In these Reflections, often I've confessed that I don't do things right ... or like I wish I would do them. I've described a cynicism that fails to see God at work when it's right in front of me. Of thinking like a Pharisee that my understanding of scripture is the "right" one. Of leaving it to another Good Samaritan to address the need I see on the roads I travel. So, I don't feel self-serving in sharing one time I "think" I did something right.
It was several years ago ... I forget many details ... but the gist of the story stays with me. We were near the close of the Sunday worship service. The pastor asked us to get up and form a circle around the edges of the sanctuary. Reach out and hold hands. The sermon had focused on the theme that through Christ, we are brothers and sisters with him; a family of the children of God ... or something like that. Hearing the sermon, then singing "Blest Be The Tie That Binds", looking at the variety of faces, sizes, and colors made for a Spirit-filled moment.
Then, starting with the pastor, we were to turn to the person on our left and say, "I welcome you here and accept you as a brother/sister in Christ!" The greeting would move its way around the sanctuary while we sang "They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love".
You could see tears welling up in many faces, spurred by those feelings we get when something just feels good and right. I felt the same emotion. But, suddenly the joy of the moment left me and I started sweating, first my hands, then drops on my forehead.
As the ritual moved toward me, I glanced at the tall woman to my left. I knew her. I also knew that she had once been a he. Transgendered! ... Sister? Brother?
The woman had been open about her life. I had been in church groups with her and knew her story. He had grown up feeling different than other boys. A long, tough story, but he decided his actual being was trapped in a wrong gender. Now, as a woman, she felt more fulfillment and was able to move on and live a more-satisfying life. I knew all that; but, I was not in a good place ... I was sweating. Sister? Or Brother? ... What do I say? What would she want as my greeting?
This was long before being transgendered was controversial. Maybe a bit of an oddity; but, not something debated as a political or even religious issue (at least not that I was aware of). Long before any need for school policies about which bathroom to use. Before presidents thought of mandates regarding things like restroom usage. She was a person, not an issue. But, I still had to sweat over my welcome: My Sister or My Brother?
The phrase, "Child of God" raced through my mind as a possible solution. Perhaps it was God's suggestion; but, I didn't think so (and still don't); and dismissed that greeting, thinking God wouldn't want me to use a cop-out. The person needed something more than my assuaging personal compromise.
The man to my right welcomed and accepted me as a brother in Christ. Crunch time! I turned and smiled at the woman to my left, and said, "I welcome you here and accept you as a sister in Christ!" She smiled back and then turned to the person on her left. And the greeting moved on.
That scene is etched into my mind, especially in this age when folks like the transgendered make for hot-button issues in politics and religion. As do gay and lesbian friends ... they aren't just people, they've also become issues. Issues like whether a same-sex couple can enjoy the benefits and pleasures of marriage like I do. Issues like whether their lifestyles are sinful. I'm glad this little scene in church played out years ago rather than now. Today, the sweating might have been more profuse. But, I do hope my thoughts and response today would be the same as back then.
That's my story: A time I think I got it right.
But, what was it I got right? While using "sister" stills feels like the good and right choice, I think what was right was not in the words I spoke — I think what was right was the place of my heart.
My hands were sweaty and I felt more than awkward, but my heart seemed to be with the sister to my left. At the key moment, what would she want to hear? I thank God that I wasn't thinking of myself; wasn't thinking about what is politically correct (I doubt the term had even been coined then!); wasn't thinking about what my fellow parishioners might think of my words; wasn't trying to "make a statement." I thought about what was right for her.
I don't want to make more of this story and my response than is there; but, I think what I did that day was to act in love. Love of the kind Jesus talked about and demonstrated. Often we treat love as a deep, theological concept, the basis for books and many sermons. But, maybe in its simplest (and purest?) nature ... in our Ordinary Time ... love is simply having the mindset to act on the basis of the other person's need, not on our own.
St. Paul seems to say that if we want to get it right, love must be the basis of our actions — even our good actions. We can have great faith; we can speak in tongues of angels; we can give all we have to the poor; we can sacrifice our lives ... but, if love is not the basis for these great actions, we are simply "a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." (1 Corinthians 13:1 ESV)
While in my story I think I did use love-for-the-other as my guide, the truth is, for me at least, I wasn't dealing with any tough or moral situation. I did have to sweat and wrestle for the right words, but in my heart choosing a gender term presented no real problem of conscious or conflict of faith — neither did the "welcome" and "accept" parts.
However, we may find ourselves in situations where making a decision forces us to wrestle between love-for-the-other and strongly held faith beliefs. Often deciding how to act (assuming we want to act in love) can be much more difficult than my somewhat black-and-white decision about what gender to use speaking to a transgendered person. The requirements of our jobs can force us in situations that seem to oppose our strong faith beliefs. Sometimes it is difficult to know how to love friends when some of their actions seem morally questionable.
In a "Part II" of this Reflection topic, I hope to share some thoughts about love and its application in these tougher situations. Spoiler alert: While I'll try to have some thoughts, I doubt I'll have any solid use-these answers.
But, for now, I'll leave it at what I think St. Paul might tell us: The choices we are faced with may be common-sense, or they may be faith-challenging ones that seem to have no clear answers; but, "Noisy gongs and clanging cymbals" rarely get it right.