Character Counts

Character is destiny.  Anyone can fake integrity for a while, but without character, it is not sustainable.  Basic building blocks must be in place to become a person of character.  Early in life you need to have been given a sense of self-worth and confidence in the safety of your existence.  You also need parents who have enough character to delay their own gratification to meet your needs. It is obvious Donald Trump did not have the building blocks necessary to become a fully functioning adult. He never had a chance. More than likely, his narcissism can be placed at the feet of his harsh and demanding father.

With Josh Hawley, it might be a different story.  In Friday’s New York Times, David Brooks wrote a scathing op-ed in which he said, “Hawley didn’t just own the libs, he gave permission to dark forces he is too childish, privileged, and self-absorbed to understand.”  Ouch.  Hawley’s mentor, the venerable Missouri Republican John Danforth, said mentoring Hawley was “the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life.”  This has not been a good week for Josh Hawley. There is nothing wrong with ambition.  I have always been a person of ambition, though I have noticed the world was far more accepting of my ambition when I was a man than it is now that I am a woman.  But ambition without character will sooner or later lead to a great fall.

Cancel culture defines a person by the worst thing he or she has ever done or said.  None of us should be defined by the worst thing we have ever done or said. We all screw up.  There were times when my own ambition was blind.  I cringe when I think of those occasions. They are never apparent in real time. Only in the rearview mirror do you see that we all have the capacity for self-absorbed, privileged, and childish behavior. I hope this is a tipping point for Hawley. Will he experience the kind of blessed and necessary defeat that forges character, or will he be more like Ted Cruz, who has already demonstrated his true and abiding nature?  Time will tell.

One of the most damaging realities about Hawley, Cruz, and many of the others who have bowed down to Trump, is that they identify as evangelical Christians. During my last 25 years in the evangelical camp, I lectured frequently across the nation on the subject of postmodernism. Evangelicals thought postmodernism was evil and that we needed to return to the modern age, as if the modern age had been with us since the time of Christ. In reality, the modern age was about 500 years old.

I was attacked for saying postmodernism is a good corrective to the modern age. One of the biggest complaints that evangelicals made against postmodernism was that it created a world in which truth was nothing but a social construct. At the extremes of postmodernism, I actually shared their concerns.  But in my lectures I said that truth has always been slippery.  There is no such thing as objective truth, because humans always bring their own bias to any observation.  But I also said that through rigorous inter-subjective discipline, we can get very, very close to something resembling objective truth. My friend Phil Kenneson at Milligan University helped me understand that in an excellent chapter he wrote for the book Christian Apologetics in a Postmodern World entitled, “There’s No Such Thing as Objective Truth, and It’s a Good Thing Too.”

At its extremes, postmodernism has ushered in a confusing world that says all truth is social construct, what a group of people arbitrarily decide is true. I frequently get in trouble with some in the world of sociology because I do not believe gender is purely a social construct.  I believe we have a pre-disposition, before experience, to specific gendered behaviors. That is not a popular viewpoint among those who believe everything is a social construct, including gender.  I believe there is something close to objective truth. Which brings me back to the election.

What Hawley and Cruz did on Wednesday was capitulate to the notion of truth as anything but social construct.  They made their objections based on no actual facts, but only on the reality that people believe the election was stolen.  That’s all it took for them to object.  There was no examination of the veracity of those beliefs, or their source. Their source is clearly a president pedaling lies to bolster his sagging ego, and television networks like Fox and Newsmax pedaling lies for profit and power. Hawley is extremely well educated.  He should know exactly what is going on. I must assume that blind ambition has made him, well, blind.

When it comes to the nature of truth, the very evangelicals who demonized postmodernism have embraced it in the most damaging of ways.  They have embraced a president who has made over 20,000 false or misleading claims.  With Trump’s extreme narcissism, I would expect nothing different from him. It takes a lot of lies to prop up an extremely fragile ego. With media titans Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, and Christopher Ruddy, and their desire for power and profit, I would expect nothing different. With Ted Cruz’s previous behavior, I would not expect anything different. With Josh Hawley, however, I am surprised. I mean, this guy clerked for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  A lot of damage can be done by blind ambition.

My mother’s extreme narcissism made me question the safety of the universe and question my own self-worth. My father’s love and grandmother’s devotion saved me from the worst effects of that unstable environment. Still, I am aware of my flaws. I can be too ambitious. I can be self-referential and self-serving. Thank goodness I have surrounded myself with people who will tell me the truth. I hope Josh Hawley listens to John Danforth. It is not too late for him to yoke his ambition to a higher cause than his own self-aggrandizement. We will see what happens. Character is destiny.

Uh, Well, That Was Interesting, Sorta

Okay, uh, 2020 was hard.  I was isolated, set apart, and miserable, and then Covid-19 happened.  Yeah, the other stuff had already taken place before Covid-19 burst onto the scene.  I lost a friendship and my compass, as I realized I have had more conflict with women as a woman in six years than I had with women as a man in 60 years.  I won’t write any more about that right now.  You’ll have to wait for my memoir to come out in June.  I definitely wrote about it there.

Before Covid hit full force I squeezed in one last speaking engagement.  I spoke for a conference at Rutgers University on March 7. The conference was packed with students who didn’t seem to have a care in the world.  The speakers felt otherwise. We were all antsy, and more than a bit uncomfortable with the meet and greets scheduled after each session.  One of the other speakers was the editor of the Onion.  It seemed ironic, since everything happening felt like an article in the Onion.  Another speaker was an elderly Holocaust survivor.  I felt so badly for him as students crowded around to express their admiration.  It was obvious he would have appreciated more adoration from a distance.

When I flew home from NYC the next day, a flight attendant on my flight out of Charlotte refused to fly until the crew was given cleaning wipes with over 67 percent alcohol content.  There were exactly 15 American Airlines personnel in the jetway mediating the dispute as we all sat on the crowded plane waiting to fly to Denver.  The flight was an omen of the chaos to come.  I have not flown since that CLT-DEN leg on March 8.

Within a week, all of my live speaking engagements for the remainder of the year had cancelled.  Then I was pulled from the preaching team of our church, which left me sitting at home alone trying not to catch a virus that might well kill me.  Which turned out to not be a bad thing, because I also had to write a memoir, which it turns out is about as fun as eight months of daily root canal procedures.  I do not recommend writing a memoir when you are not currently in therapy.  I kept having to schedule one-off sessions with Naomi, my New York therapist for 28 years. Dredging up your past in the middle of a pandemic while you are also in the saddest and most troubling work experience of your life (which in my case is saying a lot) is not something I would necessarily recommend.

Then after a few months I found myself a co-pastor again, working with people I adore.  That was nice, and redemptive, and the church is thriving.  Then all of these corporate conference departments realized if they didn’t use their budgets they were going to lose them, and I started doing one keynote after another after another, all from my living room.  I earned more in two months than I did in my first four years as Paula.  And about 1,200 people a week watched our worship services from John Gaddis’s front porch, including people from New Zealand and Australia and British Columbia and Mexico and Brazil and Ireland and England.  Which was all kind of cool. And then writing the book didn’t suck so much for a while, until it did again.

Writing about gender inequity (two chapters) and the unfortunate realities of evangelicals and their rejection of LGBTQ people (another two chapters) and a chapter about the differences between male and female sexuality and spirituality were all enjoyable.  Then my editor said I had to get real and talk about the things I didn’t want to talk about when it comes to my own journey from Paul to Paula and what happened at church, and suddenly writing sucked again and I wanted to give back my advance and throw out the whole book.

Then my editor reminded me that I had told her I didn’t want to write a good book.  I wanted to write a great book and if I wanted to do that, I had to get down and dirty about the stuff I didn’t want to write about and I knew she was right, and I did write about it.  I wrote for about 10 hours a day for three weeks and finished the manuscript before Christmas.  It still has to go through copy edits – but it’s mostly done, and I don’t hate it.  I’m not sure if its great or not, or if it will sell, or if the folks at Simon and Schuster will hang their heads and say, “Why did we offer that contract?” and I’ll never get a contract to write ever again, which happens way more often than you might think.  But getting nervous about that can wait for the second half of 2021.  That I was able to write at all during the pandemic is an accomplishment in and of itself, right?

Cathy and I got together on New Year’s Eve and ordered in a nice meal and talked about getting married 48 years ago when we were only 12 and 10 and how things have turned out so far.  Then she went home, and I went to bed and it was well before midnight.

All of 2020 felt like this post – disjointed and without a thread running through it, other than random chaos, which is a thread of sorts, I suppose.  And I haven’t said a word yet about the man who will still be president for another two and a half weeks, which in Trump world is time enough to start a war or two, pardon everyone who has ever been to Mar-a-Lago, and search for still more heart-stopping ways to destroy our democracy.

Here’s to 2021.  It’s gotta be better, right?

Occam’s Razor

Last week I was downstairs in my office, speaking for a virtual event in California. When I came back upstairs, I noticed the back door was slightly open and cold winter air was blowing into the great room.  Right before I had gone downstairs, I had filled the basin in the waterfall feature in the backyard.  Therefore, when I saw the open door, I immediately thought, “Someone with nefarious motives has come into our little neighborhood of 72 houses up a canyon in a virtually crime-free town and crept into my backyard, waiting for just the right moment to come through my back door and steal all my valuables.  You know, like my vinyl records of the Advocates, my vocal band from the 70s.” I immediately ran from the house screaming to everyone in the neighborhood that a vinyl burglar was in my house.

Either that, or when I saw the open back door, I thought I must not have shut the door tightly enough and the wind blew it open. So, I went over and shut the door.

Occam’s Razor is a scientific and philosophical rule that says that the simplest of competing theories should always be preferred to the more complex theory.  Occam’s Razor would assume I had not closed the door tightly.  But what if I was incapable of admitting to any mistakes, ever, including leaving a door unlatched?  What if my ego structure was so weak that if I admitted to the tiniest of failures, it would bring my entire house of cards tumbling down?  If that were the case, I would have called the police to root out the burglar. And when they couldn’t find any burglar, I would have assumed he escaped.  And when I couldn’t find any missing valuables, I would have assumed I must have interrupted him before he had a chance to steal anything.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as defined in the DSM V– the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 301.81, is a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. It includes a sense of entitlement, being interpersonally exploitative, seeing others as little more than an extension of one’s self, showing arrogant behaviors or attitudes, and never admitting to any kind of wrongdoing.

So, about the election. It is technically possible that there was a vast incredibly complicated conspiracy that occurred only in swing states that was so cleverly contrived that its nefarious nature was not visible to the naked eye.  That would explain why every court presented with lawsuits related to said conspiracy would not be able to find any evidence worthy of consideration.  The judges were not clever enough to see into the dark complex web of deceit that had been perpetrated upon the American people.

Either that, or Donald Trump is a narcissist who cannot admit defeat. So, rather than admit he lost the election by 7 million votes, he has to believe the election was rigged.  Which brings us back to Occam’s Razor – the simplest of competing theories should be preferred to the more complex theory.  Yeah, you get the idea.

Now that we have that out of the way, we can move on to the bigger issue.  How can 68 percent of Republicans, part of the 74 million people who voted for Donald Trump, prefer a ridiculously implausible explanation to an obvious one? How can they rally in opposition to Occam’s Razor? Now, that is a puzzle without a simple solution.

I will start with what I believe is the most convincing explanation.  It is not okay to admit you see Black and Brown people as inferior to you.  If you cannot admit that but it is a significant element of your worldview, you’ll do anything to keep the president in office who obviously, if not publicly, agrees with you.  He vicariously holds your worldview. It’s awfully suspicious that the vast majority of those who believe that the election was stolen are White. I believe a part of their willingness to say the election was rigged was because they want to deny the reality of systemic racism.  I mean, any way you put it, 74 million people voted for someone who would not denounce White supremacists. That means something.

A second explanation is that if you are not college educated and resent the intellectual elites on the coasts who you believe have tilted the world against you, you will find a way to initiate a class warfare with those elites. If educated elites say the sky is blue, you’ll say it is bright red just because you’re not about to agree to anything those coastal elites or Hollywood types say.  You’ll even vote against your own interests and elect people who change the tax law to screw you while increasing the wealth of the one percenters.  You’ll do it out of spite, because that is how much you hate the elites who opposed the changes to the tax code. And you’ll say the election was stolen just because it’s satisfying to watch the reaction of your exasperated opponents.

A third explanation is that there is a vast difference between where college graduates and non-college graduates get their news.  Right wing media pedals a steady stream of disinformation.  Many who consume a steady diet of right wing media have never been taught to compare news sources to discern objectivity, because no matter how objective news sources try or do not try to be, they all get it wrong at least occasionally.  Comparing sources to discern which ones usually get it right is critically important. I have personal experience with biased news media.

I was the secondary news subject of a Fox News story about a Pennsylvania university student. Mainstream media looked at the story and realized it was bogus, never giving it traction.  Fox News, on the other hand, wrote exactly twenty-five words related to me, eight of which were completely inaccurate.  No one reached out to me to verify what they wrote.  On the other hand, in 2017 the New York Times wrote a 3,000 word feature-article about Jonathan and me and they fact-checked so carefully that when they made one single tiny error, they corrected it immediately. It matters where you get your news.

I’m not sure what to do about all of this, because each of my three observations will feel like threats to half of our population.  My thoughts will seem condescending and will be dismissed out of hand.  We know that humans do not take in new information unless it comes to them in a non-threatening way.  No one wants to be told that their Trump support is hidden racism, or being on the hard side of class warfare, or because they haven’t been taught how to discern the objectivity of news sources. This column would just make them angry. But they already aren’t reading my blog, because they don’t like LGBTQ+ people. My very identity makes me their enemy.

It’s probably obvious by now that for the past few posts I have been trying to work out what is happening in our nation right now, and what I can do about it.  I have to work through what I might and might not be able to do to close the gap between us.  The future of our democracy is hanging in the balance.  We all need to do what we can.

Nice thoughts for Christmas week, don’t you think?  Well, it is 2020.  What’d you expect?

Dr. Paula Stone Williams

As you know, I do a lot of corporate speaking on gender inequity.  For the most part I write fresh talks for each keynote speech, and unfortunately, I never have to look far for new instances of gender inequity and misogyny.  It is always easy to find examples. Sometimes, all you have to do is look at the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Should we be surprised when a WSJ editorial last week suggested that Dr. Jill Biden should stop using the honorific “doctor” before her name?  This is the same editorial page that routinely aggravates its news division with its choice of op-eds.  This is the same editorial page that published an op-ed from Paul McHugh, the psychiatrist who, much to the chagrin of his colleagues, has actively and ignorantly worked against transgender rights. When I am looking for examples of male privilege, I can count on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

There are at least four things wrong with Joseph Epstein’s editorial.  First, the author has no advanced degrees, which means he has no personal experience with the amount of work it takes to complete a doctorate.  Which apparently, according to the WSJ editorial committee, qualifies Epstein as just the sort of person who should be writing an op-ed on the subject.  The logic of that decision escapes me.

Second, after a weekend of being skewered by half of America, instead of apologizing for their misguided op-ed, the WSJ editorial page doubled down on Epstein’s article, accusing those who complained about it as having embraced cancel culture.  Seriously?  Let’s examine what it means to have an earned doctorate.

Doctorates are terminal degrees within their respective professional fields.  An individual who is a doctor of medicine, doctor of education, doctor of ministry, doctor of psychology, or doctor of social work is a person who has earned the top degree attainable within their field.  A doctor of philosophy degree is different in that it is focused on original research and is therefore the desired degree for university professors.  All earned doctoral degrees include the option, if not expectation, that in formal settings the recipient of the degree will be referred to as doctor. Acknowledging that truth in opposition to the op-ed is just using facts to right the wrong done by the op-ed.  Calling it cancel culture is a cheap shot.

The third problem with the op-ed is that it was written by a man writing dismissively about a woman, as if we don’t have enough of that already.  I have a doctor of ministry degree, and as an ordained minister, when I was a man I was routinely introduced as Reverend Doctor Williams.  (The “reverend” honorific always precedes any other.)  As a woman, I am rarely introduced that way.  Unless it is on a curriculum vitae, resume, or business card, I do not use honorifics.  But that does not mean I should not be asked whether or not I’d like to be introduced with the proper honorific.  It is but one more example of the subtle and not so subtle ways in which a woman is assumed to be less than a man.

The fourth problem with the editorial is its timing.  Last Friday was the day in which the nation was waiting to see whether or not the Supreme Court was going to agree to hear a ridiculous lawsuit that over 100 Republican Congressional lawmakers had joined that would have subverted our democracy in favor of minority rule.  It was the most egregiously inappropriate action in opposition to our democracy since the Civil War.  Thank goodness our judicial branch held strong where our executive and legislative branches did not. With their unanimous decision to dismiss the case, the Supreme Court saved our democracy.  But we did not know that early on Friday.  So, while the world was waiting to see whether we are a democratic society or not, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal decided it was the perfect time to question Dr. Jill Biden’s use of an honorific.  Go figure.

If this year’s election has shown us anything, it is how much systemic racism and misogyny are baked into the fabric of our nation.  We are making progress, but it is painfully slow.  But hey, at least democracy was saved – this time.  And kudos to the Wall Street Journal for focusing on what really matters – the use of an earned doctorate as an honorific.  You can’t make this stuff up.

The Horns of a Dilemma

 

This week Jupiter and Saturn will appear as one in the sky, the first time that has happened in 800 years.  When I heard this celestial event is called the Big Conjunction, I thought of the dilemma currently facing large evangelical churches in America.  When it comes to the big conjunction of Donald Trump and Covid-19, these churches are lost in the cosmos.

Megachurches are America’s great religious influencers.  There are more megachurches (churches that average over 2,000 in weekend attendance) in Nashville today than there were in the entire nation just twenty years ago.  The influence of these churches is huge, and their decisions make news.  Flatirons Church, the largest church here in Boulder County, recently held an outdoor service (pictured above) in which mask wearing and social distancing were obviously negotiable.  The event created quite a ruckus in our Covid-compliant region.  It was not the first time the church has made news in a negative way.  They horribly mismanaged their relationship with a transgender member and have not been honest about their position on LGBTQ+ relationships.  It is my opinion that their leadership is not adequately educated about many of the most salient social issues of our age.  Unfortunately, Flatirons is not an outlier among evangelical megachurches.  It is but one example among thousands of similar churches struggling with their role in American culture.

The last four years illustrate the conundrum for America’s megachurches.  One of the clear convictions of almost every megachurch is its focus on salvation, not politics.  Over 95 percent of these churches are evangelical in theology.  As evangelicals, they teach that people must be born again to get into heaven.  Personal salvation is the church’s major focus.  Theirs is a transactional faith.  You give Jesus your devotion and Jesus will stop his father from sending you to hell.  That simplistic faith is inadequate in today’s complicated and polarized world.

As purveyors of salvation, megachurches pride themselves on not being political.  I do not know of a megachurch outside of the deep south willing to take a political stand for or against Donald Trump.  They try to remain neutral.  Most of the guys I know (and yes, megachurch lead pastors are all guys) do not like Trump, but they know at least 76 percent of their members voted for him and a sizeable number adore him.  They are not willing to challenge that adoration.

Take Georgia for instance, where Donald Trump wants to subvert a legal election.  The two Republican Senators have shown no willingness to support their Republican Governor or Secretary of State, while Trump asks the Governor to overturn the election, with no evidence of voter fraud.  It is exactly what I would expect of Donald Trump and Senators Perdue and Loeffler.  But where is Andy Stanley, the lead pastor of the largest church in the state?  We haven’t heard from Stanley since a Time Magazine column written before the election in which he said we should all love one another regardless of the election outcome, and an Atlantic article in which he acknowledged that these are tough times for large church pastors.  Hardly a clarion call on behalf of justice and democracy.

When the person in the White House is a narcissistic purveyor of lies who refuses speak out against White supremacy, staying silent is no longer a moral option.  When a pandemic is politicized, and people are dying because of their refusal to do something as basic as mask wearing and social distancing, it is not the time to refuse to take a stand.  Flatirons Church’s leaders refused to exercise the most basic of human responsibilities – keeping humans safe.  To not enforce mask-wearing and social distancing at a large service, even if it is outdoors, is unconscionable.  These pastors say they don’t want to wade into politics.  Since when is saving the lives of living and breathing humans political?  They certainly have no problem arguing for the lives of unborn children.

When I was Paul, I never was a politically active pastor.  Like most pastors, I stayed out of politics, not just to stop from endangering our 501c3 status, but because I never saw it as a priority.  That changed when I transitioned.  I never saw it as a priority because as a powerful White male, I did not see the injustice that actually exists in the world.  I understood it theoretically, but I had never experienced it.  Now I know.  People suffer.  Lives are lost.  Remaining silent is not an option.  I wish I had understood that before.  Privilege is blinding.

You cannot remain silent when wholesale lies are broadcast by the President and across media platforms that have no regard for the truth.  You cannot remain silent when a narcissist does what narcissists do – devour everything and everyone in their path.  You cannot stay silent with a pandemic is raging out of control, and something as simple as mask wearing and social distancing could save hundreds of thousands of lives.  Maybe our politicians have no moral standards and think only of retaining their power, but I would expect more from our evangelical large church pastors. This is not the time for silence.  It is time to boldly speak the truth.  Yes, you will lose people and money, but at least you won’t lose your own soul.

Twelve Days

I’ve spoken nine times in the last twelve days. Best I can figure, I’ve spoken to people in at least eight countries, including France, England, Canada, Sri Lanka, Trinidad-Tobago, Australia, Russia, and the US. I’ve preached twice for Left Hand Church and once for Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. I also did an interactive service at Middle after I finished preaching. I did keynote presentations for the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, Bouygues (UK) Ltd., and the Cardinal Group. I co-hosted a fund-raiser for TEDxMileHigh and spoke to the speakers for TEDWomen 2020. This evening I will speak briefly for the Denver Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial service.

Over a twelve day period I will have spoken live to around 8,000 people, but I will have physically touched not one single human being. That’s right, not one. I live alone and with the rise in COVID-19 cases, both Cathy and I have moved all of our counseling clients online, so no one is coming to the office in my home. Our Left Hand Church services moved from being taped in our church building to being done on Zoom from each of our respective homes, and all of my other face-to-face meetings have been cancelled.

I have been out running and mountain biking every day, but I have talked with no one on my routes. In fact, when I pass another person, we both keep our distance. It has been a very strange twelve days. I’ve loved speaking to so many people and I have received absolutely wonderful feedback. It’s been lifegiving. And of course, I always love preaching. But I miss physical touch. I miss hugging my family, co-workers and friends. We humans crave fleshly contact.

And then there’s an entire democracy teetering on the edge of an abyss, because of one single narcissist and his minions. Let’s not forget about that.

Jael, Kijana, and Trista got a puppy.  Winnie cluelessly eats and poops and teethes and demands attention 24-hours a day and I’ve been through that twice with two dogs and swore I would never do it again. But you know, it’s getting pretty lonely around here. I occasionally keep my co-pastor’s dog, a beagle mix with ideas about who is in charge. Finn, that’s her name, always looks at me with this expression that says, “What?” You know, like, “What? Waking you up at 5:00 am is what I do.”  Or, “What? Going on a run is good for both of us.” You can see the “What?” in the picture above.

Keeping her for a few days is usually enough to dissuade me from getting a dog.  But she is kinda precious, and she does keep me warm at night. But then there’s the hair everywhere, and did I mention she’s part beagle?  Then on my better days I remember the time will come when we can travel again and I fly 100,000 miles a year, which does not bode so well for a dog with her demands.

All to say, I’m lonely. Humans were not made for this kind of solitude. Most of us have a bubble with other humans inside it. My bubble includes dust mites, winter birds that hang around my bird feeders, and the red fox who appears to have plans to winter here. I even miss the bear, you know, the one who was in my garage. If it were now, I’d invite her in for tea and ask tips on how to prepare for hibernation. I mean, there’s a thought. Crawl under the covers and come out when the vaccine is available.

I am grateful to live in Boulder County, Colorado, where people do trust science and generally behave well. The very Republican county to my east has its issues, but I stay away from there nowadays. I don’t need reminders of the power of denial that resides within all of us.

I am hopeful about the fact that our democracy has not yet fallen, and about the coming vaccines. I am grateful for the incoming administration that will set about the nigh-impossible task of healing our land. I look forward to worshipping in the flesh, and seeing clients again, and flying back to New York to be with family and friends in my favorite city on earth.

I am older than dirt, and I’ve been around long enough to know that 2020 too shall pass. We just have to hang in there a little while longer. So, I run in the warm Colorado sun, and Zoom with the world, and subsist on the virtual hugs and dog kisses that come my way. I am blessed.

What Did We Just See?

You know it’s a strange year when the bear in your garage is not the year’s strangest occurrence.  COVID-19 gets the nod for the year’s biggest disruption, hands down.  But this week there is another oddity demanding my attention.

I’m reeling from the reality that seventy-six percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.  They saw four years of egregiously anti-Christian behavior and said, “Yeah, I’ll take four more years of that.”  About 150 million people voted in the election.  The Pew Research Center says about twenty-five percent of Americans are evangelicals, which means approximately thirty-seven million evangelicals voted.  Twenty-eight million of them voted for Donald Trump, a total of thirty-nine percent of his total number of votes.

I worked in the evangelical world for almost half a century.  Evangelicalism embraces a transactional form of Christianity.  You give Jesus your allegiance, and he tells his father not to send you to hell.  You can’t get more transactional than that.  So, why should we be surprised when evangelical politics is transactional.  “You deliver on our pet social issues and we’ll turn a blind eye to your behavior.”

My non-evangelical friends ask what is driving this decidedly unchristlike alliance.  There is no question that abortion is the largest social issue of importance to evangelicals, though I believe there is something else that lies beneath their support of Donald Trump.  But first, let’s consider abortion.  Two social issues have dominated evangelicalism – abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.  When the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, evangelicalism quickly turned its attention to abortion.  It is not that their theology shifted on LGBTQ+ issues, only that they began to realize America has moved on.  Two-thirds of Americans now support marriage equality.  Evangelicals know when they’ve lost a war and adjust accordingly.  It is hard to find a megachurch outside of the south that will publicly admit it is not supportive of LGBTQ+ people.  None of them are supportive, mind you, they just won’t admit it.

Not so with abortion.  It’s been a long time since Roe v. Wade kindled the ire of the religious right.  Catholics and evangelicals have been trying to undo it ever since.  Two-thirds of Americans support marriage equality, but we remain split 50/50 on abortion.  Only twenty-seven percent of Americans want Roe v. Wade completely overturned, but a much larger percentage wants restrictions on abortion.

By the late 1970s evangelicals realized they had lost the American culture wars.  Abortion became the issue that rallied them, beginning with the Moral Majority in the 80s and building to today’s Republican party, in which evangelicals have an outsize influence.  Politically, evangelicals have worked hard.  They started by running for school boards and state houses, then moved up to the national stage.

When I look at how many evangelicals say they voted for Donald Trump primarily because they believe Trump will keep a conservative Supreme Court, I am suspicious.  This is only my opinion, but I believe their passion is indicative of something else.  I believe they are terrified of the loss of White evangelical power.

Evangelical power started with the First Great Awakening from 1734 to 1760.  It produced evangelists like Jonathan Edwards, well known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  It continued through the Great Revival, from 1792 to 1860.  But by 1950, White Evangelical Christianity was losing influence to Black churches and mainline Protestant churches, both of which were very active in the Civil Rights movement.  When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973, White evangelicals realized their influence was virtually gone.  When they realized that by 2045 Whites will be a minority, they became even more frightened, and set out to do something about it.

Whatever the genesis of the current evangelical drive toward political power, its effect is frightening.  It has caused White evangelicals to stand firmly with a president who refuses to denounce White supremacy.

Power corrupts.  It just does.  I’ve been corrupted by power.  We are all tempted to succumb to its allure.  It takes extraordinary energy and accountability to not be corrupted by power.  But while power corrupts individuals, it more significantly corrupts groups of people.  We behave in groups in ways in which we would never dream of behaving as individuals. In the book of Romans, Paul calls that sin.

Most of the time Paul talks about sin, he is not talking about personal sin.  He is talking about corporate sin.  It is sin as a cosmic malevolent force.  You saw it in Sodom and Gomorrah, when two angels were sent to visit Lot, the nephew of Abraham, and were set upon by a frenzied crowd of out-of-control citizens. You saw it at the crucifixion of Jesus, when the crowds around Pilate cried, “Crucify him!”  You saw it in the first century, as Jews persecuted Christians and Romans persecuted both Jews and Christians.  And it has been a constant presence since that time, from the Crusades to the Protestant church’s persecution of Anabaptists, to today’s evangelical vilification of LGBTQ+ people.

This cosmic malevolent behavior is such a part of the fabric of humanity that it shows up in our fairy tales.  Out of control citizens are minions of the antagonist in Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, where unruly crowds want to “kill the beast.”

So how do we tame this group-think that has brought so much polarization to our nation.  As I have said before, I believe the solution is not massive rallies or siloed social media.  I believe it is one-on-one conversations in close proximity to one another.  If you and I sit in a room together and talk about life, we will regain our grounding.

Most of the conversations I have had with seatmates on an airplane have been around subjects that connect our humanity.  If we start there, we can work our way to deeper conversations.  And if we keep the conversations one-on-one, we can avoid the mob mentality that appeals to the worst part of our humanity.  I believe that is our only path forward.

I don’t know if Joe Biden can pull our nation together, but I know his spirit is exactly what our country needs – an irenic man with a good heart who wants nothing more than to bridge the divide that threatens our democracy.  His victory speech (written with the help of the brilliant Jon Meacham) was one of the finest speeches I have ever heard.  I don’t know about you, but I will be praying for him with everything in me.  Our country’s future is hanging in the balance.

Why Here?

There are so many ways in which all of our lives have been changed by Covid-19.  We struggled through a spring lockdown and a summer of social distancing.  Most of us have had at least one brush with someone who tested positive for the virus.  I missed our church summer campout when I had to quarantine.  And of course, 230,000 families have lost a loved one, a terrible reality that a sizeable minority of Americans find easier to deny than grieve.  Today, however, I am not writing about the big Covid-19 issues.  Today, I am focused on one little tiny matter related to the pandemic and the vagaries of human behavior.

I live in the last town in the foothills before a 21-mile stretch that rises 2500 feet to the main entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park.  There are two gas stations in my little town and a handful of restaurants.  It’s a cute village with a mountain vibe, the kind of place that often shows up on “Best Small Town” lists.  There are only a handful of neighborhoods north of the main highway.  I live in one of those neighborhoods, a canyon with a single development of 72 houses.

Before the development was built, a dirt road snaked its way from the highway up to the red rock quarries that dot the mountains to our north.  A short stretch of the dirt road remains, only about 100 yards long, just east of my house.  It is so seldom used that the surrounding vegetation has narrowed it to a single lane.  The road is paved for about 100 feet just south of my house, before the pavement ends.  When I am sitting on my back patio looking out at the mountains, the paved and unpaved portions of the road are just 50 feet away.  Which makes what has happened since the start of the pandemic especially interesting.

People turn up the canyon road that goes by my home.  Once they get to the dirt road turnoff just south of the house, they hesitate before slowly turning right and inching down the short paved portion of road.  Then they pull over where the pavement ends.  The picture above is looking back at my house and patio from the spot where they stop.

After they pull over, the most peculiar thing happens.  These weary travelers get out of their vehicles, and with little to no attempt to hide themselves, they deposit liquid on the prairie grass not 50 feet from where I sit on the patio.  Then they get back in their vehicles, turn around and head back toward the highway.  They never see me.  Apparently, the slight elevation of the patio (and it is slight, 10 feet at most) does not invite an upward gaze.

I need you to understand the frequency of this remarkable species behavior.  It never happened before Covid-19.  It is an adaptation specifically related to the pandemic.  I have not observed this behavior once or twice.  I have seen it five times.  No fewer than five times this summer, while I was sitting on my patio, people relieved themselves at the edge of the dirt road just south from where I was sitting.  And yes, it was people of all genders.  If it happened that often while I was sitting there, how often did it happen when I was not on the patio?  Yeah, I’m not gonna think about that.

I know what drives the behavior.  I just do not understand the choice of location.  Because of Covid-19, no one wants to use the restrooms at the gas stations or restaurants in town.  And they know they have a long stretch before they get to the national park, so they turn north from the main highway and start looking for an opportunity.  I mean, they could drive a few miles further up into the mountains, where they would find plenty of dirt roads and no houses or people, but no.  They choose the place where the pavement meets the dirt road, not 50 feet from my house, and in full view of, I dunno, about seven other houses.

I’ve been tempted to ask, “Excuse me, but could you help me understand why you’ve chosen this spot?”  But I’m afraid my question might affect their concentration.  I know our canyon is a wildlife corridor.  We have mountain lions all year and bears in the summer and fall.  They come through the canyon on their way to the river.  Is there some primal instinct deep in human DNA that makes people think, “This is the spot to respond to nature’s call.”  I mean, there was bear scat in my yard this September, and a red fox regularly leaves gifts in my yard that the dog I occasionally watch considers to be an olfactory joy.  Maybe that’s it.  In the deep recesses of our reptilian brains, there is a voice that whispers, “When in a pandemic, this is the place.”

They come in old cars, new cars, SUVs and motorcycles.  They come with singular purpose.  I haven’t noticed if it’s affecting the vegetation or not.  I don’t really want to look.  When I’m out running with the dog, she wants to go over and check it out.  I tug on her leash and say, “Not today, Finn; we have our standards.”

I imagine the behavior will end when the pandemic ends.  I mean, surely it will, right?  There is a lot of strangeness in our world right now.  Will these changes be permanent?  Is this the beginning of the devolution of the species? With everything else going on, I do not give myself too much time to ponder this odd behavior.  I just look forward to its cessation.

And so it goes.

This Is So 2020

My last trip on an airplane took place in early March when I flew to New York to speak at Rutgers University.  I should have known what was coming when our outbound flight was cancelled because a dog in the passenger section of the inbound flight had gotten sick and no matter how much they cleaned the airplane, the smell was unbearable.  That is the first time I have ever had a flight cancelled because of a “gift” left behind by a dog.

On the trip home our flight was almost cancelled because a flight attendant decided she didn’t agree with the captain’s decision to fly with one inoperative bathroom.  I sat  in the front row and watched as 15 employees came on to adjudicate the rather bitter disagreement.  The flight attendant left in a huff and we waited an hour for a new flight attendant.  That was also a first.  I had no idea how many more firsts 2020 was holding.

After I got home, the whole world shut down, so I just stayed at home and worked on my memoir.  The timing was good, but the work was tedious, with scores and scores of edits before getting my last draft to my editor at Simon & Schuster on October 5.  Just two weeks before that deadline I called my editor in tears, wanting to scrap the entire book.  It just was not as good as I wanted it to be.  She talked me off the ledge and I wrote between 10 and 12 hours  a day for the next 14 days and finally turned in a manuscript I think I feel okay about.  Writing the story of your own life is not easy.  I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll get copy edits back early next month and legal edits a week later.  Then I have until November 24 to get my final copy back to my editor.  The book won’t be released until next spring, but deadlines are deadlines.

Working on the book made the first wave of Covid-19 go relatively quickly.  But it is obvious the next phase of the pandemic is going to be no easier and no faster.  I was exposed to the virus once this summer, when a friend of a family member brought his sick child to a family gathering.  The required quarantine caused me to miss preaching one weekend and miss our church summer camping trip.  I try to remain vigilant, but pandemic fatigue is setting in for all of us. 

Then last Saturday I was hiking in southern Boulder County with a friend as we watched the Calwood fire blow up just south of where I live.  I took the picture above right before I realized just how close the fire was to my home.  We rushed home, only to be greeted by roadblocks.  We finally got home just as I received a reverse 911 call that we were in a pre-evacuation phase.  I began gathering photo albums, important papers, legal documents, clothes and such, as we waited for the order to evacuate.

 As darkness fell, we watched in horror as the fire came over a ridge along the mountain biking trail I ride, just four miles south of my house.  Later that night the danger abated enough that the call never came to evacuate, though we remained in warning mode for the next five days, with mandatory evacuations just one mile away.  The day the evacuation warning was finally lifted a much larger and more deadly fire developed in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, about 25 miles west of my home.  And oh yeah, I didn’t even mention the wildfire that’s been burning for two months 15 miles north of Lyons.  There are currently wildfires burning to my north, west, and south.  So there’s that.

Thursday evening looked like Armageddon had arrived.  The sky was red, ash was falling like snow, and evacuees from Estes Park were pouring through our town.  It’s been warm most of the week and will be 60 degrees tomorrow, but Sunday we are getting 15 inches of snow.  Monday’s temperature will not get out of the teens. Generally, I hate snow.  This time I don’t mind.  At least it will slow down the wildfires.

I’ve tried to stay lighthearted about it all, but it’s been a tough year.  My mother died 11 months ago.  My father died in May.  From August of last year to July of this year, a great trouble happened at church that rocked me to my core.  In December I stepped down as one of the co-pastors, remaining as a teaching pastor.  I am now serving again as a co-pastor and the church is doing quite well, but to say we went through the refiner’s fire is a bit of an understatement.  That, plus at the moment I am not crazy about fire metaphors.

I don’t mean to complain.  It has also been a good year.  I’ve been very busy this month speaking for corporations and conferences all over the world, including Global Care24, India’s FAIR Dialogue, Canada’s Conference for Women in Travel and Hospitality, the Marketing Research Event, Elanco’s worldwide employee conference, a national Joe Biden LGBTQ event, the annual women’s conference at Pinterest, an annual diversity conference at Mastercard, the KIN Meetup, and at least two podcasts a week.  And I’ve done it all from my living room, which has been wonderful.  In the next two weeks I will be doing events for TED Women, TEDxMileHigh, and three more companies, as well as preaching for Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.  And again, I don’t have to leave my living room.  I could get used to that.  Well, I could get use to it as long as there weren’t always wildfires and a worldwide pandemic  just outside my door.

I’m preaching at Left Hand Church twice a month, and our online audience continues to grow.  Our live audience often includes viewers from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, England, and across the United States.  A lot of those viewers have come to us via my first TEDxMileHigh talk which is rapidly approaching 4 million views on YouTube.  I’ve loved our online services, but I miss our people – a lot.  I can’t wait until we can meet in person again, which looks like it should happen sometime before the 2024 presidential election.  

It is a stressful time.  When you are speaking for an event that is paying you thousands of dollars and you lose your video connection exactly three minutes before your keynote is scheduled to begin, you don’t exactly calm down until, I dunno, about three days later.  It would be bad enough if that happened once.  It’s happened three times in the last two weeks.  It is so 2020.  But I’m older than dirt, and have lived long enough to know that life is good and ultimately redemptive, and this too shall pass.

And so it goes.

 

I’m Still Speaking

My granddaughter is writing a story about her guinea pig, Ellie, so I decided I would sit down and write with her.  Ava had Ellie for three years, but she passed away recently.  Ava is writing about the things Ellie might have said if she could have talked.  I like the things Ellie would have said.

I thought of all five of my granddaughters on Tuesday night, as I watched yet one more occasion in which a smug White man talked over and mansplained to a strong Black woman.  Other than the spectacularly boorish behavior of one of the participants in the debate a week earlier, it was the the rudest expression of male behavior I have seen in a debate.  

The evangelical world thinks Mike Pence is a wonderful example of what it means to be a Christian man.  With all due respect, the evangelical world might not be fully aware of its own patriarchal prejudices.  The lack of respect Pence showed to Senator Harris tells us just how far we have to go before we get anywhere near gender equity.

Since I’m hardly in a position to affect change in that male-dominated world, I don’t have high aspirations.  I would be thrilled if just two things could happen.  I speak about both in almost every speech I give to corporations and conferences.  Both would at least start moving us in the right direction.  I would like to leave a more equitable world  for my granddaughters than the one into which they were born.

These two changes are incredibly simple. First, men, if you would just assume that a woman knows what she is talking about, and treat her accordingly, that would be a good start.  Second, if you would stop interrupting women, and also stop others who interrupt women, then my joy would be complete.  Well, it might not be complete, but I’d feel better about the state of gender relations than I do now.

Ever since I transitioned I have noticed how often I am interrupted.  I began researching and discovered I was not imagining the change.  Men interrupt women twice as often as they interrupt other men.  And here is the thing.  I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I used to be one of the those who interrupted women.  It is very troubling.  Worse yet is the fact that I still do it.  I am much more aware of it now, and stop myself and apologize, but it is not an easy habit to break.  It is at the forefront of my mind in every meeting I attend.  It is not enough to catch myself and apologize.  I need to stop interrupting in the first place.  

From childhood through their college years, boys are encouraged to think out loud.  They are taught to be confident and sure of themselves and to speak up whenever they have a thought.  Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when they bring that with them into their adult lives.  Girls are taught just the opposite.  Girls are taught that they have to be perfect, so when they grow up and enter the workforce, they bring that expectation with them.  They know that when they do speak up in a meeting, their words have to be impeccable and succinct, because they know they are going to be interrupted. 

When I was a man, I rarely had the patience to wait for a woman to collect her thoughts.  If she didn’t speak up in the time allotted by men for other people to speak – about seven nanoseconds – then I spoke instead because, well, what I had to say was important.

It is humbling to realize just how entitled I was.  I was painfully reminded of it all last Tuesday when I watched Mike Pence cut off Kamala Harris time and again.  I wanted to scream at him to shut up and let her finish.  Fortunately, Harris has learned how to handle rude men.  She knows a woman has to respond to male rudeness carefully, and she does it perfectly.  She knows if she is too strong in her response, well, there’s a word that is likely to be used to define her.  If she doesn’t respond strongly enough, then she will not be seen as a leader.  She has to ride the knife edge between responding too strongly and not strongly enough.  

Kamala Harris was masterful at handling Pence’s interruptions.  “I’m still speaking” merchandise has already made its way into the mart of competitive commerce.  But the frustration is that she even needed to be masterful at handling his interruptions.  It is quite a double standard we have created.  Men are allowed to be boorish.  Women are not even supposed to be annoyed, let alone boorish.  The senator’s ability to handle rude interrupting men has been honed over her career as a prosecutor and a politician.  I stand in awe.  I have not developed the skill at silencing interrupting men that Harris has developed.  I just get angry.  But that is another thing women are not allowed to be.  Anger is an acceptable emotion for men, but not women.  It is maddening.

I asked Ava if boys interrupt her at school.  She said, “Yeah, because boys are well, you know, kinda stupid.”  I did not challenge her conclusion.  All five of my granddaughters are strong girls.  I’m glad. They have mothers and fathers who are not teaching them to be perfect.  They are teaching them to be persistent.  They will create a better world than the one into which they arrived.

I asked Ava, “I used to be a boy.  Do you think I was stupid?”  She thought about it for a minute and said, “Probably not, Gramma Paula, because you were transgender.”  Oh, if she only knew…

And so it goes.