Monday, October 27, 2014

Keeping watch over their souls

I have been thinking a lot about the contrversy over Houston's equal rights ordinance and its prohibition against discrimination on the basis of gender identity.

This is important stuff. What we do about this as a city will powerfully affect many people, and how we talk about it as Christians will affect all of us, because it brings up all sorts of questions about what it means to be human, and about the very nature of the gospel.

You can read my general thoughts here and here.

As I argued in my third post on the topic, I don't think that our children's physical safety is affected by which bathroom gender nonconformists use.

Now I want to talk about emotional and spiritual safety.

Let me start out by saying that privacy matters. Locker rooms and urinals present real logistical challenges, particularly in schools, and if institutions cannot meet those challenges in a way that provides sufficient privacy for everyone, that's a problem. A really big problem.

But I'm confident that those challenges are surmountable, precisely because of all the horror stories I've read about the emotional harm these policies inflict on children.

You see, almost every one of those anecdotes tells a story about an institution creatively and successfully making the changes necessary to give everyone privacy.

But that wasn't good enough. The authors of those anecdotes didn't just want to protect kids from indecent exposure, but also from the very idea that some people have complicated gender identities.

The problem is, we can't actually do that.

If your child is aware enough ask you why there's a man in the ladies room, you can bet that she's also aware enough to be perplexed by gender ambiguity in any context. Bathrooms have nothing to do with it.

As parents, we have just two choices: talk about it, or don't talk about it.

Talking about it can be scary, but not talking about it is what's dangerous.

If we let our fear keep us from talking with our kids about these things, we will lose the opportunity to guide them through whatever ethical decisions they may face. Statistically speaking, any one of our kids is unlikely to face tough decisions about his or her own gender, but each of them will almost certainly face decisions about how to respond to peers who don't fit into tidy gender categories. And almost all of our kids will face decisions about bullying.

As I look back on my own childhood,  I'm haunted by my cowardice; cowardice rooted in confusion. I didn't know what to do, so I stood by and didn't do anything at all.

I want to spare my kids that kind of guilt. I want to make sure that I'm alert and present to teach them how to love people they don't understand. Even people that they suspect of bad choices.

And if any of my kids do struggle with gender, I definitely want them to talk with me about it.

We cannot protect our children from finding out that they live in a complicated world, but by the grace of God, perhaps we can equip them to live wisely and well, and above all to love. At any rate, we have to try. We must not fail to keep watch over their souls.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Leaving fear behind: a meditation on 1 John

"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. " 
                                                --Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933

I am terrified of fear, and with good reason, too.

I've seen what it can do.

Fear is scary stuff, and the fear of fear itself is among the scariest of all. It's like quicksand; the harder you struggle, the more impossible it is to escape.

You can't scare yourself into courage.

Only love can teach us how to be brave.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but it isn't the end.

In the end, love drives out all fear, after the love with which God loved us has reached its final destination, becoming our daily practice. 

(What can it mean to give ourselves up as propitiation for the sins of our brothers and sisters? These mysteries are frighteningly deep.)

Slowly, slowly, love is teaching me not to be afraid, and gently to unclench my fingers from around my fear of fear.

Fear has to do with punishment, and the one who fears has not been perfected in love.

If I were to say that I have no fear, I would lie, and the truth would not be in me.

Slowly, slowly, I am learning to confess my fear; to quietly and bravely dig down deep into it, and trace its contours. 

When I am afraid of my fear, I clench my eyes shut, and open my soul to all its lying shadows.

But Jesus isn't afraid of my fear. He isn't ashamed of my shame.

He held them both inside his bleeding body, carried them all the way to hell, and now he lives.

Which means that so can I.

When I confess my fear, I find that God is faithful, and when I open my eyes I find beauty.

Everything becomes light when it is brought into the light. Even fear.

And it's in the truth about my fear that I find mercy.

Mercy to receive, and mercy to give.

Mercy that seals me into mercy, whispering to my soul that love has cast away all fear.

"God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."
                                                           --1 John 4:16b

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Keeping kids safe

Child safety is a big concern in the controversy over Houston's equal rights ordinance, and this drives me a little bit crazy.

Only a very little bit crazy, mind you. As mama to six extraordinarily precious munchkins, I can't get too mad at anyone who wants to keep kids safe.

I do, however, feel approximately the same way as I would over a campaign to protect children from auto injuries by keeping car windows closed at all times.

You see, red herrings are not harmless. Given that carefully rolling up your windows won't actually keep your kids safe, this hypothetical misconception would be dangerous as well as silly. Auto safety is too important to dink around with ineffective strategies. Just strap your kids into appropriate car seats, observe all traffic laws, and put away that cell phone already! The windows have nothing to do with it.

In the same way, keeping gender nonconformists out of public restrooms won't protect our children from pedophiles.

It just won't.

There has been a good deal of hand-wringing over the idea that biological males might gain access to the restrooms that little girls use, but as a mother of five sons I am keenly aware of the fact that biological males already have full access to the same facilities as little boys.

There's no call for paranoia, but the buddy system is definitely in order. And if you really want to keep kids safe, family restrooms are the way to go.

Family restrooms solve all kinds of problems!

Other cities have had similar equal rights ordinances for quite some time, so Houston isn't exactly jumping into the dark. If you find any evidence that these laws have increased the risk of assault, please let me know, but my own search has come up blank.

Still, even if this law wouldn't affect our children's physical safety, emotional safety also matters. Here too, I think that worries about restrooms are a dangerous distraction. Restricting restroom access won't actually keep our kids safe, and parents need to focus on the things that really will prepare and protect their children.

But I will save this for a future essay.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Highly exacting.
Love is ethereal and light,
which is to say that its constant is immutable.
Though all else fade away, love is
and mercy
will judge

Counting on mercy

"Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’  I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent."
                                                                     --Luke 15:1-7, NIV

It's funny how the numbers can bring everything into focus. asks the question "Why should the 99% of the population who are NOT gender confused be forced to accommodate the less than 1% who are?"


Because Jesus, that's why.

Because Jesus didn't come to save the righteous 99% of the population. He came for the rest of us: the bewildered and bruised wanderers.

This isn't about gender ethics. 

This is about the gospel. 

I care about the needs of 1% of the population because Jesus cares about me, and I am counting on his mercy.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bathroom breakdown

Crazy things are happening in Houston. Early this summer, the city council passed an anti-discrimination ordinance that added sexual and gender identity to the usual list of unacceptable reasons to deny someone housing or employment. Initial drafts of the ordinance also mentioned bathrooms and other gender-specific facilities, and even though that language was removed from the final ordinance, the legal consensus seems to be that if you aren't allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender identity, you aren't allowed to keep people from using the restroom of their choice. The conservative Christian community found this pretty scary, and gathered more than enough signatures to put the ordinance to a referendum.  The city rejected the petition, though, saying that there were multiple instances of double-signing, and many of the pages were not notarized. Now the petitioners are suing the city, and as a part of that case, the city's lawyers have subpoenaed sermons and other communications from several prominent pastors.

Like I said, crazy. Snopes has a good recap.

Anyway, the other day, I started writing an essay about the situation. It was clever and witty, funny and compelling. At least, I think it was, and nobody can tell me otherwise, because now it is gone forever.

Save your files, people. Save your files.

I stand by every lost word of it, but maybe it's just as well that the file is gone. My heart wasn't really in it.

I wrote that essay shrewdly, prudently. I tried to meet my audience half-way, establishing our common ground before moving on to my main arguments.

Actually, I felt compelled to go a whole lot more than half-way, and that's part of what bothers me about this whole situation.

I believe in conciliatory dialogue. Really, I do. Real communal truth seeking can only happen when we root our arguments in shared premises.

But it needs to go both ways.

I was pretty sure that if I wanted anyone to listen to me, I would have to start out by saying that I think it's scary for the government to subpoena sermons, and that I think it is quite possible to love someone while disapproving of his or her way of life.

So far so good.

But I was doing way too much beating around the bush, when I really needed to just come right out and say that I don't see how you can possibly love your neighbor while simultaneously campaigning to keep your neighbor from going to the bathroom.

This is kinda awkward, though, because I seriously doubt that anyone is thinking of the petition in those terms. They should just use the other restroom, right?

Unfortunately, this solution works a whole lot better for hypothetical constructs than for real flesh-and-blood human beings who can't use either bathroom without running the risk of raised eyebrows.

Or... worse.

I've never heard of a rapist using an equal protection ordinance to sneak into a ladies room (there are much more effective ways of eluding detection!), but bathroom rape is a real thing, and the transgender are at particular risk.

But I haven't heard any of the petition's supporters even acknowledge these issues.

This is a problem.

People are people, even when their lives are messy and full of sin. And people need to go to the bathroom, even when it's not entirely obvious which restroom they belong in.

Moreover, people need Jesus, especially when their lives are messy and full of sin. And I cannot imagine darkening the door of a church that was conducting a campaign to keep me from going to the bathroom.

This is not about shifting our ethical positions on gender and sexuality. This is about the gospel. Love and mercy accomplish what shame and the fear of punishment cannot.

If you want a different kind of salvation, a different kind of transformation, then go and get yourself a different religion.

As for the ethics of gender identity, I have no idea what it could possibly mean to be born with a body of the wrong sex. Philosophically, this makes no sense to me at all.

I do, however, know exactly what it feels like to know that my soul could only be valuable if it were paired with a different sort of body. I know what it is like to try to squeeze my repulsively un-feminine soul into an acceptable mold, and to loathe my successes more than my failures, because it was a rejection of who God made me to be. I know what it is like to be disgusted by everything about my body that insisted upon telling lies about my soul. I know what it is like to starve myself in a desperate bid for femininity, while simultaneously trying to starve away my grotesquely feminine curves and erase their condemnation. It was terribly contradictory, but it didn't really matter. I couldn't have eaten anyway, with my stomach in so many knots. I watched helplessly as the numbers on the scale sank lower and lower, and I wondered if death might be the only escape from this ill-fitting flesh.

Without ever meaning to, it is so easy to be cruel to anyone who fails to live up to our culture's intensely exacting and often arbitrary gender categories.

What if instead of getting mad at people for trying to escape those categories, we started out by trying to make those categories more welcoming places?

Let's start with the little things. Let's make a world where boys are free to love flowers and dancing, where girls don't have to pretend to be bored with math.

Before we start talking about how people should live out the genders implied by their biology, we need to make sure that we haven't turned gender into something unnecessarily constricting.

Besides, for a lot of people, gender is verifiably complicated in ways that have nothing to do with sin and choice. Out of every hundred babies, one is born with an ambiguously sexed body. These people were outcasts in the Old Testament, but Jesus explicitly welcomes and blesses them.

All this is pretty hidden, though, as well it should be. Whenever we meet someone whose gender perplexes us, we can safely assume that we don't know what's going on.

And most of the time, it's not our job to know, either.

It's our job to love, because love accomplishes what shame can never do.

If you've managed to read this far, thank you for listening to me. Thank you for meeting me in my hurt and disillusionment. It's an image of what Jesus did when he left the glorious purity of heaven to come break bread with swindlers and prostitutes.

I bet there are some other people who could use that kind of listening grace, as well.

Monday, October 13, 2014


In fourteen hundred and ninety two,
you thought you knew
that the world was small enough for you to grasp.

Still, you were spared by its unexpected vastness,
and still you insisted on closing both your fists
and your eyes, clutching your pleasant delusions of a world
small enough to own. Today we remember
that the rain falls down on the just and the unjust alike,
that the winners write the histories, right or wrong,
and this wild, cruel world's too much to comprehend.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What *would* he do?

Remember those woven bracelets we wore way back when? Not the ones we made for each other at camp, but the ones we bought at the Christian book store, along with the matching Bible covers. I had a necklace too; I think mine was a leather cord with pewter fish and that ubiquitous acronym.


The whole thing was apparently based on a book, but I never actually read it. I'm assuming it was good? But really, I have no idea.

All I know is that having surrounded myself with reminders of the right question, I still forgot to ask it.

It wasn't for lack of trying. I would read those letters on my bracelet, and I would try a little harder, try a little harder. But it never occurred to me to ask.

You see, the problem with acronyms is that they are so easy to mispronounce. And on this one, it makes all the difference in world whether the pitch of your voice goes up or down on the D at the end.

Had I been saying the actual words, I would have noticed the problem immediately. "What would Jesus do" makes no grammatical sense at all unless it's a question.

But I was the girl with all the answers, and "W.W.J.D." was an unquestioning statement to me, a reminder to do whatever it was that I already thought I was supposed to do. A reminder that I had to try harder to be perfect, or at the very least to look like it, so that my life would be good advertising for Jesus.

But the funny thing is, that's precisely the thing that Jesus wouldn't have done.

Jesus would have loved wildly, forgiven extravagantly, and even though he was known for breaking all the right rules, he probably would have done most of the things I tried to do.

But Jesus never guarded his reputation the way that I did.

He let go of it.

He didn't consider equality with God something to be grasped, but he emptied himself.

He emptied himself of his glory, and he didn't run away from shame.

Sometimes following Jesus means being the good little girl who keeps all the rules, and sometimes it means being the rabble-rouser who keeps making everybody squirm. Always, it means prioritizing love over reputation. It means fearlessly plunging straight through the shame for the sake of the glory on the other side.

If I had only thought to ask the question on my bracelet, I would have found that the answer was right there all along, in the shape of a cross.