There was a time when I thought a clean heart and a right spirit meant denying my sexuality and gender ambiguity. That was my understanding of it. But that was not God’s understanding of it for me.
In a strange way God can draw straight lines from crooked sticks. My ‘affliction’ of being transgender (there was no such word when I was growing up) created in me a deep yearning for God and purity of heart, of being freed from ‘double-mindedness’. The desire for that was God given, even though the obstacles in the way were largely due to my ignorance and fear and the religious assumptions of the churches when I came of age.
I spent much of my life coming to terms with my gender identity and need for intimacy. It is probably unnecessary to dwell on all the details of that for people who have struggled with the same or similar problems. At first I hoped and prayed like Paul that God would take this ‘thorn in the flesh’ from me. But it was not removed. Then I discovered books and what a wonderful escape it is to live in one’s head with one’s nose in a book. I did that for a long time. I also thought marriage would cure me when books didn’t seem to work. In the course of the marriage we had three kids. I also thought my profession as a minister would preoccupy me as well. But to make a long story short, none of these diversions worked. When the marriage ended I came face to face with the demon that had tormented me since I was 13 years old. I was 37.
Having a clean heart I learned the hard way meant being honest to God about who I was and am. In hindsight it seems God had been waiting on me to come to this realization. From a life ending up in near disaster I emerged from the ruins with losses and tears, but with a renewed sense of personal integrity. I completed the gender transition at the age of 40 in 1978 and started my life over. There were a good many fears to face, but knowing who I was as a transsexual person was not one of them. In time I found a second career as a college registrar, and even continued in part time ministry as a supply pastor. I bought a condo and had good friends. I became a LGBT activist. I became a chaplain for the local Dignity chapter. My life was going well I thought.
Then one day in my early fifties I woke up to the fact that I had filled my life with activity and good works, but lacked the intimacy of a lover, something that I had not really experienced during my 14 years of marriage. God was again calling me by my tears to venture out into deep waters. When I had transitioned, the lesbian community was totally hostile to trans-people, and I decided then to put that part of my life on a shelf in the closet and forget about it. At 54 it was actually past time to take it off the shelf. God was stirring my heart with tears and longing that I had conveniently avoided at a time when just surviving and finding and keeping a job were demanding my utmost attention. So for the second time in my life had a major coming out experience. I was redoing my adolescence and at 54 experiencing ‘puppy love’ all the while knowing that it was just ridiculous, but necessary to become a whole person and recover from the wounds of my earlier life and failed marriage. My peace of mind was shattered by an emotional thunderstorm that swept through my life for about two or three years. Not only was I admitting my need to love and be loved, but I was at the same time grieving the loss of that love due to the rejection of my children, my ex spouse and the fact that I had spent so much of my life as a social exile beginning at a very young age.
Having a clean heart at this time in my life meant not the absence of passion, but the acceptance of it, letting it carry me to a new place where I would share my life and be connected to another person whom I loved and loved me in return. Such a journey would not separate me from others but rather re-unite me to them not as some sort of spiritual ascetic or guru, but as one who shared a common humanity with them. After several little love affairs, each one taking me further toward a more mature kind of relationship, I finally found the person who became my life partner, someone who is definitely my equal and sometimes more in some areas of life. We entered into a Civil Union in Vermont July 1, 2003 and moved to Vermont later that same year.
I could say a great deal about how this relationship has changed me. I will only mention two. All of us need to be loved and affirmed as loveable. My partner gave that gift of love to me and in doing so helped me heal from years of believing I was so different that no one could fall in love with me. I was the frog who needed to be kissed to turn into the princess charming. That is not quite what I became but you get the basic idea. The second thing I gained from this relationship is a more realistic expectation of what married life provides and what it cannot provide. I had lived in my first marriage hoping for a degree of intimacy from my partner that was not forthcoming. In part because she was a profound introvert, and in part because I was not on intimate terms with myself.
In my second marriage I have been able to be open and honest with my spouse, and we have been able to accept one another’s differences which at times are irritating and annoying. The ‘neediness’ of my former self has slowly ebbed away. I am more realistic about what human love offers and what it is to love another person and that does not just depend upon feeling, but on discerning what she may need from me by way of help or support or even helpful criticism.
To have a clean heart before God I have learned means first of all admitting who you are and allowing God to lead you into an unknown future. If your windshield is all fogged up you don’t know where you are going. Cleaning it allows you to see out and begin to steer in a direction that keeps you on the road and out of the ditch. Praying for a clean heart means asking that you may be still and patient enough to feel the promptings of the Spirit and hear the questions that God raises in your mind and then have the courage to follow them.
And finally now at 70 I embrace that initial call of God which I experienced as a young teenager. I do desire to love God completely as intimate friend and companion who knows me very well and yet respects the distance and freedom between us. And I welcome this long time friendship even though at long intervals I ignored and resisted it. I do so now with greater confidence seeing how God has brought good out of evil for me. How my life has been enriched, in spite of the anguish and losses I experienced.
Create in me a clean heart and renew a right spirit with in me is not now a guilt laden prayer but rather a prayer for deeper integration of my life centered around the love of God that abides in spite of all difficulties that life presents. It is a prayer that God will give me the gift of integrity, sound judgment and a good and loving heart if I but be open to where the Spirit leads.
Ahead lay some fearsome challenges as I grow older and face inevitable illness, separations and finally death. Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me that I may know even in these times of crisis, the joy of your salvation. Amen.
Assigned male gender at birth as James D. Flynn in 1938 in Chicago, Illinois, Rev. Sarah Jean Flynn earned her bachelors in anthropology and history from the University of Texas in 1961 and that same year married as a male. She moved to New Jersey to study at Drew Theological School, where she earned her M.Div. in 1968. She transitioned in 1978 following the dissolution of her marriage. For years she served as a United Methodist supply pastor in Connecticut and became pastor of a small parish outside Hartford. In 1995 she ended her pastoral service to the United Methodist Church and became a member of an Independent Catholic Church and was received as a priest in that communion. In 2003 she and her partner Joanna Cole moved to Burlington, Vt., where they became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in the Episcopal Cathedral of Saint Paul, on All Saints Day, November 1, 2009.