Here in Boston, we are marking the coming week as Transweek in preparation for Friday's Transgender Day of Remembrance, which my congregation, St. Luke's and St. Margaret's, is honored to host again this year. My field education student this year, Kori Pacyniak, shared this wonderful theological reflection with me in our meeting this week, and it struck me as a moving way to begin stepping into the space of the coming week, which seems to me to be as much about the grief with which our community struggles every day and our determined hope to build a better world as it is about mourning those whom we have lost. And so I share this with Kori's permission.
“I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” – Romans 9:1-2
Prof. Charles Stang preached on this passage from Romans last Friday at Harvard Divinity School, and it was a passage that seemed to skip the intellect and go directly to my soul. The month of October has largely been a great struggle. September found me struggling against one physical illness after another – there was a span of three weeks where I was just sick, whereas October, by contrast, was filled with internal struggle. It was a busy month from the onset – with preaching, organizing the Noon Service at Harvard Divinity School for national coming out week, a trip to NYC for a film festival and then a speaking engagement at Suffolk University. To top it all off, it was the month I decided to come out to my parents as trans.
It was in coming out to my parents and the time that followed where this verse from Romans really hit me. My parents’ initial reaction was one of shock and disbelief. That disbelief led me to cling to this verse when I heard it. I wanted this verse to legitimize my pain and internal struggle. I needed my faith to support me. Following my parents reaction, I fell apart. I had known it would be difficult to tell them (even though I took the easy way out of writing a letter). I had known that the letter would only be the beginning of the watershed, but I don’t think I was truly prepared for what came next – or to the extent that I would internalize the struggle. My parents’ disbelief and attempted denial of my trans identity leads me to want to throw this verse at them. At the very least, I cling to it in hope.
There is a viewpoint that being trans, is, in a way, all in my head. My parents would like me to just ‘give up on this nonsense’ or grow out of this phase. For them, I believe, the fear and shock leads to disbelief and denial. But the denial only serves to wound me deeper. At times I think it’d be easier if there was acknowledgement and rejection, but then again, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Truth be told, it’d be an incredibly difficult journey regardless of my parent’s reactions – mostly because I have often considered myself to have strong empathic tendencies. Sometimes it really sucks to be an empath – to feel other people’s pain so easily. Personality tests classify me as the healer or the helper. To feel other people’s pain and be able to share it is both a blessing and a curse. A single phone call or voicemail message can send me into tears, feeling the pain of the other individual. This has, in other scenarios, been construed as me just being a very emotional person. I cry at books, movies, songs – it’s very easy for me. But I internalize a lot. At times this has been criticized as melodrama, and I’ll admit that sometimes I can make things bigger than they actually are, but with regard to the anxiety and tempest of emotions inside me around my gender identity, I don’t think it’s fake.
For me, coming to terms with my gender identity needed a spiritual component. This isn’t something I could have done without a religious and spiritual support network. (Or, as I commonly refer to them, my Godsquad). For many years, I struggled to keep sexuality and gender identity as far apart from each other as I could. They were two extremes that I bounced between and while I dreamt of somehow reconciling them, I didn’t have the faintest idea of how to reconcile them within myself. In January of 2009, the HDS Episcopalians went on a one day retreat to the monastery of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge and I ended up spending over an hour in the small chapel there – I just needed to be. In front of the icon of Jesus with the Beloved Disciple, I begged God for a sign that I was okay. That the gender identity issues that were surfacing and that I was struggling to name – that somehow it was okay. I needed a sign that it was okay to be trans. I did get the sign, in the end. Praying and meditating on the icon, I felt myself become the beloved disciple and heard Jesus say to me – “You are my beloved and you are mine.”
That was back in January. I haven’t thought of that time at the monastery for quite some time, but now it seems appropriate paired with the Romans verse. Choosing Christ doesn’t save you from experience angst and hard times, but it does give you something to hold on to. There is a sense of belonging and a sense of validation. It’s that validation that I draw on in trying to resolve things with my parents – and in a way, it’s the validation I need for myself. Because there are plenty of times when I need someone to witness to my pain, to share in it with me and agree that is allowable and not just self-created.
In Prof. Stang’s sermon, he wonders if our conscience “is not sufficient even to report on our own sorrow or anguish.” There are times that I feel this way, especially in regard to gender identity. There is no tell-all book, no ‘Transgenderism for dummies’ book out there or any sort of manual to guide me through the process. Though I have found support in other individuals, there is still part of this journey, this process of self-exploration that remains largely personal and individualistic.
At one point in his sermon, Prof. Stang suggested that “… without the indwelling of Christ we cannot speak the truth of our own lives, we cannot even know the contours of our own despair. If this is right, then I – who cannot in good conscience echo Paul in Gal 2:20 – and perhaps you too, we are barred from the truth of our own pain.” This comment of his seemed to tie in the anguish of October with the reassurance of my prayer at the monastery in January. It also fosters my deep intrinsic yearning to connect with the verse from Romans. I truly think that I would not have been able to come out to my parents without feeling that this was actually the will of God for me at this point in time at my life.
Prof. Stang’s sermon concluded with a startling revelation: “By letting Christ in, we are not delivered from our sorrow or anguish, but rather delivered into them. Christ does not save us from despair, but gives us access to our despair and becomes a corroborating witness to our shifty heart’s anguish.” It’s hard to discern the purpose of certain challenges and hard times that we encounter in our lives, but I think what Prof. Stang is trying to get at, and what I’ve started to come to terms with in October, is that by relying on Christ (or even just including him, as total surrender and reliance on Christ is something that doesn’t come easily to most of us), we are able to bear the challenges we encounter, to validate our pain as real and legitimate, and more fully live in Christ through those challenges and pain.
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