Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Clare is ... The goodness of people and the overcoming of fear.

Note - I thought I'd scheduled this to be posted in the distant future.  I was going to severely edit it and possibly scrap the whole thing as it was written in quite a rush and I know aspects are problematic.  I get up today and learn that my scheduling skills failed me.  So here it is!

There's a quiz online.  I posted it on facebook.

The quiz is meant to answer the question "How Transphobic Are You?"  Unfortunately it doesn't work well as some of the questions need a knowledge that most people just won't have.

One question reads:

Chelsea Manning is:

a) A gay man
b) A man who thinks he's a woman
c) A woman

Now a lot of people won't know who Chelsea Manning is - since before coming out publicly as transgender she was known as Bradley Manning and it was then that she hit the headlines as a whistle-blower; a hero or a traitor depending on which commentator you listen to.  She leaked many thousands of documents to wikileaks, revealing much about military action in Iraq and Afghanistan including the details of war crimes but also information that could feasibly become a security risk to serving personnel.  A lot of people wouldn't know the name Bradley Manning either.

If you're in America and ever watch Fox News you also have a disadvantage on this question.  Fox consistently calls her a man, "he", on March 28th called her "Bradleen", warns people not to believe that she's a woman but that "he" erroneously thinks "he's" female, and does horrible things like starting news segments about her with Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady."  But that's Fox News.  We don't see it here but must note that even the BBC News website has been known to call Chelsea Manning "he".  And the BBC is not alone.

Let's face it, the BBC quiz Pointless shows that a lot of British people can't remember the name of the current Prime Minister.  So expecting them to remember the name of an American whistle-blower is asking a lot.

Anyway, an answer came back to me.

Ah .. I have heard of Bradley Manning and now Googled .. Having Googled the name Chelsea Manning ... So actually the answer I would give relating to the gender/ sexual orientation/preference of the one called Manning is " I don't care ... It's not important to me .. About as relevant as what football team someone supports or their religion .. We are all people and so long as you dont keep harping on about it, I really don't care or mind what you do to live, thrive and survive"

On the face of it that sounds wonderful.   And it is wonderful that gender issues aren't relevant in someone's life, that it doesn't matter in the slightest to them whether someone is cisgender, transgender, or whatevergender.  It's good to hear.  It really is.   And I know beyond doubt that there's nothing disingenuous whatsoever in that answer.  I know that I might have caused some surprise to this person by coming out, but that I was fully accepted as Clare from day one, no questions asked.  For them it was and is truly a non-issue.  I am grateful to them and to all who think and feel in a similar way.

Yes, I really am that fortunate with my close family and with the overwhelming majority of my extended family and the great majority of my friends.

But.  I thought about it.  And saw a problem with the answer. Maybe it's not really a problem - maybe it's only a problem with the interpretation of the English language.

And I must add two little riders to my thoughts of that day.   Firstly, it's far more important that we treat each other as human beings rather than primarily as man or woman - that we treat each other as who we are rather than as what we are or as a label.   Secondly, I know the binary classifications of man and woman are much too simple to cover the entire range of humanity.  Some people would say, with good reason, that they are neither man nor woman or that they are both man and woman.

"I don't care" answers a different question.  It not being important or relevant to you is good.

But that's not what was asked.

Let's change the question to "Clare Matthews is ..."
The question doesn't ask if you care about what my gender is.  It asks whether you think of me as a man of a woman.  It asks whether you call me he or she.
Now, in your case I already know the answer to that - you've demonstrated that thoroughly in your words already.

But as someone who is misgendered regularly - and sometimes deliberately by people who refuse to call me "she" - I can tell you that this IS important.  This question IS worth caring about.

People's answer to the question governs how they treat someone like me - am I a woman, with the dignity of woman, to be treated as any other woman?  Or am I a sham, disgusting, ripe for abuse in the street?  Am I a "ghastly parody" as Germaine Greer would call me?  Am I an "abomination" as a minister called me?  Am I to be feared when I use a public toilet?   Should I be thrown out or arrested if I need to use a public changing room?  Am I still he?  Or am I an "it" - people have pointed and shouted out things like "Eeeugh, what is it?"

How people answer the question affects my life, every single day and it affects the lives of all those like me who are transsexual or gender queer or gender fluid or whatever else.

How people answer the question doesn't affect the way I live my life - except on the rare days that I'm so drained that I stick on trousers when I want a skirt because that's easier - but it does affect my life.

Fortunately, in the UK in 2014 most people either go with the first option - that I am a woman, or they don't think about it at all, or are too polite to say anything else.

When I came out there were few negative reactions from people I knew.  Most people said, "that's fine",  "that's good news", "you have our support", "go for it - get on with your life, be you and be happy".  Fortunately, the fears that nearly all transsexual people have about coming out are almost never reflected in the reality.  So many times we fear to take a step forward because of all the bad things that will happen.  And then we take the step.  And nothing happens.  I've watched others go through similar processes of great fear and then, in the main, great relief.

A lot of the time it is the fear that holds us back rather than the reality.  But that's not just true when coming out.  It's true in every part of our life.

One thing this last year has taught me is that fear can be overcome.  It has taught me that I am stronger than my fear and that I can do far more than I ever dreamed possible.   Swapping outward gender isn't easy.  If I can do that then what should hold me back in any other part of life.

And you too I believe are strong - stronger than your fears.  You too can overcome them and live a wider, freer life being who you are and doing who you are.   Take to heard the words of the Bene Gesserit litany against fear, from the novel "Dune" by Frank Herbert:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Or take to heart the words from the opening of "A Course In Miracles".  Simple words - but they take a large book to unpack, explain and start to experience.

Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists.

Herein lies the peace of God.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Found Fiction, Thomas Merton, a Railway Murder and a Laughing Cat in Newcastle City Centre

Plans changed today.

I went into Newcastle with planning to sit in a cafe for a while, reading.

It wasn't a major change of plans.  I did sit in a cafe.  It just wasn't the cafe I'd expected to visit.

First I visited a Catholic Church and from their book stall picked up a couple of little Christian books, readings from Thomas Merton and Bede Griffiths, two Catholics who wrote much on contemplation and became greatly influenced by Eastern religions, Griffiths especially by Hinduism and Merton by Buddhism.  I'll say no more, because elsewhere I promised a spirituality free post!

I also grabbed a few journals of local history - Tyne and Tweed, which covers the history of Northumberland from, as the name suggests, the Tyne to the Tweed.  Here I learn of a murder on a train from Newcastle to Morpeth and learn that Barras Bridge, a road near the biggest shopping street in the city, is probably named after a barrow - a mass grave for plague victims.  I'm sure I'll learn of happier things too as I browse the journals.

And then to today's first cafe of choice.  At which point I decided not to go in.  The person serving was not the usual man but instead someone who I know has severe problems with me being transgender.  I'll say no more about that too, because I promised a gender free post!

So I walked to the Anglican Cathedral.  Alas, my favourite seat - the only comfy sofa with a table - was taken.  So after absorbing the organ music playing in the church I left.

Instead I decided to visit "The Laughing Cat".  It's very quiet in the morning as it's tucked away up an unappealing ramp near the library.  You wouldn't go up that ramp without good reason so most people don't know the cafe is there.

I haven't been there for a few weeks.  The last time was with a friend and there was much joyful singing along with the music playing, by staff and customers, that music being a version of The Rocky Horror Show.  It's a friendly place and a good spot to meet people for a drink or food - the pesto pasta is great, the home-made soups are filling and flavorsome, and the bacon is high quality.  And my friend treated me to take-away cake which was an enormous portion of grand chocolate cake.

I treated myself today.  Not just a drink.  But a cookie.  I know that's not much of a treat for most people but for me it's not usual.
I sat, relaxed and read the newspaper provided.  And looked at the cafe which had an entirely different set of things on the walls than three weeks ago.  Someone has used the cafe as an exhibition of his work, which is a regular thing there and in certain other local cafes.  To my left there was this picture:
Ahead of me was the counter, covered with cake and with a pot of little fig filled cake/biscuits that they call "nun's tits."
And to my right, the cafe window, looking out towards the Laing Art Gallery.
Just to complete the set, here's the wall behind me and the seat I'd chosen.
As you can see, The Laughing Cat is not busy in the morning.  I've been there for lunch with friends and there wasn't a spare seat but at 10am on a Friday morning it's often almost deserted.  All the art on the wall behind my chair was from this man's exhibition of his work.  It's well done and I can see the care and creative expression but to be honest most of it is too surreally macabre for my tastes for home.
My cafe visit had an unexpected pleasure.  Sitting on the table was an envelope.
READ ME!  I'm ever curious and obey words like this.  I thought it was probably going to be some left-wing political tract or something about gay rights (The Laughing Cat is known for being very LGBT friendly) or someone had left some sort of religious tract behind for the next unsuspecting customer.  Or perhaps someone had left an envelope by mistake.

Perhaps some of you would have had no surprise about the envelope.  Perhaps you've seen the letters "F F" on an envelope somewhere else and explored the contents.  As I explored I discovered that the letters stand for "Found Fiction".  People write a story, submit it to the found fiction group and their story is left somewhere.  These envelopes exist elsewhere in Britain and there are quite a few in the USA.  What a good idea.   So I read a story called "At the Stake", a less than jolly tale.  I don't know if you'll be able to read it too by clicking on the text but here's the story.  If you save the picture and then open it then it should be readable.  And if anyone from FF reads this and thinks these photos shouldn't be here please let me know and I'll remove them.

And so, full of drink and cookie I left the cafe until another visit calls to me.  A quick walk across the square to look down and across - the cafe is above a main road, gallery to the left and the city library to the right.
The Laing Gallery is free and is certainly worth visiting if you're ever in Newcastle.  It opened in 1904 and houses local glass and pottery and a range of paintings, with permanent and temporary exhibitions.  An exhibition of portraits of the Queen by Cecil Beaton was surprisingly interesting and an exhibition of drawings by the author Mervyn Peake was rather enjoyable.

The city library deserves a blog post of its own.  It was opened by The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh in 2009 and replaced a structure that the broadcaster John Grundy called "a monstrous concrete blob."  It's a pleasant place to choose a book or to read a book.  I'll photograph it sometime but there are plenty of images online for anyone curious.

And then I looked up.  The Laughing Cat is on a balcony above the road.  And it's below this:
It's Bewick Court, a block of 133 flats completed in 1970.   There's a musical about Bewick Court.  I've often wondered what it would be like to live in one of those flats.  I know it would be a very convenient place to live but I suspect it wouldn't be an ideal quiet life there - given that last November there was a court case concerning a rape there and just a few weeks ago someone was arrested for an arson attack there which luckily was controlled quickly and without anyone being hurt.

I think on reflection I'll stay where I am, in our quiet house, and know that we're fortunate to be able to afford to live here rather than in a small flat amid the noise and haste.  I'll just pass it by unless I get to know anyone who lives there.

I'll just visit The Laughing Cat and enjoy it.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Experience of Being Born Again. And Again. And Again ...

As promised in the last post - something about the sermon from the evening service. I may well write about something in the morning service too and cobble together some thoughts about the uses of a word.  This post is written pretty much as the chain of my thoughts.  It's not ever going to be some polished theological gem.  Some of what follows is easy reading.  I fear some of it starts heading into the "technical" and "difficult concepts" categories.  Sorry about that.

Following the Anglican lectionary the subject of the sermon was "born again".  A phrase that strikes terror into many people - as our preacher freely admitted, giving some of the stereotypes of the born again Christian, stereotypes which unfortunately are very often completely accurate.

She talked of a mysticism oriented Catholic priest (Bede Griffiths OSB, also known as Swami Dayananda - a Benedictine Yogi) and his idea of us all being one (he'd picked it up from the Hindus who often have the right idea, in my opinion, about monism) and a view of being born again very different to that usually preached in evangelical churches.  Most evangelical churches say that God is in those who are born again.  They're of God.  But those who aren't born again aren't of God - they're lost.  In contrast, Griffiths wrote that by being born again he came to see that God is in everyone.  Most evangelicals create a duality in the human race - and back it up with Bible verses.  Griffiths sees a more important unity.  He saw a unity in duality.  A unity in diversity.  A multiplicity in the unity.  But unity came first - just as so often in the Hindu Vedic writings, supremely in the writings of Adi Shankara and Advaita philosophy.

Griffiths said "“If Christianity cannot recover its mystical tradition and teach it, it should simply fold up and go out of business” (quoted by Matthew Fox - a name that's important in my own path in the last few years) and he was called before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to defend himself before the then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI).

But the sermon returned more - in the language used, if not the underlying thoughts - closer to the usual evangelical preaching of 'get born again and Jesus or the Spirit will enter in and change your life - are you ready to be born again and to have that "experience" - what's holding you back?  Get born again.  Are you ready to be born again?'  I guess our preacher is closer to Bede Griffiths in her views of "born again" than to those of most evangelicals and wouldn't condemn the non-Christian to hell or to being "them" but as yet I haven't translated the phrase into something meaningful to me - something which can incorporate my past experiences, my present circumstances, and the possibilities of the future.

I don't mean to stamp on our preacher's experiences.   I didn't know her before but the person she's become is pretty marvellous.  Overall - ignoring the embarrassing things from her past, some of which she talked of last night - her God and her belief in the story have produced a woman who anyone would be proud to know and happy to trust. 

I am sure that her "born again" experience changed her life.   I'm sure the corresponding feelings were amazing.  And if something like the traditional "I prayed and God moved" story is leading her to the greatest fullness of love, of life and of peace then that is great.  I have no problem with that.  Reality is big enough to include that story and many other stories, and such an experience can feel overwhelmingly powerful.  It can seem undeniable.  And it can set people on an entirely different road, transforming the foci of lives.  There are even cases of addicts finding freedom from addiction in these experiences, of people finding wholeness instead of mental or physical sickness. 

Is that God?  Or is that the human spirit letting go of worries of psycho-somatic problems?  Is it the "great physician" or the "great placebo effect"?  Whatever the case, to be "born again" in this way is a major event in a life.  It was certainly a major event in my life, and utterly convincing at the time - though it's easy to convince someone of something if they already believe it!

I have a personal problem with the phrase "born again" because of everything I've ever heard about it.  Indeed, the phrase was projected on the screen before the service and I nearly walked out before the service had even started.  I believe that most of what passes for "born again" or "born from above" is a sham.  I believe there are moments of deep revelation that can change a person and their outlook.  But you're not "born again" by praying a prayer of "I'm a sinner, come and forgive me because without you I'm doomed" and most "born again experiences" - including my own in 1990 - I firmly believe are a gift of our human psychological makeup rather than a gift of an all powerful supernatural being. 

I experienced something wonderful in 1990 but I now believe it came from within not without - a joy of feeling I belonged, a joy of feeling I was forgiven and that though (I thought) I was awful I wouldn't be condemned to my deserved fate.  My joy and excitement came from within, bolstered by corresponding hormones, the endorphin release.  It didn't come from an infinite God reaching in and turning me into an entirely new creation.  Yes, it was a "transformative experience" as our preacher put it and I firmly believed at the time that God, the supreme other, was the transformative agent.

My question is:  Am I born again?

I used to answer with a definitive "YES!"  I was born again in February 1990 in someone's bedroom at university.  I became a Christian then and embarked in what I saw as new life.  I've written in other posts some of the reasons I see behind my embracing of the faith.

That was a transformative experience and so it doesn't matter whether God did the work or if my own brain and body chemistry did the work.  I can truly call it in some way "born again".

But it's not the only born again experience.

I was born again last year when I embraced myself - recognising myself in the mirror at a deep level and releasing myself to be me.  If that's not a rebirth, then what is?

I was born again, gradually, when I embraced the truth that we're all "beautifully and wonderfully made" as the psalmist puts it - rather than born in sin and continuing as sinners as the Western evangelical mind puts it.

I was born again when I admitted to myself that my walk of faith has not been fully authentic for years and that it might be alright to walk a different way.

I was born again when I admitted to myself and to others that my faith is very, very different to that expressed in the traditional creeds or in the statements of faith of any of the churches I've been involved with, all of which had been evangelical and exclusive in their own ways.

I am born again whenever I recognise new possibilities for new life.

I was born again through the cognitive behavioural techniques I was taught a few years ago, the hope they gave that depression was not my end, and the tools they gave me to start winning major mental health battles.

I was born again when I sat at White Lodge as a teenager - a born again experience I rejected for over twenty years but now embrace once again.

I was born again in the process of joining the Catholic Church in 2005.  I was born again in the process of leaving the Catholic Church in 2011.

I was born again when I got married and born again when our daughter was born.  Being born again transforms life - but doesn't always make it easy or turn it into a utopian bliss factory.  Being born again is about real life not an illusion of problem free happiness.  And marriage and parenthood are real life, many of the problems in which I have repeatedly caused myself.

I'm sure I have been born again at many other times and will be born again again many more times as the spirit transforms my life - from within or without - and as the people I meet strike new chords of harmony or melody or disharmony in my heart and mind.

I am born again.  With or without "God", I am born again.  And again.  And again.

Question:  Are you born again?  And are you born again through a long birthing process or through powerful events in your life that change you for ever?

The Joy of Church. The Pain of Church.

So, church.  Yesterday.

I sat before the evening service just about succeeding at not flooding the place with tears - just a small cup of tears, not a flood.

I'd walked in to see the words "born again" displayed on the screen.  That set things off in me that were going to make the evening difficult from the very beginning.

I found I couldn't sing the first hymn due to doctrinal triggers. I tried. I got through half a verse before shutting up and sitting down again!

I sat quietly for the prayers - I'm not able to meaningfully translate theistic prayer yet though to be fair much of the prayer was easily accessible from a non-theistic standpoint.

The sermon followed.  I'll get to that in the next post as I try to work out what I think about it.  The church is fortunate to have several people able to preach well.  They're always interesting.  Last night's sermon was interesting too, well written and well spoken.  But the topic was a difficult one for me personally.

Then there were more songs which I couldn't begin to sing.

At which point I walked out, too painful to stay any longer. I invested too much of my life on a story that led me downwards and the wounds of that life are still too fresh.

I stood outside talking with someone, a really nice guy, who had great difficulty seeing how I could stop believing and turn around from it so quickly. But in reality it wasn't so quick.  I've been struggling with faith and non-faith for years and did everything I could to keep following the old faith because I couldn't conceive that any other way would be acceptable or leave me with hope of escaping the hell that was so often my own head.

And that's the nice church in town!  It really is.  Great people.  But great pain for me last night.

I'm meeting with the minister this week to talk things over. Fortunately she's not totally orthodox and says that attendance isn't necessary - that I should go where I need to go and that the Quakers seem great for me.  She's a wise woman!   That's just as well because I'll have to play it by ear as to whether I attend each week.

The evening was a far cry from "church" or "worship" yesterday morning at the Friends Meeting House. Lots of quiet interspersed, on this occasion, with questions of what "religion" and "religious" mean or don't mean and thoughts of living as far as possible in a way without the seeds of war.  Positively noisy for their worship.  Other weeks there's been silence or near silence as we sit and listen, or pray, or meditate, or think, or embrace that full silence.  Alone with the alone.  Alone with the divine, with God, with spirit, with common purpose, with the possibility of that revelation that cannot come through noise or word or concept.

No triggers. And none at lunch with them. They all have different stories and beliefs and approaches to God or to non-God and have thought a lot. And the differences don't matter at all. I found myself sitting with three ex-preachers and an ex-minister - and I've been a preacher too in my more orthodox days. There the differences are to be embraced and encouraged and marvelled at - as long as there's an undercurrent of simplicity, peacefulness, love, and so on. I like that. The Quakers: embracing difference, postmodern since 1650!

At the end of worship visitors or newcomers can introduce themselves.  I finally got round to that, having been there a month and talked with lots of people already.  I told them I loved their variation, that everyone's beliefs and paths were lifted up and that I love it that those varied paths seem so often to be based on deep experience, thought and wisdom.

I think for now I need to be with those Quakers. I won't predict the future - especially with all the surprises of last year. A year ago I was at least attempting to be, and usually convincing myself, an orthodox Anglican man who got let loose in a pulpit regularly. All that changed, and the unexpected paths keep forming before me.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Question: "Shouldn't we follow what the Bible says?"

Someone asked me this morning.  "Shouldn't we follow what the Bible says?"

Bear in mind that I tried my hardest to follow the Bible for many years.  I even had the bookmark that says:

God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.

The following response - typed within ten minutes of reading the question - shows how far my attitude to the book has changed.  At one time I would have been the one asking the same question to someone like the me who exists at this time.

The book contains many marvelous things and great statements.  It contains witnesses to the lives and views of people seeking God and truth and fulfillment.  It contains in the Book of Psalms all the range of joy and sorrow that we experience.  And it contains witnesses to the life and ways of Jesus and some of the people who sought to follow him and base their life on who they believed Jesus to be.

The Bible contains many "wow" moments and much that is a pointer to a greater life, written by men in their own societies with their own views and walking the spirit path walked by so many others.

But my response this morning shows just how far behind I've left the way of blindly "following the Bible."   My view now isn't just that we shouldn't follow the Bible in the way it's often followed - but that "following the Bible" at all is almost an impossibility because of all the assumptions and prejudices we bring to our study and reading of the book.

We can't follow the Bible.  Because we cannot answer the question "What is the Bible?"  And we cannot answer the questions "Why is the Bible?" and "Why is the Bible in the form it is?"  Even if we do manage to remove our own assumptions and approach the Bible dispassionately as a perfect scholar then we cannot - so far - come to any solid conclusions.   Hence the often interesting debates and disagreements of skilled theologians.

And if we do not know what the Bible is we can't accurately read what it says and why it says what it says.  And we can't say what it means - we can only say what it means to us who bring all our baggage to it.  We certainly can't produce any dogma to be applied to everyone else.  All we can say is that we can read the book, follow our own inner promptings and the methods we've learned from fallible men, and find some light and direction.  Which is a perfectly good thing to do.

Thus I believe that "following the Bible" reveals far more about the follower than about the book.  When we follow the Bible we really follow ourselves or follow a preacher who in turn follows theirself or follows another favourite preacher.

So, onto my original response to the question:

Why follow what a book says? It was written by men, edited over many hundreds of years, based on older myths and written to justify points of view. And then interpreted by later men to justify their own prejudices. It is a book about a story. It's not an infallible and clear guide to life. And it contains some quite frankly obnoxious and offensive things. (Not just the supposed gay things - things like an unmarried rape victim having to marry the rapist, like God approving of genocide, like God approving of murdering children for taunting a prophet. Lots of things that I don't think we should EVER follow.)

When selling many hundreds of my Christian books on ebay I grew to dislike the word "biblical". Generally it means "justifying my own point of view by using Bible verses" - so entirely contradictory books would be described in the blurb as "thoroughly biblical". (I've probably cleared out about 3,000 of my Christian books and now have less than 1,000 on the shelves - the fruit of too much reading, too much obsessive book buying, too many denominations, too many sermons written and a couple of theology degrees.)

"Follow the Bible" ends up being a nonsense in which people accuse each other of not following the Bible because they disagree with one another. "Our Church is biblical - yours can't be because we're Calvinist and you're not, or you're the wrong sort of Calvinist." I've heard and seen things like that quite frequently.

You (the person who me asked the question, not you who read this) for instance don't agree with gays. That isn't because you follow the Bible. Some gay friends love the Bible - and one has a PhD on the sort of verses and "proof texts" you might quote to gay people. But it's possible you don't agree with gays because of the way you approach the Bible - and because of the way you approach human beings - and because of the preaching you've been subjected to.

Nobody follows a book despite the claims of many. But people follow their own views about what that book is - how much is literal or metaphor or whatever else - and their own views about life, received from parents, reading, experience or preachers.

I am someone who has in the last year been called an evil abomination by people who claim to "follow what the Bible says". Simply because I am who I am - because I am transgender. They pick out verses, rip them from context, misapply them and say it's impossible for me to be a Christian at all unless I repent of being transgender.

If that's following the Bible - as MANY churches teach - then no, we should not follow the Bible.

We should follow love, life, wonder, awe, creativity, beauty, hope, fearlessness, extravagant giving, wisdom, knowledge, intuition, peace. We should follow the path that leads to all these things in the greatest abundance.

If you do that by following a book, and if you don't use the book to crush the spirit of a human being in any way, then that's great. But I can't do that.