Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Holy Week at Derby Cathedral: Compline on Tuesday

Last night I said to the Dean that I thought that my meditation for Tuesday was my best. What I think I meant was that it’s the most personal. I suspect, therefore, it might make some listeners rather uncomfortable. That isn’t my intention; it’s just that sometimes the side-effects of reality are problematic. Holy ground is always troubling, I think. And what I want to offer, even if it’s difficult to hear, is part of my holy ground. Even if I make you angry or worried, I hope you can hear my vulnerability in sharing it.

So, I offer a deeply personal meditation. It’s on a subject that many find controversial or even a little icky. It is a subject matter they want to shy away from. We cannot bear to look and yet we look; we say we’re not interested and yet we are fascinated. It concerns a dimension of the body that even if you prefer to ignore it, isn’t going away. The kind of people about whom I speak, which include me, aren’t going away and we will no longer be quiet for the sake others’ scruples.

I’ve been talking about bodies a lot this week. About the kind of bodies we are; about our bodies' strengths and weaknesses. About what it might mean to be called to travel with Christ as members of or bystanders to the Body of Christ during this Holy Week. It has entailed us being invited to see ourselves in the story. Who are the people of Holy Week? Whom does Christ gather around him?

It is easy to say that the people of Christ in Holy Week are not the good, or the powerful, or the respectable. They are not the great. They are an assortment of nonentities, and dubious Galileans, they are women and tax collectors, a rag-tag group who (for the most part), when the moment of pressure comes, will run away, or deny or betray. Where does that leave most of us? Especially those of us who have so much at stake in institutions and authority and the status quo?

Perhaps the only wise thing to do is acknowledge the truth of our precariousness and fragility; we need to acknowledge that we overlay this with the rhetoric of competence, and strong leadership, good management and our trust in Jesus, which so often is a way of concealing our vain trust in ourselves. Perhaps we would be wise to expose the way we can use power-over and authority to bolster the facts of our limitations; or conceal the facts of the body: those facts being (as I explored yesterday) the way the body will ultimately let us down, betray us, be insufficient and may even become an instrument of violence against others. We – who think we’re self-sufficient or respectable – may need to confess some mighty sins.

So, as one who stands before you as a person who holds authority and license, and is (in the trendy parlance) a leader as well as a representative of an established church and all that can signify, I offer this story from my body. Not so that it lets me off anything. More so that it signals the precarious places any of us can find ourselves in and from which we sometimes discover grace and glory. How we can discover in the bleak places, the sites of the Cross, the possibility, the rumour, of grace. For just as the Living God reveals how the imperial, authoritarian violence of crucifixion – designed to punish disobedient bodies – can be turned against itself, thus this work of subversion is possible in all bodies, in their particularity.

My body is disobedient. It is, to use an academic term, non-normative. It is variant. It breaks rules, as I think every particular body does. But in my case, it’s obvious and undeniable. Most of us can pull of a good performance of ‘the normal’, can disguise the particular and specific oddness of our own bodies by approximating an ‘ideal’. I don’t think I can. When I was born I was, to use the current terminology, assigned male. I was raised as a boy. For a short period of time, I lived as a man. I am a trans woman. I used to be ashamed of that fact. I thought it something to keep secret. That it would scare parents and children and all right thinking respectable people. Maybe it does. But here I stand. I claim who I am and I am not ashamed. I too am part of the body of Christ. My body too signals the image of God and gestures towards what it might mean to grow into the likeness of Christ. Just as much or as little as yours does. I know what it is to be vilified and to have had Christ stand in solidarity with me in my wounds, as I seek to stand by him in his.

I could go on and on. I could tell you about the ways in which Christ’s crucified and abused body has been read through unexpected lens through Christian history. How there are scholars who would say that his crucified body is a trans body. Instead, let me tell you a story. It’s based on facts, on things that happened to me over twenty years ago. At times, rather harrowing things. Where it departs from the facts it does so to help us draw closer to the truth. It’s called Stones.

Before I start, however, one note. The story contains one slur work – that is, a work that’s been used to hurt and punish trans people. I use it because it was said. I really don’t mean to upset or offend anyone.

Stones (Taken from: The Risen Dust (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 2013))

This was getting ridiculous, she thought. How difficult can it be to open your front door and step out? Yet this was how it had become - standing here day after day, morning after morning, knowing it was no good staying indoors. Knowing that she had a life to lead. Knowing that in some ways her whole future depended on stepping out into the world and facing it, whatever it might hold. How easy would it be to stay in? To come up with some excuse to hide. To say, well just I’ll stay in, watch TV, call in sick...tomorrow I’ll get back to it. Too easy, she thought.
         She stood there a few moments longer, breathing as slowly and as evenly as she could, trying to look natural and relaxed, telling herself that whatever lay out there this morning, it could not define her. That they would not hold her back. That they were just being ignorant and foolish. That she was ok, that she looked ok, that she was not a freak. She took one final deep breath, fixed a smile on her face and stepped out into the August morning sun.

She got twenty yards before it started.
'Are you a boy or a girl?'
'A girl of course,' she replied, looking at the little girl, suddenly conscious of the nervous edge in her voice. Of how the nerves seemed to make her voice sound both gruffer and squeaker - like a man trying to sound like a woman. Her shoes suddenly seemed tighter, the make-up on her face a ridiculous mask.
'Dad called you a tranny...' Replied the girl artlessly. She could have been no older than seven, the woman decided.
'That’s not very nice,' she answered mildly, dying a little inside. Fighting back the tears. She couldn't blame the girl. She couldn't blame any of the kids really. She was bright enough to know that their meanness and mockery was not innate. It came from their scared, suspicious parents.

It had been going on for months - the stares, the mocking smiles, the men in particular looking at her with a strange mix of curiosity and fear. Attraction even. All of it wrapped up in the undercurrent of violent threat. And the name calling, of course. But it had taken a step up since the start of the summer holidays, with the kids out pretty much from dawn till dusk on sunny days. The name calling had got vile. At first she'd tried talking to them, but that only seemed to make it worse. So she tried to ignore them or smile, walking the gauntlet with assured cool. It was exhausting.

She wished she’d never moved to this estate, but it was pretty much the only place she could afford. She’d also started wishing - to her annoyance - that she wasn't who she was. That she could be other. That god or nature or whatever had made her this thing, had just made her a girl from the start. Or had helped her accept the gender she’d been given at birth. She hated herself for these thoughts because she'd told herself - post transition – she’d never put herself down again. There were too many people out who’d do that for free.

As she walked she looked down at her hands - her small, pale hands, her best feature she thought - not too big or too manly. Pretty hands. And she looked at the welts and the cuts on them and she could have wept. It wasn't just her hands. Her body felt sore from the stones they'd thrown at her the day before.

Just as she'd been skirting the park, a shower of stones had hit her and the shout of freak had come from a dozen or more children's voices. That had really shaken her up. She'd run home and sat for hours by the phone, picking up the receiver and putting it down again, trying to decide whether to call the police. But she didn't. What would the police do? Why should they care about people like her? They'd just take her details, tell her this was a serious crime and then snigger behind her back. And, anyway, who were they going to take it up with? A bunch of kids? The last thing she wanted was for these kids - kids already facing a hard time - to have more police on them. But she knew she was close to cracking, close to blowing up, close to lashing back.

She'd been so caught up in her thoughts, she’d forgotten the little girl. She hadn't noticed the girl tugging on her arm for attention.
'Miss...that's what I said...'
'What? Sorry?'
'I said it wasn't very nice...calling you a tranny...'
The woman stopped walking and stared at this little girl, seeing her properly for the first time. She was scrawny, with long brown hair and very pale skin. Her dress was a bit too big for her and had a frayed hem. There were bags under her eyes. Like so many kids on this estate, she did not look very well cared for. There was something almost funny about the way she jutted her jaw out and pulled herself up straight as she spoke, as if she had to be fight to be heard. She probably always had.

The girl spoke again, asking, 'Is it hard?'
'How do you mean?', the woman replied, slightly bewildered by the way this conversation was heading.
'Being you,' the girl said. The woman could have cried then. She wanted to say something grand or dramatic like, 'No harder than being you', but all she could manage was, 'Yes...' The little girl nodded in the wise way only little children can manage. The woman felt awkward as she noticed the girl looking at her bruised hands. To cover the silence, the woman said breezily,
'It's quiet today. Where is everyone?'
'I told them to leave you alone...I told them...' Her jaw jutted out again as she spoke. The woman felt her jaw drop. As she tried to pull herself together, she managed,
'Why did you do that?'
But the girl was already running off and the woman couldn't make out what she said.

The woman thought then about what a religious friend had said to her a few weeks before - about how her choices to take the risk of coming out and being faithful to herself was an act of resurrection. About it was part of God’s new creation. She’d struggled to believe that, just as much as she struggled to believe in any sort of god, other than one who laughed at the world.

She struggled to believe it still. But maybe just now she’d seen a glimpse in the kindness and bravery of a little girl. Because all she’d ever wanted since she’d stepped out the door for the first time as a woman, was to be hidden, to blend in and to fit in. And now she’d been seen as if for the first time, and instead of it being horrible, it was good. She had been seen and it was good. And for the first time in God knows how long, there was hope in the tears streaming down her face.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, I think I'm beginning to understand . . . .