Friday, January 29, 2010

A Godless Take on Abraham and Isaac

OK, I know this is supposed to be atheist humor and all that, but are there any other believers out there who find this Abraham sketch hilarious? I've watched it a dozen times, and it still cracks me up.

One of my favorite books ever is Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, which is an extended reflection on the Abraham and Isaac story, and one of my favorite blog posts ever is Mr. Fob's wrenching reflection on the same. So appropriate, I guess, that I add this sketch to the collection.

Every once in a while, some mentally unstable parent makes national headlines by reenacting the drama of Abraham and Isaac in real life, except that in their "revelatory" experiences, God forgets to tell them it's just a test. Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling agonizes over the dangerous potential of preaching on the story of Abraham and Isaac, for fear of certain inappropriately pious parishioners taking it too literally.

So part of me thinks this is absolutely no laughing matter at all. Still, I laugh my ass off every time I watch this. Maybe it's because the story of Abraham and Isaac is so existentially unnerving, and I need the comic relief to help me process it.

But I guess I also like it because it so deliciously lampoons the kind of mindless, uncaring group-think I find to be the antithesis of true faith. My southern, fundamentalist sister-in-law thinks the sketch is hilarious too. So maybe to the chagrin of my atheist readers who think this is a spot-on portrait of faith... For what it's worth, at least two believers appreciate it for what it tells us faith is not.

(Or maybe it's just that the lines are so perfectly delivered. The guy who plays God in this sketch is brilliant!)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Waiting As Spiritual Practice

I love Psalms 130 and 131, particularly these two passages:
I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope. My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning. (130: 5-6)

Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. (131: 2)
To me, these verses are about those times when I don't feel the Spirit. When I feel unsteady, or alone, or afraid, I know that it is time simply to calm my heart, go about my business, and wait with a prayer in my heart. Eventually, I will feel the Spirit again, just as those that wait for the morning eventually see the sun rise. My moods may fluctuate, but I can be steady, and trust that I will find my way again. I've realized that sometimes God expects us to stand up on our own ("like a weaned child"), to see what we can do on our own best resources. In those moments, I just do the best I can, even if I feel inadequate, knowing that I will learn something important. And knowing that even when I feel alone, I am never truly alone.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Spirit and Element, Inseparably Connected, Receive a Fulness of Joy

Latter-day Saints understand that the entire purpose of creation was to enable the spirit children of our Heavenly Parents to progress by receiving physical bodies that some day will be "inseparably connected" with our spirits. (See D&C 93: 33-34 and 138: 17). This is why it is through the gift of procreation that "the earth might answer the end of its creation" (D&C 49: 16). A fundamental task of this life is to perfect the union of spirit and body.

Accounts of the Satanic rebellion against God in Abraham 3: 22-28 and Moses 4: 1-4 add another layer to our understanding of the nature of the trial we face in this life related to achieving the union of spirit and body. Satan told God, "I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it." This, explained God, was an attempt "to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him."

A further layer of understanding is added in the account of the Fall of Adam and Eve. After Satan tempts Eve, and she and her husband partake of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, "the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons" (Gen. 3: 7; also Moses 4: 13). God's first question to Adam and Eve in the aftermath of the Fall was related to the primeval shame that followed the partaking of the fruit: "Who told thee that thou wast naked?"

The Book of Revelation describes how, after the Great War in Heaven, Satan "was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him" (Revelation 12: 9). Revelation describes Satan as "the accuser," which "accused [the righteous] before our God day and night" (vs. 10). He is described as a "persecutor" of the righteous, who "makes war" upon them (vss. 13 & 17). He is able to do this because of great worldly power that is granted him for a time. Something of the power that was granted to Satan is captured in a phrase used by the apostle Paul to describe him: "the god of this world" (2 Corthians 4: 4). Satan is in league with "the rulers," with the "powers and principalities" of this world, with "spiritual wickedness in high places" (Ephesians 6: 12).

Incredible as it may seem, it was God's plan from the beginning that we be tried in a world in which Satan was not only free to tempt us, but in which Satan, for the most part, rules. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, we who are faithful live, in essence, "behind enemy lines," awaiting the return of Earth's rightful ruler. How can we hope to survive? "By the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of [our] testimony" (Rev. 12: 11). These are our only weapons in this fight.

If Satan is engaged in a war against God in which Earth is temporarily enemy-occupied territory, certainly the stakes of that strife are related to the goal and purpose of mortal existence: the miraculous, powerful, and joyful bond between spirit and flesh, on which eternal "fullness of joy" is predicated.

Fullness of joy comes when body and spirit are in harmony, when neither disregards the needs of the other. In this sense, our bodies and our spirits are entered into a kind of marriage with each other. Actually, I'm convinced that a number of passages in scripture discussing "marriage" relate metaphorically to this union of body and spirit. Certainly, marriage as a literal institution, in which spouses covenant with each other both physically and spiritually, is the perfect expression of the metaphorical "marriage" between body and spirit. The marital relationship demands the same kinds of balance and harmony between physical and spiritual needs that all of us must achieve -- married or not -- in order to achieve the fullness of joy.

In the ancient world, the physical was seen as having feminine qualities and the spiritual was seen as having masculine qualities. Thus, when the apostle Paul, for instance, speaks of the ideal relationship between husband and wife, relating that the wife is to "obey" the husband, while the husband is to "be considerate of" the wife, he is also speaking very aptly of the kind of relationship our spirits ought to have with our bodies. Spiritual requirements must be obeyed, but the spirit cannot exercise tyranny over the body. Rather, it is to nurture, meet the needs of, and strengthen the body. In real marriages of husbands and wives, of course, it is the responsibility of both husband and wife to obey the spirit and nurture the flesh.

I remember as a kid going on a tour in Finland of a Russian Orthodox Museum. There was a section of the museum where implements of torture were on display in some glass cases. I'd heard tales of the Inquisition, and wondered if these were some of the tools of its trade. But there was no Inquisition in Eastern Orthodoxy. No, these implements of torture, I learned to my surprise and horror, were used by Russian monks on themselves. The purpose was to "mortify" or deaden the flesh to any instincts toward (sexual) pleasure. This was a powerful object lesson to me of the extreme antipathy to physicality and sexuality in the European culture of the middle ages -- the culture that, in many ways, was the matrix for modern Western understandings of the world.

To quote The Family Guy, "it seems today that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV." So we might wonder how our modern culture of sexual permissiveness could possibly be related to the body-hating culture of Europe five hundred years ago. Our culture seems to be the opposite of that one. But in fact, opposites are usually flip sides of the same coin. When we examine the roots of modern pornographic, "anything goes" culture, we see that it emerged as a form of rebellion against body-fearing prudery and repression. Both represent modes of body and spirit relating to each other that are out of harmony.

We still see the imprint of body-denial in the majority of Christian churches, especially those strongly influenced by European culture. We see it in theologies that deny the literalness of the physical resurrection, as well as in the demonization of the flesh. When sexual urges in and of themselves are characterized as evil, we see this in action.

The scriptural texts I discussed at the beginning of this essay give some inkling about the nature of Satanic dominion in the world. Force or coercion, shame, accusation or humiliation, and persecution are clearly identified as tools of Satan. Force is how Satan told God he would rule the world, and now cast out into the world and ruling it as "occupied territory," he has been true to his word. Satan of course does not have dominion over our souls; that's what God prevented in the beginning when he rejected Satan's proposal for achieving salvation; it's what Christ achieved through the atonement ("the blood of the Lamb"). Satan may rule the world, but he cannot rule us against our wills.

It should be evident, when we understand the nature of the bond between body and spirit, why Satan's plan could never work. Force cannot produce harmony. And it is only through harmony that perfect union can work. D&C 121 alludes to this, when it states: "Thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever" (vs. 46). This suggests that what dominion God has over the elements -- and whatever of the nature of God's dominion we are able to achieve -- is based on love, not force. Love is literally the organizing principle of all creation.

Gays and lesbians have been the victims of our culture's sexual repression in a special way. The severing of the harmony between spirit and body has created fundamental anxiety in our culture that causes us to lie to ourselves about the nature of our desire. One manifestation of this is the projecting of one's fears about one's own sexuality on those who are sexually "other." So gay men and lesbians have become a foil for our culture's anxiety about sex. Gay sex, in our sex-hating culture, is the ultimate evil. It's the kind of sex that Satan has and promotes. So no repression of homosexuality is unjustified.

Just by virtue of being gay, we are not immune to this anxiety. In fact, we are more vulnerable to it than people who are not gay. We are vulnerable to this kind of anxiety in exactly the same way that little black children in our culture prefer white dolls over black dolls, because they think that black dolls are "ugly." The culture's projection of us as demonic isn't something that just goes away when we come out. Understanding this is a crucial aspect of the journey each of us must take toward self-knowledge.

That journey, in other words, specifically means wrestling with the cultural lie that we are demons incarnate and not human beings having both spirits and bodies that require the same kinds of harmony that everyone else requires. Our struggle is a special one, because we have to strive to find that balance both in our own psyches as well as in a culture that does everything it can -- that uses every Satanic tool of shame, hate, persecution, humiliation, and coercion -- to keep us unbalanced and use us as scapegoats.

I am now speaking from personal experience, offering the word of my own testimony in regard to my understanding of the nature of the battle. Once I understood this and began to live it, I experienced in unprecedented ways what exactly is meant by those simple words "fullness of joy." I've experienced both kinds of imbalance in my life -- the imbalance of letting one's life be run by one's sex drive, as well as the imbalance of denying any rightful place to the sex drive. The pathway to balance is precarious and frightening. There are demons of all sorts in our way, trying alternatively to frighten and tempt us.

My way through literally has been by "the blood of the Lamb" and by my testimony, which teaches me patience and kindness, beginning with myself and then reaching out toward others.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Your Sins Are Forgiven You

Yesterday as part of ward conference, a member of the Stake Presidency spoke to a combined priesthood session. He started by asking us to discuss the various struggles in our lives, or in the lives of friends, and then he discussed the tools that could help us in dealing with these struggles. Among the points that came up in the discussion he included "Work," "Prayer," and "Faithfulness" as some of things that can help us. But as the session came to a close, he offered one final tool that can help us. He said, "Brethren, we need to let go of our anger."

I was particularly startled by this. It's not what you'd typically find on a "to do" list in most LDS Priesthood or Sunday School lessons. As Brother S. elaborated on what he meant by this, I began to understand better what he was driving at. "To let go of anger" is actually a negative way to understand the positive virtue of patience. To give in to anger is to literally lose patience. If you substituted "patience" for "letting go of anger" on his list virtues that can help us deal with struggles in our lives, it looks much more like the standard list of LDS "to do's": Work, Prayer, Faithfulness and Patience.

Why did Bro. S. do this? Why did he prefer to state that last virtue in negative rather than positive terms? Knowing the way the Spirit typically works in such teaching situations, I wouldn't be surprised if his choice of words was in response to specific needs of someone -- known or unknown -- in the room at that time. But certainly, if I had to rank one virtue more highly than all the others when faced with struggles or adversity, patience would be the one. And Bro. S. was teaching us patience not simply by tagging it in a list of platitudes, but by speaking frankly to us about how concretely to cultivate it: letting go anger.

I felt an incredible, peaceful spirit about that teaching all afternoon. And this morning, as I awoke, that peacefulness continued to envelope me, and the phrase "Your sins are forgiven you" came to mind. One of the most powerful experiences I had with anger was connected with when I first began to pray regularly again in January 2006. As I began to make the attempt to pray, I realized that there was a huge obstacle blocking me, and it was my anger at God and at the Church. I had a choice; I had to decide what was more urgent for me: to pray, or to hold on to my anger. The moment I let go the anger, the prayer began to flow and the Spirit was present, and I was enveloped with the most indescribable, pure, intense experience of love. And forgiveness. "Your sins are forgiven you." I wept; the tears flowed freely down my cheeks, wetting my folded hands. I had never in my life before experienced greater joy or more perfect contentment. And my anger, every last trace of it, melted away in those tears.

I understood exactly how the anger was gone too. Not just gone, but evaporated. Obliterated. I had been angry all those many years because I had felt rejected by the Church and by God. And now I had experienced the most perfect and the most undeniable witness of God's perfect love and acceptance of me. All I had to do was let go my anger and do my best to love and serve others, and God's acceptance of me was pure and complete. If God loved me in this way, whatever rejection I may have felt at the hands of others had to be the result of a terrible mistake, a terrible misunderstanding. If God did not reject me, there was no reason for them to reject me, and certainly no reason for me to reject them. And so out of God's forgiveness I found welling up in my heart -- unbidden and unexpected -- the most delightful, bottomless reserve of love and forgiveness of others. I'm OK, you're OK -- even if you don't realize it yet.

In that moment, my sense of this was more perfect and powerful than it is every moment of every day. Anger has still been something I have to wrestle with from time to time. But on that night in January 2006, anger as a force dominating and driving my life was broken. All it has ever taken me ever since to deal with unbidden anger is an act of remembrance. To remember that night, and to remember other similar spiritual experiences I've had since then.

That experience granted me another insight into the nature of forgiveness and its relationship to anger. "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." I realized that my lack of interest in judging or holding on to my anger against others was the flip side of the coin of having experienced complete and total forgiveness. To be truly forgiven -- and to know of one's forgiveness -- is lose the least bit of desire to judge others.

In fact, it is to desire the opposite, to feel a tremendous, overwhelming, powerful desire for all others to experience the perfect love and forgiveness that you have experienced. Judgment of others is simply not a sentiment it is possible to feel if you feel completely forgiven yourself, so the act of judging others is merely to confirm that you yourself remain judged and unforgiven -- in your own heart if not in the heart of God. But forgiveness in the heart of God does us no good if we do not receive it. That is why benefiting from the atonement requires an act of faith. An act of acceptance, letting the forgiveness flow into our hearts, teaching us the true nature of love and forgiveness. So to judge is to be unforgiven, really and truly unforgiven.

To be forgiven, on the other hand, is also to accept a new life, new ways of thinking, new ways of behaving that are better than before. So every step in our journey is a process of repentance and forgiveness, letting go the old so that something new can take its place. That is what Christ meant when he told the woman taken in adultery, "Your sins are forgiven you. Now go and sin no more." "Go and sin no more" did not mean Christ expected the forgiven one to be perfect immediately. Only that she learn from that mistake, that that moment of forgiveness be the beginning of a transformed life. There's beautiful significance in the fact that the woman to whom Christ said that had almost been stoned to death. He literally gave her a new life, both physically and spiritually.

This way forward -- and I believe it is the only way forward -- is particularly difficult for gay men and lesbians, because our understanding of the true nature of sin has been perverted by the culture we live in. We've been told, in so many words, that we are sin in our very natures. We've been judged as sinful not for our acts, not even for our desires (because so many of us did not desire this! we desired anything but!), but for the instinct that's rooted in our flesh. So as we came to understand how absurd this was and -- rightly! -- rejected it, we are still likely to experience a kind of confusion when we hear the word "sin" spoken over a pulpit.

So much of our journey has been about reconstructing a positive image of ourselves. We've had to fight hard to believe in ourselves; to construct an identity that is good. So the act of letting go the self, the act of acknowledging the need for forgiveness can be that much more painful. It can feel like giving up the one thing of value we finally managed to grab a hold of after we lost everything else.

But this isn't uniquely our predicament. The fact that we live in a world where we constantly face so much judgment, hostility and anger; where the reality of our lives is so eagerly and willfully distorted by people who like to call themselves Saints and Christians; that tells us something about the need for forgiveness in this world. It boils down to deciding what we more urgently need: our anger, or the patience and love that will enable us to face and eventually overcome our adversity.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


My dictionary defines "celibate" as "abstaining from marriage and sexual relations, typically for religious reasons."

When I was growing up, celibacy was an alien concept in Mormonism. We certainly learned about the "law of chastity," which in the Mormon context meant reserving all sexual expression for marriage. In some contexts, such as the Roman Catholic, chastity has connotations similar to celibacy of total, life-long abstinence from sexual relations, as in the "vows of chastity" taken by the clergy. Mormons use the word "chastity" in a different way from Roman Catholics. But there has traditionally been no place among Mormons for "celibacy," which always been to them an alien and apostate notion. That is, until recently.

The classic Mormon statement on celibacy is found in the D&C, section 49, verse 15: "And again, verily I say unto you, that whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man." It's possible that this revelation, received very early in the history of the Latter-day Church, in 1831, was specifically directed not against Catholics but against Shakers, who at that point in American history, were vigorously proselytizing throughout the northern United States, and had established dynamic and growing communes in upstate New York and in Ohio, in proximity to the gathering centers of early Mormonism. The Shakers, led by Mother Ann Lee, believed that marriage was a sin, and taught that the pathway to God required total celibacy.

Doctrine & Covenants 49 also affirmed that "it is lawful that [man] should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation; And that it might be filled with the measure of man, according to his creation before the world was made" (vss. 16-17). This could also be seen as a strong repudiation of the doctrines taught by the Shakers, since the Shakers believed that universal celibacy was necessary to restore the earth to the paradisaical state that existed before the fall of Adam and Eve. The Shakers believed that the fall literally consisted of sex, and so in order to undo the fall, humankind must stop having sex. Mormons of course had a very different view of the fall: "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy." D&C 49 affirmed that far from being a sin, marriage and procreation "answered the end of creation," that it was part of a purpose that was established "before the world was made."

This doctrine was elaborated upon through a later revelation received by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, in July 1843, D&C section 132 on the "new and everlasting covenant of marriage." In this section of the D&C, which was not made public for some years after it was received, the practice of plural marriage was explained, and the doctrine of "eternal marriage" was revealed. Here, not only was it wrong to teach celibacy, but singleness was described as a form of damnation. Those who do not marry in this life are destined in the next life to "remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all eternity." They "cannot be enlarged" and "henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever," as "ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory" (vss. 16-17).

That's heavy. Especially in light of the fact that since 2006, official statements and publications of the Church in relation to the issue of homosexuality are now stressing that individuals with same-sex attraction are not to marry, unless they feel a "great attraction" to the individual of the opposite sex whom they are marrying.

The role of singles in the Church has always created a challenge for LDS communities, specifically because of the doctrine found in D&C 132. Apart from the Manifesto officially ending the practice of polygamy, there has been no revelation significantly modifying the teachings of D&C 132 since it was first promulgated. And this has been a heavy burden for all those who -- for whatever reason -- have found it impossible to marry in the temple.

The principle of vicarious ordinance work does present a potential loophole which has been unofficially exploited by LDS leaders as well as rank-and-file faithful to at least give some hope and comfort to the "singles" of the Church. After all, it is painful enough to have to live singly in this life -- especially in a culture where everything seems to revolve around coupling and having families. To be told that as a consequence of being unable to marry, you will suffer singleness not only here in this life but for all eternity, to many that's a burden that seems almost incapable of being born. It is natural, I think, to want to offer some hope, so many faithful Latter-day Saints have adopted the belief that those who are unable to find a mate in this life will be provided the opportunity to find and marry an eternal mate in the next life.

There is, of course, no scriptural basis for this belief, which is rapidly becoming so widespread among LDS faithful as to have risen to quasi official status. This belief becomes logically almost impossible to resist, given the Church's official position on homosexuality, because otherwise it just does not seem fair, and Latter-day Saints believe in a God who is perfectly fair. But in fact, D&C 132 specifically teaches against a belief in post mortal marriage. D&C 132 is unequivocal that these marital contracts are contracts that must be entered into "in the world." If you marry any other way "in the world" or if you do not marry in this way "in the world," the conditions are spelled out. You will remain "separately and singly" in the next world. (See especially verses 13, 15 and 22-23.) In fact, D&C 132 could be seen as an extended elaboration upon the biblical principle: "For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven" (Matthew 22:30 and Mark 12:25). D&C 132:16 affirms this as an absolute principle. In the next life, there is no marrying or giving in marriage. That's why we have eternal marriage in temples in the world.

So if you are gay, or handicapped in such a way as to preclude marriage, or divorced, or just a good, old-fashioned life-long bachelor or "spinster," the best you can hope for -- at least in so far as is spelled out in D&C 132 -- is eternal servanthood. Seemingly as if to rub salt into the wounds of all of us who find ourselves in any of these situations through no fault of our own, D&C 132: 22-23 concludes, "For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it."

Now I have a testimony of the Church, and I also have a testimony of these teachings. I do not reject them. I have no basis for rejecting them. I realize at some intellectual level that these teachings should fill me with despair, and at some point in my journey of faith they did just that. In fact, this doctrinal problem was at the heart of the despair that nearly led me to take my own life in 1986. But somehow I've come through the other side of despair, doubt, anger, and rejection and found what I can only describe as perfect hope and joy, grounded in the personal reassurances I've received through the Spirit that I am OK, that there is nothing wrong with me in my created being, and that everything will work out for me not only in this life but in eternity. I don't know how things will work out for me (or others in my situation), but I know they will.

Those of us who are faithful LDS and non-temple-married will each have to make our own peace with this teaching in our own way. Some of us can and do reject the doctrine itself as simply out of harmony with what we know or believe of the love, justice and mercy of God. Of course LDS doctrine related to marriage has become so important in LDS community and LDS culture that it's hard to reject this doctrine piecemeal. Many of us have rejected the Church in its entirety over this doctrine.

I don't have a problem with the belief that those not given an opportunity to find a mate in this life will be offered that chance in the next one. There's no scriptural basis for it... yet. That tiny word "yet" can be pregnant with hope in a Church that sees continuing revelation at the core of its reason for existing.

A long time ago, Chedner wrote an essay describing how he came to terms with this doctrine by making peace with eternal servanthood. I have always remembered that essay. (I can't provide the link, because it was a LONG time ago and I don't have the patience to go searching for it. Though I'll post a link here if Chedner is so kind as to provide it.) Of all the ways of finding hope, that resonates best with me. I like it not just because it is scriptural, but because of the movement of soul that is required to accept this as a form of hope. To give up desire for glory and dominion and to choose instead the way of selfless love and service is the heart of the gospel way. It is, without question, the way Christ himself walked -- whether or not Christ himself married in this life. It is not just "a" scriptural way of finding hope, it is "the" scriptural way.

In my last post I described a spiritual path that gay Saints may follow, that leads from despair to self-knowledge, from self-knowledge to self-love, and finally from self-love to unconditional love of others, which will enable us to fully realize Zion, the highest aspiration of our religion. I suggested that the "self-love" stage "includes acceptance of our limitations and recognition that it is legitimate for us to seek to meet the basic human need for intimacy and relationship." I think it is worthwhile to reflect on the meaning of celibacy in relation to that statement, because I do see celibacy as a potentially faithful and enriching spiritual path, one that can lead us to the end goal of Zion.

Celibacy will fail as a spiritual path if it is not grounded in healthy self-love and in a belief in the legitimate right each of us has to establish intimate relationships according to our ability. If our celibacy is based upon fear of our sexuality, or is grounded in some sense that we are inferior in our created selves or not deserving of an intimate relationship just like everyone else, those reasons for entering into a celibate path will gnaw at our souls until they destroy us. In this I must wholeheartedly second the words of D&C 49:15: "Whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God."

The Church has officially enjoined gay men and lesbians without some significant level of bisexuality to live lives of celibacy. In terms of purely practical considerations -- in comparison with the old policy of encouraging people to simply ignore their same-sex attraction and get married to a member of the opposite sex -- this is a huge step forward, if only because it does not encourage the creation of unions that for the most part, result in tremendous, destructive heartache and loss of faith. It has a second, spiritual benefit, of giving gay men and lesbians time to think about their choices in terms of relationships and sexuality. If we are in doubt about our path, it is good to avoid making indelible commitments until we are sure. So celibacy can give us time and space -- either to discern whether we feel called to the celibate life, or to prepare for a relationship. I was celibate until the age of 24, and it didn't kill me.

If life-long celibacy is chosen, not out of fear of sex or fear of damnation, but out of a desire for service; if celibacy becomes an expression of self-love that then turns outward toward using all of one's time and energy and gifts for helping others; then it can and will save not only us but others. It can allow us be "ministering angels" in this life, it can enable us to serve in the way Christ served, and to receive all the unfathomable joy that can come with that.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Acceptance Won't Save Us

Many gay men and lesbians long for acceptance in their religious and/or cultural communities. We've been through the phase of self-annihilating self-hatred and self-rejection. We've painfully achieved the self-knowledge that enables us to distinguish between the lies our culture has taught us about ourselves and the reality of who we are and what's in our hearts. From self-knowledge we've graduated to self-acceptance and healthy self-love, which includes acceptance of our limitations and recognition that it is legitimate for us to seek to meet the basic human need for intimacy and relationship. Now all we ask for is acceptance from our communities. Is that too much to ask?

What we've learned if we've been on this road long enough, is that you can't force acceptance. More importantly, you can't force love. Isn't that more the crux of the matter? Because what we long for is not mere tolerance, not mere acceptance, but true love, true communion. We long for the kind of unity that is the highest and best aspiration of our religion and of our community. We long for Zion, where we are all of one heart and one mind and dwell together in righteousness.

Here's the rub: the community we long for doesn't exist. It wouldn't exist for us even if we were straight and conformed perfectly to every expectation that the culture has of us. The true community we long for exists only in our hearts and aspirations. And it will be realized only through our determination to make it real, to make it more than a dream.

The way I look at it, our community's rejection of us is its greatest gift to us. Someday we will thank them for it, and they will thank us for helping them find the solution to the great human problem at the heart of that rejection.

See, all they need is the kind of love that enables them to look beyond convention, beyond the surface, beyond their worst fears about themselves -- which they project on us. They're not motivated to find that love, because they think they don't need us. They think we're the ones who need them, and they think they're on the inside and we're on the outside, and they're content to leave things that way.

But it's not like we have the kind of love that they need. We do not have it. We still have only the kind of love that they have. The love that looks at convention, that looks at the surface, that is as much a reflexion of our fears about ourselves as it is about a true giving of oneself. But what we have that they don't is the hunger, the pain of rejection, the knowing what it means to be on the outside. That is their gift to us, because the hunger and the pain motivate us.

At first we take the direct route. We join Affirmation. We go to the Prop 8 protest in Salt Lake City. We shout, "Accept us!" That doesn't work.

So now we have an option. We can get stuck and angry and go back into the self-pity. We can make ourselves enemies of the people from whom we once wanted nothing but love. Or we can dig deeper within. We can find what it is in ourselves that will give us the strength to love truly and deeply, not looking at the surface but looking at the heart, not caring about convention but loving truth, not being afraid of anything in ourselves or in the other. We can learn that kind of love and then we can give it.

And whether they accept it or not... Well that is their choice. That is the nature of love. It must be freely given and freely received. And when it is given and received, true love for true love, there is nothing greater and nothing more divine in all the universe.

Isn't that better than acceptance?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bearing Witness

Yesterday, I gave an account of my personal encounter with Christ, an experience I had over two years ago.

At lot of things went through my mind as I prepared to share this publicly. I thought about friends, co-workers and casual acquaintances, many of whom are convinced these kinds of experiences are either fabricated or qualify you for the loony bin. Then there are the potential eyebrows raised at the liberal Protestant seminary where I teach. Will they think I'm unfit to shape the minds of future ministers? I also thought about the growing gaggle of naysayers who are eager to use my blog as a forum for telling me (anonymously or otherwise) that I'm on the path to hell. And I couldn't help wonder how many of my acquaintances at Church think the same but are too polite to say it to my face (though I know of the love many members of my ward have expressed for me, and trust their willingness to try to go this road with me). Still, I couldn't help wonder if sharing something like this would make me a pariah, among faithful, faithless, and in-between, all alike. (Not to mention embarrassing my family.)

It's damned inconvenient.

This experience has been very important to me personally. Remembering and reflecting on it has steadied me and strengthened me in many a dark and painful moment over the past 28 months. It has made a quiet yet powerful difference to me in more situations than I can count and in ways I can't fully describe. I kept it to myself, partly because I was aware of ways in which this experience was for me, and me alone. I could share it, but it would never mean to others what it meant to me personally. So I was quite content to keep it as my private, personal spiritual touchstone.

Yet, there is a sense in which this testimony is larger than I am. There is a sense in which, if there is to be any integrity in my life, I must own this publicly as part and parcel of who I am and what my life is about. And there is a sense in which what others think of me in relation to this must be irrelevant.

There is a way in which, after sharing a testimony like this, nothing is different. The sun still rises the next morning. The kid still needs to be roused for school, the cats fed, the garbage taken out. There's still work to be done and many miles to go before I sleep. And what I knew before I shared this is still what I know after sharing it. The fact of sharing it changes nothing.

And yet, there is a way in which, after sharing a testimony like this, everything is different. Doing so is a concrete act acknowledging God's dominion in my life, acknowledging that some things are bigger and more important than my ego. The act of sharing changes everything.

Spiritual experiences are sacred. I don't share most of the spiritual experiences I have with anyone. This one I had shared only with my parents and my husband, and only because the Spirit prompted me to do so. I wrestled with the appropriateness of sharing this publicly. Even after feeling prompted to do so, I went back to the Lord asking for confirmation. I clicked "publish" only after it was clear to me beyond any shadow of doubt that this was what was required of me. Even then, doing so was an act of faith.

I don't expect anyone to just take my word for what I've written here. Skepticism is welcome, and I'll do my best to answer questions, if anyone has any. (I'm OK with just being politely ignored too!!) But ultimately a testimony of this nature can only be a signpost pointing back to God. If my testimony encourages you in your own spiritual quest, it will have accomplished its purpose, even if your quest takes you somewhere very different. If the Spirit bears witness to you of what I'm saying, then we share something precious, for which I will be very, very grateful. And if what I have to say has offended, all I can say is I wish you well.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Testimony of Christ

In October 2007 I was visited by Jesus Christ. I'm not speaking in figurative or literary terms. This was real, as real as it gets. First I'll try to describe it. Then I will write about the implications.

I generally get up early in the morning to pray, usually some time between six and six-thirty A.M., so I can be alone, and so I will have plenty of time. Sometimes my prayers are short and sometimes they are long -- depending on what is going on in my life. I find a place in the house where I can be alone, where my praying won't disturb other members of the family, and where other members of the family won't disturb me.

On this particular morning, I'd gone downstairs around six A.M. and knelt next to a chair in our living room and began to pour out my heart to God. No sooner had I begun to do so, when I was aware of a presence. The awareness came to me the way a cloud moves away and the rays of the sun suddenly shine down on you. I was aware of an intense light, unlike any earthly light, and a warmth that completely enveloped me inside and out. My eyes were closed, though I was also conscious that a person was present right in front of me, just above the chair I was kneeling in front of. I knew I had not encountered this person ever before -- not in this life anyway -- and I simultaneously knew who it was. I began weeping uncontrollably.

At the moment I had knelt down to pray, I was suffering from a flu or a very bad cold -- headache, sore throat, aches and pains, nausea, feverishness. As soon as I was aware of the Christ standing before me, I felt the sickness literally flee from my body, it was gone and it did not come back. I was filled with the most incredible sense of physical well being, healthier and physically happier than I have ever felt in my life. If I had words to describe it, I would say it was like what I will feel in the resurrection, when my spirit is eternally united with a perfect body.

I actually didn't dare to open my eyes or look up at first. I just wept with sheer gratitude. But eventually Christ invited me to look up into his face, so I did, and saw the most serene, beautiful, loving face I have ever seen. He was dressed in a plain, white robe, with one bare shoulder, and had flowing shoulder-length hair and a beard. He had an expression of perfect kindness and love.

He told me my sins were forgiven me, and then he showed me the earth. He told me that the entire destiny of the earth, from its inception to its end, is completely in his hands, that armies of angels are awaiting a single word from him to bring the entire work of this world to completion. He told me that there is literally nothing in all the worlds that is beyond his power or that I need fear.

I wanted to know what work he had for me, and he told me simply to be patient, to continue in prayer and faith and obedience, and that I would know it when the time came.

So then I just knelt there, enveloped in the most complete, the most pure, the most loving radiance, tears streaming continuously down my face. I know it was a finite amount of time, though I wasn't conscious of time. I wanted to remain there, in that moment, forever. But eventually it passed and I was left to myself again.

I was left with the most incredible feeling of physical, emotional, and spiritual well being. It was then I was aware how completely gone my cold/flu was. I wondered if it would eventually come back, but it didn't.

After Christ had left me, I was aware of the Spirit's presence. The Spirit had been there before, during and after. The Spirit told me I needed to share this experience with my husband Göran and also with my parents. I wasn't completely sure how to do that at first, but eventually I did.

I told Göran first, a couple days later. It was hard for me, as I wasn't sure if he would disbelieve me or patronize me or get scared and think I was mentally unstable. Fortunately, he did none of the above. He just listened quietly, and then he gave me a hug and told me he loved me and believed me.

It took my quite a bit longer to tell my parents. I finally talked to them about the experience about a year ago. I had been waiting for the perfect moment to talk to them about it in person, but that perfect moment never came, and finally I got a bit of a talking to from the Spirit, reminding me that I was supposed to do this. So I found a private room at work that same morning and called them and told them what had happened. The Spirit was there, bearing witness to me and to them about the truth of what had happened to me. Literally my bosom was burning within me. My parents and I wept together over the phone and expressed gratitude to God and gratitude for each other. And then I pretty much locked that experience up in my heart and have kept it to myself until now. I'm sharing it now, because the Spirit has clearly told me that it is time for me to bear witness of what I know.

First, I know that Christ is real and he lives. Words are terribly clumsy, inadequate instruments to describe the truth of it. I have tried to put it to words, and here's the best I can put it. When I was in Christ's presence, he was more real than the physical world you and I live and breathe and move in. He was more substantial and more true than the entire physical universe that we can touch and measure through science and look at through telescopes. Which is why, when Christ told me that all things were in his hands, under his ultimate control, I immediately knew the truth of it. I knew that nothing in this universe could withstand him because he is more than all of it. And it would be easier for me to insist that nothing of what I know is real, than to believe that he is not. But the world exists and is real, and so is he. He exists and he lives -- he is alive! -- in the most objectively real, tangible, true sense I can possibly convey. Again, please understand that I am not speaking in metaphor or poetry here, though poetry might capture the truth of it better than what I can say prosaically.

Second, I'm not afraid of anything in this world. Kill this body, but you can't kill anything of me that is real.

Third, he chose to reveal himself to me, some gay guy that most decent Christian folks wouldn't give the time of day for being the grossest kind of sinner. I'm not better than anyone else. I'm riddled with sin and imperfection. My husband and my foster son -- the two human beings who know me best -- will, I'm sure, gladly furnish testimony regarding all my weaknesses and failings. I have to wrestle and struggle, and occasionally pick myself up out of the dirt, and keep walking, just like everyone else. Yet, I know my sins are forgiven me so long as I give my heart to Christ, and listen to him, and obey him. And I have no need to fear -- for me or my family, for the present or the future, for this life or the life to come.

Fourth, there is a path we all need to enter, there is a way we need to walk, each of us individually, as families, as members of communities and as a whole human family. It is a path that was defined by Christ. He walked it in the flesh before us, and we need to follow. He is alive and is leading us and guiding us in that path even now. It is a way of peace, of love, of faith, of patience, and of hope. It is the way of Heaven that we have to somehow bring to earth, so that we can receive him when he comes again. (And he will.)

Fifth, I know the Church is true. That's where the authority to act in God's name resides. The path of our salvation, individually and collectively, lies in the Church. It is also in my communion and community with the people already all around me in my life, my family, my friends and neighbors, my co-workers, everyone I will meet from this day till the day I die and am received into Christ's eternal bosom. It is in forming a "more perfect union" with them, in building and creating Zion today, right here and right now, in this world. There is much work to do.

I'm bearing this testimony here publicly for the first time, though this won't be the last time. I think I had to live this testimony for a while longer first, before I could be ready to speak it in public. But now the Spirit constrains me to speak it, so speak it I will from now on, in private and in public, to all who will listen, committing my life and everything I have and am to Christ's kingdom.

The testimony isn't what I have written here. The testimony is me.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Unnatural Relationships

OK, here's what I hope for.

I hope for discussions about attraction and relationships involving gay men in same-sex relationships and gay men in mixed orientation marriages not to be carried on as if marriage were a zero-sum game. As if what gay men in same-sex marriages win, gay men in mixed-orientation marriages (and their wives) lose, and vice versa.

There's a dynamic that always goes on in discussions about same-sex marriage. Sometimes it's at the fore, sometimes it's the unspoken elephant in the room. On the one hand, discussions of desire and nature seem to come with the implication that mixed orientation marriages shouldn't exist or are doomed. On the other hand, discussions of choice and change seem to come with the implication that same-sex marriages are unfaithful or selfish.

I notice when some of these discussions take place, there are quiet calculations taking place in the background. Someone shares his or her experience, and others listening in are trying to figure out whether that person's experience adds to or subtracts from their commitments. The happiness of a gay man in a same-sex relationship is taken as implying that a gay man in an opposite-sex relationship is hard-wired to be unhappy with a woman. In defense, people start piling in and testifying that God condemns same-sex relationships; and same-sex relationships just don't last. The happiness of a gay man in a mixed-orientation marriage is taken as implying that a gay man in a same-sex relationship was too weak or selfish to have made the morally superior choice of marrying a woman. In defense, people start piling in and testifying that people in mixed orientation marriages won't ever get their needs met; and mixed orientation marriages just don't last. And so on and so on, around and around it goes.

But relationships are not mathematical equations. They are living organisms with histories and habitats that are utterly unique. One of the things that often delights me about relationship stories is hearing how two people met. So often there's an element of serendipity involved, a chance encounter or some unusual introduction or something out of the ordinary that takes two people out of the usual course of their life and throws them together in some way that makes them take notice of each other in a new light. I've so often heard a couple tell, with knowing smiles, how "if it hadn't been for so-and-so, we never would have met."

And if the account of the encounter has interesting twists and turns, so much more the tale of the subsequent relationship. The longer a relationship lasts, the more choices an individual makes in the framework of that relationship; choices that determine not only whether or how that relationship can last, but the whole texture and character and personality of that relationship. And what is even more miraculous is that there is not one but two people making choices; often very, very different choices in the same relationship. At any point, any one member of the relationship could make a choice that causes a terminal divergence, bringing the relationship to an end. A relationship only lasts when two people both make choices that somehow converge, that somehow always lead back to the other. Like a dance.

Like a dance, each partner responds to the moves of the other. A change of rhythm or the introduction of new moves might confuse a partner for a moment, but that partner can always choose to adjust their own moves, matching their partner and coming back into sync. Or they might introduce some new moves of their own, challenging their partner to respond, forcing their partner to decide how or whether they want to keep dancing. I've been on many dance floors with my partner, but I've never been part of a dance where every couple had the exact same moves. I've never seen a dancer respond to a new rhythm in exactly the same way as any other dancer.

So a gay man comes out to his wife. New move, new rhythm. Some wives will follow, some won't. Sometimes that dance ends, and starts again with new partners. If the dance continues, the wife may make certain accommodations and certain demands. New move, new rhythm. Some gay men will follow, some won't. Sometimes the dance ends, and starts again with new partners. Sometimes the dance continues, with new levels and kinds of interaction and satisfaction for the partners.

The particularity of the moves in a mixed orientation marriage are different from the kinds of moves you typically see in a heterosexual marriage or in a gay marriage. Gay marriages have particular moves that you don't see in heterosexual or mixed orientation marriages. Heck, lesbian marriages have different moves from gay male marriages. But the fact of moving is the same in every relationship.

Why do two partners end up together? And why do they stay together? The answer is unique in every relationship. I hear the repeated refrain from gay men in mixed orientation marriages that they never had the experience of "falling in love." That really only gets disconcerting when they compare their moves to someone else's. But the only thing that's really important at any given moment is that you are in the dance, not necessarily how you got to this point in the dance.

Gay men in same-sex relationships have historically been told that their relationships are "unnatural." As our understanding of the nature of sexual orientation has evolved, gay men in mixed-orientation relationships increasingly find themselves being told that they are the ones in "unnatural" relationships.

But the truth is that every relationship is unnatural in the sense that relationships don't last unless two people are willing to put effort into them. No relationship just happens. It has a history that makes it unique -- a history that may have analogues in other people's lives, but that is actually unrepeated and unrepeatable anywhere else, with anyone else.

Every relationship is also natural in the sense that human beings are social creatures. Every relationship comes into being both through choice and desire. Every relationship meets needs. Every relationship fulfills some needs better than other needs, and each relationship has different proficiencies in terms of the kinds of needs it meets. That works, because every individual in a relationship has different needs.

I can't imagine being in a mixed orientation marriage. At one point, I considered the possibility very seriously, and even went through a period of fasting and prayer to discern whether I should seek to marry a woman. The result of that fasting and prayer and discernment led me to conclude that that would be a very bad choice for me. I made decisions that ultimately led to my relationship of more than 17 years with my honey pie, Göran. Looking back, there are things I might have done differently, but in terms of the grand story arc, I am incredibly grateful that I made the choices I did that led us together and made a couple of us. My relationship with him is the single greatest blessing in my life, after my relationship with God and my testimony of the gospel. When I contemplate the choices of folks like Bravone or Scott or Beck, they look impossible to me. I get a headache trying to imagine myself in their shoes.

But that doesn't make the choices they've made invalid. Nor does it make their relationships more or less deserving of happiness and success, nor more or less capable of achieving happiness and success. Nor should their happiness and success be taken as some kind of proof that I should have made different choices, that my relationship with Göran is somehow sinful or selfish or wrong. Nor should their success be used as ammunition for legal campaigns that deny me and my honey the protections of marriage.

I wish we could get that kind of stuff out of our system. Because there is value in comparing notes. We do learn from hearing how others made the choices they've made, where those choices led, and what it has meant to them to do what they've done.

Sometimes, the problem doesn't come from others trying to undermine us. Sometimes the problem comes from our own insecurities and fears. We hear what someone else has to say, and all our anxieties about our own relationship come to the fore and make it impossible for us to hear what they're actually trying to say. We need to get spiritually centered, find a way not only of speaking but hearing without fear.

This is difficult because we live in a culture that has turned these kinds of discussions into a political, social, spiritual, religious, and legal minefield. There's always somebody ready to turn somebody else's life into a political or theological argument; or perhaps we too readily indulge the temptation to make an argument of our own lives. It's disrespectful, it's painful, and it's terrible. To do so totally violates the sanctity of human life, human freedom, and human relationships. And it leaves us living in fear, and alienates us from one another when we ought to be living in love, and helping lift one another's burdens.

Any ideas how get through the minefield intact?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Not About the Sex

In the days before I had come to a full acceptance of my gayness, I had a fantasy. I actually told my fantasy to my best friend at the time, the guy around whom the fantasy centered. I told him that I wished we could always stay together and be friends forever. In my fantasy, we would each marry women and have families of our own. But we would buy houses that were located literally next door to each other. We would work at the same company. We would see each other every day. Our wives would be best friends. Our kids would play together. We would share meals every day. I imagined no fences in our backyards. We'd come home from work, and have a big family barbeque together. We'd hang out and talk until it was time to put the kids to bed, and then we'd retire to our respective homes until the next morning, when we'd see each other again. Ready to be best friends again for another day.

I knew it would never be a reality. I knew that each of us getting married would in reality pull us apart, separate us forever. But a guy's entitled to dream, right?

It's interesting to me looking back that gay sex was nowhere to be seen in my gay fantasy world. I remember a time when the notion of actual gay sex kind of scared me. Did I want to touch and be held and always be close to a man? Absolutely, yes, with no question. Was I ready to get naked and get crazy? No way.

I've seen similar fantasies floating around in the gay Mormon blogosphere. Celibate fantasies where guys live together forever as best friends. Fantasies about the restoration of a kind of modified polygamy that would let us have our eternal marriage cake and eat it too. Gay dating that lasts forever, that never goes past first base so we can still answer the temple recommend questions the right way. So many blog posts devoted to the theme of finding some way to find the emotional and social and spiritual fulfillment of same-sex love, without the excommunicatey aftertaste!

Recently, Scott posted about his continuing search to meet basic emotional/social/physical needs (needs for touch and for friendship) in a way that lets him stay true to his marriage. Mohohawaii posted a comment that struck me as particularly poignant. Most gay men, at some point, do hunger for the intimacy and connection and physical relief that sex provides. But the fundamental drive is not toward sex. He used the terms "bonding" and "nesting" to describe what we essentially long for. I was struck by the "nesting" comment in particular, because when you look at the various asexual Moho fantasies out there -- including my own pre-coming out fantasy -- that's where it went. It was all about preserving and nurturing in some form a primary male-male bond that includes constant fellowship, if not actual living together.

My last grasp at heteronormative sociality went beyond the realm of fantasy and into a real, actualizable homosocial lifestyle. I spent the summer in a Roman Catholic monastery in central France (with the Brothers of St. John), and seriously considered the possibility of joining the Catholic Church and taking vows. My spiritual wrestling with that very real possibility eventually led me to the conclusion that I did not have a "calling" to be a Roman Catholic monk. But if there had been a way for me to live a fully satisfying life with the potential to meet my deepest emotional and social cravings, that would have been it.

(Either that, or being a Mormon missionary forever and ever. I've actually also had fantasies of being one of the three Nephites!)

But the point is, being gay is not and never has been primarily about the sex. It's been distorted into that in certain segments of the gay community. A couple of the other comments posted on Scott's Selfish Again post suggested (in the usual stereotypical fashion) that gay relationships just don't last; that gays find it harder to forge committed relationships than straights. Well, there's a grain of truth in that, if you look at aspects of the gay American subculture. There are elements of that subculture that romanticize fast, easy, noncommittal sex; that romanticize a perpetual search for hotter guys and intenser experiences. There are way too many gay guys who have taken the bait of the culture of pornography and free sex, and haven't figured out yet how to break the bad habits that keep undermining healthy relationships and true happiness. I've posted elsewhere about this problem. I see it as a consequence of centuries of stigmatization and homophobia, and yes, the continuing efforts of our society to undermine gay relationships through political campaigns like Prop 8. Of course I'm the first to admit that the only way we can break the cycle of unhealthy sexuality is to take responsibility for ourselves and our behavior and for each other. We can't blame Prop 8.

The unhealthy stuff in gay culture is unhealthy precisely because it fails to take account of the true nature of our yearnings. It's not about sex. it's about relationship. Any married couple will tell you (and I'll add my voice to the chorus), marital sex has its ups and downs. On occasion it's great -- transcendent! "Holy," as Mohohawaii put it. Göran and I have been together for going on 18 years, and some of the best sex we've ever had is now. But often sex meets a need, and it's done. And sometimes it's outright frustrating or disappointing. We have a refrigerator magnet that says, "Not tonight, dear. It's a gross misdemeanor!" Often you just don't feel like it, and you go without it for a while. A marriage that is just about sex will not last long. Marriage isn't and never has been just about sex, and sex doesn't meet our most basic needs. But the sex is an expression of something profound and important. It's one of many forms of physical touch, which we do need. It expresses profound emotions that can't be expressed in any other way.

It is one facet of the profoundly human need that is best expressed by the gay fantasy of two guys living together as best friends forever.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On the Gift of the Holy Ghost

I must begin to address this topic by confessing that I am a sinner, and that much of my life I have been in the dark. Some memories of my own wrong-doing have been weighing heavily on me lately. I'm aware of my weaknesses, and the way past failings have contributed to present-day struggles. It would be easy to get discouraged, to become ungrateful, and/or try escaping into denial. And I probably would have shipwrecked long ago but for the comfort and sustaining guidance I've received from the Spirit.

I understand and accept LDS doctrine regarding the Gift of the Holy Ghost. Mormons believe that while the Spirit is at work in the world and can and does inspire people of every nation, kindred, tongue and creed, only those who are baptized and confirmed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are entitled to the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which they understand as the right to constant companionship of the Spirit so long as they keep their covenants and remain worthy.

Last Sunday I was very moved -- as I believe was everybody in attendance -- when a member of my ward told the story of his brother who had been excommunicated for the past seven years, and who was finally in recent weeks able to be re-baptized and received back into full membership. He wept as he told how his brother testified of the Gift of the Holy Ghost that had been restored to his life, of the difference that he could feel. As an excommunicated man who hungers to be restored to full membership in the Church, to say that I was moved and humbled by this story is an understatement.

I have no basis for denying the truth of the LDS doctrine regarding the Gift of the Holy Ghost in principle. I believe in it, and I affirm it. However, I admit that some aspects of my own experience may seem contradictory.

I experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit from the time I was quite young growing up in the Church. I sought and received gifts of the Spirit as a young priesthood holder and later as a missionary. I enjoyed the Gift of the Holy Ghost as a member of the Church. The reason -- after nearly twenty years away from the Church -- that I have begun attending the LDS Church again, and that I have begun living the gospel as fully as I am able, is because when I experienced the presence of the Spirit so powerfully in August 2005 telling me to "come home," I recognized that the Spirit had been missing from my life for most of the time I had been away from the Church, and I desperately wanted it back.

I recognized that the Spirit is more than "just a feeling." It's presence is discernible and unique, unlike any other presence. When I felt it, I immediately recognized it because I had been so familiar with it once as a member of the Church, and it filled me with the most indescribable joy and peace.

At first I didn't know what to do. I couldn't imagine leaving my husband, with whom -- at that point -- I'd been in a relationship for some 13 years. I assumed that the only way to have the Gift of the Holy Ghost in my life again would be to become a member of the Church, and I knew that the Church would not baptize me again unless I left my husband. So for a good month or so after my encounter with the Spirit, I tried dismissing it, rationalizing it away, and otherwise ignoring it.

But the Spirit was insistent. It kept coming back to me and reminding me of the encounter I'd had with it, and kept reiterating the same message again and again. It was time to "come home." Whenever I felt the Spirit gently prodding me in this way, I was always grateful for the profound peace and joy I felt in its presence, but I was also worried about what it would mean for my life to give in. I brought my anxieties and concerns back to the Spirit, and essentially said, "OK, I need to do this. I will do this. But what do I do? I don't know how to proceed." And the Spirit told me that I did not need to worry about the future, that everything would work out, and that for the time being, all I needed to do was to take one step at a time.

So gradually, I made changes in my life. I started attending Church in October 2005. Shortly thereafter, I also stopped using pornography, and started applying the principles of the Law of Chastity more fully to my relationship with my husband. In January 2006 I started praying daily and reading the Book of Mormon. The following March I began living the Word of Wisdom again, and so on.

Once I accepted the challenge of the Spirit to come back to the Church and start living gospel principles (some time in September 2005), I began to feel the presence of the Spirit in my life frequently. Once I began praying again in January 2006, I began to feel the Spirit's presence daily. This was a very emotional time in my life. I would get down on my knees to pray, and immediately the Spirit would descend on me and I would just start weeping tears of gratitude. I would just thank my Heavenly Father. I had been so unworthy, I had been such a sinner. I didn't understand why He would care about me or reach out to me when I had done so much to alienate Him. And all I ever felt was more love, more comfort, more reassurance.

Because I believed (still believe) in the LDS doctrine regarding the Gift of the Holy Ghost, every morning when I knelt down to pray, I would begin with an acknowledgment that I knew I was not entitled to the Gift of the Holy Ghost, but that I needed the Holy Spirit in my life to help me stay on the path. I was very aware of the precariousness of my position. Still, every single one of those prayers was answered.

There were times when I did not feel the Spirit as immediately or powerfully. Sometimes I was definitely aware that the Spirit was not there. In those situations, I would reach out to God in prayer, asking for help. And then I would patiently wait. I would still my heart, calm my thoughts, and keep doing what I knew I was supposed to be doing. I would keep doing what I had been told, the best I knew how on my own. And eventually, I would become aware of what it was I was doing wrong, how I had driven the Spirit away, and what I needed to do to correct course, and the Spirit would be back in my life again. Gradually, the absences of the Spirit were rarer and rarer. They still occur occasionally, and then I need to repent.

At a certain point I had to confront the issue of my relationship with my husband. From the beginning I had acknowledged that it was possible the relationship would have to end. I had never felt the Spirit prompting me in any way to end it. But logically, my renewed testimony of the Gospel and of the Church seemed to point to that. I knew the Church was true. I knew that the present, modern-day leaders of the Church are called and ordained and inspired by God, and I knew what they taught about my relationship. I knew that my path of reconciliation with God -- in light of my testimony -- must lead to membership in Christ's Church. So logically, it seemed that my relationship would have to end. But at no point in the various promptings I had received from the Spirit, was I being prodded to address this.

I had at various points prayed about it, and when I had, the Spirit had very calmly and clearly told me that I was not to leave my husband. Occasionally, in some of the discussions I had with my husband, this would come up, and I would reassure him that my understanding was that I was not to leave him. But there was always a grain of doubt in my heart, and I wondered if that was only "for the time being." This came to a head about a year after I had been attending Church regularly, in October 2006. (On my birthday, actually!) Wrestling with the logical process had caused me to become quite emotionally labored about the whole thing. I was feeling under tremendous stress. And finally as I was riding my bike down Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis, I cried out to God, "If my relationship eventually needs to end, I need to know!" And that is when I received a clear and definitive answer, I should not leave my relationship with my husband, ever. To do so would be a sin. And I should stop asking about it. That was a commandment, and so I have kept it, and stopped asking about it.

In May 2008, when the news hit that California would be legalizing same-sex marriage, I received a clear, unequivocal and very powerful prompting. My husband and I should travel to California and be legally married. I've posted elsewhere at length about that experience, and about some of the pain and subsequent wrestling after Proposition 8 was passed with heavy Church support. I don't have much more to add to what I've already written, but through the experiences I had in connection with our marriage it was made extremely clear to me that deepening my commitment to my husband was something God expected of me. Furthermore, deepening my commitment to my husband through our legally contracted marriage resulted in many rich spiritual blessings, all of which I can't enumerate here. And it resulted in a deepened, more powerful relationship with the Spirit.

Last spring, I received a number of very clear promptings about a few more changes I needed to make in my life and some specific things I needed to do. After obeying those promptings of the Spirit, I received a very clear prompting that, after more than three years of pleading every day for the Holy Spirit to be granted me as a temporary gift, I no longer needed to do that. Rather than asking for the Spirit, I should pray for help to be obedient, to be faithful, to be loving, to be patient, knowing that so long as I did what I was asked, I would be entitled to the continuous presence of the Spirit in my life. I was reassured that I need not worry any more on account of my exclusion from the membership of the Church. That was not something I had control over; if it had been possible for me to be baptized, I would have been a long time ago. The Lord had looked on my heart and had accepted my offering, and was rewarding me accordingly.

I realize that this will deeply offend and anger certain people. In the last couple of months, I've already been accused several times of being under the control of Satan, told that I'm deceived, that I'm in the gall of bitterness, that the Spirit can't possibly be in my life, and so on, and so on. These folks are entitled to believe what they want. I can't really argue with them, because they will dismiss everything I say on this count anyway. And I really don't want to or feel the need to argue with them... My only concern is that other readers of my blog not engage with these kinds of commenters. I tried explaining my position to some of these folks, just to preempt defensive comments from some of my other readers/friends. But at this point, I'll just ask you to respect my wishes not to engage with these folks. It doesn't serve any purpose.

I don't see my personal experience as proof that the Church's doctrine on the Gift of the Holy Ghost is wrong. At best -- if I were trying to resolve contradictions between my experience and the teaching of the Church -- it would be that I see myself as the exception that proves the rule. I don't take the presence and guidance of the Spirit lightly, as I hope this post makes clear. In order to have the Spirit in my life, I have had to be attentive, careful, faithful, and obedient. And I have prayerfully had to ask day after day after day, and work and wrestle. I still don't -- and don't imagine I ever will -- take it for granted.

The reassurances I have received have allowed me to enter into a deeper, more trusting relationship with my Father in Heaven. I still yearn for, and look forward to, and pray for the day when I can be baptized as a full member of the Church and have priesthood-bearing hands placed on my head to confirm me and formally bestow upon me the Gift of the Holy Ghost.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What a Waste of Theology

The Vatican condemned the blockbuster movie Avatar for promoting nature worship.

I was talking to Göran about this, and he said, "What a waste of theology!"

He couldn't have captured my feelings more precisely.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Psalm 88: A Gay Mormon Psalm?

Many of the Psalms are an outpouring of the soul; anguished cries of pain, fear or loneliness; or ecstatic hymns of praise. They don't provide context or background; they don't necessarily tell us the specific, concrete events in the life of the Psalmist that inspired the verses before us on the page. It is true that traditionally, many of the Psalms are attributed to King David, and we know enough about his life to imaginatively connect certain Psalms to key events in his life. Still, part of the appeal of the Psalms is that they have been preserved without any clear historical or biographical framing, allowing them to speak directly to our struggles and triumphs, to our moments of anguish and joy. That is why they are both powerful and comforting.

I occasionally find passages in scripture -- not just in the Psalms but throughout scripture -- that seem to speak directly and specifically to me, in the very concrete contours of my life as a gay man of faith, having grown up in a community that feared and rejected me because of my gayness. Sometimes it speaks to me so specifically, it feels almost as if it had been written just for me, though I know that is not true!

Psalm 88 speaks particularly to the anguish of one who has become outcast from his community. The Psalmist, furthermore, wrestles with a sense of being rejected by God, and feelings of worthlessness and a desire to die.

verse 3 My soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.

verse 4 I am counted with them that go down to the pit; I am as a man that hath no strength (viewed by others as damned? as weak?)

verse 5 Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand.

verse 8 Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me; thou hast made me an abomination unto them; I am shut up, and I cannot come forth. We gay Mormons know what it is to have been "made... an abomination unto them." And we know what it is to be "shut up" in the closet, unable to "come forth."

verse 14 Why castest thou off my soul? Why hidest thou thy face from me? What did we do to deserve this?

verse 15 I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up. How many of us have died in our youth!

verse 18 Lover and friend hast thou put far from me. How many of us have struggled, utterly alone, longing for someone to hold us!

But God does hear our cries, and he will answer our prayers.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Holding On

I feel incredibly blessed at the moment, and I can trace this feeling of blessedness to a particular moment, yesterday. A member of my ward called me early last week and initiated a conversation that led to our having lunch together. This lunch consisted of sharing aspects of our life journeys, and our faith, and the deepest desires of our hearts with each other. From the moment I first saw him bear his testimony about a year ago, I felt a kind of kinship with him. And in various interactions we've had since then, he's felt the same toward me. He used to grill me with questions about where I was living and what I was doing in such and such a year, because he's convinced that we somehow knew each other before. It appears our paths have never crossed until we both became re-activated in our current ward -- at least not in this life. Perhaps we were friends in pre-mortal existence.

It's strange, because to consider us and our life experience -- to look at all the categories that the world looks at -- we are about as different as it is possible for two people to be. Except in that we have both experienced painful struggles in relation to our faith; we both have wrestled in the dark; we have both fallen away and come back; and we both, around the same time, have discovered how precious our testimonies and our faith are, and we never want to slip back into the darkness. After sharing testimonies and tears, we covenanted with each other to help each other stay true, and we promised to always be there for each other, to encourage each other when other sources of encouragement might fail. I think if you can find one such friendship in a lifetime, you are lucky. So I feel incredibly blessed. I have wept several times since our meeting yesterday, thinking back on it. God works in mysterious ways.

There was a moment during our conversation yesterday when he asked me, "Do you ever think about appearing before the judgment seat of God?"

I told him that the most significant turning point in my spiritual journey consisted just of that. There came a moment when I was aware of how completely and utterly I had failed God, failed in faith, failed in hope, failed in love; how I had let anger dominate so much of my life; how I had become short-sighted and selfish and stupid, and how I had hurt the very people I never ever should have hurt. And I remember thinking what a mess I'd made, and thinking it was impossible for me to be what God wanted me to be. I wept and I told God I was sorry, and I knew I couldn't completely make up for what I had done, no matter how hard I tried. But I wanted to do better, and even if I were damned for all eternity, I could no longer deny him. I would do what I could to serve him, in whatever capacity I might be permitted. I would bear whatever testimony I could. If I could not save myself, I would do what I could to save others. But I would never again deny him. I pleaded that he just not cast me aside completely.

This morning in my scripture reading, there was only one verse that stood out, and it spoke so clearly to that feeling of just giving everything up, letting go of everything, letting go of ends or rewards, and focusing instead simply on truth, whether or not that truth is flattering to us or not:
I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness. (Psalm 84: 10)

There is a kind of peace in letting go. We have it in our heads that we want this or that. We do this all the time in terms of physical, material things: we want the latest Mac computer with the coolest operating system (it's always outdated three months after we buy it); we want that nice house on the tree-shaded lot; we want the job with the good dental plan and the extra week of paid vacation. This is a very worldly way to go about things. But we carry this way of thinking over into our aspirations for the other world as well. We start planning the layout and furnishings and locale for our heavenly mansions as well. It's a kind of material spiritualism. We focus mainly on how God is going to reward us (or how he might punish us), and what we need to do to get that reward (or what we need to steer clear of to avoid punishment). But, like all things we greedily grab (or fearfully flee), our fondest aspirations -- no matter how "spiritual" they are -- become dreadful burdens that weigh us down. And eventually comes that fateful moment in the heavenly journey when God tries to help us forward by taking us down by some circuitous route to a place where we can only move forward without burdens; where we can only progress by letting go our fondest aspirations (or facing our worst fears).

Those moments inevitably leave us feeling betrayed. "But God, I thought you wanted..." So often, we turn and go back shaking our heads, and saying, "No, that can't possibly be..." and "That goes against everything I know." In this situation, we can let our whole thought process become dominated by the determination to hold on at all cost, to never let go. We think that by doing so we are somehow being faithful and true, when in reality we are only being afraid.

Those moments can feel very lonely, but fortunately we are not alone. In fact, facing our worst fears, and learning to let go in order to confront and transcend them, increases our capacity for true fellowship, true solidarity, and true communion. And for that, in this moment, I feel incredibly blessed.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Hyvää Uutta Vuotta!

That's "Happy New Year!" in Finnish. Actually, Finns wish you a "Happy" Christmas, and just a "Good" New Year. God forbid they should get too excited.

Friends of ours invited us to a New Year's Eve party at their house last night, and we were leaning toward going. But my sister is visiting from Utah. (Glen and I picked her up from the airport yesterday afternoon.) It was bitter, bitter cold out last night; the kind of cold where the air numbs your brain and turns your face to rubber. Our friends live in Chaska (a distant suburb), and we don't own a car, and I didn't feel like trudging through the bitter cold, over slippery, uneven sidewalks to the nearest Hourcar rental hub. And we were feeling low in energy. And I was kind of wanting to focus on spending time with my sister. So instead, we just stayed home.

Glen and I worked on dinner. We made a special meal of tortellini and salad. Then after dishes were washed and put away, we all settled down to watch The Big Lebowski together, somehow a strangely appropriate film to ring in the New Year with. Old years fade, and new years arrive, but the Dude abides. We played some games on the Wii (bowling, of course, especially after The Big Lebowski). Then we played a traditional Finnish New Year's Eve game, where you toss molten tin into a bucket of cold water, and then read your fortunes for the new year by pulling the bits of tin out of the bucket and studying the strange shapes and textures you've created. (In the candlelight, mine looked like a seahorse.) We watched Dick Clark's and Ryan Seacrest's inane chatter in Times' Square, while munching on Finnish candy and leftover Christmas pulla until the ball dropped and it was officially 2010. Then we all went to bed.

I woke up this morning feeling well rested, and deeply, profoundly happy and grateful. I like the way this year has started... Refreshed and well fed, with family and loved ones and possibilities.

In 2009 I finished my book manuscript, which was my major task for the year. But more importantly, 2009 was a year of incredible growth for me in faith and in family relationships. It was a year of important insights, some stimulated by the process of writing the manuscript, but the most important stimulated by opening my heart and mind and just listening -- listening to the Spirit and listening to my husband and to our son, and then trying to apply what I've learned from listening. But it was also a year of growing confidence, that comes from solidifying what I've already learned. I've turned an important corner.

I stopped making New Year's resolutions many, many years ago. (I think 99% of New Year's resolutions in America have to do with the fatuous goal of losing the weight gained in the preceding five weeks!) But I do nurture New Year's hopes. I think of my brothers and sisters and friends and I pray for all of us -- each and every one -- to find the true sources of our strength this year, to find more hope, to dare to be happy, to love, and to not let this cruel world or those with closed minds or cold hearts take us down. Let us have courage and build each other up, love and protect and nurture one another. And let's keep our promise to not leave a single soul behind, to not leave anyone with a burden to bear it alone. Let us tell each other stories of the Kingdom of God, and let that vision warm us through the cold winter nights. (The days are getting longer now!) More importantly, let's live the kingdom; let us be its citizens, so that our love and unity can be the light that draws others in, until the bride is ready to receive the bridegroom and the counting of years can come to its promised end.

Have a Good New Year!