It’s All Holy Ground

Monday morning, while I was drinking my first cup of tea, tears filled my eyes.  I was appreciating a picture I had taken the night before.  I had texted the picture to one of my friends, along with the message, “Grateful I found the courage to live authentically, and grateful to have found you, on the same journey.”  And here’s the thing.  As I sat drinking my tea, I realized I could have sent that picture and those words to any one of a number of friends, because those are the kinds of friends I have.

It had been a busy weekend.  Saturday evening I preached at Left Hand Church. Sunday morning I preached three times at Denver Community Church.  I was shuttled between DCC’s two locations, and twice had to walk through the middle of the Denver Pride parade to get to my ride waiting on the other side.  Two full church buildings and a wonderful parade, traversed twice, all on Father’s Day morning.

After church I had lunch with Rachael McClair, one of my favorite pastors, then spent the afternoon with Cathy.  We talked about our wonderful life together, raising our three amazing children.  Earlier in the day, I had heard from all three, my little Father’s Day gift.  I returned home shortly before sunset, tired but grateful.  That’s when I took the picture of the sunset.

I am blessed to have a former wife who remains my close friend, and three children I greatly admire who have chosen to remain by my side.  I am blessed to have dear friends who are there for me all day, every day, having joined me on the journey of authenticity.

Five years ago I thought I would never preach again.  Evangelical churches would not let me through their doors, and mainline Protestant churches were afraid of my evangelical background.  I was without a spiritual country, with only a handful of friends.  Today, I have an abundance of friends, and I get to preach from sea to shining sea.  This land is my land, and I do not take it for granted.

Every close friend who has joined me on this journey has paid a price, and we remain diligent in defense of our freedom.  There are many who would do everything in their power to take it away.  Unfortunately, I hear from them on a regular basis.  But in the presence of the amazing love with which I am surrounded, their attacks are nothing more than sounding brass and clanging symbols.

I hold on to these good days, for as sure as I enjoyed last night’s sunset, I will come upon another day in which I can barely put one foot in front of the other. Finding balance is never easy. Long trail runs through the sage, juniper and piñon pine keep me grounded. On days I need a distraction, a difficult mountain biking trail does the trick.

But mostly, I am grounded by my fellow travelers.  I need my companions.  Life is like the fourth and fifth stanza’s of the William Butler Yeats poem, Vacillation.  At the end of the fourth stanza he writes, “My body of a sudden blazed, and 20 minutes more or less it seemed, so great my happiness, that I was blessed and could bless.” Yesterday and today were those kinds of days.  But in the very next stanza, Yeats writes, “And not a day but something is recalled, my conscience or my vanity appalled.”  Yeah, I have plenty of those days too.

This is a wild ride, and should not be undertaken without companions who know the boulders and branches, mountains and valleys.  You need those who have gone before, and others coming behind.  I am grateful for the perfect sunset, and the friend I wrote, and the other friends I could have written, and my perfect cup of tea.  All of it, holy.

I’m thinking before he died, Moses finally figured out all the ground was holy, every last inch of it.  This is a sacred and holy journey, undertaken for the greater good.  I am blessed to have so many fellow travelers who also understand the holiness of every last inch of the ground on which we walk.

Sometimes, It’s Even Your Own Son

This past weekend my son and I spoke at the Emerge Festival in Las Vegas.  The festival was a combination of contemporary music, art and spoken word.  We did a modified version of the TED talk we gave at TEDWomen last November. We will be giving a similar talk as part of a discussion next month at the TEDSummit in Edinburgh, Scotland.

I arrived in Las Vegas before Jonathan and took a Lyft to the Hard Rock Hotel.  When I arrived, I remembered how much I dislike Las Vegas.  The casino was dark, confusing, and to me, depressing.  When I finally got to my room, I did not leave.  I ordered room service for dinner, and again for breakfast the next morning.

Jonathan came to the room Saturday morning and we went over our talk.  We had each written our portions without knowing the details of the other’s talk.  They dovetailed perfectly.  We practiced the talk four times while I ate a piece of bacon or toast here and there.

The audience was not large, which I imagine was a disappointment to the promoters, but they were enthusiastic.  Jonathan and I had so much fun.  I also loved speaking with him three weeks ago, when we were at the City Club of Cleveland.  I watched that interview on public television.  It was obvious we were enjoying ourselves.  I felt the same in Las Vegas. We hugged tightly when we finished, and I headed back to the airport.

Other than the fact that I got to speak with my son, the trip to Las Vegas was just another speaking trip among the many I have done since my first TED talk a year and a half ago. (As of last week, that talk has been viewed over two million times.)

But last weekend did remind me of the courage it has taken to travel this road.  I suppose the reminder was the juxtaposition of this trip and my last trip to Vegas.  This time I was speaking in a marquee venue in a gigantic Vegas casino, and my last trip I was preaching at the largest church in the State of Nevada, Central Christian.  The two could not have been more dissimilar, and I thought of how far I’ve traveled since those halcyon days in the upper echelons of evangelicalism.

I came to believe the truth does set you free, and I chose to stake my life on it.  I sometimes joke that when I came out, I was either courageous or stupid. When I say that, it is only because I feel awkward acknowledging what I know is true.  I was courageous, period.

Pretty much my entire world rejected me.  Nevertheless, I persisted.  Though the road of trials turned into an even more nightmarish deep dark cave, I lived to find the Holy Grail, and I returned with it, an offering to those from whom I took my leave.

The Holy Grail was my discovery that the truth does set you free, and the authentic life is worth living.  It is holy, and sacred, and for the greater good.  On the other side of darkness is hope, burning like a beacon, drawing you deeper and deeper into the world.  And you are not alone.  There, beside you, are other courageous fellow travelers bent on living authentically.  There is Jen, Christy and Kristie, whose own authenticity has cost them greatly.  Yet they always find the strength to comfort and strengthen me.  There is Cathy, Jael, Kijana, Jana and Jubi, and those like Aaron and Eric and David, who are always ready to encourage.

As I sat in the hotel room, listening to my son’s passionate speech, I caught the full truth of what he was saying.  Jonathan has given up his comfortable life among the evangelical elite to strike out on his own courageous journey. Giving up his privilege, he has gone from being a skeptic to an ally, to an accomplice, traveling the world with me challenging the status quo, fighting for gender and racial equity.  And he has done all of that with transparency and authenticity, owning his own stuff in ways I never could have done when I was his age.

Here Jonathan and I were on stage in Las Vegas, boldly speaking about our faith, and it’s ability to transform not just the two of us, but anyone willing to take the road less traveled by.  I’ve been on this journey long enough to be certain of an important truth.  David Whyte captured it in these lines from his wonderful poem, Sweet Darkness:

The world was made to be free in

You must give up all the other 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.

As we finished our talk, we both stood in the staircase, between the stage and the green room of the theater.   Jonathan and I congratulated each other on a job well done, and tears filled my eyes, so great my happiness that when we choose to live courageously and authentically, we are never alone.  The brave, they come alongside and travel with us.  Sometimes, it’s even your own son.

Measure of a Good Leader

Last week I talked about the problem of undifferentiated leaders and the havoc they create.  I did not answer the question of what a differentiated leader looks like.  This week we’ll talk about differentiation, the process of looking at a situation objectively and separating feelings from thoughts.  There are several signs of a differentiated leader.

First, when you are able to set aside your positional power and truly listen to criticism, there is a good chance you are a differentiated leader.  To truly listen to criticism, however, means listening without conscious or subconscious manipulation.

I have always had a burning desire to get it right.  That might seem like a virtue, but it does have its shadow side.  When a co-worker tells me I have gotten it wrong, and my response is to fall apart, that falling apart is an unintentional form of manipulation.  After watching me fall apart, my co-worker will be less inclined to let me know the next time I get it wrong.  The co-worker does not want to deal with my emotional meltdown.

That is not fair to the person who found the courage to confront you.  They ought to be able to confront you without worrying about your response. Truly listening to criticism means listening without comment or immediate emotional response. It means taking in the information and thanking the person. You can let yourself feel the pain later, when your emotional response can be private.

When you stay in close touch with your leadership team and key volunteers, and you are willing to hear bad news without retaliation, that is another sign of differentiation. I’ve known leaders who sat stoically while a co-worker told them of a problem.  Afterward, the co-worker thought things went well. What they did not realize was that the leader was going to extract a pound of flesh because of the criticism.  It might be tomorrow, or it might be next month, but the undifferentiated leader retaliates.  The differentiated leader never retaliates.

Another sign of differentiation is when you lead by neither a strong hand nor consensus. Strong-handed leaders undermine morale. Co-workers are terrified of taking initiative, because it is never exactly what the boss wants.  With a strong frame of reference and clear objectives, you get order for free.  But strong-handed leaders do not provide a clear frame of reference or clear objectives.  They micro-manage based on whatever happens to get their attention on that particular day.

Consensus leadership is also a problem.  Demanding that everyone be on the same page before a decision is enacted creates environments in which the group stifles imagination and ends up being controlled by one or two people at the extremes.

Differentiated leaders operate in the middle, between dictatorship and democracy.  They provide a clear frame of reference, articulating core values and the big giant idea that drives the corporate engine.  They also clarify objectives, so co-workers can understand milestones that must be met. With those firmly in place, the differentiated leader provides a flexible framework for employees to exercise their creativity within their areas of expertise.

Differentiated leaders take clearly and non-reactively defined positions.  It is important to identify exactly what job needs to be done, but then the differentiated leader works from the perspective, “I have been called to this specific job, but my life does not depend on being successful in it.”

Differentiated leaders do not triangulate by bringing a third person into a two-person conversation. So many problems could be solved if we would take our concerns directly to the person involved instead of bringing a third person into the conversation.  Sometimes the third person is brought in to do the bidding of the first person, because he or she does not want to address the concern directly. Sometimes the third person is brought in to confirm whether or not your concerns with the second person are legitimate.  Either way, it is bringing a third person into a two-person conversation.

Differentiated leaders identify the maps from which they navigate, and are open to changing those maps when they are no longer effective.  For instance, leaders who only measure quantitatively will sometimes discover their organization is a mile wide and an inch deep.  They will only increase the depth of the organization if they begin to measure qualitatively.  But if they are not willing to identify the maps from which they operate, and be open to changing those maps, the organization will suffer.

In the case of a church pastor, a rigid map can make it difficult to move from asking, “What is our attendance?” to asking, “How well do we love?”  It is difficult because the pastor’s ego need is too tied up in measuring numbers, quantative measurement.  She does not want to give up her old map that equates church size with church health.  Her ego resists shifting to the more important task of measuring the quality of relationships.

These are just a few examples of what a differentiated leader looks like.  You might think older leaders are more likely than younger leaders to be well-differentiated. Unfortunately, that is not the case.  Differentiation does not have a lot to do with age, other than realizing that pretty much no one in their 20s or early 30s has lived long enough to be well-differentiated.  After that, your level of differentiation will correspond to how much you have been willing to grow, how well you understand the forces that shaped you in the past, and how determined you are to move honestly and openly into the future.

It Is a Job and a Calling. It Is Not Your Life

Some of the most polarizing messages delivered in the United States over the past 20 years have been delivered in the name of God.  How did we get where we are today, when Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr.  and a plethora of others can spew the kind of incendiary rhetoric that divides a nation.

While there are a host of reasons we have arrived at this moment in history, I believe one of the biggest problems among our current religious leaders is their lack of ability to differentiate themselves from their work.

Murray Bowen, the founder of Family Systems Theory, identified eight areas in which humans function in family or family-like environments.  Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation-Family Process in Church and Synagogue, shows how these play out in the life of a religious community.

One of the most important elements of Family Systems Theory is the concept of Differentiation of Self, which is our ability to look at a situation with some level of objectivity and separate our feelings from our thoughts.  We usually begin the differentiation process from our family of origin when we are in our teens, and often do not finish it until we are well into our 40s or even 50s.  Differentiating yourself from your family of origin does not happen overnight.  But it is critical to reaching our potential on life’s journey.

However, it is not just differentiation from our family of origin that is important.  We also must differentiate from our work. If we don’t, there is a fair chance we will eventually go off the rails.  What are some of the signs of an undifferentiated religious leader?

A pastor or religious leader who finds his or her primary identity through their position in their church or ministry is not differentiated.  That individual would be well advised to learn that their position in the church is a job and a calling.  It is not their life.

Religious leaders with a lot of charisma are more likely to be undifferentiated.  Their ability to charm others extends to an ability to deceive themselves.  This lack of honesty causes them to exert too much control of their environment. Therefore, success of the church or ministry tends to end when the charismatic leader departs, because they have created loyalty to themselves, not to the church.

Lead pastors who hire a lot of family are rarely differentiated.  Hiring family for leadership positions is a sign the leader does not differentiate between work and family.  The person often exercises the same level of control in their families that they exercise in their churches.

If you haven’t noticed, a lot of megachurch lead pastors hire their own sons or sons-in-law to serve as the second teaching pastor and heir apparent at their church. This is particularly true of founding pastors.  Those outside the church think, “Surely not!  How can a system that large be run like a family corporation?”  But it happens all the time.

My son and I are both pastors.  I had several opportunities to serve as the lead pastor of a megachurch, but in those days my son was a schoolteacher, not a pastor.  Had he been preaching, and had I taken one of those jobs, I imagine I would have been tempted to hire him as my preaching associate.  I mean, he is a great preacher and all. Hopefully, someone, ideally me, or my son or the church leadership, would have derailed that notion before it was seriously considered.

Unfortunately, the power held by large church lead pastors is considerable, and a lot of them have hired their own family members for high profile positions without any pushback from the church elders.  That is a sign of a church leadership structure too weak to create adequate safeguards for the church.

When a pastor sees the church as an extension of his own being, it is another sure sign of a lack of differentiation.  Over the years I have seen a plethora of pastors who would rather take their church down than relinquish control.  This particular problem is acute with narcissistic leaders.  Narcissists never give up control and are fully capable of destroying the ministries they serve, or for that matter, the nations they serve.

The problem today is that undifferentiated pastors are often the ones taking the strongest political positions and preaching the most inflammatory messages.  They are the ones who revel in culture wars and relish the thought that their words might be capable of swaying an entire nation.

Of course, the problem with our current culture wars is multi-faceted.  The damage being done by undifferentiated religious leaders pales in comparison to that being done by politicians, or even to that being done by one of the most culturally infuential corporations in the world, the media empire of Rupert Murdoch.

Through Fox News and the media outlets he owns in Europe, Murdoch arguably swayed the 2016 US election and the UK Brexit vote.  One single family-owned business with a strong-willed undifferentiated patriarch has wreaked havoc on two of the strongest democracies in the world.  That a family battle has emerged among his offspring over who will control the empire upon Murdoch’s death is no surprise.  Undifferentiated leaders create undifferentiated leaders.

So, how would a pastor (or any leader) know if he or she is differentiated from their work?  That is a good question, and one that will have to wait until next week’s blog post.  Sorry, but I just hate when a blog post goes over 1,000 words, and this particular post is getting awfully close…

All in a Week’s Work

My apologies for not posting last week.  It’s been a busy season.  Over eight days I traveled all across the United States doing 15 keynote speeches, lectures, interviews and sermons.  It was busy, but satisfying.

I began with three presentations for a PFLAG event north of Seattle.  It is always so good to be with the generous families whose support for their children has caused them to become activists in the cause of love.  So many have losts their churches and extended families, yet they persevere.  I am always encouraged by PFLAG visits.

From there I traveled to Bellingham, Washington where I spent two days addressing issues related to gender inequity at Western Washington University.  Though I was busy from morning through evening, I found the students, faculty and administrators powerfully committed to the changes that must occur for us to create gender equity in our nation.  I wish I could have remained in Bellingham longer.  The people were wonderful!

After finishing at Western Washington, I headed back to Denver for one night before flying on to Cleveland, Ohio to speak with Jonathan at the City Club of Cleveland, a venerable institution that has been hearing from some of the world’s most distinguished leaders since 1912.  It was quite an honor to speak at their monthly gathering, aired live on Cleveland’s NPR station and taped for airing this past Sunday on the Cleveland PBS station.  One of the hallmarks of the City Club is a commitment to allowing the public to ask questions in each gathering.  Jonathan and I were interviewed by their CEO for 30 minutes, then took questions from the audience for another 30.  We had such an enjoyable time.

As soon as we finished speaking at City Club, I headed back to the airport to interview potential writers for the movie that will be made about my life.  I boarded a plane about 5:30, then flew through Chicago before getting back to Denver late Friday evening.

Saturday at 5:00, I preached at Left Hand Church, and Sunday morning I preached all three services at both facilities of Denver Community Church.  I spent the afternoon with one of my good friends, then after 15 presentations in eight days, I collapsed on the couch and read The Atlantic and The New Yorker before finally going to bed.

I enjoy being busy.  I feel called to the work I am doing.  I love speaking on gender equity, LGBTQ inclusion and spirituality.  Except for the four times I preached, every presentation over those eight days included Q&A time, often as long as 60 minutes.  Regardless of the subject or setting, people always ask about my faith, and how I can find myself in the church after being ostracized by the church I had been a part of my entire life.  Whether the audience is religious or secular, I always tell them I am in the church because I love Jesus, pure and simple.

Church is my grounding.  I preached four times last week and earned preaching 1/14 of what I earned during the previous week.  I do not preach for the income.  I preach for the pure joy.  At Left Hand I preached on Saturday evening, and cried again, for the second sermon in a row.  I told a story about Jen Jepsen, my co-pastor, and wasn’t prepared to be so emotionally overcome.  Jen, as much as anybody I know, wants to get it right, not to earn points with God or anybody else, but because her heart is so steadfastly turned toward that which is good and redemptive and beautiful.  After church we interviewed a new member for our Leadership Council, then I headed to dinner with the other pastors and one of our LC members.  I got to bed really late.

Sunday morning I was up early and drove to Denver Community Church, where I preached at 9:00 AM in the first service at their Washington Park location.  Then I rode with Jon Gettings, their executive pastor, to the uptown location on Pearl Street (pictured above) where we got into the building after the service had started.  I had time to get on the mic headset and sing one worship song before heading up to the stage.  When I was done, I walked off the stage, took off the headset, and rode with Jon back to Wash Park for the 11:00 AM service.  Same story there.  I arrived in time to put on the headset and sing one worship song before preaching for the third time.

It was the fourth time I had preached that sermon.  I would have been happy to preach it four more times.  I talked about the simplicity of being a follower of Jesus. I spoke of finding our moral foundation in just three questions from the very last day of the public ministry of Jesus:  Does what I am doing allow me to love God?  Does it allow me to love my neighbor?  Does it allow me to love myself?  It is incredibly simple.  (I did not say it was easy.)

If you want to watch the sermon, you can click here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCRjAOw1RToYRc6GJfgdGR5w

If you want to listen to Sunday’s version, you can go to denverchurch.org and find an audio version of the message there.  I love preaching and I love the church.  And yep, I still love it every bit as much as I did before I was ostracized.  In fact, more.

The winds of generous Christianity are blowing across this nation, and the seeds of justice and kindness are taking root where hearts were hardened. It is an honor to be riding such a gentle and persistent wind.

All In a Name

I preached a sermon this past weekend that had me struggling with my emotions from the beginning. The stories of scripture have all the drama you would expect of a great narrative.  The writings of John feel like a Steven Soderbergh film, full of complexity and mystery; or maybe a David Lean epic, almost too big for the screen.

My sermon from the Gospel of John was about the people who encountered the resurrected Jesus.  I noted the significant differences between how the male and female followers of Jesus responded to his death.  The men gathered off site.  The women were still committed to the body of Jesus and traveled together to the tomb. It was his blood and muscle, sinew and bone that drew the women.  The incarnate Jesus was the focus of their faith.  I believe their devotion would have remained even if there had been no resurrection.

I knew from the time I began memorizing that I was going to have trouble when I got to John’s account of what happened after John and Peter left the open tomb.  While they did what men do and began formulating plans to slay dragons and build kingdoms, Mary Magdalene stayed behind, lingering at the tomb.  Mary wept.

My need to grieve is so much greater now than when I was living as a male.  It is close to the surface and extends far beyond any parameters I had previously known.  Nowadays, watching a sensitive granddaughter nestle hard in Grandma Cathy’s lap can send me into gentle tears that fall all afternoon.

Sometimes I grieve for our nation and the grace and kindness I fear have been irretrievably lost. For  two years I kept an email from my co-pastor Jen Jepsen that she wrote shortly after the 2016 election. Jen said, “The women must grieve. The men do not seem to need to grieve. The women will do the hard work, but that will come later.  Now, we must grieve.”

As I memorized my sermon I was powerfully overcome by the moment Mary Magdalene saw the risen Christ.  Mary, eyes full of tears from her profound grief, sees the gardener and asks where the body of her precious Jesus might be. Jesus tenderly asks,  “Why are you crying?”  Then he speaks her name, “Mary.”

When Jesus spoke her name, Mary heard that familiar voice speaking the very essence of who she was – Mary.  As I memorized the message, every time I got to that part of the sermon I cried.  Of course, I also cried when I preached the actual sermon.  If it piques your interest, here is the link:

Even as I type this post, I am weeping.  As I wrote the last paragraph one of my best friends came for a visit.  I greeted her at the door with tears welling up.  I told her what I was doing.  She had been at church when I preached.  She said, “Keep writing.”

When you speak my name you see me.  Paula is who I am.  It is my essence, verbally spoken.  When you say “Paula” you have reached into my soul and pulled forth the beauty and complexity that is me.  It tells me that you see me.

I don’t do much marriage counseling anymore, but when I did, I would listen to see if a couple called each other by name.  Even if a name was spoken angrily, I knew that a strong and intimate bond remained.  It was when they did not call each other by name that I suspected the problems were going to be more difficult to solve.

Occasionally I still get letters addressed to Paul.  Unless they are junk mail working from an outdated list, they are usually an arrogant statement of superiority from a religious person intent on correcting my sinful ways.  I never cease to be amazed at the confidence of fundamentalists.

Every now and again someone I have seen only once or twice since my transition will still call me Paul.  Most are people who love me, and they get a free pass.  If I hear “Paul” spoken over an airport intercom or from someone behind me on a street, I no longer turn around.  Paul is not  my name.

My friend who sat patiently while I finished my paragraph does not like to be called by her name.  But I can’t help it.  She said she doesn’t mind when I do it.  I call her by name because I see her.  I like to use the name of the friends I clearly see.  Their souls are as deeply embedded in their names as they are in their eyes.

I awoke from a dream last week with someone whispering my name.  I thought it had been whispered aloud, not part of a dream. I even got up and looked around to see if anyone was there.  At first I thought it was the voice of my son, but the more I thought about it I realized it was a whispered voice, neither male nor female.  The voice was insistent, but compassionate – “Paula!” “Paula!”  As if it was calling me forth into a new day.

I like being called by my name.  I think Mary Magdalene did too.  Jesus said to her, “Mary.”  She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”  (John 20: 16)

A Redemption Remembered

Over the past couple of weeks the details of two stories memorialized in my first book have come into my consciousness.  Both stories involve LifeSavers candy.  These revelations have been made manifest as I have gained clarity about the hours surrounding both events.

My first book was written about 20 years ago, Laughter, Tears and In-Between – Soulful Stories for the Journey.  It is a collection of 43 stories.  I wrote eight other books in my past life, but that first book is the one that best captures the deeper elements of Paul’s life.

Both revelations were about memories that had been rewritten to make difficult days less painful. The first involved the day of my grandfather’s funeral.  I am not going to tell that story here.  If you want to know what happened, ask someone who was at Left Hand Church on Easter weekend.  One telling of a difficult story is about all the energy I have.

The second story is of a Sunday night during my 11th or 12th Christmas. Over the previous year, every Thursday morning we had received 30 minutes of instruction in the German language. The class was taught over the school loudspeaker system.  Despite the unorthodox teaching method, it turned out I had a facility for languages and learned more than a bit of German. In fact, I learned enough to wander around our house singing a German version of Silent Night.

My mother decided I should sing it at church on a Sunday evening.  I sang every now and again during Sunday evening services.  I enjoyed singing, and Sunday evening was less formal than Sunday morning, affording an outgoing child the opportunity to wow the crowd with a stirring version of America the Beautiful.  (I am fairly sure I sang that song with some regularity.  I had a patriotic streak.)

On this occasion, however, I did not want to sing.  I was not confident of my German and protested my mother’s insistence all the way to church on that cold Sunday evening.  I had been dressed in a white shirt, bow tie, and red argyle-patterned cardigan sweater, and I was forced to sit on the second row with my mother.  The time came for the special music and my father, the pastor, moved to the piano to accompany me.  I was terrified.

I looked out over the 100 or so gathered souls and tentatively began, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam Wacht…” And that’s all I had. My mind and voice froze and for a moment or two I stood in suspended animation as my father replayed a few measures so I could jump back in.  But I did not jump back in.  I ran out through the arched doorway into the long hallway that separated the auditorium from the education complex.  I hid behind a pillar and looked back to see my father leave the piano and go to the pulpit and begin his Sunday evening sermon.

I stood there until well after the service was over.  As my father preached, he occasionally motioned from behind the pulpit for me to come back into the sanctuary, but that hallway was my sanctuary and I did not budge.

After the service was over and we had driven my mother and brother home, Dad took me to the deli where he bought bread and sandwich meats for our school lunches the following week.  He also bought me a pack of Wintergreen LifeSavers.  He didn’t say much, if anything, about what had happened.  He just gave me the LifeSavers.

That is the story I wrote in my first book, pleased to have had a father sensitive enough to redeem a difficult evening.  Recently, however, I have gained a new and more painful understanding of that evening.  It was a vivid reminder of our fascinating ability to rewrite stories to make them less troublesome.

I am not a mother, nor do I have the slightest idea about what it feels like to be a mother. Because of early life trauma, the details of which I am unaware, my mother had a number of limitations that made it difficult for her to be emotionally, and sometimes physically, available to her children.  I have great compassion for her, and wish so badly she could have known some level of healing.  But some wounds remain open on this side of eternity.  To a lesser or greater extent, it is true for all of us.

My mother’s ability to show affection and compassion was limited.  And as this story came back into my consciousness, I had a painful realization.  No one came into that hallway to get me.  Why did no human come and comfort me?  How could you leave your child out of sight after such a humiliating experience? I could have run home, a dark mile from the church to my house.  I could have been physically harming myself.  But no one came. Not my mother.  Not any mother.

I wonder how many other mothers in the auditorium were thinking, “Someone, please get that poor child.”  But whatever their thoughts, no one came.  I remained alone in that long dark hallway.  Well after the service ended I sheepishly returned through the doorway and was completely ignored by every adult remaining in the auditorium, save one.  Mrs. Thomas leaned over and compassionately said, “It is a difficult thing to sing in a foreign language.”

And there was my redemption, newly remembered.  One woman, who I saw every Sunday morning and every Sunday night, but did not know well, showing me the compassion most every mother in the room felt in her heart.

My mother never mentioned what happened.  Not ever. But Mrs. Thomas was the lifesaver before the LifeSavers.

And so it goes.