Reconciled to My Heritage

Reconciled to My Heritage

One of the most painful realities of my transition has been the loss of my tribe. I was always proud of the Restoration Movement, and particularly its structure, a collection of independent churches working together for a common cause. Unfortunately, at this point in my life I would not be welcome in almost any Christian Church/Church of Christ, and I definitely would not be allowed to preach. Which is why Sunday, October 22 was so special.

In 1879, First Christian Church of Portland came into being. In 1922 they finished a beautiful building in downtown Portland, Oregon. The building is now surrounded by apartment buildings and parking garages – literally. There is a large parking garage beneath the building and a luxury apartment building rises above it. The beautiful sanctuary and courtyard remain as they were decades ago.

High on the sanctuary walls are stained glass windows reflecting the work of pioneers of the Restoration Movement. There are windows devoted to Thomas and Alexander Campbell, J.W. McGarvey, Isaac Errett, Barton W. Stone and others. All are beautiful in their intricacy.

On Sunday morning, October 22, I preached at Christ’s Church Portland, a church affiliated with the Disciples of Christ sharing the building with First Christian. I stood in the sanctuary and preached the Gospel, bathed in light passing through those stained glass windows. I was overcome with emotion.

Beneath the window commemorating Isaac Errett, I preached from the Book of Acts. In 1866, Isaac Errett founded Christian Standard magazine. From 2003 to 2013, I was a weekly columnist and editor-at-large at CS. And there I was, Paula, boldly preaching the Gospel.

We have no idea with whom the early leaders of the Restoration Movement would align themselves if they were alive today. Maybe they would be partial to the Churches of Christ, the most conservative branch of the movement. Possibly they would find a home in my former branch, the independent Christian churches. Or they might be most comfortable in the Disciples of Christ, the current affiliation of First Christian Church and Christ’s Church Portland.

We have so much more knowledge than was known in the early 1800s. We can only guess how that accumulation of knowledge would have affected the theology of those early leaders. I know how much my increase in knowledge has changed my theology over the past 40 years.

I do know how it felt when, during my sermon, I pointed to Isaac Errett’s name and referred to my work with Christian Standard, and pointed to Barton W. Stone’s name, and noted my middle name, Stone, and my affiliation with the movement he started. It was grounding.  There is an entire branch of the Restoration Movement, made up of hundreds of thousands of members, that welcomes me with open arms.

Sunday, October 22 brought redemption. I am not an orphan. I do have a heritage, and I have been firmly embraced by people who look fondly on the names I have known since childhood.

What goes around, comes around, with reconciliation in its arms.

And so it goes.

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TEDxMileHigh

TEDxMileHigh

On November 11 I will be one of the speakers at TEDxMileHigh Wonder. I will join 5,000 of my closest friends in a day of fascinating conversations about big ideas. I have been able to spend time with most of the speakers, and this is gonna be fun.

The Wonder event will be held at Bellco Theater at the Colorado Convention Center. As of this writing, there are still seats remaining, though they do expect it to be sold out.  http://tedxmilehigh.com

How did I come to speak at a large TEDx event? Unlike most speakers, I did not apply. Back in April, Michael Hidalgo, lead pastor at Denver Community Church, and I did an interview with Ryan Warner on Colorado Matters, a popular show on Colorado Public Radio. That interview resulted in CPR taking an interest in my July sermon at DCC.  After I preached, CPR  asked to play a portion of my message on Colorado Matters. That  got the attention of one of the curators at TEDxMileHigh.

It has been fascinating to see how much work the leaders do to ensure a great day for the TEDx attendees. Each speaker has a coach, and the coordinators weigh in heavily on every aspect of your presentation. At a little over two weeks out, I am on draft 14 of my talk. Just for the sake of comparison, my typical blog goes through about five edits and my typical sermon goes through seven or eight. The folks at TEDxMileHigh have high expectations. That is one of the reasons their events sell out.

I cannot help but compare my sermon preparation to this TEDx experience. Part of the reason I love preaching at Highlands Church is because the bar is high. Both of our preaching pastors, Jenny Morgan and Mark Tidd, work long and hard on their sermons. Their good work makes itself known. I want the sermons I preach at Highlands to be at the level of excellence they routinely attain.  I put a lot of hours into my sermons.

In the typical Roman Catholic Church, the sermon (they call it a homily) is not that big a deal.  A homily gets maybe an hour’s worth of work on a Saturday evening.  It shows.  Sermons are more important in Protestant churches.  They are the central part of the service, and last anywhere from 20 to 50 minutes. I usually preach between 21 and 23 minutes. No one complains about a short sermon.

There are some interesting peculiarities about evangelical preaching. A lot of preachers “borrow” a sermon that has already been preached by a megachurch preacher.  They do not give proper attribution.  Preaching someone else’s sermon and not admitting it has became a common practice in the evangelical church.  I have thoughts about that.  I have never preached another pastor’s outline, let alone the entire sermon.

I have noticed men tend to overestimate the quality of their sermons, while women tend to underestimate theirs. Just an observation.

Since I did not apply to speak for TEDx, it was difficult to decide what direction to go with my talk.  I thought about speaking about how the evangelical church responds to LGBTQ issues.  I also thought about telling my story, in all of its raw truth.  Ultimately,  I decided to speak about the differences between experiencing life as a male and as a female in America. It’s been fun writing my talk.  If you live in Denver, I’d love it if you came.  Friendly faces in the audience would be nice.  (Sorry, but I don’t have any more discounted tickets.)

I am really looking forward to speaking at TEDxMileHigh, though I am not particularly nervous about the talk. I have spoken to large audiences before, both as Paul and as Paula. I’m old enough that if it goes well, great. If it doesn’t, no one dies.

And so it goes.

Oh, Those Walls…

Oh, Those Walls…

I spent much of my life hiding. I worked with others who were also hiding. Some were hiding from their sexual or gender identity, but most were hiding from their own intelligence, their inquisitive minds, or the awakening awareness they knew things they did not want to know. You could see fear in their eyes.

Evangelicalism tells you truth is abstract and knowable. Once known, it can be categorized, catalogued and encased in reinforced concrete. We dust off our hands and say, “Okay, that one’s taken care of. What is the next truth I can polish off?” What we don’t realize is like Poe’s Cask of Amontillado, with each concrete brick we are being walled off from real life, with all of its radiant mystery. The cruel bricklayer is our own theology. We are cutting off the oxygen we need to breathe, and guaranteeing an early demise, figuratively if not literally.

Many people are so walled off they only get half of themselves out of bed in the morning, their stored abstract truths like a weight on the better half of themselves. It works out in some perverse way because the life they have crafted is so bland only half of one’s self is necessary to live it. So they shuffle through, day after day, 401k secure, but soul as dry as stale bread.

I know an older evangelical who is bedfast, though without physiological reason. A bone was broken, but when it had healed sufficiently enough to resume an ambulatory life, this poor soul didn’t have it in them to rise up and walk. It has now been so long that the person couldn’t walk if they wanted to. I often wonder about the reason. Was there some complex trauma of which I am unaware, or was it nothing more than the cumulative effect of stifled curiosity?

The desire for safety and security is powerful. The desire to be a dutiful member of a lifelong tribe is strong. I am living proof of what happens if you dare to stand and walk on your own. The tribe is brutal and unforgiving. In my case, I was virtually annihilated.

Let’s be clear. I did not fundamentally disobey the teaching of Scripture, not even if you start with an evangelical hermeneutic. My true sins are of the common variety, not the type that result in rejection. Some have attempted mental gymnastics to invent a more traditional reason for my banishment, but you don’t have to scratch very deeply to see the ruse.

My memory was banished because I was uncomfortably different. That was my unforgiveable sin. My banishment says to others who are curious or committed to living authentically, “Look very carefully at the empty space where she once existed. This could happen to you.” No wonder most stay behind those reinforced walls.

I understand if my experience gives you pause. Leaving a tribe is not for everyone. The journey is easier if you feel a strong sense of call. Should you feel that call, that defiant nevertheless, I can assure you there is life on the other side of evangelical orthodoxy. And that life is redemptive and beautiful and good, full of important work in the ministry of reconciliation.

And so it goes.

By Their Fruit I Came to Trust Them

By Their Fruit I Came to Trust Them

Three weeks ago it was my privilege to be at the meeting of the Union of Affirming Christians – a Faithful Coalition for LGBTQ Equality at Union Seminary in New York City. The conference was under the capable leadership of Josh Dickson, Fred Davie and Derrick Harkins. For two days, 25 of us talked about the need for LGBTQ equality in the evangelical world.

The meeting was a reminder of how much my world has changed over the past few years. For most of my evangelical life I was in the company of leaders who were almost all straight white evangelical males. At the Union meeting straight white men were a decided minority.

Those attending the Union conference have had ample opportunities to spend time with people of varied backgrounds. That has been one of the most refreshing aspects of my new church world. For the most part, those with whom I worked in my previous life came from the same background. I did not encounter gay clergy. I did not interact with women who were pastors, seminary presidents or non-profit CEOs. I interacted with very few people of color.

The beginnings of my own interaction with warm, intelligent, loving non-evangelicals began in my childhood in Akron, Ohio. It continued after I moved to New York and was surrounded by people who did not know an evangelical from a kumquat. These people were intelligent, well educated and accepting. By their fruit I came to trust them. They loved well. Proximity promotes understanding.

I believe those with whom I worked in my previous ministries were good and devoted people. The majority also lived in silos. While being in close proximity promotes understanding, living in silos promotes prejudice. The world I now inhabit is much larger than my previous world. It has been enlightening.

As is most often the case in my new life, the people with whom I worked three weeks ago were not particularly interested in my gender. I am not the first transgender person in their lives. They were far more interested in my knowledge about the evangelical church. They are accustomed to being with people of varied backgrounds. They are not accustomed to spending time with evangelicals, primarily because evangelicals show little interest in spending time with them.

Occasionally I am asked to speak in evangelical environments. I am never invited to speak about the expertise I gained over four decades in ministry. They only want to know about my gender identity. If I am at an educational institution, monitors are in the classroom to pull me from the lectern, should they not like my comments. If I am at a church, the venue is chosen for the ease with which people can choose to make an unobtrusive exit.

I have chosen to place myself in those environments for the primary reason that proximity does promote tolerance. And I appreciate the opportunity. I know those institutions pay a price when they ask me to come. But invariably I must do so at my own expense, and my financial generosity has its limits. I cannot continue to self-fund a one-person campaign to educate evangelicals.

One of the harder lessons of the Union meeting was being reminded of my white privilege. Eighty percent of those in attendance were white, and we knew that was not all right. But I was grateful to at least be in an environment in which that was painfully acknowledged.

I still miss my old friends. Losing their friendship is one of the most painful losses of my life, devastating really. But there is nothing I can do about those losses. When they ask to meet with me, we meet. But not many ask. (The only time I refuse a meeting is when I am being invited to an interrogation, not a conversation. I have no interest in being ambushed.)

Difficult as those losses have been, I am grateful for my new world of wounded healers and faithful questioners. They are fresh air for my tired lungs. Those friendships remind me of the words that close David Whyte’s poem, Sweet Darkness:

The world was made to be free in

You must give up all worlds except the one to which you belong

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness

To learn that anything or anyone that does not bring you alive

Is too small for you

 

We Shrug Our Shoulders and Move On

We Shrug Our Shoulders and Move On

It is a rare rainy day in the foothills of the Rockies. The clouds are at about 5600 feet, just a few hundred feet above the surface of the earth. I awoke to golden leaves gracing the outer branches of the cottonwoods along the St. Vrain. The river flowed yesterday. It flows today. It will flow again tomorrow, after the clouds have lifted and the sun has returned. But something will be different.

There are malevolent forces in our midst. We saw them at Sandy Hook, and again at Pulse. Sunday night we saw them in Las Vegas. Over the last 20 years more than half of the mass killings in the world have occurred in the United States.

We act as though we are powerless against these forces, but the truth is we have decided to be powerless. We have decided to gasp at the bulletin, offer prayers over the headlines, then shrug our shoulders and move on. That’s not okay.

Don’t spin anything. Don’t even start with the rhetoric. If assault rifles were banned, the Sunday night massacre would not have happened. It is that simple.

There are 250 million adults in the United States, and only five million members of the NRA, the combined population of Brooklyn and Queens. No one at the NRA believes they are powerless. So why do the other 245 million of us believe we are powerless? Because most of the other 245 million Americans are not politically engaged, that’s why. And when you are not politically engaged, you are powerless.

Why can’t a new pro-life (in favor of severely restricting assault rifles) lobby emerge? Can’t the rest of America agree on this one issue? Apparently the answer to that question is a sorry no. Some of us are too comfortable. Some of us assume the odds are low that our family will be shot, and that’s enough for our self-centered selves. I’m afraid the bottom line is that those who fight so hard for the right to own assault weapons are more frightened than the rest of us.

They are frightened of our federal government. They are frightened of Blacks, immigrants, Hispanics, LGBTQ individuals and pretty much everyone who does not look like them. Frightened people who are already in power are very dangerous.

If the election of Barack Obama showed we live in a nation in which a highly competent Black man can be elected president, they decided to show us they still had enough votes to elect a highly incompetent white man as president.

They also want us to know they still hold enough power to make sure a crazy white man can get an assault rifle and kill innocent people. They would rather accept that reality than lose their political clout.

ISIS tried to claim credit for the Vegas shooting. We don’t need ISIS to bring us down. The fear of angry white men and the families they control is enough to bring us down. Creating threats that do not exist is their stock in trade. It keeps their base frightened and loyal. They know we are not afraid enough to truly unite to end their reign. So we will mourn for a few days, complain for few more, and Vegas will happen again.  I do not mean to sound callous.  I am just reporting an undeniable trend.

Here is what bothers me the most. Many of the frightened Americans who continue to allow these assault rifles to be painfully easy to acquire, as well as those who continue to deny civil rights to people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants and refugees, are members of the fundamentalist and evangelical churches of which I was once a part. God forgive me for not speaking more strongly against their unjustified fears when I had the platform to do so.

And so it tragically goes.