I am looking back to the beginning, of this blog, of Advent. Two Advent hymns in particular have shaped my love of the season: O come, o come Immanuel and Comfort, comfort O my people. The last verse of this second hymn begins:
O make straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain …
Of course, I had to choose the “rougher places” analogy, because — as my kids like to tease me — I don’t go straight anywhere. (Navigation, sexual orientation, right, all of that.)
The hymn echoes John the Baptist, who is preaching Isaiah 40:
… [T]he word of God came to John son of Zechariah [and the prophet Elizabeth] in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’
Isaiah’s song of redemption was directed at the Israelites returning from their exile in Babylonia. Babylonia was known for the roads over which its festivals processed, and Isaiah envisions a road built clear across Babylonia and all the way home to Judah, over which God will lead the exiles home.
If you have ever seen road construction, you know the long preparations include lowering hills by excavation and filling in valleys with the rubble. Some terrain needs taking away; some needs adding. The author of Isaiah had this process in mind when looking for a metaphor for God’s re-creation of the possibilities of life, for a people that had lost its way. In the midst of desolation, a way will appear, a road suddenly blooming through the desert, bright with the shining face of God.
In every age and every Advent, there is still a rough way that needs to be made smooth; there are people in the world who struggle to believe in love — whether human love or God’s love — because of the roughness of the road.
God wants a road to appear for all, a path to love, justice, fullness of life. In the birth of Jesus, God offers Godself as that road. To make the Road, the Way plain is a role we all can take on. As heralds of love, we are called to remove the obstacles, to turn them into flagstones for a clear path to life abundant. Whatever is getting in the way needs to be gotten out of the way.
Which brings us to Paul, and his letter to the Galatians:
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Paul is speaking of inclusion and welcome in the community of God, and of what we cannot let get in the way of that inclusion. The old categories and the powers and privileges associated with them are changed forever in the new creation inaugurated in the Way of Jesus.
The words for us to wrestle with today are “no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female.”
Paul was writing to reassure the former pagans in the church at Galatia, whom the Jewish Christians were telling to get circumcised and observe the dietary laws; in other words, become Jewish before becoming Christian. These were stumbling blocks to the pagans, and Paul said so, quoting what likely were words from a baptismal hymn the Galatians would have been familiar with: what you were is now recreated. The old hierarchies no longer apply. Jewish Christians do not have power over pagan Christians; free people don’t have special privileges in church over enslaved people; male people have no special prerogatives over female people. What matters is the faith that has come to you, that you have claimed, and which claims you as God’s own.
Paul, a flawed and limited human being living in a certain time with its particular worldview, ends up falling short of the inclusion promised in this text. Don’t we all.
But if faith, Jesus, and God matter to you, as realities that help to make a way in the world for love and justice, then the vision lurking in Paul’s words is lying in wait for you, as well as for me.
When it comes to making a life and living in the love of God, the distinctions of the world and its hierarchies do not apply. This is a struggle for all of us, because the most well-intended label is still a limitation. Even words like “welcome,” “inclusion” and “open and affirming” can get in the way.
Who is it who welcomes, anyway? And to what?
Every inclusion implies or creates — by definition — an exclusion. Congregations that label themselves “inclusive” have thereby set themselves apart from someone, and created an identity that will cause someone to not draw near.
As to open and affirming, well, a war of words is going on among people I care about: one is passionately sure that the label is necessary to denote a place where people are trying to welcome LGBT people who have been excluded by churches, historically and traditionally, and is grateful to have found a place of welcome. Another rejects the term and the practice altogether. “I don’t need to be affirmed as gay. Why does a church even think they have the right to ‘affirm’ me? Besides, for me being gay has nothing to do with my spiritual life, or why I go to church. I don’t go to church to be gay. I go to say ‘thank you.'”
The battlegrounds of the world do find their way into the church, clinging to us like stickerburrs in our clothing. We are often the last to say, “There is no longer ….” much less live into it.
I would be willing to bet that the military will repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” before the United Methodist Church does. After all, the military implemented racial desegregation long ago; the church has yet to.
And I’ll not just pick on the Methodists; after all, the UCC — my denomination — has its problems, too. In taking a denominational stance for marriage equality, the UCC offended many congregations who weren’t ready to be so identified with that issue or the chosen stance. Many of these not-ready congregations were churches of color, who have since left the denomination. In seeking to do justice for LGBT people, have we ended up being racially exclusive? Who did we not listen to long enough? What do we do when justice for some feels like justice (further) delayed to others?
We in the church are just too apt to be the people who say, “This is how we do things (or how we’ve always done it around here), and if you like it, you can stay.”
When our words of welcome only end up creating exclusions we don’t intend, perhaps the best approach is not to talk at all, but to listen some more, and to work, when local relationships make just actions clear.
Paul’s words are on my mind, in that regard, particularly because I have had the privilege of knowing several people who are transgender, and who have shown me the grace of letting me learn from their lives.
A transgender person is one whose sense of their gender is at odds in some way with their embodiment. Transgender people have multiple ways of dealing with this reality: some live in and with the ambiguity; some choose a transition in their embodiment, through hormones or surgery, to experience a desired coherence between their bodies and their felt sense of self.
I don’t need to tell you that we live in a world organized by and for a binary understanding of gender: we are all assigned a gender at birth, based on visible physical characteristics, and the expectations and assumptions pile on from there.
For many people, whether by innate sense or inculcated enculturation, this en-gendering works out (mostly … sexist injustices abound and persist in virtually all cultures). Longer ago than any of us remember, the prevalence of this “fit” between sense of gender and biology created two poles of gender identity — masculine and feminine — based on two biological presentations — male and female.
But there are — and always have been — other realities. Leslie Feinberg takes a trip through a variety of lived gender expressions in Transgender Warriors. Joan Roughgarden explores a muliplicity of genders and sexualities among human and non-human animals in Evolution’s Rainbow. Anne Fausto-Sterling complicates the connections among genders and sexualities in The Myth of Gender and Sexing the Body.
As we become more aware of how complicated we are, both through a wider understand of our various biologies, and a deeper understanding of our various experiences, it is becoming clear that gender — like biological physiologies, and sexual orientations — is more accurately described in terms of a continuum than a polarity.
There is so much more to say about this … but for now, there are just seven words I want to return to, and to hear:
“There is no longer male and female ….”
It will be a long time before this ancient wisdom is accepted reality. There is too much profit to be made by those who hold male privilege. There is too much invested in the worldview that there are essentialities about being male and female, and about masculine and feminine identities. There are too many of us saying, “You have to be male or female before you can be human … you have to be clearly and unambiguously male or female for us to let you live.”
But readers, let’s not confuse accepted reality with lived reality. Let’s not forget that we are an Advent people, living in between the already and the not-yet of God’s community. Let’s not ignore the simple things we can do, to help create and hold space for our friends who are themselves living into a very real already and not-yet life.
I think of my friends, already knowing the old gender doesn’t fit, and not yet able to live into an identity that feels right, whether gendered or not.
I think of other friends, already having transitioned, and struggling through a world not yet ready to accept their transformations.
I think of Isaiah, and the prophet’s knowing that Road creation requires some things to be taken apart and taken down, and other places to be built up and re-created, for the will and love of God to be made manifest.
I think of the simple changes we can make: accepting our friends as they know themselves to be; re-purposing and re-signifying bathrooms for all; not using gendered language for God; choosing hymns and liturgies without separations into gendered states that we can’t or don’t all fit into.
As in every allied work for liberation, it is our own salvation we are working out, in fear and trembling, or joy and celebration. I have my own gendered demons to be free of — and so do you. We may not see it yet, but our trans friends are showing us ways to find that freedom.
So let’s do these simple things, and thereby turn our stumbling blocks into flagstones … let’s be Road Signs, and not Road Blocks, all of us welcomed on the path to love, justice and abundance for all.