Is She Going to Make It?

This week I’ve invited Jennifer Jepsen, my co-pastor at Left Hand Church, to write a guest blog.  You can follow her at http://jenniferjepsen.org

Is She Going to Make It

“The failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”
Audre Lorde

So far I’ve preached nine sermons. Each one is a birth – the preparation a labor, the delivery a relief. I preached this past spring on the relationship between Mary and Martha, and how as a Christian woman I’ve been coached over the years to believe that being a Mary is the Christian woman’s ideal, our gold standard. It is very confusing to me, as someone who carries significant parts of both Mary and Martha that Jesus would appear to rebuke Martha, while uplifting Mary. Wasn’t Martha just doing what she was supposed to do as an obedient women in the patriarchal culture of the day? I too can sit at Jesus’s feet, but I also know the importance of being productive, while respecting the tick-tock of the clock. As a mother with three children, pastoring a church, there are things to accomplish and gazing at Jesus all day wouldn’t fly well with my family and co-pastors.

The premise I offer is Jesus, in touting Mary’s dedication, is instead upending the patriarchal expectations of the day and inviting Martha to be with him. Jesus is inviting her into a relationship of restoration and renewal, of respect and inclusion. Jesus is calling to her toward rest – a luxury, I suspect.

We women still function within this patriarchal model. We rank ourselves in a room based on our bodies and accomplishments, our clean and wonderful children, the lines on our face, and grey in our hair. We participate in gossip to equalize the room, while injuring ourselves with fear of saying too much and doubt in our abilities. We try to play the patriarchal game too, but since our power is minimal in the world of men, we operate out of shame. We operate out of scarcity. We operate out of self-deprecating humor and downright anger.

And as I navigate this new world of pastor, the world of men is real. Many church systems have been built on the metrics of men – numbers, quality control, timeliness, etc. Churches, on the outside, are efficient, tidy, and things get done. Programs are built, meetings are had, people are processed in the name of Jesus. All contributing to the bottom line and to the good of the organization. If a church is growing, it must be healthy right?

The Church is equal parts She and He, and yet we function in this masculine-centric hierarchy oftentimes no different than any other system or corporation in America. And I wonder, is She going to make it? Is the Church going to come through this crisis of culture?

Only if we can return to our feminine roots – to the Church as a redeemed Martha.

I am now in the company of many remarkable and accomplished and talented women who adore Jesus. All would qualify as both Mary and Martha, the best of both. These women are building and leading and pastoring and mothering, redefining the hope of the Church, redefining the hope of the world. We are redefining the metrics, seeking abundance, setting aside the tapes of scarcity that speak messages of our worth being defined by appearance and accomplishment and age. Our worth is defined because we are.

Abundance is untrustworthy and suspicious. We are conditioned to believe there must be be winners and losers. Abundance is a new and unwieldy language that supersedes metrics. With no rank or hierarchy, abundance declares there’s enough with plenty of room at the table. But as women, as the Church, we have to reclaim abundance. The metrics of rank have no place in this space, it’s too beautiful and open. We cannot translate the patriarchal game of ranking and measuring, a foreign language of gibberish. Playing the game kills our souls and reduces our offering. This feminine work cannot entirely be computed or grasped, measurable data cannot define. This feminine work is ethereal and spiritual and air and light, weighty and fierce in the best of ways. Abundance is mother. Abundance is tender. Abundance is fierce. And abundance is an all-encompassing force of Love.

The shameful messages of scarcity in this patriarchal church culture are real and pervasive. And the She of the Church is suffering. She is withering under the current weight of the game. She won’t hold much longer. She can no longer compete over who has the best fashion or the cleanest children or masculine metrics. She must unleash and become Herself. She must know what it means to sit longingly at Jesus’s feet, while knowing her worth and value are in being, while affirming the beings of everyone else. She cares not for the accomplishments and the efficiency. She cares for the whole of people, the healing of the world.

She is a Mother.

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For All That Shall Be…

There is never a point at which you find your “authentic self.”  If authenticity is a destination, then you get there when you die.  I have little interest in the destination of authenticity, but I am committed to the journey.

I have recently been settling into myself in a way that feels more and more comfortable. This body is my body, and it feels like I’ve had it forever.  It is a good feeling, and this week, a helpful feeling.  When your soul is all stirred up, It is good to feel at home in your body.

Last week several people heard me mentioned in the credits of the NPR Radiolab series, Gonads.  Those who receive the Radiolab newsletter also found a paragraph devoted to me and my TEDxMileHigh talk.

I did a two and a half hour interview with Radiolab that was not used for the series.  I thought it was the best interview I have ever done.  Molly Webster knows how to ask the right questions.  They did not share their reason for not using the interview.  I have no plans to ask, but I do have my suspicions.  They have a lot more to do with me than with Rachael Cusick or Molly Webster at Radiolab.

I thought the series on human reproduction and development was brilliant.  It included amazing scientific information on a plethora of issues related to human reproduction.  I particularly enjoyed the segments on how our bodies become gendered, and what it means to be intersex.

As I said, I do have my suspicions about why they chose not to use my interview.  It was not because the interview was lousy.  I know when I’ve blown an interview and I did not blow the interview.  It was something else.  And again, my thoughts are mine and mine alone.  They say more about me than about the folks at Radiolab.

I think the science related to the cause of gender dysphoria is a lot less definable, and therefore a lot less compelling, than the science behind the other subjects profiled in the series.  When it comes to the reason we are transgender, we just don’t know what we don’t know.

There are indications the cause is prenatal, and indications it is genetic, but the studies have been too small to be definitive.  I do not want to write about causes of gender dysphoria.  I want to write about how it feels to have such a difficult diagnosis when we do not know where it comes from, where it resides in the body, or what brought it about.

Last week I was talking with two good friends who are gay.  Both said if they could go back and change their sexual identity, they would not do so.  There might have been a time in their adolescence they would have thought about it, but not in their adult lives.  I do not share their feelings.

I would love it if I could have avoided putting my family through the hell they have experienced. I know they prefer the current reality to me being dead, but really?  Those are the only options?  In my case, I’m afraid they were.

The pain I feel about the grief I have caused waxes and wanes.  No one in my family holds it over me.  To the contrary, they have been wonderfully supportive.  The pain is more internal.  Seems to me it’s not okay for one person’s authentic living to negatively affect another person’s authentic living.

If I controlled the universe, I would have made sure I was born a female.  If the only option was to have been born a male, then I would made myself comfortable in that body.  Heaven knows I tried for enough decades.

But I do not control the universe, so I must play the hand I have been dealt.  I play it with as much integrity as I can muster, and occasionally I become angry that we don’t even know the bleeping reason I am this way.

My son Jonathan and I are working on a presentation we will do together in a significant venue later in the fall.  We’ll be able to tell you about it next month.  But the first draft of our talk is due next Monday, so I’ve been working on it at the same time I have been writing this blog.

For the talk we are giving, we are using portions of his upcoming book, She’s My Dad.  The book is raw, and beautiful, and redemptive, and effing hard for me to read. But here’s the thing.  Most suffering does not have a clear cause.  It just is.  No one did anything wrong.  No one is at fault.  We are so focused on assigning blame in our culture that we forget most suffering is existential, and existential suffering must be born with a measure of grace.

I will never know the reason I am transgender, and I will never fully understand why my family has to suffer so.  It is what it is.  But I do try to proceed with a measure of grace, and on my better days I can repeat the words Dag Hammarskjold penned shortly before his death:

“For all that has been, thanks.  For all that shall be, yes.”

 

Three Revelations

In the early morning hours the bedroom in which I sleep is bathed in light as the sun peeks over Indian Mountain.  I reach for the drawer of the bedside table and grope for the eyeshade that might afford another hour’s sleep.  I’m always amazed how much light can sneak through the cracks in closed blinds.  It doesn’t take a lot of light to dispel darkness.  The light always wins.

Since I transitioned, the light has been bright.  The number and scope of discoveries I have made is beyond anything I had envisioned.

I knew I would be rejected by my religious heritage, though I was not aware how complete it would be.  I knew there would be some loss of privilege, and fewer job opportunities.  Back then, all of the coming disruption was seen through a glass darkly.  In the light of day, it has been disturbingly enlightening.  It is always disarming when light dispels darkness.

The single most difficult reality is how my transition affected my family.  But I don’t get to write about that.  They do.  My son’s book, She’s My Dad, will be published by Westminster John Knox this coming November.  I wrote a few thousand words for the book, but it is Jonathan’s memoir, and it is raw and beautiful.

The second most disturbing reality is how I have been treated by evangelicalism.  But I knew that would not go well.  Last year I was one of eight or nine people interviewed for a booklet published this month by the Human Rights Campaign entitled Coming Home to Evangelicalism and to Self.   https://www.hrc.org/resources/coming-home-to-evangelicalism-and-to-self   It is the last in a series the HRC has been publishing about religion and the LGBTQ community.

I had forgotten I was interviewed, but when the booklet came out, the evangelical world made sure I was reminded of my part in it. With news releases and nasty emails, they continued their campaign of bigotry.  I have become accustomed to the vilification.  I expect it.  But I was not expecting the third most disturbing discovery of transitioning.

I had no idea how privileged I was.  I am pleased beyond measure that my TEDxMileHigh talk passed one million views last week, because I have a lot of work to do.  I had no shortage of illustrative material for the talk, because virtually every single day I am confronted with misogynistic condescension.  Sometimes it is overt and obvious.  More often it is subtle and difficult to articulate.

I was recently at a Modern Market restaurant in Colorado with my former wife and granddaughters.  The lack of communication from the inadequately educated workers was a problem as they started to give one granddaughter food to which she is very allergic.  When Cathy and I attempted to speak with the young manager about the problem, it became readily apparent the problem began with the manager.  He spoke over the top of us repeatedly, never listening to a word we said.

I became exasperated and raised my voice, at which point he called me a “hysterical female ” and made additional extremely misogynistic comments. I was livid and did not back down.  In the first year after transitioning, I was always stunned and rendered speechless when I was treated so disrespectfully.  Not anymore.

Almost as frustrating are those times when the misogyny is subtle.  When I arrived at my hotel in Asheville last week, I was given a room bordering a busy interstate highway.  I went to the front desk and said, “I’m surprised you would put a Lifetime Platinum member in a room you know is noisy,” and asked to be moved. The male at the desk said, “Some Platinum members prefer the highway side.”  That is the kind of subtle misogyny to which I have grown accustomed, a male not wanting to be called out by a female.

The truth is that when I was a man I never had a hotel desk clerk ever suggest Platinum members would prefer the noisier side of a hotel.  It would have been absurd to suggest such a thing.  There would have been a quick apology, accompanied by a comment about someone else having blocked off the rooms without paying attention to the elite status of guests.  I know, because it happened fairly often.  I let the hotel comment slide, because the desk clerk was otherwise respectful.

The misogyny is troubling enough.  But here is what is more troubling:  While I know I was never like the restaurant manager, I wonder how many times I behaved like the hotel desk clerk?  How many times did I use an implausible explanation to a woman because, as a male, I did not want to lose face?

I’d better live a long time, because I have a lot for which I need to make up.

Once Upon a Time

I have had most of my granddaughters with me for the better part of three weeks and paradoxically, I feel both tired and younger.  The days I have had all five (all between the ages of 7 and 10) I am definitely tired. But their wide-eyed expectation keeps me going from early in the morning until they are tucked in at night.

I tell the girls a bedtime story every evening.  I have no idea what story I am going to tell until seconds before I begin. It usually involves young girls on an adventure not exactly endorsed by their parents, but one that ends with children or animals being saved from peril.

I’ve known pastors who spend no more than one hour in sermon preparation.  They think it does not show.  It does.  But the pastor is so engaged trying to pull together cogently connected paragraphs that the sermon seems better than it actually is.  The pastor’s brain is working hard.  Not so the audience.

There are a lot of reasons creating a sermon on the fly is a bad idea.  Foremost among them is the difficulty of pulling together didactic information without forethought.  Telling a story is different.

We are narrative-based creatures.  We do not sleep without dreaming, and we do not dream in mathematical equations.  We dream in stories.  Our need for story is downright physiological.  Therefore, our brains are wired for stories.  That is one of the reasons I prefer narrative preaching.  Everyone loves a good story.

Good stories always have the same wonderful elements.  There is a protagonist who wants something with which the audience can identify.  There is an antagonist who wants to stop her.  Suspense builds to a dread/hope axis.  The audience dreads one outcome and hopes for another.  A good story always makes sure the audience gets what it wants, but not in the way it expects it.  The element of surprise is the icing.

I have a friend who once considered investing in a Broadway musical about a traveling executioner. I had a hard time imagining a story with an executioner as the protagonist.  So did audiences.  The show flopped.  You should be suspicious of a playwright who ignores conventional narrative wisdom.  We want our heroes to be flawed, but we want our stories to be redemptive.

There is another interesting truth about humans and stories.  We want the hero to behave better than we are likely to behave in real life.  There was one day in the last couple of weeks in which one particular granddaughter had difficulty with the truth.  As a grandparent, I do not believe it is my job to be the moral police; parents get to do that.  But I do need to keep the peace.  She showed little contrition.  She just wanted what she wanted and was willing to be untruthful to get it.

However, when story time came she desperately wanted the hero to make the right decision and tell the truth.  It seemed rather ironic.  Filmmakers know the audience is always moral.  In their real lives the viewer may have just embezzled massive sums from their employer, but when they show up at the movies they want the hero to make the right decision.  We are an endlessly fascinating species.

Since the girls were staying for a longer period, this summer’s stories turned into the bedtime equivalent of a ten-episode summer cable series.  That allowed me to create a story arc with a fair amount of complexity.  After I finished each evening, I was more eager than the girls to find out what was going to happen next.

Bedtime stories take on a life of their own.  You do not always control the outcome.  I cared about the characters I had created.  Would they find redemption?  Would the hero do the right thing?  A lot was at stake, especially the sweet dreams of five little girls.  I needed to get it right.

I always left each episode with a cliffhanger.  There would be collective groans, “Please GramPaula, tell us what happens next!”  “Ah, but you must wait,” I said.  I had ulterior motives.  It is easier to get five little ones to bed when they know the answer to a cliffhanger will be revealed as soon as they get under the covers.

This current series ended with everyone safe, but forever changed.  That felt about right.  Isn’t that about all any of us can hope for?

The New York girls left early this morning.  All five granddaughters will be asleep in their own beds tonight.  I will be sitting in my living room missing them monumentally.  To take my mind off the loneliness I will watch one of those summer cable series, hoping the protagonist makes the right decision and the writers and show runners are smart enough to know to give the audience what they want, but not in the way they expect it.

And so it goes.

The Camera Always Lies

I read the New York Times and Washington Post every day.  I do not watch “reality” television.  It is hard enough trying to discern what is true and what is not true without the carefully constructed fantasy world of “reality” TV .

Back in the 1970s British broadcasting legend Malcolm Muggeridge said, “Not only can the camera lie.  The camera always lies.”  He was not talking about the current world in which you can photoshop just about anything.  He was talking about a simpler time when the picture taken was the picture seen.  But even then, Muggeridge rightly understood that pictures do not necessarily tell the truth.

The common notion is that if you have seen something with your own eyes, it must be true.  But in reality, it is not that simple.  Consider the two photographs above.  The photo on the left would make one think it was taken outside a prison camp.  On the other hand, the photo on the right looks like it was taken from a vacation home in the Rockies.

Both photos were actually taken from the exact same spot in my side yard.  In the first the camera is pointed southeast and in the second it is pointed to the southwest.  Either picture, taken alone, does not present the whole story.  But if your brain sees only one of the pictures, it assumes the picture it has seen is true.

A second Muggeridge phrase was, “The editor is king.”  When I was an adoption caseworker back in the 80s, an international adoption issue necessitated doing interviews on CNN and the local television stations in New York City.  After the first interview was edited to give a completely inaccurate impression, I realized I should only do live interviews.  On videotape it was far too easy for the editor to tell the story she wanted to tell, instead of the story that actually took place.

When Donald Trump decided to run for president I was confident America was smarter than to elect a reality television star.  Didn’t people understand reality television has little to do with reality? Didn’t they understand that the editor determines exactly what they do and do not see?  Apparently not.

Mark Burnett, the creator of The Apprentice, made Donald Trump president.  Burnett has been selling fantasy to Americans since he started Survivor in 2000.  He is the one who made Trump a star, not by telling the truth, but by making the viewing public believe what Mark Burnett wanted them to believe about Donald Trump.  By the time he was done with his editing magic, Trump looked like a competent CEO and people believed the lie they had been fed.  After all, it was right there on the screen.

Print journalism is a better vehicle for truth telling.  Words are not as easily manipulated as images.  But even with print journalism, the editor still reigns.  The information you read is only as accurate as the editor makes it.  Last year there were two stories written about me in the Denver Post and the New York Times.  The Denver Post is owned by a hedge fund that keeps squeezing profits by cutting back on reporters and editorial staff.  Their 800 word article had eight errors of fact, two of which significantly altered the story.

The New York Times, which has added reporters and editors to its newsroom since the 2016 election, had a 4,000 word article with zero mistakes, not one.  Not all news outlets are created equal.

The Denver Post wants to get it right, but their owners make accurate reporting almost impossible.  But at least the reporters and editorial staff who remain at the Denver Post want to get it right.  When Fox News, Breitbart News, InfoWars and the London Daily Mail reported a very inaccurate story that involved a university in Pennsylvania and my TEDxMileHigh video, not one of those companies bothered to even attempt to contact me to verify their information.  Not one.  They did not care about the truth.  Period.

I want to get my news from people who care about the truth.  I want to get my information from people who are trying to get it right, even if their companies are owned by jerks.  I do not want to get my information from sleazy media outlets that only care about profits and do not care one iota about what is true and what is not true.

It is possible to tell which news outlets work hard to get it right.  You can start by seeing if your preferred newspaper has a “correction” section that appears in every edition and, when necessary, shows corrections at the bottom of any article in which they’ve gotten even one detail wrong.  If your favorite media outlet does not publish corrections, you need to find a new media outlet.

The truth matters.  It always has and always will.  If Malcolm Muggeridge was concerned about the objectivity of undoctored images, how much more concerned would he be with the mayhem we see today, particularly in the electronic media?  These are trying times, and we must not give up the conviction that the truth is ascertainable and will set us free.

 

 

Well, Now You’ve Gotten the Women Angry

It is not that hard to do the right thing.  Well, you might lose everything, but after the shock has worn off, you haven’t died. On the other hand, if you choose the wrong thing someone might die.  Children might die.

We are so bombarded by the constant stream of disturbing news that we pretty quickly move on from one frustrating reality to the next jaw-dropping event.  But even with Justice Kennedy’s announced resignation, one newsworthy item is staying in the headlines.  It is the more than 2,000 children who remain separated from their parents.

This past weekend there were 628 protests in 50 states against the current administration’s stance on immigration issues, particularly as it relates to those 2,000 children.  Many Americans are outraged, and with good reason.  These children will suffer lifelong mental health issues because of the unconscionable action taken by this administration.  But I have been almost as appalled by the lack of action taken by the evangelical church as I have been by the edicts coming out of Washington.

When it comes to the border crisis, megachurch pastors have responded like political pros, using flowery words that signify nothing. I read the response of one megachurch pastor that was silky smooth and utterly toothless.  Basically it said, “Whatever conclusion you reach, it is your conclusion, and as long as you’ve thought it through, your conclusion is good.”  Except that separating mothers from their children is not good.  It is never good.  It never has been good.  It never will be good.

But these guys, and they are all guys, are so afraid of alienating someone, they take no stand, which of course is a stand. To make a rather drastic but not altogether inappropriate analogy, the Holocaust would never have happened without the stony silence of the German church.

Of course, America’s evangelical churches do take a stand.  They take a stand on the pet subjects of their male leadership.  They take a stand against perfectly normal and healthy LGBTQ people, because their tribe has deemed that population to be a threat.  They take a stand against abortion, while allowing irreparable damage to be done to children who are already breathing.

I believe the lack of response to the border crisis is one more giant misstep sealing the fate of the current leaders of the American evangelical church.  Their empty rhetoric in these critically important hours reveals the mold eating away beneath their polished facade.  The evangelical church may not recover, and I am beginning to believe that is not a bad thing.  Last week a friend tweeted, “Okay, you got your Muslim ban.  When do we get our evangelical ban?”  This is how a large number of Americans feel about evangelicalism.

What goes around comes around.    Do evangelicals not know this?  Every church that gains political power eventually comes undone at the seams.  A David comes along with a sling and a stone and brings down the giant with one well-placed throw.

I love all the mothers who are coming together to address this crisis, because if we’re honest, it’s the mothers who get it.  Children are our most precious resource.  Those who mess with their wellbeing will pray a price.

It is courageous and brave women who are bringing power to the #ChurchToo movement.  They came together and spoke their stories, knowing they would be vilified by many of their former friends.  But nevertheless they persisted.

Some of the best-known female evangelical leaders have gotten behind the movement to return children to their parents.  All of these women are finding the courage to do what the male evangelical power brokers are unwilling to do.  They are calling evangelicalism on its misogyny, its racism, its homophobia, its anti-immigrant stance and its sexual abuse.  While the men stand with their deer in the headlights look, the women are boldly saying, “We will be silent no more.”

I think we might have found our David.

I Understand, Do You?

Over the past ccouple of weeks I’ve had some interesting conversations with evangelical leaders who wanted to glean information about the transgender experience.  Before the conversations ended, both either subtly or directly let it be known that their “belief about Scripture” stops them from accepting LGBTQ people as they are.  Both were confident I would understand.

I do understand. I believe it is also very important for them to understand.  When they say, “I hope you respect that my reading of scripture demands that I not accept gay relationships or people who transition genders,” they are saying, “My system of beliefs is actually more important than the flesh and blood humans I encounter who exhibit in their lives not one bit of measurable evidence that they are living anything other than whole and good lives.”

Gay relationships are every bit as healthy and strong as straight relationships. Transgender people are every bit as healthy as their cisgender counterparts.  Both have been confirmed by a plethora of peer reviewed studies.

So if you choose to reject LGBTQ people, you are doing so not because of any evidence-based empirical data.  You are doing so because of your interpretation of a particular set of 2,000 year-old instructions that you are choosing to accept over flesh and blood humans.

You have every right to do this.  But it is important to be honest about what you are doing.  You are accepting a specific hermeneutic that has been rejected by half of the world’s Christians, and you are following a specific exegetical understanding of a handful of passages that is disputed by many who hold to your own hermeneutic.

I really don’t think this is about the Bible.  This is about an unfortunate tendency of our species to create enemies that don’t exist.  The Pulitzer-Prize winning sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson and anthropologist and philosopher René Girard have written extensively about this.  Humans create scapegoats who must be driven from the tribe, and enemies who must be defeated for the supposed welfare of the tribe. The scapegoats and enemies do not have to be a genuine threat.  They just have to be named as a threat.

Consider today’s landscape.  Evangelicals are heavily involved in a number of initiatives to stop transgender people from using the appropriate restroom.  Even after North Carolina’s HB2 law was rescinded, they keep introducing similar bills in additional state legislatures, mostly in the south.

It is important to note that not a single transgender person has ever been arrested or convicted for being in a women’s restroom for nefarious purposes.  On the other hand, the facts are clear about a very real threat that does very much exist.

Between 1987 and 2007 the three largest companies that insure Protestant churches paid out 7,095 claims for sexual assault by church leaders, one assault for every 24 churches in America.  Over 99 percent of the offenders were male.

Again, to be perfectly clear, no transgender person has ever been arrested or convicted of assault in a women’s restroom, but thousands of pastors and church leaders have been guilty of assaulting their own parishioners.  These are the facts.

But none of this is about facts.  It never has been.  The evangelical tribe believes it needs an enemy, and at the moment transgender people are the enemy du jour.  Before the LGBTQ population, it was the divorced, Roman Catholics, the Irish, the Italians, the Scots-Irish, those who opposed slavery, those who believed the earth revolves around the sun, and so on and so on, back to the prejudice against first century believers who had not been circumcised.  This is what tribes do.

So one more time, just to be clear.  When you choose to say to a perfectly healthy and whole LGBTQ person, “I’m sorry, but my Christian faith stops me from accepting you as you are,” you are choosing a tribal belief system over a living and breathing human being. You have chosen an idea, and a vague one at that, over a person.

I enjoyed my meetings with you.  You seem like fine people.  I do appreciate your interest in meeting with me, and your desire to understand the transgender experience.  I would also like you to understand how puzzlingly dehumanizing your words are to me, the person you have chosen to judge unfavorably out of loyalty to your belief system.