a tale of more than two churches

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

As I sat in work church on Christmas morning, the minister said something that horrified me more than usual during his sermon on the shepherds that visited Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

“The shepherds were not men you’d want to be around – they were ruffians, wild men and often unpleasant – not to mention the smell of unclean men who were regularly around sheep.  Elitists like myself simply would NOT want them around.  It was certainly a moment of grace that Mary and Joseph, who was a skilled tradesman, would have these people around their newborn son.”

This coming from a minister of an inner city church, that is across the street from the largest men’s and women’s shelters in a city of over half a million.

As the grandson of an Anglican Minister, baptised, confirmed and raised in the Anglican Church, I’ve had Christianity as part of my life as long as I can remember.  I’ve also struggled with my belief and faith in mainstream Christianity since my sexual abuse at age 13 by a church elder was covered up by the minister.  How can people who purport to represent G*d’s will and Jesus’ message do such harm to a young person?

My ability to support my faith was further tested when a friend who was recently ordained as a Presbyterian Minister lived with Larry and I for over 6 months while he searched for an apartment that was accessible for his wife, who was wheelchair bound after a severe stroke.  I felt that he was different, and could set aside the doctrines of his teaching and accept Larry and I as a couple, celebrating our love in peace and faith.

I helped him plant roots in the community, connected him with community leaders and organizations and after 20 years of agnosticism, joined his church and became involved in growing the congregation.

When Larry got sick, had his transplant and nearly died, I had to pull back from church activities.  During this time period, I emailed my friend multiple times, providing him information about Larry’s progress and my emotional/spiritual state.

At no point during this time period did he reply.  The only message I received from the church was that while I could not attend, they would gratefully accept my collection envelopes in the mail.  I withdrew from the church, returning the collection envelopes and any materials given to me through the mail slot.

I wrote my “friend” a letter expressing my dismay and sadness that he was unable to see through his prejudices and could not minister to me as a member of his congregation or a friend.

No reply.

Against my better judgement, a friend asked me to audition for a paid chorister at my “work church,” I was hesitant but I auditioned and found a beautiful building, an astoundingly gorgeous instrument to sing to and a choirmaster that would and has continued to challenge my abilities as a singer.

However I found a conservative church who is more focused on the building rather than the community, shoring up their class boundaries rather than preaching Jesus’ gospel and a minister whose prejudices and elitism were clearly and seemingly proudly displayed in his messages.

It is consistently clear to me that I am little more than “the hired help” at this church and, as an openly gay man, would never be accepted (this was pretty much communicated to me in those exact words by a member of their Session).  To this date, the treasurer, despite signing my monthly cheque for almost four years does not know who I am and several parishioners have actually turned their backs on me when we meet in public.

Hardly living up to Jesus’ message.

At the same time, a number of good friends are devoted Christians, who actually live up to the message and practice his teachings throughout their day to day life.  A retired minister even visits with me regularly to help me navigate my need to balance faith with empirical evidence and fact.  His being a geologist before attending the calling certainly helps.

Before Larry died, he took over the role of Santa for a local United Church, whose minister had recently lost his wife to a similar cancer that Larry had fought for the last seven years of his life.  He accepted that Larry was an openly gay man and also that Larry was Wiccan in faith without batting an eye.  He also welcomed me into the “family.”

When Larry got the terminal diagnosis, Rev. Moore was the first person to reach out and made several visits to our home.  When Larry went palliative, Rev. Moore visited me at home and also helped drive me up to the hospital, where he attended to Larry’s and my spiritual and emotional needs with care, dignity, humour and respect.

When Larry passed, it was a given that his memorial would be at Laidlaw Memorial United Church.  Larry’s Wiccan faith was welcomed and he worked with a local Wiccan Priestess and Priest to ensure that Larry’s spiritual values were included in the service.

I was happily surprised and the congregation welcomed this then shattered soul with open arms and loving hearts.  After a few services in the summer and a Christmas Eve service where I fought my desire to end my life and just sat and wept the entire time, I petitioned the church to join.

They welcomed me, even though I could only attend during the summer months and a few select services during the year.  They welcomed an openly gay community organization I was a part of, providing us a home and a venue for our performances.  They were not pretentious, welcoming and offered loving hearts to all who entered with an open heart and loving spirit.

When I sing at work church, I miss the spirit and warm nature of Laidlaw’s congregation and Rev. Moore’s guidance.  He is a friend, a spiritual rock and mentor to me.

Case in point – two services on Christmas Eve:  At Laidlaw, the pews were filled to overflowing with people in the balcony and chairs being brought up from the basement to seat the extra.  During the children’s lesson, 46 children came up to the front and Rev. Moore led them in a rousing rendition of “Jesus Our Brother, Kind and Good” (aka the Friendly Beasts).   At work church, 35 people attended, mostly not of the congregation and there were no children.

John Pavolvitz wrote:

“For far too many people, being a Christian no longer means you need to be humble or forgiving. It no longer means you need a heart to serve or bring healing. It no longer requires compassion or mercy or benevolence. It no longer requires you to turn the other cheek or to love your enemies or to take the lowest place or to love your neighbour as yourself.

It no longer requires Jesus.”

This is most represented by work church, and contrasted by Laidlaw, which is welcoming, open and accepts people for who they are, as long as they are there to share in spreading the message of peace.

During the time after Larry’s death, I began revisiting my faith and what I believed in.  At the same time, one of Larry’s mentors reached out and provided a space of solace in turbulent emotional times.  Rev. Beyerl is the founder of the Rowan Tree Church which, best explained, is an interfaith group based in traditional Wiccan values.

The Rowan Tree Church did not demand that I turn my back on my Christian upbringing, however strengthens the basic teachings and philosophies of humbleness, peace, living simply and being attuned to the planet around us – protecting it and loving it as an aspect of the divine.

The minister who lived with Larry and I, found this troubling and decided to “disown” as a friend and exited my life without a single word.  When I discovered this, I pressed him on what happened and he confirmed that he found my writings troubling and in disconnect with his Christian faith.  He suggested I change and stop this path or risk losing him forever.  I still love Rev. Dickson, I have been able to forgive him as his actions are products of his upbringing and teachings.  I will welcome him with open arms and a wary heart if he chooses to enter my life again.

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.

Rev. Dickson and several other friends were devoted members of a church, who invited them to join the ranks of the clergy.  That is, until other factors became problematic for this church.  Oddly enough, this church welcomed the devoted members with open arms, until loved ones became ill, requiring long-term care and attention.

In all of these cases, these potential clergy were told to turn their backs, institutionalize or leave the loved ones behind in order to pursue the path of the clergy.  A choice that thankfully none of them were willing to make.  Being told that you are welcome but your infirm family members would not be was too much for these individuals.

How they remain faithful after such treatment is testament to their belief in the message.  They have all moved on and pursue their ministry elsewhere.

As have I.

My work with the Rowan Tree Church does not demand that I turn my back on my Christian upbringing, however strengthens it with asking me to explore other faiths as both an intellectual and philosophical manner.  It asks me to examine my faith and my actions in that faith as a denizen of this planet and also an aspect of the divine spirit – as we ALL were crafted in the image of the divine, regardless of religion, sexuality, gender or skin colour.

My work with Laidlaw United Church does not demand that I turn my back on my spiritual explorations and studies in the Rowan Tree Church, as those studies have moved me closer to the direction of Rev. Moore and the church’s mission statement – in acceptance, faith and welcoming all.  I was considering studying towards my M. Div as a United Church, however the divinity schools are now filled with politicians and administrators and do not seem concerned in turning out preachers and ministers.

I am not a religious man, but I am a man of faith.  I have faith that I will follow the lessons of Yeshua ben Joseph AND the other prophets, priests and ascended souls whom we all should listen to and learn from.  I have faith that simple living and good deeds will be rewarded, not by the promise of paradise after I die, but of the knowledge that I have lived simply and done my best to spread peace and love in the world.  I have faith that a pretty building and opulent spending does not indicate that a person is better than any other, when an ugly heart is concealed within.

I have faith that there are good Christians out there, there are good Muslims, Jews, Wiccans, Pagans, Buddhists.  Being a good person is not based out of one’s beliefs in scriptures from a  book, but out of one’s actions towards others.

Peace.  Blessed be.  Amen.

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