Friday, February 20, 2009

Even If There Were No Afterlife

Don't get me wrong.

I have no doubt that the material, physical world that we see, hear, touch, taste and smell with our physical senses is but the tip of the iceberg of existence. It is merely the surface of what, as the Gnostics put it, is "real." I have no doubt that what takes place between birth and death is but a passage.

At the same time, death is real. It is what gives "the passage" meaning. If life is the "day in which our labor must be performed," then death is without question a kind of "final deadline," a milestone against which all our living is judged, here and now as well as in eternity.

But this is to highlight the utter importance of the here and now. It reminds us that life must be lived as if this were our one big chance at it, never to be repeated. Because it is.

To affirm this is not the same as to say, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" To live according to that motto is to live a half a life. No, not even that: it is to live a mere shadow of a life, of what life can be.

When I pray as I ought -- when I don't fall into the kind of habitual pleading that prayer can easily become when I am careless -- I become aware of what true loyalty to God is. I become aware of the pettiness of concern about rewards or punishments; as if the rewards we already have don't count. I am grateful for the presence of the Spirit; a presence that is the best of the best things we can experience in this life: better than sex. Though don't get me wrong; sex is great. But the presence of the Spirit is the truest, most deeply satisfying kind of communion. In its presence I am filled to overflowing with gratitude. And when gratitude overflows, it always does so in the form of love and service. When I pray as I ought, the Amen of the prayer is just a comma. It signals the passage to a different form of prayer, the kind of prayer that life at its best becomes.

And to live in this kind of prayerful awareness is to realize that even if this is all there is, even if this moment is the only gift God gives me, it is enough -- more than enough -- to merit eternal gratitude. I am content to say, even if there is no more than this, let me give you everything that I have now.

If there is a life everlasting, maybe it is only for that, only to give us the chance to give God back the gratitude we owe for this moment.

But this is not all there is. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Count Your Blessings

I've committed D&C 20:37 to memory:

And again, by way of commandment to the church concerning the manner of baptism -- All those who humble themselves before God, and desire to be baptized, and come forth with broken hearts and contrite spirits, and witness before the church that they have truly repented of all their sins, and are willing to take upon them the name of Jesus Christ, having a determination to serve him to the end, and truly manifest by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins, shall be received by baptism into his church.

I haven't memorized scripture verses since I was a teenager in seminary. But the Spirit impressed upon me that this one was important for me to write down in my heart, so to speak, to let it be the pattern for my life.

This is a hard one for me. It stands right at the crux of the greatest contradiction in my life. I have a desire to be baptized all right. My heart has been broken over this again and again.

By way of commandment. The Church does not merely have the prerogative to set the standards by which it determines that candidates for baptism have "truly" manifested "by their works that they have received of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of their sins." It is commanded to do so. The church does not belong to those called to administer it. It is "his church." His whose name we take upon ourselves in being received into it.

Their sins. All the theology packed into those two words boils down to one word: "heart." It is the heart that is broken, that desires to be whole. It is in the heart where conscience and will reside; where resides everything that makes both sin and repentance possible. And in the heart where we feel and receive "of the Spirit of Christ unto the remission of sins." It is in the heart where resides love, the absence of which is the greatest sin. The crux of everything is the invisible heart that only God knows, even when the sinner does not truly know his own.

The test, I realize, as I reflect on the words of this verse, is to condemn neither myself nor the church. Yet, to dwell on the words arouses in me a deep hunger, a hunger I can't fill. This is not my fault. It is not the church's fault. I remind myself of this by counting my blessings. But God needs me to feel what I feel when I wrestle with this, to cry out to him, to ask for help.

And that's what I ask of you... To please pray with me and for me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Form and Power

At the end of our Elder's Quorum meeting last Sunday, a brother made a special request. This brother has been inactive for many years, but has become active again in recent months, and it has been very moving to hear his testimony and to witness that testimony in action as he has begun making various changes in his life. This brother announced that he was soon to have surgery. He asked his brothers, the members of his Elder's Quorum, if they would give him a blessing.

When he was asked who he would like to bless him, he named me.

Recently reactivated, this brother didn't know that I am excommunicated and not a priesthood-holder. I told him I couldn't do it, and then my heart just literally broke. Others volunteered and came forward and blessed him, and all I could do was add my silent prayers to their blessing.

After priesthood meeting ended, another brother approached me. This brother is a former bishop and our former ward mission leader, and was one of the first people in the ward to befriend me when I first started attending in October 2005. I'm not sure why he was sitting in on Elder's Quorum that day, but he was. He made a beeline for me as soon as the "Amen" of the closing prayer had been said. He told me how much he appreciated my contributions to our class discussions. Then he said, "I can't even begin to imagine how difficult all this is for you. But you are needed." He gave me a hug as I wept in his arms. I am so grateful for Bro. H.

Despite the potential awkwardness of this whole situation, I left not feeling the least bit humiliated, but simply and totally loved. The brothers in my Elder's Quorum are incredibly humble and loving, the kind of men among whom this sort of vulnerability is kept sacred. I was overwhelmed, actually. I couldn't fully process what had happened in that meeting intellectually. Every time I thought about it, I simply started to weep. The Spirit has been with me in a most powerful and peculiar way since then, comforting me and encouraging me to be patient.

I have tried to sort things out in my head. This brother who has recently become active, Bro. S., barely knows me. He is African American. He has been a member of the church many years, since before 1978. We've hardly spoken since he's become only recently active again, though we spoke after priesthood and he told me he thinks he knows me from somewhere. I'm not sure why he asked for me to bless him. But in asking, he blessed me. I believe I have much to learn from him.

There is power in the priesthood. This experience was a testimony to me of the truth of that. I have wrestled much with the Lord since then. I've shed many tears in the past week. I've asked "Why?" And only this morning have I had a glimpse of an answer. It is that there is no priesthood without faith; no priesthood without humility; none without service, without love, without long-suffering. If the present anguish of this God's-kingdom-coming has anything to teach us, it is that.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Night Visitors

OK, here’s the dream:

I’ve just arrived home. I’m on the porch of my house, but it’s dark, so I’m fumbling around trying to find my key so I can unlock the door. As I’m feeling out the lock and the key, I hear a voice from behind me. Someone is supposed to meet me here, so I assume it is that person I am waiting to meet. Without turning around to see who it is, I tell him to come on in, as soon as I can get the door unlocked. Just as I finally open the door, whoever it is tackles me, pushing me into the house. He turns me around, pins me against the wall of our entry way, and starts very forcibly kissing me. I see that it is not the person I thought it was, it is a hideous demon, and it is trying to rape me.

Terrified, I manage to choke out the words, “Get out, in the name of Jesus Christ.” Some unseen force is trying to choke me and close my lips so I can’t say the words, but I get them out, and as soon as I do, the demon dissipates like smoke. Then I wake up.

I realize I was dreaming, but I’m still feeling violated and terrified. I start crying. I wake Göran up, and tell him, “I had a dream that a demon was trying to rape me!” It felt so real, even though I realize it was a dream, I’m convinced that a real demon had somehow been there. I won’t write that dream down, I tell myself. That dream is from Satan and should be forgotten.

Göran comforts me. As he does, a young man walks into our bedroom. We can see him clearly in the moonlight, and recognize that he is a next-door neighbor named John (though he resembles a friend of mine from my ward). He is wearing a tank top and shorts, and he’s very sexy. “You guys are awake,” he says, “I can’t sleep either. That’s why I came over.” Göran and I are lying in bed naked, covered in sweat, and the covers are completely off, so he can see everything and he’s eyeing us. “Is it OK if I sleep with you guys?” he asks. Göran and I look at each other, barely able to believe our good luck.

“Sure!” I tell him, “Hop in bed!” Before I have even finished speaking, he’s already completely stripped down. He’s even more gorgeous naked than he was dressed.

“Let me make room in the bed,” I tell him. He’s walking around toward the other side of the bed, where Göran usually sleeps, so I clamber over Göran. On Göran’s side of the bed, I see a camera and some napkins. I pick them up and place them on the nightstand. I want John to snuggle up against me naked, but then I realize that if I do that, Göran will be jealous. So I clamber back over Göran and get back on my side of the bed. John gets in bed and snuggles up against Göran on one side, I snuggle up against Göran on the other side, and then I reach over and place my arm on John’s arm, so Göran is nicely snuggled in between, in a nice man sandwich.

The phone rings. I hop out of bed and answer it. It is announced to me that people are coming. I hang up, and whole crowd of people start walking through the bedroom door. They are from United Theological Seminary, where I teach. They are renowned theologians and church leaders of every major religion in the world: Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, and so on. They are women and men, people of every race. They are all wearing golden skullcaps and white robes that resemble the dress of Roman Catholic bishops. However, they are also wearing brown vests, embroidered with very mystical looking Chinese characters, so I wonder if these are perhaps Buddhist robes. Göran gets out of bed, and I am surprised to see that he too is wearing the same robe, vest and skullcap that everyone else has on.

A woman member of the group announces that they are here to officiate at the funeral of a dear colleague of theirs, a man who has achieved sainthood. They need to pray for his soul so that he can make the journey into the next world. They bring forward the body of this man, and lay him on the bed, next to our friend John, who is still in bed naked. (I too am still naked, but nobody seems to mind my nudity or John’s.) I can’t really see the body, there’s just darkness there where they’ve laid him. They all get down on their knees and then bow down, completely prostrating themselves before the body of their friend.

As they begin to pray, there is a most wonderful, peaceful spirit that descends over all of us. I feel safe, warm and protected, and the room is filled with a beatific light. I am truly happy, and I realize that these people who have arrived are actually angels, sent to protect me.


OK, here’s what I think this means:

The demon rape is about boundary-anxiety and about guilt and shame about sexuality. Note that the attempted rape takes place on the threshold or boundary of our house. The rape is itself a violation of my own physical and psychic boundaries. It is about being excessively preoccupied with protecting myself from sin, specifically the sin of homosexuality. (The demon, after all, is male, and is trying to sodomize me.)

When I call out the name of Christ – who has power over demons – not only is the demon exorcised, but the whole situation is exorcised. Christ does not save me from the demon, per se; rather, he demonstrates to me that the demon is not real, by waking me from my slumber. The waking up symbolizes graduating to a higher level of consciousness, to a new understanding. Of course it takes a while for this new understanding to sink in; for a while after waking, I am still terrified of the demon.

The neighbor John – who pleasantly distracts me from these anxieties – is me. He is a me who is physically strong and attractive and self-confident; a me, in other words, who is comfortable in his own skin and not afraid of his own sexuality. He also represents a me that is fully reconciled with the LDS Church – which is why he reminds me of one of my best friends from church. I want to embrace this me, but I realize that the best way to do that is to embrace my husband, Göran. So Göran is enveloped in “our” love.

Having made this realization – that I become fully self-actualized and my “split personality” is united through giving myself wholeheartedly in love to my husband – then I am ready for the next graduation in consciousness.

The objects I clear out of bed so that "John" can come join us symbolize my preoccupation with how I worry people will see us, or with "image" (the camera) and social convention or etiquette (the napkins). If I am preoccupied with these things, full integration of self is not possible. There's no room for an integrated me with those things in the way.

The reason I cannot see the Saint who has died and who is about to depart for the next life is because he is me. The gathering of “angels” in my room represent a fully restored and reconciled humanity – people of every race and religion – all gathered in unity, wearing robes that symbolize their non-creedal, non-religion-specific sprituality. They come from a theological seminary, a place that symbolizes learning of the highest order: learning about God. My husband Göran joins them. In fact, the only ones who don’t join them are the naked doubles of me, because it is in fact us they are praying for. We are naked, because that is the state in which, through death, we leave this existence and depart for the next, higher level.


Am I a saint, on the verge of some great ascent into a higher state of being?

Well, hardly. I am a saint only in the sense of all of us, in the sense clearly implied in the dream when I called on the name of Jesus to save me from a demon. I am a saint in the sense that I have claimed the name of Christ, and have entered into a path of faith, repentance, and love, in imitation of him. I still have a long journey to go before I’ve reached apotheosis! But that is my goal. It is the goal of each and every one of us.

The dream is not to tell me I’ve made it, but to remind me what I need to do in order to get there. Legalistic ego-guilt and ego-shame are a trap. Trying to fight off sin by legalistically guarding the boundaries of my “house” can’t help me. It only entraps me, as I futilely struggle against shame and despair that I on my own am powerless to fight off. Christ’s atonement very literally saves me from that sin/guilt preoccupation, freeing me for a new life, literally waking me from the slumber of sin.

In that new life, my ultimate goal, I find the full integration of my personality, the integration of my spirit and body in a perfected whole. And the way that wholeness is achieved is in setting aside my selfish wants, substituting in their place my love for another. Göran is literally himself in this dream, I think. Certainly the symbolism of the dream implies the intimate love between him and me. But he also symbolizes a more generic Other. He symbolizes all the others I ought to love “as myself”; all the others I ought to love more than my selfish wants.