Crossing the Threshold

Crossing the Threshold

Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s journey, which has consistent qualities across all cultures and times. The call has three basic elements – departure, initiation, and return. For our purposes, I will break it into seven additional parts.

The individual exists in a particular environment, but is (1) called to a new life. Terrified, the person (2) refuses the call. Life is comfortable and the voices of convention are strong. But a mentor or guide (3) enters the person’s life and gives him or her the courage to act.   The individual now (4) crosses the threshold into uncharted territory. They enter the (5) road of trials or the long dark night. They have an encounter with the father in which the ego is defeated and they gain the prize, such as the Holy Grail, or great wisdom. The person must now (6) bring the prize back home for the good of the people, before he or she has (7) the freedom to move on.

I loved the work of Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the head writers and showrunners of my favorite television series of all time, LOST. The series dealt with all the great themes of the hero’s journey, and in captivating fashion. Though it ended five years ago, legions of LOST fans remain.

A cathartic moment in my own life came from the final season of LOST. The protagonist, Jack, who has steadfastly refused the call, finally comes to see he has indeed been called to cross the threshold. He must lose his life to find it. He goes through the road of trials and eventually, through a fascinating twist of plot, gains the freedom to move on. When I saw the episode in which Jack gains the strength to cross the threshold, I knew that in my own developing story I had been called to cross the threshold in a profoundly life altering way. I cried and sobbed and screamed at God for hours, evoking language more typical of a longshoreman than a pastor. I was terrified, but I knew I had been called. I knew what I knew.

The road of trials has been everything I feared it might be, full of obstacles and plot twists and monsters, many of whom reside within me. It has been the most difficult and perilous journey of my life. Earlier in life I feared I might not be a person of courage. I no longer have that fear.

Every week there is a reminder of something I have lost. This is the week of the national convention I attended for 33 straight years. I was on the program 20 or 25 of those years. This week I lectured to a class at the University of Colorado, hung out with a couple of good friends, and road my mountain bike a lot. When pictures of the conference popped up on Facebook, I quickly moved past them. The pain is still palpable. But as Richard Rohr reminds us, some of the decisions we make in the second half of life feel as though they are demanded of us. So we accept the losses and move on. When you cross the threshold, part of your old life is left behind.

With great fascination I have watched each of my three children grapple with the hero’s journey. Their stories are theirs alone to tell, but I could not be more proud of all three. They are people of great character and courage. Cathy too, but again, that is not my story to tell.

As I continue on my journey, the road of trials is leading toward the prize. I believe it is wisdom, and the ability to love with greater empathy and humility. I already know the land to which I must return. It is the church. And if my experience last Sunday (about which I will write later – when I find the right words) is any indication, I will be able to say with T.S. Eliot, “we arrived where we started and know the place for the first time.”

And so it goes.

 

 

 

 

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Crazy, Holy, Grace

Crazy, Holy, Grace

This past Sunday it was my privilege to be the featured speaker at the Boulder, Colorado PFLAG Awards Banquet. It was the first time I had done a scripted presentation (which is how I write and present sermons) since November of 2013. My talk was at the end of a long program, so I wanted it to be tight and brief, no extraneous words. The audience was wonderfully responsive.

Only one person had heard me speak before. I had lectured in one of her classes at the University of Colorado. To the rest I was an unknown quantity, this tall woman in white pants, coral sweater and floral scarf. One of the award recipients was a retired Methodist minister. As I sat down he looked across the table and declared, “You are a preacher.” I fought back tears and answered, “Yes, yes I am.”

The audience was mostly secular, with many who have been stung by the church, but try as I might I could not fashion a talk that did not mention the call of God, the grace of our Creator, and the abiding joy of the Divine Mystery. So I went with it, and based on the response, it was not a problem.

Throughout much of my adult life I was a skeptic, alternately thanking and screaming at the God I was not sure was there. I still have my moments. When life seems dark, much of what I see seems devoid of the transcendent. But that says more about me than it says about God.

Once I stopped fighting against the call to live my life, not someone else’s, a great cloud lifted and the world took on a whisper of promise. Though I was in the midst of great loss and turmoil and recently abandoned rage, I could not escape the sense there was a crazy holy grace at work, taking the rough edges off my existence and weighing the whole of the human story towards the redemptive.

Do I have proof of this holy grace? Of course not. Do I have evidence? Pretty much everywhere I turn offers a glimpse of that grace – the laughter of a granddaughter, a crisp spring day with a mountain bike and an empty singletrack trail, an old friend tentatively returning after a painful absence. All point to what seems best defined as the gentle work of the great I Am.

This crazy holy grace, this defeat that allows me to leave the shouting voices behind, this gentle rain that washes the anger from my dusty shoes, all this benevolence asks something of me. The Prince of Peace asks me to speak a word, to assure others the road less traveled by does not lead to fear and despair and hardening of the categories. It leads to light and love and hope and promise. This ground on the other side of emptiness and anger is a land of gentle breezes, golden hours of lengthening shadows, and blessed rest.

Soon this holy grace will find its expression in the place I know so well, the place that in different manifestations has both rejected and healed me. Through the great generosity of two loving pastors I have been asked to preach again. And I answered, “Yes! By all means, yes! So life goes on, and it is good.

The last lines of Mary Oliver’s The Journey come to mind:

But little by little, as you left their voices behind

The stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds

And there was a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own

That kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world

Determined to do the only thing you could do

Determined to save the only life you could save.

And Now Caitlyn

And Now Caitlyn

I had hoped I would not feel the need to write about Caitlyn Jenner, but I probably should have known I could not remain silent. I am a public figure. Caitlyn is a very public figure. People have opinions.

Being transgender is no day at the park. We have known we were this way since childhood, and we have also known most of the world would freak out if we told them about our innermost struggle. I know you feel it is just too weird to see the same person who was on a Wheaties box now on the cover of Vanity Fair. Fair enough, it is weird for me too, and for every other transgender person I know. It has always been weird – a difficult thing to have to accept about our selves. We hated being this way and fought it with everything in us, until we could fight it no more.

I know you get tired of hearing about the 41 percent suicide attempt rate among those who are transgender. I’ve already written about the preacher who suggested it was a passive-aggressive way to get people to stop challenging us, an interesting way to both acknowledge and dismiss it in a single breath. But the truth is no other DSM diagnosis carries one-fifth the suicide risk. I would not wish this on anyone, not even my worst enemy. It is like having a bad relative who comes to stay and never leaves – and the person is living inside your own skin.

Long before the world got angry because Bruce chose the name Caitlyn, and long before Vanity Fair chose to promote its stereotype of women by dressing her in corsets and loungewear, Caitlyn Jenner was suffering. I don’t care what you think of her style, personality or taste, but I do want you to care about her humanity. One of the pastor’s at Caitlyn’s church wrote a blog post about her compassion, kindness and faith. It would be marvelous if the world would treat her with similar sensitivity.

Last week was tough. Hate mail returned. Former friends and family posted inflammatory and inaccurate information, especially Paul McHugh’s perspective on gender dysphoria. (Leave it to the Fundamentalists to find the one psychiatrist in America who has published a negative perspective on this subject, while ignoring the conclusions of every major medical society in the developed world.) In all these postings was there a single person who said, “My, how Caitlyn must have suffered?” Unfortunately, I could not find a single one.

Being trans has always been hard and always will be hard. Not exactly male and not exactly female, I struggle to find my way in a harsh world made more so by confident pundits shouting their bad advice. This is already a dark ride. To those screaming and yelling, incensed by Caitlyn’s coming out, you are not shining any light in the darkness. You are just reinforcing the world’s opinion that Christians are some of the most judgmental people on God’s green earth.

On the other hand, to those of you who in the name of Jesus, come to the subject with open hearts and minds and a willingness to study diligently to better understand our suffering, I will always be grateful. I do believe you have saved my faith.

And so it goes.

Judging and Being Judgmental

Judging and Being Judgmental

Judging is essential to a well-lived life. Cathy and I raised our children based on our best judgment. We chose to keep a tighter rein than most New York parents. Years later our children told us our judgment was flawed. We listened carefully and concluded they were right. We apologized. Exercising good judgment is one of the most important responsibilities of parenting.

On the other hand, being judgmental is not essential to any kind of life. Being judgmental occurs when inaccurate information ignites fear. It is often based on misunderstanding, innuendo, and prejudice. History would suggest it has always been a part of the human condition.

E. O. Wilson is the sociologist who first suggested the critical social unit for humans is not the nuclear family, but the tribe. Wilson studied ants and found great similarities between these six-legged picnic invaders and we humans. Both need a community to survive.   But Wilson noted an unfortunate difference between ants and humans. Ants do not believe they need an enemy to hold the tribe together. Humans do. The difference could spell our downfall as a species.

It is frightening to see how quickly we demonize those unlike us. We are astounded at the outlandish beliefs held about Christians by members of the Islamic State. Their information is so patently wrong it would be laughable were it not for the real threat they pose to our safety. We see the sizeable splinter in their eye, but do we see the log in our own? To be sure, we are not beheading anyone, but that does not stop us from being judgmental in our own civilized way.

A lot of Evangelicals are upset I changed genders. When the information became public, I figured people had one of two options. They could either reexamine their view of what it means to be transgender, or they could assume they had been wrong about my character all along. I was more than a little disappointed with the number who chose the later option. Their judgmental spirit was painful to endure. But if I am honest, in the past year I have had my own issues with a judgmental spirit.

After transitioning I kept saying, “I’m still here. I’m still me.” I was frustrated people could not see I was the same person. I was judgmental toward those who could no longer see Paul in me. I was unreasonably critical of their inability to see the soul of Paul was present and accounted for. With time to reflect, however, I realized I too was working with inaccurate information that ignited fear. These people were not necessarily rejecting me. They just needed time and space to process difficult information. Additionally, I did not understand how much I have indeed changed, in both appearance and personality, and how difficult that has been for many.

I asked questions and I listened. When it came to feelings, these people who felt abandoned by Paul were the experts. They knew how they felt. Together we worked toward understanding. As usual, Cathy and my children and their spouses were particularly wise and helpful.

Finding the balance between judgment and being judgmental is difficult for all of us. But here is the thing. God is not encountered in a spirit of angry judgment.  God is encountered in the thin places, and the thin places are surrounded by love, generosity and kindness.  They are nowhere to be found when you harbor a judgmental spirit. While residing there I certainly did not hear the voice of God. I heard only my own angry voice, full of sound and fury.

No one avoids being judgmental. The best I can hope for is to remain there for as short a time as possible. Until I can see the very specific log in my own eye, anything approaching objectivity will be elusive. The only way to nurture an irenic spirit is to be open to challenge, eager to listen, and committed to discernment.  That is how the deep wisdom arrives.