The Grace Letter
1998: Christmas Remembered
God is, or He is not. But to which side shall we incline?...Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.
I've never forgotten my graduation from elementary school. Somehow I was given a part on the program: reciting a poem from memory. Not just any poem: this one has probably been quoted or read at more graduation ceremonies than any other.
In "If", Rudyard Kipling had this to say about risk:
I memorized it, but the words didn't relate to my life at the time. As Elton John would sing years later,
For many years, that's all the world saw: a winner. I was "on top of the world" in my professional life, my family life, and even my religious life. Oh yes, a Sunday School teacher, a choir member, a deacon. My experience from childhood was in a form of Christianity which was certain of all the right answers. Indeed, there was no reason to question! Questioning revealed doubt; and doubt was, at best, a character flaw. Perhaps doubt was even an indication of apostasy. Do you want to put your salvation at risk? Don't doubt! Have faith! Don't ask questions! We already have all the answers anyway.
There are a great many otherwise thoughtful persons who submit to this line of belief without questioning. Perhaps I would have been one of them, but I was not. Despite my "total immersion" in this branch of Christianity which was becoming known as fundamentalism, my heart knew otherwise.
This isn't going to be well received, I said to myself. But I had to take the risks I had to ask the questions. I had learned to doubt. The risks I took were real, and the losses were real. I survived the losses and emerged as a different kind of Christian, no longer afraid to ask questions and take risks.
What have you put at risk in your life? Have you played it safe? Is your life constructed around risk avoidance?
We can't avoid risks. Every time we get into our automobile we are taking a risk to arrive safely at our destination. When we manage our savings and invest in the markets, we are taking risks. The greater the risk, the greater the return if the risk pays off. If not, the risk leads to loss.
Can you lose, and start again at your beginnings? Once you have done it, you no longer fear the risk. Been there, done that. But the first time is oh, so frightening.
The times are changing. Not everyone who "comes out" as a transgender person will lose the support of family and friends. Some will not lose their jobs. Yet it could be argued that these persons take a different risk. By remaining with all the circumstances of their previous lives, they may not be perceived as complete in their chosen gender. Perhaps they are still seen, not as "Jane," but as "John who had an operation." The risk of remaining in the comfort zone is, for some, preferable to the risk of starting over, in a new identity, in a distant place. But both paths involve some risk.
For persons who are not spiritual, or whose religion does not forbid gender transition, there may not be a spiritual aspect of risk involved. The rest of us deal with our losses through adaptation. We grow stronger in our own spirits and we continue to question.
I've heard "Pascal's Wager" cited as intellectual support of belief in God. It seems to me that the Wager merely supports belief in a narrow view of our Christian God, one who is willing to condemn all who do not conform without question to such a view. Furthermore, the belief engendered by the Wager is not true belief, but just cosmic fire insurance the ultimate risk avoidance.
Bill Watterson, the cartoonist of Calvin and Hobbes, hit the target perfectly with this strip:
The obvious application of Jesus's words to a person entering transition is easy to see. But "counting the cost" can mean much more in a spiritual sense, and that's where I want to take this essay.
We will consider verses which describe risks taken to follow Christ. Some readers may think it's presumptuous to equate following Christ with gender transition. But I'm trying to make the point that we can do both we can proceed with transition, as we know we must, and still retain our relationship to Jesus. It will, however, cost us.
Let's see what else Jesus had to say about risk.
Easy Christianity? Rewards now, and rewards later? That's the way the passage reads in Luke. But scholars agree that Luke used Mark's account as his source, and here's what Mark said:
I'm not sure why Luke left out the "persecutions." But I am rather sure Mark's reference is intentional.
Being a truth seeking follower of Christ brings persecutions. The more questions we ask, the more we upset the status quo. Perhaps "the establishment" feel that we must not ask questions about any aspect of doctrine as they see it. If we question one verse, even the narrow interpretation they may place upon that verse, where do we stop? What keeps us from questioning other verses?
What, indeed? A seeker of truth must maintain the right to question. As the United Church of Christ states, "God Is Still Speaking." Perhaps some of the things we hear God say are not compatible with the traditional interpretation. Should we listen? Persecutions may result!
I believe it is a risk worth taking. In subsequent essays I will try to discuss some of the questions in greater detail.
Let's see what we can build.