Thoughts from a Liberty Grad

As I recently became aware, a small number of grads from Liberty University are returning their diplomas in protest over Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of President Trump following the recent events in Charlottesville, VA. (See the article at npr.org here.) I graduated Liberty University Online in 2015 with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies degree and I wanted to chime in on this. I share the frustration of my fellow graduates, on this and other issues, but I also think there’s a better way to express it.

First of all, this gesture is not, as Falwell put it, simply grandstanding for attention. There is legitimate frustration here. That being said, returning your diploma is a symbolic gesture at best. What does it really cost you? You can’t return the education you received which the diploma represents. That stays with you whether you want it to or not. And even if you go so far as to remove your degree from your resume and risk future employment opportunities and the personal costs which that entails what are you really accomplishing in the world around you? What good does it do those on whose behalf you’re speaking out? In short, what difference does it really make? Returning your diplomas may change the direction the university is taking and it may not. (I for one have publicly disagreed with President Falwell via Twitter several times over the last year and I have yet to even see a response.) There is a better way to handle this frustration, one that I have found through being involved here with Church for Misfits.

In a way, Church for Misfits exists because of Liberty. That may seem ironic given my support for the LGBTQ community and trans rights but it’s true. My professors at Liberty taught me to question my beliefs until I came to something firm enough to really stand on, to prayerfully probe Scripture, to connect the dots and live with the tension inherent in allowing my convictions to shift as my understanding of Scripture shifts. (If you look back over the posts here from the last year or so you’ll see that progression.) I wouldn’t be who I am and doing what I do here without the background that I gained from my time at Liberty. I just use that background, and the diploma that came with it, to reach out to and to support the very people that Liberty would see further marginalised in this country.

If I may, that would be my advice to my fellow Liberty grads. Use what you got from Liberty. Whatever field you’re working in, whatever field your degree was in, use it. Use it to change what Liberty is known for and then use that to change the direction the university is taking. It won’t be just a symbolic gesture and it just might bring about real change.

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Don’t Forget Where You Come From

IMG_5851_2lowres.jpgLiving in a country and culture different from what you grew up in is an amazing experience. When you first arrive everything is new and exciting. There’s so much to explore and get to know. (That goes both ways, too. I can’t tell you how many times I had to explain that it actually does get as hot in Canada during the summer as it does in the South.) The thing is, as you spend more time there you start to pick up new habits, mannerisms, and whatnot and change or set aside some of the ones you used to have. And then, when you’ve been there long enough, you start to think that you’re approaching life now the same as those around you and it’s genuinely shocking to find out that you don’t.

If you follow immigration issues much you’ll probably have heard the sentiment that people marry Americans, or find other ways into this country, just to get a green card. The idea is that the U.S.A. is such an amazing place, especially when compared to the rest of the world, that people will do just about anything to get here and then be allowed to stay here when they arrive. And don’t get me wrong. The United States is, in my experience and despite what you may hear on the news, still a great place to live. People here in the South have proven to be some of the most welcoming I’ve ever met (and that includes Canadians). That being said, Canada is still a pretty amazing place, too. I didn’t move here just to get the hell out of there, you know?

Growing up in Ontario, and then living and travelling all around the country, made me who I am. That’s something special and yet it’s so easy to forget sometimes. As much as I have grown to love the people here I will probably never really, truly approach life the way they do, at least not with giving up too much of myself in the process. I will forever be just a little bit different (and that’s OK).

I’ll be so bold as to suggest that wanting to belong and fit in is pretty much a universal desire. Whether it’s just to have a certain group of people like us, or to become financially secure through gaining the respect of your boss, or just to have someone to relate to, belonging is something we all want to do. And there’s nothing wrong with that, at least to a point.

The problem comes when we try to change who we are just to fit in. I’ll give you another example from my own life. When I first got to the Royal Military College of Canada, I didn’t fit in much. I wasn’t much of an athlete and I hardly ever touched alcohol (not that there’s anything wrong with a drink every now and then; it just wasn’t a big deal for me at the time). While this set me apart, for the first couple of months it didn’t really bother me. When it did become too much for me I deliberately gave up just trying to be myself and I actively sought the acceptance of those around me. Did it work? No. I didn’t seem to really be any more accepted than I had been before, so I hadn’t gained anything by it, and at the same time I had lost something very special. Me. Finding my sense of self again after all that took a very long time.

We are, each of us, who we are. You are who you are for a reason and the same goes for me. That is something far too special and far too important just to give up for the acceptance of those around you. So don’t forget who you are or where you come from. You’ll thank yourself for it later.

And for those who don’t know just how special a place Canada is, here’s a song all about it.

Discrimination Based on Fear is Still Wrong

hidden-figures-desktop-all-platforms-front-main-stageWe watched the movie Hidden Figures recently and there was a lot more to it than I thought there would be. I’m an avid space enthusiast (fits with being a Trekkie) and I enjoyed seeing the early days of Project Mercury portrayed on film. It’s something I’ve read about in great detail but never seen in this way.

What really caught my attention, though, was seeing the reality of living in a segregated society. I didn’t live through the 1960’s (I’m too young to have been around then) and I have never experienced something like that firsthand. There’s one scene in the movie, for example, where one of the main characters has to go into the “white” section of the city library because the book she’s after can’t be found in the “coloured” section. When the staff find her there she’s escorted out by police.

In another scene, one of the other main characters has to walk half a mile to use the bathroom because there’s no “coloured” one in the building she’s assigned to work in. I can’t imagine having to live like that, nor can I imagine how the society of that time thought this was OK. When this comes to the attention of her supervisor, he takes a crowbar to all the “coloured women’s restroom” signs on the campus and tells her to “pee wherever she pleases,” and that “at NASA we all pee the same colour.”

I think that most of us who see this movie, or any other dealing with similar subject matter, can’t help but be touched by seeing scenes like that. Offended, even. I mean, how could society justify treating people like that?

What I really don’t understand, and what bothers me still even now several weeks after seeing the film, is how we can be offended by such beliefs when they apply to one group and yet look the other way (or even endorse them) when they apply to a different group. You’d have to be living under a rock the last few months not to have at least heard of the different “bathroom bills” that have popped up across this country and the controversy they are causing. We are as a society again trying to regulate where people can pee. Simply put, if it was wrong to do so with black people then why is it OK to do so with trans people?

I realise that for many this is a very complex and touchy subject and I’m not even going to try to examine all angles of it here. We’d be here all day and then some, and it’s not really my point. All I really wanted to do with this post was pose the question I raised above. If it’s wrong to isolate one group within our society and discriminate against them on the basis of one or two characteristics then how do we justify doing it to another?

In James 2 the characteristic in question is wealth. James was concerned his audience was honouring wealthy visitors at the expense of poorer ones. As the English Standard Version puts it, they were showing “partiality,” and James’ instructions were simple. Don’t show partiality. Love your neighbour as yourself, no matter who your “neighbour” is. Treat everyone the same.

When we discriminate against people, no matter what the characteristic is we’re going by, it says more about us than it does about them. When you favour a wealthy person over a poorer one you either want something from the wealthy person or you believe money is more important than people themselves. In the case of discrimination based on race or gender identity, the likely cause is fear. Fear of what’s different. Fear of what we don’t understand. And I understand that fear. I’ve felt it myself.

The thing is, when we’re faced with that fear we have a choice. We can choose to give in to our fear and use it to justify hurting others or we can choose to set it aside, reach out in love, and work to understand. No matter how great our fears may be, discriminating based on those fears is still wrong.

The United States as a Christian Nation

us-flag-crossBefore I get into this, I want to say upfront that I am very much aware that this is a touchy subject for many. The idea of the United States as a “Christian” nation is one that many people, especially here in the South, hold dear. I don’t want to bash that belief and I also don’t want to unnecessarily offend anyone. That being said, given the current focus on “religious liberty” legislation this idea has great implications not only for the political rights of those we disagree with but also for the progress of the gospel within this country. For those reasons, we need to look at this.

I also want to be upfront about the fact that I am Canadian. What I know of this country and its origins I didn’t learn the same as did those who were born and raised here. And that’s fine. My point in this post is actually not to discuss the founding of this country at all. (I am about the last person you would want doing that.)

I also don’t have a problem with Christians wanting Christian politicians in office. It’s only natural for people to support political leaders who believe as they do regardless of who they are, and we all do it whether we identify as a Christian or not.

What I do want to look at is this idea that the United States as a country has a special place in God’s eyes. Whether or not that’s true I don’t know. This country doesn’t really show up in Scripture and I’m not one to presume to know the mind of God. What I do know is that the theology behind such a view can get us into trouble very quickly. For example, every now and then you’ll see 2 Chronicles 7:14 on a billboard outside a church or serving as the basis of a sermon. In the English Standard Version it reads, “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” The usual takeaway is that if we get enough people here to genuinely do that then God will hold up his end of the bargain and America will prosper.

Will he do so? I don’t know. What I do know is that this verse represents a very specific promise given within a specific historical context to a specific group of people who had a specific kind of relationship with God. The people of Israel had a very unique relationship with God as seen throughout the covenants of the Old Testament, and it is to them, in the specific context of the dedication of Solomon’s temple, that this promise is given. (The context of 2 Chronicles 7 tells us that Solomon had prayed to God and this promise is part of God’s answer.)

As Christians our relationship with God is very different, and as far as I can tell no group of people has had the same relationship with God that Israel had either before or since. Personally, that’s a good thing. Israel’s relationship with God was governed by the Law, and when the Apostle Paul gets into a discussion of circumcision in Galatians 5 he illustrates just why it’s such a good thing we’re not under the Law anymore. In Galatians 5:3 he says, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” There is no way any of us are capable of keeping the Law in its entirety which means a) we’re screwed without Christ and b) why take us as a nation back to the Old Testament and the Law? That theology is troubling at best.

We need to move forwards and in light of who we are and who Jesus is. Engage with the people around you, celebrate their differences, reach out to the marginalised and give hope to those who have none. That’s the way Jesus shows us in the Gospels and, in the end, that’s what really matters. Electing Christian politicians who then pass legislation restricting the rights of non-Christians in the name of religious liberty won’t bring hope to those who have none. Engaging with them, respecting them, and showing them real love just might.

Site Up-Date

website-under-construction_8329So I’ve seen from the stats over the last few weeks that as more people have been checking us out more people have been going over to the discussion forum. Thing is, I’ve been so focused over the last few months on discussions that have come up elsewhere that I’ve really neglected to do anything with it. It hasn’t prompted much in the way of a response, either. Given that reality, as of today July 24, 2017, our discussion forum is gone. I hope you enjoy the discussions Church for Misfits prompts through the posts and on social media!

Another Question of Culture

cultural-diversityAs a Canadian living in South Carolina, cultural differences come up every now and then. Whether it’s bigger things like hair length and earrings on men, or smaller things like the fact that no one here realises just how much better Tim Horton’s is than Krispy Kreme, there are things that, on daily basis, I just don’t always see eye to eye on with the people I’m around. It’s given me a different perspective on things, one which at the same time I both appreciate and hate having because there are days when it drives me nuts.

Anyways, I’ve noticed over the years I’ve been involved in the church in one way or another that similar cultural issues exist there, too. In John 17:16-17, Jesus says of His followers that “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth;your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” As Christians we’ve taken this to mean we’re not supposed to be like the people that we’re around who don’t believe as we do, and from that we’ve come up with all kinds of questions. These questions are typically put forward as some version of “Is it OK for Christians to ________?” “Dance” and “drink alcohol” are two of the most common things I’ve seen fill in that particular blank. 

In many ways we as Christians have set up our own culture as well. “Christian subculture” was a term I heard a lot growing up in the Church and it’s true. We have our own radio stations, our own concerts, our own stores, and even our own health insurance providers. And in all honesty, there’s nothing wrong with that (to a point). Every group of people the world over has its own ways of doing things and its own defining characteristics.

The problem comes when we insist that people have to look or act a certain way, or do certain things, in order to belong to us. If you live in the South, how many times have you seen someone looked down on because they’re not in church on any given Sunday? Yes, we’re meant to be a family and yes, we’re meant to do life together, but there’s a huge difference between that and showing up to hear some guy speak while surrounded by people you hardly know and could care less about. (And please don’t hear this as just me bashing the South. I’ve seen the same thing with Christians elsewhere as well.)

“Who we are” and “This is how we do things” become “Who you have to be” and “How things have to be done.” It becomes less about valuing our differences and more about control. Cultural differences exist the world over, and Christianity looks very different from one country to the next and even within countries from one group to the next. (Case in point: how many denominations exist within the U.S. alone?) And that’s the way it should be.

In the U.S. in particular over the last few decades we’ve taken this effort at control to the national level. We fight the “Culture Wars.” In short, we don’t approve of something or we don’t believe in something so we think no one else should get to do that, either. People of faith in this country are but one group among many, and a group that is itself split up into many smaller groups. Conservative Christians are but one voice among those groups, and yet we think we’re the “right” voice with the “right” to tell everyone else how to live. It’s sad, even more so when you consider that we as a whole don’t see it.

When you try to control others, you hurt them. When you’re afraid to lose your own culture, and justify that control with fear, you do far worse. I mean think about it. Why are we so suddenly concerned with “religious liberty”? Could it be that if we lose the physical representations of our “Christian” culture, the institutions and the radio stations and everything that goes along with it, we wouldn’t know who we are anymore?

It’s time for us as conservative Christians to give up control, to stop using religion to harm people, and to instead reach out and engage with the people around us. In focusing on what culture is right and what offends and what’s wrong we’ve lost sight of the people. That, I think, is what really offends. We’re not of this world, sure, but we’re still here and we’re still apart of this world the same as everyone else. We need to start acting like it.

Life Lessons from Dogs

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We own 3 dogs, each one of which is unique in their own way and teaching me different things. Cookie, my dog, we got before Christmas last year. (That’s her in the pic.) Some friends of ours had more dogs than they could now take care of and she needed a home. We were told that she had probably been abused sometime before they got her. She whined about everything. She was always needy, always right up in your space. I figured there was nothing wrong with her that a little time and love couldn’t fix.

In reality, my reasons ran a little deeper. After all that we went through last year by the time we got to Christmas I felt broken inside. I guess I figured that if I could fix Cookie then I could fix myself as well. If there’s hope for one of us then there’ hope for both, right?

It never happened. Sure we fixed a few minor things. She had to learn to come when we called for her. But the deeper things never went away like I thought they would.

Working nights meant I was home during the day a lot over the past couple of months. About two weeks ago we had this really bad storm come through, and let me start by saying that Cookie hates storms. She came up to me shaking, with this look on her face that said I wish I didn’t do this but can’t stop it. It made me realize that she is who she is and I am who I am. I told her as much, and since that day she’s opened up to me. She’s been more loving, more playful, and a lot less worried about everything.

If you’ve been around the church much at all odds are good you’ve heard this one, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). We Christians love to talk about ourselves as “works in progress,” the idea being that we have certain behaviours that have to go and Christ is helping us do that. He’s the one fixing us, so to speak.

If you’ve read enough of my posts here you’ll know that I’m going to disagree with that, but first let me say that I am not for a moment overlooking that we all have our rough edges. If you’re like me and have a temper from time to time it’s a noble thing to reign that in. All I’m saying is that maybe what Paul is getting at here goes deeper. Maybe it’s less about fixing ourselves, or having Christ fix us, and learning to love ourselves as we are. After all, he already does.

We Don’t See It Coming

986e4e52caf224f30f5dc6d8c7fb1adaAs Baptists and as Christians we don’t really seem to give a rat’s behind about the hurt that we’re causing LGBTQ people. Our position is what it is, it’s based on biblical “truth,” and if it causes harm oh well, that’s not our problem. Seriously, most of the people I have reached out to on this subject over the last few months refused to even entertain any position that would value these people as they are and for who they are. So in today’s post I want to try something a little different. If we don’t care about the hurt that we’re causing others, maybe we’ll care about the hurt we’re causing ourselves over this.

Since Trump was elected we have pursued a number of different pieces of religious liberty legislation. The idea is that we’ll protect ourselves by making it illegal to discriminate against Christians in this country. (We say we’re protecting people who hold religious beliefs, but the way these things are worded suggests we really only have one religion in mind.) Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee are three of the states where we’ve succeeded in this effort to one degree or another. What we may not realise is that with these so-called victories we have provided a legal precedent for denying the rights of one group in order to protect the rights of another.

Here’s what I really don’t get. That precedent will come back to haunt us in the future, and we don’t see it coming. We act as though the current political climate in this country will continue forever. Either that, or by the time it does change that religious liberty protections will be so entrenched in the law of this country that they’ll be untouchable. Neither one of those assumptions is valid. There will be another Democrat president, if not in 4 years then in all likelihood in 8. And given the new found presidential love of executive orders, nothing is set in stone anymore. How hard will it be, given the precedent we’ve provided, to argue that in order to protect the rights of LGBTQ people the rights of Christians must be limited or denied?

There will be a backlash, and we don’t see it coming. Think I’m wrong? Look at it this way. One of the most repeated statements I’ve heard conservatives make regarding the transgender community in particular is that it’s all in their head. It has no basis in reality so why should we entertain their beliefs? How hard would that sentiment be to turn around and apply to us as Christians? We follow a man who, if he existed at all, lived and died some two thousand years ago and yet we say we can talk to him whenever we want. How hard would it be to argue that that is all in our heads?

We are setting ourselves up to lose everything we’re so afraid of losing, and it’s all because we’re afraid. We have this place in society (at least as we see it) that we don’t want to lose. We have institutions that we’ve spent decades building up, if not longer, that we don’t want to lose. We have this vision for this country that we don’t want to lose. And that leads me to the underlying cause of all this. We’re afraid because we’ve made this world the goal. We’ve forgotten that we don’t belong here, not really. We’ve forgotten Jesus’ statement in John 17:16, referring to us, that “they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.” And in John 15:18, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.”

And so we’ll lose everything we’re working so hard to protect, and we’ll cry persecution when it happens and claim that it’s only happening because we’re not of this world and that’s why they hate us. The truth is we’ll have only ourselves to blame. The sad part is even then we probably won’t see it.

Happy Birthday to Us!

happy-birthday-card-in-watercolor-style_23-2147520643Church for Misfits started out as Far North Encouragement on this day back in 2015. In that time this place has grown and changed in ways that I never saw coming when we were first starting out. I have gotten to know people I never dreamed of meeting and been places I never thought I’d go. What I’ve written here has encouraged some, divided others, and pissed off a few, too. It’s also cost me a lot.

And you know what? I wouldn’t change a thing. Church for Misfits will always be a safe place for those who need it, whether you’re hurting or you’ve got questions or you just don’t know where else to go. At the same time, it will always be a voice within Christian circles for those who are not allowed a voice there. I have no idea where this community will be in the next year and beyond. All I know is those things will never change. Thank you to everyone who’s been a part of this over the last year. Church for Misfits just wouldn’t be the same without you. Here’s to wherever the road takes us!

Our Best Days Are Not Ahead of Us

AM17-logoThe 2017 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention ended a week ago, and it was the first time that I have been involved in such an event even from a distance via social media. It was also the first significant opportunity I had to advocate for the LGBTQ community with the very people who need to hear it the most. That being said, I have waited until now to give my thoughts on the event. LGBTQ rights can be an emotional subject for many people, myself included, and I wanted to let the dust settle in my own mind before commenting on the experience.

I have to say that I am amazed at how passionately Baptists tend to oppose any theological position that values gender non-conforming people for who they are. (I do realise that not all Baptists do so; it was just the general sense I got from #sbc17.) What also amazed me was the oft-repeated position that Baptists have compassion for all people but cannot and will not abandon God’s plan for human sexuality as laid out in Scripture. It is this sense of compassion, apparently, that leads Baptists to tell LGBTQ people that who they are is a sin, offensive in God’s sight, and something that must change. What I found incredulous was that no one sees the issue with such a stance. Putting it bluntly, if the best we can do to show compassion to these people is drive them farther away from Jesus than we have a seriously problem. That is not compassion. It’s discrimination hiding behind a veil of religious acceptability. If it really was compassion, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

I am becoming more and more convinced that our stance as Baptists in this country is turning us into the 21st century version of the New Testament Pharisees. Allow me to explain. One of the things I noticed when I studied the history of the Jewish people from the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC through the Intertestamental Period was that they progressively lost more and more of what it meant for them to be God’s people. The temple was destroyed (rebuilt, yes, but never to its formal glory). They were consistently subjugated by foreign peoples, and even during the brief period where they were able to rule themselves the office of High Priest, for example, became little more than a political pawn. Many of them lost the Promised Land as well when they were dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. In the end, all they had left was the Word. The Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. This is the climate in which the Pharisees came to be. When all you have left is the Law, rigorous obedience to that Law becomes everything.

We see the ultimate expression of this in John 8 when the Pharisees bring the woman caught in adultery to Jesus and ask Him what they should do with her. As we’re told verses 3 and 4, the woman has been caught in the very act. She is obviously guilty, and the Pharisees are very much aware of the penalty given in Leviticus 20:10 for this situation. (Before you point out that Leviticus 20 applies to the man as well and that the Pharisees are just using this woman as bait to test Jesus, I am aware of that. I have another point to make here.) By the letter of the law, so to speak, the Pharisees are correct in what they say. That they can make the request, however, without any evidence of guilt, shows just how focused they are on obeying the Law. They actually think they’re doing the right thing.

Are contemporary Baptists that different? We have lost so much in this country of what made us who we are. We no longer have prayer in schools. We no longer really have the voice to speak to societal issues, and when we do speak, fewer and fewer people still listen. We are now but one voice in a sea of voices, many of which are given more respect than our own. All we really have left is morality. It’s the one area, as I see it, that we feel we can still speak to. We have, in Scripture, the reality of sin and judgement, of forgiveness through Christ’s death on the cross, and of God’s moral law in the Old Testament. This is a basis that no other group has, at least as far as we’re concerned, which gives us the confidence to still speak out on moral issues. The problem is that when morality becomes all you have left it can easily become the whole point and it’s not supposed to be.

Many of those I spoke with through social media during #sbc17 were quick to point out that the Bible calls same-sex relationships a sin. And, technically, they’re right. Leviticus 18:22, amongst others, says as much. While I disagree with that interpretation (I believe there is plenty of room in Scripture for same-sex individuals the way they are without it being sinful or something “they have to repent from”), it is the interpretation held by many Baptists and by the Convention as a whole. Our focus on morality means that Baptists can share that stance with LGBTQ people, people who as I’ve written before have gone through so much and given up so much just to be who they are, and actually think they’re doing the right thing. Baptists tell them God rejects them, too, and like the Pharisees in John 8 they have no guilt about what they do. We actually have the gall to think we’re being compassionate.

(As an aside, I do still say “we” and “our” when referring to Baptists. Obviously I disagree with the Convention on a number of issues, and the voice of discrimination against LGBTQ people is not one I share. That being said, I was ordained in a Baptist church and I feel that I still have a voice within the Convention even as an ally of the LGBTQ community and an advocate for their rights. I have a foothold, so to speak, in both worlds, and I plan to use that position, and that voice, as much as I can in situations like this.)

Someone, and I can’t remember who, tweeted out during the Annual Meeting that our best days as a denomination are before us. I could not disagree more. As long as we can justify marginalising an entire group of people then our best days are definitely not still to come. Even a brief look through the Gospels shows that Jesus reached out and identified with the outcasts of His society. And what do we do? We make gender non-conforming people into the outcasts of ours. If as a Convention we can’t see that then we have a very big problem indeed.