And the Skaters Skate On

Yet another Sunday morning I was awakened by phone texts telling me of a mass shooting involving the queer community. When it happened with the Pulse shooting in Orlando, I arose at 5:00 and wrote a new sermon I preached at 9:00 and 10:30. This time I was in San Francisco, preaching at City Church.

I had not finished my sermon until close to midnight the evening before, so early Sunday morning I set about making changes to the message. I didn’t write anything down. The sermon was already memorized. I made the changes in my head. I had a big suite in my hotel that allowed me to walk in a circle, past two windows that looked out on Union Square and its lit Christmas tree and skating rink.

As I put words to my thoughts about the Club Q shooting, I noticed that everyone was skating counterclockwise. I was mesmerized watching the skaters turning back time. Now, as I added to my sermon, I wished I could turn the clock back eight hours and warn everyone to flee before the mayhem began.

Occasionally people come to Left Hand Church that draw suspicion. I hate that, but in today’s world, we have to protect our church members. Just a few weeks ago someone arrived well before the Sunday evening service with a lot of questions that aroused concern. Kristie, my co-pastor, engaged the person in conversation and they left before the service began. We monitored the doors for the remainder of the evening, and every Sunday since. Unfortunately, that is our reality.

Attacks of the queer community have been on the increase since 2016. Thankfully, in my case the attacks have only been emails, letters, texts, and a few phone calls. But I am always aware of my surroundings.

The veteran who tackled the Club Q shooter and undoubtedly saved lives was a straight man, at the club with his wife and children to see the childhood friend of his daughter perform in a drag show. That’s the kind of place many queer clubs are nowadays. Everybody wants to see a drag show, and the time around the Transgender Day of Remembrance is when many reach out warmly to our community. I do not want to lose sight of that. The majority of Americans support us. A vocal minority do not.

The preachers and politicians vilify us, and then wait for the young men with an unfinished prefrontal cortex to do their bidding for them, buying long rifles, and on marching orders from their leaders, gun us down in mass. Then their leaders abandon them and say, “What? Who, me?” And they have the rest of their lives to think about their blind loyalty to the rhetorical instigators of very real violence. All of this while the preachers and politicians can’t find the connection between inflammatory rhetoric and tragically misguided action. Some of the instigators were running for their own lives down the halls of the Capitol building after the violence they incited on January 6. Still, they didn’t get it.

Outside of the messages I receive, I do not face much prejudice. Last weekend I coached TEDxMileHigh speakers, emceed part of the show, and not a single person made reference to the fact that I am a transgender woman. I have served on the Town Board for the Town of Lyons since April, and not once has anyone made reference to my gender identity. In the world I inhabit, being transgender is old news. No one cares. Will we pass the town budget? That’s the important stuff.

Until another shooting takes place. Then I am forced to confront the reality all around me. I read about another precious transgender man or woman who loved people without exception and whose death left a gaping a hole in the fabric of their chosen family. Many of us have been rejected or marginalized by our families of origin. Our chosen families are precious to us, and we cling to them with a tenacity that shows how hard-won that family is.

Chosen families go together to Club Q, or Left Hand Church, or the taco restaurant, or the big table at the pizza place where we can laugh and cry and live inside the bonds of a shared life of precious meaning. And yet again, that sense of place and belonging was shattered, this time just minutes before the beginning of Transgender Day of Remembrance.

At City Church, after my sermon, Emily McGinley, the lead pastor, read the name of every trans person murdered in America in the past year. She did not yet have the names of those who died the previous night. The list was already long. The names were read with reverence, each pronounced tenderly.

I had preached on the death of Lazarus, and how Jesus mourned with Mary, showing solidarity in her suffering. I suggested that it was the shared mourning that caused Mary to cast her lot with Jesus. He understood. He understands. Hatred has its day, but love wins. It is the hope onto which I tenaciously hold. It is the Christmas tree on Union Square in San Francisco, and all the queer couples who gathered around it on Sunday evening, after the shooting, as if they knew to come to the manger for hope.

What do we do now? We keep telling our stories and staying in close proximity to those who are frightened by us, to show them our humanity, and for us to see theirs. Meanwhile, mothers and fathers grieve and mourn. Chosen families lose their grounding. And those described as “the sweetest person you’ll ever meet” will meet someone no more. And life goes on. The skaters skate counter-clockwise, unable to turn back time, and the losses mount. life after precious life.

Dear God, save us.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

When Jonathan was little, he would sit for hours in the corner of his bedroom with his record player, listening to books and stories. One of his favorite stories was about the emperor who had no clothes. The story reached a crescendo in which a young child cries out, “Look at the king, the king, the king!” Then the narrator sings, “The king is in the all together, the all together, the all together, he’s all together as naked as the day that he was born.” (You can relive the magic via the Danny Kaye version on YouTube.)

I think of that story and song often. I think of the child who proclaims the truth about the king. The tragic reality is that people who declare that the king has no clothes are in for a rough time. People say they want to know the truth, but most people do not want to know the truth. We live by our illusions. Tell a fundamentalist there is no God and they will disappear from your life. Tell an atheist there might be a God and they will disappear from your life. We hang out with our own. It’s easier that way. Our assumptions don’t have to be challenged. We can make life simpler and don’t have to struggle under the weight of possibilities. Hence, our dislike for the child who cries out, “Look at the king, the king, the king!

The song does not tell us what happened to the boy. I can tell you what happened to the boy. He and his family were driven from the kingdom. It is happening all across America to transgender children and their families. They live in states becoming increasingly hostile to trans kids, passing laws threating their parents with legal action if they choose to love their children. The worst laws are in the second most populated state in the nation, Texas. I cannot tell you how many people I have met in Colorado who moved here from Texas. They were driven from their home because of their love for their children.

I experience trans hatred on a regular basis. I don’t write or talk about it much because I don’t want to give power to the haters.  Besides, I have enough privilege behind me to withstand the onslaught. I was told I should not attend my 45th high school reunion because there would be trouble. I still flew to the region. I just visited with friends, family, and individual classmates instead. Being barred from the reunion was no huge deal. But it’s not that easy for a child whose very existence screams out that the king has no clothes, or for the parents of that child. The second the child speaks his or her truth, life as they know it is over.

There is, of course, an empowering freedom in telling the truth. The king is naked, and the child knows it. The child’s parents know it, and it is liberating to speak the truth. But it can also be life threatening. Transgender adolescents have a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers. I’m not sure when Republicans will give up their damaging campaign against trans kids. Two of the most egregiously anti-trans governors, in Texas and Florida, were re-elected by wide majorities, not exactly a hopeful sign that the siege is waning.

Just a few years ago I thought the narrative on transgender people was shifting toward the positive. But based on the hate mail I receive and the 286 anti-trans laws introduced in 2021 and 2022, that is clearly not the case. Over the past two years, a total of 39 anti-transgender laws have been signed into law in 19 different states.

A senior adviser to Greg Abbott’s campaign for governor said laws restricting care for transgender youth were a “75 – 80 percent winner.” Alabama governor Kay Ivey said, “We’re going to go by how God made us: If the Good Lord made you a boy, you’re a boy. If he made you a girl, you’re a girl. It’s simple.”

Uh, it is? First, last I checked we are not a Christian nation, so a “Good Lord” who is male is a decidedly Christian fundamentalist assumption. Second, a God who “makes” people one gender or another is a decidedly Calvinistic God, a demiurge worthy of Plato. Third, there are 150 different intersex conditions, so “simple” is hardly an appropriate word. I don’t even know why I’m countering Ivy’s fundamentalist argument. It is simplistic and uninformed. The problem is that a sizeable minority of Americans agree with her.

Most of the time I just ignore the anti-transgender rhetoric. It is just background noise in my personal life. In four of my five jobs, the fact I am trans is purely incidental. It has nothing to do with why I was hired, elected, or contracted to do that particular work. Even in my public speaking, fewer than ten percent of my speaking engagements are primarily because I am transgender.

I am fortunate. I do not have to live this nightmare as trans children are forced to live it. I don’t have to spend time in Texas. I can even avoid flying through Dallas. I don’t go to Florida much anymore. But with their hard turn to the right, those are not places I’d be inclined to visit anyway.

I don’t pay much of a price for saying the king is naked. But oh my, how I pray for those children whose lives are threatened. By simply existing, they are screaming out, “Look at the king, the king, the king.” The problem is that the king has the power to destroy them. Here’s to the states like Colorado that say, “Come, and abide with us. Here, you can cry out whatever truth you see.” I used to think it was that way in the whole nation. I now realize that was always the narrative of the privileged. Now I know better, and it is frightening.

This is Getting Really Scary

When I was in college, we frequently had chapel speakers from the conservative side of my denomination. They yelled loudly about the fires of hell, quoted from pamphlets published by the John Birch Society, and attended the Kiamichi Men’s Clinic where they bragged about not shaving or showering for a week. On the whole I found them rather innocuous, a fringe group of primarily rural southern preachers whose education was considerably less than their hubris.

After moving to New York, I was less affected by evangelical culture because I was no longer immersed in it. I worked for an evangelical ministry, but virtually none of my friends were evangelicals. They were Jewish, or Catholics, or no religion at all. The group with the greatest effect on the development of my spirituality was my Catholic reading group, which turned out to be a wonderful 25-year experience of spiritual formation.

Since I remained employed in the evangelical world, the gap between my work life and personal life grew exponentially. A tectonic shift in that gap occurred in the months leading up to January 1, 2000. Many of my evangelical friends were obsessed with Y2K, the notion that computers were programmed to self-destruct at the stroke of midnight on January 1.

In New York, there was awareness of a problem that needed to be addressed, but there was no panic. And sure enough, concerns over Y2K were unfounded. All went well on January 1, 2000. How did my evangelical friends become so obsessed with Y2K? I asked around, and was surprised by what I discovered.

Sometime during the 90s, my friends had started watching the opinion television shows on Fox News. That was the media outlet stirring up viewers over the coming apocalypse that never was. I thought my friends would pick up on the empty rhetoric of Fox News after the Y2K fiasco. They did not.

Fox pivoted to the next big threat, and when that didn’t pan out, the next big threat, and the next big threat, and my friends kept tuning in. That is when I began to realize my days in evangelicalism were numbered. My theology had been shifting for decades. I was already identified with the left of our denomination. But now I began to wonder if I would be able to stay at all. The more these friends were influenced by conservative media, the more they endorsed Christian nationalism. I was alarmed. When would I actually leave the evangelical fold? My transition made that decision for me. But it would have happened anyway. The handwriting was on the wall.

And where is evangelicalism today? Consider the recent American Values Survey completed by the Public Research Institute. Their survey of white evangelicals discovered these alarming statistics:

71% of evangelicals believe the US has gone downhill since the 1950s.

50% believe God intended America to be the new Promised Land.

61% say society has become too soft and feminine.

61% believe discrimination against white Americans is as bad as discrimination against racial minorities.

63% view Trump favorably.

54% believe the Big Lie.

84% believe gender is immutably determined at birth.

61% believe transgender people already have too many civil rights.

25% actually know someone who is out as a transgender person.

Far too many evangelical Americans have been influenced by right wing media. Their views disagree with objective facts, as they have abandoned the rigorous search for truth.

This all makes me terribly sad. Evangelicalism is my heritage. My roots go back to the beginning of what is known as the Stone/Campbell Movement. I had literally thousands of friends and acquaintances in that world. And now, increasing numbers of those same friends have been captivated by right-wing media. In doing so, they have become a threat to our democracy. I hate that. These are good people who, by getting their information from a handful of fact-free sources, have been recruited as soldiers in an ideological war that could destroy our nation.

When I was in Bible college, I never saw the far right preachers as a threat to my denomination, let alone my nation. But that was before Rupert Murdoch and Fox News. That was before Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson and company garnered huge audiences by ignoring the facts.

I am frightened. I should be.

Hollywood and TED – I Am Blessed

For the past year I’ve been working with an organization called PopShift that is influencing Hollywood writers, showrunners, producers, directors, and others on the front lines of culture. Until this week, all of the events have been virtual.

This past Tuesday 60 television writers gathered with the PopShift staff and a handful of storytellers at a beautiful garden in the Hollywood hills. Each storyteller spoke to 15 writers at a time around campfires scattered throughout the grounds.

There were six storytellers, including a whistle blower at a pharmaceutical company, a psychiatrist who is a proponent of psylocibin, an undocumented immigrant, a cult survivor who helps others find their grounding, a young man who has experienced the injustice of our justice system, and yours truly. I was greatly inspired by my fellow storytellers, and thankful for the couple of hours we spent together before the writers arrived.

The evening was magical. I don’t know that I’ve ever had such an attentive audience, though I suppose I should not have been surprised. I was telling my story to a group of television story writers. Of course, they were going to pay attention to a storyteller.

I was moved by the other storytellers and their willingness to be so transparent. These were all people who had been through the dark night of the soul, and their wisdom was readily apparent. I am always amazed to be included in such circles. I am also pretty sure I don’t belong there, as if I received an invitation that was supposed to be for the other Paula Stone Williams. You know, the one who actually figured out life. I left the Hollywood hills humbled and inspired.

After a quick flight home to Colorado, I had another wonderful experience with TEDWomen. TEDWomen is meeting this week, with remarkable women speakers from all over the world. Immediately after the main sessions they have TED Discovery Sessions, in which a workshop leader tells a story and engages the participants in conversation. It was my privilege to lead a Discovery Session, the first time I’ve had that honor since the TED Summit in Edinburgh.

My session was entitled, Lost is a Place Too. I talked about my experience in the land of the lost after I transitioned, and about my time there over the past fifteen months. I talked about how this last season in the place called lost was in great measure of my own doing, and the sobering lessons of that reality.

I spoke about our gifts and our pinnacle gifts. After the first discussion period, I talked about what James Hollis identifies as our existential guilt, what I call our abiding shadows. I noted how those shadows are almost always the flip side of our strengths. I shared how often I must say to myself, “It’s all right to have an unexpressed thought.”

I joined a discussion group during all three discussion periods. I wish we could have had hours, not minutes, to hear these women’s stories. They were thoughtful, transparent, and to a person, emotionally moving. They all shared similar stories. Each has had great success and great pain, and the pain has always been more instructive than the success. I wish that was not the case, but it is. They also shared a remarkable resilience I rarely see in men.

I hesitate to say this, because I know I will get in trouble for it, but my experience is that women are stronger than men. Women did not start life as close to the finish line as men, and they are accustomed to things not going their way. They have not received the same kind of encouragement men receive, and when they find it within themselves to go on the Hero’s Journey, they gain that most rare of paradoxical gifts, great confidence coupled with great humility.

I did not have a cisgender female experience, and as I said in my first TED Talk, I will not live long enough to lose my male entitlement. I am not as resilient as the women in my session. I need a constant stream of encouragement. When I am not forgiven, or trusted, or respected, I turn inward and want to disappear. The women with whom I interacted have the same tendency, but they have found the strength to rise above it. Against all odds, they still believe in themselves. It is inspiring.

I brought the thin skin of a privileged male with me into my transition. Now that I have nine years of experience as a woman, I am learning that while a woman’s skin might be literally thinner than a man’s, in every other way it is thicker, and more protective.

When I finished the TEDWomen Discovery Session, I sat and stared for about a half hour. I had to take in the profoundly moving stories the women told. I might have been leading the session, but it was their stories that were the locus of the hour.

It is a privilege to be included in these august conversations. It was good to hear the television writers talk about their triumphs and failures, their joys and frustrations. They have a humility I do not imagine I would see in most of the actors who speak the lines they write, but it is certainly there in the writers themselves. They know the Hero’s Journey and are living on the other side of the dark night of the soul.

The same was true of the women in today’s session. I have been blessed with many opportunities to influence others. What I never fail to take in are the lessons all of these wonderful people bring to me. They are a gift.

And so it goes.

Two Great Fantasies

Just a fair warning, this is not a lighthearted post. It is about loneliness.

In the fall of 2018, Cathy moved 25 minutes away. I stayed in our comfortable and spacious mountain home. We share an office at the house where we see counseling clients and each other a couple of days a week. Cathy stays with me when the family is in town. Otherwise, we are alone.

Cathy and my best friend thought that if I did not transition, I would not survive. My therapist thought I would survive but noted just how much more depressed I was becoming with each passing year. The options weren’t great.

Then came the evening in 2010 when I was watching the final season of LOST and Jack, the protagonist, was called by Jacob, the God figure, to die. That was it. I knew I had been called to figuratively die. I sobbed on the couch until 3:00 in the morning, fell asleep for a couple of hours, then woke up and wept until dawn. It was two years before I transitioned, but it was put in motion that February evening.

We still don’t know what causes gender dysphoria. There are some pretty good hypotheses, but they are just that. I don’t really need to know what caused me to be transgender. For me, the proof is in the living. It is far more natural living as a woman than it was living as a man. Life is so much harder for women, and yet it feels right. The body I have is my body. It is me.

Yet, I am lonely. I did not expect to be alone at this stage of my life. I sleep with only my arm by my side. I have filled my life with meaningful activities and friends. I am a pastor at Left Hand Church. I serve on the Board of Trustees of the Town of Lyons. I speak all over the world on issues of gender equity. I work with speakers for TEDxMileHigh and as a Speaker’s Ambassador for TED. I love helping clients as a pastoral counselor. I consult with and preach for post-evangelical churches around the nation. My life is full and varied, more like the life of someone half my age.

I have friends with whom I take long rambling walks and steep, rocky hikes. I feel particularly close to my co-pastors and several members of our little church.

You say, “You have a good and fruitful life, Paula. You travel the world and serve in a plethora of wonderful positions. How can you be so lonely?” Because I am alone, that is why. Inevitably at some point in life, we are all alone. I was talking with a good friend last week about late in life romance. She has a friend who married in her 70s and had ten wonderful years with her spouse before he died. Now, her acute loneliness is great.

When you fall in love as an older person, that falling is no less powerful than when you were a teenager, which is remarkable. Your body is wearing down, your spirit is weary, yet new love taps into the life-giving energy of wonder. Losing love does not get easier as you get older. It still feels like an affront to the very forces of life. You are shocked to discover with Thomas Wolfe that, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”

But after decades of a good marriage, you do not expect to suddenly be alone. You don’t think about these things, because you just assume your partner will always be there, and when you do pass on, it will somehow be within hours of each other. My father lived five and a half months after my mother passed. He was ready to go on the day of her funeral. The last thing he said to her was, “I’ll see you later.” That is how it’s supposed to be. Mom and Dad were married for 73 years, six months, and two days.

I wish I was not transgender. It has taken much from me. I would prefer that we figure out what causes someone to be transgender and fix it. At least we are moving in the direction of recognizing it sooner and stopping the late-in-life onset of pain and separation that is the lot of so many who are trans. If I could have transitioned in my late teen years or early twenties, I could have spared Cathy so much pain. Of course, then we would not have had our wonderful children and grandchildren.

We live life as it is handed to us, for better or worse. I am glad I was a husband and father. I wish I could have remained so. I am fulfilled and comfortable as a woman. but I hate being alone.

James Hollis said there are two great fantasies humans must relinquish in the second half of life. First, we must let go of the notion that we are immortal exceptions to the human condition. Second, we must give up the notion that out there somewhere is a magical other who will rescue us from existential isolation. Thomas Wolfe is right. Loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.

The State of Flying

Today’s travel experience is just awful. I long for the days when an hour-long flight included a hot breakfast in coach. The airline industry was regulated back then. Jimmy Carter had not yet had the revelation that a free market was the way to go. When the industry was deregulated, I knew where things would go, and it wasn’t good.

I have flown 2.6 million miles with American Airlines. Most of it was with Allegheny, renamed USAir, a wonderful airline in the days when Edwin Colodny was CEO, making a decent profit but also providing passengers with a pleasant experience. Imagine that? An airline that cares about you. In fact, USAir had a marketing phrase, “USAir begins with You.” But then USAir was acquired by America West, with a decidedly different management culture. To make matters worse, the new USAirways acquired American, a legacy carrier with an attitude.

I was supposed to go to the White House in June for a celebration of Pride Month. My flight was delayed, delayed again, and finally delayed until the following day, when I would not have been able to get to the White House in time for the meeting. There were absolutely no options on any carrier that would transport me from DEN to DCA in time to hang out with a couple hundred of the President’s closest friends.

Three weeks ago, I was invited to see Elton John sing at the White House. The news reports said it was a wonderful evening in the cool September air. I wouldn’t know. It was going to cost me over $1,400 to get there and back in time to leave on vacation the next morning. And the way things have gone lately, I wouldn’t have trusted any airline to get me home in time to leave on vacation.

And oh yeah, about that vacation. The night before we were to leave, I received a notification that our flight from Denver to Phoenix would be delayed by three hours. They offered no explanation, but I’ve been flying long enough to know when an early morning flight is delayed the night before, it is because of required crew rest.

That meant Cathy and I would miss our connection to Maui. I am Executive Platinum with American and have been at that level for three decades, so I know how to navigate an airline website and phone system. Despite my best attempts, and those of an experienced EP phone agent, we could not find a single flight on any carrier that would get both Cathy and me to Maui the next morning.

The agent finally found a single seat from DEN to DFW and one seat from DFW to OGG. Cathy left Denver at 6:00 on Sunday morning and arrived in Maui at 2:16, about the time we were originally scheduled to arrive. I, on the other hand, could not get out of Denver until 1:57 that afternoon. I sat in the Admiral’s Club and watched with Neta, one of the club agents, while the flight that made up ours was stuck in a ground stop in Philadelphia. An hour and a half went by. I said, “The crew is going to time out.” Pilots can’t fly more than ten hours straight, and if they are going to exceed that ten hours while they are in the air, the flight is cancelled.

We looked for a backup on Monday. There were none. There were no seats on Tuesday either. We waited to see if the Philadelphia to Los Angeles flight would get in the air. It did, but it was four hours late. Thank goodness, the company switched equipment for our flight to Hawaii, so I finally got to Hawaii at 10:00 PM, about 2:00 in the morning, my time.

When we finally took off for Hawaii, I thought of those poor people from Philadelphia who had been on their plane for eight hours, about the time it takes to fly from Philadelphia to Europe, and still weren’t in Los Angeles.

If this stream of consciousness post is disjointed, that is my point. This post feels like those twenty-four hours. And remember, I’ve been doing this for five decades. I have a lifetime pass for Cathy and me to the Admiral’s Club, purchased for $400 in 1982. (They stopped selling lifetime passes in the 90s, when they cost $6000.) I get free upgrades to first class. Even when I’m in coach, I get free food and decent seats. In other words, I am about as pampered as any frequent flyer in today’s world. And still, that trip was awful.

This is what happens when profits come before people.

I still remember an early morning flight in 1979 from LaGuardia to Buffalo. We were served pancakes with honey butter, scrambled eggs, bacon, and maple syrup. The picture above is of the type of plane we were on, a BAC-111. That was then. On my recent flight to Los Angeles, two hours and fifteen minutes long, I was served mixed nuts, in first class.

And so it goes.

Take a Deep Breath, Mom and Dad

If your child says they are gender non-binary, transgender, pansexual, or asexual, I have some advice. When they tell you this interesting news, respond by saying, “Oh,” without alarm, like you would if they told you they were going to Walgreens to pick up a few things. Then be curious. Ask how they came to that conclusion, and how the new insight makes them feel. And whatever you do, do not be judgmental.

Teens need to separate from their families of origin. It’s in their DNA. It is their job. They also have brains that are not yet fully formed. Our job is to encourage their individuation and differentiation, while providing guardrails to the excesses that could have permanent consequences.

Those guardrails do not include opposition to their gender and sexual exploration, at least not unless they are wanting surgeries or medical treatments that will permanently change their bodies. No matter what your evangelical church is telling you, no hospital or physician anywhere in the United States is doing gender affirming surgery on minors. Very few are doing any surgeries at all. The hormonal treatments that are prescribed are reversible.

Do you remember when Goth was a thing? Yeah, for some kids, all things gender is today’s version of Goth. It is a chance to show your independence and say, “I’m not like you, Mom and Dad.” I mean, think about it. Why on earth would you ever leave the people who have provided your every need unless there was something seriously wrong with them? They need to find fault with you. It makes it easier to leave the nest. And besides, there are, in fact, plenty of things wrong with you, and by the time your kids hit their teen years, they’ve figured out what those things are.

If your child is in their intense phase of separation, what do they need from you? They need curiosity, understanding, and patience. Your child might indeed be gender non-binary, transgender, pansexual or asexual. But the statistics say it isn’t likely. The number of people who are transgender stays steady at around .58 percent. Yes, about one half of one percent. The number who are non-binary is similar.

Whatever is happening in your child’s phase of visible separation, be curious and talkative with them. Listen. If you listen long enough, they will eventually share the pleasure of their emerging souls with you.

Be patient. Be glad your children are being raised in a time in which they can age-appropriately try on different identities in a safe environment. Encourage their exploration, and their tolerance of others. Don’t rush them to the courthouse to help change their name yet. If necessary, that can come later. But you can call them the name they prefer for as long as they prefer it, whether it be a week, a month, a year, or a lifetime. Let it be an adventure.

Are there exceptions? Of course, there are. If your child from an early age has been protesting that they are not the gender listed on their birth certificate, you should listen up. Kids who present as transgender at four are likely to be transgender at forty. On the other hand, if your child declares at thirteen that he or she is transgender, then you might want to just abide, and see what happens. There is a good chance it is a phase of their necessary differentiation from you.

When should you be concerned? If your child becomes sullen and withdrawn, with few friends and consistently dark moods, it may be time for intervention. And anytime a child threatens to harm themselves, it should be taken seriously. It is not a time for watching and waiting. It is time for the help of a therapist or physician well-educated in the issues common to adolescents.

It is also important to note that things are hard for all kids right now. They just finished two years of education in front of a screen. They are behind and they know it. And the pressures they face at school and with their peers have been horribly exacerbated by social media. They are more likely to need help in life much earlier than we did, and we need to provide the help they need.

Now, a word about the politicians who are trading children’s mental health for a few right-wing votes. Shame on them. Children are dying. The anti-trans laws like those recently passed in Texas are terrifying in their disregard of science, and for any positive regard for the children those lawmakers are sworn to serve.

At our town board meeting two weeks ago, we talked about the mental health of the teens in our town. I took a long walk with a fellow board member the following Saturday, and we considered what we might do to provide the help our kids need. That is the appropriate response to adolescents, not the book banning, treatment prohibiting, reactionary rhetoric of politicians and self-righteous evangelicals.

I have five granddaughters, all between the ages of 12 and 14. It is so much fun watching them unfold into the fulness of themselves, unencumbered by the religious purity movement of my generation. They are full of themselves in all the right ways. Yet, I see them struggle beneath the weight of expectations and I am grateful they have parents who see them, who truly see them, and who are committed to providing them just the right amount of freedom to come into themselves.

This living is serious business. I have a friend about my age who says growing old is not for sissies. I agree, but I would add that all of life in the year 2022 is not for sissies. These are not easy times.

Dominated As Things Are

There are several lines in Rilke’s The Man Watching that have resonated with me over the past year.  I memorized the poem nine or ten years ago while driving with Cathy through Left Hand Canyon. The poem begins, I can tell by the way the trees beat after so many dull days on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming, and I hear the far-off fields say things I cannot bear without a friend, I cannot love without a sister.

As I write this I am watching trees bend wildly in the southwest winds that arrive every fall here on the Front Range. The house creaks and moans, the windows whistle, and the trees stretch toward the ground, dominated by the coming storm. Which brings me to a line later in the poem: What we choose to fight is so tiny. What fights us is so great. If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things are by some immense storm, then we could become strong too, and not need names.

The area in which I lived for a quarter century, where Long Island juts into the Great South Bay, is called Timber Point. The trees near the shore are permanently shaped by the winds, leaning to better withstand the Nor’easters that dominate the winter weather.

The winds on the Front Range are not frequent enough to shape the trees, so they never permanently yield like the birch, oaks, and sugar maples of Timber Point. But when the storms arrive, the Colorado cottonwoods and limber pines yield to the elements about them.

Humans are not so good at yielding to the elements about us. As a man, it was in my nature to want to dominate, not be dominated by. I brought myself with myself when I transitioned, and I still fight against the winter wind, refusing to yield. On occasion the winds have almost toppled me. Still, I persist. I may as well push a rope.

I still think of myself as middle aged, but unless I live to 130, I am not middle aged anymore. Everyone thinks I’m middle aged, which I like, and I understand the reason. I take care of myself. I run or bike six days a week and work six or seven. I am constantly taking on new challenges. I didn’t start mountain biking until I was 55. I didn’t start serving with TED and TEDxMileHigh until I was 66. Earlier this year I ran for public office and now serve on the town board in Lyons, Colorado. It’s been a big learning curve, but I haven’t minded it. I am exercising new areas of my brain.

But there is a shadow side to continuing to run at full speed. It means you are not inclined to let yourself trust the storm. You lean into the wind. You fight the storm. And here is the paradoxical truth – life requires both. You must both lean into the wind and be dominated by it. The trick is discerning which is called for at any given time.

The poem includes the narrative of Jacob, and his wrestling match with God. Rilke writes, Whoever was beaten by that angel, though often the angel simply declined the fight, went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh had that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

I love that Rilke notes, passively, that you can win a wrestling match with God. Sometimes God simply declines the fight. I think stubborn willfulness invites that response from God. Stridency does too. You can win a wrestling match with God, but is it a good thing? Is it a good thing to win a wrestling match when your opponent is the lord of the universe?

Jacob finally discerned when it was time to yield. He had been a manipulative asshole for decades. His brother was headed his way with an army of 300, and Jacob knew the good times were over. He finally yielded when he asked the angel to bless him. Did he know his blessing would be his defeat?

There comes a time when you are exhausted, and it is time to yield. It’s how Rilke finishes the poem. Winning does not tempt that man, this is how he grows. By being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.

Over the last year I reached a point in which I could lean into the wind no longer. My cortisol levels were high. I became frantic in my desire for the approval of others. I was devastated by my own behaviors, disappointing myself profoundly. I finally surrendered to become dominated by the storm that caused my pain. I came to understand what Jungian analyst James Hollis calls existential guilt and could name my own.

But you can’t stay in a state of permanent defeat. You have to move on. Now the storm is subsiding. I am no longer bending as deeply in the wind. I am beginning to rest, and I am wiser. I still have moments of panic and desperation, but so do you. That is the existential reality for all of us.

Even though he had the army to do it, Esau did not kill Jacob. He decided to reconcile with his brother there by the river Jabbok, Jacob limping from his wounded hip while Esau surrendered his anger over his brother’s past transgressions. Both survived defeat at the hands of their own humors and became all the wiser for it.

Am I wiser than I was fifteen months ago? I’m not sure. Ask me in another year or so and we’ll see if the lessons still hold. In the meantime, the sun and the clear pebbles of rain are moving over the landscapes, the valleys, the rivers and the deep trees. Meantime, the wild geese, high in the clear blue air, are headed home again. Aw gees, now I’ve migrated from Rilke to Oliver.

And so it goes.

Sex and the Wayward Christian Pastor

Last week the headlines told of yet another megachurch pastor who has been relieved of his duties, at least temporarily, because of inappropriate behavior with another person. Yet again, as the pastor admitted his failure on stage, he was greeted with a standing ovation and shouts of, “We love you.” I imagine those folks will discover there is more to the accusations than meets the eye, which will cause them to regret that standing ovation. We see it happen all too often.

All of these leaders are men. There are no women megachurch pastors in America. Most began ministry with confidence coupled with at least some level of humility. By the time they had their great fall, however, not much humility remained. They had surrounded themselves with co-workers and friends who enabled their increasingly erratic behavior and ended up slipping into the inevitable zone in which absolute power corrupts absolutely.

A megachurch pastor can exercise power unfairly, treat subordinates poorly, handle money badly, and generally be a jerk and probably not lose his job. But there is one thing that will end his job and career. And that is to have any kind of sexual dalliance with a person other than his spouse. There is no forgiveness for that, because in evangelicalism there is no forgiveness for being a sexual being who makes mistakes.

I am not excusing the behavior of any of these pastors. Too often they refuse to recognize the unequal power dynamics that led to these inappropriate relationships. And as with far too many men exposed through the #MeToo movement, they see themselves as victims, not predators. I am not excusing any of their deplorable behavior. But I do have questions.

How did sex become the all-powerful career ending sin? Has anyone read the Hebrew scriptures? There was a lot of sex going on that was not between a husband a wife. Male religious leaders had hundreds of partners. And what about the relative little the New Testament says about sex? Jesus certainly wasn’t fixated on the subject. He said nothing about his own sex life.

The Christian fixation with sex did not begin until Augustine, hundreds of years after the time of Jesus. That sexual sin as the worst kind of sin is relatively new to the Christian message, dating from the beginnings of the Modern age. The purity movement of the late twentieth century was the apex of the sex negativity movement.

Here is what I do know. Many pastors have had relationships that they believed were consensual, but with unequal power dynamics. They betrayed their wedding vows. But most are not serial philanderers. They made a mistake, and one mistake does not have to be career ending. Far more pastors view pornography or engage in sexual paraphilias. All are decidedly male issues. Over 50 percent of men are interested in at least one of the common paraphilias, and over one third have engaged in a paraphilia like sadism, masochism, sexual cross dressing, or voyeurism. Sexual paraphilias cause great shame, because most people do not understand their genesis or what can be done about them.

Exacerbating the problem for male clergy is that they are not encouraged to talk about their sexuality, ever. Men are left to struggle alone. They never learned to understand the nature of male sexuality, and therefore never learned how to exercise agency to both acknowledge attraction and turn it off before it becomes a problem. They have never been taught about those times and people they need to keep at a distance because they trigger unresolved issues in their own lives that want to be healed through sexual intimacy. Men in ministry are not taught how to manage their sexuality.

For Christian men, there are only two options. There is sex in marriage, or there is no sexuality at all. If you brought a paraphilia with you into the marriage, too bad for you. There will be no place in which it is safe to figure out what that means to the marriage. If you arrived in marriage with the example of an unfaithful father who never taught you the importance of agency, too bad for you. You have to figure out monogamy on your own. If your natural sexual attraction is toward men, you are in a double bind. You can’t even show romantic affection to a man, let alone marry him.

To be clear, I am not condoning bad behavior by male clergy. But we really do need to do a better job of helping male religious leaders integrate a healthy understanding of sexuality into their lives. We need to give them the tools to understand unequal power dynamics, the ability to appreciate the power of testosterone in contributing to unhealthy behaviors, and the wisdom to exercise agency before they end up being the next headline about a pastor being asked to step down.

And so it goes.

Why Stop Now?

Why would anyone retire? I’m serious. Why not just pivot to work you enjoy doing. (As soon as I wrote “pivot” I thought of Ross moving the couch on Friends. Anyway…)

All of us have at least three different levels of capacity. First, we have what I will call abilities, things at which we are good, but the work doesn’t feed our souls. I’m good with finances, and run the finances of RLT Pathways, but I can’t say I enjoy it. We are competent when we work within the realm of our abilities, but we are not inspired. If you are relegated to the realm of abilities, I understand why you might want to retire. No one wants to do soul-sapping work.

In addition to abilities, we have gifts. A gift is something at which you excel that you enjoy doing so much you lose track of time when you are doing it. For me, writing is a gift. Running an organization is a gift. Counseling is a gift. If we are lucky and have had good mentors along the way, we also may be able to identify our pinnacle gifts. A pinnacle gift is work at which you excel beyond others. If you don’t know what your pinnacle gift is, you can determine it by asking a single question: What do people most affirm about you? The answer is likely your pinnacle gift.

My pinnacle gifts are public speaking and coaching and developing other public speakers. At TEDxMileHigh earlier this month I got to practice both of my pinnacle gifts, by coaching our speakers through the memorization and delivery process, while also emceeing the event. I was in seventh heaven. To make it even better, though a little stressful, I preached at Denver Community Church the next morning, then preached at Left Hand Church that night. Both were brand new messages. All weekend I was in my sweet spot. Monday I crashed.

Which brings me back to my opening paragraph. Why would anyone retire? Now you see why I might ask that question. I don’t want to retire. I want to reach higher. Oh gees, I just realized that rhymes. It’s okay, I’ll stay with it anyway. I want to reach higher.

At this stage of my life, I’m not interested in working 70-hour weeks, but I do want to achieve the greatest return on investment of my time. Whether it is preaching at Left Hand or another post-evangelical church around the nation, working with TED or TEDxMileHigh, counseling clients, speaking for corporations, or serving on the town board here in Lyons, I want to serve within my wheelhouse and in the areas of my gifts or pinnacle gifts. If I am doing that, why would I retire?

I call what I am currently doing semi-retirement, though most people would not consider it to be that. Friends half my age often say they have a hard time keeping up with me. But I’ve always been fairly productive, so for me, what I am doing is, in fact, semi-retirement. For instance, I do not want to be the lead pastor at a church anymore, though I love preaching regularly. I do not want to run a non-profit, though I’m happy to volunteer for several. And I do not want to do anything early in the morning. So you can forget that breakfast meeting.

I suppose the bottom line is that I hate being bored, and I want to make a difference in the world. I want to alleviate suffering, while causing as little as possible. Turns out that last part doesn’t get easier with age.

My parents lived well into their 90s. Dad was still driving at 95, though the wisdom of allowing that was, uh, a bit suspect. He only really slowed down in his final year. I hope I have that kind of time remaining, and that I can approach it with the kind of energy Dad sustained. I don’t think about my age much. I still take on the kinds of new challenges I took on at fifty. Back then it was working for the first time as a television host. Now it’s coaching TEDx speakers in their script finalization, memorization and delivery, and serving TED speakers as a Speaker’s Ambassador.

And oh yeah, the running for public office thing. I did that too. I mean, five-hour board meetings that start at 5:30 pm might be a bit much, but I’m learning a lot, and I love our little town.

This week, it’s been writing a sermon for Sunday, met with the November 12 TEDxMileHigh speakers for their inaugural meeting, served folks from the last TED event, pastored people from church, and dug into the 165-page staff draft of the Lyons Thrive Comprehensive Plan. Yeah, that last one is a bit much. But hey, they’ve diligently done good work and I will read every single page.

And so it goes.