What’s In a Voice?

Back when I was a male and on television, there was one comment I received more than any other. People would stop me in airports or on the street and say, “You have such a soothing voice.”

Since our program was on in the middle of the night, having a soothing voice was a good thing.  As one of our producers was fond of saying, “You put people back to sleep better than anyone else.”  I was never sure whether that was a compliment or not.

Outside of what I hold in my mind and heart, and what I have in a handful of friendships, not much has followed me from Paul to Paula.  It’s an ongoing cause of sadness or wonder, depending on the day.  But there is one phrase I hear often, whether it is about my TED talks or keynote speeches or radio or podcast interviews. People say, “You have such a soothing voice.”  I take pleasure in the compliment and I take great solace in the continuity.

Your voice is you, coming forth to greet the world.  It says a lot about who you are and how you fill space.  It telegraphs your emotions.  Other people take cues from it.  Is she approachable?  Would I like her?  We all know how we feel about cell phone loud talkers, screaming bosses and whiney narcissists.  Our opinions are not generous.

One of my mentors, Dr. Byron Lambert, had an incredibly soothing voice, with a pleasant tone and perfect diction.  Byron was a philosophy professor.  With his voice and gentle manner, he made the whole discipline seem noble.

One of the most difficult people with whom I ever worked had one of the most grating voices I have ever heard.  The combination seemed fitting.  I no longer have to hear his voice.  (There are benefits to being ostracized from your old world.)

Having grown up in the upper Midwest, my voice does not carry much of an accent.  I sound pretty much like every American television news anchor.  I suppose that is not a bad thing.

One of the problems of a soothing voice is that while it is fine with a good sound system or in the quietness of a therapy office, it isn’t all that helpful in regular conversation, particularly if you are in a loud restaurant.  And nowadays, pretty much every restaurant is a loud restaurant. People are always straining to hear me. I feel badly.  But while I can adequately project my voice in a meeting hall, doing so in a smaller room is a problem.  I haven’t come up with a solution.

All things considered, I do like my voice.  Hormones and anti-androgens make massive changes to almost every part of your body, with the exception of the voice box.  While testosterone will bring a transgender man’s voice in line with other men, estrogen does not affect the voice box of a transgender woman.  You must learn to speak differently.

On the sound spectrum, there is a significant crossover between male and female voices. What makes us identify one voice as male and another as female comes from more subtle clues.  If a transgender woman finds her resonance in her chest, her voice will still sound male.  If she finds it in her head and mouth, she will sound more neutral or female.  How words are formed in the mouth is also gendered. There is a lot to learn.

I am pleased there is continuity between my male and female voices.  Most of the time my two lives feel so different, so bifurcated. To have people compliment my female voice as often as they complimented my male voice is soothing to my soul.

Since it has always been my desire to lessen the suffering of others, I am grateful to have a voice most people find calm and comforting.  To use your voice to soothe the souls of others is no small joy.

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The Creator and Her Creation

I am overwhelmed by the many areas of my life that have changed since my transition. It really does feel as though I have lived two distinct lives, without much continuity between the two. That is not by choice.  It is just my reality.

Outside of relational changes with family and friends, one of the biggest areas of change has been in how I experience spirituality as a female.  I haven’t written much about it because I am not sure I can put it into words.  It’s time to try.

Back in the 1960s I used to see pictures of older women in heavy coats and headscarves crowded inside cold and drafty Russian Orthodox churches.  There was never a man in sight.  The Soviet system did its best to eradicate religion from society, and when it came to men, they were pretty successful.  Women, however, were another story.

I was intrigued by that reality, more for my personal faith journey than for any interest in the Soviet Union.  I struggled with belief in God, probably from the time of my high school years.  I devoured Francis Schaeffer’s trilogy on apologetics and read Hans Küng’s tome, Does God Exist?  I even considered doing a master’s degree in apologetics (the discipline of defending the veracity of God.)  My sense of God’s existence waxed and waned.  I felt hopeful when it was waxing, and frightened when it was on the wane. I did not find that the spiritual disciplines helped much.  Like the forlorn father in the Gospel of Mark, I cried out, “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!”

Then I experienced the call to transition as a message from God.  It was the first time I ever felt called by God.  The same was true when I returned to the church, as well as when I felt called to become one of the pastors at Left Hand Church.

In the TED talk I did with my son, I said, “I believe in God most days.  Tuesdays and Thursdays can be tough, and any day I’m on the New Jersey Turnpike.” But every time I see the talk I think to myself, “That was true of my past, but I am not sure it is true anymore.”

I began noticing the change about a year into my life as Paula.  I no longer questioned God’s existence.  In fact, I didn’t much think about the subject at all anymore.  It became something that just was.  Was the shift because I was finally living in the right body, no longer torn asunder by gender dysphoria?  Did it happen because there was a fundamental change in my body?  Or was it the growing sense that my body and mind were finally becoming integrated into one whole being?  I believe it was a combination of all three.

God revealed God’s self 14 billion years ago in the Big Bang.  The universe is one unified whole, ever expanding and always mysterious.  God is also revealed through the Trinity – God, Jesus and Spirit.  For Paul, God was a problem to be solved, a God to be understood, an ongoing search for the truth of things.  For me, Paula, all of that is to be pondered, not dissected. It is to be taken in, not explained. It is the great I AM.

Now that I  accept God’s presence in this precious and holy life, my preaching has become more courageous.  My prayers are more spontaneous and soulful.  I speak to God throughout the day, easily and audibly.  A beautiful sunset seems to emanate from the eyes of God; a child’s laughter from the belly of God; a mother’s tears from the heart of God. God is in all and through all.

If the building blocks of the universe are, as Quantum Physics tells us, a pattern of relationships between nonmaterial entities, then love is the lifeblood of the universe, holding us all in God’s heart.

I often think of those Russian women in their ancient churches, practicing the faith of generations, holding forth love in a cold Soviet system.  I think of the mothers with whom I worship at Left Hand Church, holding forth love as they tuck their children into bed.  I think of the fathers standing in the freezing cold for hours, watching their little boys skating on the ice, slipping and sliding and occasionally hitting a puck in the general direction of the net.  Those fathers too are holding forth love.

All of this is so obvious to me now, this all-encompassing compassionate love of the Creator for her Creation.  This God who came to live among us and show us what it means to be fully human, this God who shows solidarity in our suffering, this God whose very name is Love.

I no longer question God’s existence.  I do question my capacity to grasp God in all of his fullness.  For I certainly grasp God better now than I did as a male.  It makes me wonder how much more love we will see when we come face to face with our Creator?

The Stages of Faith

The decision of the United Methodist Church to reject the LGBTQ population has been on a lot of minds and hearts this past week.  I talked about it in my sermon on Saturday evening, and got choked up enough that I couldn’t go on for a few seconds.  It reminds me of my own swift departure from the church of all my days, and all my parent’s days, and at least two generations before them. Whenever I begin to take personally my ostracism from the church, I remind myself of the bigger picture.

In 1981 James Fowler wrote a book entitled, Stages of Faith. He wrote about the six stages of human faith development.  Everyone has a spirituality, whether acknowledged or not.  It is a part of what it means to be human. And everyone is in one of the six stages, or in the liminal space between stages.  While I like Fowler’s descriptions, I’m not crazy about his titles, so I’ve created my own.

The first I call the Magical Stage.  It is how we grasp the spiritual realms between two and six years of age.  We take in a mishmash of information from a plethora of sources, from Peppa Pig to the spirituality expressed by Grandma.  All of it falls into the realm of the magical.

The second stage of faith is the Literal Stage, which runs from around age seven to age 11.  For those of us who grew up in the Christian faith, this stage reminds us of our early Sunday School years, when we took every single Bible story quite literally.  Myth, metaphor and nuance were beyond our ability to grasp.

The third stage of faith development is the Conventional Stage, in which we accept without question the rules, regulations, boundaries and supposed unique superiority of the religion we have been given.  We are encouraged to live within that religious subculture, where all other forms of religious expression are seen as inferior, or even as an abomination to God.

A lot of people never leave stage three of faith development.  For some, the world is too frightening and they prefer hard boundaries.  Others are just not inclined to ask questions, but to accept whatever has been given to them.  While these folks have been around for eons and can be found in abundance in all forms of fundamentalism, they have been empowered in our current political environment.

The fundamentalists in stage three found they had the power to elect a president, and they are not inclined to stop there.  They’d be happy to impose their stage three understanding on our entire nation.  If you look at the political empowerment of stage three people in Islamic nations, you see what happens when fundamentalists control a political system.  It is truly frightening.

People in stage three have a hard time with people in stages four, five, or six.  They are too much of a threat, and must be ignored, or better yet, silenced.  This is nothing new in the development of our species. We just haven’t seen it in our nation in such clear and threatening forms.

Stage four of faith development is the Questioning Stage, in which a person begins to question what he or she has been taught about the religion of their younger years.  Their growing breadth of knowledge makes it difficult for them to adhere to the narrow definitions of stage three religious adherents.  Young people often enter this stage during their college years.  Some never exit, though the majority come back to some form of formal spiritual expression within a couple of decades.

A lot of people suggest that the Millennials and Gen Z have given up on traditional religion.  I do not think that is accurate.  I believe they are doing what most generations have done in their 20s and 30s – taking a break from organized religion.  Some will come back when children are born.  Others will not return until the arc of their life experience brings them back to recognizing the need for spiritual community.

Stage five is called the Mystical Stage, in which we have both a broader and deeper faith.  We have fewer needs for answers, and a new openness to mystery. We see the strengths and weaknesses of various faith expressions, and may decide to take up a religious expression different from the one in which we were raised.  We may move away from Christianity, toward Buddhism, or develop syncretistic expressions of faith.

The majority of those who enter stage five, however, come back to the religion of their youth, though often in a different expression.  At Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado, where I serve as one of the pastors, we have a lot of precious souls who are in stage five. It is a great pleasure to journey with them.

There are a handful of folks who find their way to the sixth stage of faith, what I call the Extraordinary Faith Stage.   Members of this group include people like Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Mother Theresa and Gandhi.  This past fall Jen Jepsen and I were able to spend a few days with Father Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico.  He definitely qualifies as a man of extraordinary faith. I would also put my mentor, the late Dr. Byron Lambert, in this group.  You don’t run across many people in stage six.

We usually gravitate toward those in the same stage we are currently in, or those in the next stage of development.  We might have an affinity toward those in the earlier stages of faith.  But like I said, most often they will not have an affinity toward us.  We will be seen as too “other” from them.

It is helpful for me to think of the stages of faith when I am under attack, because most commonly those attacks are coming from people stuck in stage three. The more vitriolic the attack, the more uncomfortable they are.  They do not want to encounter people who remind them of the truth they intuitively know, that it is time to move on.