Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Gay Mormon's Testimony

This morning as I was getting ready for Church, I received a very specific prompting from the Spirit to bear my testimony in Church. It was very clear and distinct.

I thought, I can't do that... I'm not allowed to speak in Church. And the Spirit's response was, "Just ask your bishop." I immediately imagined the bishop saying no. But the Spirit said, "Just ask him."

So I got dressed, got ready, and left a bit earlier than I usually do. As I rode my bike, I was composing a speech in my head, how I was going to ask him. And the Spirit said, "Don't do that. Just ask him."

So I arrived at the Church just as Bishop B. was finishing a meeting with his counselors. I sat down outside his office to wait. Brother C. stepped out of his office, and I asked if I could see the bishop for just thirty seconds.

I said to Bishop B., "I understand if you have to say no, but I want to know if it is OK for me to bear my testimony today."

Without any hesitation, he said, "I don't know of any reason why you would not be allowed to do that."

So I went into the chapel and found a seat. Instead of sitting in the middle of the back row as I usually do, I found a seat closer to the front and on the side, and I sat right next to the aisle so I would be able to get up more easily. I was going to be able to bear my testimony! Just thinking about it, I was already starting to weep. I got choked up trying to sing the opening hymn. I wept during the opening prayer.

I knew I was going to bear my testimony, but what was I going to say? I started to organize words in my mind. But the words weren't coming. I don't know how many of you have experienced the "stupor of thought" described in D&C 9:9, but that's what I had. I was trying to think of what story I was going to tell. And then I felt the Spirit again, saying simply, "Don't think about what you're going to say. You'll have the words you need to say in the moment you need them." So instead of thinking about what I was going to say, I just started to pray. And then the thought came into my mind with crystal clarity. This is a testimony. Just tell them what you know.

When the moment came, I got up and walked toward the podium. The bishopric all smiled at me. They just had the sweetest, kindest expressions on their faces.

It took me a moment to speak, to get over the emotion that was overcoming me. I began by telling them that I had asked that my name be removed from the records of the Church in 1986, after almost committing suicide. I told them I was gay, and that I had a partner with whom I will be celebrating our seventeenth anniversary soon, and that I love him very much and he loves me. Then I told them about that moment in August 2005 in Salt Lake City when the Spirit spoke to me so powerfully and undeniably, and reminded me that I had a testimony of the Church, how it confused me and made me angry at first, and how I had wanted to deny it and wrestled with it for months, but how the Spirit kept speaking to me so that I could not deny it, and then I started coming to Church in October 2005. And then I told them about their kindness, and what they had done for me, how Bishop M. had helped me. And then I told them what I know about the Church, about Joseph Smith, about the Book of Mormon, and about Jesus Christ. And then I thanked them for their many individual kindnesses to me over the years. And then I was done.

Bro. P. got up and called me his best friend, and he started talking about my faith, and my love for my parents, and my love for the scriptures. Later Sis. B. got up and told how, when I sang a solo musical number for the ward, she had never forgotten how she could hear my love for the Savior in my singing. When Bishop B. concluded by bearing his testimony, he added kind words of his own, and nodded and smiled down at me from the podium.

After Sacrament meeting ended, a crowd of people gathered around me, one after another hugging me, encouraging me, and telling me how much they loved me. All people who, at one time or another, had reached out to me in little ways over the last three years. All I could do was thank them and weep.

The ceiling of the sanctuary didn't fall in. Nothing exploded. Not one person reacted negatively. The entire ward just responded almost unanimously with pure, unreflective love. They just instinctively reached out to me with kindness and understanding.

After I got home from Church, I called my parents and told them what had happened, and we all wept tears of gratitude together.

When I arrived at choir rehearsal later in the afternoon, one by one members of the ward choir shook hands with me, hugged me, wanted to thank me for bearing testimony. We chatted easily, intimately and comfortably. It was like this barrier that once disconnected me from most members of my ward had suddenly been lifted. Once I was sort of a mystery, but now they understood. And in their understanding, there wasn't a trace of condemnation.

One sister mentioned a lesbian daughter. Another sister told me about a former ward member who died of AIDS.

I know this doesn't solve all my problems. I know this doesn't change some of the fundamental challenges of my life. But it does make me understand that there's a place where I can go where people are rooting for me. And there is a kind of clarity now, that makes me feel like I can breathe so much easier. I am so incredibly blessed.

Later this afternoon, after the choir rehearsal, I met with one of my home teachers. He expressed surprise. He couldn't get over the fact that he had observed not the slightest trace of negativity or homophobia. He expected something, but he saw nothing but love. I realize that so many others have had such different experiences, so I don't take my blessing for granted. I certainly had a very different experience not too long ago in my parents' ward in Utah. But I truly also believe that the Spirit is at work in the Church. I feel so privileged to be a part of it.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Interviews with Christ

After separating the sheep from the goats, Christ interviews the sheep.

Interview #1

Christ: So I understand you are homosexual, but were married to a woman your whole life. What was that like?

Interviewee #1: Well, as you can imagine, it was very challenging. I followed the advice of Church leaders and got married, believing that if I did my sexual orientation would eventually change. It never did. And as I gradually realized that it wouldn't, I was disappointed, angry, depressed. I almost lost faith in my Church leaders and even in you. But I hung in there, and gradually I realized that there were other blessings that helped keep me going. I sure love my children! They made everything else worth it.

It was really hard for my wife, too, as you can imagine. She had to be twice as disappointed and frustrated as I was, once she realized I could never be the kind of husband she thought she was marrying. Boy did we argue sometimes, and we both said things we later regretted. There were times when we thought our marriage would never make it. But we hung in there. Boy, do I love her! The temptation to be unfaithful was very difficult, and there was even a time when I failed her in that regard. But somehow she was able to forgive me, and I went through a repentance process. And in the end, we realized we had something precious, even if it wasn't what we had initially hoped.

Even though we were surrounded and supported by friends, family, and Church, there were times when we felt so alone. People loved us, but they just never could understand what we were going through. Sometimes we thought we would go crazy. But we learned to reach out and rely on others more. And we learned how precious our relationships were to our extended family and members of our ward.

Christ: You're fortunate. It didn't work out so well for most people in your situation.

Interviewee #1: Oh, I know. I know.

Christ: What do you think you've learned from all this?

Interviewee #1: Well, I learned the value of obedience and how unexpected blessings can come from it. And I learned a LOT about communication and fidelity. And I learned how nothing important in life can be achieved without recognizing our interdependence. And of course I learned about the nature of love.

Christ: Well, we have some very important work for you to do that requires just those skills! Congratulations! You made it!

So I have one final question for you, and I want you to be completely honest. How do you feel about remaining together with your lovely spouse for all eternity?

Interviewee #1: Well, we've made it together this far. All of life's most important lessons, I learned from her. I can't imagine continuing without her.

But, um. I'm wondering, could you arrange for us to have a little more 'umph' in our marriage going forward? If you know what I mean?

Christ: (laughing) Yes, I know what you mean. And yes, I think adding a little more 'umph' to your marriage will be possible.

Interviewee #1: Yippee!


Interview #2

Christ: So I understand you are same-sex attracted and consequently you chose to remain celibate your entire life. What was that like?

Interviewee #2: Well, as you can imagine, it was very challenging. Members of the Church, friends and family tried to be supportive, I think. Their hearts were in the right place, but so often they just didn't get it. Sometimes there were things said in Sunday School and Priesthood meeting that made me just want to get up and scream. But I didn't. And gradually some folks figured it out, and I learned not to get upset by the ones that didn't.

But the hardest thing, as you can imagine, was the loneliness. Sometimes it was just grinding. It felt like I was dying. Sometimes I was so angry at Church leaders who counseled me to stay celibate. I thought, "What do they know? They're married! They have a wife and kids to go home to." Sometimes I felt like just giving up on the Church, even on you. But I hung in there. And I discovered strengths I never thought I had. And gradually I learned that I never really was alone. I could feel you there by my side. And there was no companionship I would rather have than yours!

And with no wife or kids, I had so much time and energy to get involved in some really great service projects... Serving food to the hungry. Building houses for the homeless. Visiting people in prisons. You were there too. Boy, nothing in the world gave me a better feeling than seeing people's faces when you'd done something good for them.

Christ: There are very few who gain as profound an understanding of the whole meaning of life as you have.

Interviewee #2: I was blessed. I was always so blessed. Thank you!

Christ: What do you think you've learned from all this?

Interviewee #2: Well, I learned the value of patience, and how friendships can be blessed and deepened by it. And I learned a LOT about the value of obedience, and how it can teach us to be stronger than we ever imagined possible. And I learned the pure joy of service. And of course I learned about the nature of love.

Christ: Well, we have some very important work for you to do that requires just those skills! Congratulations! You made it!

So I have one final question for you, and I want you to be completely honest. Would you still like to continue single, or are you interested in the possibility of finding a partner going forward?

Interviewee #2: A partner, please!! That's what I've been saving myself for! I've had enough loneliness for all eternity.

Christ: Male or female?

Interviewee #2: I can choose? But, um, suppose I choose a woman... There wouldn't be any issues with, um, you know...

Christ: No, it's possible to work that out.

Interviewee #2: Well, I love women, so let's make it a woman.

Christ: Good choice.


Interview #3

Christ: So I understand you are gay and you found a life-partner of the same sex, though you faced some very difficult social challenges. What was that like?

Interviewee #3: Well, I couldn't have done it without my husband. We were there for each other through rejection by our churches, job discrimination, alienation from our families. We had to learn to really make extra effort to be there for each other, because all of those stresses took a toll on us, and sometimes made it hard for us to give as much as the other needed. And we managed to stay faithful to each other too, despite the usual temptations. As a result the mutual love that grew between us was incredible. And it taught us how to give to others as well, and gave us a foundation to give service to the broader community. And we adopted two children, and just can't imagine what our life would have been like without them!

Of course, I also had to wrestle with my anger. People could be so hateful, and could say and do things that made us feel like shit, like the scum of the earth. I felt so crushed and betrayed by the Church. So often, I even lost faith in you, and believed that you didn't love me either. I almost committed suicide at one point. But you were there for me, and I learned to rely on you. And I gradually learned that in order to survive I had to come to terms with my anger, and learn to forgive others for what they had done. And when I did, I realized what an incredible gift that was! I realized that there is no love that even compares to the love that we return for hate. What an amazing gift!

And so often there was just incredible self-doubt that tormented me. How could I be right, when it seemed like the whole world disapproved of me? At least the part of the world that really mattered to me -- the Church, our families. But I knew that our love was a good thing, and choosing each other and taking care of each other the way we did was the right thing to do, even when everyone else called it a "sin." Learning to stand up for what you know is right, even when no one else has faith in you... It came in handy in lots of important situations. I'd say it was worth it.

Christ: I'd say you've done well with the gifts you were given.

Interviewee #3: Thanks for helping me with that!

Christ: What do you think you've learned from all this?

Interviewee #3: Well, of course with my spouse I learned the value of communication and fidelity in helping us build a love that made life worth living. And of course I learned a LOT of patience! And courage to stand up for what is right. And of course I learned about the nature of love.

Christ: Well, we have some very important work for you to do that requires just those skills! Congratulations! You made it!

Interviewee #3: You mean you're not sending us to hell?

Christ: (smiling) No, you've done enough time in hell. We need you in Heaven, even if only to ruffle the feathers of the "righteous"!

So I have one final question for you, and I want you to be completely honest. How do you feel about remaining together with your lovely spouse for all eternity?

Interviewee #3: You're not going to split us up now, are you? After all we've been through, I can't imagine continuing without him!

Christ: No, if that's what you want, you and your husband may look forward to learning and growing together forever.

Interviewee #3: But what about our kids, can we be with them too?

Christ: Yes, we can make arrangements for you to be with the kids too.

Interviewee #3: Yippee!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Gay Whore of Babylon

In this dream, Göran and I were at a big party.

The person who invited us was our lover. At the party I recognized many friends there, as well as prominent members of the Twin Cities gay community. In fact, everybody in the gay community of the Twin Cities was invited and was there, and they were all his lovers. The party we had been invited to was his birthday party.

The residence of our host, where the party was being held, was an enormous and luxurious penthouse at the top of a skyscraper. There was a spectacular view of the entire city surrounding us, visible through picture windows that went all the way around the apartment. At the very center of the apartment was our host's bed. The bed was huge, big enough to accommodate twenty people at once.

Our host was young and extremely attractive and popular and had been born into wealth and privilege. He had received every advantage in life from the time of his birth. Göran and I asked him if he would commit to us and come live with us, but refused to give us an answer. Later I overheard a conversation between him and his mother, and he explained to his mother that as long as he could have sex with whomever he wanted, whenever he wanted, he had no desire to settle down with anyone. At that point, I realized something needed to be done.

I began talking to people at the party, and told them that we needed to demand commitment from him, and tell him that without it, we would no longer have sex with him. I organized a protest in which we all took shovelfuls of dirt and threw them onto his bed. I spoke with a prominent member of the Twin Cities Gay Community, and together we convinced people that when it came time to raise toasts to our host, that instead of toasting him we would each confront him and challenge behavior he had engaged in that was hurtful. That is what they did. One after another, guests began to tell our host that they had invited him to join them at their Christmas parties year after year, but he had refused to come celebrate Christmas with them. He never celebrated Christmas with anyone.

After this "intervention," I showed a video tape of the earlier protest when people had thrown shovelfuls of dirt on his bed. From the camera angle of the video, his bed looked long and rectangular, like a grave, and the shovelfuls of dirt flying onto the bed looked like dirt being tossed into a grave.

Until this moment, our host had seemed oblivious to our protests and our confrontations, but when he saw the video he became angry. He seemed very upset, not because he felt bad about his behavior, but because he realized we were all going to stop having sex with him. He announced that the party was over and he was throwing everyone out of his house.

As I was getting ready to leave, I overheard someone saying that he had every intention of continuing his behavior, but now he wanted revenge against certain trouble makers, namely those of his former lovers who were "religious." He had a giant bulletin board on one of the walls of his apartment that looked like the giant departure/arrival sign at an airport. On the board were the names of everyone he had ever had sex with. Next to the names of those he wanted revenge against was the letter "R."


This dream was striking in its parallels with imagery of the Book of Revelation, but translated into a setting distinctly more familiar to me, and with a few Book of Mormon images thrown in. Instead of Rome, the location is Minneapolis/St. Paul. The great and spacious building in my dream looked suspiciously similar to Minneapolis' tallest building, the IDS Center.

The "host of the party" is the world. As in the Book of Revelation, "having sex" in this dream is "commerce." It's the devil's pact we all make in order to live in the world. And what is the world but acquiescence in the social pacts that leave the poor to starve and that deny love for the sake of power? Or even merely for respectability? The world is the conventions whereby we exchange that which is of greatest value for convenience. The world is compliance to the standards dictated by idle privilege. It is the unwillingness to be bothered to alleviate suffering.

At the end of my dream, the gay whore of Babylon has not given up, he's just trying to divide and conquer, biding his time to see whom he can buy off. I have often felt that the gay community is now at the same crossroads as every community that has faced marginalization and rejection. Will we learn our lessons?

The movement of the dream was one of repentance. The unmasking of true intentions, defiance of corruption, the rejection of business as usual. It is interesting to me that in Revelation, the Saints' only role in the unfolding of the final drama is to refuse to be marked, to prefer starvation to injustice, and to suffer affliction as they wait for salvation. The birth of the new world calls not for revolution, but patience. If we don't understand that the only battle we can ever fight is in our own hearts, we soon end up back in bed with the beast.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Faith Promoting History II

In response to my last post, Bravone mentioned how at one point he wrestled with certain aspects of the Church's history, and temporarily lost faith as a result. I have had similar experiences, and I know of many others who have too. I suggested that it is not the facts of history themselves which pose challenges to our faith, but distorted or naive assumptions that we bring to the facts. When those naive or distorted assumptions are proven false, we become disillusioned and lose faith.

I don't claim great wisdom on this subject. Like Bravone, I must confess that I have occasionally failed crucial tests of faith. But I would like to share some insights I've gleaned over the years. I do have a testimony of the Church, and I can say that having read widely and deeply in Church history, I find that my testimony of the gospel grows only stronger the more I learn. But there has been a winnowing process where false notions have had to be filtered out.

Below are two lists I've compiled. The first is my "Seven Deadly Historical Assumptions." The second is "Seven Blessed Historical Virtues." Just as we must learn to avoid the sinful assumptions, we must also embrace the virtues in order to develop a perspective on Church history that will strengthen us as a people.

First, the Seven Deadly Historical Assumptions:

1) Mormons never did any wrong, and were always innocent victims of Gentile persecution.

Historical conflicts, such as those that abounded in the early days of the Church, are always complex. The early Saints often antagonized their neighbors unintentionally or unknowingly. The early Saints were human, and often failed to communicate adequately, often suffered doubt (and the fanaticism that is sometimes an overcompensation for doubt), and sometimes retaliated unjustly for injustices they had suffered. Like anyone, the Saints could fall victim to the "ends justify the means" mentality that sometimes leads to atrocities.

The Saints often were innocent victims. And the history of the early Church is also full of stories of inspirational kindness, long-suffering, hard work, and endurance. The verdict of history, as interpreted both by Mormon and non-Mormon historians, has generally fallen on the side of the Saints. The early Church did suffer grievous wrongs. But they weren't perfect, and an appropriate sense of humility requires that we acknowledge that where appropriate. If we don't, we risk committing the same sins of fanaticism that our ancestors sometimes committed.

2) Church leaders never commit serious errors.

We all accept that Church leaders are not "infallible" or "perfect." Yet, we still somehow draw an imaginary line dividing serious error from inconsequential error, and we want to put all of our church leaders safely to the "inconsequential" side of that line.

Yet, read the scriptures. They are replete with stories of divinely called leaders who commit serious, sometimes even grievous errors. This didn't invalidate their calling. It didn't mean they weren't true prophets. It didn't mean that the Lord would refuse to continue working with them. It didn't mean that the Lord couldn't still use them to accomplish his work. It did require a repentance process just like everyone else.

3) The prophet and apostles can never teach false doctrine.

It is true that Church leaders will never lead the Church astray, but the reason is not necessarily because Church leaders are immune to false thinking, or because God will miraculously strike down or remove an errant leader. Rather, it is because the members of the Church have the gift of the Holy Ghost and are required to use discernment. The failure to use discernment is a sign of spiritual laziness and pride, two of the sins that lead to apostasy.

Look hard enough at the historical record, and you will find a number of stinky old false doctrines that at one time or another were eagerly promulgated by prophets or apostles of the Church. We generally don't know about these doctrines any more for a good reason. Because they did not survive the test of time or the collective discernment process of the Church.

4) The Church is not influenced by the culture in which it resides.

Line upon line, precept upon precept. Here a little, there a little.

When the Church was established, all of its first members participated in a culture that was (and remains) in many ways apostate. They were not "blank" slates, devoid of false ideas. Many false ideas are never challenged precisely because they have wide cultural currency. That is to say, so many people believe them that they never think to challenge them.

And generally, the Church has received revelation in response to queries or problems. In other words, much of the darkness in which we dwell is not necessarily illuminated by God until we as a people have taken the initiative to seek light.

Mormons have, in turn, created a culture which is largely of their own making. Some elements of that culture are based on divinely inspired insights, but many are just based on human error. Increasingly, as the restored Gospel has spread throughout the world, some of those (erroneous) cultural assumptions have been challenged. Sometimes we have wisely risen to the challenge.

5) Every single historical claim ever made by a Church leader must be literally true, or the whole restored Gospel must be false.

God calls leaders for a variety of reasons. Rarely does God call a church leader because that person is a knowledgeable historian.

6) Every policy of the Church that has ever existed was inspired and intended by God.

An institution as enormous and complex as the Church requires a myriad of practical, day-to-day decisions to be made. Those who are called to make those decisions often must make them based on minimal information because they simply don't have the time to do painstaking research. And generally it is counterproductive to challenge or question every single policy, even when there are problems with it.

Hopefully the most important or the guiding policies are implemented based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit as well as knowledgeable assessment of the situation, as the Spirit requires.

7) No criticism of the Church has ever had any basis in fact.

Many critics of the Church have criticized out of less than charitable motives. Many are motivated by a desire to tear the Church down. But sometimes well-meaning folks are wrong, and sometimes ill-meaning folks have a gem of truth that bears listening to.

The Church would be wrong to adjust course every time a well-meaning (or ill-meaning) criticism is voiced. But we set ourselves up for bitter disillusionment if we inure ourselves to the possibility that course adjustments are occasionally called for.

The frequency of the signifiers "never" and "ever" in my list of deadly sins should be clues as to what is wrong with most of them. Absolutistic thinking is comforting, because it alleviates us of responsibility, and justifies intellectual and spiritual laziness. But it is dangerous, and ultimately it serves neither us nor the leaders to whom we would like to attribute god-like infallibility.

Just as we should avoid the sins, so we should seek to cultivate the Seven Blessed Historical Virtues, which will enable us to root ourselves in a positive understanding of our past, and to move forward with faith into the future:

1) Don't condemn what you don't understand.

Just because something is counter-intuitive, that doesn't mean it's false.

Yes, the historical record does hold a wealth of examples of situations where a prophet received divinely inspired understandings that seemed false and wrong to everybody around them. Obedience to these counter-intuitive calls or warnings opened paths forward, while disobedience led to stagnation and destruction. That's why we cherish prophets and scriptures and why the Church, though flawed, is still the most precious institution we have!

When in doubt, seek the guidance of the Spirit.

2) Have faith.

Sometimes we don't have enough evidence to judge whether something is true or false. When that happens, it's OK to go on faith.

3) Look beneath the surface.

Things are not always what they appear. The emergence of previously hidden evidence often completely transforms our perspective on things. Pay attention to details.

4) Be charitable.

Sometimes we want to get on a high horse and uncharitably condemn the faults and failings we see in past leaders and members. But hindsight, as they say is 20/20. What sins are you committing right now that only future bumps and bruises will bring to your attention? Some day, history may not look very kindly on you!

5) Look at the big picture.

The truth is, sometimes the morality of a course of action is not evident until we see the long-term impact of that action. Very often, things that look terribly wrong in the little picture work out to be right in the broader view.

6) Understand that God's plan is still unfolding.

We don't know the end of things, and we should expect that there are many things we simply won't know until the work of God is complete.

7) Be humble.

We don't know everything.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Faith Promoting History

This week I am covering Mormon History in my American Religious Histories classes. As always, I find it is every bit as challenging to teach the history of my own faith tradition as it is to teach the history of the faith traditions of others. If not more challenging!

I am, of course, vividly aware of the fact that I don't teach LDS Church history to liberal Protestant seminary students in a graduate level history course in the same way I would teach it to LDS members in a Sunday School or Priesthood class. Yet, I have a testimony, and that certainly informs my teaching in the academic setting, just as it would inform my teaching in a church setting.

For instance, in three and a half years of attending LDS Sunday School and Priesthood classes, I have witnessed only one mention of polygamy (that I can remember). And it was referred to only parenthetically, as the teacher discussed how Emma Smith's faith and how her love for her husband were put to the test by polygamy. (That was actually a rather remarkable discussion!) Yet, no graduate-level history class that includes any coverage of Mormonism could afford to minimize discussion of polygamy in the same way. (By the way, one of the best treatments of LDS polygamy, from a doctrinal as well as a historical perspective, is Lawrence Foster's Religion and Sexuality: The Shakers, the Mormons, and the Oneida Community. The author is a non-Mormon, but the book is written from a perspective that is very sympathetic toward Mormonism, and the discussion of LDS polygamy is respectful and insightful.)

I'm not saying that the lack of discussion of polygamy in modern LDS devotional settings is wrong. I believe it is appropriate to focus discussion in devotional settings on what is necessary for us to live the gospel today -- to focus on teaching with the Spirit in such a way that we will be equipped to practice faith, repentance, and charity in our daily lives. And in general a detailed discussion of the history of polygamy really would be irrelevant to that objective. I do believe it behooves Church members to be well-enough educated about their own history to be able to answer questions by non-members intelligently (and correctly). But it is probably right that Sunday School is not the setting in which all of that education needs to happen.

But while the content of a more secular teaching setting must necessarily be different, still I do not believe that teaching in that setting should exclude the context of faith. Of course, just as certain academic teaching norms would be inappropriate in Sunday School, so certain devotional approaches would be inappropriate in a grad school course. Yet I do not -- I cannot -- teach church history (my own or others') merely as an academic exercise. My students need to understand how the historical travails of the church have produced a dynamic, living community. They need to understand something about the faith that provides Latter-day Saints a compass for navigating through the challenges of today's world. As a believing Latter-day Saint, I can also share how that works for me personally.

Every time I teach, it is challenging and exciting. I'm still re-examining and weighing old approaches, thinking about what worked last time, and what I'd like to do differently this time. And each class is different. The student dynamics are different, and what I bring to my teaching is different, depending on what questions and challenges I am wrestling with. So every teaching experience is really art more than science, really spirit more than letter.

I can't wait to see what happens tonight!

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Thank God..."

"Thank God you never let a drink of alcohol touch your lips."

I heard those words coming out of the mouth of my 17-year-old foster son last night.

Earlier that day, I went with Glen to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where we got him his learner's permit. "Now you have a license to be a menace to society," I joked. He's really excited to get behind the wheel and start learning to drive.

We came home and got a bite to eat, and then he started on homework while I went to work on my latest writing project. Göran arrived home later than usual, around 8:00 p.m. That's the time of night we usually watch an episode or two of a favorite TV show before going to bed.

"South Park or Six Feet Under?" I asked.

Göran voted for the goofy-looking round-headed cartoon kids with potty mouths. Glen voted for the dysfunctional family in the mortuary business. I had the swing vote, and I was OK with either, so we had to negotiate a little bit until we finally settled on Six Feet Under. Somehow, in the course of discussing television choices, Glen mentioned how his father would habitually come home drunk on beer, grab the TV remote from his young son, and change the channel on him, without asking -- or caring -- what he wanted to watch. And that was when those words came out of his mouth.

"Thank God you never let a drink of alcohol touch your lips."

A day earlier, we had had a different sort of conversation. We watched Bill Maher's Religulous a couple of weeks ago, and Glen has, in imitation of the comedian, I suppose, taken to asking "What good is religion to the world?" He asked that question the night before last.

"Well," I ventured lamely, "The end of slavery? The emancipation of women?" I attempted to discuss the role of Christianity and Christian ideals in the modern-day world-wide legal ban on human bondage, and in the emergence of the concept of women's rights in the West. As a student of religious history, I could speak about this with some authority. Though I knew that whatever "good" religion had accomplished in these realms was also counterbalanced by such delightful phenomena as the Biblical defense of slavery and the medieval Christian debate over whether women have souls. And both Glen and I knew what, in the name of religion, has been done, is being done to us -- to me and Göran as a gay couple -- and us as a family. I knew that whatever good I could think to say about the accomplishments of "religion" per se is counterbalanced, perhaps even outweighed, by the evil religion has been used to justify.

The truth of the matter is, religion is for the most part apostate. Its day-to-day, ordinary uses consist of providing us an excuse to feel superior to others, or worse, of offering us routines, rituals, and doctrinal formulations that we can use as blinders or shields against the demands of God upon us. The demands of mercy, love, and justice. Most religion is what the Book of Mormon describes as the Church of the Devil. Even the truest of the true religions lends itself to these hideous uses.

But then there were those words of Glen about alcohol never touching my lips. That's a demand of religion too. And that to me was a concrete illustration of the value of faith, because when I gave up alcohol for good a few years ago, I honestly saw nothing wrong in an occasional drink or two. It was an act of faith, in response to a prompting of the Spirit. In my mind, it seemed an odd gesture. Drinking, I told myself, was not bad in itself, only its misuse. Abstinence from alcohol is a religious requirement of the LDS Church, but I can't be a member of the Church, so why should I feel bound by its restrictions? I had only considered living the Word of Wisdom again because my bishop had suggested it to me, and, in the wake of his suggestion, the Spirit had prompted me. So I did it. And I've even taken a lot of flak for it since, from friends and from my spouse. And I couldn't offer much to defend myself except to say that I felt it was what I needed to do.

And then last night I learned, in that passing phrase from my 17-year-old foster son, about the nature of trust between a father and a son. How in one relationship, alcohol had become a kind of anesthetic that made a father insensitive to the needs of a son. And how, in another relationship, the refusal to let alcohol so much as touch my lips was a kind of promise I didn't even know I'd made.

If there's any good at all in religion, it's in the training that it gives us to make and keep those kinds of promises.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato, Sunday, March 1, 2009

This is what I had to say to Unitarians about being gay and Mormon.

Malachi 4:5-6
Matthew 16:24-28

In the spring of 1986, I had a plan. I was at the end of my junior year at Brigham Young University. By any objective, worldly measure, I had a lot to look forward to. I was a recipient of the Kimball Scholarship, the highest academic award at BYU, a straight-A student, and had just received an award for best undergraduate research paper in History, and had as a mentor and role-model one of BYU's brightest historians. I should have been making plans for graduate school and plotting a career. But my mind was not on the future. At that point, I was pretty sure I had no desire to live any more. So my plan, after returning to my parents' home in Massachusetts for the summer, was to wait until I had been left alone at the house with one of the family cars, and then lock myself in the garage with it and start the engine running, and then just go to sleep. To me, that was a good plan, involving the least amount of pain.

A few years ago, I encountered some Mormon missionaries on the front doorstep of the home of a friend. When I explained to them that I had once been a member of the Church, one of them asked me, “What caused you to lose your testimony?”

I replied, “I didn't lose my testimony. It was because of my testimony I almost killed myself.”

The truth is, I loved the Church. I loved it so much that I could not see a way to live without it. And increasingly, as I came to terms with what it means to be gay, I could not see a way to live in it either. I still love the Church with my whole heart. And I still have a testimony. My whole joy in life has been in finding the courage to acknowledge that still.

More recently, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who is gay and Presbyterian. We were discussing the problem of gay Mormon suicide. In light of the fact that gay Mormons have one of the highest suicide rates in the country, my friend asked me, “Rather than trying to reconcile homosexuality and Mormonism, shouldn't you be helping gay Mormons to leave the Church?”

I replied, “The problem is, suicide is how they are leaving the Church. Finding a way of reconciliation is how we will help gay Mormons live.”


Most of my friends outside the Church don't understand how any gay person would voluntarily remain affiliated with a Church that denies the validity of same-sex relationships, or that, worse, actively works to deny civil rights to same-sex couples, as it did recently (and notoriously) in the successful campaign to pass Proposition 8 in California, banning legal same-sex marriages. Many people assume that to be gay and Mormon is somehow impossible, a contradiction in terms.

True, far, far too many of us saw it as impossible enough that we took our lives. Many others of us have found a way to come to terms with being gay, and to see ourselves and our sexuality as good, and have opened ourselves to the kind of affirmation of humanity that is possible in loving, intimate relationships. And most in that category are living in exile from the Church, having been excommunicated or having left voluntarily, and have totally disassociated themselves from the Church, though not all of us. Some of us, myself included, are finding ways to nurture a genuine Latter-day Saint spirituality, and remain connected to the Church in some way.

Many of us, following the advice of Church leaders of a previous generation, married and had children. And many of those marriages foundered against the rocks of excessive or insufficient passion, but not all of them. So many of us are still working, with varying kinds of success, at making these seemingly gravity-defying, mixed-orientation marriages work, and are getting varying degrees of support from the Church.

And many of us are following the current advice of Church leaders to avoid marriage unless there is a “great” mutual attraction, and to remain celibate. Many find the loneliness of celibacy too much to bear, but not all. Fortunately, in recent years there have been greater attempts to speak openly and more compassionately about the challenges faced by gay Mormons, which has provided some relief and support to those who have chosen this route.

I would say it is not impossible to be both gay and Mormon, but it is very difficult. And the truth is that the choices faced by gay Mormons are not different in kind from the choices faced by very, very many others. I want to speak this morning about taking the difficult path of reconciling seeming opposites, about its dangers and its rewards.


I am a teacher of American religious history. For good or for ill, the American religious landscape and the plethora of diverse religious communities that occupy that landscape have all been shaped by the American frontier experience. There was a time in our history when that frontier was literal and geographical. America began as a place where you went if there wasn't space for you because you were too religiously different. Puritans, Quakers, Baptists, Mennonites, Catholics, Jews, and freethinkers all arrived on American shores in search of a place where they could be unmolested. In the broad open spaces of America, you could flee changing conditions in your homeland in order to preserve the purity of an ancient tradition, or you could leave an old and outmoded tradition behind in search of a new one, like Methodism, or Unitarianism, or the way of the Disciples, or Universalism or Mormonism. And as the religious landscape of the eastern seaboard colonies became increasingly crowded and intolerant, you simply packed your bags and moved West, which is famously what my ancestors did. No place for Mormons in New York, or Ohio, or Missouri, or Illinois? On, westward, to Utah!

The frontier was geographical, but it was also psychological and spiritual and political. The political frontier was embodied in the First Amendment, abolishing religious establishments and protecting free religious expression. In the First Amendment, Americans unprecedentedly made every man and woman the ultimate arbiter of spiritual truth, allowing us to part ways from each other in as many different directions as there are citizens. The psychological frontier is reflected in our sense that religion is a private affair, making every American an island. The spiritual frontier is reflected in our belief that every man and every woman chooses his or her own destiny. Old style Calvinist notions of predestination died quickly and unceremoniously in the fires of American revivalism. Every American, in a sense, now sits on the “anxious bench,” the fate of their eternal soul hanging in the balance of a decision they alone can make.

And yet, the frontier – both the literal one and the figurative one – was a fiction. In the American imagination the frontier is uninhabited. There is plenty of room there for each to go his or her own way. But there were no uninhabited spaces in America, not really. In order to make it so, we had to deny the existence of Pequods and Powhatans and Creeks, Iroquois and Delaware and Cherokee, Shawnee and Ojibwe and Lakota and Kiowa and Arapaho, Shoshone and Dine and Ute, and Klamath and Nez Perce and Chinook. And in the process, we also had to deny everything that connects each and every one of us to each and every other one of us. We invested in the fiction that what I do, the way I live my life, has no effect on you, is unconnected to the way you live yours.

To fail to see the ways in which we are connected, to act as if we are not connected, when in fact we are profoundly connected, when in fact our attitudes, our words, our deeds have profound impacts on others, is the definition of hell. So perhaps it is that true freedom, true faith, true life consists not in fleeing our problems for some imaginary frontier, but rather in standing our ground, coming to terms, facing our fears, wrestling our demons and ultimately coming to see ourselves in the perplexing, unfathomable, irreducible other.

Sometimes that other is ourselves. As a gay man, the demon I first had to wrestle was that image of me as apostate and rebellious, as promiscuous and degenerate, as selfish and irresponsible. But I can't ultimately face those fears if I deflect them by viewing those who disagree with me as dogmatic and autocratic, prudish and intolerant, pitiless and rigid. To stereotype and scapegoat others is an evasion that prevents me from fully loving myself. Once I let go judgment – of myself and of others – I am finally able to truly connect and to be real with them. This is as true of my relationships with my husband and with my son, as it is of my relationships with co-workers, as it is of relationships with the members and leaders of my Mormon ward, as it is of my relationship with God.


The day it was most difficult for me to attend Church in the Lake Nokomis Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was Sunday, November 9, 2008, the Sunday following the passage of Proposition 8 in California. My husband and I were legally married in Riverside, California the preceding July 25. Our wedding was attended by my entire family, and it was one of the most joyous occasions of our lives. So we had a personal investment in the outcome of that particular vote. I didn't know what it would be like for me to be there in my LDS congregation, the Sunday after the success of a campaign that the LDS Church had so disproportionately contributed to for the purpose of erasing my marriage. Would the pain and sadness that I felt about Proposition 8 taint my ability to love, and learn from, and worship with the Saints?

There was a moment after Sunday School, when a casual conversation between two members caught my ear. A sister was uncritically repeating one of the assertions of the “Yes on 8” campaign that gay rights activists wanted to force the schools to teach children acceptance of homosexuality. A brother accused gay rights protesters of religious intolerance. I already felt wounded. These comments were like salt in my wounds. Wasn't it enough to take away our marriage? I didn't want to take anything away from them. I had no desire to diminish them in any way. How could they not see the hypocrisy in what they were saying? I wanted to say something. It felt like a kind of dying to keep my peace. It feels like a kind of dying to admit now that I said nothing.

But I kept my peace. These members of my ward know that I am gay and in a same-sex relationship. One of them was my Sunday School teacher for a time and appreciated my comments in her class. The other I had assisted by volunteering in a genealogy project. To argue with that brother or that sister in that setting would immediately have put a chasm between them and me, which I'm not sure we would have had the power to bridge after that. It would be hard for them to see me after that other than through the offense I had taken; hard for me to see them after that other then through the inevitable defensiveness a reaction from me would have provoked. It was better for us to continue to see each other as brothers and sisters; easier for them to figure out for themselves what went wrong when the time is right. More importantly, to lose patience and to argue then would have been to lose trust in the larger truth that my humanity and my dignity do not depend on what they say in ignorance, nor on what I might reply in anger to defend myself.

Do we have to be perfect in order to love one another? Does our love have to be perfect to be real? Or is love like a seed, least perfect when we first put it in the ground, and growing more perfect as it sends roots into the soil and sprouts up toward the light? The frontier mentality in me wants me to pull up and leave, find someplace more congenial. But this is how we learn faith: when our heart aches, but still we stay put, and we keep watering, and we wait to see if there can be growth.


So let me tell you about the moment, in August of 1986, when I first realized that I no longer wanted to kill myself. I had been so angry at God, ever since the moment it sunk in to me that no matter how much I fasted and prayed, no matter how many good works I did, no matter how good a missionary I was, no matter how faithfully I attended Church or paid my tithing or served in every calling that my bishop asked me, no matter what, God would not change me and make me straight. I was so angry. It was so unfair. Why would he not do this for me? Wasn't this a righteous desire? Didn't God want me to be straight? How could God expect me to be straight and then not give me this blessing that I wanted? So when God did not give me what I asked for, I stopped praying and I began wishing for death.

I did not want to speak to God any more, but God did not stop speaking to me. After I went home to Massachusetts with that plan to end my life, I met an Episcopal priest who befriended me, and whose kindness helped ease some of the anxiety and pain I felt. But the moment I felt the Spirit most strongly was later that summer, in Helsinki, Finland in a student exchange program. I was alone in a dormitory on a small college campus just to the north of Helsinki, when I had an incredible sense of the love of God just enveloping me. Letting go my anger and pride, for the first time in months I knelt down and began to pray. And I heard the voice of God telling me clearly and lovingly that there was no part of me that he did not know; he knew me from before I was born; he knew me from my inmost parts. He knew that I was gay. And he loved me unconditionally.

It seems strange to me now, but I had almost given up everything, I had been willing to kill myself, because I had taken for granted that God judged me and condemned me and hated me for being gay. I had never bothered to ask God; and I had never listened for an answer.

This is why heading for the frontier often cannot help us: because it is so often our own limitations that need to be worked through in order for us to grow.


I am certain that we sometimes need the psychic space that separation gives us. I'm not saying that it's always bad. With God's blessing, I left the LDS Church for nineteen years, and in that time I went to grad school, came out of the closet, became an activist, met my husband of seventeen years now, and continued to wrestle with faith. It was all part of a necessary process of growth. Then, in another dramatic communication of the Spirit which came to me while I was at a conference of Mormon intellectuals in Salt Lake City in August 2005, I was reminded that I still had a testimony, and it was time now for me to go home and finally learn the lessons that had been postponed when I left the Church nineteen years earlier.

The Old Testament scripture for today is a key text for Mormons. These words of Malachi were quoted in slightly different form by the angel Moroni when he appeared to the prophet Joseph Smith in 1823:

Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.

Without the children, the parents can't be saved, and without the parents, the children can't be saved. If we forget our covenants to each other, if we forget each other, the whole world is wasted.

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

We can't save ourselves. We can't save our own souls, for as Jesus said:

Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

I pray that, when the time comes, we will all find the courage to face those difficult moments that come to each of us when we need to exchange our lives for our souls.

I pray in Jesus' name.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Dancing in Church

Sunday, Göran danced at Lyndale United Church of Christ. The music he danced to -- chosen to fit the theme of the sermon for the day -- was the song "Home" from the musical The Wiz, sung by Diana Ross. It was beautiful, perhaps the best dance performance I've ever seen him do (and I've seen him do many).

As always, I wept. I can't help myself whenever I see him dance at church. He is so beautiful, so comfortable in his own skin, so centered, so confident. Göran has never been as verbally articulate as I am. But in movement and gesture, he is able to express himself with a grace I will never be able to. When he dances in church it is his testimony, his expression of what God has done in his life, told through movement. This past Sunday, he told of past pain and confusion, of pleading with God for help, and then of finding himself, finding his strength, and then moving forward with boldness and love. He told of his own process of finding home where, in the words of the song, "there is love and affection."

Watching him, I was reminded of the obvious truth of both our lives. Without him, where would I be? Without me, where would he be? My search for "home" is made possible because of the strength I've found in him. I have been there every step of the way in his own search for "home," which culminated in our trip to Memphis last summer. But like Dorothy in The Wiz, we have learned again and again at the end of our various journeys toward home that home was also there all along. We only needed to look in our own backyard. I was reminded in watching him dance how we have become "home" to each other; how there's "no place like home," like the home that we've become to each other.

I partly also wept because I wish he could dance like that in my home ward. I'm not sure Mormons are ready for liturgical dance. I don't think I've ever seen that in a Mormon church. (It's rare enough in Protestant churches!) But beyond the lack of an appropriate stage in a typical ward house and the confusion that would be inspired by anything outside of the standard hymn - prayer - announcements - sacrament - talks - hymn - prayer format, there is the reality of me and him, of our home, our love that is the context for this particular dance.

But part of me so deeply wishes he could dance there, both figuratively and literally. That he, that we, could find the unconditional love and support there that would enable us both to dance, with our whole hearts and our whole souls.