Summer Sermon Podcast

Most weeks I publish my sermon from the previous Sunday here. This summer, though, I’m preaching in a slightly more informal way for my congregation’s Sunday services, and only publishing the audio of the sermon.

During the late spring I asked members to tell me the big questions they had about faith, the Bible, and church. Throughout the summer I’m answering those questions in the sermons. We’ll be covering the Lord’s Prayer, being courageous in hard times, LGBTQ “clobber texts”, the separation of church and state, and more.

If you’d like to tune in, you can subscribe the podcast on iTunes at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sermons-from-the-congregational-church-in-exeter-ucc/id1217918294?mt=2

Beyond the Pink and Blue: A Meditation on Gender

The following was presented as a meditation to the community of Phillips Exeter Academy on February 21, 2018.

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Non sibi, or “not for self”, the motto of Phillips Exeter Academy,  as featured in a window in Phillips Church.

The next time you are flying somewhere, pay careful attention when you are going through security. After you’ve taken off your shoes and jacket, emptied your pockets, and put your laptop in a bin, you’ll likely be standing in front of one of those huge x-ray machines. These are the ones that you step into, raise your arms above your head, and get scanned. If all goes well it takes a second, and then the TSA agent waves you through to your gate.

Before you step into that scanner, though, something happens that you can’t see. On the other side of the machine, there is a screen, and on that screen there are two buttons, and as you approach the machine, the TSA agent makes a choice about which one to pick.

One of those buttons is blue. The other is pink. You might be able to guess what they stand for. If the TSA agent thinks you are a man, they will hit blue. If they think you’re a woman? Pink. Apparently this tells the scanner what your body should look like under your clothes, which in some way apparently helps them to determine whether or not you are a terrorist.

I’m all for safety, but I have to tell you that every time I fly those two buttons, blue and pink, are the absolute bane of my existence.

When it comes to gender, we live in a very binary world, and that world is too-often rigidly dictated by the sex we are assigned at birth. There are boys and girls, men and women. That binary is reinforced daily in big and obvious ways, such as when we choose which restroom we will use. But it’s reinforced in a million other little ways throughout our lives, from the clothes we are given to wear when we are young to the sports teams we play on to the skills we are taught. Before babies are out of the womb we even have “gender reveal” parties where we celebrate with pinks and blues, reinforcing the gender of an as-yet unborn child years before we really know who they are.

Beyond that, gender is reinforced in public all the time. It’s the waitress who calls you “sir” or “ma’am”. It’s the person you are introduced to who, without even thinking about it, automatically makes a decision about whether to refer to you as “he” or “she”. And it’s the TSA agent who, as you approach the scanner on the way to your flight, pushes either that pink button, or that blue one.

And that’s why that particular moment never goes well for me. I am a gender non-binary person. Sometimes I use other words for it like gender non-conforming, genderqueer, or transmasculine. To explain my gender in a nutshell, I was born female, and in terms of my sex, I remain so. But my gender, a far more nebulous concept, tends to be much more masculine. My pronouns, at least in a perfect world, are not “she” or “he”, but “they”. And before my fellow English majors tell me that you can’t use a plural pronoun for a singular person, let me say that the first thing our major taught us is that the language is always evolving, and I think using someone’s correct pronoun is far more important than defending English grammar against changes.

But back to the scanner. I travel a fair amount, and each time I approach the airport scanner I know what’s happening. The TSA agent is looking at me, trying to figure out whether to press “blue” or “pink”. Rev. Heidi and I laugh about it, and guess about whether this time I’ll be “blue buttoned” or “pink buttoned” because we try to make the best of it, but the truth is that this is an awkward moment.

Most of the time they hit the blue button, and when I get in that scanner, my body doesn’t look the way it’s supposed to look. Next time you go through a security scanner look back at your scan. It’s probably clear. Mine is lit up like a Christmas tree, which supposedly indicates that I’m hiding who knows what on my body. That’s why 90% of the time I’m then pulled aside for a full body pat down before I’m allowed to go to my gate. Sometimes I’ve even been sent back into the scanner. The benefit of going the second time is that this time I’m at least able to say “you hit the wrong button”.

This doesn’t upset me the way it once did in my life. In fact, if you told 14 year old me that I would routinely be mistaken for a man, I would have been horrified. But fourteen year old me grew up in a very different world, one that didn’t have words or space for people whose genders were different. Back then, the world didn’t even have much space for those of us who were gay.

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The album cover for Listen Without Prejudice, which included the song Freedom 90. I literally had this on a cassette tape.

Before I got up here you heard a bit of a song called “Freedom 90” by George Michael. I was in 9th grade when this album came out, and I got the cassette tape (yes, a tape) for Christmas. Back then, I didn’t know anyone who was gay. Actually, I did, but I just didn’t know it. The two men who lived across the street from us, for instance, the ones my mother honestly believed were brothers, didn’t tell any of their neighbors that they loved one another. Not even George Michael, the singer of that song, had come out yet.

I had started high school hoping that in four years I would receive an appointment to a service academy. I wanted to go to Annapolis or the Air Force Academy. I was even in a military cadet program to help me to reach my goal. The only trouble was that the summer before I had developed a hardcore crush on my unit commander at our summer encampment. I had had crushes on girls before, but this time it was clear that there was something about me that was different. While my friends were falling for the boys on the football team, I had absolutely no interest.

At some level I knew that I was gay, but in 1990, in a Southern town filled with conservative Christians who would tell you that homosexuality was a sin, that wasn’t something I could admit to myself. That’s not to say others didn’t take notice. I have never been feminine, and in the language of the early-90’s, a girl in jeans and baseball caps, with short hair, was assumed to be gay. In ninth grade I started to be keenly aware that others were saying just that about me. I was terrified they were right. And so I spent the next four years in the closet, pushing down my feelings.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I came out. It was 1994, when being gay and out was pretty unusual. I was 18, and many people told my I was too young to know I was gay. Thankfully, no one says that anymore. But that’s how far the world has come in just 24 years.

When I came out you were either a gay man or a lesbian. Occasionally there was someone who was bisexual, but back then there wasn’t even much room for that. And so, I was a lesbian, a woman who loved other women. Except the problem with that was that that description never felt quite right for me, though I couldn’t explain why.

At the time, masculine lesbians were called “butch”. And back then, we were the subject of much debate in our own community. “Why do you want to look like a guy?”, we would be asked. Or, “If I wanted to date a man, I would date a man”. It remained that way for a long time. Even in the gay community there was a certain way that you were to perform gender, and those who fell outside of those norms were suspect.

I graduated college, and I went off to seminary. I was ordained as a minister in a time when the ordination of LGB people (we didn’t talk much about T at that time) was heavily debated. I worked for a few years as a trauma chaplain, and they I went off to get a PhD in psychology and theology. I remained much as I had been my whole life: a more masculine-appearing woman who would bristle when someone called me “sir” or referred to me as “he”. I felt like there was something wrong with me that I just couldn’t seem to conform to the expectations of what a woman should look like. But deep down, I just wasn’t so sure I felt like a woman.

In my psychology textbooks I remember reading about something called “gender identity disorder”. I read the criteria, and I wondered if I had it. As a child I had never felt like the other girls, and as an adult I had what the DSM, the manual of psychological diagnoses, called “Persistent discomfort with his or her sex or sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex.” Note that even in that definition, the binary reigns supreme.

So something was really wrong with me. I was, I believed, broken. Depression, a demon I’d wrestled with for most of my life to that point, grew stronger and stronger. I began to drink more and more, desperate to self-medicate. I felt out of place in the world, and I wondered how to live in it. Slowly, I think I was trying to kill myself. Later, I wondered more about whether I should do just that.

The break for me came when I stopped drinking. I got sober, and I learned an old adage of people in recovery: we are as sick as our secrets. That means, so long as we are hiding something from ourselves, we will never get well.

800px-Transgender_Pride_flag.svgI knew that meant I had to deal with my gender, and to stop pushing it down and treating it as something terrible. And so, I did what graduate students do: I read. I read about what it means to be transgender, though at the time I didn’t know anyone who was openly trans. I read about gender, and how more and more people were understanding that biological sex and gender were two very different things. And I read about how gender could be more than a binary, and how there were a multitude of ways to live out your gender in the world, not all of which correlated with the sex that you were assigned at birth.

Most importantly, I read about how this made me not mentally ill, but just simply human.

I quit my PhD program, a pursuit I had never particularly enjoyed, and I went back into active ministry. I was a chaplain because I didn’t think that any congregation would want an openly gay, possibly transgender minister. I began to explore whether maybe I was supposed to transition from female-to-male, which seemed like the most obvious path at the time for someone like me.

Around that time, I thought seriously about leaving the ministry. I made an appointment to talk to a dean of admissions at a law school. I remember the drive to Boston. On the way there, I listened to that old song from 9th grade, “Freedom”, over and over. When George Michael sang the words, “But today the way I play the game is not the same, no way. Now I’m gonna get me some happy.” I sang along. By giving myself the freedom to quit the ministry and do the gender exploration I needed to do, for the first time in my life, I was gonna get me some happy.

I figured I would go to law school, start a new profession, and live into my identity as a man. But, something didn’t quite feel right.

For one thing, I really loved being a minister. But more importantly, I wasn’t so sure I was a man. I wasn’t so sure I was a woman, either, but it didn’t make sense to me to move from one uncomfortable gender identity to another. Let me stop here to say that for many people that does make sense, and that is the right choice, and I one hundred percent support them. But for me? It wasn’t who I was.

And so, I set about trying to be exactly who I was, and to live a life where I could be proud of being just that. Maybe what I was was somewhere in the middle, somewhere in a gender that exists but is rarely recognized, at least not in most modern cultures. And maybe my gender odyssey required me to carve out that space for myself, and not follow a more clear-cut path.

In 2010 I took a risk and became a parish pastor in Vermont. I went to the interview dressed as I always dressed, in men’s khakis and a button-down, with the short hair that I’d always felt best in. They hired me, and I discovered that I was actually was a pretty good pastor.

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With my beloved.

Later that year I walked into my first class in my new doctoral program. Sitting behind me in class was a beautiful young woman starting her first day of seminary. She was smart and kind and saw me exactly for who I was, including for my sometimes hard-to-explain gender. More than that, as the months went on, she loved me exactly as I was. And two years later, dressed in a dark suit and Brooks Brothers bowtie, I stood at the end of a long church aisle and waited for Rev. Heidi to walk down it, so that we could make our marriage vows to one another.

Almost four years ago now the people of the Congregational Church in Exeter called me to be their pastor. You here at Phillips Exeter think you are part of an old institution, founded in 1781. Well, the Congregational Church, founded in 1638, makes you look like spring chickens. In fact, this very school was founded by members of that church long ago. If you want to talk history and tradition, that church has a claim to those things.

But, I’m happy to say, that church also has an openness to what God is doing next. And so, when this big, gay, genderqueer preacher was presented to them as a candidate for ministry, much to my surprise, they said yes.

Every day I leave the home I share with Rev. Heidi, and I walk over to my office in the church where, I believe, I have the best job in the world. I also serve as the police chaplain for our town. Recently I published my second book, and I frequently get asked to speak at conferences and workshops. Most importantly, I have friends and family who love me, and I have a life full of meaning. I have a truly incredible life. I don’t tell you that to brag or boast. I tell you that because it’s the last thing that 14 year old me ever expected.

If I could go back to that kid, so scared and so unable to see the path ahead, I’d tell that everything was going to work out in the end if they could just hold on. And then, I’d tell them to go and get them some happy. The truth, though, is that I think at some level, deep down, they always knew that that’s exactly what they were supposed to do, and I think a big reason I am here today, is because that 14 year old kid refused to let me ever settle for anything less than freedom.

#BlessingNotBurden: It takes less than a minute to show trans youth you care.

20376153_10101716547347198_4481381192885927197_nToo many trans/genderqueer/non-binary kids woke up today in a world where their president called them a “burden” and “distraction”. These kids are already at a higher risk for suicide, not because there is anything wrong with them, but because they have to live in a broken and hateful world. It takes real courage to live through that day after day, and hope can feel hard to find.

If you are trans/genderqueer/non-binary, etc. I ask you to consider joining me in something. Take a picture of yourself and tag it #blessingnotburden and upload it to social media. Spread a little hope today.

***Allies, if you’d like to participate, please consider writing “You are a blessing, not a burden” on a piece of paper. Take a picture of yourself holding the sign and post it with the same hashtag, please.***

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A Church Beyond the Binary

Note: this post was originally published in 2015 on New Sacred. I’m reposting what I said then here as a resource for those who are discussing the gender binary at General Synod. 

“There is no longer male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28

I preach most Sundays, so the days when I have a chance to sit in the pews and worship are few and far between. They are also most welcome. I need to sometimes step off the chancel, join my voice with the congregation, and hear another preach the Word.

But several times in the recent past, while I’ve been deep in worship, I’ve suddenly come across something in the liturgy that has made my prayers jerk to a halt. It seems innocuous enough, but every time I see it, it completely stops me in my track. It comes up in calls to worship and joint liturgies, and it looks something like this:

Men:
Women:

In other words, men are asked to read one line, and then women the next. And like I said, this may not seem like it should be a problem. After all, I’m all for looking at liturgy in a new way. Dividing a room between different voices can help to hear the story in a more powerful way. But, dividing it by binary gender may have some unintended consequences, particularly for trans* and gender non-conforming individuals.

I attended a worship service at a longtime ONA church recently. This is a congregation that goes out of its way to publicly welcomes trans* individuals. And I sat next to another friend who, like me, is also gender non-conforming. Worship was great until we hit that one litany:

Men:
Women:

And then we weren’t sure what to do.

Popular opinion holds that there are two genders: male and female, men and women. But the reality of gender is that many people live between the two.

The progressive church has started to make good and necessary strides towards affirming trans* folks, but too often still falls into a gender binary while doing so.

We might accept that some people transition female-to-male, or male-to-female, but we are still wrestling with the fact that for others, living between binary genders is our final destination, not some sort of indecision.

Worship is particularly difficult for us in those moments when the liturgy is split between male and female. I generally keep silent. And I’ve known others, who were in the midst of a transition, and who were not out to others in the congregation, who felt torn between reciting the lines for the gender they are known by, and the gender they know themselves to be.

To do one is to deny a self-truth. To do another is to out yourself at a time not of your own choosing.

And worship isn’t the only challenging time for gender non-conforming Christians. Even my own very progressive denomination struggles with non-binary gender. For instance, several years ago a denomination form asked for one box to be checked for gender: male, female, FTM, or MTF. (Note: I’ve continued to see this since then.) The first problem was that a trans man is a man, and a trans woman a woman. They shouldn’t be required to say anything more. But the second was that for some of us, there wasn’t a box.

In another example, in my denomination, national leadership positions are often times rotated by gender. A man holds an office for one term, and a woman the next. This pattern is repeated. This is even written into the bylaws of some parts in my church. I know the reason this came to be. Women were often not included in church leadership, and this was a way to remedy it. But the unintended outcome has been that those with non-binary genders are either left out, or forced to declare one gender or another in order to be included.

So how do we break our dependence on gender binaries in the church? With just a little awareness, respect, and creativity.

If you want to try out that two-part liturgy or song in worship, come up with a non-gendered way to split the voices. Try high voices and low voices. Or right side and left side. Or balcony and floor.

If you want to achieve gender diversity in leadership roles, lose the forced binary and ask instead that leadership reflect gender diversity in different ways. Look past two terms, to multiple ways of understanding, and make sure that leadership can be inclusive of men, women, and those who might identify in other ways.

And finally, look at the ways your church life might inadvertently leave others out, or signal to visitors that there are no places for them.

Are members divided into the men’s fellowship and women’s fellowship? Sure, sometimes those spaces are welcome for some, but do these divisions leave others out? Do you have gender neutral restrooms available? Are we all “brothers” and “sisters”, or are we all simply “beloved”?

When you talk about equal marriage do you use same-sex and same-gender interchangeably without realizing they are not always the same thing, and that neither is more accurate than the other?

And when concerns about these things are raised, are they laughed off or dismissed as “politically correct” or “not important”? Or are they seen as part of the fundamental welcome that each church, and each church body, should be extending to all of God’s children? Because the reality is that if we really want to be an “open and affirming” movement, this is the next big frontier. How your church responds will matter for years to come.

Why your church (and pastor) can’t be partisan.

Recently a person unknown to me posted his “resistance” oriented event on the Facebook wall of my church. It wasn’t clear what the event entailed and it seemed that it might cross the line into partisan territory. The poster’s profile picture advocated a specific political party, and the language was ambiguous.

I wrote him back and assured him that while I personally was supportive, the church was non-partisan, and I’d have to delete the post. I hoped he understood.

I received back this response: “We are nonpartisan, So the congregational church (sic) does not support civil rights, good to know.”

First, I’ve been given nothing that helps me determine whether the non-partisan part of that statement is true. But, second, I was stunned by the writer’s quick conclusion. This church I serve was an early moral force for abolition. A former pastor marched with Dr. King. They now have an openly gay senior pastor who they sent to Orlando last summer to provide emergency pastoral care for LGBTQ people. This is a church full of people who love their neighbors, near and far. And we are a part of a denomination that has consistently been early to every major Civil Rights challenge of our time.

But this is not a partisan church. It belongs to Jesus Christ, not any candidate or party. We follow the Gospel, and not a party platform. We get it wrong sometimes, but we really do try to get it right. Recently, though, I’ve heard a lot of folks wondering why churches aren’t doing more to confront the current political situation in our country.

I am writing this post as Emily C. Heath, private citizen. I am not writing this post as Emily C. Heath, pastor of a local congregation. I say that, but I can’t deny that the two people are one and the same. The same person writing these words on my personal blog a weekday will use this same (personal) computer to write a sermon for when I get up into the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I get how that can be confusing. And I think that sometimes that’s particularly confusing for people who know me outside of the church.

I have been interested in and involved with politics for over 20 years. The summer I graduated from high school I went off to Washington, DC to serve as a Democratic Congressional intern. I have campaigned for Democratic candidates on the ground. And I currently serve as a delegate to the state convention for my town’s Democratic committee. On my own time, I engage in partisan political activism.

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Phone banking on election day.

I’ve also been involved in the civil rights movements since that time. I came out in 1994 and started marching in Pride parades long before our safety was assured. I remember standing outside a bombed-out gay nightclub in Atlanta in 1997. And I remember traveling to Orlando last summer after the Pulse shootings.

When I wrote a blog post several years ago asking white folks to look at our privilege, I received messages calling me names I can’t print here, and one threat to burn down my church. I’ve been afraid for my personal safety because of my advocacy.

I don’t think I have to prove my progressive bona fides to anyone.

Except apparently I do. And that’s because sometimes well-meaning progressive folks don’t understand that clergy have to remain non-partisan while at church, in the pulpit, or serving in any way as a pastor.

That’s true for two very important reasons: first, the religious reason and, second, the civic reason.

pexels-photo-27633My faith teaches me that my ultimate allegiance is not to any political party, or even to any country. It’s to Christ. That means that when I’m in the pulpit, I’m talking about Christ. And, try as they might, I’ve yet to meet a politician who measures up to Christ.

My faith does shape my political beliefs. Whenever I go in the voting booth and close the curtain, I’m thinking about the Gospels. It was hearing the Gospels for the first time as a high school student that changed my own political thinking. My faith teaches me to care about the “least of these” and one way I do that is by thinking about them when I am voting.

But, I know good Christians who do not vote the way I do. Some of them are in my church, and I’m their pastor too. My sermons on Sunday should challenge them sometimes, just as they should challenge everyone. They should make them think hard about what they believe, and how they will act out their faith in the world. They should make clear that working for justice for all God’s people is not optional. 

This is political in the classic sense in that it concerns the polis, the city or community, and all of God’s people. Pastors must be concerned with their community, state, nation, and world.

But they should never, ever, tell their church for whom or for what party to vote on Election Day. That’s an abuse of power and that’s pastoral malpractice.

The second reason is the civic one. Our separation of church and state is mutually beneficial to both. The church does not get to impose a theocracy, and the state does not get to use the church for its own ends. This is healthy, especially in a society with religious diversity.

I get upset when I see conservative churches flaunting this rule. I don’t like the idea of “voter guides” stuffed in Sunday bulletins, or of pastors in the pulpits stating who they think God wants you to vote for because, as I said, it’s an abuse of power. I’ve heard some progressive pastors saying we should start bending the rules too. I disagree.

Our job as pastors is to teach the faith. It’s to present the Gospel in an honest and relevant manner. And, yes, that means sometimes the Gospel will be political, in the best sense of the word. It will require us to work for justice. It will mean that we speak out about non-discrimination, or climate change, or peace. We do not need to remain silent about those things in church. In fact, we cannot remain silent about those things in church.

But on the other hand, political does not mean partisan. As soon as we start to equate the reign of God with a particular candidate or party, we have committed idolatry, and we have crossed both a moral and civil line.

In a time of deep moral crisis, which I believe our country is now facing, it might feel like that’s not enough. I know there are people who want to hear me denounce specific politicians from the pulpit. They want their church to assure them that their voting record would match Jesus’.

But as your pastor, it’s not my job to give you assurance that God loves your candidate more. (Believe me…I’d love that comfort too.) It’s my job to remind you of your own responsibility, and of the fact that our faith requires our own action in the world. On Sundays you can find encouragement, support, and comfort in the Gospel. You can find the values that will inform your own choices. And, ideally, you should find a message that compels you to go out into the world on Monday mornings bent on shaking up the status-quo.

But if a church is telling you who to vote for, left or right, your church has more than a constitutional problem on your hands. You have a faith problem and you, and the Gospel, deserve better than that. 

Besides, in this time of moral crisis, putting our ultimate faith in the radical love and grace of Christ is the most powerful political and partisan action we can ever take.

 If you resonated with this article, you might enjoy Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

 

Tomboys, Trans Folks, and the Times

Earlier this week an interesting op-ed appeared in the New York Times entitled “My Daughter is not Transgender. She’s a Tomboy.” In it, Lisa Selin Davis, a mother and young adult novelist, details her child’s interactions with adults who are confused about her gender.

Davis describes her daughter as a classic tomboy with “shaggy short hair” who prefers the company of boys and the comfort of t-shirts. Well-meaning adults often assume that her daughter is trans, and that she wishes to be referred to as a boy. Davis counters that she is indeed a girl, and that feminine pronouns are indeed correct.

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Smiling happily after making it clear that dresses would not be happening.

As a grown-up tomboy I found Davis’ article familiar. Like Davis’ daughter I declined to wear dresses, preferred boys to girls as playmates, and dreamed of playing football. Similarly, I was often mistaken for a boy.

I have long said that had I grown up now, and not in the 80’s and 90’s, I might have been encouraged to transition female-to-male. I wholeheartedly applaud that fact that trans kids are given support to transition. I know families whose kids have transitioned and it has been nothing short of lifesaving for them. We have to keep supporting those kids.

But, despite our progress, we still fail to adequately support gender non-binary kids like I once was. I worry about what would happen to a kid like me had I grown up today. Had I felt encouraged to transition, or like transition was the only viable option for me, I may have taken that path. But that would not have been the right path for me.

I say that because the tomboy that I was as a child has grown up into a highly gender non-conforming adult. I am still mistaken as male on a nearly daily basis.

But even today, as an adult who has all the social, financial, and legal support and resources necessary to transition, transition is still not the right choice. The reason why is very simple: I’m not a man.

The truth of the matter is that for some people the old gender binary of girl/boy and woman/man just doesn’t apply. While much of my life is spent rejecting the expectations of gender imposed on me by my biological sex, at the end of the day I’m more comfortable as I am than I ever would be as a man.

I’m at peace with my body, and equally at peace with my button-down shirts and bow ties.

But as at peace as I am with my gender, others are not. Recently I was interviewed by Vice about the way gender non-conforming/genderqueer folks can be at risk in public restrooms. There are very real dangers for us out there from strangers.

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More than 30 years later than the first picture, on my wedding day.

At other times, though, even the well-intentioned can let their own discomfort seep out. A few friends, both trans and cis, have asked me when I’m going to transition myself, implying that my gender is somehow incomplete. A new medical assistant at my very gender-competent physician’s office misgendered me on my paperwork as a trans man during a recent visit, assuming that I must be contemplating transition. And when I wrote in the Christian Century about the TSA’s habit of pulling me aside for full-body pat downs, I received meant-to-be helpful messages about how I could do more to help the TSA not to make this mistake.

As an adult I’ve come to understand that it’s not my own comfort with my gender that’s the problem; it’s the discomfort of others that’s the real danger.

The reality of our culture is that we are highly gendered. Even in liberal and progressive spaces, we too often divide things along binary lines. And for the majority of people, even some trans folks who transition along those lines, that works. But that’s not true for everyone, and we still have not learned to communicate that to our kids.

Some of us will never be at home on the gender binary. And that’s okay. We don’t need to be pressured to fit into the gender box that matches the sex on our birth certificates. And we don’t need to transition because we’ve already become who we are meant to be.

To too many people, that is frustrating and confusing. And so, they take their own ingrained gender binary, and they try to apply it to the people who don’t make sense. They look at a tomboy, and they think “they’re a boy”. Or, they look at a boy who likes princess dresses and dolls and think “they should be a girl”.

And, maybe some of those kids are indeed trans. If so, we should do everything possible to support them. But, maybe they’re not. Maybe they’re kids who will grow up into someone like me. Or, maybe some of the boys who play with trucks will figure out later that they are indeed trans women, and some of the girls who dress up like Elsa will grow up to rock bow ties.

They wouldn’t be the first. There are trans women who were Navy SEALS and trans men who were prom queens. That’s because traditionally gendered interests and aptitudes do not always determine gender.

And this is where my problem with Davis’ piece comes in. As she writes about the desire of other adults to characterize her daughter’s gender, I can’t help but think she does the same thing. In asserting “she’s a tomboy”, is this faithful to her child’s voice and experience? Did her child consent to having this story told nationally?

Finally, is the author’s lack of understanding of non-binary identity in some ways tied to a gendering of her child that is equally as inaccurate as that of strangers? Maybe they are indeed a tomboy. Or maybe they will grow up to be gender non-binary adult. Or maybe they will indeed transition.

In the end, only the person in question can determine what identity is right for them.

For all of the rest of us, here’s our work: confront our own discomfort with gender. Work out why it bothers us when we can’t determine another person’s gender at first blush. Learn to live with ambiguity. Figure out what things we do that cement the gender binary more firmly in place.

And most importantly, learn how to keep our mouths shut when our confusion or discomfort with the gender expression of others comes to the surface. Because it’s our problem, not theirs.

Note: since the publication of the Times article this Storify has appeared which makes clear that the child in question’s gender may be different from what the mother describes. I’m adding the link here because it adds another problematic layer to this whole story. God bless that kid. May they grow up to be exactly who they are meant to be, and not who others think they should be.

Now on iTunes: A new sermon podcast.

A few years ago I podcasted my sermons regularly, and enjoyed hearing feedback from those who listened. Then the podcasting service I was using shut down, and I started publishing my manuscript instead.

Lately I’ve been listening to more podcasts, including sermon podcasts, and really enjoying it. I’ve realized that listening to a sermon appeals to many people more than reading one. (Though, I know that’s not true of everyone, so I’ll keep publishing the manuscripts too.)

Additionally, some of my church members who travel part of the year or who are can’t make it to church due to illness, wanted the church to make sermons available online. So, we did.

The Congregational Church in Exeter now has a podcast on PodBean. The feed is being picked up on iTunes as well, so there are two ways to listen and download. To find us on iTunes visit:

 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sermons-from-the-congregational-church-in-exeter-ucc/id1217918294?mt=2

Or, if you’d rather use PodBean, visit: https://exeterucc.podbean.com

A few notes on my preaching style for those who are curious: first, I preach “on lectionary” about 90% of the time. Sometimes I go off lectionary for a special event, but I like the idea of preaching on the same text as churches across the ecumenical spectrum.

Second, I don’t preach especially long sermons. Some are only about twelve minutes. I figure that’s plenty of time to get to the point, and make it matter for our daily lives.

Third, I start at the Scripture, and not at a theme. I believe in making the Scripture relevant to life. So these are less sermons on a topic, and more sermons on a text. I also usually only focus on one Scriptural passage.

So, that’s my preaching style. I hope that these sermons might speak to others, and convey God’s love and grace. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Dear Atlanta: A letter for Election Day

Dear Atlanta,

When I was 17 my parents navigated the old Volvo station wagon through the gates of a college on your outskirts. The back was filled with everything a freshman dorm room needed. I got out of the car, and I fell in love with you.

I have lived in eight states in my four decades. The career of a father who served in the federal government plus my own vocation have necessitated movement. But it’s yours that I’ve lived in longer than any other. For eleven years, through college and seminary and the first years of my young professional life, you were home.

Eleven years later, even with most of my accent faded, my use of “y’all” is still a dead giveaway. When people ask me where I’m from I tell them “Virginia originally, but Georgia more than anywhere”.

My Yankee friends sometimes don’t understand my love for you. But they don’t know what I know. They don’t know about the land of Carter and King. They don’t know about Congressman John Lewis standing on the corner of Piedmont and 10th, cheering on the Pride parade. They don’t even know about the good southern Presbyterians who shows me grace and taught me about gratitude in their churches.

img_2029-2These days I live away, in the northern states that we always looked at suspiciously. I love it here too, but even now, when I come back to town and angle my car north from the airport, as soon as I see the exit for Freedom Parkway, I feel like I’ve come back home.

Atlanta, I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately. This election has been like a national rock bottom. It’s like someone kicked over a rock and we saw all those things we had willed ourselves into believing no longer existed had just been secretly thriving in the hidden places.

They’re out now. The worst of our past, poised to make a comeback wrapped in the language of “greatness”. But, Atlanta, more than any place I’ve ever lived, you acknowledged the fact that your past hadn’t been so great for everyone. And so when you talked about a “New South” I believed you, and this Southerner hoped with you.

For a while this year it looked like your state might do the unthinkable: turn blue after decades of red. Part of me still thinks, if everyone turned out and voted, that could still happen. But I know it’s a long shot. And I know that in our electoral college system that means that all of you New Southerners, who will stand in long lines and cast your votes, will still just be seen as a red mark on the CNN screen on election night.

Know that I see you anyway. I see my friends, met and unmet, and I know that so many of you are afraid. Not afraid like we were in 2000 or 2004 and a Bush presidency made us joke about moving to Canada. Afraid in the sense that your marriages, your safety, your education, your rights, and, yes, even your lives feel at stake.

This is real fear, and fear shouldn’t be what drives us to the ballot box. It should be hope. And hope is not dead. But some of you have not been given the luxury of voting just for hope in this election. You know that this one could really hurt. I talk to my friends back home, and they’ve never sounded so scared as they do now.

I live in a purple state now. We could conceivably swing red or blue this year. Yesterday 538 said that we could be the state that decides the electoral college. And so, Atlanta, come Tuesday morning at 7am, I will be in line at my polling place. And I will cast my vote and dedicate it to you.

For the gay couples I know who worry their marriages will be invalidated. For young women at my alma maters who need safe reproductive health options. For immigrants and refugees on Buford Highway. For kids in Atlanta who need good schools. For trans youth who want to use the restroom in peace. For friends who will need good healthcare. For everyone who wonders whether their life will matter when America become “great” again.

My vote is for you. And I pray that in swing states across this country others who love people and places who made them who they are will tell their own story, mark their ballots, and send a prayer of hope off for back home.

A friend of mine sent me a “get out the vote” sticker from Georgia. It says “Voted Y’all”. Tuesday morning, once my ballot is in the machine, I’ll put it on. And all day I’ll look down, and I’ll think of all y’all.
With all my love,

A grateful ex-Atlantan

Note: As always, this blog represents my opinion as a private citizen, and not that of my church or denomination, both of which remain non-partisan.

Trauma, Trigger Warnings, and Making a Little Space

During the earliest years of my ministry I served as a hospital chaplain, shepherding both religious and non-religious patients and families through the worst days of their lives. I quickly specialized in trauma, mostly because others didn’t want to, and so often found myself in emergency rooms and trauma ICUs. Over the next few years I spent my time responding to traumatic incidents mostly involving children and adolescents, but also adults of all ages.

When a patient was brought to our hospital after a traumatic event or accident, the doctors would be the first to meet with the family. They would explain what had happened, and the treatment the patient had received. My job was to listen quietly and then take the family to see the patient.

Processed with VSCOcam with f2 presetBy the time I did so, I had already seen the patient myself. I had made note of the injuries, the medical equipment, and anything else that might stand out to the family. By the time the doctors left the room, and I began my work, I had prepared for a type of grim ritual that trauma chaplains were advised to follow with families.

Speaking calmly, I would explain again what had happened to their loved one. I would then tell the family that their loved one might look differently from when they had last seen them. I’d explain about the medical equipment that was connected to their bodies. If there were obvious signs of trauma, I would describe what they would see in a controlled and accurate manner. I would ask if they needed time before going into the loved one’s room.

One day I sat with a mother of a son who had been shot in the streets of East Nashville. We had just heard doctors explain that he would not make a recovery, and would likely die within hours. The doctor also told me that the bleeding could not be completely stopped. I prepared the mother for this as best I could. That night, after he had died, I went home and took off my white shirt, now speckled with his blood. It was traumatic for me; I can’t imagine what it was like for his mother.

This ritual was of course easier if it was played out in an ICU, and if the patient survived. But sometimes I would find myself preparing families for a visit to a lonely basement morgue, and the horrible scene of an often unrecognizable body on a cold steel table.

Always queasy around blood, I somehow learned to describe the geography of broken bodies. This was essential for families facing trauma. Already at risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder, experts told us that failing to adequately prepare parents and spouses and siblings for the first sight of their loved one could greatly increase the odds of longterm trauma. My job was to help make the unthinkable just a little less devastating.

I never thought about what I did as a kind of trigger warning. I thought about it as being compassionate but also proactive. My work was to help a family get through the unimaginable.

But this week, when the University of Chicago sent a self-congratulatory letter to the incoming freshmen warning that “trigger warnings” and “safe-spaces” were not to be found at their school, I thought back to my days of trauma chaplaincy.

Trauma rarely is visible on the body. Even the scars and broken bones of physical trauma often heal to the point of being unnoticeable. But, visible to the other or not, it is still contained within the person who has suffered it.

Conventional wisdom says that trigger warnings are making our youth and young adults soft. They’re creating ways for them to get out of having hard, deep, and rigorous intellectual debates. At worst, they are enabling a generation of non-resilient citizens who will be unable to sustain democracy.

But that’s not what trigger warnings are about. They’re not “get out of hard conversations free” cards. Rather, they are conscious ways of telling the people involved in a conversation what they are about to see and hear. It’s not so unlike what I used to do with families going to see a loved one’s body.

These days I am no longer a trauma chaplain. In the eight years I spent as a chaplain I saw enough people, especially children, die traumatically that I never want to see another. I left the field reluctantly, but with the feeling that I had served my time faithfully and now was being called elsewhere.

I now pastor a church in a wonderful community where violence is rare, and the quality of life is just about as good as it gets. I especially love working with the children and youth of my congregation, who are all incredible. But I’m not naive enough to think that some of them don’t also carry trauma or are not now in some sort of serious crisis.

I like to be aware of those things so that I can be a better pastor and teacher to them. If we are talking about something in youth group, for instance, I want them to know about it ahead of time if it’s something that might be uncomfortable. It’s not because I want to shield them from hard conversations or the real world. It’s because I want to walk with them in their journey, side by side, giving them support.

It’s the same in college classrooms. Is it really so hard for a college professor to say “next week we will be talking about sexual assault” to a group of students where invariably at least one has been assaulted? Or, to say “we will be exploring the War on Terror next session, including a video of an Army unit engaged in active combat” when they just might have a veteran who deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in the room?

This isn’t about stopping hard conversations. This is about making the room big enough that everyone can be involved in the conversation. This often means making the room big enough so that the people most directly impacted by any given topic can be there too. Their voices are in many ways the most critical to have in the room.

Like anything this can be abused by those who don’t want to have the hard conversations, but I’ve often found that the ones who have truly been impacted by trauma are the ones most willing to have the conversations. They just deserve the courtesy of a heads-up and the time to think about how they will best protect themselves from being re-traumatized in the process. Allowing people the space to be able to do this work of self-care is far from enabling them. On the contrary, it’s allowing them to take responsibility for their own recovery.

We worry that we are building a generation of non-resilient young people. I say just the opposite is happening. The people who need trigger warnings are not soft; on the contrary, they are probably the most resilient among us. By listening to their voices, and hearing their experiences, we can learn from them. But that will only happen if we deliberately make space for them.

In Defense of the Building: A Case for Not Selling Your Church Property Just Yet

It seems like every week I hear someone in the wider church say, “You know, the church is more than the building.”

This is often said in a rather condescending tone, with the sense that the speaker is delivering some novel piece of wisdom. It’s often followed with a line like, “I mean, Jesus never had a building.” Or, “Think of all the ministry we could do if we just sold our buildings and gave the money away!”

I always want to say, “Do you honestly think most Christians don’t know that?”

True, we are often a little too fond of our buildings. We are willing to wage million-dollar capital campaigns to fix aging structures while at the same time letting the associate pastor go for lack of funds. Or, we treat them like our own homes, locking them up tightly, except for a few hours on a Sunday morning.

I have known of many churches like that. Churches that, frankly, do not deserve their buildings. Because if a church is using the building only for themselves, and if they have made it the modern equivalent of a golden calf, they really have little business calling themselves a church.

I know congregations hanging on with ten people in the pews on Sunday morning and another church just down the road. They pump their money into the building and wonder why no one ever comes.

You probably know of them too.

Please hear me; I am not talking about those churches. Those buildings could often see more ministry by being better used as housing for the homeless, offices for nonprofits, or meeting spaces for 12 Step groups.

But I’m worried that in our quest to rid ourselves of buildings, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
We need to be in right relationship with our buildings. They should be tools, not false idols.

I pastor a congregation with a beautiful, historic building from the late 1700s, one that inspires people to walk in off the street to explore it.

While we value our history as a congregation, the members of my church have been adamant about this building being more than a clubhouse for ourselves. We have our Sunday services of course, all held in a sanctuary that is both beautiful and functional.

But we also open our doors to AA three times a week. We host community lectures and events. We open our columbarium for all who wish their ashes to be buried. We grow vegetables in our community garden. And we host whiffle ball games out back in the summer and pass out candy from the big front doors on Halloween.

I will never willingly pastor a church that loves its building more than it loves Jesus; but I will always jump at the chance to serve where the people are willing to use every resource they have in creative ways to serve God and their communities. Including their building.

I don’t believe that this is going against Jesus’ will for the church. However, I do believe Jesus was pretty clear about using the house of God for the wrong purposes.

When the moneylenders set up shop outside the doors of the Temple, Jesus cared enough about the Temple to flip those tables over. The Temple, in and of itself, was not a bad place. What was happening in and around the Temple was what desecrated it.

And so, I take caution from that story. I know that a building is only as useful to the people of God as what we are using it for. If it becomes a place where we fulfill only our own needs, or where we mistakenly focus our worship, it is an albatross around the neck of our faith. We would do well to rid ourselves of it and look seriously inward.

But if we live in right relationship with our buildings, we can use them as incredible tools for ministry. We can use our buildings as signs that we are rooted and planted in our communities, and that we are not going anywhere. We are committed to our neighborhood because we are built into the neighborhood’s own streets. And we exist not just in our towns but for our towns.

So look again at your church’s building. And now visualize all the ways it can be used.IMG_5845

Could that same room that holds coffee hour on Sundays host 12 Step meetings? Could the Sunday school rooms host after-school programs? Could the basement host free washing machines for those who can’t afford them? Could the sanctuary double as a space for free lectures? And could that big piece of land out back be made into a community garden for the food pantry?

As Christians we are called to be good stewards of everything we have been given. Sometimes, that may mean letting go of it. But other times it just takes looking at all we have been given in a new way, and being open to use these tools for good.