"But God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness" --Exodus 13.18
I want to tell you a story about family and relationships and finding God in the wilderness.
Almost two years ago my brother Matthew called me on the phone from California. He wanted to talk with me about something important. Those I-have-something-to-tell-you phone calls are nerve-wracking. When he first called, I couldn't process the small talk because my anticipation was rattling around so loudly in my head. Finally, Matthew laid it before me.
"I've been struggling with my gender identity for a long time. I wanted you to know that I'm transgender."
I lost my breath. I understood the word 'transgender,' but I couldn't comprehend how this applied to my little brother. For years I was an active supporter of LGBT rights via my blog, marching with Mormons Building Bridges in the Utah Pride Parade, participating in a It Gets Better video, volunteering for the Empathy First initiative, and attending LGBT support groups with my friends. But this. This was different. This was my brother.
I listened as Matthew explained the emotional anguish he had gone through for the past decade, trying to extinguish his knowledge that he was not a man but was, instead, a woman. He explained how at a young age, he knew his body and spirit did not align. As a teenager, he lost himself in film making, skateboarding, and school. He was often depressed and slept most of the time. We thought he was your run-of-the-mill angst ridden teen when in reality he was suffering and desperate. His desperation intensified in his early 20s to the point that he considered taking his life. Standing at the precipice of living and dying, he chose life. But he wanted life only if it meant he could live authentically and openly as a woman, not as a shriveled and scared version of himself.
"Thank you for choosing life," I said.
"I love you," I said.
"I support you," I said.
I said these things because they were true, but they didn't express the utter disorientation I felt inside. After our phone call I cried for days. I was so proud of Matthew's courage and in awe of his integrity. I was overwhelmed by his fortitude, and yet knowing he was transgender felt like a death--the death of a sibling I had known for 25 years--who was being reborn into someone new. Matthew had been walking through the wilderness for half of his life, feeling lost and alone, and now I had joined him there. "How does one survive in this wild space?" I wondered.
As I sat there in the wild and untamed in-between where questions float like white haired seeds and answers are as slippery as fish, I looked to my mom and step-dad for guidance. They had opened their arms to Matthew without hesitation.
"We support you," They said.
"We love you," They said.
"How can we be your advocate?" They said.
And so they read all of the literature. They attended all of the support groups. They began calling her by her new name, Ava, and referring to her with female pronouns. They took her shopping for clothes so that she could present more feminine. They frequently flew down to L.A. to be a loving presence in her life. It's not that they didn't struggle. They did. But in their struggle they chose love over fear and empathy over avoidance. In so doing, God was made manifest in them with more poignancy than I had ever experienced in my life. Their actions answered my question, "What does one do to survive in the wilderness?" You forge a compass out of the steel virtues of empathy and love and together you find your way.
Since that phone call almost two years ago, my grieving has lessened and in its place flourishes a tremendous love for my sister, due in no small part to my family's example. In watching them pioneer their own path in the wilderness, I have come to understand the atonement and true Christianity with a fierce and unexpected depth. I have watched them courageously face each other in their broken and weary states and then tenderly dress each others' wounds. I have seen them mourn together and love together without expectations or parameters.
I had always believed that God resided in the wilderness, a liminal space where we feel so untethered we drop to our knees in supplication. I had always believed this, but now, because of my family's unparalleled expressions of love, I know that it is true. God is there in our most broken and fractured spaces, and He is there as we make our way home.