Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Our Innate Moral Sense, Part III

So what role does religious authority play in the grand scheme of things? In the first two parts of this essay, I've argued that human beings are endowed by their Creator with an innate moral sense that becomes their compass for life, the means by which we steer ourselves morally and ultimately return to God. But if we have an innate moral sense, why would we need external religious authorities and institutions? Doesn't the "Light of Christ" already give us everything we need?

The answer obviously is no. Morality has no meaning without community. This is because everything we are here to accomplish as human beings requires community both as a means and as an end. And community is impossible without organization. And organization requires leadership. And what the restored Church and the restored priesthood mean is that now this community can extend not only across time and space within this dimension, but beyond the veil and into eternity.

So if we have an innate moral sense, it should not surprise us that this moral sense naturally draws us/drives us into community, and ultimately into eternal community. So religious authorities are the crucial players, the facilitators in helping us to accomplish what we need to accomplish. If our innate moral sense is drawing us back to God, and if part of that drawing back requires that we work communally and link humanity back together as one great family, our innate moral sense cannot ultimately set us apart from community or against religious authority.

This is why one of the most important phrases uttered in fast and testimony meeting is: "I know this Church is true."

This all makes eminent sense to me at least in principle. Of course the challenges of mortality and our human flaws and imperfections -- among leaders as well as among members -- make this not so much a smoothly oiled train chugging steadily along the track toward the Empire of God, as a sailing ship that occasionally breaks a rudder, loses a sail, or runs up against hidden reefs, and that requires constant care and attention from its captain as well as all of its sailors in order to steer us all truly back into safe harbor.

Then of course, there is the principle of faith, which is spoken of much among Mohos. God chooses to work through a priesthood authority structure, and reveal certain information to those who are in positions of leadership. Part of the discipline we need to develop in this life involves acting by faith; not always knowing the answers to everything, but learning to trust those who have been called to positions of trust.

Of course, faith operates at the level of the individual relationship with God too. I have had the experience of receiving a revelation in which the Spirit prompts me to act in a certain way or do a certain thing, without telling me why. Or sometimes the Spirit has prompted me to simply wait in patience. I am required to trust that if I follow the prompting, the reason will eventually become evident. Faith develops humility, it forces us to be interdependent. Not just dependent, but interdependent, because when I receive a prompting to act, the prompter is counting on me, just as I am trusting the prompter. It is a two-way street.

And that is no less true in the communal context, when an inspired leader asks me to act in a certain way. The trust is a two-way street, and the rewards for learning humility and building trust also flow two ways between leader and follower.

So what do we do when something that a religious authority says or does or teaches or asks us to do seems to conflict with our innate moral sense? What can we do?

Note I am not speaking here about what happens when a religious teacher's instructions conflict with our hungers, desires, or even perceived needs. In that situation, the moral imperative is to follow. I am talking about conflicts between religious authority and the highest sense of self, the most authentic spiritual self. I believe this can and does happen, and it can be one of the greatest trials of one's life to figure out exactly what is happening. It's not a comfortable position to be in.

It is tempting to slip into extremes when that happens. It is tempting to utter intemperate words. But I think if we listen, if we follow the Spirit, we can maintain integrity and eventually work things through. And I trust -- the Atonement allows me to trust -- that all errors will eventually be corrected and all breaches will eventually be healed. But in the mean time, we have to struggle, sometimes in painful ambiguity.

Has the religious leader made a mistake? Is he or she getting a false revelation from God? Or has he or she failed to seek a revelation at all, simply going by his or her preconceived notions, assumptions and prejudices? Or am I wrong? Have I somehow discerned incorrectly? Have I mistaken petty desires and wants for true moral imperatives? Am I being misled? Discernment is critical, which is why I always come back to the importance of listening well.

But assuming we have done our homework -- and this is not easy -- I don't think there is any answer but that individual conscience can never be violated. It can never not demand our primary allegiance. If I do not follow my conscience, nothing else has meaning. Certainly my allegiance to the Church and Church leaders has no meaning anymore either. What meaning could such allegiance have if it does not flow from my heart, if it is not a result of my primary allegiance to conscience?

Does not the act of upholding authority contrary to conscience have a corrosive effect on one's innate moral sense? Does it not convince us that we cannot possibly know the difference between right and wrong ourselves any more? Does it not make us increasingly dependent on external authorities to become our conscience for us? Does this not, as Voltaire suggested, then prepare us for the commission of every atrocity, so long as that atrocity is sanctioned by authority?

Those who are in positions of moral authority in the Church can and do understand this. But there is also such a thing as institutional self-interest, and such a thing as institutional temptation. And probably the primary institutional temptation is the hunger for smooth running, and impatience with those who don't run smoothly.

For me, this boils down to patience. It boils down to listening to God, doing what I need to do, having patience and waiting. I trust that all truth will be manifest in the end. All truth is still unfolding. What we see is not what we get. And I believe that when God's Empire is established in its fullness, we all will be surprised by it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Our Innate Moral Sense, Part II

My understanding of the secular view of human nature is that in it we are essentially animals that have somehow mysteriously evolved a frontal lobe that permits higher reasoning functions. Our bodies are us, are all that is us. Our bodies are our sole source of feeling, reason and even what we would call spirituality.

Most religious perspectives (though different religions have different takes on this) view human nature as having at least two, but sometimes considerably more components. In the Lakota view, for example, all living things have four spirits. Regardless of the religious perspective, the point is that man is both physical and spiritual. But before discounting religious perspectives that see man's spirit as a composite of several spirits, we should remember that in the LDS perspective, human beings began as eternal intelligences, which were subsequently endowed by God with spirit bodies. We are currently endowed with mortal physical bodies, but anticipate union with immortal physical bodies. LDS scripture explains that the "spirit" and "soul" are two separate concepts, that "soul" is the spirit united with the body. Furthermore, LDS scripture reminds us that we are endowed with something called the Light of Christ, "the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed" (D&C 88:13). I count at least four components to our spiritual natures here: intelligence, spirit, soul, and the light of Christ.

Since God is endowed with a body, and our eternal selves will be too, it seems to me that our physical nature should be seen as a component of our ultimate spiritual natures, though in mortality, we are still working on that aspect of ourselves. I have a tendency to view the purpose of mortality as the process of incorporating our physical selves into our spiritual natures, of teaching our flesh to harmonize with our spiritual natures.

OK, but my point is, we have several different ways of feeling, of perceiving, of understanding. We have physical eyes and physical senses, but we have spiritual eyes and spiritual senses. We have/are "intelligences" which I assume to be different from brain synapses firing, though I believe we have a kind of intelligence that results from the connections between our brain cells. And we have that aspect which grants us access to the divine, the Light of Christ -- that aspect which, I dare say is most important. Is this not conscience? That's not a rhetorical question... Tell me if you think conscience is something different from the Light of Christ. But all of us have the Light of Christ; it is our built-in homing device. If we did not have it we would have no way of returning to God.

To reduce all feeling to mere carnality is, in my mind, the secular perspective. It fails to understand the full complexity of human nature.

My original point here was that C.S. Lewis spoke of this innate moral sense, which we cannot knowingly violate without becoming, in some sense demonic. I don't think this is out of harmony with the LDS perspective either, see for instance 2 Nephi 9:9 ("and our spirits must have become like [Satan], and we become devils..." etc.). This is built into us. We know at some level when we are going that route, without anyone having to teach us.

Now unless you are going to suggest that all homosexuals are demons (and some conservative Christians have kind of gone that route) and that our innate moral sense is so spoiled and rotten and ruined that we are incapable of judging right from wrong or knowing whether we are approaching Christ or wandering away from him, unless we are willing to take that extreme position, then shouldn't we be willing to consider as valid data the fact that so few of us feel our homosexual natures or same-sex relationships to be wrong?

I'm not speaking merely of "physical desire" or physical "feeling." I am speaking of our moral natures, our moral and spiritual feeling as well. And I'm also not speaking of the guilt or fear we might feel because we've violated an externally imposed rule that might bring upon us public or familial shame. Many gay folks struggle with that kind of guilt their whole lives. I'm speaking of the deep-down sense that comes from deep within that makes me know something is wrong. Like the feeling I got as a kid once after an afternoon of incinerating ants with a magnifying glass -- something I never did again after having that gut-wrenching feeling I had done something horrible.

I have wrestled again, again, again, and again with the question of whether the right and the moral thing for me to do would be to leave my partner. I have thought it out rationally, I have consulted my feelings, I have searched my moral sense (my conscience), I have prayed and sought spiritual guidance from God. And I know the Spirit, I know what the Spirit feels like. I feel it guiding me every day. And I can say that at every level, not only do I get no sense that my relationship with my partner is wrong in any way, but I get a very deep, very powerful sense that to leave him would be morally wrong in every way imaginable.

Now perhaps I am a ruined soul. But in my life I have known spiritual despair, I have known guilt. I have known unhappiness -- not mere physical unhappiness but the worst most desolate kind of unhappiness, the spiritual kind. And I can say that my decision to listen to the voice of reason guiding me into faithfulness in my relationship with Göran has not left me in that state. It has delivered me from it. If that is what it is to be a ruined soul, then there is no hope for me to know anything spiritually valid or meaningful. Which makes no sense for me to believe, because it would mean that the homing device God gave me doesn't work.

Again, from a secular perspective you can say, there is no Light of Christ, except what we imagine. It's all nerves and electrical impulses and hormones and whatnot. That kind of denial makes sense from a secular perspective, but not -- to me -- from a religious perspective.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Our Innate Moral Sense

I recently read a post by Andrew (formerly known as Chedner), in which he applies a certain kind of moral logic used by C.S. Lewis to this thorny question of the rightness or wrongness of same-sex relationships.

An important part of Lewis' (and by extension Andrew's) argument is a particular notion of "natural law," in which it is argued that there are certain basics of right and wrong that all people everywhere universally perceive. One of those basics, for instance, is the notion that it is wrong to tell a lie. Each of us has an innate moral sense, which we cannot violate without serious psychological, social and spiritual consequences. We can call this our conscience. Is this not also the "Light of Christ" spoken of in Moroni 7:19, where Moroni says, "ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ"?

To what extent can and should we rely upon our innate moral sense? That sense of right and wrong that nobody needs to teach us because it is programmed into our hearts and souls? Now granted, there are psychopaths and sociopaths whose sense of right and wrong seems to be broken. Or are they? I'm not a psychiatrist, nor do I know what goes on in the soul of a sociopath. But the vast majority of us are not sociopaths.

The vast majority of us have very finely developed moral senses, grounded in the rock bottom principles of love, justice and truth. And the vast majority of gay people I know feel nothing inherently wrong either with being same-sex oriented, nor with entering into a loving, committed same-sex relationship. Even those in the Moho world who argue that same-sex relationships are wrong, do not dare to argue based on what we innately feel is right or wrong, but on the basis of the teachings of certain established ecclesiastical authorities.

Now the reason Lewis and others are interested in this concept of Natural Law is because it suggests a divine pattern reflected in human morality and sociality. Natural law is a reflection of divine law. And what happens when man-made law departs from natural or divine law? One consequence is an erosion of respect for man-made law. People recognize laws that violate our innate sense of morality as artificial and absurd, and they simply refuse to obey them, or they obey them only out of fear. And they certainly refuse to respect the authorities that maintain them. And this is arguably the reason why the vast majority of gay people have simply walked away from homophobic churches.

Now I have never argued, and never would argue, that something is right just because it feels good. And I am the first to admit that our sense of right and wrong can often become clouded; that we may need to measure what feels right and good to us against at least some external standards, and against the measures of logic and reason. But that having been said, to what extent should the moral calculus take account of the innate sense on the part of the vast majority of gay folks that there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, and that the loving, committed relationships we have established we experience as a positive moral good?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Slight Misunderstanding

A few months ago at the gym, I had an interesting conversation with an old friend, someone Göran and I became acquainted with through the Radical Faeries. It had been a long time since we had spoken with each other, so I described to him some of the spiritual experiences I had had over the last couple of years leading me to seek reconciliation with the LDS Church. After we had conversed for some time, he told me he would like to meet with me to talk more.

We exchanged phone numbers, but nothing came of it until a couple of days ago. I ran into him at the gym again, and asked him if he was still interested in meeting to talk. He said yes, so we set a date and met yesterday morning at a café close to where Göran and I live.

After exchanging pleasantries, he said, "Well, I won't waste any time. I'll just ask you the question that led me to want to meet with you in the first place. Did I understand you correctly, when you said that you felt the Spirit was guiding you to be unfaithful to your partner?"

I hope my jaw didn't drop too wide open. "I think you misheard me," I replied.

"Oh," he replied sheepishly, noting the expression of surprise on my face, "You probably said something like the opposite of that."


After a slightly awkward moment, we began to have a heart to heart conversation about what it means to listen to the Spirit, and what being faithful to my partner has to do with that. He talked about a particular decision he had made, in which he had sought God's guidance. The Spirit had told him that something particular he wanted to do was wrong, but he consciously chose to ignore the promptings and do what he wanted anyway. Since then he had been afraid to pray for guidance in the decisions he made because he didn't want the wrong answer.

"God's purpose," I explained, "is for us to be happy. He will try to guide us to do those things that will lead us to greater happiness. But he does not wish us ill if we make a different choice. He wishes us well, always wishes for us to find happiness. But the universe is structured a certain way. There is eternal law and there are eternal principles of happiness, grounded in the principles of love and freedom. And God can't change the structure of the universe for us. He can't change the fact that certain choices will make us unhappy."

I explained to him the LDS understanding of the Plan of Salvation, the Council in Heaven in which preparations were made for us to enter this physical realm, and in which Jesus Christ volunteered to sacrifice himself in order to enable us to grow with freedom, with the possibility of failure, and still with the possibility to return to God, while Lucifer proposed to force us to obey. When Lucifer was cast out, I explained, he was cast into the earth. He became "the God of this World."

"God did not force us in Heaven," I explained, "and God does not force us here. God is not waiting somewhere with a big mallet, so he can smite you the moment you do something wrong -- even when you knowingly choose the wrong. God knows that the only way for there to be true love, to be true salvation, to be true anything is for it to be freely embraced. It's Satan's plan to use force, coercion, punishment and fear to get you to do what is right."

At one point he interjected, "I take it you feel more or less constantly guided by the Spirit."

I paused for a moment, reflecting on the quality of my spiritual life. "I wish that were so," I said finally. Sometimes I am more in tune with the Spirit than others. I explained that there is always a discernment process. We always need to listen carefully, to distinguish between voices that seem like the Spirit but that are not -- that are our own internal wishful thinking, or that may come from other, more malevolent sources. "It is possible to tell the difference," I said, "but it requires us to listen well."

Well listening, I explained, required attention to one of those fundamental, eternal principles of the Universe. "We can't hear without humility," I said. I explained to him the "first principles" of the Gospel: faith and repentance. We don't have to be perfect in order to be eligible to be guided by the Spirit. But I explained that what faith and repentance mean in a nutshell is the necessity always to recognize our dependence on God. Until we accept that we are in need of guidance, and commit ourselves to follow it, we may not hear. Or, rather, we will hear only what we want to hear.

He had one more question. He wanted me to tell him about the Book of Mormon.

I gave him a synopsis. I told him about Lehi's flight before the Babylonian captivity, the building of the ship, the sailing to America. I told him about the establishment of communities in America, and the splitting into two hostile alliances, the warfare between them, the prosperity and the ensuing pride, and the struggle to preserve faith. I described Christ's appearance in the Americas, at a place called Bountiful, and his establishment of his Church there. I explained how a final series of wars led the prophet Moroni to hide the records he and his people had kept, so that they could be translated and published by Joseph Smith.

He asked the question everyone always asks: "So where are the plates? Can people see them?" I told him that after the translation was complete, Joseph returned them to the angel Moroni. "We have a few transcriptions of characters Joseph made from the plates, but that is all we have." He listened to this all without a hint of ridicule or disbelief. I summarized some of the criticisms of the Book of Mormon, some of which were difficult to answer, but told him that I accepted it as scripture, that I had read it, that the Spirit speaks to me through its pages, and that it had changed my life. I told him about the principle of continuing revelation, and our belief that there were other testaments of Christ, other scriptures waiting to come forth when we are ready to receive them.

He asked me if I had any favorite passages in the Book of Mormon, and I told him about Alma 32, that wonderful analogy of faith as a seed. I told him how remarkably that passage had described in every detail the way I've found faith unfolding in my life.

My friend said he was astonished at my description of Mormon faith. He said something about having a Book of Mormon somewhere, but never having read it. He wanted to read it now.

It's strange, but from the moment he first told me months ago he wanted to talk, I kind of knew we were going to have that conversation and knew how it would unfold. But strange how the reason for that conversation was his mishearing of a single word: "unfaithful" instead of "faithful." And I do think the Spirit was at work, but am amazed at how the Spirit works, how it can use even a slight misunderstanding.

I came away from that conversation both marveling and reflecting on my life. I know what is right, even when I don't always do it. And I continue to reflect on the art of listening, on the importance of enhancing our calm, of trusting God, of not getting distracted by others, by what they know or don't know or think they know, of not listening to the voices of judgment and condemnation. The voice of God is not there. We need to trust what we know, and do what we need to do. God has worked hard to preserve our freedom, to strengthen our conscience, to give us direct access to him and his Spirit for a reason. And if we are uncertain, we need to have patience, we need to wait, trust that the truth will out, that everything will come out in the wash, and that even though we sometimes feel alone, we never ever really are.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Anti-Semitic Capital of America

Minneapolis, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of our fair burg, was once considered the Anti-Semitic Capital of America. Right up until the mid-1940s (when national legislation was passed banning certain types of discrimination), Jews in Minneapolis could not join service clubs, athletic clubs, or automobile clubs. They were restricted from buying property in most neighborhoods. They found it hard to get employment in Minneapolis department stores, and were subject to a "glass ceiling" in those businesses that did employ them. Jews were completely excluded from Minneapolis civic boards and government.

Furthermore, in the 1930s, political anti-Semitism was the order of the day. Candidates for public office won support by denouncing the "international Jewish communist conspiracy" and applauding Adolf Hitler. More disturbingly, Minneapolis was home to the largest chapter in America of the virulently anti-Semitic "Silver Shirts," a fascist organization modeled after the "Black Shirts" in Italy and the "Brown Shirts" in Germany. William B. Riley, the pastor of First Baptist Church, one of the largest downtown churches in Minneapolis, defended the Silver Shirts, openly praised Adolf Hitler from the pulpit, published and disseminated the crack-pot theories advanced in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and forged alliances with other outspoken American anti-Semites like Roman Catholic radio hate-monger Father Charles Coughlin. His anti-Semitic diatribes were disseminated at the schools he founded, Northwestern Bible School and Northwestern Theological Seminary.

Although World War II took the wind out of the sails of the most virulent fascist sympathizers in Minnesota, there were reports in the 1990s that neo-Nazi and racist skin-head groups were making a resurgence. When I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, a "White Students Association" was formed. Its founder was a student I advised in my capacity as the History Undergraduate Advisor. He refused to speak to "non-Aryans" and I never saw him again as an advisee, once he discovered I was gay.

Most Minneapolitans like to think of themselves (and their city) as a progressive, discrimination-eschewing place, and for the most part it has become that since the 1960s. But all the same, it is disturbing how quickly those things can change with shifts in the economic and political winds.

Why do we do that? Why do we create us'es and them's? Why do we spread lies about people? Why do we like to point a finger of blame at someone, anyone, and make them the source of all our problems? Why do we convince ourselves that though hate is a vice in relation to most, it's a virtue in relation to some?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Cost of Freedom

I don't claim to understand the mechanics behind the Atonement. Better, more sanctified men and women than I have confessed not to know how it works. But like them, I know that it works. I know it is real.

From an LDS perspective, I also know that it was known from the beginning that an Atonement would be necessary. It was known from the beginning that in order for us to grow and move forward and evolve like our Heavenly Parents, something like the Atonement would be needed. It was part and parcel of the process by which we would acquire physical bodies and be separated for a time from God, to allow us to grow and mature and win our "second estate."

What I also know is what I do not believe about the nature of and reasons for the Atonement. I do not believe the Atonement was necessary to fulfill some arbitrary rule or requirement set by God. I do not believe the Atonement was necessary to appease a wrathful Father. In my mind that would somehow set Christ the Merciful at odds with God the Wrathful, when we know that they were in perfect harmony. What I do believe is that it was somehow necessary because of the way reality is structured. Because progress is not possible without sacrifice.

And that brings me to what happened in the Atonement. I prefer not to get lacrimose or morbid or sanctimonious about the suffering of Christ. It is too sacred for that. But, again with insight afforded by modern-day revelation, we understand that the nature of Christ's suffering transcended ordinary suffering. Many have been crucified. But Christ's suffering was not confined to the cross. It began in the Garden of Gethsemane and finally ended on the cross. Only he took on the sins, illnesses and infirmities of the entire human race and indeed all creation.

I don't understand it, but I understand what it says about the freedom I enjoy, the goodness of life, the benefits of mortal life and the promise of eternal life. It says there is a cost.

What's more, the true value, the true nature of that Atonement is that it renews me, renews us, and renews all of creation in a way that allows us to walk in Christ's path. To join him in the restoration of all things, if we are willing to accept the cost.

Again, modern-day revelation provides some assistance to our understanding here, particularly the principle elaborated in Section 121 of the D&C. The way of God is a way of humility. A way that takes us not above creation, but beneath it. A way that is the opposite of pride. A way that is so much at odds with the notion of setting myself up in judgment over someone else, that judging others is one of the only things that can possibly exclude me from that way.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Choices We Make

In the Mormon scheme of things, this is what the choice between right and wrong looks like:

The choice between right and wrong is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, commanded to "be fruitful and multiply," and commanded to abstain from the fruit of the tree that will allow them to fulfill that commandment. How can this be? Is God trying to make us crazy? How the hell does he expect us to follow his will by giving us these kinds of impossible commandments? Is it a Zen thing?

The choice between right and wrong is us, leaving the realms of light and truth in the presence of God, and essentially putting on these blindfolds of flesh and mortality and forgetfulness. Now remember, choosing right and wrong was never easy, not even in the presence of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, because a war was fought up there. People still chose wrong in the full light and knowledge and presence. And now we're expected to do it down here in the dark and blindfolded? What the hell!

The choice between right and wrong is us becoming cosmic grown-ups. Us learning that every action causes a reaction, every choice has consequences, effects, ramifications, that roll on away from us once we make it, out of our control, out of our reach except in that mysterious moment of choice. If we make this choice, this good will come of it, but also this evil. If we make that choice, we avoid this evil, but we lose this good. But maybe there is another good out there we can win.

How are we supposed to know, ultimately? It's enough to drive you bonkers. It does make us bonkers. We pull away from the brink of the true Choice Between Good, Between Evil that God has sent us down here to make. We devise laws and rules and strategies to convince ourselves that it's easier than it actually is. All we have to do is "X." Insert your favorite easy answer: follow the prophet, eat nothing but meat, eat NO meat, clear yourself of Body Thetans, wake up every morning at 6:00 a.m., avoid gay sex!

But how can we know what to do?

That's what we're here to learn. That's what mortality is for, that's why we're test-driving these bodies that wither up and die after about 80 - 100 years. That's why teaching us in the classroom of pre-mortality wasn't enough. We needed hands-on experience, where we could get good and dirty, make lots of mistakes first hand, learn up close and personal exactly what making choices between good, between evil is really all about, see for ourselves that it ain't so easy after all. It takes lots of practice. That's why God is God and why we... are still children.

So feel. Feel the blood pumping in your veins. Listen to the beat of your heart. Listen to the marrow of your bones, your muscles, your fat, your kidneys, your innards. Feel what it is like to live. What makes you love. What makes you happy. Listen to the gorgeous rush of life inside you, all around you. This is what we came down to experience, so listen, pay attention. Listen to your heart.

Calm yourself. Take a deep breath. Now listen for the stillness, beyond all that rush of life, yet in it, woven into it. Listen to your spirit. Find that magical place where they intersect, where body and spirit become soul.

Listen then for that even greater stillness, beyond even that quiet place where body and spirit intersect, beyond where soul resides, yet also in it. Listen to the Divine Spirit. The Spirit of God. The Spirit that draws us into oneness with Him, with Her, with our unnumbered brothers and sisters, with the earth which is our mother, with all that is.

Now look at all the pain, anger, division, hurt, evil in the world. What do you need to do to start making healing? There's your choice between good and evil.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It's Nice to be [Heart]ed

Göran and Glen surprised me this past weekend with these cute T-shirts. It's so nice to be [heart]ed!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Home Insurance

Last night I dreamed that Göran and I arrived home from a vacation to find that the house we were living in had been broken into and vandalized by malicious thieves. They had riddled the doors and the walls with bullets, and had been so destructive that the house was literally falling to pieces. When I called the insurance company to find out if they could help us repair our home, I was informed over the phone that we had been late in our last insurance payment, which meant that, unfortunately, our house had not been covered at the time of the vandalism. We were on our own.

In an odd twist, Göran found among the ruins of a collapsed wall an old office photocopier. He opened the front of the photocopier and found an insurance policy inside, and was asking me if this might cover us.

As soon as I woke up, I knew what the photocopier represented. Yesterday during Stake Conference, our Stake President spoke about the principle of repetition, how the Lord emphasizes certain key principles in scripture by repeating certain words and phrases again and again. He drew attention to this in the Book of Mormon story of the Brother of Jared, where the phrase "tight like unto a dish" appears seven times (in Ether 2:17 and 6:7). If this phrase were not repeated enough in scripture, it was repeated multiple times by our Stake President. Elder Bednar in his talk said, "Pay attention to what your Stake President just told you!" and then proceeded to repeat it several times himself.

The phrase "tight like unto a dish" is in fact a key to understanding my dream, because in the story of the Brother of Jared it refers to the most important characteristic of the boats that carried the Jaredites safely across the ocean. The dish-like tightness of the boats was what kept the destructive ocean waters out, even when the boats were completely submerged under the waves. In my dream, our house was definitely not "tight like unto a dish." It was riddled with bullet-holes and falling apart, destroyed by thieves and vandals who had broken in from without.

The fact that an "insurance policy" appeared in my dream inside a photocopy machine was essentially a not so subtle message that I should pay attention to the message which was repeated multiple times in scripture and in the talks I heard yesterday!

What is my home insurance policy? The promise I have received numerous times through the Spirit that if I lived faithfully, obeying as many of the commandments as I could, honoring my relationship with Göran as I would honor a legally contracted marriage, I would be blessed and Göran and I and our whole family would be saved. This was a call to repentance to me, to examine those aspects of my life where I am not being as faithful as I ought, and to immediately put down a payment on my insurance policy.

I should know this from working at a law firm (where there are several photocopiers on every floor). The thing about multiple reminders is, they only do you good if you act on them before the deadline.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Visit from an Apostle

I arrived at the special session of our Stake Conference for new members, investigators and "returning members" fifteen minutes early. Still, the room appeared to be packed already. There was a phalanx of missionaries all standing at the back of the room. I found a couple of empty seats toward the back, and sat down next to a young Hispanic-looking man who was wearing a light blue floral print shirt that was open at the collar with a gold pendant.

As I often do at church, I felt oddly out of place. I wasn't a prospect for conversion or reactivation in the usual sense. I wasn't any kind of prospect to become a fine, upstanding heterosexual patriarch raising a brood of kids unto the Lord. Not even in the most optimistic Mormon scenario. It is sometimes hard for me to shake the feeling that if people knew who I was, they would put me right out. And I was wondering what I could possibly learn here.

Elder David A. Bednar and newly called member of the Quorum of the Seventy Elder Kent D. Watson arrived, and the opening hymn began. I offered a hymnal to the young man sitting next to me, and he shook his head. Then someone else offered him a hymnal, and he indicated that he wanted to look on my hymnal with me. He leaned against me, and we held the hymnal together and sang, he a little bit more hesitantly than I. And then it occured to me, perhaps he was the reason I needed to be here. Maybe he needed a friend to hold the hymn book and sing along with. And then it dawned on me that this was a room full of real people with real, very strange and different lives and different stories. We were not all stamped out of a mold for some prefabricated pattern. There was no set plan I was supposed to be following. I was just here waiting to see what happened. And, yes, I belonged, just like everybody else.

Elder Bednar first addressed the new members. He talked about how there's a difference between being converted to the doctrine, and feeling like you fit in, and he apologized for how "lousy" (his word) long-time members are about helping new-comers navigate through the maze of "bewildering" terminology and the peculiarities of Mormon culture. He wasn't trying to excuse, he told us, he was just trying to explain: the Church is a "laboratory for the faithful" in which we "experiment" on each other. And that segued into his message to those falling under the category of "returning members." Somebody once did or said something to you that made you angry, he explained, and it's not to excuse what happened. But that's because the whole purpose of this thing we call Church is for us to learn, and he encouraged us not to get discouraged by others' mistakes, not to deprive ourselves of the blessings by getting angry about what others have done.

I thought, it's not so much what was said or done to me. It's that I almost killed myself because I was in too much pain, and nothing much made sense in the context of Church any more. But I understood what he meant. We can't get discouraged by the failed experiments. We have to somehow get up and come back and keep trying.

Later, in the general session of Stake Conference, Elder Watson spoke, and at one point he made reference to "the vain repetitions of cultural Mormonism made by seasoned priesthood holders." He wasn't criticizing anybody; he was speaking about a priesthood blessing offered by a new member of the Church, who didn't talk in the cadences of stereotypical "Mormonspeak." And by then, I was beginning to get the message. That sense I had earlier from the Spirit, about how the externals that make us seem to fit in, to feel like we're a part of the crowd, like we belong, none of that matters. It's the substance, the inner truth, the reality that we are all children of God that is the purpose for our being and for our gathering together, and that qualifies us to receive the gifts that are being offered.

Over time, I have come to a deep appreciation of the wisdom and spiritual maturity of our stake president, Lewis Bautista. He spoke to us about that feeling we have so often when we are struggling alone in the storm, wondering why the Lord won't come to our aid when we feel we need him most. And the answer, he explained, is that the Lord sometimes makes us wait because of the strength we need to develop in pressing on in the struggle. That message was important enough for me to hear. But as he introduced Elder Bednar, he said, "I invite you to listen to the Holy Spirit as you hear him." And that reminded me again, that we were here, not to receive some general message based on what somebody thinks we ought to know, but to be individually taught what we each came here needing to learn.

Elder Bednar underlined his talk with a quotation from 3 Nephi 11:15, about how the multitude witnessing Christ felt his side and his hands and his feet "one by one." This is how we always come to Christ, he said: one by one. His message was about the loads we each bear, loads which the atonement of Christ does not relieve us of, but that it strengthens us to bear. Happiness, he said, is not the absence of a load, but the right load.

I needed to hear this message, and I needed the gentle calls to repentance embedded in all of the talks that day, and I needed to be reminded of all the things God has promised me. And the Spirit was there, speaking to me as well, just as President Bautista reminded us. As I heard the speakers, the Spirit was saying, "You are here because you belong here. You are one of the Saints too, and this instruction is for you too. So listen..."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Jeremiah the Traitor

A few days ago I finished re-reading the book of Jeremiah. I think the last time I read it cover to cover was over 25 years ago when I was a seventeen-year-old seminary student. Now I realize I didn't have nearly the level of spiritual sophistication to appreciate how truly radical this text is.

Jeremiah's main message to the Kingdom of Judah was: Surrender. Under siege by the Babylonian Empire, Jeremiah repeatedly warned his compatriots not to resist, not to rely on some other super-power (namely Egypt) to save them. The Babylonians were carrying out the will of God! Surrender to them, he told them, go into captivity with them and you will be saved. Resist and you will be destroyed.

As one might imagine, his message didn't go over so well with the ruling classes of Judah. Understandably, they tried to silence him by assassinating him. When that failed, they did what any country does to traitors in a time of war. They tossed him into a dungeon and threw away the key. Jeremiah was eventually liberated... by the Babylonians, who as one might expect, treated him with gratitude for his propagandistic efforts on their behalf.

What a bizarre realm, this Empire of God, where the loyalties this world demands as its due hold no sway!

Of course, if Jeremiah's contemporaries -- both Jewish and Babylonian -- saw him a fifth column for Babylon, they were mistaken. Jeremiah's prophecies also contain foreshadowing of Babylon's doom. In fact, pretty much every nation in the region was pretty much doomed. One imagines Jeremiah thumbing through a 7th-century B.C. Middle Eastern atlas, saying, "Whoop, there's a country I forgot. Yup, you're pretty much doomed too." The pattern is all too clear. Is it a kingdom of this world? Yes? Doomed.

But the messages of doom are also paired with messages of redemption. And not just for Israel and Judah, but for their enemies as well. This is the other theme that startles me. Somehow we missed the part about non-Israelites being redeemed when we read this in Sunday School and Seminary.God will "bring again the captivity" (that quaint King James way of saying "redeem from captivity") Ammon, Elam, Moab, "every man [and woman] to his [and her] heritage, his [and her] land" (Jer. 12:15). This is a theme repeated on a larger scale in Isaiah and Ezekiel: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon... all will be redeemed.

But in the meantime, until that redemption, where must our loyalties lie? Not in this world. To be a disciple of Christ we should be like the Lakota heyokas, going backwards when everyone expects us to go forward, standing on our head with our feet up in the air when everyone expects us to have our feet on the ground. We should be like the hanged man in the Tarot, or Peter crucified, executed upside down because the world can't tolerate someone who doesn't see things the way they do.

But in the grand scheme of things, it is what this world expects of us that is backwards and upside down.


Ugh, I have been so out of it.

Mohohawaii tagged me on April 3, and I'm embarrassed to admit I only just saw it now.

Here are the instructions.

1. Pick up the nearest book (at least 123 pages).
2. Turn to page 123.
3. Find the 5th sentence
4. Post the 5th sentence on your blog.
5. Tag 5 people.

Here's the sentence that results from following steps 1 - 4:

"And now I, Jacob, spake many more things unto the people of Nephi, warning them against fornication and lasciviousness, and every kind of sin, telling them the awful consequences of them."

(Sorry folks, the nearest book to me when I read this was the Book of Mormon.)

Seems rather timely, given recent events in Texas, since this verse comes from the one text in the Book of Mormon explicitly commenting on polygamy. And, yes, the Book of Mormon condemns it. See especially Jacob 2:24-26.

Having said that, I should also confess for the record that I, like BIV, sympathize with the women and children from the YFZ Compound.

Knight of Nothing, GeistX, BIV, L & Chedner, consider yourselves tagged.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Stake Conference

Some time in mid-March I received an email from a friend of mine letting me know that at our up-coming Stake Conference (which is this Sunday), Elder David A. Bednar would be holding a special session for "new members, investigators and recently reactivated." She thought I might be interested.

I know this is nothing special for those of you who live in Utah and see general authorities all the time (sometimes in your home wards), but I can count on one hand the number of times I've attended a meeting with the live presence of one of the Quorum of the Twelve. For those of us living in the "mission field" this is a big deal.

For me this is a big deal.

I replied to my friend that I was really interested, but intimidated at the same time, since technically I'm still an excommunicated member, not a "reactivated" member or even really an investigator, am I? I wasn't sure it was appropriate for me to go. Still, this weighed heavily on my heart, and the more I thought and prayed about it, the more I felt I needed to go, if it were at all possible.

Two days ago, I received a letter in the mail from our bishopric. The letter contained a schedule of Stake Conference events, and another blurb about the special session, but this time using the phrase "returning" members. I suppose that includes me? Our bishopric knows my status. They sent me the letter...

My friend had previously offered me a ride to Stake Conference, but she's not planning to be there early enough for the "returning" members session with Elder Bednar. Since the Stake Center is in the burbs, I have rented a car for the occasion, and plan to be there bright and early.

I'm still not entirely sure why I feel compelled to do this. I'm not sure how significant this will be in my overall spiritual journey. But it feels important to me right now, and I ask for your prayers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Root of All Faith

I got caught in the oldest faith trap in the book.

It happens, I guess, when I get too busy. Or I let the busy-ness of "life" swallow me up. When that happens, typically I fall back to the externals, to the routines, to the things I do. I get on my knees every morning and speak words. But is it really prayer? I open my scriptures and read, but are the words really getting past the jumble of my mind and into my heart? I go to church. I go to work. It all becomes part of a physical routine. Which isn't all bad in itself, I suppose. It provides some order and structure that gives us a kind of peace. But it's a worldly peace. The kind of peace that easily fragments into gnawing discontent, anxiety, frustration.

When I fall into that mode of being, it's funny what happens to sex. Sex becomes this hungry, crazy thing that takes on a life of its own. And I'm trying desperately to check it, manage it, keep it from taking me places I know I shouldn't go. But that's emblematic of my whole life at that point. The routines, the rules, the guides should be a reflection of what's in your heart. If your heart isn't there, the routines, the rules and the guides start to become burdens and agony.

And it's funny what happens to my family life too. I started to notice a level of frustration in Göran. A few months back, it seemed he had come to a place of acceptance in relation to my involvement with the LDS Church, and in relation to my efforts to practice LDS faith (for instance, living the Word of Wisdom). Then all of a sudden he was starting to get crabby and bitter about it again. He started complaining and fussing about me wanting to go to the LDS Church, fussing because I didn't want to drink coffee. Making snide comments about Mormonism. At first I felt blind-sided. How had we back-slided? Now I realize it was symptomatic.

The thing that had been bugging me most was my growing sense, day-in and day-out, that that familiar voice of the Spirit was growing dimmer and dimmer until I almost couldn't hear it. Like Starbuck in the recent episodes of Battlestar Galactica. She spent most of the first two episodes of the new season stuck in a jail cell screaming: "We're going the wrong way!" And with each space jump, she was progressively losing her sense of how to get back in the right direction.

Here's where the faith trap comes in. Satan persuades you (or I persuade myself -- it comes to the same thing) that the reason I'm losing touch with the Spirit is because of failure to perfectly enough conform my life to those externals, to the rules, to the outward observances. Oh, that's a devilish trap, wherever it comes from!

In my case, it starts turning into a nagging sense that I am fundamentally flawed because of my homosexuality. That maybe everybody who says I should ditch my partner and live a life of celibacy are right, that until I do that I'm doomed to lose the Spirit. I need to follow the rules more perfectly! Yes that will get me back on track! Those nagging doubts turn into fear, then anguish. And yet, I'm trying harder and harder to follow rules and it's getting me more lost, not less.

And then there came for me a moment of anguish where I was starting to feel burdened and lonely to the breaking point. A Sunday afternoon I told Göran and Glen I needed to go for a walk. Alone. I went off down to nearby Powderhorn Park and started just walking down the hill, past the trees, down by the lake. "Please just help me!" I cried. I wept. I kept walking and weeping. "What is wrong with me?"

And it was that moment of desperation when I felt the Spirit powerfully returning, saying, "All you had to do was ask. All you had to do was listen."

Then I remembered. Then it all came back to me.

Since that I have had to make a practice of listening again. It has involved breaking some rules. Ignoring some routines. Doing stuff I'm not supposed to do. (Yup, I skipped church for a couple of Sundays.) Stopping my worrying about what will happen if.... Not letting the voice of fear and loneliness and anxiousness take over. Focusing on taking the time for what is substantive, for what feeds me spiritually. But mostly, finding the courage to just listen again, just trust God. Trust that God is guiding my life and will help me, even when I can't seem to keep everything in control.

My course is coming soon to a close. This Thursday we are discussing Catholicism, and the experience of Christian immigrants to the U.S. The following week Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the experience of non-Christian immigrants to the U.S. Then Protestant Liberalism. Then Fundamentalism. Then the Final Exam. And then I'm done, until a future semester.

As I was reflecting on what I've learned -- from the course, from my life in these past weeks -- I was thinking about the vast panorama of religion that I've taught. And I thought, as diverse as all the religions we've explored are, there's a common root. It's revelation. You can almost look at the history of every faith in terms of that initial divine blast of inspiration, that initial dramatic confrontation with the divine that shatters all reality and ushers in a completely different way of understanding the world. And then from that moment on, the history of that faith becomes a history of putting distance between oneself and the all-consuming purity and life-shattering power of that revelation. It's about trying to circumscribe, systematize, routinize, iconize. Everything we call religion turns into the tension between those two things: the true, unbounded, unmediated living experience of God -- the Revelation -- and our very human, very worldly desire to be in control. Fundamentalism and Liberalism are two different rationalizations, two different ways to convince ourselves that we're not lost, when we really are. The former is a rules-bound, legalistic angry way, the latter is a rationalistic, touchy-feely, gregarious way. But they're both rationalizations.

The root of all faith is to listen. To listen to God, wherever it leads us. Even when it blasts all of our expectations and breaks all of our rules.