I’m going to begin writing but I don’t know where this will lead so I apologize ahead for the grammar…
There are three instances that stick out in my mind:
–I was going to preach at our Saturday’s church service but was asked not to by the Lead Pastor because I had streaked my hair blonde.
–After getting both my ears pierced, a family from the church I worked at threatened the Elders and Leadership of the church that they would leave if I didn’t remove them. We made a compromise that I would wear small clear ones whenever I was on stage.
–After preaching at a church, a parishioner approached me and said, “Thank-you for the sermon but what I appreciated most was that you wore a tie.”
Each of these situations helped me formulate an understanding of how different the Christian faith is practiced. Of course, in the beginning, I was hurt by these individuals and couldn’t process why they reacted the way they did. I also felt like I had been betrayed. I was the same Omar but with some slight aesthetic edits. My internal moral compass and values had not changed. No matter the preparation I put into my sermon, it was my hair, the holes in my ears, and the lack of fabric worn around my neck that disqualified me from standing behind the pulpit.
I only have a glimpse of what it feels like to be rejected by loving Christians. I have but an inkling of what it must be like to be second-guessed, mistrusted, and written-off. Yet, it is the pain of these small cuts that have saved me. Ten years ago I was introduced to stories of Indigenous children who had been dislocated from their families and placed in residential schools. I read about communities ravaged by hunger, addictions, and poverty as a result of the tag-team colonization programs enacted by the Canadian government and mainline churches. I remember Richard Twiss’ book and wondering why no church in my city had ever talked or confronted this horrific legacy. Is Jesus not interested in justice or reconciliation?
In 2014 I was at the Shaw Conference Centre as part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and I remember weeping as I heard story after story of how the government and the church had treated Indigenous children like animals in their process of “converting” them. Each person that shared spoke with great vulnerability and courage. Many of them had forgiven the priests and nuns who had hurt them. I had never seen forgiveness lived out in that way before. I felt like I was being reintroduced to Jesus. Maybe, Jesus is with those who weep?
For so many years of my formational Christian upbringing I consumed everything I was taught. I believed every preacher and bumper sticker. “Real” Christians have joy and hope and don’t swear or drink alcohol. “Real” Christians believe in the rapture and hell and speaking in tongues. I was taught that Scripture is reality and everything else serves this reality. Doubt has no place in the heart of a Christian. To question anything was a warning sign of “backsliding.” This was a 2-Dimensional faith that seemed more like a cartoon; like something so infantile that to question it made you seem like a bully. 2-D faith is a pristine illusion that irons out the tensions, conflicts, and mystery into something smooth and crisp. It is beautiful to look at, like a glass cathedral, because it promises answers to all your questions and avoids digging into the scary unknowns. 2-D faith defends Scripture because it is the prism by which all of reality is seen through. In 2-D faith, there is no room for the tears of the discarded, the abused, and the rejected-for they are just collateral damage of an enterprise that seeks to “build a Kingdom” here on earth. Is Jesus at the top of a marketing pyramid scheme?
I sat with a friend who recounted to me the loss of her family after coming out as gay. She told me everything she had done to change her attractions but in the end felt like she was conditioned to hate herself. She loved God but questioned why her family and church hated her. She describes the hate as “polite hate”. “They don’t outright tell you they hate you, they just nicely exclude you and slowly do things to make you leave their church because your presence is an interruption to their ‘cookie-cutter’ values and theology.” Does Jesus hate gay people?
As I look back to the last ten years I realize that the single most liberating truth for me is that empathy leads us towards love and that love leads us towards God. I can’t put it in any other way. Empathy shatters border walls of difference and walks us towards a different way of thinking, feeling, and seeing the world. For so long I was taught that Scripture is to be defended against all foes. Whether they be Liberals, LGBTQ2S+, Atheists, Muslim, Jewish, Feminists or any other “diluted” version of Christianity. To me, that meant that I had to bridle my heart and align my position to what I believed the Bible said on the matter. For many years this was easy; I practiced a 2-D faith. But then I experienced pain, trauma and met people who lived through horrific rejection, ridicule and oppression at the hands of other Christians. Suddenly, my 2-D faith could not process the tension of what I used to believe and what I’ve heard and felt. Is Jesus oppressive?
3-D faith is complex, ugly, heavy, and unsatisfying. But it is real and true and freeing. I no longer fear the gatekeepers of Christianity who determine who’s “in” or “out”. I don’t feel confined to a disembodied version of faith that places more importance in photo ops of “preaching the gospel” than finding ways to work with a community to tackle poverty, hunger, and mental health. I’m no longer afraid of hell because the God I’ve experienced and seen is more loving, generous, and welcoming than anyone I’ve ever known. This is also the biggest faith leap I’ve made that has radically changed how I see God and others. To believe in a capricious, two-faced God that loves you one moment but discards you the moment you rebuff his catcalls is to believe in a god that looks more like us. I choose to defend people over Scripture because that’s what I see Jesus doing in Scripture. I find more freedom in dancing, drinking, laughing, listening, reading, and running then I ever did attending any church service. How I experience God is not the template of how others are to experience God so do that thing that brings you life. The more alive I am the more life I can offer others. I am 100% fully affirming of all gender expressions and sexual orientations. I am 100% against discrimination and disqualification of Christians from all gender expressions and sexual orientations. I do not police other people’s bodies, identities or sexual ethics. We can talk about this if you’re open to listening but will not engage if you’re wanting to convince me otherwise. I’ve spent over 15 years delving into this, so, no, honey, your book or article won’t change my mind. In the same way, I won’t waste your time trying to convince you. I’ve been set free from idolizing the Bible. I can breathe again and accept that some things are mysterious and some things are archaic. Some things I’ll keep and others I’ll discard. The Bible captures the story of flawed humans doing flawed things while a very patient God works among them to slowly lead them towards love. (Much like how God is still working among us.) How we got to idolizing the Bible to such a degree that we will literally ignore the pain we are causing others because Bible. Nope. Not me. Instead, let’s agree there are many possible interpretations to such a rich and profound book. Maybe we can evaluate each interpretation based on the damage it causes others. I’ve also been emancipated from the white male theologians, pastors, and leaders that have colonized my library shelf and thinking. My entire theological training came from hetero white males and unintentionally I was groomed to trust and believe that hetero white males were “experts” in all things related to God and church. It’s no wonder so much of the theology we were taught reflects them! But there is a groundswell of queer, female and BIPOC authors, theologians, leaders, and thinkers that have expanded the height, length, and breadth of my understanding of God in deeply transformative ways.
Standing on the precipice of 2019 I’m filled with hope and despair. I despair that many churches will react out of fear and build higher walls of exclusion. I despair over the denial of climate change among Christians and how this affects policies and laws. I despair how others will double-down on “us vs them” rhetoric and scapegoat minorities and Indigenous people. I despair over the escalating prominence and embrace of White supremacy among people of faith. Yet, I have hope in knowing there are many others who are finding freedom from the toxic religion they were raised in. I have hope new faith communities and gatherings of full inclusion, solidarity and reconciliation will continue to dot Turtle Island. I have hope that empathy will lead us towards surprising and beautiful unexpected outcomes in the next 10 years.