On Wings of Eagles

On Wings of Eagles

It is the day before July 4. I am sitting on the back patio of our beautiful Colorado home where I have been watching a golden eagle soar high above the ridge behind the house. I marvel at her beauty and grace as she rides the currents, eyes fixed on the ground below.  This is the first season I have seen her on the ridge, bringing her serenity into my busy life.

Since the recent articles in the New York Times and Denver Post, I could use the serenity.  It’s been quite a whirlwind.  Of all the emails and messages I have received, I am bothered most by the accusations I have abandoned my faith. The truth is my faith is stronger than ever, riding the currents of hope, love and compassion. I have not left my faith, but I have declared my independence from evangelicalism. When a certain brand of Christianity reviles you for being who you are, you are inclined to examine its doctrines and practices. I had begun that process before my transition. It accelerated after I was expelled from within its ranks.

I bristle when people say I am no longer a Christian, for my belief in the message of Jesus is unrelenting. Not only do I believe in Jesus; I believe in the church. In fact, I believe in the church so much I am going back into local church ministry.

I made my way to Highlands Church in the summer of 2015. That first Sunday I knew I was home. For the next two years I began to unlearn what an evangelical male pastor knows. I began to understand what it means to be a woman in ministry. To put it mildly, the difference is massive. When your entire career is spent with no women in leadership (how many places is that true nowadays?) you don’t exactly learn to see with a feminine eye, or become aware of the extent of your misogyny. It’s not that you’re a bad person. It’s just that you don’t know what you don’t know. I had a lot to unlearn. Still do.

About a year ago I began leading the Highlands church planting team, doing what I had done for decades. When it was time to hire pastors for a new church Highlands was planting in Boulder County, Mark Tidd, our founding pastor, said, “Paula, it’s not too late to put your name in the hat.” I cried for a while. In fact, I believe Mark might have gone home, had dinner and returned before I stopped crying. For the third time in my life, I knew I had been called.

So, I am joining my two good friends, Jen Jepsen and Aaron Bailey, as pastors of a new church. Aaron, a successful entrepreneur and member at Highlands, sold his company and began looking for the next big thing. Little did he know God would tell him the next big thing was planting a church! Jen Jepsen, a former member of the megachurch where I once preached, found me after I transitioned and said, “I think I am supposed to plant an open and affirming church in Boulder County.” Even though I discouraged her because of the massive amount of work involved, I knew she was called, and I knew God had sent her to inform me that I too had been called.

Now here we are, the three of us, getting ready to launch a new church. (More staff will be hired in the future.) We’re already holding dinners, starting study groups and joining social justice teams as we look for a place to meet on Sundays. Weekly services will begin next spring. The last time I planted a church was in 1984 in Brooklyn, New York. I was twelve. (Yeah, I’m goin’ with that, twelve.) And here I am again, feeling the call of God so firmly I can hardly contain myself.

Life takes twists and turns and doubles back on itself often enough. It is the way of the Spirit. In my previous life I turned down offers to be the senior pastor of more than one megachurch. Now here I stand, ready to join Jen and Aaron and the people at Highlands in starting the opposite of a megachurch, a new church. Only God knows what is in store.

If you live in or near Boulder County, Colorado, and you are looking for a church that is a truly welcoming place for all, get ready, it is coming. On wings of eagles, it is coming.

 

Flesh Touching Flesh

Flesh Touching Flesh

When the New York Times writes about you, there will be angry responses. Mine started arriving last Tuesday in the form of a phone call from someone in California at 3:45 AM. Emails and comments on this blog came the next day. I traced the source of most of them to a Christian Internet news site that had run a supportive article. About a dozen conservative Christian sites picked up the story and turned it to their purposes. Those articles became the source of much of the unwanted correspondence.

The people who wrote do not know me. We have had no personal encounters. Yet they fear me. They are frightened of being forced into close proximity with me. Of course, what they do not realize is that they are already in close proximity to transgender people. Since the article appeared, scores of closeted transgender fundamentalists have contacted me. Their stories leave me in tears. Several are pastors.

When humans organize in tribes, we behave in ways in which we would never behave as individuals. We can be goaded into seeing an entire people group as a threat.  It takes a tribe to create a cosmic malevolent force sufficient to deny the humanity of a fellow human.

Tribal behavior is maintained when left or right wing media keep their audiences isolated. The isolation is essential to their agenda. There were scores of comments on these right-wing sites, all of like mind, condemning the New York Times and condemning me.  There were no voices of dissension.  The arrival of the Internet has made the world smaller, but ironically, it has also made us more isolated from one another. When our only interaction is electronic, and limited to those we believe are like us, our humanity is diminished.

Prejudice dissipates when knowledge is disseminated, stories are told, and flesh touches flesh. That is the ministry of reconciliation to which we have been called. That is the responsibility we have as followers of Christ. The evangelical church has become a choir without a melody, repeating one single note – to save people from hell.

The hell people need saving from is not on the other side of death. It is here on earth, where tribes create enemies that do not exist and scapegoats whose only crime is to be different from those in power.

The ministry of reconciliation is about reconciling humans here and now. It is about putting people together, two at a time, who have no agenda other than to get to know one another. It is about laying aside our smartphones and eating a meal together. It is venturing beyond the boundaries of our own tribe to find the individual precious humans around us.

To all those who have written to express their anger that I exist, come and sit down with me. Do not bring your agenda and I will not bring mine. Maybe we can talk about our favorite teacher in elementary school. And maybe we will come to know the healing power of our mutual humanity.

And so it goes.

Surrendering a Secret

Surrendering a Secret

Our marriage therapist, Mike Solomon, had great wisdom. On his final day before retiring, we were Mike’s last clients. I think we might have contributed to his decision to retire.

In an earlier session, Cathy and I had talkedabout the decision to withhold information from our children about my gender dysphoria. When I was convinced I could get through my life without transitioning, it seemed the best course of action. Once I knew that was not possible, it felt like a foolish decision. It takes a very long time to prepare your children for the news their father is transgender – a lifetime maybe, or even longer.

Mike talked about the difference between a secret and what is private. Most people with good boundaries know the details of their sex lives are private. It is no one’s business what turns you on. What surgeries people have had is also private, which makes it fascinating that no one seems to have any difficulty asking me what gender confirmation surgeries I have had. (If it’s a male asking the question, I often ask if he has prostate trouble. If it is a female, I ask if she has her period. They usually get the point.)

Mike suggested what is private is just private. A secret, on the other hand, is information that if it becomes known, is likely to alter the course of one’s life. Some secrets hold moral implications; others hold societal implications. All are kept under wraps for a reason beyond mere privacy.

Jennifer Boylan, the author of She’s Not There, said the biggest change in the life of a transgender person is not their change of gender, but the surrender of their secret.

I thought of her words Sunday when the article about Jonathan (and by extension, me) was trending in the New York Times as the second most emailed article of the day. Both Jonathan and I have heard from people we hadn’t heard from in years. As the day came to a close, I thought, “Well, if there was anybody left who didn’t know about my transition, they surely know now.”

The surrender of a secret can be dangerous, even life threatening. It calls forth judgment and invites condemnation. Tribes have never tolerated members who speak unpleasant truths. They are commonly scapegoated and sometimes killed.

But a secret gnaws at your soul, even when you know there are no moral prohibitions against it. My secret was neither right nor wrong, but it was a great burden. I knew the friends who would depart if my secret became public. I was correct in my knowing. The rejection by the church was swift and almost universal.

I chose the terms of my surrender. I never placed myself in danger. Three people on earth knew of my dilemma. Two were therapists. The third was my spouse. I knew how to be self-protective. But holding the secret was on its way to killing me. It is not all right to deny who you are. I wrote a lot of poetry during that time.  Most of it will never see the light of day, but a few lines from one of the poems is illustrative of how I was feeling:

So what about this calling

When it seems anymore

That no road leads home and

Every path’s become a thicket

 

The soul with its voice barely heard

The heart whispering for its time

Soft and quiet yet strong to bear

Scant hope of ways unseen

Secrets obscure the path forward. Shedding a secret lifts the fog and throws some light. Is it worth it? Most days, yes. Some days, I’m not so sure. Secrets surrendered have tentacles that ensnare the people you love. You might be able to breathe again, but now your loved ones cannot catch their breath. It is excruciating to watch.

I will tell you a secret. Coming out is not for the faint of heart. It has been harder than I expected, and I expected it to be hard. The pain it engenders is staggering. But it is the truth, and if we deny the truth, what do we have, really? I mean, look at our current cultural dilemma, in which a president lies with impunity and venerable media outlets are accused of delivering fake news. No society can long sustain the denial of truth. Eventually life crumbles from within.

I am staking my life on the veracity of Jesus’s words that truth sets us free. I trust that the surrender of my secret will bring about more redemption than harm, more reconciliation than alienation, and more hope than despair, especially in the hearts of those I love the most.

And so it goes.

 

This Is Why I Speak

This Is Why I Speak

I was featured in an article in last Sunday’s Denver Post.  (There is a link at the end of this post.)  For the most part, I was pleased with the article.  The reporter captured the essence of our conversation.  But as with most newspaper articles, there were mistakes.  The reporter wrote “anthrobiologist” instead of “sociobiologist.”  She wrote that I had said change would come to the church on LGBTQ issues within two years.  I said 10 years.  Two years would be great, but it’s way too optimistic.  There were a couple other mistakes, but I’m not complaining.

As for the picture, that was a different story.  They probably took 50 pictures.   I remember when the photographer took that particular picture.  I thought, “Well that’s gonna show every pore.  Watch, that’s the picture they’ll use.”  Uh huh.

As the Post article was being read in coffee shops, I was preaching at Highlands Church in Denver, where a New York Times photographer was taking pictures for an article that will go to press later this month.  Why am I willing to be profiled in the Denver Post and the New York Times?  Why do I take every newspaper and television interview I am offered?  Why do I accept every invitation to speak at Christian universities, even though I pay my own expenses?  Why do I travel the country to speak at GCN, PFLAG and Pride events, often for remuneration that does not cover half of my expenses?

I have already spent decades building kingdoms and slaying dragons.  I am not building a brand.  I do not need attention.   I do not relish the emails, Facebook messages and newspaper comments that arrive every day from an assortment of naysayers.  Nor do I have a masochistic spirit that requires regular doses of sarcasm and vitriol.  So, why do I choose to live such a public life?

The reason is simple.  Lives are at stake.

I will never forget the transgender teen who talked with me after I spoke at my first public event, a PFLAG conference in Boulder.  The boy’s name was Nicholas, and we realized we had been in court on the same day, when our names were legally changed.  His parents were incredibly supportive, unlike the parents of Leelah Alcorn, who ended her life on the very same day Nicholas and I changed our names.  Leelah’s unsupportive parents attended a church that taught them not to accept their daughter’s gender.  It cost them their daughter.

Transgender teens with unsupportive parents have a suicide rate 13 times higher than their peers.  They are the most at risk group in the nation.  Most of those unsupportive parents are Evangelicals.

Nicholas and Leelah are why I live a public life.  Since transitioning I have spoken in 18 states.  I have been in personal contact with thousands of LGBTQ individuals and their families from seven countries on four continents. Almost without exception these souls are Christians who have been ostracized from their churches and/or families.  They always ask the same painful question, “What do I do now?”

I feel the weight of the responsibility.  In my previous work, I hoped to save people from spiritual suffering.  In my current work, I hope to save people from dying.

The pain experienced by these precious souls comes from a church more interested in abstract truth than in the incarnational truth before their eyes – embodied souls who have been driven to the edge of despair by people who use an abstract idea as a very real and dangerous sword.

The truth is, I do not care about their brand of orthodoxy.  I have no interest in debating it.  It is of little interest to me.  However, I do care about their orthopraxy, how they practice the Christian faith.  I find it lacking.  I find any religion lacking  that leads with judgment instead of leading with acceptance and love.

I do believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world.  But it is a Gospel not based on exclusion and judgment. It is good news based on the earthly journey of a member of the Trinity.  It is based on the Jesus who came to assure us that God loves us, just as we are.  Did you read that?  I meant what I wrote.  God loves us just as we are.

This is why I speak.

http://www.denverpost.com/2017/06/11/paula-williams-evangelical-trans-rights/

Hope Rising

Hope Rising

On Sunday I spent three hours with a photographer from the New York Times. He came to take a zillion pictures, one or two of which will appear along with an article in the Times later this month. He was a delightful young man with loads of talent. He was also pleased the Times recently doubled its day rate for photographers.

The newspaper was able do so because people are reading newspapers again, particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post, two papers taking the lead in the investigative journalism necessary in these tumultuous times. Americans care. We are alarmed, and we want to know the truth. Hundreds of millions still believe the truth matters, and whether it is tomorrow or ten years from now, the truth will set us free. Signs of hope abound.

As of Monday, over 200 mayors, three governors, 80 university presidents and 100 corporations have pledged their allegiance to the Paris Agreement, with numbers increasing daily.

There have been protests on 43 different days since the inauguration, including the Women’s March on January 21, when over 3.5 million peaceful marchers conducted the largest protest in American history. Almost all of the protests have been born out of the desire for America to be more thoughtful, more egalitarian, more concerned for racial and socio-economic justice, more protective of the planet, and more devoted to a just and generous expression of democracy.  Most have been led by women.

For me, there was a watershed moment when I moved from despair toward hope.  It was when Sally Yates testified to the truth, showing the members of Congress what a woman without fear can do.  That is when I saw hope rising.

Passion for justice has been stirred. Women are taking their rightful place in leadership, knowing the men have had their chance and have blown it. They are working collaboratively, as women do, nurturing this fragile planet and all of its endangered residents. They fight as protectors of life and purveyors of hope. They know it is their time.

I stand, primarily as an outsider, watching the women around me rise as great fires burn within. They are people like my friend Jen Jepsen, whose birthday yesterday set me to writing this post.  I write in celebration of her great passion.  I also think of Cathy, Jael, Jana, Jubi, Christy, Jenny, Rachael, the women at the She Is Called conference in New York, and all the other strong women who give me such hope.

These are the women who are thinking of their children and grandchildren, and the children of their grandchildren. They know pain precedes life, and it does not frighten them. They will bear the pain and lead us to recover our humanity, to reconcile the races and heal the nations. They will teach us to nurture the planet, not exploit it. They will bring life, not take it.  I see it happening in real time.  It is like watching Sally Yate’s testimony all over again, and I want to break out in applause.

Women were taught to stay in their place, which is to say far from positions of power.  Today they are discarding those stale messages, empowering one another and taking the reins of leadership.  Yes, hallelujah, even in the church, the last remaining bastion of pure male privilege.

I have no doubt who holds the future.  It is the women, especially the mothers.  I see the fire in their eyes, the confidence in their groundedness and the fierceness in their determination.  Their leadership can and will take root.  These are the last days of narcissistic, egotistical, win/lose male domination.  What we see in the corridors of power are the last gasps of a spent ethic.

Through women rising, a world of fierce empowered love is emerging, and I for one, believe it is just in time.

And so it goes.

Hope Flowing Through Words

Hope Flowing Through Words

This week, while purging my computer of unneeded files, I came across a “making of” documentary about a television show of which I was an executive producer back in 2003.  I had not seen the show in over a decade.  It unearthed emotions.

As I have chronicled my journey from Paul to Paula, I have promised to be honest and authentic.  I have not talked much about my family, and I have edited a few nasty messages from the comments section, but outside of that I have written about the story as it has unfolded.  Lately the posts have been tough to write.  You might be tired of the hard ones.  I am.

This past week one of the human beings with whom I am closest said while they enjoy hanging with Paula, this whole thing has been brutal.  That word, brutal, is etched on my soul.  People who love me still suffer.

These people understand the life I was living was not sustainable. As one of them reminded me recently, “Trust me.  I was there.  You were not going to make it.”

For a long time, only three people knew what I faced.  They also know how close I came to losing my life.  All three have to remind me every now and again just how bad it was.  I used every ounce of energy I had keeping it together in my work and with my friends and acquaintances.  They had no idea anything was wrong.  That is because I saved my despair for when I got home, or for my therapist’s office, or phone calls with my close friend.  Those three knew that to save my own life, I would have to bring pain to others.  When it comes to gender dysphoria, there are no good choices.

Which brings me back to the television show.  As I watched Paul talk with the producers about making the show, and watched Paul explain to the crew how the show came to be, I missed the guy I saw on screen.  Like so many of you, I missed his sense of humor and calm confidence.  I missed his ease in front of a crowd.  I missed his voice.

Please understand, I do not miss living as Paul.  What had been a nuisance in my twenties and thirties became horribly difficult in my late forties and unbearable after that.  The pain accumulates.  But I miss what Paul was able to accomplish in the world, and who he was to his family and friends.

My family and friends lost so much, especially my family.  They lost friends and co-workers and even other family members.  In some ways, their losses were worse than mine.  And they never had a chance to memorialize Paul.  We often use the word “passing” when we refer to someone who has died.  In my case, passing is the word that best describes the loss of Paul.  Paul passed on and no one had a chance to publicly grieve.  Not my family, not my friends, not even me.

Early on I would have dismissed the idea of needing a memorial service for Paul.  “I’m still the same person!” I protested.  But watching that documentary, it is obvious I am not the same person, as most of my family and friends continually remind me.  Is it too late to publicly grieve?  I don’t know.  Nothing about this is easy, not for anybody.

So, how do we move forward?  Without grace, not well.  So I write in the hope grace will increase.  I write to light the fires of hope within.  I write to give voice to the pain felt by others.  I write so evangelicals will stop pretending life is not complicated and moral choices are easy.  I write so transgender souls a step or two behind me can navigate through this minefield with caution.  I write because I refuse to live in silence and fear.  I write to honor those who have dared to travel this rocky road with me.  I write because hope flows through words.

I write because I agree with the words of Emily Dickinson.   A  word is dead when it is said, some say.  I say it just begins to live that day.

And so it goes.

 

Prevailing Love

Prevailing Love

I want to thank you for your response to last week’s post.  My readership was about twice its normal size, and a number of you wrote personally to say if I ever happen to see you in an airport, I should introduce myself.  My heart was warmed.  I also appreciated the comments made on Facebook (Paula Stone Williams) and in the comment section of my blog.  If you’ve not read the blog comments, I’d encourage you to do so.

Since several of you have asked, I have not heard from the individual I saw at LaGuardia Airport.  I do not expect to.  I imagine it is a bridge too far.  It is all right.

Your encouragement has meant so much because I am tired.  Last week’s post was painful.  We are made for life-long community.  Our lives are knit together by the continuity of lifetime friendships.  They, along with family, are the thread that runs through our days.  For me, that thread was severed.  It is one of my greatest losses.  I knew it was likely to happen, but I did not realize how complete it would be.  Thousands of my old friends are gone, and it does not look like many will return.  Few remain who can testify of my previous life.

A quick Internet search of the ministries for which I once worked finds, with one notable exception, no acknowledgement I ever existed.  I hesitate to list my previous employers on my curriculum vitae because I know if they are contacted, they will probably not respond.  The same is true of the institutions that granted my degrees.  Sermons I preached that were once on video have been pulled from libraries.  I have been removed from public consciousness.  While not unexpected, it erases my past.

My new friends are wonderful, but they know little of my previous life.  Just today I was talking with one of my new friends who had no idea I was once the CEO of a religious non-profit, or the host of a national television show, or an editor and columnist for a magazine, or an adoption caseworker for 25 years.  That part of my life is not accessible to this new friend.  He only knows Paula, the woman who preaches at his church regularly and prays for people during weekly communion.   In some ways that is wonderful.  I no longer have to contend with people who come alongside because of what I can do for them.  The people who are drawn to me nowadays are not drawn to my accomplishments.  They just like hanging with Paula.

Many new friends expressed shock at seeing a picture of Paul in last week’s post.  Most found it difficult to find Paula in Paul.  Friends from my earlier life find it difficult to find Paul in Paula.  Only a handful see the same person in both photos.

This blog is one place that brings both halves of my life together.  Before I transitioned I decided to chronicle my journey, hoping it might bring understanding and insight to my evangelical friends.  I expected a few dozen might follow along.  I did not know it would be hundreds, then thousands.  For the most part, however, the people from my old life do not offer to come by for a visit.  Early on I would not have been able to receive them.  There were too many open wounds.  Today I would welcome their arrival, particularly if they brought their memories along for the ride.

Mine is a pioneering journey.  They are no well-worn ruts from previous processions of wagon trains.  I know of no other evangelical leader who has followed this particular call.  And I have done it very publicly.  I should not be surprised when mean-spirited correspondence still arrives, or that most remain silent because they do not know what to do.  It goes with the territory.  It is also the reason I am tired.

Which is why your encouragement has been so life-giving.  Nothing feeds a parched soul like a kind word.  Thank you, my friends, for trusting my character enough to walk through your discomfort to remain by my side.  I know it has not been easy, but you have allowed love to prevail, and that is how the light gets through to the dark places.

I am grateful for your love and acceptance.  Truly grateful.

And so it goes.