Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Is Christianity Good for the World?"

I promised myself I wasn't going to read this debate between atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian apologist Douglas Wilson. I was certain that the debaters would proceed with simplistic, worn-out arguments, attempting to caricature the positions of their opponent, and that reading it would just irritate me.

But yesterday on a family outing to a bookstore at the mall, I happened upon the Christianity Today-sponsored debate, recently published (2008) in book form by Canon Press. The debate is published with a forward by Jewish agnostic Jonah Goldberg, and includes introductory statements by the respective debaters, followed by six "rounds" of response and counter-response. My curiosity piqued, I opened the book to a random page and began reading ("round 2"), telling myself that if it was as stupid as I feared, I would put it back on the shelf and be content to leave it at that. Long story short, I ended up buying the book.

The entire book took me about forty-five minutes to read. I ultimately decided that all six rounds read together were only slightly more intelligent than "round 2" standing on its own, since the debaters did have a tendency to repeat the same arguments again and again in slightly different iterations. The banter in each round about the true import of the Parable of the Good Samaritan was both mildly entertaining and grating. All the same, the central arguments were good arguments, made broadly, succinctly, and passionately. I enjoyed reading both Hitchens and Wilson, and found myself nodding in agreement with arguments made from the atheist side as well as the Christian side (though more often in agreement with the Christian). I also found myself disagreeing with points made both by the Christian as well as the atheist (though more often disagreed with the atheist). Both debaters wrote in a way that caused me to reflect more deeply on my own commitments.

The book did not leave me feeling irritated or quarrelsome, but strangely, more human. In fact, the best word to describe the debate as a whole is "humanizing." The debaters are both -- the atheist and the Christian alike -- people of passion and compassion. One is left with the sense that these are two very good people wrestling, each from their own perspective, with large questions of great interest to all human beings, and I felt generally enriched for having given each of them a thorough hearing.

The key to Wilson's argument as to why "Christianity is good for the world" is that Christianity -- in a way atheism is utterly incapable -- provides a narrative within which concepts of good and evil, right and wrong are comprehensible. Within a faith-based narrative, we may not always agree on the particulars of what is moral, but we can agree that a moral structure of the universe exists and we can critique human behavior from that perspective. Arguably, Christianity's unique contribution is to provide a narrative in which the greatest and most powerful being in the Universe does not consider himself greater than the smallest and weakest, preferring to live among us, heal our infirmities, and die for us. The loving, self-abasing God revealed in Christ doesn't sound much like the "tyrant in the sky" described by Hitchens. That God -- the God of wrath and punishment -- sounds like a plausible description of the Christian God only by those who do not know him. The category of "those who do not know the Christian God" could include many who label themselves as Christian.

Wilson's defense has much to commend it, and I find myself largely agreeing with it. All the same, coming from a Latter-day Saint perspective (and this was also my response after reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion), I am struck by the fact that A) these debates are most compelling within the framework of classic Western Christian theology, and B) that is not my theology. For instance, the power of Christopher Hitchens' argument against God depends on the notion of an autocratic Creator divinity who is the sole author and determiner of everything in existence; the sole judge of good and evil and the punisher of creations who stray from his all-encompassing will. The God Hitchens finds deplorable is the classical Judeo-Christian God in general, and the deterministic, predestinarian Calvinist God in particular. That is also the God that Wilson defends. Wilson's defense consists not of denying God's autocratic nature, but in affirming God's goodness, as manifest in the goodness of creation, and suggesting that Christian obedience is not servility, but a form of gratitude.

Wilson's defense is not a bad one, given the constraints of the theological framework within which he mounts it. Still, I found myself agreeing with Hitchens' point that the concept of human freedom is incomprehensible within the classical Western Christian narrative of an omnipotent creator deity. Just as Hitchens could not seem to answer Wilson's demands to make concepts of "good" and "evil" meaningful in a universe without God, so Wilson could not seem to answer Hitchens' demands to make concepts of human freedom meaningful in a universe with God.

Mormon theology is able to answer both demands rather elegantly. The Mormon narrative of "eternal progression" provides a framework within which good, evil, divinity and human freedom are all meaningful together. In the Mormon narrative, human intelligences (our intelligences!) are uncreated and co-eternal with God, and cannot be forced. The nature of God's divinity includes his eternal commitment to uphold and protect the sanctity of those intelligences' independence and freedom, his commitment to preserve our "free agency." The key to God's godhood is his ability literally to move the elements by persuasion, not by force. It is our ability to choose that is the root cause of pain and evil. Moral imperatives are comprehensible within the Mormon narrative as the invitation God extends us to join him in an eternally expanding creative project. We agreed to enter this realm of suffering because we accepted trial and pain as part of the cost of accepting God's invitation. Having accepted this opportunity, we are free at every moment to choose to grow with and "like" God, or to remain in the unevolved state we were in when we entered mortal existence. For Mormons, damnation is not arbitrary punishment by a wrathful God, but simply stagnation, an inability or unwillingness to grow beyond one's limitations. And, before we exercise ourselves about the Mormon notion of humans trying to make "gods" out of themselves, remember that the nature of God revealed in Christ is "suffering servanthood." He (or she) who would master the universe must be willing to be last, least, and lowest. The "will to power" seems automatically to disqualify us from godhood, if section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants is any indication.

The Mormon narrative would have the added bonus -- from the point of view of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others who share these men's love of science -- of making scientific curiosity and progress not merely good, but an imperative. For Mormons, whose God declares that "intelligence" is his glory (D&C 93:36), no scientific theories can be spurned out of hand, especially those that have proven themselves by offering ever more predictive models of the universe. Mormons can embrace science, even when it seems to contradict their theology, because godlike knowledge cannot be acquired without work, and its acquisition begins here and now. All knowledge that we gain in mortality will serve us in eternity. And the fact that the acquisition of knowledge is a process means that at this point our scientific knowledge must always be considered too incomplete and contingent to be viewed as incongruent with faith. Only the insecure will let supposed contradictions between faith and science bother them too much. In other words, not only may Mormons safely embrace the theory of the evolution of species, they already embrace a theology of the evolution of spirits.

To acknowledge that the "God problem" as argued by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens doesn't really apply in a Mormon theological context is not the same as answering all of their arguments about the "likelihood" of a theistic universe ("Occam's razor" and all that). Elsewhere I've suggested (and others have argued better than I have) that those concerns hinge on questions of evidence. That, obviously, is a slightly different debate. I.e., answering the question of whether "Christianity is good for the world" is different from answering the question of whether Christianity is true. The only thing I'll venture to offer along those lines here is my personal conviction that if God did not exist, we most certainly should not invent him, even if to do so would somehow be "good for the world." Because however good goodness is, truth is better. Though it would be hard to make the case that truth that fails to advance the human condition has moral value, except in a universe with God. In other words, only an atheist, I think, could insist on "inventing" God.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sodom or Zion? Nineveh?

One of the bitterest bones of contention in the American culture wars of the last century had to do with the question of how Jesus would come again. The premillennialists believed that the world would necessarily become more and more wicked until God broke the seals on the book of destiny and poured out devouring, purifying plagues and destruction upon the earth. The postmillennialists believed that humankind would gradually become better, until they had perfected society and made the world a suitable dwelling place for God; when Christ had gradually perfected his reign in the hearts of each inhabitant of the world, then and only then could he assume his rightful place as worldly ruler.

Polemicists of these two views of the world portrayed their opponents in the worst possible terms. Premillennialists accused postmillennialists of faithlessness and sin. Postmillennialists accused premillennialists of bigotry and willful ignorance. Churches divided over this issue. The propaganda machines spun in full gear. Hate and fear thrived, and faith... Well, the advocates of the various sides thought they had the only true faith.

The echoes of these culture wars from a century ago still resonate today, though Americans don't fight over this particular issue with the same fervor they did a hundred years ago. The "burning" issues that provide fodder for our cultural cannons are abortion and same-sex marriage. But, even though we may think we are fighting different battles, the truth is, anger, contention and war are always and ever and eternally the same. Contention just assumes different masks to keep us interested in the game.

When I read the accounts of these culture wars from the turn of the twentieth century, I am struck by a profound scriptural truth that seems relevant to the question of when and how Christ will come again. We choose.

Scripture teaches us of Sodom -- the city that became so wicked, God was compelled to wipe it and its inhabitants off the face of the planet. How did it become so wicked? Because that is the path its inhabitants chose.

Then there was the city of Enoch, called Zion, the city that became so righteous, so pure in heart, that there was no hate, no distinction. All things were had in common. And that city became so righteous, God was compelled to bring it up to Heaven, translating its inhabitants in the twinkling of an eye. How did Zion become so righteous? Because that is the path its inhabitants chose.

And I think of Nineveh. Jonah was commanded to go to Nineveh and prophesy: Because of their wickedness they would become like Sodom. They would be destroyed. But Nineveh repented! That prophecy went from a prediction of what will happen to a warning of what might have happened.

Aren't we like Nineveh? Are not both courses always before us? The course of destruction and the course of salvation? Don't we choose which way Christ will come again?

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Bondwoman and Her Son

Nothing about the story of Abraham is normal or conventional. That bears emphasizing, given the tendency in our culture to value normality and convention, and to equate deviance with sin. For one thing, on his travels through Egypt and Canaan, Abraham had this tendency to tell people that his wife Sarah was actually his sister. Sarah must have been extremely beautiful, because even at the age of 90, powerful men wanted to marry her.

The Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price actually has the Lord commanding Abraham to tell Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister, because apparently the Egyptians would have killed Abraham to steal his wife. This story never really made much sense to me, though I accept that it's possible. After all, if the Egyptians would have killed Abraham in order to steal his wife had he told them the truth, why would they suddenly have scruples about killing him once they discovered he had been lying to them? I guess Abraham wasn't lying when he said he was a stranger in a "strange" land.

After finding out that Sarah was actually Abraham's wife (in the case of Abimelech, the Lord warned him of this in a dream), both Pharaoh and Abimelech were understandably miffed at Abraham for lying to them, and subsequently asked him and his wife to please leave. This part of the story does actually make sense to me. Abimelech even made elaborate amends for the wrong he had (inadvertently almost) committed, by giving Abraham sheep, oxen and male and female slaves before sending him on his way.

Abraham excused himself to Abimelech by explaining that, in fact, he and Sarah were siblings. Half-siblings. They were children of the same father, but had different mothers (Gen. 20:12). Again, a bit creepy in the context of modern sensibilities regarding incest. But, one assumes, not unheard of in Old Testament times.

Then of course, there's the whole storyline of Sarah being unable to bear children, and asking her husband to have sex with her slave, Hagar, so that Hagar could have a son for her. It is hard for me to read this without filtering it through the U.S.'s own baleful history with slavery, which included slave masters using their slaves sexually. Certainly there's nothing in the account in Genesis to suggest that Hagar had any more say in the matter than American slave women had in such situations.

If we believe Abraham to be a kind and honorable man, then we must believe that she did have a say and was free to accept or reject his offer. What we read in Genesis may suggest that Hagar saw this as an opportunity for advancement in the household hierarchy. But that is not saying much, considering she was a woman and a slave.

By the way, did I mention that Abraham, prophet and "friend of God," owned slaves? I suppose there are different ways we could interpret that. We could take from this that slavery (or at least the type of slavery that Abraham practiced) is a divinely sanctioned institution, ordained by God. OR we could assume that Abraham, prophet and "friend of God," was enmeshed in the unjust economic and social systems of the time and place that he lived in, and that his status as a prophet did not mean that he automatically rose above every circumstance of the culture into which he was born. But I digress...

What we can say about Hagar and her status, regardless of how much say she did or did not have in this situation, is that she was abused from the beginning by Sarah. Sarah, jealous that Hagar was able to conceive when she couldn't, made life so miserable for her slave that Hagar felt forced to flee for a time, facing starvation and death in the wilderness. Hagar eventually returned "submitting herself" to her mistress, whatever that meant. But when Sarah finally had a son of her own, she furiously insisted that "the bondwoman and her son" Ishmael be banished. Abraham was chagrined by Sarah's demands, but he acquiesced in this supreme injustice. And if we believe the Genesis account, banishment under these circumstances was a virtual death sentence for Ishmael and Hagar. All for the "crime" of having submitted to Sarah's own request that Abraham father a son by Hagar.

This text feels strangely relevant to me in today's charged debate over same-sex marriage. Certainly the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar reminds us what is most painfully evident now in the whole same-sex marriage debate: that marriage is all about rights, but even more about status. Marriage tells us not only what claims a person is entitled to make on society, but who is legitimate and who is illegitimate. Why should anybody be surprised that most gay folks are disgruntled by the offer of the "separate but equal" status of "civil unions," when it is so obvious that it is offered only as a sop to demands for rights that cannot be reasonably refused, while denying the equal status that gay folks understandably feel they also deserve in a democratic society?

The logic of American history and the American political way suggests that those demands will ultimately be impossible to refuse, for the same reason that, in order to be true to its democratic principles, America rejected slavery, segregation, and "miscegenation" laws. Americans reject outright the notion that God favors some over others due to accidents of birth. And Americans abhor unfairness, and believe in the sanctity of individual rights and equality under the law, and they believe that God sanctions that belief.

But God's intervention in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is a bit less clean-cut and tidy than should be liked by most Americans with their irrepressible insistence on unambiguous resolutions and happy endings. Isaac does go on -- with God's blessing -- to be the "chosen" son, the son through whom the "chosen people" claim their lineage. But God intervened with Hagar too, sending angels to protect her and her son from starvation and thirst and the other dangers of the desert.

God did not intervene in such a way as to give Hagar the status she probably hoped for (or deserved). God let Sarah have her way on this count. (Though this particular outcome, in any event, probably had little to do with Sarah's desires or Hagar's worthiness.) But he preserved Hagar's life and her son's life, showing unbiased love for them in the face of Sarah's deadly jealousy, and granting them a role in his plan. God had a work to do both through Isaac and Ishmael, both through Hagar and Sarah, despite the peculiarities, anguish and injustices of the particular situations in which they lived.

I take comfort in that.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

How Beautiful Upon the Mountains Are the Feet...

I had a remarkable dream last Saturday, one that made me sit up in astonishment.

I was out West somewhere, in the mountains, on the outskirts of Colorado Springs (headquarters of Jim Dobson's Focus on the Family). In my dream, that's where my home ward here in Minneapolis was located.

I arrived at the ward meeting house for Sacrament meeting, and I was greeted by my bishop. The Saints were all in hiding. They were afraid for their lives, as they believed a terrorist attack against them was imminent. The bishop seemed overjoyed by my arrival. He asked me to go up into the attic of the meeting house, where all the ward's women and children were hiding, and let them know that it was now safe to come down.

I climbed the winding staircase to the meeting house attic, where I found the bishop's wife, and all the other women in the ward, with the young primary children. I told them the threat was over, it was safe to come down. They all then filed down the stairs into the chapel, where Sacrament Meeting was about to begin. I was the last one to go down.

By the time I went down, they were already singing the opening hymn. Then the bishop's wife gave the opening prayer. She named me by name in her prayer, and said, "We give thanks for John, and ask that you help him in the search for his family." I was invited to sit with some friends at the front of the chapel, right in front of the sacrament table, where I participated in worship along with everyone else.

The rest of the dream was extremely long, full of remarkable symbolism -- too long to recount in detail here. The short version is that it involved a pilgrimage to Colorado Springs, in search of my family. On this pilgrimage, I found myself challenged and hounded by armed, self-appointed militia, who saw me as an "illegal alien" and who tried to stop me. And my search finally ended back at the home of my bishop, where I helped his wife bring a dying and withered Christmas tree back to life.

But the most powerful thing about this dream, for me, had to do with my sense of the role I (and we all) need to play in being "bringers of good tidings" and "publishers of peace."

Of course people in the Church are afraid of homosexuals. They are especially afraid of gay rights activists, whom they see as on a crusade to take away their rights. How or why they are afraid or whether there is an ounce of justification to those fears is irrelevant from the point of view of those of us entrusted with the burden of making peace.

We can't be messengers of peace unless and until we disarm. Unless and until we are willing to go places we are afraid to go, unless and until we are willing to reassure instead of threaten. This is a sacred calling, the calling of being a peace bringer.

I know some people will say we can only get peace through strength. We can only convince our enemies to back down if they are afraid of us. And that is true -- but only because they are our "enemies." There's a deeper, more profound, more lasting way of making peace: the way Christ taught us, the way he modeled for us in going willingly to the cross, which is to make peace by ending enmity itself.

How do we know if this is our calling?

If we dwell in a place of warfare, it is our calling.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Living/Losing Zion

In recent weeks, it has occasionally occurred to me that it should be odd for me to continue attending church at my ward as if nothing had ever happened, given the supposed bad blood between Latter-day Saints and same-sex families these days. But such thoughts came to me only as slightly disconnected observations, never as any serious temptation to leave. Really, it has never occurred to me to do anything else but continue to show up at my ward for worship just as I always have, because that is one of my spiritual life lines. My continued faithfulness, come hell or high water, is a condition for keeping the Spirit in my life. So I won't stop. I just have to trust God to work out all the strangeness and contradictions.

And the Spirit has been present, so vividly and powerfully. It's almost as if the willingness to risk, the willingness to go out on a spiritual/psychological/emotional limb, the willingness to give something up, to sacrifice gives me a hotline to Heaven. What have I given up? My defenses. I won't do any special pleading. Won't argue. Won't demand my own. Won't expect people to accommodate me. Won't harbor any sense of self-righteousness or indignation. (Self-righteousness always gives a perverse kind of short-term comfort but, like any addiction, eventually leaves us cold and empty!) And amazingly, the Spirit is there in this most amazing, sustaining, powerful way. I find peace, wisdom, knowledge, comfort. I am never alone. It is so much better than the cheap, worldly substitute of defensiveness.

My former bishop gave a Sunday School lesson on Sunday, in which we discussed Zion. It came up in the context of 4 Nephi; in the context of discussing a civilization that had achieved a Zion society, and then lost it. And there was some talk about what can cause us to lose Zion.

We have to choose Zion. It's always a conscious choice, even when you "have" it. Because you can lose it any day, passively, by failing to choose it.

There is no "right" or "wrong" in a Zion community, not from our perspective. Because there is nothing to be won by "being right." Because it is not for us to judge. It is only for us to love. It is for the Lord to make judgments. It is for the Lord to correct. For us there is only attentiveness to what God would have us do in the here and now. We have to hold to that like the iron rod.

Hearts are warm in Zion. We love, not out of a sense of duty, but because people are amazing and cool and powerful. Because our love makes all of us stronger. Because love is what defines us as human beings and as children of God. We love not the abstract, not the ideal of a person. We love the real, flesh and blood, warts and all, living, breathing actual humans. Our love makes us sensitive to their hurts, hungry for their successes and their joy, eager to help make their path easier, not harder. Love is seeing clearly, not blinding ourselves, not hardening ourselves, not de-sensitizing. I'm not sure, but I don't think I've ever seen a love that felt genuine accompanied by the phrase "for your own good," a phrase that signals a distinct lack of empathy. Zion is having hearts and minds as one. It's having no poor. There's no VIP table in the dining hall of Zion.

But Zion is the realization that as wonderful as it sounds to be in a place like that, to receive that kind of unconditional love, it is we who must create it first. There's no Zion we can cash in on that someone else has built before us. Zion always takes our willingness to be the first one to give, even when we feel no one cares about us, no one gives to us. The door to Zion is locked so long as we insist on fairness for ourselves. We have to fight for fairness for others, even when it feels unfair to us. Zion is sorrow for our wrongs, our failure to love, not anger for the wrongs or failures of others. That's the gate, the only way in. It takes that leap of faith, that trust. Zion is a city with invisible gates. You can't see it until you are inside of it.

In Zion, priesthood is our way of life. The principles of the priesthood are the bedrock of society. Namely that you cannot use the power of the priesthood for yourself. You cannot bless yourself with it -- except by serving others. Your work is for others. Your hope is for others. Your prayer is for others. You trust your own welfare to God. It's the only way it can work.

Zion is not a place we can find alone. So to a certain extent, sometimes Zion requires waiting. We can't all be ready at the same time. But we always have a work to do, even while we are waiting.

I want to go. Who will go with me?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Plea to the Saints Who Opposed Prop 8

No, I'm not going to ask you to "speak out," or to "educate" your fellow Saints, or to write letters or in any other way lobby Church leaders. In fact, I'm asking you more or less to do the opposite.

Please just be quiet about it. Don't make a fuss. Don't raise your hand in class and make that courageous, lead-balloon-like comment, or make some grandiloquent statement in testimony meeting. You will not convince anyone of anything. You will annoy people. You will also create an opportunity for contention. You or others will be tempted to argue. Or you will be tempted to feel angry and excluded if you don't get the response you hoped for. So just let it go. If someone asks your opinion, and they seem to sincerely want to know what you think, tell them the truth, but don't go out of your way to try to convert people.

If you feel obliged, go ahead and blog about it. But try not to argue with people who disagree with your posts.

This is not the coward's way out. In fact, often it takes more courage to just swallow your pride and keep quiet, and to quietly do what is right, than it does to grandstand. You won't be letting me, or anybody else down. Not so long as you live your convictions.

Do not under any circumstances resign, or even threaten to resign your membership in the Church. It's not because the Church will be poorer without you (though it will) but because you will be poorer without the Church. Your capacity to do good and to minister to gay and lesbian members and non-members alike will be diminished if you cut yourself off from the blessings of the priesthood and the temple. And resigning from the Church will not help me or anyone else who is currently excluded from the Church.

If you are one of the few who has been unjustly disciplined over a matter of conscience -- for instance, by having your temple recommend or a calling taken away -- pray to the Lord to ask for strength to forgive whomever has done this. And then ask forgiveness for whatever anger and resentment you may feel toward them as a result. If you have been treated unfairly, the Lord will doubly bless you if you remain faithful.

If I could, I would do anything to regain my membership in the Church except the two things I cannot do: cease to be gay and/or abandon the family I have made solemn vows to love, protect, care for and stay faithful to. If you are in the Church and have the blessings of the priesthood and the temple, do not under any circumstances throw those blessings away. If I hear one more person say they have resigned their Church membership over this, I am going to cry.

If we are wrong -- and I freely admit that we could be -- perhaps the Lord will forgive us, so long as our heart was in the right place, so long as our primary motives were love and a hunger for fairness. If our motives were a desire to be right or to win, to look less foolish to our non-Mormon friends, or a desire to make the Church or its leaders look foolish, such motives will not be mitigating if we are wrong, and they are not so ennobling in any event.

If we are right, then have faith that the Lord is at the head of his Church, and that he will correct and perfect the Church in his time and in his way. Trust the work of the Spirit. If the Spirit was able to work in you to change your heart and open it to a way of seeing things that once didn't seem so obvious to you, trust that the Spirit is also capable of working in others. Be happy that the Lord's gradual work of correcting the Church has already begun in you! And wait patiently for that work to continue in others!

Pray for me and for others in my situation. Pray for the Church and its leaders. Be grateful that you do not have to stand in their shoes. Pray for yourself. Pray for light and truth and understanding, and pray for correction if you are wrong. Pray for the Spirit to show you the way, and teach you when to speak and when to be silent, when to act and when to wait. Pray for unconditional love. Pray for the Church to be preserved in love and harmony and mutual forgiveness. And then make it so. And in the end, all will we well.

"How Have You Been... With Prop 8?"

This morning, on my way to work, I found myself counting blessings. This is, believe it or not, a very important spiritual practice, especially when facing any sort of loss or disappointment in life. I was remembering that I am not lonely. I have an amazing, funny, generous husband and a fun, energetic, smart, loving foster kid. I have a wonderful, amazing extended family who love me unconditionally -- parents, siblings, the most incredible in-laws. I recently had my annual physical, and was pronounced by my doctor to be in a state of "perfect" health, above average in every category for my age group. In a time of deepening recession, I have a stable job at a workplace where I am appreciated for my skills. My husband and I have a beautiful house and ample food and clothing. I live in a thriving neighborhood in a tolerant and diverse city. And in the ward I attend, I have a growing number of kind, smart, loving friends.

One of these friends is Sister R. She and I met for lunch today, which is becoming a custom of ours. We spent the hour swapping news about our respective families, telling the good news as well as the bad news. We talked about some of our respective child-rearing struggles, and shared insights about how to cope with certain types of situations. It was a warm, wonderful, affirming exchange.

Toward the end of our lunch, she paused. Choosing her words carefully, she said, "How have you been...?" She paused, and then continued: "...with Prop 8?"

Of all the things on my mind and heart, that was the one thing we had not discussed. I deliberately had steered myself away from that topic, choosing instead to focus on the more concrete and immediate. I didn't expect to discuss Prop 8 with a member of my ward. But the fact that she would ask that question brought balm to my soul.

Could she read the gratitude in my face? I told her simply that the news about the referendum had left me heartbroken. I told her how difficult it had been dealing with the flood of mixed feelings that it brought; the elation of seeing Barack Obama win a historic election, with all that implied for my African American husband and his family; and yet that elation being mixed with deep sadness and a feeling of me and my family being left behind. Then I shared with her the experience I had had a couple of days after the election, helping me to find peace.

I had no desire to talk about politics. I had no heart to discuss this at anything but this level, the level of feelings and responses, and what this has meant for my spiritual journey.

Sister R. listened, expressing sympathy at appropriate junctures as I spoke. She shared her impressions and recollections of the sheer happiness I had expressed after getting married last summer (which I had shared with her at a luncheon last summer after our return from Memphis). She then expressed empathy for how disappointing it must have been to have that elation followed by the Prop 8 vote.

As I told about the personal revelation I had received, assuring me that I and my family would be OK and everything would be all right, her face lit up. Then she talked about experiences she's had, where she too has had to learn to just let things go, and not worry about what she can't control.

I'm not sure how she felt about Prop 8 as a political referendum. I don't know whether she would have voted for it or against it had she lived in California. We didn't talk about that. But I was so grateful for this encounter. So grateful that she cared enough to ask that question, and to listen to me express my feelings, and to just be there for me as a friend.

I am grateful that the loving presence and support of the Spirit has enabled me to let go of my anger and resentment about this, and to let go of my expectations of how people should respond to this situation. I am grateful that that letting go has enabled me to find friendships I could not have found otherwise, to grow in ways I could not have grown otherwise, and is opening doors of love that might otherwise have stayed shut.

Gratitude is a key that unlocks so much to us. It is the antidote to so much that would otherwise corrode our souls: impatience, anger, hate.

I am grateful for this journey.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Blinded by Marriage

Last Sunday in Gospel Doctrine class, we read and discussed portions of 3 Nephi 22. This entire chapter is part of Christ's sermon to the Nephites, and is a quotation of Isaiah chapter 54.

After reading the first three verses as a class, Sister J., who was sitting right next to me, raised her hand and drew attention to a rather interesting turn of phrase in the first verse: "For more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord."

Sister J. expressed -- in a rather round about way -- the sentiment that this verse suggested the need for us to be open to, and attentive to the needs of, the "desolate," the less fortunate. She immediately had my attention, as I was still wrestling with the whole experience this past week of having my marriage voted away, and my family denied and condemned in another slew of state referenda.

Another member of the class, Brother M., raised his hand and offered his interpretation of this verse. "The married wife" clearly referred to the sacred, everlasting covenant of eternal marriage. This verse was simply highlighting the fact that very few have entered into the everlasting covenant -- that for this reason, there are far more "children of the desolate" than children of the covenant. Other members of the class seized on this, commenting on how the world has little regard for marriage, and then to the need for missionary work to help convert the "children of the desolate."

But here's the text in its entire context:

1 And then shall that which is written come to pass: Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing, and cry aloud, thou that didst not travail with child; for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord.
2 Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thy habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords and strengthen thy stakes;
3 For thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left, and thy seed shall inherit the Gentiles and make the desolate cities to be inhabited.
4 Fear not, for thou shalt not be ashamed; neither be thou confounded, for thou shalt not be put to shame; for thou shalt forget the shame of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy youth, and shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
5 For thy maker, thy husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel—the God of the whole earth shall he be called.
6 For the Lord hath called thee as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused, saith thy God.
7 For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee.
8 In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment, but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer.
9 For this, the waters of Noah unto me, for as I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth, so have I sworn that I would not be wroth with thee.
10 For the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed, but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee.
11 O thou afflicted, tossed with tempest, and not comforted! Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and lay thy foundations with sapphires.
12 And I will make thy windows of agates, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones.
13 And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.
14 In righteousness shalt thou be established; thou shalt be far from oppression for thou shalt not fear, and from terror for it shall not come near thee.
15 Behold, they shall surely gather together against thee, not by me; whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake.
16 Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy.
17 No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall revile against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is of me, saith the Lord.

Here, the Lord is not commenting on the benighted state of the barren and the unmarried, speaking about them to the married. He is speaking lovingly and reassuringly to the barren and unmarried, promising them hope, promising them offspring greater than the powerful and respectable -- who are symbolized in this text by "the married wife": "Sing, O barren, thou that didst not bear; break forth into singing... for more are the children of the desolate than the children of the married wife, saith the Lord"! This text could be cross-referenced with Isaiah chapter 56, where the Lord promises "the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths": "Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off" (Isaiah 56:5).

This text, it dawned on me, was not for all the respectable married, fertile people sitting around me, it was for me, for the one in the room who had been "ashamed" and "confounded," the one in the room under "reproach" because he was unmarried, because he was "barren." "For thy maker, thy Husband, the Lord of Hosts is his name.... For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee."

I understand that this text was originally written to the captive children of Israel, reminding them that despite their desperate, powerless and scattered state, the Lord was watching over them and would protect them, and that this would not always be their state. It was a promise to them to give them hope. And this would undoubtedly have been Christ's reason for quoting the text to the gathered Nephites and Lamanites in the account in 3 Nephi which provided our context for reading it. But I was also reading the text as Christ himself has commanded us to read: likening the scriptures unto me, seeing myself there in those verses. And the Spirit was there to comfort and confirm my reading.

The good Saints gathered in that Sunday School room were so preoccupied with "defending marriage," they had actually read this text in exactly the opposite sense it was clearly intended. What might have been a lesson about humility and love toward those whom the world does not value, turned into something quite different.

I didn't say a word... I let the Saints have their way with the text, though I was grateful for Sister J., who had done her part to point the class in a different, slightly less self-congratulatory direction.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Where Can I Turn for Peace?

Emotionally, this has been a tough week for me.

Sister H., a native Lakota woman in my ward, is one of the few members who, from the beginning, seemed to notice that I was there. The first time we spoke, she just said in a very gentle way, "I haven't seen you around here before..." I explained that I had been excommunicated years ago, but was coming back to the Church. Every once in a while since then, she stops me in the hall to ask how I am doing. She gives hugs and smiles, and promises to keep me in her prayers, for which I'm always grateful. The spirit of these interactions has always been warm, caring, and non-invasive. I've always felt her interactions with me coming from a place of genuine love.

Today at church, this sister bore her testimony. She bore it first in her native Lakota tongue, and then in English. She spoke about some of the trials her faith has come through, and she finished with a simple statement about what it has meant to her to keep the faith. It was a beautiful testimony in itself, but for me the beauty of it was magnified because of the way all her past kindnesses to me were witnesses of the reality of her faith.

The closing hymn (LDS hymnal, #129) seemed to me as if it had been written specifically for me, today:

Where can I turn for peace? Where is my solace
When other sources cease to make me whole?
When with a wounded heart, anger, or malice,
I draw myself apart, searching my soul?

Where, when my aching grows, Where, when I languish,
Where, in my need to know, where can I run?
Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
Who, who can understand? He, only One.

He answers privately, Reaches my reaching
In my Gethsemane, Savior and Friend.
Gentle the peace he finds for my beseeching.
Constant he is and kind, Love without end.

By the last half of the final verse, I had lost my voice.

I was grateful for the quiet, loving presence of my new-found friend Reuben and his wife, who were sitting there next to me. After the closing prayer, I found this dear sister who had born her testimony, Sister H. I thanked her for her testimony, and asked if I could hug her. Then I wept in her arms. I felt she knew better than most what I was going through, and she had shown me she cared, and I was so grateful for her right then and there.

I don't know where or how the journey will end, but I am grateful for the friends I find along the way. My heart is broken over the role the Church played in the passage of Proposition 8. But the Lord has answered me "privately" as the hymn says, has "reached my reaching." And what sustains me is the knowledge that some day the Church will be perfected, and the things that divide us will pass away.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Bit Disturbed

This morning on CNN I saw coverage of the protests outside the LDS Church headquarters in L.A., and I have to admit I found them a bit disturbing.

It was not the fact of the protests in themselves that upset me. The LDS Church entered the political sphere in a big way, providing half the funding for the Prop 8 campaign, and ordering its members to work to promote Prop 8. If the Church acts as a political entity, then it needs to be prepared to be criticized as a political entity. People have a right to express themselves and have a right to protest actions by the Church that they feel are unjust.

I should add that I do not believe the Church has no right to enter the political sphere or to engage in political action. I do not adhere to the notion of "separate spheres" in which religion reigns supreme in supposedly pure realms of spirit and faith that have nothing to do with what goes on in the real world, while science and government reign supreme in purely material, physical realms that have nothing to do with faith. For me, religion encompasses the whole of life and has ethics as a central concern, which situates it squarely in the "real" world of human relations and politics. Politics and religion are and always have been and always will be inextricably enmeshed with one another. America has established a political order in which religious institutions receive no financial support, are not taxed, and receive no special legal considerations, and in which Americans are free to affiliate or not affiliate with religious institutions. That "wall of separation" between church and state has been an essential foundation of America's religious peace, and I support it without question. But I do not believe it is inappropriate for churches to weigh in on political issues.

I should add, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has expressed strong support for same-sex marriage, and urges its members to work politically for marriage equality. The spiritual streams that come together in the UCC -- the Congregational/Puritan, Christian/Disciples, and Evangelical and Reformed traditions -- are rich with political activism and involvement in America -- from the anti-slavery movement in the antebellum years, to the Social Gospel at the turn of the century, to their present involvement in movements for peace, social justice, and gay rights. They've gotten remarkably little news coverage for taking their recent stance in support of gay marriage. But if I don't complain about that, I have no right to complain about the LDS Church doing the opposite. As I said, of course, a church that wishes to dirty its hands in politics, must expect to pay a political price. That is as true of the UCC, which has been criticized by conservative groups for its pro-gay stance, as it is of the LDS Church, which must now endure criticism from liberal groups.

But there is a line we must not cross. Earlier this summer, a Unitarian Church in Tennessee became the target of a brutal shooting attack because of its pro-gay stance. What disturbs me about the anti-LDS protests, at least as I've seen them, is the anti-Mormon animus that seems to infuse many of them. I got a comment on another post in which someone anonymously used the epithet "cult" against the LDS Church. And the slogans I've seen on some of the signs attacking Mormon polygamy, describing Mormons as "filthy," and so on worries me. Beyond just being counterproductive, for me (and I'm sure for many Mormons) it raises the specter of a time when Mormons were mobbed, whipped, tarred and feathered, killed and exiled in the name of American "freedom."

I wish we wouldn't go there. Let the protesters stay focused on what this is really about: the right to marry, building a society in which all members have an equal stake, promoting love and commitment, and building and protecting real families. If we focus on the good we want, we will eventually achieve it. If we focus on negativity and hate, that may be what we get instead in the end.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Still Small Voice: Have Faith

Yesterday, I posted "We Still Hold a Responsibility... To Ourselves," in which I expressed the sentiment that no matter how dehumanizing the Prop 8 campaign and vote were to me, they could not ultimately strip away my humanity. That was my effort to put on a good face in the wake of a very demoralizing result in California.

But then I saw the picture of the Prop 8 organizers in the L.A. Times on-line, laughing and cheering and holding up clenched fists upon learning that their referendum to strip me of my marriage had succeeded. And I read on the Northern Lights blog the arguments in support of Prop 8 that struck me, at base, as heartless, as inconsiderate of the real-life, flesh-and-blood effect that these kinds of referendums have on me and my family. I felt wounded. I don't want "social acceptance for my lifestyle." What I want is to be able to care for my own, for the ones I love, without having to deal with the kinds of social hurdles that exist when the tax code and health care and powers of attorney are structured around marriage. What I want is the moral and spiritual support that marriage provides for nurture and fidelity.

My marriage last summer was one of the most joyous occasions in my life, if not the most joyous. It was a loving and intimate time with family. A time when my father prayed for me, put his arm around me and encouraged me. A time when the man I love was embraced by my family. A time when we deepened our relationship with our foster son, laying the groundwork for incredible struggle and growth since. The fact that we had to sacrifice for that event, and the fact that it had meaning beyond what a merely private ceremony would have offered helped to make us more of a family. And the clenched fists and the laughing faces in the L.A. Times and the cold arguments on Northern Lights felt like a kind of heartless mockery in the face of something I experienced as truly sacred.

I felt a sort of creeping depression descend on me throughout the day. Yesterday evening, I was cheered somewhat volunteering at the local homeless shelter, preparing and then serving a meal of sloppy joes, mac and cheese, corn and salad. We talked cheerfully about the Obama victory. Still, my heart wasn't in it; I felt like I wanted to cry. I felt drained. I ended up having to leave early. This morning we had a paralegal meeting at work, and my interactions in the meeting were crabby and short, to the point that I felt obliged later in the day to apologize to the meeting organizer. I felt sad. Just deeply sad.

My marriage had been invalidated by a popular referendum of a majority that was convinced by lies and fear-mongering. The certificate that hangs on the wall of our bedroom and that has given me joy every single day I have looked at it, voided by the successful campaign of people that felt strongly enough about relegating my family to second class status that they donated millions and worked tirelessly just for that. And then they laughed and cheered and celebrated at what they had taken away from us.

Yes, the words I wrote largely to comfort myself in the immediate aftermath are true. They can't take away my humanity no matter what. They can't take away the significance of the act that we sacrificed to make a reality last summer. They can't take away what changed in our hearts as a result.

But I still couldn't help but grieve. And feel angry. Why do they hate us so?

This morning, my prayers, usually peaceful and focussed and centered, were just a kind of mournful outcry: God, please help me! Please! And the day that followed just dull and gray and tired. I know it seems melodramatic. Honestly, believe me, I wished I hadn't felt that way. I wished I'd had the strength to just shrug it off, but I didn't.

I found a certain comfort reading Scot's post, and Mohohawaii's. They were grieving too, and the solidarity of shared grief helped me. And then there were the friends. The real friends at work and at the homeless shelter last night, and of course family, who didn't try to minimize the sadness I felt. They expressed genuine shock and sadness and outrage that a majority of voters in California had done this. How could they!? And their expressions of solidarity were a comfort too. But it still didn't take away the deep sadness.

But then I was heading home after work today, walking down the Minneapolis skyway that connects all the major buildings downtown, toward the parking ramp where my bike was locked. I was walking and thinking and feeling sad and basically just sorry for myself. And in that moment, quite unexpectedly (why then? why not earlier today when I was on my knees begging God to Help!?) there came the still, small voice of the Spirit.

It said simply, "Be not of little faith."

That got my attention. I interrogated the Spirit. "What, what do you mean?"

The Spirit replied, "Don't be angry. Don't be afraid. Everything will be well. Everything will be made right."

And that was about the extent of it. I wanted more than that, but it was clear to me that if I wanted more, I had to be, for the time being, content with merely that. What I did understand is that Being Not of Little Faith meant making a conscious effort to set aside my feelings of anger and self pity. It meant remembering the covenants and promises I had made to my partner in that ceremony, being ever true to them in thought, word, and sentiment. And most of all, I needed to let go of my feelings of resentment toward anybody and everybody (especially those Latter-day Saints) who contributed to the victory of Proposition 8. I needed to let go of those feelings, and Right Now. If I just made that conscious movement of heart, if I simply prayed that prayer of forgiveness and letting go, the Spirit would help me do the rest. It would give me the healing that I needed to make it real. To turn the outward motions into true forgiveness and true inner peace.

And there has been a blessed presence of the Spirit since then as well. The best way I can describe it is it as if time has just stopped. Göran called me and asked me to do an errand for him, and I was walking down the street, feeling the cold damp, the end of Indian summer, smelling the fallen leaves. It felt beautiful. I felt beautiful inside and out. I felt blessed peace. And genuine love. Even for those people with the laughing faces, jeering my loss from the image posted in the L.A. Times on-line.

So I walked down the street and reflected on the fact that the same Spirit that encouraged me and mine to head out to California and get married, the same Spirit that has blessed me with so many spiritual gifts in the aftermath of that marriage, that same Spirit is telling me to "Be not of little faith," and commanding me not to be angry, not to be resentful. That was my task. If I would make some effort in that direction, the Spirit would help me. And it has. And I feel at peace. And I trust that ultimately all will be well, as the Spirit has promised me. It feels slightly miraculous to me. It is as if this enormous burden has been lifted. I feel free, truly free from that burden of sadness and anger I've felt for the last 36 hours or so since the moment I first logged onto the L.A. Times on-line and read the bad news at about 6:30 a.m. yesterday morning.

Does that mean I won't continue to talk about Prop 8, about marriage, and about this very strange journey of mine? Of course not.

But it does mean I need to be ever attentive. And ever faithful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I'm Happy

In our home there were tears of happiness last night at 10:00 p.m. Central Standard Time.

It means a lot to me personally that an African American is now president-elect. It is a visible reminder to me of what I believe is best about the "American system."

I am inspired to have a president who -- FINALLY -- is not afraid to remind Americans that they need to make sacrifices. Who does not see his own election as "change," but merely as an opportunity for change. Who seems to understand that real change takes consensus and cooperation and consistent effort.

But Obama's victory does not -- it cannot possibly -- mean to me personally what it means to my husband, an African American, and our immediate and extended family and friends who are African American. I can see it in his eyes, and hear it in his voice. In the excitement and happiness he couldn't conceal if he tried. This victory means everything to him.

And for those of us who are not African American, it should mean at least this much: that our African American loved ones, family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens are that much uplifted by this victory. That their lives have a chance of being better because of this. That their hopes have finally been elevated to this level. That their stake in this country which belongs to us all is finally increased to something that looks and feels like equality.

The tears in my eyes right now as I reflect on this are only for the fact that this wasn't much, much sooner in coming.

Praise God Almighty! At last.

We Still Hold a Responsibility... To Ourselves

With over 90% of precincts reporting in California, it looks bad for marriage equality in the Golden State.

That is personally heartbreaking for me, and I'm sure for many others across the country. But as I contemplate the likelihood that California has chosen to amend its constitution to deny same-sex couples the right to marry, I remind myself of a few important truths.

We still have a responsibility to love and care for one another. This is true in our intimate relationships, where our greatest chance at happiness is still to uphold fidelity, and to honor and nurture each other, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health. But it is equally true in our relationship to the larger society, even when that society does not appear to hold us in very high regard. We owe it to ourselves to be charitable, honorable, kind and respectful toward all.

We cannot have marriage outwardly, in the world, until we have it inwardly, in our hearts. What is outward and worldly, people can take away from us. They can treat us as if we are less than human. But they cannot take away from us our humanity. They cannot take away what is in our hearts. So we need to continue to live the marriage that is in our hearts and souls, and trust that if we love and are faithful, the outward and the worldly will someday come to match the inward and the spiritual. On the other hand, if we had the outward, worldly marriage but did not honor it in our hearts -- as much, if not most, of the straight world does -- what would we really have? Would we have anything worth having?

Finally, patience benefits us. It makes us finer, better, more powerful people, people capable of facing and overcoming every kind of adversity. Anger and bitterness only poison our own souls. We alone are the true victims of whatever hatred we harbor against others. So we should not be angry at those who have voted against us.

One of the lessons of yesterday's election has to do with the example set for the rest of America by African Americans. African Americans lived in this country for 250 years in slavery. Then, after slavery ended, they endured another 100 years of legal segregation and disenfranchisement. (For most of that sordid history, African Americans were not legally permitted to marry and/or faced racist restrictions on whom they could marry!) Racism in America is still a reality. Yet, African Americans never gave up. They never quit striving for a better life in this country. And yesterday, the inability of most Americans to imagine having an African American occupy the highest office in the land finally came to an end. Praise God! And how did 220 years of political segregation come to an end? Because this amazing individual, Barack Obama, was more concerned with service than with self. That's how all great things in life are achieved.

So we need to have patience. We need to love. We need to honor one another and live worthy of honor. We need to be grateful, and cherish the gifts we already have. And we need to continue to cherish and live worthy of the gifts we hope to receive. When we truly live marriage in our hearts and in our souls, and when we build our families on the principles of fidelity and nurture, no one will ultimately be able to withhold that outward gift from us.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


We arrived at the polling station at 6:30 a.m., to wait until the polls opened at 7:00. I was the 44th to vote in my precinct. Göran was the 56th. There were longer lines than I've ever seen, but the folks administering the voting were efficient, and things seemed to be moving along well.

I'm fasting today, and am praying for a safe, peaceful, respectful, and honorable election process. (Am also praying for my parents, who are traveling today to Finland for the funeral of my mom's brother, my Uncle Taisto.)

Happy voting!


I turned in at the usual time, but couldn't sleep tonight. I thought I would sleep and then wake and that tomorrow would be just another day. But it's not.

It's times like these, I'm reminded of my humanness. My humanity. I'm made of flesh and blood and spirit, all these things. I love. I hunger. I hope.

I feel like for the last eight years, I've lived under a government that doesn't quite view me as fully human. That, in fact, views me, views my love, views my family as threats. That has treated me as a threat by trying to legislate a wall around us, to shut us out of the mainstream of life and love. And maybe that wall can start to come down tomorrow. Maybe I will wake up tomorrow and act and vote, and then begin the day after tomorrow with more hope that my life, my love, my family can have a place at the table along with everyone else. So I can't sleep. I'm too excited.

I didn't consciously make a decision to pray for the State of California tomorrow. Those prayers just began to well up from the depths of my soul a few days ago. Dear Heavenly Father, please forgive those who act out of ignorance, who act out of hate. Who don't understand and don't care to understand and don't even try to understand. Please forgive them. They don't know what they're doing. Please let a spirit of kindness, a spirit of generosity, a spirit of good will toward others prevail. Please pour out Your Spirit so that, where there is darkness, there will be light; where there is pitilessness, there will be compassion; where there is scapegoating and calumny, there will be truth. Please, Father in Heaven, bless the State of California in this decision. Bless the leaders and the members of the Church. Bless all of us. Help us remember the pattern Jesus showed us. Please help us walk the way he walked, more concerned to bless than to curse, more concerned to uplift than to discourage, more concerned to include and embrace than to exclude and cast out. Please help us, Father, because that's not the pattern of the world we live in. And too often, we bring those worldly patterns into churches and sanctuaries where they really have no place.

That prayer, welling up almost instinctively from that deepest place in my heart, has helped me these last few days to nurture hope. Kneeling in the presence of God and speaking those words keeps me rooted in a vision of the kind of world I want to live in, regardless of the outcomes of the plebiscites and decisions of tomorrow. Something to keep working for, regardless. So I can face each day with the kind of courage and love that the healing of the world requires.

It's a calming vision, a grounding vision. And still, I'm too excited to sleep. So I accept that excitement as part of my human condition. As a natural consequence of being me, in this time and in this place. I accept that sometimes all I can do is wait, and hope.