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.


Bravone said...

Beautiful post John. I'm glad Goran is likewise feeling the spirit. It has been a rough few months for me as well, and I don't have all the answers yet, but know that in the deepest trials, if I but endure, I find the greatest growth, peace, and deliverance.

Beck said...

I've been going through a tough time as well. What's up with that? Is there something in the water? :)

I am so sorry to read about your pain and suffering, your loneliness and isolation. But I'm excited for you and Goran to find a spiritual path together. It obviously is what you need, and Goran needs it, too. Singing together in the choir that is so welcoming and inviting sounds fantastic, particularly as you share the experience together.

You're in my prayers, my friend.

MoHoHawaii said...

This post made me cry. I don't know why it affects me so. I desperately want the church of my youth to rise to the challenge of the times and extend fellowship to all. There is such an outpouring of love and good feeling when this happens. You felt it at the gospel choir performance, and I've felt it at a number of events and services I've attended recently.

My thoughts are with you. You are loved by many.

alan said...

The title of your post is a reference to Boyd Packer's "To the One" (do I get a prize?).

Sadly, as it stands right now, the Church (as an institution) wants to pull you from Göran. Even if individual members don't feel this way, the Church is affectively structured to lead you to feel this way over time, with its notions of "eternal gender" and "same-gender attraction as a struggle," etc. I'm sure Göran sees the heteronormativity differently than you do, and while it might just feel like a sadness at times that you can't both attend the same church -- I assume that you make it constructive to learn more about his viewpoint. I'm glad that you have the insight to not blame him for anything. Part of the reason I wrote Ockham's Razor was to give an account of the way the Church becomes a wedge between two people, as opposed to saying anything in particular about the morality of this wedge, because I think a big problem is people just don't know what this issue looks like from multiple perspectives.

For example, many Mormons reading this post might be tempted to think your trial won't end because you keep going on the "wrong path." These Mormons may never connect the dots of heterosexism and the real violence it can do to one's psyche over time. But, I think the culture is going to experience an increasingly paradoxical state, almost like a vibrating alarm clock that keeps ringing and ringing until everyone reaches over collectively and turns it off. I don't know what this will look like, because it's more complicated than, say, black male ordination -- although ordaining women would solve many of the theological problems as far as I can tell.

J G-W said...

I feel a connection to my ward, I really do.

I had a conversation with my friend, who's worked through his crisis of faith -- at least this stage of it. I told him that I realized I can't be saved without him. Either both of us will be saved or neither of us.

This is a sense, at some very deep level, that I feel in relation to the Church as a whole, and ultimately to all humanity. We need to feel this as a Church or we aren't really being a Church...

J G-W said...

Alan - no, I don't blame Göran for feeling the way he does about the Church. I often struggle with feelings of guilt in relation to the struggles we've had over faith, since it was my journey back that seems to have provoked some of the conflicts we've had over this. I'm hoping that getting involved in the gospel choir again can help us begin to develop some spiritual common ground again, something we lost when the two of us stopped attending the UCC.