Something good happened at church last night. Next Sunday I will officially become a member of Northern Lights Metropolitan Community Church. Before doing that I felt it necessary to publicly renew my faith in some manner, a break with so much of the past and a cleansing - even if just symbolic - in readiness for the new and for whatever my future brings.
I discussed this with our pastor who suggested renewing my baptismal vows, and she designed a short liturgy for this. There were the traditional vows you take at baptism, more vows relating to the faith and practice of the local church, and between the two a symbolic hand washing to wipe away the past in a sacramental fashion and through the prayer prayed as my hands were dried.
As part of this I was asked to write something brief about the reasons for the renewal. I don't do brief! An edited version was in the church newsletter and I read the full version at church last night. What was read is roughly what follows - though just as when I used to preach I don't stick to the script no matter how hard I try! I was very well behaved last night, so the changes were minor.
Mentally I've been having a rough time recently. Some quite major struggles. My wife says that whenever I'm doing good things I get clobbered. And there have been so many things recently, so much of a move to becoming a better functioning human, in the places where I am meant to be. Saturday night was the worst I've had in years - but it led into a Sunday that was excellent. I realised yesterday morning that among other things I was grieving, mourning greatly - for my mother, for my father, and also for the years that I could not live as who I am. All those mourning processes are needed but piling it all up together isn't easy. On Sunday as I was on the way to another church in the morning I opened my Bible to the next chapter. Happened to be Matthew 5, the start of the Sermon on the Mount. So I read, "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted." And then the first song at that church had lines, also drawn from the Bible, about mourning being replaced by joy. Sometimes God knows what God is doing!
Truly, this weekend contained very low points, mourning, sorrow. And it contained high points of commitment, friendship, and joy. Life can be so amazing in its variety.
Last night, during the service at Northern Lights MCC I publicly renewed my baptismal vows. For me this is a needful step before formally becoming a member of the church. I know that's not the case for most people so wanted to publicly explain why I am renewing those vows.
Firstly it's because I was baptised under another name, another gender, and was a very different person then. I'd love to be re-baptised as Clare but of course that's not a theological option. Baptism is a one time event – and I've already gone through it three times as an adult. I cannot be baptised again but I need to publicly express that, as Clare, those vows I made as “him” still stand and that they stand more firmly than they ever did in the past.
That's the obvious reason: My present,living as the woman I am, is such a changed life from my past, forcing myself to live as the man I never was.
But there is a second reason. It's even more important to me than the first. Many people in the church will know some of my story of faith over the last eighteen months. As I sat at MCC my Christian faith died a slow death, a painful death. Every service was a kind of torture for me. And some in the church put up with my many words, my complaints, my deep pain through that process. I cannot thank the church enough for supporting me through the death of my faith and through everything I said, and felt, and did.
My faith deserved to die. It really did. Good riddance to it! Not because of any doctrines or dogmas that were or weren't attached to it. But because the root of my faith was self-hatred, self-denial, self-rejection – arising from a firm belief that I was no good. Much of that came from received beliefs about my gender and consequently my near-constant urges to self-destruct. My faith helped to destroy me, helped me to eradicate myself, for twenty-three years. It was immensely important to me but it crushed me.
Eventually I was able to leave that faith behind, and rest secure in a faith that excluded any personal God. The plan was to leave MCC and never look back. That was the only future I could see. But throughout the whole journey I still believed in MCC, her vision, her people, and the place of healing that the church is. And, solely because of certain of the people, I stayed.
Many of you will have noticed a not so subtle change in me since the start of October. At church one evening everything suddenly clicked. I could sing the songs, pray the prayers and knew it was OK to receive communion again for the first time in a long while. And I was extremely surprised that night to find myself on my knees, hands in the air, lost in worship and thankfulness to the God I didn't believe in. The “God of Surprises” entered again and renewed my world, my heart.
Faith returned. It's a new faith. Brand new. It's a far healthier faith, one that accepts the love of God, and one that can honestly say with the Psalmist;
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
As I renew my baptismal vows it is my freedom to be Clare, to be authentic, that I celebrate. But more than that I celebrate my return to faith. A purer faith. A very different faith than that I had before. Based on self-love rather than self-condemnation, on authenticity rather than self-squashing, on freedom, on love, on grace, on hope, on acceptance, on inclusivity, on joy, on light and life and on so much more.
As I publicly vow myself to God and to the centrality of Jesus in my life, I do so based on the solid conviction that God is love, and his love is for me and for all of us. And I do so based on a response of love that seeks the beauty and life of Abba, Jesus, and Spirit. At this point I do not know exactly what I believe down to the x, y and z of doctrine. But I know in whom I have believed. In God, who is my parent and source. In Jesus, saviour, who is my example and who died. In Christ who lives, and lives in me and in all of you.