I Did Not Know What I Did Not Know

I Did Not Know What I Did Not Know

I have always been a bit of a Renaissance person. At one point I was taking home paychecks as a television host, adoption caseworker, non-profit CEO, Evangelical megachurch preaching pastor, operator of homes for individuals with mental retardation, seminary instructor, and magazine editor and columnist. I loved the challenge of mastering a plethora of responsibilities. Well, that, and I happened to be running away from myself. But that’s not the subject of today’s post. And besides, I’ve been writing about that for a while now. We’re probably all getting a little tired.

When I look back there are a number of threads running through those varied jobs, yet one stands out. I did not understand its importance until my life took a major turn. These jobs were all handed to me – a tall, successful, well-educated, white American male who was clueless just how entitled he was. Oh, I worked hard, but given my privilege, that hard work sent me to the top of the class.

Because I’ve flown well over two million miles with American Airlines, I know a bit about airplanes. Over the years, on a rough flight I might comfort a seatmate by saying, “There’s nothing to worry about. This is a DeHavilland Dash-8 100 series turboprop, one of the safest airliners in the sky.” People believed me because I acted as one with authority. I can’t tell you how many times a seatmate, or even a flight attendant, would ask, “Are you a pilot with the airline?” I looked like a pilot. I looked like the host of a national television show. I looked like the preaching pastor of a megachurch.

But that was then.

Last month I was on a very turbulent flight from LAX to Honolulu. The woman seated next to me said, “I can’t remember a flight this bad.” From my frequent flyer bag of tricks, I replied, “Well this is an A321, and it’s actually a little underpowered. When it has a full load of fuel and every seat is taken, it can’t fly above the weather.” The woman did not ask if I was a pilot for the airline, she just glanced as if to say, “You should keep your thoughts to yourself.” She asked a flight attendant why the flight was so rough. He answered, “We can’t fly over the weather.” She thanked him and settled less nervously into her seat.

I thought, “How on earth could this woman be so dismissive of me? I gave a more thorough answer than the flight attendant, but she acted like I was an idiot. What’s up with that?”

Of course I knew good and well what was up with that. The same thing has been up with that everywhere I go, from the airport to the car repair shop, to the hardware store. My bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, doctoral degree, and three page curriculum vitae stand for nothing. I am summarily dismissed for one single reason. I am a woman.

I do have a little sympathy for successful, straight, white American males. No matter how hard they try, they will never understand how much the world is tilted in their favor. Short of changing genders, race, or sexual identity, it is impossible for them to know. Cisgender females cannot truly comprehend how difficult it is for them to be heard. What they have experienced is all they know. It is all their mothers knew, and their mothers before them. They were enculturated to accept flippant dismissal.

For every woman with whom I have ever worked, I am so, so sorry. I thought I was one of the good guys. I did not know what I did not know. If you thought I was aloof, or arrogant, or dismissive, it is because I was. I was ushered into that entitled existence by an education system and church that elevated me above you. I am deeply sorry. I ask your forgiveness.

And now, a word about the church that entitled me so.

I have preached in three of the 12 largest churches in America. Today I would not be allowed in the pulpit of a single one. Not only would I be barred because I am transgender, I would be barred because I am a woman. The irony is the things I know now make me twice the person I was before. But women’s voices remain silenced while churches stumble in the dark with a leadership blinded by its own entitlement. It has made me into something I never expected I’d be – a feminist.

Just yesterday I was speaking with three Christian women I deeply respect.  I would consider each a strong feminist. I said, “Now that I live and breathe among you, I realize I am still far from an essence you gracefully carry. Maybe it is because you are mothers, and ponder things in your heart that accumulate toward wisdom. Or maybe it is because you process not in part, but the whole. Or maybe it is because you stand there with your defiant nevertheless, born of love but refined by fire.”

As we parted ways I looked at these powerful women and thought, “The day will come when the walls of Jericho fall and the church becomes whole and love wins. Maybe I won’t get to preach in those churches again, but these women will.” And so, I pray, it goes.

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My Conscience or My Vanity Appalled

My Conscience or My Vanity Appalled

I was greatly impacted by the words of Isaac Watts’ hymn, At the Cross. Watts told us Christ’s death was “for such a worm as I.” In my fundamentalist childhood there was no shortage of judgment for the real and imagined flaws in my barely formed being. It was decades before I began to understand God might possibly, on Thursdays maybe, love me just as I was.

Could it be true I did not have to do a single thing to earn God’s favor? Mary Oliver writes about the conclusion of a journey toward radical grace in her poem, The Wild Geese. The poem begins,

You do not have to be good

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves

I memorized the poem 20 years ago, but only recently do I no longer choke on the phrase, “the soft animal of your body.” I was an excellent example of a body and spirit that were not integrated. My spirit and body were each gendered, but the genders were not in alignment. Through my transition I began to integrate the two. Through the love of family, friends, and my new church I finally began to love the soft animal of my body.

I also began to see myself in a new light. I came to see, far more clearly than before, that I am a mess – a living, breathing series of considerable contradictions. I could identify with the words of Terence, the ancient Roman playwright, “Nothing human is alien to me.”

A secret of the Fundamentalist world is that while people acknowledge the idea of their sinfulness, they often believe they are not actually sinful. I used to do adoption casework. I would ask a couple their strengths and weaknesses. Non-church people easily named both. Fundamentalists could name neither. To speak of their strengths would be boasting. When it came to weaknesses, they acknowledged they had them, but could never seem to recall any. They might say, “I’m not as loving as I should be.” “Seriously? That’s the best you can do. What about your addiction to your work, your inattentiveness to your spouse, and your extraordinary capacity to judge others!” I never actually said those things, but I wanted to. What I actually said was, “Hmmm, interesting.”

I believe you must remove the fear of rejection to fully face your messiness. When I counsel Fundamentalists I find they often must reimagine God before they can really get down to work. They must put aside their notion of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” and embrace a God of grace, mercy and love. Only then are they able to truly address their weaknesses.

I rarely use the word sin. It is too loaded. When I am working with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, we talk about Paul Tillich’s view of sin as separation from the ground of being. We resurrect the meaning of the Greek word for sin, “missing the mark.” That language is helpful. Missing the mark feels pretty human. I do it every time I ride singletrack on my mountain bike. If you don’t hit the right few square inches of trail there is going to be a wheel strike. When a wheel strike occurs the physics is pretty simple. The rock and bike do not move. You do. The result is painful. But if you are going to mountain bike you are going to have wheel strikes. It is the nature of the sport. And if you are going to live, you are going to miss the mark. It’s okay to miss the mark. It really is.

In Richard III Shakespeare writes, “Alas, I rather hate myself, for hateful deeds committed by myself.”

Uh-huh.

I love the way William Butler Yeats puts it in his poem Vacillation:

Responsibility so weighs me down

Things said and done long years ago

Or things I did not say or do but thought that

I might say or do weigh me down

And not a day but something is recalled

My conscience or my vanity appalled.

Uh-huh.

Yeats and Shakespeare name the reality of their sin. They are the people Jesus was referring to when he said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That word mourn means those who mourn the very specific nature of their known weaknesses – the ones they have had for decades. The ones that piss everybody off. The ones that made Nikos Kazantzakis say by the time we are 50 we have the face we deserve. Jesus says blessed are those who mourn that, for they will be comforted.

Jung called neurosis a “life designed around avoiding authentic suffering.” We cannot authentically suffer until we realize we are not going to be rejected for it. It is difficult to suffer through the reality of what was done to us and what we have done to others. But it is the only route to wholeness, a road you will not find the strength to travel until you know you are loved.

On his last day of public ministry Jesus was asked one final question, “Which of the laws is the greatest.” He answered, “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” We understand loving God. We even get the importance of loving neighbor. But we completely miss the last command – to love our selves.   Until we stop mistaking narcissism or self-denigration for self-love, it will be difficult to love ourselves.  We will know we have come to truly love ourselves when we can say with Carl Jung, “I stand in need of the alms of my own kindness, that I am the enemy who must be loved.”  When we can do that, love wins.

Working Together

Working Together

Years ago I worked with an individual who was difficult to bear. I felt great relief when we parted ways. Throughout my 35 years in non-profit ministry I was fortunate to have effective work teams. That one exception reminded me how blessed I was. I loved being with my coworkers. We brought out the best in each other. Most of those good souls are no longer a part of my life, and I miss them.

The New York Times Magazine recently published an article by Charles Duhigg explaining how Google learned to identify well-functioning work teams. The author wrote about Julia Rozovsky’s experience as a graduate student at Yale. She was placed in a working group designed to enhance the educational experience of the students, but found herself dreading the days she was required to meet with the group. As her education continued, however, she and other students created their own unofficial group, a work team that became highly productive. The second group made her feel relaxed and energized. The first group had put her on guard. What was the difference?

Later, as an employee at Google, Ms. Rozovsky was part of a group charged with determining the factors that made for high functioning work teams. As her work progressed, the elements she expected to be important turned out to be almost irrelevant. Good individual workers did not necessarily make good team members. Groups of more creative and intelligent workers were no more effective than groups of workers with average intelligence. Groups of high achievers did not stand out from other teams. It took much research, but finally they determined what differentiated effective teams from ineffective teams.

First, the best functioning teams had equal input from each member. While any one person might dominate conversation during any one part of the collaborative process, by the end of each day there had been no one dominant talker. All team members had spoken roughly equivalent amounts during the workday.

Second, the best functioning teams shared personal stories and were emotionally vulnerable with one another. They might go off track for long periods of time before returning to the meeting agenda, but when they did return they acted quickly and effectively.

By the time the study was concluded the group had identified two words that defined the highest functioning work teams – Psychological Safety. If the workers felt valued, safe and understood, they freely gave of themselves. If they did not, the group’s effectiveness was limited.

It is my very good fortune to currently be a part of four work teams. Three of the four were well established before I arrived. All four are made up of mature individuals with a high relational intelligence.   All create environments of psychological safety. In some groups it is second half of life people who set the tone. In others it is younger leaders. In all there is a collaborative energy born of good formation, shared values, open emotions, and equal representation.

When I worked with megachurches I served with some amazing lead pastors. On occasion, however, I watched an interesting phenomenon unfold. A lead pastor would create a senior leadership team in which there was psychological safety and genuine openness. As the church grew, however, the lead pastor became isolated. As the pastor’s star rose within the congregation and the broader Evangelical world, he (they were all male) became less inclined to hear “bad news” from his coworkers. The senior pastor was not to be challenged. Psychology safety vanished.

These lead pastors had consciously or subconsciously surrounded themselves with coworkers and elders who would not challenge them. It was painful to watch the churches begin the long slow slide toward irrelevance, with not a soul willing to tell the emperor he had no clothes.

The Google study did not consider gender. I wonder what they might have discovered had they chosen to do so. My personal experience is that women are more collaborative than men. They seem more naturally inclined to create environments of psychological safety. There is less posturing, more recognition we rise or fall together. Of course that is not a universal experience. You do occasionally encounter a female work environment reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada. But my experience is those people are the exception that proves the rule.

Since reading the Times Magazine article I have been fondly remembering the many work teams I have known throughout my long career. The majority were teams I created when I was a CEO. I suppose I must have intuitively understood the importance of psychological safety. I am glad I did. Because all those folks made our ministry very successful. For that I am grateful.

I no longer feel much interest in leading a team. But I do want to serve on effective teams. There is great joy in sitting down with a group of open, talented, hard-working souls, and tackling problems together. We were created to find meaning and pleasure in work. I am pleased I am able to serve with good people, for a lot of work remains in this great ministry of reconciling the creation to the creator.

Where There Is No Enemy, We Create One

Where There Is No Enemy, We Create One

A study published by LifeWay Research said between 2007 and 2014 the number of religiously unaffiliated adults in the United States increased from 16 to 23 percent.

In the past this “religiously unaffiliated” group was a demilitarized zone between the religiously affiliated and the unreligious. Their increasing numbers may be representative of any number of phenomena. Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, suggests many of the religious affiliated no longer want to be identified with the increasingly polarized religious landscape. I mean, who could blame them. Do you want to be identified with Evangelicals supporting Donald Trump?

More and more people are creating as much distance as possible between themselves and the institution they see polarizing American society. Those Millennials you thought might return to church when they had kids – well they are not likely to do so without some changes.

E. O. Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize winning sociobiologist at Harvard University. Wilson identified the tribe as the critical unit of social necessity for the human species. Wilson identified nine eusocial species that have what Wilson calls a “tribal gene.” They will sacrifice themselves for the sake of the tribe. But Wilson says there is a fundamental problem. Humans are the only one of the eusocial species that has evolved to believe we need an enemy for the tribe to survive. Where there is no enemy we create one. If we do not reverse that trend, Wilson believes it could spell the end of the species and the planet.

This need to create enemies where none exist is one of the great crises of modern religion. We shake our heads as Shiites and Sunnis wipe each other out with abandon, but turn a blind eye to Christians who figuratively do the same. We claim our exclusionary stance is based on scripture, but on closer examination it appears more often based on isolationism.

A good-hearted Evangelical recently asked how I could be opposed to pedophilia but supportive of LGBT relationships. I have been asked that question on several occasions.  While this thoughtful and gracious person’s question was more nuanced than others, I still had the same response.  Pedophiles harm innocent children, always, while LGBT people do not.  LGBT can indeed misuse sex in the same way straight people can misuse sex, but it is not an inherent part of being in a gay relationship any more than it is an inherent part of being in a straight relationship.

Many critics of marriage equality have not had contact with people in healthy LGBT relationships.  If you have no contact with LGBT individuals it is easy to develop straw people, predators who are a threat to American society. You create reasons to hate the people you believe the apostle Paul writes against in the first chapter of his letter to the church at Rome. “That’s a pretty nasty group he identifies” you say, “and it includes homosexuals. So they must be predators or something pretty awful.” The raw facts, of course, are LGBT folks are pretty normal. Spend some time with us. It will become obvious.

I preached at my church last Sunday (highlandschurchdenver.org.) Highlands is six years old with about 850 attendees. When you look over the audience, some 40 percent of whom are LGBT, you are struck by absolutely nothing except their eagerness to hear the Gospel. Highlands is an ordinary group of moms, dads, executives, school principals, teachers, psychotherapists and others who laugh at the same jokes you do, cry at the same movies you watch, and want to be a part of the ministry of reconciling the creation to the creator, just as you do.

I do not want to have any more debates with Evangelicals about LGBT issues. I just want them to come to my church every Sunday for a year and see if they hold the same theology at the end of that year that they held at the beginning. Proximity enhances understanding.

Unfortunately that is not likely to happen, as the Evangelical subculture is becoming more and more of an isolated ghetto. As it withdraws from culture its influence is diminished. For instance, the Evangelical world is behind many of the laws recently introduced to deny basic rights to transgender people. But only a handful of those laws stand a chance of being passed. The broader culture has moved on. Yet angry Evangelicals remain locked in their ideological fortresses determined to create enemies where they simply do not exist.

No wonder more and more Americans are religiously unaffiliated. We do not need fear and isolationism.  We do not need tribes creating enemies where none exist. We do need tribes of trust who realize we are in this together. We need communities of faith in which the religiously unaffiliated feel at home. We need hope.