The Truth and Nothing But The Truth, So Help Me God

The Truth and Nothing But The Truth, So Help Me God

This past Sunday I preached at Highlands Church in Denver.  We are in a Lenten series on suffering, and I was speaking on God’s perspective on power.  We have two worship services.  This Sunday the worship was so meaningful I wanted a third service, just to hear the music one more time.  Except I’m not sure I would have had the energy to preach a third time.  I left it all out there, and when the second service was over, I was spent.

I have always loved preaching, but since I became me, my preaching has changed.  As the privileged white male slowly becomes the person now emerging, my preaching is less from my head and more from my heart.  More than that, there is filtering through my life an awareness previously missing.  I have lived a privileged life, and I will not live long enough to totally lose that privilege.  I do not want to preach as an expert.  I want to preach as a searching fellow-traveler.

As a white male evangelical leader, it was easy for me to become theologically smug.  I believed I understood the truth and spoke it with confidence.  What was lacking was an awareness of the insularity of my tidy world.  I was not alone in this self-referential bubble.  Lots of my male friends and co-workers dwelled within the same castle walls.  We all had a bit too much confidence in our grasp of the truth.

The other day I heard about a megachurch senior pastor who recently preached on the importance of truth.  My friends tell me he used me as an illustration of someone who has departed from the truth.  While he did not call me by name, they said it was pretty obvious about whom he was speaking.

I know this pastor to be a good man, thoughtful and caring.  He wants to get it right.  He believes in the truth, and confidently preaches his understanding of it.  I know how he feels.  I once lived there.  But I did not know how much the notion of propositional truth is a conversation dominated by a privileged few, a debate mostly among men who believe their perspective is the most objective take on the true nature of things.

There is no such thing as objective truth.  There is truth, but it is always subjectively received.  The best we can hope for is to get as close to objective truth as is humanly possible.  To do that we must open our understanding to rigorous cross-examination, looking at truth from multiple perspectives, not just the perspective of the dominant culture.

When it comes to religious truth, I believe that truth, devoid of flesh, is little more than a cold and broken hallelujah.  Propositional truth does not have arms and legs and a beating heart with which to hold a fragile soul.  It is not incarnational.  It does not bleed, or give birth to children, or sweat and cry.  The search for religious truth is too often an esoteric conversation limited to those whose lives are comfortable enough to allow them the luxury of contemplating the notion of spiritual truth, inerrantly received.

This week I watched the movie, The Shack.  I had heard from a few men that the movie was terrible.  It was not.  The movie was wonderful, a touching depiction of the Trinity, much in the vein of what Richard Rohr describes in The Divine Dance.  I cried from the moment Jesus appeared on screen to the end of the movie.

I thought I might write about The Shack and looked on the Internet for the writer of the adapted screenplay.  I discovered most of the Google references to the movie were evangelical diatribes written by white men.  All railed against a “dangerous, heretical film.”  Seriously?  Octavia Spencer as an approximation of an all-loving God?  A wispy Asian woman as an approximation of the Holy Spirit?  A Jesus whose guiding principle is unconditional love?  Yep, that sounds dangerous to me?

Some criticized the movie’s simplicity, and while I understand their critique, I do not agree.  The movie was not targeting the rational left-brains of confident men.  The Shack is a movie of the heart.  It is about suffering as we actually experience it, with anger, despair and hopelessness.  It is a movie about the triumph of wisdom and love.  I have spoken with three other women who have seen The Shack.  We all cried, hard.  The guys I know who’ve seen it?  Well, most of them found the movie lacking.

Truth does not abide within the walls of the rational mind.  It permeates all of life, and it is messy.  The truth is hard to tell and the truth is hard to tell.  It is both difficult to discern and difficult to speak.  I do believe the truth will set us free, but I also believe getting there involves a lot of soul searching that is as much a matter of the heart as it is a matter of the head.  As Pascal wrote, “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.”

Which brings me back to my preaching and the accusation from the megachurch pastor.  Have I abandoned truth?  I invite you to check out last Sunday’s sermon.  http://www.highlandschurchdenver.org/audio/weeklysermon/  Some of you will say, “Yes, that is, in fact, someone who has abandoned the truth.”  Others will likely hear a woman beginning to understand things she never understood before.

Or, if you don’t have 22 minutes, take my word for it.  My heart yearns for the truth, but I hold lightly to my grasp of it.

And so it goes.

 

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I Understand Your Pain, But…

I Understand Your Pain, But…

I have noticed a phenomenon for which I have no name. It occurs when people from my old evangelical tribe contact me in good faith, but feel compelled to tell me how much it pains them to hear others speak evil of me, something that still happens with regularity. I understand their messages are well intended, but something strikes me as irregular.

As a pastoral counselor, I always ask a question of myself when I think about sharing personal information with one of my clients. Am I sharing the information for my client’s sake or for mine? As a counselor, if it is for the client’s sake I go ahead and speak. If it is for my sake, I put the thought away, unexpressed.

Over the past few months I have taken to asking a similar question to those who write and tell me of the pain they feel when others speak ill of me. I ask if they are telling me for my sake or for theirs. I suggest if they are telling me for their own sake, that is one thing. If they are telling me for my sake, I let them know it is just one more piece of flying debris from a storm I have left behind.

What I have come to understand is that those who bring these messages are often not fully aware just how much their experience is shaped by living almost exclusively within a heteronormative tribe. By placing themselves in a culture in which prejudice against my community is the norm, they assume I am going to be as bothered by what they hear as they are. I am not.

These friends remain in a world in which transgender people are seen as an anomaly or worse, an abomination.  They do not fully understand that I inhabit a different universe. I live in a world that deeply respects the decision I have made, and sees me as a person of courage.  I am part of a church and a movement of churches that is more vibrant than the one from which I was ostracized.

I chose to move into a world that is broadly accepting.  My family has also chosen to leave the old world and enter a new one that includes a majority of our fellow citizens. Sixty-two percent of Americans are now supportive of the LGBTQ community. Fifty-one percent of millennial evangelicals are supportive. Even among older evangelicals the number supportive of marriage equality has increased from 26 percent to 36 percent in just eight years.

It is okay if my evangelical friends want to remain in a culture that believes I have gone astray, and I do appreciate that these good folks are supportive of me. But I no longer need them to be my advocates within a tribe in which I am persona non grata. If it pains them to hear nasty things about me, I would suggest they do not speak up in my defense, or better yet, consider moving on.

Christ is alive and well outside of the insular cultures intent on vilifying a group of healthy and whole followers of Christ. There is a big Christian world out there beyond the heteronormative evangelical culture. I moved into a more inclusive Christian world and found it transformative.  The Christ in me is now more readily visible than it was before. Is it possible the same would be true for others?

 

A Little Too Close to Home

A Little Too Close to Home

I flew home from Orlando last Sunday. The flight was delayed and the boarding area was packed. We were flying on an A330, a wide-body usually reserved for international flights. As I stood in line to board, a transgender woman came pushing through the crowd, pulling a wheelchair stacked with an assortment of pink and purple bags, including a Hello Kitty backpack that looked as though it had been drug through the Amazon.

The trans woman demanded to board early, and wheelchair in hand, somehow managed to board with the wheelchair passengers. When she was forced to consolidate her bags at the end of the jet way, she huffed and puffed and blocked the door as she dramatically stuffed her bags into one another until they resembled a misshapen Russian doll.

My fellow traveler looked to be in her 40s, with short black hair, a heavy beard showing through her makeup, and a barrel-chested frame, which she had chosen to squeeze into a tight mini-dress. As she boarded, the flight attendants exchanged amused glances. She turned right and headed to her coach seat while I turned left into first class.

As I sank into my cozy pod by the window, I thanked my lucky stars that I was not like her. The flight attendants made a few remarks about her that were lacking in generosity, then one turned to me and respectfully asked if I would like a pre-departure drink. They were clueless I was transgender. I thought again, “I am so fortunate I am nothing like her.”

But I am – like her. We are both transgender women.  And we are both human.

I have my fair share of transphobia. I do not like to encounter trans women who, in my opinion, reflect poorly on our community. Truth be told, I do not have much of an issue not identifying with an able-bodied passenger who demands early boarding and complains when she is expected to follow the rules that apply to everyone. That’s just rude. But of course that was not the main thing bothering me. I was primarily reacting to the way she looked. She looked like the kind of picture a right-wing bigot puts on social media to justify HB-2. “Do you want this person in the bathroom with your daughter?”

As you can imagine, by the time my flight arrived in Charlotte I was in full reflection mode. Who did I think I was? How could I think I was better than this woman?  So, I waited for her to get off the plane and struck up a conversation, right? No, I did not. Because on that particular day, I just did not have it in me.

I do not turn down any speaking engagements about transgender issues, whatever the venue. I am a strong woman, and I can blaze a trail with resources not available to other transgender individuals. I can take it. It is my calling. And yet…

When I have lunch with someone from my old world, I watch as they look around, afraid it will be obvious they are having lunch with a social pariah. Every week I still get letters, blog comments, and Facebook messages telling me I am an abomination. At almost every church presentation there is at least one pejorative question I am required to handle with grace.

I am tired and weary, and sometimes I do not have it in me to reach out to steady the journey of another. And that is the grace I needed to give myself on that particular day. Another day I will find the strength to reach out, but on that Sunday, I just didn’t have it.

On my connecting flight to Denver I prayed a simple prayer.   “Lord, strengthen me toward generosity when my own transphobia hits too close to home.”

And so it goes.

Thoughts Turning Toward Home

Thoughts Turning Toward Home

I’ve been reading an excellent novel my son recommended, A Doubter’s Almanac, by Ethan Canin. The book has bent my thoughts toward family. My father turned 93 in January. Dad held exactly four pastorates in his long career, each roughly twice as long as the one before. He was a pastor’s pastor.

I saw my father as deeply good, though never as a powerful man. He was too kind to be seen as powerful. When he was well into his 80s I asked his opinion about the afterlife. He answered, “Well, I hope God lets me into heaven.” I assured him, “Dad, if you aren’t getting into heaven, I don’t think there’s much hope for any of us.” Though he feared God as the ultimate disciplinarian, Dad was invariably gracious toward others.

The last time I visited my father was on his 90th birthday. It was one of the final times I traveled as Paul. I had already lost my job, though I had not informed him. When I told my father a few months later that I was transgender, he said, “This doesn’t change how we feel about you one tiny bit.” Once he began to understand what that meant, his struggle became monumental.

Having lived his entire existence in the evangelical subculture, Dad has never been well versed in the ways of the world. After my revelation, I imagine he called his two physician friends. Being men of my father’s generation, they themselves probably did not understand much about what it means to be transgender, but I am sure they were gentle and supportive.

Once my mother began to understand what I was telling her, she demanded that her subject behave properly. She had a tendency to overestimate her power. When Mom realized I was definitely transitioning, she thought she could keep my transition a secret. She is unaware of the reach of social media.

My mother gave me my intelligence, quite a generous gift really. She ingrained in me a love of books and kept close watch over my studies. Mom had a quick sense of humor, though she rarely gave herself permission to use it. I am afraid she was hindered by her religion, her geography and her times. I have compassion for my mother. I always looked like her. Now I really look like her. I don’t mind.

After a few tense years of precious little contact other than the occasional letter, I called my father on his birthday. It took him a few minutes to understand with whom he was speaking. He said, “You don’t sound the same.” I replied, “No Dad, I don’t. I’m Paula now, and Paula does not sound like Paul.” Dad mused, “Well, I suppose that would be true.” I was sitting alone in a nearly empty Marriott Hotel restaurant in Phoenix and my tears dropped onto the linen tablecloth.

I am going to visit my parents next month. I will also meet my brother for the first time. The writer Mitch Albom said, “Sticking with your family is what makes it a family.”

The Bible does not tell us much about the family of Jesus. We know on one occasion his siblings were more than a little embarrassed and tried to bring him home. He probably always seemed “other” to them. As far as we know, Mary was the only one who stayed close all the way through the crucifixion. When Jesus motioned to John and said to his mother, “Behold your son,” he might as well have been saying, “Well, now maybe you can have a son you can understand.”

I had hoped to hold off transitioning until my parents were gone. I wanted to spare them the pain. But in these life and death matters we do not always have good choices.

In case you are curious, unless I choose to show it to them, my parents will not read this post. They do not go online, nor does anyone read my blog to them. Most of their friends do not approve of me. I am an outsider and there are limits to fundamentalist generosity. I hold no animosity.

I hope my visit with my parents goes well. No one said this would be an easy journey.

The End of the Evangelical Era

The End of the Evangelical Era

Last week the Trump administration rolled back rights for transgender children. Trans kids already have a suicide attempt rate thirteen times higher than their peers.  Now they will be in even greater peril. The opponents of transgender rights fought to overturn Obama’s order because their own children, not in any particular kind of danger, might have been made a little uncomfortable by having a transgender child in their bathroom.

As if the decision itself was not bad enough, evangelicals on Facebook raised their collective fists in triumph. When informed of the suicide risk of these perpetually bullied children, they responded with a shrug.

This evangelical triumphalism convinces me we are at the end of the reign of evangelicals. When a tribe votes for a misogynist who makes vile comments about women, then proclaims victory when vulnerable children are made more vulnerable, its days are numbered.

Viewing the Bible as a constitution has been in vogue within conservative Christendom for centuries. But with the arrival of Quantum Physics and the end of the modern age, the traditional evangelical worldview no longer holds. Treating a book written over thousands of years by scores of authors as though it was the ultimate rule book is not sustainable in these postmodern times. That form of Christianity will remain popular with a few, but most of the world has moved on.

As Brian McLaren and Richard Rohr suggest, Christianity is shifting from being seen as a set of beliefs to being practiced as a way of life. It is moving from God as the purveyor of divine punishment to God as the ultimate suffering participant. It is transitioning from the church as a tribe organized for its own protection, to a community organizing for the common good.

The fact that 81 percent of conservative evangelicals voted for Trump shows how desperate they are to hold on to political power. Any change from the socially progressive Obama administration was better than admitting what they already know, that white evangelicalism’s days are numbered. The reason is embedded in the evangelical community’s own bankruptcy on issues related to social justice.

Black lives do matter. LGBTQ people do deserve equal rights. Women do deserve equal opportunities (including in ministry) and equal pay. Immigrants deserve to be treated with respect and refugees should be welcomed. Any tribe that denies these rights does not deserve political power. Millennial evangelicals understand this and have rejected the social conservatism of their parents. Fifty-one percent are supportive of marriage equality.

I believe in the church more than ever. I don’t mean the church that voted en masse for Donald Trump. I mean the church as exhibited in progressive churches from an evangelical background, like Forefront Church in New York, Sojourn Grace in San Diego, One Church in Phoenix, Highlands Church in Denver, EastLake Church in Seattle, LaSalle Street Church in Chicago, and Gracepointe Church in Nashville. The same spirit is also evident in the ministries of Sojourners, the Gay Christian Network, the Reformation Project, and other progressive ministries. All are important efforts in the drive to return Christianity to its rightful place as a ministry of reconciliation.

I believe the church is more important than ever. I believe the message of Christ’s love is as relevant today as it was in the time of Christ. I believe in the power of the Gospel. It is the best chance we have to turn from our dangerously destructive tribal behavior.

These are unprecedented times. Our current president and those he has brought into his inner circle have embraced the antithesis of the Christian message. The machinations that evangelicals have gone through to justify their support of this destructive administration will not prevail. Tyrants fall, often mortally wounded by their own egos.

The evangelical church has traded its soul for a bowl of political porridge. Until they return to the primacy of unconditional love, the generosity of grace, and the exhibition of mercy, they will remain a sad caricature of their former selves.

And so it goes.

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