Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Doctrine of Christ

I do have this experience from time to time of going to Church, and just feeling this incredible sadness.  I don't know how to describe it other than "outsiderness."  It's like going to a great big party where everyone else is having a great time, dancing, singing and laughing.  And you're all alone sitting in the corner watching it all go on.  But nobody's talking to you, and so you feel like a super, mega alien outsider.  I had to wrestle with some of these feelings this past Sunday.  After Church was our ward's "Linger Longer," where folks hang out after Church and eat yummy snacks and chat and have a good time.  And I basically kind of just felt sick to my stomach and needed to leave.  I really needed to be with my husband, to be held by him.  So that's what I did.

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...


MoHoHawaii said...

I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem The Rhodora. (See the link.)

Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;

John, the beauty of your soul needs no reason. You exist to love and be loved. Eyes were made for seeing and hearts for loving. Maybe this is watered-down theology, but it's something that even my jaded brain can wrap its mind around.

I'm thrilled that your ward has become a real source of support for you even if the Church at large isn't where it may eventually be.

J G-W said...

At Sunstone I had a wonderful chat with Bob Rees, and we talked about my ward. I had shared with him a number of experiences I'd had there, and he seemed pretty amazed. He warned me that I would likely have had a very different set of experiences in most average wards out West. I am forced to concede the truth of that, both based on stories I've heard from others and from experiences I've had visiting my parents' ward.

But here's the thing... My ward is special not because it's politically liberal (trust me, it's not!), but because they take the heart of the gospel very literally and very seriously. Yesterday, the second counselor in the Stake Presidency was visiting, and he made an ad hoc comment to the effect that my ward has a reputation in the Stake (and with the Stake Presidency) for having, as he described it, a special spirit of love and humility.

My ward isn't out of sync with the gospel, it's very, very deeply in sync. And that helps them to set aside judgment and just accept me as I come to them... with a sincere desire to learn and be strengthened by the Spirit and walk in the path of Christ.

I've said numerous times that my ward is not "extraordinary." It's not, in the sense that members of the ward adhere to standard, orthodox Mormonism. They use the same doctrinal resources that every ward in the Church has at its disposal. So if other wards are less welcoming than mine, I like to think of my ward as an example of where the Church collectively could be in its welcome of its gay and lesbian brothers and sisters...

MidKnight543 said...

Young Stranger, I have never met you, but I have been folowing your blog for a while now. I am not LDS, but am confirmed in the Episcopal church. I was raised devout Penecostal by a maternal grandfather that was an Assemblies of God minister. I have been in a committed gay relationship for 17 years. I struggle with my spirituality/religion and that of the church authoriy. However, I often read the following quote from Romans in Bible:
Romans 8:35-39 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? [shall] tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. He gave that to me when I was 16 before I 'came out'. I never thoguht that it might actually be the church that tried to separate me from the love of God.

J G-W said...

MidKnight543 - As a former Pentecostal, you might especially appreciate a section of the Book of Mormon text I've discussed here, which describes how the Doctrine of Christ also includes "[receiving] the baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost, and [speaking] with a new tongue, yea, even with the tongue of angels"!

That text from Romans 8 has always been one of my favorite... It was paraphrased to me years ago by a Lutheran minister at a time of great struggle in my life, and has been a beacon to me ever since. It is ironic, especially when we consider how a few verses from Romans chapter 1 have been quoted out of context to lambaste gay folks...

To listen to certain folks, you might think that there's nothing for homosexuals in Christianity -- no hope, no faith, no love... But I think we are doubly blessed when we persevere through that kind of spiritual darkness. The treasures of faith become that much more precious to us, when we have to struggle to apply each one to ourselves...

I hope you'll comment more often here... I'm so grateful for the perspective of folks whose faith tradition is different from the Mormon perspective usually shared here...