All In a Name

I preached a sermon this past weekend that had me struggling with my emotions from the beginning. The stories of scripture have all the drama you would expect of a great narrative.  The writings of John feel like a Steven Soderbergh film, full of complexity and mystery; or maybe a David Lean epic, almost too big for the screen.

My sermon from the Gospel of John was about the people who encountered the resurrected Jesus.  I noted the significant differences between how the male and female followers of Jesus responded to his death.  The men gathered off site.  The women were still committed to the body of Jesus and traveled together to the tomb. It was his blood and muscle, sinew and bone that drew the women.  The incarnate Jesus was the focus of their faith.  I believe their devotion would have remained even if there had been no resurrection.

I knew from the time I began memorizing that I was going to have trouble when I got to John’s account of what happened after John and Peter left the open tomb.  While they did what men do and began formulating plans to slay dragons and build kingdoms, Mary Magdalene stayed behind, lingering at the tomb.  Mary wept.

My need to grieve is so much greater now than when I was living as a male.  It is close to the surface and extends far beyond any parameters I had previously known.  Nowadays, watching a sensitive granddaughter nestle hard in Grandma Cathy’s lap can send me into gentle tears that fall all afternoon.

Sometimes I grieve for our nation and the grace and kindness I fear have been irretrievably lost. For  two years I kept an email from my co-pastor Jen Jepsen that she wrote shortly after the 2016 election. Jen said, “The women must grieve. The men do not seem to need to grieve. The women will do the hard work, but that will come later.  Now, we must grieve.”

As I memorized my sermon I was powerfully overcome by the moment Mary Magdalene saw the risen Christ.  Mary, eyes full of tears from her profound grief, sees the gardener and asks where the body of her precious Jesus might be. Jesus tenderly asks,  “Why are you crying?”  Then he speaks her name, “Mary.”

When Jesus spoke her name, Mary heard that familiar voice speaking the very essence of who she was – Mary.  As I memorized the message, every time I got to that part of the sermon I cried.  Of course, I also cried when I preached the actual sermon.  If it piques your interest, here is the link:

Even as I type this post, I am weeping.  As I wrote the last paragraph one of my best friends came for a visit.  I greeted her at the door with tears welling up.  I told her what I was doing.  She had been at church when I preached.  She said, “Keep writing.”

When you speak my name you see me.  Paula is who I am.  It is my essence, verbally spoken.  When you say “Paula” you have reached into my soul and pulled forth the beauty and complexity that is me.  It tells me that you see me.

I don’t do much marriage counseling anymore, but when I did, I would listen to see if a couple called each other by name.  Even if a name was spoken angrily, I knew that a strong and intimate bond remained.  It was when they did not call each other by name that I suspected the problems were going to be more difficult to solve.

Occasionally I still get letters addressed to Paul.  Unless they are junk mail working from an outdated list, they are usually an arrogant statement of superiority from a religious person intent on correcting my sinful ways.  I never cease to be amazed at the confidence of fundamentalists.

Every now and again someone I have seen only once or twice since my transition will still call me Paul.  Most are people who love me, and they get a free pass.  If I hear “Paul” spoken over an airport intercom or from someone behind me on a street, I no longer turn around.  Paul is not  my name.

My friend who sat patiently while I finished my paragraph does not like to be called by her name.  But I can’t help it.  She said she doesn’t mind when I do it.  I call her by name because I see her.  I like to use the name of the friends I clearly see.  Their souls are as deeply embedded in their names as they are in their eyes.

I awoke from a dream last week with someone whispering my name.  I thought it had been whispered aloud, not part of a dream. I even got up and looked around to see if anyone was there.  At first I thought it was the voice of my son, but the more I thought about it I realized it was a whispered voice, neither male nor female.  The voice was insistent, but compassionate – “Paula!” “Paula!”  As if it was calling me forth into a new day.

I like being called by my name.  I think Mary Magdalene did too.  Jesus said to her, “Mary.”  She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!”  (John 20: 16)

A Redemption Remembered

Over the past couple of weeks the details of two stories memorialized in my first book have come into my consciousness.  Both stories involve LifeSavers candy.  These revelations have been made manifest as I have gained clarity about the hours surrounding both events.

My first book was written about 20 years ago, Laughter, Tears and In-Between – Soulful Stories for the Journey.  It is a collection of 43 stories.  I wrote eight other books in my past life, but that first book is the one that best captures the deeper elements of Paul’s life.

Both revelations were about memories that had been rewritten to make difficult days less painful. The first involved the day of my grandfather’s funeral.  I am not going to tell that story here.  If you want to know what happened, ask someone who was at Left Hand Church on Easter weekend.  One telling of a difficult story is about all the energy I have.

The second story is of a Sunday night during my 11th or 12th Christmas. Over the previous year, every Thursday morning we had received 30 minutes of instruction in the German language. The class was taught over the school loudspeaker system.  Despite the unorthodox teaching method, it turned out I had a facility for languages and learned more than a bit of German. In fact, I learned enough to wander around our house singing a German version of Silent Night.

My mother decided I should sing it at church on a Sunday evening.  I sang every now and again during Sunday evening services.  I enjoyed singing, and Sunday evening was less formal than Sunday morning, affording an outgoing child the opportunity to wow the crowd with a stirring version of America the Beautiful.  (I am fairly sure I sang that song with some regularity.  I had a patriotic streak.)

On this occasion, however, I did not want to sing.  I was not confident of my German and protested my mother’s insistence all the way to church on that cold Sunday evening.  I had been dressed in a white shirt, bow tie, and red argyle-patterned cardigan sweater, and I was forced to sit on the second row with my mother.  The time came for the special music and my father, the pastor, moved to the piano to accompany me.  I was terrified.

I looked out over the 100 or so gathered souls and tentatively began, “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft; einsam Wacht…” And that’s all I had. My mind and voice froze and for a moment or two I stood in suspended animation as my father replayed a few measures so I could jump back in.  But I did not jump back in.  I ran out through the arched doorway into the long hallway that separated the auditorium from the education complex.  I hid behind a pillar and looked back to see my father leave the piano and go to the pulpit and begin his Sunday evening sermon.

I stood there until well after the service was over.  As my father preached, he occasionally motioned from behind the pulpit for me to come back into the sanctuary, but that hallway was my sanctuary and I did not budge.

After the service was over and we had driven my mother and brother home, Dad took me to the deli where he bought bread and sandwich meats for our school lunches the following week.  He also bought me a pack of Wintergreen LifeSavers.  He didn’t say much, if anything, about what had happened.  He just gave me the LifeSavers.

That is the story I wrote in my first book, pleased to have had a father sensitive enough to redeem a difficult evening.  Recently, however, I have gained a new and more painful understanding of that evening.  It was a vivid reminder of our fascinating ability to rewrite stories to make them less troublesome.

I am not a mother, nor do I have the slightest idea about what it feels like to be a mother. Because of early life trauma, the details of which I am unaware, my mother had a number of limitations that made it difficult for her to be emotionally, and sometimes physically, available to her children.  I have great compassion for her, and wish so badly she could have known some level of healing.  But some wounds remain open on this side of eternity.  To a lesser or greater extent, it is true for all of us.

My mother’s ability to show affection and compassion was limited.  And as this story came back into my consciousness, I had a painful realization.  No one came into that hallway to get me.  Why did no human come and comfort me?  How could you leave your child out of sight after such a humiliating experience? I could have run home, a dark mile from the church to my house.  I could have been physically harming myself.  But no one came. Not my mother.  Not any mother.

I wonder how many other mothers in the auditorium were thinking, “Someone, please get that poor child.”  But whatever their thoughts, no one came.  I remained alone in that long dark hallway.  Well after the service ended I sheepishly returned through the doorway and was completely ignored by every adult remaining in the auditorium, save one.  Mrs. Thomas leaned over and compassionately said, “It is a difficult thing to sing in a foreign language.”

And there was my redemption, newly remembered.  One woman, who I saw every Sunday morning and every Sunday night, but did not know well, showing me the compassion most every mother in the room felt in her heart.

My mother never mentioned what happened.  Not ever. But Mrs. Thomas was the lifesaver before the LifeSavers.

And so it goes.

Watching the Sunrise

Last week my video from the Wise Woman Summit received a wonderful response.  In 36 minutes I said pretty much everything I know about gender inequity.  That is what I speak about most often, which is okay with me.  I feel a strong call to talk about how much our culture is tilted in favor of white males.

On Saturday evening we had a wonderful service at Left Hand Church. Energy was high, the music was awesome, and I love speaking at home, where I am just a pastor and not a TED speaker.  It was a very good evening.

I love my life, speaking and writing on gender equity and working with Left Hand Church. The domestic and international speaking has been exciting and satisfying; the church is grounding.

But there is always a quiet voice whispering in my ear, reminding me that while my life is richly blessed, my family is still working through so much.  We all had a wonderful time together last weekend when Jonathan was out to preach at Left Hand.  As a family we are finding our new normal.

The grandkids are thriving.  My children and their spouses are doing well.  Cathy and I deeply respect and love each other, though we no longer are married. But challenges remain.  None of us knows what to do with Paul, who is with us but not with us.  I mean, Paul is in me and of me, yet not me.  My house is the repository of all our family photos, but none of them are on the walls.  They are all stored in boxes in the basement, waiting for some kind of assignment.  It is as though we are all waiting some kind of assignment.  That’s nothing new.  I’ve written about it before.

Jonathan and I were interviewed a month ago on the How To Make Love podcast with Laura Brewer.  I do a lot of podcasts, and I particularly like doing them with Jonathan.  Our Holy Writ podcast last year, about the novel Doubter’s Almanac, was one of my favorite interviews we have ever done.  This podcast was right up there.  Laura had heard us speak at TEDWomen, and her questions were thoughtful and probing.  I always love hearing Jonathan speak about our common life, though sometimes it is painful.  But pain that ends in hope is the stuff of life, so the interviews are redemptive, as is Jonathan’s book, She’s My Dad. 

I don’t write much about my children.  The girls lead busy lives.  Jael is a school administrator and Jana owns a catering business.  Jael’s husband, Kijana, is a senior software architect. Jana and Jael both live in the Denver area.  Jonathan and Jubi live in Brooklyn, where Jubi works as a personal trainer and also leads worship at Forefront Church, where Jonathan is the lead pastor.

Since our first workshop together at the Open Conference in the fall of 2016, Jonathan and I have been speaking together more and more.  Of course, our TED talk last November was quite an honor. It has had over one million views since it debuted on in January.  We will both be attending the TEDSummit in Edinburgh, Scotland in July.

Early this past Sunday I had a chance to listen to our How To Make Love podcast.  I sat on the couch and watched out the back window as the sun rose over Indian Mountain.  Jonathan’s voice sounded deep and authoritative.  Mine sounded like it always does, somewhere between male and female.

The son I heard was wise, thoughtful and articulate.  I thought, “I’d go to his church.  He’s smart. He’s done his work.  He knows shit.”  I saw the speaker and storyteller whose craft is so well honed.  The longer I listened, the more I realized how much I love Jonathan’s honesty, transparency, and relentless desire to do the right thing.

What I heard was Paul and Cathy’s son, someone who has taken the best of both of us and crafted a life of wisdom and grace.  As I listened, through my son I found access to Paul, the father who taught him a little about how to be the confident, strong man he is.

I saw the value of all those years as season ticket holders of our beloved New York Mets, when we sat in the Shea Stadium Loge, Section 23, Row D, seats 1-4.  I saw the fruit of climbing Long’s Peak together, twice.  I gave Paul some space at the table, and thanked him for doing his best to teach his son how to be a man of confidence and humility, committed to the ridiculous notion that the truth does set us free.

I was glad I headed to Stuff-a-Bagel all of those Saturday mornings and stood in line to get three bacon, egg and cheese bagel sandwiches for my sleeping children.  I was grateful I had saved all of those frequent flyer and hotel points to take our annual winter trip to Florida.  I was glad I had always worked at least two and sometimes three jobs, helping my children feel like they fit in our affluent community on the south shore of Long Island.

This past week, as I enjoyed the presence of my children, their spouses and my grandchildren, I saw the fruit of my work as a male.  As i listened to Jonathan on the podcast, I was grateful for Paul.  I was grateful that Cathy and I did enough things right to enable our children to be the strong, independent people they are.

As I watched the sun rise over Indian Mountain Sunday morning, listening to the podcast and thinking about our weekend together, I began to catch a bit of a glimpse of the legacy of Paul.  And it was good.


A Week in the Life of Paula

I have not gotten my blog out every Tuesday morning of late, and I offer my apologies.  My life is a little hectic nowadays.  I like being busy.  Sometimes I even like it for the right reasons.  I can make a difference in the world and lessen people’s suffering. Other times I like it because it allows me to avoid the things I don’t want to deal with, kicking the can down the road. Just trying to be honest.  Just for fun, let me walk you through the last 10 days.

On Saturday evening, March 23, I preached at Left Hand Church, then preached three times the next morning at Denver Community Church.  The following morning I flew to Charlotte, then on Monday evening flew on to London to speak at Retail Week Live.

London was a delightful trip, though awfully short.  I arrived at about 10:00 Tuesday morning.  I never sleep on an airplane, even though I am in the lie flat beds of business class. I suppose it’s a waste of a lie flat bed, but I am not inclined to move back to coach just because I can’t sleep. After landing and enjoying a chance to freshen up at the American Airlines arrivals lounge, I headed to the convention center where the conference was being held.

After an afternoon meeting with the coordinator of Retail Week Live and a conversation with her about the 1300 attendees who would be coming to the conference, I got in a quick workout and finished my speech for the next morning.  I got to bed around 11:00 PM, having been awake for 36 hours.

Retail Week Live is for leaders of the top retailers in Europe.  The companies represented are well known all over Europe and in many cases, all over the world.  Wednesday morning I went over my talk several times before heading to the convention center.  I was the mystery speaker for the conference.  Only two or three people knew I was speaking.  For 15 minutes I spoke on gender equity, with a special focus on the good work front line sales workers do. (Yep, I flew to London to speak for 15 minutes.)  The audience responded wonderfully.  In their daily summary, the conference leaders wrote that I had “blown the roof off.”

I had a number of delightful conversations throughout the day on Wednesday.  I was moved by all the women who thanked me for validating their experience, and all the men who thanked me for my presentation. Whenever I speak with male corporate leaders, it is obvious most of them really want to get it right.  They want to respect and honor women as equals.  But as I said in my TEDx talk, “They just don’t know what they don’t know.”  When I speak and make them aware of their privilege, they respond with genuine gratitude.

I never saw that kind of openness among male evangelical leaders.  Of course, as Paula I have never spoken with them.  But when I was living and working among them, there was rarely a conversation about gender equity.  When you believe God has designated men as the leaders of the church, you are not going to think much about gender equity.  It is difficult for non-evangelicals to understand that kind of disregard for equal rights.  I always explain that you have to live within the rather narrow worldview of that community for it to make much sense.

After an evening dinner with the Retail Week Live staff and their amazing director, Hannah Tovey, I finally got a good night’s rest.  But bright and early Thursday morning I was on my way back to Heathrow and my flight to Philadelphia.  I was in England exactly 52 hours.

My flight back had been cancelled, so I was moved to a British Airways flight, giving me one last chance to fly on a 747 before they retire them in the coming year.  I had a business class seat that was quite private.  I could literally not see another person, other than the occasional flight attendant walking by.  The eight-hour flight gave me a chance to finish most of my book proposal.

The book is a memoir, with additional chapters on gender equity, gender and spirituality, gender and sexuality, and one chapter called Transgender 101.  Once we’ve chosen a publishing company, I will have about a year to write the book.

While I was in Philadelphia on Friday, I had a meeting with the new speakers agency that will be representing me.  I love the company.  It is female owned, with three amazing women sharing leadership.  I will introduce the agency to you soon.

My flight from Philadelphia back to Denver arrived around midnight on Friday night.  Though it was March 29, I had to drive through a snowstorm to get home.  Saturday I was up early putting finishing touches on the book proposal before sending the 79-page proposal to my agent.  Then around 4:00 I headed to church for our services at Left Hand. Jen, Aaron and I went to dinner afterwards, as we often do, and debriefed the service.  I love being at Left Hand Church.  I love our staff and I love our people.  The church is my grounding in the craziness that is my life.

Sunday I balanced the books for RLT Pathways, the counseling agency that Cathy and I own together, and compiled information needed by my new speakers agency.  Monday morning I was back at work.

It’s now Tuesday evening at about 11:00 PM.  I hope to post this blog entry before midnight.

So there you have it, ten days in the life of Paula.  Like I said, I live a kind of busy life.