Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Service-- and Sermon-- of Renaming

The week before last at my congregation, we celebrated in the context of the Sunday Eucharist the legal name change of a community member, Anderson Michael C. I put together a liturgy drawing from several sources, including Justin Tannis's book Trans-gendered: Theology, Ministry, Community, the Standing Commission on Liturgy Music's book called Changes: Prayers and Services Honoring Rites of Passage, and a prayer written by another parishioner who is working on a liturgy for people in transition.

In addition, Anderson preached the sermon and gave me permission to share it on this blog. Anderson also created the graphic (pasted below where it was in his original text) which he put on invitations to friends and community members, and which I also used on the cover of the worship booklet.


Sermon – Anderson C's Rite of Naming – 9 May 2010

I am very happy to see you all here today. It means a lot to be able to share this special day with you and celebrate the claiming of my name, so I thank you for coming. I also thank Cameron and you for giving me this opportunity to preach the sermon today.

I think we are fortunate to have this particular Gospel reading today from John: Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you… Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

With those words, the resurrected Jesus comforted the apostles just before he left them, and before they left each other to go out into the world and spread God’s word. I hope that we, too, can find comfort in those words for ourselves with whatever difficulties life presents as we go out and live in the world in our daily lives.

For me, one of the things I take with me when I go out from here will be my name, which I claim today. For you, the members of this congregation and also my friends who are here today for this Rite of Naming, I would like to offer to you my story because you all have played a part in it. And in this story is a lesson that I would like to share with you so that you can take it with you.

Last year at about this time, I was in this church for the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, and something happened to me that had never happened before in my life. As I listened to the words, the description of what Jesus endured that day had an impact that I had never felt before. Prior to last year, the readings were just a story, like in a novel or a screenplay. Intellectually, I understood the series of events and their significance, but emotionally, I never felt them, until last year. It was then that I could see the events in the context of Jesus as a real person rather than, as I had in the past, just a character in a story. I could feel His vulnerability and suffering even though I had not been able to before.

Similarly, just as I had felt the pain of Jesus’ crucifixion, I also experienced the glory of His resurrection days later. The questioning when the tomb was found empty, the surprise when He appeared in a locked room with the apostles, the skepticism of Thomas, the relief, happiness and wonder when they realized He had triumphed over death.

You might wonder why I hadn’t experienced this emotional connection to the humanity of Jesus until just last year at the age of 48, or why I was even detached from it in the first place. The answer is that this was a consequence of my being transgender.

For some people who grow up as transgender, they learn how to present a persona that the rest of the world wants to see. There are so many signals to children about how they should be as people, and for some transgender children, the signals can be that the person they really are is “bad.” For example, in kindergarten, I was once yanked by the sleeve from the line of boys waiting to use the bathroom (which is where I thought I should have been because, after all, I was a boy) and I was towed over to the line of girls. The teacher’s aide who did the yanking said to another, “She did it again! Why can’t her parents teach her which bathroom to use?” So with that little remark, I received the message that if I did what I felt inside, not only was I wrong, but my mom and dad were bad parents. That is a really difficult and confusing message for a five-year old to grapple with.

So what happens in some of these cases is that some transgender children, to the best of their ability, construct a persona that matches the name and sex on their birth certificate and that meets the expectations of everyone around them, especially the people they love and want to please most -- their parents and siblings, their teachers, their friends. In doing so, their true self can become buried inside, their emotions silenced for the sake of survival, and they sometimes are unable to feel.

I was unable to feel. The analytical left side of my brain put the smack-down on the emotional right side when I was a child and held onto control for dear life. I went through the decades as a detached observer of my own life rather than as a true participant. Loneliness came from the inability to feel not only what was going on inside of myself, but also the emotional connections that people in my life tried to make with me. Intellectually, I could see how I affected others and how they valued me, but I couldn’t feel it. And the worst part of all of it was that I didn’t know that I couldn’t feel it. I thought that seeing it was feeling it. So I took the role of the observer, and somehow made connections with people by mentally translating their actions into crude emotional representations.

That held true for God’s love as well. I would sometimes lay awake at night as a child and remember what I had been taught about God’s love, and I would close my eyes and try to feel it, because I knew that if I could, it would feel wonderful. When I was unable to connect with it, I comforted myself as best I could by knowing that Jesus said that he loves us and so it must be true.

Eventually when I got older, I left the church. That’s not a big surprise considering I could not emotionally tie into God’s grace or even really connect with the other members of the congregation. I didn’t lose my faith though. I thought about it, reasoned it, analyzed it, but couldn’t act on it. Eventually, after years of being away, I returned because of an ache for the spirituality and communion of religion.

I attended a church that was down the street from my house. I was content for a while and derived comfort from attending services and the occasional church event. Then one day during mass, a woman sitting near me refused to share with me the sign of peace. I watched her extend her hand to everyone around her but then she looked me in the eye as I extended my hand toward her and she refused to take my hand in hers. Now all my life many people have assumed, based on the way I presented myself, that I was a butch lesbian, and this woman might have had the same judgment of me. Certainly, the way she acted was not in keeping with Jesus’ own peace that he left with his apostles and with us, as we heard today. I left that church that day and didn’t go back.

It was around that time that I experienced a small event that led to a momentous epiphany. The small event was a cab ride in San Francisco – the cab driver called me “Sir.” I analyzed that small event for several weeks until, in a defining moment of clarity that came while I was washing the dishes at my kitchen sink, all of the puzzle pieces of my life that had been suspended in a disorganized floating jumble suddenly aligned and snapped together, forming a picture of my true self. My mind could no longer support the persona that I had built for myself over the decades, could no longer pretend to be the woman that I and everyone around me thought I was. I suddenly realized who I was not, and I also thought that I was the “wrong” kind of person. I had worked for 45 years to smother the true person I was, so accepting and loving myself was a concept that was foreign to me.

And so the real work began, peeling back the layers upon layers of persona to reveal the real me, a painstaking process in which I was engaged when I came to this church for the first time. I came after attending Transgender Day of Remembrance here in November of 2008. I had no church to call my own, this one looked really nice and I knew the vicar. With an ache to once again belong to a spiritual home, I contacted Cameron and asked him what time that services were held on Sundays.

As I continued to attend this church, with Cameron’s help, I had the courage to be here as my true self, and it was the very first time in my life I lived simply as me. I cannot even tell you how validating and affirming that was. But a funny thing was happening at the same time. Apparently, I began to matter. I didn’t realize it, but Cameron would tell me that I did. He would take me aside and try to point out the impact that I was having in this congregation, but I didn’t get it. I couldn’t feel it, and so I would brush aside what he was telling me. And then we would look at each other, both of us perplexed, he, I think, because he couldn’t understand why I couldn’t see what, to him, was so apparent, and me because I couldn’t understand how he could be so sure about something that I couldn’t feel myself.

At the same time, my therapist was working on a similar project, trying to help me realize that I mattered, that people cared about me and that I was deserving of their love. I didn’t feel that either. It bounced off of me because I was unable to let it in. How could I accept love from others when I couldn’t even love myself? But my therapist kept trying, coming at it from different angles and using different methods, trying to help me accept and care about myself and see my own value in the world.

There were also close friends in whom I had confided and told about my “situation,” members of a support network I had formed in order to stay afloat as I navigated the sometimes treacherous waters of this process of finding myself. Some of those people are sitting in this room today. And those people, by accepting me after I told them the truth about who I was, also, in their own way, gave me the freedom to be myself. Their acceptance, your acceptance, helped me to accept myself.

So there was a continuous stream of caring from all sides. From members of this congregation, from my therapist, from my friends, who all worked, knowingly or unknowingly, to eventually erode the shell in which I had been abiding. Without the shell, my emotions were exposed, raw and sensitive, but I could feel. In addition, I became able to accept myself and to love myself and thereby also allow the love from those around me to penetrate, to come inside and allow me to stand free in the warmth of love.

God has been patiently waiting for me while I have journeyed to this point. And today, like Simon Peter when he heard the Lord call, I swim to meet Him and I clothe myself in my new name, to present myself to Him, and to you, as my true self. I would not have been able to do so without all of you.

And now you know my story, how I came to this church in the fall of 2008, how one year ago, I came to more fully understand Jesus’ humanity, and how I have reached the point of claiming my name. With this story, as I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, there is a lesson for all of us, including me, which is:
When you help someone to love them self, you give them the ability to feel the love of others and the love of God and to allow that love to enter into their heart.

This is what everyone in this room has done for me. You gave me your peace, my heart is no longer troubled or afraid, and I feel loved. In this way, I can claim my true name of Anderson Michael C. For this gift, I thank all of you.


Anonymous said...

Thank You so much for sharing this sermon on one of the most important days of your life!! There is a wonderful sense of well being in all that you wrote, and to God, I myself am very grateful for that for you! I pray you continue to feel the love for yourself, who I have always known to be a wonderful person.... and for others to love the true you!

Adrian Hale said...

This was greaat to read