doing here?

I went back to the hotel that night with a heavy heart, repeating those words over and over again in my mind.

The next morning, Sarah Bessey spoke. The very Sarah Bessey who tipped me over the edge into going to IF. I settled in, ready to listen.

Jennie Allen, IF’s founder, introduced Sarah. It’s clear that she has genuine respect and love for this woman. It was equally clear that she does not agree with Sarah’s theology, with my theology.

Sarah didn’t hide who she was. I found myself nodding along as she told us. But then, she started talking about Jesus. “Even after, or maybe because of my years spent wandering in the wilderness in the midst of my doubts and my questions and my uncertainties and even my sorrows,” she said. “I still have stars in my eyes about Jesus.”

By then, I was crying, because that is my story too. Even after all of the pain, some of it done in the name of Jesus, even after the time spent in the desert on many occasions, healing and sometimes running away, or wrestling, I have those stars in my eyes, too.

And as I sat there, tears falling, listening to the words of my big sister, I realized that she was doing what she has done for me so often before. She was showing me a third way.

You see, I’ve been looking for a way forward with the Church. In spite of it all, I love her. Not the buildings and the programs and the singing, but the people. I’m trying to be gentler with those who don’t agree with me, as others have been when I didn’t agree with them. I’m trying to remember that theology is a process, and that the Holy Spirit moves at will. I remind myself often that I am not the Holy Spirit. I remind myself that people don’t always know that they are hurting me, and others, with their words and actions. Here, surrounded by 1300 women, I watched Sarah speak out of love, finding common ground, and then I listened to her pray and I thought: this is how I do this. This is where unity starts.

It was not magical. I still found myself transported right back to college chapel when we sang a popular worship song. When one of the speakers said, “this is the word of the Lord,” I said, “thanks be to God,” aloud, as I would in my little Episcopal church. I still wondered, moment to moment, just where I fit.

But then I thought about the Church. Not the local church, but the big one. I thought about the Body of Christ, made up of so many diverse members, all needed. I may be a single, liturgical, Jesus Feminist who prays for the Holy Spirit to move, but I am still part of the Body. My voice is still important, even though it doesn’t always sound like everyone else’s. Perhaps it is needed because it doesn’t sound like anyone else.

I may not have felt at home at the IF:gathering, but it doesn’t mean that I didn’t belong there.

I returned home on Sunday night, weary and thoughtful. In spite of it all, I kept a date with a friend to watch a movie and chat. She and I do not agree on everything theologically, but we love each other. She asked me about IF and I told her, knowing that she was likely more aligned with the conference than with me. She listened, asked a question or two, and then looked at me. “You need to tell them,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“They need to know that there were people like you there,” she said. “They can take it into account when they do the next one.”

I’d been spilling over with tears all day, in the airport and on planes, thinking about Sarah’s words and how good it had been to hug her in person at last. I overflowed again. Right here, in this living room, my friend was listening to me, encouraging me, advocating for me, even though my convictions are not hers.

This is what unity looks like.

If you’d like to read the text of Sarah’s IF devotional, please click here