There Must Be a Pony Somewhere

On Thanksgiving morning, for the second time on a holiday, I was greeted with early morning hate texts from evangelical Christians. The texts seem to be coordinated, though I can’t be certain. What would cause people to work so hard on a holiday to find my cell phone number and send hateful messages? Yet again, I had to remove my phone number from all public sites, including my counseling practice.

I have received thousands of hateful messages, texts, comments, and phone calls since I transitioned. The biggest waves of nasty mail came after my New York Times article, my first TED Talk, and the release of my memoir. Positive correspondence is about ten to one over negative correspondence, so you don’t need to worry about me. My soul is fine. From the time I transitioned, I knew that embedded in my identity were responsibilities. I could not slip off into the night. I had to speak out. I knew I would be a lightning rod for the naysayers.

Recently, however, the tone of that correspondence has been darker and more frightening. We have to monitor our live Left Hand Church services on Facebook every week, because we have been attacked by groups of fundamentalists who storm our site and disrupt the online service. Since 2016, it has gotten worse, as those on the extreme right have been empowered to publicly express their hatred.

I am not the only one receiving hate messages. Just last week I talked with a brave person trying to navigate the waters of evangelical hate. This week I spoke with another. The calls are getting more frequent from good-hearted souls with their eyes steadfastly focused on leaving a world they know is too small for them. But on their way through the restrictive city gates, they are attacked by people terrified of trusting the truth inside their bones, people who turn their fear outward and project it onto those with more courage than they can muster.

My greatest concern is that virtually all of this vitriol is emanating from the religious right. An article a few weeks ago in the New York Times said Americans are increasingly equating evangelicalism with right-wing Republicanism, as if the two terms were synonymous. I see no evidence to refute that perspective. The utter confidence with which these fundamentalist Christians make their attacks is alarming. They do not exhibit one ounce of doubt about the rightness of their conclusions. I have no idea what the more moderate members of my former denomination are doing to combat these vigilantes. I’m not sure they feel capable of doing anything, since the extreme conservatives are getting the upper hand in most evangelical denominations.

But here’s the thing. We’ve been here before. This is not America’s first time at a chaotic rodeo. We’ve always created enemies that don’t exist, vilified those newly arriving on our shores, turned our neighbors into the opposition, and generally made a mess of our democracy. And somehow, we have always been able to right the ship.

Nevertheless, I am frightened. This is the worst I have seen the ship listing during my lifetime. It feels like one rogue wave could finish us off and send sober minded citizens scrambling for the Canadian border. Yes, we are in a crisis, and what we do next will determine if our democracy survives.

How do we stop the madness? I know of no other way than to love those frightened souls. I think of a counseling client I had years ago whose political views and perspectives were the polar opposite of my own. I wondered if I could truly help my client. It wasn’t long, however, before I came to truly love the client. To my shock and utter surprise, they remained with me after I transitioned. A bond had been formed, and the client was able to look past their fears to find the common ground in our professional relationship.

Yes, it was a professional relationship, not a friendship. But it is a model that plays out every day in companies, government entities, schools, health care institutions, and other environments in which people from opposing views are brought together. The norm is not Congress. The norm is not the church. The norm is ordinary people brought together in the public square.

Most of my public speaking is in the corporate sector. I talk with the employees of corporations and offices across our nation. I find an openness to the message I bring that I would never receive in a church. I see it in the eyes of the audience members. They begin skeptical, but the longer I speak, the more I see their resistance fading, “She seems relatively normal – at least as normal as I am.” I know when they reach that point that the battle is over.  Yes, I am the same as you – bone and sinew and neuroses and complexes and prejudices and blind spots – in a word – human.

I focus on those positive encounters. I do not answer hate mail. I encourage those receiving hate mail to block the senders, have their correspondence vetted by allies, and above all, to never ever read one single hate message. No one is strong enough to endure a steady stream of vitriol.

But if you can see the larger picture, and understand these people are terribly frightened souls, you can protect yourself when you are being attacked, but also look for opportunities to reach out in those environments in which both sides come together. At work, or on the soccer field, or at the baseball game, you can take the common ground you share, and leverage it to see the precious human hiding behind that harsh facade. If we can learn to do that, we can save our nation.

In my soul I am an optimist. I believe we can right our ship. I believe if there is a pile of excrement, there must be a pony somewhere. I am determined to find the pony. I know there’s a pony.

Wholeheartedly

Now that I have reached a certain age, it is fascinating to see how others of a similar age live their lives. It is as though we journey on two different planets.

All of us start life in the all-encompassing grasp of parents who we believe have the magical power to meet our every need. They choreograph the dance of childhood and most of the moves of adolescence. Eventually, however, we make the awful discovery that their choreography is all wrong for our lives. That is when we figuratively and literally leave home and enter the first adulthood.

The first adulthood is defined by the big three – jobs, marriage, and the cultural expectations of our age. Equally powerful are the unrealized dreams of our parents. Somewhere in childhood we came to believe it is our responsibility to fulfill their unfulfilled dreams, and it becomes a subconscious focus of our first adulthood. That is why one of the most important gifts a parent can give their child is to live as fully as possible, so the child does not feel the need to complete their unfinished business.

Eventually most of us reach the stage in which the first adulthood is providing diminishing returns. We are tired of living our parents dreams and answering the demands of our culture, and we move to our second adulthood, in which we are less concerned about resume virtues and more focused on eulogy virtues. We have fewer friends, but deeper friendships. We no longer look outside ourselves for our sense of identity but look inside our own souls, never an easy task because it involves moving beyond our objecting egos. Our ego is concerned about keeping up appearances. Our soul is interested in the ride. Our soul understands what it means to live wholeheartedly.

Some people enter their second adulthood in their forties. Most begin in their fifties or sixties. Interestingly, the most productive decade for most Americans is their sixties; the second most productive is their seventies. (In case you are wondering, the third is the fifties.) All three come during our second adulthood, when we finally give ourselves permission to live wholeheartedly, seeking to satisfy the needs of our own souls.

Which brings me back to people who are my age. Many are bitter, grumpy, and perpetually annoyed. Life has not lived up to their expectations and they want the world to know it. I remember an elderly man on Long Island who painted on his truck door, “The Golden Years Stink.”  A lot of folks share his sentiment, if not his hubris.

In my experience, many of these bitter senior citizens became trapped in their first adulthood, fulfilling the dreams of their parents, their culture, and the other external forces that demanded fealty. They became so fixated on safety and security that life passed them by. And now it is finally dawning on them that the most secure place on earth is a cemetery. In the interest of safety, they have lived a life that was never truly their own.

If they are religious types, they are often trapped in Fowler’s Stage Three of faith development, following the rules and regulations demanded by an angry God, never moving on to the necessary work of spiritual disenchantment. Unfortunately, if you refuse to do the hard work of disenchantment, you will also miss the joy of faith’s re-enchantment, as you embrace an understanding of the holy and sacred that is far wider and deeper than anything you imagined. A re-enchanted faith is what Mary Oliver expressed in her poem, The Summer Day. Its final line is a testament to living wholeheartedly: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

My life is not easy. I know, yours isn’t either. Life is difficult for all of us, whether you embrace the second adulthood or not. As I have acknowledged before, I am currently going through a rough patch. It is the third time that has happened since my transition. This period of difficulty is a reminder that taking the road less traveled by will always include stretches of road filled with fallen branches and stones.

But if you live wholeheartedly and dare to believe that the call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good, you know that despite your suffering, you have no choice but to move forward, one step at a time, though the desert. It is the only path to wisdom.

I am glad I live a life that has more in common with my friends in their 40s and 50s than with Baby Boomers. The last decade was by far the most productive of my life, and I fully expect the coming decade to be just as productive.

Life is difficult. But if you live wholeheartedly, life is also full of joy. To be sure, we have to travel through the road of trials to get there, but if we have eyes to see, joy is always waiting, just around the bend.

Intelligence Without Education

A friend recently sent me a video of a mutual acquaintance who had spoken on a subject in which they expressed great confidence, but did not exhibit a level of knowledge that would justify the confidence.  The individual’s intelligence was evident. Their lack of education was also evident.

Throughout my career in ministry, I have discovered that the stronger one’s conservative theological opinions, the higher the likelihood the person has not attended seminary. In fact, they often have not even received a bachelor’s degree.

I do not believe you need a Master of Divinity degree to be a good pastor, but I do believe a post-graduate degree in almost any field will help you become a more critical thinker. Learning the breadth of information in a field of study helps you realize the importance of broadening your horizons before reaching hard and fast conclusions on any subject.

If all you know is the hills of eastern Kentucky, you might use that limited knowledge to determine the measure of a mountain. The first time you set eyes on the Rockies, you realize your previous knowledge was inadequate. The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

When you add high intelligence to the lack of formal education, the problem is exaggerated. Your intelligence gives you the confidence you can process and categorize information quickly, and indeed you can. But your conclusions are drawn on limited information.

I was talking with a seatmate on an American Airlines flight, and he was quite confident that American Airlines flew only one kind of Airbus 321. As some of you know, I am a bit obsessed with airliners, and I happen to know American flies four different versions and two different types of A321s. (My least favorite is the 321neo, by the way, a plane they are increasingly using on longer over-water trips.)

I didn’t argue with my seatmate, because there are certain people with whom you know better than to pick a fight. His confidence knew no bounds. Lives were not at stake. No one was going to need therapy based on his misinformation, so I left him alone. His supreme confidence was a telling sign of someone with more intelligence than knowledge.

While I know an A321neo has new engines and a better climb rate and range than previous 321s, I am not a pilot, and I know virtually nothing about the inner workings of the plane. My knowledge is limited to my level of education and experience. Recognizing the limits of one’s education and knowledge is important.

When I look at the polarization of America, I think of Nick, the sweet-spirited bagel maker at my favorite bagel store on Long Island. Nick was intelligent but had ended his formal education after high school. He arrived every morning at 2:00 AM to start making bagels and listened to talk radio until the shop opened at 6:00. His favorite show was one that focused on aliens. I was frequently traveling between Denver and New York at the time, and Nick confidently assured me that aliens were living in the concrete corridors beneath Denver International Airport. Nick was intelligent. Nick was not well-educated.

Nick wanted to be credentialed as a person of intelligence, and in his mind, that meant having information the “average” person did not have. I wish he been given the opportunity for a good education. Instead, his circumstances were such that he could not further his formal education, so he subjected his intellectual curiosity to the pundits of talk radio. There are a lot of Nicks in the world.

When I look at the number of people who believe the absurd claims of the Q conspiracy theory, I see lots of Nicks, intelligent folks with an inadequate education, and therefore the inability to discern the difference between truth and fiction.

Nick’s views about the existence of aliens beneath the Denver airport is misguided, but not dangerous. That is not the case with the speaker who was on the video my friend sent to me. The speaker has a lot of influence with a vulnerable population. Claiming a clear hold on objective truth, the speaker chastised the rest of Christendom for being dismissive of biblical authority.

What exactly would “biblical authority” be? Are we talking about the absolute accuracy of the original autographs of the scriptures, which do not exist? Are we talking about a literal interpretation of the scriptures? Or is “biblical authority” just a catchphrase of a certain kind of insider Christianity, pretty much meaningless to everyone except evangelical Christians? I believe in the inspiration of scripture, though I am not certain exactly what that means. I really do not know anyone who is exactly sure what that means. Appealing to biblical authority is hardly the way to win a theological debate.

At Left Hand Church, all our pastors are well-educated in their respective fields, and have also completed some form of advanced theological education. But they tend to defer to me on issues of theology because I have two master’s degrees in the subject, and a Doctor of Ministry degree.  I do not have a PhD degree in theology however, and I am aware that when it comes to theological knowledge, I also need to lean on others with a better education than my own. This is how life works. You don’t claim knowledge you don’t have. The truth matters, in every endeavor, all the time.

To be sure, it is difficult to discern the truth. It will always require rigorous intersubjective discourse, as we study and probe and compare notes to get as close as possible to something approaching objective truth. But the truth is that you cannot do that without a good education.

I hope the speaker reconsiders their future course and finishes at least a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Should they do so, I have a feeling they might look back on their speech with more than a little regret.

And so it goes.

Well, That’s Weird

There is a strange phenomenon taking place in American evangelicalism. It’s been chronicled in recent articles in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, my three go-to sources for vetted, reliable information. It’s also been documented by the Pew Research Group, one of the polling organizations I trust.

We’ll start with a study out this week. The Pew Research Group discovered that 90 percent of American atheists have been vaccinated, followed by 86 percent of Hispanic Roman Catholics (who knew), followed by 84 percent of agnostics, 82 percent of Roman Catholics (again, who knew) followed by assorted other groups in the 60th to 80th percentile. Who scores lowest on vaccination rates? If you guessed evangelical Christians, you are right. Only 57 percent of evangelicals have been vaccinated. Which brings me to the newspaper and magazine articles.

A few of the more influential evangelical megachurches in the nation have recently experienced the kind of backlash previously reserved for school boards in conservative states. Three elders in McLean Bible Church in the DC area didn’t receive the 75 percent of votes needed to be affirmed as elders. A group of conservatives made a concerted effort to sully their reputations with a false accusation that they intended to sell their building to Muslims (which by the way, one of our Orchard Group churches did while I was still CEO. Nobody seemed to care all that much at the time.)

A megachurch in Minnesota lost four of its pastors after being subjected to what they called “spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.” In that case, it seems the pastors were speaking “too often” about the need for racial reconciliation. Southern Baptists Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer have both been accused of supporting a liberal agenda. I don’t need to go into it here, but neither gentlemen would likely take a meeting with me. They have never supported LGBTQ+ rights or a woman’s right to choose. They are not liberals. Apparently, they are just not supportive enough of far right causes.

A New York Times article published last week showed that Americans are increasingly equating evangelicalism with Republicanism, as if the two were synonymous. One recent study showed that among Christian groups, only evangelicalism was growing. Upon closer examination, it was determined that evangelicalism is not growing. Lots of people are calling themselves evangelicals who are not, in fact, evangelical. The list includes Mormons, Roman Catholics, agnostics, and a whole plethora of others. In answering the survey, they self-identified as evangelicals primarily because they equated evangelicalism with their right-wing Republicanism.

I’ve been watching this politicization of the evangelical church since long before I transitioned. Back in the 70s, I had to attend (my music group was on the program) a far right-wing event in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. When speaking of feeding the hungry in Biafra, one of the speakers actually said, “The more we feed – the more they breed – the more there are to feed.” Yep, that was spoken at a Christian conference.

In the 80s, I was appalled to learn that the national convention of my denomination was trying to book a Republican president to speak for a main session. Main sessions were always reserved for sermons and worship, not political speeches. Thank goodness he cancelled.

While I was the editor-at-large of our denomination’s national magazine, I watched with alarm as more and more of our churches made a hard turn to the right. As a moderate evangelical, I became persona non grata within that group. Time and again, the editor with whom I worked, a good and decent man, had to defend me to the increasingly vocal right wing.

Since I transitioned, I have watched the entire denomination take a hard turn to the right. I feel for all of my friends who I know do not hold right-wing Republican views. Many of them are staying quiet, just like the Republican leaders in Washington. Job security is a real concern. Kids need to go to college and health insurance is expensive. I get it. Enamored with security, I stayed in the evangelical world far too long, afraid to tell anyone my political views, let alone my gender identity. I understand how frightening it is to leave the comfort of a good job and a lifelong community.

But to those friends I say it is time to leave. There comes a time when enough is enough, and you have to take a stand, come what may. I recently was on YouTube and stumbled across one of the television shows I shot sometime around 2007. I was in a field at McGregor Ranch, bordering Rocky Mountain National Park. In the third segment of the show, the camera shot was a close-up of my face, with golden aspen and a brilliant blue sky in the background. It was mid-September. I was talking about the importance of taking a stand and living with the consequences. I ended the segment encouraging the viewer to action, and repeated the words, “You must do the right thing, come what may, come what may.”

Seven years later I took a stand, and “come what may” brought about the end of my career. Was it worth it? Come on now, you know the answer to that. It’s on the dedication page of my book, “To all who believe the call toward authenticity is sacred and holy and for the greater good.” Of course, it was worth it. Was it easy? Nope. Does it make me happy? Not always. But as the Jungian analyst James Hollis says, you can live without happiness, but you cannot live without meaning. And for me, following the truth brings meaning.

I am glad I am no longer an evangelical. I like the post-evangelical world I inhabit. There is room for mystery and complexity and differences of opinion, while still steadfastly focusing on Jesus. And yes, Jesus remains as controversial as ever. It turns out loving God, your neighbor, and yourself isn’t all that easy, or popular.

And so it goes.

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.

Yes, Trauma is Real

Life is difficult. I continue to be distressed at how often people desperately try to minimize life’s complexities. Last week I was involved in a conversation in which two people were questioning the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The amount of disinformation was alarming. One person said, “I mean, can’t people just move on?”

That disturbing conversation was followed by another in which good friends brought up their own experience with trauma. After the two conversations, I felt it was time to revisit the subject of trauma and talk about how it finds expression in the body.

There are three parts of the human brain – the reptilian brain, where our basic motor functions live, the limbic system, which controls our emotions and includes the hippocampus and amygdala, and the neocortex, the rational thinking part of the brain.

When trauma occurs, the amygdala, one half of the mid-brain or limbic system, decides how to respond.  Should I fight, run, or freeze.  The amygdala decides which of the three actions to take, based on its rapid assessment of the threat. It does so without consulting the hippocampus or neocortex.

The other half of the limbic system, the hippocampus, takes information into short-term memory, and turns it into long-term memories. The stress hormones released during a terrifying drama, cortisol and norepinephrine, put the hippocampus in super encoding mode, making the most powerful parts of the experience vivid and unforgettable.  The rest of what was going on is not recorded at all.

If the amygdala tells you to fight or run, the hippocampus keeps working, encoding those vivid memories.  If the amygdala chooses to freeze, the neocortex and hippocampus both shut down and you dissociate and disconnect from your body.  Dissociation is the brain protecting itself from consciously participating in what the amygdala has decided is about to happen. When the amygdala chooses to freeze, you end up with no conscious memory of the event, because the hippocampus and neocortex have shut down and stopped recording. You do not remember the trauma in your consciousness.  You do, however, remember it in your physical body.

When I moved to Colorado, I became a mountain biker.  If you mountain bike in Lyons, Colorado, you are going to encounter rattlesnakes.  It is amazing how quickly my body responds when I round a bend and see a rattlesnake on the trail.  Before I have a conscious thought, I’ve stopped the bike on a dime, or swerved around the snake.  The amygdala decides what action to take. After the episode, my whole body starts shaking.  I get to a safe place, pull off the trail, and literally shake out my arms and legs, like an animal does instinctively after it has been traumatized.  By taking the time to literally shake the trauma out of my body, my body releases the tension, and by the time I’m home neither my brain nor my body are traumatized. I have an interesting story to tell, but my heart does not start beating rapidly when I tell it. By literally shaking my arms and legs, my body has neutralized the trauma.

But imagine if your amygdala told you to freeze, and your hippocampus shut down, and the memory of that trauma went straight into your body, without any memory being encoded on your brain and without a chance to shake out the trauma afterwards.  When that happens, you potentially have a long-term problem.  You may never consciously remember the trauma you experienced, but your body does.

The good news is that there are ways for the body to be healed of the trauma – ways that do not require remembering the trauma at a conscious level. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is one effective method for healing trauma held in the body.  The eye movements, hand taps and buzzes of EMDR mimic REM sleep, when information moves from the limbic system into the cerebral cortex, where it is processed along with other memories. That is why we feel so much better after a good night’s sleep.

EMDR targets specific memories locked in the body and moves them to a part of the brain (the neocortex) where they can be processed. EMDR can be intense, and it is best done with a practiced therapist who can make sure the trauma is contained before you leave the therapy session. For those who find EMDR too intense, somatic therapy (a body-oriented approach to healing trauma) or trauma-informed yoga can be helpful. One of the best books about understanding how trauma is healed is Peter Levine’s Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.

As a pastoral counselor, I am not trained in the methods listed above, though my partner at RLT Pathways, Cathy Williams, is trained in EMDR and does specialize in working with adult survivors of sexual trauma.

My training is as a pastoral counselor. My Doctor of Ministry degree is in Pastor Care.  Pastoral counselors have the same basic training as other counselors and psychotherapists, but also approach their therapy from a spiritual perspective. That does not mean invoking scripture, as many evangelical therapists do.  It means recognizing that all of us are essentially spiritual creatures, engaged in a search for meaning. A pastoral counselor acknowledges that spiritual dimension, and the often unconscious part it plays in our lives.

My work is primarily person-centered, which means I do not assume I have answers to my client’s issues. The client has the answers to his or her own issues, and it is my responsibility to help the person remove the obstacles stopping them from discovering their own answers.  My work is also primarily psychodynamic. Psychodynamic therapy looks at the maps we create early in life that need to be adapted and changed as we progress through life. Unfortunately, too often we become stuck with maps that served us as vulnerable children, but do not serve us as adults.

I do work with religious trauma, which is all too common in the United States, particularly among evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Much damage has been done by conservative religion, and it can leave open wounds that take a long time to heal. In working with my clients, we work through the healing process, primarily through gaining new insights and creating new maps.

Because of my church work and speaking schedule, I keep my pastoral counseling practice small, though I do currently have openings for a few new clients.  (You can contact me at paula@rltpathways.com) My work with clients is usually longer term, as we explore the person’s past for insight into how they can move more wholeheartedly into the future.

Life is difficult, and we all need a little help along the way. In the past we were more connected to a network of relationships that could help us navigate through life. Nowadays, we need the specialists who can help us make the most of our lives. It is very satisfying to travel alongside my clients on the sacred journey to authentic, wholehearted living.

People Do Change Their Minds, But Only If…

In his book, The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt says people do change their minds, but not unless information comes to them in a non-threatening way. The book includes a host of other intriguing ideas, but that was my biggest takeaway. The second I read the words, I knew they were true.

Haidt uses the analogy of a rider on an elephant. The rider believes she is in charge of the direction in which the elephant is moving, while in fact, the elephant has been in charge all along. In the analogy, the elephant is all of the decisions being made by our unconscious minds. The unconscious mind is the part of ourselves that is truly in charge. Where does the unconscious self come up with its ideas? It establishes its hard and fast truths very early in life, while we are vulnerable children, incapable of surviving on our own. As it turns out, that ends up being a lifelong problem.

As a child I could never express the tiniest bit of anger or frustration with my mother, or I would be immediately rejected by her. Until I finally stood up to my mother when I was 35 (I tell the story in Chapter 18 of my memoir) I was still allowing my inner child to call the shots. That inner child was terrified of abandonment. The truth is that child remains within me. It is still my tendency to believe that if I express any kind of displeasure to those close to me, they will permanently reject me. (That it has happened recently in real time doesn’t help – chapter 14 in the book, if you’re wondering.)

The truth is that most people do not reject you when you become angry with them. They might become defensive, and attack you back, but eventually they come around. Relationships withstand conflict quite nicely. My rational mind knows that, but the elephant of my inner child still thinks she can never express anger, or say no to a request, or she will be disowned and rejected. When I listen to that inner child, it is not my conscious mind making the decisions. It is the elephant of my unconscious self.

That is why it is so important to constantly remind ourselves that we are no longer helpless children. We are now adults, and if we do happen to be rejected, the world will not end. We have the resources to deal with it. It is a constant battle to not allow important decisions to be made by the frightened child within.

The greatest human fear is abandonment. When we fear abandonment, our rational minds are pushed out the nearest exit. Truth no longer matters. Facts no longer matter. The reason they do not matter is because belonging is more important to humans than the truth. Belonging is more important than facts.

I have friends who want to get a Covid vaccine, but they are afraid of upsetting their parents, or their people, their tribe. Remaining in the tribe is more important than protecting their own health. They know that saying vaccines are dangerous is factually false, but in their tribe, it is socially true. The fear of ostracism wins out over protecting one’s own health. That is the power of the need to belong.

Which takes us back to where I began. People will take in new information, but only if it comes to them in a non-threatening way. If their tribal influencers tell them it is all right to get a vaccine, they will get a vaccine. If their tribal leaders tell them transgender people are mild-mannered Americans who deserve the same civil rights as everyone else, they will accept transgender Americans. The question, therefore, is how to reach tribal influencers? We influence the influencers by telling stories.

I get paid a lot of money to speak at colleges and universities, but I am willing to go to Christian universities at my own expense. Why?  Because I know if I can get in close proximity to the students and faculty and tell my story, minds will change. Suddenly a transgender woman is not a threat. She is just a woman. If a few of those who take in that story are connectors or tribal influencers, others will readily follow.

The goal is to reach a tipping point at which enough tribal influencers have taken in the new information that it is quickly accepted by the remaining members of the community. People can accept the facts, because it no longer means being abandoned by the tribe. They can say what they have known to be true for a long time, that transgender people are not a threat to anyone. They no longer fear being ostracized for speaking the truth.

There is a second way in which people take in new information and change their minds. It is when they no longer fear abandonment by their community, because they have a new community ready to embrace them. If you are an evangelical Christian, and you are affirming of the LGBTQ+ population, you will be ostracized by your evangelical church. But if there is another church ready to take you in, a church with a similar style, music and polity, you no longer fear abandonment. You have a new tribe waiting.

That is one of the reasons I say if Left Hand Church didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. There are many who want to leave the excesses of evangelicalism, but they fear abandonment. If they know they have somewhere else to turn, it is easier for them to stand up for what they know to be true.

There is yet one more method of bringing new information in a non-threatening way. Novels, biographies, and memoirs are ideal vehicles for getting a conversation inside someone’s head without the person fearing they will be judged by others. You can read a book in the privacy of your own home, at your own pace. You can enter the story, as you would if the person was sitting next to you in the living room. And your mind can be changed.

My heart has been warmed by the evangelicals who have read As A Woman – What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned. I hear from them almost every day. Some are from my old denomination. Others never knew Paul but feel the need to reach out after they have read my story. It is the major reason I hope the book sells well. I believe it has the power to change the narrative, narrow the divide, and bring us a little closer together.

It will not be easy to close the great American divide. But it is not impossible. We must begin by telling stories, bringing new information in a non-threatening way, one person at a time.

And so it hopefully goes.

You Do Not Have to be Good

This week – a word about guilt.  Yeah, that should keep everybody reading…

Most of us know the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is believing you’ve done something bad. Shame is believing you are bad. Guilt can be good. Shame is never good. There are also guilt-based and shame-based cultures. In a guilt-based culture, there is no greater moral failure than violating your own conscience. In a shame-based culture, there is no greater moral failure than losing face. America has always been primarily a guilt-based culture, though of late we see shame-based ideas gaining strength in ways I find disturbing. At the moment, however, we remain a culture in which the greatest moral failure is to violate your own conscience.

With that in mind, I want to look at the three different types of guilt. Guilt as responsibility is the kind of guilt with which we are best acquainted. Guilt as responsibility is recognizing that I have done something wrong that brings harm to another. After recognition, it is my responsibility, where possible, to make restitution. After recognition and restitution, I am released from my guilt. Most of us have plenty of experience with guilt as responsibility. We live it on a regular basis, maybe even this week. Not that I am confessing to any specific guilt-producing failings in the last day or two, mind you.

A second type of guilt is pseudo-guilt or false guilt. False guilt is what you feel when you establish a healthy boundary for yourself but feel badly about it. For reasons buried in your childhood, you do not think you have the right to meet your own needs before meeting the needs of another.

I used to have a friend who was constantly asking me to set aside my own needs to meet his needs. Much to the chagrin of Cathy, my wife, I always readily complied. When you do not think you have permission to take care of yourself, you acquiesce to the needs of others. Unfortunately, when you do that, someone close to you will pay a price, and it will usually be the person or people with whom you feel the most secure. Most often, it will be your spouse. You take advantage of the person who loves you most so you can meet the needs of another in whose love you are not secure. And you do it all because if you dare say no, you’ll feel guilty about it.

Most of us were taught to be polite rather than honest, accommodating rather than self-protective, and submissive rather than assertive. To be anything else makes us feel guilty. False guilt is a defense against the deeper anxiety of not feeling permission to be yourself. The solution is to give yourself to permission to establish boundaries that protect you. You cannot love your neighbor if you do not first love yourself.

The third kind of guilt is existential guilt. This is the kind of guilt Nikos Kazantzakis was talking about when he said, “By the time you’re 50, you have the face you deserve.” Existential guilt involves recognition of wrongdoing, but without restitution or release.

I make my living speaking. For as long as the market smiles on me, I am paid handsomely to speak at corporations, conferences, and universities. Speaking is one of my gifts. But we all have shadow sides, and our shadow sides are usually our strengths taken to an extreme. Therefore, reflecting on a conversation I have just completed, I will sometimes think, “Paula, it would have been all right to have an unexpressed thought.” I think out loud, and my unedited thoughts are not always helpful to the people with whom I am speaking. Talking, when it would have been better to keep my mouth shut, is one of my shadow sides.

For as long as our strengths are with us, our shadow sides will be along for the ride. They are a part of the fabric of our being. The best we can do is recognize and name these shadow sides. Making restitution is difficult, and there is no release from the existential guilt of knowing that try as we might, we will never be able to undo all the pain we have brought into this world. The best we can hope for is that the recognition itself will enable us to keep those parts of ourselves under wraps a little more often.

The older I become, the more my shadow sides become known to me. The more my shadow sides become known to me, the more existential guilt I feel. I have discovered there is only one remedy for existential guilt. It is the recognition that grace is enough. To use a variation of a Paul Tillich phrase, grace is accepting that you are accepted even though a part of you is unacceptable. You must come to truly believe that you are enough just as you are, no questions asked, no changes required. No wonder the opening words of Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese are so dear to my heart:

You do not have to be good

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles

Through the desert repenting

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

Love what it loves