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Many transgender Christians have difficulty finding one church that accepts them. I found two. And therein has been the cause of a struggle I faced since mid-December. I realized that I can no longer split my time between them.
How to decide? The process was more difficult than expected and led me places I didn’t foresee. It was the most joyous of times; it was the most miserable of times. To give the story proper context, I need to go back to when my parents and their siblings were young adults during the Great Depression.
My mom’s relationship with my dad’s family (especially my paternal grandfather) was usually like oil and water. So I knew that when my mom said something praiseworthy about them, it was time to sit up and take notice.
I inherit my storytelling abilities from my mom. But there were certain topics that were reserved for “when you’re older”. Anything related to human sexuality was one of those topics. And this was typical for the 1950’s.
So when my mom told me a certain story about my aunt and uncle early in my teen years, I doubly knew to pay attention. It was the story of my aunt’s first pregnancy and how she lost the baby. This would have been in the late 1930’s, a couple of years before their first surviving child was born.
My dad’s family was Roman Catholic. So when my aunt developed complications, my uncle brought her to a hospital that was affiliated with the Catholic Church. There they heard the sad news. They could save my aunt or they could save the baby, but not both. However, it was their strict policy that they would attempt to save the life of the baby. I guess the best they could offer was to hope and pray for a miracle to save my aunt’s life, and they expected my aunt and uncle to feel the same way.
They didn’t feel the same way. They felt that they could have more children much easier than it would be for my uncle to raise a baby as a single parent and to hope he could find another wife (and mother for this child).
My uncle checked my aunt out of that hospital and took her to another one, one that wasn’t Catholic. There the doctors followed the wishes of my aunt and uncle. They delivered the baby to save the life of my aunt. The baby didn’t survive. But they had two children who survived into their senior citizen years. And my aunt survived over forty years. I’m thirteen years younger than their oldest son and I was able to drive to my aunt’s funeral.
My mom agreed with their decision on the child that didn’t survive. I knew by the tone of her voice even before she said so. It taught me that not every situation is cut and dried. Circumstances have to be weighed. Ethicists pose difficult questions like these to show that sometimes people have to face hard choices. Unfortunately some of those questions can be so far-fetched they can almost distract you from the moral dilemma (e.g. trolleys loaded with explosives and you have to throw a switch to determine whether it will hit your mother tied to the track or many people on the other track). My aunt and uncle faced a real life situation with two sets of doctors. Someone would live and someone would die no matter what decision they made. And if they made no decision at all, someone would still die. So if that was playing God, so be it.
As far as I know, no one would die if I did nothing and continued to split my time between two churches. And no one would die regardless of which church I chose. But I did begin to feel in my spirit that by splitting between both churches, neither was getting my best. Both were being cheated. It was taking a lot of mental and spiritual energy to keep track, especially when I started to sing in both choirs. In fact, it was becoming overwhelming. I also began to realize it wouldn’t make sense if I invited someone to go to church with me and then the following week I went to a different church.
Both are fairly mainstream churches when it comes to the basics of their Christian theology. One (Salvation Army) is Wesleyan Methodist and therefore Arminian in terms of their views on salvation. The other (Presbyterian) is in the Calvinist Reformed tradition in terms of their views on salvation (and is in the same denomination I was raised). I am a member of the first, but felt doors opening for ministry in the second. Both accept that I am transgender, but I feel that I can be more open about it at the second church (although that isn’t necessarily true nationwide for this denomination: I know of a trans woman who was a minister in this denomination in a neighboring county who was treated poorly when she came out).
So I began to do what any Christian should do in this situation: pray. Specifically I prayed to hear from God for His guidance. And I didn’t get a direct answer right away. But I did begin to receive encouraging reminders of times in the past when I heard from God. One of the reminders brought me back to a time when my ex came back into my life for a season almost 25 years after our marriage broke up.
That time, God gave me a passage of scripture: not an exact parallel, but with similarities. It was the story of how Jacob returned from Padanaram, the land of his ancestors, and was preparing to meet his brother Esau. Jacob left with the knowledge that Esau wanted to kill him. He had no idea how Esau would receive him upon his return. While my ex didn’t want to kill me, she had become very hostile and wanted me totally out of her life. I had no idea how she would react when a third party told her that I had found her.
I had not searched for her looking to remarry her. I was trying to return something of value that belonged to her son (my stepson). In fact, the information I had was that she had remarried (true, but I didn’t know of a subsequent divorce). Even so, when my Christian friends heard the story of what it took for me to find her and reconnect, most of them assumed that it was God bringing us back together, especially when they learned she was single again. I tried to remain cautious, mindful of the past, but it was hard not to get swept up in their enthusiasm. But God had given me the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33 for an additional reason: Jacob and Esau don’t stay together very long. It is on friendlier terms this time, but they soon part ways again.
And so my ex and I connected in July, split in September, reconnected in December and split one last time the following May. Instead of for reconciliation, God meant it so I would have closure. Unfortunately, it was more acrimonious than the second separation of Jacob and Esau. (And to my knowledge, she knows nothing about my gender transition.)
This time, God gave me 1st Kings 18:21. God has sent the prophet Elijah to challenge the people of Israel (by this time, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom). They are trying to worship both Baal and the LORD. But the two are incompatible. Only one can be the true God: Elijah tells them to only worship whichever one is the true God.
It took a while for the Lord to get my full attention with this verse. Then I got hit with a bout of sciatica the Thursday before Thanksgiving and my legs still aren’t 100% back to normal. So now I was literally limping around (as the modern versions describe how Israel was moving between their two beliefs).
I know that the analogy is not perfect. I know this is not a contest between good and evil. I know that both churches worship the true God, even if they have some differences in their understanding of God, theology and priorities of service. So I know that I can’t pit them against one another in some sort of a challenge match (as was done between 450 prophets of Baal and Elijah the lone representative of the LORD). Yet when I was at a loss on how to proceed, all I could think of doing was to set up some sort of logical comparison. I was going to compare them in various areas and then weight the areas as to which were more important to me.
And it was no surprise that before weighting the areas, it came out pretty even. Some areas were ties. One church is more evenly divided between men and women and also more diverse in age with more children and younger adults. The other church will have a harder time surviving if it doesn’t start to attract more young adults and children who will stay with the church when they become adults. If a transgender friend is willing to accept an invitation to church, many of them would probably be more comfortable in one than the other, although there would be exceptions. I enjoyed the fellowship at both, but at one more than the other; therefore it was more likely that I might develop close friendships at that church. One church had a more modern and less liturgical worship service than the other and I tended to prefer that, even though it ran a bit longer.
At some point in the process, I decided to employ a technique I learned years ago from my career counselor: if “both” doesn’t work, “neither” probably will. In other words, if I couldn’t decide from going to both churches, stepping away for a season and going to neither church for worship or choir practice probably will help. But then I violated that a bit by going to the Christmas Eve service at both churches. The Salvation Army service was first. When I left there for the seven minute drive to the other church, I thought I had made up my mind to pick the Presbyterian (hereafter called PCUSA) church.
I was shocked within a few minutes of being there. In two weeks’ time, it didn’t feel like the same church any more. It didn’t feel like my church. The arrangements of carols we rehearsed in choir practice had been altered. I rebelled against saying common prayers and part of me didn’t know why. I was sullen. I knew I couldn’t go up to receive communion in that mood, so I didn’t. And that was initially the only reason I sought out a second church!
I was able to light my candle and sing “Silent Night”, badly. (It is really difficult to sing while choking back tears.) And then I couldn’t leave the pew because all I wanted to do was cry. The more people came to see me and then minister to me, the more I cried. Those who knew I was in the process of deciding assumed I was crying because I had made my decision to leave. I tried to explain that I arrived thinking that I had chosen them, but it was hard to convey that.
In fact, I felt like I was in a wrestling match. My heart, head, feelings and emotions were doing battle with each other and the Holy Spirit. Now my limping was more like what Jacob went through the night before he reunited with Esau. My verse from 2006 was merging with my verse from this autumn. And after favoring my left leg so long, as that leg started to heal, my right leg was beginning to hurt.
Two people in particular talked a lot with me after the service ended. That helped calm me down and clarified a few issues for me. It brought me back to square one and that was okay. I meditated on the idea of common prayer and how did that compare to hymns and praise music. I realized that the only one I really had a problem with was the corporate prayer of confession because sometimes there were things in it that were not in my heart to confess. But I remembered that I had those same feelings years ago. It wasn’t a deal-breaker then and I could still work around it. And soon, I was starting to lean toward the PCUSA church again. I thought about how close I had gotten to many people there and how well I was received after I preached and sang solos.
On the second day of 2020, the pastor of the PCUSA church shared a meme on Facebook that is to the left. I didn’t comment on it or react to it. But it made me think and I meditated on it. The personal preferences in my church comparison were downgraded. I could be part of the Church’s mission and purpose at either church. And at both churches I could fill a part where there was a lack if there was a willingness to open that door wider. So there was no direct push from that part of the statement. But by decreasing my emphasis on personal preferences, I took away some of the PCUSA church’s advantage.
But the next day, two things occurred that turned the tide. Still strongly leaning towards the PCUSA church but not quite ready to make a commitment, especially after what happened on Christmas Eve, I sent out an e-mail on Thursday, January 2, saying that I was ready to return to choir practice the following week (i.e. this week: Tuesday at the Salvation Army and Thursday at the PCUSA church). I also stated that I would be going to the PCUSA church on January 5 and the Salvation Army on January 12, and that I wouldn’t be ready to sing on January 5 since I had missed some choir practices, but that I should be able to sing on January 12 as long as my legs felt good enough to be able to stand. I had a very strong reaction to a response I received and that gave me another reason to meditate on why I reacted so strongly.
In the second part of this blog post, I will reveal how the Lord spoke to me to show me why I was reacting so strongly. I will also continue to describe my process and why I haven’t totally made a decision, although I have definitely left one of the two churches.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. – Psalm 126:5-6