Church Should Be Safe

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Growing up, church often felt like boot camp. We were supposed to be ready to verbally wage holy war at any moment. We needed to be prepared to “give an answer for the hope” we had so we practiced canned answers to questions no one was asking. We were taught to be on guard for people who were going to try and snatch our faith away. Much of what I heard was battle language, a vocabulary of fear, of retaliation, of conflict, of winning.

Threaded through all of it was this strange smugness that we had stumbled upon the right path. We were on the winning team! We had the correct answers and it was our job to show everyone else how wrong they were. I have no idea how we lost sight of grace and mercy so completely, but this was what church sounded like in my part of the world for all of the 90s.

There was a strange end times fetishism that went with it, beginning with that awful film, A Thief in the Night, and propelled forward by the Left Behind series and other books that painted the world as a house of horrors, bloodthirsty for the souls of unbelievers. I was terrified. As an imaginative child I could easily picture these terrible things I was told could happen any day. I remember walking home from elementary school praying the words of a salvation prayer over and over again like a mantra, consumed by the fear that I had somehow said it wrong and it didn’t count. It was a strange way to try to get to know God.

The terrors of childhood have passed, and mainstream Christianity has moved on from its laser focus on the rapture (for the most part), but this view of God as warlike and violent and ready for battle is not so easy to throw off. Just last week I was once again told in a church setting that I needed to be afraid, because someone was coming to snatch my faith away.

My church did a class on gender and education and I went, albeit with low expectations. This church should be commended for even broaching the subject of gender and I wanted to support that by showing up. But even my low expectations turned out to be a little too high.

The class focused on a piece of Canadian educational legislation called SOGI 123—Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. There are many, many opinions on the program, both for and against. Some feel that the program makes schools safer for LGBTQ kids, others feel it over sexualizes elementary school students, and many others fall somewhere in-between. What saddened and then angered me about the particular approach of this class was that the argument became so rooted in fear. It felt exactly like those nutty films from the 90s.

The leader took a video from the SOGI 123 website and used it as evidence that some school activists would use the program to actively try to “recruit” students to become transgender. I sat in stunned silence. That is not how gender identity works. Within the first 30 minutes of the class I realized that while I had questions, so many questions, this was not a safe place to ask them.

The church should be exactly the sort of place where a person can ask hard questions about identity and belonging and how to keep children safe. But in that room and that particular moment, those questions were not welcomed. Science was dismissed. The SOGI program was recast as the LGBT agenda, and I saw rational, thinking adults regress back to the scared children we used to be when we were taught the end of the world might happen next week.

One person stood to claim that a local school district had mandated that all washrooms be gender neutral. When a teacher in the room calmly explained that she worked in that district and the gendered washrooms were still in place, it took several more minutes to convince the first speaker that they were wrong. Direct experiential evidence was little match for a firmly held belief.

The whole thing felt so familiar, and so disappointing.

I wonder how much of this combative approach to modern issues is rooted in that old warlike language of the church? More often than I’d like to admit, the church feels like a bad boyfriend—full of promises and potential, but never actually becoming the person I hope he is. The church speaks of love and forgiveness and an invitation to the table, but turns around and yells about exclusion and fear and keeping things the way they have always been.

It was only recently that I heard a pastor preach that I need to contend for my own faith. I need to fight for it, for my own sake. We need to wrestle with big giant questions and with small theological implications. I need to challenge my own thinking and make sure I’ve thought through the consequences. As an adult, I shouldn’t be satisfied with Sunday school answers. We give those to children.

The reality of God is not supposed to be easy to swallow. We should have to put effort in to wrap our minds around it and we have to be able to ask questions when things we used to believe no longer resonate. Our understanding of God has to grow and change and deepen with time or we’re simply not paying attention. I don’t want the church to be like a bad boyfriend. I want it to be more like a spouse, a lifetime commitment dependent on communication and honesty and time spent together.

I long for a day when church is the first place we take our hard questions, and the safest place to debate issues when we disagree. I want to sit in a circle with people who understand God better than I do and ask and ask and ask. I want to know God better next year than I do today. I want to unravel tiny moments of the mystery of the divine and live as someone who values every life, whether it looks like mine or not.

In the meantime I’ll keep showing up to the conversation, even with my low expectations. I’ll hope for a day when I am brave enough to ask my questions first without wondering if they will be well received or not.

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Claire Colvin
Claire is learning to call herself a feminist. She has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade. In 2013, her National Novel Writing Month entry was a science fiction story about a broken world where everyone was required to be as similar as possible. Claire wishes she could fold the world like a map so the people she loves weren’t so far away. She lives on a small mountain near Vancouver and writes at clairecolvin.ca.
Claire Colvin
Claire Colvin

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Comments

  1. Fiona says:

    Claire THANK YOU!!! Your honesty is a revelation and I feel encouraged by your determination. We need more feminist godly women, keep it up! 🙂

  2. Oh, Claire! OH, CLAIRE!!! This makes both deeply sad and hugely angry. This is not church. No way. Find a safe place, friend. There are some, there are. Much love to you.

  3. Clare says:

    Thank you! I can identify with so much of what you write here. I resisted memorizing scripture passages for a long time because of the memory of using them as weapons.

    • “Using them as weapons” <-- yes and that's so descriptive. I'm so glad to hear that you were able to reclaim that practice for yourself. I keep discovering that there are more of us and I believe that together we can raise the church to be a little more like Jesus.

  4. I’m learning that there is a real beauty in low expectations. I used to think that holding people/institutions (including myself) to a high standard was How We Improve And Get Things Done. But that dismisses all grace and learning, doesn’ t it? Thank you for bringing us on this journey, Claire!

    • Oh goodness YES. (Have you written about this because I would LOVE to read it.) I had not considered the tie between grace and high expectations. I’ll be chewing on that for a while. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Oh wow. Thank you for putting into words what I have felt about those trying to “change me” or always “see hope” in every situation. There is no room for lament or disagreement. Thank you.

    • Sheli, I am so sorry that you have not been given room for lament. That is so very wrong. I think some people cling so tightly to the idea of a god that has us on strings like puppets dictating every move that they have to find a way to make every hard thing a good thing because they believe that God specifically orchestrated it. It’s bad theology and it’s a terrible way to treat someone in pain. There has to be room for lament and pain and anger and regret and longing and grief. Any less than that and we’re being asked to be less than human, less than honest or authentic. I hope you are able to find a faith community that has space for that, and in the meantime I’m gad you’re here.

  6. Sandy Hay says:

    Claire, I went to sit in that circle with you and ask and work through all the hard questions. When one of my granddaughters told her small group leader that she was struggling/questioning her identity, this young adult, so riddled with the pat answers, didn’t know what to do or say. My sweet girl did talk to me about this and we started our own circle of two. Sadly the church professes inclusion but demonstrated exclusion . Thank you Claire xoxo

    • Sandy, I’ll put my zebra scarf on and sit in that circle with you any day! I’m so glad that your granddaughter knows that you are a safe person and that you welcomed her with all of her questions and struggles. There was a situation years ago in my circle where someone was suicidal and a youth pastor told them that depression isn’t real and that if this person was sad they just needed to pray more. That discussion could easily have been lethal. Fortunately this person sought help elsewhere and is alive and doing much better today. But they still struggle and it makes me angry that on top of the existing struggle someone tried to heap shame and guilt and bad answers.

      Sometimes I think we’ll have to drag the church kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but if that’s what it takes we’ll keep showing up.

  7. Tammy Whitney says:

    Thank you for sharing your voice. I am learning, as I am brave enough to ask them out out, that I am not alone in my questions. I think the more that we give voice to our questions, the more others will find the courage and the space to speak theirs.

    Thank you again for being brave here and opening space for us to consider our questions.

  8. And I would argue that even children should not be given “Sunday school” answers for 2 reasons:
    1. They can handle a lot more than we think.
    2. They will soon grow to identify the difference between a real answer and Sunday school answer, and by then we will have lost their trust. They will go elsewhere with their questions.
    Madeleine L’Engle wrote that if she wanted to delve into a difficult topic in her writing, she would write it for children, because they could handle it and perhaps adults could not.

    I love the way you’ve tackled this topic, Claire. Thank you!

    • These are excellent points Michelle and I love the quote from L’Engle. Your comment about trust is really spot on. I have friends who never taught their kids that Santa was real for the same reason. Trust broken is not easily mended.

  9. Bravo.

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