Religion is Good – Really, It Is!

Over the last two weeks I’ve been doing a series of podcasts and radio shows for my book tour. Last week I did my first indoor speaking event (other than Left Hand Church) since the beginning of the pandemic. I spoke to the high school students and faculty at Colorado Academy. Just yesterday I spoke in-person for a mental health conference at the University of Denver. Earlier in the day, I had spoken virtually to the employees of Viacom/CBS.

In most of these podcasts, radio shows, and live events, the subject of my speaking was gender equity. Interestingly, however, a lot of the questions had nothing to do with gender equity. They asked how I could be a part of the church after having been ostracized by it. I never mind answering those questions.

I usually begin by talking about the three desert religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and their beginnings as religions of scarcity. Without enough resources to go around, every tribe had to take care of its own.  Unfortunately, in their fundamentalist forms, all three remain religions of scarcity, believing there is not enough of God’s love to go around.

As the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson so clearly warns, humans have evolved to believe an enemy is necessary for their tribe to survive, and where no enemy exists, they create one. Among evangelical Christians, the created enemies have been the LGB population and those who support a woman’s right to choose. When marriage equality became the law of the land, they shifted their attention to the transgender community, hence the 17 bills passed and 168 currently pending that take away the civil rights of transgender adolescents, one of the most at-risk groups in the nation.

In one of Monday’s events an attendee asked, “With so much public animosity toward transgender people, wouldn’t you see religion as a problem to be solved rather than a solution to be endorsed?” I answered that if you were only referring to evangelicalism, my answer would be for the most part, yes. But like every other institution on earth, there are good apples and bad apples, those focused on reconciliation and those focused on destruction, and plenty of folks in between. When all is said and done, I still believe religion is a positive force in society.

Religious institutions are the only ones designed to help us figure out how to do life together. Governments serve the citizenry. Corporations create profits for shareholders. Educational institutions impart knowledge. But only religious institutions have the primary purpose of helping us learn to be human together. If you expect the church not to be a mess, you are not considering one of the major purposes of the church. There will always be messiness in any endeavor teaching us how to be human together.

Religion also exists to help us search for meaning in life. We are an inherently spiritual species, and we have always best worked out our spirituality in community. In fact, that is how we moved from being a species focused on blood kin to a species focused on community. We did not take off as a species until we developed tribes, and we did not develop tribes until we joined together in a search for meaning. Our communal search for meaning catapulted our species forward. At that basic level, religion has always been a good thing.

I also believe religious institutions are uniquely situated to do good work for the people of their communities. For decades, churches wanted to be the best church in their towns. Now, at least some churches have a healthier mantra, they want to be the best church for their towns. After 9/11, the organization of which I was the CEO quickly directed over one million dollars in disaster relief to meet immediate needs of those who lost family members, jobs, and property in the terrorist attack. How did we do that so rapidly? We granted the money through local churches. Local churches didn’t have to wait for national organizations to tell them where the needs were, they already knew the needs of their neighbors.

I believe Left Hand Church, and churches like Left Hand, can provide the same service today. We can be churches in which we search for life’s meaning together. We can figure out how to be human together, and we can learn in community how to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves. That is the kind of community into which I am willing to devote my energies.

Yesterday I was reading an article in the New York Times that lamented the state of the American church. The article suggested that evangelicalism and Republicanism have become synonymous. I believe the writer was correct, and it is tragic. It is time for the church to return to the teachings of its founder – loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. That is the only path forward. Everything else is empty rhetoric.

That’s How the Light Gets Brighter

Frederick Nietzsche said truth is always on the side of the more difficult, which is a fancy way of saying what I said in my second TED Talk, “The truth will set you free, but it is likely to make you miserable first.”

Since childhood, I have hungered for knowledge and never much cared what the subject was. Everything interested me. When I was a teenager in eastern Kentucky, I learned about measuring tobacco (the patch, not the leaf) and Old Timey (no, that is not misspelled) music, the precursor to Bluegrass.

As a former TED speaker, I have the privilege of having regularly scheduled conversations with other TED speakers. The names of the people and nature of the discussions are private, since a bunch of the folks are public figures, but suffice it to say I’ve gained more than a little knowledge as I listen to these brilliant leaders. Sometimes the knowledge is esoteric, but fascinating.  For instance, did you know a female praying mantis without a head can still mate with, and then dismember, a male praying mantis? Yeah, I didn’t know that either. And no, they did not remove the head of the female praying mantis. They found her that way. She lived a week before her inability to take in food did her in.

I also have a lot of useless information about Southern Gospel music in the 60s and 70s, high-end stereo systems of the same period, and commercial airliners of any era. When I visited a local airfield to take a short flight on American’s first DC-3 airliner, the chief pilot started taking me seriously when I talked about its Curtis-Wright engines. I ended up sitting in the flight engineer’s seat. Kristie, my co-pastor, calls me an airplane savant.

I do enjoy gaining knowledge about a plethora of subjects, but I also understand the limits of knowledge. While knowledge can be learned, wisdom cannot be learned. Wisdom only takes shape and grows through assimilating the lessons of suffering. The key word is “assimilating.” Lots of people suffer, but not everyone gains wisdom from their suffering.

To gain wisdom through suffering, you have to allow your suffering to sink beneath your ego level to rest and abide at the level of your soul. You have to  move beyond being outraged by your difficulties, to being instructed by them. Only then can you allow suffering to do its good work within.

I am convinced that love makes the world go round, but where there is love, there will always be loss. The deeper the love, the greater the loss. The greater the grieving, the greater the wisdom that results from having grieved well, because you are assimilating the lessons of suffering.

I have an acquaintance whose journey through childhood, college, and ministry was similar to mine. We had the same kind of cultural experience and education, and did the same kind of work. Yet my acquaintance is no wiser than when he was in his twenties. He has been relatively happy. In fact, by most measures I would say he is happier than I am. But he has not been invited by a publisher to write a memoir, nor has he been sought out to share his wisdom from the stage. I do not say that to be boastful, but to speak to the truth that people who are willing to assimilate suffering in the service of wisdom are people who are in demand in the world. The world wants their wisdom.

If I had to choose between happiness and wisdom, I would take wisdom every time. Happiness is an end. Wisdom is a means to an end. The end is joy. The end is using your own suffering to lessen the suffering of others. It is taking a step forward, then shining a light back so another can take a step forward along the same path. That is how the human journey proceeds, one suffering-assimilating person at a time, using her wisdom to chart a course through the thickets and brambles that are the nature of things.

Through all my struggles, I have never lost my capacity to imagine something more for my life. I have never been one to get stuck on what happened in the past. I work through it and focus instead on what I might become. I do understand that my white male privilege is one of the reasons I can take such a forward-facing view of life. But it is my responsibility to make the most of that privilege, and to use it to enhance the journey of others.

D. H. Lawrence said a writer sheds his sickness in his writing. If you follow my blog, you know my unresolved issues and current struggles. I write about them. You also know that I am nothing if not earnest. That has come up over and again in reviews of my memoir. I understand only too well that Nietzsche is right – that truth is always on the side of the more difficult, and I am not going to shy away from that which is difficult.

What wisdom is my current suffering teaching me? It is teaching me that when you find fellow-travelers on the journey of authenticity, others who believe the call toward authenticity is sacred and holy and for the greater good, you hold onto them no matter what. You fight to keep them in close proximity, so your wisdom and their wisdom can intermingle, because that’s how the light gets brighter. And the brighter the light, the greater the joy that enters the world.

I am grateful for the knowledge I have gained in this short pause between two great mysteries, but what makes life worthwhile is the accumulation of wisdom.  So, I continue to take the path less traveled by, and therein lies the difference.

You Can’t Think Your Way Through It

I am working on a sermon and was struck by a stereotypically gendered response that took place after the death of Jesus. Before I jump in, a few words about gender.

Unlike some academicians, I do not believe gender is primarily a social construct.  I believe we do have gendered behaviors that are affected by our environment, but I also believe most of us exhibit innate gendered behaviors to which we are predisposed before experience. In other words, most of us do behave in ways that are more stereotypically male or female.

I say that as a transgender woman who knew from the time she was three or four that she was supposed to have been born a girl. I come from the borderlands between genders, a liminal space reserved for only a select few. Some of my behaviors are more stereotypically male and others are more stereotypically female. Since transitioning I have faced multiple losses and worked through significant grief, and have discovered that my grieving, like pretty much everything else, is also done from the borderlands between genders.

In my experience, most men do not deal very well with grief. They ignore it, try to think their way through it, or otherwise buy into our culture’s obsession with avoiding the essential process of mourning. Men are reluctant to participate in the act of letting go.

A child goes off to college and a mother mourns, while a father puts checkmarks on all the boxes. Tuition paid, check. Financial aid forms completed, check. Car in running order, check. A father fixes things and solves problems and rarely walks into the empty room his son used to inhabit. Mom grieves. She smells the shirt he left behind and looks through the pictures from his first day of kindergarten. Mothers know how to mourn. Rilke, a man in touch with his feminine side, said, “So we live, forever saying farewell.”  He understood that the one constant truth of life is its impermanence.

When a mother chooses to look tearily through a photo album of her 18-year-old, she embraces her grief, mourns her loss, and consciously values what she has internalized from her treasured child. I believe that is what Mary, the mother of Jesus, was doing when she, “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She was consciously valuing what she had internalized from her child.

When a mother smells her son’s left-behind shirt, she is beginning the process of converting her painful loss into new life. She is internalizing the loss of her identity as the child’s mother and making conscious the truth that parenting her son has left her ineffably changed. That realization is the beginning of converting her inescapable loss into new life. The ways in which she has been transformed by her experience will result in a rebirth, as she brings the wisdom of that ineffable change into a new offering she brings into the world.

One of the deepest pains of grief is the realization that we do not really control very much in our lives. In my own grief, I must accept that I am powerless to change outcomes. This is especially difficult for the male side of me. As a man I fixed things, found answers, solved problems. In my male confidence, I thought I could escape the reality of my own powerlessness. But no amount of denial will spare us loss. Grief is inescapable. Mourning, the expression of grief, acknowledges that while we cannot hold onto that which we love, we can affirm what has been, if only briefly, ours. James Hollis says that holding onto the meaning of a relationship while simultaneously letting go of it is the double work of loss and grief.

Which brings me back to the death of Jesus. It was the women who went to the tomb. The men met elsewhere, fretting, planning, thinking their way into understanding what just took place and extrapolating from that what they were going to do about it.

I have done that with my own grief. I have tried to think my way through it and imagine different outcomes. I have tried to identify synchronicities and coincidences that will somehow make the loss more redemptive. The psychologist Alan Wolfelt says losses are not redeemed. Losses are reconciled. We reconcile ourselves to our loss, and to the effect it will always have on our lives – the broken heart, shattered dreams, dashed hopes. Whether it is our loss of identity as the partner of a beloved, or the mother of a child whose every need we once met, or a pastor who has lost her flock, and can no longer puzzle through the vagaries of life with her beloved parishioners, none of these losses can be redeemed. Through grief and mourning, however, they can be reconciled.

Trying to think my way through my grief has been useless, but feeling my way through it has allowed me to begin reconciling myself to my loss. Crying the tears that come until I am sure there cannot be any more, except that there are more. There are always more. Screaming at the top of my lungs and cursing God for her God-awful silence. Thinking does not take the place of mourning. Grief demands mourning.

The women mourned. The went to the tomb with no expectation other than mourning the loss of their beloved. The women understood that loss, grief, and mourning are not just awful places we must unwillingly visit. They are integral to becoming fully conscious and wholeheartedly human.

They came to anoint the broken body of Jesus with spices, to caress its stiff outline, to touch the wounds, to leave his body soaked with the tears of their grief. The fact that Jesus was not there interrupted their mourning, but it did not end it. Not even six weeks later they mourned again when he took his final leave.

I am not denying the significance of the resurrection, but we do deny the importance of the grief and mourning of the women who headed to the tomb that Sunday morning. What they expected to find is what most of us do, in fact, find.  We don’t see many resurrections in our days, but we do know plenty of losses. How well we grieve and mourn those losses will determine if we become reconciled to them, and thereby find the hope to live another day, into which we might bring a deeper and greater wisdom as our offering to a troubled world.