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.

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