Things I Am Learning – Lesson #551

Things I Am Learning – Lesson #551

Last week my friend Jen made an impassioned presentation that began with these words:

“When I had each of my babies I had this visceral experience. As much as I needed rest and healing, I did not want to be separated from my newborn. I wanted to soak them in, enfold them, inhale them. It wasn’t a head thing as much as it was a body thing. My body needed to take in my baby. My body needed to learn my baby. My body needed to love my baby. My body feels this way about Longmont (where she lives.) I spent some time this week walking up and down the streets that make up the heart of my city, up and down, not really praying, just observing, taking in my town. My body needs my town.”

Guys don’t write like that. Besides the obvious fact that they cannot give birth to babies, it is not the way men are wired. “My body needs my town” is pretty incomprehensible to most men. While their minds are busy solving problems, their bodies are along for the ride. Body and mind are not integrated as they are in women. Men’s bodies do not follow the lunar cycle. They do not produce beings, which leaves them often confounded by the intuition of mothers. This is a problem.

In Hebrew the word wisdom is grammatically feminine. That is the reason the Book of Proverbs refers to wisdom as “she.” Men in the Evangelical church do not allow women into positions of formal leadership. Should we be surprised those leadership structures are so often lacking in wisdom? Only half of the image of God is in the room. The absence of the other half is painfully obvious.

When Jen made the impassioned plea of a wise woman, my immediate response was to fear the men in the room might find it lacking. Where were the facts and figures, the measurements that would sell her presentation? I began speaking to the group about demographics and return on investment. I spoke to the left brained humans in the room. I spoke like a man. I was afraid the words of a mother were not enough. I should have known better.

Cathy, the mother of our three children, rarely speaks up in a business meeting. She listens. She takes in the words, body language and unspoken needs of the others in the room. She takes them into her body and processes them with her being. When she does finally speak, it is with wisdom, clarity and insight.

At Highlands Church, we empower women. I wrote about that four weeks ago. When Jen spoke, there were five women and four men in the room. In most Evangelicals churches there are never enough women in the room, especially when decisions are made affecting the entire church. Women are only allowed to make decisions for other women; they are not to instruct men. At least that is how many Evangelicals interpret scripture. (Personally, I do not understand looking at scripture as a constitution instead of an inspired library of books, written over hundreds of years by a plethora of writers.)

After I spoke at One Church in Chandler, Arizona last Sunday, I spent the afternoon with Ryan Gear, the founding pastor. As we drove through Scottsdale we stopped at The Trinity Church, the new congregation begun by Mark Driscoll, the pastor recently removed from his megachurch in Seattle. The building was filled with women attending a “women’s event.” Ryan and I walked around. I used the restroom, which was strangely satisfying, using the women’s restroom at Mark Driscoll’s church. Ryan took a photo of me in front of the building (pictured below.) Then we left, pondering a theology that says women’s voices are only for other women, while a man like Mark gets to speak to everyone.

In my new life I spend a lot of time with mothers, collecting their wisdom. They are experts in paying attention, grounded by compassion and empathy. They are slow to speak and quick to serve. They intuitively meet the needs of others before attending to their own. They look a lot like Jesus.

So one more time, why doesn’t the Evangelical church place women right where they belong, smack dab in the middle of the decision making process? I know the answer to that question is rooted in the reluctance of existing power structures to give up their power. Alas, I was once a willing participant in the existing power structures.  But that is a conversation for another day, maybe we’ll call it lesson #552 .

And so it goes.

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Living and Loving Without Labels

Living and Loving Without Labels

Let me tell you about my church. Highlands Church in Denver turned seven years old this month. If my church were a child, it would be starting second grade, enjoying the last year before the god awful standardized testing begins.

Mark Tidd dreamed up the idea of Highlands, and he and his wife, LeAnn, began funding the new church themselves. When Mark dared to tell his sponsoring church the new congregation would be open to LGBTQ people, they pulled not only their support, but the money he and his wife had personally given to get the church underway. It was not a little bit of money. It reminds me of the words spoken by Samuel Hamilton in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden: “It takes courage to back truth unacceptable to our times. There’s a punishment for it, and it is usually crucifixion.”

Mark persevered and mortgaged his house to lease a place for the new church to meet and Highlands was born. About 800 people now call the church home. Rachael McClair joined the staff early on, with Jenny Morgan added a little later. All three are co-pastors, forming the unique trinitarian leadership I wrote about three weeks ago.

After I transitioned I was struggling, suffering from my experience with the church. I thought my church life was over. I attended a few mainline Protestant churches, but the worship was foreign and the churches lacked the vibrancy I had come to expect. Instead, I acquiesced to the pull of the mountain biking trails on Sunday mornings. I was disappointed, but I moved on.

A former co-worker introduced me to Mark Tidd. Our first lunch together lasted almost three hours. I thought I was special. I didn’t know every lunch with Mark lasts three hours. I attended my first service a few months later and cried as I had not cried since I received the call to transition. I knew I was called back to the church, and more specifically, to Highlands. Highlands Church was not a part of my religious tradition, but my own tradition had rejected Paula, so I went where I was welcomed.

It is my privilege to serve with the church planting team at Highlands, preparing for our first church plant in 2017. They even allow me to preach occasionally.  Through Highlands, I am also working with OPEN (opennetworkus.org), a network of progressive Evangelicals led by courageous people like Doug Pagitt and Brian McLaren. I also serve as a coach and church planting assessor with the Center for Progressive Renewal, an outreach (as is OPEN) of the ministry of Convergence, a joint effort of five mainline denominations, under the direction of the very capable Cameron Trimble.

Sometimes tears come during services. An old hymn goes up on screen and a memory stirs, now redeemed. Mark or Jenny will preach a sermon that asks more questions than it provides answers, and I tear up at the honesty and humility of it all. Christy, with whom I often sit, reaches over and rubs my back when my tears begin, and I know all manner of things shall be well.

I have overseen the planting of many churches in my day. Only one has taken the courageous path of Highlands, and that church too has paid a price for its courage. I have tremendous respect for the church’s leadership. I’ll let that church remain nameless. They make enough wonderful noise on their own.

In my heart I am an optimist. The Mets will win another World Series. Americans will do the right thing in November, and the church will rid itself of fear and love boldly. For millennia God has patiently worked through the creation to make crooked ways straight. Why would she stop now? The church will move, in fits and starts to be sure, but move forward nevertheless, toward the reconciliation of all things to our loving God.

And so it shall go.

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Grays and Yellows, With a Splash of Red

Grays and Yellows, With a Splash of Red

I moved to Denver. I sold some stock and bought some furniture and moved into a cute little apartment with brick walls and wood floors and an extra skinny door that somehow has something to do with the fact that a century ago the building was a bordello.

The apartment is in the Highlands, or Highland, as Wikipedia insists it is called, or East Highland or Lower Highland or LoHi. The identity of the neighborhood appears to be as complicated as my own. I’m told 57,000 people live here. They are all at Little Man Ice Cream at the same time, and they all park their cars on my block.

I bought a Felt Verza Speed 20 bicycle, more befitting a city dweller than my Gary Fisher Hi-Fi Deluxe mountain bike. Dual suspension isn’t necessary on paved bike paths, though it does have disc brakes. They come in handy. Did I mention 57,000 people live here?

Cathy and I have been together 44 years. Everyone has an opinion about what we should do, as if they had been married 44 years. We usually listen politely before reminding them that they don’t know shit about what is good for the two of us. We will figure this out on our own, thank you very much.

A couple of years ago our marriage therapist retired. We were his last clients on his last day. I’m not sure we were what he wanted his last therapy memory to be. I asked, “How many couples are willing to work this hard?” He didn’t hesitate when he answered, “One percent.” “How many couples get this far?” “One percent, which is what makes this so tragic. ”

All of our therapists used the word tragic. We asked them to stop. It is not a helpful word. What you call tragic we call life. I didn’t ask for this. Neither did Cathy. At least I got something for it. I got an authentic life, the loss of depression, peace inside my own skin, but Cathy only experienced losses none of us can truly understand.

My apartment is decorated in grays and yellows, with a splash of muted red here and there, which draws your eye to the brick outer wall. There is a picture of the Denver nighttime skyline on one wall, the view I would have if it weren’t for the building across the alley from my window.

I wanted to bring my framed print of Monet’s The Red Kerchief from the house, but the picture was too big, so I ordered a smaller print. It is the first thing I see in the morning, a winter scene of a woman walking outside a cafe window as she glances longingly into its warmth. The painting is of Monet’s wife, Camille, who died in 1879 at 32 years of age. Monet kept the painting with him until his own death in 1926.

My apartment is directly above the lobby of my church. I hear the worship team practicing early each Sunday morning. I add the third part to the two-part harmony as I prepare for the day. The rest of the week my morning preparations are without melody.

There are many people who love me well. I cannot imagine how difficult this must be for people who are not so loved.  The co-pastors at my church have been wonderful. My friend Jen checks in and we get together and compare notes about what it means to be someone who cannot unknow what they know. Christy invites me to dinner and provides long hugs and thoughts I need to hear. David loves me with the love that accompanies 35 years of deeply held friendship. My children and their spouses are loving and supportive, but they have their own lives to lead, filled with their own challenges.

My best friend is Cathy. That has not changed, nor is it likely to change. She is a person of great compassion, extraordinary insight and keen intelligence.

I have so much generous support on this road of switchbacks and false summits and the occasional tranquil meadow. We were created for relationship, as God, Jesus and the Spirit teach us. I do not have to walk alone outside a cafe window, red kerchief pulled tightly around my  face. I walk arm in arm with many who love me well. I am blessed.

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Storms, Worried Windowpanes and Wrestling Matches

Storms, Worried Windowpanes and Wrestling Matches

Before I opened an email from an old friend, the opening line of Rilke’s The Man Watching came to mind – I can tell by the way the trees beat after so many dull days on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming. I knew I was going to be challenged, and I knew it was deserved.

My friend said it was rather peculiar that I am now such an advocate for LGBTQ rights, when previously I was publicly silent on the subject. He is right. I had remained silent because I led a 4 million dollar ministry. If I had come out as LGBTQ supportive, we would have lost a great amount of income. At the time the silence seemed understandable, but at this juncture I do not believe it was excusable.

The second reason I was silent was that I would have invited stressful and impassioned conversations about LGBTQ issues, while I was losing my own struggle to avoid coming out as transgender. That was also understandable, but also not excusable. After all, I had always been one to proclaim with confidence the truth will set you free. But unfortunately, and inappropriately, I remained silent.

My decision was wrong. Now that I am living much of my life among LGBTQ people, I see the damage done by my silence. Lives were at stake, and I was more concerned about the financial health of our ministry and my own precarious psychological balance than showing concern for the people who were losing everything by being true to themselves. I failed a lot of people, including my own self.

What could I have done? I could have left the ministry I was serving. The board was not ready to make a decision supportive of marriage equality. They needed to be true to their collective conscience as much as I needed to be true to mine. While I wholeheartedly believe their conclusions were wrong, I strongly uphold their right to take a stand where they believe one had to be taken. I encourage my Evangelical friends to take a fresh look at their hermeneutics, but I would never ask them to violate their conscience. Yet I was violating my own conscience. Fortunately, the experience taught me some valuable lessons.

I learned when I wake up at night, drenched in sweat from the fear of being “found out,” it’s time to be found out. I learned when I avoid spending time with a particular people group because I am afraid that if I do, I will be called toward activism on behalf of that group, it is time to spend more time with that people group. I have learned if there is an uneasiness of heart when I remain silent, it is time to examine my silence. I learned giving up privilege and power was not something I was willing to choose. It had to be taken from me.

There was a second reason I was drawn to Rilke’s poem. It wasn’t just he opening line. It was the lines about Jacob, the scoundrel who made a habit of stealing everything but the kitchen sink, then found himself on the shores of the river Jabbok, face to face with the Lord of the universe. Jacob was accustomed to winning, so he probably wasn’t surprised when the first light of dawn revealed the awful truth that he might actually win his wrestling match with God. But somewhere in his soul he knew that was not a good idea. Jacob asked God to bless him, and his blessing was his defeat, his blessed defeat.

So much of my experience in losing all of my jobs and my beloved religious family was for me, a necessary defeat. Not only did I need to be true to who I was, I needed to be separated from my comfort and entitlement. I needed to be called out for not speaking out on LGBTQ issues. I needed the lessons that only come in the dark night. I learned with Rilke that,

Winning does not tempt that man

This is how he grows

By being defeated, decisively,

By constantly greater beings.

 

And so it goes.

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