I will get back to folk telling their stories and experiences in due course, but in the meantime, we are within touching distance of Christmas Day, and my mind was drawn to that story of the first Christmas and who saw the infant Christ first. Some folk were in the right place at the right time, but they didn’t receive an invitation as such. Obviously, I’d expect the owner of the inn/house and/or probably his wife would have been early visitors after the birth, indeed, Mary may well have been assisted by one or two women from the inn, or nearby. But who was invited to see the infant Jesus?
The invitation didn’t come in the form of a messenger galloping full pelt on a mud-spattered horse, to a royal palace. No, the only personal invitation to come and see this new baby, came from a really proud Father, to a group of, perhaps insignificant, shepherds. It was hugely dramatic with absolutely no expenses spared. An angel, direct from God’s throne-room, accompanied by a huge array of the heavenly host appeared to this group of shepherds who, in human terms, were of no consequence whatsoever. These were guys who spent a lot of time alone with the sheep in the hills and fields, regardless of the weather. They probably spent days, or weeks, at a time outside with the sheep, making sure they were fed and watered, checking for, and tending to, any wounds and sores, unmatting tangled fleeces, and keeping the sheep safe from wild animals. Although they’d be close to water for drinking and washing, they were unlikely to carry around oils and perfumes, or be able to change clothes often.
They weren’t folks who worked nine-to-five, who then came home, got changed, had something to eat and then went out to have a quiet drink with their friends.
Sheep and shepherds were synonymous with life throughout the whole Biblical period. Abel, the son of Adam, was a shepherd, as was Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (and his sons), Moses, Amos, and Zechariah. And of course, Jesus frequently spoke about sheep, and that he also saw himself as “the Good Shepherd”.
Being a shepherd was a 24/7 job involving the total commitment of protecting a valuable livestock whatever the weather. Who became shepherds? Normally it was determined by the family. We know that often children of farmers worked as shepherds. It was probably the first job a child would do, then as further brothers came along, he would take on more of his father’s duties and responsibilities, and his younger siblings would look after the sheep. Remember when David was anointed as the future King? When asked whether Jesse (David’s father) had any other sons, his father said: “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” 1 Samuel 16: 11. Jesse was clearly dismissive, saying that David didn’t really count (the important sons were obviously the eldest), yet where did David end up? He was the one who ended up sitting on the throne of the nation and being loved by God! One of many examples of God turning expectations upside down.
When Joseph (coat of many colours – yes, that’s the one) was sold into slavery by his brothers, he had been sent by his father to find out how his brothers were doing, because they were away from home near the small town of Shechem. In this case it looks like Jacob was protecting Joseph and keeping him at home while all his brothers worked with the sheep, because that was the family business and Jacob owned large flocks of sheep. In fact, we know earlier, from Genesis 32, that he owned hundreds of goats, hundreds of sheep, well over thirty camels, fifty cattle, and thirty donkeys. By this time, he probably had more. Hence this was a large family business!
Historically shepherds were always regarded with a certain degree of distain. Some of you will remember that when Jacob moved his family to Egypt during a famine to be with Joseph, who wasn’t dead after all (around 1875 BCE), we are told that all shepherds are detestable to the Egyptians (Genesis 46: 31). Throughout the Biblical period, shepherding was never one of those occupations regarded as one to be sought after. Although sheep were very valuable, being a shepherd was not a career choice people would aspire to. Shepherds today in the UK normally work from home, they may have to work many hours in all sorts of weathers, but normally they’ll come home, at some point, to sleep.
Thinking about today, we have many in our own communities who are marginalised:
- those who flee war and persecution, to seek asylum;
- the homeless;
- those with mental health issues and addictions:
- and all too frequently, those identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s interesting that if you look at the first three of those categories, the church and faith groups are often involved in offering help at some level, but looking at that last category, you often can’t see the church for dust. It’s as if the church turns a blind eye to the real issues — people within the LGBTQ+ community are sadly dismissed and disparaged. They are perceived as sinful and as having nothing to offer the church other than problems, at least not until they conform to expectations and become straight. But we know that cannot happen. So, as we have said in previous blogs, not only do faith groups do nothing to help, they actively harm (without realising), by encouraging guilt and despair and removing hope. If you haven’t already, read Don’s story, the Blog I published short time ago.
Before the pandemic, I visited one church in London where they regularly had attenders visit, who spoke of their experiences of being told they were no longer welcome at churches where they had been worshipping for many years. This rejection normally came because they had recently come out as gay, bi-, or trans.
Outside of the folk I know personally, I’m not sure whether those reading these blogs are predominantly gay, bi-, straight or trans – hopefully a mixture. Hence, I guess I’m writing about things that concern, interest, or worry me, with the hope that if you are LGBTQ+, or questioning, some of what I write, will encourage you and reinforce the part of you that is curious about God, and your place in God’s family. If you have been told you have no place in the church, and that God rejects you, you need to know that that theology is wrong, and it stems entirely from prejudice, and a misuse and misunderstanding of scripture. If you have read my essay all the way through (you are exceptional!), you will know that there are no passages that condemn you, and indeed there are passages of blessing (e.g., Isaiah 56: 3-5)
If you are straight, I hope that some of what I write prompts you to go away and do your own research. Whatever the identifier you choose, please fact-check what I have written, as that is a good habit to get into when dealing with any new information of whatever subject, you come across.
The church frequently equates living an LGBTQ+ lifestyle as “sin”. However, when the Bible discusses sin, it is talking about bad decisions, choices, and actions we have made or done – things that negatively affect, or hurt, others or ourselves. (I was tempted to put in something about a sin that affects our relationship with God, but that is a bit nebulous, and when you look more closely at scripture, it’s difficult to think of a sin that only affects God and no-one else.) Anyone who is in the LGBTQ+ community will know that they have no choice over their orientation, gender, or sex – they just are who they are – get over it.
For any newbies, lets define our terms:
- “Sex” is the biological physical appearance a person has – my official records state I am male, and I would agree with that(!).
- “Gender” is the way that a person identifies – I view myself as male. If I were trans I’d probably resentfully feel that although I might be assigned male at birth, I’d much more closely identify with being female.
- “Orientation” is about who I find attractive – I am straight, so I am attracted to women. If I were gay I would be attracted to other men.
While researching and writing my essay I read a huge number of stories and documents. I have read so many times about folk pleading with God and crying themselves to sleep at night, because they don’t like they person they are discovering that they are, and thinking God hates them. To those outside the community, this clearly demonstrates there is no choice or option in whether someone is straight, gay or trans, or whatever. However, many churches and Christians give the impression they think you can wake up one morning and no longer be gay, queer or trans, and we know that is just not the case. You might as well want to have an extra arm. No matter how much you pray, you know God won’t give you one, even if “two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for” (Matthew 18:19)!
With this in mind, the church has got itself in a fine old fankle because of its insistence that there are only two possible sex and gender definitions: male and female, and nothing else. Then, quietly, hoping that no-one spots it, they agree that intersex conditions occur quite naturally, and this is fine. They will then support any “corrective” surgery deemed necessary to transform the person into a male or female, because in that way a binary order is restored! So, what about the intersex person who doesn’t want to have “corrective” surgery? What about the person who has had surgery as a child, but they grow up believing the choices someone made on their behalf, were wrong, because they identify with the opposite gender? (In my essay I mention one example on about p110.) How does the church deal with a problem like that? Awkward.
To take a brief wander down a fascinating side-alley, my mother was a nurse/midwife in the 1950’s and when we were talking about my change of theological outlook a couple of years before her death, she reminded me that on two occasions while she was nursing, there were twins being nursed in the ward adjoining hers who had been born earlier with intersex conditions. Their behaviour was therefore at the time being observed/monitored to determine what their perceived genders were – I have no recollection of mum mentioning what their ages were. Surgery would then be performed to align their sex with their perceived gender – yes, even back in the Fifties.
With these inconsistencies in mind, much of the church has a strong adherence to the doctrine of original sin, with the teaching that after a couple of local gardeners ate some fruit, the world went pear-shaped. The doctrine asserts that as they ate their fruit, Sin entered the world, and this affected every element of the created order. That means that anger, resentment, jealousy, hatred, intolerance, sickness, disease, death, etc. entered the world.
Applying that: my asthma, imperfect vision, various aches and pains, and all the other things I must put up with, are a result of the Fall. But hold on a moment, what’s this they say? Ah yes: gender and sexuality apparently don’t seem to have been affected by the Fall because at creation, God only made two genders and according to them, there are still only two genders, because the Bible doesn’t permit any other options. It’s a terrible twisting of the Bible to fit with an errant worldview. Much of the church has got it so very wrong. For those who want to argue that it was always God’s intent to create people who would identify themselves as part of the LGBTQ+ community, knock yourselves out, although I think it probable, I don’t have a fixed view – that’s a fascinating discussion for another day. In this instance, I just want to use the evangelical argument against itself, to kick out the legs from those who use it to advocate gender and sexuality are strictly binary.
It’s a dishonest and fallacious argument that says God only made two genders and that there are still only two genders, whilst at the same time, for example, recognising that we have such a huge spectrum of abilities and maladies that involve the mind and brain (or any other part of our bodies), because of the Fall of “Adam” and “Eve”. In my essay (in the chapter called “Transgenderism/Transsexualism and Intersex”, from p91) I give a lot more examples regarding negative and positive variations stemming from the vast array of differences in different parts of our bodies.
What tends to happen is that when many churches/Christians become aware that someone is LGBTQ+, they require that person to change. If they can’t change, they try and encourage the person to behave as if straight, remain celibate or ideally marry someone of the opposite sex, to make it look like change has occurred. (That’s something else I deal with in the essay.) This attitude lacks integrity and runs contrary to the teachings of Jesus. The faith community seems more bothered by appearance, than how the spark of the Holy Spirit might be working in the person.
From all I have read, watched, and listened to, I haven’t been convinced by the stories of anyone claiming to have been converted from gay (or trans) to straight (or cisgendered). There are a few anecdotal stories, but frequently when the stories get delved into more deeply, you find that if a gay man has become straight, they aren’t now turned on by a woman, but still find men the strongest attraction. That isn’t a conversion, that man is still gay, but one who has learned to behave in a way that pleases his faith community. That might have a long term effect on his own mental health. There are other stories where you begin to wonder whether the person was bi-sexual rather than gay, so in that instance, it would be easier to cover-up an orientation, and make it more palatable.
I don’t want to get deeply into the Conversion Therapy issue again, but since the UK government has extended the deadline for responding to the consultation on the issue to Friday 4 February 2022 at 11:45pm, can I encourage any of you who haven’t yet responded, to do so. The link is: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/banning-conversion-therapy. Note that this is for English and Welsh regions only as the Scottish Government has already completed its consultation from what I can see. Premier Christianity and Premier Radio are unfortunately doing their bit to encourage Christians to get behind people trying to block any changes, as they believe church ministers should still be allowed to “pray the gay away”, despite the damage being done. Premier used to tread a more measured path, but they now seem to have taken a more overt stance to batten down the hatches. I’ll give some example links at the end, but I don’t want to get side-lined any further.
So, what happens to a person who doesn’t/can’t change in line with faith community demands? Often, they are simply lost to the established church. Those with a strong belief in God sometimes find a church group that will welcome them, others may struggle on, on their own, and because their spiritual input is limited, find their theology becomes more and more inconsistent with Bible teaching, without realising it, and probably the biggest group lose their interest in faith altogether. This should worry the church, but they simply wash their hands as “it’s no longer our problem”. I believe it is, in God’s eyes.
Earlier I talked about how shepherds were disparaged during much of the Biblical period. I’m aware that some sources debate just how despised shepherds really were, but it’s clear that very few parents would have been thrilled if their son came back from “school” saying that they wanted a career in shepherding, unless the father was a farmer or shepherd himself! Children followed the family trade – fisherman, builder, farmer (fruit, grain, animal), tanner, baker, scribe, priest, metalwork, weaver/clothmaker, merchant, etc.
Jesus was a jobbing builder by profession, but, during his ministry, he saw his real job as being that of the shepherd, with people as his sheep. Just like the shepherd’s of his day, Jesus knew what it was like to be disparaged, because there were several points during his ministry when people put him down: Mark 6: 3-6, John 7: 41-42. Also, when Nathanael was encouraged to meet Jesus, he asked Phillip whether anything good could come from Nazareth (John 1:46).
In becoming the good shepherd, Jesus recognised it was a 24/7 job: He protects his valuable flock, whatever the circumstance; He leads them to food and water (Psalm 23); He looks for and tends any injuries and wounds they pick up.
God seems to love the idea of turning things on their head. Earlier we looked at the shepherd king. Check out the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) or alternatively 1 Corinthians 1: 27-29. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” I therefore believe God really treasures the LGBTQ+ Christian community as one that has persevered with their faith despite the odds of having even the established church against it, and, just like the shepherds, we respond to the angel’s call to come and see the one who was born to save us, to feed us, make us strong, and to heal the wounds we have picked up.
10 … “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go [ ] and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’ (Luke 2: extracts)
May you all have a blessed Christmas.
Here are the links I mentioned earlier
This is not a comprehensive list! If you are living in England and Wales, you can view the consultation papers here: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/banning-conversion-therapy and respond to them here: https://equalityhub.citizenspace.com/government-equalities-office/banning-conversion-therapy/