Monday, November 30, 2009

The Righteousness of Job

When the ear heard me, then it blessed me; and when the eye saw me, it gave witness to me: Because I delivered the poor that cried, and the fatherless, and him that had none to help him. The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me: and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me: my judgment was as a robe and a diadem. I was eyes to the blind, and feet was I to the lame. I was a father to the poor: and the cause which I knew not I searched out. (Job 29: 11-16)

Job's friends accused him of "great" wickedness, of "infinite" iniquity, charging him with neglect of the poor, the widows and the fatherless. Job's testimony on his own behalf was somewhat different.

Job was beloved and blessed by the poor. He was a "father" to them. The widow's heart "sang for joy" at the thought of him. He was "eyes to the blind" and "feet to the lame." These poetic turns of phrase leave it to us to imagine what kinds of provisions Job made for the disabled in a society that generally left the blind and the lame little recourse other than to beg in the streets. But the general image is of a wealthy and powerful man who channeled his considerable resources into caring for others who were far less fortunate. Job saw himself as a steward of the society he lived in, his wealth not his for personal pleasure, but a charge given to him by God for the purpose of providing for others.

I was particularly intrigued by the phrase, "and the cause which I knew not I searched out." It reminds me of Christ's parable of the good shepherd, who left the ninety and nine to go seek out the one. Job did not satisfy himself to wait for a problem to come to his attention. He actively sought out those who were in distress so that he might make their cause his own.

This is why God called Job a "a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil" (Job 1: 8).

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Of Our Humanity

God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me. (Job 27: 5)

Job's friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, argue with Job along two different lines. Along one line, they accuse Job of very specific sins, namely oppressing the poor and ignoring the pleas of the widow and the orphan:
Is not thy wickedness great? and thine iniquities infinite? For thou hast taken a pledge from thy brother for nought, and stripped the naked of their clothing. Thou hast not given water to the weary to drink, and thou hast withholden bread from the hungry.... Thou hast sent widows away empty, and the arms of the fatherless have been broken. (Job 22: 5-9)

Their accusations are, of course, utterly false. The Lord's own testimony of Job is that he is "a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil" (Job 1: 8). When Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar find Job unwilling to accept their first line of argument, they seek to undermine Job's confidence in himself with a second line of argument, namely that all men are inherently weak and sinful:
Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly: How much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth? (Job 4: 17-19)
If Job is not guilty of the specific sins of which they accuse him, his friends insist, he must be guilty of some sin worthy of God's punishment. Furthermore, in failing to acknowledge his sinful nature, they argue, Job is at least guilty of the sin of pride. If he will acknowledge his sinful nature, and thus relinquish his pride, they promise him, God will cease to punish him.

This second line of reasoning is impossible to argue against. To take issue with his friends, Job would have to argue that he is perfect and without sin, when all other men are not. Furthermore, since Job's friends are now accusing him of sins of the heart (such as pride), there is no proof that Job could offer them that could possibly convince them. Whatever he says in his defense will only convince them further that he is guilty.

Job is stung by what feels to him like betrayal. His friends simply won't believe him. Their would-be comfort is no comfort to him at all. "Ye are forgers of lies, ye are all physicians of no value. O that ye would altogether hold your peace!" (Job 13: 4-5). In this exchange between him and his friends, Job realizes he is completely alone. His children are dead, his wife has abandoned him, and now he discovers that even with these companions there is an unbridgeable chasm of accusation and mistrust. There is no human connection or consolation for him at all.

It might have been easier for Job to succumb at least to this second line of reasoning. After all, could he really be sure that he was not guilty of some sin that had brought these trials upon him? To acknowledge this would at least have allowed them to comfort him (even if on their terms rather than his). Why not admit that in fact all humanity is sinful, and therefore he must -- in his humanity -- indeed be guilty of some sin? Why not humble himself before God in this way?

But ultimately Job cannot do this. He cannot accept the sort of abstract theorizing about his situation that his friends insist on. And thus his cry: "Till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me."

Job's integrity is found in the specificity of his life, not in some theoretical discussion of sin that is abstracted from the details of a lived human life. But Job's integrity is also found in his capacity to perceive, understand, and relate directly to God. Job does not need anybody else to tell him whether he is sinful or not. There is no reason why Job is not capable of discerning the nature of his dilemma at least as well as -- if not better than -- his friends can. To his friends, Job insists (slightly mockingly) "No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you. But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you" (Job 12: 2-3). He feels obliged to underline it repeatedly, because his friends just don't seem to listen: "Lo, mine eye hath seen all this, mine ear hath heard and understood it. What ye know, the same do I know also: I am not inferior unto you" (Job 13: 1-2).

In his aloneness, Job realizes, if his friends will not believe him, he has only one recourse left. "I would speak with the Almighty; and I desire to reason with God" (Job 13:3). And perhaps, if I who am outside of Job's suffering, who am outside of his unique, specific relationship with God, can discern any purpose in God's putting Job through this kind of trial, it is in this. Perhaps it was to teach Job about his utter, existential dependence on God and God alone that Job was permitted to suffer the way he did. "For God maketh my heart soft," he says toward the end of his exchange with his friends, "When he hath tried me, I shall come forth as pure gold" (Job 23: 10, 16).

Integrity is a hallmark of Job in another sense too, a sense I alluded to in my earlier essay. It was in his insistence on the integrity of body and spirit, his sense that without physical existence, without his connection to wife and children, without a healthy physical body free of disease and pain, there is no existence worth having. We cannot transcend physical existence; there's no spiritual truth that has meaning apart from real physical bodies and real relationships in this life. This is why Job insisted that when he gets his explanation from God, it will be face to face, in the flesh (Job 19: 25-27).

I believe this is why gay Mormon suicide continues to be a problem. I believe gay Mormon suicide will continue to plague us so long as our community cannot recognize the fundamental nature of the bond between body and spirit, a bond that is the same for homosexuals as for heterosexuals. There is something fundamental within us that yearns for the wholeness and integrity that comes from intimate relationship. To be told that we are unworthy of that is to be told that we are fundamentally inferior. It is to shatter the fundamental unity that makes us both human and divine.

I have searched, I have wrestled, I have pleaded. I've wished for my life to end, and came close to ending it. I have argued with friends (and with people I wouldn't really call friends). I have studied, I've fasted, I've prayed. I've offered my heart and my relationship and everything I have and am on the altar of God. I have suffered, physically and spiritually. I have been in the dark, alone. And one day I came through the other side with a profound, unshakable sense that there is nothing wrong with me as regards my sexual orientation. There are things wrong with me; I have physical imperfections/handicaps/disabilities (the most obvious one is my asthma) that I anticipate being fixed in the life to come. But in my love for my husband, I experience only wholeness and goodness that continues to grow in perfection and beauty. If there were something wrong with me in the loving relationship I have with my husband, God should separate us in order to perfect us.

My sense of this is mine alone. I cannot give it to anybody else. No one can know -- either professed friend or professed enemy -- what I have experienced or the nature of my relationship with God. Like Job's friends, my friends can only speculate about what is in my heart. And then, if they choose to do so, condemn me on the basis of their speculation. On the other hand, to others in my situation, there's no assurance I can give that will offer peace. You cannot go by somebody else's life or example. There is only your life, your struggle, your dark night of the soul in which you wrestle with God alone and find your own answers. Only after you have asked yourself the hard questions and answered them honestly will you know how you stand and where you need to go.

But I can bear witness for myself, of my humanity and my integrity. I can say that a world that would divide me from my husband, penalize us for making our lives together, make us inferior under the law, punish and coerce and harass us into being straight, is not a world that recognizes humanity or integrity.

We are not inferior.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things Too Wonderful For Me, Which I Knew Not

My daily scripture reading has brought me to what is quite possibly my favorite book of the Old Testament, the Book of Job. Job is particularly appreciated by Latter-day Saints because of its references both to a pre-mortal existence and to the resurrection. But what is typically seen as Job's greatest contribution is its subversive answer to the troubling question "Why do bad things happen to good people?" The book's relevance has not diminished, and probably never will diminish no matter how theologically sophisticated we become, thanks to the all-too-human tendency to want to believe that good things happen to us because we are good, and bad things happen only when we are bad. This is an understandable way to distance ourselves from the misery of others, a way to comfort ourselves with the false reassurance that "that could never happen to me."

But Job also has a special relevance to me personally as a gay man. I re-discovered the Book of Job shortly after I came out of the closet publicly, and began to experience rejection and judgment from the church community I belonged to at the time. So much of Job resonated so very deeply with me, it felt to me as if it had been written specifically with my situation in mind. At the time, it was perhaps my single greatest source of comfort and reassurance. Since then meditations on Job have continued to help me find peace in my darkest hours.

Job 3 speaks powerfully to the despair that so many gay men and lesbians feel, upon coming to terms with the reality that their sexual orientation is simply not going to change, despite their greatest efforts and struggles. "For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me" (3: 25). Job, having lost everyone he loved, everyone who was of significance in his life, yearned for death. But more significantly, Job wished he had never been born. "Why died I not from the womb? why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?" (3: 11). His agony goes right to the very root and reason for his existence. Why would God have even allowed him to be created, if this was going to be his end?

That existential anguish is precisely what I experienced as I came to terms with my sexual orientation. What was my purpose, if I had no hope of the kind of family and life for which I had always been taught to believe I was created? Not to mention that I had heard those same words from the lips of Church leaders and teachers talking about homosexuality: Better I had never been born. Better for me to return home in a casket. I did yearn to die; and many do die.

"Comfort" and Blame
The Book of Job would be short indeed, if it weren't for the many long chapters comprising the dialogs between Job and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. Most people find these chapters boring, preferring to skip over them to the very end of the Job story. But in a very real sense, the book of Job is not as much about Job as it is about these so-called friends. The whole book of Job was intended as a refutation of the view of life that they espouse and advocate.

Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are presented as well-meaning, upright, pious, and completely clueless when it comes to their understanding of the nature of Job's particular predicament. Nothing they have experienced in their lives has prepared them to absorb the full meaning of the events that have befallen Job. More importantly, their evaluation of Job's circumstances amounts to simple denial. They begin with the premise that God rewards the righteous with a good life and punishes the guilty with suffering. Job is suffering, therefore he is guilty. Their premises are inconveniently contradicted by the facts of Job's life and Job's own testimony, so they simply choose to ignore the facts.

Job's friends accuse him of lying; they accuse him of secret sin; they accuse him of cursing God in his heart. God, argues Bildad, cannot be unjust. Therefore, for Job to assert that he is not guilty of any sin worthy of this suffering is to call God unjust. Job must be a liar, or the honor of God cannot be maintained. This is so reminiscent to me of those who respond with outrage when I express my profound sense that God created me gay. To even suggest such a thing, God's would-be defenders indignantly assert, is to make a mockery of God. What can I respond to that? Nothing that will convince them, since my very existence is an offense to their notion of creation, and denying my understanding and accusing me of lying is all that's left. In fact, the reason the central section of Job is so long, is because Job's attempts to reason with his friends bring on ever more vehement arguments. Argument under such circumstances is impossible. And to those gay men and lesbians who have found themselves arguing their own case until they were blue in the face, Job's demonstration of the futility of argument is instructive.

Job's friends assert that affliction is always the result of sin, and Job readily agrees, but points out that in his case, this principle does not apply. Job, in other words, finds himself in the extremely inconvenient position of asserting that he is a special case. It's not something that Job himself is comfortable with. And at the root of Job's spiritual malaise is the fundamental confusion he feels about the situation in which he finds himself. His own circumstances simply make no sense to him. He longs for greater understanding, but that understanding is not forthcoming.

When the Sons of God Shouted for Joy
Job's inability to solve the conundrum of his creation leads to his testimony -- perhaps one of the most moving passages in all of scripture:
For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another. (19: 25-27)

Job's only hope for redemption from this plight is in the life to come, when he can stand before his Maker, and petition him for a full accounting of the mysteries of this mortal life.

In the Book of Job, this accounting takes place not in a future life, but in the present one. The encounter between God and Job, as described in the Book of Job, has been the subject of much theological discussion. To many who read this "resolution," God seems to give Job an answer that is not an answer at all. God does not seem to resolve the philosophical problem around which the whole Book of Job seems to be built -- why bad things happen to good people. Indeed, as the arguments of Job and his friends demonstrate, the philosophical problem runs deeper than that. For as Bildad asserts, God being all powerful, the suggestion that unjust suffering exists in God's world is a challenge to our sense of God's righteousness. This is the classic theodicy problem that has exercised theologians for centuries. But God answers none of these questions.

Yet Job comes away from the encounter with God satisfied... In a way that many readers often are not when they read the Book of Job. This is a key point in the book. The book itself points us beyond the explanations, beyond the words offered in the book. We will not find the answer to Job's problem in the Book of Job. We can find it only in the way that Job himself found it... In an encounter with God. The Book of Job points us toward that encounter, but it cannot substitute for it.

But there are hints in the book's description of the encounter between God and Job about what we may expect when we ourselves come face to face with God for our own accounting. God speaks to Job about the foundations of the world, the very beginning "when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (38: 7). Job's anguish is existential -- it is about the very nature and meaning of his being, about the reasons for his creation. And it is to the Creation -- in the broadest sense of all created being, but also in the very intimate, specific, personal sense of Job's individual creation -- that God points Job in his answer.

When we come face to face with God, in other words, the Book of Job promises we will not be disappointed. The most important questions in our individual lives will find their deepest and truest answers in that encounter.

But in the meantime, we must wait.

The English language has a turn of phrase, "the patience of Job." I always wondered about that upon reading the Book of Job, because Job does not seem very patient to me. He complains a lot.

But Job's experience of living in a situation that seems unbearably unfair is to some extent the lot of all humanity, living in this world in this time between the Fall of Adam and the Coming of Christ. To those of us who are gay or lesbian, there are a number of particularly bitter lumps we must swallow, not the least of which is the gross misunderstanding we have to contend with among those whose understanding we yearn for most -- our Church's and our family's.

We have no choice but to wait. And we might even complain. But patience, I think, is the not-so-passive virtue of cultivating good in our lives even in the face of gross injustice, while we wait.

We might as well. We have nothing better to do.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cloud of Words

I saw this on Mohohawaii's web site, and thought it was really cool... This image was created from my blog, produced by an algorithm that converts text into a graphic representation of the most important words in the text. This does kinda capture my blog -- certainly the last seven posts anyway.

Here's the link for others of you who want to try it. Warning, though! I had some technical difficulties, and was only ultimately able to present this to you with Mohohawaii's kind assistance.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Do Unto Others

I've been reading the Book of Esther, and am struck by themes that I've never really noticed before. For one thing, the narrative offers an interesting commentary on the natural human tendency to exercise unrighteous dominion, and particularly men's tendency to exercise unrighteous dominion over their wives. At the heart of the story is Esther's courage in standing up to the unthinking and unrighteous dominion of Emperor Ahasuerus, knowing full well how he had treated her predecessor, Queen Vashti, for standing up to him. And Esther was responding to a crisis that had been provoked by the courtier Haman's outrage that Mordecai the Jew had refused to bow down to him. The Book of Esther is also a powerful commentary on the type of courage that is required for those without power to stand up to those who do have it, especially when the latter are using their power unrighteously.

But the particular unfolding of Haman's fate is also instructive. It is not simply a story about how Haman's plot to destroy the Jews was thwarted through faith and courage. It is an amplification of the golden rule. It is a morality tale with a powerful warning. Beware! Because the harm we seek to do to others, we ultimately only do to ourselves. The traps we lay for others, are traps we actually prepare for ourselves. The corollary message of course is: The good we do to others is good we do not only to others, but to ourselves as well.

It is not just that Haman plotted harm, and then was ultimately the recipient of harm. It is that Mordecai, his enemy, received the precise honors that Haman plotted for himself. Haman was hung on the precise gallows that he constructed for Mordecai. Those who would have destroyed the Jews were destroyed by the Jews. Their harmful intentions were literally mirrored back at them. They received precisely and in exact measure only what they prepared for their hated enemies.

There's a spiritual principle at the root of the Golden Rule, and at the root of the dire warning contained in the story of Esther. We come closer to that spiritual root of human relations in the covenant that we make at baptism, to "bear one another's burdens," and to "rejoice with those that rejoice, and mourn with those that mourn." We should do unto others as we would have others do unto us, because in the divine economy, there is no significant difference between "us" and "them". In the eternal realm, our personal, individual happiness (if such a thing exists) will depend upon the happiness of those around us. Or, perhaps more truly stated, our happiness is the happiness of those around us. In the divine economy, the ultimate punishment is isolation (outer darkness), and the ultimate reward is communion. It is only natural, then, that our ability to receive that reward is contingent upon our ability to recognize the interconnectedness of our personal fortune with the fortunes of all those around us.

What is of particular importance is that our attitude toward our "enemies" is based upon a false awareness of reality. The logical construct of "enemy" is a lie. To believe that one has an enemy is to believe that one is justified in harming another human being. It is literally to cut ourselves off from the very human beings whose happiness is the condition of our own. To nurture enmity is the lie that, above all other lies, Satan wants us to believe in, to invest our whole lives in believing and living. In fact, it is the one lie that Satan himself is least likely to recognize as a lie. Satan, after all, has cast all of his fortunes on the principle of enmity with God. And Satan made war with God because he believed too forcefully in the rightness of his cause, that his coercive plan for forcing us back to God's presence would be more effective than God's plan of free choice. What terrible and terrifying ironies! What tragedy! A tragedy that far too many of us are unthinkingly on the road to. For when we make others our enemy, we become an enemy -- not only to others, but to God. Who of us is not in this predicament to some degree?

But don't worry! Christ came to overcome enmity, to restore harmony, to reestablish friendship between humanity and God, and friendship among all humanity. The entirety of Christ's teachings, life and atonement were designed to break us out of that false awareness, to lead us step by step into the truth that will enable true fellowship with God. But we have to let go. We have to let go of what Satan couldn't: our rightness, and our willingness to pursue our rightness to the point of enmity.

This spiritual principle is far more dangerous to history's winners than its losers, far more dangerous to the conquerors than the conquered. For "the last will be first, and the first last."

Latter-day Saints -- who value marriage so terribly highly -- might consider what it will mean in the divine economy to have invested so much in taking marriage away from others.

But that's not a warning I can take the least bit of comfort in. If I harbor hardness of heart or a desire for harm against those who have harmed me, there will be no comfort for me either in the grand scheme of things. If I wish good for myself, I must find it in my heart to work for the good even of those who have esteemed me their enemy.

Friday, November 13, 2009

How the Scriptures Relate to the Issue of Homosexuality

In a recent guest post on Mormon Matters, I was asked to comment on my understanding of what the scriptures have to say about homosexuality. While the question was at least tangentially relevant to the topic of the post, I felt digressing into a full blown discussion of it would take us too far away from main purpose of the post, which was to discuss my feelings in reaction to the LDS Church's recent public backing of a Salt Lake City ordinance banning discrimination in housing and employment on the grounds of sexual orientation. I offered, however, to publish a separate post here exploring that topic, and inviting any who were interested to comment or discuss. I welcome challenging questions, and expression of views that are different from my own, but I'm not interested in contentious or disrespectful debate (which this topic has a tendency to attract).

I could write much more extensively on the subject of how the scriptures relate to the problem of homosexuality. But this is a summation of how I understand and approach this.

The Role of Scripture in the Christian Life

I feel first of all that it is necessary to discuss my understanding of the role the scriptures play in faith and in the teaching of the Church. Among some there is a tendency -- emanating from American Protestant fundamentalist culture -- to treat the scriptures as if they are a rule book. In this view, all behavior in life should be measured against whether or not the scriptures explicitly, specifically prohibit or encourage it. Folks who adhere to this point of view have a tendency to resort to heavy-handed "proof-texting," citing passages that they think support their point of view of whether something is acceptable behavior or not. I believe this use of scripture is false and idolatrous.

My understanding of scripture is based on the notion expressed in D&C section 68:
And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. (v. 4)

In this uniquely Latter-day Saint understanding, scripture is God's living revelation to people who are in relationship with God. Scripture may or may not be recorded in writing; it may be expressed and received in any setting where the Holy Spirit is present to inspire the speaker and carry the word into the hearts of the listener. Scripture and revelation are one and the same thing, and "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Revelation 19: 10).

In this concept of "living" scripture, the actual words spoken or written provide only half of the picture. It is possible to hear or to read the words, and miss their full significance, because a true understanding of scripture is only possible with the translating power of the living Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can speak to us through the medium of written scriptural texts in many different ways, sometimes offering us one true understanding and later offering us a different true understanding of the same text. The gift of the Holy Spirit is essential to reading, understanding, and receiving scriptures properly. Every time I read the scriptures, I begin with a prayer, asking the Lord to grant that the Spirit can open to my mind and heart the hidden treasures contained in the scriptures, that I can access only with the aid and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will enable us to "liken the scriptures unto us" (I Nephi 19: 23), often taking a story or a text from a situation that seems on the surface to be completely different from our own situation, and showing us how it is directly relevant to us.

This is why it is never enough simply to have once read a scriptural text. Once you have read all of the standard works cover to cover, your work with scripture is not done. Reading the scriptures daily is a necessary spiritual practice, no matter how many times we have read them, because it is only in daily reading, under the enlightening influence of the Holy Spirit, that we receive the bread we need for our spiritual journeys every single day of our lives.

In this understanding of scripture, written texts are valuable because of the testimony they provide. The value of ancient scriptures is less in the cultural and historical specifics in which they were recorded, and more in their witness of an eternal God who has fostered a living relationship with his people throughout history, from ancient until modern times.

This is why using the scriptures as some sort of hide-bound rule book is dangerous. Anyone who is familiar with the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy knows this. It is not to say that regulations of the Pentateuch are irrelevant to us! Far from it! But their relevance to us is in their witness of God's relationship with the children of Israel, in their journey from slavery to nationhood. The rules themselves -- it seems evident to me -- were culturally specific. They were intended for a group of people and a culture who -- for the most part -- were still steeped in idolatry, violence, and hard-heartedness. We may have some things in common with the people of that time (and again, the Spirit can show us what we have in common). But we also have our own sins, our own cultural blind-spots, and our own weaknesses that require God's guiding, merciful hand in a very different way. Which is why for specific guidance, we need to look to what God is speaking to us here and now, in his living relationship with us today.

My own present relationship with scripture began in response to an invitation from the Spirit to begin reading the Book of Mormon. At that point, I was still feeling pretty alienated from the faith I had been raised in. I felt as if the only thing my faith community had to offer me was condemnation and intolerance. But the invitation of the Spirit was warm and incredibly loving and compassionate. The Spirit promised to teach me, to show me a way back to my Heavenly Father that was tailored to me and my specific needs as a gay man, who had once contemplated suicide, who was in a long-term, same-sex relationship, who was excommunicated from the Church, and who was in a lot of pain. None of those specifics of my situation mattered so much as that my Heavenly Father loved me and wanted me to turn to him. The Spirit could show me how -- in my specific situation, with my specific needs -- I could begin and stay on the journey. But I had to pick the book up, I had to pray and ask for help, and I had to read it. And, accepting the Spirit's invitation, I did, with a hunger and a desire to learn and to know what God had to teach me through scripture.

That journey, continued daily, one day at a time, began almost four years ago. And it has been one of the most powerful journeys of my life. I do not find hate, judgment, or condemnation in the scriptures. Always, the scriptures show me a way forward, teach me exactly what I need to do in the many very challenging situations I find myself in. How to handle situations with my spouse, with our son, my relationships with family, co-workers, members of my ward. How to deal with discouragement, doubt, pain and sadness. How to deal with discrimination, hate and homophobia. The scriptures have something to say about all of these things to me, because I am in a living relationship with my living Heavenly Father, who has sent the living Holy Spirit to teach and guide me, and help me liken the scriptures to myself. None of us need ever have fear of the scriptures, or believe that because of who we are that they are somehow unaccessible to us.

The Weightier Matters of the Law

There is a narrative within scripture about the nature of Law and the role of the Law in the life of the faithful. There are greater and lesser principles of the Law. All laws (lower case) are subsumed under the "Great Commandment" to love God, and to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus Christ came as the perfect exemplar of this law of love. Paul, in his teachings (see I Corinthians 13), pointed out that there were three great Christian virtues, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these was love. The highest, most perfect expression of that love was exemplified in the greatest act ever performed in human history: the Atonement. Christ gave his life for us, that we might live.

On a number of occasions, Christ made public demonstrations calculated to show that when lesser aspects of the law come into conflict with "the weightier matters of the law," the weightier matters always take precedence. Christ performed a number of healings on the Sabbath, for instance, and encouraged his disciples to gather food on the Sabbath, offending those who preferred a stricter interpretation of those laws. Christ prevented the implementation of the Law in the case of the adulteress who would have been stoned to death.

Later, through revelation to Peter (described in Acts 10), the Church was eventually led to abandon the old Levitical prescriptions and ordinances. This was a period of trauma and conflict in the Church, as conservative "Judaizers" resisted, resenting the influx of Gentile members who did not observe (and did not even know) the old Levitical law. The nature of this conflict, and the theological difficulties it presented are best documented in the epistles of Paul. The Pauline theology encouraged the faithful to see how the law of "rules and ordinances" was a "schoolmaster" to prepare us to live the higher law of love that was most perfectly revealed in Christ.

Modern-day revelation has deepened our understanding of the nature of this higher law. D&C section 121 is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful expressions of this law, demonstrating that perfect love and service are demonstrated through gentleness, meekness, kindness and persuasion, never domination or coercion.

Applications of the Law

Christ showed that when lesser aspects of the law come in conflict with the weightier matters, the weightier matters always take precedence. But there are numerous other examples in scripture that demonstrate the contingency of law. I am intrigued, for instance, by the great mystery of Adam and Eve's disobedience in the Garden of Eden. This act of law-breaking is rightly viewed as a paradox, especially given perspectives available only in Latter-day scripture. Nephi explained it best:

If Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden. And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin. But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things. Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2: 22-25)

This act of disobedience was actually necessary in order for God's entire plan for humanity to unfold. My own theory about this is that God's plan required us to leave his presence, to learn and grow on our own. But eternal law dictates that we can leave God's presence only through disobedience. This is speculation on my part, but can anyone else explain this mystery to me? This would also explain why Christ's Atonement was a necessary enabling part of the plan established from before the foundation of the world...

But there are other stories in scripture where we are struck with the paradox of disobedience to one law required in order for God's plan to move forward: Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac; Nephi's murder of Laban.

The point is that obedience to God's law frequently requires difficult ethical choices. It requires us to discern between weightier and lesser matters of the law, and between specific demands of particular, historical contingencies, and the general demands of revealed commandments. To make this all the more complicated, another great governing principle providing the framework for making these ethical choices is the principle of free agency. God frequently leaves us on our own to wrestle with and come up with answers to problems by ourselves. God will assist us in our decision-making process, if we ask, but frequently God demands that we do our own footwork first (see D&C 9:7!). I believe God wants us to wrestle, to agonize, and to struggle with our ethical choices, because it is the only way we will grow!

Homosexuality in the Law

OK, so finally I can talk about what the scriptures have to say about homosexuality. Frankly, we don't have a lot to go on:

*Genesis 19 - the Sodom and Gomorrah story, in which the men of Sodom attempted to rape two angels

*Leviticus 18 - the Levitical prohibition against a man lying with a man as with a woman

*Romans 1 - in which Paul describes sexuality that is against nature, and that is the consequence of idolatry

There are a few other less clear passages that are sometimes added to the list -- depending whose list you read. For example, there's Jude's comment about going after "strange flesh" in Sodom. (Raping angels?) There are Paul's comments about effeminacy and sexual perversion, particularly in I Corinthians 6 and I Timothy 1. If you look up homosexuality in the topical guide in the LDS standard works, it lists a few Old Testament passages where the Kings of Israel are described rooting out the "qadesh," or male ritual fertility prostitutes (rendered in the King James Bible as "sodomites" by translators who had no idea what "qadesh" were).

The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are silent on the subject of homosexuality.

How we read what texts are available is heavily influenced by our cultural norms, mores, and expectations. Western European culture -- particularly Hellenistic Greek culture -- was generally positive toward homosexuality up until about the 3rd century B.C. or so, after which denigration of homosexuality became increasingly prevalent. Historians have documented, however, that in the late Middle Ages homosexuals were literally demonized. Many of our attitudes toward homosexuality were inherited from the age that invented witch-burning. We need to take this cultural accretion into account when we consider whether our reading of particular scriptures are being applied correctly to the real-life situations of the gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in our midst.

I'm not here going to insist that I have "the correct" way of reading the handful of Biblical texts that seem to relate to homosexuality. To do so would be incompatible with the way I read scripture, and with my beliefs about the role that scripture should play in the life of faith. Suffice it to say that I read these scriptures (as I read all scripture) with the Holy Spirit as my guide, with attention to the weightier matters of the law, with an awareness of the specific, real-life circumstances of real individuals in the real world, and with an awareness that loving action in the world often requires complex ethical judgments.

Modern Day Revelation

I come full circle in this discussion to where I began: the principle of modern-day revelation.

As Latter-day Saints, we rely on modern-day prophets and apostles to lead and guide the Church. They provide the rules and precepts by which the Church is governed, not the book of Leviticus.

We know, through modern-day revelation, particularly D&C section 132, about the centrality of marriage and family in the plan of salvation.

The Priesthood Manual, used by bishops and stake leaders to govern the Church, provides the specific framework of ecclesiastical law through which homosexual activity and behavior is handled.

Given present understandings about the nature of family, and given the present framework of rules established by modern-day prophets and apostles to govern and guide the Church, homosexual activity is proscribed. Those engaging in it will be disciplined according to the judgment and discretion of those who are called as judges in Israel, often (usually?) with excommunication.

Still, someone in a situation such as the one that I face, and that is faced by so many other gay men and lesbians, must wrestle with perplexing realities. Those realities include the fact that the way homosexuality is typically characterized by Church leaders seems to bear no resemblance to what we actually experience. Much of the rhetoric was once dominated by extremely negative characterizations that included words like "abomination" and "monstrosity." Most Church leaders simply do not seem to understand the concept of sexual orientation, and what it means to those who are same-sex oriented.

The perplexities faced by gay and lesbian individuals are compounded by the ways in which Church policy on this issue has shifted in the last 20-30 years. Once we were counseled to "just get married." Now we are counseled to avoid marriage and "remain separately and singly" throughout our entire lives. Again, we wonder if Church leaders really understand the meaning and nature of same-sex attraction. A number, most prominently Gordon B. Hinckley in his famous Larry King interview of December 26, 2004, have admitted that they do not understand it.

We must make difficult ethical choices, often in situations where we have been totally abandoned by family, church, and friends. Like others, we yearn for companionship in our lives. We desire the joy that human beings were created for, a significant part of which comes through intimate relationships.

If we are wise, we will seek wisdom from God in making those choices, and we will rely on the scriptures to help us to see our way forward.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Gay Rights Paradox

I was asked to author a guest post on the Mormon Matters blog.

Those of you who are interested in reading it may find it here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009


Last night as a family we watched the movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConnaughy. I remembered not being particularly impressed by this film back in 1997 when we first saw it in theaters. When Glen suggested we watch it, I was sort of lukewarm about popping the videotape into the VCR. But by film's end, I understood why I had not appreciated the film as much one decade ago as I do today. I realized that in order to fully appreciate this film you have to have faith, an aspect of my life that was not completely lacking in 1997, but was underdeveloped.

The fact that faith is the key to appreciating this film is not just a little ironic, since the film's protagonist, played by Jodie Foster, does not believe in God, and the novel on which the movie is based was written by Carl Sagan, an agnostic. Yet, the movie is one of the best expositions of the principle of faith that I have ever seen.

If I've not stated this for the record elsewhere, I'll state here now that I feel a special affinity with atheists and agnostics. I am not an atheist or agnostic, though I have at certain points in my life entertained serious doubts about the existence of God, and even publicly expressed the sentiment that if God existed we should disbelieve in him. (The inverse of Voltaire's famous aphorism that if God did not exist we should have had to invent him!) For more than a decade of my life -- from roughly 1993 until 2005 -- even though I was active in a church, I was what I would now consider a functional atheist. For all intents and purposes I lived my life as if God did not exist.

I am no longer an atheist in any sense at all. I have been too profoundly touched by God, I have had too powerful an experience of God's presence to be able to do anything but feel awed and humbled and grateful to him, to feel anything but the deepest possible yearning for continued, growing communion with him, a hunger for the full realization of his kingdom here below on earth, and unmitigated, endless fellowship with him in the Eternal realms.

Yet I love and feel affinity with atheists and agnostics. In fact, in many ways I feel as though my faith is much closer to the disbelief of atheists than it is to the lazy, hypocritical, legalistic, intolerant religious culture in which today's America is saturated. American "belief" is too much like Nebuchadnezzar's golden statute. America's self-appointed spokespeople for God are too much like Nebuchadnezzar's priests, demanding obedience, and threatening lion's dens and fiery furnaces for those who don't bow down. To the extent that God is identified with American nationalism and American wars and the American dollar, that god I want no part of. That kind of theism is nothing but filth and idolatry. And when the predominant culture is idolatrous, atheism is the beginning of faith.

In the faith that I embrace, God speaks to us not in the storm and whirlwind, but in the still, small voice. The voice that is so quiet it can only be heard in the silence. God does not compel, God persuades. God loved us into being, and loves us into motion. In the Mormon theology that I embrace, God purposely created a universe for us to live in that appears to be godless. God deliberately sent us into this dimension with no recollection of him. We live in an apparently godless universe, with no overt memory of God, in order to be tested, to see if we will live lives of compassion, justice and mercy even when we are free to live lives of greed, injustice and hate. No compulsion, no force should be used to require faith. That's the way of Satan. That is the way, incidentally, of the culture we live in.

The "believer" who is intolerant and mean-spirited is like the son in Jesus' parable, who promised his father he would come and labor in the vineyard but then reneges. The "unbeliever" who is kind to the stranger and merciful to the widow and the orphan is like the son in Jesus' parable, who told his father he would not come work in the vineyard, but then showed up anyway. I'd much rather have the latter kind of faith than the former. So, apparently, would Jesus (Matthew 21: 28-32).

In the film Contact, Ellie Arroway (the main character, played by Jodie Foster) stopped believing in God after her father died of a heart attack, when a well-meaning priest told her that her father's death was God's will. At a crucial moment in the film, Ellie is interrogated by a congressional committee about her beliefs. She truthfully admits that she cannot believe in God, because she has no evidence of his existence, and is punished for this truthful admission. Another scientist, David Drumlin (played by Tom Skerritt), lies to the congressional committee, feigning belief in God, and is rewarded. I love these moments in the film, because they so beautifully illustrate some of the crucial issues related to belief and unbelief: the problems created by idolatrous definitions of God (that put God on the side of injustice) and the problems created by coercion of the human conscience (that reward hypocrisy and punish the search for truth).

Yet, though Ellie Arroway does not believe in God, she is the person in the film who demonstrates the greatest faith. At the beginning of the film, she tirelessly promotes a SETI ("Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence") project against disbelief and opposition in the government, and in the scientific and philanthropic communities. She has no "proof" that extraterrestrial life exists, or that, if it exists, it is capable of communicating with us. Yet, she reasons, if there are over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, and even if only one in a million of those had life, and if only one in a million again of those with life had intelligent life, there would still be millions of worlds "out there" with intelligent life like ours, capable of communicating with us. So she presses forward despite the disbelief of her peers, in search of that life -- seeking "contact." At the end of the film, Ellie makes contact with alien life using a machine that -- to outside observers -- looks as if it did nothing, as if she was in the machine for only a few seconds. When Ellie tells about her experience with the aliens, the rest of the world disbelieves her, dismissing her testimony as nonsense and explaining it away as a fraud and a hoax. Ellie finds that the transcendent truth she has discovered about life and intelligence and our relationship to the universe is incapable of being conveyed to others. It can only be experienced, or accepted "on faith."

At the end of the film, Ellie is portrayed teaching astronomy to young children. When one child expresses skepticism about what she is teaching, she encourages that child not to believe in something just because someone tells him to. Instead, we should each strive to gain understanding for ourselves, always testing, always proving, always curious and seeking.

The novel by Carl Sagan, as I understand it, is actually a bit more theistic than the movie. Sagan steadfastly refused to deny the existence of God. But he also refused to believe in a God for which he had no evidence. All the same, the novel posits the existence of intelligences greater than ours capable of astonishing things (capable of building an interstellar communication and transportation system), and even the existence of an intelligence greater than these, that created the universe itself. The film doesn't go as far as the novel in its potential affirmation of a universal creator. But the film does inspire awe and humility, the importance of understanding our rightful place in a universe that is much, much larger than we are. This, like the refusal to believe in idols, and like the hunger to know, is another cornerstone of true faith.

Faith is far too often presented to us as requiring belief in unbelievable dogma. Worse, it is presented as requiring belief in a God of hate and intolerance and injustice. But faith is far more powerful and far more fundamental than any sort of "belief." Faith is rooted in the deep human yearning for "contact," for connection with others like ourselves, and with others greater than ourselves, and with ultimate meaning, the ultimate other. With God. Faith is not believing in the unbelievable, but rather, putting ourselves -- our bodies, our souls, our very selves -- on the line in that quest for contact.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Neither to the Right Hand Nor to the Left

And he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the ways of David his father, and declined neither to the right hand, nor to the left. (2 Chron. 34: 2)

There is an attitude common among believers that it is not possible to be "too" zealous for God. After all, God expects us to be perfect, and perfection is a mighty tall order, nothing that any of us are capable of achieving in this life time. So our striving for perfection can know no bounds, if we want to be worthy for God's kingdom, right? So all manner of zealousness is justified in the name of holiness.

I remember imbibing particularly deeply of that spirit when I was a missionary in the MTC. We were all expected to get up at 6 A.M. to begin our morning routines with showers, prayers, and scripture study. So I set my alarm clock for 5 A.M. If we were expected to pray and study for an hour before breakfast, I wanted to get in two hours. That kind of zeal was common. I remember one day, when we were at the gym, our gym instructor was leading us in a set of "squat thrusts," a particularly vigorous, heart-racing exercise. I could see across the gym from where I was working out, one elder going a bit too hard at it. He was starting to look pale and clammy and shaky. But the gym instructor was shouting to the entire class: "Harder, faster!" And he was obeying. The next thing I knew, this elder had collapsed to the floor, and they were literally carrying him out. I think he was ultimately OK, but it was a scary moment.

That tendency to want to "go the extra mile" is lauded, both in our religious and our secular culture. It is seen as a sign of true obedience and piety. But it is worth noting the context of Christ's admonition that "whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain." Christ was offering a series of admonitions related to the manner in which his followers should respond to injustice. Someone strikes your cheek, turn the other. Someone unjustly takes your coat, offer your cloak. Some exegeses of the "extra mile" text remind us that under Roman rule, a legionnaire could compel subjects of the empire to carry a burden for them for one mile. It was a symbol of a dreaded and unjust authority making unreasonable demands upon us. Christ's teaching had the potential to liberate the oppressed by reminding them that love is stronger than hate. That is the purpose and context of that phrase.

God does not -- unlike the Romans in Jesus' time -- put unjust or unreasonable demands upon us. And zeal that goes beyond the law is uncalled for, actually rejected by God as impiety. The apostle Peter exhibited the all too human response to go beyond what is called for, when Christ washed the disciples' feet. (See John 13.) First Peter refused to allow his feet to be washed, feeling he couldn't allow the master to wash the feet of the servant. When Christ insisted "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me," Peter anxiously replied, "Lord, not my feet only, but my hands and my head." Christ felt obliged to correct him with the rebuke, "He that is washed needeth save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit" (vss. 8-10).

The principle is simple. What God expects of us is obedience to what he asks of us, neither more nor less than what is asked of us. This is the true meaning of the text found at the very end of the Book of Revelation: "If any man shall add to these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life." There is always the temptation -- on the left hand, to do less than required, on the right hand, to do more. True obedience, true piety, does neither, declining neither to the right hand, nor to the left.

This requires focus, patience, and discipline. It requires listening to the Spirit, asking and opening ourselves to know what God would have us do right here, right now. This requires us to stop worrying. Our minds are so often racing far ahead of where we need to be and what we need to be doing in the now. Our worry, our fear, causes us to lose track of ourselves, to stray, to add, to decline, to steady the ark of God we should simply be carrying.

This is the true righteousness: listening.