‘Look at it this way: You aren’t losing a brother. You’re gaining a sister,” said my brother of 46 years at dinner one night. A month prior I had noticed the makeup on his face. When I asked about it, his response was simple: “I feel better about myself with it on.” I assumed he was gay.
As we sat on his balcony in Chicago, over salmon and focaccia, I listened as he read aloud his personal statement. The letter, written for his boss, explained his decision to transition to living as a woman and his new expectations of others. By the end of the reading, tears flowed. He waited in silence for my response.
My only sibling. My ally. As children, our relationship was a wall of defense in the minefield of our parents’ dysfunctional marriage. We escaped to the woods behind our ranch house and sailed our bathtub boats in the creek. Creating blanket forts and playing army men in our beanbag chair kept us busy after our parents put us to bed. He called me “M. M. L.” I called him “Chobey.” He was my brother, and we did things that boys liked to do. Never once did I think, He’s acting like a girl.
We grew up in a Christian family. Our father was best described as a “wildcat,” adventurous and volatile, our mother, beautiful and genteel. My brother gave his life to Christ while attending an Arkansas crusade around age 6. Billy Graham’s ministry brought me to salvation at age 7. We were both baptized and confirmed, and attended Honey Rock Camp, run by Wheaton College. Dad taught our Sunday school class. Our family was “normal.”
Over dessert, my brother told more of his transition story. After work and dinner with his family, he’d drive into the city. He’d change clothes in his car and stroll through Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood trying to make transgender friends, then change back again to travel home, say goodnight to his son, and go to bed.
As I listened, I felt the tectonic plates of my heart shift, jarred by a combination of compassion and questions. How could he live like this and why? What happened? When did it start? What would I call him now? I studied his heartbreak, respected his courage, and managed to respond with a quiet, “I’m so sorry.”
To my surprise he shot back, “Aren’t you going to judge me?” My heart ached with the hurt of my faith being misunderstood and the recognition that the prevailing view of Christians as judgers remains strong, even within the minds of those closest to us. I took some time and explained that judging is not my job. That’s God’s job. All I can do is try to love people in the best of the Holy Spirit’s goodness and grace apportioned to me and in a manner consistent with my beliefs. Jesus and the woman caught in adultery came to mind. Who am I, a sinner, to cast a stone at my brother? The grievous sins I have committed are no less or lighter weight than what my brother is walking out. If I am following in the way of Jesus, then I am called to respond in this conversation like Jesus did: “Neither do I condemn you....Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).
But “Go and sin no more” is hard to say to someone sitting across the table, confidently explaining that his decision to ultimately pursue sex reassignment surgery is, in his words, “what God has for me.” That decision, and its effect on his family, was the focus of Becoming Us, a reality television show that starts airing tonight. Much prayer, soul-searching, and financial investment went into his decision. My brother searched the Bible for comfort and found it in 1 Samuel 16:7: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
“He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed” (Isa. 50:4). The poet Luci Shaw quoted this verse at the 2014 Festival of Faith and Writing. It helped me to recognize how the dawn of each day brings with it a unique listening opportunity.
One of my spiritual disciplines is to begin each day with prayer before I set my feet on the floor. It is a prayer we taught our children in Sunday school: “Good morning Lord, this is your day. I am your child, show me your way. Help me to hear your voice and love the people you put in my path today.”
Because my brother has a son in high school, a good deal of our conversation centers on him. My heart, hope, and prayer were for my brother to delay his full transgender transition to respect his son’s need for a father during these critical years. Couldn’t he at least wait until Ben’s high school and puberty passed before having surgery? I enlisted praying friends to join my prayers and fast for my brother and Ben.
Fifteen months after our conversation on the balcony, my brother underwent sex reassignment surgery. I found myself on the phone listening to the trials of dramatic recovery, hormone therapy, and medically required dilation (a word I once assumed was confined to eye doctor visits and having babies). I returned again to deep listening, which calls for an inclination of the ear to understand that which is beyond our grasp. There is undivided focus and, while the person is talking, a constant silent prayer: “Lord, help me. I’m not getting this.” Deep listening provokes the posture of Proverbs 2:2, “turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding.” This is the kind of listening I would need to practice for my brother’s and my relationship to flourish in this change.
Holy Week at our church is the centerpiece of the year, a season filled with the Lord’s presence, compassion, and mercy. I invited my brother and his lesbian girlfriend to our Maundy Thursday service. The awkwardness of introducing them to our friends initially overwhelmed my joy in their participation. I fumbled through an unbearably confused greeting, “This is my brother, Carly, and his girlfriend, Cera.” Even close friends who knew my brother before his transition stared and attempted to shake hands and close their gaping mouths. My brother and I look more alike now than ever, only adding to the confusion.
As the service progressed, it led to the traditional foot-washing. I was looking forward to washing my brother’s feet, but his black tights, white skirt, and heels prevented me from doing so. Instead of washing his feet, I poured water on the feet of his girlfriend and she on mine. The Lord met us in a white plastic tub of tepid water. In that moment I knew I loved her. I admired her courage going forward and embracing the unfamiliar. She hardly knew me, yet she came to my Anglican, evangelical, charismatic church and let me wash her feet. How like the Lord to transform our uncomfortable, twisted hearts and minds with his presence and love. I’m hoping to wash my brother’s feet next Holy Week, but he’ll need to wear sandals.
As I walk out this journey, I become increasingly aware of my own weakness and sinfulness. Loving people well does not come easy, but the Lord is abounding in steadfast love. As my cell phone rings, I often think, I just can’t talk about this today. But the Lord is pressing in with his generosity and compassion. He is listening.
The older I get, and the more complicated my life gets, the more I find myself crying out to the Lord, “Help me.” I’ve spent many hours in the small chapel of our church praying, asking for his resources and reservoir of love for those whose choices are hard for me to accept.
He is faithful to answer, most recently in the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, the bishop of Constantinople in A.D. 389:
Is it not God who asks you now in your turn to show yourself generous above all other creatures and for the sake of all other creatures? Because we have received from him so many wonderful gifts, will we not be ashamed to refuse him this one thing only, our generosity? Though he is God and Lord, he is not afraid to be known as our Father. Shall we for our part repudiate those who are our kith and kin?
The Will to Embrace
We as Christians are not called to repudiate. We are called to love. It is love to say to a brother or a sister, “Go and sin no more.” It takes guts and abandon to the way of Jesus, but it rings as truth when we speak it in love.
Gender issues are one of the great challenges of our day, and I believe we can rise to meet this challenge. Our forebears in this country emancipated the slave, and today we are called to set another kind of slave free, the sexually trafficked. We embraced the foreigner, and today we invite them into our homes through foster care and adoption. We hurt the LGBT community by ostracizing them from our churches. Let’s bless them with our listening ears, willingness to be uncomfortable, and hunger to seek the heart of Jesus in every conversation.
This spring, after years of smoking, my brother underwent open-heart surgery. Before the surgery, he could see how earnestly our family was struggling with his name and the use of acceptable pronouns. It is hard to switch to “she” and “Carly” when you’ve known someone as “he” and “Charlie” for most of your life. I’m working on it, but the shift still feels unnatural and forced.
On the night before his surgery, he told our mother and me, “Call me Chobey. That will work best for everyone.” Chobey is a name we all adore. His grace moved me. Despite his knowing that I believe his decision to live as a woman is inconsistent with the tenets of my faith, he continues to draw near to me and I to him. As we all do this, may grace return.
Margaret Philbrick is a gardener, teacher, and author most recently of the novel A Minor: A Novel of Love, Music, and Memory (Koehler Books). You can connect with her at margaretphilbrick.com.
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