Nothing to Fear

When I was in college I used to go spelunking with four friends.  Carter Caves State Park was near my Kentucky home and we explored the dark tributaries of its caves. Three of us did not weigh an ounce over 150 pounds, but our fourth friend had the bearing of a offensive tackle.  The rest of us could wriggle through narrow openings into fascinating interior caverns while he was left alone on the other side of the divide.

That is how I felt at the She Is Called conference in Denver.   Capped at 50 attendees, the conference was focused on women in leadership.  For me, the highlights included a session on sex and power led by Dr. Tina Schermer Sellers, and Jen Jepsen’s talk on her awakening to white privilege.  I assisted in one conversation on Thursday and gave the keynote address on Friday evening.

Though women never treat me that way, I often feel like an interloper when I am in decidedly feminine spaces.  I believe my feelings are based on something more than self-deprecation.  The women were talking on Thursday about the cyclical lens through which they view the universe.  I do not have estrogen coursing through my body for 14 days, followed by progesterone for 14.  I have estrogen all 28 days.  I am always in the “feel good” portion of a period.  My experience is linear, not cyclical.

My surface life is pretty unremarkably female as I enjoy a satisfying and meaningful existence, but once I start crawling more deeply into the cave, I discover spaces into which I cannot fit.  But I can get close enough to see what is inside, and what I observe is fascinating.

Women are unafraid of intimacy with one another.  They don’t have the, “How ’bout those Bears” fear of physical touch that men so often express.  Most women are comfortable with each other’s bodies and at home in close spaces.  But I also observe that many of the same women are not comfortable in their own bodies.  After millennia of being treated as objects, they have bought into the notion they are only as good as they look.  This particular problem is something I understand.

As a male I never paid much attention to my appearance.  If I did glance in a mirror, I was comfortable with what I saw.  As a female I feel that way, let me think, yeah, never!  I always look in the mirror and find myself lacking.  The first response I had to seeing my TEDxMileHigh video was to cry, not because I was proud of the video, but because I thought I wasn’t pretty enough.

Carla and Kate, who host the She Is Called podcast and helped lead the retreat, bought dresses at Judith and Joe, a boutique in the Rhino neighborhood of Denver.  During Thursday evening’s main session they interviewed Brandee Castle, one of the owners.

You can be sure many of the rest of us were well aware we would never look as good as Kate and Carla did in their dresses.  It’s just not gonna happen.  We were thrilled for them, but acutely aware of our own limitations. Of course, the truth is that every woman at the retreat looked amazing, but none of them thought so.  And there is nothing you can tell them that will change what they see in the mirror.

When it comes to what you see in the mirror, I can squeeze into the cavern.  I understand that experience.  But there are other spaces into which I cannot crawl.  What did I see through the narrow tunnel as I looked into those spaces?  I saw women who not only thought they were not pretty enough, but women who thought they weren’t enough, period.  They measured themselves against the other women and came up lacking.

On Friday evening I encouraged the women to work more collaboratively and empower one another.  But the more I think about it, their tendency not to empower one another is not from any attitude of scarcity.  It is from a deep-seated lack of belief in themselves. They do not realize that if they harness all of that feminine energy, they can bring the whole world into alignment.  They have a hard time seeing their own power.  You cannot empower others when you are convinced you are powerless.

From my little space in the cave’s tunnel I saw what these women could not see.  While they saw dark rock walls, I saw rich earthy minerals ready to nurture growth.  What I saw was crystal clear water running over beautiful formations.  What I saw was the power to heal the nations.

On Saturday morning, as these beautiful women shared their thoughts about the retreat and laid bare their feelings as they read their own poetry, I realized I have nothing to fear.  These women will find the freedom and courage to empower themselves. I hear it in their voices.  And they will empower one another. They will change the world, and we will be better for it.  The Divine Feminine is alive and well.


Every Bit As Much, and More

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by a Detroit newspaper.  The reporter asked, “In watching your TED talk and reading through your articles, I notice you often refer to feeling unheard as a woman, but you never mention the difference in how people respond to your preaching now that you are a woman.”

I had not been asked the question before, and it got me thinking.  There is actually a discernible difference in how people respond to my preaching as a female.

People always responded well to the preaching of Paul.  (My apologies for speaking about myself in the third person, but sometimes it’s just easier.)  After preaching at a megachurch in Chicago, one woman said,  “Hey, what you said in your sermon, well, that’s the conclusion I was going to reach next month.  Thanks for getting me there a little earlier.”

You always want to be one step in front of your audience.  If you are a step behind, they are bored.  If you are two steps in front, they are confused.  But if you are a single step in front, they are ready to hear the insights you provide.  And that is what people are looking for in a sermon – insight.

I always want to be one step in front of my audience, and I always want to provide both information and insight.  I want them to say, “Oh I never thought of it that way before.” I have always wanted to touch both mind and heart, for that’s where the soul resides.

As a male in American evangelicalism, my presence carried weight.  I had authority, granted by my education and accomplishments, but mostly by my status as a white male.  Because I spoke to the right brain as much as the left, I was well received by women.  In fact, women seemed to be a good bit more responsive to my messages than men.  I used to speak at men’s retreats every now and again, but I was never a favorite.

When I preached as Paul, I felt alive.  With the exception of how I felt as a father, I felt more alive preaching than at any other time I was living as a male.  After I came out as transgender, it was 18 months before I preached again.  The first time I preached as Paula, I used a sermon I had preached before.  I paired it with different illustrations, but the guts of the sermon were the same.  I wanted to be as comfortable as possible, and I needed the continuity.  The sermon went wonderfully, but because it was a sermon I had preached before, the main sense I felt was comfort and familiarity.

The first time I wrote a new sermon as Paula, it was different.  Very different.  The writing process felt like I was opening drawers that had remained closed, well, forever.  There were no depths that could not be plumbed and no thoughts that had to be censored.  I brought all of myself to my study.  When I preached that sermon, something else happened.  People listened as I had never seen them listen before.

There is no question that as a woman I am often ignored by society.  But when I preach, I feel as though I have every bit as much authority as when I was a male.  In fact, I believe I have more.  I think it is because I have the courage to exist in the world, to answer God’s call to be true to who I am.  It is as though the audience says, “She was rejected by the church, but she still loves it, and the Spirit who gave birth to it.  So if she is still in the church, then I wanna hear what she’s got to say.”

People do listen, carefully.  They lean in and take to heart the words I speak from my own heart.  I really enjoyed writing my sermon and preaching this past weekend.  I’ve attached a link below.  I feel a pleasure preaching that gives me great joy.

I was made to preach.  Yes. Paula was made to preach.  And it is wonderful to preach every other week with another human who was also made to preach, Jen Jepsen.  We are the preaching pastors of Left Hand Church, and we love it!  And thanks to the hard work of our co-pastor Aaron Bailey, we will preach the Word, in season and out, for as long as we are able.


What If You Held a March and No One Came?

There was a march in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to celebrate “freedom from homosexuality and transgenderism.”  Well, for starters, “transgenderism” is not a word. It is a made up noun.  But it’s easier to invent a word than it is to say “transgender people” because, darn it, if you do that then you have to acknowledge they are people.

Of course, it is not nouns from which these people want to be free.  It is people, people who are gay or transgender.  So let me ask, how is that different from wanting to be free from people who are not of European ancestry?  Yeah, I thought so.

Julie Rogers wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times about the rally.  Turns out it might not have been necessary.  Posted pictures didn’t show hundreds of thousands, or thousands, or even hundreds of attendees.  There were a few tens of attendees.  Yep, that’s it.  The low attendance might have been because the march was poorly promoted, but I wonder if something else isn’t going on.

Younger Evangelicals are coming to understand what the rest of the world has known for quite a while.  The church has done a terrible job teaching about human sexuality and gender.  The evangelical purity culture ruined an entire generation of teens when they made it difficult for them, even in marriage, to find sexual pleasure.  They could only see sex negatively.

The same is true when it comes to how the church has handled gender.  To keep the patriarchy alive, for centuries the church has disparaged an entire gender!  To this very day evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism are still at it.

The march was a flop because Millennials and Generation X  don’t much respect the church on issues of sexuality and gender.  They have moved on, while the Boomers who still hold to their hard and fast categories have too many knee problems to march.

Even many of those evangelical leaders who still occasionally speak up against LGBTQ issues are less than enthusiastic.  They are not about to show up at a march.  As one megachurch pastor told me, “Most of our people have moved on, but our money hasn’t.”  These guys (and they are all guys) are just biding their time.

Don’t get me wrong.  The war is not over.  There are still a lot of dangerous people out there who want “freedom from homosexuality and transgenderism.”  But when you look at their dwindling numbers, their threats look pretty weak.  They still want to kill the messengers who remind them of the church’s failure on these subjects, but their arsenal has been reduced to a few pebbles lobbed in our general direction by people with weak throwing arms.

At Left Hand Church, all three of our pastors are the messengers. Aaron Bailey is gay.  I am transgender, and Jen Jepsen might be the worst offender of all.  She is a straight female who dares to stand in the face of the patriarchal system and say, “Not on my watch.”

There may have been a tiny celebration in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, but there was a far more life-giving celebration in Longmont, Colorado.  At Left Hand Church Jen preached a wonderful sermon about Jesus affirming us as we are.  Then Justin Bullis sang a Billy Joel song (you know which one) and Kate Gaddis brought us to tears with a beautiful communion meditation about the thin places where the lines between heaven and earth come together.  The entire service was a beautiful celebration of true love.

There will still be large rallies attended by thousands who want to deny the rights of gay and transgender citizens.  But Saturday’s march in D.C. is a more reliable sign of what’s to come.  Their days are numbered.

On the other hand, Saturday’s celebration at Left Hand Church is also a sign of what’s to come.  Love is rising, my friends.  Love is rising.

Into This Briarpatch

Into This Briarpatch

The writer D. H. Lawrence said a writer sheds his sickness in his writing.  No one escapes it.  Read any author long enough and you will see the nature of his or her ongoing struggles.  I’ve recently noticed it on reality television, where couples work together renovating houses or selling real estate.  You can see some of the marriages are headed for the exit unless there is serious intervention.  It is painful to watch.

I have lived my transition publicly.  Over a half million people have watched via my TEDxMileHigh talk.  Every day I hear from transgender people and their families from all over the world.  Women from five continents have thanked me for validating their experiences of discrimination.  I understand that by writing and speaking about my life I am doing something for the greater good.  But I am always walking a knife-edge with my transparency.  It is easy to drop into egocentricity or self-promotion.  I mean, really.

My writing could also be presumptuous.  Who am I to think I know anything about the female experience?  I said in the TEDx talk, “I often feel like an interloper, a late arrival to the serious work of womanhood.”  For that reason I tread lightly when I contrast my life as a male with my life as a female.  All I have is my experience as a transgender female.  But still I write, because so many of my discoveries have been about how a person holds his or her space in the world.

As a male I rarely thought about how a person holds space.  I just was.  I expected the world to make room for me and it did.  That’s the ease of being a well-educated white male.  If I was in a group of men, we were conscious of who the alpha male was, but we had little difficulty holding our space.  In religious spaces, women were pretty much patronized or ignored.  It is shocking to me that any of them stuck around.

I have noticed that women often feel uncomfortable in male-dominated spaces.  They have had decades of teaching that when they are in that space their value is determined by how they look more than what they know. When their expertise is acknowledged, they are judged by how quickly and confidently they speak.  In short, they are judged by how male they are.

It is rare that I feel pulled back into male ways of functioning.  But when I am in a room full of men, it is tempting.  That is how it felt at the retreat I wrote about two weeks ago.  But that is not my strongest temptation.  The strongest temptation is to stop working with men altogether, to leave the patriarchal ranking system and learn from watching women work.  I know that is not a real solution, because there is serious work to be done.

Women must not back off from infiltrating male-dominated spaces with their storehouse of wisdom.  I know they are weary of being ignored and dismissed, but the men will not get there on their own.  And the men must make room for women.  That will be difficult because a lot of men have yet to learn the art of listening.  For instance, they have not yet begun to think about new kinds of metrics.  In the church world, the metrics have always been weekend attendance and per capita giving.  What if we measured the quality of relationships instead?  That is the kind of change I am talking about.

There are men who are already there, like Mark Tidd, one of the co-pastors at Highlands Church, or Eric Jepsen, Jen’s husband, or my co-pastor Aaron Bailey.  All three hold their own in male dominated spaces, but when women are in the room they seek to empower, not dominate.

I don’t have many answers, just observations.  Being a woman in the world feels as natural as can be.  But I have been undone by how it has changed the lens through which I view the world.  I have barely begun to scratch the surface of what it means to be ranked, tokenized and ignored.  I am deeply pained when I watch dear female friends and family be dismissed by groups of men.  I want to scream, “Don’t you know who she is?”

I cannot find language for the depths of my discomfort.  But I will continue to wrestle, because I have come to believe this is one of the holy reasons I was led into this briarpatch.

And so it goes.

Well Now, This Is a Fine Mess

Well Now, This Is a Fine Mess

I have always had an interest in airplanes and have been known to watch geeky videos in which young pilots earn their hours taking Pilatus Porters into remote mountain airstrips in Papua. These strips have been painstakingly built by hand over 10 or 15 years by cutting the vegetation off mountaintops. The natives are willing to do the hard work so they will no longer be cut off from the larger world.  They don’t just crave the food and other precious cargo that arrives on these airplanes.  They crave knowledge.

I find it ironic that while the tribes of Papua are willing to do backbreaking labor to bring truth and knowledge into their villages, we Americans are giving up our access to truth and knowledge.  I believe there are at least three reasons.  Let me give a brief explanation.

First, the Internet has no regard for what is true.  Try typing the beginning of a random phrase like, “Young women are” into your Google search engine and see what pops up.  As you can readily see, Google algorithms have no moral character.  They just bring up the searches that are typed most often.

Just because something is on the Internet does not mean it is true.  That should be as obvious as saying to a child, “Don’t play in the middle of the street.”  But it’s not.  Look up my name on the Internet and go through the first five pages or so. There are a lot of “facts” that are simply not true.

A second reason we have abandoned truth is because of the teachings of an extreme form of postmodernism that says there is no such thing as truth, only this or that power narrative.  All we have is what is true for you and what is true for me, as if there is no agreed upon notion of truth in any area.

It is not the Internet that espouses this notion, but the university, which goes out of its way to say no one metanarrative is better than another. They do not see the difference between power metanarratives, which are destructive, and growth metanarratives, which focus on discernible truth that advances the species.

The third reason we have lost or way is because of religion.  One might hope the church would be a safe place to hear the truth, but the church has always been one of the last places to accept difficult truths.  Just ask Galileo, who was placed under house arrest by the church because he taught that the earth revolved around the sun.   Christian institutions of higher education act as an extension of the evangelical church, encouraging serious scholarship, but only as long as it comes to predetermined conclusions.

The result is schools that do not encourage the vigorous search for truth, but instead teach a narrative that may or may not be true.  In doing so those institutions set people up to be deliverers and receivers of fake news, unattached to any known reality. Take evolution for instance.  The majority of evangelical colleges still present a seven-day creation as fact, though there are no scientific facts to back it up.

Graduates from those schools take the pulpits of churches throughout the United States unprepared for the complex cultural realities they encounter.  They hide behind walls of rigid orthodoxy as they create their own newspapers, magazines, television networks and social media platforms. They are cultural separatists who receive their information from self-limiting sources.

Whether it’s the Internet, extreme postmodernism or the church, the loss of the notion of truth has become a tragic reality.  But I do see hope.  In this era of “fake news” it has been fascinating to watch how quickly the mainstream media has rejected the postmodern notion that all truth is constructed truth and a power narrative.  Now we see the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and other news outlets talking pointedly about the importance of the truth, and the difference between truth and a lie.

They are also doing their best to present the facts.  While their editorial departments have leanings toward the left or right, in their reporting they care deeply about the truth, now more than ever.  I, for one, am grateful for their presence.

Ultimately the search for truth must return to you and me.  Will we do the work necessary to discern what is true, or will we leave that to our tribe?  Every day we have opportunities to discern the truth, if we will take the time to do so. You don’t need Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity to tell you what you think.  Go to the original sources and decide for yourself.  Truth should not be left in the hands of a tribal Intermediary.  It is far too important.

Truth exists. It is discernible and it does matter. And it is the one thing with the ability to unite us.

Apples to Apples

Apples to Apples

Last week I finally had a chance to compare apples to apples.  For most of my new life I have felt disconnected from my past.  Last Monday I did a 2 1/2 hour interview with the NPR show, Radiolab.  (I’ll let you know when it airs.)  The interviewer was intrigued that I always refer to my male self in the third person.

Shortly after I transitioned I protested to my son that I was the same person I had always been. I have rarely heard him speak more forcefully.  “No! No, you are not!”  And sure enough, I’m not.  Ever since I grasped that difficult truth, I have talked about Paul and Paula as if they are two different people.  In the future I hope I feel more integrated, but it’s been hard.  My almost complete ostracism by the evangelical church is a factor, but I am discovering it goes far deeper.

Last week I had a few days that resembled my past life.  It was a rare moment when the worlds of Paul and Paula were similar.  I was one of the leaders of a retreat of church planters, my first in five years.  The retreat was much like scores of retreats I have led over the years, but for me the experience was profoundly different.

Two of the attendees were at retreats I led in the past.  One talked with me toward the end of last week’s retreat.  He said, “You look 10 or 15 years younger than you are, and if you sense that your presence does not carry the same weight it once did, you are correct.”

Is it that I look younger, or that I am a woman, or that I have not led my current ministry for over a quarter of a century, as I did in my last job?  Truth be told, it’s probably all three.  And there is no denying the reality of his words.  My presence does not carry the weight it once carried.

So when you try to lead from a place of memory and your world has changed as drastically as mine, the results are less than stellar.  I called on Paul’s presence, knowledge and background, but it was not even remotely the same experience.  I was comfortable with the 10 women in the room, but I felt at a distance from most of the 20 men. I imagine it was mostly inside me, but I was not comfortable throughout the entire retreat.

Right before my Radiolab interview I spoke with a film production company that is interested in my story.  I watched one of the movies they made.  Minnie Driver and Paul Adelstein played the lead roles in a story of grief and pain through difficult transitions.  Sean Hamish, who wrote and directed the movie, understands the subtleties of redemption a long time coming.  I am very favorably impressed with the company.

Should a movie be made, who would play me?  I would say no to anything resembling Jeffrey Tambor being cast as the transgender woman in Transparent.  No man should play a transgender woman unless he’s been on anti-androgens and hormones for years.  Whoever plays me, it will still only partially feel like my story.  That is because my entire life feels like a character in a novel that has not yet been fleshed out, so why would a movie be any different.

So much of my unsettled nature seems to be gender related.  I know.  You are thinking, “Duh!”  But let me explain.  From my high school years on, I was one of the cool kids, smart, popular and powerful.  Today my unique presence in the world still affords me a position of privilege, but primarily as an observer.  I do not fit into any specific world.  I no longer feel comfortable with the cool kids, but the group with which I feel most comfortable is a world I will never fully understand.

I feel at home with the wise and weathered mothers of the world.  They have known pain in their bodies that causes them to ponder things in their hearts that I will never know.  But I want to learn from their wisdom, to take in their fullness.

When they talk about their experience of life, sometimes I have this notion that I’ve lived before and given birth.  Is it what Jung would call the collective unconscious, or the cellular level at which we are all connected?  Hell if I know.  I just know that through a fog somewhere I have a notion of things both behind and before me that hold all of us in the same magnetic field.

What does it mean to be transgender?  What does it mean to be male or female.  I really don’t know.  But I do know what it means to be human.  It is to understand the interconnectedness of us all.  I struggled to feel that interconnectedness last week, and that’s all right.  We all have our shitty weeks.  But I am committed to walking in the shoes of all the people God brings into my life, to see life through their lens.  It’s hard work, but after so many have done the same for me, how could I choose to live any other way?

That Rush of Dopamine

That Rush of Dopamine

Do we ever lose our need for affirmation?  Does our ego ever bed down for the night and wake up in peace?  Do the scales of wellbeing ever become balanced between ego strength and ego need?

These are valid questions, but I am not the person to answer them.  I am afraid to say after all these years my need for affirmation is still a bottomless well.

People who can be classified as narcissists also have a never-ending need for affirmation, but their need is also accompanied by a lack of empathy and a tendency toward grandiosity.  If you watch television you will find a ready example each and every evening on the news.  But this post is not about our narcissist-in-chief.  It is about being human.

I was about five when Elvis Presley became popular.  The way he moved and swiveled his hips was scandalous in my church, but at my grandmother’s house there was greater tolerance.  One summer afternoon I discovered that by playing an imaginary guitar (long before air guitars became a thing) and singing You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog, I could get the attention of a room full of adults.  I was hooked.  It wasn’t long before I was singing solos on Sunday nights at church, partly because I liked to sing, but mostly because for three minutes all those people were mine, all mine.

I was nervous every single time I sang, just as I am nervous every single time I preach. There are a lot of collective minutes in the audience.  A church service with five hundred people at 20 minutes each is 10,000 collective minutes. I am not inclined to waste minutes. But as concerned as I might be for my audience, I know that to a greater or lesser extent, it is also about me. And that is where my concern lies, in that greater or lesser extent.   All of us have ego needs, but when does normal become abnormal?

Last fall I was asked to speak for Denver’s TEDxMileHigh Wonder event.  The invitation came after their curators heard me on Colorado Public Radio.  I was initially skeptical, but the more I read about TEDxMileHigh, the more I realized it was a big deal, so I said yes.

First, we had to decide on the subject about which I would speak.  Once that was determined, I started writing.  Three weeks before the event, I was at edit 21 when I was asked to switch subjects.  I was good with the change, because I agreed with the TEDx folks.  The new subject might bring a wider audience.  Besides, I really liked the idea of talking about the difference between living as a male and a female.  So I began writing again.  The final edit was number 18.

For reasons I won’t write about today, the day before the event I was a wreck.  The day of the event I was normally nervous, which means scared shitless, but ready to go.  The sold out audience of 5,200 was wonderfully responsive and rewarded my talk with a standing ovation.

A month later the video came out and my obsession began.  I watched the first evening as the count shot up to 1300, but then slowed down to a trickle.  By the middle of February it had clawed its way to 10,000 views, but hardly a stellar performance for a TEDx talk.  From December to February I looked at the count every few days.  But then came February 24.  I have no idea what happened on that particular day.  Maybe it was Melissa Greene linking to my talk from her Facebook page, but it took off and started growing to about 7500 views a day.

I was hooked, intoxicated by the dopamine rush that accompanied frequent checks of YouTube. The count went to 10k a day, then 15k, then 20k.  I became obsessed with looking multiple times a day.  I mean, obsessed.

About the middle of March the views peaked at 30,000 a day, but I wanted more.  Then the numbers began dropping, first to 20k, then 15, then 12, 10 and 7.5.  My ego was bruised.  The more the numbers dropped, the more obsessed I became with following them.  They have settled down to around 5k views a day, and I was just beginning to come to my senses and put the whole thing in perspective when Amy Schumer linked to my talk from her Twitter account with the line, “Love a good TED talk.”

I was thrilled. I mean, it’s Amy Schumer!  But my numbers didn’t go up on YouTube.  Then a producer from Radiolab called and asked me to do an interview. They did one 75-minute interview, followed by a two and a half hour interview yesterday.   I mean, it’s Radiolab, one of the best shows on NPR!  I adore Radiolab!  But of course my first thought was, “Yeah, but being interviewed on Radiolab probably won’t bump my YouTube views.”  And that is when I knew I had a problem – YTCA – YouTube Count Addiction.

I imagine my YTCA will require intense psychotherapy, as well as behavioral therapy, which will include including limiting my views of YouTube.  Or, oh no, please no, maybe I’ll have to stop counting completely!

But I love my little dopamine rush.  I just spent a week with my five granddaughters.  It was wonderful.  I had a delightful time with my kids and their spouses.  My son preached at Left Hand Church last Saturday and did an amazing job.  I mean, my life is blessed without YouTube, right?  So what is my problem?

The whole episode really did cause me to read up on dopamine rush, the reward molecule that gets excited every time a text dings.  Since we became a nation fixated on social media, it has become a genuine problem.  But I will write about that another day.  Today, it’s all about me.

I have committed to not checking my numbers this week.  We’ll see how it goes.  I’ll let you know.  And so I leave the count where it was last night, at 435,800 views.  Aw gees, I do have a problem.