Digging into Dirty Theology: Mythbusting Sin

By Zoe Say, YYCCM Team Member

Laughter erupted from me as I strained not to spew my mouthful of cappuccino all over the beautiful wooden table in front of me. I quickly swallowed and then let loose, along with the entire group around the table. Our laughter rang throughout Knox United Church’s gorgeous sanctuary; bouncing off of pews, rising to the stained glass windows and echoing around the vaulted ceiling. As we quieted down, our fearless facilitator Rev. Nick Coates dove into the question raised and the cause of our laughter, “If original sin is thought to pass from generation to generation through the seed, or sperm, of Adam, would masturbation, therefore, be a good thing, as it “spills the seed” which spreads the sin?” The topic of our conversation shifted from original sin to masturbation, and whether it was good or bad or somewhere in the middle. Rev. Nick helped us look at the story of Onan “spilling his seed” in the bible, and a new take on what God might have been really mad about (here’s a hint, it’s not the act of masturbation).

This is exactly the kind of conversation and ethos I hoped to create with a slight shift for year two of Dirty Theology, a partnership program of St. Andrew’s Regional Ministry and ourselves, now being hosted in Sanctuary Coffee at Knox. For this second year, we decided to spend time digging deep into one of the grittiest topics of the Christian Faith - Sin. Specifically, busting through some of the myths, guilt, and shame that often surround the word sin, and reclaiming how it might be helpful in today’s society.

If original sin is thought to pass from generation to generation through the seed, or sperm, of Adam, would masturbation, therefore, be a good thing, as it “spills the seed” which spreads the sin?
— The question of the night
Our fantastic facilitator Rev. Nick Coates.

Our fantastic facilitator Rev. Nick Coates.

Last year we loved delving into some of the Bible's most risque stories but found ourselves yearning for a bit more time to delve into how the Bible story or topic affected our daily lives. Instead, we spent a lot of time unpacking the bible story, and only a little chatting about how that story was also our story, as Rev. Nick Coates likes to stay. The bible is rich with stories about the messy lives of humans, muddling their way through life, falling down, trying again, and God meeting them there. The hope this year is to start from an overarching theme of Mythbusting Sin, flush it out to individual focus topics each month, and then bring in the Bible as it relates to what we're talking about. We already have many topics that emerged from last Sunday's discussion that I can't wait to dig into throughout the year. We will have a focus topic for each month under the broader theme of Mythbusting Sin such as racism or sex. These can be one-offs, so there is no pressure for young adults to show up every month, but will also have a flow and build upon one another.

As Program Director for the YYC Campus Ministry, I spend a lot of time hanging out with young adults and chatting about faith. One of greatest barriers young people have toward religion is a fear and expectation of judgement. They hear a lot in the media around sin, shame and guilt in relation to Christianity. Rev. Greg Glatz, the brains behind Knox United Church’s Sanctuary Coffee, jokingly put on one of their signs for the cafe “no you won’t burst into flames if you walk into the church”. This, sadly, is not far off from what many expect. It is exciting to attempt to dig into and reclaim sin not as a tool for judgement, but rather a way to address the barriers that come between us and the love that Jesus both preached and lived.

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Coming Out as a Straight Ally

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Author: Zoe Say, YYC Campus Ministry Team Member

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to me to be a good ally to my friends in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirited communities. More and more that has meant coming out more fully and being more visible in my church, work, and life in general as an ally.

I had one of the most beautiful, enriching and affirming conversations of my life recently with a good friend in the LGBTQ+ community. It both reminded me of the importance of this work and affirmed how difficult it is, even just as an ally and not LGBTQ+ myself. I have struggled with the idea of becoming more visibly an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, as I have very good friends in all facets of my life who think very differently about this topic than I do. It pains me to think that I might alienate them or offend them, or that it might alter our relationship or their respect for me. However, it pains me even worse to feel that I am not doing my utmost to support and advocate for dear friends of mine in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirited communities. These are individuals who I respect and admire greatly. Many have stories of pain and trauma from the intersection of their sexual or gender identity and their faith identity, especially Christianity.

Churches are often dangerous spaces where LGBTQ+ individuals can be judged, condemned, and even attacked. A person in the LGBTQ+ community recently told me that the Bible had been used almost exclusively for them as a weapon.

I found that heartbreaking, in a religion that for me has always been oriented around love and inclusion, particularly of the marginalized.

This is not to say that all churches are unsafe, some churches will be the first place a member of the LGBTQ+ and two-spirited communities will come out of the closet as they know they will be loved and supported. Some are merely neutral, not putting forward an opinion on the matter either way. However because of the overwhelming Christian narrative of judgement that people in the LGBTQ+ communities hear and experience, a “neutral” space generally still does not feel safe. It could be that people are still heterosexist, they’re just not talking about it. I would dearly love to share my wonderful denomination and faith with LGBTQ+ friends who are searching for a church home, and I would love for it to be a safe, inclusive (at all levels) and nurturing space for them, so that is one of the main things I am working toward as an ally.

It has been such a relief to now be working more tangibly for healing and advocacy for these friends. I love being able to do something to support them, and hopefully, create safer spaces where they can fully be themselves.
— Zoe Say, YYCCM Program Director

My earliest memory of standing up as an ally was at a city-wide meeting several years back. It was scary but ultimately a positive experience. The topic of Human Sexuality has been debated heavily in my denomination for the last several years and even decades. This meeting was partly about discussing sending an overture my church’s national gathering on this topic of Human Sexuality several years back. I was quite young at the time, and one of the few in the room who was neither clergy nor an elder, and as a female was definitely in the minority. There was not much conversation, and what was said did not seem (to me) to take into account the fact that these doctrines we were discussion directly affect human lives every day. I spoke up to add some personal stories from my experience interacting with folks who are gender and sexual minorities, and although it was nerve-wracking as I was the youngest in the room by about 30 years, the dialogue remained respectful and I felt heard. I was approached afterward by an individual who said that my words had touched them deeply, so I was glad I had spoken.

Not long after, a congregation hosted a conversation series on Human Sexuality. I went to all of the sessions, but was disappointed again in the cerebral-level of the conversations, and lack of acknowledgment that we were discussing human beings. There was no talk about people or their stories, and no representation from the community we were discussing (as far as I knew). We merely reviewed the Report on Human Sexuality document from over 30 years ago, discussed theology, doctrine and biblical interpretation as if this topic didn’t directly affect thousands of lives. I spoke up briefly in support of a more inclusive understanding of how we can love all humans of all sexual and gender identities. I was immediately and aggressively opposed by an elder of the church, who disagreed with me on a biblical basis loudly and vehemently. Disappointingly, nobody commented on their aggressive tone or moderated the conversation. I didn’t speak up again. It didn’t feel like a safe space to discuss differing views.

That experience of being opposed so aggressively hit me pretty hard, and I struggled to speak in my denomination or church after that. I do know however that my denomination has been working very hard to create safer spaces to discuss differing perspectives, as well as to humanize the discussion and bring in the stories of those with lived experience of what we are talking about and debating. I was also humbled to know that my experience was nothing compared to what those in the LGBTQ+ communities face sometimes daily, sometimes hourly, condemning their very identity as wrong. Another important realization from that experience is that I also have to watch my language, and be careful not to attack those with differing views than my own. Meeting each other with the grace to allow our faith to be big enough for our differences feels like an important part of the process.

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Since then I have thrown myself into supporting affirming communities, educating myself, and helping to make my work community as safe as possible for all students and people of all sexual and gender identities. I have had many positive experiences in the past few years as I have learned and grown as an ally. I had the pleasure of walking and drumming in the Pride Parade for several years with an affirming congregation, which was an absolute joy. I got to share my gift of drumming and music and brought some friends along. I have learned from students and staff at Calgary's universities more about how to use pronouns and create safer spaces for those in the LGBTQ+ communities. I have attended workshops at the Q Center at the University of Calgary such as “alphabet soup” which have helped my knowledge grow enormously, and navigate those ever-evolving letters! My admiration for these courageous folks to share with me has grown, as has my desire to do something tangible to support these friends and help to heal the trauma that my religion has caused in so many. It pains me, when occasionally they ask me about my church, that I cannot offer them a space I know they will be loved, valued, supported and included in every part of the church’s life.

One of the things I learned in this process is a better understanding of the constant fear many of my friends in the LGBTQ+ community live with on a day to day basis. It is so hard for these friends to be constantly having to advocate for their own identity to be accepted, often uncertain of the reception they will receive. In many cases their very safety is at risk when their sexual or gender identity becomes apparent. I am so humbled to consider the intense courage and strength of character it takes many of these folks just to exist in the world. In order to hopefully relieve even the tiniest bit of pressure from the LGBTQ+ community constantly having to advocate for itself, I want to become much more visible as an ally.

The more of us wearing rainbows, the less targeted folks in the community might be. The more of us advocating for our friends in the community, the less they are forced to advocate for themselves. It is enormously easier for me to advocate for an identity that is not my own, as I don’t have trauma associated with it. Not only that, but sometimes folks are more willing to listen to people who are not within the community they are advocating for. That should not be the case but unfortunately all too often is true. The time has come for me to speak up once again, talking clearly about what I believe and why, while still acknowledging all perspectives as valid and worthy of being heard. To this end I am making my social media more “rainbowy”, in spite of having friends from many different perspectives on there who might disagree or become alienated. I am committing myself to speak out against homophobia when I come across it, to consistently advocate for LGBTQ+ friends, and to continue to learn, grow, and gain understanding. I am humbled by how much I have yet to learn on this journey, but it is so worth undertaking.

It has been such a relief to now be working more tangibly for healing and advocacy for these friends. I love being able to do something to support them, and hopefully, create safer spaces where they can fully be themselves. It brings me great joy that our campus ministry is embarking on becoming an Affirming Ministry, that we are walking in the Pride Parade, and that we can show tangibly that we advocate for the love and inclusion of all people in all aspects of life and the church.

Several individuals within the community have warned me that being out as an ally can be extremely hard and draining, so to be sure to build in a network and self-care. It was humbling to hear this from folks who have no choice but to be an advocate, just by their existence, and if it is that hard for me how much harder for them. I was deeply touched by their care of me, despite the fact that it will always be a thousand times harder for them. I do want to heed their advice, if only to ensure I have the support to stay healthy and continue the work of advocacy. If you are the praying type, I ask for prayer support as I embark on this journey. I have witnessed the power of prayer and believe strongly in its significance. If you would like, feel free to check in and see how the process is going, and how I am doing. Similarly, take some time to send encouraging words of support for all allies and all those living as a sexual or gender minority, who don’t have the choice of tuning out of the work for a while to take a break.

There is more I could say but I don’t want to run on too long (thanks for reading this far). Please feel free to chat with me if you’d like to chat or share experiences of being an ally or other things on this topic, I would be happy to share more. I am, however, not interested in debating theology.

Now I am looking forward to passing on that care and support to my LGBTQ+ friends. I will work on listening to all perspectives, attacking no one and extending the grace Jesus taught us as Christians to all people. I am looking forward to getting my rainbows on and walking in support and solidarity with my LGBTQ+ friends and siblings in the Pride Parade, and continuing to learn and grow as an ally. What a privilege.

A Rainbow Bracelet and a Trapdoor

Author: Zoe Say, YYC Campus Ministry Team Member

Zoe Say Pride Parade 2017

When I was a young child, there was a secret place I would go when I was worried or upset. This place has shaped me possibly more than any other experience in my life, even though one could easily argue that it’s not, in fact, real. 

This place was more or less a room, through a secret trap door at the back of my closet, accessible only to me. When I was having a bad day, I would lie on my bed and take myself to this room. Through the trapdoor, all was white light with vague walls that had shelves. When I was in the room, I always had a sense that I could have anything I wanted, anything at all. My child mind would try to imagine toys that I wanted, or dolls or piggy banks. Try as I might, my attempted imaginings never amounted to much of anything filling the shelves on the walls, to my slight disappointment. This was because, even though I thought those seemed to be fun things to want, I didn’t actually want them at all. I was always permeated with a feeling that though I could have anything, I also already had everything I needed. I was my fullest, most complete self in that room. Filled with unconditional love and light and contentment and thus couldn’t actually imagine anything else that would make me feel happier. I was enough, and because of that, I had enough.

That room, and the sense that there I could be a full and complete being with every need met, shaped my sense of self in the world. For me, that room was G-d, and because of it, I have always known quite tangibly that I do not walk alone. Because of it, my G-d is one of love, of fulfilment and peace, and of light. I never ever experienced a sense of judgement or shame or any sense of not being enough in that room.

I wanted to do this so that I would always be wearing a symbol of my support so that hopefully those in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirit communities would know that I was a safe Christian to be around.

I was lucky. As I grew up I lost that ability to go to that room, but through my church community and most of all through my Mom’s robust faith, I was able to maintain my sense of connection with the divine. My Mom encouraged me to explore this through questions and dialogue, reading, journaling, walking in nature and workshops. Her faith is also centred firmly on experience with an unconditionally loving God, and this helped me to nurture my own. My sense of the divine expanded from that room to permeate my whole life.

I see that same unconditionally, radically loving G-d of my trapdoor when I read the beautifully messy, rich and fascinating stories of humans in the bible. I read about it in Queen Vashti and Queen Esther, teaching us about anti-oppression and standing up for the dignity of all humans. I read about it in Jesus consistently challenging the religious leaders and hierarchies of the time that were not centred on love and compassion. I read about Jesus rubbing his spit into the eyes of a blind man, chatting with an outcast Samaritan woman at a well about the 'living water' which will cause you to never thirst. I read about how he created space for an unclean woman who had been bleeding for 12 years to come to him, share her story, and affirming for her that her faith had made her well. What a drastic change for this woman, likely an outcast for the past 12 years, to suddenly have a chance to not only be healed but to speak publicly. To have her story heard and to find not only physical healing but also, just as importantly, social healing. He told her to go in peace, and I imagine she felt loved and “enough” for the first time in a very long time.

What does this room have to do with my rainbow bracelet? 

Zoe Say Rainbow Bracelet Pride Blog Post 2018

Those stories reinforce for me this love-centred G-d that I feel so connected to. The G-d I meet in Psalm 23 when it says, "The Lord is my shepherd, I need not want." I rarely share the story of my trapdoor room, in fact, I have probably spoken it out loud, other than to my Mom, only two or three times. It feels quite personal and vulnerable and speaks to my deepest sense of self and my faith. However, when I thought about articulating why I wear my rainbow bracelet, it seemed inextricably linked with that room and the deep sense of a radically loving G-d that that room cultivated within me. Because I have been deeply and fully loved by G-d my whole life and felt filled to overflowing with it. I have enjoyed sharing that love with all those around me. That love helps me to see people first with love and see all people as beloved children of the divine. I think my lifelong struggle of living with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has also helped me to have empathy and compassion for all people, as I know we all have different struggles and battles that are invisible to most.

Back to the rainbow bracelet. I have always viewed every person, including those in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirit communities, as individuals just as worthy of love and being loved as anyone, without restraints or limitations. Just as I would never seek to tell a heterosexual individual how or in what way it is okay for them to love (as long as it is consensual and honouring of all), I do not feel it is my place to place any limits on the love of those in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirit communities. Love is one of the most precious gifts of being human, and as I heard one Rabbi say, "G-d seems to have made us quite intentionally to be relational humans." Let us not dictate to anyone that they should have constraints on their love.

I have many dear friends who are in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirit communities and have friends who identify as each one of those identities listed. I love each of them so, so deeply, and hearing some of the trauma many have been through in the name of my religion causes me pain and heartache. I am so sorry for the trauma caused in the name of my religion. I know a person who essentially didn’t speak for several years because of the trauma caused by their Christian family who held them in judgement and contempt for their sexual identity. I was talking about sin with a minister friend and mentor of mine, and she suggested the sin, in that case, is not his sexual identity, but rather with his family who saw fit to judge him so harshly. I have to agree. That is not love. I talked to an incredible human just yesterday who shared that she intentionally lives in a different country than her family. This is because they would come after her with a priest to cast out the demon they would think was living in her if she came out to them.

This is why I have always been extremely cognizant of my position as a practicing Christian, church attendee, and someone who works for a church organization. I am cognizant of the trauma caused by my religion and try very hard to always be clear that I am only interested in affirming and supporting people in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirit communities, never judgement. I also feel strongly about presenting a different kind of Christianity. One centred in love first, as Jesus taught us by uplifting the golden rule, love your neighbour as yourself. My Christianity is informed by the G-d I have encountered, and the radically loving Jesus I have read about and met, by a trapdoor, and by the 23rd Psalm. 

Zoe Say Tim Nethercott Pride Parade 2017

When I saw this rainbow bracelet at the stall of a jeweller friend of mine at an art market at Eau Claire, I knew I wanted to not only buy it but to wear it every day that I could. I wanted to do this so that I would always be wearing a symbol of my support so that hopefully those in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirit communities would know that I was a safe Christian to be around. Since I bought it at that art market I have rarely taken it off, except to repair it when it gets worn out every year or so. And the odd time for example when I coated myself in mud at the Dead Sea. 

I was chatting with my jeweller friend recently about how much I loved not only the beautiful rainbow colours and fun design, but also the infinity symbol attached to it. My friend made a great point that to her it symbolizes infinite love. I love that and to me, it also represents an infinitely loving G-d, the G-d that I met going through that trapdoor over two decades ago.

I wear the bracelet to stand staunchly and overtly with all those in the LGBTQ+ and two-spirit communities, and to stand for an infinite and radically loving G-d, who says you are enough, and that you are beautiful just as you are.