Thursday, February 25, 2010

What the Spirit is Not

In numerous posts, I've described encounters I've had with the Spirit. I've taken extra care in many of these posts to discuss the nature of these experiences, partly because I regard it as being of primary importance to discern between what is actually the Spirit, what is just my own (for lack of a better term) wishful thinking, and what might be spiritual deception by (for lack of a better term) dark forces.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, and he was describing some important decisions he has made recently, and his own process of discernment. He has felt guided by the Spirit in these decisions, and I was impressed by his attitude. When he experienced a prompting from the Spirit, he explained to me, he gives it time. He waits long enough to properly discern whether it is a true prompting.

As I have matured in my spiritual journey, I too have learned that if a prompting is a true prompting, it will still be true after I've slept on it and given it some more thought. I have also learned that it is reasonable to seek validation, when possible, that a prompting is true. For example, last year when I felt prompted by the Spirit to bear my testimony in Fast and Testimony Meeting, the Spirit urged me to ask permission from my Bishop. My Bishop gave me permission to bear my testimony, and the following week he volunteered that he felt the Spirit confirming that that was the right thing to do. So the process of asking permission and my Bishop's prompting were validations that my own prompting was true. That makes sense, because the Spirit was essentially prompting me to do something out of harmony with the rules of the Church. Good order is a principle of the Gospel, and the Spirit will never have a problem with fact checking. We can seek more mundane validations as well. Objectivity (though frequently elusive) is a good thing.

There are situations -- urgent situations! -- where the Spirit might prompt us to do something now. We may not have time to sleep on it and think about it or validate beforehand. Or there may be situations where we will be called upon to act in faith, and have our faith be validated later, after we've done what the Lord has asked of us. In my experience, in those situations the prompting is clear enough and strong enough that we will know what is required of us.

It is important for us to learn to recognize the Spirit's unique personality at places like Church, where we know the Spirit is present, so that we can avoid being deceived. The more we listen to and follow the Spirit, the better we become at discerning it and distinguishing it from other influences we may feel, either internal or external. It's like anything else in life. Practice makes perfect.

The ultimate validation of spiritual promptings comes over the course of many years, as the fruits of the Spirit become evident in our lives.

I've seen a couple of statements by Mohohawaii, comparing the Spirit to a "rush of emotion." Whenever I've discussed the Spirit previously, I've tried to be at pains to point out that this is what the Spirit is not.

The best analogy I can think of in terms of how I discern the Spirit is to compare it to how I experience other, mortal personages. Different people have different personalities and project themselves in different ways. My husband has a very different personality from our son. Not only are their personalities different, they are also physically different. They carry themselves differently, they walk differently. If I am sitting at the dining room table with my face away from the stairs, if one of them comes down the stairs I can usually tell who is coming without seeing him just by hearing how the floorboards creak and the pattern of their steps. They walk differently. When I am carrying on a conversation with my husband, the quality of that conversation is different from the quality of the conversation with my son. They have different senses of humor, different approaches to problems, different ways of expressing themselves. If I were blind and deaf, and could only communicate with them in some more abstract manner, I would still be able to -- with enough interaction -- discern who was actually speaking to me, because of the differences between them. In fact, they are different enough that I would probably discern fairly quickly.

OK. I love my husband. My heart often does flutter in his presence. If he has been gone for a long time, I may even feel a "rush of emotion" when he shows up. Interacting with my husband, however, does not produce a single emotion every time I interact with him. Depending on the quality of interaction, I may feel levity, sadness, anger, delight, calm, etc. It all depends on what we are discussing and what is happening between us and around us. The feelings I experience in his presence are different from the quality of his personality, different from his presence itself. Furthermore, very many (though not all) of the feelings I experience in his presence I may experience elsewhere when he is absent. For example, I may see a movie or have a conversation or smell a scent that triggers a memory of him, and that causes me to experience a feeling that I felt in his presence. But all that is different from actually having him present.

It is the same with the Spirit.

Now I went for very many years without the Spirit in my life. During all those years, I would experience art or go to a movie or listen to music that would bring on a "rush of emotion." Frequently these rushes of emotion would trigger memories of spiritual experiences I had as a youth when I was active in the Church. But I now recognize that they were not the same thing as those spiritual experiences.

The reason I know that is because when I finally did feel the presence of the Spirit again in August 2005, I immediately knew A) that what I was experiencing in that moment was utterly distinct from the usual emotions that are often categorized as "spiritual," and B) that I had not experienced it in a very long time, in many, many years. Now people can tell me I did not know what I was experiencing, or I was mistaken, or whatever they want. I know what I experienced. It was as clear and unequivocal to me as any other sensory experience I might have of meeting a particular person at a particular time in a particular locale.

Am I saying it's not possible to doubt that what I experienced was really the Spirit? No, of course doubt is always possible. Doubt is possible about much more mundane things too. I'm so absent-minded, half the time I doubt whether I locked the front door behind me when I'm half-way to the grocery store. But the nature of what I experienced I could not deny. It was not just a "rush of emotion." I'm content to let the rest of my life be the validation of whether or not I did in fact meet the Spirit in at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake on that particular August afternoon in 2005.

Of course listening to the Spirit is not a "golden path" to truth in the sense that we don't have to work at it, or in the sense that there's no possibility for human error. Of course people make mistakes and do terrible things in the name of God, claiming to be guided by the Spirit. Of course. That's why I discussed at the outset the importance of training oneself in skills of discernment, and validating whenever possible. But to point out that people can make mistakes in discerning the Spirit doesn't invalidate the principle. Discerning the Spirit has become an essential component of my life path, one that I have validated to my satisfaction time and time again. The Spirit steadies me, comforts me, and gives me vision, insight and strength. It makes no more sense to me to dispense with the Spirit because of human error in discerning the Spirit than it makes to dispense with scientific method because scientists make mistakes.

I have always encouraged (and will continue to encourage) everyone I meet to follow whatever path seems best to them, the only requirement being that they do so with integrity. That's what I've tried to do.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

He Hath Not Another to Help Him Up

Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? (Ecclesiastes 4: 9-11)

Ecclesiastes is attributed, like the Proverbs, to King Solomon. Some have argued, based on linguistic cues in the text, for a later provenance, perhaps as late as the third century B.C. "Son of David" (Eccl. 1:1) may simply refer to any later ruler in Jerusalem who was a descendant of David. But the attribution itself is interesting. For while the Proverbs elevate a personified Wisdom to god-like status, seen to exist with God in the beginning, before the foundation of all God's creations (Proverbs 8: 22-31), Ecclesiastes offers a less elevated view, suggesting that the end of the wise man and the fool is the same, all ending in "vanity and vexation of spirit" (see, for instance, Ecclesiastes 2). If King Solomon was the author of both, one imagines a younger, more idealistic Solomon compiling the Proverbs, and an older, more tired, more cynical Solomon writing Ecclesiastes toward the end of his life. If Proverbs is the book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes is the book of anti-Wisdom. According to Ecclesiastes, if a more elevated meaning in life is to be found, it is to be found somewhere else than in the earthly realms "under the sun."

But Ecclesiastes, while seemingly resigned to the injustices and ironies of life "under the sun," does not take a negative view of life. In fact, Ecclesiastes is very life-affirming. The message seems to be to enjoy the good things of life as much as possible, for life is a gift from God. We should recognize the inherent limits that are built into life, and be aware of its cyclical nature. Everything is born, matures, ages and eventually dies, only to have new life take its place in the cycle of things. We may be foolish or we may be wise, but no matter how wise we are, we will die and fools will always come to take our place. This truth, Ecclesiastes suggests, may be discouraging, but life is still a gift.

A number of years back, Göran had this brilliant idea that for our thirteenth anniversary, he wanted us to jump out of a plane. When he proposed his mad scheme to me, our anniversary was still months away, and perhaps hoping he'd forget the fool idea long before it actually came to it, I foolishly said yes. But months later, I found myself on a tiny Cessna, next to a plexiglass door that was rattling in the wind 10,000 feet or so above the ground, the door being the only thing between me and nothing but thin air. When they opened the door and then instructed me to move toward it with the purpose of jumping out, every single molecule in my body wanted to do the opposite -- move away from the door as far as I could. I was terrified. I continued to be terrified, right up until the very moment that I was out the door and hurtling downward with nothing between me and the earth but wispy clouds. For the moment I was out of the plane, something clicked inside of me. I realized that, whether I survived this or not, it was now officially too late. I was no longer afraid, because there was no longer anything for me to do but enjoy the ride, one way or the other. So enjoy it I did. (And I survived just fine. The parachute opened and the landing was very happy.)

I have sometimes wondered if my decision to leave the security of my Heavenly Parents' presence and enter mortality wasn't something like that moment of sheer terror I felt on the threshold of the plane door. Göran swears he wasn't afraid at all. He could hardly wait to make the jump. KOWABUNGA! I guess that's one difference between him and me. But here we are in mortality. So we might as well make the best of things and enjoy the ride. I think that is a core message of Ecclesiastes.

So I appreciate the pragmatism of "the Preacher." Enjoy the simple things of life. Tend the little patch of earth around you. Take care of each other, lift each other up. Be kind. Enjoy the fruits of your labors. It is all a gift of God. There might be aspects of the ride that are scary, but it's also exhilarating and beautiful and incredible, isn't it? Once I jumped out of that plane, and could look around me without fear, the view was spectacular. Never anything like it at all. And I wasn't sick or anything. I thought it would feel like a roller-coaster ride -- nauseating. But uninterrupted freefall is different from that. It doesn't feel like falling at all. You're just suspended in the air, seeing things that, well, you just don't see every day.

And it is in this context that I read what is probably the best Biblical argument in favor of same-sex marriage one is likely to find, the text I quoted above (Ecclesiastes 4: 9-11). Companionship is a gift of God. It is good to go through life with someone who shares your labors, who lifts you up when you fall (and whom you lift up when he stumbles), and who keeps you warm at night when you both lie down. Life is hard enough as it is, without at least that.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Know Thyself, Part III

I've suggested that the self is illuminated in relationship with a significant other. This could certainly be expanded to include all the diverse relationships we have in our lives. We learn who we are through all our family relationships and through friendships. And even our enemies teach us important things about ourselves that we can learn from nobody else. This is why I imagine that in the eternal worlds, we may actually be grateful to those who hated us or misunderstood us in this world. But I believe the most important form of self-knowledge that we achieve is the self-knowledge we achieve in relation to another Other -- in relation to God.

I'm not just talking about the self-knowledge that comes by absorbing Church doctrine that teaches us God is literally our Heavenly Parent, though that is important enough. That one little bit of knowledge ought to transform how we relate to everything under the sun. To live in accordance with that knowledge ought to become an unending wellspring of self-knowledge. But to know about our relationship with God is different from knowing God. So it's not enough simply to absorb or believe Church doctrine about God. There are things we can only learn about ourselves -- the most important things we can learn about ourselves -- by turning to God.

Some of the most important moments of revelation I've experienced in my life have often come, it seems, at the moments I feel most broken and most hopeless. I believe the reason for that is because in those moments the masks I usually wear to buttress my ego are no longer working for me. That's usually why I'm feeling broken; because my ego is most frail when my hopes and dreams are failing and my world is crashing down around me. Those are also the moments when the things that are truly most important to me come to the surface; I begin to learn what I really want and who I really am. Those are the moments when some of the most important things God has to teach me can actually penetrate; when the masks or the thick shells I've accumulated to protect myself are broken, and God can reach and teach the real me.

Of course I've learned that I don't need personal crisis to learn or be open to revelation. First of all, it is worth pointing out that these crises have almost always been -- I've learned in retrospect -- of my own creation. They were the result of me heading down a dead-end path, or were the result of my own faulty view of the world. In the case of the former, the crisis was my own mistakes finally catching up with me. In the case of the latter, the trauma was actually just disillusionment in the wake of unrealistic hopes or expectations. (Dis-illusion-ment is a good thing.) People might do terrible things to us, or we might have terribly bad luck, but it is how we respond to such situations that makes the difference between whether we perceive it as a crisis or not.

But to the extent that moments of personal crisis become moments of personal reorientation (or repentance), instead of forging a mask, what we do is we actually begin to create our own souls. We begin to move through the world in a way that God can reach us and teach us without our guts having to be spilled all over the place all the time. We begin to turn to God routinely, as part of the way we do business in the world.

It's worth pointing out that there's a lot of behavior that advertises itself as godliness that is nothing of the sort. Going around and bopping people on the head for being gay, for example, is a spectacular example of advertised godliness that is actually sort of the opposite of godliness. You can usually tell when you're in the presence of godliness because, well, it feels like Love.

When I've been doing this right, I've begun to yearn for quiet moments every day when I can present myself to God, and ask how I'm doing, and just listen. I have started to learn that sometimes you just have to check the notion that you're going to "say a prayer" before you get on your knees. When we start to pray a bunch of things that are just sort of the rote things that we pray because, well, we think it's what we're supposed to pray, that becomes part of the calcified mask that God eventually needs to break in order to get through to us. Sometimes I've literally had the Spirit just tell me to be quiet and listen. I certainly do pray words out loud; I frequently make very specific requests or express very specific thanks. But sometimes my prayer has to be just an attitude of thanksgiving, and silence, and listening openness.

Prayer can feel mighty silly when you're not sure if there's even anybody there to listen to what you have to say, much less talk back to you. I've been there at least twice in my life. What I can say about this is that some of the most sacred and powerful prayers I've ever uttered have been the ones that started, "I'm not even sure if you exist." For what it's worth, I've found that God richly rewards these kinds of acts of faith that come from the deepest parts of our soul, in the moments of our greatest need.

I think I've begun to catch some vision of the potential of this greatest form of self-knowledge, the kind that comes through our relationship with our Heavenly Father. It is that when God asks in relation to some task "Whom shall I send?" we can truthfully and without holding anything back reply, "Here am I, send me."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Jesus Christ Superstar

When I was younger, just the name of this musical sounded blasphemous. In the upbringing I had, rock music was associated with sex and drugs and sin. And the thought of singing songs about Jesus in any other idiom than the organ-accompanied hymns I grew up singing in Church seemed disrespectful at best. I remember in grade school having a music teacher who wanted us to sing a few songs from the Broadway Musical Godspell. I was so offended, I refused to sing. So I always found the whole idea of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar odious. All the same, years ago I finally gave the movie version a chance by watching it, and actually found it inspiring. In the years since then, I have found myself strangely attracted to this film, watching it again and again. Listening to the album -- which oddly came out before the musical was ever staged -- has also become a regular staple of my personal devotional life.

The end of the film is abrupt -- the actors are literally shown packing up the sets, getting on a bus and leaving. There's no resurrection scene. I wasn't sure I liked that at first, but I've come to love it as the most deeply mystical aspect of watching this film. Christ is resurrected not on celluloid, but in the heart of the faithful viewer. This epitomizes what I love about Jesus Christ Superstar. The musical -- presented essentially from the viewpoint of Judas Iscariot -- deliberately counterpoises all the different, conflicting views of Christ. We see Christ through the eyes of Judas, of Mary Magdalene, of the other disciples, of the lepers, of the crowds in Jerusalem, of Simon and the Zealots, of the Saducees, of Pilot, of Herod, even of the Roman soldiers who crucify him. Through all this, the film essentially rephrases the question again and again: "Whom do you think I am?"

I weep during almost every song of the production, as each individual or group of individuals in the musical is portrayed wrestling with what they think about Jesus. Mary sings, "He's just a man!" The crowds: "Hey J.C., J.C., you're all right by me!" Simon and the Zealots: "I believe in you and God so tell me that I'm saved!" The Jewish council: "He's dangerous!" Pilot: "Who is this broken man cluttering up my hallway?" A Roman soldier answers: "Someone Christ King of the Jews." At each juncture, the viewer is prompted to wrestle along with them. But always one is left with the distinct impression that nobody really understands Jesus. That is what Jesus protests throughout the film each time someone tries to corner him. Mary comes closest, because she insists simply on loving him and caring for him. Everyone else completely misses the mark.

This creates the essential pathos of the film: Jesus' loneliness. The burdens he bears are his and his alone. And what burdens! Through it all, his humanity and his divinity shine through in equal portions. The Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar feels alone, anguished, angry, afraid, even, at times, overwhelmed. It's these portrayals of his utter humanity that never fail to move me. It is Christ's humanity that makes the anguish of Gethsemane and the torture of the cross that much more painful to watch, and that much more poignant. Yet Jesus always confounds his followers by staying a transcendent course, by embracing his destiny to the bitter end. So the viewer, like the other characters in the musical, is always left with a sense of wonder, the distinct impression that this man Jesus Christ is really something so much more than what is signaled by our superficial perceptions of him.

The character I identify most with in the film, oddly or not, is Judas Iscariot. Judas is portrayed as a man with a deep hunger for social justice, which fuels a sense of outrage about the social order in which he finds himself. He sees Christ as a teacher of justice, with a mission to lift up the poor -- that's what attracted him to Christ in the first place. The idea of Christ's divinity offends him as distracting and potentially dangerous, so the opening scene has Judas essentially pleading with Jesus to publicly disavow the title of "God." Throughout the drama, Jesus refuses to do so, thus setting the stage for the central conflict between the two that leads to Judas' betrayal.

Listen Jesus I don't like what I see.
All I ask is that you listen to me.
And remember, I've been your right hand man all along.
You have set them all on fire.
They think they've found the new Messiah.
And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong.

I remember when this whole thing began.
No talk of God then, we called you a man.
And believe me, my admiration for you hasn't died.
But every word you say today
Gets twisted 'round some other way.
And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied.

The first two lines are the ones that always get me: "Listen Jesus I don't like what I see. All I ask is that you listen to me." How many times have I uttered that line in my life? The source of all Judas' fear, anger, inability to trust, and -- ultimately -- his betrayal of Christ, hinged on his inability to accept Jesus' divinity. That would be the story of my life.

The difference, I suppose, between Judas and me is that I figured it out before it was too late. I've finally learned how to trust Christ, to put aside my doubts and just accept that I'm the one who ought to be listening to him, not the other way around. But I have always felt like the dividing line between me and Judas was razor thin. But for the grace of God, I was the one hanging myself. So I always weep for Judas in that scene. That could have been me, when the choir sings, "Poor old Judas."

But the line of Judas I still relate most to, even in my present path of faith, is the one Mary Magdalene also sings: "I don't know how to love him." No matter what I do, it doesn't seem adequate. Not that I doubt his love for me. Just that nothing seems equal to his love for me. I am and always will be a beggar.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Sixth Deadly Sin

When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee: And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite. Be not desirous of his dainties: for they are deceitful meat. Labour not to be rich: cease from thine own wisdom. Wilt thou set thine eyes upon that which is not? for riches certainly make themselves wings; they fly away as an eagle toward heaven. Proverbs 23: 1-5

Certainly what is said here of earthly riches is true of whatever we set our heart on in envy, whether it is of a tangible nature or not. We had better hold a knife to our own throat than desire what others have, whatever that is.

The proverb counsels as the antidote to envy to "cease from thine own wisdom." In other words, true wisdom is to recognize that we don't need what we think we need. Jesus taught: "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?" (Matt. 6: 27). Our stature is what it is. We are what we are. True wisdom is to recognize that by letting go of the things we take thought for and toil after, we open ourselves up to receive what God has prepared for us, who will care for us every bit as excellently as he cares for the sparrows and the lilies of the field.

Recently a friend brought to my attention Ty Mansfield's public announcement of his engagement to a woman. I have to admit, I experienced complex emotions upon hearing that news. As I sorted through each emotion and dug to the root of it, I realized that buried at the very heart of the matter was envy. I envied him his Church membership, and now his ability to marry a woman and receive all the blessings and privileges that come along with that.

It's actually embarrassing how childish some of my feelings were. But one of the most painful was doubt. Have I made some terrible mistake? Had I done things differently, could I be where he is now? Will Ty some day be happier than I am now, because of the choices he's making?

It's foolish, because, when I ask myself Am I unhappy in any way? The answer is no. In fact, the answer is I am happier today than I could ever have imagined being at any previous moment in my life. When I kneel to pray, rarely can I get up from my knees again but that my eyes are moist with tears of gratitude.

It's only when I ask that damnable question, But what if he might be happier? that doubts sprout up like ugly weeds. Amazing how quickly Satan can undermine my happiness with a simple question.

I am sure there are others out there who look at what I have, and ask themselves the same question. What if I had done what he had? Could I be happier? It's the wrong question. The only question that really has any meaning in relation to our own happiness has to do with the path that lies directly before us, not with anybody else.

It takes courage to walk that way. It takes courage to look deep within your own heart, to wrestle with your own demons, weigh your own desires, to fight for self-knowledge and then decide. If we are wise, we will do so with humility.

I know Ty, I love and feel deep admiration for him, and if he is at least half as wise as I think he is, I know this is what he has done. He has wrestled, he's sought guidance from God, and now he's decided. And I pray for his (and his fiancée's) greatest possible success and happiness. I can't imagine what it must be like getting married under such circumstances, with the eyes of so many on him, and not all with the most generous of emotions. Not from this quarter. I hope Ty knows of the sincerity of my good will for him and his marriage.

For myself, I'm grateful for my own wrestling with this. It taught me something important about me, and about some of the pain I've waded through in my own journey. When I realized what I felt, at bottom, was envy, that enabled me to turn to God in prayer, to ask forgiveness, and to be freed. And in turn, it was in prayer that I received the gift of the renewal of my own secret assurance, secret because it is mine and mine alone, for the path that can be no one else's.

My love for everyone else is expressed in my hope that we each find our own right path, and our own secret assurance.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Know Thyself, Part II

One of the most important acts of self-knowing that I have achieved so far in my life had to do with coming to terms with being gay.

This started with the awareness -- beginning around age 11 -- of erotic fantasies about guys. I know it was age 11, because it was right around the time I was getting ready to be a deacon, and I was definitely aware of erotic feelings I had about some of the guys in my future deacons' quorum. The fantasies weren't anything really gross -- usually just me imagining some of the more good looking guys in the deacons' quorum making out with a girl friend (though the girlfriends were kind of invisible in my fantasies). I didn't deliberately fantasize about this... These were thoughts that usually came up unbidden, and that I usually actually tried to suppress when they did. At the time, my explanation for why I had such fantasies was that I wanted to be like these good-looking, popular guys.

The next stage in my awareness took place one night at the age of 14 during a sleepover at the home of my best friend in my teachers' quorum. We slept on a sofa bed together. He slept in his underwear, and so did I. Well, actually he slept, and I didn't sleep at all. Didn't get a wink all night. I was looking at him and feeling, well, very excited. Nothing happened. I never touched him. The next morning as the sun rose and after we got up, it literally dawned on me. I didn't want to be like him. I wanted him. It was in that moment that I literally thought the "h" word (homosexual) out loud in my mind. I must be one of those, I realized. I think my first activity upon returning home was to look the word up in the dictionary: "sexually attracted to people of one's own sex." Yup, that's what I was.

That was a mortifying discovery. So the next stage in my awareness took place as I began to pay attention to what people in Church were saying about this. At one point, someone recommended I read The Miracle of Forgiveness, which I did. I was relieved to learn that A) I hadn't committed any grievous sin yet and, B) I could be completely and totally cured of this! I remember shortly after I had finished reading the chapter on homosexuality, my dad recruited me to go do some manual labor on the stake welfare farm. I was excited to do that, because I think manly physical labor was one of the things Elder Kimball recommended as a means of banishing homosexual desire. Furthermore, I learned that total faithfulness would also help me in my quest to be free of these desires. So I began to be very conscious about actively seeking to do everything that Church leaders counseled: daily prayer, fasting, scripture study (I was a star seminary pupil), faithful Church attendance and fulfillment of callings, paying a full tithe, etc.

I always went the extra mile in my efforts to be faithful. At the age of 16, I read Stephen R. Covey's Spiritual Roots of Human Relations. The basic message I took away from this book was that the key to my success in life would be totally determined by my attitude, and by my willingness to develop a high standard of personal discipline. Among other things, as a result of reading that book, I incorporated a number of routines into my life that have more or less stuck with me ever since. Early to bed and early to rise; eating well and exercising daily; reading the scriptures daily, and so on. By disciplining myself, and establishing faithful routines as the bedrock for my life, I would be able to overcome every temptation that beset me, including homosexuality.

The efforts I made along these lines did make me a better, more successful person. They prepared me for a successful mission, for college and for graduate school, and for future success in my work and other endeavors. But they did not make me heterosexual.

So there were two moments I see as marking the fourth stage of self-knowledge in this regard. The first moment was my first day in the mission field. At the end of that day, my companion invited me to join him in scripture study and prayer before we retired for the night. He stripped down to his under garments, and I did the same. I could not focus much on scripture study, however, because sitting close to him, the two of us in our underwear, I was very aroused. I struggled to regain control of my mind and my body. That night, after he had retired, I got out of bed and knelt down in prayer and wept. I thought that surely the Lord would have freed me from these feelings before sending me into the mission field. Why hadn't he? How could I be a witness of Christ, and have these feelings, for my companion of all people? I felt utterly defeated. I did feel the Spirit's presence, essentially urging me to do the best I could under the circumstances, which I did.

The second moment came right after my mission. On my mission, I taught and baptized five souls, two of whom went on to serve missions of their own, in a mission where the average was one baptism. I was aware -- had been told by others -- that I was one of the most admired missionaries in the field. But I remember looking at the word "honorable" on my release papers and feeling like the biggest fraud in the mission. Here I was, still struggling with homosexuality. My feelings of failure and depression deepened when I started attending my BYU ward, and the first words out of my new bishop's mouth were, "Well, you've completed a mission, now your next task in life is to get married."

Wow. Lord, I could use some heterosexuality about now? Do you mind? I really need some of those blessings you promised me through President Kimball to kick in if I'm going to do what you expect me to do next. But, of course, nothing.

So stage four essentially involved sinking into a big depression that focussed on the belief that something must be terribly wrong with me. I must be sinning in some way, conscious or unconscious, that is preventing the Lord from blessing me. So, to make a long, melodramatic story short, that depressive spiral continued till the end of my junior year when I began planning my own suicide.

Stage five of my self awareness in relation to my sexuality involved revelation. Again, to skip a long, melodramatic story about how I ended up not committing suicide, at some point in August 1986 I found myself on my knees alone in a student apartment in Helsinki, Finland, thanking God for helping me to survive. I also laid open my heart to him about the anguish I still felt about my homosexuality. And for the first time, I received a clear and powerful answer to my prayers about this issue, after all these long years of wrestling and praying. The Lord essentially told me first of all that he loved me completely and totally. Second, he knew all about my homosexuality because he had created me this way. He had woven me together in my mother's womb, and knew me from my inmost parts. He knew all about my homosexuality and it did not matter to him. There was nothing wrong with me in this regard.

Stage five of my self-awareness was deepened when I prayerfully sought guidance about what to do with my homosexuality. I fasted and prayed for three days in the winter of 1988. I had come to accept that this was a part of me that simply was not going to change, that it was a fundamental part of how I was created, that the Lord knew about it and accepted me as I was, and that it was not bad. But I wanted to know how to proceed. Should I still try to marry a woman in spite of these feelings? Should I live a life of celibacy? (Those were the only options in my mind at that time.) So my fasting and prayer was to get some sense of how I should move forward, and whether seeking marriage with a woman would be the right thing to do. I received an answer to my prayers, but not the one I expected. The answer was "Be open to all the options." Later that day, I met my first openly gay friend, and began to learn that there was still an option I had not considered.

The following year (1989), I spent the summer in a monastery in France (in my former mission) prayerfully exploring celibacy as a life option, but also prayerfully considering whether I should open myself to the possibility of a same-sex relationship. By the end of that summer, I knew that the right thing for me to do was the latter.

At the time, once I finally came to the point of coming out publicly to my friends and family and accepting my gayness as a good and integral part of myself, I thought that I had achieved all the self-knowledge I needed in that regard. But now, with the hindsight of more than twenty years -- almost eighteen of which have been spent in my relationship with Göran -- I realize that the journey of self-knowledge had only just begun. In the process of dating and courting and finding a relationship, and then entering into a relationship, and then nurturing and building that relationship, I learned important lessons about the nature of the bond between body and spirit, between sexuality and spirituality. Some of those lessons I learned the hard way. As I have discussed elsewhere, I made mistakes -- some painful. But I learned a lot about how my homosexuality is not "just" a physical thing. It is interwoven with my emotionality and my spirituality and my sociality in subtle and powerful ways.

The seventh (and current) stage of my understanding has come in recent years, since I have renewed my association with the Church. I'd say there are two major aspects of the current learning process. One has to do with the fact that by acknowledging my testimony of the Church, which includes faith in its leaders, I have had to wrestle with some of the things my life journey has taught me that seem to be out of harmony with the official teachings of the Church. My life learning process involved gathering information, pondering (OH! the pondering!), wrestling, prayer, fasting, and receiving revelation. It involved putting my learnings to the test in real life, and finding out what the consequences of certain kinds of choices were. So I was pretty confident in the results of what I had learned. But still, my testimony of the Church is extremely powerful, and so I found myself going through a process of reconsidering what I had learned, and in the process receiving some of the most powerful and dramatic spiritual confirmations that I have yet.

The second major aspect of this current stage is considering my relationship with my husband and the nature of my sexuality in light of eternity. To put it bluntly, what will become of us when we die? I cannot imagine a Heaven where I could possibly be happy without him -- especially after all we've gone through together in this life! After everything we are going through right now as parents, and what I anticipate going through with him as we age and prepare to meet our Maker. The official teaching of the Church is not encouraging to us in this regard. But I have received powerful affirmations from the Spirit that I need have no fear on this account, that all will be well, far better than I am capable of imagining. I'm not sure what that means, but the Spirit has not failed me yet, so I am willing to rest on that, and in the meantime continue the learning process, and continue loving my husband and caring for him and helping him to become the best that he can be.

I won't say that his seventh stage of learning about my sexuality is the last, because I don't know what's ahead. I suspect there will be more stages in this process of learning, maybe even more surprising than what's come already.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Know Thyself

We've all heard of the couple that met in high school, never dated anybody else, got hitched, and lived happily together forever after. I think they live in Nebraska somewhere. For most of the rest of us, it took a while longer to find a life mate. And I think there's a very good reason for that.

We typically think of dating and courtship as a process whereby we get to know other people better, to determine if the person we're dating is somebody that might be a good fit for us. We assume that we're evaluating them and they're evaluating us, and if the evaluations turn out mutually positive, then we decide to make the relationship more permanent. But what is going on in reality is a good deal more complex than that.

True, we are evaluating the other person. But at the same time, we are learning to know who we are as a person in relation to them. Because the truth is that until we begin to contemplate the possibility of loving and living with another person, we know very little about how we would function in such a situation. Our likes, dislikes and needs in the context of a relationship are often as much a mystery to ourselves as they are to a potential mate. If you don't believe me, consider how many gay men and women get married to members of the opposite sex, and eventually figure out that they're gay. If this is true of something as seemingly basic as sexual orientation, it is true of a good many other (perhaps equally important) things.

When individuals tell me the story of how they found their mate, I very frequently hear something like this: "I searched and searched. I was desperate to find Mr. Right, but no matter how hard I tried I could not find him. Every relationship I tried did not work out. So eventually I gave up, and decided I just needed to learn to be happy on my own. And just when it seemed I had found that I really was OK and good and whole all by myself, then I found him." That's how it worked for me. And there's a very good reason for that too.

When we are desperate to get married, we don't listen to what's going on inside of us, and we don't allow ourselves to be ourselves. All we are focussed on is trying to put on a front for the other person that we think they will find pleasing. But when we are dating someone or courting someone in that way, the other person will often smell something wrong. It may come through as insecurity or clinginess or something else in the relationship that just doesn't feel right. They'll sense a problem, and eventually they'll move on -- not necessarily because you wouldn't be a good match, but because there's no strong sense of who you really are to know whether you would be a good match.

The final secret of relationships is the one that is least secret because it is the one story about relationships that is not merely very common but universal. There is no "perfect" relationship, not even those married high school sweethearts who live in Nebraska. There is no relationship, no matter how well matched the couple, that doesn't require work and lots of it.

Learning to know yourself in the context of a relationship is not just about learning what you like, dislike and need in a relationship (things you learn early in a relationship). But it is learning what you only learn when you have been in a relationship for a much longer time: what kind of a mate you are. How you communicate. How you listen. How you make decisions. How you act and react. The first kind of knowing is what helps a couple come together in the first place. But the last kind of knowing is what helps a couple stay together, even couples who face tremendous difficulties within their relationships. The last kind of knowing is perhaps also the single greatest gift of a relationship; because the other person helps reflect those aspects of ourselves back to us, if we will let them.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Difference Between Us

A gay man or lesbian who lives a life of celibacy or a gay man or lesbian who marries a person of the opposite sex would presumably be safe under the legislation currently being considered in Uganda, and supported and promoted by certain conservative Christian groups based in the U.S. But I and my husband would not be safe. We would be found guilty of a capital crime and we would be executed. That is how some folks here in the U.S. see the difference between us: me worthy of death, married and celibate gay men and lesbians OK so long as they follow the rules.

I could feel lucky that my husband and I are not living in Uganda right now. I could feel lucky that I'm not the one who has to figure out right now if I can muster the resources to flee the country for my life. I could feel lucky that I'm not the one to have to decide whether I am willing to go into permanent exile and never see my family or other loved ones again, or whether I am willing to risk it and stay, and go deep into the closet, and live a life lonely and afraid of touch and intimacy. I could say that my personal fortunes are not somehow inextricably woven with the fortunes of gay men and lesbians in Uganda right now. I could say that there is a difference between us because they live someplace where it may soon be very dangerous to be gay, and I live someplace where I am supposedly safe.

But that would be false.

This morning I attended a prayer breakfast here in Minneapolis for the purpose of raising awareness about what is happening in Uganda right now. If you want to help, one place you can go is to the American Jewish World Service, which is organizing to provide humanitarian assistance and advocacy for the GLBT community in Uganda.

This article provides some more information about the impact that mainstream evangelical groups in the U.S. had on the Uganda legislation.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Scripture and Historical Truth

I've been mulling this essay over in my head for years. There are a couple of early attempts at it among my more ancient draft posts. But it has taken me a while to accumulate the perspective I think I really needed to grapple with this question in a way that feels satisfying to me. Lacking sufficient perspective, I was willing to table the discussion, and let my disjointed, contradictory thought processes bounce around off each other, awaiting new information or insights.

I'll start by saying that questions about the historicity of the Book of Mormon or the Bible were not among the chief intellectual problems that troubled me at the time I left the Mormon Church in the mid 1980s. I first became somewhat aware of potential problems related to Book of Mormon historicity when an archaeology professor of mine at BYU admitted to a number of dumbfounded students in an after-class discussion that, "not only is there not much archaeological evidence supporting the Book of Mormon, but much of what we know from archaeology seems to conflict with the Book of Mormon."

Oddly at the time, as shocking as that admission sounded coming from a BYU professor, the following admission was actually the one that upset me more profoundly. When we asked him how he could reconcile what he knew as an archaeologist with his faith in the Church, he told us that he simply wore "two different hats." On Sunday, he took off his archaeologist hat and put on his faithful, testimony-bearing, Church-member hat. In the classroom, he did the opposite. That -- to me at the time -- seemed the more profound betrayal. I vowed that I would never wear separate hats. I would always pursue truth from an integrated perspective, refusing to compromise and refusing to compartmentalize as this professor had seemingly done.

It was only much later, many years after I had left the Church, that I started to read about some of the specific historical and archaeological criticisms leveled against the Book of Mormon. And it was only again many years after that, as I returned to the faith, that I became aware of the various dialogs among different groups of Mormon and non-Mormon intellectuals about the implications of secular research for LDS belief in what Joseph Smith called "the keystone of our our religion," the book without which there can be no rational basis for believing in "Mormonism."

One of the most profound spiritual experiences I had, the spiritual experience that more than anything set the course for my current path, occurred when I started to read the Book of Mormon again. I knew that I could not read the Book of Mormon -- or any scripture -- without the Spirit to guide me, and so I prayed to God for the first time in many years. And then following the powerful experience I had as a result of that prayer, I began to read the Book of Mormon daily, and found the Spirit testifying to me frequently and teaching me through its pages. So I had a renewed testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, but it was a spiritual testimony. Not based on painstaking archaeological or historical or linguistic or DNA research, but more the type of testimony that is best described in the Book of Mormon itself, in Alma 32, where you plant a seed of faith, and you water it and nurture it, and as it grows you experience the goodness and truth of it. You grow.

So I can say that while I lost faith largely as a result of my struggles related to being gay, I matured back into the faith as a result of reading the Book of Mormon.

I was still very aware of the "problems" related to accepting the Book of Mormon as true in some objective, historical sense, and not just as a poetic communication of spiritual truths. I am still very interested in reading anything and everything related to Book of Mormon historicity; and I recognize that much of the debate and scholarship on this subject poses not just intellectual but spiritual challenges to Mormonism. But my spiritual witness of "Mormonism" and of the Book of Mormon is such that it does not trouble me to accept that there are "problems" or "challenges" from a secular, historical point of view. I'm willing to continue to accumulate knowledge, to view this as an open question. I can say there is much we still do not know from a historical or archaeological point of view, probably far more than what we do know. So I need not cancel out faith based on what we do know from a secular perspective.

What I have learned through a methodology of faith has enabled me to progress as a human being; it has taught me patience, hope and love. What I have learned (and continue to learn) through secular study of history teaches me humility. It teaches me to have respect for others whose beliefs are different from my own. It teaches me the value of reason as a moral faculty. So I respect secular learning, I love it. But I see no reason to let it override my deepest spiritual impulses.

There are other web sites that document the various challenges and counter-challenges in relation to Book of Mormon historicity. There are the historical arguments about whether the Book of Mormon was more likely to have been produced by 19th-century U.S. culture than by ancient Hebrew-American prophets between 600 B.C. and 400 A.D. There are linguistic and textual arguments about whether or not there are parallels between Book of Mormon texts and ancient Middle Eastern texts. There are archaeological arguments about the lack of evidence of horses and steel and writing in pre-Columbian America; not to mention the difficulty of connecting actual real-world locales to the sites described in the Book of Mormon. There are the debates over what DNA evidence about the ancestry of Native Americans can or cannot tell us about possible infusions of Middle Eastern DNA into the gene pool of this hemisphere. And of course there are the debates over the verisimilitude of Joseph Smith's claims about angelic visitations and golden plates. I think I've covered all the main lines of discussion...

Faithful Mormon scholars have, I think, been the underdogs in many of these debates. They have generally been on the defensive, focusing on making room for faith. The best ones, I think, have succeeded, but not without surrendering first some of the more naive assumptions about the Book of Mormon shared by the majority of LDS faithful who don't trouble themselves with these issues. But underdogs or not, I think all that needs to be accomplished, from a viewpoint of faith, is to make room for faith. So whether or not faithful Mormon scholars persuade their secular colleagues of their scholarly point of view or not is ultimately irrelevant as concerns issues of faith.

There is no reason why scholars of ancient American or Near Eastern history should pursue their studies with a goal of proving scriptural texts -- or with any goal at all, other than to unearth more data about the past. Nor is there any reason why faithful scholars should not take their belief in the historicity of a scriptural text to the field with them, with a goal of confirming it. Rare is the scholar or scientist who doesn't begin with a set of questions which they then proceed to prove or disprove. Much of the best science is done that way. It is advantageous that science be pursued this way from many different angles -- faith-promoting, or faith-challenging, or neither. This is how propositions are tested and truth is won.

The secular challenges to Book of Mormon (or for that matter Biblical) historicity does not trouble me as a person of faith because, from a philosophical perspective, many of the foundational events of faith are by definition unique events. You cannot, by definition, find either precedent for or experimental confirmation of the son of God being born in the flesh, crucified, placed in a tomb cold and dead, and then returning to life. Once the angel Moroni has delivered the golden plates to Joseph, the book has been translated, and the plates returned, he will not come back and repeat the performance for skeptical historians. There were historical witnesses of these events, and you can pore over the sources as a way of figuratively cross-examining the witnesses. You can compare their accounts to the accounts of others, both conflicting and confirming. You can compare the story of Jesus Christ to Dionysus or Mithridates or Horus, and draw whatever conclusions you like about about the supposed parallels. But ultimately, accepting (or rejecting) the reality of the event becomes an act of imagination or faith, or whatever you want to call it.

Personally, I have evolved a disposition to accept these miraculous events as literally true, though maybe not in exactly the terms or the way we always imagine them from reading the texts about them. I accept that the accounts may be flawed (certainly, logically they must be, especially when we find contradictions between different canonical versions of the same account). But I am convinced of their fundamental truth (not "truthiness," as Stephen Colbert says, but "truth").

Every community of faith exists as a witness of the foundational events that created it. Judaism is the proof of Mount Sinai. Christianity is the proof of Jesus. Islam is the proof of Mohammed, just as surely as Mormonism is the proof of Joseph Smith. For those of us who live in the generations after Sinai, or Christ, or Mohammed, or Joseph, the events themselves manifest themselves differently to us. We experience their witness by living lives consonant with the truth that was revealed and that others passed on to us. Our experience is in many ways the reverse of those who experienced the miraculous, foundational event. They experienced it, and changed their lives to conform to the new truth revealed in that way. We inherited it, and created belief in the event in response to the life ways they taught us.

But even then, we have to struggle to find our own truth. To a certain extent, we relive the event itself when we receive our own spiritual witnesses of its truthfulness. We can even experience our own new and unique and life-changing miracles. I have.

People will hasten to point out to me that you can't uncritically, literally accept all the tenets of every single religion in the world. That would be insane. I agree. I can't and I don't -- either with respect to the faith I call my own, or with respect to the faith of others. But I take the witnesses of all honest people of faith seriously. And I take seriously the witness that exists in scripture, tradition, and in communal life of all the various religious communities I am acquainted with. I accept all of this as real data about the nature of the reality we live in and about the nature of God and our relationship to him.

I have a tendency to treat each faith more as a discipline than as a field of knowledge per se, as a methodology that can be used to achieve the kind of maturity and insight and love that our humanity demands. And I know that I will not be able to achieve that maturity myself unless I am willing to commit myself -- intellectually, spiritually and physically.

It is a relief to me to put this out in the open. Yes, I believe in the golden plates. I believe Joseph did see Christ and the Father. I believe these things were as real as the keyboard I'm typing on. And to affirm this feels incredibly grounding to me. It makes the reality I experience every day more real to me. The kiss I planted on my husband's lips this morning as he left for work: more real. The vegetarian chili I made for my family last night; the cold walk through the snow to the nearby produce exchange to pick up the ingredients: more real. My understanding that life is much, much more than the things we see on the surface: more real.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Is Something the Matter?

When I am upset about something, dealing with some distressing problem, I've learned that there are a few very important things I need to do before I even begin to address the problem, a checklist I go over and make sure I've completed first:

1. Am I well rested, and have I had a good eight hours of sleep for at least the last 2-3 nights?

2. For the last 2-3 days, have I been eating a healthy, balanced diet and drinking plenty of water?

3. Have I gotten some decent physical exercise in the last 48 hours, walking or calisthenics or bike riding?

4. Have I taken some moment in at least the last 24 hours to tell the various people who are important in my life how thankful I am for them and how much I love them? Have I reminded myself (and God) what I am thankful for?

5. Did I get on my knees this morning and pray to God for guidance? Have I been taking some time each day to pray and read some sacred text and taken some time to meditate on what it means to me, and its relevance to my goals and purpose in life?

If at any point in the checklist I realize I'm missing out in any of these areas -- unless the problem is demanding to be addressed immediately -- I will put off working on it or thinking about it or worrying about it until I have attended to these five other much more pressing matters. Sometimes I make an appointment with myself. Memo to Self: Three days from now, after I've spent a few nights resting well, a few days eating well, getting some exercise, doing something relaxing or fun with my husband -- after those things are taken care of, then come back to it.

Sometimes in my life I have discovered that I can't take care of these basics because I am too busy or too stressed out with work or other commitments. I have gradually over the years come to realize that A) no work and no commitments are worth it if they do not leave me the time to take care of these basic maintenance tasks, OR B) if I attend to the basics first I generally am much better at taking care of work and other commitments in a stress-free, time-efficient manner. First things first.

Once I've prioritized things in my life so that first things come first, things generally run more smoothly. Occasionally things run out of balance again (sometimes for reasons beyond my control!), and then I just need to go down the checklist again. But it's amazing how easily dark and depressing thoughts sneak up on me when I'm hungry or tired or stressed. Amazing how a problem that, on a well-fed, well-rested day seems like a snap will just make me cry when the other stuff is out of sync.

It's not that the problems I face, in themselves, aren't sometimes overwhelming. We've all stood at the foot of an insurmountable summit and felt like we needed to just give up -- and no amount of positive thinking will get us over it.

But isn't that all the more reason I need to be in my right mind, with all the strength at my disposal to face what I need to face?

Let's take care of ourselves, and each other.