Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Only Thing to Fear...Besides the Snakes

I grew up in a small town in the desert of Texas and there were rattlesnakes everywhere. How do I know there were rattlesnakes everywhere? Well, it was the desert in Texas and one does not need a degree in herpetology to know that is the natural habitat for rattlesnakes.

Plus, there was a lot of oral history to support the fact there were rattlesnakes everywhere. I can remember as a kid hearing tales about when they cleared the land for the small airport on the edge of town. The bulldozers unearthed so many rattlesnakes that the snakes were crawling all over the dozers as they moved the dirt. At least that is what a kid in my fourth grade class swore his uncle had told him.

There were also many scary stories about people opening the cupboards in their homes to discover rattlesnakes inside. Talk about a terrifying surprise. I heard that one so many times that I often broke out into a sweat when I went to get a glass out of the cabinet.

The most challenging thing about living in a place with rattlesnakes everywhere was that to get from my house to the convenience store that sold Icees and baseball cards I had to cross an abandoned melon pasture. If you are wondering what kind of town has an abandoned melon pasture right in the middle of it, you have clearly never visited the desert of Texas.

Getting through that pasture to satisfy my addiction to Icees and baseball cards put me in constant peril of meeting one of the ubiquitous rattlesnakes. I tried to run quietly through the weeds and brush, not really knowing how one is supposed to run quietly, but figuring any mode of fast, stealth movement might save me from a deadly rattlesnake strike. It must have worked. In the roughly 10,000 trips I made across that pasture I was never bitten by a snake.

Now that I think about it, in all my years growing up in a place that had rattlesnakes everywhere, I never came across one. Oh, sure, I saw some crossing the highway, but I never saw one in that pasture, or in my cupboard, or even at my dad’s farm. Funny how I spent so much of my childhood being afraid of something that I never even encountered.

In the days surrounding President Obama’s second inauguration the media played old clips of famous inaugural addresses. One of the most noteworthy is FDR’s first inaugural address in 1932 during the Great Depression. It is in that speech that he utters the famous words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

Roosevelt was naming a truth that many of us need reminding of today. Our fears, anxieties and obsessions over what could happen are often the enemy that obstructs and hinders our moving forward. Plus, those fears can cause us to miss the real tragedies taking place as we focus on the possibility there might be a rattlesnake in the cupboard.

The national debate about gun control legislation that has ignited in the aftermath of the mass killing in Newtown, Connecticut has revealed this dynamic. Some of the most strident advocates for unlimited gun ownership feel they must be allowed to arm themselves in an unrestricted fashion so that they may ward off any future attacks from enemies foreign and domestic. Yes, some of these folks anticipate a battle with their own government and they are afraid that without automatic weapons they will be defenseless.

So, the fear of a future, imaginary attack causes these people to advocate for no limits on automatic weapons. In the meantime, we have episode after episode of mass shootings with these very same weapons that are happening right now and are far from imaginary. The fear of what could take place distracts from the reality of what actually is happening and needs immediate attention.

The same picture unfolds when the heterosexual majority names their strange fears that granting marriage equality to LGBTQ citizens will somehow do harm to their own marriages. Setting aside the fact this makes no sense, and has already been shown to be baseless in places where marriage equality is the law of the land, there is the tragic reality of the terrible cost, financial and emotional, paid by same-gender couples who are not allowed to marry. Again, fear about what could happen (in this case nothing) is allowed to distract the debate from the enormous damage already being inflicted on LGBTQ citizens. 

Do we really want to shape public policy in this country based on people’s irrational fears, or do we want to make policies that address the real problems right in front of us? After all, if you spend years afraid of the rattlesnakes everywhere, and never come across one, you might realize the problem is not the snakes. The problem is the fear.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Thoughts on Sandy Hook

Sara Hess died more than thirty years ago. I am not over it yet. She lived next door to my childhood home and was one of my mother’s closest friends. Sara had five children, she played the organ at a local church and was the kindest person in my little world. To this day when I try to picture human kindness, Sara Hess’s face comes to mind.

Having attended and presided over hundreds of funerals in my life, it is curious that Sara dying of cancer when I was thirteen holds such a prominent place in my memory. I imagine it has to do with my age and the circumstances surrounding the death.

Sara’s illness and decline caused me as a young boy to confront certain hard questions for the first time. How could someone so good be struck with such a cruel disease? How could doctors and clergy be powerless in the face of this grave threat? But most importantly, what words could I say that would ease the heartache my mother was experiencing?

The day of Sara’s funeral is etched in my mind. The most vivid memory is of my mother walking in the cemetery having to be held up by my brothers as her grief overcame her. I spent the rest of that day actively searching for words I could say that would make the pain less for my mother. I never found those words and felt ashamed about that failure.

It does not take a therapist to see that a young boy searching for words to comfort a grieving mother might be a good candidate for the ministry. By the time I was twenty I was already serving as the pastor of a small, country church. Shortly after taking the position, a tragic death occurred. The mother of twin babies took her own life leaving the grandparents to raise the boys. 

Sitting in the living room with this couple that was mourning the sudden death of their daughter, and contemplating the prospect of raising two babies, I once more felt the overwhelming need to find the right words to say. And, again, I failed. 

The good news is that after spending many years as a minister, and now as a counselor, I have had countless opportunities to sit with people who have suffered a terrible loss. I am now an expert on what to say in such circumstances. Do you want to know the secret? There is nothing to say.

On December 14, 2012 we suffered a tragic loss as a people when twenty children and six adults were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. We have been through these mass killings too many times as Americans, but there was something about the fact that most of the victims were six-year-olds that made this event even more horrifying. Such violence and madness makes us physically ill and emotionally distraught at the realization of what the human species is capable of doing.

In the days since the killings there have been many words spoken. Traditional and social media outlets are ablaze with updates, speculation, accusations, policy proposals, name calling, political posturing and various expressions of outrage. I am having a hard time tolerating most of it. Oh, I am heartened to see that people across the political spectrum are in agreement that something must be done to stop these mass shootings. What previously seemed like empty rhetoric might actually lead to something constructive this time. I pray it does.

For me, the consolation this week has come from a dead philosopher. Ludwig Wittgenstein said almost a century ago, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” I take him to mean that there are limits to what language can express and achieve. There are things that are beyond words. And in the face of such moments in life when we feel compelled to find the right words to fix a situation, or take away the pain of someone we love, we would do well to be silent.

So, I have spent 700 words to say there are no words. It is time for me to take my own advice and shut up. It is time to grieve.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Ultimate Move

I have called fifteen places home in my life. Six apartments, four parsonages, two dormitory rooms, one rent house, my parents’ home, and the house my wife and I own now. Yes, it was not until the fifteenth residence that I could say I owned the place. Well, actually, some mortgage company in New York City owns our house, but they let us live in it from month to month.

The thing that jumps out at me about having lived in fifteen places is that there have been at least fourteen moves. Which surprises me because after every move I have uttered the words, “I will never do this again.” 

People make moves in life for a variety of reasons. Some folks move not because they choose to, but because they have to. I have seen that reality in trips overseas to places like the Republic of Georgia. I visited an abandoned Soviet military base where thousands of refugees were living because they had been driven from their homes by the conflict between Russia and Georgia. I’ve also seen it on a trip to Zimbabwe. The cruel government of President Robert Mugabe has so shattered the Zimbabwean economy that thousands are moving to South Africa and other neighboring countries looking for work. Do they want to leave their homes? Of course not. But they have no choice.

All of which makes me reflect on the immigration debate in this country. There is a tremendous uproar about undocumented people and what we should do about them. But what I don’t hear in this so-called Christian nation is much discussion about the forces that drive people to leave their homes, risk their lives to travel to an unknown country, so that they can work jobs that few of us would be willing to do. I hear a lot about the threat of terrorism, and how unfair it might be if we let a few of these people into our community colleges. But I don’t hear many of our moral watchdogs talking about what drives people to risk so much to come here. And that disturbs me. 

For most of us, though, we make our moves in life of our own volition. The first big move many people make is when they leave home for college. Where we go to school and what we choose to study make a statement about what is important to us. Later, career moves also reveal something about our needs and desires. We might move far from our original home to chase a job opportunity that is right for us. Or, we might sacrifice money and prestige to go to a place that fits the needs of our family better.

The common thread I see running through all of these moves or changes is that we are usually seeking safety and comfort. We select a school based on whether it feels like the right fit for us. We might move a thousand miles for a job that provides a more comfortable lifestyle for our family. Human beings have a fundamental need to find places that feel right, that feel safe, and we will go to great lengths to discover those places.

So, some people make moves or changes because forces beyond their control compel them to seek survival in a new place. And many of us make moves or changes in life because we need to find the safety and comfort of the right place. But there is another move we make that has little to do with having our survival and safety needs met.

This most dangerous move calls us to risk rejection in order to do what we believe is right. It calls us to push beyond our normal comfort zone to do what is just. It calls us to choose a path that others might deem foolish in order to create what is fair. What am I talking about when I describe this ultimate move in life? I’m talking about LBJ signing civil rights legislation even though he knew it would cost his party the South for a generation or more. I’m talking about the kid in school who risks his social status by befriending the outcast. I’m talking about LGBTQ people and their straight allies challenging the homophobia that permeates families, churches, schools and legislative corridors. When we reach the place in life where our need for survival and safety no longer trumps our hope for a more just and fair culture, we will have moved to higher ground. 

The great Stevie Wonder once wrote:

Till I reach my highest ground
No one's gonna bring me down
Oh no
Till I reach my highest ground
Don't you let nobody bring you down (they'll sho 'nuff try)

Yes, Stevie, they will sho ‘nuff try. May each of us keep moving toward the high ground where justice for all is more than a slogan.

Monday, November 5, 2012

And a Child(ren) Shall Lead Them

I am like many parents in that I am biased about my kids. I think my children are cool, interesting people who make the world a better place. To say that I love them would be a preposterous understatement. 

I also know that listening to people ramble on about their “youngins” is as interesting as going to a friend’s house for dinner and being subjected to the 500 slides from last summer’s amazing trip to the Grand Canyon. “Oh look, there is my Aunt Bonnie riding a donkey down to the canyon floor. Isn’t that just the greatest thing?” No, it isn’t. Great for you and Aunt Bonnie, maybe, but for the rest of us it is just tedious.

So, I am aware that what I am about to say risks producing a Grand Canyon slide show effect on all of you. I am going to tell you something about my kids, but not because I want to brag on them and have you join me in celebrating their specialness. I have bigger fish to fry here than mere sentimentality.

For the last 12-15 years of my life, civil rights for the LGBT community has been the central social issue for me. It’s not that other issues/causes are not important, but my energy and time has been primarily focused in this direction.

What that means is that many times over the last decade I have been bitterly disappointed. The words and actions of political and religious leaders, as well as family and friends who do not believe in equal protection under the law for the LGBT community, have often angered me and left me despondent. It is easy to give up hope that the world will change when 65% of your neighbors in this state vote to amend the constitution just so the discriminatory law forbidding marriage equality gets doubly re-enforced. We get it already--you don’t want the queer folk getting married. How many pieces of legislation do you need to pass to make your damn point!

This is where my kids come into the mix. My son, Stephen, is a junior at Appalachian State University. When he was in high school he was a terrific baseball player. He gave his heart and soul to the game. For that reason it would have been easy to label him a typical jock, but he wasn’t.

During his senior year Stephen took a Creative Writing class and had to produce a short story. He wrote a poignant tale about a gay high school student living in a conservative world where it was dangerous to come out. For a straight, 17-year-old boy who spent most of his time in the homophobic sports world to write such an insightful piece moved me tears. The compassion and wisdom Stephen demonstrated in creating that story gave me hope.

My daughter, Allie, is a senior in high school now. She is a fierce and proud ally for her LGBT friends. Last year she had to write a paper in school about a civil rights movement in U.S. history and she chose the Stonewall riots as her topic. I will never forget her delight when she learned it was the drag queens who led the way in standing up to the discrimination and abuse foisted on the LGBT community by the New York police. Rain or shine Allie goes to Pride every year and marches. The passion and resolve she demonstrates in her advocacy work gives me hope.

Yes, my kids are cool, interesting people and you would be lucky to know them. But that is not why I risked showing you the family “slide show.” Maintaining hope is the most important of all human achievements. It may also be the most difficult achievement. The forces working against equality for all people are powerful and too often successful. The temptation to give in to despair is a struggle to resist. The example of my kids, and thousands like them across this country, provides me that precious hope, makes me want to fight intolerance and helps me combat the snare of cynicism. I am grateful.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Getting the Full Picture

There is a photograph of my wife and me that I love. The picture sits on a table in our bedroom so I see it daily. In the photo I have my arm around KaKi and we are standing in a park late in the afternoon. Her head is nestled against my cheek and she has the most beautiful smile. What makes it even more special is that the picture was taken by a dear friend who was hosting us for dinner on that particular evening. 

There is another truth connected to this picture that doesn’t quite fit the perfect scene. Sometimes when I look at the photo I am reminded that a few hours before it was taken KaKi and I had one of the worst fights of our marriage. I’m talking top three blowouts in our twenty-six years together. Lots of raised voices, tears and hurt feelings accompanied this battle. Then, we had a dinner date to get to, ended up walking to a park afterwards, and our friend took a picture so special that we have displayed it in our home for years. Go figure.

Is the picture a fake because it fails to reveal the pain and anguish of that day? I don’t think so. The affection the photo captures is real. Maybe we keep it on display because it reminds us that for most of our marriage such closeness has been our truth.

But the picture is incomplete. Only KaKi and I know the back story to it, at least until now. If you were to look at it you would never guess the acrimony we had displayed towards each other just hours earlier. Funny how on the same day one can have a worst moment, and a best moment, bumping up against each other.

Many snap shots tell an incomplete story. Thirty second political ads can explain why a candidate is the devil, or almost a saint, but rarely do they tell us a truth that has depth. Bumper stickers can make us laugh out loud, or want to jump out and drop kick the person’s car, but there usually isn’t much substance to the one liner on the bumper.

Other snap shots we take come in the form of opinions or assumptions we make about others. Usually these internal pictures have been shaped by experiences we have had with people from a particular group. So, we might think “all religious people are narrow-minded zealots” because our experience with religion is of that sort. Or, we might say “Republicans could care less about the needs of vulnerable people in our society” because of the actions of the General Assembly this past year.

There is no question that many religious people are judgmental and cruel. And, the actions of the Republicans in the General Assembly this last year have done real damage to a lot of folks, especially the LGBT community by putting the marriage amendment on the ballot.

Yet, it isn’t a complete picture. I know a lot of people of faith who are inclusive in spirit and fight for the rights of LGBT people. I also know Republicans who work hard within their party to change hearts and minds about the homophobia that has overtaken many in the GOP. If our snap shot of religion and Republicans is not big enough to include these kinds of people, then we need to broaden our lens.

I hope for the day when many in the heterosexual majority also begin to see more than a surface view of their LGBT neighbors. I laugh sometimes when I hear broad generalizations like “gay men just want to have sex all the time” because I think of gay men I know who have not had sex in years and don’t seem much interested in it. Or I think of straight people I know who have few boundaries on their sex lives. Finding out someone is gay or straight really doesn’t tell you much about the person’s sexual appetite, or anything else for that matter.

In an information-based culture we are able to learn a little about a lot of things in a matter of seconds. We take constant snap shots and form quick opinions. Our failure to look beyond the surface to what is behind the picture not only limits us, but does harm to those we quickly categorize. We are all losers in the process.

I’m grateful for the picture in my bedroom because it tells me something more than my beautiful wife has a lovely smile. It reminds me that on one of our hardest days we still had enough love for each other to take a photo that is real and full of warmth. Knowing the whole story transforms the meaning for me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Different Kind of Support

Traveling in a foreign country is always an illuminating experience. Some years ago my minister friend, Nancy, and I were invited by a bishop in a small eastern European country to come visit him. The bishop, Albert, knew that Nancy was gay and that I worked closely with the LGBTQ community. Having met Albert years before, we knew he was a progressive sort. What we didn’t know was how openly he could safely discuss matters of sexuality and gender identity in his conservative world. We soon found out.

After we had been in the country for a week, Albert asked for a private conversation. He said he had a delicate situation on his hands and needed our help. A young man in the church had been coming to Albert for counseling about his gender identity disorder. This person thought he might be a woman trapped in a man’s body, but had no one to talk to about it except the bishop.

Albert knew that Nancy and I both had experience working with transgender people. He confessed great compassion for the young man’s struggle, but also said his church and culture were not ready for an open conversation about such issues. He wondered if we would meet with the young man and Albert would serve as the translator.

When Joseph entered the bishop’s study he looked frail and embarrassed. We greeted him as warmly as we could given the fact we did not speak his language and he did not speak English. After some small talk we ventured into asking questions about Joseph’s struggle with his gender identity. The more we talked the more Joseph realized we were sympathetic to his plight. He opened up to us and explained his dream was to travel to England or Canada and have gender reassignment surgery. This did seem like a dream given the fact Joseph had acknowledged earlier that he had never even dressed in women’s undergarments because he could not afford them.

When Joseph departed the three of us lamented that there was not something more tangible we could do to help him in his distress. Then I had a thought. Here was a young man who believed he was a woman, but he had not ever worn women’s clothes. It seemed like a basic first step would be to help Joseph find some clothes and see how comfortable he was wearing them in private. So, I blurted out, “Let’s go to the store and buy Joseph a bra and some panties.” Albert and Nancy looked at me strangely, and I realized we were about to venture off the map in terms of traditional caregiving. However, they finally agreed there was little to lose.

When we arrived at the department store Nancy and I headed for the women’s clothing section and Albert went in the opposite direction. Not only was he a well known figure in this town, but he was still wearing his clerical uniform. Apparently he decided it wouldn’t look good for a bishop to be seen shopping for lingerie.

Nancy and I began gingerly picking our way through the bras. We quickly realized we had a problem. Joseph was tall and very thin, not a description that would fit either one of us. As I held one bra up to Nancy and asked if she thought it would fit, she turned red and said, “How would I know? Does it look like I have ever fit into a bra that size in my life?!” At the very moment I was holding the bra up in front of Nancy, Albert came around the corner and saw what was happening. He let out a audible yelp and ran  the other way.

In the end we decided on a bra and panty set that we thought might fit Joseph. He seemed grateful for the unorthodox gift and we later put him in touch with a therapist who could provide additional support. 

It is easy to forget that the private struggle gay and transgender people endure is not just an issue in our country. All over the world there are LGBTQ individuals living in much more repressed cultures who have few safe places to discuss their situation. In the battle for universal human rights, compassionate people like Albert, and brave souls like Joseph, need all the support we can provide. Even if that support is sometimes of an unusual and lacy variety.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Drinking Tea with Your Demons

Poker players call it a “tell.” A change in behavior or demeanor that gives a clue as to what kind of hand they are holding. I suppose some tells are obvious (a huge grin on the face, bouncing up and down excitedly, throwing one’s cards down in disgust), but most are far more subtle.
I think of this dynamic often when one of my counseling clients gets close to talking about their pain. When the tears start to flow from someone who is naming their deep grief the tell is obvious. 
It is hard for us to get that close to our pain, though, so we develop ways of warding it off. Humor is a tool many of us employ to avoid talking about our wounds. Changing the subject quickly is another tell. I have a friend who can speak about her emotional suffering for about ten seconds and then quickly says, “Well, that’s enough about that.” I know at that point she is finished with the subject regardless of how much more I say or ask.
All of this makes sense to me on one level. Who wants to feel the depths of their grief, anger or shame? Who wants to get too close to their worst fears or losses? Those things hurt like hell. Swimming with hungry sharks sounds more appealing.
On the other hand, avoiding or denying our deepest wounds doesn’t seem to work in the long run. Fears can overtake us. Anger can become unmanageable. Emotional disconnection can become a way of life because of our unattended suffering.
So, what to do? Two stories from ancient religious traditions come to mind that may offer a different path toward healing.
There are many versions of the Buddhist story that goes something like this. Mara, the demon personification of doubt, fear, temptation, etc. was constantly trying to distract the Buddha from reaching enlightenment. When the Buddha would notice Mara lurking nearby, he would not run from him or fight him. Instead, the Buddha would have tea prepared and invite Mara to sit with him. In other words, the Buddha did not deny the presence of fear, pain and temptation. He acknowledged those realities and asked them to sit with him and talk. 
It reminds me of the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness for forty days. During that time of testing the devil appears three times. In each case Jesus does not run from the devil, or fight him, but engages him in conversation.
What a different way of approaching one’s suffering. Inviting Mara to tea, or engaging the devil in conversation, are metaphors for how we might learn to acknowledge our deepest pain. And the reason I like these metaphors so much is that it is harder to feel like you will be destroyed by something or someone with whom you can drink tea.
A person I care about very much, who I will call John, keeps teaching me this lesson. John was like many people in the LGBTQ community who kept his orientation hidden for decades. Revealing his secret seemed certain to destroy him. Then, finally, he invited Mara to tea and looked his fear squarely in the face. John came out, and now years later, confesses it was the most important step he has taken toward his own healing.
Then, recently, John had to face a powerful demon. Alcohol had caused him problems on and off again for much of his life. In recent months the addiction had gotten a stranglehold on John and was undermining everything he cared about in life. But John did the smartest thing imaginable at that point of desperation. He entered into a treatment program and started a 30-day conversation with his alcohol problem. Now he has two months of sobriety under his belt and a sense that life can be good again.
John is no different than any of us in that he suffers. What does make him different is that twice he has been willing to confront his fears and problems in ways that many people will not. His courage and wisdom in doing so are an inspiration to me.
We can run from our pain, thrash at it with unhealthy addictions and behaviors, or invite it to tea. Only one of those approaches leads to peace.


About Me

former pastor who is now a pastoral counselor and consultant (; married with two teenagers; progressive in my politics and theology