Someday

Someday

I was warming up a cup of tea in the microwave and somehow dropped the cup and helplessly watched it shatter on the kitchen floor. The cup was one of my favorites. I purchased it when I was in Ireland. It was a Cath Kidston mug, and I love her designs. That particular style of mug is no longer available.

The mug was one of seven I own. I have given Cath Kidston mugs to Cathy, my girls, and my daughter-in-law. I’ve also given them to two of my close friends. I’ve never given a mug on a holiday or special occasion. I’ve just passed them along when it’s occurred to me to do so.

When I dropped the mug, I immediately started crying. I could barely catch my breath. I cried for a long time.  I wept as I swept up the pieces and carefully placed every last speck of glass on a plate. It is sitting on my dining room table, waiting for a miracle.

I have a hard time crying. Throughout my life I have needed some kind of prompting to bring me to tears. Movies have been pretty reliable over the years, but to the best of my recollection, this is the first time tears have flowed after the breaking of glassware.

My life is hard. Yours is too, I know. Why do we think we deserve more? Why do we take umbrage at the realization life is not fair? It is certainly more fair for white middle-class Americans than it is for countless other people groups. Why am I so offended by my losses? That is a problem to be contemplated on another day. For today, I will just cry.

So many of the lives of people I love have been shattered. Some have been shattered through terrible tragedies; some through illness; some because of decisions I have made. There is too much pain in the world.

Given the general sucky nature of life, I do not understand why fundamentalists feel the pressing need to contribute additional pain to the experience. One would think religion would be in the business of providing comfort, not inflicting pain. This weekend I was with friends in the Pacific Northwest who have experienced incredible pain at the hands of evangelical Christians. You can see their wounds healing. I know they could see mine. I’m sure they could also see the occasional far away look in my eyes.

I very rarely look at comments posted online about anything I have done. It’s not helpful to one’s self-esteem. Yesterday I happened to see a comment someone made about my TEDxMileHigh YouTube video. They wrote just two words – “nightmare fuel.” It took me a minute to understand what they were saying.

My first thought was that it was probably the comment of a fundamentalist Christian. I have my own prejudices. Whatever the source, it is not an unusual response to my story. I live it out every day. I wonder what kind of pain the commenter is in that would cause him or her to want to inflict pain on another. What deep pain do I trigger in his or her own life?

The truth is I am tired of the losses. My life has been shattered and I am afraid I cannot put the pieces together again. But that is only how I feel today, as I look at the hopelessly broken shards of glass on my dining room table.

Tomorrow will be a new day. And maybe tomorrow I will be able to say with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

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The Tentacles of Authenticity

The Tentacles of Authenticity

There is Once Before a Time and there is Once Upon a Time. When one is transgender, the break between living as a male and a female is a continental divide. For those in one’s inner circle, it becomes their Once Upon a Time, when the narrative changes forever. Everything before is seen through a glass darkly.

What do you do with wedding albums, scrapbooks and family photos? It took me awhile, but pretty much every family picture has been taken down. Well, only the ones that included pictures of me. Maybe the day will come when I put them up again, but that feels a long way off.

You don’t think about these things when you are in the throes of depression, wondering how you can stay alive as you struggle with your gender identity. You just want the pain to stop, and the only acceptable way for it to stop is to transition. You are thinking one day at a time, and the rose-colored glasses of denial get you through.

I was talking with two friends who came out as gay shortly after I came out as transgender. We are all from evangelical backgrounds. My friends were noting the differences in our experiences. The friends look the same as ever. They have pretty much the same friends, minus the evangelicals who cut them off. At work and in the neighborhood, all is well. That is not my story.

I was not able to keep my work, and even if I had been, I would have arrived at work as a different gender. We are a gendered society, and that is not easy for anyone, regardless of whether or not they have assigned a moral value to your decision to transition.

A number of my neighbors are friendly and warm, but an equal number avoid me, which is not the experience of the two friends with whom I was speaking. And maybe most significantly, though the lives of their families have been greatly disrupted by their decision to come out, my friends still look the same to their children, and play the same parental role. Only their marriages experienced the kind of disruption that occurred in my broader world.  (Of course, that alone is enough to play havoc with everyone’s sense of well being.)

At this point, my family is beginning to find a new normal. Because of their grace, I have been included in their lives. But the tentacles of authenticity reach far beyond family, co-workers and close friends. They reach out to the farthest reaches of my social interactions. When you are in the midst of the struggle, those tentacles are barely a passing thought. But with the passing of time, they become the struggle.

I had to think about whether or not I would be allowed at the funerals of my parents. I have had conversations with them. My father asked if I would preach the funeral should my mother die before he does. I explained that I could, but the majority of people who would attend would be extremely uncomfortable, if they came at all. He struggled to understand.

The youngest child of dear friends passed away last week. He was one of the kindest and most precious humans I have ever known. I wanted to jump on a plane and return to New York, but none of the extended family has met me as me, and this time needs to be about grieving, not about the family friend who transitioned genders. So I remain in Colorado and hold my own private vigil.

Every time I am asked to speak at a public gathering, those doing the asking have had to think about the impact my presence will have on their church, social club, company or non-profit. Extensive conversations were necessary before I got the invitation. I didn’t think about that before I transitioned.

It is easy for this kind of post to appear as a “Woe is me” kind of self-indulgence. That is not my intent. It’s just that I am constantly finding new levels of awareness. I ask, “When will life be normal again?” The answer is never. There is only a new normal.

If psychotherapy alone were adequate to treat gender identity issues, I’d be all for it. But most of the time it is not. It is a necessary part of the process, but it provides no cure. Some are able to get through life without transitioning. I wish I could have done the same. I could not.

For those of us called to transition, to that painful authenticity, we must extend grace to ourselves. That is hard to do when you come from a religious world that has judged you harshly. But if you keep your eyes on your Creator, God’s love is enough. And on your better days, you can say with Dag Hammarskjold, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.”

Feeling Blessed

Feeling Blessed

I was talking with my friend, Ben Cort, who was a fellow-speaker at the TEDXMileHigh Wonder event in November. Ben is a national marijuana policy expert, the author of Weed, Inc., and a frequent speaker on addiction issues.

After we had coffee, Ben wrote, “One of the things I kept coming back to was the difference in the reception we each have after changing our lives to live truly. I was thinking how important it is to me when I receive praise/recognition from people because I changed my life. (Ben has been in recovery since 1996.) I draw strength from it. Your story is pretty much the opposite, yet you are somehow leaning into it. I went from feeling heartbreak for you to being pretty damn stunned by your strength.”

Most of the time I do lean into my life. As I said in my TEDx talk, “The call toward authenticity is sacred; it is holy; it is for the greater good.” I lean into my life because I have a lot of LGBTQ brothers and sisters whose lives are far less blessed than my own, and I want to speak a word on their behalf. None of us asked to be who we are. We just are. Yet there are so many within the religious world and on the political right who, because of our current political environment, feel more and more comfortable publicly opposing our civil rights.

There is an even larger group that does not begrudge us our existence, but they would rather not have to interact with us. For them, it is easier to act like we’re not here. They have their civil rights, and don’t particularly want to be reminded about those who don’t.

When I step onto a public platform, it is that second crowd I most often face. They are not hostile, just indifferent. As Ben suggested, I do not begin with an audience that is sympathetic toward me. Arms are folded across chests. People walk out. I have to win over the audience. Usually, I do win them over, and the response is wonderful. But I’m not going to lie. Every time I stand before an audience, I am afraid.

Part of that is a good thing. I have always been frightened to speak in public. I do not want to waste people’s time. I want to add value to their day. If I have not prepared adequately, every person in the audience is going to know it. I should be nervous. But there is a difference between normal nervous and vulnerable nervous.

Ben’s audience wants him to succeed. That he knows his stuff and is an engaging speaker helps, but he usually begins with an expectant audience. That is not the case for me. Whether it is a crowd of 5,000, a university classroom or a dinner conversation, I often begin with a skeptical audience, and it’s tiring.

Ben’s email named something I have not consciously acknowledged. I no longer begin pretty much anything with a leg up. But here is the thing. Half of the world’s population knows what I am talking about. Women have always had to face the world without a leg up. And women of color know it better than anyone else.

Much as I would love to, I will not allow myself any self-pity. I had decades of entitlement and thousands of speeches with an audience eager to hear my words. Who am I to complain?

Privilege is interesting. Most people don’t know they have it until they lose it. Ben Cort is the rare white male who sees more than a glimpse of the privilege he has been given because of his gender and race. Come to think of it, I have a number of those men in my life. There is Mark and Eric and David and Michael and Dave and Jon and Aaron and Colby and my own son, Jonathan, and a lot more that come to mind now that I am naming names.

They have all caught a glimpse of what I am afraid I missed when I was a male. They have a sense of their own privilege, and they are doing what they can to make my way easier. There is quite a contrast between these men and most of the men with whom I formerly worked. I am grateful they protect and empower me. Indeed, I am blessed.

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.

 

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.