An unusual post today. Last week I was interviewed here in my own home by the wonderful women from the Wise Woman Summit. The talk went live today. It’s 36 minutes, but if you’re inclined to feel positively about my blog posts, you’ll probably like the video too.
I have not gotten my blog out every Tuesday morning of late, and I offer my apologies. My life is a little hectic nowadays. I like being busy. Sometimes I even like it for the right reasons. I can make a difference in the world and lessen people’s suffering. Other times I like it because it allows me to avoid the things I don’t want to deal with, kicking the can down the road. Just trying to be honest. Just for fun, let me walk you through the last 10 days.
On Saturday evening, March 23, I preached at Left Hand Church, then preached three times the next morning at Denver Community Church. The following morning I flew to Charlotte, then on Monday evening flew on to London to speak at Retail Week Live.
London was a delightful trip, though awfully short. I arrived at about 10:00 Tuesday morning. I never sleep on an airplane, even though I am in the lie flat beds of business class. I suppose it’s a waste of a lie flat bed, but I am not inclined to move back to coach just because I can’t sleep. After landing and enjoying a chance to freshen up at the American Airlines arrivals lounge, I headed to the convention center where the conference was being held.
After an afternoon meeting with the coordinator of Retail Week Live and a conversation with her about the 1300 attendees who would be coming to the conference, I got in a quick workout and finished my speech for the next morning. I got to bed around 11:00 PM, having been awake for 36 hours.
Retail Week Live is for leaders of the top retailers in Europe. The companies represented are well known all over Europe and in many cases, all over the world. Wednesday morning I went over my talk several times before heading to the convention center. I was the mystery speaker for the conference. Only two or three people knew I was speaking. For 15 minutes I spoke on gender equity, with a special focus on the good work front line sales workers do. (Yep, I flew to London to speak for 15 minutes.) The audience responded wonderfully. In their daily summary, the conference leaders wrote that I had “blown the roof off.”
I had a number of delightful conversations throughout the day on Wednesday. I was moved by all the women who thanked me for validating their experience, and all the men who thanked me for my presentation. Whenever I speak with male corporate leaders, it is obvious most of them really want to get it right. They want to respect and honor women as equals. But as I said in my TEDx talk, “They just don’t know what they don’t know.” When I speak and make them aware of their privilege, they respond with genuine gratitude.
I never saw that kind of openness among male evangelical leaders. Of course, as Paula I have never spoken with them. But when I was living and working among them, there was rarely a conversation about gender equity. When you believe God has designated men as the leaders of the church, you are not going to think much about gender equity. It is difficult for non-evangelicals to understand that kind of disregard for equal rights. I always explain that you have to live within the rather narrow worldview of that community for it to make much sense.
After an evening dinner with the Retail Week Live staff and their amazing director, Hannah Tovey, I finally got a good night’s rest. But bright and early Thursday morning I was on my way back to Heathrow and my flight to Philadelphia. I was in England exactly 52 hours.
My flight back had been cancelled, so I was moved to a British Airways flight, giving me one last chance to fly on a 747 before they retire them in the coming year. I had a business class seat that was quite private. I could literally not see another person, other than the occasional flight attendant walking by. The eight-hour flight gave me a chance to finish most of my book proposal.
The book is a memoir, with additional chapters on gender equity, gender and spirituality, gender and sexuality, and one chapter called Transgender 101. Once we’ve chosen a publishing company, I will have about a year to write the book.
While I was in Philadelphia on Friday, I had a meeting with the new speakers agency that will be representing me. I love the company. It is female owned, with three amazing women sharing leadership. I will introduce the agency to you soon.
My flight from Philadelphia back to Denver arrived around midnight on Friday night. Though it was March 29, I had to drive through a snowstorm to get home. Saturday I was up early putting finishing touches on the book proposal before sending the 79-page proposal to my agent. Then around 4:00 I headed to church for our services at Left Hand. Jen, Aaron and I went to dinner afterwards, as we often do, and debriefed the service. I love being at Left Hand Church. I love our staff and I love our people. The church is my grounding in the craziness that is my life.
Sunday I balanced the books for RLT Pathways, the counseling agency that Cathy and I own together, and compiled information needed by my new speakers agency. Monday morning I was back at work.
It’s now Tuesday evening at about 11:00 PM. I hope to post this blog entry before midnight.
So there you have it, ten days in the life of Paula. Like I said, I live a kind of busy life.
Back when I was a male and on television, there was one comment I received more than any other. People would stop me in airports or on the street and say, “You have such a soothing voice.”
Since our program was on in the middle of the night, having a soothing voice was a good thing. As one of our producers was fond of saying, “You put people back to sleep better than anyone else.” I was never sure whether that was a compliment or not.
Outside of what I hold in my mind and heart, and what I have in a handful of friendships, not much has followed me from Paul to Paula. It’s an ongoing cause of sadness or wonder, depending on the day. But there is one phrase I hear often, whether it is about my TED talks or keynote speeches or radio or podcast interviews. People say, “You have such a soothing voice.” I take pleasure in the compliment and I take great solace in the continuity.
Your voice is you, coming forth to greet the world. It says a lot about who you are and how you fill space. It telegraphs your emotions. Other people take cues from it. Is she approachable? Would I like her? We all know how we feel about cell phone loud talkers, screaming bosses and whiney narcissists. Our opinions are not generous.
One of my mentors, Dr. Byron Lambert, had an incredibly soothing voice, with a pleasant tone and perfect diction. Byron was a philosophy professor. With his voice and gentle manner, he made the whole discipline seem noble.
One of the most difficult people with whom I ever worked had one of the most grating voices I have ever heard. The combination seemed fitting. I no longer have to hear his voice. (There are benefits to being ostracized from your old world.)
Having grown up in the upper Midwest, my voice does not carry much of an accent. I sound pretty much like every American television news anchor. I suppose that is not a bad thing.
One of the problems of a soothing voice is that while it is fine with a good sound system or in the quietness of a therapy office, it isn’t all that helpful in regular conversation, particularly if you are in a loud restaurant. And nowadays, pretty much every restaurant is a loud restaurant. People are always straining to hear me. I feel badly. But while I can adequately project my voice in a meeting hall, doing so in a smaller room is a problem. I haven’t come up with a solution.
All things considered, I do like my voice. Hormones and anti-androgens make massive changes to almost every part of your body, with the exception of the voice box. While testosterone will bring a transgender man’s voice in line with other men, estrogen does not affect the voice box of a transgender woman. You must learn to speak differently.
On the sound spectrum, there is a significant crossover between male and female voices. What makes us identify one voice as male and another as female comes from more subtle clues. If a transgender woman finds her resonance in her chest, her voice will still sound male. If she finds it in her head and mouth, she will sound more neutral or female. How words are formed in the mouth is also gendered. There is a lot to learn.
I am pleased there is continuity between my male and female voices. Most of the time my two lives feel so different, so bifurcated. To have people compliment my female voice as often as they complimented my male voice is soothing to my soul.
Since it has always been my desire to lessen the suffering of others, I am grateful to have a voice most people find calm and comforting. To use your voice to soothe the souls of others is no small joy.
I am overwhelmed by the many areas of my life that have changed since my transition. It really does feel as though I have lived two distinct lives, without much continuity between the two. That is not by choice. It is just my reality.
Outside of relational changes with family and friends, one of the biggest areas of change has been in how I experience spirituality as a female. I haven’t written much about it because I am not sure I can put it into words. It’s time to try.
Back in the 1960s I used to see pictures of older women in heavy coats and headscarves crowded inside cold and drafty Russian Orthodox churches. There was never a man in sight. The Soviet system did its best to eradicate religion from society, and when it came to men, they were pretty successful. Women, however, were another story.
I was intrigued by that reality, more for my personal faith journey than for any interest in the Soviet Union. I struggled with belief in God, probably from the time of my high school years. I devoured Francis Schaeffer’s trilogy on apologetics and read Hans Küng’s tome, Does God Exist? I even considered doing a master’s degree in apologetics (the discipline of defending the veracity of God.) My sense of God’s existence waxed and waned. I felt hopeful when it was waxing, and frightened when it was on the wane. I did not find that the spiritual disciplines helped much. Like the forlorn father in the Gospel of Mark, I cried out, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!”
Then I experienced the call to transition as a message from God. It was the first time I ever felt called by God. The same was true when I returned to the church, as well as when I felt called to become one of the pastors at Left Hand Church.
In the TED talk I did with my son, I said, “I believe in God most days. Tuesdays and Thursdays can be tough, and any day I’m on the New Jersey Turnpike.” But every time I see the talk I think to myself, “That was true of my past, but I am not sure it is true anymore.”
I began noticing the change about a year into my life as Paula. I no longer questioned God’s existence. In fact, I didn’t much think about the subject at all anymore. It became something that just was. Was the shift because I was finally living in the right body, no longer torn asunder by gender dysphoria? Did it happen because there was a fundamental change in my body? Or was it the growing sense that my body and mind were finally becoming integrated into one whole being? I believe it was a combination of all three.
God revealed God’s self 14 billion years ago in the Big Bang. The universe is one unified whole, ever expanding and always mysterious. God is also revealed through the Trinity – God, Jesus and Spirit. For Paul, God was a problem to be solved, a God to be understood, an ongoing search for the truth of things. For me, Paula, all of that is to be pondered, not dissected. It is to be taken in, not explained. It is the great I AM.
Now that I accept God’s presence in this precious and holy life, my preaching has become more courageous. My prayers are more spontaneous and soulful. I speak to God throughout the day, easily and audibly. A beautiful sunset seems to emanate from the eyes of God; a child’s laughter from the belly of God; a mother’s tears from the heart of God. God is in all and through all.
If the building blocks of the universe are, as Quantum Physics tells us, a pattern of relationships between nonmaterial entities, then love is the lifeblood of the universe, holding us all in God’s heart.
I often think of those Russian women in their ancient churches, practicing the faith of generations, holding forth love in a cold Soviet system. I think of the mothers with whom I worship at Left Hand Church, holding forth love as they tuck their children into bed. I think of the fathers standing in the freezing cold for hours, watching their little boys skating on the ice, slipping and sliding and occasionally hitting a puck in the general direction of the net. Those fathers too are holding forth love.
All of this is so obvious to me now, this all-encompassing compassionate love of the Creator for her Creation. This God who came to live among us and show us what it means to be fully human, this God who shows solidarity in our suffering, this God whose very name is Love.
I no longer question God’s existence. I do question my capacity to grasp God in all of his fullness. For I certainly grasp God better now than I did as a male. It makes me wonder how much more love we will see when we come face to face with our Creator?
The decision of the United Methodist Church to reject the LGBTQ population has been on a lot of minds and hearts this past week. I talked about it in my sermon on Saturday evening, and got choked up enough that I couldn’t go on for a few seconds. It reminds me of my own swift departure from the church of all my days, and all my parent’s days, and at least two generations before them. Whenever I begin to take personally my ostracism from the church, I remind myself of the bigger picture.
In 1981 James Fowler wrote a book entitled, Stages of Faith. He wrote about the six stages of human faith development. Everyone has a spirituality, whether acknowledged or not. It is a part of what it means to be human. And everyone is in one of the six stages, or in the liminal space between stages. While I like Fowler’s descriptions, I’m not crazy about his titles, so I’ve created my own.
The first I call the Magical Stage. It is how we grasp the spiritual realms between two and six years of age. We take in a mishmash of information from a plethora of sources, from Peppa Pig to the spirituality expressed by Grandma. All of it falls into the realm of the magical.
The second stage of faith is the Literal Stage, which runs from around age seven to age 11. For those of us who grew up in the Christian faith, this stage reminds us of our early Sunday School years, when we took every single Bible story quite literally. Myth, metaphor and nuance were beyond our ability to grasp.
The third stage of faith development is the Conventional Stage, in which we accept without question the rules, regulations, boundaries and supposed unique superiority of the religion we have been given. We are encouraged to live within that religious subculture, where all other forms of religious expression are seen as inferior, or even as an abomination to God.
A lot of people never leave stage three of faith development. For some, the world is too frightening and they prefer hard boundaries. Others are just not inclined to ask questions, but to accept whatever has been given to them. While these folks have been around for eons and can be found in abundance in all forms of fundamentalism, they have been empowered in our current political environment.
The fundamentalists in stage three found they had the power to elect a president, and they are not inclined to stop there. They’d be happy to impose their stage three understanding on our entire nation. If you look at the political empowerment of stage three people in Islamic nations, you see what happens when fundamentalists control a political system. It is truly frightening.
People in stage three have a hard time with people in stages four, five, or six. They are too much of a threat, and must be ignored, or better yet, silenced. This is nothing new in the development of our species. We just haven’t seen it in our nation in such clear and threatening forms.
Stage four of faith development is the Questioning Stage, in which a person begins to question what he or she has been taught about the religion of their younger years. Their growing breadth of knowledge makes it difficult for them to adhere to the narrow definitions of stage three religious adherents. Young people often enter this stage during their college years. Some never exit, though the majority come back to some form of formal spiritual expression within a couple of decades.
A lot of people suggest that the Millennials and Gen Z have given up on traditional religion. I do not think that is accurate. I believe they are doing what most generations have done in their 20s and 30s – taking a break from organized religion. Some will come back when children are born. Others will not return until the arc of their life experience brings them back to recognizing the need for spiritual community.
Stage five is called the Mystical Stage, in which we have both a broader and deeper faith. We have fewer needs for answers, and a new openness to mystery. We see the strengths and weaknesses of various faith expressions, and may decide to take up a religious expression different from the one in which we were raised. We may move away from Christianity, toward Buddhism, or develop syncretistic expressions of faith.
The majority of those who enter stage five, however, come back to the religion of their youth, though often in a different expression. At Left Hand Church in Longmont, Colorado, where I serve as one of the pastors, we have a lot of precious souls who are in stage five. It is a great pleasure to journey with them.
There are a handful of folks who find their way to the sixth stage of faith, what I call the Extraordinary Faith Stage. Members of this group include people like Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross, Mother Theresa and Gandhi. This past fall Jen Jepsen and I were able to spend a few days with Father Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico. He definitely qualifies as a man of extraordinary faith. I would also put my mentor, the late Dr. Byron Lambert, in this group. You don’t run across many people in stage six.
We usually gravitate toward those in the same stage we are currently in, or those in the next stage of development. We might have an affinity toward those in the earlier stages of faith. But like I said, most often they will not have an affinity toward us. We will be seen as too “other” from them.
It is helpful for me to think of the stages of faith when I am under attack, because most commonly those attacks are coming from people stuck in stage three. The more vitriolic the attack, the more uncomfortable they are. They do not want to encounter people who remind them of the truth they intuitively know, that it is time to move on.
To no one’s surprise, one of the world’s largest Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church, voted 53 to 47 percent to begin strictly enforcing an existing ban on LGBTQ clergy. The alternate proposal was for each church to decide for itself what position it would take on LGBTQ issues. But the conservatives prevailed in not allowing any level of generosity to exist within the denomination. And if you listened to the testimony, I mean not any level of generosity.
This will be a mess for Methodists. It will probably split the denomination in two. I feel so badly for all of my brothers and sisters who have remained loyal to the Methodist Church. Leaving the denomination will not be easy. And I’m not just talking about the emotional turmoil of leaving. The legal turmoil will be equally unsettling.
Most Protestant denominations own the buildings in which their churches meet. They control the seminaries, the ordination processes, and the pensions of their clergy. Untangling from a denomination is no easy feat. This will be a long and nasty divorce.
The next few years will be difficult for progressive Methodists, and the rest of us in more liberal Christendom will do everything we can to help.
It is important, however, to put this decision into its larger context. The United Methodist Church is just one mainline Protestant denomination among many. And none of them exert the influence on American culture they once did. Their influence has been replaced by the evangelical churches, and most particularly, evangelical megachurches.
The vast majority of megachurches are not a part of any denomination. They are independent. Their buildings are not owned by a denomination, and each local congregation makes its own decisions on matters of faith and doctrine. Therefore, when these churches finally decide to become open and affirming, it will happen quickly. There will be no long legal fights or denominational schisms. They will just decide.
A few churches of influence will make the decision, and the rest will fall in line. The leaders of these churches know that when it comes to LGBTQ issues, the culture has already moved on. Gen Xers and Millennials yawn at the conservative anti-gay agenda. Gen Z is so over it. It’s the Builders (those born before 1946) and Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) who keep stoking the flames of conservative ire. And their days in leadership are numbered.
What happened in St. Louis is the last attempt of a conservative generation to maintain its power. The vitriol in their rhetoric shows their fear. Change is coming, and they are terrified of it.
There has never been a more important time to be vocal, particularly in dealing with America’s most influential churches. America’s megachurches want to avoid the kind of debacle that played out in St. Louis. They will do almost anything to avoid publicly stating their position on LGBTQ issues. That is a sign of their acute knowledge about just how untenable their position is. Their pastors want to close their eyes and pretend the problem does not exist. We are the voices that will force the issue. We may not be able to affect the vote of the Methodist delegates, but we can be the voice demanding honesty in all those evangelical churches of influence.
The typical evangelical pastor spends 90 percent of his time with other evangelicals. He doesn’t have many LGBTQ friends, because they are not in leadership at his church. He thinks he can keep ignoring the issue. But he can’t. His parishioners know plenty of LGBTQ people, and they know we are all as normal as morning sunshine. Everybody knows it but the pastor.
I know these pastors. Their people come hear me speak at corporate training events, TED talks, and women’s conferences. Their people like me. They can’t understand why I can’t preach at their church. The day is coming, just around the bend, when these guys will have to answer their own emboldened members. The days of sticking their heads in the sand are over.
In answer to the question of why I can’t preach at their church, these guys will have to say, “Because I am behind the times, and she makes me uncomfortable.” That’s not going to go over with Millennials and Gen Z. It’s why they are already leaving the church, questioning its relevance. If these guys weren’t pulling from the smaller evangelical churches in town, they’d already be in trouble.
The good news is that when these church leaders finally decide to do the right thing, they will not have to battle a denominational headquarters or church hierarchy, like our Methodist friends. They will take their cues from the other independent megachurches, and when one of those churches moves on LGBTQ issues, the dominos will fall. It may take five years, or it may take 10. Down south it’ll take longer. But the die has been cast.
If you are a Methodist, and/or an LGBTQ person or ally, this week’s decision by the United Methodist Church is a disappointment. But in the greater scheme of things, it is just one setback in what is an inexorable march toward the greater good of full inclusion of LGBTQ people into Christ’s church.
I, for one, am glad to be on the front lines. And for all the disappointment they experienced in St. Louis, I imagine the 47 percent of those Methodists who voted for local church autonomy on LGBTQ issues are feeling the same. They will not be silenced. They will proudly preach the inclusive message of Jesus. This was a setback, but we are all moving inexorably in the direction of the Gospel, the good news that God loves all people, just as they are, no change demanded, no love withheld.
I really like fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and buttered biscuits with jam. I used to watch Grandma Stone drop a big spoonful of lard into a pan before frying a chicken, with the skin still on. Grandma’s biscuits with homemade blackberry jam and home-churned butter were heavenly. I loved all the food Grandma Stone made, but I don’t eat much of it anymore. Those foods will cause your arteries to stand on end! They taste good, but they could kill ya.
But what if I was impervious to the negative effects of the foods Grandma made? What if I was immune to high cholesterol and coronary artery disease? Would I indulge in those foods while others looked on with envy? Yep, I imagine I would.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago that almost no megachurches in the United States are open and affirming to the LGBTQ population. Of the 100 largest churches in the US, not one will allow an LGBTQ person into leadership. We can attend, but we cannot lead. An article in Tuesday’s Washington Post quotes churchclarity.org in acknowledging that disturbing truth.
The maddening reality is that these churches go to great lengths to avoid telling you the truth. Brian Houston, the senior pastor of the Australia based global megachurch, Hillsong, has publicly refused to say if their pastors will perform same sex weddings or ordain or hire LGBTQ people. In response to Church Clarity’s attempt to get answers to these three simple questions, Brian Houston blocked Church Clarity on his Twitter account. I’m good with letting Church Clarity carry the banner for fighting for equality and equity on the national and international stage. I am more concerned about Boulder County, Colorado, where I serve as one of three pastors at Left Hand Church. None of the three megachurches in Boulder County are LGBTQ affirming.
I have friends who continue to attend all three of these megachurches. Most are white males who suffer no personal ill effects from their participation in non-affirming churches. They can eat the fried chicken and biscuits without any personal consequences. Their privilege allows them that freedom. I, on the other hand, cannot.
For the first time in my life, I have some small understanding of how women and minorities have felt in patriarchal society. For centuries they have been on the outside looking in, while most straight white males have moved about with little concern for those whose gender, color, gender identity, sexual identity or ethnicity prohibits them from full participation in society.
When I was a straight white male, I was guilty of enjoying the spoils of the patriarchy. Yes, my views on LGBTQ issues were not in line with evangelicalism, but I was taking my time becoming public about it. Before I came out, I wrote one 400-word column for the magazine at which I was a weekly columnist and editor-at-large, asking for sensitivity for the transgender population. The editor was approached by a former president of our denomination’s convention suggesting I should be relieved of my duties. To his credit, the editor kept me. After that, I decided to lie low with my public beliefs. It was the wrong decision. I know that now. As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.”
I was comfortable, and I did not want to be made uncomfortable. I did not want to be confronted with my prvilege. I thought in time I would be able to make headway within my faith community to bring about LGBTQ acceptance, and that was enough. Except it was not. I was maintaining my personal comfort at the expense of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
When I was called to transition, I had no choice but to make my views known. Straight allies choose to make the decision to be affirming of LGBTQ people. They pay a price. They are my heroes. Mark Tidd was defrocked by his denomination for supporting the family of a transgender child. Jen Jepsen listened to her conscience and left her megachurch. Jen and Mark and the leaders at Denver Community Church and my own son and his wife, and a whole host of others are the ones who have chosen to pay the price for supporting the LGBTQ community.
I know some are uncomfortable reading this post. Some are pastors who truly struggle with discerning the right time to lead your congregation toward inclusion. Some are believers trying to get by, and need your non-affirming megachurch to keep you afloat. I understand that. Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to listen to a prophet and take up a sword. Some are doing important work in the bowels of those churches, advocating for change. I respect their decision to actively work for change from within. (Of course, please note that I do use the word “actively.”)
I like to comfort the afflicted, but occasionally I feel called to afflict the comfortable. Of course, a lot of you who are reading my blog are already willing to be made uncomfortable, so I’m not sure what I accomplish by increasing your discomfort. I suppose I am writing mostly to the “me” of ten years ago, someone who knew where he stood on LGBTQ issues, but did not feel called to lead the charge. I’m not sure when I will be ready to forgive myself for that mistake. As often as I write about this subject, it’s obvious I’m not ready yet. I should have led the charge. I know that now. When you know better, you do better.