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Making our Way Home

Scripture: Psalm 139:1-18

Poetry: “When the Holy Thaws” - by Daniel Ladinsky, in the spirit of St. Teresa of Avila

Tamara ShantzGood morning!

It is very good to be back home with all of you this morning.

St.Jacobs still very much feels like home.

And it’s been a while since I have been here for worship so thank you so much for the invitation to be here.

I am particularly grateful to have the opportunity to share a little bit with you about the work I am currently involved with through Pastors in Exile or PiE.

PiE is a community ministry focused on young adults in the Waterloo region

we are trying to find ways to connect young adults with meaningful faith experiences both inside and outside of the church

We are especially interested in supporting young adults who find themselves on the “edge” as it were, of church

Who might feel a little bit like they are in a space of exile

Our name can be a bit tricky to summarize as it has a number of meanings to it

But one of them was a sense that the whole church community is now in a time of exile

A time of change and uncertainty, a space where the church is no longer at the center of our social lives, is no longer as relevant to people

And we are all trying to find out way in this strange, new, liminal space

And young adulthood is often a time of wandering, and struggling to find their places to fit, to call home

But with all the societal and cultural changes happening so rapidly, this experience has become even more complex

So we are attempting to create spaces and conversations that young adults are looking for but may not be happening, or may not be possible, in individual churches

So some folks who connect with PiE no longer attend church regularly but are still interested in faith and spirituality, and connecting in deeper ways with their peers

But many in our network do still attend church but are looking for ways to engage their faith beyond what is happening in their own congregation, and maybe they don’t have a lot of peers at church and are also seeking more connection with others in their own stage of life

And perhaps somewhat paradoxically,

Even though our focus is young adults, we are attempting to have some spaces that are intergenerational

Since young adults often crave meaningful connection with older folks as well

And so some of our groups do include some elders, as it were,

So if one of our events or groups seems interesting to you,

Please come join us!

What we do varies from season to season, but right now we have three different small groups meeting regularly for Bible study and conversation, we run a couple of retreats a year, we meet regularly with young adults one on one, we facilitate a community blog and many other occasional initiatives.

What I have found most exciting about our ministry is how other young adults have begun to take ownership of PiE

And have started to come to us with ideas and desires for new initiatives

One example of this is one of our regular groups, Queerly Christian

Almost a year ago now,

I was approached by a young adult who deeply desired a place where LGBTQ+ Christians could gather

And experience a completely safe space where all expressions of gender and sexuality would be welcome

LGBTQ Christians, we have too often found ourselves in a space of exile

Feeling excluded, and even banished from our spiritual communities

And so Queerly Christian is a space where anyone who experiences this kind of exile can find companions

Can find people to wander with in this space of exile

People who might help us watch for the Spirit’s presence, leading us home

Queer Christians often find themselves in a tough spot

They often don’t feel safe or fully accepted at church

But because of the damage and violence that Christians have done to Queer people,

Being Christian in the Queer community is also challenging

Because people have been hurt by the Church,

They aren’t interested in Christianity or necessarily comfortable around Christians,

Even queer ones

Those Christian and queer worlds are still not expected to meet

But what this means is that for many Queer Christians

There is a sense of not quite belonging anywhere

Or at least

Of needing a place where both parts of your identity, where your ‘worlds’ can come together

Where your sexuality or gender expression and your faith - where both of these things can receive a warm, unconditional, welcome

And so we have been trying to create this kind of place at PiE

At all of our events and groups

But most especially at Queerly Christian

And what I find most delightful about this group

Is that we are total church geeks

And I use that term with great honour and endearment

Our group loves talking about the Bible, theology, church polity

Hymns - oh goodness, we have some stalwart hymn lovers in the crowd

We’ve even had a hymn sing a couple of times

Although we’ve been exploring a new category of hymn

The queer hymn

Sylvia Klassen, who attends Erb St Mennonite Church,

Has actually done a lot of academic work on the study of hymns that are written by LGBTQ composers or include lyrics that express the theme of inclusion and welcome for all

Sylvia has shared some of these hymns with us

And by far one of our most powerful nights was gathering in the sanctuary of Erb St Mennonite where we meet

And trying out some of these new hymns

More than one of the group commented on what a healing night it had been

To be able to sing songs that include something that reflects your own experience or speaks to your own story,

To hear words not usually spoken within the walls of the church

For many of us, our favourite one so far is called Quirky, Queer and Wonderful

And it’s set to the tune of All things Bright and Beautiful

It is written by Adam Tice and the chorus

And first verse go like this:

“Quirky, queer and wonderful,
Distinct, unique and odd
All of our humanity
Reveals the face of God.
No ‘normal’ can encompass,
Or comprehend the range
Of all the kinds of people
That God created strange.”

For a group of people who have felt excluded from what has been considered normal

For people who have been condemned, judged, and even become the victim of violence for being strange, for being different

These lyrics are liberating

This proclamation that what our world has deemed unacceptable, abhorrent even,

That even this part of us can reveal the face of God.

Incredibly healing.

And so we are singing our way into greater freedom

We are singing on our way home to God

And of course we are sharing our stories with one another

And one of our members, Emily Leyland,

Is with us here for worship this morning and has graciously written about some of her story for me to share with you this morning

Thank you so much Emily for your generosity of spirit!

Emily now attends Stirling Ave. Mennonite Church where she will soon become a member

And she is one of our Queerly Christian elders as it were, a very important role

One aspect of Emily’s experience is that she identifies as transsexual

Which means that while she was born into a male identified body, she has never felt like her inner experience, her inner identity ever fit her outer form

and in the past few years has transitioned from living outwardly as a man, to living outwardly as a woman

And to be honest,

It feels a little risky to be sharing about this with you this morning

While the church and our larger society is increasingly comfortable with many different forms of relationship and sexual orientation,

The subject of people being transgender feels totally taboo still in the church

It doesn’t really feel like it is okay to talk about, certainly it is rarely something talked about from behind the pulpit

So if this is something that is new to you,

And really, it is still pretty new to me as well - I still have a lot to learn about the experiences of folks in this community as well

Emily helped me a lot with understanding the different words and terms used in preparing for this morning

I simply invite you to listen to Emily’s story with an open heart, curiosity and compassion

And I know that Emily is very open and eager to connect so there will also be lots of time to chat more after the service as well

So Emily writes:

As a child I merely accepted that I was different, in that my behavior and traits matched more closely with women.

As I grew older it became impossible just to be myself, I had to change to ensure that no one knew who I really was. With great brainpower and hyper-vigilance I tried my best to hide the effeminate side of who I was. There really is very little acceptance of “girly-men” especially during my formative years circa 1970-1990. I programmed myself the best I could to be a man.

It is ironic at this point to me how often people would call me weird and strange. It hurt a great deal especially considering I was diagnosed at a young age as hypersensitive. Between the ages of 20 to 50 I assured myself that I could not be transsexual as I did not experience attraction to other men.

Leelah Alcorn, a young transgender girl who committed suicide, eerily stated before her death that her life would not be worth living. Many times during and before my transition to a woman I too stated that my life has not been worth living. I believe this state of mind was caused by not being able to express myself authentically and truthfully in the world. My inner person could not be represented by my current gender expression.

Five years into transitioning I must say that I am very pleased with who I am. God has helped me along this path. I could not bear any further the thought of lying about who I was my entire life.

It may have been lying by omission, never would I allow someone to know me that well. I could not resolve what would be the greater sin, lying to everyone about who I am to garner a modicum of acceptance, or uphold in my life who I truly am. In the eyes of the church lying seems to be acceptable. For my own self I am happy what has happened.

It is important to treat all circumstances with love and compassion, I include myself with that thought. Sometimes I joke that “I used to be a half-insane man, now I am a half sane woman”. I enjoy my entirely new consciousness of the world, it was tough to get to but it truly was worth it. Now, instead of being criticized for being weird or strange, I am often met with compliments about how nice I am. The difference is simply remarkable. I will close with a relevant Tao poem:

When we walk into the forest we do not claim the trees to be unbalanced and off-center,
Nor do we go to the shore and complain the waves are so imperfect.
Then why do we do this to ourselves?

Recently, Emily shared with the group that she finally feels at home

In herself, and in the world

An experience that so many people I know are still searching for

I have learned a lot from Emily since she began coming to Queerly Christian

And it strikes me that we all have a lot to learn from her

And from the transgender community as a whole


Emily has been teaching me about what it means to live an authentic and faithful life

And the courage it takes to decide to radically trust your inner experience, your inner knowing

This hidden part of you that you are very aware that only some people will welcome or accept

Emily’s tenacity to proclaim, with the Psalmist, that every part of her is intimately known and loved by God

That she too is created in the image of God, even when her faith community told her otherwise

To take that precious inner truth, and to live it out so publicly so radically

This is the courage to which we are all called

And we again need to be reminded

That the people we exclude,

The people we tend to judge as being farthest from God,

These are the very people we most need to be our spiritual teachers

Something that Jesus tried to remind his community of on a regular basis

While people who identify as transgender might have a more dramatic story of discovering their true self and seeking to live their lives from that place,

This process of becoming the person that God created us to be,

Rather than living a false life based on a carefully crafted persona designed to gain approval and acceptance from others

This journey from false to true self is not unique to transgender people

I believe that this is the path that every human being is called to walk

Slowly allowing the Spirit of Christ to thaw the holy in us

To nudge us out of our protective shell

And to allow our soul

Our deepest and most beautiful self to make itself known

To offer its sacred gifts to the world

But as Emily noted in her story,

Too often,

In the past,

The church has not been a place where it is safe to reveal the fullness of our experience

For many people,

Church is the place where you need your false self to protect you

Or as Emily put it, where lying is preferred

Where we fear the judgement of others and hide what our life is really like

We conceal the depths of our inner life

Church has focused on a set of external moral standards

Doctrine that we must agree with

Behaviours that we must fall in line with in order to find acceptance

Rather than being a place where we are taught to listen for the presence of Christ within, as well as all around

But I think some of these tendencies in the church began to change quite some time ago and that we are already beginning to live into a new vision for the body of Christ

These changes can just take a long time!

And I see the church becoming a place where we are truly companions on the road with Jesus

Where our starting point is not a set of religious expectations but rather we begin with where we are

our lived experience and our desire to encounter the living God

Where the raw material of our lives is honoured as a sacred text alongside,

In conversation with,

The sacred texts of Scripture

Where we can learn to pay as much attention to our inner world and the life of prayer as we do to the world around us

A place where tending and making space for the soul is never seen as selfish but as essential

And that above all,

Rather than trying to be right, we are simply walking the wild and unruly path home

The path of love that carries us ever deeper into the heart of God

I pray that God will grant us the courage to walk this path with ever expanding compassion, grace, and joy.