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. https://laurabrewer.love/project/episode19/?fbclid=IwAR2Ox4HAGDUiy0irvmtZBr5aCQxxufoEf6mh9V-hZFCFf-tpIla7w1Mtge4  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.   http://holywritpodcast.com/category/episodes/page/4/  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 TED.com 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.

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.

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.