Monday, January 28, 2008

Responding to Counsels of Despair

I met Paul Capetz almost twenty years ago at a regional gathering of gay Evangelical Christians in Wisconsin. Paul and I were immediately drawn to each other, and had numerous long conversations about our respective journeys. He had had a boyhood crush on a Mormon schoolmate, and was fascinated to hear about my journey (at that point) out of Mormonism.

Paul and I have renewed our friendship in recent years. He was an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), but resigned when that denomination promulgated a rule requiring gay ordained ministers to be celibate for life. Paul was (and is) celibate in practice, since he has not found a committed relationship yet, and he upholds the principle of chastity in singleness and fidelity within a committed relationship. However, Paul objected on theological grounds to the rule as it currently stands.

Recently, there was a slight change in the rules governing ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church, that allows ministers to express disagreement (or "scruples") with something in the church's constitution. Paul felt that if he could declare a personal "departure" from the rule requiring celibacy, he could, in good conscience, be a Presbyterian minister again.

On Saturday there was a hearing of the local Presbytery to determine if Paul could be reinstated under the present circumstances. Despite the objections of local conservatives, the Presbytery voted overwhelmingly to reinstate Paul. With Paul's permission, I felt the statement he made to the local Presbytery was worth sharing in full:

I grew up in the church. From earliest childhood through my teen-age years to young adulthood, the church provided the framework within which I came to know myself as a child of God. By the time I had entered high school, I knew that God was calling me into the ministry. In addition to the formative influences of our youth pastors, there were certain life-changing experiences at church camp each summer that crystallized the future direction of my life. I remember one campfire sermon in particular that deeply affected my sense of call. It was based on the story at the end of John’s Gospel where the risen Jesus says to Peter: “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” To which Jesus replies: “Then feed my sheep.” That night it was as though Jesus had posed the question directly to me: “Paul, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” “Then feed my sheep.” In responding affirmatively to that call, I had found the direction for my life.

For me to serve the church as an ordained minister meant dedicating my life to an alternative set of values than that which dominates our society in general. It meant to direct my heart to service of God above all else and to love my neighbor as myself. It meant to give myself entirely to God’s will for me and to seek to discern that will for me in every situation of my life. This call gave my life meaning and purpose and hope.

But in addition to this youthful sense of purpose and direction, there was an undercurrent of despair that threatened whatever meaning this call to the ministry promised to bestow. That undercurrent was the result of awakening adolescent sexuality. While the teenage years are confusing under the best of circumstances, in my case they were doubly so because what I had yet to learn about myself was that my sexual orientation did not conform to the expected norm. Moreover, there was no language or concepts even to assist me in identifying what it was that made me feel different from other kids my age. I graduated from high school in 1975 and at that time there was no public discourse about homosexuality in the media or in religion or politics. I never saw a TV show or a movie or read a book that dealt with the lives of people like me. In fact, there was nothing but a deafening silence. Indeed, I don’t recall ever having heard the word “homosexuality” uttered once during my high school years. All of which is to say that I had to come to terms with this on my own with no help from parents, teachers, friends, or the church. In this respect, the church was no different from the rest of the society around me.

While much has changed in the secular culture on this front, not much has changed in the church. In the 30 plus years since then, I have never heard a sermon that offered wisdom as to how a gay man should live his life in a faithful Christian manner. All I have heard is silence—or, when there was something other than silence, the words have been condemning. If I asked how I was to live my life in a morally responsible way as a Christian, I was told that celibacy was my only option—a life of permanent renunciation of any embodied expression of sexual desire and love. But that was nothing but a counsel of despair. I had answered the call to the ministry when I heard Jesus’ words “Feed my sheep,” but looking back upon my life I have to admit that the church has left me starving: starving for understanding, guidance, wisdom, and compassion.

Nonetheless, I did enter the ministry, even though I was internally conflicted about this decision, knowing that I was different in a way that the church condemned. When I was ordained in 1991 by the Presbytery of Chicago, I was open to serving either as a parish minister or as a professor since I had gone to graduate school after completing my professional degree for the ministry. Actually, I had gone to graduate school, not because I had planned to become a professor, but really to buy myself more time to think about what to do with my calling to the ministry in the light of the knowledge that I was harboring a deep secret. It was during that time in graduate school that I began in earnest to study the Protestant Reformation. I vividly recall reading Martin Luther’s depiction of his own despair as he struggled to live a celibate lifestyle in the monastery. I saw my situation and my own despair mirrored in his words. Once I understood why Luther, Calvin, and the other Protestant Reformers categorically rejected vows of celibacy as incompatible with what they believed was the essential tenet of Reformed faith, namely justification by faith alone, I found the key to making sense of my own plight as a gay Protestant. I realized that by requiring of gay persons like me a vow of celibacy as a condition of our moral acceptability as Christians, the contemporary Protestant church had fallen back on its own sword that had originally been used to attack what they identified as distorted in the Roman Catholic doctrine and practice of their day. Not only did I see my despair around sexuality reflected in Luther’s account of his despair about sexuality, but I found my answer in the answer Luther first propounded and which gave the Reformation its start.

For the first time in the history of Protestantism, a vow of celibacy is being required of an entire caste of persons as a condition of their suitability for leadership in the church though the original platform of the Reformation was unambiguously opposed to vows of celibacy as contrary to the nature of the gospel. In its categorical opposition to all expressions of homosexuality, the Protestant church has unintentionally found itself having to deny one of its own essential tenets, namely that vows of celibacy are wrong because they imply works-righteousness before God.

My first call was to teach Reformed theology at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, one of our Presbyterian seminaries. As soon as I had accepted this call, however, attempts were made to revoke it on the grounds that I was a gay man. Although I had never made a public statement to this effect, this event taught me a hard lesson about the church’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Even if a gay person should seek to comply with it, there are no guarantees that one’s job will be secure in the church. After one year I left Union to take the position I have occupied at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities for the past 15 years since United, unlike Union, has a non-discrimination policy with respect to gay persons. A few years after coming to United, Austin Presbyterian Seminary asked me to apply for a position on their faculty, but when I told them that I was gay the invitation was revoked. When in the year 2000 I asked to be released from the exercise of the ordained ministry it was on account of the passage of so-called “Amendment B” (G-6.0106b) that, in effect, demanded a vow of celibacy for gay officers in the church. I should clarify that G-6.0106b would not in fact be a vow of celibacy for gay people if the church recognized the validity of marriage between two men or two women. If that were the case, I would have no difficulty abiding by the standard of “chastity in singleness” and “fidelity in marriage.” But as it now stands, while the door is always open for single straight persons to get married, that door is slammed shut for gay people with the result that permanent celibacy is our only option if we would serve the church.

I stand before you today, not because the standards have changed, but because the 2006 General Assembly has recognized the right of candidates for the ministry to declare a “departure” (historically known as a “scruple”), that is, a principled moral or theological objection to something in the constitution. My departure, as I have already indicated, is that I refuse to take a vow of celibacy. For me, this refusal is the only consistent response for one who is committed to the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in our Book of Confessions. Not only do I believe that the moral position of the church on the matter of homosexuality is wrong since it is incapable of making any serious moral distinction between promiscuity and prostitution, on the one hand, and a life-long committed monogamous relation (or “marriage”) on the other hand, but I also believe that this fatally flawed moral position has had the ironic side-effect of backing the church into a theological corner where it has been forced to deny implicitly one of its own essential theological tenets.

In the final analysis, what is decided here today about my case is a relatively minor matter. What is of ultimate significance, however, is whether the Christian church will ever have anything other than a counsel of despair to offer to all those gay persons who grow up in its midst or who would gladly turn to it for spiritual and moral wisdom.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

They Shall Say No More, The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord

In those days, saith the LORD, they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the LORD: neither shall it come to mind: neither shall they remember it; neither shall they visit it; neither shall that be done any more.
--Jeremiah 3:16

This, to my mind, is a most startling verse.

Maybe not so startling, if we do not consider it in historical context. Because, of course, nowadays nobody -- neither Christian nor Jew -- focuses much cultic attention on the ark of the covenant. We do not speak of it, we do not remember it, we certainly do not visit it. This prophesy has come so literally true in our time, it is tempting to give it not a second thought.

But first consider the textual context. The first half of this chapter (vss. 1-13) is spent denouncing idolatry. The northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah are each singled out and condemned separately (vs. 8). In condemning the idolatry of Israel, Jeremiah invokes the usual scenes and props of pagan worship (e.g., "she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there played the harlot," vs. 6; "she ... committed adultery with stones and with stocks," vs. 9). But the condemnation of Judah's idolatry is a bit more subtle: "Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly, saith the LORD" (vs. 10).

In other words, Judah's idolatry consists in maintaining the forms of true devotion, but without the substance, without truly turning one's whole heart to God.

So now, reconsider this statement that "in those days ... they shall say no more, The ark of the covenant of the LORD." One of the main reasons the northern kingdom turned to pagan idolatry was because the cultic center of the worship of the true God was at the temple in Jerusalem, with the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies. With the split between the two kingdoms, the north set up rival cults to strengthen its political independence from Judah. The southern kingdom, on the other hand, had a vested interest in encouraging the temple cult. They had, let us say, less than pure political motives for maintaining the cult of Jahweh. And that cult had -- despite its purity of form -- become idolatrous. Judah is described repeatedly here as "treacherous Judah," as "playing the harlot" (vss. 7, 8, 10, & 11).

Jeremiah's statement about the ark of the covenant may be something like Isaiah's denunciations: "Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting" (Isaiah 1:13). But it is still startling, set in the context of denunciations of pagan idolatry "upon every high mountain and under every green tree." One would think that the normal response to such idolatry would be to reinforce the true worship, centered as it was in the temple, around the ark, the symbol of God's holy covenant with Israel.

But the way Jeremiah speaks of the ark is almost suggestive of an idolatrous cult focussed on the ark itself. The negatives projected into the messianic future -- "they shall say no more... neither shall it come to mind... neither remember... neither visit" -- suggest a common obsession with the ark in his own time, an obsession in which people speak of the ark, think of it, remember it, visit it. "Neither shall that be done any more," says Jeremiah.

Is it possible that we who live still in a pre-messianic time have our own cultic, idolatrous obsessions, forms of true worship that have become idolatrous because our hearts are not in the right place?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Gay / Mormon

As I've observed the Moho blogging community over time, I've noticed a tendency to bifurcate between two extremes.

Either we follow the course of straight-arrow obedience as mixed-orientation marrieds or celibates, and stay active and in good standing in the Church. Or we pursue same-sex partnerships and drift away from the Church. Most folks in the latter category, it seems, insist that they want to hold onto some form of Christian faith. But untethered from the familiar moorings of LDS faith, it seems many of us struggle to define just what that means. Some of us come to feel "burned" by faith in general and end up embracing an agnostic or secular humanistic view. Some of us find our way into some form of liberal, gay-affirming Christianity, or into more radically affirming New Age spiritualities. Many of us nurse anger and feel an enduring, vivid sense of betrayal in relation to the Church.

I've lived both those extremes. My first 23 years, I was the good Mormon boy. The following 19 years I was the angry gay ex-Mormon. The last two or so years I have tried to walk something like a middle course between these two extremes, a middle course I came to only after many years of unsuccessfully seeking spiritual fulfillment away from my LDS roots. But I don't see much evidence out there of others like me who have found affirmation both in their committed same-sex relationship and in some form of active LDS faith. Why is that?

Obviously the Church does not make a path like mine easy. To openly embrace a same-sex relationship means excommunication. For most folks, that fact alone makes the relationship between same-sex partnered individuals and the Church an open and shut case.

But in the course of my own journey with the Church, here are all the reasons why I think this is not an open and shut case:

1) If we have a testimony of the Restoration, our personal status -- in good standing or excommunicated -- doesn't change what we know. Doesn't it behoove us to make some effort to come to grips with our testimony, even when our personal circumstances make a testimony inconvenient, or when our testimonies make our personal circumstances inconvenient?

2) The LDS notion of truth includes the idea that this side of the veil our understanding is always partial. It is only natural that here we will frequently encounter contradictions between the partial truths we hold, and reality as it unfolds. Revelation is a process. Doesn't it behoove us to have patience, even when everything doesn't fit together as nicely as we would like it?

3) All LDS are in a process of growing from lesser light to greater light. As I understand Church history, we as a Church failed to live the higher Law of Consecration. So the Lord withdrew that law and gave us instead the lower Law of Tithing. Just because we can't live every law doesn't mean we should not try to live some law. Doesn't it behoove us to live what principles of the gospel we can live, in preparation for receiving more?

4) Although Church policies deny us membership, Church members genuinely love us. As a Church we are commanded to love one another unconditionally. Doesn't that offer us a context for growth? Why not take advantage of that context, and learn what our Heavenly Parents want us to learn from it?

Part of what militates against accepting a middle path is our own perfectionism. We can't believe that we are less than perfect, or we can't accept a situation that seems less than perfect. Perfectionism contributes to both extremes. We commit to celibacy or marriage, because that's what a "perfect" Mormon does. Then, when we find ourselves succumbing to loneliness or depression, we reject not just the celibacy or the marriage, but the whole belief system.

Part of what militates against accepting this kind of middle path is also, frankly, ego. Men especially in the Church tend to get validation by advancing through a series of ranks, rising in priesthood authority, privilege, and prestige. We advance from primary student to deacon, to teacher, to priest, to elder, to high priest; from baptism to priesthood to temple endowed to temple married. We receive priesthood callings with ever greater visibility and authority. Accepting the intimacy and companionship of a same-sex relationship leads to getting busted back to rank zero: non-member. If all our self-image and sense of validation has come from that external climbing of the priesthood ladder and from our place in the hierarchy, our ego can't take such a demotion. But if our self-image and sense of validation comes from service to others, regardless of rank, being stripped of priesthood status can't ultimately take anything away from us. And isn't this kind of "self-less" (i.e., "ego-less") service, with an eye single to the glory of God (i.e., not an eye to our own glory) the basis for true priesthood power? Is it possible that being expelled from the hierarchy is a blessing in disguise, if we can learn to approach it the right way?

I can't speak for anyone else. But looking at things this way certainly helps me to understand my own anger and sense of betrayal in relation to the Church over the years, as well as the powerful sense of integration, wholeness and peace I've experienced recently, once I was able to understand how this dichotomy of "perfectionist Mormon" vs. "gay rights crusader" worked in my own life.

Part of me wonders if, to look at it another way, I could ever really stop loving the Church. My anger was just the flip side of love. Once I acknowledged the love again, it opened the door to peace. I would rather live with the apparent contradictions and chaos of being a same-sex-partnered gay Mormon man with a testimony and have peace in my soul, than to live a nice consistent life outside of the Church but have a soul smoldering in anger.

I can't accept a nice, liberal Mormonism either, a Mormonism free of mystery, a nice, rational Mormonism that can't tolerate the intellectual offense of miracles like golden plates and angels, the atonement and the resurrection, eternal increase and and the star nearest the throne of God. The spiritual experiences I have had have been too powerful, too transcendent, too undeniable to frame in a nice, rationalistic, liberal framework. I know that Jesus Christ, the real, living human being who walked in Nazareth and Galilee and Jerusalem, lives today. I know that all power to accomplish the entire work of salvation -- from the creation of this Old Earth until the New Heaven and New Earth -- has been delivered into his hands. That truth is greater than the vicissitudes of my poor life. I can't judge that truth. I can only accept judgment in light of it.

At the same time, I have come to accept the parameters of my creation. I don't know how or why, but I am made in such a way that if I am to find intimacy and life companionship, I must do so with a man. I'm only human. I'm not superhuman. I can't make it through this life without a journey companion. I tried it, couldn't do it. I've found such a journey companion and I love him as deeply as I love my own soul. So I've accepted that limitation. I don't despise myself for it. I don't blame God for not making me something or somehow else. To do so would be horribly ungrateful. I'm happy for who I am. I love my partner. I love my foster son. My life is more full of joy than I ever could have imagined possible.

So for me, this middle path is the only thing that can possibly make sense.

Is there anyone else out there who thinks so? Anyone?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Body Memories

Every once in a while I experience something that triggers powerful, unexpected emotions. It could be a smell, or a sound, or a skin sensation, or the way light filters through the window shades. The feelings seem to flow up seemingly from nowhere: profound sadness, or fear, or happiness, or security, but without conscious understanding of where the feelings come from. I've heard people talk about "body memories," almost as if we retain certain memories not in our brains but at the cellular level in our muscles and guts and skin. Our bodies remember how we felt when we experienced a certain sensation; and the same sensation triggers those old feelings.

Today I was swimming at the YMCA, doing my laps. There were other guys swimming in the pool as well. I was using a stroke I don't usually use, and wanted to try to swim two-thirds of a mile in less than 25 minutes. As I pushed myself to swim harder, I was starting to feel a bit fatigued. And then suddenly I felt vulnerable and frightened and insecure and depressed.

I was trying to figure out where those feelings came from, and then I remembered swimming lessons as a little kid. I was maybe about ten when my dad used to take me and my brother to the local high school for Saturday afternoon swimming lessons.

I was nervous about having to get undressed in a public locker room in front of other kids. And our swimming lessons took place just as the high school football team was finishing its practice, so there were always older, high-school-age guys in the locker room as well. I remember sometimes, just as my brother and I were changing into our swim suits, they would be heading toward the showers, the coach in the lead, marching them all in single file as though it were some kind of military procession, except that they were completely naked. I would see their mature, muscular bodies, hair growing in places it wasn't growing on my body yet, and I would get an instant, full erection every time. I was completely mortified, and completely helpless to stop it. I was worried what my dad would think, though he never seem to pay any attention. One time I think a couple of the guys noticed, and one snarled at me: "What are you staring at?" It terrified me.

Then there were the swim lessons themselves. I never felt particularly physically adept in comparison to others. I had asthma, which was triggered by physical exertion, and then, if that wasn't bad enough, swimming face down invoked fear of drowning. One of the body memories I had this afternoon as I was feeling fatigued and pushing myself to swim faster, was memories, as a kid, of feeling like I was at the end of my rope, like I just wasn't going to make it to the end of the lap, my muscles aching, and feeling like I was suffocating and going to sink, and feeling desperate and afraid.

And then I realized what I hadn't realized as a kid: how demoralizing it had been for me, how defeated I had always felt after those swimming lessons. In the locker room I had been confronted with powerful, out-of-control longings and anxieties I felt powerless to manage; I was betrayed by my own body. And then again in the pool, being overwhelmed by physical demands that seemed beyond me; I was failed by my body.

The feelings were like a bad dream. Realizing where the feelings came from was like waking up. It dawned on me that I am an adult now, competent in every way I had once felt completely incompetent as a kid; having come to terms with my sexual feelings and found ways to manage them and channel them and find joy in them in appropriate contexts; having developed physically, and having become a strong swimmer in spite of my asthma. (I managed to surpass my goal and swam three-quarters of a mile in 25 minutes!) Those feelings of vulnerability and sadness had been dislodged by the physical sensation of swimming, and the sight of other men in the pool, and for a moment they engulfed me. And then when I remembered and understood, they were replaced by a growing, profound sense of happiness.

I'm not that frightened little boy any more.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

No Beauty that We Should Desire Him

He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
--Isaiah 53:2

I'm aware that Isaiah 53, which Christians regard as one of the clearest prophecies regarding the life and ministry Jesus Christ, is widely interpreted by Jews as a reflection on the life and mission of the Jewish nation. By the popular Jewish interpretation, this text in verse two is an acknowledgment of how Jews have historically been despised and rejected by the peoples they have interacted with.

From a Christian point of view, this is a remarkable statement when applied to Christ. Some of the Christian commentaries discuss the fact that we have no actual physical portraits of Jesus dating from the time he lived on the earth. The few textual descriptions of what Jesus looked like are considered spurious. While confessing that they have no idea what Jesus looked like, some commentators have suggested, on the strength of this messianic prophecy, that Jesus was not physically attractive.

But commentators have also made the far more intriguing suggestion that the text is not a comment on his physical appearance at all, but rather an observation that there was nothing about Jesus' outward physical appearance that revealed his inward spiritual nature. To look at Jesus was not to instantly recognize him as the Messiah. Such truths about him could only be revealed by other than "flesh and blood."

But isn't that true about everything in this world? Isn't there an outward, physical appearance to everything, that reveals nothing of the underlying spiritual truth behind all of creation? Aren't we all flesh, blood, body, with no hint on the outside of the profound spiritual nature housed within that body? Can't we all become obsessed with that outward nature, and forget the more elusive truth of our existence?

So who would recognize the spiritual nature? Who would have recognized the beauty in Christ that we should desire him?

Those who focus not on what the eyes see, the hands touch, or the ears hear, but on what we learn when the heart listens.