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.

Thoughts Turning Toward Home

Thoughts Turning Toward Home

I’ve been reading an excellent novel my son recommended, A Doubter’s Almanac, by Ethan Canin. The book has bent my thoughts toward family. My father turned 93 in January. Dad held exactly four pastorates in his long career, each roughly twice as long as the one before. He was a pastor’s pastor.

I saw my father as deeply good, though never as a powerful man. He was too kind to be seen as powerful. When he was well into his 80s I asked his opinion about the afterlife. He answered, “Well, I hope God lets me into heaven.” I assured him, “Dad, if you aren’t getting into heaven, I don’t think there’s much hope for any of us.” Though he feared God as the ultimate disciplinarian, Dad was invariably gracious toward others.

The last time I visited my father was on his 90th birthday. It was one of the final times I traveled as Paul. I had already lost my job, though I had not informed him. When I told my father a few months later that I was transgender, he said, “This doesn’t change how we feel about you one tiny bit.” Once he began to understand what that meant, his struggle became monumental.

Having lived his entire existence in the evangelical subculture, Dad has never been well versed in the ways of the world. After my revelation, I imagine he called his two physician friends. Being men of my father’s generation, they themselves probably did not understand much about what it means to be transgender, but I am sure they were gentle and supportive.

Once my mother began to understand what I was telling her, she demanded that her subject behave properly. She had a tendency to overestimate her power. When Mom realized I was definitely transitioning, she thought she could keep my transition a secret. She is unaware of the reach of social media.

My mother gave me my intelligence, quite a generous gift really. She ingrained in me a love of books and kept close watch over my studies. Mom had a quick sense of humor, though she rarely gave herself permission to use it. I am afraid she was hindered by her religion, her geography and her times. I have compassion for my mother. I always looked like her. Now I really look like her. I don’t mind.

After a few tense years of precious little contact other than the occasional letter, I called my father on his birthday. It took him a few minutes to understand with whom he was speaking. He said, “You don’t sound the same.” I replied, “No Dad, I don’t. I’m Paula now, and Paula does not sound like Paul.” Dad mused, “Well, I suppose that would be true.” I was sitting alone in a nearly empty Marriott Hotel restaurant in Phoenix and my tears dropped onto the linen tablecloth.

I am going to visit my parents next month. I will also meet my brother for the first time. The writer Mitch Albom said, “Sticking with your family is what makes it a family.”

The Bible does not tell us much about the family of Jesus. We know on one occasion his siblings were more than a little embarrassed and tried to bring him home. He probably always seemed “other” to them. As far as we know, Mary was the only one who stayed close all the way through the crucifixion. When Jesus motioned to John and said to his mother, “Behold your son,” he might as well have been saying, “Well, now maybe you can have a son you can understand.”

I had hoped to hold off transitioning until my parents were gone. I wanted to spare them the pain. But in these life and death matters we do not always have good choices.

In case you are curious, unless I choose to show it to them, my parents will not read this post. They do not go online, nor does anyone read my blog to them. Most of their friends do not approve of me. I am an outsider and there are limits to fundamentalist generosity. I hold no animosity.

I hope my visit with my parents goes well. No one said this would be an easy journey.

The End of the Evangelical Era

The End of the Evangelical Era

Last week the Trump administration rolled back rights for transgender children. Trans kids already have a suicide attempt rate thirteen times higher than their peers.  Now they will be in even greater peril. The opponents of transgender rights fought to overturn Obama’s order because their own children, not in any particular kind of danger, might have been made a little uncomfortable by having a transgender child in their bathroom.

As if the decision itself was not bad enough, evangelicals on Facebook raised their collective fists in triumph. When informed of the suicide risk of these perpetually bullied children, they responded with a shrug.

This evangelical triumphalism convinces me we are at the end of the reign of evangelicals. When a tribe votes for a misogynist who makes vile comments about women, then proclaims victory when vulnerable children are made more vulnerable, its days are numbered.

Viewing the Bible as a constitution has been in vogue within conservative Christendom for centuries. But with the arrival of Quantum Physics and the end of the modern age, the traditional evangelical worldview no longer holds. Treating a book written over thousands of years by scores of authors as though it was the ultimate rule book is not sustainable in these postmodern times. That form of Christianity will remain popular with a few, but most of the world has moved on.

As Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr suggest, Christianity is shifting from being seen as a set of beliefs to being practiced as a way of life. It is moving from God as the purveyor of divine punishment to God as the ultimate suffering participant. It is transitioning from the church as a tribe organized for its own protection, to a community organizing for the common good.

The fact that 81 percent of conservative evangelicals voted for Trump shows how desperate they are to hold on to political power. Any change from the socially progressive Obama administration was better than admitting what they already know, that white evangelicalism’s days are numbered. The reason is embedded in the evangelical community’s own bankruptcy on issues related to social justice.

Black lives do matter. LGBTQ people do deserve equal rights. Women do deserve equal opportunities (including in ministry) and equal pay. Immigrants deserve to be treated with respect and refugees should be welcomed. Any tribe that denies these rights does not deserve political power. Millennial evangelicals understand this and have rejected the social conservatism of their parents. Fifty-one percent are supportive of marriage equality.

I believe in the church more than ever. I don’t mean the church that voted en masse for Donald Trump. I mean the church as exhibited in progressive churches from an evangelical background, like Forefront Church in New York, Sojourn Grace in San Diego, One Church in Phoenix, Highlands Church in Denver, EastLake Church in Seattle, LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, and Gracepointe Church in Nashville. The same spirit is also evident in the ministries of Sojourners, the Gay Christian Network, the Reformation Project, and other progressive ministries. All are important efforts in the drive to return Christianity to its rightful place as a ministry of reconciliation.

I believe the church is more important than ever. I believe the message of Christ’s love is as relevant today as it was in the time of Christ. I believe in the power of the Gospel. It is the best chance we have to turn from our dangerously destructive tribal behavior.

These are unprecedented times. Our current president and those he has brought into his inner circle have embraced the antithesis of the Christian message. The machinations that evangelicals have gone through to justify their support of this destructive administration will not prevail. Tyrants fall, often mortally wounded by their own egos.

The evangelical church has traded its soul for a bowl of political porridge. Until they return to the primacy of unconditional love, the generosity of grace, and the exhibition of mercy, they will remain a sad caricature of their former selves.

And so it goes.

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Keeping the Conversation Alive

Keeping the Coversation Alive

These are frightening times in our increasingly dichotomous America. Having aligned itself on one side of the divide, the evangelical church is not doing much to bring us together. In this most recent election, 81 percent of evangelicals voted for the Republican presidential candidate. According to a Pew Research study released last week, 76 percent are supportive of the president’s executive order banning immigration from seven primarily Muslim nations. Evangelicals have shifted to the right.

I attend a church with an ethos of tolerance. “Conservative or liberal here, we’ve all got to give a little here,” is one of the lines of the Highlands ethos, which we read every Sunday.  Just a few weeks ago one of our co-pastors preached a sermon some saw as leaning politically left. While I did not agree with that assessment, I was impressed with how our leaders responded. Just two weeks later our founding pastor shared the pulpit with a member who was unhappy with the previous sermon. While their joint message was not itself without controversy, I was pleased our co-pastors were willing to enter troubled waters in an attempt to live out our ethos. Mistaking uniformity for unity, most evangelical churches never present both sides of an issue.

Without a full-throated loyal opposition, how can iron sharpen iron? How can we be sure our theology is not so inbred that new perspectives never see the light of day? If our church is all white, how can we understand the lives of people of color? Those from the majority culture often say, “I don’t have a prejudiced bone in my body!”  They do not think they are prejudiced because they rarely place themselves in an environment in which anyone challenges their perspective.

I believe the evangelical church has gotten itself into this monochromatic mess by its long history of domination by men, specifically white men. When that male control arises from what is believed to be a biblical endorsement, it creates an arrogance that is pernicious. God’s supposed preference for male leadership has allowed untold prejudice to thrive without challenge. The result is an evangelical world tone deaf to the voices of women and minorities.

I am truly embarrassed I did not see how complicit I was in enabling such a slanted worldview. But I was too comfortable in my privileged position. There is no excuse for not making more of an effort to understand what life is like “on the other side.”

Understanding the other side is one of the most important tasks of any privileged culture. That is one of the reasons I now find it important to understand those who voted differently than I did in the election. One of my biggest lessons is the realization that I do not know America. If I am not going to add fuel to a fire already burning too hot, I must get to know this nation anew.

My first act was to buy a copy of Hillbilly Elegy, the book by J.D. Vance about growing up in poor white Scots-Irish Appalachia. His stories resonate because I grew up in Scots-Irish Appalachcia. These were the teens who voted me Most Likely to Succeed in my senior year of high school. They are also the people who strongly suggested, after I became Paula, that I not attend my high school reunion. They are not fickle, just resistant to change.

I want to understand the anger and frustration of those who feel left behind and are disadvantaged through no real fault of their own. At one time I was one with these fellow citizens. Now I am other. I am socio-economically other, professionally other, and other-gendered. I am a threat to their tribe. I am an outsider, and outsiders are to be feared. It is important for me to understand that fear and not increase it unnecessarily.

I say unnecessarily because I do believe the truth matters, and there are times when one must speak. Much of the fear I see in today’s evangelicalism is not based on fact. In this age of multiple news outlets, there are many who do not hold truth in high regard. Infowars is a site with over eight million unique viewers and 1.8 billion page views. It is also the program that denied the reality of the Sandy Hook school shootings and claimed 9/11 was an “inside job.” In other words, Infowars is apparently more interested in conspiracy theories than it is in the truth. What they report is verifiably not the truth. I have a friend who once was a teacher in Sandy Hook. She taught the parents of some of the students who were killed. Try telling her that Sandy Hook never happened.

When it comes to big government or small government, there is plenty of room for differences of opinion. But when it comes to the facts, there is not much room for discussion. The truth matters. Speaking the truth is essential. The spirit in which one speaks truth is also critical. Does it open doors or slam them shut?

I will keep reading and listening and doing my best to be a part of the solution to the rift that divides our nation. I will speak up for the truth, and what I believe to be my responsibility to rightly interpret scripture as it applies to today’s salient issues. When I disagree, I hope I remain focused on topics and not personalities. These are trying times, and now, more than ever, we must unite on the knowledge that the truth sets us free.

And so it goes.

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All About Me

All About Me

I spoke to an appreciative audience at a respected national conference. I received a standing ovation and heard the accolades of hundreds. I listened as attendees, eyes filled with tears, thanked me for speaking a word on their behalf. You’d think that would be enough to fill the fuel tanks of my ego, right? Yeah, think again.

The day after my keynote speech I was talking with two other main speakers. I thanked one for her authenticity and the integrity of her message. I thanked another for the trail he blazed for all of us who live among the publicly vilified. As the delightful conversation unfolded, I found an old discomfort creeping into the pit of my stomach. It was not joy or gratitude. No, it was disappointment that one of the two speakers had not affirmed my message.

Later in the conversation the speaker did say, “Your message was terrific!” but by then I was feeling too guilty to take in the compliment. I wanted to stand outside my own self, point and say, “I’m not with her. She’s a bottomless pit of need for affirmation. Keep your distance. She could suck your soul dry.”

How could a 52-year-old woman (yeah 52 – that’s what the computer typed so I’m stickin’ with it) who had just received the most extraordinary response of her career, stand in need of more affirmation?

Richard Rohr says in the second half of life we finally come to the place in which we find our deepest sense of satisfaction from deep within our own soul, not from the affirmation of others. So, uh, am I not yet in the second half of life? I’m well into the second half of my life yet here I stand, still hoping my Nielson ratings are holding. I feel like the narcissist who says, “Well, enough about me. What do you think about me?”

In our deep spaces we all want to be adored. If only we could truly grasp the truth that we already are. But alas, we have a difficult time seeing beyond the frosted lenses of our own wounded eyes.

The public platform is a vulnerable place to stand. Americans consistently say their greatest fear is speaking in public. On your better days you find the courage to place yourself there because you believe you have a word that must be spoken. On your lesser days you realize you are standing there because you have an ego in need of affirmation.  Better days and lesser days will always be with us.

I shall speak again, and of one thing I can be certain. Should Jesus himself come up afterwards and say, “Paula, my dear child, I love you!” my response will likely be, “Yeah, but did you like my message?”

And so it goes.

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They Make Beautiful Worlds Out of Nothing

They Make Beautiful Worlds Out of Nothing

Our family didn’t come together until the days after Christmas, which is pretty typical for a ministry family.  Cathy and I were alone for a relaxing Christmas Day.  During the afternoon I began reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior, and finished it a little after midnight.

Glennon wrote about having been taught the word for woman in Genesis was a word meaning “helper.”  She was surprised to learn the word actually meant strong and benevolent.  It profoundly shifted her perspective.  The most striking paragraph in the book appears shortly thereafter:

While those around them fall away, the women hold the sick and nurse the weak, put food on the table, carry their families’ sadness and anger and love and hope.  They keep showing up for their lives and their people with the odds stacked against them and the weight of the world on their shoulders.  They never stop singing songs of truth, love, and redemption in the face of hopelessness.  They are inexhaustible, ferocious, relentless co-creators with God, and they make beautiful worlds out of nothing.”

The passage made me think of several of my friends and family, though not of my self.  There are aspects of womanhood not assignable to me.  I have not spent decades as a female, taking in all of the subtle and not so subtle signals about acceptable behavior.  I have not given birth, nor have I been the primary caretaker of children.  However, now that more of my time is spent with mothers, I am beginning to understand the overwhelming truth of her paragraph.

As I have said many times, there is no way an educated white American male can know how much the culture is tilted in his favor.  He cannot know because it is all he has known.  I got a job as a radio station disc jockey at 16.  I thought everyone had those kinds of opportunities.  It did not occur to me that none of the girls in my school were offered similar jobs.  I was offered a university scholarship in broadcasting.  No female classmates were offered a broadcasting scholarship.  I had done precious little to earn my privilege other than having been born a white male, into a family of relative privilege.

Recently I watched the movie Hidden Figures, about three brilliant African-American women who worked for NASA in the 1960s.  The three were critical to the success of America’s earliest manned space flights.  In this powerful film you catch a tiny glimpse of how difficult life was for women in the 1960s, especially women of color.  I thought about how much things have changed, but lamented how much they remain the same.

After we watched the movie, my daughter-in-law, who is Indian, talked about how often she must fight for her rights as a woman of color.  Until a few years ago I would have had no frame of reference to understand her struggle.  Even today I can only understand in small measure what she has experienced on a daily basis.  The same is true of Jael, the daughter Cathy and I adopted from India when she was two months of age.  I am only beginning to understand how difficult her life was in the very white world we inhabited.

I cried when the protagonist in the movie is helped by a white man of power.  If it had not been for the kindness of one straight white male, Mark Tidd, I question if I ever would have preached again.  I understand the difference an ally can make, especially when that ally comes from the world of the empowered.

Limited as it is, I am grateful for my newfound understanding.  I am grateful I can now see a little bit of what women have gone through for millennia.  I can better appreciate the description of mothers provided by Glennon Doyle Melton.

As someone no longer in a position of cultural power, I do not know how much I can do to elevate the status and influence of women in our culture, but I will try.  These are perilous times for women and minorities.  We were so close to placing a mother in the most powerful position on earth – so close.  But as that goal fades from our immediate view, we must work as never before to challenge the grip of misogyny that still holds America, and replace it with the kind of understanding so beautifully worded in the pages of Love Warrior.

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