Ashes and Grace (Real Life Encounters with a Gay Woman and Transgender Person)

It doesn’t matter how much you love someone. It matters how much they feel loved.

I have a young friend who is transgender. She makes playlists of music for me because we both love music.

When I received her first playlist, I wondered what secret messages the lyrics might hold and whether or not I could decipher something in them that would bring us closer than we already were.

“Why can’t you just love me?”

It was the very first lyric of the very first song. It did not slip past me unnoticed. In fact, I hit pause immediately, started the song over and let the question imprint on my heart like an iron-on.

Time Magazine published an article several years ago entitled, Why We Get Disgusted. In the article a concept called touch transference was mentioned, which is the belief that when something disgusting is introduced by touch to something wholesome, it makes that wholesome thing less desirable. This theory was tested by loading up grocery carts with food items and then placing desired items in close proximity to products like toilet paper. The study revealed that once the desired items were placed near the undesirables, people no longer preferred those items like they once had.

I found the following two quotes from the article fascinating:

“If something repulsive touches something benign, the latter, even if it’s physically unchanged, becomes ‘infected’.”

When I first read this, my mind immediately went to Grace, my young friend who just happens to be transgender. I’ll tell you why later, but for now, let’s move on.

Here’s the second quote:

“The appeal of the food fell even if the two products were merely close together; an inch seemed to be the critical distance…more irrationally still, the subjects were less comfortable with a transparent package than an opaque one, as if it somehow had greater power to leak contamination.”

“Critical distance?”

“Less comfortable with a transparent package than an opaque one?”

Translation: If the innards of the less desirable product can be concealed or hidden in some way, it will retain its value.

It’s important we don’t miss the message here, because the repercussions of this last statement could be fatal for some. In fact, they already have.

On December 28th, 2014, a transgender youth stepped in front of a tractor-trailer ending her life. She left behind a suicide note, which many believe blamed her Christian parents.

I read the suicide note. I didn’t hear blame as much as I heard an explanation. She told us she believed her life was going to be terrible because most of her experiences, once she opened up about her issues with gender identity, seemed to be about how “the subjects were less comfortable with a transparent package than an opaque one, as if (she) somehow had greater power to leak contamination.”

Bear with me for a moment longer, because we owe it to the transgender community (with a 40% plus attempted suicide rate) to try harder than we have before – because I’m still not sure we get it. And if that’s the case, we must do better by asking ourselves how we are contributing to the problem.

Sometimes when we believe a person has a problem we’re not sure can be fixed, we abandon ship instead of staying on the boat with them. We may ask them to convert to our way of thinking, and if they don’t, increase our critical distance. We do this either by throwing them overboard or scheduling a one-way excursion for them at the next port, and they are never heard from again.

I don’t believe this happens from a place of hatred, but of fear. Fear is a powerful emotion – so powerful that if not identified and rooted out, it can quickly turn a heart that is racing with fear into a heart that is raging with anger and intolerance. Most often, I don’t believe people are disgusted because they are actually disgusted, but because they are afraid the people they don’t understand will leak out of their packages and contaminate others…maybe even us.

“Who will be infected?” we wonder. And because we believe safe is better than sorry, we back away from any connection with them…we back away for good.

When my friend Grace identified as male she was very involved at my church, so I wasn’t surprised when she accepted my friend request on Facebook so quickly. However, I was surprised to discover that as “Grace” we had no mutual friends. When she identified as male, we had thirty. Since becoming transgender…none.

There’s something going on here, isn’t there? And we must figure out what that something is. It might at first seem easy to point a finger at her faith community – to throw out accusations that it wasn’t a safe place for her. But this may not be the case at all. So then the question must be asked:

Why is there so little of their presence in her life?

Admittedly, Grace didn’t give her church friends much of a chance to respond because in her own words, “I had an exhausting year and if they rejected me I couldn’t have handled that stress.” She put the blame on herself completely. But I’m 44 years old, and I’ve been a full-time Christian pastor for 21 of those 44 years. So I guess what I’m saying is…

It’s not her fault.

Her gut instinct to self-protect by detaching from the Christian community at large is born of the kind of rejection she has witnessed for years on every news channel, magazine cover, within Christian circles and friend groups. The point being, she’s seen it all before. She knew what could happen.

Often before publishing an “issue article” such as this, I will run it by a friend to get their thoughts. My agent, Kathy Helmers, (agent to the stars…plus me) is a voice I’ve come to value in my life. We don’t think exactly alike but her perspective often challenges me. In a previous draft of this article I mentioned that those in the LGBTQ community are quite possibly modern day lepers (*referring only to the way they’ve been shunned by Christians.) With Kathy’s permission, I’d like to share her response because it was so insightful, telling, alarming…and in my opinion, right on the money.

“Your goal is admirable but I doubt it’s possible to change this kind of deep-rooted and “Bible-based” response with anything other than real-life encounters, which of course won’t happen because Christians shun people they believe to be living in the wrong moral choice.

You’d have to do something very deft with the Bible, showing how moral indignation equals Pharisees and love equals Jesus breaking taboos. But even then I doubt you could do it. Lepers are random victims of a disease, so Christians will never view LGBTQ people as lepers. They will see LGBTQ as having given themselves up to corrupt appetites. They can’t have any positive relationship with them because it would undermine their posture of disapproval, which they believe Scripture requires them to maintain. You will never win by appealing to people’s hearts because they can’t trust their hearts; they can only trust the Bible’s teaching on these subjects as it has been taught to them.”

One sentence sticks out more than any other.

“I doubt it’s possible to change this kind of deep-rooted and “Bible-based” response with anything other than real-life encounters…”

I couldn’t agree more. That said, here is one of my personal real-life encounters.

Last year when my friend Ashley married her girlfriend Bre, her father let her go.

At a breakfast meeting Ashley told me how close she had been with her dad as a little girl. “And I’m still that same girl, Matt. I just don’t think he sees me that way anymore.”

As I listened, I watched the package of her story turn from opaque to transparent until I could see the pain within her. That’s when she said something I will never forget.

“I wish I could flip myself inside out. That way my dad could see my heart…first.”

I could hear Grace’s song putting words in her mouth.

“Why can’t you just love me?”

It’s time…beyond time actually, to ask ourselves what it means to really love someone – to accept every person…

As. They. Are.

For too long we’ve been falsely advertising our unwavering love for those we don’t understand. We don’t love their sin, we tell whoever will listen, but we do love them! But at some point we should probably ask them if they FEEL loved. And then be ready for their answer.

These days Grace has fewer Christian friends than when she identified as male. And Ashley has lost her father because she is gay. Consider this information in light of who Jesus is and it makes no sense at all.

And if we repeatedly find ourselves caught in the methodology of how to love, clarifying and qualifying our love, I don’t think it would be unfair to say we are barely like Jesus.

Barely Christian.

As people of God…as bearers of his grace, we are to be so conspicuous with our love that it’s obvious to those who are hurting that they will find a soft place to land should they decide to let us in.

The day Ashley and I met for breakfast was her birthday. That same night I couldn’t stop thinking about her words.

“I wish I could flip myself inside out. That way my dad could see my heart first.”

With tears in my eyes, I pulled out my phone and sent this text to her:

“You already are flipped inside out, Ash. Your heart is ALL I can see. Some may never see what is so beautifully on display before them. But that doesn’t make me feel bad for you. It makes me feel bad for them. Man…I just can’t believe how they are missing out on you. Wonderful, amazing, inspiring, fabulous YOU. Happy birthday!”

Wonderful, amazing, inspiring, and fabulous. That’s a far cry from less desirable, repulsive, infected, and contaminated.

Kathy’s response to the idea of LGBTQ people being lepers was that Christians would never see them as lepers. And she is right – because they haven’t come down with some sort of random and debilitating disease. But they have been stripped, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road. And I believe many of them are still waiting for a Good Samaritan to pass by.

Could that possibly be you?

When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he was immediately asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Rather than give a quick answer to a simple question, he offered up the story of The Good Samaritan.

Because Jews believed Samaritans to be utterly low-class, a Samaritan would’ve been considered one of the last people to show compassion on a Jew. Yet in this story a Samaritan finds a Jew that has been left for dead and dresses his wounds, takes him to an inn, pays for his stay, asks the innkeeper to take good care of him and promises that if there are any extra expenses he’ll pay them on his return trip to Samaria. That’s a lot of care and concern.

Jesus is making a point.

Real compassion. Real-life encounters.

The final sentence of Kathy’s email felt like a challenge.

“You will never win by appealing to people’s hearts because they can’t trust their hearts; they can only trust the Bible’s teaching on these subjects as it has been taught to them.”

My Christian friends: Maybe the idea of accepting people where they are and as they are is hard because you feel you are in danger of contradicting the bible’s explicit command.

But know this – the second half of the MOST EXPLICIT COMMAND OF ALL is to love your neighbor as yourself.

No qualifiers. Just love.

I’m not saying it’s easy. For you, it may not be. But we must move forward.

As I’ve begun having my own real-life encounters my heart has become much more obedient to this most explicit command. Because the moment you open yourself up to the painful stories of others, people like Ashley will sit down with you and say, “I wish my dad could see my heart first.” And your heart will be broken, just like it should be.

And people like Grace will come to you with one question on her mind:

“Why can’t they just love me?”

You won’t know what to say because you’ll effortlessly see her goodness, light, and love because of your own real-life encounter with her. You’ll no longer qualify your love, but will stand with her and wonder how people could still be struggling to return goodness to folks like Grace and Ashley, simply because they are gay or transgender.

In a wounded world, we were never supposed to keep a critical distance from the brokenhearted. We were meant to walk into their neighborhoods and right up to their burned down houses—to sit among them, right next to them.

To listen to their stories of rejection and loss, and then watch the burning ash of their pain float into the sky like grace.

There is more work to do, my friends. Because life is not just good, is it?

It’s ashes and grace.

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