All is Calm, All is Bright

All is Calm, All is Bright

In my first book, Laughter, Tears, and In-Between, I wrote a story about singing a solo in church when I was nine years old. Singing in church was not unusual. Most often I sang on Sunday evenings, mornings being reserved for adults and all.

Schumacher Elementary School had inaugurated a program teaching German over the classroom loudspeaker. It worked well enough for me to learn a few words and sing Silent Night in German.  My mother insisted I sing it at church. I was terrified. This was not the same as belting out America the Beautiful. This was a foreign language, at Christmastime.

But the choice was not mine, so there I sat on the second row next to my mother, far forward from our usual spot in the middle of the sanctuary. I wore a red argyle sweater with a white shirt and black bow tie. There in the wrong seat with a heart full of fear, I wanted the entire season to be over. “Please, dear God, take us straight to January?” But there were no miracles. The introduction began and I haltingly started, “Stille Nacht, Heil’ge Nacht, alles schlaft; einsam wacht…” And that was it. I fled out the side hallway and camped behind a pillar, peeking back into the sanctuary.

My father stood to preach and motioned with his right hand to come back inside the sanctuary. But the hallway was my sanctuary and I would not budge.

The service ended and people started trickling out. When no one was left but my family and a couple of elders and their wives, I slowly made my way back into the sanctuary. My brother and the Arnold boys were snickering in the back.

There was no conversation on the short drive home, but when we pulled into the driveway, my brother and mother got out of the car and my father asked me to stay with him. We headed down to Lawson’s store on Copley Road. Dad gathered a few things and then picked up a pack of Wintergreen LifeSavers. When we got back in the car he gave me the LifeSavers and patted me on the knee. Those were the best LifeSavers I ever tasted.

In my book, that is pretty much where the story ended. I used it as a sermon illustration a time or two, and retold the story in a Christmas Eve service.

Five years ago I was taking one of the final courses for my doctoral degree, a class on psychotherapeutic groups. One day we were asked to come to class with a story from our own background. Since we didn’t want to appear all that vulnerable, everyone in the class chose a subject that was not too personal. I chose this story, well rehearsed and deep in my past.

One of the instructors was a remarkable therapist from a Colorado retreat center. When I finished the retelling of my Christmas to forget, she asked, “Do you know why your mother did not come to get you?” I was stunned. Instantly my eyes welled with tears as I contemplated the fact that not once, not now, not ever, had I asked myself that question. After a long silence I replied, “It never occurred to me that it was something she might have done.” In that way therapists have, she replied, “Oh my.” My fellow students sat in silence, respecting the gravity of the moment.

After awhile the therapist said, “Cathy would have come to get you.” I cried so very hard. She was right. Cathy, with a heart of grace and a soul of compassion, my best friend and companion for the past 42 years, would indeed have come to get me. I know it beyond a whisper of a doubt.

She still will.

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I Am

I Am

When I was a child I lived in a pleasant neighborhood on the west side of Akron, Ohio. Maple Valley was a safe enclave with good schools and kind neighbors. In 1960 my friend Bob and I held homemade placards proclaiming Nixon and Lodge and waved them at passing cars. Our efforts were superfluous. Pretty much everyone on the block was a Republican.

When I was in the ninth grade fear began to grip our neighborhood. We were all of European ancestry and African-Americans began buying houses on our side of Copley Road, the unspoken boundary in the process known as red-lining. “For sale” signs went up overnight and parents began whispering nervously. The elders at our all white church decided to sell the parsonage and buy another in a “safer” part of town. I blindly accepted it all as normal, routine, even necessary. Everyone said the neighborhood would crumble, crime would increase, and we would never be safe again. Except none of it turned out to be true.

My old block looks remarkably as it did when we made our fast getaway almost 50 years ago. Yards are tidy, fences are painted, children play on the side streets and life goes on. The neighborhood appears to be racially and ethnically diverse, certainly a place in which your average Millennial family would feel at home. The truth was obvious. There had never been a reason to leave.

I regret I grew up in a culture that endorsed such racism. I regret no adult showed me a better path or a deeper way. My racism was inherited, implied, and subconscious. I would have said I did not have a racist bone in my body. And of course, I would have been wrong.

Silence is part of the problem. We think, “Well, we are not a part of the opposition, so that says something, right?”  Yeah, I don’t think so. When it comes to justice there are really only two options. You are a part of the problem, or you are a part of the solution. Remaining silent is unacceptable.

When a newspaper posed the question, “What is wrong with the world?” G.K. Chesterton replied, “I am.” Had the newspaper asked, “What is right with the world?” Chesterton might have given the same answer, “I am.” We are all the problem. We are all the solution.

I am pleased to be a part of a church that is racially, ethnically and socio-economically diverse. Yet the little town in which I live just voted down a measure that would have brought affordable housing into our prosperous white enclave. Something seems out of kilter being a part of the solution in one place, and a part of the problem in another. While I voted for the affordable housing, I did not canvas the neighborhood in support of it. It only lost by a few votes. I could have made a difference.

The gap is widening between the comfortable and the desperate. The solution is not complicated. It is simple. The solution is me. When it comes to making this world a better place, I am the problem. I am the solution.

And so it goes.

Am I Crazy, Or…

Am I Crazy, Or…

I suppose it is understandable that I have devoted a lot of words to trans issues. As I have written several times, embedded within my identity are responsibilities, and I don’t aim to shirk them. But should we really be devoting this much time to this issue? Could it be possible more pressing issues need our attention?

I have been shocked by the never-ending protestations among Evangelicals on LGBTQ issues since the Supreme Court decision and the media focus on Caitlyn Jenner. Concerning gay marriage, Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville said, “Marriage is the ultimate social issue.” Okay, Al, really?

When you woke up this morning, there were over 19 million refugees in the world. Four million are Syrian refugees. Bashar al-Assad became the ruler of Syria in 2000 and when protests erupted as a part of the Arab Spring, his regime responded with gas and barrel bombs aimed at his own people. Assad wanted to take attention away from his atrocious government, so he targeted Sunni communities in the hopes of turning the civil unrest into a religious war between Shiites and Sunnis. His ploy worked. Sunnis from all over the Middle East came to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s Shiite government. The fear of ISIS then caused Iran and other primarily Shiite nations to support Assad, playing into his shrewd hands. Raging in Syria is a civil war with planetary implications. Yet here we are, focused on gay marriage.

Over 200,000 Syrians have been killed by one side or the other since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. One in five residents of Syria has fled the country. Every single day, thousands travel 3,500 miles over land and water to reach the few welcoming nations of Western Europe. Though they recently stepped up border controls, Germany has been the most supportive. Syrian refugees call Chancellor Angela Merkel, “Mother Merkel.” (Should we be surprised it is a female head of state who welcomes the homeless?)

While four million people have fled Syria, the United States has agreed to accept 10,000, one in 400. I guess we’re too busy watching Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show and choosing among the zillion Republican candidates who intend to somehow overturn the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. We don’t have time to devote energy to housing the refugees of a brutal war. We are in the midst of the most serious refugee crisis since World War II, yet it took the picture of a dead child in the arms of a Turkish border guard to bring attention to the plight of millions.

Still, Evangelicals focus on gay marriage and trans rights. Last week I was interviewed by a Denver area newspaper because a transgender member of an Evangelical megachurch was barred from attending her church’s women’s retreat. Millions are fleeing their homes, and a megachurch focuses on a single transgender member who wants to go on a retreat.

I mean, that’s kinda like one potential shoe bomber causing an entire nation to have to take off its shoes, while between 1999 and 2012 there are 179 school shootings and nothing is done to stop the proliferation of firearms. Uh, wait a minute. That actually happened. Maybe I need to find a different illustration.

So you tell me. What should we be focusing on? Should it be the straw man we’ve created who has supposedly threatened the fabric of Western Civilization, or should we be focusing on the 19 million refugees wandering our planet who are desperately searching for a new home?

You tell me?

Life and Love Without Labels

Life and Love Without Labels

My mentor was a retired Roman Catholic seminary rector with whom I often had lunch. During one afternoon at Joe’s Pasta and Pizza in Bay Shore, New York, I asked Jim about his rather unique use of the word conversion. With his smiling eyes he graciously answered: “There are moments in life when you come to two paths and must make a choice. You choose a path and are greatly surprised where it takes you and what it demands of you. If you allow the choice to shape you, it can be a moment of conversion. I have had four in my life.”

I do not remember what his conversions were, because I was too busy being self-referential, thinking about my own conversions. (Alas, the lessons we miss by not listening.) Not long before he died, Jim told me he was entering his final conversion. He said, “I am dying, and I must let go. I must fully let go and give myself to Jesus.” I miss Jim, but his spirit remains in me.

My first conversion was when I came to realize I knew better than to follow my church with blind obedience. I like Derek Flood’s language in his book Disarming Scripture. He says there is unquestioning obedience and there is faithful questioning, and the Scriptures give examples of both types of people, frequently at odds with one another. I knew I was not like most other people in my world. I was a faithful questioner.

Another conversion came when I accepted the role as CEO of the Orchard Group, a position I did not particularly want, but knew I needed to accept. Taking that risk caused both the organization and me to grow exponentially.

My call to transition to Paula was the most profound conversion of my life, but I’ve written enough about that, so we’ll leave it alone. My most recent conversion was, like the others, unexpected. Given the church’s rejection of me, I assumed my years in the church were over. It was a big loss, but one over which I had little control. My spiritual life would have to proceed where two or three were gathered together.

Then on June 21 I was surprised by joy. I attended a worship service at Highlands Church in Denver (highlandschurchdenver.org) and cried clear through the service, from one end to the other. Jesus came in the form of my friend, Jen Jepsen, who loving placed communion in my hands. It was a moment of profound conversion – the body of Christ, broken for me. I knew I was called back to the church.

Two months later, on August 30, 2015, the worship was excellent, the building inviting, and the weekly communion a celebration of life together, just like it always is. But on August 30, I preached! Jenny Morgan, Mark Tidd and Rachael McClair (the pastors) invited me into their home and trusted me to fix dinner. It felt completely and utterly normal. I did what I was created to do and for the first time I did it in the right body, the one my soul always inhabited. The response was amazing, incredibly warm and affirming. And the best part were all the people who talked with me about the Scriptures I used and what those stories meant to them. The fact I was trans was, if not exactly incidental, not really all that big a deal either, because Highlands Church lives its ethos.

This past Sunday was the church’s sixth anniversary. Jenny preached a thoughtful, well-crafted message about a community covenant based in humility. The church planter in me estimates the church is running 500 to 600 people, pretty good for a church started from scratch.

I ask myself what accounts for that growth? I know it wasn’t great funding or denominational support. Highlands had neither. I think it is the leadership with which the church is blessed, and the ethos Mark Tidd penned nine years ago, three years before the church started. Spirit-inspired, that ethos permeates the building and the people within:

Married, divorced or single here, it’s one family that mingles here

Conservative or liberal here, we’ve all gotta give a little here

Big or small here, there’s room for us all here

Doubt or believe here, we all can receive here

Gay or straight here, there’s no hate here

Woman or man here, everyone can here

Whatever your race here, for all of us grace here

In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us

And all of us, let us live and love without labels!

A Butterfly Kiss in a Hurricane

A Butterfly Kiss in a Hurricane

We pray for times we can rest up for whatever is going to happen next. Maybe it will be the death of a loved one, or the end of a long marriage, or the loss of a career. We do not know what it will be, but sooner or later every human knows great pain.

I remember the day my father drove home after returning from his own father’s empty deathbed. He was coming to collect us for the funeral. I greeted him at the door and he did not say a word, though he gave me a hug like no other. I was not quite 10 years old, old enough to feel his pain. For months I made cemetery roadways from marbles and drove my pretend hearse through the quiet resting place of those who had moved on.

When my mother first saw me after the death of her father, she dissolved in tears in a way that alarmed me greatly. I still remember my fear as I stood in that dark staircase, my mother’s tears falling from above. My aunt pulled my 10-year-old body close and assured me everything would be all right. I wasn’t so sure.

I remember seeing the email that said, “The executive committee wants to see you this coming Wednesday night. Clear your calendar.” I had no idea a meeting was in the offing, and the sight of the coldly clinical words felt like something vetted by attorneys. Those words were so terrible I felt them with my whole body. Things got worse before they got better.

Jacob lay beside the river Jabbok and anticipated the end of his days. He deserved to die at the hands of his brother. A life of self-serving manipulation had caught up with him. An angel appeared and before he knew it Jacob was in a wrestling match that was still playing out at the light of dawn. It appeared Jacob could have won, since the angel did not seem inclined to continue the fight. But Jacob knew better than to win a wrestling match with God, and with the rising sun he asked God for a blessing.

In this time of resting up for whatever is going to happen next, I have come to know that even in the most tumultuous of days there comes a brief moment in which you realize, “I’ve faced the worst this day could offer and I am still here, all right and fully human, with an intact soul.” It is a moment of blessing, when you realize you were not alone as you wrestled through the pain.

Sometimes this blessing is as light as a butterfly kiss in a hurricane. Yet in spite of the howling winds and stinging rain, the power of that brief kiss is enough to keep the earth spinning, fueled by nothing more or less than a certain kind of love.

It is confirmation this is not a random planet in a boiling cauldron of mindless energy transactions. It is a realm into which life has been breathed, warm and sweet. And no matter the dark words that have invaded your space, in that brief moment of blessing, when the flutter of a silver maple disturbs a darkening sky, you apprehend the truth that this life is precious and holy and deeply good. And that is enough. For all of your days, that is enough.