Thursday, August 30, 2007

I'm Not a Gay Mormon, But I Play One in Angels in America

Yesterday I had dinner with David, a young aspiring actor and student at Macalester College in St. Paul. He's playing the role of Joe Pitts in the school's production of Angels in America, and he wanted to talk to a real, live, gay Mormon "who came of age in the 1980s!!" I realized he couldn't have been born any earlier than 1985. For the first time in my life I actually felt old.

I shared with him my story, and pieces of the stories of other people I've come to know along the way. My three best friends at BYU, all of whom were gay (though I wasn't aware of it at the time), and two of whom, like me, were suicidal. I told bits of the stories of some of the folks I've come to know well in returning to the fold, including some of you.

I told him what it was like for me growing up in the Church. Which for the most part was an experience of feeling surrounded by love. Loving parents and family. Loving bishops and teachers and quorum leaders. I talked about what it was like becoming a priesthood holder as a youth, what it was like getting ready to go on a mission. I talked about patriarchal blessings, and getting ready for the temple. And I talked about struggling with feelings of unworthiness as I became aware of my gay feelings. I talked about Packer and the infamous talk, and The Miracle of Forgiveness, and various statements I heard made by priesthood leaders and bishops and stake presidents.

As I talked, I had this insight about why I wanted to kill myself. It wasn't because the Church hated me or treated me cruelly. It was the opposite. It was because the Church loved me. Because it made me feel warm and safe and protected, and a part of something, a part of the very best thing I could possibly be a part of. And when I was confronted with losing that, and when my faith began to fall to pieces, I felt like there was nothing left for me. Literally nothing.

He quizzed me about my mission, and I talked about how I felt incredibly close to every single one of my companions, how every transfer broke my heart. And how I also struggled and felt anguished because I felt attracted to every single one of them.

I talked about how some guys have related how they closed themselves off from male friendships because they were afraid of what it might open up in them. That was never me. I talked about how some guys have had to separate the Mormon thing from the sexuality thing, how they have had to compartmentalize and almost create two versions of themselves, and what a struggle it is to try to bring those things together.

I talked about what a powerful thing the Church is in our lives. I told him about men I knew of who had been in same-sex partnerships and left them in order to be reunited with the Church. I talked about my own journey back, with its attendant struggles and heartaches and joys.

He quizzed me about gay married Mormon men. He needed insight into how his character, Joe Pitts, would relate to his wife Harper. I said, "The bottom line, the thing you need to understand most is, the gay married Mormon guys I know love their wives. They love them deeply, sometimes more than they love themselves. They would lay their lives down for them. In a sense they already have. When things go wrong in the relationship, they have a tendency to blame themselves. They feel responsible. These guys are some of the sweetest, most humble, most sensitive guys I know." I dunno, guys, did I represent? That's truly my perception of you... He took copious notes.

I actually felt the Spirit there as we spoke. I felt really good. Later, after I went home I prayed a prayer of gratitude, because looking back over my life, and looking where I've come to, I feel so blessed.

When we had finished, he thanked me very warmly and gave me a good strong handshake. I told him, "You've got a Mormon handshake there!" He laughed.

He said, "I'm so glad I talked to you. I've talked to other folks, but from you I got a more positive view of the Church. That's the view I think Joe would have had."

"Yes," I smiled.

I'm sure Joe's view of the Church was complicated. But on balance, good.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

"Iphis and Ianthe": Commentary

The story appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses. I paraphrased it in my last post, based on Mary M. Innes' skillful translation (London: Penguin, 1955). Ovid was a contemporary of Jesus, and this classic collection of pagan myths and stories reflecting on "changes" in all their manifold splendor, is well worth reading for their sheer poetry and beauty alone. They will be of special interest to anyone interested in the spiritual dimensions of change and transformation. But this story of Iphis and Ianthe in particular electrified me when I first read it this past winter.

This seemingly fanciful tale begins with an account of the all-too-real practice of female infanticide. In the ancient world, "exposing" unwanted children was a not uncommon practice. "Exposing" was the polite word for abandoning infants in the wilderness or on a mountainside where they would die of the harsh elements or starvation, or be eaten by wild animals. Girl children were less valued because they would not carry on the family name and because they were considered less of an economic asset, so girls were the usual victims of infanticide. This practice is still common in rural India and China. While we are not sure how many girl children in these countries are being murdered today, demographic analysis of the gender ratios in India and China has led to estimates of at least several hundreds of thousands, and maybe as many as a million each year.

In the story of "Iphis and Ianthe" we see two contrasting models of parental love: one conditional, the other unconditional. The father, Ligdus, views his child's worth primarily in terms of what economic assets or social status the child will provide him, while Telethusa, the mother, views the child as having infinite worth inherent in itself and independent of how its economic or social worth might be calculated. With the appearance of the goddess Io in the story, we learn that it is the mother Telethusa's method of estimating the worth of her child that is in alignment with that of the gods. "Do not hesitate to rear your child," says Io, "whatever it may be." The goddess further makes it clear that Telethusa is justified in using whatever deception is necessary with her husband, in order to preserve the life of her child.

Gay men and lesbians are all too well acquainted with forms of parental love in which their worth is calculated in terms of familial social status. I have known personally of gay and lesbian youth who were kicked out of their homes when it was discovered that they were gay. Studies of homeless youth in New York City found that 25-40% of teens living on the streets were gay or lesbian. In Salt Lake City, Utah, where increasing numbers of youth are coming out to their parents at an increasingly early age, the problem of homeless gay teens appears to be a growing problem. Even when familial non-acceptance of gay kids doesn't rise to this extreme, most of us still know of far too many gay men and lesbians who live completely estranged from their families.

But the tale of Iphis and Ianthe is not only a story of unconditional love, it is also a tale of faith. Telethusa, in preserving the life of her daughter, is not only obeying a commandment of the gods, she is walking in faith that the gods will help her accomplish a very difficult and dangerous task: raising her daughter as a son, without her husband ever finding out about it. Telethusa has in fact entered into a compact or a covenant with the gods, whereby she promises to do everything in her power to "rear the child, whatever it may be" and the gods promise in turn to assist her and to preserve the child's life. The emotional climax of the story arrives on the eve of Iphis' wedding, when Telethusa realizes that further deceptions will be humanly impossible, and she demands that the gods themselves directly intervene as they promised they would in order to save her daughter.

This in itself would make a very interesting story, but this tale becomes much more interesting still by taking us into the internal, emotional world of Iphis, the daughter herself. Iphis loves Ianthe from the moment she sets eyes on her, and her love is reciprocated. This causes her deep confusion because of her conviction that romantic love of a woman for a woman is "unnatural." Her feelings of love for Ianthe provoke another feeling which many gay and lesbian people relate to as well. She feels isolated and alien. She believes that she is the only person ever to have experienced such feelings in the history of the planet, and this fills her with despair. "I am [caught] in the snare of a strange and unnatural kind of love, which none has known before"! So many of us, as we first come to terms with our feelings of same-sex attraction experience this sense of isolation, a natural response, I think, when most of us grow up surrounded by peers who seem automatically attracted to members of the other sex.

And yet, her love for Ianthe is genuine. In fact, it would not be nearly as disturbing to her if it were not genuine.

What is even more fascinating here is the fact that Iphis feels cursed by the gods. She says "if [the gods] wished to destroy me, they might at least have visited me with some ordinary misfortune! How I wish that I had never been born!" She feels almost as if the gods have some sort of vendetta against her, as if they have inflicted upon her the worst possible punishment, when in fact she finds herself in this situation because of the gods' love for her, and their desire for her good and protection.

The gods might have spared her life in any number of ways. They might have appeared directly to her father Ligdus, and commanded him to let her live. Or they might have intervened in any number of other ways that might have allowed Iphis to live and be raised normally as a girl. But had they done so, Iphis almost surely would not have been introduced to Ianthe as a potential mate. By commanding Iphis' mother Telethusa to raise Iphis as a boy and to deceive the father, it was the gods themselves who set in train the series of events that would bring these two women together.

Far from forbidding the love between these two, the gods honor their love, and the transformation they send to Iphis is a transformation that will allow them to consecrate their love in the temple of the gods, and consummate and enjoy their love without further risk to their lives or condemnation by their families or peers. And again, it is the faith and the covenant of Iphis' mother, Telethusa, and her tears of love poured out upon the altar of the gods, that makes the final transformation possible.

Why did this tale electrify me and touch me so deeply? Though I believe that every religion in the world possesses inspired truths, I realize that this is a pagan myth, not considered doctrinal in any way in the community I claim to be a part of. Yet, the story contains profound messages about love and faith that resonate with the faith heritage I claim. I also found it so moving partly because of my own very powerful experience with the Holy Spirit, the messenger of the Gods, instructing me to be faithful to my partner and to honor my love for him. Just as Telethusa received her instructions without ultimate understanding of where they would lead, or how they fit into the larger plan, so I have not been given a clear or precise understanding of how my love for Göran fits into the eternal scheme of things.

I understand and have a testimony of Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and I believe Church leaders when they insist that marriage between a man and a woman plays a very important role in God's eternal plan of happiness. Beyond that I have no knowledge, so I must trust.

More importantly, I find this story comforting to all of us who find ourselves in relationships founded upon a genuine bond of love, but that are problematic either because of social stigmas or religious ordinances or because our love doesn't seem to align with our attractions. For those gay men and lesbians in loving marriages with members of the opposite sex, I see their heartfelt prayers for transformation, or at least for a muting of the desires that threaten to erode the love they feel for their spouses. For those of us in same-sex marriages or partnerships, I see heartfelt prayers for social and spiritual transformations that will allow us to honor our love. Whose desires are more righteous?

Even without the kinds of mythic transformation described in this story of Iphis and Ianthe, I find myself transformed in powerful ways as a result of my loving relationship with God. I pray to keep growing and transforming, according to God's will.

Monday, August 27, 2007

On the Subject of Change

In his classic work, Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Ligdus and Telethusa, who were good, decent folk, not landless slaves, but not wealthy either. Because they lived on the verge of slavery, when Telethusa announced to her husband that she was pregnant, Ligdus swore that, since a daughter was more financially burdensome than a son, unless the child was born a boy, he would have to put it to death. Telethusa's most heartfelt entreaties could not move him. If the child was a girl, he swore, she would be killed.

On the eve of the child's birth, the goddess Io appeared to Telethusa, and informed her that, in fact, her child was to be a girl. Telethusa was beside herself with grief, but the goddess promised her that all would be well. "Forget your bitter anxiety," the radiant messenger of the gods reassured her, "and deceive your husband. Do not hesitate to rear your child, whatever it may be. Do not fear, I will bring my aid whenever you ask it in prayer." So when the child was born, Telethusa made sure to conceal its gender from the father. She pretended that it was a boy, and named it Iphis, after the child's grandfather.

With the help of the goddess, she was able to raise Iphis as a boy, successfully concealing her gender from her father. But inevitably Iphis reached marriageable age. The father, Ligdus, arranged for Iphis to be married to Telestes' daughter Ianthe, a maiden graced by the gods with extraordinary beauty. The moment Iphis gazed upon Ianthe, she fell in love with her, and longed to be united with her in marriage. And Iphis' love was reciprocated by Ianthe.

And yet, Iphis' feelings for Ianthe provoked bitter conflict within her soul, and she cried out to the gods, "What is to be the end of this for me, caught as I am in the snare of a strange and unnatural kind of love, which none has known before? If the gods wished to spare my life, they should have spared it: if not, if they wished to destroy me, they might at least have visited me with some ordinary misfortune! How I wish that I had never been born!"

The mother Telethusa did what she could to delay the marriage, first pretending illness, then putting forward bad omens or dreams as an excuse to put it off. But finally the day came when she ran out of pretexts, and could delay the marriage no longer. In desperation, Telethusa tore the garlands out of her hair, dressed in sackcloth, and brought her daughter Iphis to the altar of Io. She bowed down and cried out to the goddess: "Bring me your aid, and heal my distress! I listened to your behests, and the fact that my daughter lives is due to your counsel. Now pity us both and grant us your help!" The mother's tears flowed over the altar as she prayed.

The goddess made her presence known with an earthquake that caused the doors of the temple to tremble. Not entirely reassured, but her hope bolstered by this sign, the mother stood up, took her daughter by the hand, and left the temple. As they walked in the moonlight, Iphis' stride grew longer than usual. Her face lost its fair complexion, her hair grew shorter and her features sharpened and her strength increased. She moved with more energy than she had as a woman, for Lo! She was a man.

Hearts overflowing with happiness, Iphis and Ianthe carried their gifts to the temple, confident and unafraid. Iphis set up an inscription with this verse:

The tributes Iphis promised, as a maid,
By Iphis, now a man, are duly paid.

Not just Io, but Venus, Juno, and Hymen too looked on with rejoicing, sending down the golden rays of dawn as a blessing upon the wedding assembly, and the man Iphis gained his own Ianthe.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Testimony, Anyone?

Today in elders quorum the instructor announced that the lesson today was about testimony. After reading excerpts from a conference talk, he announced that the elders quorum presidency had decided that they wanted to provide more opportunities to bear testimony in the quorum meeting, and did anyone particularly want to bear their testimony, right now?

Yes, someone did. I felt something, I felt that warmth. My heart started racing. I could feel my neck and face getting all flushed. But I didn't even know how to start. So I just leaned forward and stared down at my shoes.

OK. Then Brother Young (not his real name) ups the ante by saying, "You know, I've found that much of my testimony has come from when I've questioned and doubted, and then eventually, through all of that I found my testimony. I'd be really interested in hearing from somebody who's maybe struggled with some of this stuff, or doubted and then found his testimony again."

I could actually start to feel tears welling up. But I couldn't. It was just too complicated. If I said one single word, I didn't know where it would stop. It was just too damn frightening. Did I even have a right to speak in elders quorum? I mean, I've participated in quorum class discussions before, but this was far too sacred, too holy, too frickin' scary to take a risk opening up this way if I'm not even sure I'm allowed to talk. So I just continued to get to be really good friends with the tops of my shoes.

And all this time, the Spirit is just welling up in me. What would I say, if I could say something?

I left the church over twenty years ago after almost killing myself. And in those twenty years, I've doubted everything, the whole ball of wax. The Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, the Church, Jesus Christ, God, everything. Because, by the way, I'm gay. And I thought the Church hated me and so I hated the Church back. And then, damn it, the Holy Spirit clobbered me two years ago. I didn't ask for a testimony. I tried squirming out of it. I tried explaining it away. Things were so much easier and less complicated without it. But I could not deny it, and it would not let me go. And don't let's even start to talk about my intellectual doubts. But all of them, every last one in the last year and a half, have melted away in the warmth of the Spirit. And my whole life has changed because of it. Half the elders quorum still doesn't seem to know what my name is. Nobody seems to have noticed, but I've been attending here for the last year and a half because of it, because of this testimony. And I can't say any more because it's just too complicated. Because I know what they will say. If I have such a big, fat testimony, why didn't I just set my life in order and join the Church? How could I even begin to explain that to them?

I wanted to say something, but I couldn't. And these guys were raising their hands without batting an eye. No big deal for them. And mostly they were waxing intellectual about it all, even a bit jocular. And it just left me feeling isolated and lonely and completely alien.

And wonderful.

Here I was, paralyzed, feeling like some kind of freak or some kind of no good nobody. And yet, in spite of all that, the Spirit was right there, right then, right with me, reminding me that not only did I know it was all true, but I was loved and everything was OK. It didn't matter that they would never, ever understand. My whole soul, body and spirit, was just filling up with this warmth. And I was silently praying, Father, how can I feel this and not tell the truth of what I feel? Won't I lose my testimony if I don't bear it? And the Spirit was saying, "Don't worry about it. It's not the time right now."

I arrived home on the verge of tears. I didn't know whether to cry for pain and loneliness, or to cry for joy. Göran immediately saw it in my face. He said, "What's wrong?" And I couldn't tell him either. So instead, I slammed the door on my thumb. I guess that was a good way to get out of having to explain myself.

At least I can bear my testimony to you.

P.S. I asked Göran if he would come to Church with me today, and he actually thought about it for a moment. He's been really sweet lately about my involvement in the Church. No grief, no silent treatments when I go to Church lately. I guess on balance, today's been a good day.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Meeting God at Union Congregational

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Robert called me at work. He usually calls me to chat about gay studies or American history stuff, or to taunt me about being a gay Mormon, but this time he was recruiting. Help was needed at Union Congregational Church, as they were hosting a number of homeless families through a program called Families Moving Forward. They needed someone to be an "overnight host," someone to be available at the church overnight in case any problems came up for any of the families staying there. I would then also help out fixing breakfast the next morning. Robert said they were short on volunteers, and wanted to know if I could help out, and I said yes.

I arrived at the church last night around 8:30 p.m. Kids were running amok in the gymnasium. Parents were still finishing dinner. Dinner hosts were cleaning up and getting ready to leave. Somehow I had failed to get the message that I was supposed to bring my own bedding. Jo, an asthmatic, silver-haired, gregarious woman, all warmth and smiles, greeted me. She was going to be overnight host with me, and told me No Worries, there was plenty of extra bedding for me to use. Her husband Don, who enjoyed tormenting his wife with cornball jokes, and who looked like a retired cowboy with his plaid shirt, jeans, and white handlebar moustache, showed me the room where we'd be sleeping, before he headed home with the dinner crew.

One of the kids had been madly peddling a "Big Wheels" bike around the gymnasium. Suddenly he came to a stop, leaned his head on the handlebars, and fell asleep. Because it was Friday night, the kids were allowed to stay up an extra hour if they wanted, but the truth of the matter was that they'd been awake since 6:00 in the morning.

Jo and I were up late talking about my teaching at UTS in the spring, the writings of Karen Armstrong, the homeless families staying at the church, and the movie Sicko. We finally turned in around midnight. We were up again at 6:30 this morning to prepare breakfast -- scrambled eggs, pancakes, sausage, and bacon. At eight o'clock I made the rounds, knocking on doors to wake up the families, so they could get up, get ready, and eat in time to be on the bus to the FMF Center by nine o'clock. One of the mothers was worried. Her baby had a fever of 100.2. There was nothing we could do. They would have to take care of her at the Center.

But despite that slightly worrisome situation, folks were generally cheery. There was some good-natured joking over breakfast. One young father had to lure a straying toddler back to her chair with a bottle. He dangled the bottle in front of her, and she reached out for it, and then he pulled it away, making her follow. "Don't!" shouts an older sister gleefully, "It's a trap!"

"The old baby bottle trap," I smiled, "Babies can't resist it."

"Nope," the sister grinned back.

By nine o'clock they were gone, and I was helping Jo and husband Don (who'd returned to help out with breakfast) clear off the tables, wash dishes, and sweep bits of sausage and egg off the floor. Soon it was time for me to leave. I was heading off to the flesh pots of the Minnesota State Fair to meet Göran and our friend Jonathan. Jo actually got a little bit emotional. She gave me a big hug and hoped I'd be back, and wanted my phone number so we could talk in the meantime.

At the State Fair, Göran, Jonathan and I gorged on cheese curds, Aussie battered potatoes, roasted corn on the cob, and malted milk shakes, while wandering in and out of crop art displays, the birthing barn (where you could see live animals actually giving birth), and past sculptures of rural Minnesota girls carved in butter. Despite that and all the other sensory gluttony of the Fair (including lots of buff, tan, blond Minnesota boys wandering around in tank tops or without shirts), last night and this morning at Union Congregational kept coming back to me. The most profound moment was a little bit after 7:00 a.m., while I was scrambling eggs and peering out the window, up at a gorgeous, clear blue and pink sunrise, and a feeling of perfect calm came over me. All of my own worries and struggles, my own fearful "working out my own salvation," made a different kind of sense here. My own problems and frustrations looked so much smaller and more petty in this place. Here the gospel made more sense, the Spirit was present without me even trying to feel it. If I wanted forgiveness of my sins, I realized, here they were forgiven.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Clarification

There is something I feel it very important to make as clear as possible, so no one misunderstands me. So no one speculates or makes unwarranted statements about something I feel should be crystal clear.

As, at the urging of the Spirit, I began in the fall of 2005 to attend the LDS Church again, I naturally began to wonder about my relationship with my partner. Week after week I was finding my testimony of the Church powerfully renewed, both intellectually and spiritually. And at a certain point, I began to realize that I could not be genuine in my relationship with God if, in light of the Church's teachings on homosexuality, I did not seek God's will as regards to my relationship with Göran.

I put off praying about this for some time, frankly, because I was afraid of the answer. I knew that if God told me it was necessary to leave my partner, I would then be faced with a terrible choice. I knew that once God's will on the subject was made clear to me, for me to resist it or put it off could only result in my estrangement from God. And I had found so much pure joy in my renewed relationship with God, the thought of this was too much for me to bear. So I frequently prayed, "Heavenly Father, please just help me, prepare me to receive the fullness of your will for me." That was all I had the strength to pray.

But time went on, and I began to realize that even this was disingenuous. And finally, one night, as I was riding my bicycle to a bread shop of all things, the weight of it became too much to bear and I cried out to God, "I cannot hold back! Everything I own, everything I am belongs to you. Please make your will known to me. I will do it. I will find some way to do it!"

To my amazement, the crystal clear answer that came to me through all my turmoil of soul was, "Do not leave your partner. Be faithful to him. Honor your relationship with him."

Believe it or not, I actually could not believe this answer was correct. Later that night, in the quiet of my bedroom, I prayed again. I asked again. And again, in a clear, quiet, unmistakable way the Spirit’s response was, "You are to honor your relationship with your partner, be true to him, and stay with him."

Still, I could not believe it. I began to wonder if there was something more I needed to understand about this. Perhaps the Spirit meant I was to love him spiritually or emotionally, even though the physical aspect of the relationship was wrong. Or perhaps the Spirit meant "honor your relationship with him for now." Or perhaps I had not heard correctly because I was deafened by my own desire, and perhaps this answer was the result of wishful thinking. I did not want a "wishful thinking" answer, because I knew (and still know) that wishful thinking has no power to save us, only power to damn us. So just as I had wrestled for three months with the Spirit's message to me to start going back to Church again, I now began to wrestle with this answer. I prayed about it frequently in the following weeks and months.

Finally I received a rebuke from the Spirit that went something like this. "I have given you your answer. Why won’t you accept it? Do not keep asking this question. It shows a lack of faith. You will lose the gift of my presence if you do not learn to just accept this." So I finally accepted it, and I accepted the full, unequivocal, unexpurgated answer. I am to love my partner, be faithful and true to him, honor him, and never leave him. Ever.

This is as clear to me spiritually as anything I can possibly know. It is as clear to me as my testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, that the Church is true and that all its leaders have been ordained by God to lead and guide it. I know all theses things. And I also know that in every fiber of my being, God’s creation in me is good. It is not a mistake. God’s creation in me is not flawed.

I have been a prodigal son. I have been angry. I have been blind. I have said and written many, many things I wish I could take back. I have misused God’s gift of sexuality to me and I have done many, many things that I now regret, that harmed me and that harmed others, and that I wish I had never done. I'm sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of these things. I only have the atonement to heal my life and to lift those burdens, and I can only ever be inadequately grateful for that infinite gift. The only thing I can do to make up for the wrongs I have done is to bear my testimony whenever I have a chance, to try to counteract whatever I may ever have said or done that might have caused someone else to waver or lose faith.

But there is one thing I do not now, nor never can regret, and that is the love I share with my partner. There is no aspect of that relationship, emotional, spiritual, or physical that is impure or unholy or an abomination. The only things I regret in that relationship are the things I did to detract from it or to hurt Göran. I weep sometimes to think of all the things I have done that Göran has lovingly and frankly forgiven me. I may now add to that list, the pigheadedness with which I once doubted that our relationship might be something I should honor. I humbly ask Göran's forgiveness for that, though I hope that in asking the question, I have been able to find a deeper, truer love, on a steadier foundation.

I know that some will find this contradictory. I cannot explain it. If something should ever separate me and Göran – were he to leave me, or, God forbid, should we be separated in death – I do not at the present time believe I would seek out another relationship. I would do everything I could to live my life according to the rules of the Church so I could be re-baptized. I do not claim that my life can be any sort of a rule or guide for others, if only because of all the mistakes I have made. I do not understand how my life or God's will for me personally fits into the big picture, or why I would have such a strong testimony of the gospel and of the Latter-day Church and also have such a strong witness of the goodness and importance of my relationship with my partner – even in light of what is taught about that relationship by the Church I know to be true. I do not understand. But I do not want anyone to misunderstand.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Your Old Men Shall Dream Dreams

Since January 2006, I have kept a dream journal. Some of my dreams are so powerful and make such an impression that I remember them for days or even years. Some are ephemeral and can slip away from me moments after I wake up unless I record them right away. I keep a little notebook on my nightstand, with a pen and a little night light. Since I began my dream journal, I've recorded almost 300 dreams. I've found that in writing my dreams down in a disciplined way, I have begun to notice patterns, recurring themes, characters and symbols. (Göran appears in about half of my dreams, usually just present by my side as a kind of alter ego!) I have begun to recognize a fairly consistent internal, psychic landscape. For instance, I have learned to recognize that whenever I have a dream featuring water -- swimming pools, rivers, lakes, ocean, or rainstorms -- it usually offers me some kind of insight into the nature of mortal existence as distinguished from spiritual existence. Almost every dream I record gives me some insight into my state of mind and my state of spirit, helping me to understand better the issues and struggles I'm dealing with in any given moment.

Some dreams are clearly special though, dreams that I recognize as a vehicle through which God communicates important messages to me. I have recognized some dreams as calls to repentance, some as messages of encouragement and reassurance, some as specific instructions about how to handle a particular situation in my life. The first dream I recorded in my dream journal, on January 12, 2006, was one such dream. I wrote about it in "A Gay Mormon's Testimony," in the April 2006 issue of Sunstone.

In this dream there was a great homecoming of angels. I was one of them. We were flying back to Heaven from earth. There were millions of angels, the air was thick with them. I was particularly eager to return, so I flew up faster than the rest. Most of the angels flew up in choirs, holding fraternal, light-hearted conversation as they ascended. But I was alone. Many regarded me with scorn as I flew past, and some of them were bumping me and knocking me, trying to push me back. I had been exiled through transgression, but when I arrived in Heaven, I resumed my proper place, just behind the throne of the supreme Archangel Michael. Michael was handsome and muscular, with dark hair and brilliant eyes, dressed in beautiful armor, and it stirred my heart to see him. We kissed. One elderly, white-haired woman told me that when she saw how passionately Michael and I embraced upon my return, she realized that this was my rightful place. Others were not so happy to have me back. An angel named Aktiel came and threatened me and wanted to fight me. Michael told him that I was no longer an exile, that I was now home and had received my former office back. Aktiel was angry. He and other angels mocked and harassed me, but I was determined to serve Michael with all the great passion of my love for him, and never transgress the Law of Heaven again.

That dream has been a source of strength to me ever since then. I have remembered it whenever I have encountered negative attitudes that might discourage me or turn me away from my path of faith. It has helped me to remember the importance of loyalty to the cause of Heaven, no matter what obstacles stand in the way.

Anybody else out there had any significant experiences with dreams?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Why I Love Mormon Culture

As I said in my previous post, I am ambivalent about Mormon culture. It is certainly not the reason I came back to the Church. But if there was one thing about Mormon culture that could draw me in, it is the hymns and the sacred music of the Church. Perhaps my greatest comfort in returning to Church has been the privilege of singing those hymns every Sunday.

Can culture be a vehicle through which the Spirit can work with us? The great hymns of the Church remind us that, Yes, culture can be a vehicle of the Spirit. With the presence of the Spirit, words written on a page, sung out loud in harmony with others, resonating in our ears and in our hearts, become a prayer to God, and can help unite our souls with him. And yet what is a hymn but a mere "cultural" production? The Spirit can use culture to reach us.

But then, anything can be a vehicle of the Spirit. But when the Spirit does this, the vehicle itself is always transcended. The Spirit can use culture to help us move beyond culture, into a truer relationship with God.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Why I Hate Mormon Culture

A frequent comment or attitude I've encountered in my recent faith journey is that I must have returned to the LDS Church because that is the culture I am most comfortable with. Being a polite and non-argumentative type, I usually let people say what they want to say and think what they want to think about my faith journey. But for those who care, nestling up in the bosom of Mormon culture is the last reason I can imagine for affiliating myself with the Church.

I hate Mormon culture. Mormon culture is homophobic. It is still probably quietly racist in large swaths of the Mormon populace, though great strides have been made in this area since 1978. There's a lot of right-wing arrogance that surfaces frequently in the form of attitudes that anyone who's not a Republican is probably deep down inside a testimony-lacking, godless heathen. Mormon culture is also rife with the sexist, Victorian women's pedestal mentality, despite the fact that much lip-service is paid to equality. And worst of all, there's a kind of rampant conformist mentality which amounts to casting everyone as "less-than" or as "sinner" if they don't follow a certain straight-arrow progression from baptism to priesthood to mission to temple marriage and oodles of babies.

I would, of course, be lying if I did not admit that there are some things I very much like about Mormon culture. I like that Mormons tend to be soft-spoken, honest, kind, hard-working, and generous (even the homophobic, sexist, racist ones). And Mormons place a high value on family, which I have seen at work for the good far more often than for the bad. Does the good stuff in the culture outweigh the bad? Probably not any more than the good in any culture counterbalances the bad.

You may take issue with any of the specifics of my portait of Mormon culture. Go right ahead. I'll concede every point you make. But it doesn't ultimately matter what Mormon culture is. The bottom line is, it is still culture. And if it were simply a matter of being a citizen of this or that particular culture, Mormon culture I could take or leave. It does not interest me any more than French culture, or American culture, or Catholic culture, or Jewish culture or Muslim culture or any other culture. Reconnecting with Mormon culture was certainly not my motivation when I put on a suit and tie in October 2005 and started quietly attending my local ward.

To my way of thinking, culture -- even Mormon culture -- is part and parcel of this worldly, sinful mess we are called to pack up our bags and leave when the voice of the Spirit calls to us. Culture -- even Mormon culture -- is hopelessly, fatally infected with pride and falsehood. It is ultimately an idol, used as a tool by the Prince of Lies to lull us into a false sense of security, and cut us off from God.

When we hear the voice of the Spirit, calling us out of Babylon, we must ultimately renounce culture. We become, ultimately, strangers in a strange land. We become people without a land, without a culture. We become people whose eyes have been opened to the fact that until Christ establishes his rule at the end of days, this place and all its ways are not and never can be home to us.

So take my Mormon culture, please!

Monday, August 13, 2007


My experience in Utah was amazing, powerful, and sacred. I enjoyed the sessions I attended at Sunstone, but what was most significant to me was time I was able to spend with family and friends. This included meeting new blogger friends Beck, MikeInWeHo, and Bored in Vernal. I was also delighted by a surprise meeting with my second cousin Deborah, who just showed up to hear me read my paper without telling me she was coming, and introduced herself during question and answer time! There were so many people I wanted to see and spend time with that I just couldn't in the two all-too-brief days I was in Utah.

I also got to meet my little brother Joe's fiancée Becky, and was blown away by how smart and wise and compassionate she is, and by what an amazing poet she is. She shared some of her poetry with me and made me weep. What an amazing woman she is, and what a beautiful couple she and my little brother Joe make! I can hardly wait till their wedding in October. The time I spent with Becky, with Joe, with my sister Anne, with my niece Hannah and my nephew Damon, and with my parents - who live up to the name of Latter-day Saints - was a mountain top experience. The only thing that would have made it more perfect for me would have been having Göran there with me. I missed him terribly, and the time I spent in Utah did not feel complete until I was home in Minnesota in his arms again.

This morning, I received an email from MikeInWeHo who, after attending the reading of my paper and after our various conversations between symposium sessions on Saturday, said, "Was left wondering about one thing you didn't describe: What was this spiritual experience you had two years ago at Sunstone?" This past Sunstone was powerful to me partly because it was a time for me to reflect on what has happened in my life in the two years since Sunstone 2005, where I have come and what I have learned since then. So I suppose that original experience is worth sharing here in greater detail than I have publicly before.

The spiritual experience I had at Sunstone 2005 happened while I was sitting in on a session that Lavina Fielding Anderson was giving on the new "True to the Faith" brochure. And it had nothing directly to do with the presentation itself or what Lavina was actually saying at that given moment. It's just that I was sitting there, among Latter-day Saints, thinking about the life and experience of the Church. And quite without warning, I felt the Holy Spirit's presence in a most powerful, undeniable way. If I had to try to describe it, I would say it was definitely a "burning in the bosom" kind of experience. Like all such experiences words feel terribly inadequate. But really, the thing that surprised me most about it was that, while I had had spiritual experiences in the 19 years since leaving the Church, some very significant and powerful, none matched this one in intensity. And the Spirit said to me, very clearly and undeniably and distinctly, "John, it's time to come home."

What was surprising to me about this revelation was, at the time I literally had no idea how it was possible for me to do this. And my knee jerk reaction was that it was literally impossible. I thought, "It's too late. Too much water has gone under the bridge. I can't do it because I'm gay and partnered. They don't want me. They would never have me back," etc. And then I thought, "The Spirit isn't possibly telling me I need to leave my partner, is it?" All these things were going through my mind. I started crying, both because of the beauty and the power of the experience, and because of the sense of the complete, overwhelming love of God that I felt in that moment, but also because I was angry and hurt and confused by it. I simply didn't understand how it was possible to do what I felt the Spirit was asking me to do.

Later, after the experience faded, I tried to shove it to the back of my mind. I certainly didn't tell anyone about it at the time, least of all my partner. But over the following months, it kept coming back, and the Spirit kept speaking to me, essentially just saying "Think about it!" And then finally, some time after I had returned to Minneapolis, I had another spiritual experience in which the Spirit said to me, "Just one step at a time." And by then I pretty much knew this was something I could not ignore, and I started to understand that there were steps on the road back "home" that I could take. I started by contacting Affirmation. But the step that I knew I really had to take was to start attending Church. It took a few months to get up the courage to do that, but eventually I did (some time in October 2005). And I'm essentially still on the road "home." And that sense of the Spirit's presence in my life -- the very powerful sense that I hadn't had in my 19 years away from the Church -- has continued with me ever since.

I described this experience somewhat in my Sunstone article, "A Gay Mormon's Testimony," though not in as much detail as I have here. It's very humbling for me to look back and reflect on this experience. It still overwhelms me to consider all the ramifications. Out of that journey home has evolved this ethic I've written about elsewhere of living as faithfully as I can as a Latter-day Saint, despite my present constraints (that's why, for instance, I've been living the Word of Wisdom since May 2006). This journey has included the reassurances I've received from the Spirit that I should not under any circumstances leave my partner; along with warnings that I should not be critical of Church leaders or seek ultimate answers to some of the doctrinal conundrums. It has also included my sense that I cannot make my life a rule for others. Each person needs to wrestle with the Spirit and figure out what their specific journey needs to be for themselves. I only know what I need to do for myself. I needed to just learn to accept certain problems, certain limitations, and move forward the best I could.

At Sunstone 2007, I had numerous opportunities to reflect on how powerful it has been just to let go of certain expectations, and to simply be willing to look at my life and ask God, "What next? What do I need to do to live in greater harmony with you?" Such a simple thing, when it comes down to it, and yet so totally transformative.

I am so grateful for everyone who came to hear me read my paper. I was overwhelmed by the love and kindness people expressed. I'll be warmed by the fire of that experience for some time to come.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

All God's Children (MCC)

Earlier this summer, I was invited to preach at All God's Children - Metropolitan Community Church. I was invited to do so in my capacity as a scholar of gay history, and as a recently hired adjunct teacher at United Theological Seminary. I preached at All God's Children this morning (and have posted my sermon here for those of you interested in reading it).

For those of you unfamiliar with the MCC, it is a predominantly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender denomination. And the moment I walked through the doors of that Church I felt the Spirit in a most remarkable, indescribable, powerful way. I was immediately and warmly welcomed by some of the lay ministers and worship leaders, who then quickly ushered me into the office where we briefly reviewed the order of worship. But all that time I was utterly awestruck and humbled by the impression I was receiving from the Spirit that God was very, very pleased with this Church, and that his Spirit would be poured out in abundance this morning.

This astonishing sense of the Spirit's presence was all the more remarkable to me in that the twenty-four hours or so prior to walking into this Church I had felt particularly devoid of the Spirit. Ever since reading some very condescending comments on the Millennial Star blog, I had been struggling with an almost overwhelming sense of sadness and loneliness. In the last nearly two years since I have entered into the path of seeking to live faithfully as a Latter-day Saint, I have had a growing sense of the Spirit's presence in my life, to the point that I have felt his presence as an almost constant companion. And yesterday, it was as if a light bulb had been switched off. I felt cold, dark, and alone inside, and found myself getting down on my knees several times throughout the day asking forgiveness and pleading for the Spirit to come back. I don't blame Millennial Star. My own anger at some of the comments I read was the culprit. My own anger. I am to blame. I own this. Though ironically, the topic of the blog had to do with asking whether gay and lesbian couples might be appropriately welcomed into worship in LDS Churches; and I must say that the impression I was left with was distinctly frosty and unwelcoming. And so there was some sadness and despair mixed in with the anger. Once I recognized exactly why I had lost the Spirit, I found the Spirit quietly returning and reminding me of the importance of not giving in to anger, no matter what the provocation. I have been praying prayers of gratitude since, for an all-important reminder about how the Spirit works.

But this morning, I walked into a church whose very raison-d'être is the fact that gay men and lesbians have simply been utterly unwelcome in the churches they were raised in. And if the return of the Spirit the night before had been like a light bulb turning back on in my heart, here in this church it was like floodlights shining down from Heaven. And as I stood up before the sanctuary to preach this morning and looked out over the audience into their faces, I could not but think, "Here is a congregation of people who, despite all the rejection they've experienced from those claiming to be people of faith, have stuck with God. They have turned to him in faith, and with them God is very, very pleased."

All God's Children MCC has an open communion. All are invited to partake. And the way in which they administer communion is that one person holds the communion wafers and a chalice of grape juice, and a second person takes a wafer, dips it into the chalice and then puts it into the mouth of the person receiving communion. Then he or she draws you close in an embrace, putting their arm around you, and praying with you and giving you a blessing. I don't know the name of the young man who put his arm around me and prayed with me and blessed me, but his prayer was heartfelt and filled with love and with the Spirit, and I wept. I looked around me and saw all the others coming forward to receive this reminder of Christ's love and death for each of us, and the tears continued to flow as I felt the Spirit poured out most powerfully.

After the service, I stood at the back of the sanctuary where folks came to shake my hand and thank me for the sermon. Later, I went downstairs for refreshments and to speak more with any members of the church who wished. Among those who introduced themselves to me were a couple of former Latter-day Saints.

My partner Göran was there with me, and an interracial couple came up and introduced themselves to us. When one of the lay ministers introduced me, she mentioned that Göran and I had been together for fifteen years, and this couple congratulated us. When we asked how long they had been together, they told us "Thirty-six years." They were beaming. "You learn a lot about yourself and about your loved one, staying together that long," I said. "Oh, yes," they replied, "And it takes work." We met another gay male couple there who had been together for fifty years.

One fellow who came from a very conservative Protestant tradition approached me and asked, "What is it like to be excommunicated from the Mormon Church?" When I asked him what he meant, he explained, "When I was excommunicated, afterwards they wouldn't even speak to me. I wasn't allowed to set foot in the church. If they saw me on the street, they would turn their backs on me and walk away." "The Mormons don't do that to you," I replied, with a sense of gratitude. "They actually encourage you to keep coming to church after you've been excommunicated," I said. "You're lucky," he replied.

Another fellow came up and told me how, when he was a marine, he had wanted to commit suicide. He had planned to do it by jumping into the propeller of the ship he was stationed on. He tried twice, but each time he tried, he felt someone tapping him on the shoulder. When he turned around the first time, he did not see anyone. The second time, he saw a personage of light. After that, he knew he needed to try to go on with his life. "I knew that God had some purpose for me," he said.

One older brother (one of the men who had been in a committed relationship for fifty years) said he was sorry that I had not been one of the people to administer the communion. "I so wanted to receive a blessing from you," he said.

He wanted a blessing from me. What blessing did I have to give? They were the ones who blessed me. I thank my Heavenly Father for All God's Children MCC.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

A Minnesota Lesbian Mormon Wedding

At the end of July, I attended the wedding of a lesbian couple, friends of mine. One of the women is from a devout Catholic background, but my friend, the one for whom Göran and I were in attendance, is from a devout Latter-day Saint background. I had known my friend D. for over a year and a half, since before she came out to her parents. Her father had been an institute teacher; her family a pillar of their Utah Mormon community. Coming out to them was not easy for my friend D. It had been a struggle for her parents to come to terms with their daughter's homosexuality, but now, here we were at D.'s wedding, and her parents were there too.

As the wedding ceremony began and D. and K. began processing down the aisle, all smiling and aglow, I caught a glimpse of D.'s mother wiping away a tear. It was a sight you expect at any wedding; though this was not a typical wedding. What was going through her mind, I wondered? Was it a tear of sadness, an expression of her grief that instead of marrying in the temple for time and all eternity, her daughter was settling for something far less, something at best temporary and at worst immoral? Or did she see, as I did, the genuine, heartfelt happiness that was glowing in her daughter's face? Was it a tear of happiness for the happiness of her daughter? Or was it some complex mixture of the two emotions at the same time, happiness and sadness entangled in the same moment?

I know what I was feeling in that moment. I was thinking of the fifteen years I have spent with my partner; of all the incredible, invaluable lessons I have learned from him. And I thought of how indescribably my love for him has deepened and grown in the last two years as the Spirit has opened my eyes and my heart to the golden truths of the Gospel, and as I am finally beginning to reap the rewards that only come when you've been with someone for at least fifteen years. And I realized that I do not know what this relationship is, if it qualifies to be eternal or not. In it I at least catch glimpses of something that transcends both of us, that is eternal.

Whatever those tears in the eyes of D.'s mother meant, I knew that I also saw in her eyes a love like the love of God. A love that would not let her be separated from her daughter. And that too gives me hope.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

I, John, Having Been Born of Goodly Parents

Next week I'll be traveling to Utah to present a paper at the Sunstone Symposium (part of the reason I haven't been blogging so much the last couple of weeks--too busy working on my paper). But as much as I'm looking forward to Sunstone, I think what makes me most happy is the thought of seeing my parents.

My dad is one of the most loving, patient dads I have ever known. As I was growing up, he frequently made a point of taking one-on-one time with each of us, taking us out on special Saturday afternoon outings to a ball game or to the film developing lab where he worked (my dad worked for Eastman Kodak Company his whole life). He played games with us. He had a standing challenge that if we could ever beat him at chess, he'd pay us a hundred dollars. Nope, I never got my hundred. My dad is smart! I was never so much into sports as my dad was. But the greatest love of his life was also the greatest love of mine as a youth and young adult: the Church. We both loved the Church with our whole hearts.

When I left the Church, it broke Dad's heart. Now I weep to think how much that must have hurt him. I remember one time sitting in the kitchen, shortly after I had left the Church. There was so much hurt and anger in me, and I was self-righteously venting and tearing down the Church. Dad got up and left without saying a word. Dad, I am so sorry! There are few things I wish I could take back more than that moment.

I have not come back to the Church for my parents' sake. In fact, at first I kept it a big secret from them, because I did not want to get their hopes up. And maybe also because I realized that, given my present circumstances, I could never be the kind of Mormon son they might have wanted. But just imagine the joy of the father in the parable of the prodigal son when his son came back, magnify that about a thousand times, and that's how my parents have been toward me. They did not care that I could not be a "perfect" Mormon son. The love they have shown me is beyond words.

A year ago in February, I went out to Fresno, California to join my parents in visiting my grandmother who was gravely ill at the time. And one of the mornings we were there together, my dad and I went for a walk, just the two of us. We talked about lots of things. Mostly we talked about the Gospel. We had rediscovered our great, common love. I was telling him about some books I had read recently that really gave me insight into the apostasy and the restoration. We arrived at a park and just stood there together, and then I bore my testimony to him and he bore his testimony to me, and then we hugged and wept in each other's arms. There can be no Heaven sweeter than that moment in my memory.

Mom and I struggled in our relationship too, after I left the Church. But when it came to dealing with me and my anger at the Church, Mom was always the more steady one. My teenage years were really tough -- ironically not because I was a rebellious teen. I was the opposite. My teenage trials had to do with the fact that I was so committed to the Church, which made me stand out in some rather unpopular ways in our worldly, affluent Rochester, NY suburb. It probably also had to do with the fact that I was somewhat bookish and sensitive. (My sister later told me that it was considered common knowledge in my high school that I was gay.) High school was extremely lonely and isolating for me. Mom says every day of my first year in high school I came home either crying or on the verge of tears. Mom was always there for me, comforting me and helping me through those trials, reassuring me that in the end, my goodness would pull me through and my faithfulness would all be worth it.

After I left the Church, it was Mom who most consistently reached out to me; who made the earliest overtures. Never with strings attached. Always, it became clear to me, Mom loved unconditionally. She wished I would come back to the Church, that was always obviously true. But it didn't matter if I didn't. Mom was always the same, sweet Mom.

After I came out to my parents, Mom says that, as they were driving me to the airport, she felt the presence of the Holy Spirit, filling her with a sense of perfect peace, and telling her that she had no need to fear for me, that everything would be OK. It was Mom who made it clear, when I started bringing my partner Göran home for holidays or to family reunions, that he was as much a part of the family as I was. If my dad and I had our books and our interest in intellectual pursuits in common, Göran and Mom had the kitchen in common. Every time we visit my parents, Göran is not happy unless he's been involved in some cooking project with Mom, or learned some new Finnish recipe from her.

I do not take for granted how lucky I am. So much of what is good about me, I owe to them. There is a long journey ahead for me, but if I ever get discouraged, there's one phone call I know I can always make.