Saturday, June 30, 2007

Choir Practice

For a very long time, I went to Church and almost nobody noticed. I say "almost nobody," because I found a couple of friends there almost immediately -- Brother Stainer, whom I mentioned in another post, and later an old friend of mine, Sister Johnson, whom I've known for more than twenty years, and whom I first met when she was a teacher at the MTC and when I was a missionary-in-training, preparing for my mission in the Swiss-Geneva Mission.

But many a Sunday I came, sat down on the back row all alone, unnoticed. I prayed to myself before the meeting. I sang the hymns. I prayed the sacrament prayers in my heart, "partaking," if I could not physically by eating the bread and drinking the water, spiritually by promising that I did want to take His name upon me and keep his commandments which he had given me. I was amazed, Sunday after Sunday, how these simple people bearing simple testimonies, the good people of this wonderful inner-city Minneapolis Ward, would get up and deliver talks that always moved me, inspired me, made me see things from a different angle, and not infrequently made me cry. And the hymns -- I could never get enough of the beautiful hymns, though it was not an infrequent occcurrence for me to get so choked up singing them that all I could do was stare at the pages of the hymnal through blurry eyes and listen to the others sing.

"Sister Smith" was the first one to notice my singing. "You have a lovely voice! You should sing in the choir!" she would say. I would just smile. Others sometimes noticed too. One sister took to complaining when I didn't sit behind her, because she liked to hear my singing.

One day last December, Sister Bruce, the ward choir director, cornered me in the hallway after Sacrament Meeting. "I hear you have a beautiful singing voice," she said, "How would you like to sing in the choir?"

"I would love to," I said.

"Maybe you could sing a solo some Sunday as well," she continued. I started getting worried. Was this legal? Did she know I was a gay, excommunicated man?

"Maybe," I said.

So I walked out of Church that Sunday excited and confused and worried. Surely this sister knew I wasn't a member of the church, right? Surely she would know if I was a member? And I had made no secret of the fact that I was gay. I didn't advertise it, but I had told enough people whom I was sure would have told other people... She had to know I was gay, right? Or did she? Should I tell her? Did it matter? Did you need to be straight and a member of the Church to sing in the choir?

And then there was my partner. Every minute I spent at Church I ended up hearing from him about in some way or another. Every Sunday there was some little sign of displeasure, even if it was just a look or a question. So how was I going to add choir rehearsals without facing more wrath?

Fortunately Göran made no special fuss about me singing in the choir. I participated in all the rehearsals and at the end of the month sang in the ward Christmas program. The bishop sang in the choir with us as well. He sat right next to me during some of the rehearsals. "Well," I thought the first time I saw him in choir rehearsal, "if there's a problem with any of this, now he can put a stop to it." But the bishop didn't seem to mind. I never got pulled aside and told this was inappropriate. No sudden phone calls from the choir director uninviting me.

I still continue to sing in the choir. Sister Bruce makes a point of making sure I make it to rehearsal each time another performance comes up. One of my great disappointments this past week was that I actually had to miss a performance in Sacrament Meeting because of Gay Pride.

I eventually even did sing that solo in Church.

I actually got sort of panicked about it in the week or two before I sang. I wondered if the bishop knew I had been slated to sing this solo. Surely everything in every Sacrament Meeting program was approved by him, right? But I started imagining a variety of nightmare scenarios, and for my own peace of mind decided that I needed to meet with the bishop to discuss it and make sure everything was all right with him. I called to try to set up an appointment to meet with him, and for some reason there were scheduling difficulties and I finally managed to get an appointment the Wednesday before the Sunday that I was supposed to sing. I was actually meeting with the bishop just before I was supposed to go to Sister Bruce's house to rehearse. I had imagined these scenarios in which I would tell the bishop, and he would say something like, "Well, John, I'm not sure that's an appropriate thing for you to do." I had even sort of rehearsed the speech I would make to Sister Bruce as I called her after my meeting with the bishop to apologize and tell her it was all off.

The subject of my meeting with the bishop was about what it was and was not appropriate for me as an excommunicated member to do. To my great relief and joy, "participating in the ward music program" was one of the things he explicitly listed as OK. After our meeting, he actually gave me a ride to the Bruces', as we discussed his favorite topic: the 93rd section of the Doctrine & Covenants. I love my bishop with my whole heart!

The solo I sang was "As I Have Loved You," one of my favorite Mormon hymns ever. I'm not sure it was the best rendition of it ever. I was nervous as hell. But I sang it with my whole heart.

One of the speakers that Sunday was Sister Bambi Patrick. The talk was about forgiveness. She spoke about the need for us all to be humble, to forgive one another, never to judge others because we are all in need of the atonement of Christ. By the end of her talk, tears were streaming down my face. Here I was, feeling like the most miserable sinner of all about to try to stand up in front of all these Saints, and it was as if Sister Patrick was standing up there speaking just to me and saying Don't worry, we're all in the same boat together. Sister Bruce had invited me to sit next to her that Sunday, so I actually had this wonderful feeling of sitting in something like a family. And she saw me tearing up and she looked over at me and smiled, and said, "That couldn't have been a more perfect talk to go with your song." "Nope," I agreed, "couldn't have been more perfect." "You think you can still do it?" she asked. "Yup," I said.

A few Sundays ago, Sister Patrick collared me after the Ward Conference, the same one where I heard the best sermon ever from the second counselor in the stake presidency. She asked me if I wanted to participate in a multi-stake LDS choir that was going to sing a concert at Como Park on the 4th of July. She promised to pick me up and give me a ride. So for the last two Saturday mornings, Sister Patrick has been arriving at my house at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, and we drive out to the Stake Center in Burnsville.

I have to say, it took me out of my safety zone at first. I had always been reassured by Sister Bruce. She's always had this kind, down-to-earth, Mormon mother sort of attitude that puts me right at ease. The crowd at the multi-stake choir were a bit more intense. And here I was with a bunch of strangers out in the conservative suburbs. It left me with this queazy sort of what-if-they-knew-about-me feeling in my gut. Of course, kind of a silly feeling, but last Saturday one brother noticed my wedding ring -- a beautiful and very unusual black titanium ring with inlaid silver and a cubic zirconium. He commented on it and how beautiful it was, and that always leaves me wondering, what do I say if he asks me about my "wife"?

But on the way to the rehearsal last week, Sister Patrick and I were talking about that Sunday when she spoke and made me cry, when I sang my song, "As I Have Loved You." She said, "You know, it just seems like no matter what topic they give me to speak about, I always find some way to bring it back to the same theme."

Her favorite theme was the Atonement, of course.

"If you had to just pick one," I replied, "that would be it."

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Hearts of the Children

Every day is a new opportunity to forget.

To forget what God has done for you. To forget the promises you have made. To forget the promises that have been made to you.

It is especially easy to forget, when you've barely turned on your computer at work, and some attorney is in your face, announcing that there are eight new filings that need to be done today. It's easy to forget, when you start working on the first filing, and you realize that half the items needed to complete it are missing, and the attorney's suddenly gone and can't be reached. It's easy to forget, when, along the way, the printer breaks and starts spewing big black spots all over the 250-page document you're trying to print, and then you get the printer fixed and start printing it over again, and then you realize that you forgot to add the priority paragraph to the first page, and so everything's wrong and you need to start all over again. And before you know it, it's noon and you haven't finished the first filing yet.

If life is a beach, work can sometimes be the riptide that pulls you away from shore, and threatens to carry you out to sea. If you want to survive, you can't let yourself get caught in the negativity. Let each frustration become a reminder that the purpose of work is to help you learn patience, humility and love. To help you master the foundational principles of creation.

Every day may be a process of remembering.

Remember who you are. Remember the promises made to the fathers. Remember the love and pride of your parents. Remember what's brought you to this point, the witnesses of the Holy Spirit, the promises you've made. Remember the love that makes it all worth while.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Sacred Silence

I've been working on a play about the life of Jesus (an exercise, by the way, that I would commend to every believer in Christ). As part of my process of wrestling with how best to dramatically portray certain aspects of Christ's life and ministry, I have been watching as many movies about Jesus as I can get my hands on.

Last night, at the recommendation of a good friend of mine, Göran and I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew. The opening scene of this visually stark, spiritually poignant portrait of the life of Jesus begins with a close-up of the face of Mary. As the camera moves outward, we see that Mary is pregnant. The camera then cuts to the face of Joseph. He is taking stock of the situation. We read betrayal, anger, and disappointment on his face. The camera then cuts back to Mary's face. We read her anguish. Then, most devastating of all: no angry confrontations, no bitter recriminations. Joseph just quietly turns and walks away from Mary. There is not a single word of dialogue in this scene. The entire story is told with camera angles, facial expressions, and then Joseph's resigned departure.

In the next scene, we see Joseph on the road. Suddenly, the angel appears, and we hear the first spoken words in the film: "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins." Joseph turns back.

In the third scene, Joseph returns to the home of Mary. Mary sees him coming through the doorway. In the expressions on Mary's face we see helplessness and anguish give way to relief. In Joseph's eyes we see that anger and disappointment have melted into heart-felt apologies. Once again, there is not a single word of dialogue.

And I realized as I was watching this, that the true power of these scenes is the dramatic way in which they illustrate that the most important things in life cannot be said. There are certain truths of which only God can be the witness.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Gay Pride

This collage was lovingly created for me by a lesbian friend in grad school. The blond, bearded guy in the white prom dress, tights and black army boots dancing stage left is me. My friend Justine managed to snap this photo of me as part of the Radical Faerie contingent in the Gay Pride Parade, I believe in 1991. This lovely gift still hangs in a prominent place in our study. I have always treasured it as a reminder of the days when I wasn't too shy to skip down Hennepin Avenue in a prom dress.

As Göran and I made our way over to the Saturday afternoon festivities yesterday, we observed that this year will be the 20th Gay Pride celebration he has participated in, and my 19th. But this year and the preceding year have felt very different to me, a bag of mixed emotions including pride, happiness, sadness, discomfort, and angst.

The angst comes from the fact that now, unlike previous years, I belong to and cherish my ties to a community, many of whose members view Gay Pride on a par with Nazi rallies or Satanic festivals. I'm aware that in the eyes of many, for me to go anywhere near such an event would be taken as incontrovertible evidence that I am truly beyond the pale.

The discomfort comes from the fact that I have begun to reorganize my internal, spiritual life in a way that is not concordant with the in-your-face celebration of sexuality that is a prominent current in Gay Pride festivities. For those of you reading who have never been to Gay Pride, I hasten to add that not everybody -- not even a majority -- at Gay Pride is "flaunting it." The vast majority of participants in Gay Pride are about as hum drum and boring a crowd as any you find at any community festival or parade in town. But then there are the ripped young guys wearing nothing but thongs, the leather dudes leading their lovers around on titty clamps, the inevitable thumping, bumping, and grinding festival floats (usually sponsored by the gay bars), the pornographic displays in some of the booths at the festival, and so on. You can certainly look the other way if you're not into all of that, but it's there and you can't miss it.

And the discomfort for me comes not per se from the idea of same-sex couples getting down and dirty, but more from my evolving sexual ethic of wanting to guard my sexuality in a private, intimate, sacred place. I love sex. I believe it to be a gift from God, one of many delights that God has built into the very fabric our mortal existence, and an avenue through which we may achieve some of the highest joy possible. For me, honoring that gift is no longer concordant with flaunting it in public. The Gay Pride Festival is a place where there is a constant temptation to let myself get overstimulated in contexts that are literally meaningless. So while I am there, I find myself having to be mentally disciplined and on my guard in a way that I never felt required to be in the past.

Angst also comes from the fact that I hunger for opportunities to experience the presence of the Spirit, and to worship in community with the Saints. And, inconveniently, the Gay Pride Parade and Festival conflicts with my Church meeting schedule. Believe it or not, I absolutely hate missing Church. When I do, there is a part of me that grieves.

But Gay Pride is a Homo High Holy Day of the first order, and to fail to show would cause such a ruckus in our household, I wouldn't even dream of suggesting that maybe I personally would rather be at the Mormon Church. So partly for the sake of peace in the home, put partly also for my own benefit (which I will discuss more below), I continue to go.

So then there is a new found, deep sadness I experience at Gay Pride. This sadness comes from the fact that I find myself torn in ways I wish I weren't torn. And nipping on the heels of the sadness is maybe a little nagging fear; a worry that my connection to and identification with the LDS Church has perhaps reintroduced into my life a source of internalized homophobia. Is it possible that my reintegration of my spiritual identity -- as liberating and powerful as this has been for me in so many ways -- carries with it certain unhealthy elements, that it is causing me to hate certain aspects of myself that I had worked so hard for so many years to integrate in a healthy, positive way? I never used to feel this kind of conflict and discomfort around Gay Pride.

While this weekend I have been aware of these nagging fears, ultimately as I have reflected on them in the writing of this essay I realize that deep down inside I do not feel the conflicts I've described to be unhealthy. I believe they are a sign of maturity. As a spiritual being, I have come to recognize that the principles of humility and repentance mean that I must accept a certain level of conflictedness in my life. Facing conflict is an inevitable element of living in a world where the ruling Powers are out of harmony with the Universe's creator. Feeling conflict is a sign of growth. The conflicts I sometimes feel are the flip side of the intense joy and peace I find in divine forgiveness and in self-improvement. Ulitmately, I have come to accept that feeling "conflict free" is not necessarily a sign of health, any more than being overwhelmed by internal conflict. Neither is healthy. Both, I believe, are forms of denial.

And while there is new-found conflict, there is also a new-found happiness. I understand who and what I am. Christ's atonement is what defines my new identity and my relationship to the world around me, not outward trappings. Imperfections, inconsistency, and conflicts are just part of the terrain of an imperfect world we all have to navigate through -- not just me. This understanding frees me not to feel like I have to control everything around me at all times. More importantly it frees me to let go and enjoy Gay Pride for what it fundamentally is: part of the journey many of my gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters are on to achieve self-love and self-understanding, and to build relationships and communities not based on the hatred, lies and misunderstanding that have ensnared so many of us in this culture. It is about exposing homophobia for what it is, and undoing its damage on our souls, psyches, and relationships.

Not everything about how members of the GLBT community go about trying to achieve these goals is perfect. How would we expect it to be? It is always the nature of the journey to start in a place of imperfection and move toward increasing perfection. So rather than hating ourselves for our imperfections, we should forgive ourselves, keep working at it, and move forward.

Contrary to what many in the LDS community typically assume, there are many signs of this increasing perfection at Gay Pride, many signs that members of the GLBT community are building social institutions and developing support networks to promote values of sobriety, spirituality, and respect. In this I see unquestionable signs of the Spirit at work.

And that brings me to the final emotion. Deep pride. Pride that I have survived, when at one point I might have killed myself. Pride that I am learning, however haltingly and imperfectly, what it means to truly love myself and others. Pride that this is not the end of the journey.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Wheat and Tares

The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.

Sometimes friends are not friends. Sometimes you find allies in unexpected places. Sometimes the truth that seems most self-evident to everyone is the biggest lie of all. Sometimes it's the crazy ones who see things the way they are. Friend and foe, truth and lies, in this world everything is all mixed up.

In this world people wear many different masks. Sometimes the reality of things is invisible, and can only be felt. When you grow wheat, it takes time for the grain to show.

In the meantime, what you see is not always what you get.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The First Sunday

I remember the first Sunday I walked into the building.

I had seen it before many times, driving past with friends. "Hey, isn't that the Mormon Church?"

I was nervous.

I had told my partner that I was only planning to attend a few Sundays. Just long enough to get to know the bishop, see how supportive he might be. See if he knew of any gay parishioners, might be willing to refer people to Affirmation. I really believed that was why I was going.

But as soon as I set foot in the building, as soon as I sat down in the back pew, I knew that was not why I was there.

This building could have been the church I went to as a kid, in Rochester, New York. I had been away for twenty years, moved to a different state, and nothing had changed. The same prelude music wafting down from the organ. The same kinds of pews, the same shape of the sanctuary.

I looked over, and there in the pew just in front of me was Elder Armstrong, from Panguitch, Utah.

Flashback: A few weeks earlier, Göran and I had been visiting my friends Sam and Lee, and who should come a'knockin' but the Mormon missionaries. My friend Sam said, "You're Mormon, you go talk to them!" So I went out onto the front porch and talked to the missionaries. I'd encountered missionaries many, many times before, but I had never really talked to them. I had always just brushed them off and told them I wasn't interested, without ever letting on that I had once been a Mormon. But this time, I took a deep breath, and I really talked to them. From the heart.

I started off by saying, "I was raised LDS. I served a mission in France and Switzerland. But I'm gay, and there's no place for me in the LDS Church." I then proceeded to give them the intensive course in Gay Mormons 101. "How did you lose your testimony?" one Elder asked. "I didn't lose my testimony," I said, "It was because of my testimony I almost committed suicide."

The exchange stayed friendly. The one Elder, I assumed he was the senior companion, did most of the talking. I don't remember much of what he said. When I said I couldn't believe in the Book of Mormon based on what I knew about pre-Columbian American history, he went on about how archaeologists are always unearthing more and more proofs of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I warned him that he probably didn't want to go there. But what I remembered most about the encounter was the junior companion, the one who just stood there and didn't say much of anything, the one who looked slightly sorry when he heard me mention I had almost committed suicide. There was an air of kindness and gentleness about him. That was what impressed me. That was Elder Armstrong.

So back to that first Sunday: I looked at the pew in front of me, and there was Elder Armstrong with a new companion. He looked back and saw me, and we instantly recognized each other, and he smiled, and he shook my hand, and he said, "Hey, do you remember me?"

"How could I forget?" I replied.

He made small talk, and made me feel welcome. I found out that when I had encountered him on the porch of my best friends' house, he had been assigned to the Dinkytown Ward. He had only just been transferred to the Lake Nokomis Ward that very Sunday, that first Sunday I walked into the church.

Later, just as I was getting ready to walk out the door, Elder Armstrong ran up and called to me. He wanted to introduce me to someone. He had found a member of the Elder's Quorum presidency, a Brother Stainer, and introduced me to him. That first Sunday, my encounter with Brother Stainer was very brief. But after that, as I showed up on successive Sundays, he sort of made it his job to make sure I never sat on the pew alone, that I never came to Church without feeling welcome.

That first Sunday all I could remember thinking was, "Wow. This elder knows I'm gay. And he still really wants me to come back."

That first Sunday, as the opening hymn was sung, I sang the familiar words in a full voice. The opening prayer was said and I bowed my head, and said my own prayer.

And the Spirit was there, and I suddenly knew the real reason why I was there.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Sister Smith

OK, her real name's not Sister Smith. I'm just trying to keep things cool.

Every Sunday I go to Church now, there's just this little bit of a knot in my stomache, because I know Sister Smith is waiting for me there at the entrance to the chapel. She must be at least in her 70s, maybe 80s, and the bishop has called her to be an usher. And she's very faithful in her calling. So nowadays, like clockwork every Sunday I can count on being harangued on my way in.

"Good morning, Sister Smith," I smile as nicely as I can. Maybe if I smile real nice, she'll just let me pass.

"So, are you still living with your friend?" she'll ask.

"Yes," I sigh.

"What? You haven't left him yet?!"

"No," I reply calmly. In my mind I say, "Nope, not since last week."

"Why haven't you left him yet?" You can hear the desperation rising in her voice. "Don't you want to go to the temple? You're running out of time!"

"Yes, Sister Smith. I very much would like to go to the temple. But I'm not leaving him. I love him very much."

Now there's disgust and anger on her face. "Shame on you! You can't love a man! Not like that!"

I take a deep breath before I reply. "Sister Smith, I've come here to worship. I'm not going to argue with you."

She rolls her eyes and thrusts the program at me, and I realize I'm done. I've survived the trials and may now proceed through the door, find my seat at the back of the sanctuary and pray in peace. At least until the next week.

I "came out" to Sister Smith only after many weeks and months of her sniffing and prying. I could tell she knew something was wrong. She knew there was something about me that smelled odd. Something vaguely three-dollar-bill-ish.

"Are you married?" she had asked one week.

"No," I had replied. I knew that was a half truth (hopefully God wouldn't smite me for lying at Church). But I figured she wasn't ready to deal with the whole truth. And I knew in any event that as far as she would be concerned it would count for precisely nothing that, in August 1995, Göran and I gathered with our respective families and 110 of our closest friends to make vows of love and commitment to each other. I knew that from her point of view the lie would have been answering, "Yes, Sister Smith, I am married to a lovely man named Göran."

One week she asked me for my phone number, and in a moment of weakness I gave it to her, knowing that she was lonely and hoping that maybe it would do her good to talk once in awhile.

She called and would poke and prod with personal questions until finally, in desperation, I admitted to her, "Sister Smith, I'm gay. I am in a relationship with a man whom I love very deeply. We've been together for fifteen years."

It felt good, after all, to have that out in the open, despite the now weekly harangues about whether I've put my partner out the door yet.

The silver lining to this dark cloud is that, as obnoxious as Sister Smith's behavior is, this is absolutely the worst thing I have to put up with at Church. Most of the other folks either know (because I have discreetly told them or because I asked the bishop to tell them), or suspect, and have chosen the path of blissful non-confrontation.

The bishop has even apologized for Sister Smith's behavior. "She's not well," he explained, somewhat embarassed.

"It's OK," I told him truthfully, "I understand."

And even she has moments when I can see the regret in her eyes. "I shouldn't have said that," she has occasionally apologized, "You should have just told me to shut up and mind my own business." And I realize that she is, after all, a lonely old woman, just trying however misguidedly to forge some kind of meaningful connection with me.

I have experienced far many more moments of extraordinary kindness and consideration at the Church than harassment. Nothing more need be read into folks' basic acceptance of me than that they understand that Christian charity requires it, and that, whatever they might think about my lifestyle, I matter, and we can be friends. That kindness, and the fact that here I can feel the Spirit most strongly, makes it enough for me.

Some day, if not in this life, in the next, Sister Smith and I will look back at these days and smile.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Take the Young Stranger by the Hand

The title of my book, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand, is actually a paraphrase from the 1851 constitution of the Boston Young Men's Christian Association, the first YMCA founded in the United States.

Here is the full quote, as it appears in C. Howard Hopkins' History of the YMCA in North America (1951, p. 18):

[The YMCA should be] a social organization of those in whom the love of Christ has produced love to men; who shall meet the young stranger as he enters our city, take him by the hand, direct him to a boarding house where he may find a quiet home pervaded with Christian influences, introduce him to the Church and Sabbath School, bring him to the Rooms of the Association, and in every way throw around him good influences, so that he may feel that he is not a stranger, but that noble and Christian spirits care for his soul.

This mission to mobilize Christian men to care for the souls of other men, to guide them toward "good influences," is what fascinated me about the early YMCA, and drew me to research and tell its history.

In a sense, this has become my personal mission.

Let Virtue Garnish Thy Thoughts, or Cultivating the Garden of My Mind

OK, first of all, I want to be the first to say that "virtue" (from the Latin word meaning "manly") can refer to lots of good things besides sexual virtue. But here I want to focus on the sexual kind of virtue anyway.

There's a lot of special pleading that goes on in the gay community when it comes to sexual virtue. And it is true that in our homophobic culture, gay people are essentially told that there is no such thing as virtuous expression of our sexuality. Mormons talk about "bridling" or "channeling" our passions, not "mortifying" (i.e. "killing") or "damming" our passions. We all know what happens if we dam a river without providing a channel for the water to run into. Disaster. That is why it should not surprise us that conventional gay culture has responded to society's efforts to dam our sexuality by saying, "OK, so you say nothing goes? Then everything goes!" And we have paid the price for the bursting of the flood gates. AIDS, sexual addiction, and soul-numbing loneliness.

When the second counselor in our Stake Presidency spoke to us about "letting virtue garnish our thoughts," he said "you all know what I mean." And I did know what he meant. The Holy Spirit was quietly present reminding me what it should mean.

I had somehow convinced myself years ago that it was still always OK to look at a man a certain way, to entertain certain kinds of thoughts, even though I had chosen a man and he had chosen me. Even though we'd promised our love to each other. And I'd used pornography since before we tied the knot, and continued to use it afterwards. And I thought those habits, and the habits that came along with them were harmless, and maybe they mostly were. Our love was true, but my mind was an unruly and neglected garden, choked with weeds. And since I've been attending Church weekly, the Spirit has been quietly whispering, "See if you can't put that away. See if you can't give that up. See if you can't cultivate the garden of your mind, weed it, and grow more beautiful things there." And I'd begun by growing a flower or two here and there, and weeding a bit around the edges.

The ongoing cultivation was truly the work of the Spirit in my life, because I was learning to notice the times when the Spirit fled, and it was the desire to bring the Spirit back that kept me working at it. And bit by bit, the garden of my mind has been watered and tended and planted, and Göran and I can walk through it together and be very happy with what is flourishing there. The love between us is showing new dimensions and new meanings I never dreamed possible. And the many long absences of the Spirit that I once assumed to be just normal or inevitable have grown shorter and shorter, and I find the Spirit more of a constant presence and companion. The garden still needs daily tending. Always.

What applies to sexual virtue applies to every other form of virtue: industry, patience, compassion, kindness. It is all cultivated the same way, through mindfulness, attentiveness and love.

So when the brother said, "You all know what I mean," I thought, "Yes, thank you. Finally I do now."

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Foundational Principles of Creation

Somehow, whenever the topic of religion comes up in conversations with friends, discussion inevitably runs to problems stemming from the abuse of power. Why is that?

I heard one of the best talks ever on the subject of religious authority during our ward conference two weeks ago. The text is one familiar to Mormons. The presenter, the second counselor in our stake presidency, spoke on Doctrine & Covenants 121:34-46, but he presented it in a way that helped me understand the role of the church and the plan of salvation in new ways. I will try to recap it here...

He started by pointing out that even though this text has traditionally been understood to apply to priesthood authority, it really applies to everyone -- women, men, priesthood-holders or not.

As a gay, excommunicated man, all of a sudden I was all ears. In other words, this applies to me too.

What he was about to discuss were foundational principles of creation itself, principles that will help us to understand how God is God.

Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson — That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.

Our teacher asked, Why do the many who are called fail to find themselves among the elect? His answer: Pride.

Priesthood power cannot be manipulated. It is not our personal plaything. It can only be exercised on the basis of righteousness.

That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.

The sad end of those who let themselves become consumed with pride. But now comes the part where God says, "Hey you, I'm talking to you!"

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called, but few are chosen.

"Almost all men." (Yup, says my internal running commentary, that would mean living, breathing people who hold so-called authority right in the here and now. But does that mean all our religious institutions must by definition be hopelessly corrupt? Nope, replies the internal commentary. It merely reminds us that if you were in your bishop's place, you probably wouldn't do much better. It merely explains in precise terms why actual institutions fall short of the ideals to which they should adhere. It merely calls both for patience and vigilance.)

Our teacher enjoyed pointing out God's sense of humor here. "As they suppose." As soon as we "think" we own power, we in effect lose real power. Next comes the good part...

No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—

True power is not based on power. It is based on love. True obedience is not won through compulsion, but by example. Our teacher here gave a lovely speech about how no leader worth his salt -- religious or other -- will tell us, "You better do as I tell you, or else...!"

Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost

Our teacher hastened to add that "sharpness" here should be understood as "clarity," not to be confused with vehemence or judgmentalism.

and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

Never let anyone walk away without knowing that you love them.

(My internal commentary says, "It's not just enough to say you love someone." People see right through that. If you don't really mean it, you are already lacking the prime ingredient needed to successfully "reprove." Perhaps better to keep quiet.)

Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.

"Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly." "You all understand what that means," our teacher said.

I did understand. (My internal commentary here requires a whole post all its own. Tomorrow.)

The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.

Before getting all excited about scepters and dominions here, remember what the whole point of this sermon was. He who will be first among you must be the servant of all.

So there should be no surprise about that very last phrase, "and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee." Of course, if we learn the secret of true power that is not based upon power, not the least bit of compulsion will ever be needed for our reward to find us -- lovingly and voluntarily.

Mormons have heard this same sermon preached again and again, many different times and many different ways.

It still doesn't change the fact that it is the Best Sermon Ever.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Naked in the Classroom

I had a dream once where I was part of a class, learning to manage the principles of time travel. In the dream I had just taken a shower, and showed up in the classroom wearing nothing but a towel. I was embarrassed and wanted to get dressed.

At the time, I wondered if the dream might be about the vulnerability I felt, having published some fairly personal things in print and on the Internet. I wondered if the dream was telling me I ought to go back and cull certain things I've published on my web site. Especially things I published at a time when I saw things quite differently from the way I see them now.

I've always been a heart-on-sleeves kind of guy. My partner tells me I am literally incapable of telling a lie, partly because my emotions are always so close to the surface, so visible. Being personal is just the way I move through the world.

So with experience and deeper reflection, I understand that dream in a different way now. Life is a classroom where we all learn to manage the principles of time, space, and matter. In a sense, we are all naked in the classroom, all showing our inadequacies to the world for all to see. If we aren't, it probably means we're not learning. Censoring my past or covering my flaws doesn't make me a better, wiser person. Only becoming a better, wiser person does that.

So I have, for the time being, put those fears to rest. I look back now on things I've written in the past as part of the journey, and am willing to ask simply that friends and enemies alike be willing to forgive or overlook my flaws, just as I forgive and overlook yours.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Dual Citizenship

It's Sunday. Let's go to church!

On a typical Sunday, I spend about four and a half hours at church. First, I go to the 10:30 a.m. service at Lyndale United Church of Christ with my partner. That usually wraps up between 11:30 and noon. Then I head home, put on my suit and tie, grab my scriptures, and head over to the Lake Nokomis Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in time for Sacrament Meeting at 1:00 p.m. and stay right through the end of Priesthood Meeting, which usually wraps up around 4:00 p.m.

During the winter, when bike riding is impractical, I wear my suit and bring my scriptures with me to Lyndale, and then bus it from Lyndale to the Lake Nokomis Ward. The good Christian folk of Lyndale think I'm absolutely insane. I'm literally the only person there in a suit and tie. Even the minister does not wear a tie.

The Lake Nokomis Ward shares its building with two other wards, and it alternates its meeting times on a yearly basis. When Lake Nokomis' meeting schedule conflicts with Lyndale's, I alternate, one Sunday with my partner at Lyndale, one Sunday on my own at Lake Nokomis. Göran absolutely refuses to have anything to do with the Mormon Church.

My partner and I joined Lyndale United Church of Christ in 1994.

From the moment we first walked through the door, we both knew we were utterly, unconditionally welcomed, regardless of who we were. Our pastors were a straight man that everyone mistook for gay, and a woman in a relationship with a woman. The congregation is about 75% openly heterosexual.

At the time, we were involved in the Radical Faerie community. My radical faerie name was "Karen." When Pastor Cathie turned and called to a parishioner named Karen, I answered. There was confusion, then laughter, then explanations, then the realization that this was a very, very unique community.

That first Sunday, we danced in the sanctuary.

Lyndale Church is exactly what it claims to be: a church of Jesus Christ. A church where Christ is immediately recognizable because his love and generosity flow so instinctively and easily. Because all are welcome, no matter who they are, what they look like, what they wear, what they smell like, who they love. It is a church where truth is spoken, and where I often feel the Spirit like tongues of fire. It is a church where I am allowed to take communion because "Christ sets the table, and Christ welcomes all." It is a church where I am allowed to preach, where they love my preaching and where they love me. It is a church that shelters and feeds the homeless. It is a church that puts its money where its mouth is. It is a church that stands up for those who need standing up for. I love Lyndale Church.

I have been attending church at the Lake Nokomis Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since November 2005.

Some might ask, what's wrong with Lyndale Church that you feel obliged to go worship at the Mormon Church? I would say, Nothing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Lyndale Church, and a million things that are very, very right. I love that brave little church with all my heart. I go to the Mormon Church because that is where the Spirit is calling me to go. If the time ever came where I had to choose between the two, it would break my heart, though based on what I understand of what the Spirit has told me, I would have to choose the Mormon Church.

For the present, I enjoy dual citizenship. (Or technically, at the Mormon Church I'm more like a former citizen back on a green card. Or a convicted felon who's lost his voting rights. Or something I haven't figured out yet.)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Come Unto Me, All Ye that Are Weary

At the time that the Spirit spoke to me in August 2005 at the Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium, inviting me to "come home" to the LDS Church, if anyone had asked me what I thought of myself, I think I would have said something like this:

I'm a good guy. I'm blessed. I have a decent job, a beautiful home, a loving partner, two cats. I have lots of great and interesting friends, an accepting church community. I'm reconciled with my parents. I'm healthy and I enjoy all the good things of life. And I'm a decent, compassionate, moral person.

Why would I want to rock the boat? Why would I want to mess all of that up? Those are the questions friends asked me, as I began to make moves toward reconciling myself with the LDS Church. I still sometimes ask those questions of myself.

The answer is Peace.

There is a peace that passes all understanding. If we can find it, if we can let it permeate us, and if we can listen to it, it will teach us what in our lives needs to be reoriented in order to allow the peace to grow in us and through us to others, and from the others we touch to the whole world.

With the hindsight of almost two years looking back to that life-changing moment, I understand much more about who I was then, who I am now, and who I am becoming. I understand that my journey back to the LDS Church has made me a kinder, more patient, more loving, more compassionate person. It has made me a more virtuous and moral person. It has made me a better, more faithful, more loving partner. It has brought more peace and joy into my life than I am capable of receiving.

I realize now that at that moment in my life, I was an angry person. I was weary. I was alienated. I was afraid. Aspects of myself were fragmented. And like an injured animal, I was afraid of the One who could treat the injury and heal it.

There are aspects of this continuing journey that sometimes feel insane, that make me want to run. But every day there is more peace in my life, and every step of the journey has brought me greater joy. I don't want to lose that. I am coming home.

When you are finally done being weary, listen to the Spirit. Let the peace fill your soul. Come to Him. Let Him heal you.