Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Healing of Memories

I asked one of my brothers to read a draft of the book I'm working on, tentatively titled Trial of Faith, and recently he's begun to give me some long awaited feedback on the manuscript I sent him.

The second chapter of the book deals with my relationship with the Church and also with members of my family. It describes a time -- shortly after my near suicide and then after my departure from the Church -- when my relationship with my family, and particularly with this brother, hit a low point. So I have to admit, I was just a tad nervous about revisiting some of these painful moments with my brother, with someone who experienced them as intimately as I did. I also wondered how his memory of these events might be different from my own, and I was anxious to confirm my own recollection of certain events through comparison with his memories.

What is interesting to me is how my own memory of this time in my life has changed in recent years. After the spiritual experience I had in August 2005 prompting me to return to the Church, I struggled for a time. Eventually, I had a kind of conversion moment in January 2006 in which I began to pray again. And at that moment I realized that there was a huge obstacle that had been blocking me from praying to God with sincerity. It was my anger. There was no way I could progress spiritually without acknowledging and seeking forgiveness for my anger.

Now this is the interesting thing. Until that moment, I probably would have denied that I harbored any anger, bitterness or resentment toward the Church, my family, or God. Had someone asked me 5 years ago whether I was angry, I almost certainly would have denied it. But after that moment of spiritual truth in early 2006, I realized that anger -- acknowledged or unacknowledged anger -- was possibly the predominant emotion of those years. It was my greatest sin, the source of so many of my other problems, and what I most desperately needed to come to terms with if I was going to progress.

What is interesting to me is that acknowledging my anger has since allowed me to access and understand what was going on with me during those years far better than I understood at the time. What is even more interesting is that acknowledging -- and seeking forgiveness for -- my anger allowed my memory of those years to converge with the memories of my brother. Because that is his predominant memory of me during those years -- that I was very angry.

He reminded me of the ways in which I was "very angry, hostile, and as a result often deliberately provocative to those of us in the family who remained in the church." He gave me a few specific examples. He reminded me of a family reunion where I insisted on ordering Irish coffee at a restaurant in the morning. At one family event, in a conversation with a sister, I was vocally criticizing the Church in very harsh terms -- loud enough so that other members of the family could overhear and be hurt by some of the things I said. He also reminded me of a conversation in which I made a kind of ultimatum, telling him that if he really loved me, he had to leave the Church.

I honestly have no specific recollection of those events, though when he described them, they definitely sounded like things that I would have done. My blotting out of those memories tells me as much about those years as what I have remembered. I suspect I didn't remember these behaviors because so much of my behavior in relation to the Church in those years was impulsive, thoughtless and reactionary. It came from the lower, "reptile brain," at its root a reaction of fear or self-defense. Furthermore, I was expressing my anger in indirect, passive-aggressive ways because I didn't fully understand it myself. I was angry, but I was also in denial about my anger.

Discussing this with my brother has brought back this period of my life with vividness. Even now, remembering that time has aroused feelings of shame, pain and anxiety. I've found myself wrestling with those feelings a good part of the day. I've found myself reaching out to God in prayer about it, sometimes with just a sense of profound sadness and desperation. And in answer to my prayer, I've received quiet comfort.

I understand now that at the root of the anger was something even more basic: a failure to trust. At that time in my life, I had numerous remarkable, very powerful spiritual experiences in which God communicated very clearly to me his love for me, reassuring me of my fundamental goodness and wholeness, and telling me that I had nothing to fear in regard to my gayness.

I think that part of my problem was, given what I had been taught to believe about homosexuality, it was difficult for me to accept those moments of clarity as genuine revelation. I was also pretty certain that none of my family or friends in the Church would believe me. I was still tormented by doubt. And ultimately, that was what fueled a lot of my fear and anger in relation to the Church.

I'm trying to be gentle with myself now, as I work through these memories. I'm trying to forgive myself. (That's so much harder than one thinks it ought to be!) It's not that I was a terrible person -- though I behaved terribly.

It took time for me to grow and mature sufficiently, I think, to actually be able to accept the reassurances God gave me at the time (and has given me since). Perhaps that is why I experienced a new revelation when I did, only as late as 2005. God knew I was finally ready to try breaking through to me again.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Explaining the Sacrament

In my American Religious Histories class, I have a requirement that my students attend worship in a religious community with which they are unfamiliar. Yesterday, in fulfillment of that requirement, one of my students attended Church with me. Others of my students have done this before, but this student was the first to stay for all three meetings, for which I was grateful. I've always felt that often some of the most significant things that happen at Church happen in the intimacy of Sunday School, Priesthood, and Relief Society class discussions.

Whenever I have students come to Church with me, I always take a moment before entering the chapel to explain that Mormons have what the rest of the Christian world calls a "closed communion" (i.e., non-members are not allowed to partake of the Sacrament). This is necessary because many liberal Protestants are accustomed to worshiping in communities where all who have faith in Jesus Christ are invited to partake.

After Sacrament Meeting, we walked down the hall and found the Gospel Essentials classroom. We were the first to arrive, and while we were waiting, I asked her if she had any questions. There had been some ward business involving releases and new callings, and she was curious about the "sustaining" ritual, which I explained by pointing out that in my entire life I've never seen a single negative vote; but that that was not the general purpose of the sustaining vote anyway. I pointed out that this was an opportunity for members of the ward to commit to support the individuals called in any way they could.

She then asked me about the Sacrament. She noted the use of water instead of wine or even grape juice. She wanted to know how Mormons viewed the Sacrament. Was it merely symbolic, or did Mormons believe in some kind of "real presence" of Christ in the elements like Lutherans, or a transformation of the elements like Catholics? I explained that, no, for Mormons the Sacrament was understood to be a memorial of Christ's sacrifice -- no mystical notions like consubstantiation or transubstantiation. Mormons, I explained, see the Sacrament as a renewal of their baptismal covenants -- which explains why non-members do not partake.

She then noted that I had not partaken of the Sacrament even though I identify this Church as mine. "This is because you're excommunicated, isn't it?" she clarified.

I nodded yes.

She asked me if Mormons do this every week (some Protestants have much more infrequent communion -- once a month or even less frequently). When I explained that, yes, the Sacrament is a weekly occurrence for Latter-day Saints, she then asked, "Is that boring for you?"

I thought the question was very interesting -- particularly that she'd assume I might be bored. I suppose in some ways, boredom represents a refusal to participate in something. I've actually seen instances of boredom that are actually kind of passive aggressive. To assert boredom implies one's belief in the irrelevance of what is transpiring, along with a desire to escape. Nothing could be further from how I experience the Sacrament than that.

"That's actually my favorite part of the morning," I explained. I described to her how some of the most comforting, most reassuring, most powerful and precious moments of spiritual communion I've ever experienced have been in those moments of silence after the Sacrament has been blessed and is being passed. I told her how I cannot partake of the bread and water, but I actively listen to the prayers, and in my heart I make those promises, and commit myself to live them the rest of the week. I told her how grateful I am for the opportunity even just to do that.

After Sunday School, I found a sister who was willing to accompany my student/friend to Relief Society, while I attended Priesthood Meeting. I've been thinking a lot about the experience I described in last week's post. As he arrived at Priesthood Meeting, my bishop greeted me. I smiled and waved back, and my heart was just overflowing with joy.

Folks, I'm OK. No, I can't participate as fully as I'd like, in so many ways. But that time is coming. One way or another, I will someday stand among the Saints and bear my testimony. It is as inevitable as that the dawn follows the night. And when it happens, what a testimony that will be!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Do Not Enter...

Around this time last year, I was writing about a "tender mercy of the Lord." I was prompted to bear my testimony in Church and was permitted by my bishop -- on a one time basis -- to do so.

When my bishop reminded me that this was a one-time thing, he did suggest that the same time, one year later, we might fast and pray together and ask the Lord if this might be permitted me again.

I was a bit surprised by his suggestion. I was a bit surprised, actually, that I was ever permitted to bear my testimony at all. It was only in response to a very distinct and very powerful prompting from the Spirit that I asked my bishop's permission to do so in the first place. I simply assumed that this was a kind of miracle, a one-time event that would not repeat itself. I had (and have) more or less resigned myself to the fact that my testimony bearing must take place one-on-one in private, here on my blog, or in other settings than Church. So the fact that my bishop suggested that we fast and pray together about this in the future seemed like a greater "tender mercy" than I ever would have expected.

We did in fact fast and pray together this past weekend. My bishop told me at the outset that he felt "virtually certain" that there would be no more exceptions to the rule such as occurred about a year ago. I told him that I would like to fast and pray together anyway, in accordance with his initial suggestion, and he agreed to do so. We also agreed to meet right after Priesthood Meeting to pray together.

I want to say here -- not just parenthetically -- how lucky I feel to have a bishop such as this, who is willing to go this kind of extra mile with me. I have some inkling of how many people in our ward put demands on my bishop's time and energies. And so this was as concrete a proof of this man's great love and concern for me as I could ever ask.

I pretty much knew -- as did my bishop -- that no exception would be made. I kind of knew it the moment I had finished bearing my testimony a year ago. But I wanted this opportunity to fast and pray with my bishop. Maybe this was just selfishness on my part. Perhaps I just wanted to know that he was willing to go some extra mile just for me. Maybe I wanted proof that I was not just some number in a book somewhere, that I was in his mind a real person with real needs, real struggles, and real gifts.

My bishop said, "It's always a good thing to fast and pray." I think he was just trying to lower my expectations in advance by saying it (though there honestly were no expectations to lower). But what he said was true, especially in this case. I felt a special closeness to the Spirit the entire time of our fast, and received some special comforts, assurances, and encouragements.

As I usually do, I walked to Church yesterday morning. It was a more pleasant walk than usual, with the sun out and spring thaw in full gear. The sidewalks are all finally clear and dry, and grass is showing everywhere (though it's still brown). The air was only slightly chilly. As usual, I enjoyed the half-hour walk to Church. Even though friends at Church would willingly give me rides, I prefer it. It's part of the spiritual preparation time I need for Church.

During my walk, I thought about the appointment I had with my bishop to pray together after the meetings. And I couldn't help but feel some anguish and anxiety about this whole situation. About my whole situation, being gay and excommunicated. But as I arrived at the doors of the ward meeting house and was about to enter, the Spirit just clocked me.

It was a very clear revelation. The Spirit simply said: "Do not pass through those doors if there is any doubt in your mind that you are equal to every single other person who walks through those doors. You are not inferior in any way. You are as deserving and worthy of every blessing your Heavenly Father desires pour out on every single one of his children. Do not enter without knowing that."

There were almost tears in my eyes as I walked through those doors. And it was a most peculiar thing. As I hung up my coat and then made my way toward the sanctuary, it was as if I had a sign on my back that said, "Greet me, and please be extra nice to me today." Maybe there was just a particular look in my eyes. Because it seemed that every person that saw me gave me a special handshake or a nod or a smile, or an extra warm greeting. My special brother Eteu came up from behind and tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a great big hug and told me how glad he was to see me. Sister H. came up and hugged me and said, "I just want you to know, you're good, in my heart." And my friend sister J. and her family came and joined me in the back pew. And Bro. B. made me promise I'd sit in on his Sunday School class that morning, which I did (though I usually attend Gospel Doctrine). So I just felt completely loved and embraced by the Saints.

And after the meetings, I did pray with the Bishop. I thought maybe he'd say the prayer for us, but he asked me to pray. It was the first time I'd met with my bishop and been asked to pray. So I did, and all I could do was thank my Heavenly Father for this incredible man, and my incredible ward, and for the restored Church and the restored priesthood, and the light of the gospel that has touched and blessed my life in so many ways I'm not even worthy of. And I thanked God for having a testimony (even if I can't bear it in meeting!). I just wept through the entire prayer, from beginning to end, though I promise you they were tears of joy. Not the least particle of pain or sadness. Just pure joy. And then my bishop told me about his prayers for me over the past week. He encouraged me to keep making efforts to be faithful in every way I could, and he told of the love he and other Church leaders feel for me.

I am so blessed.

But if there is a reason why I am sharing this story it is so that all who read this -- so that the gay and lesbian saints who read my blog -- can know what the Spirit told me at the entrance of the Church. We belong in there, within those walls, where we can know in real and concrete ways of God's love for us, where we can feel the Spirit whispering to us that we are loved, we are worthy, and we are not inferior in any way, no less deserving of God's blessings than any other child of his. We should enter and know.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Grace: Starting Over

Yesterday was something of a milestone for me. I finished reading the Song of Solomon, which marked my completion of the entire standard works of the LDS Church cover-to-cover since I began reading the scriptures daily again in January 2006. I read the Book of Mormon, then the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, then the New Testament, then the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah through Malachi), then the rest of the Old Testament (Genesis through the Song of Songs). So today I'm starting over.

It's not that I hadn't read the standard works before... By the time I almost quit the Church by way of suicide in 1986 (and then quit it by letter asking to have my name removed from the records), I had read the Old Testament and the Doctrine and Covenants cover-to-cover once, the Pearl of Great price and the New Testament cover-to-cover three times, and the Book of Mormon six times. At BYU I'd done some more in-depth study of the Book of Mormon, Isaiah, and the Pauline Epistles through religion classes. Since leaving the LDS Church, I had done further readings and study of the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament. I guess I have been well versed in the scriptures. But I have never read the scriptures with the same sense of urgency (or self-discipline) as I have in the past four years.

This time around, I had a pressing question at the back of my mind: Is there some word of hope in here for me, a gay, Mormon, excommunicated man?

That question was answered, though not in the ways I expected it to be. Certainly, I wrestled with the ways in which the scriptures have tended to be read against gay people. Certainly I gained fresh insights into the contexts of certain anti-gay "proof texts." But far more often than I thought I'd found answers to the pressing questions I brought to my reading of scripture, I found myself humbled and challenged. I found myself having to let go of easy answers, and accept the necessity of faith and faithfulness.

This morning I started again with the first chapter of Matthew, and was struck with the challenge presented to the faith of Joseph, Mary's betrothed. He finds his wife-to-be pregnant, and he knows whose child it isn't. So he is about to end the betrothal in as discreet and non-humiliating a manner as possible, when an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him an impossible thing. And so, in response to a dream, Joseph quietly swallows his pride and proceeds with the marriage, and raises this child as his own. The whole of faith is contained in that simple story: unbearable heartache, vision, repentance, and the fruits of humility: hope and love. That is what my journey with scripture has been like.

So as I start over again today, as I consider the significance of this milestone, I'm also aware that in a real sense, there are no milestones. Every day I start over, and every starting over is, in a way, like beginning at square one. There is no sense in which I progress on my own without the Spirit of God. There's no personal good or righteousness I can amass as a kind of store of goodness. No good that all this scripture reading can do me if I don't start over as I did at the beginning: acknowledging that I need help to continue this journey; acknowledging that without help I have no hope. I'm aware that there's nothing I can do to cajole, coerce or compel God to help me. Nothing I can do but ask and wait and hope.

I still feel grateful, more grateful than I have words to express, and I take that as a good sign.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

It's All Interrelated

One consequence of working at home is that I'm not forced to get up off my butt and walk or ride my bike to work for at least half an hour a day. Also, I don't make it to the gym as often. So I've had to be more conscientious about getting some form of exercise every day, usually a combination of calisthenics and walking.

Finally, in order to assist me in my quest to avoid turning into a total formless blob, we finally invested in the Wii Fit game system. I've got to hand it to the ingenious Japanese engineers who designed this system. It's really helping me a lot in ways I never would have imagined.

One of the advantages is that there are a whole bunch of exercises that work on every part of your body. After the first few days of working out with this system, I was experiencing muscle aches all over my body. Which I think is good... Better than experiencing an ache here or there. The whole body aches seemed proof that I was getting a balanced workout throughout my entire system.

The philosophy of the Wii Fit system is that your end goal is to develop balance and good posture. When you stand and move the right way, and when your left and right sides are balanced, it has a tremendous effect on things like metabolism and strength and general well being. I've noticed, for instance, after about 10 days of training with these exercises I sit at my desk completely differently. And when I sit or lie down or walk, or do anything physical, really, I feel more comfortable and relaxed.

I guess I never really thought about it or took notice until now that the strength of the muscles around my waist or my thighs have an impact on my ability to pick things up with my arms or my ability to keep my balance on my feet. My ability to balance has an impact on how quickly my feet get tired when I need to walk a long distance. It's amazing to me to realize how the muscles on one end of my body actually interact with muscles on the other end of my body.

The thing is, it is all interconnected.

The same is true of every other aspect of our lives. Our physical well-being has an impact on our ability to concentrate mentally. Mental clarity enables spiritual reflection and strengthens moral action. Physical strength renders us more fit for moral service. Spirituality and morality are in turn concerned with relationships and behavior that foster physical health and mental peace. Everything that we do, every relationship that we have has an impact on everything else.

That's something for me to think about as I do push-ups or hold a yoga pose on my tip toes.