They Just Act Like Him

When YouTube views go up, so does my mail.  My TEDxMileHigh talk has been getting around 10,000 to 15,000 views a day over the past couple of weeks, which doubles the amount of correspondence I receive.  Every single day I hear from people from all over the globe.  Some days I hear from three or four.  Lately I have been hearing from 10 to 15.

I never look at YouTube comments.  Too many trolls live there.  I do occasionally check the YouTube thumbs up/down ratio.  It runs consistently over 90 percent positive.  Emails, Facebook messages, and other forms of correspondence run about 80 percent positive and 20 percent negative.

Almost all of the negative messages come from conservative Christians.  In fact, I do not remember the last negative message I received that did not come from a conservative Christian.  What do the negative messages say?

Well, let’s suppose someone just arrived on the planet, and had never heard about Jesus, or his followers.  Let’s say all she would know about Jesus would have to be taken from the correspondence I receive. What would she think?

Here is the very first line of an email I received Sunday morning:  “How do you work around that God said He created male and female?”   I never answer those kinds of emails, and rarely read past the first sentence.  As soon as the tone is clear, I hit the delete button.  The messages usually include the same elements:

  1. God created only two genders, male and female. It says so in Genesis.
  2. You are a tool of Satan.
  3. Repent before you spend eternity in hell.

If the messages are from people who once knew me, or knew of me, they usually say,

  1. You were a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
  2. How can you live with yourself?
  3. Repent before you spend eternity in hell.

These are the negative messages I receive, time and again.  So back to that person who just arrived on the planet.  Based on these messages, what would she think of followers of Jesus?  First, I imagine she would think these people are really afraid of hell, since they never fail to mention it.

Second, she would wonder where in the world the sheep/wolf thing originated.  (I mean, really?  Why do people always choose that metaphor?  Is there a fill in the blank “suggested letter” they are all using they found somewhere on the Internet?)

Third, she would check out the Internet and discover there are not just two genders. There are, in fact, a plethora of intersex conditions, which would cause her to assume these people are not well read. Based on the correspondence, I doubt she would have much interest in following Jesus.

Now, let me share with you the contents of another message I received the same morning:

Dear Paula,

I’m writing you from (city) in Germany.  I just saw your TED talk and it was amazing.  It brought me to tears and touched my heart.

I have two daughters and my youngest, (name of child), has been “different” from the start.  From the beginning I had a gut feeling that told me that she is transgender.  And, with all the worries and anxiety I have, knowing how intolerant our world can be, I am blessed to have her.  Because I realize how much I love her, how much I love my children.  And I know for sure that as their mother, I love them and accept them as they are and want to be.  I acknowledge and respect the journey they have chosen to pursue in this life.

Paula, I thank you for your authenticity and your courage.  It empowers and supports me for the challenges to come.  I know that the heart and love is the most powerful force in the universe.  I am grateful for the experience and the opportunity to grow that I have, thanks to my children and especially thanks to (name of child.) 

I wish all the best.  Please continue your work and I hope you enjoy your life as it is.

With all the support and warm regards from Germany,

(first name) 

First of all, that is better grammar than I get from most Americans.  (I receive messages from all over Europe with that kind of command of the English language.) But look at the tone of the letter.  That is the tone of four out of every five messages I receive.  Rarely do the messages ever reference Jesus.  They just act like him.

Letters like that are why I continue to write and speak and preach.  They make me believe in the human capacity for goodness and grace and love.  They communicate the good news of the Gospel, whether or not the person writing the words claims to be a follower of Jesus.  That is the source of my hope that all things are being redeemed.

And maybe, some day, the conservative Christians will stop being afraid of hell long enough to realize that God’s love even encompasses them, just as they are.

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A Time For Lament

Some times call for lament.  It is not something I do easily.  As a dutiful Sunday school student, I memorized the names of all the books of the Old Testament, including Lamentations, though I was clueless about the subject, or even what the word meant.  (The word means the passionate expression of grief or sorrow.)

I’ve never seen the word “lamentations” in a newspaper article or a contemporary novel.  Americans don’t talk much about lament.  I spent most of the last eight days in lament.  I cancelled everything I could, and holed up alone in the foothills of the Rockies.

When I was a male, I dealt with difficulties and setbacks by ramping up my busyness. Speed was my hedge against lament. I became crazy busy.  That is what I did when I was avoiding coming out as transgender.  It didn’t work so well then, but nevertheless, it is my default avoidance mechanism.  I choose the word “mechanism” with intent.  When I resort to busyness and speed, I am attempting to engineer results instead of trusting the flow. It is not a good life plan.

When you run yourself ragged by engineering results, you do not pay close enough attention to the needs of those around you.  Over the past week, I did not hold space for the feelings of one close friend, and I marched right over the expressed thoughts of another.  That stopped me in my tracks, rather literally, and ushered in an exhausting week of lament.  The lament took hold in a number of different spaces within my heart.  One area of my lamentations is private.  The others I can and will share.

I always acknowledge that my experience is my experience.  I cannot speak for anyone else.  I write often about living in a liminal space, somewhere between male and female, holding in tension the two genders within.  Recently I have been lamenting that part of the female experience I will never know, particularly the experience of growing a child within your womb and everything that relates to that holy experience.

Since the She Is Called Conference in May, I have been lamenting my inability to enter into the sacred circular I observe among women.  I reside in its borderlands, close enough to intuit something holy, but far enough away to realize I will never know what I cannot know. Women have been helping one another give birth since the beginning of time.  It is the foundation of their collaborative intuition.  So much female energy springs forth from that seminal experience.  I stand back and observe in awe.

The loss of testosterone and addition of estrogen affects the body in innumerable ways, including ample neurological changes.  Women understand the effects of estrogen.  Add to that the degree to which my brain was never at peace in a male body, and you are left with a transgender woman with a plethora of complex feelings.  Sometimes they pile up, like laundry, and you have to sort them before you throw them in the wash.  This has been a time of sorting.

I rue the days when in fear I refuse to trust the flow of my feelings and return to the old discomfort of engineering results.  In those moments I do not hold space for all the things being born in my heart.  In my time of lament, I listen to the flow of my heart, both its male and female parts.  I weep from the insights and wisdom that come bubbling up, out of the pain, as precious as the Holy Grail.

I am grateful I am not alone.  I am blessed with a precious few who walk ever so faithfully by my side.  With speaking offers and requests for book proposals and the like, the world wants to hear what I have to say from my home in the borderlands of gender.  I am an inadequate messenger.  I miss stuff, and sometimes the stuff I miss is pretty effing important.  I need help from those who are gracious and patient enough to nudge me back onto the path every now and again.  This learning to live as a female is serious business.

And so I grieve and lament, grateful that I dared to choose the road less traveled by,  with its fallen branches and stones and all. Like I said in my TEDx talk, “Would I do it all again?  Of course I would!  Because the call toward authenticity is sacred.  It is holy.  And it is for the greater good.”

Is She Going to Make It?

This week I’ve invited Jennifer Jepsen, my co-pastor at Left Hand Church, to write a guest blog.  You can follow her at http://jenniferjepsen.org

Is She Going to Make It

“The failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”
Audre Lorde

So far I’ve preached nine sermons. Each one is a birth – the preparation a labor, the delivery a relief. I preached this past spring on the relationship between Mary and Martha, and how as a Christian woman I’ve been coached over the years to believe that being a Mary is the Christian woman’s ideal, our gold standard. It is very confusing to me, as someone who carries significant parts of both Mary and Martha that Jesus would appear to rebuke Martha, while uplifting Mary. Wasn’t Martha just doing what she was supposed to do as an obedient women in the patriarchal culture of the day? I too can sit at Jesus’s feet, but I also know the importance of being productive, while respecting the tick-tock of the clock. As a mother with three children, pastoring a church, there are things to accomplish and gazing at Jesus all day wouldn’t fly well with my family and co-pastors.

The premise I offer is Jesus, in touting Mary’s dedication, is instead upending the patriarchal expectations of the day and inviting Martha to be with him. Jesus is inviting her into a relationship of restoration and renewal, of respect and inclusion. Jesus is calling to her toward rest – a luxury, I suspect.

We women still function within this patriarchal model. We rank ourselves in a room based on our bodies and accomplishments, our clean and wonderful children, the lines on our face, and grey in our hair. We participate in gossip to equalize the room, while injuring ourselves with fear of saying too much and doubt in our abilities. We try to play the patriarchal game too, but since our power is minimal in the world of men, we operate out of shame. We operate out of scarcity. We operate out of self-deprecating humor and downright anger.

And as I navigate this new world of pastor, the world of men is real. Many church systems have been built on the metrics of men – numbers, quality control, timeliness, etc. Churches, on the outside, are efficient, tidy, and things get done. Programs are built, meetings are had, people are processed in the name of Jesus. All contributing to the bottom line and to the good of the organization. If a church is growing, it must be healthy right?

The Church is equal parts She and He, and yet we function in this masculine-centric hierarchy oftentimes no different than any other system or corporation in America. And I wonder, is She going to make it? Is the Church going to come through this crisis of culture?

Only if we can return to our feminine roots – to the Church as a redeemed Martha.

I am now in the company of many remarkable and accomplished and talented women who adore Jesus. All would qualify as both Mary and Martha, the best of both. These women are building and leading and pastoring and mothering, redefining the hope of the Church, redefining the hope of the world. We are redefining the metrics, seeking abundance, setting aside the tapes of scarcity that speak messages of our worth being defined by appearance and accomplishment and age. Our worth is defined because we are.

Abundance is untrustworthy and suspicious. We are conditioned to believe there must be be winners and losers. Abundance is a new and unwieldy language that supersedes metrics. With no rank or hierarchy, abundance declares there’s enough with plenty of room at the table. But as women, as the Church, we have to reclaim abundance. The metrics of rank have no place in this space, it’s too beautiful and open. We cannot translate the patriarchal game of ranking and measuring, a foreign language of gibberish. Playing the game kills our souls and reduces our offering. This feminine work cannot entirely be computed or grasped, measurable data cannot define. This feminine work is ethereal and spiritual and air and light, weighty and fierce in the best of ways. Abundance is mother. Abundance is tender. Abundance is fierce. And abundance is an all-encompassing force of Love.

The shameful messages of scarcity in this patriarchal church culture are real and pervasive. And the She of the Church is suffering. She is withering under the current weight of the game. She won’t hold much longer. She can no longer compete over who has the best fashion or the cleanest children or masculine metrics. She must unleash and become Herself. She must know what it means to sit longingly at Jesus’s feet, while knowing her worth and value are in being, while affirming the beings of everyone else. She cares not for the accomplishments and the efficiency. She cares for the whole of people, the healing of the world.

She is a Mother.

For All That Shall Be…

There is never a point at which you find your “authentic self.”  If authenticity is a destination, then you get there when you die.  I have little interest in the destination of authenticity, but I am committed to the journey.

I have recently been settling into myself in a way that feels more and more comfortable. This body is my body, and it feels like I’ve had it forever.  It is a good feeling, and this week, a helpful feeling.  When your soul is all stirred up, It is good to feel at home in your body.

Last week several people heard me mentioned in the credits of the NPR Radiolab series, Gonads.  Those who receive the Radiolab newsletter also found a paragraph devoted to me and my TEDxMileHigh talk.

I did a two and a half hour interview with Radiolab that was not used for the series.  I thought it was the best interview I have ever done.  Molly Webster knows how to ask the right questions.  They did not share their reason for not using the interview.  I have no plans to ask, but I do have my suspicions.  They have a lot more to do with me than with Rachael Cusick or Molly Webster at Radiolab.

I thought the series on human reproduction and development was brilliant.  It included amazing scientific information on a plethora of issues related to human reproduction.  I particularly enjoyed the segments on how our bodies become gendered, and what it means to be intersex.

As I said, I do have my suspicions about why they chose not to use my interview.  It was not because the interview was lousy.  I know when I’ve blown an interview and I did not blow the interview.  It was something else.  And again, my thoughts are mine and mine alone.  They say more about me than about the folks at Radiolab.

I think the science related to the cause of gender dysphoria is a lot less definable, and therefore a lot less compelling, than the science behind the other subjects profiled in the series.  When it comes to the reason we are transgender, we just don’t know what we don’t know.

There are indications the cause is prenatal, and indications it is genetic, but the studies have been too small to be definitive.  I do not want to write about causes of gender dysphoria.  I want to write about how it feels to have such a difficult diagnosis when we do not know where it comes from, where it resides in the body, or what brought it about.

Last week I was talking with two good friends who are gay.  Both said if they could go back and change their sexual identity, they would not do so.  There might have been a time in their adolescence they would have thought about it, but not in their adult lives.  I do not share their feelings.

I would love it if I could have avoided putting my family through the hell they have experienced. I know they prefer the current reality to me being dead, but really?  Those are the only options?  In my case, I’m afraid they were.

The pain I feel about the grief I have caused waxes and wanes.  No one in my family holds it over me.  To the contrary, they have been wonderfully supportive.  The pain is more internal.  Seems to me it’s not okay for one person’s authentic living to negatively affect another person’s authentic living.

If I controlled the universe, I would have made sure I was born a female.  If the only option was to have been born a male, then I would made myself comfortable in that body.  Heaven knows I tried for enough decades.

But I do not control the universe, so I must play the hand I have been dealt.  I play it with as much integrity as I can muster, and occasionally I become angry that we don’t even know the bleeping reason I am this way.

My son Jonathan and I are working on a presentation we will do together in a significant venue later in the fall.  We’ll be able to tell you about it next month.  But the first draft of our talk is due next Monday, so I’ve been working on it at the same time I have been writing this blog.

For the talk we are giving, we are using portions of his upcoming book, She’s My Dad.  The book is raw, and beautiful, and redemptive, and effing hard for me to read. But here’s the thing.  Most suffering does not have a clear cause.  It just is.  No one did anything wrong.  No one is at fault.  We are so focused on assigning blame in our culture that we forget most suffering is existential, and existential suffering must be born with a measure of grace.

I will never know the reason I am transgender, and I will never fully understand why my family has to suffer so.  It is what it is.  But I do try to proceed with a measure of grace, and on my better days I can repeat the words Dag Hammarskjold penned shortly before his death:

“For all that has been, thanks.  For all that shall be, yes.”