Well Now, This Is a Fine Mess

Well Now, This Is a Fine Mess

I have always had an interest in airplanes and have been known to watch geeky videos in which young pilots earn their hours taking Pilatus Porters into remote mountain airstrips in Papua. These strips have been painstakingly built by hand over 10 or 15 years by cutting the vegetation off mountaintops. The natives are willing to do the hard work so they will no longer be cut off from the larger world.  They don’t just crave the food and other precious cargo that arrives on these airplanes.  They crave knowledge.

I find it ironic that while the tribes of Papua are willing to do backbreaking labor to bring truth and knowledge into their villages, we Americans are giving up our access to truth and knowledge.  I believe there are at least three reasons.  Let me give a brief explanation.

First, the Internet has no regard for what is true.  Try typing the beginning of a random phrase like, “Young women are” into your Google search engine and see what pops up.  As you can readily see, Google algorithms have no moral character.  They just bring up the searches that are typed most often.

Just because something is on the Internet does not mean it is true.  That should be as obvious as saying to a child, “Don’t play in the middle of the street.”  But it’s not.  Look up my name on the Internet and go through the first five pages or so. There are a lot of “facts” that are simply not true.

A second reason we have abandoned truth is because of the teachings of an extreme form of postmodernism that says there is no such thing as truth, only this or that power narrative.  All we have is what is true for you and what is true for me, as if there is no agreed upon notion of truth in any area.

It is not the Internet that espouses this notion, but the university, which goes out of its way to say no one metanarrative is better than another. They do not see the difference between power metanarratives, which are destructive, and growth metanarratives, which focus on discernible truth that advances the species.

The third reason we have lost or way is because of religion.  One might hope the church would be a safe place to hear the truth, but the church has always been one of the last places to accept difficult truths.  Just ask Galileo, who was placed under house arrest by the church because he taught that the earth revolved around the sun.   Christian institutions of higher education act as an extension of the evangelical church, encouraging serious scholarship, but only as long as it comes to predetermined conclusions.

The result is schools that do not encourage the vigorous search for truth, but instead teach a narrative that may or may not be true.  In doing so those institutions set people up to be deliverers and receivers of fake news, unattached to any known reality. Take evolution for instance.  The majority of evangelical colleges still present a seven-day creation as fact, though there are no scientific facts to back it up.

Graduates from those schools take the pulpits of churches throughout the United States unprepared for the complex cultural realities they encounter.  They hide behind walls of rigid orthodoxy as they create their own newspapers, magazines, television networks and social media platforms. They are cultural separatists who receive their information from self-limiting sources.

Whether it’s the Internet, extreme postmodernism or the church, the loss of the notion of truth has become a tragic reality.  But I do see hope.  In this era of “fake news” it has been fascinating to watch how quickly the mainstream media has rejected the postmodern notion that all truth is constructed truth and a power narrative.  Now we see the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and other news outlets talking pointedly about the importance of the truth, and the difference between truth and a lie.

They are also doing their best to present the facts.  While their editorial departments have leanings toward the left or right, in their reporting they care deeply about the truth, now more than ever.  I, for one, am grateful for their presence.

Ultimately the search for truth must return to you and me.  Will we do the work necessary to discern what is true, or will we leave that to our tribe?  Every day we have opportunities to discern the truth, if we will take the time to do so. You don’t need Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity to tell you what you think.  Go to the original sources and decide for yourself.  Truth should not be left in the hands of a tribal Intermediary.  It is far too important.

Truth exists. It is discernible and it does matter. And it is the one thing with the ability to unite us.

Apples to Apples

Apples to Apples

Last week I finally had a chance to compare apples to apples.  For most of my new life I have felt disconnected from my past.  Last Monday I did a 2 1/2 hour interview with the NPR show, Radiolab.  (I’ll let you know when it airs.)  The interviewer was intrigued that I always refer to my male self in the third person.

Shortly after I transitioned I protested to my son that I was the same person I had always been. I have rarely heard him speak more forcefully.  “No! No, you are not!”  And sure enough, I’m not.  Ever since I grasped that difficult truth, I have talked about Paul and Paula as if they are two different people.  In the future I hope I feel more integrated, but it’s been hard.  My almost complete ostracism by the evangelical church is a factor, but I am discovering it goes far deeper.

Last week I had a few days that resembled my past life.  It was a rare moment when the worlds of Paul and Paula were similar.  I was one of the leaders of a retreat of church planters, my first in five years.  The retreat was much like scores of retreats I have led over the years, but for me the experience was profoundly different.

Two of the attendees were at retreats I led in the past.  One talked with me toward the end of last week’s retreat.  He said, “You look 10 or 15 years younger than you are, and if you sense that your presence does not carry the same weight it once did, you are correct.”

Is it that I look younger, or that I am a woman, or that I have not led my current ministry for over a quarter of a century, as I did in my last job?  Truth be told, it’s probably all three.  And there is no denying the reality of his words.  My presence does not carry the weight it once carried.

So when you try to lead from a place of memory and your world has changed as drastically as mine, the results are less than stellar.  I called on Paul’s presence, knowledge and background, but it was not even remotely the same experience.  I was comfortable with the 10 women in the room, but I felt at a distance from most of the 20 men. I imagine it was mostly inside me, but I was not comfortable throughout the entire retreat.

Right before my Radiolab interview I spoke with a film production company that is interested in my story.  I watched one of the movies they made.  Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein played the lead roles in a story of grief and pain through difficult transitions.  Sean Hamish, who wrote and directed the movie, understands the subtleties of redemption a long time coming.  I am very favorably impressed with the company.

Should a movie be made, who would play me?  I would say no to anything resembling Jeffrey Tambor being cast as the transgender woman in Transparent.  No man should play a transgender woman unless he’s been on anti-androgens and hormones for years.  Whoever plays me, it will still only partially feel like my story.  That is because my entire life feels like a character in a novel that has not yet been fleshed out, so why would a movie be any different.

So much of my unsettled nature seems to be gender related.  I know.  You are thinking, “Duh!”  But let me explain.  From my high school years on, I was one of the cool kids, smart, popular and powerful.  Today my unique presence in the world still affords me a position of privilege, but primarily as an observer.  I do not fit into any specific world.  I no longer feel comfortable with the cool kids, but the group with which I feel most comfortable is a world I will never fully understand.

I feel at home with the wise and weathered mothers of the world.  They have known pain in their bodies that causes them to ponder things in their hearts that I will never know.  But I want to learn from their wisdom, to take in their fullness.

When they talk about their experience of life, sometimes I have this notion that I’ve lived before and given birth.  Is it what Jung would call the collective unconscious, or the cellular level at which we are all connected?  Hell if I know.  I just know that through a fog somewhere I have a notion of things both behind and before me that hold all of us in the same magnetic field.

What does it mean to be transgender?  What does it mean to be male or female.  I really don’t know.  But I do know what it means to be human.  It is to understand the interconnectedness of us all.  I struggled to feel that interconnectedness last week, and that’s all right.  We all have our shitty weeks.  But I am committed to walking in the shoes of all the people God brings into my life, to see life through their lens.  It’s hard work, but after so many have done the same for me, how could I choose to live any other way?

That Rush of Dopamine

That Rush of Dopamine

Do we ever lose our need for affirmation?  Does our ego ever bed down for the night and wake up in peace?  Do the scales of wellbeing ever become balanced between ego strength and ego need?

These are valid questions, but I am not the person to answer them.  I am afraid to say after all these years my need for affirmation is still a bottomless well.

People who can be classified as narcissists also have a never-ending need for affirmation, but their need is also accompanied by a lack of empathy and a tendency toward grandiosity.  If you watch television you will find a ready example each and every evening on the news.  But this post is not about our narcissist-in-chief.  It is about being human.

I was about five when Elvis Presley became popular.  The way he moved and swiveled his hips was scandalous in my church, but at my grandmother’s house there was greater tolerance.  One summer afternoon I discovered that by playing an imaginary guitar (long before air guitars became a thing) and singing You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog, I could get the attention of a room full of adults.  I was hooked.  It wasn’t long before I was singing solos on Sunday nights at church, partly because I liked to sing, but mostly because for three minutes all those people were mine, all mine.

I was nervous every single time I sang, just as I am nervous every single time I preach. There are a lot of collective minutes in the audience.  A church service with five hundred people at 20 minutes each is 10,000 collective minutes. I am not inclined to waste minutes. But as concerned as I might be for my audience, I know that to a greater or lesser extent, it is also about me. And that is where my concern lies, in that greater or lesser extent.   All of us have ego needs, but when does normal become abnormal?

Last fall I was asked to speak for Denver’s TEDxMileHigh Wonder event.  The invitation came after their curators heard me on Colorado Public Radio.  I was initially skeptical, but the more I read about TEDxMileHigh, the more I realized it was a big deal, so I said yes.

First, we had to decide on the subject about which I would speak.  Once that was determined, I started writing.  Three weeks before the event, I was at edit 21 when I was asked to switch subjects.  I was good with the change, because I agreed with the TEDx folks.  The new subject might bring a wider audience.  Besides, I really liked the idea of talking about the difference between living as a male and a female.  So I began writing again.  The final edit was number 18.

For reasons I won’t write about today, the day before the event I was a wreck.  The day of the event I was normally nervous, which means scared shitless, but ready to go.  The sold out audience of 5,200 was wonderfully responsive and rewarded my talk with a standing ovation.

A month later the video came out and my obsession began.  I watched the first evening as the count shot up to 1300, but then slowed down to a trickle.  By the middle of February it had clawed its way to 10,000 views, but hardly a stellar performance for a TEDx talk.  From December to February I looked at the count every few days.  But then came February 24.  I have no idea what happened on that particular day.  Maybe it was Melissa Greene linking to my talk from her Facebook page, but it took off and started growing to about 7500 views a day.

I was hooked, intoxicated by the dopamine rush that accompanied frequent checks of YouTube. The count went to 10k a day, then 15k, then 20k.  I became obsessed with looking multiple times a day.  I mean, obsessed.

About the middle of March the views peaked at 30,000 a day, but I wanted more.  Then the numbers began dropping, first to 20k, then 15, then 12, 10 and 7.5.  My ego was bruised.  The more the numbers dropped, the more obsessed I became with following them.  They have settled down to around 5k views a day, and I was just beginning to come to my senses and put the whole thing in perspective when Amy Schumer linked to my talk from her Twitter account with the line, “Love a good TED talk.”

I was thrilled. I mean, it’s Amy Schumer!  But my numbers didn’t go up on YouTube.  Then a producer from Radiolab called and asked me to do an interview. They did one 75-minute interview, followed by a two and a half hour interview yesterday.   I mean, it’s Radiolab, one of the best shows on NPR!  I adore Radiolab!  But of course my first thought was, “Yeah, but being interviewed on Radiolab probably won’t bump my YouTube views.”  And that is when I knew I had a problem – YTCA – YouTube Count Addiction.

I imagine my YTCA will require intense psychotherapy, as well as behavioral therapy, which will include including limiting my views of YouTube.  Or, oh no, please no, maybe I’ll have to stop counting completely!

But I love my little dopamine rush.  I just spent a week with my five granddaughters.  It was wonderful.  I had a delightful time with my kids and their spouses.  My son preached at Left Hand Church last Saturday and did an amazing job.  I mean, my life is blessed without YouTube, right?  So what is my problem?

The whole episode really did cause me to read up on dopamine rush, the reward molecule that gets excited every time a text dings.  Since we became a nation fixated on social media, it has become a genuine problem.  But I will write about that another day.  Today, it’s all about me.

I have committed to not checking my numbers this week.  We’ll see how it goes.  I’ll let you know.  And so I leave the count where it was last night, at 435,800 views.  Aw gees, I do have a problem.

Heads in the Sand

Heads in the Sand

This past week brought another round of accusations and resignations of people with high standing in the evangelical world, as #ChurchToo follows on the heels of #MeToo.  It also brought another round of evangelical backlash, including standing ovations for a megachurch pastor accused of inappropriate sexual behavior.  Ten years ago I would have been shocked.  Today I understand how far people will go to reaffirm what they want to believe.

In one of this past week’s high profile stories, a church, in its own investigation of sexual harassment allegations, used a service that specializes in representing management.  That decision caused some of the victims to feel the investigation process might not be unbiased.  Their concern was justified.

In the Hebrew concept, cHesed, when a person enters into a contract they are not doing so to look out for their own self-interest. They are looking out for the best interest of the other person.  That is definitely not how American contracts work.

When I was let go by my main employer for being transgender, they chose to engage the services of an attorney who specialized in Christian employment issues.  Looking out only for the ministry involved, the attorney informed me I would not receive virtually any of the funds that had been promised, including my own personal funds that remained with the ministry. Things were finally resolved when attorneys were by-passed and people who trust one another worked things out.  Nothing about the experience was all right.

That experience is coming back in waves as I watch powerful ministries use their positional power to functionally intimidate accusers.  I know the accusers to be people of great integrity and I despise seeing churches and Christian ministries defensively protect their own interests at the expense of those who are reporting sexual harassment.

I previously made allowances for those who saw my coming out as a moral failure, though the Bible says not one single word about being transgender.  I would say in their defense, “They were confused and frightened.”  I’m done with that.  Those from the evangelical world who continue to accuse me are not naive and innocent. They are willfully ignorant about LGBTQ realities.  And now, as I watch those same people turn their gaze away from sexual harassment and assault, I find my generosity depleted.

The evangelical world lives in a white male bubble, overseen by men who are unaware of how pervasive sexual assault is within their environment.  They tend to think the only kind of sexual assault is rape, without realizing how many other behaviors are also sexual assault.  In case you didn’t know, asking a woman to come to your hotel room and attempting to kiss her is sexual assault.

I know the inside of the megachurch world.  For the most part, it is filled with people who want to get it right.  When they see inappropriate behavior, they act on it. The problem is that when the majority of leaders are white males, they often don’t recognize inappropriate behavior when they see it.  Not many churches have seminars on sexual harassment.  Leaders do not even know what it is. They just assume they do not have a problem.  They don’t know what they don’t know.

I have an idea. Instead of having firms loyal to an employer investigate claims of sexual harassment, let non-church-employed therapists adjudicate matters.  Most have clients who have been taken advantage of by church leaders. There is no wool over their eyes.  They know where there is smoke, you can be pretty sure you are going to find fire.

When victims choose not to speak to “objective investigators” it is because they rightly understand those investigators are not objective.  It takes incredible bravery to speak out about unpopular truth.  You get no stars for bringing down a religious leader.  Instead you are likely to be vilified.  People do not like to see their heroes brought down.

Evangelicals feel under siege, but it is a siege of their own making.  No one is out to get them.  The problem is that they have no idea how out of touch they are about gender discrimination, sexual assault, domestic violence and a plethora of other ills. Keeping their heads in the sand will no longer be tolerated.

The enemies they have created are nothing more or less than people who believe in the ability of the truth to set all of us free.  They should not be feared. My prayers are with those who have so bravely spoken out.  Let’s protect them and assure a truly fair-minded process as their claims are vetted.