Gift or Talent?

Gift or Talent?

Over the years I have been told I am a good non-profit board member. I have also been affirmed in my ability to counsel and serve as a CEO. All of those abilities are talents. None are gifts. The difference between the two is simple. Gifts bring joy. Talents are, well, talents. Discerning the difference is important.

I met a new friend not long ago who, after a divorce, found herself heading back to work outside the home. Career counselors told her she would be good at sales, so my friend became a real estate agent. It’s afforded her a decent career, but she knows it is not a gift. It is a talent. She is still searching for a career that matches her giftedness.

Scott Peck said the last big job of parents is to discern their children’s vocations, where they might excel. I understand Peck’s suggestion. It will likely assure your adult child will not be living in the basement at 40. But is it enough?

We are all on earth to serve. What kind of service brings joy to your soul? You might get tired or even a little bored on occasion, but when you are working within your giftedness, you know you are in your sweet spot.

I have never had work more satisfying than my 13 years as a television host. Even on the worst days, and there were more than a few, I was happy to get up in the morning and head to the set. Unfortunately television is a fickle business and our show was eventually cancelled, but I still tend to measure other jobs by the joy I found in that one.

My preaching has been more affirmed than my television work. Same with my teaching. I receive both as gifts, and I am grateful every time I am asked to preach or teach. In a seminary preaching course in which I was the professor, a student asked, “How do you get to preach to a crowd of 10,000?” I answered, “For starters, you won’t preach for thousands unless you can find joy preaching to a crowd of 20.” It is not the size of the audience that brings the deep satisfaction. It is the “Aha” moment on a single face in the second row. It is the discipline to take your gift and demand more of it. It is realizing that in an audience of 1,000, a cumulative 366 hours are being taken up by your 22-minute sermon. Do you really want to waste 15 1/4 days?

I once heard a speaker say the frequency of your soul is in your giftedness. It formed a certain picture in my mind’s eye. Back when I was in radio, when you played a Steppenwolf tune you wanted the gain to move into the red, but you did not want it peg the meter. Slamming the needle kicked the transmitter off the air for a split second or two. Finding the sweet spot was an art. After a while you didn’t need to look at the gain. You knew by the sound whether the volume was right or not.

Another friend does improvisational comedy in New York City. We were doing an exercise together in a workshop in which the instructor asked us to imagine our happy place, you know, Brer Rabbit’s Briar Patch. He said his happy place was on stage. That is where he feels the frequency of his soul.

I know the frequency of the radio station where I worked. The AM frequency was 1370, and the FM was 102.3. As for the frequency of my soul, I’m not sure exactly what it is. But I do know the needle finds the sweet spot when I am preaching.

And so it goes.



The Gift of Memories

The Gift of Memories

It’s borrowed from a pagan holiday, a chance to find some merriment during the darkest nights of the year. It is Christmas, the season of uprisings against Starbucks, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and every other entrapment of a capitalist society. Crassly commercial, hopelessly tied to conspicuous consumption, it is our most over-hyped holiday. Yet try as we might, we just can’t quite ruin Christmas. Somehow, the wonder remains.

Earlier this month I watched the 50th anniversary of the first Charlie Brown Christmas special. One segment showed Charles Schultz explaining his decision to do something unheard of in 1960s primetime television. He decided to have Linus read from the Gospel of Matthew. It made me cry when I first heard it 50 years ago. It makes me cry today. No matter how we muck it up, no matter the day is nowhere near the season of Jesus’ actual birth, Christmas celebrates the God who came to live among us, suffer with us, and show us what it means to be fully human.

For most of us, Christmas brings memories both painful and precious. When our son was in kindergarten, the grade school grandparents sponsored a Christmas fair where the children could buy gifts. Our son chose a beautiful plant for his mom. The Grandmas wrapped it and sent it home, neglecting to tell him it needed to be opened right away. Weeks later, on Christmas morning, when Cathy opened her gift in front of her wide-eyed son, the plant had died. He burst into tears and ran to his room. Cathy went to comfort him and they came down a few minutes later, tears dried, hopefulness restored. The festivities continued, but to this day that is the only memory I have of that particular Christmas.

About 20 years ago, early on a Christmas morning, Lilly, our golden retriever, ate an entire rum cake, pushing the empty plate under the refrigerator, her feeble canine attempt to hide the evidence. When I saw my cherished cake reduced to crumbs, I banished Lilly to the backyard. The children ran downstairs and saw their beloved dog, shivering against the sliding glass door. They looked at me quizzically.   I said, “Lilly is shivering because every bit of blood she has, blood that could be warming her extremities, is instead digesting our rum cake.”

All forms of celebration ceased. The children brought Lilly inside and took her upstairs, where they jumped in bed and pulled the covers up to her neck. I walked into the room and there lay my three teenage children with their contented dog sandwiched between, wearing the biggest doggie grin you have ever seen.

The memories of this season are many and rich. All warm my heart and leave a lump in my throat, grateful that in this season of long nights, I have been given so much light, and life, and love.

I hope this season brings you treasured memories, deep peace, and much happiness. Joy to the world. The Lord is come.

In A Word, Human

In A Word, Human

I have found transgender people to be pretty common in a number of respects.  It is not always a pretty picture.  There are some who are self-referential, if not narcissistic.  Others do not have a very high EQ.  Some march into transition without considering the cost to families, friends, and colleagues.  They demand their rights without a willingness to let a stunned world catch up with their newfound freedoms.  They are, in a word, human.

I was on a conference call that included a number of trans women.  I had to chuckle.  We were all pretty male-like on the call.  I don’t mean our voices were male (though my voice is still a work in progress.)  I mean we were confident, entitled, and talked over the top of each other more than a little.  It reinforced what I have been saying for a long time.  Transgender women are somewhere between male and female.  We are that truck stop between Phoenix and Tucson, neither here nor there.

I love baseball, but I am thrilled I no longer have to pretend to like football.  I love Broadway shows and women’s fashion, but I also love airplanes and mountain biking.  I prefer the conversations of women.  They are more collaborative and less competitive, at least most of the time.  But I miss the decisiveness of a group of guys.  There’s no sitting in the car deciding where to go to lunch.  Somebody just decides.  I know these are all stereotypes, but I’m leaving this paragraph in the post anyway.

There is a test on the Internet that purports to tell where you are on the gender spectrum.  I think every transgender person has taken it, though its accuracy is suspect.  It does, however, speak a great truth.  Gender can be measured on a wide spectrum, with people populating every inch.  We all land some place between what our culture sees as extremely macho and very feminine.  Hawkeye Pierce was somewhere in the middle.  (I know, that analogy dates me.)  So was Golda Meir (also dates me.)   At the extremes you’ve got Dolly Parton and Bill Belichick.  Yeah, those are pretty extreme.  In the pretend world there’s Barbie and G.I. Joe.  (Ken does not appear anywhere on the spectrum.  Ken is a little weird.)

But here’s the thing, people who appear to be at one extreme or the other can surprise you.  Kristin Beck, a trans woman, was once a Navy SEAL.  She played a very masculine role, though she knew it was not who she was.  Trans women often take on macho roles in an attempt to rid themselves of gender dysphoria.  It never works.

But back to the gender spectrum.  Whether we like it or not, we live in a binary society that does not want us on any spectrum.  It wants us to be either male or female, period.  But a brief venture into the animal world shows there are gender variables in countless species.  In the evolutionary scheme of things, being transgender is not all that unusual.

I believe the majority of gender is prenatally determined, though I do understand we are all subject to the drip, drip of gender reinforcement.  Most are far enough on one side or the other to be comfortable in the gender assigned at birth.  But for about .3 percent of us, that is not the case.  And unless we want to identify as queer (I’ll write about that some other day), in a binary society we must choose one gender or the other.  Often, our lives depend on it.

So, I live as Paula.  The LifeTree Cafe division of Group Publishing has produced a group lesson on transgender issues.  A good bit of the lesson is me, answering questions about what it means to be transgender.  When I saw the video for the first time, I cried.  (I also wished I had not worn that particular top – but, oh well.)  I cried because the person I saw was known to me.  I’ve known her for a long time.  And she seemed more comfortable than the male version of the same person on the hundreds of PAX-TV shows I taped.  The woman was at peace.  I am at peace.

I am far less secure in American culture than Paul was.  With his white entitlement, education, and success, Paul was pretty comfortable.  Paula is a female and a member of a minority, not stations associated with power or status.  But it is who I am, and I’ll take it.  With great gratitude for those who have suffered through my transition with me, I will take it.

So, yes, I am a transgender woman, self-referential over the past couple of years, impatient to allow others the time truly needed to adjust.  But trying hard to live authentically, one day at a time.

And so it goes.

Perhaps I’d Like To Be Known

Perhaps I’d Like to be Known

A theme that frequently emerges in my pastoral counseling is that people do not feel heard. It is a refrain more common to women than men, though neither gender is immune to feeling unheard and misunderstood. The least listened to segment of the population is children.

I am grieved when I see a child repeatedly ask his or her parent a question, only to be ignored or patronized. It stirs up memories. I grew up thinking barns were old houses converted to residences for livestock. I had asked a trusted adult. She didn’t reply with a dismissive, “Yes.” She replied with an enthusiastic, “Yes, you are right!” feigning attentiveness to the detriment of a six year old. The amount of misinformation I had to unlearn in my adolescence was a source of continuing embarrassment.

One of the earliest needs of an infant is a benevolent face upon which to gaze. Given the opportunity, infants will stare at a human face longer than any other object. It is how we come to see ourselves as human. Infants deprived of that stimulus are profoundly affected. Attachment to others becomes almost impossible. Our need to be in relationship is as basic as our need for air and water. I once heard a member of the team that discovered quantum physics boldly state that the only ultimate reality is relationships. No wonder we feel insignificant when we are not heard.

The need to be heard and known does not end with childhood. It is life long. In her excellent novel The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah writes, “I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.” But being known does not mean just the easy parts. To be fully known means opening up about the parts we keep hidden.

The protagonist in The Nightingale had survived World War II in occupied France. But she had compartmentalized and jettisoned that most painful chapter of her life. At least she thought she had. As she grew older she realized her story was not complete without the darkness. It too needed to be known.

One of my best friends is a family physician. He told me as the Greatest Generation reached their 80s, many came into his office without an illness, but with a great need. They needed to talk about their experiences in World War II. My friend found it a privilege to be the recipient of long hidden stories.

Of course, as much as we want to be known, there is great risk involved in revealing what was once hidden. The greatest, of course, is the risk of rejection. “What if I tell others my story and they find it weird, upsetting, or disturbing?” Well, I might know a little something about that. It is painful, sometimes devastatingly so. Is it worth the risk? The answer to that centers on whether or not you agree with Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living. I believe life is to be examined, and made known. Closets are for clothes, not people.

Since becoming open about my gender and my theology and other subjects likely to stir up trouble, I have come to understand a few things. I have learned many Christians get angrier about doctrine than about life. I learned the people you think will be there are not, except for the ones who are. I learned time does heal wounds and forgiveness does redeem scars. And the biggest lesson I’ve learned? The truth does set you free.

And so it goes.

I Wonder

I Wonder

Since my transition it has been my privilege to lecture to a number of psychology and sociology classes at the University of Colorado. A few weeks ago a friend invited me to speak to her psychology students on transgender issues. When I arrived there were 400 students in the lecture hall. They were incredibly respectful as I spoke and answered questions for an hour. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop. A few weeks later my friend sent me the student evaluations from the lecture.

I read 16 pages of very supportive comments from thoughtful, articulate undergraduates. Before I finished I was in tears. I thought of the contrast fourteen months earlier when I received hundreds of mean-spirited messages and calls to repent from people in the church. Some showed great concern, but many were just mean. They included those who projected or transferred their own issues onto me, and those terrified of what they do not understand.

I’ve been Paula long enough to no longer have to think about which bathroom door to enter. I am Paula, and I am moving on. A lot of the hurt over the way my transition was received has faded, and I am settling into my new life. But occasionally I still receive a letter or email from people disappointed with me, and their words still hurt. Over the months I have realized these letters do share something in common. They are devoid of curiosity.

On the other hand, one student’s words at CU reflected the thoughts of many, “Before this talk I knew absolutely nothing about transgender issues, but listening to Paula gave me a whole new perspective and I left with great compassion for those struggling with gender identity.” These students were exposed to a real live transgender person, and they were changed by the experience. Unfortunately I can be fairly certain I will not be invited to speak to the students at any Christian college I know. They will not have a chance to interact with a transgender person and hear her story. As a result, the great divide only gets wider and wider.

This is nothing new in the history of man. Apparently we are the only species that needs an enemy to survive, and where none exists we will create one. Having lived on both sides of this great divide and watching it increase in breadth and depth, I am not optimistic. If we cannot hear one another’s stories, we have little hope.

I have great respect for Justin Lee and the Gay Christian Network. They manage to keep the conversation going on both sides of the religious fence. Yet for their generosity they are continuously attacked from both sides of this heated debate. Still, with integrity they stand there, refusing to stop the conversation.

In the marital counseling Cathy and I do, we often realize the biggest problem is when conversations end too early, often before they’ve even begun. When you are able to keep a conversation going through the conflict, you have a good chance of healing a relationship. But most of us do not want to feel our feelings. We do not want to experience discomfort. We want to offload our pain instead of experience it. But as the psychologist and researcher Brene Brown says, “It is the willingness to be uncomfortable and walk our way through our emotions that leads to wholeness.”

Whether the subject is a single marriage, the LGBT community, or larger issues like racial injustice, poverty, and our growing global religious intolerance, we must learn to keep the conversation alive. A willingness to work our way through our own discomfort and pain, accompanied by a generous dose of grace and mercy toward those we do not understand, may be as important as anything else we do. It is not an understatement to say the future of our species and our planet may depend on it.

And so it goes.