Not Their Finest Hour

Not Their Finest Hour

My seven-year-old granddaughter was staying with me on the night of the final debate. Playing at my side, she occasionally glanced at the television screen. At one point she said, “He is not being very nice.” About twenty minutes later I went into the kitchen to get some iced tea. My granddaughter asked, “Are you going to get your stress doll?” I turned off the debate.

I have not written about the election because, well, everyone else is. In this post I do not want to write about Donald or Hillary, but I do want to write about the Evangelical church and the 2016 election.  That is the subject that sends me reachhing for my stress doll.

I have not been surprised that many Evangelical leaders have remained silent about Donald Trump. They just want to stay out of the line of fire, waiting for November 13, when they can preach without questioning themselves about their awkward silence while the nation plunged toward incivility. After the election they will move on to their Christmas series and hope everyone forgets their unwillingness to comment in the face of one of the most divisive elections in American history.

Fortunately, not everyone has remain eerily silent. I was fascinated when students at conservative Liberty University spoke against their president’s enthusiastic support for Trump’s candidacy. I was equally surprised when Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, with whom I disagree on all things LGBTQ, chose to speak out against Trump.

Evangelical women of color, like Lisa Sharon Harper at Sojourners, and Nikki Toyama-Szeto at the International Justice Mission, have been speaking out against Trump since the beginning of his campaign, but the mainstream Evangelical world has not had ears to hear these intelligent and wise women of faith. They did pay attention, however, when popular women’s speaker Beth Moore finally spoke up after the Trump audiotapes were released. Beth’s words carry weight in their megachurches, so they had a hard time ignoring her. Still, most chose to remain silent.

I suppose the Evangelicals who have surprised me most are the members of the newly formed American Association of Evangelicals, who published a letter on September 27 that railed against the rights of transgender people, suggested recent racial unrest was sparked by paid instigators, (as though racial problems are not enough in and of themselves to cause vigorous protests), identified refugees as a danger to national sovereignty and suggested the IRS is out to “intimidate Christian groups that disagree with the current political establishment.”  And oh yeah, they also strongly suggested their members should vote for Trump.

The letter was extreme. Therefore I was shocked when I saw that signers included Eric Metaxas, George Barna, Jim Garlow, Wayne Grudem and people I personally know. The letter ended with a plea for others to sign and add their voice to the movement. As of October 24, 1586 people had signed the divisive, inflammatory letter.

This is not a document that will be proudly displayed by the grandchildren of those who have signed. History tells us we do not remember the champions of the status quo or the privileged who tenaciously hang on to their entitlement. We remember those who are courageously on the side of the minorities, the oppressed and the misunderstood.

The letter published by the AAE feeds on fear. There is reason for Evangelical fear, but it has nothing to do with the next Supreme Court justice. It has nothing to do with marriage equality, transgender rights, immigration, refugees or racial unrest. It has everything to do with an Evangelical community that has lost its way. It is far too often a community in which xenophobia is preferable to love, protectionism more noble than generosity, and judgment more godly than compassion. This is not the evangelical world’s finest hour.

On the night of the final debate I was not, in fact, headed to the kitchen to get my stress doll. The doll, a welcome gift from a close friend, was actually back at my house in Boulder County. But when I headed up to the mountains for the weekend, I brought the stress doll back to Denver with me. I’m afraid it’s going to be a rough couple of weeks.

And so it goes.

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11,776 Women

11,776 Women

And then there was Donald Trump’s audio recording, and his feeble attempt to explain it away. Calling sexual assault “locker room talk” was deplorable. Trump’s words, in any setting, were not okay. They perpetuate the abuse of women.

Physical, sexual and verbal abuse is an epidemic, and nowhere is it worse than in the American home. According to the Bureau of Justice, 38 million American women (one in four) will experience physical intimate partner violence in their lifetime. Over 4.7 million are abused each year, 20 victims a minute.

The last couple of weeks have seen an increasing number of Evangelicals speak out against Donald Trump. I find their comments ironic, because the truth is when it comes to the American family, the Evangelical church has been condoning the abuse of women for generations.

Denise George, in her book, What Women Wish Pastors Knew, quotes a study of 6,000 pastors surveyed about how they handle domestic violence. The study found 26 percent told the wives who came to them for help with domestic abuse that they should submit to their husbands. An astonishing 25 percent suggested it was their own fault the abuse was taking place, because they had not submitted to their spouses! Fifty percent said women should be willing to tolerate some level of violence!

Those numbers were appalling. Surely they could not be correct. I began searching for other studies and found that among Fundamentalist pastors, those numbers are all too accurate. Over 80 percent of Evangelical pastors admit they have never preached a single sermon on domestic violence. Many have no idea just how bad the problem is, or how unknowingly the Evangelical church contributes to the problem.

Instead of providing solutions, many conservative churches exacerbate domestic abuse, assuming marriage should be preserved at all costs, that all divorce is sin, and that forgiveness and reunion are one and the same. They also misapply the scriptural passages on headship and submission, empowering abusers by sanctioning their behavior.

The complementarian view of submission and headship, held by many of these churches, feeds the dilemma. It encourages men to see themselves as superior to women.  But that is only half the problem. The power structure in these institutions is 100 percent male, and men just do not get it. I know I didn’t. I could not fathom a man who would abuse his wife, and women were not telling me about it, so I was not speaking out. Only now have I become aware just how pervasive domestic abuse is in Evangelical homes.

The church can continue to keep its head in the sand or it can attack this scourge. First, the church must reexamine its position on what the Bible does and does not say about submission and headship. Second, the church must allow women into formal leadership. That will bring the subject to the forefront in short order. Unfortunately, when it comes to Evangelical churches, neither one of those things is likely to happen anytime soon.

As so many are courageously doing with Donald Trump, Christian women must challenge the silence of the church on this plague. Lives are at stake. Between 2001 and 2012, 6,488 Americans were killed in Afghanistan. During that same period 11,776 women were murdered by their current or former partners! It is time for the church to admit its complicity on the subject of domestic abuse and make up for lost time. The violence must be stopped.

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What a Week!

What A Week!

I am sorry Indianapolis, but you are not exciting. You lack the mountains of Denver, the glitz of Los Angeles, or the energy of New York. Your people are sweet and kind, like Canadians. But you are a white bread city. Last week however, on the campus of Christian Theological Seminary, you were not a tame city at all.

The 2016 OPEN Conference convened in Indianapolis from October 5-7. Over 75 presenters led workshops in seven different tracks. From San Diego to Boston, hundreds came to imagine a vibrant future for progressive evangelicals. We heard messages from Richard Rohr, Brian McLaren and a host of other leaders committed to doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

I was busy. I moderated, led, or co-led six workshops. I also did a church planting assessment, preparing a new generation of progressive evangelical leaders. In one workshop Jonathan and I told the difficult story of my transition and how it has affected our family. You can watch the video by going to the OPEN Network or Paula Stone Williams on Facebook. (I’d put a link here, but I am a Baby Boomer. Our technical skills have their limits.  And while I am at it, how young do you have to be to understand Snapchat?)

The conference felt like taking off into a fast paced airborn trajectory, building a plane while it is flying. Challenged by men and women who are brilliant yet humble, I came away with greater knowledge and deeper wisdom. Stan Mitchell, from Gracepointe Church in Nashville, talked about hermeneutics in a way that resonated with evangelicals and mainliners. The words of seven women, who spoke of their challenges in ministry, left the audience breathless. Evenings were spent with the leaders from Highlands as we reflected, debated, and applied new insights to our own growing church.

When I got on the plane Saturday I was exhausted, but in the best possible way. Back in Denver I finished the sermon I was to preach on Sunday morning at Highlands Church. We are in a series called, Imagine a Better Way. After the week I’d had, that better way was easy to imagine. When the second service ended it was all I could do to contain my joy. From horizon to horizon, the goodness of God was abundant.

I am amazed all of this has come to fruition just a few short years after losing pretty much everything but my family and a few friends. Cathy wrote a note the other day that said, “You are finally really saying what you believe. You are expressing eloquently what is in your heart and what needs to be said. And guess what? No one is dying!”

She is right. I am free of the encumbrances of leading a multi-million dollar ministry that required me to have guarded public opinions. I am free of the fear of fundamentalism and the judgment embedded within it. I now live in a world that loves Jesus but encourages intellectual pursuit, a world unafraid of mystery. I am in the right body, serving in a church I love, involved in a movement bringing much needed change. Life is good.

My previous years in ministry were wonderful and rewarding, filled with friendships I will always treasure. But that world chose not to engage with Paula.  With sadness I left them behind. Yet in letting go, I found new life, with abundant hope. I still face challenges aplenty, and suffering is an ongoing companion, but I do not travel alone. I journey in the company of fellow travelers with whom I am willing to trust my life, as together we lean into the future, committed to the ministry of reconciliation.

And so it goes.

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Thanks, But It’s Not Necessary

Thanks, But It’s Not Necessary

Last week yet another well-meaning soul sent me information they had read from people who regretted transitioning genders. I have received a number of these emails since the spurious news accounts of Caitlyn Jenner’s supposed transgender regret. I usually click on the links to see if there is any new or helpful information. The story is always the same.

The web site is usually the work of Christian fundamentalists or the product of right wing magazines or newspapers. The narrative is predictable. It is the story of an individual who, through the power of Jesus, discovers his manhood and transitions back to the male gender. What I find lacking on these web sites is any peer-reviewed scientific studies on gender transition regret, though the sites do often reference one single study in which the post-transition suicide ideation rate was 35 percent.

What those web sites do not tell you is that particular study is based on information gathered almost 15 years ago. They will also not tell you of the plethora of peer-reviewed studies showing the reasons for post transition suicidal ideation. It is virtually never related to the person’s unhappiness in their new gender. It is always related to the social rejection they receive, often from fundamentalist and evangelical family, friends and acquaintances. In other words, the people triumphantly quoting this study are the very same people who are, by their actions, causing suicidal ideation!

Peer reviewed scientific studies consistently show 98 percent of transgender individuals who transition are happier in their new life than they were in their previous life. Fewer than one percent de-transition. While I am aware of no studies about suicide rates of those who de-transition, I would not be surprised if it is high. Among the few high profile individuals who have de-transitioned, there have been well-publicized suicides after they have returned to their birth gender.

Since many of these web sites are hosted by Christian fundamentalists, I believe it is important to counter their claims. Many transgender individuals, male and female, find their faith far stronger after transition than it was before. I am one of those individuals. It is God’s love that gave me the courage to be true to myself, and it is Christ’s church that has nurtured my journey.

While the evangelical church rejected me, the progressive evangelical church welcomed me with great joy. My own congregation, Highlands Church, has been a wonderful place focused on loving well, instead of obsessing over right beliefs. It is a church in which God as angry judge has been replaced by the biblical God of love. It is a church not organized to protect the tribe, but a church organizing for the common good.   I am thrilled to be a part of Highlands Church and the progressive evangelical movement.  (By the way, Brian McLaren’s new book, The Great Spiritual Migration, talks a lot about the shift taking place toward a church organizing for the common good.)

Most of you who take the time to read my blog know I am a person inclined to read voraciously, and I am not afraid of studies that put my current views under a magnifying glass. You can rest assured there are few peer-reviewed studies on transgender issues that I miss. If a serious one comes along that brings into question the efficacy of transitioning, I will be the first to write about it. In the meantime, you can save yourself some time and stop sending your well-intended warnings. I am fine, warmly embraced by a loving family and a thriving church, and more content than I have ever been.

And so it goes.

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