When God said NO to me

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It’s one thing to talk about hard things; it’s quite another to live them.

When, last week, I wrote in the wake of my cousin’s eighteen-year-old son’s death, about how God could answer NO to our family’s fervent prayers for healing and we could still love Him and consider Him faithful to His promises to us, there were a number of challenging things to accept.

This being a Christian is not easy business. Let no one ever tell you that once you are a Christian your life is a cakewalk. No, the life of the Christian in this world is filled with every hardship, every challenge, ever malady, every tragedy, which any person on earth might experience, and the Christian works to see the Lord’s goodness to her or him come what may.

When it comes to talking about God saying NO to fervent prayer, I have walked the walk. Here are the three major times that God did not answer my prayers as I requested. In each one, after I got over His NO, He dazzled me with what He had in store for me.

The death of my son

I have written about Johnathan’s birth and death here and thus will not cover those details.
https://eilerspizza.wordpress.com/2016/01/14/11481/

Naturally, my first wife and I prayed like crazy after Johnathan took ill. Our pastor was quick to come to the hospital, and he prayed with us. As word spread, I am confident that relatives and friends were with us in our petitions to the Lord to spare Johnathan’s little life and us the heartbreak of possibly losing our newborn, firstborn child.

God said NO.

We were, of course, devastated. More than leaving the hospital with empty arms, we returned home with empty hearts.

A funny thing happened on the way to what could have been hard hearts toward God. The Lord healed us. We lost neither heart nor faith. Soon, Kim was longing to carry another child. Ten months and ten days after the birth of Johnathan we welcomed Erin. Two years later came Jackie. Almost three more years till Addison greeted us, and another nearly three years until we wrapped up our child-having years with Alex, in 1989.

Over the eight years since Johnathan, the Lord had worked great growth of faith in me. I had gotten very involved at church. I began reading the Bible on my own. My prayer life was vibrant. I was in Bible study and loved it.

Bitterness over Johnathan never entered my heart. Quite the opposite, I have been able to say that it’s all good. I know that Johnathan belongs to the Lord, that his soul is before the throne of the Lamb of God in heaven, and that on the Last Day he will be raised from the dead in a perfected, eternal, adult body to live forever.

When one argues the joys of earthly life with the bliss of eternal life, there is no comparison. It’s not even a fair fight, whether a person lived one hundred years or one day.

When God said NO to our prayers for healing Johnathan, He both kept Johnathan safe for eternity and blessed me in my earthly walk, increasing my trust to the point where I was able, at age thirty-five, with a wife and four young children, to quit my excellent job, uproot my family, and head off to seminary to study for the ministry. The Lord prepared me for the work, I loved it, and He used me to do well ministering to His people.

Truly, the Lord’s NO had YES written all over it.

The death of my marriage

But didn’t my becoming a pastor result in the undoing of my marriage? While I cannot know how our lives would have gone had we stayed in Montague, I know the things that fell into place which resulted in the divorce, and key things were related to my becoming a minister.

I really should have been out of the ministry before I hit the five-year mark. My church body, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, takes very seriously the divorce of a pastor. I had only been at Port Hope two months—this was April, 2001—so the congregation barely knew me. I offered to resign from the ministry. When it came to a vote by the congregation, they rallied to me, and for all of my thirteen years with them they were wonderful to me.

The death of my marriage almost destroyed me. Guilt and shame and rejection sent me into deep depression. I was glad that I was still in the ministry—if I had resigned, I had no idea what I would have done, where I would have gone, how I would have supported my kids—but I was one lost, sorry soul.

Though the prayers for my marriage came up NO, I kept praying. I turned the final verse of Psalm 27 into my ardent plea. The verse is this, “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.” I prayed it this way, “You are the only strength I have, Lord. I take heart in all of your promises. But I am hurting so badly. Please don’t make me wait long to feel better.”

I suppose I began praying that in May. In mid-August, I told my boys, who lived with me full-time, that I would not date, that I would not even look at women, until I got them graduated from high school. Six more years.

I have previously written about how Julie and I met, and how we both were going through divorces and were emailing each other. Find the full story here.
https://eilerspizza.wordpress.com/2015/05/09/wow-um-wow/

Wow, did I not have to wait long to begin feeling better!

Not even a week after my vow to my boys, I found myself falling for Julie. When I admitted it to her, she reciprocated. Living 950 miles apart, we couldn’t date. We saw each other precisely four times before I retrieved her from Iowa the beginning of December. We were married on December 30.

Not only did the Lord turn His NO to my prayers for my first marriage into the most dazzling YES in Julie, so many other good things surrounded it. Kim and her husband, and Julie and I, would come to have an excellent relationship, which was especially important for the sake of our kids. We had them for family gatherings at the parsonage, even staying with us for holiday weekends. They reciprocated at their place.

As for Julie, she had the ability to accept my gender issues and, in 2013, when I had to tell her that I finally had been crushed by self-hatred at being a male, informing her that I might not survive if I don’t transition, she responded this way: “Then we will figure it out.” And we did.

Clearly, the Lord’s NO to my first marriage had His own YES written all over it.

The death of me

The title is an overstatement, but in many ways it hits the mark.

Ever since my gender identity issues took root when I was in sixth grade, I prayed to be rid of this. I spent my life believing I was the most despicable sinner. I was a freak. Nothing but weak.

For about a year, when I was in my mid-teens, I lay in bed every night as I waited for sleep to come pondering what damnation in hell would be like. I was sure I was going there, because how could God love someone like me? I tried to ponder eternity in torment. I would think, “But then there will be one more day. Then one more day. Then one more day.” I was scared stiff.

I tried everything to get rid of my desire. As with so many like me, I hoped love would cure me. Then, I hoped becoming a minister would cure me. Both were naive notions.

I constantly repented. When I owned some women’s clothes, after awhile I would throw them out. I would dig in and try to put this thing to death. I confessed to God what I could only reckon was sinful behavior and tried to live in a manner which He would approve.

I prayed and prayed and prayed and, as far as I am concerned, God kept saying NO: “Nope, Greg, I’m not taking this away. You’re going to deal with it.”

What I did not know until 2013 was that the cause of my disorder was a real, physical malady. I have written plenty about that, so I won’t cite a specific blog post.

In short, I hated being a male because my endocrine system—the body’s hormones—had been disrupted and there was no fix for it to get me to feel like a male. For over two years, I went back and forth—I will transition, I will not—and getting worse along the way.

I prayed more than ever. God continued to say NO, I will not remove this. More than the NO, the answer He had in mind grew in real events and in my faith in Him.  Yet, how on earth could it be my Lord’s good and gracious will that I be transgender, that I leave the ministry, that I risk offending so many family and friends and fellow Christians?  It made no sense for a long time.

He has indeed answered YES to a huge aspect of my prayers: “Lord, if I have to transition, then please use me to glorify Christ and proclaim the Gospel.” This, I have been able to do, even as I also have educated regarding gender dysphoria and what it means to be transgender. The Holy Spirit has clung to me, always directing me to the Father’s mercy for me in His Son, Jesus Christ.

I want to do so much more educating, especially of my fellow Christians. The Lord continues to open doors. I cannot imagine what the future holds. I know that I cannot imagine it, because I could never have imagined the life the Lord carved out for me.

As with my son’s death and the end of my first marriage, the Lord has dazzled me with how His ways are not my ways, nor His thoughts mine, but as the heavens are higher than the earth so are His ways and thoughts higher than mine (Isaiah 55:8-9). I could only view the finite film of my life—with my son in it, and my marriage not becoming my “first” one, and my remaining a male and a pastor—where my Lord always sees the big picture and the good things He intends to do with the bad things in my life.

It takes faith to hold on. He gives the faith. He sustains the faith.

I hope that looking at the NO answers I received from the Lord when YES seemed the only possibility, and what the Lord did to turn those traumatic, tragic, terrible situations from bad to good, gives you hope if you are in a tough spot right now, or whenever you might be.

We know that tough spots will come. My prayer for you is that you are able to lean on the Lord Jesus Christ with your entire life so that, whatever the immediate result, you might be able to trust Him to have in store for you a healed heart, a full life, and a hopeful future, both in this world and in eternity.

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When I was a white man

I had almost nothing to fear from my fellow Americans when I was a white man.

I lived around people who were like me. I carried out my work around people like me. I was able to shop and see doctors around people like me. There was no reason for me ever to put myself into a place or a situation where I would be the different one, the minority, to fear another person or group.

I was always in the majority—the super-majority, where privilege is concerned.

Now that I live as a transgender woman, I do have something to fear—especially because I do not smoothly pass as a genetic female. Even so, I wonder if I still am not inestimably safer in the world than a young, African American male.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The problem with white male privilege is that one has no idea what it means to be in such a privileged spot. It is akin to a sighted person attempting to fathom having never seen anything but darkness.

Even as a so-called enlightened people, far too many of us Americans continue to live in the darkness.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Until last year, I had no idea what it meant to be a minority, and a minority among minorities at that. In my new status, I cannot even be comfortable about a place we have euphemistically dubbed “restroom.” I have no rest when contemplating my next entrance into the women’s space, never knowing if someone will freak out and speak out; never knowing if I might wind up as one of these statistics, which I took from this report: http://www.ustranssurvey.org/preliminary-findings.
• 1 in 8, who have been hassled, attacked, or sexually assaulted;
• 1 in 4, who have been told they are using the wrong restroom;
• 3 in 10, who report keeping from food and drink when out in public so that nature might not call until they are safely at home;
• 6 in 10, who simply avoid restrooms to save themselves the potential for trouble; or
• 1 in 12, whose “holding it” resulted in a kidney or urinary tract infection.

I had spent my life in the majority. I enjoyed the positive side of life, in every possible way. White American. Male. Married with children. Educated. Professional man. Respected Christian minister. Economically stable. Good relationships all around. Every freedom and privilege.

Every freedom and privilege.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I never feared The Man.

I had no need to fear The Man.

I did not respect those who viewed the government, the police, as The Man.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

From my young-adult years, I recall conversations in which my peers shook their heads at the behavior of young, African American males, those who lived in Detroit, Chicago, and the like. Why were they involved in so much violence, always dealing in drugs, knocking over the corner bar for cash? Why didn’t they stay in school, work to get a good education, get out of there? The problem, it often was assumed, was that they were nothing more than punks. Thugs. No desire to do good, but only caring to get the goods on the next guy, even if it meant killing him. As if this were genetic.

Empathy was the last thing that my peers experienced for them, and it took many years for me to shed the negative assumptions before they didn’t even begin to rear their ugly head of prejudice and racism.

Until two years ago, my world was almost totally white. This has been an excellent experience, living in Indianapolis. I have met and made friends with numerous black folks. I have learned so much.

The number one lesson I’ve learned? They are just like me. Regular people. Simply trying to get on in life.

I have learned that I am only lighter-skinned than them, which should mean nothing other than I am lighter-skinned than them.

If only.

In the tiny church Julie and I attended for nine months, from July, 2014, through March of this year—which was, as I liked to put it, 50% white, 40% black, and with two of the sweetest old Japanese ladies you’ve ever met—I had some long, edifying conversations over after-worship fellowship lunch.

One of the African American ladies grew up in the South. As a young woman, she marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. She told of the events with such detail and emotion—I heard in her voice both the courage it took and the fear that could not be shook—that I almost felt I had been right there with them.

Almost.

Talking face-to-face with an African American who actually lived through and worked in the battle for civil rights instilled in me a depth of appreciation for the fight, which I had never before known.

I am old enough to have lived at the time of so many race riots—1968 in my home-state town of Detroit—the Rodney King mess in 1991, when in 1995 blacks cheered for O. J. Simpson as whites were dumbfounded that he had been found not-guilty, and the latter decades of young black men being shot by whites for, well, it depends on with whom you speak and how you lean to determine the reason.

I reached young adulthood just as the Holocaust became a thing of movies and documentaries. I watched them until I could watch them no more, so sickened by the treatment of a group of people for only being different from another group of people.

In the USA, we are barely touched by the racial divides across the globe which result in war, in genocide, in citizens being driven from their homelands. It’s too far “over there” to grab our hearts for longer than the short clip we watch, and then we are onto the latest viral video so that our fancy might be tickled.

As long as my life is not directly affected—I can go to work, buy my groceries, the gas station has plenty of fuel that’s not too expensive, and my TV keeps me fed with eye-candy—I can live as if there is nothing wrong.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I fear that we are living in the greatest age ever of the “I don’t care” attitude. We Americans are so rich—I am referring to the vast middle class, we folks who have good housing and autos, food on the table and health care insurance, and every unhindered right and privilege and gadget and you-name-it—that we need not be bothered.

We don’t need our neighbors, as in days past, so we don’t get to know them. Because we do not know them, we do not care about them.

We whine about the government but, truly, we—the vast middle class—are generally scarcely affected by the many levels of government and their actions, that we do not have to care.

And if we have a family member, friend, or coworker who is in need, who might have delivered the news such as I did last year, or who now has a debilitating disease, or who lost a job and is in real need of tangible help, or who suffered the loss of a loved one or a job or something else traumatic, well, there simply are enough other people around, enough resources, others who are better than we at such delicate matters, that we can click on our “I don’t care” button and be on our merry way.

I hate this phrase—“I don’t care”—more than folks despise the N word.

And if you are shaking your head in disagreement over anything I have asserted in this section, can you see yourself putting yourself on the line for it, for any person’s need, for a social cause, for a wrong which needs righting?

Would you, privileged white person, march for it? Would you place your neck on the line for it?

Would I?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I don’t mean to say that we are not bothered by events, such as those last week which prompted this essay. I do, however, mean to say that the amount we are bothered is minuscule.

We spot and take the exit with ease: “There is nothing I can do about it. I don’t live there. I’m not a lawmaker. I am just a citizen. It’s for others to deal with.”

Does that mean that there is nothing for the vast majority of Americans to do? Absolutely not.

There has never been a greater need for every American to practice the Golden Rule, to treat the next person the way I want the next person to treat me.

There has never been a greater need for every American to practice friendliness toward his neighbor, toward those with whom she works, toward those where all of us interact in our stores and offices and ballparks and elevators and on the street.

We all know that apathy begets apathy, that hatred begets hatred, that violence begets violence. It is a way more desirable truth that caring begets caring, and kindness begets kindness, and love begets love.

There is only one person over whom I have control. That person is me.

How shall I live? How shall I treat the next person I encounter? What kind of ripple will I send out into the world which I directly influence?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When I was a white man, I enjoyed every privilege. I have given up the crown of that favor, but I continue to enjoy the vast realm of my white privilege, and every other one I have ever known.

What a terrible thing this is, a full half-century after the civil rights movement, that a young black man cannot boast which I can boast, even as a transgender American.

What a terrible thing this is, that the supposedly enlightened nation of people whom we think we are so often act no better than the very people at whom we look down our noses.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Romans 12:14-21: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Someone to watch over me

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There is a lovely Gershwin song called Someone to Watch Over Me. You might recall this:

There’s a somebody I’m longing to see,
I hope that he Turns out to be—
Someone who’ll watch Over me.
I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood
I know I could, always be good,
To one who Watched, over me.

Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead, oh how I need,
Someone, to watch, over me.
Someone, to watch, over me.

In the song, it’s a young woman who is looking for this perfect Mr. Right to watch over her. Don’t we all long to be watched over? Isn’t it true that no matter how old we are, we feel better, safer, calmer, more secure, when we have someone watching over us?

I remember those times, when I was a kid, that my parents would go out for the evening, I never felt quite right. And, if the weather were stormy, I was all the more queasy. I relied on my parents to watch over me, for me to feel safe, calm, secure. Someone to watch over me.

I’ve found it interesting, since I’ve grown up, that enduring a storm, all alone in the house, is not nearly as easy as enduring a storm with at least one more person in the house. It’s not as though that other person can do a thing about the storm—they can’t do anything more about the storm than I can—but just having someone there, well, that makes all the difference. Someone to watch over me.

When we get sick, we especially want someone to watch over us. It is never fun to be sick, but it is even worse when you have to be sick by yourself. Ah, but when you have your mom or spouse or another loved one to watch over you, well, it makes being sick a whole lot easier. Indeed, isn’t that the case with any of the trials of life? Any hardship is easier to take when we have a caring person helping us through. Someone to watch over me.

All of this leads me to what this special Church day is all about. It has been forty days since Easter, which makes today The Ascension of our Lord. Part of the Lord Jesus’ ascension into heaven has to do with the Kingship He earned by suffering in our flesh and paying for our sins. By ascending into heaven, Jesus took His rightful place as King over all of creation.

Another part of our Lord’s ascension was so that He could send the Holy Spirit to us. We can think of it this way: If the Lord Jesus were still on earth, He would only be taking one prayer at a time, in the form of one visitor at a time or one phone call at a time. But, by ascending into heaven and sending the Holy Sprit to us, we have a spiritual, heavenly connection to our Savior, and He can take as many prayers at a time as we can send Him.

Doesn’t it seem funny, though, that it was just before the Lord Jesus left that He proclaimed, “Surely, I will be with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20)”? He makes this claim, and then, poof, He disappears into the clouds.

Someone to watch over me?

Yes. Despite His bodily going to heaven, this is exactly what our Lord is doing from His throne: He is watching over us. When the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, He wasn’t going on a long, long, long, vacation from which He would return when He reappears on the Last Day. No, the best reason that He ascended was for Him to keep on doing what He had been doing on earth.

What had He been doing on earth?
• He had been healing the sick.
• He had been forgiving sins.
• He had been teaching about God’s way.
• He had been hearing prayers and answering them.
• He had been bringing peace to the troubled.
• He had been feeding the masses on heavenly food.
• He had been sacrificing Himself for His creation.
And that is exactly what He continues to do as He watches over you and me.

I find this so comforting, so dazzling, that our King is also our ultimate servant, that Jesus Christ— who deserves to be served and celebrated and honored and worshiped and glorified—doesn’t simply sit in heaven and take all the acclaim that He has earned—and earned it He has by wearing our flesh and bearing our sin. Rather than acting as we would act if we were a king, our Lord Jesus Christ still does the work of the ultimate servant.

• On earth, He healed the sick. From heaven, He heals the sick. He does it through medical science. He does it through the gift of faith which confers His grace by which we are ultimately healed for all that harms us and takes our lives.

• On earth, He forgave sins. From heaven, He forgives our sins. Indeed, all of Christ’s forgiveness is the ultimate healing which each of us needs. It is the spiritual healing that brings eternal life.

• On earth, He taught the way and the truth and the life. From heaven, He teaches us the way and the truth and the life. He does it through the Holy Bible, and then through the proclamation and instruction which we do in and as His Church.

• On earth, He heard and answered pleas and petitions. From heaven, He hears and answers our prayers. Indeed, He assures us that He hears and answer every single one of our prayers (John 15:7; John 14:13, Matthew 7:7), always according to His good and gracious will—always, according to what He knows is best for us.

• On earth, He brought peace to the troubled. From heaven, He brings peace to us when we are troubled. “Come to me,” He invites we who are weary and burdened, “and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).”

• On earth, He fed the masses on heavenly food. From heaven, He feeds us on the heavenly food of His own body and blood in Holy Communion.

• On earth, He sacrificed Himself for His creation. From heaven, He continues to sacrifice Himself for us through His humble service, always on duty, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

In other words, He watches over us. He is someone—He is the best someone—to watch over you. That is the good news that makes you feel safe, calm, and secure.

You are secure in the eternal love of your Savior, who watches over you. He is the Faithful One. As the Lord Jesus Christ has promised, He is with you always, until the end of the age.