Friday, December 31, 2010


Tomorrow, I'm attending the baptism of my friend Mary. New Year, new beginning. It seems the perfect time for a baptism.

Mary called me earlier this week to tell me the news. This is a big step for her, not one she takes lightly. She's been investigating the Church for many years, and a couple of years ago she almost got baptized but then called it all off at the very last minute -- to much embarrassment, and much to the chagrin of the elders and others intimately involved. She was introduced to me by a friend of mine who happens to be an atheist. Candy had told Mary about my wrestles with faith, and my journey, and Mary decided she needed to talk with me before she made any final decisions either to join or not to join the Church. So over the last couple of years, Candy, Mary and I have met periodically for lunch and heartfelt conversation. And in that time, Mary and I have become very close.

When Mary called to tell me about her baptism, we wept together on the phone. Mary told me she had been asked to make suggestions as to who she would like to have speak at her baptism, and she wanted me to speak about the Holy Ghost. I told her I felt so incredibly honored that she would want me to do that, but I was certain I could not be allowed to speak at an LDS baptismal service. And that was when the weeping started. She told me that the reason she's getting baptized is because of my faith and testimony. And she couldn't understand why I wouldn't be allowed to speak at her baptism. And I told her what I've told her before: Everything will work out in the end for the best and highest good of each and all of us if we just move forward in faith. And my presence at her baptism will have to be enough of a witness of what I know about faith and love and about the Holy Spirit.

I called my friend Candy and told her Mary was getting baptized, and Candy agreed that we both needed to be there to support her. Candy said something about the extraordinariness of a situation that might prompt her to walk through the doors of a Mormon church in order to attend a baptismal service. And she also, to my delight, volunteered that she would repeat the performance again some day when I am finally able to be baptized too. Now that is a testimony to the depth of the love of my friend Candy, that, not really sharing any of my faith, she understands me so completely, and is able to share my deepest hope with me. So Mary's rooting section on New Year's Day will include an excommunicated gay Mormon and a Unitarian atheist, united in our desire for Mary's happiness, and in our hope for her baptism to be both a new beginning and a deepening of faith.

I've been reading a book lately about the history of unbelief in America (an excellent book, by the way). It seems there are also (synchronicity!) a crop of blog posts by Beck and Kiley and Andrew about the personal conundrums caused by belief and doubt; or by a desire to believe in the face of doubt. I think my friend Mary has a profound faith, what Mormons call a testimony, but she's also been paralyzed for many years by different kinds of doubt.

An irony of wrestling with doubt is that in the midst of such wrestling we often feel guilty, as if it is wrong for us to doubt, when in fact doubt registers what I consider one of the highest forms of integrity. A person wavers in doubt because of a desire to make the right choice, and because he or she is honest enough admit that he or she doesn't know the right way to go. Doubt is not a comfortable place to be. When in doubt, we long for the certainty that will enable us to move forward with the courage (and presumably happiness) of our convictions. We have to wrestle with uncomfortable emotions, with an awareness of personal weakness, with conflicting desires. Doubt is always as much a matter of the heart as it is of the head! Even when we don't recognize the heart's role in doubt... We wonder if the "right" thing to do is to stick with a course of action that our head tells us can't be right, but our heart tells us ought to be right. Or is the "right" course to do what reason dictates, even when it "feels" icky?

One thing I can say is woe to the person who sells out in one way or the other. By that I mean the person who consciously professes belief just to win applause or get some other tangible reward. That kind of choice will eat at your soul until you don't have the power to believe in anything any more.

A person of integrity should doubt. But there, of course, also comes a moment when a person of integrity must choose. That isn't to say that we don't sometimes have to revisit choices; swallow hard and admit we were wrong; repent! My life has, for good or ill, been shaped by those kinds of choices. I am only human. But if we don't choose, if we refuse to move forward and commit for fear of later having to admit we were wrong, we miss out on the greatest gifts and the greatest ultimate happiness life has to offer.

Mary asked me how many baptisms I have attended in my life. I told her I wasn't sure, but probably around a dozen or so. I told her that three of those were baptisms I had performed.

"What was that like?" she asked.

"Terrifying," I told her.

"Really?" she asked in surprise. "Why?"

"Because I recognized the enormity, the incredible importance of what I was doing. And because I wasn't always sure I was worthy."

"Oh," she said, in a voice that told me she now understood perfectly.

I feel something like this now, for Mary. Of course Mary's decision to be baptized is Mary's decision. It is her choice. But she says that her baptism would not be possible without my faith and my testimony. My life has touched hers in some meaningful way that has helped her come to terms with doubt that till now had barred her way, like some angel or demon at the foot of Jacob's ladder. You don't give a gift like that to someone else without giving some part of yourself. Without owing some eternal part of yourself.

In thinking about it, I was reminded of what Elijah witnessed, when
the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19: 11-12)
So there are moments when I feel incredibly broken, like the rocks must have felt flying off the mountain, like nothing can be right with me. And there are times when I wonder if everything I believe in isn't, like the mountain in the earthquake, crashing down around me and proving me just another fool. But after the wind and the earthquake and the fire, the still small voice remains constant. It speaks of love, and keeps me grounded.

My greatest privilege in life has been to bear witness of that voice, and to see it bear fruit in love.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Those Who Professed to Belong to the Church of God

Lately I've been reading George Marsden's biography of Jonathan Edwards. (Marsden, by the way, is at his best in this work. Nuanced, relevant, and insightful! He splendidly shows how Edwards is still relevant today, how his theology is still a force to be reckoned with... An amazing piece of work I would highly recommend to anyone interested in American religion.)

One of the defining struggles for Jonathan Edwards was the problem of distinguishing between what he called the "visible Church" and the "invisible Church." This was a concept that became very important early in the Reformation -- it was something that both Martin Luther and John Calvin had to reckon with in their own theological work.

The concept of an "invisible" vs. "visible" church becomes necessary the moment you define the church in terms of a true, living faith and relationship with God. The problem stems from the fact that a person may profess faith outwardly, but inwardly their heart may not truly be aligned with God. A person may appear outwardly in every respect to be faithful both in word and deed, but it is difficult (if not impossible) to know whether that person is putting on a show of faithfulness in order to win the adulation of others. This poses an ecclesiastical problem if you belong to a church that insists its membership rolls should more or less only include true believers. Because it then sets for ecclesiastical leaders the more or less impossible task of reading what is truly in the hearts of his or her parishioners.

Edwards pointed out that we can look for "signs" of true, inward faith in people's outward behavior. But ultimately we cannot know for sure. We must acknowledge that, at least to some extent, the "visible" (earthly) church will not correspond perfectly with the "invisible" (true) church. Some individuals who should be included may be excluded from the church. While other individuals who should be excluded may be included in the church. Edwards believed this was the true meaning of the "wheat and the tares" parable. Only God knows the true state of individuals' hearts, and only God will ultimately be able to sort things out when Christ comes again and brings our present age to an end. Still, Edwards insisted that the church needs to try to discern, and needs to try -- as much as is humanly possible -- to sort the wheat from the tares.

The Book of Mormon seems to make reference to this important principle in passages I've read recently in Helaman. The principle of a universal, invisible Church seems to be established in Helaman 3: 28-29:
Yea, thus we see that the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God....
Here, access to the Kingdom of Heaven is presented purely as an act of will, an act of desire. It is presented as a movement of the heart. "All... who will believe"; "whosoever will."

A few short verses later, this true church is contrasted with the church as it exists in the world. Verse 33:
And in the fifty and first year of the reign of the judges there was peace also, save it were the pride which began to enter into the church—not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God—
This verse uses the word "church" in two different senses. The first use of the word "church" is when the author indicates that "pride... began to enter into the church." So here he is speaking of the visible institution, with earthly membership rolls. But as quickly as he states that pride has entered "the church," he clarifies. "Not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God." So here is as clear a statement as you can find almost anywhere in scripture that individuals who suffer pride to grow in their hearts are not actually members of God's true church. They may be on the membership rolls of "the church" but they are not members of, what this author calls "the church of God." They may "profess" to be members, but they are not in truth, in the only sense that really matters in the eternities.

Now, this notion disturbs (and I think should disturb!) complacent views of the church and what church membership means. Often it disturbs us, though, for the wrong reasons. A wrong reason for it to disturb us is that it deprives us of nice easy categories into which we can simplistically place everyone and everything in the world. In a nice, tidy, complacent (arrogant) world, we belong to the One True Church, and our membership nicely entitles us to a front row seat in the Kingdom of Heaven. And everyone who is not with us is against us, so we're justified in treating them somewhat less than. And to be reminded that things don't actually work that way, that some people we might think of as damned are actually saved, and some that we might think of as saved are actually damned, well that messes things up and makes us very unhappy.

But a right reason for this to disturb us would be if it does the opposite. If it makes us just a bit insecure in our assumptions about our belonging in the Kingdom of Heaven. If it makes us realize that our church membership can't save us, if our hearts are improperly aligned.

This is just where Jonathan Edwards went with this insight. Church leaders, he insisted, must attempt to align the outward, visible church with the inward, invisible (true) church, but they will fail. They do so out of a responsibility to the souls of those they watch over. But their efforts are secondary to the efforts and responsibility of the individual believer. It is the individual believer, Edwards insisted, who must primarily ever be on the look-out for "signs" of true belief within their own heart and soul. It is ultimately our responsibility to measure our desires in the balance of Heaven-ordained virtue.

For Edwards, this Heaven-ordained virtue was organized in its totality around the principle of divine love. God's infinite, eternal, perfect love for all of creation, and for all his children is the founding principle of the cosmos. A true love for God will manifest itself in a selfless love for everyone and everything that God loves. And it is our task to measure ourselves against and align ourselves with that kind of love.

Whosoever will, may.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

She Will Love It

OK, this is Göran being the office Christmas diva.

Everyone who knows Göran knows that he is the hardest person in the world to buy presents for. Every year, for the last four Christmases, Glen has come to me with desperation in his voice. "What do I get for Göran?" he sighs.

I reply, "I don't know, kiddo. You're on your own. Be creative. Good luck! I know you can do it!" I give him a few Zen-like clues, and then I send him on his way.

This year, our foreign exchange student went Christmas-gift shopping with me. He looked at me with a quizzical expression, "What should I get for Göran? For you it's easy. But for him it's hard."

Tell me about it!

Nothing ordinary will do. A present for Göran has to be exotic, dazzling, and totally unique. And it has to speak to him in a certain way. He has very particular tastes. So searching for a Christmas present for him is something like a mythic quest. I usually end up devoting one entire shopping trip just to him. Once I've found his gift, I can then go on another shopping trip to get gifts for everyone else.

This year, as always, I started out with no idea where even to begin. I just sort of wandered around the mall, waiting till some form of inspiration hit. Finally I had an idea -- not an inspiration yet, just an idea. So I poked my head into one particularly promising little boutique and started looking around. A clerk came to my assistance, and I described something very particular. She pointed me to a certain display cabinet, and then I saw it. It was perfect!

It wasn't the totality of the gift. I knew that in order to make this gift right, my perfect find would have to be accompanied by a few other little items. That's where the inspiration came in. Presentation, artistry, and a little bit of sweat would make it the perfect gift. As I described my plans to the clerk, she sighed romantically. "Oh, she'll just love it," she sighed.

Whenever this happens, it always gives me pause. First of all, do I really come across as straight? I mean, really, she wouldn't just assume that I'm with a man? I guess not.

So then I have to decide, do I just let it slide, or do I educate? In this case, I was leaning toward "educate." So when she said, "She'll just love it," I matter-of-factly corrected her: "He'll love it."

"Oh!" she said, a bit nervously, "Him!" She pointed me toward some accessories that she thought were a bit more masculine -- in masculine colors. Knowing Göran, I promptly ignored her advice and headed straight toward the dazzling, shiny, exotically colorful accessories.

This particular Christmas gift, I realized, would require a special box. So earlier today, I went in search of and finally found an appropriate vessel. The person helping me said, "Oh, that's a beautiful gift item."

"Oh, that's not the gift," I explained, "That's to put the gift in." I described what I had gotten. "Oh, she will love it," the clerk smiled warmly.

I just smiled inwardly.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Should Gay Men and Lesbians Be Abstinent Before Marriage?

I've blogged elsewhere about the principles of chastity, and why I think they are important regardless of sexual orientation. I have spoken and can speak first hand about the ways I've experienced casual attitudes toward sex in the gay community A) making a life-long marital-type commitment more difficult to achieve, and B) generally working in both subtle and unsubtle ways to undermine such a commitment once you make it. I also believe that a life-long marital-type commitment is highly desirable, though it is not always easy to achieve. I believe it offers the greatest potential for happiness within a relationship. But more important than that, I believe it offers us the greatest opportunity to grow into our full spiritual stature -- precisely because of the challenges and difficulties involved in making this kind of relationship work.

I think principles of chastity have the greatest likelihood of working well if we commit to them not out of superstition or legalism, but because we understand the stakes and costs involved in building a committed relationship, and we are willing to make the investment. I believe that our willingness to be abstinent before a relationship does help us to establish habits, norms and discipline that will strengthen our ability to be sexually faithful within a relationship. More importantly, "where our treasure is, there will our heart be also." When we stay abstinent before a relationship and faithful within a relationship, we are essentially making a powerful statement -- both within our own mind and heart, as well as to our partner -- about how we value that relationship, and how we value sex within that relationship. Sex, in other words, becomes special because we are willing to treat it as special. And relationships become special because we are willing to be disciplined in our efforts to cultivate and nurture our relationships in this way.

Chastity is obviously not the only thing we need in order to cultivate a happy relationship. Other values such as communication and a willingness to make sacrifices are essential to make a relationship work. Obviously, chastity isn't even the only thing we need in order to successfully negotiate the sexual aspects of a relationship. In order for sex to be satisfying and mutually relationship-enhancing, we also need to develop traits such as compassion, the ability both to enjoy and to give pleasure, and we need to be able to communicate about sex. (Chastity is good for a relationship but prudishness is bad.) And we also need to have a realistic understanding of the limits as well as the potential of sex. (Sex won't fix conflicts in other areas of the relationship, for instance!) I won't comment a lot on the issue of sexual compatibility (i.e., entering into a relationship with someone with whom you feel a strong mutual attraction) other than to say I think it is very important. Chastity alone does not equal marital happiness. But it is a powerful contributor, and we can learn lessons from cultivating chastity that will help us make a relationship successful in other areas.

Not being sexually abstinent before marriage doesn't mean a committed relationship cannot succeed or even become extraordinarily committed and loving! I know that because, as I have described elsewhere, I certainly was not abstinent before entering into my relationship with my husband. A relationship is nothing if it is not capable of growing, and if it is not flexible. In another post, I used a "dance" metaphor to describe how a relationship works. What makes a relationship succeed or fail has as much to do with one partner's reactions to the moves of the other partner (and vice versa) as it has to do with the specific dance moves. So I feel I ought to temper my comments by stressing that there's no hard, fast formula for success in a relationship.

At the same time, I want to say that gay community social norms encouraging promiscuity and my own earlier unwillingness to commit to principles of chastity, I eventually realized, created problems and issues in my relationship with my husband that needed to be worked through in order for our relationship to become more joyful, loving and fulfilling. I feel there is a lot of damage that was done by some of these attitudes that has had to be repaired. If I had things to do over again, I would do them differently. And it would be my hope that, as future generations of gay men and lesbians begin to establish and build new relationships, they can benefit from the mistakes I and others of my generation have made.

A few members of the Moho Facebook community have started a Facebook group called "Gays Who Favor Premarital Abstinence." This seems to me like a great place for us to explore the issues and challenges related to gay and lesbian relationships in our culture. I see the creation of a group like this as a hopeful sign that we are beginning to transcend the homophobia that has disabled previous generations.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sex and Shame

A couple of weeks ago, I met Jonathan Langford for lunch. He lives not too far away; close enough that a drive into the Twin Cities every once in a while is not too difficult. We had the kind of conversation I live for, where we each shared some of the more significant parts of our respective life journeys, and reflected on faith and day-to-day challenges. We're about the same age too, and with that late forties-something age comes a certain groundedness. We're both sort of past the point where either of us feels we need to prove anything and where most of the loops life throws you for are no longer shocking (if they still don't necessarily get easier). And somehow that deepens the depth of any kind of conversation you can have with somebody. We of course did discuss his book, No Going Back. It entered naturally into the flow of our conversation, because we were discussing faith and life, and of course a novel like that draws on real-life faith and life lessons.

Toward the end of our conversation, Jonathan told me about an incredible discussion he'd read on Feminist Mormon Housewives about "healthy chastity." This particular discussion, not-surprisingly, ended up being about healthy sexuality. And while it's geared toward the challenges girls and women face in a sexist, exploitative culture, it's of direct relevance to men too. And as a gay man in a committed (going on 19-year-long) relationship with a man, I found it incredibly personally relevant. So to those of you who haven't already seen it, regardless of whether you are gay or straight, male or female, it's definitely worth a read.

I had already, for some time, been thinking of posting on the problem of shame and sex, and how shame -- and particularly religiously motivated guilt and shame -- really undermines the goal of chastity, which I would really define here as respect for appropriate sexual boundaries or, more broadly, as life- and relationship-enhancing sexuality. I would further here rather broadly define sexuality not just as sex or sex-acts per se, but also as including self-image, body-image, attitudes toward the giving and receiving of pleasure, and the role that giving and receiving sexual pleasure plays in a broad range of familial and social relationships. So, in my mind, "sexuality" is as much about understanding how and why we say "no" to sex in a host of situations, as it is about understanding and fully appreciating those situations where we can and do appropriately say "yes."

I think any decent theological discussion about chastity has to begin with an acknowledgment of the ways sexuality is abused and exploited in our culture for purposes that can only be described as corrupt. There are two forms of corrupt exploitation of sexuality in our culture. The first broad type of corruption is the "sex sells" proposition. This includes using sex to sell cars or motorcycles or clothes or toothpaste or chewing gum, etc. And it includes ranking bodies (and theoretically the people who inhabit those bodies) in terms of physical beauty or sex-appeal, or whatever, and encourages us to judge ourselves based on the extent to which our bodies approximate some ideal. And it also includes ranking people based on how easily or how often they have sex, etc. And it includes a permissive sort of anything-goes, if-it-feels-good-do-it kind of mentality. And it includes an attitude of "what I do in privacy does not matter." And I think you cannot see the lie in that if you fail to understand how sexuality is connected to a broad range of relationships and social commitments. This first form of corruption is one that folks more easily recognize if they come from a conservative religious culture.

The second form of corruption, however, is often lost on folks from a more religious perspective, and that is the "sex as power" proposition. Whereas the first form of corruption exploits lust for the sake of greed, the second form of corruption exploits shame for the sake of ego. So the more blatant manifestations of this form of corruption include a parent or religious leader or a boss or a therapist or teacher or counselor sexually abusing vulnerable charges or subordinates or clients. Or more nefarious forms of this corruption may not involve actual acts of sexual abuse, but could involve, say, a religious leader using the confidential setting of, say, a worthiness interview, to ask inappropriate questions about a person's sex life. It includes every impulse to control, or compel, or humiliate another human being. It includes an attitude that sex is bad and dirty, and that sexual desire and sexual thoughts make us bad and dirty people. Or it treats sex as something that should be minimized or avoided as much as possible, or used only for procreation (because it's so bad that we should only use it when we really, really have to to propagate the race). And so it ranks people based on their supposed ability to resist the allure of sex, so, for example, a girl (or sometimes a boy, but really, in our culture almost always a girl) who has had sex before marriage is broken, damaged, tainted, and can never have her precious chastity back. Or a gay person who is celibate is a much, much better person than a gay person who is in a relationship. And I think you cannot see the lie in these propositions if you fail to understand how sexuality is connected to a broad range of relationships and social commitments, and how love and relationships make us stronger, how they expand our capacity for good and for service and for sacrifice and community and all the things that really make us human.

Both forms of corruption partake of the lie that sexuality is reducible to an act; that it's disconnected from some larger physical/emotional/spiritual/relational whole. Both, ironically, partake of the lie that sexual morality is defined legalistically. The first form of corruption might denounce sexual laws and sexual rules as overly confining; and the second form of corruption might see laws and sexual rules as all-encompassing (i.e., man is made for the Sabbath!). But both can't seem to get past a legalistic view of sex and of persons as defined by sex acts rather than the meanings invested in sex acts or the relationships within which sexuality forms part of an intricate web of meaning, intimacy and love. This is why the powers that be -- whether economic or religio-political -- seem to be invested in promoting these corrupt attitudes. Both forms of corruption seem to be related to each other as well in the sense that -- like Democrats and Republicans -- they present themselves as the only one of two viable attitudes. They both sell the lie that one must either accept that good sexuality is about "anything goes," or that good sexuality is about "following rules."

Both also -- significantly -- divest the individual of any autonomy or power to figure out how sexuality works for them, or to make moral judgments of their own, independent of some uncompromising external standard that is either promulgated through Calvin Klein ads or that was supposedly written in stone on Mt. Sinai (as interpreted, of course, by infallible religious leaders). Legalism essentially teaches me that I cannot make decisions on my own; that there simply are no choices because everything is black and white. And it instills fear and shame in me to the extent that I don't just shut up and do as I'm told.

I've found one way forward in the realization that shame is simply not a useful emotion in relation to sex. It simply doesn't help me in any way whatsoever. Shame in relation to sex seems independent of the morality or immorality of any particular sexual situation. For instance, as a young teenager, I experienced intense shame about the fact that -- obeying church leaders and avoiding masturbation -- I was having wet dreams literally every night or every other night. Every time I woke up from an erotic dream with moist undergarments, I felt like I was somehow to blame, as though there must be something terribly wrong with me because I ejaculate. Or shame can manifest as the sneaking suspicion that there must be something wrong with me because my partner and I are happy together and because we really enjoy sex.

The antidote, for me, has, interestingly enough, been a simple form of humility. It is simply to accept that this is me, this is how I am made. I am flesh and blood. I eat, I drink, I breathe, I defecate, I urinate, I bleed, I sweat. And yes, I get aroused and I ejaculate. This is all part and parcel of the human condition; of existing as a spiritual being having a physical experience. It is to realize that even if I could somehow purge myself of every sexual impulse or desire, it would not make me better than anyone else. That is the real temptation, the real sin: to think scaling some height of asceticism could somehow make me morally superior. But as Paul wrote, "Though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing." That appeal to some egotistical part of my nature is in fact much more offensive to God than the fact I enjoy the embrace of the man I love.

Gratitude is another antidote, which includes simply taking time to take a deep breath and take account of the wonder and beauty of the world around us. I express to God how thankful I am for this incredible opportunity to have this complex, rich experience with life and physicality, to live in a world where there are such challenges, such pain, such darkness, and such misunderstanding; that I have an opportunity to bring light and love and hope to such a place. I give thanks that this body gives me the opportunity to express love, through work, through nurture, and through physical affection. I embrace life, which is God's finest creation.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Lord Our God Did Visit Us

No, this isn't a Christmas quote, though it could be. My scripture reading lately has been in the book of Alma in the 50-something chapters, which means lots of description of military tactics and battles and war-time politics. Sometimes it feels like the 65 B.C. edition of the War Room with Wolf Blitzer. But as a follow-up to my last post, if the blow-by-blow account of General Moroni vs. King Amalickiah was considered worth including as part of the sacred record, it is because in the Book of Mormon witness, God does somehow intervene in our day-to-day lives, even at their most mundane or profane.

This war between the Nephites and Lamanites was as much a war of ideas as it was a physical war. In Moroni's epistle to Ammoron, he insists "I would tell you somewhat concerning the justice of God, and the sword of his almighty wrath, which doth hang over you except ye repent" (54: 6). And Ammoron replies in kind,
And as concerning that God whom ye say we have rejected, behold we know not such a being; neither do ye; but if it so be that there is such a being, we know not but that he hath made us as well as you. And if it be that there is a devil and a hell, behold will he not send you there to dwell with my brother whom ye have murdered, whom ye have hinted that he hath gone to such a place? But behold these things matter not. (54: 21-22)

Moroni comes across as a bit of a hothead in this exchange. His epistle, written for the purpose of negotiating an exchange of prisoners, ends by calling Ammoron "a child of hell." Not surprisingly, "Ammoron, when he had received this epistle, was angry." Not a shining example of diplomacy, to say the least. Ammoron nonetheless coolly agrees to the exchange of prisoners. But then Moroni gets angry and calls it off after all, on the grounds that Ammoron refused to admit in his letter that his war was an unjust one.

Whatever Moroni's shortcomings as a diplomat, Ammoron was of course wrong when he claimed that Moroni and his men had no knowledge of a being such as God. The story of Helaman and the "stripling warriors" is a favorite of LDS Sacrament Meeting talks, and probably the most commonly quoted verse from this story is the "we do not doubt, our mothers knew it" verse (Alma 56:48). But to me, the far more powerful testimonial in this story is the one offered in chapter 58, when Helaman describes an increasingly grim situation. He and his soldiers are holed up in the city of Manti surrounded by a superior and growing enemy force, and with no sign of reinforcements in sight. And it is in this seemingly desperate situation that he writes:
Therefore we did pour out our souls in prayer to God, that he would strengthen us and deliver us out of the hands of our enemies.... Yea, and it came to pass that the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him (vs. 10-11)
The "we do not doubt, our mothers knew it" kind of faith is a believing or a relying on the faith of someone else -- in this case "mothers." You could take out "our mothers," and insert "our fathers," "our older siblings," "our best friends," "our priesthood leaders," "the prophet," etc., and it still doesn't change the basic structure of the faith being described here. But the "the Lord our God did visit us" kind of faith is something else entirely. The latter kind of faith came in a moment of fear and darkness, in the midst of a desperate situation, where those receiving this kind of faith had put their lives on the line for others. It is in this situation that the Lord chose to visit his people.

Helaman still describes this as a state of "faith" (qualified, of course, with the term "great"). What results from a visit by the Lord is still faith; it still requires us to trust in the Lord's assurances. It still demands effort on our part.

It still, also, of course, is a gift of God. The text says that the Lord, in "visiting" his people "did cause us that we should hope." So faith here -- as it is in all circumstances -- is sheer divine gift.

But this is not hearsay faith. This is not believing in something just because somebody else believes it. This is not just taking somebody else's word for it. It is putting to the test and learning for oneself. And in this case, the putting to the test involved a willingness to face death and experience extreme hardship for the sake of protecting loved ones. It can involve other kinds of tests as well, though I suspect that these tests most often will involve some kind of service, some giving of oneself for others. I think that is why, for instance, there were spiritual lessons I could not learn until I was willing to become a foster dad, and to begin to live a life where my main day-to-day concern was not just my own well being, but the well-being of somebody else who depended on me. I think it's our truthfulness to these kinds of relationships that opens our lives up most profoundly to the Spirit and to "visits from the Lord."

Monday, December 13, 2010

Does God Really Care Where I Lost My House Keys?

OK, everybody at some time or another has sat through a testimony meeting where someone shares the experience of having lost something small but important, like house keys or car keys or whatever. And then they prayed and asked God for help to find whatever it is they lost, and then sure enough, no sooner than they have finished their prayer, an idea pops into their head and they investigate, and, sure enough, they find the lost item. A miracle! God helped them find their keys!

Now, I've always regarded these stories with a bit of skepticism for a number of reasons. First of all, I've always imagined that in the range of things that the Almighty concerns himself about, finding a set of lost keys can't possibly rate very highly. I mean, my spouse gets peeved at me if, every time I lose something, I ask him, as if he's supposed to keep track of all my little junk. Wouldn't God similarly expect me to organize my personal affairs so that I can keep track of where my keys are?

Second, it presents the same theological problem that every "answered" prayer for some physical, material blessing does. Why would God help me find a pair of keys, but let some child die of an incurable disease?

OK, so I admit I'm a skeptic.

Yet, Saturday, Göran and I were out snowshoeing with a new foreign exchange student who arrived Thursday and will be staying with us until early June of next year. While goofing around and making a snow angel, our student lost his cell phone in the snow. He didn't become aware that he had lost it until about a half-hour or so later after we arrived back at the house.

I felt terrible for him, so I volunteered to run back to the spot where the snow-angel-making activity had occurred and search for the phone. I arrived at the spot, but there was no cell phone in sight. Snow was coming down thick and heavy. I searched everywhere. I even started brushing away snow and digging around in spots where the phone might likely have fallen, to no avail. And after wandering around and digging and searching for several minutes, I was on the verge of admitting defeat and heading back home to deliver the bad news.

But just before leaving, it occurred to me to pray and ask God for help with this.

I know, right?

I mean, even as I was uttering the prayer in my mind, I thought, this can't possibly work. But, wouldn't you know it, no sooner had I calmed my heart, taken a deep breath, and asked for help, than I noticed a little patch of snow that was slightly darker than the snow around it. Just an ever so slightly darker shade of blue. I went straight to the spot and dug. The cell phone was there, it had slid into the snow length-wise and was buried quite deep. Unlikely I ever would have found it just lightly brushing snow away. I had to dig for it. But it was right there, and in perfectly good working condition.

So now my dilemma. Was this just a coincidence? And was it wrong to be grateful for God's help, if this was just a coincidence? Would God just be annoyed by my prayers of thanksgiving for something so trivial? Is it possible that this "miracle" might actually even be a disservice to our young exchange student friend, on the grounds that my success won't teach him to be more careful with his stuff the next time?

I don't know. Truth is, though, I was very thankful. So I uttered a prayer of thanksgiving as I slipped it into the warmth and security of my pocket. And when I got back, Farzad was thankful too. Extremely thankful! He couldn't stop thanking me.

So I'm not sure what the lesson is of this. But if it is possible to make theological sense of something like this, I suppose it is that all things are in God's hands, and I am grateful for all things. And I know that the greatness or triviality of a blessing or a miracle is relative. To a kid who's five thousand miles from home, a cell phone and the capability to stay in touch with mom and dad can be a big deal. And I don't know why things work the way they do. It breaks my heart beyond words to think of children starving and dying, and prayers for them going unanswered. I can't say I understand those things. But I am grateful for the good!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Royal Wedding

The Dream

The dream began with me employed as a debt counselor. I had been hired by a wealthy landlord to counsel poor tenement dwellers about how they could manage their finances better, to help them pay the extremely high rents they owed. I witnessed this landlord and her bodyguard bullying a poor lesbian couple because of their inability to pay rent. When I realized what kind of a person the landlord was, I also realized that the problem was not that people living in the tenements didn't know how to manage their finances, it was that the rents were too high. I quit my job and started to help the renters to organize a union to demand fairer rent.

In the second part of my dream, as I was leaving a gathering of renters, I was approached by a handsome young man wearing a suit and tie. This man was trying to seduce me. He brought me to a public restroom in a park and told me he wanted to have sex with me. I found him very attractive, and his offer tempting. But despite his increasingly bold attempts to have his way with me, I resisted and told him I could not have sex with him because I had made a commitment to my partner Göran.

In the third part of my dream, after I had rejected the advances of this attractive young man, I was crossing a bridge. As I crossed the bridge, I looked at my hands. They looked dead, like the hands of a zombie. But then I realized that the deadness was just a shell. I peeled the shell off. Now my hands looked diaphanous, like the hands of a ghost. Once again, I realized that the ghostliness of my hands was just a shell. I peeled that shell off as well. Now I saw that I was wearing very delicate, lacy gloves, like the gloves that a bride might wear to her wedding. I had three sets of wedding gloves on.

Another attractive young man wearing a suit and tie approached me, and asked me to follow him. I did and he led me to a luxuriously appointed apartment in a beautiful building. He told me to undress, and pointed me to a shower where I was supposed to bath. As I undressed and removed the three sets of gloves, I saw a beautiful ring on my left hand. It was made of gold, and had an elaborate setting on it in the shape of a fleur-de-lis type crown. I learned that the ring was an engagement ring, and that I was to be married to the crown prince of the realm. In the shower, there was a bottle of oil that I bathed myself in, and then rinsed in the water.

A woman arrived, young, blond and attractive. I overheard her speaking to her servants while I was in the shower. She was a wealthy princess, and she was indignant that the crown prince was marrying me instead of her. I came out of the shower, and I felt bad. I was getting ready to give her my engagement ring, and I was going to tell her that she should marry the prince. I had no business taking her rightful place. But the crown prince himself then arrived. He told me I had no right to give the ring to the princess. It was his to give, and he had given it to me. I was to finish my shower, and then get dressed and prepare for the royal wedding.


The Interpretation

This dream was about loyalty. The first test of loyalty involved learning that my employer -- the one I thought I was supposed to be serving -- didn't actually deserve my loyalty, and that my loyalties needed to be redirected, and I needed to align myself with the poor, against the powerful who were exploiting them.

The second test involved learning about the depth of my personal commitment. It wasn't just about sexual fidelity (though it could certainly also be about that). In dreams, sex is rarely actually just about sex. In this case, the question was whether I could resist the allure of short-term satisfaction that would undermine the more fundamental, more important commitments in my life.

The crossing of the bridge, I think, symbolized the passage from the realm of mortality to the realm of eternity. The symbolism of the gloves was fascinating. The "dead" zombie gloves symbolize merely fleshly, material concerns, things of mortality or of this world. The "diaphanous" ghost gloves symbolize the realm of spirit. But interestingly, the spirit separated from body offers no "substance," no reality in and of itself either. Where we really begin to find the substance and beauty is the three sets of "wedding gloves" underneath. There are multiple layers of symbolism in the wedding gloves: the conjoining of body and spirit, but also our entry into the eternal realm, literally our wedding or union with God.

It occurred to me later that the gloves actually correspond to the Mormon conception of heaven. The dead zombie gloves correspond to the telestial realm -- to which are consigned those in this life who never manage to see beyond the purely physical realm enough to transcend lust and hate (liars, thieves, adulterers, murderers, etc.). The diaphanous ghost gloves correspond to the terrestrial realm -- the realm reserved for those who have some spiritual awareness, but who have insufficient depth of spiritual awareness to transcend legalism and successfully apply spiritual principles in a living way to the world we live in. The three-tiered wedding gloves correspond to the three-tiered celestial kingdom, where spirit and body, time and eternity are successfully united -- the dwelling place in God's presence of those who understand and are valiant in their loyalty to that understanding.

I find intriguing that the young man who attempts to seduce me is very similar to the young man who leads me to the crown prince's apartment. It suggests that my would-be seducer was not actually seducing me, but rather testing me to see if I was a worthy companion for his Lord.

The arrival of the indignant princess symbolized -- I think -- the problem that gender poses for gay Mormons in Mormon theology. The implication of the dream seems to be that faithfulness and loyalty to God matters more in any equation involving celestial marriage than does physical gender.

I'm not sure what was the significance of the fact that the oppressive landlord in the dream was a woman (with a male body guard). In the Book of Revelation, the oppressive economic and political systems of this world are also symbolized by a woman ("the whore of Babylon"). This certainly doesn't reflect how I see women in the real world. Of course in the real world, women are not the masters of global wealth and power. The lesbian couple in my dream were closer to my conscious perception of the actual social status that women occupy "in the world." The lesbian couple were standing up for the poor, and bore the brunt of the hostility directed by the powers that be toward anyone who challenges injustice. It was when I witnessed the way these women were being abused, that I made the realization in my dream of how I needed to realign my loyalties.

I suppose the significance of the gender of the landlord character (and the indignant princess) emphasize the world as "rival suitor." Certainly as a gay man, they would seem to symbolize the assertion made against me -- on the basis of my gender -- that I cannot be a candidate for exaltation because of the gender of the person I love and remain fiercely committed to.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Ninety and Nine (and the One)

I don't feel really comfortable sharing a lot of details about the trial of faith I've been experiencing over the past month or so. But I think I need to share the fact that there has been a trial of faith and it has been really painful and it has involved me questioning everything from the bottom up.

And oddly, just at the moment that I was going through this very personal struggle, a number of individuals who are close to me were experiencing trials of faith of their own. And they were turning to me for strength or answers. And I didn't feel there was a lot I could offer them. I could point them to God, and I could (and did!) pray for them. But it really was a virgins and oil and a waiting for the bridegroom kind of experience. I didn't have any oil to offer them for their lamps... I barely had enough for my own. I could only send them away in search of their own oil.

I've come through this, and to say I feel humbled is kind of an understatement. And some things have definitely shifted for me. And while I don't want to share many specific details of what exactly happened, I do want to try to share what it was like coming through this trial of faith, and how I found some resolution, and what I think I learned from it. And maybe if some of you have experienced some trials of your own, you can share with me what you've learned or what you know.

Part of this trial involved feeling really alone, and really in the dark. And the depth of that loneliness and darkness was more profound than anything I've experienced in the last five years. For most of the last five years, I've had this most blessed experience of the guiding, helping, comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. And that presence has lifted me up and kept me going in circumstances and situations I never would have imagined possible. And it's enabled me to be a source of encouragement and strength to others. When others came to me, I felt I always had something for them, like a bottomless basket of loaves and fishes. Because that presence of the Spirit in my life was like this endless supply of enthusiasm and love and optimism and faith, and I had for myself and for all my friends and family and for strangers too. But part of the most painful part of this trial is that I had nothing. I felt like I just wanted to stop answering the phone, stop answering emails. And I felt truly alone. No Spirit. Nothing. Just me, without a lot of answers or courage.

And the most difficult part of that was wondering what I had done to have been cut off like that. And the answer -- I discovered later -- was nothing. There was nothing wrong I had done. The Lord was testing me. I did what I was supposed to do during a test like this. I took what I knew, what I had learned, and I used my best lights and did the best I could with what I had. I kept struggling, and stayed true. And all the time I was doubting and wondering and asking questions. The biggest question was, "Did I just imagine all that? Did that really happen? Did the Holy Spirit really speak to me? Did the Lord really reveal himself to me? Or was that all in my head?"

There's a basic principle here, and I think it's the reason the Lord tried me and tested me in this way, specifically for me to learn this and understand it well and thoroughly. No faith or faithfulness is possible without the Lord's sustaining grace. Whatever we think we have, whatever righteousness we think we might accumulate, it's nothing without him, without his sustaining presence. Yes, we have to make efforts to do the right thing; the most important aspect of which is turning to him and asking him for help and acknowledging him as the source of all things and as our strength and help; we need to wrestle, we need to struggle, we need to choose the right. But none of that is sufficient without his all-sufficient grace.

Often the Lord prospers us and takes care of us and blesses us, and we aren't even aware of the source of the blessings. We think we've earned it or we were just lucky, or whatever. And the Lord has taught me that even when we are not aware of it, the source of all life and truth and spirit and all good things is the Lord, and if he ever fully withdrew his sustaining grace from Creation, from this incredible Universe all around us, it would all crumple and fold and vanish like so much tissue paper in a bonfire. I realized it's important for me to know that, to know what the source of my strength is.

This is a very humbling thing to know. And it is also humbling in the sense that I am aware that there's not necessarily anything we have done wrong if we don't feel the power and the certitude that comes from having a very real, very direct communion with the Spirit. The Lord may choose to withhold that from us in order to test us in certain ways or to help us learn certain things on our own.

So that brings me to the question of how things have shifted for me. Saturday morning, I knelt to pray, and it was like the windows were suddenly flung open wide and the sunlight came streaming in, and there were tears streaming down my cheeks, and I wept because the Lord finally gave me the comfort I had been without for so long, and reassured me, this had been a test, and I had passed. I recorded all the important, immediate, specific answers to the really painful, specific questions in my journal; they are there for me to remember and to know. To remind myself when reminding is needed. And I thought it would be business as usual again.

I went to Church yesterday, expecting something further, some kind of epilogue. But there was nothing. I felt nothing. It was the first time in five years that I've gone to my LDS ward and simply not felt the Spirit present there at all. And I was distinctly aware of the fact that one of my best friends in the ward was not there. And he's one of the ones I mentioned earlier in this post who has been going through some really painful struggles, through a really painful trial of faith of his own. He told me he couldn't take it any more; he couldn't take the Church any more. He couldn't take the sense of disconnect he has with the members, who don't treat him as a full equal; who treat him in ways that make him feel unequal and an outsider.

I texted him, and I said, "We need to meet." And he replied, "Why?" And I replied, "Because the last time we talked, you were in pain, and you are my brother." And I got no response to that text. And I didn't know what to do about that emptiness. But there was no Spirit for me in Church.

Later that afternoon, my husband and I went to a concert of the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir, a choir we sang in for 10 years. It was our singing in that choir that got us going to Church. I'd say that choir is the one place where Göran and I have both felt the Spirit in the same time and in the same place. I can't get him to go to Church with me. He just won't. The LDS Church's position on same-sex relationships is a stumbling block he just can't get over. But we went to the gospel choir's concert at Park Avenue United Methodist Church. It's the first choir event we've been to in something like seven years. The church was full to overflowing, packed to the brim, from the back of the balcony to the front row. And Göran and I were in the standing-room-only section. And members and leaders of the choir kept seeing us and they'd get all excited and jump up and down and give us hugs and tell us how much they missed us, and it felt incredible, like this most joyous reunion. And the Spirit was there in such abundance. The gospel choir was singing, and I was watching all these people, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, swaying and clapping and singing.

And I had this vision: this will be the Celestial Kingdom, right here. All the lost sheep, the ones who are out, far away from the ninety and nine, the ones we need to go out into the highways and byways and hedges to find. The ones that don't even want to be found any more because they've been too wounded by all the good righteous ninety and nine who are safe and cozy and satisfied.

Göran felt the Spirit there, like I did. Do you know how I could tell he did? Because of the way he talked about what had happened. He was using words like pain and hope. It was the most spiritual conversation he and I have had together in years, where we were actually speaking the same language at the same time. And he said he wanted to go back to the choir. That was the other clue. So I contacted one of the choir's assistant directors this morning to ask her if we could come and sing with them again. We need this. This is going to have to be Church for me and Göran for a while.

Not that I've lost my testimony of the LDS Church, or that I intend to stop attending. If anything, I've had a renewed testimony of that as well. But I've realized that Church is always only a kind of nexus, a resting place in-between the important saving work we have to do in this place of wonder and fear, good and evil that we call the world. It can never be an end in itself.

I want my friend to find saving faith. I'm not particularly invested in getting him to go back to the LDS Church right now; I honestly don't think that's the most important thing for him (though I would be so happy if he found the faith to be there, as I have). More important that he have a friend who is willing to stand by him as he faces whatever demons are tearing him apart right now. (And I know there are demons.)

And I realized this is my calling. It's to be involved in that work of knitting faith together from the bottom up if need be. To turn light into darkness; or to be a light to those in darkness, wherever they may be.