The State of Flying

Today’s travel experience is just awful. I long for the days when an hour-long flight included a hot breakfast in coach. The airline industry was regulated back then. Jimmy Carter had not yet had the revelation that a free market was the way to go. When the industry was deregulated, I knew where things would go, and it wasn’t good.

I have flown 2.6 million miles with American Airlines. Most of it was with Allegheny, renamed USAir, a wonderful airline in the days when Edwin Colodny was CEO, making a decent profit but also providing passengers with a pleasant experience. Imagine that? An airline that cares about you. In fact, USAir had a marketing phrase, “USAir begins with You.” But then USAir was acquired by America West, with a decidedly different management culture. To make matters worse, the new USAirways acquired American, a legacy carrier with an attitude.

I was supposed to go to the White House in June for a celebration of Pride Month. My flight was delayed, delayed again, and finally delayed until the following day, when I would not have been able to get to the White House in time for the meeting. There were absolutely no options on any carrier that would transport me from DEN to DCA in time to hang out with a couple hundred of the President’s closest friends.

Three weeks ago, I was invited to see Elton John sing at the White House. The news reports said it was a wonderful evening in the cool September air. I wouldn’t know. It was going to cost me over $1,400 to get there and back in time to leave on vacation the next morning. And the way things have gone lately, I wouldn’t have trusted any airline to get me home in time to leave on vacation.

And oh yeah, about that vacation. The night before we were to leave, I received a notification that our flight from Denver to Phoenix would be delayed by three hours. They offered no explanation, but I’ve been flying long enough to know when an early morning flight is delayed the night before, it is because of required crew rest.

That meant Cathy and I would miss our connection to Maui. I am Executive Platinum with American and have been at that level for three decades, so I know how to navigate an airline website and phone system. Despite my best attempts, and those of an experienced EP phone agent, we could not find a single flight on any carrier that would get both Cathy and me to Maui the next morning.

The agent finally found a single seat from DEN to DFW and one seat from DFW to OGG. Cathy left Denver at 6:00 on Sunday morning and arrived in Maui at 2:16, about the time we were originally scheduled to arrive. I, on the other hand, could not get out of Denver until 1:57 that afternoon. I sat in the Admiral’s Club and watched with Neta, one of the club agents, while the flight that made up ours was stuck in a ground stop in Philadelphia. An hour and a half went by. I said, “The crew is going to time out.” Pilots can’t fly more than ten hours straight, and if they are going to exceed that ten hours while they are in the air, the flight is cancelled.

We looked for a backup on Monday. There were none. There were no seats on Tuesday either. We waited to see if the Philadelphia to Los Angeles flight would get in the air. It did, but it was four hours late. Thank goodness, the company switched equipment for our flight to Hawaii, so I finally got to Hawaii at 10:00 PM, about 2:00 in the morning, my time.

When we finally took off for Hawaii, I thought of those poor people from Philadelphia who had been on their plane for eight hours, about the time it takes to fly from Philadelphia to Europe, and still weren’t in Los Angeles.

If this stream of consciousness post is disjointed, that is my point. This post feels like those twenty-four hours. And remember, I’ve been doing this for five decades. I have a lifetime pass for Cathy and me to the Admiral’s Club, purchased for $400 in 1982. (They stopped selling lifetime passes in the 90s, when they cost $6000.) I get free upgrades to first class. Even when I’m in coach, I get free food and decent seats. In other words, I am about as pampered as any frequent flyer in today’s world. And still, that trip was awful.

This is what happens when profits come before people.

I still remember an early morning flight in 1979 from LaGuardia to Buffalo. We were served pancakes with honey butter, scrambled eggs, bacon, and maple syrup. The picture above is of the type of plane we were on, a BAC-111. That was then. On my recent flight to Los Angeles, two hours and fifteen minutes long, I was served mixed nuts, in first class.

And so it goes.

Take a Deep Breath, Mom and Dad

If your child says they are gender non-binary, transgender, pansexual, or asexual, I have some advice. When they tell you this interesting news, respond by saying, “Oh,” without alarm, like you would if they told you they were going to Walgreens to pick up a few things. Then be curious. Ask how they came to that conclusion, and how the new insight makes them feel. And whatever you do, do not be judgmental.

Teens need to separate from their families of origin. It’s in their DNA. It is their job. They also have brains that are not yet fully formed. Our job is to encourage their individuation and differentiation, while providing guardrails to the excesses that could have permanent consequences.

Those guardrails do not include opposition to their gender and sexual exploration, at least not unless they are wanting surgeries or medical treatments that will permanently change their bodies. No matter what your evangelical church is telling you, no hospital or physician anywhere in the United States is doing gender affirming surgery on minors. Very few are doing any surgeries at all. The hormonal treatments that are prescribed are reversible.

Do you remember when Goth was a thing? Yeah, for some kids, all things gender is today’s version of Goth. It is a chance to show your independence and say, “I’m not like you, Mom and Dad.” I mean, think about it. Why on earth would you ever leave the people who have provided your every need unless there was something seriously wrong with them? They need to find fault with you. It makes it easier to leave the nest. And besides, there are, in fact, plenty of things wrong with you, and by the time your kids hit their teen years, they’ve figured out what those things are.

If your child is in their intense phase of separation, what do they need from you? They need curiosity, understanding, and patience. Your child might indeed be gender non-binary, transgender, pansexual or asexual. But the statistics say it isn’t likely. The number of people who are transgender stays steady at around .58 percent. Yes, about one half of one percent. The number who are non-binary is similar.

Whatever is happening in your child’s phase of visible separation, be curious and talkative with them. Listen. If you listen long enough, they will eventually share the pleasure of their emerging souls with you.

Be patient. Be glad your children are being raised in a time in which they can age-appropriately try on different identities in a safe environment. Encourage their exploration, and their tolerance of others. Don’t rush them to the courthouse to help change their name yet. If necessary, that can come later. But you can call them the name they prefer for as long as they prefer it, whether it be a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Let it be an adventure.

Are there exceptions? Of course, there are. If your child from an early age has been protesting that they are not the gender listed on their birth certificate, you should listen up. Kids who present as transgender at four are likely to be transgender at forty. On the other hand, if your child declares at thirteen that he or she is transgender, then you might want to just abide, and see what happens. There is a good chance it is a phase of their necessary differentiation from you.

When should you be concerned? If your child becomes sullen and withdrawn, with few friends and consistently dark moods, it may be time for intervention. And anytime a child threatens to harm themselves, it should be taken seriously. It is not a time for watching and waiting. It is time for the help of a therapist or physician well-educated in the issues common to adolescents.

It is also important to note that things are hard for all kids right now. They just finished two years of education in front of a screen. They are behind and they know it. And the pressures they face at school and with their peers have been horribly exacerbated by social media. They are more likely to need help in life much earlier than we did, and we need to provide the help they need.

Now, a word about the politicians who are trading children’s mental health for a few right-wing votes. Shame on them. Children are dying. The anti-trans laws like those recently passed in Texas are terrifying in their disregard of science, and for any positive regard for the children those lawmakers are sworn to serve.

At our town board meeting two weeks ago, we talked about the mental health of the teens in our town. I took a long walk with a fellow board member the following Saturday, and we considered what we might do to provide the help our kids need. That is the appropriate response to adolescents, not the book banning, treatment prohibiting, reactionary rhetoric of politicians and self-righteous evangelicals.

I have five granddaughters, all between the ages of 12 and 14. It is so much fun watching them unfold into the fulness of themselves, unencumbered by the religious purity movement of my generation. They are full of themselves in all the right ways. Yet, I see them struggle beneath the weight of expectations and I am grateful they have parents who see them, who truly see them, and who are committed to providing them just the right amount of freedom to come into themselves.

This living is serious business. I have a friend about my age who says growing old is not for sissies. I agree, but I would add that all of life in the year 2022 is not for sissies. These are not easy times.

Dominated As Things Are

There are several lines in Rilke’s The Man Watching that have resonated with me over the past year.  I memorized the poem nine or ten years ago while driving with Cathy through Left Hand Canyon. The poem begins, I can tell by the way the trees beat after so many dull days on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming, and I hear the far-off fields say things I cannot bear without a friend, I cannot love without a sister.

As I write this I am watching trees bend wildly in the southwest winds that arrive every fall here on the Front Range. The house creaks and moans, the windows whistle, and the trees stretch toward the ground, dominated by the coming storm. Which brings me to a line later in the poem: What we choose to fight is so tiny. What fights us is so great. If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things are by some immense storm, then we could become strong too, and not need names.

The area in which I lived for a quarter century, where Long Island juts into the Great South Bay, is called Timber Point. The trees near the shore are permanently shaped by the winds, leaning to better withstand the Nor’easters that dominate the winter weather.

The winds on the Front Range are not frequent enough to shape the trees, so they never permanently yield like the birch, oaks, and sugar maples of Timber Point. But when the storms arrive, the Colorado cottonwoods and limber pines yield to the elements about them.

Humans are not so good at yielding to the elements about us. As a man, it was in my nature to want to dominate, not be dominated by. I brought myself with myself when I transitioned, and I still fight against the winter wind, refusing to yield. On occasion the winds have almost toppled me. Still, I persist. I may as well push a rope.

I still think of myself as middle aged, but unless I live to 130, I am not middle aged anymore. Everyone thinks I’m middle aged, which I like, and I understand the reason. I take care of myself. I run or bike six days a week and work six or seven. I am constantly taking on new challenges. I didn’t start mountain biking until I was 55. I didn’t start serving with TED and TEDxMileHigh until I was 66. Earlier this year I ran for public office and now serve on the town board in Lyons, Colorado. It’s been a big learning curve, but I haven’t minded it. I am exercising new areas of my brain.

But there is a shadow side to continuing to run at full speed. It means you are not inclined to let yourself trust the storm. You lean into the wind. You fight the storm. And here is the paradoxical truth – life requires both. You must both lean into the wind and be dominated by it. The trick is discerning which is called for at any given time.

The poem includes the narrative of Jacob, and his wrestling match with God. Rilke writes, Whoever was beaten by that angel, though often the angel simply declined the fight, went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh had that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

I love that Rilke notes, passively, that you can win a wrestling match with God. Sometimes God simply declines the fight. I think stubborn willfulness invites that response from God. Stridency does too. You can win a wrestling match with God, but is it a good thing? Is it a good thing to win a wrestling match when your opponent is the lord of the universe?

Jacob finally discerned when it was time to yield. He had been a manipulative asshole for decades. His brother was headed his way with an army of 300, and Jacob knew the good times were over. He finally yielded when he asked the angel to bless him. Did he know his blessing would be his defeat?

There comes a time when you are exhausted, and it is time to yield. It’s how Rilke finishes the poem. Winning does not tempt that man, this is how he grows. By being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.

Over the last year I reached a point in which I could lean into the wind no longer. My cortisol levels were high. I became frantic in my desire for the approval of others. I was devastated by my own behaviors, disappointing myself profoundly. I finally surrendered to become dominated by the storm that caused my pain. I came to understand what Jungian analyst James Hollis calls existential guilt and could name my own.

But you can’t stay in a state of permanent defeat. You have to move on. Now the storm is subsiding. I am no longer bending as deeply in the wind. I am beginning to rest, and I am wiser. I still have moments of panic and desperation, but so do you. That is the existential reality for all of us.

Even though he had the army to do it, Esau did not kill Jacob. He decided to reconcile with his brother there by the river Jabbok, Jacob limping from his wounded hip while Esau surrendered his anger over his brother’s past transgressions. Both survived defeat at the hands of their own humors and became all the wiser for it.

Am I wiser than I was fifteen months ago? I’m not sure. Ask me in another year or so and we’ll see if the lessons still hold. In the meantime, the sun and the clear pebbles of rain are moving over the landscapes, the valleys, the rivers and the deep trees. Meantime, the wild geese, high in the clear blue air, are headed home again. Aw gees, now I’ve migrated from Rilke to Oliver.

And so it goes.

Sex and the Wayward Christian Pastor

Last week the headlines told of yet another megachurch pastor who has been relieved of his duties, at least temporarily, because of inappropriate behavior with another person. Yet again, as the pastor admitted his failure on stage, he was greeted with a standing ovation and shouts of, “We love you.” I imagine those folks will discover there is more to the accusations than meets the eye, which will cause them to regret that standing ovation. We see it happen all too often.

All of these leaders are men. There are no women megachurch pastors in America. Most began ministry with confidence coupled with at least some level of humility. By the time they had their great fall, however, not much humility remained. They had surrounded themselves with co-workers and friends who enabled their increasingly erratic behavior and ended up slipping into the inevitable zone in which absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A megachurch pastor can exercise power unfairly, treat subordinates poorly, handle money badly, and generally be a jerk and probably not lose his job. But there is one thing that will end his job and career. And that is to have any kind of sexual dalliance with a person other than his spouse. There is no forgiveness for that, because in evangelicalism there is no forgiveness for being a sexual being who makes mistakes.

I am not excusing the behavior of any of these pastors. Too often they refuse to recognize the unequal power dynamics that led to these inappropriate relationships. And as with far too many men exposed through the #MeToo movement, they see themselves as victims, not predators. I am not excusing any of their deplorable behavior. But I do have questions.

How did sex become the all-powerful career ending sin? Has anyone read the Hebrew scriptures? There was a lot of sex going on that was not between a husband a wife. Male religious leaders had hundreds of partners. And what about the relative little the New Testament says about sex? Jesus certainly wasn’t fixated on the subject. He said nothing about his own sex life.

The Christian fixation with sex did not begin until Augustine, hundreds of years after the time of Jesus. That sexual sin as the worst kind of sin is relatively new to the Christian message, dating from the beginnings of the Modern age. The purity movement of the late twentieth century was the apex of the sex negativity movement.

Here is what I do know. Many pastors have had relationships that they believed were consensual, but with unequal power dynamics. They betrayed their wedding vows. But most are not serial philanderers. They made a mistake, and one mistake does not have to be career ending. Far more pastors view pornography or engage in sexual paraphilias. All are decidedly male issues. Over 50 percent of men are interested in at least one of the common paraphilias, and over one third have engaged in a paraphilia like sadism, masochism, sexual cross dressing, or voyeurism. Sexual paraphilias cause great shame, because most people do not understand their genesis or what can be done about them.

Exacerbating the problem for male clergy is that they are not encouraged to talk about their sexuality, ever. Men are left to struggle alone. They never learned to understand the nature of male sexuality, and therefore never learned how to exercise agency to both acknowledge attraction and turn it off before it becomes a problem. They have never been taught about those times and people they need to keep at a distance because they trigger unresolved issues in their own lives that want to be healed through sexual intimacy. Men in ministry are not taught how to manage their sexuality.

For Christian men, there are only two options. There is sex in marriage, or there is no sexuality at all. If you brought a paraphilia with you into the marriage, too bad for you. There will be no place in which it is safe to figure out what that means to the marriage. If you arrived in marriage with the example of an unfaithful father who never taught you the importance of agency, too bad for you. You have to figure out monogamy on your own. If your natural sexual attraction is toward men, you are in a double bind. You can’t even show romantic affection to a man, let alone marry him.

To be clear, I am not condoning bad behavior by male clergy. But we really do need to do a better job of helping male religious leaders integrate a healthy understanding of sexuality into their lives. We need to give them the tools to understand unequal power dynamics, the ability to appreciate the power of testosterone in contributing to unhealthy behaviors, and the wisdom to exercise agency before they end up being the next headline about a pastor being asked to step down.

And so it goes.

Why Stop Now?

Why would anyone retire? I’m serious. Why not just pivot to work you enjoy doing. (As soon as I wrote “pivot” I thought of Ross moving the couch on Friends. Anyway…)

All of us have at least three different levels of capacity. First, we have what I will call abilities, things at which we are good, but the work doesn’t feed our souls. I’m good with finances, and run the finances of RLT Pathways, but I can’t say I enjoy it. We are competent when we work within the realm of our abilities, but we are not inspired. If you are relegated to the realm of abilities, I understand why you might want to retire. No one wants to do soul-sapping work.

In addition to abilities, we have gifts. A gift is something at which you excel that you enjoy doing so much you lose track of time when you are doing it. For me, writing is a gift. Running an organization is a gift. Counseling is a gift. If we are lucky and have had good mentors along the way, we also may be able to identify our pinnacle gifts. A pinnacle gift is work at which you excel beyond others. If you don’t know what your pinnacle gift is, you can determine it by asking a single question: What do people most affirm about you? The answer is likely your pinnacle gift.

My pinnacle gifts are public speaking and coaching and developing other public speakers. At TEDxMileHigh earlier this month I got to practice both of my pinnacle gifts, by coaching our speakers through the memorization and delivery process, while also emceeing the event. I was in seventh heaven. To make it even better, though a little stressful, I preached at Denver Community Church the next morning, then preached at Left Hand Church that night. Both were brand new messages. All weekend I was in my sweet spot. Monday I crashed.

Which brings me back to my opening paragraph. Why would anyone retire? Now you see why I might ask that question. I don’t want to retire. I want to reach higher. Oh gees, I just realized that rhymes. It’s okay, I’ll stay with it anyway. I want to reach higher.

At this stage of my life, I’m not interested in working 70-hour weeks, but I do want to achieve the greatest return on investment of my time. Whether it is preaching at Left Hand or another post-evangelical church around the nation, working with TED or TEDxMileHigh, counseling clients, speaking for corporations, or serving on the town board here in Lyons, I want to serve within my wheelhouse and in the areas of my gifts or pinnacle gifts. If I am doing that, why would I retire?

I call what I am currently doing semi-retirement, though most people would not consider it to be that. Friends half my age often say they have a hard time keeping up with me. But I’ve always been fairly productive, so for me, what I am doing is, in fact, semi-retirement. For instance, I do not want to be the lead pastor at a church anymore, though I love preaching regularly. I do not want to run a non-profit, though I’m happy to volunteer for several. And I do not want to do anything early in the morning. So you can forget that breakfast meeting.

I suppose the bottom line is that I hate being bored, and I want to make a difference in the world. I want to alleviate suffering, while causing as little as possible. Turns out that last part doesn’t get easier with age.

My parents lived well into their 90s. Dad was still driving at 95, though the wisdom of allowing that was, uh, a bit suspect. He only really slowed down in his final year. I hope I have that kind of time remaining, and that I can approach it with the kind of energy Dad sustained. I don’t think about my age much. I still take on the kinds of new challenges I took on at fifty. Back then it was working for the first time as a television host. Now it’s coaching TEDx speakers in their script finalization, memorization and delivery, and serving TED speakers as a Speaker’s Ambassador.

And oh yeah, the running for public office thing. I did that too. I mean, five-hour board meetings that start at 5:30 pm might be a bit much, but I’m learning a lot, and I love our little town.

This week, it’s been writing a sermon for Sunday, met with the November 12 TEDxMileHigh speakers for their inaugural meeting, served folks from the last TED event, pastored people from church, and dug into the 165-page staff draft of the Lyons Thrive Comprehensive Plan. Yeah, that last one is a bit much. But hey, they’ve diligently done good work and I will read every single page.

And so it goes.

Eyes Like That

I don’t really like people knowing my age but with the Internet being what it is, anybody who wants to figure it out can do so. I emceed the TEDxMileHigh Reconnect show on August 6th, and the CEO of one of our sponsoring companies said, “I Googled you last night. I can’t believe you are that old! You look amazing.” Then he told the whole group standing around how old I was. (At least he didn’t do it in front of 2,000 attendees.) I thought about telling him that it’s okay to have an unexpressed thought, but he seemed like a sweet enough guy, so I let it go.

I also let it go because I too have a tendency to speak when remaining quiet would have been wiser. Uh, some of you, uh, know that. It’s one of the reasons I like Anne Lamott. She sometimes writes stuff, and you think, “Was it a good idea to actually put that in a book?” Anne Lamott seems good with it. She has learned to embrace herself as she is.

That is not a well-honed ability of mine – embracing myself as I am. The last year has been tough, because I’ve had more than one occasion in which I’ve needed to offer myself forgiveness, and it hasn’t come easily. I can be hard on myself. My genes and a giant fundamentalist dose of, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” are responsible for that.  If only I’d known that word perfect meant, complete in all of its parts and for its intended purpose. Yeah! Understanding that would have been helpful. I could have spared myself a hell of a lot of agony over not being, well, perfect. Of course, there are still those self-critical genes – damn multi-generational transmission process.

Anyway, learning self-acceptance is hard work. But when you are able to extend grace to yourself, it is much easier to be curious about yourself and others. “Why did I behave that way? ” “I didn’t know I was capable of doing that.”  “What brought that up from the basement?” Curiosity is so much more productive than self-flagellation. Curiosity can actually lead to growth, though it is a kind of growth that is likely to start as mourning. But don’t worry, it’s a  good kind of mourning.

There was that time Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That word “mourn” means to mourn the specific nature of your own weaknesses, the parts of yourself that try as you might, you just can’t get ahold of. The parts of yourself that curiosity, insight, and the will to grow, still cannot be purged from your being. The best your curiosity, insight, and will can do is recognize these tendencies when they show up, and do your best to inflict as little damage as possible. The Jungian analyst James Hollis calls this kind of painful self-knowledge, “existential guilt.” While the knowledge itself might be existential guilt, I call the specific weaknesses my “abiding shadows.”

Some people are aware of their abiding shadows. They have learned to accept their humanity and no longer beat themselves up for not being perfect. They have stopped being judgmental toward themselves and others and have learned to be curious. Their curiosity is a manifest attribute of their self-acceptance.

Others carry a heavy judgmental spirit that truncates curiosity. It is a sign they have not yet accepted themselves as they are, flaws and all. Their judgmentalism is a coat of armor. They are masters at justifying their own decisions and condemning yours. They are novices at looking at themselves in the mirror. They have great ego need and not a lot of ego strength. I have a lot of sympathy for them, because we all start there.

To be a good therapist you have to be curious and self-aware. Otherwise, you are doomed to commit the sin of countertransference, projecting your own unresolved issues onto your unsuspecting clients. Most of us know where our abiding shadows lie. We don’t treat clients that are going to pull those up from the basement. We refer those souls to another therapist.

I’m a little bummed it took me so long to get somewhere within the vicinity of self-acceptance. I mean, I’m older than dirt. (Remember, the CEO told a whole group of people that.) But then I must remember that while I’m not so good in the self-acceptance department, I’m quite accomplished in others. Like maybe even wise. That is how life works. Our blind spots persist. Our abiding shadows abide. But the goodness and wisdom that reside within us, cohabitating with those abiding shadows, somehow manages to heal others through a kind of holy alchemy.

Life is more fascinating, redemptive, and hopeful when you start with curiosity instead of judgment. As you travel with others, you can gently help them find the obstacles that are keeping them stuck short of finding their own curiosity, insight and will to grow. With your peculiar wisdom as a guide, they can find the strength to look into the depths and see their own abiding shadows. You experience joy watching them come into that deeper self-awareness, because you know it will eventually lead to self-acceptance and amazing grace.

I cried on Monday when I found out Frederick Buechner died. He was the first author to crack open the door of my own curiosity. This is what he wrote in his wonderful little book, Whistling in the Dark:

If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hat air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the sandbox. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. the old man staring into space in the nursing home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak but the words they do not speak. Feel what it’s like to be who they are – chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you. 

When Jesus said, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden,” he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.

The Joy of the Ride

Okay, all right, I haven’t been writing. I know. Well, that’s not actually correct. I have been writing, but not blogposts.  It has been my privilege to serve as a speaker’s coach for TEDxMileHigh, helping finish up scripts and prepare speakers to deliver their talks on the TEDxMileHigh stage. For their recent August 6 show, I was working with all seven speakers, plus emceeing the show, which meant memorizing about 40 minutes of material for the four-hour show.

The good news is that the show is over, and it was wonderful! About 1900 people filled the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver, and our speakers did a great job presenting their big ideas. This is the second time I’ve had the honor of working with TEDxMH speakers, and the first time I’ve had the honor of emceeing. I love working with TEDxMileHigh.

TEDxMH is the largest TEDx in North America, and one of the largest in the world. Their team is amazing. I pinch myself every time I get to work on one of their shows. It’s also my privilege to serve as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED, the parent organization, working with their speakers on site, leading up to and after their talks. That also is a tremendous honor.

I worked in television for about 18 years, 11 of them as an on-air host. I loved every single day of shooting in some of the most beautiful places on earth. But nothing compares to getting amazing people ready to share their big ideas on a premiere stage, and then getting to emcee that same show. There is something about a live audience.

I get a one-week break before our next batch of TEDxMileHigh speakers meet for the first time for our November 12 show. One of those speakers is my friend, Linda Kay Klein, whose book, Pure, has helped so many who grew up in purity culture.

I’ve also been doing a lot of corporate speaking this summer, which is my major source of income nowadays. I was also privileged to have a two month sabbatical, after five years planting and serving Left Hand Church as one of its founding pastors. I’ve been back preaching for three weeks now.

During my sabbatical I took a brief trip to North Carolina to speak a couple of times for the Wild Goose Festival. My favorite part of the weekend was being able to spend time with good friends, and sit for an evening with Brian McLaren, Pete Enns, Diana Butler Bass, Jim Wallis, Josh Scott, Stan Mitchell, and a couple other post-evangelical leaders. I could have listened to them talk all night long.

And oh yeah, I’ve also been learning the ropes of being a member of the Board of Trustees for the wonderful town in which I live, Lyons, Colorado. Yeah, the five-hour meetings can be a little much, but I’m learning a lot about what it takes to keep a vibrant small town healthy.

I’ve mentioned two completely new fields in which I am now working, TED/TEDxMileHigh, and small-town government. I mean, why not? Why would I slow down now? These years are proving to be the most productive of my life, with the highest return-on-investment I’ve ever experienced.

You know, the ego is interested in just two things, power and safety. It does its best to repress anything else. For decades, my ego won out over my soul. But not anymore. The ego is interested in power and safety. The soul is interested in the ride. That is what I am enjoying now – the ride.

While I was running today, I kept thinking of the last couple of lines of David Whyte’s poem, Sweet Darkness:

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.

 Yeah, that.

It Has Not Been a Good Week

Less than two weeks ago I was invited onto a zoom call with the White House that included six female faith leaders from six western states. We were brought together to speak with White House staff about the Supreme Court decisions that were likely to be decided in the upcoming week, including cases involving the separation of church and state, gun safety, and a woman’s right to her own health care choices.

It was a somber call. We all knew the legislative branch was not going to weigh in on any of these issues, primarily because they have lost the ability to do much of anything to advance the rights of all Americans. Much to our collective chagrin, the judicial branch has become another venue for politics. We also knew there was not much the executive branch could do. The White House was limited to executive orders, many of which are being put in place as I write.

How did we get here?  For decades the Supreme Court has been divided between originalists and non-originalists. Originalists believe the Constitution should be interpreted according to its meaning at the time it was written. Non-originalists see it as a living breathing document that will, of necessity, be interpreted differently throughout the course of history. (The same arguments between originalists and non-originalists exist among Christians, only over the interpretation of  Scripture, not the interpretation of the Constitution.)

To me, the most disturbing reality of the Supreme Court’s judicial originalists is that their interpretation of what the Constitution meant at the time it was written increasingly looks like whatever subject happens to lead the news on conservative media channels. The founding fathers would turn over in their graves if they found out what beliefs had been attributed to them by today’s Supreme Court majority.

This increasingly extreme interpretation of the Constitution is not in line with what most Americans desire for our nation. These decisions are being made by people who have been plotting for decades to overturn the will of the true majority of America’s citizens. How can this be?

To achieve the consensus necessary to create a united nation 250 years ago, less populated states ended up with disproportionate power in the Senate and electoral college. In today’s world, conservative Americans from those states, often evangelical Christians, make no apologies for using that power to advance their agenda at the expense of the majority of Americans. One need look no further than Mitch McConnell’s refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court because it was “too close to the 2016 election,” while ramming through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination, even though it was far closer to the 2020 election. Ethics and fairness were not important. All that mattered was power. Remember, this is the same Mitch McConnell who said, “Winners make policy, losers go home.”

Most Americans believed Roe v. Wade should not be overturned. Most Americans believe in the separation of church and state. The majority of Americans want assault weapons banned. Seventy-one percent of Americans believe LGBTQ rights should be upheld, including marriage equality. But apparently, none of that matters.

With today’s Supreme Court, the judicial branch, once the realm of caution and balance, has become a tool of the right. John Roberts has been relegated to a minor and inconsequential role as Chief Justice. He was left dangling in the wind on the Dobbs decision.

On Thursday of this week, I was invited onto another White House zoom meeting, this time with the Vice-President. There were about 150 of us who watched as she pledged the administration’s full support of women. Most of us had tears in our eyes as she passionately affirmed the right of a woman to choose. But everyone in the meeting knew the truth – the deck was stacked against us.

On Friday, after the Dobbs decision was handed down, I was invited, twice, to yet another virtual White House meeting. I was unable to attend because we were in the middle of working on script finalizations for the upcoming TEDxMileHigh Reconnect event. The first invitation was sent to the group of women who had met earlier in the week. The second invitation was sent to the LGBTQ+ leaders who had been invited to the White House a week earlier. I know why that second group was invited onto the call. We know the truth. Clarence Thomas brazenly wrote about it. We’re next.

One of my good friends, a woman I greatly admire, wrote to me Friday morning that it was the worst day of her life. She is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people I know. There was a pall over every conversation I had with women on Friday. They have been second-class citizens for millennia, and we all should have known that 49 years of the right to make decisions about their own bodies guaranteed nothing going forward.

I know of few people who are pro-abortion. I worked as an adoption caseworker for a quarter of a century. I never dealt with a single birthmother who was pro-abortion. But I dealt with many who needed the right to choose. I was an entitled white male at the time. I began that work with an opinion about abortion, but with no real understanding. (I still don’t really understand. I don’t have a uterus.) But it didn’t take long for me to see the hearts of the birthmothers with whom I worked.

These women were not selfish. They were not dismissive of the life growing within them. In fact, it was their deeply felt love for that life and for their own (and often their other children) that caused many of them to end their pregnancies. Not one of them did it flippantly. Every single one agonized over the decision. None of the men who had impregnated them were there. In fact, most of the men had long since disappeared. For me, that work was life changing. There was no doubt in my mind. Women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their own bodies.

I pastor a church that includes many precious, wise, thoughtful, loving women. Many are survivors of sexual abuse. Many have been ostracized from their homes and places of faith because of their sexual identity or gender identity. Yet not one of them is bitter, thoughtless, or callous. They are generous, thoughtful, kind, and loving. Their struggles have given them a wisdom I can only dream of. I have had too many years of too much privilege to understand the oppression they have experienced, or the way they have been dismissed, ignored, and abused. Yet they persevere, not as self-centered, power-hungry women, but as followers of Jesus who want nothing more than to love God, love their neighbors (all of them), and love themselves.

It pains me beyond measure that it is a very different group of Christians who are behind these Supreme Court decisions. Evangelical Christians are the largest force driving this “take no prisoners” march to the right. They are twice as likely to support overturning Roe v. Wade as the rest of America. Sixty percent believe assault weapons should not be banned. Eighty-four percent believe gender is immutably determined at birth, and 66 percent believe we already give transgender people too many rights, though only 25 percent of actually know someone who is out as a transgender person. And most frightening, more than a third of them (35 percent) want America to be declared a Christian nation.

Far right evangelical Christians do not get to define what a Christian is. They do not get to define what America is. They do not get to change the message of Jesus, just because it suits their purposes. They do not get to circumvent the message of the Gospel, that it is good news for all people.

I am a Christian. I am not anti-religion, pro-abortion, or against the Second Amendment. I believe in a nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. There was a time I thought we were on our way to realizing that dream. I still believe we can realize that dream, but not unless we work to restore the rights of women, to protect the lives of LGBTQ+ people, to keep our children safe in school, and to keep our nation a place in which we have freedom of religion, not the tyranny of the far right expression of one religion.

God, grant us wisdom as we protect the rights of all Americans. Grant us discernment as we determine where to go from here. Grant us compassion as we comfort those whose lives will be made far more difficult by these decisions. And grant us hearts to love God, love our neighbors, and love ourselves.

Amen.

Haters will Hate

The anti-transgender rhetoric has gotten worse lately, including the vitriol directed at me. I receive far more positive comments, emails, and texts than negative ones, but the nasty rhetoric has been on the increase.

The vast majority of those negative comments come from evangelical Christians. I never repeat their contents to anyone– not Cathy, not my best friends, not my co-pastors, not anyone. I do not want to dignify the words by giving them space in the ether.

The most egregious are texts. My phone number used to be listed on our RLT Pathways website. Because of a significant rise in the number of unwanted texts, I removed my phone number from the website, but not before anti-trans activists shared it among themselves and used it to send group texts on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and most recently, Father’s Day. Some come as individual texts. Others come from groups. All have the same hate-filled messages, all from people who claim to love Jesus.

What do I make of this?  As a Christian magazine editor-at-large, I was accustomed to negative letters long before I transitioned. I took a positive view of women in ministry, which was not always well received in my denomination. But those messages bear little resemblance to the ones I receive now.

Since Jonathan and I had a feature article written about us in the New York Times in 2017, the attacks haveincreased. After my first TED Talk, they reached a crescendo. That talk, which has now had over 5 million views, has had over 13,000 comments. While the majority are positive, thousands are not. Do not read them. I don’t. Nothing good comes from bringing that kind of hatred into your mind.

As I watched the January 6 hearings this week, I thought of those brave souls like Shaye Moss and Rusty Bowers who have experienced one hundred times the vitriol I have experienced, just because they did their jobs. I don’t think most people understand what it is like to be frightened every time you see a stranger at your door, or look at messages on your phone, or the inbox of your email.

Even though I get a lot of support, I have to admit I am tired of the attacks.. Bishop Gene Robinson and I both gave keynote addresses at a conference several years ago. Backstage after my session he said something I will not forget. Talking about the attacks we had received, Bishop Robinson said, “Be careful Paula, these attacks, they accumulate, they accumulate.”

And so, they do. I do not want or need your sympathy. What I need is your prayers, prayers that I will be wise, that I will know how best to protect myself, that I will be able to keep weathering the attacks. I would much rather people attack me than vulnerable trans kids. I have plenty of privilege I brought with me into this gender. I can use that privilege to store up reserves so I can continue to fight the good fight.

And I will continue to fight, because this is the thing. The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. By boldly and courageously living openly and authentically, maybe we can spare the next generation the kind of hatred we are receiving today.

We know where the hatred is coming from. It is coming from white evangelicals. That is sad, but true. We know the truth of it. Their attacks are based in the fear of losing power. They know America is changing. They know their narrative is no longer the American narrative. The American narrative is far more diverse, generous, compassionate, and less fearful than their narrative. Change is coming. Maybe it won’t arrive fast enough for me to escape the barrage of hate mail, but hopefully future generations can be spared.

For now, all I ask is your prayers – for justice and equality, for strength to endure. I ask strength for my church, my queer friends, and my grandchildren, who hate seeing me attacked just as they despise the hatred directed at them. Like all of us, they long for a more equitable world.

Yes, I did say I received nasty messages on Father’s Day. But I also heard from all three of my children, thanking me for being their father, for loving them to the best of my ability. Cathy spent the day with me, in honor of my fatherhood. I spent my day affirmed and loved, because I have a family that loves me and each other well. That is how we build a better future.

Haters will hate, but love wins.

Should We Be Surprised?

Many have been shocked to learn that the Southern Baptist Convention kept a secret list of hundreds of clergy sex abusers and did not use it to protect assault victims. Instead, they used it to protect the denomination. The coverup goes to the highest echelons of Southern Baptist leadership, including the architects of the conservative takeover of the 1970s.

Am I surprised? Of course not. My Doctor of Ministry degree is in pastor care. I led a large ministry that employed hundreds of pastors. While we never had a pastor arrested or convicted of sexual abuse, I do know that male pastors are pretty much like every other male on the planet. Their sexuality is a problem. Testosterone, without the constraints of applied moral agency and self-discipline, can ruin lives.

In one twenty-year period, the three largest US insurance companies that insure Protestant churches paid out 7,095 claims for sexual assault against clergy or volunteers, 99.5 percent of whom were male. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. No one should be surprised that a list exists of hundreds of perpetrators arrested and convicted of sexual crimes, not to mention the countless others who used their power to initiate affairs. After the revelations of the Catholic Church and its coverup of the truth about abuse among its clergy, should we be surprised that the Southern Baptist Church has the same problem? The Southern Baptists won’t be the last. Every evangelical denomination has an approaching day of reckoning.

No church dominated by male clergy is ever going to willingly address the sexual sin within their own ranks. It is the way of the patriarchy. The problem will be addressed only when the push for justice comes from the outside.

Because it affects my personal life on a daily basis, it is disturbing that the Southern Baptists and every other male-dominated denomination have spent decades drawing attention away from their own clergy failings by attacking the LGBTQ+ population.

The Southern Baptists are one of the biggest supporters of anti-transgender legislation. They are the largest denomination that supported the infamous HB2 law in North Carolina, forbidding transgender people from using the proper restrooms. They said we were in women’s restrooms for nefarious purposes, though there has never been a single arrest, let alone conviction, of a transgender person for being in a restroom for nefarious purposes. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and the law was quickly rescinded.

Unfortunately, that is not the case with the plethora of laws passed this year taking away the civil rights of transgender children. All of these laws have been driven by white evangelicals, 84 percent of whom believe gender is immutably determined at birth, 66 percent of whom believe we already give too many rights to transgender people, but only 25 percent of whom know someone who is out as a transgender person.

These churches will continue to divert attention from their own failings by creating enemies that don’t exist. What we are seeing today in conservative Christianity is the last desperate grasp for power from white male religious leaders. They know that by 2045 whites will be in the minority in the United States. They’ve seen church affiliation plummet from 70 percent to 47 percent in just twenty years, and the #MeToo movement has uncovered the inability of any male-dominated community to police its own members.

When people are cornered, they either surrender or lash out. The lashing out has already commenced. Why else would you attack a defenseless group of transgender children and their loving, committed parents? It is a desperate attempt to divert attention away from the problem of predatory clergy. It is a classic version of the iconic phrase from The Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

I have little doubt that toxic evangelical Christianity is headed in the same direction as white supremacy. But neither will go quietly into the night. They will go kicking and screaming the entire way, leaving bodies in their wake.

I imagine my evangelical friends will find this post harsh. Before I left that world, I might have found it harsh too. Most of the people inside male-dominated corridors of power are not evil. In fact, most want to bring about positive change and are appalled by revelations like those within the Southern Baptist Convention. But your entire worldview has been shaped by white men. And try as you might, you just don’t know what you don’t know.

I still carry my male privilege with me. It is baggage chained to my being. My frame of reference is still tied to all those years as a man. I know I am moving in the direction of understanding inequity, but I doubt I’ll live long enough to fully remove myself from the conclusions drawn from decades of entitlement and privilege.

I do not feel sorry for the Southern Baptist Convention. I do feel sorry for the tens of thousands of victims who are being retraumatized by these revelations. Their cries for help went unheeded for far too long and their PTSD will be great. The church must atone for its sins, and the particulars of that atonement should not be determined by their clergy. They should be determined by those who have been traumatized by the men who abused their power and stole the future of so many innocent people.