New Wine Skins

I find myself often pondering Jesus’ declaration that all the law and the prophets are fulfilled as we love God and love our neighbours. In Matthew 7: 12, Jesus says it this way, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Paul reiterates this, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5: 14) And James joins the chorus: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right.” (James 2: 8)

So much of Christianity is in crisis as the veneer of righteousness is peeled back to reveal an ugly underbelly. The very hypocrisy that Jesus railed against is rampant in a North American culture that uses the Christian faith as a tool in power games and politics.

In the midst of this, it is the voice from the margins that rings with prophetic clarity calling people of faith to return to what sums up the law and prophets, to return to the heart of what we call the good news.

Sometimes, I’m just not sure that the voice from the margins is the voice we are expecting.

Certainly, the poor and oppressed are calling us to return to God’s vision of shalom where all can flourish. Certainly, our siblings of colour are calling us to return to the equity that Jesus embodied as he crossed racial and societal divides. Certainly, those living with disability, both visible and invisible, are calling us to confront our ableism and the ways it justifies skimping out on accessibility. Certainly, women are calling us to dismantle the patriarchy and misogyny that bias our interpretations and doctrine. Certainly, LGBTQ+ people are calling us to wake up to the ways that religious-based homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia contribute to the exclusion, suffering, and deaths of sexual and gender minorities throughout the world.

I pray we are listening. I pray we are paying attention. I pray our discomfort will catalyze action. And I pray our action will be mobilized and multiplied.

This would be more than enough to address – but I think there is more the Spirit is saying to the church if we would have ears to hear.

At our Ontario Generous Space retreat last weekend, we were given the opportunity to make space for something our friends called a “Heretic Huddle.” For some time, we’ve had an online affinity group we affectionately call the Triple A group. Triple A stands for atheist, agnostic, and ambiguous. This group reflects a growing demographic of disenfranchised Christians / post-Christians. Folks drawn to this space have deep and significant questions about the faith that formed many of them from infanthood. Some have decided that the healthiest thing for them to do is to leave Christianity completely. Quite honestly, it is a harm reduction strategy. Others are wrestling with deep uncertainty. A common thread is a sense of loss – and the grief that comes with loss with the full spectrum of anger, bargaining, and sometimes acceptance. Our Triple A folks speak of loss of family, loss of community, loss of certainty, loss of identity, loss of purpose. And they speak of new hope, of chosen family, of finding belonging in places like Generous Space, of liberation and joy and celebration, of meaning and of love.

As I reflected on how significant the retreat experience was, with our Triple A folks fully out of the closet and fully contributing within our community, it felt like a kaleidoscope within me. If I’m honest, the superficial reaction was of fear: a fear that all the people who think I’m heretical or Generous Space is heretical will have ammunition for further accusation and more justification for their slippery slope scare tactics. All of my life I have longed to be found faithful – and there is still a part of me that is frightened at the prospect of the judgment, “See, in their ministry people are becoming atheists!!” But beyond my own insecurities, I worry about the tenuous relationship we have with much of the evangelical church, I worry about them writing off the authentic faith of so many LGBTQ+ Christians, I worry about the little 8 year olds in their pews who are just starting to figure out that they don’t fit the dominant hetero-cis-normative narrative celebrated by their church, I worry about the ones just beginning to consider scripture through a justice lens given the ways that fear capitalizes on our vulnerability in times of liminality and transition.

And the truth is that I believe there is life to be found in God’s story and Jesus’ place in it. I worry about a rugged individualism or self-sufficiency that claims to not need something bigger than ourselves.

I’m not afraid of questions, or doubt, or deconstruction. God’s love is bigger, and wilder, and holds more mystery and generosity and power than we can imagine.

So when I return to that place beyond my fears and my worries, I begin to glimpse something that I think is really beautiful – something that seems resonant with a God beyond our control who bursts out of our boxes …. and the religious tombs we try to keep Them in.

In my moments when faith is robust and fear is held at bay, I see the beautiful ways that our Triple A folks are fulfilling all the law and all the prophets. I see the ways that they are living out the loving of their neighbours as themselves. I see the ways they are a living metaphor of Jesus’ words after calling Lazarus out of the tomb, “Loose him from his grave clothes!” I see them thoughtfully discarding the trappings that not only failed to bring life – but in so many ways brought the death of self-loathing, shame, shutting down our intellect, ignoring our intuition, and swallowing our emotional responses. I see them exercising their agency, God’s gift of free will, to own their own spiritual journey. And there is beauty and strength and resiliency to be found there.

And when I worry about things like rebellion, or sinning against the Holy Spirit, or Jesus being the way, the truth and life, I pause. The first thing I do is ask, “How would this be different if I was energized by love right now instead of fear?” And when I quiet myself and allow love to re-center me, I am reminded that God is love. And what I saw in my Triple A friends at our retreat was love in great abundance.

I saw it as a Triple A’er gently and tenderly encouraged another as they partook in communion for the first time in many years – honouring their decision to dig deeply into God’s grace through the sacrament. I saw it as they held each other’s questions and hopes and fears and losses with honour, respect, and kindness. I saw it as they offered themselves, their gifts, their poetry, their music, their laughter, their joy, their pain, their vulnerability, their authenticity, their honesty with purity of heart as fully embraced siblings in our community.

And while some may not identify as a follower of Jesus at this leg in the journey, without question, I saw Jesus incarnated in them.

The church is desperate for new wine skins. The new wine is splitting and bursting out of the old wine skins. For so long, the presumption of the church is that those who identify as atheist, agnostic or ambiguous about faith are their project – the focus of their proselytizing. In our post-Christian Canadian context, where so many deconstruct their Christian upbringing and then simply walk away from faith community entirely, God is giving Generous Space the gift of an unexpected wine skin. And the new wine is really beautiful. It is marked by deep connection and relationship, deep authenticity and a refusal to let shame have the upper hand, it is marked by gentle and tender holding of space for one another, paying attention to the ways we need to liberate each other from harm, from oppression, and from injustice. Sounds like loving our neighbours to me!

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t claim certainty. But I do see Jesus in our midst. And I do believe God is calling me to pay more attention to the voice from the margin, the unexpected voice, the voice of my sister, my brother, my sibling – the one who is pressing in to love.