A Tree In Brooklyn

A Tree In Brooklyn

I’ve always had a love affair with trees. When I was a kid I read A Tree Grows In Brooklyn just because I liked the title. We have a beautiful garden area behind our home filled with evergreens, a small aspen grove, rosebushes, dwarf blue spruce, sundry Colorado plants and shrubs, and a waterfall that runs year-round. The first warm Saturday in March I cut them all back and clean out the detritus that accumulates over the winter, just like I did for 25 years in New York.

We purchased our first home in August of 1982. While we pulled up carpet revealing beautiful oak floors and painted walls that hadn’t been touched in decades, our son played in the backyard on the Japanese maple. He was five. He could barely pull himself onto the first branch. From there the world beckoned. With each passing year he climbed higher and higher until the tree could no longer carry his weight. The tree made the transition from jungle gym to provider of shade, and on many a summer evening we relaxed beneath its branches and those of our three bigger shade trees, two oaks and a sugar maple.

The Japanese maple died a couple years after Jonathan left for college. No obvious signs of disease. It just lost its leaves, then its bark. When they came to cut it down I also had them take the too tall evergreen beauty passed by, the white birch that planted itself too close to the foundation of the house, one of the two oak trees, and the biggest shade producer of all, our giant sugar maple. Hurricanes arrived every now and then on our curve of the island and I kept envisioning the sugar maple draped across our bedspread.

The men who removed the trees were masters of their craft. They kept gauging the wind so wood chips wouldn’t fly into the neighbor’s yard as they moved deftly to avoid the power lines. With everything down but the thick trunk of the sugar maple, I headed to my study to write their check. With a resounding thud I heard the trunk fall. They put all the tree trunks in the front yard until they could bring the log loader to cart them away.

The trees in Colorado, while few and far between on the plains, have a high desert charm, especially the grand old cottonwoods. My favorite are the lodgepole pines of the high country, so close to God they can’t help but stretch a little higher. Whether I’m east or west, I love the lessons of the trees. The evergreen of my childhood, with each branch marked by the limits of my climbing courage in those early days of discovery. The dogwoods blossoming white against the gray bank of an early Kentucky spring, reminding me of new beginnings. The gnarled limber pine that sits atop a rocky outcropping a few hundred feet above Fall River in Rocky Mountain National park. The tree has no visible means of sustenance or support. That is until you carefully follow its roots around a granite ledge and far down through thin air to the rocky soil. That’s determination.

I hated cutting the trees down at our New York home. The children were mad. They didn’t care about rogue storms, but then they didn’t feel the hard concussion when that trunk fell to the ground. The kids just loved the shade. It’s not the first time I’ve had to cut down something I love to keep safe something I love more. But then that does seem to be a parent’s duty. It’s the paradoxical nature of things.

It’s been almost twenty years since I had the tree wizards cut down all those shade trees. Since water is hard to come by in the west, our only shade comes from that small aspen grove behind the house. The shade doesn’t hold a candle to the shade of that old sugar maple, but the aspens will do. I was watching my granddaughters in Brooklyn last June. One day after school I watched them climb the little crabapple tree in front of their apartment building. They could barely pull themselves up onto the first branch.

And life goes on.

Human Reality

Human Reality

I recently received a thoughtful email from a young graduate student. He had been reading my weekly magazine columns and is now a reader of my blog. With curiosity he noted while I have clearly stated my understanding of what the Bible does and does not say about gender dysphoria, to the best of his knowledge I have not written about homosexual relationships. He is correct. The only thing in print is the written conclusion of a debate position I was assigned in my Doctor of Ministry program. While I never publicly circulated that paper, someone did. Copies have been floating around the Internet for years.

In today’s post I want to go on record on the subject of homosexual relationships. Over the years I have read dozens of books and academic papers on the subject. I have considered just about every theological argument proffered. A very long time ago I came to the conclusion “conversion therapy” was not only misguided, it was dangerous. I also knew sexual identity was not a choice. In fact, until I watched Ben Carson’s recent interview on CNN, I didn’t think there was anyone left who still thought it was a choice!

I have reached the conclusion the scriptural passages on same sex behavior do not address today’s long term gay relationships. I believe being in a committed gay or lesbian relationship is not contrary to the will of God.

I know many of you are Evangelicals who have not reached the same conclusion. I understand how you have arrived at your conclusions but I do not agree with them. (I do want to note that my conclusions are not necessarily shared by my previous employers. For their own views, you will need to speak with them.)

From a practical perspective, I believe the Evangelical church will change its stance on homosexual relationships in much the same way it changed its stance on remarriage after divorce. The Gospel of Matthew says remarriage after an unbiblical divorce is adultery. Until the last few decades most of those who were divorced (with the exception of those whose spouses had been unfaithful) were instructed by the Evangelical church to remain celibate. Some churches actually instructed those who remarried to divorce their new spouses and return to their first spouses.

Comparing divorce/remarriage and homosexuality, Lewis Smedes, the revered Professor of Theology and Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote, “as long as (the church) read Jesus’ words with no regard for the devastation that its policy inflicted on the human families involved …the church could go on believing that it was only following Jesus’ own instructions. But once it factored human reality into its reading of the Lord’s words, it was bound to ask, Could Jesus actually have meant the church to cast away people?”

It has been a long time since I’ve heard of an Evangelical church that rejected a member who was divorced and remarried. The culture moved on and the church fell in line. I like Smedes’ term, human reality. The church realized these were normal people, no more or less healthy than their peers. They just happened to be divorced and remarried.

I believe the church will reach the same conclusion on LGBT issues. Again, these are normal people, no more or less healthy than their peers. Virtually every major medical and psychological association in the developed world has declassified them as mental illnesses. These are folks who just happen to be lesbian or gay or bi or trans.

Gay people are not going to abuse your children. Pedophiles abuse children. Trans women are not a danger to the women and children in a public restroom. We’re in there for the same reasons you are, nothing sinister.

The church will move on these issues because the church has never allowed itself to get too far behind the culture at large, sometimes even when scripture is clear (divorce and remarriage.) American culture has moved rapidly on gay marriage. I believe most Evangelical churches will not be that far behind, and I believe it’s a good thing too.

I thank the young graduate student for prompting me to address this issue on my blog. I have little doubt my readers will have opinions.

Copyright c 2015 Paul S. Williams. This document is not to be reproduced or conveyed in any media, neither print nor electronic, without express, written permission of the author.

Just Okay Chicken

Just Okay Chicken

Some people consider him the most famous resident Kentucky has ever known. My mother hails from Kentucky. She was the third child of a gentle tenant farmer and his good-natured wife. This particular man was neither gentle nor good-natured. In fact, I have read he was rather mercurial, difficult to please. Which seemed odd given his public image of southern gentility.

I happen to love fried chicken. Just a couple weeks ago I ate at Hill Country Chicken, my favorite New York City fast food restaurant. (If you go, try Mama El’s style, and be sure to get the mashed potatoes.) My love of chicken is deeply rooted. Grandma’s fried chicken was the best. Back then chickens were chickens, not bred to develop thick breasts in a week. They ate scraps from the kitchen and lived in a pen by the barn. Grandma fried her chickens in lard, which also had its impact on the taste, not to mention our arteries. Nowadays you don’t find many people frying chickens in lard. Still, I imagine if Grandma were alive she’d find a way to do her magic on today’s genetically modified birds. Mom’s chicken was next, after Grandma’s. After that, the chicken of everybody else.

We had departed Eastern Kentucky’s close-in orbit and moved to northern Ohio, Akron to be exact. A new sit down restaurant had come to our neck of the woods. It was called Kentucky Fried Chicken. I guess we must have decided to eat there on the day of their grand opening, because as we sat nibbling on chicken legs, a big white Cadillac pulled up and a white-haired man in a white suit emerged. The staff said we were being visited by Colonel Harland Sanders, yep, the Colonel Sanders, goatee, cane and all. He came to our table and Mom told him she was from Bourbon County. We didn’t realize it at the time but Colonel Sanders was not from Kentucky. He was from Indiana, but Indiana Fried Chicken just didn’t have a ring to it. Colonel Sanders smiled and acted as if he knew where Bourbon County was and asked if we liked the chicken.

The truth is the chicken was okay. Just okay. But we kinda lied and said it was great because we had learned to be polite and all, no matter the circumstances. As quickly as he had come Colonel Sanders and his white Cadillac were gone, headed off to the next grand opening I suppose.

It is now over a half-century later. Colonel Sanders has been dead for quite some time, though the advertising folks keep resurrecting him. And me? I’ve been a Kentucky Colonel for better than 20 years. I knew the Assistant Secretary of State and he made me a Kentucky Colonel. I have the declaration somewhere in the basement. I haven’t started any restaurants though.

Grandma’s been gone for over three decades and Mom doesn’t fry chicken anymore. I count calories now and haven’t been to a KFC in forever. On most days I can still remember the taste of Grandma’s fried chicken, seasoned with plenty of humility and gentle goodness.

I suppose we only truly know a thing when we can place it in contrast with another. Colonel Sanders chicken let me know just how truly extraordinary Grandma’s chicken was, no Cadillac necessary – just love in a cast iron skillet.

And that’s my offering for today. Sometimes it’s not about changing the world. It’s just about good chicken.

Already Been There

Already Been There

As I navigate through a plethora of changes, James W. Fowler’s book, Stages of Faith, has often come to mind. Fowler was a developmental psychologist from Candler School of Theology who defined religious stages in much the same way Erikson or Piaget defined developmental stages. In Stage One, Wishes and Magic, Fowler says we project onto God the traits of our parents. By the time we realize we have our own religious viewpoint we have moved into Stage Two and Stage Three, the Law and Order and Conformist stages. These two appeal to adolescents and young adults, but prove inadequate when life becomes more subtle, nuanced, and mysterious.

For several decades I would have placed myself in Fowler’s Stage Four, Individuative Faith, in which inner authority and informed conscience comingle with and often replace more traditional faith. Laura Thor, a therapist and spiritual director I know and respect, calls Stage Four Disenchanted Faith.

Stage Five is Conjunctive Faith, in which head and heart reconcile, diversity is valued, and there is a new depth to one’s prayer and a new intimacy with God. Laura simply and descriptively calls this stage Re-enchanted Faith.

It is a paradoxical reality of this good life that we do not grow unless we suffer. If we finally make peace with life’s suffering we have arrived at Stage Six, Universalizing Faith, in which we gain our proper creatureliness. We are imperfect, simply human, yet empowered by the Spirit. Grace, mercy and forgiveness come more easily. Understanding and acceptance become second nature. Judgment is more discerning. Dialogue is welcome and nonthreatening because we know where our grounding lies.

The turmoil surrounding my gender transition and a rereading of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss have nudged me toward the next stage. Wiman cautions his readers, “There is nothing more difficult to outgrow than anxieties that have become useful to us.” One of those anxieties is doubt. There is a certain smug assurance in a life of embraced doubt. While always present and often instructive, doubt should never be one’s destination.

Wiman defines different types of doubt. One he calls “a furious, centrifugal sort of anxiety that feeds on itself and never seems to move you in any one direction.” Yep, know that one – too well. Another is exhibited by, “an ironclad compulsion to refute, to find in even the most transfiguring experiences, your own or others, some rational or ‘psychological’ explanation.” Yep, know that one too. Then there is what he calls, “an almost religious commitment to doubt itself, an assuredness that absolute doubt is the highest form of faith?” Yep, got miserable living there.

Wiman suggests a different approach to doubt. What he calls devotional doubting is marked first by humility, making ones attitude impossible to celebrate, then insufficiency, which makes it impossible to rest. The third mark is mystery, which always tugs you upward and outward. Wiman believes devotional doubt is where, “faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.”

Inspired by Wiman’s benevolent rebuke, I departed my domicile in the land of perpetual doubt and entered a new place in which my faith has been, if not re-enchanted, at least disturbed from its slumber. If I live long enough and continue to learn from suffering, perhaps I shall enter the land of those who have claimed their proper creatureliness and embrace being simply human, empowered by the Spirit. We will see where life leads. I am grateful to be on the journey.

And so it goes…