House For All Sinners and Saints, Denver, Colorado
February 10, 2019
I really admire Reagan’s preaching. I especially love the stories he often starts out with about his childhood and the adventures he’d go on and the trouble he’d get into while playing with his friends.
I don’t have stories like that, mainly because when I was the age Reagan was when he was playing on railroad tracks with his friends, I was visiting Ringworld, fighting alongside the Dorsai, flying dragons on Pern, and taking part in the revolution to Free Luna. And most of all, going on adventures on the Enterprise. For any of you nerds wondering, “which Enterprise?” I’m old enough that we only had the one Enterprise.
I can’t presume to speak to the experience of other trans people, but I can tell you a little about my own.
In my elementary and middle school years especially, as I was falling asleep each night, I’d pray/wish that when I woke up in the morning, I’d be a girl. I even refined it, so it didn’t end up being some bad sitcom premise where a man wakes up one morning and has suddenly, in some kind of Kafka meets Bosom Buddies thing, morphed into a woman.
No, my dream was that when I woke up, not only would I be a girl, God would have so changed the world that I would always have been a girl. Just like I had always known I was.
That kind of ended with puberty, which, in my mind, was the last chance for something to change.
So, for most of my childhood and large chunks of adulthood, the central fact of my life has been that I desperately want things that I can never possibly have. And, also being asexual, what I wanted wasn’t focused on specific body parts, but rather on a general sense of wanting to be girl shaped, shorter, with smaller feet (the “oh God I wish there was a way I could have smaller feet” is still a thing for me. There are so may cute shoes in the world that I’ll never get to wear.)
And I wanted to do girl things, maybe be a gymnast or a cheerleader. I remember being depressed for a week when I reached the age where I had to accept, the whole trans thing aside, I was simply never going to be a cheerleader.
In “Jitterbug Perfume” Tom Robbins wrote “Fashions come and go, come and go, but the length of the cheerleader skirt remains constant, and it is upon this abbreviated standard that I base my currency of joy.” I can think of very few quotes that resonated with me like that one.
Theater people talk about how, because shows necessarily have to be less than real in some ways, part of the job of the audience is a willing suspension of disbelief. We often joked about how, for some plays, the audience was going to need to bring a really good set of suspenders.
Between voraciously devouring science fiction and living with the fact that I can’t have so many of the things I want has given me an amazing pair of suspenders of disbelief.
There’s a good side of that adaptation I’ve had to make. In addition to all the friends I made in those books, Manny Davis, Killashandra Ree, Lord Valentine, Kayleigh Frye, it’s given me endless hours of fun dreaming of other things that I can’t have. Like shopping for the house or car I’d buy if I won the lottery, because if you know you can have it, why not dream of having the biggest and best? Or imagining other careers for myself, careers that would need me to have at least some small amount of athletic or musical talent.
But there’s a darker side to it as well. One that comes from when I dream about things I want, and think could be attainable. Then I can be completely crushed when I don’t get them. More on that later.
But it’s through the lens of wanting that I hear a couple of things that others might not in these two texts.
I also hear and see other things because these are two call stories and I’m really not a fan of that genre. So, I kind of approach them from the edges and stay away from the central, cliched parts.
I put myself into the roles of Isaiah and Peter and I imagined some of the things they may have been thinking.
I imagine Isaiah and his vision of standing in this great throne room with seraphim flying all about. And God asking for someone to step forward to carry his message to his people. I can’t help but think that, if only for a moment Isaiah had this day dream of being a hero of Israel and how all the people would love and admire him.
So, he steps forward and volunteers. And God says, “I need you to go out and tell my people how shitty they are, and, if you can manage it, do what you can to make them even shittier, so that they will truly understand the terrible punishment I’m about to bring down on them.”
And in that moment, a dream was crushed.
Again, in the Gospel text, there’s Peter, who apparently had a side hustle letting random people get in his boat and preach. But later when he’s hauling in overloaded nets of fish, I have to imagine that at least for an instant the thought passed through his head that if he could have hauls like this every day, he could be incredibly rich. He’s feeling as if he just won the lottery. Imagining the bigger boat that he could buy and all the other things he could do now.
And then Jesus says, “yeah, you’re not going to be doing this anymore, you’re going to be coming with me and fishing for people.”
And Peter’s like, “do what now, with the who? Can’t I just stay here and dream of riches?” But he goes.
Recently I allowed myself to dream of something that I convinced myself was actually attainable.
I got so very excited about the idea of going into a particular graduate program. I had dreams and plans every bit as elaborate and lofty as my dreams of being a Starfleet officer.
When I wasn’t admitted, when didn’t even make it far enough into the admissions process to get an interview, I was, at least for a little while, destroyed.
I sent IMs to both my friend Jules and to Reagan, expressing my anger. Not at the school, but at myself. I was angry that I wanted something and thought I could have it. I should have known better, I mean not getting the things I want is the central motif of my life, why would I be so naïve to think that I could actually get this?
“Wanting things is stupid” I wrote, and “Maybe I should become I Buddhist so that I could learn to give up desire.”
And even though I was not in a place where I could hear it then, Reagan sent me the perfect reply that night, “You are a beautiful child of God and not some aberration destined to only disappointment. You are loved.” Thank you, Reagan.
In the last few weeks, dealing with this disappointment, I was reminded of one with a very different outcome.
I wanted to be a minister. Particularly a minister in the Presbyterian church. Part of the process is that around halfway through, the regional governing body that you’re under care of has to examines you on your faith and then votes on whether to allow you to move from the initial stage of the process where you’re known as an “Inquirer” into the second, final stage, being a Candidate.
On one Saturday in February of 2006, it was my time to stand before the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley at a church in Hoover, Alabama, to be examined for candidacy. There were some interesting questions thrown at me, although, unlike the cis-, hetero-, white young man who was examined before me, my friend and schoolmate Nick, no one asked if I was a Bama fan or and Auburn fan.
I don’t really remember the questions, what I remember is the way that this one older, very southern gentleman, Winston Smith T, came to microphone on three occasions not to ask me any questions, but to make sure that he would have an opportunity to speak against ordaining a “person like this.”
As is standard, Nick and I were sent out of the room so that the presbytery could hold debate on whether to pass us on to candidacy. With us came a dozen or more friends from seminary and from my home church in Montgomery. After a while, someone came in to tell us that Nick had been passed by voice vote, but that a secret ballot had been requested in my case and that while they were counting the votes, the presbytery was on break and we could come back into the sanctuary/meeting room.
The group of us huddled together near the front of the sanctuary and while we waited, the minister from my home church said something that I know she had said in any number of other tense situations and received only blank, incredulous stares from the church members around her. “We should sing,” she said.
Now, while if you say that to an average church member, they’re at best going to stare at you unbelievingly, or give you a nervous laugh. You say that to a double handful of second- and third-year seminarians and what you get is “You’re right, we should.”
So, we sang. An impromptu choir at the front of a sanctuary full of people who were taking a break, holding their own conversations, drinking their coffee.
We sang “Guide My Feet”, we sang “Amazing Grace”, we sang “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” A few people there sang along with us, may more just stared at us.
And then the votes came in, and my examination was not sustained, and I was not going to be a candidate.
Despite assurances from the committee that we would try again, and I’d get through the second time, eight months later the presbytery voted to remove me from their rolls altogether and I was no longer even an inquirer.
I could have been crushed, destroyed like I was last month when I got the rejection email in the middle of a long shift at work.
But what I remember about those two terrible days is not the votes or the disappointment, but the friends and the singing. I remember them as amazingly happy days, maybe even triumphant
We know now that eventually things turned out pretty well for both Isaiah and Peter, but there’s a moment at the end of the Gospel text that gives it a little be more hope, more joy than the Old Testament text.
Isaiah leaves alone to do his work. It seems like most of the Old Testament prophets worked alone.
But Peter, Peter leaves not just with Jesus but with a group of friends. As with my experience at presbytery, friends make all the difference in the world. I wonder if one of them said “We should sing.”
That would be a great place to end. But there are people hearing this, and I know this because a few years ago I would have been one of them, thinking that all that is just a bunch of Pollyanna BS and they know in their hearts that they don’t have those friends who will sing with them.
It’s only by the grace of a lot of therapy, a lot of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety med, one very special person, and this church that I am not still in that hole myself.
I wish I could tell you that there’s a way out of that hole for you. I wish I could promise you that it will come.
I can’t. I don’t know your hole. I don’t know how it got dug in the first place. And I don’t know the way out.
I can tell you is that I have been in my own hole and have, with a lot of help mostly found my way to make it out, although I still fall back in at times. And that because of that, I see you and I’ll do my best to be at the edge of your hole to offer a hand, or a song.
And I can tell you that this church, this goofy, weird little church is full of people dealing with their own holes and that they see you and that, when they can, they will be there for you.
And maybe one day, we will all sing.