Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Wine and Fragrance

In response to my recent post The Role of Trust, boskers posed a series of questions relating to how we tell the difference between the Spirit and what could best be described as just run-of-the-mill "good feelings." I started to answer this question and then realized that this deserved a separate post of its own.

There's a text in the so-called Gnostic Gospel of Philip that I think provides a useful analogy. Here, the intimate relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit is described as a kind of marriage, the bond of that relationship being described as "spiritual love":
Spiritual love is wine and fragrance. All those who anoint themselves with it take pleasure in it. While those who are anointed are present, those nearby also profit (from the fragrance). If those anointed with ointment withdraw from them and leave, then those not anointed, who merely stand nearby, still remain in their bad odor.
This analogy is helpful to me, because it clearly distinguishes between the feelings that accompany the presence of the Spirit (the "fragrance") and the anointing of the Spirit (the "ointment" of "wine") which is the source of the feelings. This text also draws attention to the confusion often experienced by those who do not recognize the source of the Spirit's fragrance. All they know is that when those who have been anointed are gone, they can't "smell" it any more. The only aroma that remains is "their bad odor."

Members of the Church frequently describe the feelings of peace and joy they experience in the Spirit's presence. But those feelings are not the Spirit. I have experienced a range of very different feelings in the presence of the Spirit. When the Spirit spoke to me in August 2005 prompting me to begin the questioning that eventually led me back to the Church, I felt anger and dismay. But, yes, I also experienced the Spirit as a peaceful, comforting, beautiful presence. The complexity of feelings I experienced helped me to realize that the presence of the Spirit could evoke different feelings, depending on what the Spirit is telling you, and depending on how you relate to what the Spirit is telling you.

My feelings were complex, because on the one hand, I felt like in order to follow the prompting of the Spirit, it would require me to completely re-evaluate my life and completely change course. And that was very upsetting. But at the same time, the Spirit was there just saying, "It's OK. You can do it. Things will work out. Just trust and everything will be OK, and you will be happy beyond your ability to currently imagine." I received from the Spirit a foretaste of the peace that I would experience if I followed the path the Spirit was prompting me to follow. And so, yes, it was simultaneously very peaceful and comforting. The presence of the Spirit left me feeling so incredibly joyful too. I felt so incredibly happy, and realized that I always wanted to be in the Spirit's presence and always experience this profound, pure happiness.

I could not deny the reality of this experience, though believe me, I tried. There was part of me that was working very hard to dismiss the Spirit as "just a feeling." But in the deepest part of my soul, I couldn't deny the reality of it. I knew that if I did deny it, I would lose something so profound I would literally regret it for all eternity.

Boskers described how throughout his life in the Church, he never really had any extraordinary manifestations of the Spirit, never anything more than just a "this feels right" kind of feeling. This is not unusual; I think this is very typical of many, if not most, members of the Church. Though I had a number of extraordinary spiritual experiences growing up and serving my mission, most of the time my experience of the Spirit's presence was of this more mundane order, the "this feels right" kind of feelings. I never fully appreciated the nature of the Spirit until, having been away from it for so long I suddenly experienced its presence again in a gathering of Latter-day Saints. This is why the "wine and fragrance" analogy from the Gospel of Philip struck me so profoundly when I first read it a few years back.

I would say that during the periods of my life where the Spirit was absent, I didn't think of myself as an unhappy person, nor did I think of my life as devoid of meaning. I did my best to find happiness and meaning, and succeeded to varying degrees. I had many friends and good family relationships, and I had my husband. I was not lonely. But looking back I see clearly now how I was what I would now describe as "lonely" or "alone" in spirit.

Existential philosophers often describe the condition of man as a state of profound loneliness or aloneness. No matter how many friends or family you surround yourself with, human communication is imperfect, and we can never completely overcome the aloneness that is an existential consequence of the fact that we are separate individuals. I was alone in that sense. And experiencing the presence of the Spirit as I do now, I am no longer alone, and I know that I never again could be truly alone unless I willfully drove the Spirit out of my life. That I could never do. Now I know far too much ever to do that again.

I can look back now and say that I was happy, but true happiness eluded me. I found meaning, but true meaning eluded me. I was not lonely, and yet I was profoundly lonely. And I can say that the existentialists were right, but only partially. True communion with God and with others is possible. It is not only possible, but it is the end and purpose of our entire existence. It is the "joy" for which we were created, of which the scriptures say we are, that we might have it. But that true happiness, meaning and communion are possible only in the Spirit. Men and women in and of themselves, without the Spirit, are exactly what the existentialists describe us to be: lonely in our nature.

I presently am blessed in many ways, but the blessing that is most profound, without which all the other blessings would mean nothing to me, is the blessing of having the Spirit in my life again. I can feel its presence now very powerfully as I write this. But if there is a physical place where I can say that the Spirit's presence is most powerful, I would say it is every dedicated chapel and temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I can't go into the temple, but I love being on those grounds. I can go into my local ward meeting house, and I do as often as I can because I love being in the presence of others anointed in that fragrance of the Spirit, and because the channels of communication between me and the Spirit there are always clear and pure. The people of the Church are imperfect, sometimes painfully so. They can be ignorant. They can make mistakes. They can and have done and said things that have hurt me deeply. But the Latter-day Saints have the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is my testimony not only of the Gospel but the Church.

I have been to many other churches, and I have nothing bad to say about any of them. They are good, loving people. Many of them are far better people than many Latter-day Saints. In terms of their attitudes toward gay people and gay rights issues, some churches are far ahead of the LDS Church. The Spirit is at work with those people and in those churches, of this I have not the least doubt. But all I can say is I know where I feel the Spirit most powerfully and consistently, and it is at the LDS Church.

I know that the Latter-day Saints will come to understand and see homophobia for what it is. The Spirit will be their greatest asset in overcoming their own homophobia and in coming to fully embrace and love their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters because the Spirit -- and only the Spirit -- permits the kind of perfect communion between a gay brother or lesbian sister and his or her straight brothers and sisters. In that true and perfect communion we will all -- gay and straight -- find our purpose and happiness.

In the meantime, homophobia, like any other worldly, sinful attitude, will block that communion and be an impediment to the Spirit. Homophobia can be a form of pride (the pride of feeling you're somehow superior because you're attracted to the opposite sex, or the pity you feel for those who somehow aren't "like you"). It can be a form of hate (projecting all your anxieties about sexuality and sin on gay and lesbian people, blaming them for the downfall of civilizations and seeing them as "destroying the family"). The Spirit winks at our ignorance. But we can't hold on to those kinds of attitudes indefinitely and still keep the Spirit.

The possibility for perfect communion and understanding as regards this issue hangs -- for better or for worse -- on those Saints who are gay or lesbian. The opportunities and blessings, if we can find the courage and the patience to give love instead of hate, are incredible. We can be the light in the darkness.

But that is not just hard but impossible to do on our own. We need the Spirit in our lives. At some point -- as soon as we are ready! -- we need to make that fearless inventory of our lives, and push aside whatever obstacles are keeping us from the Spirit. And we need to ask for the Spirit, and then wait for it. If we do that, if we get grounded in the Spirit, we will know what we need to do, and we will find a spring of living water in our souls, flowing up and giving us all the love and patience and light that we need in order to do it.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Role of Trust

I want to describe a gay Mormon phenomenon I think I've observed, and I'd like to hear from others if they've also observed it and/or if they think I'm accurate in my description of it. Then I'd like to reflect on what is behind the phenomenon. I'm specifically talking about what happens when gay Mormons lose their testimonies.

First I feel I need to define what is meant by "testimony" and then qualify the term "lose" in relation to it. Mormons use the term "testimony" to cover very diverse individual experiences and responses to the Restored Gospel. We generally expect that a testimony involves or requires some manifestation or witness of the Holy Spirit -- which can vary in intensity from a sense of peace and warmth, to a more intense "burning in the bosom," to hearing voices, to even more dramatic manifestations such as visions or the ministering of angels. But very many members of the Church (I don't know how many, but I suspect more than most people suppose) never have any kind of spiritual experience -- at least not that they recognize as such. They may even long for and pray for a spiritual witness, but for whatever reason (and often, certainly, not for lack of faithfulness) they just don't receive one. So if they have a testimony, it usually consists in believing on the words and witness of others. But this kind of testimony is no less real. In fact, sometimes the most powerful kind of testimony is the one that is as simple as bearing witness of the blessings one has received as a consequence of exercising faith. No burning bosoms, just results.

Pragmatic as always, Mormons have a tendency to regard the validity of a testimony by the life that it inspires. Thus, whether one has a testimony based on spiritual knowledge, or whether one has a testimony based on faith, if we don't live the faith we can't really say we have a testimony. That sort of leads to the question of what it means to "lose" a testimony. The ways a testimony can be lost are as diverse as the testimonies being lost. We might still accept the reality of a spiritual experience but just feel disconnected from it -- it may just be less important to us than other things have become. Or we might doubt the reality of a spiritual experience because of subsequent, disconfirming experiences. Or we might reject the validity of the experience on the basis of some logical process. ("If C is true, then B must be false. But if B is false, then spiritual manifestation A confirming B could not have been real.") Or (for those of us with the faith-based testimonies), we may lose faith in the community because the community does not seem to be living up to its professed ideals. We may not see the fruits of faith that we expected to see. In any event, it is our disconnection from the community of faith and/or our unwillingness to live gospel principles that constitute the "losing" of the testimony, however we characterize it.

In my own spiritual journey, there was a point when I definitely would have characterized my testimony as not just lost but irrecoverably destroyed. Later on, I realized that my testimony was not so much "lost" as buried. Like the golden plates, I could unearth it and draw on its spiritual riches once again. I could also add to it new spiritual experiences, new testimonies, and new faith that have immeasurably broadened and deepened and enriched my life. What changed was not my testimony per se but the different vantage points of life from which I regarded and interpreted my testimony. It is like walking a mountain path. Sometimes the path sinks low, and you can see nothing but piles of rock all around you; but sometimes the path takes you to vistas where you can see to the ends of the earth...

So to the phenomenon I have observed. I am increasingly aware of individuals, like me, who are in same-sex relationships or who are open to same-sex relationships, who also affirm that they have testimonies of the gospel and who are committed to practicing their faith as Latter-day Saints regardless of how the community at large looks at them and regardless of their membership status. But by and large, this is an anomaly. It seems as if the vast majority (99+ percent?) of gay men or lesbians who come out and who actively seek and/or find same-sex relationships eventually distance themselves from the Church as much as they can. And it does seem to me that in the process, they seem to lose the spiritual experiences and connections that once sustained them.

I think this is a valid observation. But can others tell me if you think this is inaccurate?

The reason this interests me is not because so many follow this path, but because some don't. Some -- a very small minority -- keep the Spirit in their lives. They continue to have and foster spiritual experiences that strengthen their testimonies. They still have a profound faith in God. And they foster a connection to the Church however they can, and they cherish connections with family and friends in the Church. They don't sink into bitterness and anger and combativeness. The number of gay individuals in or seeking same-sex relationships that I know in this category I can literally count on one hand (well, maybe both hands). But they do exist.

In my life, I have been in both categories in my life. At one point I was what I could best only describe as an "angry ex-Mormon." Now I have a testimony again. I am always on the lookout for others who have had this experience, if only so I can feel like I'm not completely crazy. But my experience has given me some insight into the nature of our connection to God.

Why do gay Mormons fall away? Not because we are particularly wicked. I believe it is because of the role that trust plays in strengthening the bond between human beings and God, and because of the impact homophobia within our spiritual community has on our ability to trust. It's like Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee. He was doing just fine until he looked at how big the waves were, and how terribly the storm was raging. When our attention begins to shift toward the monstrous waves of homophobia crashing toward us in the Church, and we correspondingly shift our attention away from the patience, hope, and love that have the power to calm the waves, that's when we sink.

I remember the turning point in my own journey when the Spirit presented me with a painful choice. I had to give up my anger at the Church, even when I saw no signs that the Church had any desire to embrace me. I realized that my anger was my sin. My anger was the big rock on the mountain hike that I needed to get around in order to catch site of the beautiful vistas beyond it. Once I let go of it, I could find trust again.

And I can bear testimony that God has never betrayed that trust.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Today the best thing I can possibly think to say is Thank You.

Tuesday Göran and I took our son on a tour of the college of his choice. He's already been accepted there, so it was really for the purpose of learning more about what it will be like for him to be a student there, and start thinking about what preparations he needs to make. It was so incredible seeing the excitement on his face, and thinking about what he's getting ready to experience. And Göran and I were getting a bit teary, thinking about him being in a different city. Not too far away, but not so close that we would see him more often than every other weekend or so.

Yesterday, Glen spent the day hanging out with friends, and Göran -- not as lucky as I -- had to work. So I spent the day running errands, finishing the wrapping of gifts, and buying food that we'll need over the holiday.

Today, I shoveled snow. We got several inches overnight, and it's still coming down heavily. But I got the walk clear enough for me and Glen to get out of the house this morning and run one more errand...

I'm thankful for family and friends, and for loved ones under the same roof I get to feel cozy with, and protective of, and grateful for. I'm aware that others are not so fortunate.

If you're in the neighborhood, call or email me! We have plenty of home-baked pulla (Finnish pastry), made by Göran and Glen, plenty of milk for hot cocoa, and fresh fruit.

To everyone else, I wish peace, love and the fulfillment of your deepest and fondest hopes.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Warning! If you haven't seen the new movie Avatar, there are some spoilers in this post (though I've tried to keep them to a minimum).

I'm fascinated by the premises of the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar. The film posits a future in which humans have evolved the technology to be able to forge a neural connection between the human mind and an "avatar" body -- an alien body created by using the DNA of the human being connecting neurally to it. Through this connection, the human mind is literally able to occupy the alien body from a great distance away, to live and move and feel and act through it, as if it were their own body.

This connection seems all the more plausible because the story in the film also posits that all life forms are mysteriously able to forge connections with other life forms. The aliens (called the "Navi") inhabiting the world of "Pandora" have special sensors that, when they touch them to analogous sensors possessed by other life forms (both plant and animal), they are able to communicate directly with those life forms. They create an intimate bond that enables them to feel and experience what that life form feels and experiences, and vice versa.

The most sacred place on the planet Pandora is a place occupied by the "Tree of Souls." The Tree of Souls is a kind of neural hub for the entire planet. The neural connections that life forms make with each other allow them to tap into an enormous, planet-wide network in which all life is connected. When any life form on the planet dies, its consciousness and memory returns to the Tree of Souls, personified by the Navi as a goddess, as "Eywa."

Sigourney Weaver plays "Dr. Grace Augustine," a hard-nosed scientist who has devoted her life to studying and understanding life on the planet Pandora, particularly the way in which life forms are able to form these bonds and interconnections with one another and with the planet. But Dr. Augustine approaches these interconnections from a scientific and rational perspective, whereas the Navi people themselves approach them from a spiritual perspective. At a key moment in the film, however, Dr. Augustine is connected to the Tree of Souls. She becomes aware of the collective consciousness that is a part of Eywa, and she exclaims in a moment of rapture, "She is real!"

Since the movie was released last week, I've seen it twice already, and at this moment in the film I just weep. For me, it is the most moving scene in the film. Even now, just thinking about that scene sends shivers down my spine. Why? Because I have had that experience. Because for me, that moment in the film functions as an incredibly powerful metaphor of the nature of our relationship to God.

I have often tried to explain what it is like to receive a prompting from the Holy Spirit. I can only try to explain it in words. The words of human language communicate at the level of the rational, at the level of mind. They can always only ever approximate the fullness of human experience. And they can point to, but they cannot capture the Spirit.

What I can say is that when the Spirit is present, in communication with my spirit, it is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. And it is real! It is literally a sense of being connected to something so much larger and more powerful than myself. And it melts the sense of being disconnected from others as well. I so often have had the experience of being in a fast and testimony meeting where the Spirit was so powerfully present. And not just I, but all present are partaking. We are all moved. Many of us weep. And in those moments, each of us is not only connected to God, but we are connected to each other too. The Spirit opens up those connections, teaching us about our oneness.

I long for a world in which we all sense those connections, in which we all recognize the fundamental unity that makes us all brothers and sisters, that makes us part of an intricate web of life that God created, through which we learn and discover profound truths about ourself and our divine nature. Through my life experiences I have also come to learn that the intricate connections between mind, body and spirit are the key to the way that we connect. The physical bodies we inhabit are the conduits through which mind and spirit connect with the world and learn about their relationships with each other and with God. I long for all of us to make those connections as well, to learn what is learned through the intimate physical connections and relationships we all hunger to make.

But I have also learned that to experience the fullness of life and spirit, we need to move beyond the what is merely rational, what is merely comprehended by human language and human science. Like Dr. Augustine in the film, we can devote our entire lives to studying the connections, but we will never truly understand them until we actually become connected not just to each other but to the Spirit. Our understanding will always be clouded until we touch and are touched, and the realization dawns on us that "It is real!"

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Secret of Zion

I would go to Church every Sunday, if I could without my husband feeling abandoned when I do. I wish he wouldn't feel that way. I've tried everything I could to help him realize that going to the Mormon Church helps put me more deeply in touch with everything that is deepest and purest and most powerful and most beautiful in life, including my relationship with him. The connections that I make with the Spirit there, in that place, with those people, increases my capacity for every kind of love, including my love for him.

But he just doesn't get that. To him the building on Nicollet Avenue with the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" placard is just that dry old place where they used to hate blacks, and now they hate gays, and they are doing everything possible to undermine and destroy our family -- everything that is truly dear to him. And I'm crazy to go there. It's a craziness he's gradually come to tolerate, but it's still tough, especially since he seems to see every moment that I spend there as competition.

Yesterday in Church, our ward choir sang a couple of Christmas hymns as part of the service. Just ordinary voices. Our ward choir is not the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But I wept like a child. To me it was as if there were angel voices singing along with them. I heard something ineffable and powerful. The Spirit bearing witness to me about the man who was born in a stable in Bethlehem, and about the way that he walked, the way that he demonstrated to me and to all of us, and that I'm doing everything in my power to follow. And I wanted to be singing with them. I would have been singing, but that I hadn't been able to make it to any choir rehearsals -- because it's always a painful choice. Do I spend more time at the Church and risk pissing off my husband for those few hours more? I have to listen to my heart. Sometimes I know I can afford to spend a few more hours with my brothers and sisters, and sometimes I know I have to head home to reassure my husband. I do what I need to do to keep balance and harmony, and I usually feel I'm doing the right thing, but it's often painful.

The members of my ward are good, kind, loving people. The fruits of the Church and of the Spirit are abundant in their lives as a willingness to serve and give and sacrifice. And they often invite me to come to this or that fireside, or this or that ward social event. They offer hugs and smiles and rides. And so often I have to say no. But I hope they won't stop asking, because I love and so desperately need what those offers represent.

Yesterday in Sunday School Sister G. deftly presented another beautiful lesson. She does such a fantastic job of condensing all the important points into whatever time is allotted, an important skill in a ward where Sacrament meeting often runs late (where the Spirit is often so strong it must needs run late). And she always stays right on target, always takes the lesson back right to the heart of the Gospel, right back to faith, hope, love, and discipleship. The topic of yesterday's lesson was Zion, building Zion. I love that lesson. It's the lesson of my whole life. And the lesson brought home to me how building Zion was so very much about what was happening right there in that room, with these people, in this ward, at that moment. But building Zion is always in this moment, with whatever people we are with. We are it. If we don't build it, now, it won't get built.

That is why we have to make a choice. We have to stop complaining about the relationships that don't exist and start building the relationships that we want. Zion is a web of relationships in which we are of one heart and one mind and we dwell together in righteousness. There are no poor among us in Zion, because in a community built of Zion relationships, inequality and poverty are inconceivable. I want to be part of a community that -- however imperfectly -- is striving toward that. I want my husband and our son and my whole family and all of my friends to be a part of that community too. And I know that ultimately such a community is not possible where the Spirit is not present, as I feel it so powerfully in my little Lake Nokomis Ward. That is why, despite the painful contradictions I have to keep going there.

There are sacred secrets we share. The testimony of Christ is a secret. It is and remains the most powerful and most profound secret there is, because there is no way you can convey it to another. You cannot give it to someone else. You can only find it for yourself and point others to where they can find it for themselves. All the other great divine gifts we receive in life -- the only gifts worth having -- are secrets as well, because you understand them only in the receiving of them. The secrets of waiting, of hope, of communion. We meet each other in the halls, we shake hands, we hug, we exchange greetings. We look at each other across our differences: black, white, native, gay, straight, man, woman, able-bodied or disabled, privileged or unprivileged, having minimal education or being highly educated. We often look at the difference, but we see each other in our humanity, in our secret understanding of what it means to be a child of God.

I feel that connection, I know it's there, despite the unresolved stuff. I feel it despite the surface stuff that in the world we can't seem to figure out; the surface stuff that makes my loving relationship with my husband somehow seem irreconcilable with the Church. How it works, I don't know. The members of my ward don't seem to know either. But there is something real there and something for which I am deeply grateful, and something I can't keep myself away from.

I wish somehow there was more they could do to reach out to my husband the way they have reached out to me. I wish there were not so many obstacles that none of us can do anything about.

I wish he could see them the way I see them. I wish it were a secret I could share. But all I can do is pray and wait.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On the Nature of Fornication

Every once in a while, I check my sitemeter to see which posts of mine continue to attract readers long after I originally published them. A fairly popular one appears to be my dream post of March 26, 2009, The Gay Whore of Babylon. Recently, an anonymous commenter, after explaining to me that my relationship with my husband is essentially an unnatural, "deadly... addiction," advised me, "Heed those warnings in your dreams." I assume this person was referring to my Whore of Babylon dream.

From the moment I clicked "publish" on that post, I suspected it would be susceptible to certain kinds of misinterpretation, and might encourage a certain type of panicky response. But I published it anyway for two reasons. First of all, because I am a believer in "letting the chips fall where they may." In my spiritual journey of recent years, when I have let go of outcomes and focussed more on process, when I have followed spiritual promptings and listened to my heart, without worrying where they would lead, I have been blessed. I have learned things I never would have learned otherwise, and my life has been enriched immeasurably. My Gay Whore of Babylon dream was one of those very significant dreams, and it contained multiple, very powerful messages about sexuality and integrity and community. Even though some of the symbolism was troubling, I needed to wrestle with it, and I felt it was worth wrestling with it in a communal way (thus posting it on my blog), let the chips fall where they may.

The second reason I published it -- despite some of my reservations -- was because, having wrestled with it and discerned some of the meanings embedded in it, I felt it posed questions worth discussing on my blog about the nature of fornication.

If fornication is a sin -- and I believe it is -- then why is it a sin? One way to look at this is to consider how we generally respond to fornication as sin. If a couple is fornicating, we generally expect rectification in one of two ways. Either we expect the physical relationship to end. Stop the sex. Or we expect the couple to formalize their relationship by getting married. Keep the sex coming, but add something to it, namely the spiritual and social commitments entailed by marriage.

Why? Because human beings are more than just a jumble of random urges. We are souls striving for integrity and harmony. We are spiritual beings with physical bodies. Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland once discussed sexuality within the bonds of marriage as a kind of sacrament. A sacrament is typically defined as "an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual divine grace." Thus, when the act of physical love is a sign of spiritual, divine love, it is in fact a sacrament. Fornication is an act that denies and violates the spiritual dimensions of the act of physical love.

I once heard a speaker mock Elder Holland's equation of marital sex and sacrament in crude and graphic terms, and I wept. I felt violated by the mockery. It was an assault on my sense of integrity, on my sense of the unity of every sacred aspect of myself, physical, spiritual, and relational. Fornication is wrong for the same reasons that the mockery was wrong. Because it tears asunder the integrity between between body and spirit without which the fullest and finest expressions of our humanity are not possible.

My Gay Whore of Babylon dream spoke to a particular, historically contingent problem related to how the gay community in America has evolved. It also spoke to a way in which the gay community participates the fallen condition of American culture generally. For historical reasons I could discuss in considerably more depth, in the 1960s the gay community and the gay rights movement by and large hitched their fortunes to the philosophy of "sexual liberation." Sexual liberation explicitly disconnects sexuality and sexual expression from any affective, relational or spiritual context. It ultimately denies the reality of the non-physical, and denies the validity of any meaning connected to sex apart from simple physical gratification. Sex is a powerful thing. Having experimented with the idea of sexual liberation, I can attest that because of the power of sex, sexual liberation can feel liberating -- at first. But ultimately it's not any sort of liberation at all. It eventually becomes a form of slavery, condemning us to an impoverished existence, and stripping our lives of humanity and meaning.

I believe that the growth in recent decades of gay community organizations devoted to religion and spirituality attests at least in part to lessons learned the hard way. But I believe the single most significant historical development in terms of the gay community's self-understanding, and its communal approach to the problem of how the spiritual and the physical are related is to be found in the movement for full marriage equality. Many conservatives have acted as if the gay community's agenda was to impoverish marriage. But from the gay community's perspective, this has always been about enrichment not impoverishment, about humanity and integrity and love. Marriage, for us, is and always has been about joining together what no man (or woman) should put asunder. It is about creating that very human union of body and spirit, and of two into one.

We are told that it is impossible for two men or two women to create that kind of union. But gay men and lesbians who have taken the risk to invest in relationships know differently. Our humanity and the integrity of our spirits and bodies, and the kinds of fulfillment we can and do find in intimate relationships are testimony that two men and two women can and do create that kind of union, whether our heterosexual family and friends are willing to believe in it or not. And we are equally hurt by the failure to respect that integrity, whether the failure comes in the form of our own sexual infidelity toward each other, or whether it comes in the form of the broader society's faithlessness toward us.

The scriptures frequently use fornication as a metaphor for humanity's unfaithfulness to God. That unfaithfulness, to read and understand the scriptural testimony, has come primarily in the form of the idolatry of wealth and materialism; in the form of the exploitation of the poor, disregard for widows and orphans, and violent oppression of the stranger. To deny the humanity of our fellow human beings is an estrangement from our own humanity and from God. Thus, fornication is an apt metaphor for the great social "sins of the ages": pride and hate.

My Gay Whore of Babylon dream gave me a metaphorical handle on this nature of the human predicament -- both in terms of our individual, familial relationships, and in terms of the larger social contract in which all of us are called to participate. The dream sharpened my sense that the gay community is urgently in need of seeking out and developing the spiritual aspects of life. We must reject the soulless materialism that is endemic in American culture. If we would be saved, we must reject Babylon and all its ways.

Despite the fact that the Gay Whore of Babylon post still routinely garners readers nine months after I posted it, I have yet to receive a single substantive comment on either the imagery or the message of the dream. (One friend simply responded by commenting that I had "vivid" dreams!) Perhaps this is because the imagery of the dream -- on the surface at least -- lends itself to extreme homophobic interpretations (thus the recent "warning" from an anonymous, homophobic commenter on my blog to "heed" the dream). But perhaps it is also because, despite the fact that our culture constantly exploits sex in order to attract spectators and sell merchandise, we generally can't muster the ability to talk rationally, to reason about sex. And if we can't do that, we can't fully integrate ourselves as sexual, physical, rational, emotional, spiritual beings. We will continue to respond to sex in ways that are merely primal -- with raw hunger or superstitious anxiety.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Of More Value Than Many Sparrows

And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day? And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go; And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day? And they could not answer him again to these things. (Luke 14: 3-6)

I always found it astounding that one of the objections to Jesus' ministry could ever possibly have been that he healed on the Sabbath. It seemed incomprehensible to me.

Of course, just to play Pharisees' advocate for a moment here... It might be pointed out that a man who has been blind or deaf or lame from birth could surely wait one more day to be healed. Surely Jesus had six out of seven days of the week to heal. Did he have to do it on the Sabbath? It would have been so easy for Jesus to avoid offending the sensibilities of his critics, one wonders if he didn't deliberately provoke them in order to teach a particularly important principle.

Jesus once asked his opponents, "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill?" (Mark 3: 4).

I always used to stop thinking about that scripture verse past the first half of it: "Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath..?" Of course, put that way, the answer seems self-evident. But Jesus takes it a step further. The complete text of Jesus' question to the Pharisees seems to point us to a larger understanding of the Sabbath. In emphasizing good and evil, life and death, Jesus reminded the Pharisees that a legalistic approach to the Sabbath completely misses its larger purpose. The letter "kills." The spirit saves.

Jesus' query was in line with Isaiah's classic teaching on the Sabbath, which insisted that true Sabbath-keeping is to "keep judgment," to "do justice"! (Isaiah 56: 1) In other words, if the poor are oppressed and the cause of the downtrodden and the stranger is abandoned, the Sabbath is broken. It doesn't matter how piously we attend Sacrament meeting or how scrupulously we avoid worldly amusements!

And it came to pass, that he went through the corn fields on the sabbath day; and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath. (Mark 2: 23-28)

When Jesus was criticized for allowing his disciples to gather food on the Sabbath, he defended their actions by analogy to the time of King David. David and his men violated ritual boundaries by eating the shewbread in the Temple. And David did so because his men were hungry. "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath"! Basic human need outweighs legalistic considerations. Always. "Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath."

Gay people in our culture are the oxen in the pit. We are stuck, and we are literally dying. And the nature of the metaphorical pit we're caught in is precisely the one Jesus spoke of when he demanded, "Which of you... will not straightway pull him out?" Because essentially we are told that no consideration for our humanity can be allowed to outweigh the demands of the law. It does not matter what isolation we might overcome, what anguish we might heal, nor even what lives we might save. The law is the law is the law.

Such an approach to law, Jesus insisted, amounts to Satanic dominion over God's children, and he rejected it out of hand. At every opportunity, Jesus demonstrated the superiority of human considerations over law, even when to do so enraged the religious establishment, leading eventually to his execution by that establishment.

Ironically, the denial of our humanity is rationalized in the name of the cross of Christ. It is true, Jesus said, "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Mark 8: 34). But he also said "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 30: 11). To deny oneself is to enter into service, not to pretend to be something we are not. The cross of Christ is the opprobrium that disciples of love must necessarily face in confronting a world built around wealth and privilege of the few and the dehumanization of the many. The cross is the price of truth and love. It is never an artificial burden placed upon a select few in the form of the denial of their humanity. The burden placed by our culture on gay people is like the burden Jesus spoke of when he denounced the aficionados of the law: "Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers" (Luke 11: 46).

Jesus' response to unreasonable legalistic demands was simply to ignore them. He healed. He fed the multitudes. He lifted up the fallen. In the face of human anguish, he responded, whether his response stayed within the legal strictures of the establishment or not.

Jesus spoke to his disciples about human need, and the worry that accompanies need when he promised:
Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10: 29-31)
We are of more value too than the ox or the ass fallen in a pit, that ought to be pulled straightway out.

There came a point in my life where I found myself on my knees pleading with God, believing that I was unacceptable because I was gay. And a most incredible, most warm and comforting reassurance from the Spirit came over me. Not only is every hair of my head numbered, but God knew me from my inmost parts. He knew me when I was knit in my mother's womb; how I am both "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139: 14). God knew that I was gay, the Spirit reassured me, and there was nothing wrong with me. I need have no fear on that or any other account.

God knows my needs too. God knows my destiny. He has guided me this far, and he will continue to guide me. This I have been promised, and so far God has been good to his word.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Miserable Like Unto Himself

When we take Christ's name upon us -- when we really take not just the name but everything that comes with the name -- we become more like Christ. We begin to resemble him in our capacity for love and compassion, in our ability to reach out and heal, in our hunger to find and bring in and hold on to the lost, to leave the ninety-and-nine to go after the one.

But Christ is not the only one who desires for us to become like him. The scriptures describe Satan as one who "seeketh that all... might be miserable like unto himself" (2 Nephi 2: 27). If Christ is the embodiment of love, showing us how to walk in the way of compassion like he did, Satan is the embodiment of misery, seeking to make us "twofold more the child of hell."

I occasionally encounter the disciples of misery in real life, though they seem to show their true colors far more freely in the anonymity of the Internet. They claim to be true believers in Jesus Christ, but what strikes me more than the name that they claim is the reality that they are profoundly unhappy people, and that what makes them most unhappy of all is my apparent happiness. Their interactions with others are invariably toxic, always bristling with condemnation, impatience and anger. They alone have the truth, and all others are lost. Their preferred methods are shame and fear, and they don't mind a little coercion either. They love to brandish God's sword of judgment (or a cheap imitation thereof) as if it were their own to wave about and threaten whom they will with it.

If love is contagious, so is fear and hate. And so, although we ought to immediately recognize Satan and all his works for what they are, giving them not the least bit of heed, all too often we let ourselves get sucked into the hate- and fear-fest that the disciples of misery and contention delight in spreading all around them -- on the Internet and wherever else they can. Though the Internet seems to be an especially effective forum. The immediacy and anonymity/publicity of the Internet make it far too easy to put forever into print spiteful words that would have benefited humanity most by being forgotten.

I've occasionally gotten caught in these orgies of contention. Sometimes I thought it was for a good reason -- in defense of others that I love, or to uphold some cherished truth. But it never comes out the way I'd hoped. There's never any positive resolution. No truth upheld. Just resentment and rotten feelings and a pit at the bottom of my stomach.

There's a reason Christ warned:
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7: 1-2)

But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5: 22)

For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. (3 Nephi 11: 29)
Judgment has a tendency to multiply itself. When people judgmentally attack, there's a visceral reaction. We feel judged, we want to defend. We defend by counter-judging. We polish our own shield of righteousness; we sharpen our own sword of truth and then we go on the attack.

It's such an easy trap to fall into. We rationalize our own judgments by clinging tightly to our certitude, and telling ourselves that all we really want to do is "help" others understand the error of their ways. We like to see ourselves as shining knights of truth, but the truth is that in relation to one another and in relation to God we are beggars and debtors. The sin in the eye of the other is always a mote in comparison with our beam; our debt is always ten thousand talents in comparison with the with the hundred pence our debtor owes us. Why is our sin always greater? Because it is our failure to let go of others' faults, our failure to forgive and let live that keeps us blind, that lands us in prison, that bars us from the wedding feast, no matter what the size of our sin. Their sin can't damn us. Only ours can.

When someone comes at us with fear, shame, and accusations, they come as missionaries of misery, eager for us to partake of what they have. What we often fail to realize is that they seal the deal the moment we prefer contention with them. If we resist the temptation to engage in their fear/anger/shame cycle, we have a chance not only of elevating ourselves, but them too.

It's not that individuals can't differ or disagree. In fact, disagreement is a good and healthy and helpful thing. When someone sees something differently than I do, it is a sure sign that they have a different perspective from me. Multiple perspectives are a good thing, to those who are interested in actually seeing. So I welcome difference. I want dialog, not monologue, not echo chambers. Some of the most profound, transformative experiences I've had in life have been those difficult and sacred conversations, where two people come at each other from completely different angles, and wrestle for understanding of each other. I long for that.

But I can smell a mile away the ones that don't really have anything to say, because they're simply threatened and angry, and too deafened by the voices in their heads to hear anything you really say to them.

We are often vulnerable to those types, because we have our own weaknesses, our own issues, our own struggles. So one of the profoundest, most valuable spiritual practices we can learn is how to steady our own hearts with patience and hope and love. When we center ourselves in Christ, we won't get distracted by the shouting. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."

But sometimes that's the most difficult thing we can do, especially when we are most hurting and most vulnerable. The waves and the storm seem more real than the Christ standing serenely before us. Fortunately, when our faith is not enough to keep us from sinking, he's still there with his hand outstretched, to lift us back up and help us walk the waves again by his side.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Mormon Wimmin

I'm not the first to observe that in the various on-line and off-line configurations of Mormon/homosexual community, women seem to be fewer and farther between than the men. Often, conversations about homosexuality in the Mormon context proceed as if this were exclusively a gay male problem.

Of course, when gay Mormon men talk about those aspects of the gay Mormon experience that are most painful, silence, invisibility, and the anguish of the closet rank highly. So if you're a woman and Mormon and gay, how much more painful must it be to be invisible even among those who claim to want to explore issues related to sexual orientation openly?

I've often quietly wondered (and sometimes wondered out loud) why I encounter Mormon lesbians so infrequently in gay Mormon circles:

* Is it that Mormon women are so oppressed already that to deal with an added layer of oppression (being a lesbian) makes it that much more difficult to come out? Well, that was Minnesota lesbian Andrea Dworkin's thesis in Right Wing Women. Maybe Mormon lesbians feel they have less of a stake in Mormonism -- even a Mormonism cured of its homophobia. So they just drop out of groups or on-line conversations where Mormonism stays a central focus.

* Is it that gay men are so sexist that lesbians just end up feeling they have no place in organizations that are dominated by gay men? Well, I've certainly observed examples of gay male sexism, and don't know of any reason why gay men would automatically be immune to one of the most pervasive tendencies in our culture. Could be...

* Is it that lesbians just prefer the company of other lesbians? Is there, like, some hidden commune out there, where all the Mormon lesbians are sneaking off to, to build a paradise without men? (If I were a Mormon lesbian, that might be my idea of the Celestial Kingdom.)

* Is it that there are just fewer lesbians than gay men? Some of what I've seen regarding the biological factors contributing to homosexuality suggest that those factors are different for men than for women, and it's possible that female homosexuality is just rarer than male homosexuality. But then, not nearly as much attention has been focussed on scientifically studying homosexuality among women as among men, and we just don't have enough statistically significant data to know for sure about the statistics or causes of female homosexuality. So that might just bring us back to the problem of sexism -- in science as in everything else.

In any event, it seems apparent that the prophet Joseph had a vision of gender equality and gender complementarity that was more radical than what eventually emerged in the Mormonism that evolved after his death. Some historical research suggests that he was beginning to extend the priesthood as well as high-ranking leadership to women just before his martyrdom -- a decade earlier than the first Protestant sects began to openly ordain women. His vision of Godhood finding its highest expression in marriage, and a plan of exaltation in which women as well as men achieve divinity together also points us toward powerful -- and radical -- understandings of the Divine Feminine in Mormonism.

Even without being ordained to the priesthood, the average Mormon woman is more actively involved in leadership roles and service, in publicly praying, teaching and preaching (Mormons call it "giving talks") than the average Protestant or Catholic woman. To me this points to a vision and understanding of salvation in which women have power, even if they aren't granted authority. Certainly I've experienced that power in my own life, in the teaching, example, and influence that many wise, wonderful and powerful Mormon women have had on my life.

So... Do women -- including lesbian women -- have a stake in Mormonism? In the Empire of God of which I've caught a vision, without question. If the world is built on a foundation of corrupt power; of violence, lies, and inequality; of haves lording it over the have-nots; if we live in a world where sexism, racism, homophobia and class privilege are woven into the rules of societal and governmental power; then women everywhere have much to teach us about the rules of engagement between powerlessness and power, between love and hate. And certainly no Empire of God is worth having where women of all sexual orientations are not active participants in the divine drama.

However, the kind of theological reflection I do proceeds from my experience. And I'm not a lesbian, so I can't speak to being a Mormon and a lesbian. That is why I want to see more lesbians in our conversations about the new world order we should all be building and preparing for. So I'm grateful to those Mormon wimmin brave enough and compassionate enough to show up and tell their stories too... Danetter, Lis n' Jay, Slp, and most recently EvolvingLesbian.

I'd love to be able to participate (mostly, to begin with at least, as a listener and a reader) in an on-line Mormon lesbian forum where issues related to faith and sexuality are tackled from women's perspectives... If someone knows of one that exists, please point me to it! But in the meantime, I'll have to content myself with links and the Blogger "follower" feature...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The One That Got Away

Every once in a while, I wonder about Jouni.

During the summer of 1986, I was on a summer internship in Helsinki, Finland that had been arranged through BYU. This was the summer I almost committed suicide. It was my last summer as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

By the time I met Jouni I was past my suicide crisis. I had received a revelation from God. Revelations, actually. God knew that I was gay, and it was OK. God did not condemn me. His love for me was greater than my fear and shame and self-hate. I was to leave the LDS Church for a time. I did not need to worry about what that would mean for me or for my eternal family. God would take care of everything, of all of us. We would all be all right, and everything would eventually work out. (As, in fact, it did.)

My chosen path out of the LDS Church was to request membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. When Pastor Swanson of the International Evangelical Church in Helsinki, Finland asked me how I would like to be baptized, I told him that I believed in baptism by immersion. So (perhaps to punish me for making him get wet too!) he proposed baptizing me in the chilly Baltic Sea, during the course of a congregational retreat at a seaside retreat center owned by the Lutheran Church.

It was at the retreat that I met Jouni.

Jouni and I were both in our early twenties at the time. He was absolutely gorgeous, the perfect Scandinavian blond, ruddy cheeked, with a somewhat delicate build. Without fully understanding my own feelings at the time, I fell completely in love with him. We spent every available minute of the retreat together.

The evening after my baptism, this being Finland, there was a communal sauna. As is traditional in Finland, sauna is taken in the nude. (Finns are actually a bit taken aback if you wear a swimsuit!) Jouni and I remained alone in the sauna together long after all the other participants had left. We skinny dipped in the Baltic Sea (also a Finnish sauna tradition to cool off by dipping in the nearest body of water). It remained quite innocent, though I was aware of how attracted I was to him, and nervous about how my body might betray me under the circumstances.

It was during the sauna that Jouni asked me to come visit him at his home in the country. So later that summer -- just before I returned to the U.S. -- I rode a bus to the tiny village where Jouni was living with his parents.

Jouni's English was about as good as my Finnish (and neither of us had quite mastered the other's language), so our communication was an interesting mixture of both English and Finnish. Not the smoothest conversations! But it didn't matter! Somehow we managed to fill the hours in his farmhouse and walking around in the woods together with talk about family and friends and school and -- of course -- religion.

At one point, we were alone together in his bedroom talking. He told me he had something he wanted to read to me. Jouni was in music school, and he wanted to read me a letter he had received from a fellow music student. The letter was written in English -- by a non-Finnish, male foreign exchange student. Jouni had not been reading the letter for long before I realized it was a love letter.

He read it to me quite matter-of-factly, without a hint of disgust or condemnation. The letter spoke very frankly about longing to hold him, missing the sweet times they had had together, and so on. When he had finished reading, Jouni looked up at me as if to say, "See? There. I've told you. What do you think?" I realized he was coming out to me.

I was actually sort of paralyzed by the realization. So he was gay. I was too. But I had only just barely come to accept this fact about myself. Was Jouni coming on to me? Here we were, alone together in his bedroom, sitting on his bed, him staring wordlessly into my eyes, waiting for me to respond to this revelation. But then I also thought, perhaps by reading me this letter, he meant to show me that he was taken; he already had a lover, longing to see him again, aching to hold him. So was this his way of telling me I was out of the picture? And even if I had wanted to act on this revelation, this was a line I couldn't imagine crossing. I still had to figure out what it meant to be gay before I could think about acting on it.

So I just sat there, doubtless with a kind of deer-in-headlights look. I sighed, and fidgeted. I may have muttered some innocuous phrase like, "That's nice you have a friend like that" or something else painfully awkward. The subject changed, and then we decided to go for a walk.

When it was time for my bus to leave back for Helsinki, Jouni and his father accompanied me to the bus station. As I was getting ready to board the bus, Jouni asked his dad to take a picture of us together, which he did, while Jouni wrapped his arm tightly around me, pulling me into his side and interlocking my leg with his. Then, before saying goodbye, he practically knocked me over throwing himself at me in a full-bodied hug. We held for a very long time, and it was only then, just as I was leaving, I realized he felt something for me far more than just casual friendship, and I wished I were staying longer.

That was the last time I saw Jouni. We continued to correspond for a time after I returned to the U.S. I sometimes dreamed of going back there to see him again. But I never did. And eventually the correspondence stopped. All I have left to remember him by are a few letters and the picture of us his father had taken, which Jouni later sent me.

I look back at myself 23 years later and I think, How Dense Could I Have Been?

I've also wondered, what might have happened had we ever become more than just friends? Would I have claimed Finnish citizenship? (Finnish law would have made that relatively easy because of my mother.) Would I have lived happily ever after in the Finnish countryside with my blond musician with the delicate smile and the ruddy cheeks? What would I have missed here?

I don't regret my cluelessness (too much). And the messy, joyful, crazy, blessing-filled life I have now is so much greater a gift than fantasies about the love that once escaped me long, long ago in a land far, far away. The grass is always greener on the other side (of the Atlantic).

Still, I can't help but wonder what's become of Jouni. I hope he's happy.