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

Alone, Together

I spoke for the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina this past weekend. I went with my co-pastor, Kristie Sykes, and we had a wonderful time, though I do think she caught on to my plan to conveniently not have any cash when it was time to eat from the food trucks.

Outside of speaking at Left Hand, the Wild Goose Festival was my first live audience since Covid arrived on our shores. The people were wonderfully responsive, and they bought a lot of books, which makes my publisher happy. This was the second time I’ve given a keynote while the venerable artist Ken Medema sat at the piano and wrote a song themed to my message, which he sang as soon as I finished.  The audience was moved to tears.

The next day Kristie and I presented a workshop about planting Left Hand Church, which seemed to go quite well. We also attended enthralling sessions by Stan Mitchell, Josh Scott, and Brian McLaren, and enjoyed great music, including our own Heatherlyn and Jason.  The entire festival is held outdoors at a campground on the Appalachian Trail, and everyone in attendance had to be vaccinated, which made for a warm and inviting atmosphere.

I needed the Wild Goose Festival this past weekend. It was a balm for my soul. As I think a lot of us are experiencing, I am in a season of necessary inward focus. During this period, I am again reading James Hollis’ book, Swamplands of the Soul – New Life in Dismal Places. My first and second passes of the book were during times in which I was extremely busy and living with others. This reading is different. I live alone, and I have been lonely. It took being alone and being lonely for me to be ready to fully take in the book’s message. Some truths can only be received when you are looking inward.

In the book, Hollis quotes Clark Moustakis, “Loneliness is a condition of human life, an experience of being human which enables the individual to sustain, deepen, and extend their humanity. Efforts to overcome or escape the existential experience of loneliness can result only in self-alienation.”

I do not like what Moustakis suggests. I do not want self-alienation to be the result of avoiding loneliness. But I cannot make it untrue by wishing it to be so. After quoting Moustakis, Hollis continues with these words: “It is precisely our aloneness that permits our uniqueness to unfold.

He goes on to say we “inevitably overrate the value of relationship and underrate the value of solitude…The person who attains solitude is alone in his or her unique experience of the journey, yet such a person is conscious of an inner presence with which to dialogue. Out of such dialogue, the individuation process moves forward. How tragic, then, the repudiation of such an opportunity for growth.”

Um, okay. And where would this “inner presence” be found? Is alcohol involved, or gummies? Apparently, this “inner presence” is found beneath the ego with its constant demands. The “inner presence” is the realm of the soul. Hollis says the antidote for loneliness is to embrace loneliness.

On August 28 we had the first baptismal service in the history of Left Hand Church. Seven people were baptized by our co-pastors.  It was a beautiful evening on Lake MacIntosh, the mountains brilliantly purple in the fading summer light. I was baptized in 1961, in the baptistry of the Noble Avenue Church of Christ in Akron, Ohio. But as we began to plan for our baptismal service, I felt a strong desire to be baptized as Paula.

I surrendered to the hands of my co-pastor, Kristie, as she lowered me into the water. I had baptized her minutes earlier. I felt the water’s cool gentle presence all over my body. As she raised me from the water, still in surrender, I thought, “This is why immersion in water was the practice of the early church. To be lifted by another from the water into the air is surrendering to life as it is, not as you wish it to be, but as it is. For me, it was a surrender that brought forth Dag Hammarskjold’s words, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.”  It was a surrender to life, which right now includes embracing loneliness.

We are born in water, shocked out of the womb into our aloneness as we take our first breaths.  I came out of the baptismal water ready to enter into my time of inward focus. I knew space was being held for me by those who collectively lowered me into the water and lifted me back up again. These people will keep an eye on me, reach out and touch me, and give me space within their cocoon of love. At its best, this is what the church is. It is learning to be alone, together.

A good marriage is also learning to be alone, together. I felt that throughout my marriage to Cathy, and I feel it from her still. I feel it from my children, my closest friends, and those rare and special friends you don’t see all that often who just somehow get you, as you get them.

I saw a few of those people at Goose. I spent an hour with the spiritual giant who used to lead our denomination’s largest mission agency at the time I led one of its large church planting agencies. His words were so powerful I committed them to memory. I spent a couple of hours with the pastor and theologian whose personal journey has added wisdom to his storehouse of great knowledge, and allowed him to bring words of healing and comfort into my life. The young pastor whose instincts for ministry are impeccable, thanked me for a probing question I asked about his experience with blessed failures. The therapist whose work on sexual education has helped many, greeted me as she always does, with genuine warmth and affection.

Wild Goose, Left Hand Church, my co-pastors, friends, and family – these are the people with whom I want to be alone together. These are my fellow-travelers. Some of them will run to the end of the platform and wistfully wave as my train slips away from the station, the ones who know that even when we are embracing loneliness, we are never fully alone.

This is a necessary and important time. Many of you understand. You have been here too. The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. But sometimes it does call us into the deeper places we’d rather avoid.

And so it goes.

Where’s the Dry Land?

I’ve always appreciated the work of the Jungian analyst, James Hollis. His books hold prominent places on my shelves.  In Swamplands of the Soul, he says we must learn to embrace life as it is, not as we wish it to be, or as we are working to make it be.

His words remind me of one of the last entries in Dag Hammarskjold’s journal, which later became the book, Markings. Shortly before his death in a plane crash in Zambia in 1961, the Secretary General of the United Nations wrote,  Night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.

I’ve always been both haunted by and drawn to Hammarskjold’s words. I would like to live with his sober recognition of both the blessings and responsibilities of life. He lived wholeheartedly. And by wholeheartedly, I do not mean he lived with gusto. I mean that he lived with an eye for joy.

Hammarskjold led the UN during the height of the Cold War, when the world was closer to nuclear disaster than it has ever been. His perspective allowed him to accept the heavy weight he carried as he steered the superpowers in the direction of peace. Khrushchev and Kennedy didn’t agree on much, but they agreed on Hammarskjold. They said he was the greatest diplomat of the 20th century. Dag Hammarskjold found a way to view life that allowed him to embrace its complexities from a place of hope and possibility. He really was an extraordinary leader. I am not Dag Hammarskjold.

I have always begun my day reading the Washington Post and New York Times. Until 2016, I always found it enjoyable. Over the past five years, it has rarely been enjoyable. Now, when my day begins with America’s two premiere newspapers, the emotion stirred within is fear, not life’s possibilities.  Dag Hammarskjold’s words rarely come to mind.

The past month has been overwhelming. Here in Colorado, we have been dealing with some of the poorest air quality in the world, all stemming from wildfires in California and Oregon.  The ongoing images of the insurrection of January 6, and the denial of its significance, are never far from my consciousness. And then there’s Afghanistan. What a humanitarian disaster. Beneath all of that, it’s been a difficult month personally. Doing over 40 interviews about a raw memoir is not necessarily good for the soul.

Last week I changed my morning routine. Instead of reading the newspaper first, I have been sitting on my back patio and writing in my journal – one page of gratitude – one page of stream of consciousness. I drink a cup of tea and write until I am done.

The job of a therapist is to bring insight into a client’s life. The insights come from helping the client remove obstacles stopping them from getting beneath their ego to their soul.  The soul is where the insights lie.  Then it is up to the client to act on those insights and endure through his or her actions.

In my own life and therapy, insights have been pouring from the heavens lately, overwhelming the gutters I have so carefully positioned around my ego. I am soaked to the bone. In more normal times, I can receive these insights and decide what action to take. For instance, you might realize that since childhood you have always felt like you were on your own, and therefore always had to scramble to protect yourself when you thought the sky was falling. Now that you have gained that insight, you act, learning to allow others to care for you, and practicing that new action over and over, until it becomes second nature. That’s what I mean when I say therapy brings insight, but you alone can act and endure.

But when you are soaked to the bone with new insights, it is hard to turn those insights into enduring actions. You just sit in the damp cold, shivering. When the world appears to be drowning, it is even harder. You want to do your part to get everyone to dry land, but right now I think, “Yeah, well, I’m a mess, so what good can I be?” It’s a little whiny, don’t you think? (By the way, the only review of my book that I happened to see – an accidental reading – said the book was the tiniest bit whiny.  That’s why I don’t read reviews.)

In the midst of my whiny-ness, I am brought back to the words of the Greek writer, Aeschylus, who said the gods have ordained that the pathway to wisdom is through suffering, which takes me again to the words of the aforementioned James Hollis, who said most of life is lived in the swamplands. Which brings me back to the words of Dag Hammarskjold, Night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes.

Hammarskjold found dry land in the swamp. I’m tired of being soaked to the bone. I want dry land too. You know, the book reviewer might be right. For an entitled white man who now has a pretty comfortable life as a transgender woman, it all sounds kinda whiny.

And so it goes.

A Crazy Couple of Months

The past two months have been a whirlwind of activity as my book, As A Woman, What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy was published. The activity began with a slightly weird interview with LitHub, followed by a probing one with People Magazine. All told, there were about 35 interviews in 50 days. The most recent was a talk and Q&A at the Longmont Public Library.  It was very enjoyable, with lots of thoughtful questions. There are a few more events scattered from August through November, but the daily media push is pretty much over.

Many of the interviews were stimulating.  KK Ottesen’s conversation and photo session for the Washington Post showed why she is one of the best. Jenn White at 1A was another favorite, as were Kate Archer Kent at Wisconsin Public Radio, Kerri Miller at Minnesota Public Radio, and my favorite, Ryan Warner with Colorado Matters on Colorado Public Radio. Several other conversations were notable, including my time with Lisa Kennedy for Kirkus Reviews, and Mary Elizabeth Williams for Salon.

Writing the memoir was a raw, gut-wrenching experience. It is understandable that after 45 days of interviews, I am having a vulnerability hangover. This was a lot. Throughout my adult life I have suffered from occasional bouts of benign positional vertigo. (And yes, I know about the Epley Maneuver, and yes, it works.) I haven’t had a bout in six years, but a spell of vertigo arrived with the release of the book.  It is understandable. We are psychosomatic creatures, and this has been emotionally and physically dizzying.

Neither has it been an easy time for my family and close friends. They played a significant part in my story, but in the interviews about the book, I was the only one doing the telling. Every line in the book had been approved by family and close friends, but they had to trust I would be fair and accurate and protect their privacy in the interviews.  There were a few tense days, but we all survived.

After the biggest rush of interviews and appearances had been completed, Jonathan and his family arrived for their annual summer visit. That brought all three of our children and their families together. As is the case most summers, I had all five granddaughters for the better part of three weeks, which was delightful. My grandchildren could care less that I was in People Magazine or on Good Morning America. Now, if I had been a TikTok sensation, that would have gotten their attention.  I took about 10 pictures of my granddaughters on the couch the last day they were here. The one above is the only one in which multiple children were not making funny faces.

I am ready for life to get back to normal, or what passes for normal in my busy life. I am ready to return to my speaking engagements, counseling clients, and pastoring with Left Hand Church. The church has been my grounding throughout the writing and publishing process. For that I am grateful. Kristie, Nicole, and John, my co-pastors, have been wonderfully accommodating, tolerating my tardiness on projects and the occasional need to shift meeting schedules.

While the past two months were taxing, they were also important. I want to make a difference in the world. I want to make the path easier for those on a journey similar to mine. I want to lessen suffering in the world, and sow seeds of understanding, love, and tolerance.

I also want to continue playing hide and seek with my granddaughters, and taking them tubing on the river, and going to multiple ice cream shops on the same evening, just to satisfy their varying tastes. It is their affection that brings me alive. It is the respect of my children, the love of my close friends, and the satisfaction of good work that keep me moving forward.

I want to live with gratitude and continue bringing offerings into the world. I want my story to play a small part in enhancing the journey of others. I am humbled by the abundance of opportunities that have come my way. I want to be worthy of having been given such a platform.

It makes me happy that my place of gladness has been able to touch the world’s deep hunger. It has not been easy, but it has been good.

My Op-Ed on CNN

On June 2, CNN published an op-ed in which I wrote about the tragedy of the current spate of laws being enacted against transgender adolescents.  Here is that op-ed:

From the time I was 3 or 4 years old, I knew I was transgender. I didn’t know it in those words, of course. In my naivete, I remember thinking I could choose my gender, that maybe a gender fairy would arrive and say, “OK, what’s it going to be?” Of course, I would choose what I understood myself to be — a girl. But alas, no gender fairy ever arrived.

As the child of an evangelical pastor, I knew telling my family what I knew about myself was out of the question. It was the 1950s and not much was known about gender dysphoria. The word transgender did not even exist. Nevertheless, I was certain I was supposed to have been born a girl. I was equally as certain that if I told anyone my secret, I would be in big trouble.

I did not believe I was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. I just felt I was supposed to have been born a girl. When I realized that was not a possibility, I did not despair. I just went about my life.

Puberty was when my real problems began. My body changed in ways I despised, while my female friends had bodies changing in all the ways I desperately wanted mine to change. I hated my body, but I had nowhere to turn. I lived in a conservative area of the South and was immersed in an evangelical subculture that kept a powerful hold on its adherents.

Following in my brother’s footsteps, I attended a Christian college, married, had children and built a career. I ultimately became the CEO of an international Christian ministry, the editor-at-large of a national Christian magazine and a regular speaker in some of the largest churches in the nation. While I was hiding my true self, at least I was providing for my family.

After our children left home, my gender dysphoria returned with a vengeance. When I began to contemplate ending my life, I knew I had to act.

I began a low dose of anti-androgens and estrogen, hoping it might somehow assuage my longing to transition and allow me to continue living as a male. It did just the opposite. The hormones convinced me I needed to transition. My wife and I decided it was time to tell our children and several months later, I told the Christian ministries with which I worked.

Within seven days I lost every single one of my jobs. I was abandoned by my evangelical community and unable to find work. I earned more money in my last two months as a man than in the next 48 months as a woman.

Had I not found a wonderful new affirming church, I do not know if I would have survived. Three years after transitioning, I was asked to speak for TEDxMileHigh, followed by TEDWomen and other TED events, which led to a full speaking schedule on issues related to gender equity. I now serve as a pastor with Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado.

I brought a lot of privilege and skills with me when I transitioned, and the post-transition opportunities that have come my way have left me in far better circumstances than many.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, 54% of transgender people with unsupportive families have attempted suicide and 29% live in poverty. Transgender women of color disproportionately face the interconnected threats of poverty, violence and bigotry.

For transgender children, the statistics are even more disturbing. According to a 2018 study, female to male transgender adolescents attempt suicide at a rate of 50.8%. Male to female trans adolescents have a 29.9% suicide attempt rate.

The Legislative Tracker of Freedom for All Americans indicates there are dozens of bills across multiple states focused on prohibiting transgender athletes from competing in interscholastic sports or focused on denying gender affirming care to transgender adolescents. Arkansas House Bill 1570, enacted over the governor’s veto, made that state the first to outlaw such care for minors, endangering the lives of adolescents in the process.

A recent PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist Poll indicated that two-thirds of Americans of every political ideology and age group oppose laws that would limit transgender rights. If this is the case, what is driving these legislative actions. According to research from Pew, 84% of White evangelical Protestants say that gender is determined by sex at birth.

In my memoir, I grappled with these driving forces, writing that over recent decades, White evangelicals have focused their political energy primarily on two social issues — abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. As someone who has lived with White male privilege, I find it particularly interesting that they have staked so much on two debates that cost their straight male leadership almost nothing.

Focusing on other issues — systemic racism or wealth inequality — might require making changes in their own lives or altering their own sense of power. Instead, they target the rights of transgender children, one of the most at-risk groups in the nation.

To my White evangelical friends and former coworkers, I implore you, leave transgender children alone. Your misguided activism is putting vulnerable adolescents at risk.

I can handle your rejection. These children cannot. They do not bring years of privilege and experience with them. They do not have the resources that I have to withstand your attacks. Research suggests that only 25 percent of you know someone who publicly identifies as transgender. Acquaint yourself with transgender people before you decide that you know what is best. Leave the decisions about medical treatment to the medical professionals. Educate yourself about the causes and complexities of gender dysphoria.

The lives of many hang in the balance. I am lucky that mine is not one of them.

Here is the link to the op-ed on the CNN site:

http://https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/02/opinions/transgender-what-i-learned-from-transition-pride-2021-stone-williams/index.html