What Amy Grant at Wild Goose Taught Me About Jesus

A couple weeks ago, I had my first experience at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, NC. Let me tell you friends-it was hot, it was humid, and it was holy.

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I didn’t know what to expect and quite frankly, was a little nervous about what I would find. But these three days in the woods of the Appalachian Mountains were much more than I anticipated. Driving through the one stop sign town of Hot Springs, NC you would never know that there were 4,000 people packed into the woods just beyond the road. But we were there. And we were connecting and building meaningful relationships with one another on all topics related to spirituality, arts, and justice.

There were many highlights for me: eating my first Veggie Thing (a delicious veggie-filled crepe-like “thing” with amazing tomato based chutney), enjoying lunch with Brian McLaren and talking about the future of the church, hearing a powerful talk from Jen Hatmaker on the importance of embracing pain, and connecting with friends new and old as we waded in the river, grabbed an ice-cold lemonade, or just sat beneath a tree catching up on life.

But then there was Amy Grant, my friends. And for me, she defined the weekend.

There was lots of buzz leading up to “the Goose” (as people like to call it). People repeatedly asked me, “Is Amy Grant affirming?” and I had to admit that I honestly didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine her coming (or Wild Goose inviting her) if she was not…and yet, my heart still wondered.

Amy Grant was a staple in my household growing up. My mom was would turn on her “Heart in Motion” album when we cleaned the house, and every time a Colorado snow would fall, I’d wake up to “Tennessee Christmas” playing on the stereo.

I admit I haven’t stayed much up to date with Amy Grant in recent years. Subconsciously, I’m sure something mentally ties those memories to my “pre-coming out life.” So being unsure of Amy Grant’s current theological and political stances, I went to Wild Goose cautiously optimistic of what she would bring.

But when Grant took the stage for her concert that night and lit up the audience with songs like “It Takes a Little Time” and “Baby, Baby” it was more than just nostalgic. Something transformative happened as we heard and saw her sing those songs from the ages on the Wild Goose stage with a Pride banner hanging in the background. Battling the humid heat alongside us and inhaling bugs  that flocked to the stage lights as she sang, I believe something healing was taking place for many of us that night.

My biggest regret of that evening was not staying around for beer and hymns following the concert. Gathering under a tent beneath the stars, Grant joined the “Goose Goers” in song. In those midnight hours one of the most holy moments of the weekend took place as Grant, along with others, sang “El Shaddai.” Watching it through the videorecordings of my friends, the spirit of God was obvious. The Divine entered in, redeeming and healing the hurt and pain of so many that had been cast aside from other circles in the name of religion. Love and acceptance abounded.

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The closest thing Grant made to an affirming statement that weekend was the following morning when she said that her family was filled with diversity, including different sexual orientations. Beyond that, no official statement was made.

At first, I was rather disappointed. I wanted a clear answer, something that made it obvious as to where she stood. But as the morning went on through worship and the receiving of the Eucharist, I came to realize that I didn’t need one after all. Her spirit, her presence, and her love spoke volumes about how she felt about every person present, and the love God had for them unconditionally.

I’m not saying that words don’t matter or that vocal alliance isn’t important, because it absolutely is. There was nothing more powerful than Jen Hatmaker publicly apologizing to the LGBTQ community for her silence and saying that, even after all the hell she’s faced since her public announcement, her only regret is that she wishes she would have become an ally earlier in her life. It was powerful.

But there was something about Amy Grant that was timeless. It was almost as if no theological transformation was needed…like she had always lived, and loved as if all people mattered deeply. It was a beautiful thing to witness in a time and culture that is currently so divided.

One of the most healing moments for me came when Amy Grant served me communion. After meeting both my wife and I earlier in the morning, when it came my turn to receive the elements, Grant locked eyes with me, and the only words she spoke were, “You are loved.” And that sealed it. I no longer needed verbal validation of her acceptance of the LGBTQ community. It was just obvious…in her presence at the festival, in her willingness to tough it out in the woods with a bunch of sweaty, smelly people, in her desire to not just show up and give a concert, but to stay and interact and participate in the festival alongside us…in her showing up to beer and hymns, in her serving communion, in her smile and her eyes. She displayed such humility. It brought healing for so many, and it was truly holy.

I saw so much of Jesus in Amy Grant that weekend. It has continued to sit and stay with my soul. It is a memory I will continue to cherish and reflect on because it was so validating for me as an LGBTQ Christian.

So thank you Amy Grant. Thank you for coming and walking among us, for loving us and embracing all of us…just as Jesus would.

Finding Comfort in the Unknown

largeI’m always inspired by how easily wonder and mystery comes for little children. Their eyes get big as they believe in the impossible, or they might gasp in awe at something that to them seems like pure magic. For them, it’s so simple. They’re so full of belief, so curious, and so easily excited by discovering the things that we, as adults, think of as mundane.

Growing up, there was a certain degree of magical wonder in our home. We believed in fantasy characters like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and even the Tooth Fairy for as long as our young minds would hold onto them. I remember one Easter in particular my parents went to special lengths to make the Easter Bunny believable by using powdered sugar to make bunny prints on our carpet leading us through our home to our Easter baskets. For a woman like my mother who was a meticulous housekeeper, that was sacrifice!

As the years passed, the Tooth Fairy faded and belief in the Easter bunny gave way to the simple giving and receiving of Easter baskets. However, at the plea of my inner child, my dad continued to dress up in a red suit and visit us each Christmas Eve until I was well out of college. It was one of my favorite magical Christmas moments every year.

But wonder and mystery were not as acceptable when it came to our faith. Growing up conservative, evangelical Christians, there was not as much wiggle room in regards to exploring the awe of Christ. Rules, expectations, and appearances took precedence over wonder, mystery, and awe. We seemed to find comfort in a God we could place in a box–a God we could understand. Black and white answers and principles that were either clearly right or clearly wrong were foundational to the functionality of our faith. We needed to know. We needed to have it all together. We needed to be right.

This theology of course, was very harmful to me as I got older. Unable to openly question my faith, I was trapped into believing in a very small God. This became especially complicated when I began to question my sexuality. Doubt was seen as a form of weakness and fear was believed to come from not centering yourself in the truth of Christ. Therefore everything was supposed to be “cured” by simply praying harder and believing in God more.

But this theory failed me when I realized I was gay. Being gay did not fit into the black and white theology I was raised on. As a result, I believed that God did not love or accept me because of this fatal flaw.

This version of faith failed me again when I came out to my parents, family, and friends. With very few exceptions, almost all of them followed their allegiance to their need for certainty and belief in what they thought was right, rather than being willing to confront what they did not understand and face their fear of the unknown out of love for me. As a result, I lost everyone I loved the most. What I learned, is that the need for certainty can be deadly. It can kill relationships, it can kill faith, and it can even take lives.

But over time on my journey of refocusing, I rediscovered wonder and awe. It’s not as scary to me now as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, I struggled for a long time to let go of my need for certainty. But what I learned was that certainty didn’t require any actual faith at all.

If you know everything already, what need do you have for God?

As with most people, the older I get, the more I realize how much I don’t know. But rather than allowing that to frighten me, I’ve come to let it inspire me. It pushes me to discover and learn more. And my not knowing (or my questions, or my doubt) drive me to have an even deeper faith. Because believing in God, in the midst of my doubt and questions, is what faith is really all about to begin with.

So I’ve become comfortable with not knowing. I’ve become okay with not having all the answers worked out to all the big theological questions. I’ve learned to accept, and in fact, find comfort, in what I don’t know. It leads me to a greater place of mystery, and wonder, and awe of who God is. And in fact, it leads me to peace, because I’m free from the weight of having to have all the answers.

downloadI don’t know what comes to mind for you when you think of wonder and mystery: perhaps it’s the phenomena of space and the time that you saw the milky way on a dark, starry night; perhaps it’s the recollection of your wedding day or the day you brought a child into the world; perhaps you think of creation, or even evolution.

What you do not know or understand may provoke awe in you, or it may provoke fear. But today I encourage you to work towards a faith that allows space for your questions. Give your heart permission let go of your need for certainty and leave space for the unknown.

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Allow God to expand your understanding of what you don’t understand, and in turn create room for wonder, mystery, reverence, and awe.

Then, let it live inside of you every day.

 

Because Love Makes All the Difference,

Amber Cantorna

4 Reasons Why Every Christian Should See “The Shack”

Last week, my wife and I went to see The Shack. Despite its controversy among many Christians, we were eager to view the film version of a book that had meant something personal to both of us.

The Shack is the story of a man named Mackenzie Allen Phillips (fondly called Mack) who is wrestling with guilt, shame, and grief over the abduction and murder of his youngest daughter, Missy, while on a family camping trip. Evidence of his daughter’s murder was soon found in the Oregon wilderness at an abandoned shack. Mack is shell-shocked and devastated. Feeling responsible for her death, Mack beats himself up emotionally and struggles to move on from this place of utter pain, sadness, and despair.

When Mack received a letter signed by Papa (his wife, Nan’s, nickname for God) inviting him to that same shack for the weekend, Mack is all at once perplexed, outraged, and intrigued. Wondering if perhaps Missy’s killer is looking for a sick way to lure him back to that place, he is unable to get the mysterious note out of his mind. With the rest of his family away for the weekend, Mack sneaks away to the shack, expecting to face his biggest enemy.screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-12-38-10-pm

But instead of meeting his daughter’s killer, what Mack experiences upon arriving at the shack, is an encounter with God. The figure of God, who is portrayed as a black woman (Octavia Spencer) exudes nothing but warmth, love, and compassionate understanding. Jesus (portrayed as a Jewish man) and the Holy Spirit (portrayed by an Asian woman) are also of key importance, each of them playing a significant role in bringing healing to Mack’s festering heart.

The film’s 132 minute journey takes you through both grief and healing; through the pain of loss, and the hope of restoration. Despite the arguments some may pose about the underlying theology represented in The Shack, here are four reasons why I think every Christian should see this film.

1. We’ve all experienced a Great Sadness.

No matter where we’ve come from in life or what roads we’ve walked, the chances are, we’ve all experienced a Great Sadness in some form.  In the story, Mack’s Great Sadness was the loss of his daughter, Missy. It overshadowed his life, shackled him to pain, and colored the way he viewed both the world and God.

“We’ve lost so much already, I don’t want to lose you too,” Mack’s wife, Nan, says to him one day. Mack is slowly slipping away into his grief and she feels helpless to prevent it.

The Great Sadness is a universal theme we can all relate to: grief so strong that it threatens to suck us under into total darkness, pain from loss or despair so great that every day is a struggle. Our own encounter with the Great Sadness allows us to identify with and join Mack on his journey through pain and likewise, through healing.

2. We all have questions.

Once Mack starts to wrap his head around the fact that he is in the very presence of the Trinity, he begins firing off questions.

“Why did you bring me here?”
“Am I dead?”
“Does (Missy) forgive me?”
“Why would I (trust) you? My daughter is dead!”

His head spins as his mind struggles to comprehend what is happening–or why God would allow this to happen to his beloved daughter. Throughout Mack’s questioning, all three of the Trinity exude nothing but patience, kindness, and love as he processes the answers he is given. It’s quite comforting, actually, to see the grace with which God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit interact with Mack, despite all his doubts and obvious anger and pain. It portrays a safe space where we too can bring our own questions, feelings, and fears before God. It shows a dimension of God that loves our questions rather than despises them, because it creates an opportunity for us to know God better and draw closer in relationship with God.

3. We don’t know everything about God

The dialogue between Papa (God) and Mack reaches a convicting moment when Papa looks at Mack with complete love coupled with complete honesty and gently says,

“The real flaw in your life (Mack), is that you don’t think that I am good.”the-shack

Oh, how often I’ve been guilty of that. Raised with the misconception that God loves you if you are good, but is angry if you are bad, so often I’ve expected punishment from God rather than love, rejection rather than acceptance, and abandonment rather than embrace. That then poses the question, “How many other misconceptions about God do I have?”

This film challenges some of those misconceptions and paints a picture of a more understanding, loving, and embracing God. Who doesn’t need more of that?

4. We all long to encounter God.

It’s wired inside us. We look for God everywhere and when we can’t find evidence of God’s presence, we turn to other things: work, exercise, busyness, denial, suppressing our emotions–essentially, we become numb to our pain.

But what if we slowed down and sat quiet long enough to actually encounter God? What if we actually opened our minds to the possibility that some of the beliefs that we hold about God just might be wrong? What if we allow space for a God that heals, that loves, that restores, that accepts, and that embraces to come in and breathe life back into our souls?

I believe that we’d find peace beyond compare.

Maybe you’re not actually able to just stop your life and sit in complete silence until God shows up. I know when I try that I often end up just staring at the wall or obsessing over my “to-do” list. If you find yourself doing the same, let this movie guide you there. Allow yourself for 2 hours, to quietly sit beside others in a theatre and open your heart to encountering God.

This film is full of concepts that will make you think–about your own life, about your beliefs about God, and about your pain. When I sat in the theatre, tears and sniffles were heard all across the room as we sat in a space that felt full of the comforting presence of God. I could easily count on one hand the number of movies I’ve ever seen twice in the theatre. But after viewing The Shack this past week, I have found my heart longing for more, longing to return, longing to see it again and soak up the richness of God that is seen and felt throughout the film. There were so many concepts that I found so comforting that my heart is continuing to process them a full week later.

I urge you, let go of your need to be right, and open your mind to what God may teach you through this fresh perspective that just might bring healing to your wounded soul.