Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Last week I got sick. The diarrhea hit at about 4:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, and lasted through Friday night, when I was starting to get genuinely worried, since the instructions on the Imodium box say to call a doctor if symptoms last more than two days. But then things changed, like the shifting of a bad wind. The nausea departed, my energy returned, and my bowels recommenced their normal functioning. When you've been ill, nothing feels better than just good old normality. Fortunately, I knew to drink lots of water, even if I couldn't bring myself to eat much, and eventually my body recovered all by itself.

But I was still experiencing some of the symptoms of the sickness (though was on the mend) when we left on a camping trip for Blue Mounds State Park Friday morning. So I was going somewhat on faith. I felt the signs of healing in my bones, though wasn't all the way there. But I'm glad I didn't let that stop us from going on the trip we'd been planning for some months.

The prairies down there are amazing. Rolling green hills, covered with outcroppings of dark red/purple "Sioux quartzite." The unique stone ranges in color from flesh-like tan and brown colors to deep blood red and purple, and it is everywhere in that part of the country, exposed by the recession of the last glaciers. The Minnesota farmers never tried to flatten out the soil there. They just planted over the hills, sometimes even terracing. The winds never seemed to stop blowing, and the sky was always changing. The clouds were like mountains over the red cliffs.

We went to a place called "Hole-in-the-Mountain," which sort of looked exactly like its name. As if there had been a mountain there, and the gods had just come and swooped it up, leaving nothing but crumbs around the edges, little foothills to remind us of what had been there. We sat on top of those hills where we could see almost everything, while the wind rushed wildly around us. You could lean into the wind and it would hold you up. We could barely talk to each other. All we could hear was the wind.

We went to Pipestone National Monument, which was both strange and wonderful. Wonderful because the monument consists of a series of paths that wind around the rocky hills and cliffs and over streams, unveiling one beautiful vista after another. But strange because this land is considered sacred to the native Lakota, as is the stone after which the park is named -- the pipestone. When God gave it to them, he told them, "This is your flesh." At the monument, native Lakota craftsmen who have quarried and worked the sacred stone for generations were there, doing their work for tourists to watch. I thought, this is wrong. The government should give the land back to the Lakota people. If they want to let tourists come watch, then fine. But as it was, it felt strange. An intrusion into that which should not be intruded upon.

Our last day, we wandered around the cliffs at Blue Mounds, enjoying the sunshine and the warmth, and later in the day, enjoying the relief to our aching legs and feet when we could finally relax after a weekend of hiking.

Nights, Glen would start and tend the campfires while Göran and our friend Jonathan and I would take turns cooking and cleaning. Our breakfasts consisted of granola and eggs, our lunches of cashew butter and jelly sandwiches, our dinners of rough-cut veggies roasted in tin foil packets over an open fire with olive oil, herbs, and Italian-sausage-flavored pressed tofu. Much more delicious than it sounds. Memories of Glen's laughter and the sense of peace we all shared while watching a beautiful sunset will warm me for years to come.

As always, it was a time for me to slow down. To heal. To be aware of the connection between my body and the earth. To listen. To dream, and to record my dreams. To let the Spirit teach me. To be mindful of God's love, and of all our sacred destinies.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Conversations about Race, Part II

Lyndale United Church of Christ, the congregation that Göran, Glen and I attend together, is joining other United Churches of Christ congregations in on-going "conversations about race."

When Pastor Don Portwood introduced the subject on Sunday, May 11, he handed out a couple of essays. One of these was an excerpted version of Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack". The other essay was Robert Jensen's reflection on Peggy McIntosh's essay, entitled "White Privilege Shapes the U.S."

If the notion of "white privilege" is an alien concept to you (and it very likely is if you are white) I recommend you read these essays. If you can only read one, I recommend you read McIntosh's first. But both essays are relatively short, sweet and to the point, and they spell out in terms anyone can understand how and why racism still shapes all of our experience, to the detriment of all of us.

I was introduced to the concept of white privilege as a first year graduate student at the University of Minnesota. (We certainly didn't read McIntosh's essay or discuss white privilege at BYU in the 1980s. Perhaps some of you can attest whether the Lord's University has evolved since then.) So I've been intellectually aware of it (though -- nature of the beast -- paying attention to it only sporadically) for something like 20 years. But now that I re-read these essays, I'm left with the same questions I was left with 20 years ago, "So now what?" and "Where do we go from here?"

Here's the problem. As both McIntosh and Jensen point it out, you can be aware of white privilege and even deplore it. You can do all the "consciousness raising" you want. But it still doesn't make it go away. White privilege seems immune to awareness, which it constantly conspires to reduce to oblivion in any event. As a white man in a relationship with a man of African descent, I am aware of the fact that my white privilege didn't evaporate because of my relationship; nor does he gain white privilege through me. It doesn't work that way. When the two of us walk into a store or a restaurant, I am still treated differently than he is.

Yet, despite the seeming imperviousness of white privilege to individual awareness and effort, in my life I've proceeded with the assumption that in fact awareness can make a difference. My personal awareness may not put a dent in the overall system of white privilege, but it can make a difference in the relationships I am a party to and in the systems in which I have real power and influence. When I am in a room full of white faces, and I see a complexion of a different color, awareness of how white privilege operates in such a setting can help me to behave in such a way as to increase the degree to which all in that room are included and empowered. Awareness can educate my political behavior (how I vote) and economic behavior (what I consume and where I buy it). I think at root, if we didn't believe this, why would we bother to share and discuss articles like McIntosh's?

The challenge for white folks is not to rush on to the conclusion that just because you've been "educated," you're set and the problem is solved. It helps to acknowledge that even with the best conscious efforts, we will continue to act in a white supremacist manner in many unconscious ways. So reminding ourselves and continuing to study the issue -- continually striving to elevate unconscious reflex to the realm of conscious action -- is crucial. It also helps to acknowledge that we can only solve a very minuscule part of the problem as individuals. So the work will involve evaluating collective behavior and seeking to link up politically and socially on a local, regional and national scale. In other words, it may require political organization.

But my final observation is mainly theological. Our awareness of interlocking systems of oppression -- racism, sexism, homophobia, the class system, systems that privilege able-bodiedness, etc. -- has grown out of efforts by individuals to speak their personal truths. Women speaking out about sexism. Racial minorities speaking out about racism. Gays and lesbians speaking out about homophobia. Disabled people speaking out about inaccessibility. Aren't we all hungering for "accessibility" in some meaning of that word? But these are personal and individual expressions, the truth of the world seen "from the ground up."

The reality that shapes all of our individual experience to devastating effect "from the sky down" is the concentration of world imperial power in the hands of a few, who manipulate regional and global economies and who wield devastating military power. Those "powers that be" have created global heavens for the few "haves" and global hells for the "have-nots," and purgatories that keep the rest of us living in fear, thinking that our selfish clinging can prevent us being cast into "hell." Does this not resemble the demonic reign of the "powers and principalities" the Apostle Paul wrote of? Spiritual evil in high places? Can we cure any social ill until the rule of demonic powers is overthrown? So part of me feels that, while we need to be engaged with hand and heart and all we've got, nothing can be solved without opening our hearts to the Millennium, cultivating faith in and submission to the God whose method of resisting evil is to teach us how to resist it, but who has also promised to come again to save us.

For those of us caught in the gears of the machine -- whether because of our race or our sex or our sexuality or because of the configuration of our bodies -- isn't the moment of salvation when the Spirit teaches us that we have a Divine birthright that transcends the worldly systems that define us? A birthright shared by those who are fooled by the system into contributing to our oppression. Even if we cannot free ourselves of the effects of an unrighteous system, that knowledge frees us in powerful ways nevertheless. It can fill us with an empowering peace and resolve. But we can't fully enjoy that freedom if we exercise any degree of unrighteous dominion over others.

That is why I am also aware of the power of theologies that remind us how evil cannot be overcome without repentance and humility and submission to God. In the face of racism, we white folks are like camels, trying to figure out how we can fit through the needle's eye. We need help if we are going to pass.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Trading Places

Sunday I had an odd experience.

I arrived at my ward -- as I always do -- about fifteen minutes early. In other posts, I've written about running the gauntlet past Sister "Smith". In recent weeks, she has not been at Church, and she was not there last Sunday either. The second counselor in the bishopric, Brother C. was standing there, handing out programs as people walked in. As I arrived, he smiled broadly and said, "Would you mind helping out?"

"Sure," I said.

"Here," he replied, thrusting the stack of programs at me.

So I sat down next to the door, and shook hands with people, and handed programs out to them as they arrived. It was fun. I would smile, people would smile back. Little kids would eye the programs, wondering if it was OK to take one. "You want one of these?" I asked one boy with big, brown eyes, and a cowlick just like his father's. He nodded shyly, so I handed him one, and then he smiled. Ward members I knew passed by and received programs. And members I didn't know, but with whom I was now connecting for the first time, through a handshake, a smile, and the passing of a piece of paper.

My Sunday School teacher, Brother B. was one of the last to arrive. He always has a bit of a mischievous gleam in his eyes, and an enthusiastic smile. After he found his seat, he grinned back at me and signaled to his pew. Did I want to come sit with him and his wife? I nodded, and smiled back gratefully.

The incredible, amazing, wonderful thing about being an excommunicated gay man in a Mormon ward is you never, ever take a single thing for granted. Every connection, no matter how seemingly minor, is never insignificant. Every smile is a gift, every handshake is a gift.

It occurred to me Brother C. could just as easily have left the programs on a chair, untended. People would have just picked them up as needed. But there is something about receiving it from a real person, along with a welcoming greeting.

I wondered about Sister "Smith." I hope she's OK. I thought how odd it was that I had now traded places with her.

Strange, I thought, that I should be welcoming people to the LDS Church.

I know to some of you I sound pathetic. But I know that the Restored Gospel is true. And the way I see it, this is just a role I have to play, necessitated by this time, this place, these circumstances. It does not prevent me from learning what my Heavenly Parents sent me here to learn, nor from becoming what my Heavenly Parents sent me here to become. What you see is not all of me.

I'd rather have it this way. I'd rather know every minute how significant these relationships, these gifts, and these opportunities for service are. Because it is in the moments when we appreciate most that the Spirit speaks to us most clearly.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Same-Sex Marriage: Does the State Have Divinely Recognized Power?

With the recent news from the Golden State, Göran and I have begun discussing plans to Go West. We held our own non-state-recognized wedding ceremony in August 1995, an event attended by our immediate (and extended) family, friends and community. In our hearts, that will always be our true wedding anniversary. But the California Supreme Court ruling opens up the possibility of tying the knot in some way that also carries some legal recognition.

I believe that the state DOMA ("Defense of Marriage Act") laws are unconstitutional, and a violation of the "good faith" clause of the Constitution. Mitt Romney stemmed the tide of challenges to DOMA laws by invoking an old Massachusetts law used to prevent inter-racial marriage by out-of-state couples. But California has no such discriminatory statutes on its books. Non-Californian same-sex couples will get married there and will take up residence in their DOMA states, and eventually some DOMA law somewhere will be challenged. And when it is ruled unconstitutional, Göran and I won't have to scratch and fight to get all of the hundreds of legal protections that come with marriage. That's my thinking any hoo.

But for me there is something deeper at work here than just getting temporal legal protections for our relationship. When I first came out to my bishop a couple of years ago, the first question out of his mouth was, "Are you and your partner legally married?" To him, it seemed to matter. The fact that religious conservatives throughout the country have been working overtime to block same-sex marriage seems -- to me -- to indicate that in their minds it also matters. State-sanctioned, legal marriage makes a difference in our minds and hearts, not just to tax and estate accountants.

By legally tying the knot in California, will Göran and I be saying that we are full and equal citizens and have a right to be recognized as full and equal alongside everyone else?

Yes, that's part of it.

But for me it is also a statement about our commitment to good order. Our commitment to aligning our personal lives with our larger family life with our community life with our national political life with the order of Divine love that is supposed to rule (but does not yet in fact perfectly rule) the entire Cosmos. In my reading of scripture, the state is supposed to have a divine mandate, though it does not yet perfectly reflect this. And I'm pretty sure that this is why, when push comes to shove, the whole gay marriage debate has become so contentious. Because some folks say we gay people have a rightful place in that Divine Order, and others say we are a cosmic mistake that will be corrected in the next life and that such mistakes are not recognized by God and should not be recognized by law.

But deep in my heart, I know that is wrong. Our love is real. It is a growing, nurturing, powerful thing that has produced good, for us individually, for us as a couple and for our foster son, for our larger extended families, and for the community and nation we are members of. We have been and are blessed by God in our relationship, and no political sniping nor religious right slogans or coups can ultimately take away the power of our love nor the dignity of our persons.

So we're planning a trip to California.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Being the Parent of a Protester

Our son Glen is officially an activist.

His school recently fired all of its instructors and then required them to reapply for their positions. Of course, not everyone was rehired. This move was euphemistically called "Fresh Start." Glen's school and one other school in the district were affected. The move was, of course, controversial. The district claimed it was all about improving quality, paying attention to standards, etc. But obviously such measures have an impact on overall student and teacher morale, which factors into quality. Teachers accused the administration of not understanding the realities on the ground that contribute to (or detract from) a quality education. The usual kind of bickering in this era of endless tax cuts and cut-backs.

A number of beloved teachers were in the number who weren't rehired. And when the news came out, students at Glen's school organized a protest. It was unclear to me where the initiative for the protest came from, whether from the students or the teachers. The teachers certainly didn't discourage it.

The protest took the form of a school walk out. Glen told us about the protest in advance. The plan for the protest was for students to leave the building after the first hour and to gather peacefully on the lawn of the school. Some carried signs with the names of teachers who were being fired. We were told the protest would last two hours.

Glen told us in advance more in the form of a warning that he was doing this, than in the form of an asking for permission. Of course we supported him fully in his decision to participate. I personally am undecided as to the merit of the "Fresh Start." It may or may not have a positive impact on educational standards. But I am 100% supportive of our foster son beginning to exercise the kind of moral responsibility required to live in a democratic society. If he felt that the "Fresh Start" was wrong, he had a responsibility to do something about it, and we supported him.

The day of the protest, apparently a minority of students decided that a two-hour walk-out was not long enough and decided to skip school for the rest of the day. Apparently a majority of this minority happened to be seniors. Though Glen is a sophomore, he and a few others in his class decided to participate in the extended walk out.

Göran and I were, frankly, less than 100% pleased about this. We felt that the originally planned two-hour walk-out was more than enough to send a message to the administration. As important as protesting for a just cause is, education is also important. We wondered if the motives of those who skipped the rest of the day were less than pure -- playing hooky in the name of social justice. When we questioned Glen about it, he made it clear that those who participated in the two-hours-only protest were mere protesters of convenience, who participated just to go along with their friends. The real protesters, the ones who really believed in the cause were the ones who stayed out all day.

Welcome to the real world, where motives are seldom pure, where appearances can be deceiving, and where actions taken to effect a particular goal have effects other than those intended. Being a veteran of numerous activist causes, I understand where Glen is coming from. It's strange though, being a parent and having a whole different set of emotions that are all wrapped up in what I think might be best for him. I now have much more empathy with my parents!

But my gut instinct is to give him the benefit of at doubt, to accept that his decisions won't necessarily be perfect, but that they are his decisions to make, and that he needs to start learning to make them now, while there's squidge room for failure, so that he can hopefully be better at making them later when there's less squidge.

Freedom is a precious and precarious gift.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Should I Turn in my Eagle Scout Badge?

Yesterday I got a little postcard in the mail that stirred up surprising emotions for me.

It was a postcard from the National Eagle Scout Association. At the top of the card it said, "Dear Eagle Scout John D. Wrathall," my old name. My pre-marriage name. (Göran and I gave each other the name "Gustav-Wrathall" at our wedding ceremony in 1995.)

The card informed me that the NESA was compiling an "Eagle Scout Roll of Honor," and I should call a certain 800 number to ensure the accuracy of my record.

Of course, the Boy Scouts of America has a policy that excludes "avowed homosexuals" from its ranks -- both leaders and scouts.

At the time that I was coming to terms with my gayness, it occasionally occurred to me that my being gay might be considered incompatible with my being an Eagle Scout. But at the time, I had other things to do than sort all that out. I guess in practice I've lived a sort of "Don't ask, don't tell" policy with the scouts. I sort of figured if somebody in the scouting organization knew that I was gay, they might strip me of my rank. But I didn't feel the need to draw attention to the fact.

There was a time when I felt great anger about the BSA policy. But I no longer harbor any ill feelings against the BSA. In my ward, when I've been asked if I would contribute financially to scouting, I have gladly opened my wallet. I am proud of the fact that I achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. I am grateful for the skills I learned through scouting, the most important of which, I think, was learning to relate to other young men and boys in a mature, nurturing way. Becoming an Eagle Scout was a kind of rite of passage for me. It was also closely identified in my mind with family and Church -- both of which have assumed increasing importance to me the older I get.

It is not with any pleasure that I consider the possibility of severing ties with the Boy Scouts. In a way, scouting helped impress upon me the importance of virtues like honesty, integrity, and respect for sexuality, all of which were key values in my coming out process, and in my decision to enter into a committed relationship and to seek to honor that relationship.

Nevertheless, by means of this little postcard, I am being asked to stand up and be counted. I'm not sure I ought to live with "Don't ask, don't tell" any more.

In typical fashion, the postcard asks us to respond within seven days. You're either an Eagle Scout, and proud of that fact, or you're not.

I feel I ought to write a letter to the Boy Scouts of America, telling them what scouting means to me, and what a struggle it was to come to terms with being gay, and what it has meant to me to accept my sexuality, and to seek to build a positive life based on love and commitment to my partner. I also feel I ought, in light of the BSA's current policy on gays, to resign and turn in my badge. But I feel a great sadness about that.

But is it a grandiose and meaningless gesture? Will anyone care? Or is taking care of this piece of unfinished business the best way that I can live the scout law to be "trustworthy" and honest?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

In Case of Rapture

For Christmas, Glen gave me a copy of Left Behind, the first in a 12-volume series of novels about "the earth's last days" by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Now that my course is winding down, I've finally gotten around to reading it.

The novel is, of course, fiction. Though it is based on Tim LaHaye's understanding of the future history of the earth based on his reading of the Bible -- a reading shared by millions of Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians. In other words, in the novels LaHaye sought to write a future history which, if accurate in none of its particulars, would be accurate in its overall projections. Bible-believing Christians throughout the world expect a literal rapture, followed by a literal rise of the Anti-Christ, a literal formation of one world government and one world religion, and a literal tribulation of the Saints who are "left behind."

I've never heard much among Latter-day Saints about the rapture. The proof texts used to support this Fundamentalist doctrine are almost all read quite differently by Latter-day Saints. We do believe something very special will happen to those faithful who are present on the earth at the time of Christ's Second Coming; I remember hearing my dad talk about being transfigured "in the twinkling of an eye." But not much talk about flying naked through the air to meet Jesus.

I can't say I hate LaHaye's book. In fact, I'd even say I like it. A lot. I'm not a big fan of using "scare tactics" to encourage people to convert. I just don't believe God works that way. In my personal experience God has not worked that way. My life has been transformed by gratitude for Christ's atonement, not by fear of God's judgment. My abhorrence for sin has grown out of an appreciation of the harm I have done myself and others because of it, not out of any sense of legalism or prudery. Legalism, fear and coercion are part of Satan's dossier, not God's.

I also have a tendency to see the world today very much under the rule of the Anti-Christ. Think we don't already have one world currency? Think we're not already ruled by violence? Have you been watching the news lately? Our obligation to resist that violence and evil is in effect now.

LaHaye's vision of the future is a tad arrogant in its assumptions about who will be saved and who will not. And perhaps also a tad arrogant in its attempt to define with more precision than scripture probably allows, an event which Christ told us was hidden even from the angels of Heaven and known only to the Father.

But what I like about the book is LaHaye's notion that now is the time to prepare for Christ's coming. Now is the time to repent. Now is the time to get real with God. And to the extent the book has prodded me to stay honest in the path, I am grateful. I may even read volume 2.

Don't get me wrong. LaHaye's God is not a God lacking in grace, mercy, or forgiveness. But he is a God limited by LaHaye's particular notions of what God has planned for us. I think it is more "doctrinally correct" to encourage a sacred openness to what will unfold, to cultivate a preparedness and a dependence on God that will enable us to respond to whatever the future brings, however God chooses to wrap up this chapter of human destiny and usher in the new.

But on the other hand, I don't think it can hurt to ask the question, What would you do if...? How would you respond?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Conversations About Race

If you think we don't need to have a "conversation about race" in America just because a black man is on the verge of receiving the Democratic Party's nomination for President, consider what he had to do to get there. He had to deny his own pastor. I have listened to what Jeremiah Wright has said about race again and again, and I still can't figure out what he's said that is false. Mind, I've listened to him in context, not just the sound bites that our infantile mass media obsess on, but what the man himself has said and continues to say.

And I'm not the only one who thinks Jeremiah is right. In a strange twist of fate, my American Religious Histories class was doing its unit on the Black Church, and reading Alfred Raboteau's Slave Religion right at the moment that the media was going ape-shit over Jeremiah's call to repentance. Yes, that's what Wright was doing, calling America to repentance. And not a soul among my mostly white students could disagree with what the man has said. Now keep in mind that I was teaching at a United Churches of Christ (UCC) Seminary, which happens to be the predominantly white denomination that Pastor Jeremiah Wright belongs to. I can't say how heartened I was to see that white future pastors of this denomination (and of other denominations -- we have Methodists, Presbyterians and Unitarians at United too) without missing a beat are standing in solidarity with a fellow pastor who happens to be black, and who is taking a beating in the media because he's dared to call America to repentance for its sins of militarism and racism.

And the denomination as a whole is standing by him as well. The UCC has called on all its member churches to take up the challenge laid down both by Jeremiah Wright and by his parishioner, Barak Obama, and to begin having an extended conversation about race. So on Sunday, at Lyndale United Church of Christ, Pastor Don Portwood asked us not to delay this conversation any longer. And when Pastor Don asked us what we thought about this, Sister Glenda Rooney had the presence of mind to remind us that there's no one conversation about race, there are conversations about race. Everyone will have their own perspectives on this all important matter, that will be uniquely based on their own personal history, age, and station in life. All deserve to be heard in the conversation. And all have a responsibility both to speak and to listen. But speak from the heart, and don't make up stuff just because you think it's what someone else wants to hear. Because above all, a conversation has to be honest.

I want to converse about race. Let's do it right here, right now, on this blog. And here's my opening salvo. First, I know enough from my own efforts to come to terms with this in my life that it is a life work to achieve the clarity of soul that makes brothers and sisters out of all of us in the truest sense. The enemy of our souls is forgetfulness, lack of consciousness, letting ourselves fall into the old, worn habits of thought and ways of being. So we owe a debt of gratitude to those who have a knack for offending us into consciousness.

My second thought is, I'm not sure that it is possible -- as Americans are wont to insist -- that a collective evil can be overcome individually. The great racist sins of this nation were all committed collectively, institutionally. Yet we act as if repenting of those sins is something we do individually. That doesn't compute for me.

My third thought is, guilt is a pre-repentance emotion. In other words, if you are white and discussions on the topic of racism arouse guilt, to me this is a sign that you are not fully committed yet to overcoming racism. Godly sorrow is closer to the range of emotions that will be helpful, along with resolve to make good and to stay on the path.

Because my fourth thought is, this is a process. Too often, white folks get fired up about racism. For a moment. And then we forget all about it. We forget that true change requires a day-in, day-out commitment. We need to commit ourselves to read something about racism every week. Commit ourselves to attend a lecture, read a book, participate in a workshop, anything on a regular basis that will over time build awareness. Accept that there are no simple answers to this problem any more than there are simple answers to any of life's great challenges. We need to commit ourselves to wrestle both individually and collectively with solutions, and when efforts fail, to commit ourselves to try something new until we find something that works.

My fifth and final thought (in this opening/continuing conversation) involves taking a larger historical perspective. There were three moments in American history when white folks and black folks came close to achieving (and yet failed to achieve) a true and lasting consensus over the issue of race in American society. The first historic moment was roughly from 1790 - 1820, during the Second Great Awakening. The second historic moment was in the aftermath of the Civil War, from roughly 1862 - 1870 or so. The third was during the Civil Rights Movement, from about 1950 to the mid-1960s. After each of these moments, white folks generally got tired and lost interest, and the country fell back into its racist slumber only to be aroused by the next crisis.

But if we look at what those three historic moments had in common, it was an emerging awareness that racism is a fundamentally spiritual problem.

In other words, we can't make this journey without God's help.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Two Religions

The cell phone was ringing at 12:45 a.m. Göran and Glen are always messing with the ring tones on my phone, and they usually pick one for me that plays a really obnoxious tune. So I was struggling to wake up while this really obnoxious tune was playing over and over again from the cell phone in my pants pocket. After fumbling around in the dark, I finally found it. By this time, the call had gone into voicemail, but I saw the name of the caller. It was my sister.

Assuming that my sister wouldn't call me at almost 1 o'clock in the morning without a really good reason, I immediately called her back.

She was a bit embarrassed at having woken me. "It's really not that important," she protested.

But it was. It was supremely important.

Have you ever had one of those dark nights of the soul? Those sleepless nights that extend into the wee hours, when the whole world is sleeping but you? And the loneliness is suffocating you, and demons are tearing your soul apart? And the loneliness and the demons are telling you that you don't matter, that nobody cares, that it's best for you to just suffer alone?

To my way of thinking, that's when you need to call someone. To my way of thinking, when someone trusts you enough to call you at one in the morning, those are the calls you need to take.

My sister needed a friend. She needed her brother. She wept when I told her that I love her and she never needs to worry about calling me whenever she needs to talk.

At one point in our conversation, she came back to a conversation we've had many times. "I just don't understand," she complained, "I just don't understand why you feel the need to go back to the Church." She reeled off the litany of hypocritical deeds, of the multitude of things Good Church People do that hurt and exclude and belie their supposed professions. She didn't need to tell me about it. I know it all too well. "How can you believe in the Church? Do you really believe in all of that?" she asked desperately.

I took a deep breath, and sighed.

"The principles of the Church are true," I said, "They are true in the deepest, most profound sense of that word."

But then I went on to explain, the best I could in my 1:30 a.m. brain stupor, that there are two religions in the world. Only two. There is the religion of surface appearances, the superficial religion that is all about ego and profession and outward observance. Which is really no religion at all. And then there is the religion which is the true path to God, a religion you can't see so clearly because it resides in invisible places, in the heart, because its most profound expression is love that doesn't draw so much attention to itself. You can't profess that religion. You can only live it. But it requires a commitment. It requires the commitment of everything you have and everything you are.

My sister is struggling. She has been struggling for a long time. But whenever we have this conversation, I always feel a sense of hope. The more bitterly a person complains about the hypocrisy of the Church, the more, I am convinced, there is a very important battle being fought in the soul. There is a truth yearning to be grasped.

Our conversation slowly wound to a close. I had to say goodbye. My alarm clock was going to go off in less than four hours.

If my sister reads this, you know I'm praying for you and love you.

And for those of you who are fighting the same fight, wrestling with demons, trying to find the truth in the darkness, I'm praying for you too.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Greatest Sin

Elsewhere I have written and spoken about the nature of my spiritual journey. It has required patience and a willingness to accept a certain level of unresolved tensions. This means not always having snappy answers to stupid questions, and just being willing to accept that, and just continuing to do what I need to do, what I know I must do, without being able to explain myself in terms that will be acceptable to everybody. But most of all it means listening very carefully to where and how the Spirit is guiding me, and following what the Spirit tells me. Prayer and listening are my life lines.

I love the Book of Mormon image of the Liahona, that miraculous compass that pointed Lehi and his family in the direction they needed to go, so long as they obeyed the commandments of the Lord. When they failed to heed the Lord, the compass stopped working. That's my life. Isn't that all of our lives?

Sometimes I do better than others. I'm a sinner. I screw up all the time. But over time I've observed that some sins, one particular sin, actually, screws up my spiritual direction sense far more than any others. And that is pride.

There's the pride of thinking I know what I need to do all by myself, which causes me to become complacent in my prayer life. How could that not mess up my direction sense? There's the pride of wanting to rationalize or justify all the other sins. Because without pride, the other sins, in themselves, are just sins, just errors that I can work on and turn around. But with pride, the other sins start to become bricks in a wall that I build between myself and the Spirit.

But there's also the pride of thinking I might somehow be better than others. My way is better. My arguments are better. My insights are better. Those things become bricks in a wall between me and you. And that cuts me off from the Spirit as well.

Life is a journey, not a fortress. It's not about building the biggest, grandest, strongest edifice of pride. It's about finding the path, finding the way, and continuing to move forward. Leaving the fortresses behind.

And it's about linking up with all the other fellow travelers, working together to find the best way, supporting each other in a journey that takes a lot out of us. It's about learning to accept the travel limitations of others; never leaving someone behind because they're limping, or because they need more time to investigate alternative routes. It's about never abandoning each other, even after we've had a big, huge argument about who should be in the traveling party and what supplies we need. I realize that some of you I have the hardest time with are the ones I need the most.

Please don't leave me behind! I promise never to leave you.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Grazie, Padre Celestial!

Lately, our foster son Glen and I have been teaching ourselves Italian, using the Rosetta Stone software. Glen has always wanted to learn Italian, and I figured the best way for him to learn it would be if Göran or I studied it with him, and spoke it with him around the house. So I am thankful for the fun that Glen and I have had learning Italian together.

I am thankful that I have survived into my mid-forties, and for the wisdom and peace that I have acquired in the process, and for fifteen, going on sixteen, years of a relationship that keeps on getting stronger.

I am thankful for daily hugs.

I am thankful for family bicycle outings, and the fun we have swimming together at the YMCA.

I am thankful for good food.

I am thankful that after nine years of anxiety and uncertainty, Göran finally has information about who his father and mother were, and is finally starting to get answers to the most perplexing questions in his life. And he has a passport!

I am thankful for scriptures. All of them! All that we have received, and all that are yet to come forth!

I am thankful to be a teacher. (And a learner.)

I am thankful that my Heavenly Father hears and answers my prayers. I am thankful that divine guidance is always as near to me as my knees are to the ground. I am thankful for the Holy Spirit, which fills my heart and my life and gives me the peace that makes everything -- even the hard stuff -- worthwhile.

I am thankful for our cats, and for the way they make us laugh!

I am thankful for May and the relenting of the cold.

I am thankful for life, for the way everything is interconnected in that divine, secret way. I am thankful for eyes periodically opened to see it.

I am thankful that the bad can only last so long, but the good will keep growing forever.

I am thankful for being, and for hope, and most of all, for love.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


Some of you who have been following my blog for a while know that for many years, my partner Göran had no information about the identity of his birth parents. He never knew his biological father, and his mother never gave him any information about her history or background. He never had a birth certificate. In addition to posing some potentially thorny legal problems, this also meant he couldn't get a passport.

Finally last summer, with the assistance of our Congressman's office, we were able to locate and obtain Göran's birth certificate. After jumping through some legal and bureaucratic hoops (including the process of amending his birth certificate to reflect his current name) he applied for a passport.

Last November, we got a communication from the Passport Office indicating potential problems with his passport application. Apparently there were questions about the amendment of his name. Göran was beginning to despair of ever being able to travel abroad.

But finally today, his passport arrived in the mail. We have been far too excited to sleep. Just up celebrating. Life is good right now.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The True Believers in Catholicity

One of the students in my class wrote his final paper on black Episcopalians in the U.S.

In his paper he described the historic commitment of American Anglicanism to the institution of slavery. He described the traditional emphasis on segregated worship and the exclusion of blacks from the ranks of the clergy. He described how, even as black Episcopalians later were admitted to the ordained clergy and as some even rose in the twentieth century to the rank of "Suffragan Bishop" (a kind of assistant bishop), they experienced intensely racist attitudes, and tended to be treated as servants and second-class citizens at best. Some white Episcopal priests and bishops openly admitted to being members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Things gradually got better in the 1960s, as the Episcopal hierarchy sought to reform church practice in response to the Civil Rights movement. But, my student wrote in his paper, despite the election of black bishops (including Barbara Harris, the first woman bishop in the Anglican communion) black Episcopalians have observed a less inclusive environment since the 1980s and 1990s, and have wondered if some of the progress in terms of racial equality since the '60s has been lost.

Historically the only way to be a black Episcopalian was to assume a posture of submissiveness and humility. Black Episcopalians were squeezed from all sides. They suffered racism from white Episcopalians. But they were also criticized and questioned by non-Episcopalian blacks, who accused them of being "Uncle Toms," who questioned their faith and thought something was wrong with them, or who suggested that the only reason they affiliated themselves with the Episcopal Church was for the selfish goals of economic networking and social advancement.

But black Episcopalians themselves insisted it was something else. It was their commitment to a quaint Episcopalian notion called "catholicity." This was the belief that Christ's Church is universal. That it embraces all believers. That the Church on earth is the visible, this-worldly, temporal manifestation of a communion that is eternal and without end, and in which all faithful have a full and equal place, regardless of the color of their skin. Their membership was a sign and a witness of this truth, and a manifestation of the love of God for all people, which black Episcopalians demonstrated unstintingly even toward their white brothers and sisters who looked down on them and discriminated against them.

When I read about this long and abysmal history of Episcopalian racism, and the fact that even the relatively few glimmers of hopefulness since the 1960s seem to have dimmed in recent years, at first I was depressed.

But as I reflected on it, that sense of depression lifted, and I considered the fact that when, in the Empire of God, future histories of the Episcopal Church in America are written, Christ and the angels and all the saints will look back on this history, and they will say, "There were Episcopalians who truly believed in catholicity. If there was ever a true Episcopal Church, these were it."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Teaching Mormonism

I've heard the same lament from so many teachers.

"Did I really say that?!?"

You teach, and your students take notes, and then they write papers telling you what you purportedly taught them. And sometimes it makes you want to cry. Are you that bad of a teacher?

Oddly (or maybe not oddly at all) the student in my class who seems to get Mormonism best is from Kenya. And perhaps the reason is because he appreciates the Joseph Smith story in a way that is unfiltered by American cultural accretions about Mormonism. He accepts the First Vision as a theophany, plain and simple, and proceeds from there. He simply takes for granted that God did indeed speak to Joseph Smith, and then draws his own conclusions about what that means. American-born students can't seem to get past the whole question of whether such a vision could even occur, whether Joseph Smith was a charlatan or maybe a bit touched in the head. There's too much dangling in the way of simply appreciating the earth-shattering reality of that encounter between human and Deity to grasp what is at the heart and soul of Mormonism.

So maybe I need to cut myself some slack, and neither entirely blame myself for the apparent teaching failures any more than I can take the least bit credit for the apparent teaching successes. But it occurs to me that if my students were truly learning Mormonism, they would be learning it in something like eight to ten one-hour sessions with a pair of young teachers from somewhere far away, wearing name-tags that identify them as Sister So-and-so or Elder Some-other. That's the only real way to learn Mormonism from the Mormon point of view, and the best I can give them is something like a testimony, something like a general feel for what my faith means to me. If they can get that much, I am happy and can hope that deeper learning will take place later.

But I wonder, as I reflect on how my students learn (not just Mormon but other kinds of) religious history, I reflect on myself as a learner as well. Myself as learner and God as teacher. And how often God must be smacking his forehead up there near Kolob and lamenting, "Did I really say that?!?"

Sometimes I think the best we can do is learn a little bit of discipline, something that gets us to taste some humility, something that gets our minds off the iniquity and pride so firmly planted in front of our faces that we can't see anything else and certainly can't see God. If only we can learn that, perhaps other kinds of learning will come along later.