Saturday, May 24, 2014

Can I Trust You With a Secret?

Another friend, Susan Cottrel, also invited me to write some thought. 
This is the link to her blog, FreedHearts
I invite you to visit her blog.

Do you have a secret? How big is it? How do you think people will respond if they find out?

Disclosure, revelation, exposure, or whatever word you may have for it, is a visceral, frightening process to go through. Especially if the information is so sensitive, some would prefer death by flaying. But in fact, that is what disclosure is all about, peeling away the layers that hide the “body” of truth. Perhaps that is why it can be so traumatic.

On October 2007 I began disclosing to family and friends that I had been diagnosed with acute gender dysphoria—that I was “transgender.” I had already lived eight years with this verdict; it took me that long to reconcile myself and my faith to my diagnosis. The news was a shock to everyone in my life; only my wife had known my secret.

Ever since I put my faith in Christ at the age of twenty, I had prayed to be normal and coped with this secret, ugly, persistent, cursed and yet unnamed condition by spiritualizing it; maybe it’s more accurate to say by “demonizing” it. (I had no name for it because the word transgender was not coined until around 1990.) But not even placing my faith in a savior and doing all the things a Christian “soldier” is supposed to do, like putting on the armor of God and claiming victory over a defeated enemy, did nothing to stop the battles from raging.

The amazing thing to me, as I look back on those years, is how this conflict was so well hidden from view. It’s as if this war took place on another planet or in a parallel universe. The curtain was drawn and the wounds were shoved deep down to hide the evidence.

There is this idea among Christians that if you act right, look right and live right, everything will work out. It’s not true. Didn’t Jesus accuse some who held this view of being nothing but white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones? That is how I felt: squeaky clean and spiritual on the outside and complete chaos and confusion on the inside; integrity quotient: zero.

Does this mean that there are no simple black and white “Christian Guidelines for Dummies”? Well, actually, no, there aren’t any simple answers. That is not to say that there aren’t some radical one-liners with the power to change the course of history. I can think of several, but just one will do: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Frederick Buechner, author of “Telling Secrets”, adds: “and love yourself as your neighbor.” But I digress; I was talking about disclosure, yes, and secrets.

Let me try to bring a more positive note to this conversation to make my point. Instead of thinking about a horrible secret, let’s talk about a wonderful, beautiful secret. One that gives you goosebumps just thinking about it. Maybe it’s how you felt the first time you fell in love with someone and nobody, but nobody knew—especially the one by whom you had been smitten. (If you’ve never felt this, let me tell you, it’s ga-ga-land amazing!)

Now, think back and try to recall some of the emotions you felt and how the palms of your hands sweated and your heart raced every time you thought about them. Then recall the moment you told them and how that felt. If you are anything like me, you may have felt a combination of nausea and ecstasy—all at the same time, followed by a moment of surreal transcendence.

Still thinking about emotions, now substitute this secret love with a horrible secret, one that instead of giving you goosebumps, makes you cringe and gag with shame. Now imagine picking up the phone to tell the person(s) you love the most this explosive truth. What emotions might you experience?

Physiologically, you may experience some similar things, such as a pounding heart and nausea, but also fear. Not just any fear. I’m talking about the kind of fear that may propel a person to jump from the twentieth floor of a burning building. The kind of fear that is extremely irrational on one level, and extremely logical on another — the logic that says, “This will spare you any more pain.”

Now imagine having to repeat this disclosure a dozen, or even a hundred times. Could you do it?

Coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) can be this traumatic. While disclosure may be one experience that’s common to all LGBT persons, it is several levels more intense for transgender persons.

The reality is that for most, the process has to be done twice; once when you disclose that you are transgender, and once when you present yourself for the first time as the gender you identify as. In my case, as a woman.

The sense of vulnerability is akin to disrobing in front of people. Then, just when you think the whole world knows or has seen what you look like, you get a call from an old friend (or distant relative, or client) who knows nothing about your new life and needs to meet with you. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve done it before, even if everything turned out okay, it’s just as heart-stopping scary every time you do it. There is no thrill in it; you just want the earth to open up and swallow you whole.

In many ways, it’s much easier to deal with strangers with whom you have no history. It’s counterintuitive. The truth is that it’s our family and friends, the ones who should be our source of support, who can inflict the most pain.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, not just because it has happened to me again recently, but because I get several emails each week from total strangers who bare their souls and tell me their secret, including pastors and church leaders. These men and women are terrified of what will happen once their secret is out; it’s the primal fear of abandonment and rejection.

When as many as 50% of transgender persons are rejected by their families, many of them wonderfully squeaky clean on the outside church people, you can understand why 41% of transgender persons admit to having attempted suicide at least once.

I am therefore deeply touched with the level of trust these frightened souls place on me — most of all, I admire their courage — for I know their heart was racing and they felt nauseated as they wrote their email and pressed “SEND.”

If you have previously thought being transgender is a deviant lifestyle choice, let me ask you: Who would choose such a thing, given the gloomy statistics?

If the abandonment, rejection and judgment of transgender persons is ever going to end, I believe it will be up to people of faith to make that choice. It really is in our power to love and embrace.

That’s what the Bible shows us, and it’s what I had to do for myself.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

On Belonging and Mattering to God

A friend, Matthias Roberts, recently invited me to write some thoughts on belonging. This is the way he put it: "Specifically, if you could share a story on a time where you felt that you truly belonged — even if was just for a moment." He published my response today (May 17, 2014) so I'm sharing it here too. This is the link to his blog, Not Boring Yet
I invite you to visit his blog and read some of the other stories from other contributors.

For nearly two decades I felt like I did not know how to pray. Oh, I prayed, but my sense was that my prayers were ineffective—like lead balloons—my prayers didn’t even reach the ceiling, let alone God, so I thought.

Maybe the reason I felt this way had more to do with my expectations and not with my prayers. I really wanted to be “normal.” I did not want to undergo social, medical and surgical transition from male to female.

At times I preferred death than all the potential shame, awkwardness, and embarrassment that transition would heap on the most important people in my life: my wife and my three sons.
And my parents.
And my sisters.
And my brother.
And their spouses and kids.
And my friends.
And my clients.
And my church.
And my students…You get the picture?
The very public process of transitioning seemed so drastic and unfair. After all, the struggle with my gender identity was a very private matter. Why was the solution—if in fact transition was the only solution—so damn public?

On top of that, the prospect of rejection loomed large and it was too scary to consider. I fully expected all of my relationships would come to an end; who would want to be seen with a freak and a deviant? I was pretty hard on myself.

When I was young, I prayed for God to make me a girl. That didn’t happen. As I grew older and the reality set in that my body was not going to be transformed miraculously, I then prayed for God to fix my brain; to keep it from replaying the endless loop that caused so much self-loathing and guilt. But God didn’t cooperate. I figured the problem was not with God but with me. Like Paul’s diatribe in Romans, I concluded it was sin living in me that was the problem.

Ever since I placed my faith in Christ during the Jesus People days, Jesus’ invitation to come to him with my burdens was what stirred my heart the most. I wanted to find rest, which literally meant, as I stated above, I wanted to be normal. Over the years I figured it would only be a matter of time before God snapped his fingers and “poof!” I’d be a regular guy, no more wanting to be a girl. I was memorizing Scripture, reading devotional books, reading about how to pray with power, etc. Yet, nothing.

The persistent, pervasive and insidious nature of gender dysphoria only intensified my guilt and sense of defeat as a follower of Christ. But one surprising thing I discovered, which literally saved me, was how God allowed worship and praise music to be my connection with him. I played the guitar well-enough to help lead worship services in the churches we attended as a family in Vancouver. These churches had one thing in common, they sang the same style music and each had enough talented musicians and singers among their respective members. This meant we would rotate and take turns leading and playing on Sunday mornings.

Through the worship and praise songs I discovered I could commune with God. What prayer and crying could not do, worship and praise did; I experienced amazing intimacy with God; it transcended my self-loathing and guilt and transported me into God’s presence. It provided temporary rest for my weary soul.

The songs I gravitated to were those we sung directly to God, expressing our deep love for Him and the yearnings of our hearts. What I call “marches, witness and cheerleading songs” did nothing for me. Most of the music we learned came from Maranatha Music, Vineyard, and later Hillsong.

These were the days before iTunes, when music CD’s were the thing. As with all music, unless you know a band or singer real well, much of what I bought ended up collecting dust on the shelf after listening to the CD once. Perhaps one or two songs deserved consideration, but there really was a lot of bad music with simplistic and trite lyrics. But every once in a while, I struck gold. One such song was The Sheperd Song by Bob Farrell, sung by Kelly Willard in a compilation CD titled Evening Tapestry (1992). When I heard this song, I immediately connected it with Jesus’ tender words about how he is the good shepherd. But the one verse that still fills me with joy every time I think about it is found in John’s gospel, chapter ten, verse sixteen. It says this:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

This verse stirs me and fills my heart with gratitude on so many levels. Most powerfully for me, as someone who felt disqualified for being different and really felt like the “other,” it reminds me of the verse above. The Shepherd song has always made me feel like I belong and matter to God. Despite the fact I struggled with my chaos all those years, this song offered me a pasture where I felt safe and gave me hope.

There words to the song are as follows:

Shepherd Song — by Bob Farrell

I can’t live without your love
I can’t find my way back home
If I wander far away
you carry me back to the fold
Sing to me and I will follow
The only voice I know
Safe inside the Shepherd’s care
for you know the way back home 
Through your gate I come and go
For your pasture is all I need
When there was no one to save me
You laid down you life for me
Comes the time to move along
You gather me to your side
Leading me so carefully
You’re changing me all of the time
Sing to me and I will follow
The only voice I know
Safe inside the Shepherd’s care
For you know the way back home.

I absolutely love the second verse with the line “You’re changing me all of the time.” Hasn’t that proven to be true?! Maybe it is the simplicity of the words that contain such rich imagery that has made them possible for me to sing to Jesus. Or maybe it is because the song helps to remind me that I do know his voice and that I belong to his flock. How amazing is that?