by Angela T. Khabeb
I’m surrounded by change. I look outside my window and notice the familiar sight of leaves changing colors. Daylight is fleeting as night arrives earlier and stays longer. It’s almost as if autumn is Mother Nature’s ambassador for change. Not only is change swirling around me, but it is also stirring from within me.
I look in the mirror and see an older, rounder woman’s face where my reflection used to be. I look at my amazing children ages 10, 7 and 5, and I marvel at how fast they’ve grown. I’m surprised how quickly they are becoming their own individual selves. There’s an old adage that claims change is the only thing we can count on. I don’t consider myself to be particularly resistant to change. In fact, I remember proclaiming for decades, “Change is good!”
Now, I’m not so sure.
Perhaps change is neutral, like Switzerland. Perhaps change is neither for us nor against us, but rather we assign value to change on a case by case basis depending on our circumstances or our perspectives. Change is slippery. Even though I wrestle with it, I’m unable to pin it down long enough to dissect it, to analyze it. Change exists in time and beyond time. It has the power to connect us to our past, present and future selves. The same instance can cause physical, emotional and spiritual reformation. Yet when we are in the throes of a challenging transition, it is virtually impossible to gain an objective vantage point. It may take years to unearth the wisdom of an especially challenging transformation. Change may be necessary, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Head over heels
When I held our newborn Khenna for the first time I fell head over heels into his innocence. My eyes were transfixed by the tiny miracle I held in my arms. What would this precious bundle of potential become? I imagined his entire life. An astronaut, doctor, scientist? I reveled in his limitless possibilities, but I never thought for a second that he might grow up to become a woman.
About a year ago, Khenna told us, “I’m a boy on the outside but a girl underneath.” The words came as a shock even though Khenna had been wearing girls’ clothing almost exclusively. I had reassured myself that it was just a phase, but it was evident that my husband and I were in over our heads. We enlisted professional help so that we could navigate this steep learning curve. My husband and I met with a pediatric therapist who specializes in gender identity. She encouraged us to continue celebrating Khenna’s gender journey because gender identity in children is often fluid until age 8 or 9. Since Khenna was only 6, we continued to embrace Khenna and shower our little one with love.
What matters most is that God understands. Khenna’s story, like all our stories, is intimately connected to the divine narrative–that God loves us to death and beyond, and there is nothing we can do about it.
I realized that I had not fully embraced Khenna. Sure, we encouraged freedom of expression and we focused on Khenna’s happiness. But what I was actually doing was biding my time, tolerating this detour of sorts–waiting for my little boy to come home. I still want the baby boy I brought home from the hospital. Where is he? I don’t want to say goodbye to him. I do not want to walk that road. While I publically applauded Khenna’s individuality, privately I lamented the loss of my son. I know the pain of losing a child. Our first child was stillborn. How could God expect me to walk that road again?
Intellectually, I understand that Khenna’s gender identity is not about me. But that knowledge does little to soothe my heartache. More recently, Khenna asked us to use feminine pronouns to reference her. Challenging as it is for us, anything less is just tolerating her and toleration is a lousy substitute for unconditional love.
When I think of Khenna, I’m reminded of the biblical narrative of the humble young sheep herder who was anointed King over Israel (1 Samuel 16:4-13). God sent Samuel the prophet to Jesse’s house. Jesse called his seven sons to come before Samuel. One by one they came. But God did not choose any of them. Samuel asked Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse told him that the youngest was outside tending the sheep. Even though David was the youngest and certainly the smelliest, Samuel wanted to see him because God had already cautioned, “Do not look on his appearance . . . for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” I guess the fine art of judging a book by its cover has withstood the winds of change.
When I am overwhelmed by the daunting responsibility of raising a transgender child, I remind myself about what is important to God. The psalmist declares, “LORD, you have searched me and known me. . . . You formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (139:1, 13-14).
I don’t have to have all of the answers. What parent does?
God’s promises are not contingent upon chromosomes, genitalia or gender. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if I understand or if our church community understands. What matters most is that God understands. Khenna’s story, like all our stories, is intimately connected to the divine narrative–that God loves us to death and beyond, and there is nothing we can do about it.
As Reformation people, every journey that we embark upon by definition offers a chance for rebirth. As Reformation people, we know that what seems like the end is often the beginning.
As Reformation people, we believe that death gives way to new life. Regardless of how unfamiliar the terrain, regardless of how difficult the journey, we are Reformation people, and every step on our journey brings us closer to who God has called us to be.
Ultimately, the only change that matters has already happened – at the font. At Khenna’s baptism, I spoke these words, “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine before others in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14,16).
1. Is God male, female, both, neither, or beyond gender?
2. If reformation, that is, change, is part of our spiritual DNA, why is change so challenging?
3. Describe a time in your life when you resisted change.
In the midst of changes that we cannot understand, help us remember your promise that nothing can separate us from your love that is lavished on us through Jesus Christ. Give us hope in times of transition, and strength to face each metamorphosis trusting in your never-failing presence. Amen.
The Rev. Angela T. Khabeb is a pastor at Ascension Lutheran Church in Waukesha, Wisc. She enjoys an active home life with her amazing husband, Benhi, and their three wonderful children Konami, Khenna, and Khonni.