Twelve Days

I’ve spoken nine times in the last twelve days. Best I can figure, I’ve spoken to people in at least eight countries, including France, England, Canada, Sri Lanka, Trinidad-Tobago, Australia, Russia, and the US. I’ve preached twice for Left Hand Church and once for Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. I also did an interactive service at Middle after I finished preaching. I did keynote presentations for the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo, Bouygues (UK) Ltd., and the Cardinal Group. I co-hosted a fund-raiser for TEDxMileHigh and spoke to the speakers for TEDWomen 2020. This evening I will speak briefly for the Denver Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial service.

Over a twelve day period I will have spoken live to around 8,000 people, but I will have physically touched not one single human being. That’s right, not one. I live alone and with the rise in COVID-19 cases, both Cathy and I have moved all of our counseling clients online, so no one is coming to the office in my home. Our Left Hand Church services moved from being taped in our church building to being done on Zoom from each of our respective homes, and all of my other face-to-face meetings have been cancelled.

I have been out running and mountain biking every day, but I have talked with no one on my routes. In fact, when I pass another person, we both keep our distance. It has been a very strange twelve days. I’ve loved speaking to so many people and I have received absolutely wonderful feedback. It’s been lifegiving. And of course, I always love preaching. But I miss physical touch. I miss hugging my family, co-workers and friends. We humans crave fleshly contact.

And then there’s an entire democracy teetering on the edge of an abyss, because of one single narcissist and his minions. Let’s not forget about that.

Jael, Kijana, and Trista got a puppy.  Winnie cluelessly eats and poops and teethes and demands attention 24-hours a day and I’ve been through that twice with two dogs and swore I would never do it again. But you know, it’s getting pretty lonely around here. I occasionally keep my co-pastor’s dog, a beagle mix with ideas about who is in charge. Finn, that’s her name, always looks at me with this expression that says, “What?” You know, like, “What? Waking you up at 5:00 am is what I do.”  Or, “What? Going on a run is good for both of us.” You can see the “What?” in the picture above.

Keeping her for a few days is usually enough to dissuade me from getting a dog.  But she is kinda precious, and she does keep me warm at night. But then there’s the hair everywhere, and did I mention she’s part beagle?  Then on my better days I remember the time will come when we can travel again and I fly 100,000 miles a year, which does not bode so well for a dog with her demands.

All to say, I’m lonely. Humans were not made for this kind of solitude. Most of us have a bubble with other humans inside it. My bubble includes dust mites, winter birds that hang around my bird feeders, and the red fox who appears to have plans to winter here. I even miss the bear, you know, the one who was in my garage. If it were now, I’d invite her in for tea and ask tips on how to prepare for hibernation. I mean, there’s a thought. Crawl under the covers and come out when the vaccine is available.

I am grateful to live in Boulder County, Colorado, where people do trust science and generally behave well. The very Republican county to my east has its issues, but I stay away from there nowadays. I don’t need reminders of the power of denial that resides within all of us.

I am hopeful about the fact that our democracy has not yet fallen, and about the coming vaccines. I am grateful for the incoming administration that will set about the nigh-impossible task of healing our land. I look forward to worshipping in the flesh, and seeing clients again, and flying back to New York to be with family and friends in my favorite city on earth.

I am older than dirt, and I’ve been around long enough to know that 2020 too shall pass. We just have to hang in there a little while longer. So, I run in the warm Colorado sun, and Zoom with the world, and subsist on the virtual hugs and dog kisses that come my way. I am blessed.

What Did We Just See?

You know it’s a strange year when the bear in your garage is not the year’s strangest occurrence.  COVID-19 gets the nod for the year’s biggest disruption, hands down.  But this week there is another oddity demanding my attention.

I’m reeling from the reality that seventy-six percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.  They saw four years of egregiously anti-Christian behavior and said, “Yeah, I’ll take four more years of that.”  About 150 million people voted in the election.  The Pew Research Center says about twenty-five percent of Americans are evangelicals, which means approximately thirty-seven million evangelicals voted.  Twenty-eight million of them voted for Donald Trump, a total of thirty-nine percent of his total number of votes.

I worked in the evangelical world for almost half a century.  Evangelicalism embraces a transactional form of Christianity.  You give Jesus your allegiance, and he tells his father not to send you to hell.  You can’t get more transactional than that.  So, why should we be surprised when evangelical politics is transactional.  “You deliver on our pet social issues and we’ll turn a blind eye to your behavior.”

My non-evangelical friends ask what is driving this decidedly unchristlike alliance.  There is no question that abortion is the largest social issue of importance to evangelicals, though I believe there is something else that lies beneath their support of Donald Trump.  But first, let’s consider abortion.  Two social issues have dominated evangelicalism – abortion and LGBTQ+ rights.  When the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, evangelicalism quickly turned its attention to abortion.  It is not that their theology shifted on LGBTQ+ issues, only that they began to realize America has moved on.  Two-thirds of Americans now support marriage equality.  Evangelicals know when they’ve lost a war and adjust accordingly.  It is hard to find a megachurch outside of the south that will publicly admit it is not supportive of LGBTQ+ people.  None of them are supportive, mind you, they just won’t admit it.

Not so with abortion.  It’s been a long time since Roe v. Wade kindled the ire of the religious right.  Catholics and evangelicals have been trying to undo it ever since.  Two-thirds of Americans support marriage equality, but we remain split 50/50 on abortion.  Only twenty-seven percent of Americans want Roe v. Wade completely overturned, but a much larger percentage wants restrictions on abortion.

By the late 1970s evangelicals realized they had lost the American culture wars.  Abortion became the issue that rallied them, beginning with the Moral Majority in the 80s and building to today’s Republican party, in which evangelicals have an outsize influence.  Politically, evangelicals have worked hard.  They started by running for school boards and state houses, then moved up to the national stage.

When I look at how many evangelicals say they voted for Donald Trump primarily because they believe Trump will keep a conservative Supreme Court, I am suspicious.  This is only my opinion, but I believe their passion is indicative of something else.  I believe they are terrified of the loss of White evangelical power.

Evangelical power started with the First Great Awakening from 1734 to 1760.  It produced evangelists like Jonathan Edwards, well known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  It continued through the Great Revival, from 1792 to 1860.  But by 1950, White Evangelical Christianity was losing influence to Black churches and mainline Protestant churches, both of which were very active in the Civil Rights movement.  When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973, White evangelicals realized their influence was virtually gone.  When they realized that by 2045 Whites will be a minority, they became even more frightened, and set out to do something about it.

Whatever the genesis of the current evangelical drive toward political power, its effect is frightening.  It has caused White evangelicals to stand firmly with a president who refuses to denounce White supremacy.

Power corrupts.  It just does.  I’ve been corrupted by power.  We are all tempted to succumb to its allure.  It takes extraordinary energy and accountability to not be corrupted by power.  But while power corrupts individuals, it more significantly corrupts groups of people.  We behave in groups in ways in which we would never dream of behaving as individuals. In the book of Romans, Paul calls that sin.

Most of the time Paul talks about sin, he is not talking about personal sin.  He is talking about corporate sin.  It is sin as a cosmic malevolent force.  You saw it in Sodom and Gomorrah, when two angels were sent to visit Lot, the nephew of Abraham, and were set upon by a frenzied crowd of out-of-control citizens. You saw it at the crucifixion of Jesus, when the crowds around Pilate cried, “Crucify him!”  You saw it in the first century, as Jews persecuted Christians and Romans persecuted both Jews and Christians.  And it has been a constant presence since that time, from the Crusades to the Protestant church’s persecution of Anabaptists, to today’s evangelical vilification of LGBTQ+ people.

This cosmic malevolent behavior is such a part of the fabric of humanity that it shows up in our fairy tales.  Out of control citizens are minions of the antagonist in Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, where unruly crowds want to “kill the beast.”

So how do we tame this group-think that has brought so much polarization to our nation.  As I have said before, I believe the solution is not massive rallies or siloed social media.  I believe it is one-on-one conversations in close proximity to one another.  If you and I sit in a room together and talk about life, we will regain our grounding.

Most of the conversations I have had with seatmates on an airplane have been around subjects that connect our humanity.  If we start there, we can work our way to deeper conversations.  And if we keep the conversations one-on-one, we can avoid the mob mentality that appeals to the worst part of our humanity.  I believe that is our only path forward.

I don’t know if Joe Biden can pull our nation together, but I know his spirit is exactly what our country needs – an irenic man with a good heart who wants nothing more than to bridge the divide that threatens our democracy.  His victory speech (written with the help of the brilliant Jon Meacham) was one of the finest speeches I have ever heard.  I don’t know about you, but I will be praying for him with everything in me.  Our country’s future is hanging in the balance.

Why Here?

There are so many ways in which all of our lives have been changed by Covid-19.  We struggled through a spring lockdown and a summer of social distancing.  Most of us have had at least one brush with someone who tested positive for the virus.  I missed our church summer campout when I had to quarantine.  And of course, 230,000 families have lost a loved one, a terrible reality that a sizeable minority of Americans find easier to deny than grieve.  Today, however, I am not writing about the big Covid-19 issues.  Today, I am focused on one little tiny matter related to the pandemic and the vagaries of human behavior.

I live in the last town in the foothills before a 21-mile stretch that rises 2500 feet to the main entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park.  There are two gas stations in my little town and a handful of restaurants.  It’s a cute village with a mountain vibe, the kind of place that often shows up on “Best Small Town” lists.  There are only a handful of neighborhoods north of the main highway.  I live in one of those neighborhoods, a canyon with a single development of 72 houses.

Before the development was built, a dirt road snaked its way from the highway up to the red rock quarries that dot the mountains to our north.  A short stretch of the dirt road remains, only about 100 yards long, just east of my house.  It is so seldom used that the surrounding vegetation has narrowed it to a single lane.  The road is paved for about 100 feet just south of my house, before the pavement ends.  When I am sitting on my back patio looking out at the mountains, the paved and unpaved portions of the road are just 50 feet away.  Which makes what has happened since the start of the pandemic especially interesting.

People turn up the canyon road that goes by my home.  Once they get to the dirt road turnoff just south of the house, they hesitate before slowly turning right and inching down the short paved portion of road.  Then they pull over where the pavement ends.  The picture above is looking back at my house and patio from the spot where they stop.

After they pull over, the most peculiar thing happens.  These weary travelers get out of their vehicles, and with little to no attempt to hide themselves, they deposit liquid on the prairie grass not 50 feet from where I sit on the patio.  Then they get back in their vehicles, turn around and head back toward the highway.  They never see me.  Apparently, the slight elevation of the patio (and it is slight, 10 feet at most) does not invite an upward gaze.

I need you to understand the frequency of this remarkable species behavior.  It never happened before Covid-19.  It is an adaptation specifically related to the pandemic.  I have not observed this behavior once or twice.  I have seen it five times.  No fewer than five times this summer, while I was sitting on my patio, people relieved themselves at the edge of the dirt road just south from where I was sitting.  And yes, it was people of all genders.  If it happened that often while I was sitting there, how often did it happen when I was not on the patio?  Yeah, I’m not gonna think about that.

I know what drives the behavior.  I just do not understand the choice of location.  Because of Covid-19, no one wants to use the restrooms at the gas stations or restaurants in town.  And they know they have a long stretch before they get to the national park, so they turn north from the main highway and start looking for an opportunity.  I mean, they could drive a few miles further up into the mountains, where they would find plenty of dirt roads and no houses or people, but no.  They choose the place where the pavement meets the dirt road, not 50 feet from my house, and in full view of, I dunno, about seven other houses.

I’ve been tempted to ask, “Excuse me, but could you help me understand why you’ve chosen this spot?”  But I’m afraid my question might affect their concentration.  I know our canyon is a wildlife corridor.  We have mountain lions all year and bears in the summer and fall.  They come through the canyon on their way to the river.  Is there some primal instinct deep in human DNA that makes people think, “This is the spot to respond to nature’s call.”  I mean, there was bear scat in my yard this September, and a red fox regularly leaves gifts in my yard that the dog I occasionally watch considers to be an olfactory joy.  Maybe that’s it.  In the deep recesses of our reptilian brains, there is a voice that whispers, “When in a pandemic, this is the place.”

They come in old cars, new cars, SUVs and motorcycles.  They come with singular purpose.  I haven’t noticed if it’s affecting the vegetation or not.  I don’t really want to look.  When I’m out running with the dog, she wants to go over and check it out.  I tug on her leash and say, “Not today, Finn; we have our standards.”

I imagine the behavior will end when the pandemic ends.  I mean, surely it will, right?  There is a lot of strangeness in our world right now.  Will these changes be permanent?  Is this the beginning of the devolution of the species? With everything else going on, I do not give myself too much time to ponder this odd behavior.  I just look forward to its cessation.

And so it goes.

This Is So 2020

My last trip on an airplane took place in early March when I flew to New York to speak at Rutgers University.  I should have known what was coming when our outbound flight was cancelled because a dog in the passenger section of the inbound flight had gotten sick and no matter how much they cleaned the airplane, the smell was unbearable.  That is the first time I have ever had a flight cancelled because of a “gift” left behind by a dog.

On the trip home our flight was almost cancelled because a flight attendant decided she didn’t agree with the captain’s decision to fly with one inoperative bathroom.  I sat  in the front row and watched as 15 employees came on to adjudicate the rather bitter disagreement.  The flight attendant left in a huff and we waited an hour for a new flight attendant.  That was also a first.  I had no idea how many more firsts 2020 was holding.

After I got home, the whole world shut down, so I just stayed at home and worked on my memoir.  The timing was good, but the work was tedious, with scores and scores of edits before getting my last draft to my editor at Simon & Schuster on October 5.  Just two weeks before that deadline I called my editor in tears, wanting to scrap the entire book.  It just was not as good as I wanted it to be.  She talked me off the ledge and I wrote between 10 and 12 hours  a day for the next 14 days and finally turned in a manuscript I think I feel okay about.  Writing the story of your own life is not easy.  I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll get copy edits back early next month and legal edits a week later.  Then I have until November 24 to get my final copy back to my editor.  The book won’t be released until next spring, but deadlines are deadlines.

Working on the book made the first wave of Covid-19 go relatively quickly.  But it is obvious the next phase of the pandemic is going to be no easier and no faster.  I was exposed to the virus once this summer, when a friend of a family member brought his sick child to a family gathering.  The required quarantine caused me to miss preaching one weekend and miss our church summer camping trip.  I try to remain vigilant, but pandemic fatigue is setting in for all of us. 

Then last Saturday I was hiking in southern Boulder County with a friend as we watched the Calwood fire blow up just south of where I live.  I took the picture above right before I realized just how close the fire was to my home.  We rushed home, only to be greeted by roadblocks.  We finally got home just as I received a reverse 911 call that we were in a pre-evacuation phase.  I began gathering photo albums, important papers, legal documents, clothes and such, as we waited for the order to evacuate.

 As darkness fell, we watched in horror as the fire came over a ridge along the mountain biking trail I ride, just four miles south of my house.  Later that night the danger abated enough that the call never came to evacuate, though we remained in warning mode for the next five days, with mandatory evacuations just one mile away.  The day the evacuation warning was finally lifted a much larger and more deadly fire developed in and around Rocky Mountain National Park, about 25 miles west of my home.  And oh yeah, I didn’t even mention the wildfire that’s been burning for two months 15 miles north of Lyons.  There are currently wildfires burning to my north, west, and south.  So there’s that.

Thursday evening looked like Armageddon had arrived.  The sky was red, ash was falling like snow, and evacuees from Estes Park were pouring through our town.  It’s been warm most of the week and will be 60 degrees tomorrow, but Sunday we are getting 15 inches of snow.  Monday’s temperature will not get out of the teens. Generally, I hate snow.  This time I don’t mind.  At least it will slow down the wildfires.

I’ve tried to stay lighthearted about it all, but it’s been a tough year.  My mother died 11 months ago.  My father died in May.  From August of last year to July of this year, a great trouble happened at church that rocked me to my core.  In December I stepped down as one of the co-pastors, remaining as a teaching pastor.  I am now serving again as a co-pastor and the church is doing quite well, but to say we went through the refiner’s fire is a bit of an understatement.  That, plus at the moment I am not crazy about fire metaphors.

I don’t mean to complain.  It has also been a good year.  I’ve been very busy this month speaking for corporations and conferences all over the world, including Global Care24, India’s FAIR Dialogue, Canada’s Conference for Women in Travel and Hospitality, the Marketing Research Event, Elanco’s worldwide employee conference, a national Joe Biden LGBTQ event, the annual women’s conference at Pinterest, an annual diversity conference at Mastercard, the KIN Meetup, and at least two podcasts a week.  And I’ve done it all from my living room, which has been wonderful.  In the next two weeks I will be doing events for TED Women, TEDxMileHigh, and three more companies, as well as preaching for Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.  And again, I don’t have to leave my living room.  I could get used to that.  Well, I could get use to it as long as there weren’t always wildfires and a worldwide pandemic  just outside my door.

I’m preaching at Left Hand Church twice a month, and our online audience continues to grow.  Our live audience often includes viewers from Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, England, and across the United States.  A lot of those viewers have come to us via my first TEDxMileHigh talk which is rapidly approaching 4 million views on YouTube.  I’ve loved our online services, but I miss our people – a lot.  I can’t wait until we can meet in person again, which looks like it should happen sometime before the 2024 presidential election.  

It is a stressful time.  When you are speaking for an event that is paying you thousands of dollars and you lose your video connection exactly three minutes before your keynote is scheduled to begin, you don’t exactly calm down until, I dunno, about three days later.  It would be bad enough if that happened once.  It’s happened three times in the last two weeks.  It is so 2020.  But I’m older than dirt, and have lived long enough to know that life is good and ultimately redemptive, and this too shall pass.

And so it goes.

 

I’m Still Speaking

My granddaughter is writing a story about her guinea pig, Ellie, so I decided I would sit down and write with her.  Ava had Ellie for three years, but she passed away recently.  Ava is writing about the things Ellie might have said if she could have talked.  I like the things Ellie would have said.

I thought of all five of my granddaughters on Tuesday night, as I watched yet one more occasion in which a smug White man talked over and mansplained to a strong Black woman.  Other than the spectacularly boorish behavior of one of the participants in the debate a week earlier, it was the the rudest expression of male behavior I have seen in a debate.  

The evangelical world thinks Mike Pence is a wonderful example of what it means to be a Christian man.  With all due respect, the evangelical world might not be fully aware of its own patriarchal prejudices.  The lack of respect Pence showed to Senator Harris tells us just how far we have to go before we get anywhere near gender equity.

Since I’m hardly in a position to affect change in that male-dominated world, I don’t have high aspirations.  I would be thrilled if just two things could happen.  I speak about both in almost every speech I give to corporations and conferences.  Both would at least start moving us in the right direction.  I would like to leave a more equitable world  for my granddaughters than the one into which they were born.

These two changes are incredibly simple. First, men, if you would just assume that a woman knows what she is talking about, and treat her accordingly, that would be a good start.  Second, if you would stop interrupting women, and also stop others who interrupt women, then my joy would be complete.  Well, it might not be complete, but I’d feel better about the state of gender relations than I do now.

Ever since I transitioned I have noticed how often I am interrupted.  I began researching and discovered I was not imagining the change.  Men interrupt women twice as often as they interrupt other men.  And here is the thing.  I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I used to be one of the those who interrupted women.  It is very troubling.  Worse yet is the fact that I still do it.  I am much more aware of it now, and stop myself and apologize, but it is not an easy habit to break.  It is at the forefront of my mind in every meeting I attend.  It is not enough to catch myself and apologize.  I need to stop interrupting in the first place.  

From childhood through their college years, boys are encouraged to think out loud.  They are taught to be confident and sure of themselves and to speak up whenever they have a thought.  Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised when they bring that with them into their adult lives.  Girls are taught just the opposite.  Girls are taught that they have to be perfect, so when they grow up and enter the workforce, they bring that expectation with them.  They know that when they do speak up in a meeting, their words have to be impeccable and succinct, because they know they are going to be interrupted. 

When I was a man, I rarely had the patience to wait for a woman to collect her thoughts.  If she didn’t speak up in the time allotted by men for other people to speak – about seven nanoseconds – then I spoke instead because, well, what I had to say was important.

It is humbling to realize just how entitled I was.  I was painfully reminded of it all last Tuesday when I watched Mike Pence cut off Kamala Harris time and again.  I wanted to scream at him to shut up and let her finish.  Fortunately, Harris has learned how to handle rude men.  She knows a woman has to respond to male rudeness carefully, and she does it perfectly.  She knows if she is too strong in her response, well, there’s a word that is likely to be used to define her.  If she doesn’t respond strongly enough, then she will not be seen as a leader.  She has to ride the knife edge between responding too strongly and not strongly enough.  

Kamala Harris was masterful at handling Pence’s interruptions.  “I’m still speaking” merchandise has already made its way into the mart of competitive commerce.  But the frustration is that she even needed to be masterful at handling his interruptions.  It is quite a double standard we have created.  Men are allowed to be boorish.  Women are not even supposed to be annoyed, let alone boorish.  The senator’s ability to handle rude interrupting men has been honed over her career as a prosecutor and a politician.  I stand in awe.  I have not developed the skill at silencing interrupting men that Harris has developed.  I just get angry.  But that is another thing women are not allowed to be.  Anger is an acceptable emotion for men, but not women.  It is maddening.

I asked Ava if boys interrupt her at school.  She said, “Yeah, because boys are well, you know, kinda stupid.”  I did not challenge her conclusion.  All five of my granddaughters are strong girls.  I’m glad. They have mothers and fathers who are not teaching them to be perfect.  They are teaching them to be persistent.  They will create a better world than the one into which they arrived.

I asked Ava, “I used to be a boy.  Do you think I was stupid?”  She thought about it for a minute and said, “Probably not, Gramma Paula, because you were transgender.”  Oh, if she only knew…

And so it goes.

Listening Can Speak Volumes

I do not have much interaction with those who lean to the political right.  The majority want nothing to do with me.  While that makes my life easier, it also makes it difficult to serve as any kind of change agent.  And our nation desperately needs change agents.

I have had a few opportunities to cross the divide.  Four years ago I spoke for a university affiliated with my former denomination.  My time with students and faculty went well, but when the professors wanted to bring me back, they ended up having to retract their invitation.  I receive five-figure paychecks for keynote addresses at state universities.  I spoke at the Christian university pro bono.  I even paid my own way.  But I guess having me back, even at my own expense, was a problem.

I was tentatively scheduled to speak at another Christian university when they surprised me with the news that I would not be allowed to speak alone on stage.  I would be followed by a second speaker who “does not believe being transgender is a thing.”  I told the folks that under those circumstances, I would not be willing to come.  They asked why and I said, “You are following me with a speaker who is denying the legitimacy of my basic identity.”  They didn’t see it that way.

Since that time, I have looked at the conservative world from a distance.  Last week I followed a social media thread of an evangelical friend who shared an article by a Christian who said he was going to vote for Joe Biden.  My social media feed includes few evangelicals, so it was a rare opportunity to look at how evangelicals responded.  While many were supportive, an equal number were not happy.  A lot of those folks were former acquaintances, mostly men, and white.  An inordinate number were focused on one thing – abortion.

Bob Woodward’s new book is yet another clear-eyed account of the narcissist who lives in the White House.  But here’s the thing, not many of those who were commenting on my friend’s shared post said anything about Donald Trump as a man.  No one defended his character.  They already know Trump’s flaws.  They will still vote for Donald Trump.  One said he was willing to vote for Trump based solely on the issue of abortion.

I know this is my own subjective reaction, but a lot of these folks seem frightened.  Their vision of America is fading, and they are not happy about it.  No amount of revelations about Donald Trump’s self-serving narcissism is going to change their minds.  They will vote for Donald Trump because their vision of a conservative (and white) America is fading.

But of course, all of that is my opinion, which might well cause them to point and say, “See, exactly!  Just one more liberal who thinks they know more about my life than I do.”  My opinion is not going to change anything, nor is their judgment of my opinion.  So, what actually will bring about change?

I am convinced two words have the ability to bring us together – narrative and proximity.  If we are physically close enough to be able to hear one another’s stories, we can begin to bridge the divide.  That is why I have been willing to speak at Christian universities pro bono. It is why I continue to refuse to lash out at those whose vitriol arrives in my inbox every week.  As we have seen graphically throughout the west, fanning flames does not put out fires; it spreads them.

I will be voting for Joe Biden in November.  I am proudly serving on his LGBTQ Believers Advisory Group.  But even if he is elected, it will not solve this great divide.  Until we come together and hear one another’s stories, the polarization will only increase.  A decent man in the White House is a good start, but it will not fix this divide.  An increase in knowledge about systemic racism is essential, but it will not fix this divide.  Only compassionate listening will heal our great divide.  And listening is not easy.

It is especially hard for me to listen when people tell me I am a freak, an abomination to God, and fuel for their nightmares.  In fact, the truth is that I cannot listen to those accusations.  It is damaging to my soul.  But I can listen to those same people tell me about their families, and the fact that they are working three jobs and still not earning enough to stay afloat.  I can listen as they tell me how their religion gives them hope in the midst of despair.  I can listen as they tell me how frightened they are of things they do not understand.  Listening can speak volumes.

I am reminded of the truth Jonathan Haidt talks about in The Righteous Mind.  Humans will change our minds, but only if new information comes to us in a non-threatening way.  As every parent knows when they tell a bedtime story, stories have the power to calm our souls.  They remind us that every last one of us is searching for love and hope and meaning.

I would love to hear stories from those willing to hear my story.  I have no problem finding takers whose stories are similar to mine.  While that it is nice, it does not heal our great divide.  Until our story-telling crosses the political divide, we will not restore decency to the conversation.  And if we do not restore decency to the conversation, I am afraid this great experiment in democracy will be over.  I want to be a part of the solution.  I want to listen.

I Didn’t See This Coming!

Okay, I’ve finally figured it out.  There is a secret ingredient in estrogen that goes straight to your prefrontal cortex and tells you time and again, morning to night, that you are not good enough.  It’s sort of a birthright of being a female.

When I was a man, I cannot tell you how rare it was for me to question myself.  Kindergarten and second grade were rough. Junior high was tough because, well, it was junior high.  And I was transgender.  But the rest of my life was a breeze.  In high school and college, I was singled out as a student of promise and got all the attention that came with it.  Once I graduated from college, life was even better.  I got the jobs I wanted at the places I wanted.  I knew my weaknesses, but they didn’t seem to hinder me much.  I rarely questioned my abilities.  Then I transitioned.

In January I spoke at a company in Washington, D.C.  I told their Chief People Officer that I didn’t think I had done very well.  In March I spoke at a university and told Tori from my speaker’s agency, that I didn’t think I’d been at my best.  I turned in the second draft of my memoir Monday and told a bunch of friends I thought it was okay, just okay.

I met yesterday with the leaders of a conference for which I am speaking and when I got off the call I thought, “They’re probably wondering why they even booked me for this event.”  A small thing happened at church last week that left all three female co-pastors questioning themselves for, like, three days.  Then we had to talk about it, and talk.  It had to leave John, our other co-pastor, thinking, “What’d I miss?”

When I was a man, I never understood why women were so so often so insecure.  Now that I am a woman, I understand only too well.  Women are insecure because the world has made women insecure.  After six decades of unbridled confidence, just six years as a woman have left me with half the confidence I used to have.  It is not because I am transgender.  The only people who treat me prejudicially because I am transgender are evangelicals and right wing bigots and there are not many of those in my life.  Most people treat me like I am a woman and always have been, and therein lies the problem.

There are a lot of ways in which men treat women that cause women to feel less than.  Being treated as if you do not know what you are talking about, being interrupted when you speak and subjected to constant mansplaining are not exactly confidence builders.  Since my first TEDxMileHigh talk, I’ve heard from women all over the world thanking me for validating their experience.  We live in a patriarchal and misogynistic world.  But that is only half of the problem.  There is another reason women are insecure.  Women do not empower each other. They see each other as competition.

Women have been taught since childhood that they have to be perfect to compete with men, and they not only expect perfection of themselves, they expect it of each other.  Because there are fewer leadership opportunities for women, they are more territorial than men, and more inclined to see another woman as a threat, not an accomplice.  That has been an unwelcome reality of being a female.  It is a competitive female world out there.  But like many great truths, it is paradoxical.  Women are competitive, but they are also collaborative.

The female heads of state of Norway, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Taiwan, and New Zealand have all successfully battled the Coronavirus.  They are empathetic, so their fellow-citizens are more likely to listen to them.  They are collaborative, seeing scientists as equals, not subordinates.  They compromise easily, make quick course corrections when they realize they are wrong, and have humility and confidence.  On the whole, I’m convinced women make the best CEOs and government leaders.  They are collaborative but make no mistake about it.  They are also competitive.

I’ve doubted myself more in six years than I did in the previous 60.  I’m serious.  If most women feel this way, and most of the ones I’ve talked with feel this way, then I don’t know how they’ve survived this long.

Or maybe I am completely wrong and have no idea what I am talking about.  Maybe the patriarchal world has had nothing to do with making us this way.  Maybe I was right in the beginning.  Maybe there is a secret ingredient in estrogen that goes straight to your prefrontal cortex and tells you time and again, morning to night, that you are not good enough.  All I know is that this doubting myself is just one more thing about being a woman that is nowhere near what I expected it to be.

I Know, I Know…

My deadline to get the second draft of my memoir to my editor at Simon & Schuster is Monday night.  I’ve been working on it pretty much nonstop for the last few weeks.  It has been mentally and emotionally taxing.  To have to go back to intimately painful moments and not just write about them, but also write about the emotions they stirred, is a little too much in the middle of a pandemic.  My mother died in November, my father in May, and it has not been an easy nine months at Left Hand Church.  Put it all together, and you might have noticed that you haven’t heard from me much.

First, the memoir.  I am thrilled to have been given the opportunity to write a memoir for a major publisher, and I am definitely grateful for the substantive advance, but I am not a great writer and I want to write a great book.  My friends Nicole Vickey and Carla Godwin have helped me with the book, and both assure me it is good.  But I am not in pursuit of good.  You get one shot with a big five publisher, and I want to make it count.  Good I can do.  I’m finding great to be painfully elusive.

It turns out I can tell you pretty much every thought I’ve had throughout my life.  What I can’t tell you is what I was feeling when I had those thoughts.  Like so many men, I counted on others to tell me what my feelings were.  This week I keep waking up singing a line from Leonard Cohen’s HallelujahI did my best, it wasn’t much, I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch, I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya.

I want to get it right in the telling of the memoir, but I don’t even know what right is.  I realize how often I counted on Cathy to tell me how I was feeling.  It was an unfair burden for her to carry.  When I transitioned and Cathy and I separated, I still wanted her to identify my emotions for me, but she lovingly told me it was not her job.  Unfortunately, I transferred it to one of my best friends, who finally took her leave.  Now I’m trying to feel and touch and we’re in the middle of a pandemic and I have a book deadline.

When your editor asks for more emotion and you write every possible emotion you can identify and still your former wife, on reading the manuscript, says, “I still don’t know what you were feeling,” and you answer, “It’s because I don’t know what I was feeling,” you start to question whether your book will ever get to great.  Which causes you to spend inordinate amounts of time on the book and stop writing your blog altogether.

I know I am not a bad writer.  I also know I am a better speaker than writer.  Even if I am talking into a camera instead of before a live audience, I have an easier time putting my feelings into words when I am speaking.  Which brings me to the church.

As with every other church in America, Left Hand has had to pivot to online services.  John Gaddis and I have carried the lion’s share of the preaching, and Heatherlyn has been there each and every Saturday singing her heart out.  We tape the services on or near John’s front porch, and much to our surprise, well over one thousand people watch the services every week.  Our real time viewers stretch from the Philippines to New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, Ireland and England.  It turns out our people have a lot of acquaintances all over the world.  Well, that and my TED talk, which is again being smiled upon by the algorithm gods of YouTube.

In January I stepped down as one of the co-pastors at Left Hand but remained as teaching pastor.  Aaron left completely in January and to everyone’s surprise, Jen left in May.  This month we went back to a co-pastor model, with four co-pastors – Kristie Sykes, John Gaddis, Nicole Vickey and me.  We will work within that structure for at least the next year or so.  We lost some folks, but the church is doing well.  Most new churches face a crisis sometime in their first three years of existence.  It either kills them or makes them stronger.  It looks like it has made us stronger, which is a good thing.  But if you are a blog reader, it also has meant no blog posts.  Do you see a theme developing here?

And then there’s the death of my parents.  I’ve always been close to my cousins on my mother’s side, and Dad was the last of the parents from that generation to pass.  He was 96.  The first died back in 1981.  I was talking with my brother who said, “Now, it’ll be one of us that goes next.”  It was a stark reminder.  The truth is I’ve already lost one of my cousins, who I loved dearly.  But yes, we are the next generation to go.  It is not fun being reminded of your own mortality in the midst of a time when you are mourning the passing of your parents, in the midst of a pandemic.  Which again brings me to the blog posts.

I will write weekly again, soon.  I promise.  The book has to be done by the end of September.  Until then I’ll be sitting by the fire on my patio with my laptop in my lap, editing away, looking at the beautiful sunsets ironically caused by the multitude of wildfires burning in Colorado.  It’s a good metaphor for life – beauty amidst the burning.

My Hometown

It was an interesting weekend in my Kentucky hometown.  About 20 Black Lives Matter protesters, led by a student from my college alma mater, were confronted by 250 counter-protesters, including men on roofs with assault rifles.  The pictures in the newspaper were cringeworthy.  I probably should not have been surprised.  After I transitioned, I was told it would be better if I did not attend my high school reunion.  They said, “There might be trouble.”

I have not been back to my hometown since my mother’s death, when a few high school classmates, all female, talked with me about the state of affairs in our little town.  All were educated, generous-hearted, and I dare say fierce women who have worked hard to bring much needed education to their neck of the woods.  They reminded me that there are definitely two sides to my Eastern Kentucky home.

I am not going to mention the name of the town because the 250 counter-protesters represented only about one percent of the county’s residents.  They did not speak for everyone.  The county is 99 percent white, with a median family income of $35,000.  There are a lot of similar counties in Kentucky, most of them made up of people of Scots-Irish descent.  They have been fighting pretty much everybody for the better part of 2,000 years.  I love the way they are portrayed by the writer Chris Offutt.  These are Appalachian people, clannish and proud.  They have fought an inordinate number of our wars for us, have remained on the edge of poverty for generations, and tend to look unfavorably on outsiders.  And yet.

It is true, I have been rejected by a lot of people in my hometown.  When I went back for my mother’s funeral I was greeted by one sole man.  But a number of my mother’s female friends, all in their 80s and 90s, greeted me warmly, by name.  They did not misgender me, or speak unkindly, or gossip about me in the outer hallway.  They paid their respects to my mother, and to me.

That little Eastern Kentucky town nurtured me.  When I arrived as a 15-year-old from northern Ohio, people welcomed me.  From the owner of the five and dime to the school principal to the the radio station program director, I was offered opportunity and friendship.  I was loved and encouraged and told, “You are going to make something of yourself.”  Of course, I did get more encouragement than at least half the population, because I was a male.  But a lot of my female classmates received the same encouragement, if not the same opportunities.

I was voted most likely to succeed in my senior class, and I did, because of that love and nurture.  The bank president helped me understand the importance of managing finances.  The radio station chief engineer taught me how things worked in the real world.  My high school teachers were saints, earning next to nothing while giving their whole hearts to help us move beyond the limitations of our Scots-Irish Appalachian roots.  I love my hometown.  And yet.

My hometown also helped me become a racist, who stayed unaware of my racism for all of my male life and the beginnings of my female life.  It taught me that men were to lead, and women were to follow.  It was an insular culture, suspicious of government, post-secondary education, people from either coast, Roman Catholics, Jews, and, well, anyone who had come from afar.  And afar wasn’t far.  You could come from elsewhere in Kentucky or West Virginia or Southern Ohio and not be suspect, but outside of that, you were watched with a wary eye.  And yet.

I had a wonderful high school teacher who walked me through the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and why I should care.  My father and his good friend, the town physician, were always deep in conversation about the broader world and the complexity of poverty, and working with people where they are, as you try to move them in the direction of broader knowledge and understanding.  There was the young teacher who pretty much forced me to go to an honors weekend at a state university where I heard a Kentucky congressman talk about the idea of what America could be, if we dared to be great.

I had good friends who received the same kind of nurture and went on to become physicians and engineers and Fortune 500 CEOs and bank presidents and social workers and teachers and school administrators.  Many of them came back home to serve those who showed up as counter-protesters this past weekend.  They taught their mothers and fathers and know the fears that cause them to keep their families close and their weapons closer.

If this protest and counter-protest had taken place in any other small southern town, I would have thought, “Oh God, I’m glad I don’t live there.”  But it didn’t.  It happened in a town that shaped and formed me.  No, I would not want to live there now.  I am fortunate to live in Boulder County, Colorado, where a transgender woman can be asked by a neighbor to consider filling a vacancy on the town council, serve as a pastor in a church that doesn’t pay much attention to my gender identity, and be positively profiled in local newspapers and magazines.  I get a lot of nasty mail.  I need to live in a nurturing place like Boulder County.  But I still love my hometown.

These are complicated times.  There are bad players with bad motives, but most people are just unaware or frightened or both.  Most of the counter-protestors this past weekend are not bad people.  They are just sadly uninformed.  What would it mean to love them well?  How might I make the kind of difference in their lives that causes them to see those 20 protestors as made of the same stuff of which they are made.  Today, I have no answers, just sadness.  The town that nurtured me well was not very nurturing this past weekend.

There are times I am not very nurturing either, times I am self-centered and frightened and just plain ignorant.  We all have a tendency to want to take the speck out of our sister’s eye while ignoring the plank in our own.  But we are all human, made in the image of our creator.  We all get misty eyed when we sing Amazing Grace, stand in awe at the Lincoln Memorial, and cry when our babies are born and our mother’s die.  We all want to love and be loved.

I don’t know how to fix this divide.  I am so tired of it.  And I do love my hometown.

Well Now, I Believe That’s a Fire

I’ve kinda been all over the place lately, from feeling hopeful to angry to frustrated to hopeful again.  In other words, my life during Covid-19 is going pretty much like yours.

Over the weekend the Washington Post played a video of a young Methodist associate pastor surrounded by an angry crowd that descended on Gettysburg because they heard Antifa was planning a flag burning at the historic site.  The pastor, who was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt, was there to visit the grave of an ancestor.  His timing wasn’t great.  Looking for someone to confront, 50 right wingers surrounded the associate pastor, who recorded the encounter.  One guy said, “Just because you’re gay you think you can say this stuff.”  The pastor said, “No, I’m a Methodist pastor and my denomination does not allow that.”  The pastor was eventually rescued by a park policeman who suggested it might be in his best interest to move along.

The whole thing was surreal.  I can imagine a friend of the pastor asking, “What’d you do today?”  “Well, I was out minding my own white, straight and definitely not gay Methodist pastor business when I was surrounded by an angry mob.”  After watching the video, I sat and stared at my computer screen for a while.  It’s taken about a day to process it all.

About a half hour ago, I came to my back patio to start writing this post.  Immediately I noticed a forest fire a few miles west on the east-facing slope of Coffintop Mountain.  Since the fire is nowhere near hiking trails or dwellings, I’m sure it was started by a lightning strike from the dry thunderstorm that blew through an hour ago.  The fire is definitely growing.  I just went inside and got my binoculars.  When you live in the foothills of the tinder-dry Rockies, forest fires make you nervous.

I feel better now because I can see helicopters dumping buckets of water on the fire.  When they release the water, it looks like a firehose from the heavens.  I’m sitting here fixated on watching the helicopters unleashing their Bambi Buckets.  It’d be nice if God put out fires like that.  You know, “Angry mob surrounds young pastor – God drops well-aimed 250-gallon Bambi Bucket. Video at 11:00.”

God is subtle.  I want God to make herself definitively known.  Buckets of water.  Well-placed lightning bolts, with captions running up each greased streak, “Do not piss me off!  Signed, God.”  I want to see God clearly at work in the middle of this madness.  I want God to speed up the development of multiple vaccines, including the cool RNA ones that are easy to reproduce.  Then I want God to require all anti-vaxxers to take courses in how to protect an entire species.  Or maybe you could take care of the right wingers and anti-vaxxers with the same required course – Identifying Trusted News Sources.

I know, I don’t sound very sympathetic, not even toward the associate pastor.  Since when is an appropriate defense, “I’m straight and you can believe me because I’m a Methodist pastor.”  That’s the best you could come up with, really?  Like I said, I’m not feeling charitable.   But hey, that forest fire looks like it will be coming across Hall’s Ranch any minute now before it burns through town and destroys my house, so this feels like no time to be diplomatic.  I need to get this post written before I have to fill my car with important documents and flee.

I preached last Saturday at Left Hand Church.  (You can always find a link on my public Facebook page – Paula Stone Williams.)  I suggested that America is not God’s favored nation.  I doubt anybody from the Gettysburg Antifa-fighters watched the message.  The truth is that God has not had a most favored nation for a few millennia.  But that does not mean God does not love America.  Truth is, I love America too.  In fact, my love for my country demands that I examine how she behaves.

In my sermon I suggested we can measure America’s progress by answering three questions.  How well are we loving the planet?  How well are we loving each other?  How well are we loving ourselves?  I found both good news and bad news in each of the three categories.

When it comes to loving our planet, I met an amazing TED speaker last week who is chronicling ancient tried and true green answers to everything from building bridges to treating sewage.  (You should look up “Root Bridges of Cherrapunji.) Another TED speaker noted that the number of people who believe America has a problem with systemic racism has doubled since 2016.  Sixty percent of Americans are finally getting it.  That’s a long way from where we need to be, but at least there’s progress.

I really am hopeful.  Yes, American exceptionalism has caused us to turn a global pandemic into a partisan divide, but on the whole, it looks like Americans are caring for their neighbors.  For the good of the cause, the entire country shut down for a couple of months.  That our federal government squandered that collective consciousness is not the people’s fault.  We did what we were asked; we focused on the greater good.

We are a story-based species, which takes me back to the Antifa-fighters and the pastor and the anti-vaxxers.  They each have a story, and you can tell from my snarkiness that at the moment I am not really open to hearing theirs.  I am angry, and I am not ready to give up my anger.  Which clearly means I am a part of the problem.  Of course, the truth is that we are all a part of the problem.  None of us will hear the story of another until we can make peace with our own story.  And that is hard work.

Teilhard de Chardin was rejected by the Roman Catholic Church.  But somehow, he remained willing to do the hard work, which is why he was given to writing lines like this: 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.

Then again, maybe that’s not the best choice for a quote, considering the forest fire at Coffintop.  But the smoke is diminishing, for real.  The helicopters with their Bambi Buckets are doing their job.  The news just said the fire is under control.  Now, if I can just get the fire in me under control.