My Field of Hope

My Field of Hope

Last Thursday was fascinating. I had a wonderful lingering lunch with a good friend. Among other things, we talked about the mea culpa article in last week’s New Yorker written by Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal. It made me think of my own days not speaking out on LGBTQ issues.

On the way home I heard NPR report the news the NBA had made the decision, because of HB2, to move the 2017 All Star game out of North Carolina. It feels good to be affirmed by the NBA.  Then I had a three-hour dinner with a new friend who has become very dear to me. We talked about our mutual experience of working desperately to deny what we knew to be true. Our denial was based in love, but with time we found a deeper way to love, albeit with the necessity of passing through great pain. The evening brought laughter, tears and joy.

Our evening was briefly interrupted by a synchronistic moment when I saw, recognized, and introduced myself to the son of a friend from California. I had never met the son, but I instantly recognized his picture from social media. His mother had been in touch with me this past week, reaffirming her commitment to our long-term friendship, though my transition has been difficult for her to navigate. Her son seemed delightful. I was not surprised.

Tired, but full of love, I went home and had my spirit dashed as I watched portions of Trump’s endless speech, tribal fear-mongering at its worst. I thought, “Has our country really come to this?” Before I went to bed I checked social media and saw someone had commented on a picture of me preaching at my church. I clicked on the comment, which turned out to be a brief critical remark about a friend’s decision to “like” the picture. It hurt. I try to protect myself from such bigotry, but at least once each week something sneaks through condemning me for being…well…me.

So there it was, all in one day, love and acceptance, fear and rejection, laughter and joy, hatred and dismissal. These are the conditions of life, and they have always been with us. If you were an Irish-Catholic American in the 1850s, you were terrified of the hatred of the Know-Nothing Party. Yet if you were an abolitionist in the same decade, you knew you were about to bring down slavery. Hatred and judgment are always with us, but so is what my lunch friend calls “a field of hope.”

My field of hope is that we are better than the xenophobia we saw in Cleveland. We are better than the flippant chiding of a friend’s supportive “like.” We are capable of moving past our fear to what is good and fair and redemptive. We are able to move beyond what we think is love to a deeper, more honest and sustainable love. We are able to trust in the slow work of God, even when it deposits us in seasons of great pain. We are able to acknowledge the log in our own eye before we start spouting off about specks in the eye of another. On our better days we are capable of living like Jesus, and we are capable of increasing our number of better days.

I hold no illusions about the divisive spirit ripping through our nation. I experience its vitriol on a weekly basis. But I refuse to lose my field of hope. We can embrace uncomfortable love. We can believe in outrageous reconciliation. We can trust in the slow work of God.

And so it goes.

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A Too Riveting Novel

A Too Riveting Novel

When I was young I thought of life as a bell curve, ramping up to a point in one’s fifties and then beginning a long, slow slide toward an unwanted departure. Now that I am of a certain age, I realize there is no curve, just a line forward, no backtracking permitted. There are times I would like to hit the pause or rewind button, but forward is the only button that works. Whether I like it or not, it is the direction in which I must travel.

I wrote my first poetry at a time I desperately wanted to hit the pause button. I shared it with almost no one, and put the poetry away until long after I transitioned – last week actually. I reached for the poetry again when regular sentences no longer worked. Here are a few lines from the end of one poem:

And now the waning light of day

Illumines one slight trembling path

That seems maybe to know its way

To heal a soul at fall’s divide

 

We all decide in this sweet life

Who we will be what we will do

This long story unfolding

Like a too riveting novel

I was writing about my transition, though at the time I had no conscious recognition of that terrifying truth.

Every good story has a protagonist with a dream, and an antagonist intent on denying that dream. The story turns on the dread/hope axis, when the audience hopes for the best but dreads the worst. In a story, it is suspenseful. In life, it sucks.

I am tired. Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the gracious and merciful acceptance of many who have rescued me from a life focused on yesteryear. I am thankful for new work, meaningful and abundant. I am strengthened by deep and abiding new friendships. But I am tired. I know. You are tired too.

The malevolence made manifest on earth is frightening. Sometimes I sit and stare. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” We are undone by all the suffering. Yet suffering has always been with us, a human constant. How we respond to suffering is the choice we are allowed to make. Do we let it define us, or do we accept the gift of its wisdom?

I often quote the words Dag Hammarskjold wrote shortly before his untimely death: “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.” Hammarskjold did not go to his grave with the song still in him. As one of the greatest peacemakers of the Cold War, he sang loud and clear.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the brilliant theologian treated badly by the Catholic Church, also knew something about redemptive suffering. He wrote, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God…It is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability, and that it may take a very long time.”

There are days, months, maybe even years, when you sit and stare, overwhelmed by the relentless forwardness of it all. It’s all right. God is patient. She will sit and stare with you. It was during one of my staring seasons that I wrote this poem, reminded that we are never alone in these things:

Goodness

The good souls are always near

If you have eyes to see them

Though often they are cloaked in

Garments of some worn religion

 

Their goodness like beams of light

Passing through a cracked door

Falling soft on hidden places

Where all the deep scars lie

 

Pain knows pain and will not let

Its long and sordid tale abide

Treating wounds with gentle touch

The sisterhood of suffering

 

Goodness always travels well

Turning up in peculiar places like

Your own heart when you thought

You had nothing left to give

Unknown

I Alone Must Decide

I Alone Must Decide

Last week it was my privilege to speak at the Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. If someone asked me to describe the Goose, I’d say it’s Woodstock meeting the coolest church camp ever! Over 3,000 people headed into the mountains of Western North Carolina for three days of camaraderie, inspiration, instruction and rain – because evidently you’re not allowed to have the Goose without rain.

On Thursday evening I told my story from the main stage. On Friday my son and I presented a workshop about my transition and its impact on our family. I was also on two other panels, but it was Thursday evening and Friday’s workshop that got me thinking.  Come to think of it, a lot of the Goose got me thinking.  It’s that kind of place.

Shortly before the festival I received two messages from old acquaintances taking me to task for my transition, confident I am doing great harm to others because of my disregard for the “clear” teaching of Scripture. The letters were the latest in a long string of stern reprimands from conservative Christians.

Less confronting, but in some ways more difficult, are my recent encounters with individuals with whom I worked in my previous life, good-hearted people who are now very uncomfortable in my presence. One said, “I still don’t know what I think about all of this.” Sadly, I cannot be the person to help. My friends David and Jen can help these honest questioners, but I cannot. They want Paul to help them understand it all, and Paul is no longer here. My allies are more than willing to come alongside these questioning souls, but I cannot invite them into my pastoral counseling office. I am called to speak out on transgender issues, but not to help old acquaintances come to grips with the loss of Paul.  For those few who are willing to go through such pain to “cross over” with me, I am profoundly grateful.

There is an irony in all of this. On one hand, I am speaking all over the nation, preaching again, lecturing in universities, and writing for the Huffington Post. I have more influence than ever. People affirm my courage, compassion and spirit. In fact, they are offering the kindest words that have ever been spoken to me. It means so very much, because these are seasoned saints who have experienced much pain and emerged with great wisdom. I am humbled by their affirming words.

But then I also receive these stern and sad messages from those who believe I am a lost soul.  They shake their heads and say, “Paul went off the tracks.” They imagine a life that is sad and lonely and full of despair. It bears no resemblance to the one I am actually living, full of friendships and purpose and joy. But from their limited worldview, it is all they can imagine.

I suppose this dichotomous response is what I should expect in an age of such polarization. My old world and new world don’t speak much. They are deeply suspicious of each other. Of course, the ultimate irony is that both claim to be following Jesus. But their messages are fundamentally different, and in the midst of the fray, I am the one who must decide which voices will carry my heart. I have made my choice.

I have decided to listen to those who love greatly, seeking first to understand before jumping to judgment. I have decided to be open to the honest questioners who are no longer comfortable being unquestionably obedient to doctrines set in stone. I have chosen to trust those whose actions show concern for the oppressed and powerless.

I have chosen to be influenced by those who have been divinely defeated, and have the scars to prove they were deemed worthy of a wrestling match with the Lord of the Universe. I have decided to follow those who believe knowledge and power mean nothing without wisdom and compassion. I have chosen to trust the ones who look the most like Jesus. Oh, I know some will say I have been deceived by Satan, but I know what I know. Love wins.

Wild Goose Workshop