A Very Good Trip

My father passed away in May of 2020, the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. I had visited him the previous January, just a few months before he passed, and knew it wouldn’t be long. Because of the pandemic we were not able to hold a funeral, nor was I able to travel to Kentucky for his burial. Finding closure was difficult.

Last week, on the spur of the moment, I decided to fly to Kentucky for two days. I did not tell my brother I was coming, nor my cousin, both of whom would have come along had I asked. I did not tell any of my few remaining friends in town that I was there. I needed to make the trip alone.

I always enjoyed a good relationship with my father. Even after I transitioned and my mother demanded that he disown me, Dad and I stayed in touch. When I was finally allowed to visit, Dad was the one who said before I departed, “Paula, I don’t understand this, but I am willing to try.” What more could I have asked?

My father was a good and gentle man who took delight in me, and I knew it. His love sustained me through difficult times with my mother. I hated not being able to be with him when he passed. The trip back was for me, and for Dad.

I usually fly into Cincinnati, Lexington, Huntington, or Charleston when I go back to Grayson, but there is a serious rental car shortage in America, and Louisville was the only place I could find a car. I landed around 5:00 and drove the two and a half hours through Bluegrass country into the hills and hollows of Carter County, the place I’ve always called home. Though I only lived there from the ages of 15 to 22, it was the place of grounding for our family. Mom graduated from high school in Grayson and both of my parents attended the college in town. Not only are my parents buried there, but my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousin are also buried there, nine relatives in all. My grandmother’s home was at the edge of the cemetery. We used to picnic there while Grandma Stone sang songs and dished out blackberry cobbler and generally took delight in her grandchildren

I arrived at 8:30 in the evening, before the sun set. I drove through the campus of the college where I received my bachelor’s degree, then drove down Landsdowne Avenue to the cemetery, parking about 30 yards from where my parents are buried.

When I got to the graves, there was a problem. My parents had their headstone and footstones in place before they died. The footstones were about 18 x 12 x 4 inches and were recessed into the ground. When they dug the graves, they unearthed both footstones and dumped them to the side, where they remained until I arrived. Mom’s footstone says, “Teacher,” and Dad’s says, “Ordained Minister, 1946.”  You could not tell on whose graves the footstones belonged. Mom’s was closer to Dad’s grave and Dad’s was between their plot and the next graves over.

I immediately thought of how upset my mother would have been. Not only were the footstones out of place, but no sod had been placed on the dirt above their graves. Only dry Kentucky clay covered both graves. I got down on my knees and started tugging at the footstones. They wouldn’t budge.  I positioned myself on the upper side of the plot and dug into Mom’s footstone with all of my might. After several minutes of struggle, I wedged my hand beneath the far side of the stone and began pulling it toward me. I slowly got the footstone on its side, then lifted it to stand on end. I walked the stone to its proper place at the foot of her grave and put it in place.

Dad’s footstone was more difficult to move.  I tugged and pulled and cried.  I needed to get it in place. I had to get it to its proper place. It could not wait. It had to be done before nightfall. I finally wedged three fingers beneath it, right where the word “Minister” was carved into the granite and pulled it onto its side. Then with a burst of energy I got it on its end and started walking it to the foot of his grave, crying the whole time. I had walked my father’s legacy back to its proper place and I could leave for the night. Once I got to the motel I went for a nighttime run, savoring the moist Kentucky air, remembering the lazy evenings of my youth.

The next morning, I headed to the local Wal-Mart and bought a small rake, trowel, and grass seed. Then I drove back to the cemetery.  On my knees I began digging several inches into the hard Kentucky clay, leveling out the dirt and preparing the soil for seed. I planted the seed, gently raked the clay and tamped it down, and prayed that the forecast that said rain was on the way was accurate.

I gently sat down on the gravestone of my grandparents, just a few feet above my parents’ graves. A lawn maintenance worker came by on his riding mower. I gave him the implements I had used, and told him I had mowed the cemetery with a hand mower when I was in college. I earned $1.60 an hour. I began mowing each Monday and finished on Friday, only to begin again the following Monday.  I told him my grandfather had mowed the cemetery before me. I showed him his grave. When I mowed the cemetery during the summer of 1972, my grandfather was the only family member buried there. I used to eat my lunch beneath a nearby oak. The oak has now returned to the earth, nourishing a new generation of trees that live their entire lives in just one place.

Stones moved, grass sown, and soil raked, I began wandering around the graveyard. There were over a hundred people I knew buried there – the man who sold me my first new car – the grave of my high school friend’s parents, two of the kindest people I have ever known. I saw the grave of the news director at the radio station where I worked. He knew everything that had ever happened in our little town. At the foot of his grave was the grave of his son, lost to Covid-19.

There is no other cemetery on earth in which I know as many residents, all nestled there on a hillside across the lane from the college campus, next to the land where my grandmother kept the most beautiful garden. Because it seemed the right thing to do, I began quoting aloud Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese.

You do not have to be good

You do not have to crawl on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert repenting

You only have to let the soft warm animal of your body

Love what it loves

Tell me about despair

Yours and I will tell you mine

Meanwhile the world goes on

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of rain

Are moving across the landscapes

Over the prairies and the deep trees

The mountains and the rivers

Meanwhile the wild geese high in the clean blue air

Are heading home again

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely

The world offers itself to your imagination

Calls to you like the wild geese

Harsh and exciting, over and over

Announcing your place in the family of things

I was amongst people who had found their place in the family of things. On account of their religion, most of them thought they did have to be good and walk on their knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. They hoped God would let them in through the back door. These were good people. I doubt they were prepared for the wonderful welcome they received.

After driving around town, I headed back to Louisville. I did not cry until I returned to Denver and stopped at the home of one of my dearest friends. As soon as I felt her touch, the tears flowed freely. There is warmth and safety in the touch of someone who loves you. I cried and she held me and asked, “Was the trip good?” “Yes, very good,” I replied.  “Very good.”

Some Things to Think About

Cathy was speaking with a good friend whose husband passed away. Talking about the similarities between their circumstances, Cathy brought up an interesting point.  She said to her friend, “But people remember and talk about your husband.  They talk about your life together. They act like my husband never existed, and they never talk about our life together.”

I didn’t write much about this in my memoir, because I am always reminded of the words of D. H. Lawrence: “A writer sheds his sickness in his writing.”  I didn’t want to work through my unresolved issues in a book. Chapter 15, Dying Before Dying, talks about it a little, but not the specifics Cathy was talking about.

People don’t want to talk with Cathy about Paul.  Whenever Cathy has been with me at any of the churches in which I’ve preached, she has not been greeted as Paul’s wife, but as “the lovely person who didn’t reject Paula.”  People do not want to talk with me about Paul.  Outside of my children and David, my close friend, very few people who knew me as Paul stay in touch on a regular basis. With some of those folks, the fault lies with me as much as them. Maybe we all find it too painful to go back to Paul’s life.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the people who have a relationship with Paula also do not want to see or hear about Paul.  And yes, I am aware I am referring to myself in the third person. It’s part of the dilemma.  On more than one occasion, when they’ve seen a picture of Paul, or heard me sing a few measures in Paul’s voice, they let me know how disconcerting it is.

All of this is just another reminder that it is not easy being transgender or the family member of someone who is.  It is one of the reasons I believe it would be wonderful if they could figure out the cause of gender dysphoria and treat it prenatally.  Some trans activists do not like that perspective, but it does not mean I am challenging their narrative.  It is just how I personally feel.

Once a few decades have gone by and we have a world in which gender fluidity is more common, it should be easier. Gen Z has a wonderfully open and expansive understanding of gender.  Go into most any elementary school, and you’ll find children who shrug their shoulders when someone transitions genders or presents as non-binary.  There is far greater acceptance of gay people today than twenty years ago.  Maybe the next twenty years will bring about a similar acceptance of trans and non-binary people.

I would love it if my current friends were interested in the life of Paul, or the books I wrote and edited when I was Paul, or the television show I hosted.  I would be thrilled if my old friends would embrace Paula. I got a note from a woman this week who had read my book.  She knew me when I was Paul, and said she found a lot of Paul in the memoir. I loved her words.

It is challenging to live a life marked by discontinuity. I usually am not able to speak with people considering transitioning, but on the rare occasions I do speak with them, I urge caution, “Are you ready to lose your grounding?  Are you prepared to lose your friends, church, social groups, and work?  Are you ready to start all over again, knowing your obituary will mention nothing about your previous life, but will prominently note that you are transgender, as if it is the most significant thing about you?”

Don’t get me wrong.  I do believe the call toward authenticity is sacred, holy, and for the greater good. I am glad I transitioned, and I am happy to be a public presence for the transgender community. But it’s not all sweetness and light. There are dark moments. I just want to be honest about them.

Life is good and redemptive and full of joy, but it’s not always easy.  But then you already knew that, didn’t you?

News From Hollywood – Yep!

Transgender Pastor Paula Stone Williams’ Memoir ‘As A Woman’ In Works As Limited Series By Cannonball Productions

Paula Stone Williams

EXCLUSIVE: Sean Hanish and Paul Jaconi-Biery’s Cannonball Productions has secured the rights to transgender pastor Dr. Paula Stone Williams’ just released book As a Woman: What I Learned about Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy after I Transitioned, for development as a limited series based on Williams’ life.

As a Woman
is described as a moving and unforgettable memoir of a transgender pastor’s journey from despair to joy as she transitioned from male to female and learned about gender inequity, at home and in the workplace. Published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, As a Woman was released on June 1, appropriately during Pride month.

Williams will be involved in the development of the series, with Cannonball’s Hanish and Jaconi-Biery, along with Trevor Brisbin, all serving as Executive Producers on the project.

 

The Sound of a Voice

I read my book last month.  Well, I’ve been reading it since October, one edit after another. There were times I became sick of it, times I thought it was terrible, times I thought it was good.  The last week of April, I recorded it for the audiobook.

Steven, the engineer from Simon & Schuster, conveniently lives in Nederland, not far from my home. He’s quite the accomplished engineer, having worked on Pet Sounds and Graceland as well other legendary rock and roll albums. He’s recorded books for Ronald Regan, Steve Martin and Charlton Heston, among others – over 3,000 books altogether. I liked him right away, which made me comfortable. We set up a recording studio in the office at my house. Steven covered the desk with a blanket, wrapped a folding divider behind me, and positioned microphones just so.

He had to come  back the day after the setup to troubleshoot a few odd electronic interruptions, all eventually traced to Alexa, the girl who eavesdrops on everything said in the house. We cut her lifeline and turned off the furnace and on a cold Monday morning in April, and I started reading my book aloud.

I’d have to take a break every few hours and turn the heat back on for 30 minutes or so. Did I mention we got 8 inches of snow that week?  All in all, it never got too uncomfortable in the house. I think I’d rather turn off the HVAC and lose heat in April than air conditioning in July.  Besides, the warm sweater soothed my soul, which needed soothing.

I wept. I cried as I read the poem Nicole wrote for me as I began working on the book. I wept through the entire introduction, which ends with the telling of our wedding night.  I cried so much we had to record those two again, after I finished  everything else. Steven was comfortable with me shedding tears.

The first fifteen chapters of the book are the sequential story of my life thus far.  The last several of those chapters are when I cried the most. A few times I began sobbing as soon as I finished the last line of a chapter. Stephen, listening to every line, would suggest we take a break.

I have never listened to audiobooks. I work on writing sermons in my head or memorizing them while I’m running. I listen to NPR in the car. I’ve never found the time (or desire) to listen to an audiobook.  But after recording my memoir, I think everyone should listen to a book, particularly a memoir read by the author. So much comes out in the human voice that cannot be seen on the page. The voice shows more than it tells, which is a good thing.

I liked the story, and the telling of it. I thought the editors had done a good job helping the writer (who would be me) figure out what was needed and what was extraneous.  The book had a nice flow.  I thought if I was just the voice artist recording the book and not its author, I would still enjoy reading the book and might recommend it to my friends.

While I was reading my book, I realized the story is universal. In the dedication I write, “For all who believe the call toward authenticity is sacred, and holy, and for the greater good.” The particulars are mine, but the call onto what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey is universal.  It is the landscape of all restless souls who want to make a difference in this short pause between two great mysteries. I believe my story might ease you into your story. Listening to it might accomplish that even more effectively than reading it.

This living is serious business, and we are all pilgrims, called by our better angels onto a sacred journey. As I read my book aloud, I prayed it might call you more deeply into your journey. We all need every bit of help we can get to live fully into our true selves.

And so it goes.

 

75 Years Ago Today

My parents were married 75 years ago today.  I am likely one of only two people who will remember their anniversary.  Dad passed away last May and Mom died six months earlier.  Their marriage lasted for 73½ years.

David Williams and Margaret Stone met when my father was a sophomore at Kentucky Christian College and my mother was a senior at Prichard High School in Grayson, Kentucky. They married after my father graduated from college and moved to Advance, Indiana, where Dad preached at a country church while working on his master’s degree at Butler University. My brother was born 14 months after they moved to Indiana. I came along four years later, when my father was serving a church in Huntington, West Virginia.

Their marriage was not perfect. None of them are. My mother could be a delightful individual in public settings, but privately, she struggled greatly. In ways I will never know, she was terribly wounded in childhood and never recovered from those wounds.  She brought her pain with her and unfortunately shed it upon the members of her household.

My father was a gentle and easy-going man. He was hard-working, congenial, and terrified of upsetting my mother, which followed a childhood of being terrified of upsetting his mother.  We try to work out so much of our childhood pain in our choice of partners. Dad admitted to me only once just how difficult it was being married to my mother. He was in his last few years of ministry in Grayson, where we had moved when I was in high school.  Once they retired to Lexington, Dad seemed to have made peace with the realities of what their relationship would and would not be. They settled into a rhythm that suited them both.

My parents loved to travel, though most of their trips were close to home. They went to Gatlinburg, Tennessee at least once a year, but save a single visit to Colorado in 2007, they never traveled west of the Mississippi or overseas. Other than one short visit to Niagara Falls, my mother never left the United States. The vacation they never stopped talking about was their one trip to Hawaii, when they were in their early fifties. They traveled with a tour and went to three of the four major islands. Mom talked about it for decades.

The evangelical conviction that marriage is for life was a given in our family. Evangelical pastors who divorced did not work again in an evangelical church. That rule has caused a lot of evangelicals to remain in marriages that are no longer healthy or viable.  On the other hand, marriages were secure, and there was a great incentive to work through your problems instead of running from them.  Unfortunately, my experience is that most couples don’t actually work through their problems; they stuff them.

Interestingly, three kinds of marriages tend to survive. Marriages in which there are big fights and lots of passion are surprisingly resilient. The same is true of marriages in which feelings are stuffed and there is rarely any real communication.  The healthiest marriages, of course, are those in which there is mutual respect, open and honest communication, and a commitment to work through whatever has to be worked through. They are the least common of the three.

My parent’s marriage was in the second category. Outright conflict was rare. Usually, Mom just made her demands and Dad just acquiesced. It was sad, but like I said, by the time they were in their sixties, we had all made peace with the fact that their marriage was what it was.

I traveled to Kentucky to be with them on their 60th anniversary, a year before I started hormones, when I first began to realize my own marriage might not survive to fifty years, let alone sixty. They went back to Grayson and celebrated with a reception at the church Dad served for 22 years. There was an article in the local newspaper.

The paper is gone now, and so are Mom and Dad. I wish they were here, and that I could be with them today.  They gave me life and a strong sense of self.  For that, I shall always be grateful.

No Pastures For Me

I turned a certain age this month.  I am told I do not look that age.  Apparently, I have good genes. My parents lived well into their 90s and always looked younger than they were. Some of it is that I color my hair, which I have no intention of stopping.  And some is because estrogen is a marvelous substance that keeps the body looking younger.

I suppose I am also aided by the fact that I do not act like an older person. I mountain bike, road bike, or run six days a week. Recently, I was on the fifth floor of a hotel for a week and took the steps to my room all day every day.  I like to stay on the move. I have always been a Renaissance person, and my mind is constantly working on the next thing. I just finished my memoir, pastor a church, counsel clients, and speak all over the world on gender equity. I have no plans to slow down anytime soon.

Still, I turned a certain age this month, and I do not like it. I said to everyone at church, “I turn fifty next Sunday, so come to the service and celebrate with me.” One kind man thought I was serious when I said I turn fifty.  When I told him that was not the case, he said, “Well, you certainly don’t look sixty.” I just left it at that.

Men gain prestige as they age, though even they eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. One of my male mentors said, “When I turned sixty, I found out it was the new fifty.  When I turned seventy, I found out it was the new sixty. But when I turned eighty, I found out eighty is just eighty.”  Still, two men in the later half of their seventies squared off in the 2020 Presidential campaign. We make room for older men in the world. Older women – not so much.

I am on a flight to Maui as I am typing this post.  I am fortunate to have an upgrade, but it is unfortunately one of my least favorite airplanes, an Airbus 321neo.  It’s a “next generation” narrow body jet that is being purchased by airlines to use on long over water routes. I asked a flight attendant, “How do you like the neo?” He answered, “Yes, we have meal service.”  I said, “No, I’m asking about the airplane – the Airbus 321neo. How do you like it on a route this long?”  He said, “It’s good,” and walked away.  Cathy was flying with me and said, “Yep, that’s how it goes.” I couldn’t possibly have any real knowledge about airliners.

As the flight attendant was preparing meal service, he saw on his paper that I am an Executive Platinum member, which means I fly over 100k miles a year, and have well over two million miles with American Airlines. He came back and made quite a point of saying, “We value your loyalty to us.” Then he actually answered my question, “No, I don’t like the neo, it’s underpowered and too small for a trip like this.”  But he had to see my status before he took me seriously.

I do not want people to know my age because I do not want to be taken less seriously than I am already taken.  Being an older woman is not an affliction. It is a privilege. And the wisdom older cisgender women bring with them is a national treasure. They know about privilege, systemic injustice, equality, and the sanctity of life that the rest of us only read about.  There is a reason that wisdom in the Hebrew scriptures is referred to in the feminine gender.

I have an alpha personality. That means I am confident, action-oriented, and have high expectations of myself and others. I process information quickly and am obsessed with return on investment.  How can I be more efficient to accomplish more good work? Those are not specifically gendered attributes, but how they are received is gender specific. A man with an alpha personality is praised. A woman with an alpha personality is “that woman.” Behind her back, a single word is used to describe her. An older woman with an alpha personality is in deep trouble. She will be put out to pasture as fast as those in power can figure out how to do it without a lawsuit.  Hilary Clinton never had a chance. A woman is not allowed to be ambitious and strong.

I do not tell people my age because I want to be taken seriously. It really is that simple. I want to be heard. I want my knowledge, history and wisdom to be brought to the table. I want my words and actions to matter. I want to make a difference in the world.  When I spoke as a guy, people listened. When I speak as a woman, people say, “That’s nice.” Nice is not what I am going for. Change is what I am going for.

So yes, I had a big birthday, but I’m not being put out to pasture. I’m going to Hawaii with my family to celebrate. I will celebrate before I get back to work. I have a lot I want to get done in the world. And if everybody knows my age, it’s just gonna get in the way of doing it.

And so it goes.

We Must Harness the Energies of Love

Most of the life-changing discoveries I have made as a transgender woman have related to the differences between experiencing life as a man and as a woman.  Those differences have been the subject of my TED Talks and two chapters of my memoir,  As A Woman – What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned.  But not all of the differences relate to gender. One of the biggest discoveries is something I did not anticipate.

Until I left, I had no idea how isolated evangelicalism had become from mainstream America. Almost all of my life as a man was spent within an evangelical bubble. Even when I was doing work not associated with the church, most of my co-workers were evangelical Christians. Until I transitioned, I had no idea just how insular that bubble is, or how small that bubble is becoming.

As I wrote in my last blog, the number of Americans who identify with a specific religion has dropped from 70 percent in 2000 to 47 percent today. One of the major reasons is the intolerance exhibited by the conservative forms of the desert religions. In the United States, the major conservative religious group is evangelical Christians, and they are very unaccepting of outsiders.

Only two groups have personally opposed me as a transgender woman.  They are evangelical Christians and right-wing extremists.  Unfortunately, they are often one and the same.  Most of the rest of the world basically shrugs when they learn I am transgender. It’s just not a big deal anymore. But don’t tell that to the legislators in Arkansas, who just voted to override a bill vetoed by their governor that stops healthcare providers from giving life-saving hormonal treatment to transgender adolescents, including the over 200 who were already receiving treatment.  The legislature passed the law on the grounds that hormonal therapy is not reversible.  Except that it is!  Puberty blockers are reversible.  Congratulations Arkansas!  You’ve just solved a problem that does not exist and replaced it with a problem that could cost vulnerable adolescents their lives.  At the very least it will require them to go out of state to continue the treatment they have already begun.

Similar legislation is pending in almost thirty states, almost all in the south or southwest.  Twelve bills restricting transgender rights are pending in Texas alone. Why are these bills so popular in these states?  Because that’s where the evangelicals live, and evangelicals feel threatened. As our nation becomes more diverse, evangelicals are becoming more marginalized. Concentrated in the south, southwest, and rural Midwest, they have joined together to fight for their particular brand of anti-LGBTQ+ bias.

Whenever I speak at a conference or corporation, we always end with a robust Q&A in which I encourage the audience to ask any question they want to ask.  Almost every time someone asks, “How can you be in the church when the church has treated you so horribly?”  I always answer by saying there are expressions of the Christian faith more generous than evangelicalism, and they are thriving.  They meet the needs of the oppressed, serve the poor, support immigrants, and work to right the wrongs of centuries of smug patriarchal Christianity.  I am thrilled to serve as a pastor at one such church – Left Hand Church, in Boulder County, Colorado.

As for the new law in Arkansas, it’s just one more reminder why I avoid spending much time in any of the states in which anti-transgender legislation is pending.  I have to think about these things.  They are places in which my life could be in danger. The fact that the danger comes from those who identify as evangelical Christians remains mind-boggling to me.  These people were once my friends and family.

I understand the fear that has created this environment.  Conservative White Americans are frightened of losing their influence.  But to pick on one of the most vulnerable people groups in the world, transgender children, is nothing but bullying, pure and simple.  It is leveraging what little power they have remaining to deny civil rights to vulnerable children.

I am angry, and I will do everything in my power to stop these proposals from being enacted into law.  Where they have already become laws, I will do whatever it takes to get them reversed. I still desperately hope the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin prove to be true, and I want to do everything in my power to make certain we get there before it is too late:

Someday, after mastering the wind, 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.

Well, I Saw That Coming…

No surprise here, but Americans have stopped going to church.  For decades, religious affiliation was steady in the United States.  As recently as 2000, 70 percent of Americans were members of a church, synagogue, or mosque.  A study released by the Gallup organization found that since 2000, that number has dropped precipitously.  For the first time in the history of our nation, fewer than half (47 percent) of Americans identify as members of a religious body.

 

US Church membership was at 73 percent when the Gallup organization first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70 percent for six decades.  When you look at the numbers by age group, the downward trend is even more significant. Sixty-six percent of the Builder generation, those born before 1946, are members of a religious body.  Fifty-eight percent of Baby Boomers belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque.  Only 50 percent of Generation X go to church, and 36 percent of Millennials.  Gen Z is showing about the same rates as Millennials.

The decline is twice as bad among Catholics. People have had it with the Catholic church’s refusal to deal with clergy abuse, not allowing women into the priesthood, and their opposition to gay marriage. The Catholic Church still has a lot of power, but the decline of its influence is monumental.

As for Protestantism, the problems are varied.  For the mainline Protestant church, their style of liturgy is one problem.  Excessive layers of denominational hierarchy are another. Not many Americans like formal, liturgical worship.  And when it comes to hierarchy, I sometimes wonder if the mainline denominations don’t have a death wish. 

Rejection of the LGBTQ+ community is the main area in which the evangelical church has gone wrong.  They continue to take a hard stand against us, even though over two-thirds of Americans are supportive of gay rights. 

The fact that evangelicals have sold their souls to Donald Trump has damaged them in ways they have yet to realize.  Three-quarters of evangelicals voted for Trump in the 2020 election. The majority were Boomers and Builders. Their children and grandchildren do not share their politics, nor in increasing numbers, their religion.  Progressive evangelical pastors see the handwriting on the wall, but their money doesn’t.  If they come out as LGBTQ affirming, they will lose people and income.  

Many evangelical pastors have decided to take a middle path, telling LGBTQ+ people that they welcome them, while going to great lengths to avoid telling them the real truth – that they will never lead a kindergarten class, let alone preach a sermon or be in a leadership position in the church.  And to be clear, that is true of the 100 largest evangelical churches in America – every single one of them.

Humans are inherently spiritual. It is baked into our DNA.  We want to work out the meaning of life in community.  We want to worship. We need communities of faith. Most of the post-evangelical churches I know are growing. Without the encumbrances of right wing politics and LGBTQ+ opposition, these churches are thriving.  

The current decline in religious affiliation was inevitable. But it does not mean the end of organized religion.  The church will adapt, become more holistic, more responsive to the community, and more redemptive.  There is much work to be done, but I believe in the church, and I want to be a part of its renewal. 

I love the church I serve, Left Hand Church.  Though we are only three years old, I believe we are an example of what the church can become.  The majority of our people and staff are Gen X and younger.  We embrace the uncertainties of life and faith and make room for people with divergent opinions.  We are distinctly Christian, but it’s Jesus we worship, not the book about him.

I feel good about the future of the church, and I’m particularly excited about the future of churches like Left Hand. We look forward to writing the next chapter of religion rising in America. As for the Americans who’ve stopped going to church, I do understand.  After I was ostracized from evangelicalism, I stopped attending for a couple of years. But the spiritual journey is best experienced in community.  I’m just sayin’.  

Easter Sunday might be a good time to give the church a chance.  If you’re in the vicinity of Boulder County, we welcome you to join us for an outdoor service at 11:15 on Easter morning at 9th and Francis in Longmont.  We’d love to see you. Click on the link below for details:

https://fb.me/e/2tDQgvHIN

Boulder Strong

Unknown

Though I was in New York when the shootings in Boulder took place, within hours I posted a response from our church.  None of our friends had died, though one of our co-pastors grew up in the neighborhood, and was in the parking lot just two hours before the shooting began. Another friend was there barely an hour before.  Another acquaintance was a friend of the police officer who was killed. So many of these horrific tragedies have occurred that I don’t know what to write anymore, even when it hits close to home.  The feelings are almost too overwhelming to name – anger, fear, frustration, sadness, resolve, disbelief, fury, resignation.

When events like this take place, I tend to follow my feelings.  Strong feelings arose on the day after the shooting, when I was watching the debate on the Senate floor.  Ted Cruz, someone I already have a difficult time suffering, was railing in his full volume cadence, saying guns are not the problem.  Then he said he would not apologize for offering thoughts and prayers, because prayers are important.

Prayers are important.  I have been praying that the people of Texas would turn out Ted Cruz ever since he arrived in the Senate.  I have been praying for a clear majority in Congress who would enact a ban on assault weapons like the one used by yet another angry young man.  We are the only nation in the world that has to deal with regular mass shootings, and the pure and simple reason is because politicians are afraid of the NRA and its constituents.

I have been praying that people would believe the Democrats who say we have no intention of taking away your guns.  We just need to ban weapons of war.  We had a ban on assault weapons in Boulder, but just a few weeks before the shooting, a district judge overturned the law as unconstitutional, a decision celebrated by the NRA.  The vast majority of Americans want a ban on assault weapons. It’s enough to make me want to move to a right-leaning state and run for Congress. I want to do something that will actually make a difference.

That is one of the most frustrating parts of the shootings in Atlanta and Boulder.  The majority of us have been rendered powerless on this important subject, while people like Ted Cruz virtually guarantee that thousands more Americans will be killed by deranged men.

I did a TED Talk a year and a half ago in which one of the other speakers was a father whose son who was killed in the Aurora theater shooting.  His talk was simple.  Never mention the name of the killer, he said.  Refuse to give them the notoriety they crave.  If we can’t get rid of guns, maybe we can get rid of the endless news stories about the men who perpetrate such atrocities.

When the Parkland shooting occurred, Donald Trump had to be given a note prompting him to show empathy when he met with families who had lost children.  One of the students who spoke with Trump that day spoke eloquently of the need for gun reform.  Trump sat there emotionless.  That young man is now a college student, and in an interview on Monday evening he said when he marries and has children, he will not raise them in the United States.  He will go somewhere his children can be safe.

I am trying to find hope, for without hope we cannot move forward.  Despair is concrete to the soul.  After I returned home I went with a friend to the memorial set up against the temporary fencing that surrounds the King Sooper’s.  It was a gray and rainy day, pretty unusual for Colorado, but it felt appropriate.  I read the notes and posters and looked at the beautiful flowers covering every inch of the fence.  There were at least one hundred other people there.  I looked at the sad eyes above their facemasks, and noticed their knuckles, white as they held tightly to the hands of loved ones. In just four days, thousands of people had come to show solidarity and pay their respects.  One television reporter talked of two families who lost loved ones and were encouraged and soothed by the crowds and their expressions of love, respect, and devotion.

My trip to the site was cathartic.  I was reminded that most people are good, thoughtful, and kind.  They want to make a difference.  They want to make sure evil is not the final word.  They want compassion to prevail.  My friend and I went into a couple of shops on the perimeter of the fencing, and purchased a few items, wanting to support the business owners whose stores are in the shadow of the sadness.

You cannot remain silent in the presence of evil. I will speak about the senseless tragedy at the beginning of our church service tomorrow. I do not yet know what I will say, because words are never enough when your heart is worn and surrounded by sorrow.  But I will speak words of hope, because hope is the only thing stronger than fear.

A Failure of Courage

There is fear in the power of a mob.  With the Biden administration settling in, Republican conservatives are turning to a number of initiatives they believe to be achievable, at least at a state level.  One of them is the curtailment of transgender rights.  We need the Equality Act or my civil rights as a transgender person are going to be diminished.  And who is leading the way in these irrational fear-based initiatives?  Evangelicals.  Should I be surprised?  When I came out in 2014 I lost not one single non-evangelical friend.  On the other hand, I lost all but about five evangelical friends.  Thousands of people gone with one single blog post.

A lot has changed in evangelicalism since my departure, and most of it is not good.  According to the American Enterprise Institute, over 25 percent of evangelicals believe the basic premise of QAnon.  Over 75 percent believe, without a single shred of evidence ,that voter fraud stole the election from Donald Trump.  (Only 54 percent of non-evangelical Republicans believe that to be true.)  Sixty percent of evangelicals believe antifa was behind the 1/6 insurrection. (Only 42 percent of non-evangelical republicans believe the same thing.)  According to a Washington Post/ABC poll, 44 percent of evangelicals will not get a Covid vaccine.

These statistics indicate what I have already believed to be true – evangelicalism has become an anti-intellectual movement subject to manipulation by baseless conspiracy theories.  It is time for its leaders to speak up and stop the nonsense.  Unfortunately, their leaders are afraid of the power of the evangelical mob.

We learned this week, without surprise, that the British royal family is frightened of the power of the British tabloids.  The Republican Party is frightened of the power of one narcissistic ex-president who cost Republicans the Presidency, the House, and the Senate.  And evangelical leaders are frightened of their members.

I spent decades with evangelical megachurch pastors.  They were close friends and confidants.  I know a lot of these guys, and they were all guys.  They are smart, relatively well educated, and politically savvy.  And I am confident they do not believe any of these conspiracy theories.  They know this was a free and fair election.  They know Trump is a disaster, but they are as afraid of losing their power as moderate Republicans are afraid of losing theirs.

Lindsey Graham’s wild swings from Donald Trump’s loudest critic to his biggest supporter are a sign of what motivates Graham – power.  Whatever way the political wind blows is the way Lindsey Graham will rush.  He will do just about anything to stay away from any storm that could remove him from his coveted perch.  The same is true of many evangelical leaders.

I have been out of the evangelical world for seven years, but even back then, many of the megachurch lead pastors I knew were privately supportive of monogamous gay relationships and transgender rights.  Until the tide of public opinion turned, they routinely welcomed transgender members into their churches.  Jim Burgen, at Flatirons Church in Colorado, even told his entire congregation of his church’s embrace of one transgender woman.  In a private conversation I had with another influential megachurch pastor, he made a half-hearted argument about homosexuality being a sin.  When I said, “Come on, you know better than that.” he said, “Maybe, but my leadership doesn’t.”  I had no doubt he spoke the truth.

When Burgen received pushback for supporting the transgender woman in his church, he promptly called her in and read her a prepared statement telling her she needed to return to life as a man.  The statement included theological justification that a freshman Bible college student could refute.  I couldn’t even follow its logic.  The woman’s life was upended by Burgen’s swing from transgender support to rejection.

These guys know it is the conservatives who give disproportionately to their churches.  Conservatives make up their boards, and they are not about to risk their power by fighting for LGBTQ rights.  While that has been devastating to my community, their lack of courage does not stop there.  They do not speak out against systemic racism.  And now, they cannot even find the courage to tell their people that Donald J. Trump lost a free and fair election.  They cannot find the courage to tell them that there is no evil cabal of Democrats and Hollywood elites abusing children.  They cannot find the courage to tell them that Trump stands against everything for which Jesus gave his life. They cannot even find the courage to tell them that getting a vaccine could speed up herd immunity.  These leaders know every one of these things is true, yet they are afraid of the evangelical mob.

In the book of Romans, Paul talked more about corporate sin than individual sin.  He knew we have the tendency to behave in groups in ways in which we would never behave on our own.  This is sin as a cosmic malevolent force.  Evangelicalism’s embrace of QAnon and conspiracy theories about the election is an example of a cosmic malevolent force.  This radical evangelicalism could lead to the loss of our democracy.

Those on both coasts do not understand the power of evangelicalism in the South and Midwest.  But our system of government does.  The Senate and Electoral College, by their very nature, give greater power to smaller more rural states, where evangelicals influence the outcome of elections.  The embrace of conspiracy theories by evangelicals is not benign.  It is a malignancy on our democracy.  And there is only one group that can stop it – evangelical pastors and denominational leaders.  They know the truth.  The question is whether or not they have the courage to speak it.