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I had the privilege of delivering the worship service message at New Hempstead Presbyterian Church in New City, NY on 10/20/19. I thank the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Lori Knight-Whitehouse, for the opportunity. At the end of the text, I am posting a link to my portion of the service (the second Bible reading and my sermon, plus a great hug at the end from Pastor Lori). I chose both readings for the service: 1st Samuel 16:1-7 and Luke 11:37-44.
What Difference Does It Make?
Today’s scripture passages deal with insides and outsides of people. In both cases, God is far more interested in the heart and mind of a person than the outer appearance. In 1st Samuel, God notes that it is human nature to judge based on what’s outside. It’s a lot easier to see external features and we like to keep our complicated lives as simple as possible. When the children of Israel ignored God’s warnings and desired a human king to rule over them, He gave them an impressive physical specimen. But tall, studly King Saul was found wanting: not only disobedient but making excuses for it. So the Lord lets Samuel know that with this new king, the king whose lineage would lead to Jesus, God would select based on His ability to see and judge the worthiness of the one selected. David wasn’t perfect. But when confronted with his sin, he owned up to it and returned to being a man after God’s own heart.
The passage in Luke might hit closer to home. It is not likely that anyone here will be chosen for a royal position. But it is very likely that all of us have either judged others or have been judged based on our appearance or based on expectations. And who among us would not have felt foolish if the person we judged negatively turned out to be Christ? Yet Jesus goes a step further. In condemning the Pharisees of His day, Jesus uses very strong language. As they used to say in the movies, “Dems fighting words!”
We have to be careful here. In Matthew 5:22, Jesus warned about calling someone a fool. Now He calls the Pharisees fools for their hypocritical concern with the outside while neglecting their wickedness inside. But in the Matthew passage, the Greek word translated as “fool” is “moros”. That word carried a connotation of being godless as well as being foolish. In Luke 11:40, the Greek word translated as “fool” is “aphron” [af-rone]. It insults the intelligence of the Pharisees, but not their piety.
About seven years ago, a woman I knew from church who I considered a friend told me that something I was doing was “foolish and evil”. Then she added that she would pray for me. I suppose in her mind that was supposed to cover it. But it was clear to me she was implying that I was doing moros type foolishness.
What’s my difference? My message today will focus on one that is very rare. The current estimate is six tenths of a percent or six people in a random group of a thousand. New Hempstead is much smaller than one thousand people. But a church is not a random sample. It is populated by people with similar beliefs and common purpose. Two of the beliefs that connect me to New Hempstead are Christianity and social justice.
Some of you already know about my difference. Many of you do not know and might be surprised. Some might even be shocked. Hopefully none of you are dismayed. Unfortunately, a large portion of the Christian community around the world is dismayed. To them, I am living in sin, have a reprobate mind and most likely not even saved. And if I am saved, in their opinion at best I am terribly backslidden and in need of prayer for deliverance.
So let me introduce myself as I sometimes do when I speak before secular groups. First, I am Christian. That is my eternal spiritual identity. Second, I am female. That is my innate gender identity. Somewhere down on the list, I am transgender. That is my biological anatomical reality.
It is also my anatomical reality that most of my secondary sex characteristics, even prior to cross-gender hormones and without any visible surgeries, are female. That doesn’t make me any more female or any more transgender than another trans woman. It just makes me more fortunate in my ability to go through life without being hassled in public.
In other ways, I am pretty much the same person I was before I transitioned socially nearly seven years ago. I am still good in math, I can still parallel park, I still have a good sense of direction, I still have the same crazy sense of humor, I still like sports and I still love the Lord.
It is the last item on that list that makes my remarks relevant to this congregation. Otherwise, what I have to say might be an interesting YouTube video or Facebook post that you read and then move on. But it is my heart for Christ, my heart for those who do not know Him and my heart for other transgender people, that fuels my remarks today. A transgender ally could have presented most of this same message. But it would be deceitful for me if I failed to disclose the truth about who I am and where I am coming from.
At this point, I am reminded of the parable of the sower. Luke’s Gospel records it in chapter 8, verses 5-8: A sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold. And when he had said these things, he cried, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
If you take one thing away from my message today, it is this: sharing Jesus with the transgender community is hard soil. And not only has the body of Christ dropped the ball, many have kicked the ball away. There are a number of denominations and independent churches who will turn away a transgender person, whether Christian or seeker; many others will accept them in the hopes that they can pray away the trans or expose the trans person to enough teaching … “in love”, of course … that the trans person will renounce their transgender identity.
There are grim consequences for both transgender people and the Christian Church as a result of these widespread and well-known attitudes. For example, for many years I attended a support group in Bergen County that met in an open, accepting and affirming Evangelical Lutheran Church. More often than not when someone contacted us about joining the group, when they heard that we met in a church, they would stop e-mailing us, or we could hear their interest wane, or they would flat out tell us that they would not come to a meeting at a church. Whether because of personal experience or Christian church reputation, like the lyrics of a song by The Who, they do not want to be fooled again.
And unfortunately for churches like New Hempstead, even though we aren’t part of this mud puddle of bigotry, we get splashed with that same dirty reputation in the eyes of very many who identify as L, G, B, or T. How many LGBT+ welcoming churches are seeing an influx of members of those groups? How many of these churches are struggling to survive or are even closing their doors? At the same time, how many LGBT+ identified people are closing their hearts to the saving knowledge of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Based on personal experience, the testimony of other trans people and mounting scientific evidence, I do not believe that someone who is truly born transgender can change that identity, whether through secular or spiritual intervention. But that is a separate discussion. For now taking that as a given, what is the right course for us in the Church of Jesus Christ?
I decided after years of resisting to join Facebook this summer. Quickly I found a closed group of Transgender Christians, over 700 both strong and suffering alike. It was a larger group than I expected to find. There was a time that I couldn’t find another transgender Christian anywhere online. That was one reason I started my own blog on the subject.
Edited and paraphrased to maintain privacy, these are the testimonies of some of our fellow believers and what they are going through because of their combination of identities. Hear what your sisters and brothers in Christ are crying out.
I met with my parents for the first time since coming out to them a few weeks ago. It is the first time they saw me presenting as female. Our time together was pleasant, but transgender and my transition were never mentioned. As we were parting, my mom handed me a book to read. (The book is one of many books that supposedly use the Gospel lovingly to show transgender people the sin and error of our ways so we will repent. Often their premise is that we are either not saved, don’t know the Bible, that we are rebelling against God, or some combination thereof.)
Post: God is good all the time. I finally found a church here deep in the Bible Belt that accepts me as the trans woman that I am. Reply: Great news. There are accepting churches out there. It isn’t always easy finding one.
When I was still presenting as a cisgender male, a cis male friend who was a member of a men’s church study group persuaded me to attend a presentation by a man who wrote an anti-transgender paper. When I asked the presenter what he used for research material, he showed me a stack of pornographic magazines. I never attended another men’s Bible study group again.
I was rejected by my previous church. Yet I am encouraged by what someone in my current church told me: “You challenge us to live our faith.”
My transgender identity remained when I was saved in my mid-20’s. It has been a constant battle to please my Lord and Savior at the same time as continuing to work towards becoming the woman I truly am.
I feel my faith ebbing away. I don’t sense God being there for me. Goodbye to the group. (This person revealed that she had been molested in the past and that someone else tried recently. She was feeling shame because she felt she may have caused it by dressing to look pretty. With encouragement from others, so far she stayed in the group.)
A trans woman member of the group, who is known in her church as female and transgender, was invited to join a small group in her church. Then she was told that they were going to address her only by her former male name because that was how God created her. The reason given was that they would lovingly accept anyone who wanted to join their group, but they had to remain true to their understanding of God’s word. The invitation to join the group was declined. The leader of the group acted like she was the judged and aggrieved party.
The pastor of the church I used to attend told me that it would be better for their church if I didn’t come back after I transitioned to female.
My pastor knows my transgender identity, but he and the church are lukewarm on transgender issues. I attend a mega-church and the pastor has a lot of status even beyond the local community. I want my church to take a more positive stance on transgender issues instead of ignoring their existence. But I think my pastor is more concerned about what it will do to his reputation in the Christian community if he steps out in favor of transgender people.
I used to attend a church that claimed to be LGBT friendly. They had members, including the pastor, who were either gay or lesbian. But I was the only transgender person there. Most of the people ignored me and one gay couple was downright negative towards me. Not only did I leave that church, I am avoiding church altogether now.
I have been attending a church for a few months and things were going well in terms of acceptance as a woman. Then I came out as transgender. Now I’ve been told that I cannot be part of any woman’s group or do any ministry work. (In general this points to the dilemmas all transgender people face: should we come out at all, who should we come out to and under what circumstances?)
An acquaintance told me today that I am trash for violating God’s word. Furthermore, I and anyone transgender should be put to death if we don’t turn away from this wickedness.
One group member is currently in the closet as a pastor in a conservative denomination that does not accept transgender. Another member in similar circumstances in the past stepped down and found a job as a chaplain so she could transition.
My spouse has been sacrificially supportive since I came out. Now she feels the need to leave her church, the church I started to attend with her. We thought we were welcome. Now we found out that they only welcomed us hoping that we would eventually be convicted to turn away from our relationship with me being transgender. We are continuing to attend, but no longer feel welcome and are starting to look for another church. But that is very difficult in our area. Also a transgender teen had been coming with her family. Once the church’s stance became known, this family stopped coming as well.
These are just some examples. They confirm what I believe the Holy Spirit was laying on my heart as I was exploring transition in 2012. The Lord laid a new ministry idea on my heart. I call it “Born Thrice”.
In a sense, a transgender Christian who transitions is not only born again, but born three times: physical birth, spiritual birth and gender rebirth or reassignment. To the world, in many ways I am a new person. I have a new name and a new gender marker on my birth certificate, my passport, my driver’s license and with Social Security. My brother for the first time has a sister. My senior men’s honorary society at Cornell retroactively had their first female member.
Here are the aims of my proposed ministry. Note how well they fit in with the needs expressed in a sample of unsolicited posts that were taken from the Transgender Christian Facebook Group over the past month.
- Provide support so that transgender Christians can remain steadfast in their faith. This can include helping find a new church.
- Help transgender Christians who became discouraged and turned away from Christ so that they will return to their first love; shine the light of Christ’s love to those who were raised in the church and proclaim that there is a place in the body of Christ for transgender people with many faithful churches now receiving them with gladness and without judgment.
- Proclaim to the rest of the transgender community that God loves them just as they are and that there is peace and wholeness without shame in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Educate pastors, ruling elders and congregations that there is no conflict between Christianity and transgenderism. This can be done discreetly on behalf of a transgender Christian who would like to come out in their own church but is unsure of what the reaction will be and would like the waters tested. It can also be done to help find a new church or for any church that wants to know more about transgender.
- Talk with Christian family members of a transgender individual who has or plans to come out, helping the family respond with love and compassion rather than condemnation, while also showing compassion for the adjustment that the family members will be making.
Some of the transgender Christians I am meeting will become part of the pool of counselors. But more groundwork needs to be laid. It would help to have someone with the skill to take a vision and get an organization off the ground successfully. Denominational support and endorsement will be helpful. Once a ministry gets large enough, a good advisory board and a board of trustees is needed. And prayer support is always necessary for a successful Christian organization.
How else can you make a difference?
As far as I know, no one else in the New Hempstead congregation is transgender. But allies are always a blessing. And if there are enough people interested, I would be willing to help lead a discussion group on transgender. Key Bible verses and books on the topic are available as discussion starters.
Other ministry opportunities are likely to arise. The transgender population, particularly transgender women of color, tend to be underemployed and living in poverty. Some turn to sex work as their answer and this makes them very vulnerable to physical violence. [But all transgender people are at a higher risk to be victims of physical violence.] There are also times when transgender identified young people need safe places to obtain education or even refuge from their immediate family.
And I challenge you today to consider your own common interest community. Maybe it is music or pet lovers or senior citizens or gardening or crafts. Maybe it is your profession or the sports team you root for or centered on the activities of your children or grandchildren. Are you shining the light of Christ in your communities? Do people know that you are Christian? Or would they be surprised to find out? Maybe you’d like to share what Jesus has done in your life but you aren’t sure how. Pastor Lori and I have ideas on that subject and would love to share them with you.
Lord, I pray that those who have heard this message will apply it to their life according to Your will. And I pray that whether it is through Born Thrice or other instruments of Your choosing, that you will help many transgender people abide in Your grace, peace, joy and love. Amen