The Joy of the Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You must give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn

That anything or anyone that does not bring you alive, is too small for you.

 Yeah, that.

It Has Not Been a Good Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Haters will Hate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haters will hate, but love wins.

Should We Be Surprised?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Inspired

Speaker Ambassador welcome + program kick-off at TED2022: A New Era. April 10-14, 2021, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Gilberto Tadday / TED

Last week it was my privilege to serve as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED2022 in Vancouver, British Columbia. Speakers Ambassadors are former TED speakers who are assigned a new speaker(s) with whom they will work. They are there to help folks prepare to present their talks and navigate the TED experience, before, during, and after the event. It is an honor to work with these incredible speakers. You are in awe of who they are and what they have accomplished.

Not only do you get to work with speakers, you also enjoy the camaraderie that exists within the team of Speaker’s Ambassadors. It is an eclectic group of fascinating, accomplished folks, each of whom has given their own TED Talk. We are all under the direction of Susan, Jordan, and Nehemiah, TED employees who keep us motivated with their ever-present energy.

One of the things I love about attending a TED event is the amazing cross pollination you experience. I spend a fair amount of time with other pastoral counselors, pastors, and psychotherapists. But rarely do I get to spend time with people from worlds far removed from my own. Last week I was with rocket designers, government leaders, particle physicists, actors, circus performers, museum curators, inventors, surgeons, and people from all manner of other professions. I even talked with the woman whose groundbreaking work on mRNA vaccines might well have saved my life.

Almost without exception these people were brilliant, yet humble and self-effacing. It reinforces the notion that those who truly change the world have equal parts confidence and humility. Interestingly, very few identified as religious. One who did was a Tibetan monk who was funny, engaging, and delightful. His talk was one of my favorites. If memory serves me correctly, he was the only speaker whose talk specifically touched on spirituality.

One fellow-speaker said I should look for another speaker at the event who had once worked as pastor. Turns out she was referring to my son, Jonathan. You don’t see many religious professionals at a TED conference. Which is interesting because I found a lot of those attending to be inherently spiritual. James Hollis describes the soul as the investment by nature in the individual and the spirit as the energy for the journey. These people were full of soul and spirit. They just don’t identify as religious. Given the kind of damage formal religion has done in the world, I can’t say I blame them.

Which brings me back to the cross-pollination at TED. Mingling with those unlike you invites introspection, examination, and innovation. It encourages approaching problems in new ways. During the week I had a major insight into a message I have taken in over the past few months, a message that is not only untrue, but damaging to my soul. When you force your brain out of its usual neural ruts, it creates new insights and even the occasional aha moment. Those moments are inherently soul affirming and spiritually significant.

Whenever I write about my experiences with TED, I know someone will think I am bragging. I hesitate to mention specific conversations, both out of respect for the privacy of the people involved, as well as any notion that I deserve to be in such conversations. These are all gifts, of which I do not feel deserving, but am not about to reject. That would be biting off my nose to spite my face. I consider it all a privilege. Anytime you can interact with people who help you think in new ways, it’s not just good for you, it’s good for the universe. This is how new solutions emerge, as creativity is prompted to move beyond conventional wisdom.

I am unashamedly a fan of TED. I am unashamedly a fan of TEDxMileHigh, the wonderful TED event in Denver that also has an outsize influence in making the world a better place. Recently I have been working with the speakers for their upcoming event. It has been a joy. I have always been curious beyond my own disciplines, a predisposition for which I am grateful. The good fortune I have experienced over the past four years to have my creativity fine-tuned via TED experiences is a blessing for which I am very grateful.

In so many ways my life has been magical and blessed. I never want to take a minute of that wonder for granted.

And so it goes.

The Imposter Syndrome

It is rare to run across an accomplished human who has not experienced the imposter syndrome, the sense that you do not have the qualifications necessary to be doing what you are doing. It could be serving as a Speaker’s Ambassador at TED2022, which I did this past week, or as a pastoral counselor helping clients deal with their own imposter syndrome, or as a corporate speaker.

I rarely feel truly qualified in my areas of endeavor. Every time a counseling client decides they’d like to work with me, I always want to ask, “Don’t you know that my doctorate is a Doctor of Ministry degree, and not a PhD? I mean, my mother certainly knew the difference. The imposter syndrome is common to most of us.

It’s been my privilege to speak with TEDWomen speakers about the imposter syndrome in the weeks leading up to their TED Talks. They all wonder how they were chosen to speak for TED. “Didn’t they mean to invite the other Jane Smith, you know, the one who solved world hunger?” Every speaker nods when I talk about the imposter syndrome. It doesn’t matter whether they are astronauts, trapeze artists, or particle physicists. The imposter syndrome is pretty universal.

I do know people who never experience the imposter syndrome. They are the people who are, in fact, imposters. A certain former president comes to mind. Those who never experience the imposter syndrome are those who are unaware of their abiding shadows, those parts of themselves that keep rearing their ugly heads to remind us of our flawed humanity. If the problem is always “out there” and never “in here,” you might be an imposter.

Fortunately, that is not the case for most of us. We are not inclined to say, “I alone can solve this.” We are inclined to say, “I have no idea what I am doing, but if you want me to give it a try, I’ll be happy to do so.” Which is how people end up giving a TED Talk. They keep showing up and giving their best, and eventually they accomplish something that causes people to take notice. They are usually the last to think what they have accomplished is worth noting, however, hence the imposter syndrome.

My first TEDxMileHigh talk has been picked up by “Big Ted” and was released on TED.com two weeks ago.  In its first couple of weeks, it’s had 500,000 views, which is not uncommon for a newly released TED Talk. On the other hand, it is a little unusual for a talk that is four years old. I’d like to be excited about that, but since I spend most of my time thinking I didn’t deserve to have the talk picked up by TED in the first place, I have a hard time taking it in.

When I was first crafting the speech, I kept losing my place when I was trying to memorize the talk. I kept getting lost between the same two paragraphs. I finally realized I was losing my place because I needed a transition sentence between the paragraphs. The night before the talk I came up with this – The call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good. I ran the line by Briar, my coach at TED, and she said, “Perfect.” It ended up being the most quoted line of my talk, a line I used in my next TED Talk, and used again on the dedication page of my memoir.

Before a TED Talk is published, a lot of energy is spent fact checking the talk. “Did that conversation really take place? Can multiple people verify its accuracy? Do you have documented evidence for the statistics you used?” The talk that was published two weeks ago was given four years ago. Before it could be published by TED, I had to verify the accuracy of every story. That included the story of Kyle, the former manager of a Denver bike shop that no longer exists. Though I didn’t know his last name, I found him on the Internet. When I called, he was on vacation in South America. He said sure enough, he remembered the conversation, and would be happy to verify its accuracy. He even told me the name of the employee who had treated me badly. His name was Blake. Of course, it was Blake.

The folks at TED already know you are going to find documentation for everything you say, because they have done their homework before they even ask you to speak. They find people who are not imposters. And what is the best indication someone is not an imposter? Well, I imagine it’s someone who is afraid they are an imposter. Because those are the people who are always filled with self-doubt, working hard to make sure they are not talking out of their behind. They are confident, which has allowed them to achieve some modicum of success, but they are also humble, because they know a lot of their success is because they were in the right place at the right time. They know the part that good fortune plays in achieving success.

I always feel all warm inside when someone acknowledges they are experiencing the imposter syndrome. It usually means they deserve to be receiving the accolades they are enjoying. They’ve done the work to get there. They have benefitted from good luck along the way. And the contribution they make has come from living out the call toward authenticity.

I am very grateful for the TED Talks I have done, and for the success they have had. And yes, I still tend to feel like an imposter.  And so it goes.

 

The Problem is Greed

(I wrote this post last Monday, when I was headed to speak in Huntington, West Virginia. The trip went well. I got home and promptly left again. I’m in a San Francisco hotel now, preparing to speak tomorrow. I have a busy life.)

I’m sitting in the Admiral’s Club in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, waiting for a flight to Cincinnati so I can then drive another three hours to West Virginia, where I will speak at Marshall University. The airport is crowded. The workers are a little more surly than usual, and except for seeing my good friend Karen at the gate in Denver, I’ve not seen many smiles. Of course, it is also possible I have not been smiling.

I have flown over 2.5 million miles with American Airlines – not just credit miles – actual miles. Most of it was flown with USAirways, which acquired American about a decade ago. They won control of the larger airline but lost the culture war. American is not the friendly airline USAirways once was.

I knew USAirways employees all over the nation. There was hardly a city in which I didn’t know at least one or two gate agents. I had a lifetime USAirways Club pass, and loved chatting with the employees in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, LaGuardia, Boston, and a host of other cities. I knew the names of their children and where they went to college. I received free first-class upgrades 99 percent of the time, because USAirways thought good service and fair profits were both achievable. Their good will was reciprocated. For over a decade I gave my Christmas bonus to the USAirways employees at the Islip Long Island airport, all 17 of them.

I wrote the CEO of the airline occasionally, and always received a prompt reply. Their office called me a few times to talk about solutions to problems I had encountered. Things were, in a word, civil. Humanity won over profit. Commonality won over differences. Life was more gentle back then. I know what you’re thinking. Was it more gentle because I was a man? I really don’t think that had much to do with it. Flying is one of the few places in which I am treated pretty much the same as Paula as I was treated as Paul. Well, at least by employees. Passengers are another story.

I knew things were likely to get bad in the airline industry when United was allowed to acquire Continental, Delta absorbed Northwest, and USAirways acquired American. With only three legacy carriers remaining, it would only be a matter of time before prices went up and service went down. I was surprised how quickly it  happened. Greed creates a lot of dangerous cracks in the foundations of capitalism.

A couple of decades ago I served on the board of a small television network.  We were closely affiliated with a much larger commercial network, and I formed a friendship with one of their senior employees. He was always complaining about managers who “left money on the table.” I asked what the phrase meant. He replied, “To leave money on the table is to walk away from easy money. You see a place for bigger profits, and you don’t capitalize on it.”

A couple years later we were on a trip together and I told him I had noticed that the company rarely left money on the table any longer, but that it did leave people on the streets. Profits came before people. Not long after our conversation the network was sold, and my friend was out of a job. He became one of those people on the streets, only his streets were paved with platinum, thanks to a generous golden parachute.

Last week I spoke with the Chief People Officer of a company for which I’ve consulted a few times. Their CEO was one of the founders of a very successful travel company. The new startup, another travel company, focused on profits and people. The company was wonderful. They had achieved gender equity and took good care of their employees and customers. Then Covid hit and business travel came to a stop. The company kept the doors open for about 18 months, but eventually the leaders had to make the decision to shut it down. Their CPO took great pride in finding jobs for 99 of the 100 people employed by the company. For the company’s leaders, ending well was as important as profitability.

Large corporations rarely leave money on the table. Those at the top receive annual compensation hundreds of times greater than that of their lowest paid employees. Those executives never leave money on the table. I prefer companies with a heart, like the one that made sure their employees were taken care of when the business had to close. They remind me that capitalism itself is not evil. Greed is evil. These smaller companies are proof that capitalism can have a heart. They are the ones that give me hope in the future of commerce in our nation.

Well, it’s time to catch my flight to Cincinnati. Though I’m Executive Platinum with the airline, which means I fly over 100,000 miles a year, on this flight I’m likely to feel like I’ve felt for several years now – like I am little more than a flying profit provider. You can be sure the airline will not leave any of my money on the table.

And so it goes.

This Is Frightening

More hate mail arrived last week. Not volumes of it, but enough to force me to scan my inbox for unfamiliar names. When the negative mail increases, I usually go online to see what is happening.  A few weeks ago, it was a controversy about my book being on display in a Mississippi library. This past week it was a right-wing media article.

I spoke on International Women’s Day to the employees of the Owens Corning Company. I loved my interaction with the people who set up the virtual event. I thoroughly enjoyed crafting and presenting my keynote. As usual, I left 25 minutes for questions and answers. The talk was not recorded.

During the Q&A I answered one question by mentioning the source of much of the opposition to the civil rights of transgender children. I said that contrary to popular opinion, according to an NPR/Marist poll, the opposition to trans kids is not coming from Trump voters, 61 percent of whom believe transgender people should have the same civil rights as others. Some of the greatest opposition is coming from evangelicals. A Pew Research Center study found that 84 percent of white evangelicals believe gender is immutably determined at birth. Over 60 percent believe society has gone too far in accommodating transgender people, yet only 25 percent know someone who is out as a transgender person.

A few days after my time at Owens Corning, I was greeted by a headline in a right-wing media source that reflected negatively on Owens Corning and misstated my comments. Apparently, a company employee or someone connected to an employee had taken issue with what I said and instead of reaching out to me, reported it inaccurately to a news outlet.

I am accustomed to being attacked by the right-wing media. But I hated that a company brave and bold enough to invite me to speak on gender inequity was also attacked. The attack was unfair to the Owens Corning Company and its employees.

I know what I said in my talk last Tuesday. I know the vulnerability and heart I showed in that presentation. I saw the supportive comments pouring in from employees. I know what those who put together the conference said after I finished. I am profoundly disappointed that a single person could choose to take such a wonderful experience and turn it into a right-wing news story. Since 2016, that has happened more and more frequently. But the biggest problem is not the occasional attacks targeting people like me. The biggest problem is the attacks on our children.

I have been doing an increasing number of interviews about the awful anti-transgender laws in Texas, and the equally offensive laws passed in other states and pending in scores more. Virtually all these laws target transgender children, their parents, and healthcare providers. The good people at Owens Corning will be fine. So will I. We have the resources to dismiss spurious attacks without losing much sleep. But the children and their families?  I am really concerned about them.

We already have families who have reached out to Left Hand Church, telling us they are leaving conservative states and moving to Colorado, where they can be a part of a society that supports transgender children and their families. We welcome them at Left Hand, where we show them support and love.

Transgender families in Texas are in danger. Vulnerable children are at great risk. Trans kids already have a suicide rate 13 times higher than their peers. My heart aches for these children, their families, and their medical providers.

The parents of these transgender children, desperate to nurture and protect their loved ones, are beside themselves. This past week I talked with one mother for over an hour. I don’t know that I brought her the tiniest bit of comfort, other than providing a listening ear. After the conversation I said aloud in my living room, “My God people, have a heart.” I spent most of my life among evangelicals. I cannot  believe that they are willing to attack vulnerable families and courageous healthcare providers just so they can win the culture wars. But as Scott Peck said a few decades ago, “Ninety-nine percent of the evil done in the world is done by people who are 100 percent convinced they are right.”

Who decided transgender people should be on the front lines of this ridiculous culture war? We are only .58 percent of the population, about one in every 200 people. None of us chose to be transgender. Who decided we should be attacked just for being who we are, and then decided that it wasn’t trans adults they should attack, but trans children and their parents? And who decided that healthcare providers who have studied diligently and worked tirelessly to keep us alive should be vilified and even prosecuted simply for ameliorating our suffering in the world?

I am frightened. Given what is happening in Texas and other states, it appears I should be frightened. I am grateful for companies like Owens Corning, that welcome me into their space to talk about gender inequity and transgender rights. It is a reminder that the majority of Americans are supportive of our community.

My plea to evangelical Christians opposed to transgender rights is simple. For God’s sake, have a heart. Children are dying.

And so it tragically goes.

 

Fellowship

We want to figure out life together. We have always wanted to figure out life together. Our species never took off until we moved from the level of nuclear family to the level of community and tribe. What brought us together? It was not the need for safety, but man’s search for meaning. Think Stonehenge, the carved figures in Rapa Nui, the pyramids of Egypt, or the burial mounds of indigenous Americans. All around us are countless examples of people coming together to figure out why we are here, and for what purpose.

We are also a spiritual species, and we best work out our spirituality in community. Yes, religious communities are messy, because they are one of the few places in which we learn to be human together. Yes, they are often toxic, because there are six different stages of faith, and those who never get beyond stage three remain within toxic fundamentalist religions. They work from a binary “us versus them” perspective, convinced that only those who believe as they believe are “in” and everyone else is “out.” And, make no mistake, they can be pretty cruel to those who are out.

One of the defining religious issues of our time is LGBTQ+ acceptance. The 2020 American Values Survey indicated that 70 percent of Americans are supportive of marriage equality. A surprising finding is that well over 50 percent of Christians are supportive of marriage equality, including 79 percent of mainline Protestants, 76 percent of Hispanic Catholics, 67 percent of White Catholics, and 57 percent of Black Protestants. Only one Christian group is opposed to marriage equality – White evangelicals, who oppose it 63 percent to 34 percent. That is the “us” versus” “them” dynamic.

While the fundamentalist forms of the desert religions remain binary and toxic, the majority of Christians in America are supportive of marriage equality and transgender rights. A lot of those people are in vibrant, dynamic churches like the church I serve as a pastor – Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado.

Last weekend we held the third annual winter retreat of Left Hand Church at Castle Mountain Lodge in Estes Park, Colorado. Kristie Sykes has coordinated each of our retreats. Kristie and Nicole Vickey worked hard all weekend to keep the food and fellowship (yep, I said fellowship) flowing. Shannon Fletcher led a sharing circle in which every single attendee shared a meaningful moment from their lives. Mara Vernon, CEO of Ripp Leadership, led a delightfully insightful session on the DiSC Personality Profile. Heatherlyn, Bryan, and Cairn led us in great worship. Heatherlyn and Bryan jammed late into the night, and Kristie Sykes led us in fun games Friday night, then took us through a helpful spiritual gifts assessment Sunday morning.

I’m older than dirt, which means I have attended a lot of retreats. I can’t remember any I enjoyed as much as this one. Yes, the programming was amazing, and the food was wonderful, but it was the fellowship that filled me to the brim.

Fellowship is such an evangelically tainted term that most progressive Christians avoid it. But there is nothing wrong with the word. It is a friendly association, especially with people who share the same interests. At our retreat, the primary shared interest was a desire to live authentically in community, trying to love God, neighbor, and self. The weekend was messy because the church is messy. But grace prevailed, because if a group is trying to follow the example of Jesus, grace will always prevail.

I saw healing there. People surrounded hurting souls, bathing them in prayer. There were deep, abiding conversations, as well as raucous laughter. (No one ever did tell me the meaning of that one word I had to read aloud while we were playing that one game. I had to look it up when I got home. I will not mention the word here!)

When I returned to my home in Lyons, the house may have been empty, but my soul was full. Left Hand Church is broken. Most churches are. We are also a pretty remarkable church. We are resilient and hopeful and honest and not afraid of the dark places, or the roads filled with fallen branches and stones. We know there is no way but forward, through the desert, and we stay true to that journey.

Whenever I do interviews for radio shows, television shows, or podcasts, I am always asked why I remain in the church when I was treated so horribly by it. I always say that religion at its worst may be toxic, but religion at its best is transformative. The retreat this past weekend was transformative. I am pleased I am still a member of a Christian church. If you’ve given up on the church, you might think about giving it another try. We meet every Saturday at 5:00 pm.  Just sayin…

 

Communities and Chapels

Over the years I have worked in education, the for-profit world, and with multiple non-profits. I have never worked in government… until now.

The city manager of Englewood, Colorado, was a member of Left Hand Church when he lived in Longmont. We were at a party in December when I mentioned that a neighbor wanted me to run for the Board of Trustees in the town in which I live. I had always heard that small town politics is like national politics – you never please anyone.  But my friend said we all have our civic responsibilities and running for the town board would be good for me and for the town. He said more often than not, our particular town’s government was comprised of people who tended to work together, moving in the same general direction.

So, I gathered the signatures necessary and left my completed application with the Town Clerk and waited for the election on April 5. I figured I wasn’t likely to win, since I am transgender and all. Only I found out a few weeks ago that there will not be an election. Only six people filed to run for the Board of Trustees, and only one person filed to run for Mayor. Apparently when that is the case, everyone whose paperwork was accepted automatically becomes a member of the Board of Trustees, or Mayor, without an election. Huh. Now this is starting to get real.

After several weeks of training, on April 18 I will be sworn in as a member of the town’s Board of Trustees. I am eager to serve – seriously. I mean, why not? I am the pastor of a church, a pastoral counselor, a speaker on issues related to gender equity, and an author. Why wouldn’t I add public servant to the list? I have no idea if I will be any good at it or not. I’ll let you know.

Speaking of things at which I may or may not be good, did I ever tell you about the time I helped renovate the chapel with several church members and one of my co-pastors, who had to say repeatedly, “Uh, no, Paula, let me help you with that.” She was patient and kind, and the chapel is a beautiful, sweet intimate space. I get to preach in a place with a cool coffeehouse vibe.

Left Hand Church meets in the chapel of a United Church of Christ. Like every other chapel built in the 1960s, it was not given a lot of forethought. Adding a chapel was just what churches did back then. Nobody builds chapels anymore. They figured out that they don’t get used. This chapel collected dust and sat behind hideous solid brown doors, one of which defiantly pierced a splinter all the way through my finger when I was carrying it to the dumpster. Behind the doors was a neglected carpet, dirty purple chairs, and a giant mosaic of Jesus which left the room out of balance. Jesus didn’t leave the room out of balance, just the mosaic.

But my co-pastor had a vision, and with the help of a bunch of other lesbians with power tools, she brought it to fruition. She bought lots of mismatched chairs and recovered the cushions with bright fabrics which we put around wooden tables, and the whole thing looks just like our church looks– eclectic. If we’re expecting a lot of folks, we take out the tables and put the chairs in rows. If it is likely to be a more intimate gathering, we sit around the tables and talk and sing and listen and worship.

I touch a lot of the bases in my life. As a therapist, I spend sixty minutes at a time with precious humans and help them remove the obstacles hindering them from discovering their own answers. It is hard and holy work, helping them find the light hidden inside their hearts.

My church work is where I join with a group of people to figure out how to do life together. Outside of the family, the church is the only institution whose main purpose is to help people search for meaning together. That is why the church is always messy. Humans are messy.

And now I am joining my town’s Board of Trustees, caring for its citizenry. I won’t be helping individuals find answers; I won’t be helping fellow church-members search for meaning; I will be helping our town figure out how to be a better servant to its residents.

I hope I don’t let people down, though I am sure I will. It’s just the nature of things. I’m sure someone will have to say to me, “Uh, no Paula, let me help you with that.” But maybe I’ll do enough redemptive work to help keep the universe in balance. That is my hope.

My term on the Board of Trustees lasts for two years, probably just enough time to figure out what I’m doing. It took me a few decades to figure out ministry, and several years to become a decent counselor. Let’s hope I’m better at town governance. I don’t have that kind of time to get up to speed.

I have no intention of slowing down. I like to be busy. Between my speaking career, my pastoral work, my counseling practice, and now my service on my town’s Board of Trustees, I’ve got enough to keep me going for a few years, and that’s how I like it.  I’ve been saying that I’m semi-retired for about eight years now. I’m not sure any of the last eight years are what semi-retired looks like. But hey, it is my life, and I do want to make a difference while I’m here.

And so it goes.