Creating Scapegoats

Creating Scapegoats

It was with sadness and empathy that I read blogger Jen Hatmaker’s Good Friday post. I understand her pain at the hands of the “Christian Machine.” I was a cog in that machine. I did not attack or disparage others, but I kept the machine running, which enabled the attackers. That is not something of which I am proud.

After my experience of the past four years, I can say with confidence that the meanest people I have encountered have been Christians. I remember a lecture in which M. Scott Peck said 99 percent of the evil done in the world is perpetrated by those who believe they are 100 percent right. Too often evangelicals are convinced their rectitude gives them a free pass to judge others, particularly those who come from within their own tribe. The late anthropologist and philosopher René Girard explained the reasons for this behavior, but when you are the one being attacked, it is difficult to take comfort in the broader view.

Over 12 years as a weekly columnist and editor-at-large for Christian Standard magazine, I learned to develop a thick skin, particularly when I chose to write about women in ministry. A few years ago I watched an interview with several writers for The New York Times. They were asked how many positive letters it took to make up for one critical letter. The writers decided the number was 50. It took 50 good letters to make up for one negative one. When I heard that I thought, “Yep, 50 to 1.” Writing publicly is not for those with thin skin.

When I became a magazine editor we still received much of our correspondence by mail. Back in the good old days you had to go to your typewriter, or take out a pen and paper before you could write an angry response to a columnist with whom you disagreed. You had to put the letter in an envelope and take it to the post office. By then your anger was likely to have dissipated, so only a fraction of those angry letters were ever mailed.

With social media, all it takes is a single strike of a key, and what’s done is done. As a magazine columnist I learned what goes into print remains forever. People have a harder time understanding the same is true with the Internet. Once you’ve hit “send,” you lose control of that expressed thought. It might be good to remember that it is all right to have an unexpressed thought.

I always feel badly for those who are new to ministry. In the secular world they expected to be attacked every now and again, but they thought it would be different with Christians. They learn pretty quickly that fear makes people behave badly.

I have an easier time with those who attack me than I do with those who attack my family and friends. You can mess with me, but don’t mess with those I love. I’d like to equate that anger with Jesus turning over tables in the temple, but I’m thinking my exegesis might be a little suspect on that passage.

The bottom line is that if you are well known in the evangelical world and choose to take a more liberal stance, you will pay a price. Evangelicals believe their survival depends on making scapegoats of those who “misbehave.” Jen Hatmaker painfully learned they have no problem driving those scapegoats from the fold.

And so it goes.


Heart of My Own Heart, Whate’er Befall

Heart of My Own Heart, Whate’er Befall

Last week I saw my parents for the first time.

The day began with the hymn Be Thou My Vision running through my mind. The tune stayed with me as I drove from Cincinnati to Lexington, Kentucky. I traveled with equal parts hope and fear, carrying with me the difficult memories of a painful business meeting the night before. I had no margin.

I arrived at the apartment building and walked down the long hallway, breathing deeply. The door to the living room was open. Mom was seated in her recliner and Dad was in the kitchen getting her some ice water. They both looked up, puzzled. Dad asked, “Now, who are you?” I said, “It’s your child Dad, it’s your second born.” He asked again and I answered, “It’s me, Paula.” Dad said, “Oh my!” I walked to where Mom was seated and she asked Dad, “Who is this?” I answered, “It’s your child, Mom. It’s your second born. It’s Paula.” With a confused look she asked again, “Who?” and I answered, “Paula.”

With that she reached out her arms and said, “Come give your mother a hug.” As I bent down she proceeded to tell me about my birth, which was more than a little odd. I realized this was her prepared agenda. She was going to let me know that she had been there and I had been born a boy. But Mom had a hard time staying with her agenda. It was clearly a woman in her living room, and the obvious beat out the theoretical.

Dad sat down and said, “Well, you do not look at all like I thought you might.” I could tell he was pleased I did not look like a man in a dress. It made it easier for both of them to understand the fundamental truth – their son is a woman.

For the next three and a half hours the conversation did not stop. There were tears and much laughter. I thanked my parents for what they brought into my life, and expressed my gratitude that they had allowed me to visit. There were difficult moments. With tears in his eyes Dad asked, “Why do you believe you are a woman?” He listened intently as I explained why people are transgender. This 93-year-old man expressed far more openness and understanding than many fundamentalists one-third his age. Most evangelicals come at the subject self-referentially. “Look what you did to me.” They almost never ask about the pain I must have suffered for all those years. It’s all about their shock and dismay. Dad had moved beyond that. He wanted to be sure he understood every single word I said. His openness warmed my heart.

Mom made a few half-hearted attempts to return to her agenda but she couldn’t help herself. When I remarked on my affection for the cups and saucers on the shelf, she said to Dad, “Well Dave, she wants some of those cups and saucers. I told her to mark the ones she wants with her name.” Every time she referred to me in the third person, she correctly gendered me. It was obvious a female was in her presence, and she responded accordingly.

I had a chance to tell both of my parents what I appreciated about them. I thanked Dad for his gentleness, kindness, love, patience, steadfastness and loyalty. I thanked Mom for her tenacity, intelligence, sense of humor and intellectual curiosity. As our time together wound down, Mom said, “Well my lands, I don’t think I’ve had this many compliments in years.”

At one point deep into the conversation I asked my parents why they had decided to see me. Mom playfully said, “Well, I’ve heard it said that sometimes people die in their 90s, so I figured we’d better get together.” Through tears Dad said, “I was afraid we would never see you again.”

I gingerly stepped behind their chairs to position myself for pictures. Then I prepared to leave. I gave Mom a long hug and whispered that I loved her. Mom rarely ever said to me, “I love you.” She always stuck with the less emphatic “Love you.” This time Mom said, “I love you.”

I hugged Dad for the longest time and we both cried. He too said, “I love you,” not words I often heard from my father. I told them I’d be back in a couple of months and look forward to seeing them again.

As I walked down the hallway I kept saying, “Breathe Paula, breathe.” After an enjoyable first visit with my brother (I’ll write about that another time) I headed to my cousin Jane’s home in Richmond. She and John greeted me with quiche and salad and snicker doodles and Jane cried with me late into the evening.

I wrote my friend Christy and thanked her for reminding me that loving is best, even when it is not reciprocated, because you never know when God might change a heart, sometimes even yours.

Through the Basement Window

Through the Basement Window

Do you ever notice those squiggly lines in front of your eyes? Of course you do. We all have them. Their technical name abbreviates to DVS, but most of us just call them floaters. You get more floaters as you age. Have you noticed you cannot focus on a floater? As soon as you try to focus on a floater, it disappears.

Cleopas and his companion had traveled to Jerusalem from Emmaus, hearing there was hope in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. But when they arrived all they found was pain and turmoil and a bloodied cross. So they waited until morning and began walking the seven dusty miles back home.

We have all been on the road to Emmaus. It’s the heavy-hearted walk down the courthouse steps after your divorce has been finalized. It is the drive home from the cemetery. It is the pillow soaked with tears because you just can’t pull yourself out of bed. We have all been on the road to Emmaus.

A stranger began walking with them. He appeared unaware of the awful spectacle they had witnessed, but the longer he spoke the more they listened, and when they got home they invited him to dinner.

The stranger gave the blessing and when Cleopas and his friend opened their eyes, they saw the Lord of the universe. But as soon as they realized the truth, like a floater, Jesus was gone.

For me, God rarely arrives through the front door. I hear the doorbell, but when I pull the door open all I see is empty space. I do not have eyes to see.  God has to come in more subtle ways, often through the basement window. She comes into the dark places first and works her way up through the house.

When I first wake up I am usually humming a tune. Most of the time it is a hymn, (though this morning it was a Christmas song, the only phrase of which I ever remember is, “like Currier and Ives.” Go figure.) But like I said, my waking song is usually a hymn, rich in imagery and redolent with emotion, something like, “When peace like a river attendeth my way, and sorrows like sea billows roll.”

Sometimes the hymn will bring to mind a pleasant dream, sometimes a nightmare. Occasionally a message will accompany the dream, though most of the time not. Still, the waking hymn feels like a message of sorts, preparing the way for more.

God tiptoes up from the basement and onto the main floor in the form of rebel pilgrims with warm smiles and welcoming hearts. Yesterday I met for lunch with one of my dearest friends. Within a minute or two we were both in tears and the sweetest waitress asked, “Aw, everything okay?” My friend answered, “Yeah, you know, this is a safe space.” I felt God’s presence at that moment, the Supreme Wise Relationship. She had arrived at our table in Proto’s, with our medium pizza with capers and kalamata olives and mozzarella. She spoke with wisdom beyond anything either one of us holds on her own. She smiled a lot, this Mother God who made her way up from the basement.

Later in the day, after riding Picture Rock Trail and stopping at the stone table on the way down, my eyes were drawn to the northwest, where God had painted the sky in hues of pink, orange and blue. She had climbed on up to the heavens, this God of wonder, always on the move. She will come back in the morning, between the notes of another hymn, and on the road to Emmaus all manner of things shall be well.

And so it goes.


To Meet or Not To Meet

To Meet or Not To Meet

(I began writing this post a month ago, before the news emerged that our vice-president will not meet alone with a woman other than his wife.  The news reinforced my resolve to finish this post.) 

Not long after transitioning I met with one of my longtime friends, a megachurch senior pastor.  The day we met he told me he was actually breaking one of the rules of his congregation.  A pastor was not to meet alone with a woman, regardless of the venue.  He had told one of his staff members that our meeting was going to take place, and under the circumstances they decided it would be acceptable.  I wasn’t sure how I felt about being an exception, but I did enjoy the day.

For decades many megachurches have had a similar policy.  In my previous life I didn’t much think about it, just like I didn’t much think about a lot of issues that mattered – really mattered.  Now, the policy makes me mad as hell.

As a woman, I do not have the access to a male pastor that is freely available to any male.  Another megachurch pastor from my past recently told me he would like to visit, but said he would not meet alone.  I do not want anyone else involved in the conversation.  But apparently, church policy is church policy.

Well folks, that policy is wrong.  Women are being asked to sacrifice access to their pastors because pastors need to “avoid any suggestion of impropriety.”  Creating different rules for meetings with men and meetings with women is itself impropriety! The only place in the Western world in which that kind of thinking still survives is within the evangelical bubble.

Thousands of female executives, board members and corporate officers attend evangelical churches every week.  They all tolerate the fact that they cannot serve in leadership in those churches.  They also tolerate the policy that says they are not allowed to meet alone with male pastors.  But how long do you think that tolerance is going to last?  I’d venture it will last about as long as the Baby Boomers last, and not one day longer.

Millennials are a different breed.  Fifty-one percent of Millennial evangelicals are supportive of marriage equality. According to a 2012 Pew Research Study, Millennials rarely consider gender in their work-related decisions.  They have turned traditional views of gender upside down.  Thirty-four percent of Millennial women aspire to be bosses, while only 24 percent of Millennial males aspire to leadership positions.  How long do you think those born after 1980 are going to put up with these male-dominated evangelical assumptions?

I have been a pastoral counselor since before I transitioned from Paul to Paula.  At the time of my transition all of my clients were Millennials, and most were Christians with an evangelical background.  Do you know how many of those clients I lost when I transitioned?  None.  Not one.  They all remained.  That tells you something about how Millennials view gender.

Baby Boomers do not seem to understand that to Millennials, the notion that a woman cannot meet alone with a male pastor feels as ridiculous as a male psychotherapist who refuses to meet alone with female clients.  If male pastors are concerned about impropriety, they should do the same thing psychotherapists do, become educated about how to handle it, so the risks can be minimized for all involved.

In the church, forbidding such meetings is seen as an easier solution, because apparently it is not important for women to have individual access to their pastors.  That attitude is dismissive, sexist and misguided.  If what Mike Pence and evangelical churches are trying to do is avoid the appearance of impropriety, they are looking backwards, not forwards.  It won’t be the first time the church has found itself in a backward facing position.  Prejudice of every kind always looks awful in a rearview mirror.

As for my inability to meet alone with male evangelical pastors, I cannot say I am all that bothered.  The truth is I’d rather meet with women anyway.

And so it goes.

The Truth and Nothing But The Truth, So Help Me God

The Truth and Nothing But The Truth, So Help Me God

This past Sunday I preached at Highlands Church in Denver.  We are in a Lenten series on suffering, and I was speaking on God’s perspective on power.  We have two worship services.  This Sunday the worship was so meaningful I wanted a third service, just to hear the music one more time.  Except I’m not sure I would have had the energy to preach a third time.  I left it all out there, and when the second service was over, I was spent.

I have always loved preaching, but since I became me, my preaching has changed.  As the privileged white male slowly becomes the person now emerging, my preaching is less from my head and more from my heart.  More than that, there is filtering through my life an awareness previously missing.  I have lived a privileged life, and I will not live long enough to totally lose that privilege.  I do not want to preach as an expert.  I want to preach as a searching fellow-traveler.

As a white male evangelical leader, it was easy for me to become theologically smug.  I believed I understood the truth and spoke it with confidence.  What was lacking was an awareness of the insularity of my tidy world.  I was not alone in this self-referential bubble.  Lots of my male friends and co-workers dwelled within the same castle walls.  We all had a bit too much confidence in our grasp of the truth.

The other day I heard about a megachurch senior pastor who recently preached on the importance of truth.  My friends tell me he used me as an illustration of someone who has departed from the truth.  While he did not call me by name, they said it was pretty obvious about whom he was speaking.

I know this pastor to be a good man, thoughtful and caring.  He wants to get it right.  He believes in the truth, and confidently preaches his understanding of it.  I know how he feels.  I once lived there.  But I did not know how much the notion of propositional truth is a conversation dominated by a privileged few, a debate mostly among men who believe their perspective is the most objective take on the true nature of things.

There is no such thing as objective truth.  There is truth, but it is always subjectively received.  The best we can hope for is to get as close to objective truth as is humanly possible.  To do that we must open our understanding to rigorous cross-examination, looking at truth from multiple perspectives, not just the perspective of the dominant culture.

When it comes to religious truth, I believe that truth, devoid of flesh, is little more than a cold and broken hallelujah.  Propositional truth does not have arms and legs and a beating heart with which to hold a fragile soul.  It is not incarnational.  It does not bleed, or give birth to children, or sweat and cry.  The search for religious truth is too often an esoteric conversation limited to those whose lives are comfortable enough to allow them the luxury of contemplating the notion of spiritual truth, inerrantly received.

This week I watched the movie, The Shack.  I had heard from a few men that the movie was terrible.  It was not.  The movie was wonderful, a touching depiction of the Trinity, much in the vein of what Richard Rohr describes in The Divine Dance.  I cried from the moment Jesus appeared on screen to the end of the movie.

I thought I might write about The Shack and looked on the Internet for the writer of the adapted screenplay.  I discovered most of the Google references to the movie were evangelical diatribes written by white men.  All railed against a “dangerous, heretical film.”  Seriously?  Octavia Spencer as an approximation of an all-loving God?  A wispy Asian woman as an approximation of the Holy Spirit?  A Jesus whose guiding principle is unconditional love?  Yep, that sounds dangerous to me?

Some criticized the movie’s simplicity, and while I understand their critique, I do not agree.  The movie was not targeting the rational left-brains of confident men.  The Shack is a movie of the heart.  It is about suffering as we actually experience it, with anger, despair and hopelessness.  It is a movie about the triumph of wisdom and love.  I have spoken with three other women who have seen The Shack.  We all cried, hard.  The guys I know who’ve seen it?  Well, most of them found the movie lacking.

Truth does not abide within the walls of the rational mind.  It permeates all of life, and it is messy.  The truth is hard to tell and the truth is hard to tell.  It is both difficult to discern and difficult to speak.  I do believe the truth will set us free, but I also believe getting there involves a lot of soul searching that is as much a matter of the heart as it is a matter of the head.  As Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”

Which brings me back to my preaching and the accusation from the megachurch pastor.  Have I abandoned truth?  I invite you to check out last Sunday’s sermon.  Some of you will say, “Yes, that is, in fact, someone who has abandoned the truth.”  Others will likely hear a woman beginning to understand things she never understood before.

Or, if you don’t have 22 minutes, take my word for it.  My heart yearns for the truth, but I hold lightly to my grasp of it.

And so it goes.


I Understand Your Pain, But…

I Understand Your Pain, But…

I have noticed a phenomenon for which I have no name. It occurs when people from my old evangelical tribe contact me in good faith, but feel compelled to tell me how much it pains them to hear others speak evil of me, something that still happens with regularity. I understand their messages are well intended, but something strikes me as irregular.

As a pastoral counselor, I always ask a question of myself when I think about sharing personal information with one of my clients. Am I sharing the information for my client’s sake or for mine? As a counselor, if it is for the client’s sake I go ahead and speak. If it is for my sake, I put the thought away, unexpressed.

Over the past few months I have taken to asking a similar question to those who write and tell me of the pain they feel when others speak ill of me. I ask if they are telling me for my sake or for theirs. I suggest if they are telling me for their own sake, that is one thing. If they are telling me for my sake, I let them know it is just one more piece of flying debris from a storm I have left behind.

What I have come to understand is that those who bring these messages are often not fully aware just how much their experience is shaped by living almost exclusively within a heteronormative tribe. By placing themselves in a culture in which prejudice against my community is the norm, they assume I am going to be as bothered by what they hear as they are. I am not.

These friends remain in a world in which transgender people are seen as an anomaly or worse, an abomination.  They do not fully understand that I inhabit a different universe. I live in a world that deeply respects the decision I have made, and sees me as a person of courage.  I am part of a church and a movement of churches that is more vibrant than the one from which I was ostracized.

I chose to move into a world that is broadly accepting.  My family has also chosen to leave the old world and enter a new one that includes a majority of our fellow citizens. Sixty-two percent of Americans are now supportive of the LGBTQ community. Fifty-one percent of millennial evangelicals are supportive. Even among older evangelicals the number supportive of marriage equality has increased from 26 percent to 36 percent in just eight years.

It is okay if my evangelical friends want to remain in a culture that believes I have gone astray, and I do appreciate that these good folks are supportive of me. But I no longer need them to be my advocates within a tribe in which I am persona non grata. If it pains them to hear nasty things about me, I would suggest they do not speak up in my defense, or better yet, consider moving on.

Christ is alive and well outside of the insular cultures intent on vilifying a group of healthy and whole followers of Christ. There is a big Christian world out there beyond the heteronormative evangelical culture. I moved into a more inclusive Christian world and found it transformative.  The Christ in me is now more readily visible than it was before. Is it possible the same would be true for others?


A Little Too Close to Home

A Little Too Close to Home

I flew home from Orlando last Sunday. The flight was delayed and the boarding area was packed. We were flying on an A330, a wide-body usually reserved for international flights. As I stood in line to board, a transgender woman came pushing through the crowd, pulling a wheelchair stacked with an assortment of pink and purple bags, including a Hello Kitty backpack that looked as though it had been drug through the Amazon.

The trans woman demanded to board early, and wheelchair in hand, somehow managed to board with the wheelchair passengers. When she was forced to consolidate her bags at the end of the jet way, she huffed and puffed and blocked the door as she dramatically stuffed her bags into one another until they resembled a misshapen Russian doll.

My fellow traveler looked to be in her 40s, with short black hair, a heavy beard showing through her makeup, and a barrel-chested frame, which she had chosen to squeeze into a tight mini-dress. As she boarded, the flight attendants exchanged amused glances. She turned right and headed to her coach seat while I turned left into first class.

As I sank into my cozy pod by the window, I thanked my lucky stars that I was not like her. The flight attendants made a few remarks about her that were lacking in generosity, then one turned to me and respectfully asked if I would like a pre-departure drink. They were clueless I was transgender. I thought again, “I am so fortunate I am nothing like her.”

But I am – like her. We are both transgender women.  And we are both human.

I have my fair share of transphobia. I do not like to encounter trans women who, in my opinion, reflect poorly on our community. Truth be told, I do not have much of an issue not identifying with an able-bodied passenger who demands early boarding and complains when she is expected to follow the rules that apply to everyone. That’s just rude. But of course that was not the main thing bothering me. I was primarily reacting to the way she looked. She looked like the kind of picture a right-wing bigot puts on social media to justify HB-2. “Do you want this person in the bathroom with your daughter?”

As you can imagine, by the time my flight arrived in Charlotte I was in full reflection mode. Who did I think I was? How could I think I was better than this woman?  So, I waited for her to get off the plane and struck up a conversation, right? No, I did not. Because on that particular day, I just did not have it in me.

I do not turn down any speaking engagements about transgender issues, whatever the venue. I am a strong woman, and I can blaze a trail with resources not available to other transgender individuals. I can take it. It is my calling. And yet…

When I have lunch with someone from my old world, I watch as they look around, afraid it will be obvious they are having lunch with a social pariah. Every week I still get letters, blog comments, and Facebook messages telling me I am an abomination. At almost every church presentation there is at least one pejorative question I am required to handle with grace.

I am tired and weary, and sometimes I do not have it in me to reach out to steady the journey of another. And that is the grace I needed to give myself on that particular day. Another day I will find the strength to reach out, but on that Sunday, I just didn’t have it.

On my connecting flight to Denver I prayed a simple prayer.   “Lord, strengthen me toward generosity when my own transphobia hits too close to home.”

And so it goes.