Now don't get me wrong.... My ward is without a doubt the best ward in the Church. The people are fantastic. Last Sunday, Bro. S., a particularly close friend of mine, sang a solo: "Because I Have Been Given Much." He doesn't have the most fantastic voice. (Sorry, E., if you're reading this!!!) But the song was this most incredible gift, because I know what kind of person he is, and how profound his testimony is, and I know how much he meant every single word that he sang. And later on, he came and sat down next to me and hugged me (like he always does!), and he committed to "hang" with me some time this week. And it wouldn't be possible for me to feel a deeper sense of brotherhood, or feel more loved or empathized with than I do by this brother. And I have a half dozen or so other friends in the ward to whom I feel equally close. Sis. G., my Sunday School teacher, and her husband Bro. H., and my old friend who goes back to BYU days Sis. J. And every member of my elders' quorum presidency, and Bro. and Sis. C. (with whom we have a weekend bike trip planned for this Saturday!), and my home teachers. I feel truly loved, unconditionally and deeply. And even the folks in the ward who used to treat me like I was radioactive seem to have gotten over that. One of those sisters greeted me on Sunday with the kindest greeting. Nobody in my ward is doing anything wrong. They are living the gospel 100%, humbly and sincerely and with the pure love of Christ.
So my occasional bouts of outsider flu have nothing to do with how the members of my ward treat me, and more to do with my status as an excommunicate, who happens to be in a marriage that the LDS leadership is, as of this moment, fighting tooth and claw to ban legally.
When I feel that kind of sadness and pain, there's only one place I can go, and that is to God himself. That's where I find comfort. And sometimes I pray about it, and the Spirit simply tells me, "Wait. Be patient." Meaning, this pain is kind of like stubbing your toe. There's really nothing to do but wait for it to subside, and in the mean time, be kind to yourself and be kind to others and let the pain remind you about the importance of forgiveness and charity. And eventually, when you've been still and quieted the distressed feelings long enough and just waited on the Lord long enough, the Spirit eventually opens things up to you and gives you the reassurance that you need and the answer to the questions that are pressing so deeply on your mind and heart.
So this morning, I was reading 1 Nephi 31, on the "Doctrine of Christ." This is an incredibly profound text. Perhaps one of the most profound in all of scripture. And Nephi prefaces it by saying, in essence, "There are tons of things I could tell, but I only have enough time and space to tell you a few really important things. So let me share with you the Doctrine of Christ" (my paraphrase of verses 1-2). What a gem we have, thanks to Nephi's desire to share with his readers the one important thing they need to understand!
In verse 3, Nephi talks about how the Lord teaches us each individually and directly and personally. "For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding." In other words, there's no way to misunderstand when the Lord teaches us, because he knows exactly how to communicate to us in a way that we are capable of understanding, whatever level we're at. That is a comforting way to start, but it also suggests that what he was about to impart is something that we can't fully understand without the Spirit itself teaching us and explaining things "to our understanding."
Now what jumped out at me today as I read this was the way that Nephi stresses intention as a concomitant of the type of faith that leads to eternal life. "Save ye shall be willing to keep the commandments of the Father..." (v. 10); "with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent" (v. 13); "[witnessing]... that ye are willing to keep my commandments" (v. 14). What further jumped out at me was the stress on the directness of the individual relationship with God. In the Doctrine of Christ, intent of the heart is crucial. And there is only one who knows our hearts, who knows what our true intent is, and that is God. So I particularly noticed that Nephi states the Doctrine in a way that makes it clear that this is a matter between us and God alone. "Acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God... witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ" (v. 13).
OK, this is critical. Because when we are baptized into the Church, we go through an interview process where the Bishop determines what our intent is, and determines whether we are worthy to receive baptism. The Bishop has an obligation to do this from the viewpoint of administering the ordinances of the Church. But the requirement is "witnessing unto the Father." When we enter into baptism, we are entering into a covenant, not with the Bishop, not even with the apostles or the Prophet, but with God. It is our intent before God that matters if we wish to enter in "by the gate" into the "strait and narrow path" (v. 18). We could perhaps fool the Bishop about our intent, but we cannot fool God. And to enter in by any other gate than by true intent witnessed unto God is some other path than the strait and narrow one. So it is possible to be physically baptized in this world after the manner of the flesh, but to have missed the gate completely. That's why baptism for the dead doesn't actually baptize anybody unless that person on the other side of the veil enters in by the gate.
OK, now what really gets interesting is when you study the wording Nephi uses to describe the relationship between baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the subsequent path to salvation and eternal life. In each instance in this chapter where Nephi discusses baptism, he stresses willingness to be baptized, and intent to repent of one's sins and obey the commandments of God:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I know that if ye shall follow the Son, with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God, but with real intent, repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, according to his word, behold, then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost; yea, then cometh the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost; and then can ye speak with the tongue of angels, and shout praises unto the Holy One of Israel. (verse 13)If your intent is true and pure "then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost."
Now this reminds me of the story of Cornelius and his family. In this situation, described in Acts 10, there was real doubt among Church leaders as to whether Gentiles could be baptized without first submitting to the Mosaic Law. And when Peter visited the house of Cornelius and saw the outpouring of the Spirit, and saw that these unbaptized Gentiles had the Holy Spirit just like members of the Church, then he exclaimed, "Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?" (Acts 10: 47). Well, apparently men could forbid water. But God had ratified the conversion of Cornelius and his family even though the Church had not, and even though there were serious doubts in the minds of most Church leaders and members of the Church at that time as to whether it were possible for Gentiles to be members of the Church without first submitting to the Mosaic Law.
A couple of years ago, I read Preach My Gospel because our Stake President asked every member of the Stake to read and study it. I remember being struck by the fact that anyone who had ever been involved in a homosexual relationship had to be referred to the mission president (pp. 207-208) before they could be approved for baptism. In fact, I was aware at the time that in order for someone like me to be baptized, it would eventually require first presidency approval. So there are serious doubts in the minds of Church leaders and members alike that someone like me could ever be a member of the Church.
Yet, the Spirit spoke to me in terms that I could not misunderstand in August 2005, and I have striven to obey every single commandment that the Spirit has pressed upon me. Under the influence of the Spirit I've taken steps in my life to come closer to God... through prayer, through scripture study, through Church attendance, through living the Word of Wisdom, through eliminating pornography and impure thoughts from my life and strengthening my relationship with my husband, getting married (!), and so on. And each time I've done that, I've experienced an outpouring of spiritual gifts and assurances. I've never in my life felt closer to God than I do now, even when I was a baptized member of the Church. And I'm convinced that I receive an extra outpouring of the Spirit because I get no such encouragement from anybody else, either within or without the Church. The Spirit makes up for the lack of support networks and support structures that I might otherwise receive.
I had always marveled about that. I've asked myself privately (and publicly, in some other posts on this blog) how it could be possible that I experience such a vibrant presence of the Spirit in my life, helping me to become a more patient, kind, loving and faithful person, when I haven't been baptized. But I've learned from Nephi's explanation of the Doctrine of Christ that I've met the requirement. I've witnessed my desire to be baptized to two bishops now, but more importantly I've witnessed it to the Father. That purity of intent witnessed to the Father is the gate. I have no control over how Church leaders or members or anybody responds to me. I have no control over whether they believe that I am worthy or a good person or whether they think I belong to the Kingdom of God. I can't control their beliefs or their actions or Church policy. I can only do my part. And the scripture promises that if I do, I will receive the "baptism of fire" (v. 14).
Of course, the gate is just that. It's the gate, the entrance, only the beginning. But Nephi's further explanation of the Doctrine of Christ I find equally comforting. For he says, "Ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope and a love of God and all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ and endure to the end, behold, saith the Father, ye shall have eternal life.... This is the way.... This is the doctrine of Christ" (vs. 20-21).
There's nobody, nothing, no institution that can withhold these things from me or anybody else. No one can ultimately take away a perfect brightness of hope that is born of pure intent witnessed to God. Someone else's erroneous judgment of my heart, of my true intent, doesn't enter into the picture here. Were baptism offered to me, I would willingly take it. (You have no idea how willingly! It kills me when heterosexual members waffle about their Church membership, and take it for granted as if it is nothing of great consequence.) But I am not offered such an opportunity, so my intent, my desire must stand for the actual thing in this time and place.
So I find comfort in the sense that, connected to God as I am, there can be no true otherness, no true outsiderness. Others can only make outsiders of themselves (or I could make an outsider of myself) by treating their brothers or sisters as outsiders. I am grateful that members of my ward live the Doctrine of Christ by treating me with love. I am grateful that, when I pay a little too much attention to outward status and experience the pain of outsiderness, the Lord teaches me lessons of love and patience and always comforts me with reassurances that are tailored to my needs, my language, my understanding.
Some day the inner, spiritual world will be reflected in the outer, physical world. Until then, we can only press forward...