Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hardness of Heart

Here I am, minding my own business, doing my morning scripture reading. Leviticus chapter 25, on the years of Sabbath and years of Jubilee. One of the central principles of this text is the theme, "Ye shall not therefore oppress one another; but thou shalt fear thy God: for I am the Lord your God" (vs. 7).

The year of Jubilee was designed to put limits on the extent to which the rich could become richer at the expense of the poor. If a person fell on hard times, he or she might sell part of their inheritance -- their land -- to someone else. If times got really bad, and they had already sold all their land, they might "sell" themselves as indentured servants or slaves. But in the year of Jubilee, held once every fifty years, slaves and indentured servants went free, patrimonies that had been sold reverted to their original owners:

And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubile unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. (vs. 10)

In laying forth the law of Jubilee, God explains, "For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen. Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God." (vss. 42 & 43).

This is quite an extraordinary passage, potent and relevant yet today. Or so I am thinking, until I run across this:

Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour. (vss. 45-46)

That stopped me dead in my tracks. Did I read right? Is God here really saying, "You may not make perpetual slaves of your fellow Israelites. But if you want perpetual slaves, go ahead and take them from among the alien peoples who are your neighbors"? Is God really giving the go ahead here to make slaves of other nations?

Perhaps this passage is like the "hard" things that Lehi taught his children, of which Nephi wrote: "For he truly spake many great things unto them, which were hard to be understood, save a man should inquire of the Lord; and they being hard in their hearts, therefore they did not look unto the Lord as they ought" (1 Nephi 15:3). Perhaps the full meaning and context of a passage such as this can't be properly understood without the Spirit of the Lord.

Perhaps the prophet Abinadi held the key to understanding this passage:

And now I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God; Therefore there was a law given them, yea, a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him. But behold, I say unto you, that all these things were types of things to come. And now, did they understand the law? I say unto you, Nay, they did not all understand the law; and this because of the hardness of their hearts; for they understood not that there could not any man be saved except it were through the redemption of God. (Mosiah 13:29-32)

Perhaps this commandment is like the law concerning divorce, of which Jesus said: "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so" (Matthew 19:8). Could we infer, "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to make slaves of your brothers of other nations, but from the beginning it was not so"?

Was the lust for slaves like the lust for wives, that Jacob condemned, when he wrote: "And now it came to pass that the people of Nephi, under the reign of the second king, began to grow hard in their hearts, and indulge themselves somewhat in wicked practices, such as like unto David of old desiring many wives and concubines, and also Solomon, his son" (Jacob 1:15)?

Did God let the ancient Israelites take slaves of their neighbors, because it was hard enough getting them to give up the idea of making slaves of each other? Was it that God knew it would take several hundred more years of suffering and captivity and slavery before they could understand that no people shall be sold as bondsmen, for they all are God's servants which he brought forth out of captivity?

This is a hard thing to understand, this section of Leviticus 25. A hard law, perhaps, for a hardened people.

But if that is so, the only hearts that could be harder than those which received this law would be the hearts of those that, after the light God shone through Isaiah, after the light God revealed in Christ, would want to go back to that law.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Maundy Thursday

Most of the Christian world refers to the Thursday before Easter as "Maundy Thursday." I have for years been asking around, asking clergy and lay people alike, trying to find out if anybody knew what the word "maundy" means, but nobody seemed to be able to tell me. The dictionary only explained what I already knew, that it was "the Thursday before Easter, observed in the Christian Church as a commemoration of the Last Supper."

Last night, Lyndale United Church of Christ held its Maundy Thursday celebration at "It's Greek to Me," a popular Greek restaurant in Minneapolis. It was an interesting way to commemorate the last supper, with an actual meal. Pastor Don had prepared a liturgy, printed on a bulletin which he passed around to the meal participants. So the worship consisted of prayer and remembrance, sharing of (pita) bread and grape juice, a hand washing, interspersed with discussion and conversation. And of course food.

It so happened that I was sitting at the table right next to Pastor Don. At one point in the evening, I leaned over and asked him, "So, I've been asking people over the years, and nobody seems to be able to tell me, What does the word 'maundy' mean?"

Don smiled and pointed at words that were printed in the bulletin he had handed around earlier:

A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.

He poked his finger just under the word "commandment." "I think 'maundy' is from the Latin," he ventured.

"Of course!" I exclaimed, "'Mandare' is Latin for 'to command.' Mandare. Maundy."

A light went on in my heart. For centuries, Christians had been commemorating Jesus' last supper with his disciples. And they named the day of that commemoration after the most important thing that Jesus did at that supper, giving them a "new commandment," a new law.


Maundy Thursday is the day that Christians are supposed to remember that under the reign of Christ there is one law above all others. That we love one another with the same sacrificial love that he loved us. That is how we would be recognized as his disciples.

That seems like a word we ought not to have forgotten the meaning of.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Coming Out in Our Wards

Since posting about my experience a few Sundays ago bearing testimony in my ward, I've had a number of people comment or email me expressing amazement at what a unique and loving and supportive ward I must have. I will not deny that my ward is an amazing, very loving, very reverent and caring group of people. Nor will I deny the fact that my ward may be different from many other wards by virtue of the fact that it is located in a demographically diverse, urban area. This probably predisposes them to be a little bit less uncomfortable with racial or ethnic diversity, or shocked by diversity in sexual orientation. Still, having grown up in the Church and having experienced a number of different wards both in and out of Utah, I will say that my ward is also a very conventional ward in many ways, and more similar to most other U.S. wards than it is different. Furthermore, I believe that due to recent national events and heightened discussion by Church leaders about sexual-orientation-related issues, the membership of the Church as a whole is becoming better equipped to come to terms in a more positive way with the visible presence of gay and lesbian members. I believe that if we give members of the Church the chance, by being willing to be vulnerable and trusting them, they can rise to the occasion of individual members "coming out," and can both minister to us and allow us to minister to them.

The decision to come out of the closet in one's ward is a very personal one. My general perception, however, is that sexual orientation is not an inconsequential aspect of who we are, and that trying to keep this absolutely secret can become a heavy and unhealthy burden for individual gay or lesbian members to bear. If one of the purposes of the Church is for its members to "bear one another's burdens," then I would argue that a culture which stifles gay and lesbian members and keeps them "in the closet" is actually a failure to minister in the way that Christ intends. So I think that in general it is good for people to be out in their wards. I think that as the Church continues to evolve in a healthy direction -- it's already begun evolving in this direction -- it will be easier and more natural for gay and lesbian individuals to come out in appropriate ways and find the support they need.

In the meantime, we should weigh our decisions related to coming out carefully. I do not believe it is ever appropriate to come out in a way that is disruptive or that focuses undue attention on ourselves. Rather, when we come out, it should be for the purpose of strengthening our wards and the mission of the Church within the ward, and enabling others to understand us better so they can minister to us and be ministered to by us in appropriate ways.

My coming out process in my ward first involved coming out to a relatively small number of people -- mostly priesthood leaders who needed this information in order to know how best to counsel me. I was careful to respect whatever restrictions priesthood leaders felt were appropriate, based on my membership status. (Thus, asking my bishop's permission before bearing my testimony.) I gave my bishops explicit permission to let others in the ward know that I was gay -- especially priesthood leaders -- if they felt that was appropriate.

I also came out to close friends in the ward who had shown a personal interest in me and wanted to get to know me better. I always approached this with an ethic of never lying or attempting to give anybody a false impression. I am a gay man living in a long-term committed relationship with a man, and together we are caring for a foster son. Anyone who gets to know me beyond surface formalities will learn this.

I once assumed that by coming out to priesthood leaders and close friends, I would soon automatically be out to pretty much everyone in the ward. Perhaps my ward is remarkably immune to gossip, because that did not happen. Miraculously (and appropriately, I suppose!) information that I shared with other individuals seems pretty much to have stayed with those individuals. There were many members of the ward who "wondered" about me or were "curious" about me, but miraculously (and appropriately, I suppose!) they did not pry or snoop into my personal life. (With one notable exception, that more or less proved the rule!)

There have been, in the almost four years I've been attending my ward, moments when I wanted to share a comment or a thought in Priesthood Meeting or in Sunday School, when to do so would have required me to come out or discuss my relationship with Göran or my membership status. In those situations I chose to keep quiet, because I was afraid that it might be distracting to the class and draw attention to myself in a way I felt was inappropriate. There have actually been moments when I wanted to bear my testimony in such settings, but couldn't because to do so would have "outed" me, and I wasn't ready to deal with that. I recently discussed this with my Elder's Quorum president, and he has strongly encouraged me to always bear my testimony, and never to feel reticent about sharing, especially when to do so can strengthen us as a quorum.

My decision to bear testimony in my ward two Sundays ago was in response to a remarkably strong and undeniable prompting of the Spirit. The prompting was very specific, and included instruction to approach and get permission from my bishop before bearing testimony. It also involved discouraging me from preparing some grandiose "coming out speech," or in any way trying to prepare beforehand what I was going to say. The Spirit led me to share key elements of my story so individuals would know where I was coming from, but not to editorialize on those elements of my story. Then the Spirit led me to affirm what I know: that the Church of Jesus Christ has been restored, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that Christ lives. My purpose in bearing testimony, I realized, was no different from the purpose of anybody else bearing testimony; to strengthen the faith of others and to obey the Spirit and foster its work among us. Had my goal in going up been to "educate" people about homosexuality, or challenge official Church teaching in any way, I feel it would have been extremely inappropriate, and (though all things are possible) I can't imagine the Spirit having prompted me to do such a thing.

I have been blessed, I think, because of my willingness to wait for the right time and the right way to come out to the ward as a whole. Those blessings include:

* knowing that it was the right thing to do, because it was prompted by the Spirit, and because the Spirit's prompting was validated by my Bishop;

* now feeling a sense of comfort and acceptance from members of my ward, who trust me and trust that I am there for the same reasons they are (to learn and grow and be edified by the Spirit);

* now no longer feeling that I need to censor myself in situations where to share would require me to be "out" in some way.

In order to do this, we need to be open and be prepared to handle a variety of responses from members of our wards, including some negative ones, and some that are well-meaning but clueless. If we seek guidance of the Spirit and remain humble and open, those situations will not be overly burdensome to us. We also need to make sure that before coming out to members of our ward we are in a space of being able to trust ourselves and trust our experience. In other words, we need to have come to terms with our own sexuality and be relatively confident enough in our journeys and in our relationship with God not to be mortally wounded if we encounter negativity.

I think the most important thing is to recognize that this is a journey. It requires patience. It requires the acknowledgment that different people are in different places on the journey, and we can only take the step that is immediately ahead of us, not the step that is a mile down the road from where we stand. We should never feel that the need to stay in the closet represents some kind of failure. Rather, it represents being in a space where more growth is required before greater openness is possible. It also can represent trust that God can move us to where we need to be, when we need to be there.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Christus Consolator

Göran, Glen and I paid a recent visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. While we were there, just browsing the general collections, a painting I had never noticed before caught my eye. It was a stunning image of Christ, sitting on his throne. Before him lies a dying man. Kneeling next to the dying man, just behind him, is an African slave, pleading for help. There are peasants, serfs, and soldiers, women, a mother mourning over the death of her infant, a man who has committed suicide. All have come to Christ for aid and comfort, and Christ's hands are stretched out in a gesture of mercy, in one hand shackles that have just been broken from the arms of the dying man.

I was utterly arrested by this beautiful painting, and found myself studying it and reflecting over it, long after Glen and Göran had wandered on to other parts of the gallery. It was a deeply moving experience, finding Christ this way in the heart of the museum. Not the first nor the last spiritual experience I've had at the MIA, but certainly one of the more memorable ones.

On the way out of the museum I stopped at the gift shop to inquire whether there was a book containing an image of the painting, or a poster-sized reproduction of the painting I could purchase. Nobody seemed to know about it.

Later I googled the title of the painting, the "Christus Consolator," and then I learned why nobody in the gift shop seemed to know about it. The painting has only recently been installed at the MIA, as of March 31, 2009. The painting, considered one of the more important works of art produced by nineteenth-century Dutch painter Ary Scheffer, was discovered recently by accident in the basement of Gethsemane Lutheran Church, in Dassel, Minnesota, covered with dust in a janitor's closet. When the Pastor Steven Olson discovered it, he was stunned, and turned it over to the MIA for cleaning presentation to the public. Rev. Olson has my deepest thanks and appreciation for this beautiful and timely gift. I'm grateful that he and his congregation felt moved to share this beautiful work of art with the world, rather than keeping it for themselves, as I'm sure many would have been tempted to do.

Isn't it strange though, how Christ so often comes to us in this way? Unexpected.