When you think about God, what do you imagine? What’s the first image that surfaces in your mind?
Take a moment and just sit with this image. Don’t critique it or praise it, just take it in.
OK, now the fun begins. Like any child, we get to ask over and over again — persistently and without ceasing — “Why?” Why was this image the first one you thought of? Were you taught by someone — a movie, a Sunday School teacher, or pastor — to see God in this way?
What does this image make you feel? When it first emerged, what was your gut feeling; was it guilt, shame, love, forgiveness, or a combination of emotions?
Why do you feel this way? Did someone/some community condition you to feel what you feel; has this hindered your relationship with the Divine?
Does this image still work for you, or have you developed a different one (or many)? If it doesn’t, why? How do the new images make you feel? How did you move from the image in your initial reaction to the ones that are meaningful for you today? Was this transition important for you? Why?
I’ll stop the inquisition here, but I hope you’ll take time to journal about these questions and keep probing what and where from and why you have the image of God that you do. Even the word “God” is charged with so many feelings, experiences, dogma, and cultural conditioning that it’s difficult to say for some of us, and even more difficult to have a healthy relationship with.
Here’s some of my experience, and maybe it resonates with yours in some way:
For a long time, my idea of God was based on what I heard other people say. I had this whole “macho masculine” image in my mind, the God who sent plagues and turned people to salt. I heard people talk about “Him” and “His judgment” or “His power.” Don’t get me wrong, my home church was full of kind-hearted older ladies who acted as everyone’s mothers. I was lucky. Even in this church, though, that idea of a masculine God hid under the surface of every conversation; we just assumed that’s who God was… Sometimes my image of God seems like a rigid marble statue whose cold eyes look at me with judgment. It’s time to take that dusty statue of God and smash it. (Reclaiming Church, pages 25-26).
For so many of us in the LGBTQIA+ community, the idea of God has been used against us: “He’s” a threat, a punisher who will torment us if we live as our authentic selves. This is where the gift of our queerness is especially important because it gives us a reason to question what most people have always taken for granted: The nature and identity of God.
It’s a brave thing to face something as triggering as a being who’s been used to threaten us, so I want to name the courage you’ve shown just by opening this article. Thank you for your courage. Now, let’s use our queer gift.
For me, my image of God is constantly evolving. Even in the time between when I wrote my book in 2019 and today, I’ve started to use the word “God” less and use words like “the Holy” or “Divine” more.
These words help tap into the expansiveness of the images in which I currently find meaning. For me, looking out at the ocean as the sun sinks at dusk or watching the sun rise again, pink and gold, at dawn over the hills in upstate New York — these are the images and experiences that I associate with the Holy, with God. These images evoke different emotions within me than the marble statue does. And even though those feelings of guilt sometimes arise when my first image of God pops up, they don’t have control over me anymore, and they don’t define the Holy for me either.
Learning to reclaim God is probably a life-long process, but it’s been a liberating one for me already. I hope you’ve experienced some of this liberation in your journey thus far with the Divine, and if you need a little more help taking that first step, Chapter 1 of my book will walk you carefully deeper than this brief article could hope to.
But know this: God is bigger than the bully that others have made Them out to be. Enjoy this journey of discovery and questioning and unloading and be set free.
So, whatever you were told about God before, let it go. Release the tension in your fists as you read this and feel the chains around you fall. You have every right to experience God in your own way. Take everything you were ever told or just took for granted, and say, “Goodbye,” because right now we’re starting fresh. (Reclaiming Church, page 25)
Preacher, public theologian, advocate and author J.J. Warren is currently earning his master of divinity degree at Boston University School of Theology and is a certified candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church. After making an impassioned plea for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons at the UMC’s top law-making assembly, J.J.’s speech went viral, and his advocacy has been covered by news outlets around the globe. Today, J.J. travels to churches across the country spreading a message of radical love and forward progress. In 2020, J.J. founded Young Prophets Collective, a non-profit that focuses on equipping young queer leaders and allies to speak prophetically against injustices.