Thursday, October 22, 2009

MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN

The English phrase "the handwriting is on the wall" has it's origins in a story in the book of Daniel (chapter 5) in which the Babylonian emperor Belshazzar's feasting is interrupted by the appearance of "the fingers of a man's hand" writing these mysterious words on the wall of Belshazzar's throne room. The emperor is terrified, and asks Daniel to interpret the words, which he does:
God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it... Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting... Thy kingdom is divided...
In English, we use the phrase "the handwriting is on the wall" in situations where some troubling, inconvenient truth that those in positions of power and authority would like to ignore becomes obvious to everybody present. That moment -- when the handwriting is on the wall -- is the moment when change has now become inevitable, just a matter of time.

A gay, married man with two young children has been struggling to be a good father; he has kept himself worthy according to Church standards. He attends Church every Sunday, prays with his family, pays his tithing, avoids pornography, is faithfully celibate within marriage. He's at the end of his rope. No matter how good he is, he now finds thoughts of suicide pushing up unbidden out of his subconscious into his conscious mind, during the work day, when he's alone. He can't overcome the feelings of sadness, loneliness, and inferiority that make his good life a prison. He reaches out to his Stake President. His Stake President, a good and loving man, wants to help him. He tries to counsel him. But he cannot -- he will not -- say the words this faithful man needs to hear, because he is afraid of being out of step with the brethren. This faithful, married gay man leaves his office, more depressed than ever, with that word, "suicide," more insistently jangling around in his heart.

A straight man, a man who has devoted his entire life to faithful service in the Church, who has served in responsible callings of high leadership, a father and grandfather, a man of deep compassion, an articulate, educated, intelligent man, has his temple recommend taken away and his church privileges rescinded because he wears a "No to Prop 8" pin to Church.

Another gay, married man, also doing the best he can to live faithfully and worthily, has his temple recommend taken away because in his efforts to stay faithful and worthy, he has written certain things on his blog. He refuses to hide behind a blogger pseudonym. He now feels he must choose between telling the truth as he perceives it, and staying in the good graces of Church leaders. He chooses the truth.

Another straight man, a faithful member of the Church, a father and grandfather, attends a suicide memorial and speaks words of comfort to those who are gathered. He knows he may suffer repercussions in relation to his Church membership for being at that gathering and speaking those words. He chooses to be there anyway. It is better, he decides, to mourn with those that mourn.

A gay Mormon man marries his same-sex partner in California. He is doing his best to live a good life, a moral life, a life that is focussed on love and family and faith. He obeys the Word of Wisdom, prays, attends Church, volunteers at local food shelves and homeless shelters. He does these things not because it will win him back membership in the Church. That is impossible for him. He lives this way because he loves God and wants to do what is right. His parents -- life long, faithful members of the Church who have devoted many years of service to the Church, have served two missions and are contemplating serving a third -- insist on attending the marriage ceremony of their gay son. In a quiet moment, the father, explaining to his son why he has chosen to be present at this wedding despite the Church's recent letter urging Saints everywhere to support Prop 8, says simply, "They just don't understand."

Are these fingers writing on the wall?

A general authority of the LDS Church speaks at a gathering of "ex-gay" Mormons, and spends most of his time talking politics. Many faithful Mormons won't say anything publicly, because they are afraid to be disciplined. But privately, they are distressed, in anguish.

Another general authority makes another political speech at a Church college, lashing out against people he characterizes as opponents of the Church. Many faithful Mormons won't say anything publicly, because they are afraid to be disciplined. They love the Church. They have testimonies of the Church and its leaders. But privately, they have quietly decided that they share the beliefs of the so-called opponents of the Church.

Whether or not these are fingers writing words on the walls in the corridors of power and authority, they are not signs of health in a spiritual community.

When ordinary people, loving people, faithful people, people who have spent their entire lives committed to things like family, church, community, country and duty, find that they are being forced to choose between, on the one hand, truth and compassion, and on the other, loyalty to Church leaders, this is not a good sign.

When honesty and conscience are punished, when they are publicly tarred as disobedience and faithlessness, this is not a good sign.

That's handwriting on the wall kind of stuff.

I have spoken to too many faithful LDS individuals in recent weeks and days who feel a deep sadness. The kinds of choices they are being forced to make are sad choices. They are choices where, no matter what you do, a part of you is lost. What can you do but keep doing what you've been doing your whole life? Pray, listen, love, work, and be patient. Ignore the bad stuff. Focus on the good. Be grateful for what you have! Do what you know is right, and then accept the consequences, and hope for the best. Trust that God is in charge -- of his Church and of his world. Hold on to your testimony, no matter what! Be faithful.

I feel the sadness too. But it is a bittersweet kind of sadness. It is not a hopeless sadness. Not despair. Not hopelessness. It is a very, very hopeful, joyful sadness. (Is that even possible? Can such feelings really be all mixed up together, deep inside your heart?) I am grateful for my blessings. I am doing what I know I am supposed to be doing. My conscience is clean. I don't envy those who are in power, those who must make big choices, far bigger than all the little choices I've ever made in my tiny, insignificant life.

Whether the handwriting is on the wall or not, we must always be aware that we are being "weighed in the balances."

13 comments:

greenfrog said...

This:

"a very, very hopeful, joyful sadness"

captures my feelings, exactly.

Thanks, John.

Sean

Alan said...

Sadness at being forced to make what I and others believe is an artificial and unnecessary choice.

Hopefulness because we know the principles to which we try to remain faithful will outlast the personal opinions and prejudices of individual senior leaders and that ultimately God will set all things right.

MoHoHawaii said...

The writing on the wall in Daniel indicts corrupt authority, but individuals, even those without official roles, have responsibility for justice. Even the powerless have a duty to say no to atrocity.

The suicides and oppression need to stop. Active LDS people of conscience need to ask themselves whether contributing financially to their church leaves blood on their hands.

I am inspired when I hear the stories of those who show moral courage. I'm so sorry for the personal costs to them. I know what it means to be rejected by your community of faith.

We hear the phrase "enemy of the church" used by Mormons. The irony is that the church has decided to treat as enemies many, many sincere and believing people.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - I still reject a view of this situation which sees the LDS Church as a "corrupt institution" or the payment of tithing as a sin; or the Church's leaders as "corrupt authority."

I still believe that the disagreement over this issue is honest; I still insist on hoping that those who disagree with me on this issue have good intentions.

What alarms and saddens me, actually, is a hardening of positions that results in demonizing one's opponents. Faithful members are being disciplined because they cannot deny what they know to be true about their gay and lesbian loved ones, and because they are being forced to choose between the Church and the truth they have come to know through a son or a daughter or brother or sister or grandchild.

As much as I'm willing to say at this point is that as a Church we are in trouble if we refuse to even listen to such witnesses...

If the Church were corrupt, these individual struggles would not be tragedies. They would just be examples of stupidity on the part of individuals who refuse to see the Church for what it is. But they are tragedies because good people are suffering for some truth that they know, at the hands of good people who refuse to consider anything different from what they've always assumed to be true.

The way forward is not through more demonization and rejection, but through faith, patience and love. This is our opportunity to be faithful and hopeful, even under circumstances that -- outwardly -- look more hopeless than ever.

MoHoHawaii said...

I understand the baby-with-the-bathwater issue. Trouble is, this is some seriously nasty bathwater.

If my boyfriend and I weren't in the process of being forcibly separated by unequal immigration laws that the LDS Church endorses wholeheartedly and spends millions of dollars to ensure, I might have the luxury of a milder response to the church's relentless assault on my family. "We're all just good people" doesn't cut it when the gestapo shows up at your door. (This isn't hyperbole. If my boyfriend fails to get on that airplane, men will guns *will* enter our home by force and take him away in chains. This is a scenario that straight couples can't even imagine, yet it happens every day to gay couples in this country. It is happening right now to Tobi and me.)

Maybe I'll just keep this offline. It's probably inappropriate for the forum. I really mean no offense to you or to faithful members of the church, many of whom are kind, sincere folks.

J G-W said...

I can't imagine how painful it is for you to have to be going through this right now...

But the point of my post is precisely that this is why the opponents of marriage equality will lose. The human cost of treating gay people as subhuman is too great; and too many people, both in and out of the Church are waking up to this fact.

The "handwriting is on the wall," because despite the relentless anti-gay marriage propaganda, the opponents of equality are simply not convincing the majority of Americans. They are especially not convincing those who know and love gay family members or close friends or ward members. And if they can't persuade, if they can't convince, they can intimidate and threaten and curse and besmirch all they want, but they will not win.

I wish it were in time to save your marriage, I really do... All I can do is pray for some reprieve... You know if there were something more I could do than pray, I would do it...

Sean said...

Nicely said. The one thing people seem to forget is that "free agency" is never free. It comes at a cost at some point. But thankfully the choice is always there. It only comes down to whether or not we are willing to pay the price for one choice or another.

Anonymous said...

"They just don't understand."

I think that is right. Frankly, I think there is a lot about sexuality that we, as human beings, do not understand.

I also think a lack of understanding is not limited to Latter-day Saints or to this time of history.

"The way forward is not through more demonization and rejection, but through faith, patience and love."

I could not agree more. Thanks John.

DavidH

GeckoMan said...

John,
You speak of sadness with hope on the edge of it, and I think this captures my feelings precisely. I serve in my church callings with a short term joy, knowing my contribution has meaning for me and those who I serve, but deeper terms I wonder how long I will hold on to my truth and compassion until I too am challenged to make an 'us or them' choice. My ultimate faith is in a loving Father who knows and respects ALL his children. I'm with you, brother.

That said, I choose to focus on hope rather than fear or anger. I listen to General Conference with an ear for those words which soften, not harden my heart. Feeling the witness of the Spirit in my heart to love fully, to be obedient to God's commandments and to further commit to service in building up the Lord's Kingdom is a process that keeps me continuing in hope. I can hang on to all of this and still be 'true to the truth my parents have cherished.' My parents were not members of this church, yet they espoused the larger world view of equality and justice, which you speak of concerning your own parents.

Thanks John, for your clarion calls from the wilderness, your handwriting on the wall.

J G-W said...

Geckoman -- THANK YOU. Thanks for that affirmation. We're very much on the same page here. I get tired of the negativity -- after conference or in other contexts. At the end of sacrament meeting, we sang a song that is not in the hymnal but that is a favorite in our ward, "With Faith in Every Footstep." The Spirit was there so powerfully, and I had the sense that our ancestors faced incredible adversity. It was HARD to do what they did... And we need every ounce of faith we can muster to do what we need to do... Our challenges are different, but the need to have faith and work and be patient... We need to develop all those same skills...!!

Anonymous said...

I am writing this post in order to help myself understand my feelings on this issue in a deeper manner. I invite you to kindly explain to me why my view is incorrect.

I am 26 years old, LDS, and a virgin. Since the time I was about 13 my nature has been burning for a sexual experience. I am a virgin by choice, having many opportunities to give into my nature. I don't believe that my sexual desires are any stronger or lesser than those of a gay or lesbian. Society and culture says to me that giving into these passions is okay, that there is nothing wrong with it. My religion tells me that it is not okay to give into these passions and that I should wait.
I understand that there is a difference between myself and somebody who has a same-sex attraction and that is a hope of a sexually fulfilling relationship in THIS life. At the same time, this is not a guarantee for me either. I may grow old without everything finding somebody to marry in the temple.

I could let this sexual repression and loneliness lead to feelings of suicide or anger towards those who tell me that these desires should not be acted upon. Instead I choose to focus on my hope in Christ and the infinite atonement that truly has the power to make all things in this life work out.

J G-W said...

Dear Anonymous:

I think you already understand the issues yourself:

"I understand that there is a difference between myself and somebody who has a same-sex attraction and that is a hope of a sexually fulfilling relationship in THIS life."

Unless you are willing to try to understand what it is like for a gay or lesbian person to experience total condemnation for the desires they experience; unless you realize what a huge thing HOPE is, you will not really appreciate the significance of this difference which you are already clearly aware of.

"At the same time, this is not a guarantee for me either. I may grow old without everything finding somebody to marry in the temple."

Of course there are no guarantees -- for anybody!! There are no guarantees for gay or lesbian people seeking a same-sex relationship either. We may seek a relationship and not find one either.

But the difference that you are permitted, encouraged, and supported in the search for a mate, and applauded for finding one, again, makes all the difference in the world.

There's a difference between self-control and repression. When you are saving yourself for the right person and the right circumstance, that is called self-control. We engage in self-control -- we "bridle our passions" -- in order to prepare for and enhance a relationship. We generally experience self-control as a positive force in our lives, as something that enables us to achieve our goals of healthy and happy relationships.

When you are in denial, forced to hide, and when you are faced with the reality that there is no acceptable circumstance under which you can express yourself sexually, that is repression. Repression does not serve any higher purpose but denial.

Gay suicide isn't our revenge against the world, something that we do out of anger. It happens when we are not permitted hope, and when we stifle in shame, and when we feel unloved.

You can choose to try to understand, or not... It's up to you.

Anonymous said...

JG-W
Consider the possibility that you crave something which is forbidden. The argument you make is that, because you desire something, it is good. But this is not always the case. We often desire things which God forbids - it is part of the fallen nature of man. The same thing you describe - the yearning, the despair of unfulfilled desire, the condemnation of your essence - all of these same sensations could describe the soul of the pedophile, the adulterer, even the murderer. Do not define yourself by your proclivity to a particular sin. The pride of this mentality will be your undoing. Christians are called to see themselves as they are, imperfect, and to strive for perfection, trusting in God to supply the strength to carry on, though we can never be other than sinners at heart. PEARL