Reflections on a Funeral
They buried an old friend of mine today. I’d known him for 30 years and he’d been my pastor, my mentor, the man who preformed my wedding and an example of something that seems increasingly hard to find in our society. Allow me, if you will, to look back on not only the things he tried to teach me but the things I learned from him that he likely didn’t even realize he was teaching.
I have at one time or another, here or on my personal blog or in some random Facebook note or forum post, reviewed my (unconventional but also rather pedestrian) life story a number of times. While I’ve known I was a girl since I was six, at least, I also grew up in a world where you kept your “deviant” notions to yourself and the illusion that you’re the only one like you in the world makes that more imperative. But with that in the background, I outwardly conformed myself to the culture around me which was a very traditional “old school” basically Southern Baptist world. I was “saved” (as they say) at nine, was in church with one grandparent or the other every Sunday, a founding member of my high school’s Bible Club and, apart from five years of “backslinding” after high school (a period of my life that I was so suicidal that the platitudes of the church were tormenting me) never strayed much from that model of living. At 23, I attended a “Crusade” (the quotes are for those unfamiliar with Southern Christian terminology) with my new step-sister and “re-dedicated my life” to Christ. The Evangelist had preached on the subject of “besetting sin” that you could not find away to defeat, and the need to turn it over to God and dedicate your life to Him and trust that he would remove and heal the sinful problem. Since all I’d ever been taught was that what I was feeling was sinful, I was eager to claim this relief.
Within a year afterwards I visited the church my brother attended and met Brother Jimmy. Within a year after that I had “surrendered to the ministry” (I always hated that term – “surrendered” – as if you ere being forced to do this thing…but that’s the common phrasing) and Jimmy became me mentor both as a Christian and as a preacher. Within another year I’d proposed to my beloved and he preformed the wedding. That was 28 years ago today.
Eventually we moved on from that little church, seeking out a somewhat bigger place with more for the kids to do (the pastor of that church became a lifelong friend and long time mentor as well) and eventually from that one as well. But Jimmy remained an important part of my life. We preached together for elderly residents of a housing complex here in town and he showed me by example how to be loving to these people who often longed for human contact (I have struggled all my life to get close to anyone as casually as he did, I assume because from my youngest years I learned very well how to hide behind my mask). If I was to be a minister, I might be by my nature more of a “teacher” as opposed to a preacher the way he was, but I would certainly need o have a heart for people as he did.
Some 20 years after I’d met him, I’d grown tired of the falsehoods and cliches of organized man-made “traditional” religion. (To clarify here, I do not make it my business to attack anyone’s faith or the validity of Christ or the Christian God. I speak her of religion, not faith, and Jimmy was among those who cautioned me to know the difference even though it took me a while). Everywhere I turned it seemed i found only congregations and pastors heavily invested in “the way we’ve always…” and the way we’d always believed was, at least in one respect present on my mind, a lie. I had come to realize that nothing in the Bible actually condemned people like me – that somewhere along the way a human tradition had taken on the color of God’s Word and that, unknowingly, they had been lying TO me, ABOUT me. To his credit, I cannot recall ever hearing Jimmy specifically call out LGB/T people from the pulpit specifically, though I know him well enough that he surely took it as a given that you knew better than that mess. In my part of the world, in the 90’s (and before), you seldom had to spell out for people that being gay or “crossdressing” (as they would have called it) was evil, unless you were directly witnessing to one of them. In any case, once I came to realize I’d been hating myself all my life for a “sin” that wasn’t one, it led me to re-evaluate all the traditions I had believed (and preached) and to disdain many of those which seemed to serve the comfort of men’s prejudices and habits more than any command of God.
In a couple of weeks, it will be the eight anniversary of the day that I declared myself to the world as trans (after a home visit from some concerned parties, I’ll have to tell you that story sometime). In the years since then, I cannot conceive for a moment that an old school King-James-Only preacher like Jimmy ever understood, even a little bit, what was going on with me or why I seemed to change so much. But from all I’ve been ever to see he – and his precious wife – loved me just the same. He never “came after me”, never set me straight, debated Scripture, told me I was going to hell, called me names, disowned me, reviled me, made an example of me or shunned me. He was simply…kind. As is his widow now, kind, loving, caring. In other words – like Jesus. Like the real Jesus you see in the Bible, not the phony Jesus so many make their livings prostituting nowdays.
You’ve known me, if you have read any of my previous writings (and if you haven’t – what’s wrong with you?! j/k) then you have heard me frame the current state of religion in America to the gospels and refer to the famous name folks who are neck deep in Republican politics as Pharisees. I don’t think there’s a more apt comparison. The Pharisee Jesus, bent on power and profit, interested in rules and laws and defining one’s self as better by saying “I thank you Lord that I am not like this man, a sinner” stands in 180 degree contrast to the Jesus i saw in Jimmy for 30 years.
I sat there today, at his funeral, thankful for the minister who spent most of his message affirming these qualities but also musing over the distance between myself and all those traditional rituals I was experiencing. I respect their value for those who need them, the sense of closure some get from going through these motions, but at the same time I am thinking to myself that I never want to be the main attraction at a funeral like this. Maybe I’ll write separately about that in the coming weeks. But in the midst of all that, I said goodbye to a man who’s life, while swaddled in all those old-school cliches and traditions, at the same time transcended them and let those around him see the Jesus he believed in.
So remember, when you see me here in this space or elsewhere rip into the Pharisees, do not ever think I’m ripping all Christians. And know that I contend that if you are ripping all Christians with a broad brush I can’t agree with you. Whether or not there’s a God, the one in the Bible or any other, and whether or not the things my friend believed and preached are true, know this: when people do hurtful hateful things in the name of religion, or when they do kind and loving things, the religion simply provides a channel for the nature that the person already possessed. Millions have done evil in the name of Christ, and millions have done untold good in that same name. You cannot point to one without acknowledging the other. For every Tony Perkins, there’s a Brother Jimmy. For that, thank whatever God you pray to.
Photo by: Stephan Ridgway