A Conversation About Changing Faith

A Conversation About Changing Faith

Sometime last fall, I don’t remember when, I sat down to do a podcast with Michael Hidalgo, lead pastor at Denver Community Church. We encamped in the sound booth of the uptown auditorium, an old synagogue full of drafty charm, and had our conversation about spiritual things.  Then I headed off to whatever was next on my calendar. I kinda forgot what we talked about.

I meet with Michael fairly often, though not often enough. I just adore him. He is full of himself in all the right ways, though I doubt Beth and the kids always see it that way. He is a very good leader, supported by a great staff and elders. But I digress.

Three days ago, on a flight to Cincinnati to visit my father for his 94th birthday, I put on my headphones and listened to the podcast. I liked the guy asking questions, and I liked the soft-spoken woman giving answers. None of us is very good at seeing ourselves with anything resembling objectivity. We bring all of our things with us wherever we go, baggage for the journey.

I am afraid I shall always live in a liminal space, somewhere between male and female. It’s all right. The world treats me as a female, and that is enough. Occasionally I see myself as a female. That’s how I felt while listening to the podcast.

The woman who was speaking seemed to be a decent theologian, well read, and comfortable discussing matters of spirituality. She knows what she knows, knows what she doesn’t know, and knows that when it comes to most of the big things, no one knows.

I could tell the woman interviewed by Michael is a person who loves Jesus and believes there is a trajectory to history, determined by how well we love. When the interview was over, I found I kinda liked the person Michael interviewed, even if it was me.  You can decide if you feel the same way.  Here is the link to the podcast: http://changingfaith.podbean.com/e/episode-009-paula-stone-williams-and-all-sorts-of-things/

I remember the first time I heard my voice on tape. I had received a little reel-to-reel recorder as a Christmas present and told stories to an audience of one. I liked the sound of my voice. Back when I was on television, I’d arrive in a hotel room late and flip on the TV to hear my adult voice speaking gently to those awake in the middle of the night; young mothers and insomniacs mostly. I liked that voice too.

I like my voice now, but I don’t like my voice. The pitch of my voice is never high enough to suit me. Hormones have no impact on vocal cords. But I do like the tone with which I speak, confident yet tempered by years of living through difficult things.

But back to the podcast. As I listened, another thing was clear.  The woman being interviewed believes the church is the bride of Christ.  She believes in the church.  I believe in the church, the one that partners with Christ in the ministry of reconciliation, not the one that goes around condemning everyone to hell.

Tomorrow I will start writing my first sermon to be presented at Left Hand Community Church. In our first two pre-services, Jen Jepsen and I are telling our stories. She told hers on January 13.  On February 10 I will tell mine, and trust that it suggests a redemptive future for Left Hand, a community committed to justice and mercy and walking humbly with God.

As a daughter of Denver Community Church, as well as Highlands Church and Forefront Church, I hope we reflect well the love that exudes from all three of those congregations.  And on this particular day, I am grateful for Michael Hidalgo and Denver Community Church.

And so it goes.

 

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It Was a Very Good Week!

It Was a Very Good Week

So, I’m not exhausted. Which is interesting because most of the people with whom I hang out are exhausted. I think something must be wrong with me. I am energized by crazy busy weeks that pull me in a thousand different directions. Let me illustrate.

Last Tuesday we had a brainstorming session for Open Launch, the new church planting ministry with which I am affiliated. We affirmed a values statement, planned an April retreat, secured the services of 12 coaches and three therapists, divided our initiatives into launching and re-launching, committed to a back office playbook, a job board, a church planting accelerator, a church planter cohort, and reported on the first services of our first church plant. All in all, a good day.

Wednesday started at 8:00 AM with a meeting of the Union of Affirming Christians, focused on advocating for governmental policy changes. The meeting was sponsored by Union Theological Seminary in NYC, but convened in Denver. We met with lawmakers in the Colorado Capitol building and planned ways to bring about policy change on LGBTQ and racial issues.  That evening we held the monthly meeting of the Left Hand Community Church Leadership Council.  I got to bed around midnight.

Thursday begin with Carla Ewert leading a gathering of stakeholders in the Open Network, followed by the first meeting of the new Open Network board of directors. I hurried out of that session to introduce Jenny Morgan, who was speaking for the Women’s Conference sponsored by She Is Called, a ministry of the Open Network. That led right into the opening session for the Gay Christian Network annual conference.

Over 1100 people gathered in Denver for the conference, which began on the 18th and ended on the 21st. On the first night, the new name of the ministry was unveiled, Q Christian Fellowship. I had a workshop on Friday entitled, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Being Transgender But Were Afraid to Ask. That was fun. The next day I moderated a panel about how our sexual life can be integrated into our existence as beings made in the image of God. Serving with me on the panel were Megan DeFranza, Isaac Archuleta and Tina Schermer Sellers. We had a lot of fun.  I mean, a lot of fun.  Those three are brilliant!  When the workshop and panel session are available online, I’ll let you know.

As a board member and head of the nominating committee for QCF, I had one board meeting and two board orientation meetings during the conference, as well as a meeting with a group representing more conservative conference attendees.

By Sunday evening I was tired, but exhilarated. I like being busy, particularly when the work I am doing is important to the ongoing work of reconciliation to which we have been called.

My life is harder than it was in my days as a white male evangelical. And while I wish I had the security and friendships I had back then, I must say I have found an incredibly abundant life on the other side of evangelicalism. Yvette Flunder, Asher O’Callahan, Nadia Bolz-Weber and Julie Rodgers were our keynote speakers for the QCF conference. Their messages were powerful and prophetic. Three of the four speakers were female, and one was a person of color. That didn’t happen in my old world.

One of the speakers last week talked about the painful circumstances around the way in which she was treated by her Christian employer.  The speaker and the audience were quite emotional.  I was a tad dissociated.  It is still difficult for me to fully grasp how 40 years of good work was over in a week..

That my life is now so full is a tribute to those who have brought about my healing, including my family, a handful of old friends, the co-pastors at Highlands Church in Denver, my co-pastors at Left Hand Community Church, the members of the Leadership Council at Left Hand, the leaders of the Open Network and the board of Q Christian Fellowship.  All of us are working together to build the church of the 21st century, a church that brings the love of Christ to all people.

Yes, it was a very good week.

And so it goes.

 

A New Church Is Born!

A New Church is Born!

This past Saturday at 5:00 PM marked the first pre-launch service of Left Hand Community Church. We were thrilled to welcome 120 people to commune together in an open and inclusive environment. The evening was wonderful!

Left Hand is a daughter of Denver Community Church, Forefront Church in Brooklyn, and especially Highlands Church in Denver, which gave birth to our hopes and dreams about LHCC.

Three pastors are serving together at Left Hand. Jen Jepsen is our Pastor of Reconciling Ministries. Aaron Bailey is Pastor of Executive Ministries, and I serve as Pastor of Preaching and Worship Ministries.

Left Hand Community Church was formed in the heart of Jen Jepsen, who  preached a wonderful sermon at our first service. Jen came to me in the fall of 2014 and said she thought she wanted to plant a church in Longmont, where she lived. Since I had been a national leader in church planting, Jen wanted to know what I thought. I can pretty much quote my exact response: “Do not plant a church, Jen. It will suck your soul.” (Okay, so maybe I am not always an optimist.)

Church planting is one of the hardest jobs on earth. Having been involved in the field since 1979, (I started when I was only 12 – yeah, we’ll go with that – 12), I know how hard it is to start a new church. I never thought I would be in the church again, let alone be involved in leading one. But thanks to Jen and the good folks at Highlands, here I am, serving with Jen and Aaron at a new church in Boulder County, Colorado.

If Left Hand seems an odd name, maybe an explanation will help. We are a church for all of Boulder County, and running through the middle of the county is Left Hand Canyon and Left Hand Creek, both named for Chief Niwot (translated Left Hand), a leader of the Southern Arapaho people.

Even though their land was protected by treaty from intrusion by white settlers, Chief Niwot welcomed people of European ancestry into the territory. For his generosity he was slaughtered by the Third Colorado Cavalry in the infamous Sand Creek Massacre.

While we’re kinda hoping we don’t end up like Chief Niwot, we do know there are a lot of people opposed to what we are doing. But we are thrilled to know there are a lot more who are fully supportive of our efforts to plant a growing and reproducing church in Boulder County.

LHCC has been embraced by Central Longmont, a Presbyterian Church, and we are blessed to share their facilities. We are also blessed with two highly skilled and powerful worship leaders. Heatherlyn is well known within the Open Network, and is a regular worship leader at Highlands Church. Justin Bullis has led worship at a number of large congregations in the Denver area, and is pleased to join with a church that is open and affirming. Kimberly McKay, an Occupational Therapist from the St. Vrain School District, is leading our children’s ministry. And we are already blessed with a lot of volunteers who are giving a hand at Left Hand. (Too much? Never was crazy about obvious metaphors.)

We are planting LHCC on a budget 1/15th the size with which we started churches at the Orchard Group. And much as I never expected, I am back in the business of raising financial support for my work in ministry.  If you’d like to give, here is the link:  https://lefthandchurch.churchcenter.com/giving/to/2 .  Your help would be really appreciated.

Our next pre-launch service will be February 10, when I will be preaching and Heatherlyn will again be leading worship. Weekly services will begin on Saturday, March 3.

Four years ago this month I was at my lowest point. I had been let go from all four of my ministries and my pension had been pulled. Thanks to the folks at Clergy Advantage and a few old friends, I got through the worst of the financial crisis, but we all need meaningful work, and I was afraid I would never work again.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been one to trust God all that much. You’d think I’d have learned by now. God didn’t bring me this far to leave me. And in a way I never would have imagined, God has me back serving the church.

I believe in the church more than I’ve ever believed in it.  It is the vessel that brings the good news of Christ to a world desperate to know the unconditional love of God.  I pray, so hard, that the love of Christ will ever emanate from the people of Left Hand Community Church.

Right Through The Middle

Right Through The Middle

“Life is difficult.”

Those three words form the opening sentence of M. Scott Peck’s first and finest book, The Road Less Traveled. I first read the book in 1984. The Road Less Traveled got me into therapy and onto the journey to stop pretending I did not know what I did, indeed, know.

I am not speaking of the fact I am a transgender woman. I am speaking of the awareness rising during my 30s that when it came to the church, I was going to have some difficult decisions to make. The Road Less Traveled raised the most important question of my life. Did I really believe the truth would set me free?

It does. The truth, that is.  It does set you free. But here is a little secret. It does not make your life easier. In fact, freedom takes you to deeper places in which you find fewer fellow travelers, and you are constantly confronted by your need to grow in ways in which you have no interest in growing. There is a reason people regularly give away their freedom. It is painful to be free.

We live in a time in which social media allows us the luxury of avoiding any voices that do not reflect our own. I do not have many friends on Facebook who do not hold an open and affirming position on LGBTQ issues.

I chose this path because there are a lot of angry people who hate me, and for a good long while their rhetoric was simply too painful. Last summer, after an article appeared in the New York Times about my son and me, the right-wing Christian media had a field day. There were thousands of comments on a plethora of sites. I skimmed the comments from just one site. Every single word excoriated my son and me.  (Interestingly, they saved their most vitriolic thoughts for the New York Times.)

The readers of these right-wing Christian sites have the same problem I have. When you only preach to the choir, it is easy to see the problem as being “over there.” It is not. The problem is not over there.  The problem is right here, in my own heart.

The line between good and evil runs straight through my being. I have rejected the evangelical teaching that my sin demands a blood sacrifice before I can be accepted by God. God loves all of me, just as I am, just like I love all the parts of my children and grandchildren, just as they are. But that does not mean I am free of sin.

I am as incapable of living consistently as the next person. One moment I can be loving, generous and kind, altruistic in every observable way.  The next moment I am self-centered, distracted and distant. I can justifying my own positions and see those who do not share them as lesser.

We are all broken, but in our bipolar world it is hard to see our own brokenness. Our friends are broken in the same places in which we are flawed, and therefore less likely to see the log sticking out of our eye.  Why?  Because the log sticking out of their own eye looks satisfyingly similar. We encourage one another in our shared blindness.

Society does provide a natural antidote to this tendency. It is marriage. If your marriage is healthy, your partner calls you on your shit. Occasionally friendships will rise to that level of honesty, but it is rare. I can count on Cathy, my children, and a couple of friends to call me on my lived inconsistencies. Most of the time I am grateful.  Most of the time I am also resentful.  You can be resentful and grateful at the same time. We humans are complicated.

I am struggling to find a way to hear the voices from the far right. In my case, their rhetoric can be dangerous, filled with rage as it is.  I usually hear their words through the filter of another, who protects me from the extraordinarily hurtful words flung my way.

But that does not mean I get the luxury of not listening. Dialog is what keeps me honest. To her clients struggling in relationships, Cathy often says, “You keep stopping the conversation too soon.” People usually stop talking before they ever get started on the real issue standing between them. They do not trust the truth will set them free.  They settle for pseudo-peace, which has the lifespan of a fruit fly.

Genuine peace requires a willingness to enter into chaos and emptiness. It takes hard work and is not easily achieved.  Only the brave are willing to travel through chaos and emptiness.  No wonder most just live quiet lives of desperation.  It’s not very satisfying, but it’s easier than the hard work of full consciousness.

The truth is that my life is no less difficult today than it was before I transitioned and left evangelicalism. It is just a different kind of difficult. Today’s difficulties result from being awake and aware, at least most of the time. They are the difficulties of seeing clearly how my decisions hurt others, how my words continue to serve a patriarchal system, how my condescension diminishes the humanity of another, and how I contribute to the ever-widening gulf between the right and the left.

The line between good and evil runs straight through the center of my heart. It always has.  It always will.

And so it goes.

A New Year and Another Tipping Point

A New Year and Another Tipping Point

I’ve spent the better part of 25 years following the massive paradigm shift within Christianity. As the modern age has given way to postmodernism, the church is reeling.

Cultural tipping points are interesting phenomena. Divorce and remarriage were huge issues in the church until suddenly, they were not. Divorce was no longer the scandal it once had been. America had reached a tipping point. Today you still might find a few fundamentalist churches that frown on divorced people, but for the most part the church has moved on.

Throughout the history of the church, when a culture reaches a tipping point, the church is the last cultural institution to change. It was true of the notion of a geocentric universe. Though the church put Galileo under house arrest for believing the earth revolved around the sun, it finally accepted the obvious. We see the same phenomenon today when it comes to belief in a literal six-day creation. Just a few years ago it was anathema for evangelicals to believe in evolution. Now, many accept the findings of science.

It took longer for our nation to reach a tipping point on slavery, but it finally came in the middle of the 19th century. Unfortunately, since our nation was built on slavery, undoing the damage will take centuries. We are nowhere near becoming a nation of equity for people of color.

In the last decade America reached the tipping point on marriage equality. Most Americans came to realize gay couples make great parents and good citizens.  But the church lags behind.  A recent study by churchclarity.org indicated, quite accurately, that of the 100 largest churches in America listed by Outreach magazine, none affirm LGBTQ individuals.  (It might also be noted that 99 percent of those churches are led by males, and 93 percent are led by white males, another area in which the church lags behind.)

I am the beneficiary of American culture having reached another tipping point. Outside of evangelicalism, most Americans are accepting of transgender people. Pretty much everyone except the religious right responded negatively when Trump tweeted that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the military. The generals ignored him, and just yesterday it became law that transgender people can serve in the military.  The evangelical world is the only environment in which I am rejected for being me.

The church eventually changed its position on a geocentric universe and slavery because the church was wrong. The church was also wrong on gay marriage and the acceptance of transgender people. LGBTQ people are not a threat to anyone, anywhere. Sooner or later, common sense defeats irrational fear.

Now we find ourselves at another tipping point.  #MeToo is the tipping point on sexual assault.  But as usual, the church is slow to respond.  We need look no further than Alabama to understand that difficult truth.  Evangelicals preferred to believe the claims of one white male over the claims of nine females.  To the rest of the nation, the evangelical church in Alabama seems woefully out of touch.  They are right.  When it comes to sexual assault, the evangelical church in much of America is out of touch.

I do have hope.  Though late to the party, the church usually does eventually come to its senses. Religious people do not like change.  But given enough time and information, history tells us they do eventually embrace the truth against which they initially railed.

At the moment, we are in a dark season. The tide has turned on LGBTQ issues and now it is turning on sexual assault.   And while we have barely begun the work needed on America’s greatest problem, racial injustice, we can be pleased that the voices calling us to action are being empowered as they have never been empowered before.  Those in power don’t get it, but as we saw in Alabama last month, the people do.

And so it goes.