In my last years of college before I started seminary, I was in the wilderness. I had to finally grapple with feelings I’d been trying to avoid for years: that I was attracted to women, and that something about the gender I’d been assigned wasn’t right. Yes, I was in the wilderness, but it wasn’t a time of abandonment; it was a time of gestation. Something was being birthed. Something was awakening in me. First, I had to face my demons. First, I had to ask all of my secret questions. First, I had to examine my beliefs and weigh them and see what survived the refining fire. I needed to own my faith for myself. I couldn’t simply accept what had been handed to me; I needed to interrogate it. My questions threatened the order of things and yet I couldn’t stop asking them.
In the gospels we learn that Jesus, fresh off his baptism and filled with the Holy Spirit, spends 40 days alone. He’s had an incredible, life-shifting experience in the waters of baptism, and now he needs to figure out what it means for his life. That’s a long time to be on your own without human contact. Just Jesus and the desert. Alone. And fasting. You’d have to imagine that Jesus started confronting some pretty gnarly emotional stuff with that much time on his own. Every insecurity in his head, from every person he’d ever met, every time he faced someone telling him that he should just go back home. Go back to Nazareth. Be a carpenter. Take care of your family. Don’t bring more shame to your mother.
Jesus’s time in the wilderness is marked by his encounter with “the accuser.” Some texts call this figure “the devil” or “Satan,” but what strikes me about this series of conversations is that they could have been Jesus battling his own demons: his own fears, his own ego. We are, after all, often our own worst enemy. Sometimes the only person holding us back is us.
He returns from facing down his demons ready to enter into public ministry in a new way. He begins by going back to his hometown, entering his synagogue, and when it comes time for him to read, he reads from Isaiah 61:1-2 (Luke 4:16-20):
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Right from the start, he tells anyone who would listen exactly what his ministry is about: the release of captives, healing for those in pain, the inclusion into community for anyone who had been excluded, and the year of Jubilee.
Jesus is saying, “We don’t have to live like this. A better world is possible — one where everyone has enough to eat, where everyone has enough to live, where people aren’t in service to the demands of others.” But even more than that, Jesus is saying, “We can create this world that we long for. This world that God wants for us can be ours here and now.” It’s this particular message of Jesus that is so frightening to the powers that be.
Transgender people know something about being in the wilderness. Many of us have lived most of our lives in it. Transgender people know something about needing answers. And often we’re told that we can’t know or trust our own bodies. We’re told we’re sick, we need therapy, we definitely shouldn’t medically change our bodies. But when we get quiet, when we are alone, when we can clear away all of the noise and opinions and hate speech, we know that there is something we need to do in order to uncover who we are. When we get quiet and get in touch with our bodies, we know the truth of who we are, no matter what anyone else says.
Wilderness moments are vital for our maturation as humans and as followers of Jesus. My time in the wilderness was deeply challenging, and its reverberations are felt still today. My time in the wilderness makes me a better priest and writer; it makes me a better friend and partner. My time in the wilderness wrote the feeling of longing and loneliness deep into my bones. When I encounter people today who are lonely and longing, I have an empathy that is hard won.
All of us, not just queer and trans folks, have experiences of wilderness, those times when we are separated from everything we thought we knew and forced to confront the deepest parts of ourselves.
It’s only in moving toward what we know to be next that we can leave the wilderness whole. By confronting who we truly are, we can make the changes necessary to be who we know we can be.
It’s only by getting clear on what’s required of us that we can move toward the future we long for.
A whole lot of people get stuck in the wilderness. Or they flee from what they learned there and squander their calling in favor of the familiar. But the brave ones, the ones who do the soul work and come out of the wilderness ready to move, those are the ones who shift the world. Don’t you want to be one of them? Will you do the work your time in the wilderness has revealed to you? Will you do the work the Divine requires of you? Will you answer the Spirit’s call to be your unique and wild self in the world? Will you go even if it leads to a cross?
This article was adapted from In the Margins: A Transgender Man’s Journey with Scripture by Shannon T.L. Kearns. copyright © 2022 Shannon T.L. Kearns. Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Reprinted by permission.