Saturday, January 29, 2011

Flight From Self

Maybe it's too much to ask that we come to terms with our gayness calmly, rationally, and without fear. If we grew up gay and Mormon, we had pumped into us plenty of fear about sex and disobedience. And we learned to pursue exaltation and eternal family, is if they were trophies to be won. Without even really understanding what either exaltation or eternal family really meant.

How could we understand? Because exaltation is nothing less than to enter God's presence. But to enter God's presence, we must know him. And to know him we must be like him. And at the beginning of our life's journey, when we are taught that this is the goal, we can't even really begin to fathom it. We have no concept of it.

It's taken me almost five decades to begin to apprehend the plan in its simplicity and beauty. Love, hope, faith. Patience, long-suffering, kindness, non-compulsion. It's those Gospel basics that -- when we're young -- seem way too simple to be the answer. Yet, the pathway back to God is that simple. So simple a child could know it, if we could keep that child-like simplicity through the complexities and vagaries of adult experience and perception.

If we were lucky, we had a truly happy family. If we were lucky, we had parents who loved us totally and unconditionally. Unconditionally in the sense that there was nothing they wouldn't give for us. Unconditionally in the sense that they knew how important it was to teach us right from wrong. And if we were lucky, we loved and we felt loved. That would be the closest we could come to appreciating something like exaltation and eternal life in the presence of God.

But when we're still immature in the faith, concepts like exaltation are filtered through our experiences in a fallen world. We succumb to the temptation to make ourselves judge and jury -- of others and of ourselves. That's the thing with judgment; it's why Jesus warned, "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again" (Matthew 7: 2). We can't judge others without, in some sense, our condemnation redounding back on us.

We also succumb to the temptation to think of exaltation in external terms; we compare it to rewards that we get in this world: acclaim, material goods, power. We think that because scripture describes our final reward as a "crown," or an "inheritance," that exaltation is something like becoming king of the world. But those words are just God trying to speak to us using the only metaphors available in a fallen culture.

Jesus came to show us what exaltation looks like. It is actually much more like giving up than acquiring; it is more like descending than rising; more like dying than dominating. Jesus said things like, "Whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all" (Mark 10: 44) and "So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen" (Matthew 20: 16). Jesus compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a field of labor in which some sweat and toil through the heat of the day, and others arrive to work only in the last hour, but the reward of all is the same. Not fair by our worldly way of reckoning! No, in our minds, we insist, we should be able to earn and seize what we want, like little power-hungry emperors in training.

Gay Latter-day Saints are blessed -- if we only knew how blessed! -- to have our worlds turned upside down. To have everything taken away from us. To find ourselves suddenly last in the spiritual rat race, when we thought we were well on the way to "earning" our "crown." If we're lucky, the change of scenery will give us something to think about, a perspective much needed in order to see things a bit more truly. To understand what the Kingdom of God, as revealed in Christ, is really made of.

But at first, the shock of coming to terms with our sexuality leaves us wrestling with very, very dark demons: demons of guilt, of shame, of fear. One common defense is to go into denial about human nature and sin.

I think one of the denial arguments is the argument from "need." I "need" love, I "need" a relationship. Or "I didn't choose to be gay." Both statements are true enough from a certain perspective. I think it is true enough to say that human beings require love, that they need it; all dimensions of it, including the love that is expressed in physical touch and physical intimacy, as well as the emotional and spiritual expressions of love. Little children die if they are not touched. I think this is true enough.

But that argument from need puts the cart before the horse in love. It's as if love is about what we get rather than what we give. To say love is about needing is to distort love as seriously as if we were to say that faith is about fearing judgment, or hope is a form of make believe.

It is truer, I think, to say that love is a human quality. That we express our humanity (and our divinity) by giving love (and receiving it). And perhaps in that light we can understand how true love becomes possible only when we cast away our fear about it. When we stop being preoccupied about how others will judge us for expressing it or for living into it. When we can begin to grow into that conception of love, homophobia can no longer touch us in any meaningful way whatsoever. Homophobia becomes irrelevant to who and what we are, just another worldly distraction whose end result would be to shut us up inside ourselves, to turn our fear of judgment into a prison.

When gay men and lesbians try to affirm themselves by denying faith, by denouncing religion as a sham or a delusion because we feel condemned by religion, that can be another trap. It may cut us off from the deepest affirmations of our humanity. If someone calls me a sinner, I don't elevate myself by denying the reality of sin. That kind of denial gives too much power to my would-be mortal judges. Remember, in the Kingdom of God, to go up we must descend. To rise, we bow ourselves down. To find ourselves, we must lose ourselves. The fundamental principles of eternal progression are faith and repentance.

I've spent a good portion of my life fleeing from faith, and thinking of loving in terms of needing. I thought I was finding myself; but I was actually fleeing my real self.

When a gay man or a lesbian comes out of the closet, at least a certain amount of existential terror is unavoidable. I hope that we can get better at being there for each other when that happens. We need to be better guides to one another. We need to calm others by staying calm. We need to give lots of hugs! We need to exchange phone numbers, and assure each other that a call at 2 o'clock in the morning is OK if you're suffering from night terrors. We need to remind each other that disorientation for a while is normal until we get our bearings. In the meanwhile, we need to help each other hold out hope for the best, rather than settling for something unworthy. We need to make real love tangible, so we can start to avoid the pitfalls of myriad pseudo-loves waiting to entrap us.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


I wrote the following in my journal this morning, after receiving some much needed comfort from the Spirit during my morning prayers:
There is self-absorption that is not "selfishness" (in the sense of covetousness or greed) and that is not "egotism" (pride). Getting down on ourselves and indulging thoughts of low self-esteem is also a form of self-absorption. It is equally effective in the hands of the adversary to weaken our souls and cut us off from God. The antidote to both [forms of self-absorption, as President Uchtdorf taught during the last October conference] is service.
There comes a point at which indulging thoughts of low self-esteem also constitutes a lack of faith; a failure to acknowledge the lordship of Christ or an inability to believe in the healing power of the Atonement. I also wrote in my journal:
The Spirit is helping me to regard myself with patience, with kindness, and with compassion, to see myself as good. To remember that it is God who judges me, not me who judges me. If I focus too much on myself, it becomes a distraction from what the Lord would have me do.
I met yesterday with two Moho friends for lunch. What a blessing and a comfort these two friends have become to me! We meet monthly and hold a Family Home Evening together; we talk and sing and pray together, and bear our testimonies to each other. We met because I was feeling discouraged, and I realized that these brothers could understand what I'm up against in a way that others don't. I tried to explain to them what my path is like.

I told them that sometimes I feel like I'm walking a path on the steep side of a mountain. To my right is the ocean of despair, and to the left are the cliffs of judgment. I have to make my way forward on that path without losing my footing and sliding off into the ocean to be drowned, even as I dodge the boulders that tumble down from the cliffs at me to crush me.

The path forward is love. It is friends' loving arms on your back, encouraging you. It is the hand of my life companion, holding my hand and steadying me more than I can say in times of sadness and trouble. It is love for others beckoning us forward, prompting us to do something to make the world a better, kinder place. Love draws our attention away from our selves, our anxieties, our wounds, and lets us find healing in the work of healing others.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Give Place that a Seed May Be Planted

I've been reading 3 Nephi lately, one of my favorite books in all scripture. I wept yesterday as I read 3 Nephi 9. In it Christ reveals himself to a world lying in darkness, a world ravaged by sin. It's a foreshadowing of the Second Coming, really. And my mind was naturally drawn to the condition of the world we live in, a world desperately in need of that light of pure Love.

A few verses in chapter 10 particularly caught my attention today: verse 12, where it says that the "more righteous" part of the people were spared from the upheavals of the earth, those who had "received the prophets and stoned them not," and "had not shed the blood of the saints"; and verse 18, where it says that those "who were spared" had "great favors shown unto them," had "great blessings poured on their heads," and "Christ truly manifested himself unto them."

I was particularly struck by the moderation of the language. The people described here were far from perfect. The text describes them merely as "the more righteous part" of the people. The text does not say that they were perfectly obedient to the prophets, but they did "receive" the prophets, they did not "stone" them. The text does not describe these people as saints themselves, but they "had not shed the blood of the saints."

And yet it was these imperfect people who received "great favors," "great blessings poured on their heads." These imperfect people received the ultimate gift: the presence of the living, resurrected Christ. They saw him with their eyes, they touched him, they had his hands laid upon them and were healed by him.

This brought to my mind another passage of scripture in the Book of Mormon: Alma 32:28, where Alma, describing the process by which faith grows, said that all we need to do in order to exercise even a particle of faith is simply to "give place that a seed may be planted" in our hearts, and "do not cast it out".

These words in 3 Nephi show us the great pattern of faith. We do not have to be perfect. In fact, it is impossible that we will be perfect. What we can do, what each and every one of us has the power to do, is to receive without judgment, without condemnation. We can give place in our hearts and not cast out what we don't understand.

The rest is the work of God within us. God is the source of true faith. Faith is a gift of the Spirit that we can make ourselves worthy for simply by opening ourselves up, by being willing to receive it.

And if the imperfect people described in 3 Nephi were able to make enough place in their hearts to receive the living, loving, healing, resplendent, radiant Christ, why could not we?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Limits of Reason

Recently, Bravone posted on The Problem with Porn, and Scott followed up with a post of his own on Pornography. Each post presented a reasoned perspective on why pornography is harmful, or potentially not harmful, respectively.

Since I essentially agree with Bravone's position, I commented on Bravone's post by applauding what he had said, but adding that I felt it was important that in dealing with our weaknesses in relation to porn, we not succumb to feelings of shame or guilt. Our created natures as sexual beings is fundamentally good, and it is important to remind ourselves of that. We should resist the temptation to use self-shaming techniques to reinforce our efforts to avoid porn. ("Oh, I'm such a bad person, so weak, so terrible; I'm just disgusting..." etc.) Rather, we could use self-affirmation techniques to achieve the same goal. Remind ourselves that we are good, we are children of God; our sexuality is a good, integral part of our created natures as embodied spirits; and appropriate enjoyment of sexuality is one of life's greatest gifts. We avoid porn not because our sexuality is bad, but because it is exceedingly good. We avoid porn because we want to reserve our sexual expression for situations where sex has context and is meaningful, and where it can strengthen our most significant earthly relationship: our relationship with our spouse.

Bravone applauded my comment, and noted his complete agreement with it. So as far as I can tell, Bravone and I are of one mind on this subject.

Scott's post took a slightly different angle. Scott's starting point is that shame and guilt are bad, and have distorted the lives and the sexuality of gay men. He suggested that the bad experiences Bravone and others (myself included) have had with porn stemmed not from the porn itself, but from our guilt about using porn. If we eased up a bit on ourselves, we could see that porn in and of itself is not bad, and it may even have positive uses. By viewing the porn as inherently bad, our focus was in the wrong place.

I commented on Scott's post that I once had a view of porn very similar to the position he had outlined, but that through experience I had in fact learned that porn is not good. My life has been better without it, and in retrospect I am aware of ways in which porn has harmed me and my relationship with my partner. I also discussed experience I've had with my foster son, that indicated that porn is harmful. In Scott's response to my comment, he reiterated his view that perhaps the problem lay in my negative emotions related to porn, and not with the porn itself. Both I and Bravone observed, in response, that we both recalled periods of our lives where we used porn without any sense of guilt, and that in our experience, the harmful effects of porn didn't seem to be merely related to any sense of guilt, either conscious or unconscious, we may have had about using the porn. We both testified to having observed porn having negative effects related to body-image, and ability to be responsive and sensitive to a spouse, that appear to be independent of guilt. (Though we both agreed that guilt could be an additional, negative effect of using porn, and one that we should guard against.)

Now I will say that there is some truth in Scott's observation about the evil of porn not being inherent in porn itself. This connects to a broader spiritual principle expressed in Christ's teaching that "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.... Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man" (Matthew 15: 11, 18). But to observe this spiritual truth is merely to place the onus back on each individual to search his or her own heart, to discern his or her motives and the effects of any given action. Bravone and I have each done this in relation to our use of pornography, and have concluded that it's not possible for us to use porn (it's not possible for us to have an intent in using it!) in a way that doesn't diminish us and diminish our relationships with our partners. And, by the way, "diminishing of self and others" is what I would call a pretty good definition of "defilement."

Ultimately, of course, it behooves each of us to make these decisions for ourselves. I am grateful to Bravone, with whom I agree on this subject, and I am grateful to Scott, even though we apparently disagree, because I think reasoning our way through the various moral dilemmas we face as gay men is critical. We are desperately in need of less knee-jerk reaction and more moral reasoning. Bravone and Scott each have made rational cases for their positions, each in a way that requires moral courage. It's not easy to put your heart and your life out there in the way they have, and in the way many of us do on our blogs. And both have done so out of a compassionate desire to help others.

But what I'd like to add to this discussion is my sense that there's a way in which our wrestling with these problems is beyond reason. I've stated that what I believe I know about porn, I know from experience. I've experienced an improvement in the quality of my life since discontinuing my use of porn, and am aware of a diminishing of my life and my relationship with my spouse that occurred when I was using it.

But my reasons for giving up porn didn't come from me performing a rational analysis of the subject; looking at pros and cons and deciding. It was an act of faith. It came from a willingness to put to the test Church leaders' teaching on the subject. I thought my life was fine enough with porn; I had convinced myself there was no harm in it. I couldn't have obtained the experiential data I did on it if I hadn't been willing to simply set it aside for at least a time and live without it, as a faith response. There was a point where I simply had to say, "Well, I've always told myself I could take it or leave it. Let's try leaving it, and see what happens."

I'm forty-seven years old, and I came out of the closet at age twenty-four. And I've been in a relationship for almost nineteen years. And I'm damn lucky, I think. I never stop thanking my lucky stars, because I'm now so painfully aware of so many ways my life could have become a wreck. I'm here to tell younger gay men, those who now in their twenties are coming out and making the same decisions I had to make over a generation ago... There are tons of pitfalls. There's a psychology and a mentality that comes with coming out of the closet and coming to terms with being gay from an extremely conservative, religiously homophobic background. The "second adolescence" is far more dangerous than the first one, because there are far fewer constraints on what we can and can't do when we're experiencing adolescence as independent adults. I've seen the "going off the deep end" phenomenon again and again. And I've seen it ruin people and destroy relationships and diminish us. We mustn't do this to ourselves! I wish we wouldn't!

We mustn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. There's so much good in the religious upbringing we had as Latter-day Saints that will protect and nurture us if we can hold on to it. I know it's confusing and disorienting because the Church seems to be so wrong about sexual orientation, and that leaves us wondering if everything else isn't just bullshit. So we feel obligated to throw everything out and learn every single painful damn lesson for ourselves. And some of us may or may not make it through the learning process happy, healthy and intact.

Sometimes I just throw up my hands and hope and pray. But aren't we obligated at some point to try to learn from history? What good does it do for an old fart like me to hang around if we're determined as a community to make again and again all the same mistakes my generation made?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On the Perils of Dream Interpretation

OK, a couple of confessions are in order. I'll be the first to admit that interpreting dreams can very much be like a Rohrschach test. The interpretation can often tell more about the interpreter than it does about the dream itself. So I think it's fascinating, when I have an interesting dream, to see how different people interpret the dream.

I think that's also why people are hesitant to interpret dreams. It's just a little too intimate. Telling what you think a dream might mean may tell just a little bit too much about what's lurking in your own subconscious!

Also, in case it isn't obvious from some of my other posts, I do regard dreams as a medium of revelation. Actually, there's a history of this in my family. I grew up hearing stories of family members who had astonishing prophetic dreams, or dreams through which they received personal guidance or insight into the nature of the human predicament. I believe that God can and does speak to us through our dreams.

I also believe that the interpretation of dreams is itself a distinct spiritual gift. Joseph of Egypt, for example, had this gift. Nephi and Lehi exhibited this gift as well in interpreting Lehi's dream of the tree of life. So the ability to correctly interpret a dream depends also on our harmony with the Spirit of the Lord, which is able to help us understand which meaning of a dream is most true, and can give us insights we might never find on our own.

I realize that these last two admissions make me kinda kooky, maybe a weird religious wacko, in some people's eyes. But there you have it. My own beliefs about dreams have evolved over the years. I've gone from looking at dreams as nothing but meaningless, random, electrical impulses in the brain; to reflecting our psychology and nothing more at best; to my current belief in dreams as a form of spiritual communication. I've regarded dreams with playful skepticism and utter seriousness. I have had some dreams that are utterly astonishing. I've always found them fascinating, regardless.

I've shared a handful of dreams on my blog. To date I've recorded over 700 dreams in my dream journal. Many (most) of the dreams I have are far too personal for me ever to share publicly on my blog. I do share them when I learn something from a dream that I think might be of relevance or interest especially to the Moho blogging community.

The other day, I was sort of going through my dream journal and noting that about 5 years ago, when I actively started recording my dreams, it seemed that I had what I would describe as "nightmares" relatively often. I would make a note of it in my dream journal "woke up scared," etc. And what I've noticed over time is that the number of dreams from which I've "woken up scared" has gradually dropped off to the point that I don't think I've had what I would really call a "nightmare" in a very long time. It's not to say that I haven't had dreams with some very frightening, disturbing or creepy imagery in them. I shared such a dream on my blog just last week. But such dreams just don't scare me any more. Why?

One thing I've learned is that the more frightening a dream is, often the more important the message is that is being communicated in the dream. The more graphic and visceral a dream is, the more likely it will get our attention. So I've learned from experience that the scary ones are the best. I now regard a nightmare as a kind of blessing! So maybe that has removed some of the queaziness I generally have felt in the past when I have one. Now, when I wake up from a scary dream, instead of being scared, I have an immediate hunger to write it down so that I can learn from it.

When I was a teenager, I had a recurring dream of drinking wine, and then feeling terribly guilty about it afterwards. I would wake up and feel a tremendous sense of relief that it was only a dream! On the other hand, I did not have a sense of relief upon waking up from dreams of a sexual nature. Such dreams upset and frightened me, and made me worry about the nature of my desires. I actually felt guilty about having dreams of a sexual nature. Of course, there is no reason we should ever feel guilty about a dream! But guilt is a common reaction when we don't understand the symbolism in our dreams.

A dream involving sex is often not about sex at all. A person we have sex with in a dream may actually represent some aspect of ourselves, or some character trait. The act of having sex in a dream may represent a desire to obtain intimate knowledge of that aspect of ourselves or to more fully incorporate that character trait in our lives. (Of course, sex in a dream can also be about sex! Or, as Freud put it, "Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar.")

In order to truly understand a dream symbol, we need to pay attention to seemingly insignificant details in a dream. That's why the first thing I do after waking up from a dream is to write down absolutely everything I can remember about a dream: what people looked like, what kinds of clothes (and what color) they were wearing, which direction a person or animal or vehicle was moving, where I was sitting or standing, etc. In a dream, whether you are holding something in your left hand or your right hand can have tremendous significance. Furthermore, my number one rule in recording and interpreting dreams is "DON'T PANIC." Don't jump to conclusions about what you think a dream means until you've had some time to think (or even pray) about it. If you do this, you will begin to learn astonishing things about yourself.

Now, some readers of my blog seem to have a tendency to want to automatically interpret every single dream I record as proof that gay sex is evil and I need to stop having gay sex before I die (or I will be damned for all eternity). For instance, this happened recently in my Evil in the Arctic dream.

Now I can see how someone (particularly someone caught up in the throes of homosexual panic) might interpret the dream in that way. The dream features two men -- a white man and a black man -- engaged in invoking evil together. Each in turn is possessed by a demon. In Western culture, homosexuality has often been associated with demonic possession. (For a really good breakdown of this, check out Sexuality and the Devil: Symbols of Love, Power and Fear in Male Psychology, by Edward J. Tejirian.) So I can see how someone might, as a kind of knee-jerk fear response read that into my dream. In fact, since I am white and my husband is black, one might see that as further proof that the demon-possessed black man and white man in my dream symbolize me and my partner, and how the attempt to destroy the book of evil would symbolize the need to end our sexual relationship.

That's an interesting interpretation, but it feels fundamentally wrong to me. Paying attention to one's feelings in a dream is, by the way, a key to understanding the dream. But beyond the fact that such an interpretation just doesn't feel right, a significant detail in the dream is that the black man is demon-possessed first. Then as he frees himself of the demon, the demon leaves him and goes into the white man. The black man wrests the book of evil from the demon possessed white man and hands it to another white man -- me! -- asking me to destroy it. The race of the characters in the dream is significant, and so is the order in which the demon possessions occur and what happens both before and after the demon possessions.

I believe that this dream symbol was actually about the subject of my blog post of yesterday: racism. The black man is possessed by the demon first, because blacks have suffered the most immediate and obvious effects of slavery and racism in our society. When the black man frees himself from the demon, it then goes into the white man. In other words, the ill effects of racism do distort the lives of white people as well. There is a kind of "karma" that I believe has come back at white people as a result of slavery and racism, and that is distorting our lives and potentially cutting us off from God if we don't deal with it. But because white people benefited economically and socially from slavery and racism, the effects are not as immediate or obvious. We in essence, don't come to deal with the more immediate effects of racism until after black people have freed themselves and confronted us with the reality of racism.

(The "distorting" effects of racism are symbolized in the dream by the transformation of the right arm of the possessed person into a blackened, evil claw. It's the right arm because to a right-handed person like me, the right arm symbolizes the dominant mode of operating in the world.)

Racism exists in our society because slavery and other forms of institutional oppression promise social, political and economic power (symbolized in the dream by magic). Both whites and blacks are ensnared in the evils of racism, symbolized by the fact that both are using the book and both are possessed by the demon from the book. Through history, some blacks have also collaborated and colluded in racist behavior, because they perceived it as the only way to obtain social power. (For example, many of those who performed the infamous Tuskegee experiments were black medical professionals.) So magic symbolizes the allure that unjust social structures have, regardless of race or social standing. It also symbolizes the ways that the oppressed can unwittingly participate in a system that oppresses them.

At a key point, the black man, liberated from demonic oppression/possession, takes the Book of Evil from one white man -- who is now demon-possessed -- and hands it to another white man who is not demon-possessed. To me, that symbolizes the choice that confronts white people in American society. Which white man will I be? Will I continue to be blinded by racism, unable to see my own complicity in it? Or will I learn from those who have liberated themselves, and participate in the process of arousing my conscience and joining the struggle to end this evil?

Though I did talk about how indigenous people also played a role in this struggle in my dream (symbolized by the Saami and Eskimo people at the beginning of the dream), I did not mention in the description of my dream that the woman who helped me try to destroy the Book of Evil is an Asian American friend of mine. So that would seem to underline the need for the fight against racism to be collaborative -- across racial and gender lines.

Our inability to completely destroy the Book of Evil suggests that the temptation to grasp at power and wealth at the expense of the poor will always be with us. But we can try to contain it, and guard against it...

Now, why would I have this particular dream at this particular time?

I won't go into detail that is too painful, but in a word, this dream prepared me for some issues that I have had to wrestle with in my relationship with Göran. Göran and I had a pretty bad argument over the weekend, that left me feeling really shattered. But as a consequence of this dream, and as a consequence of the reading I've been doing (by the way, the dream came before the book), I felt prompted to reflect on some things. And at a key moment, when I was feeling really low, and really down about my argument with Göran, the Spirit used this dream and my readings to help me understand how to move forward. And as a result, I've been able to get some healing in this area of my life, his life, and our relationship. So the dream, in some ways, was prophetic, and it gave me the courage to face a challenge that might otherwise have overwhelmed me.

Göran did appear in my dream at the beginning. I've already said a couple of times on my other post that the Arctic in many of my dreams symbolizes the end of the world / the Second Coming. That's what I think it symbolizes here. And in that dream, Göran and I are facing the Second Coming together as partners. We are facing the on-coming challenges as a team, as a loving couple.

I think that the black man and the white man in my dream also do, in some sense, symbolize me and Göran. They symbolize the process by which Göran and I will heal some of the wounds we've suffered, and they symbolize the way we can transform those wounds into strengths and deepened understanding, so that we can face the end together, united.

Now that interpretation just feels right to me. Right down to the bones.

Pleasant dreams!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Call to Heal (and be Healed) in Relationship

Recently I've been reading a book entitled African American Folk Healing, by Stephanie Y. Mitchem. This book has been particularly meaningful to me, because the author discusses so clearly and practically the damaging impact of racism on the psyche and lives of African Americans. And it has helped me understand at a deeper level some very important dynamics in my relationship with my husband and with his family.

I need to start out by acknowledging the impact of race and racism on my relationship with my husband. I am white and my husband is black. And I'm here to tell you that you can stuff your head full of notions all you want about how "race is only skin deep," and how race doesn't (or shouldn't) matter in a relationship, and so on and so on. I will say that it simultaneously does not matter / should not matter, and it matters tremendously and tragically.

There are a good many things in my relationship with my husband, in many day-to-day life chores and in the function of being married and caring for one another, where, yes, race has negligible to no impact. But I can also say that I've come to appreciate the fact that one of the greatest challenges or struggles in our relationship has been the fact that growing up in an Anglo-American home, I was raised with a set of assumptions that I have come to realize would have been completely different if I had been raised in an African American home. And I'm not just talking about attitudes toward race. I'm talking about attitudes toward things that have a profound effect on a relationship -- such as the attitude toward conflict.

Having been raised by an Anglo-American Mormon dad and a Finnish convert to Mormonism, I can say that one of the prevailing assumptions in our home is that all conflict is extremely bad. We were very, very squeamish about any manifestation of conflict. All yelling is bad. All arguing is bad. In fact, noise of any kind is bad. And so, in the home I was raised in, if any sort of conflict ever came out into the open, it literally felt like the end of the world was going to happen. And everybody's priority was to shove all manifestations of conflict back into the evil Pandora's box it came out of.

It's not to say that we couldn't / didn't deal with conflict. But we put a premium on dealing with conflict in ways that were superficially calm, controlled, and heavily managed. We were trained to put on a calm exterior even as the emotions were boiling out of control underneath.

I remember the first time I met Göran's African American family in Memphis. One of the things that immediately struck me was how noisy family gatherings were. People shouting! Loud laughter! Very emotional expressions of everything. In this setting, some shouting is bad, yes. Some arguing is bad. But sometimes, shouting and arguing is just how you express yourself and how you deal with a problem. Get it out in the open and deal with it! And then you can move on. And with Göran's family, noise is OK. In fact, I've noticed with Göran, noise is sometimes mandatory. I can sit around for hours in the house, with everything so quiet you can hear a pin drop. You can literally hear the air stirring. And as soon as Göran walks through the door, he says, "I need NOISE!" and he'll turn on some music.

Now, I'm not saying that there can't be African American families out there who think "silence is golden," or that there aren't Anglo-American families out there who love to mix it up. But I think that if I'm talking to a white friend about the overriding assumptions that governed how I was raised, he's going to be much more likely to relate to what I grew up with than a black friend. That's just the reality. And this is important, because those assumptions contribute to our assumptions about what is "normal" and what is "good." If I don't understand the culturally contingent nature of these kinds of assumptions, I'm going to be much more likely condemn as bad some of the basic assumptions that my husband comes at me with. That's not good for a relationship. So cultural differences of any sort always add challenge to a relationship. But they also make a relationship interesting and cool!

But of course in addition to just some of the basic challenges created by cultural difference, African Americans have had to deal with the unique burden of living in a culture that has one of the most virulent, toxic forms of racism the world has ever seen. One of the things that has helped me and Göran as a couple to come to grips with this has been when we've discussed the landmark study conducted by Kenneth Clark in 1954 that showed how little black children had a preference for white dolls; they thought black dolls were "ugly" and white dolls were "beautiful." Follow the link I've provided above, and you will see that fifty years later, we still have the same problem. To me, there's no greater demonstration that racism is alive and well today; it has not been swept away or overcome. Little black kids are still growing up believing that they are less attractive and less desirable or good than white kids.

OK. So if we consider what makes for a strong, vibrant, healthy relationship, we know that healthy self-esteem, self-confidence and self-love on the part of both members of a relationship are crucial. Having a foundation of love for one's self and belief in one's self is necessary in order to love another person. "If you can't love yourself, how are you going to love anybody else?" You also need healthy humility, a healthy sense of perspective and sense of humor about oneself, and an ability to put others first, in order for a relationship to work.

So if you understand this, it is possible to see how toxic racism is in a relationship between a white man and a black man. If the white man is functioning with unexamined attitudes of privilege and of priority (both because he is white and because he is a man), if he assumes (because society has taught him to assume) that what he has to say or think is always valuable and important and matters, then that man may not have the requisite skills of openness, perspective, and humility that will enable him to be a good citizen in a relationship. And if a black man is functioning with unexamined beliefs in his own inferiority... Well, you get the picture.

Now, ultimately, I believe the best cure for racism is the real-life, rough and tumble of actual relationships. A white man and a black man in relationship with each other don't have to be together very long before most of whatever stereotypes they may have held about whiteness or blackness get shattered, and they begin to relate to one another as human beings. In fact, they soon get to the point where they just don't even think of each other as black or as white. It's just John and Göran. True, true, all very good and true.

But there's still an emotional and psychological foundation that doesn't get dealt with necessarily; and that can even shape and structure a lot of interactions at a sub-conscious level, in ways that have a potential at least to be very destructive. And I think there comes a point where you simply can't continue to function with a Shangri-la attitude of "let's all just hold hands and sing and everything's going to be OK." At some point, the monster of racism has to be unmasked in very self-conscious, explicit ways. It has to be dealt with.

Here's another news flash: The Past Is Not Just the Past. History -- even centuries-old history -- lingers on in the present. It influences us and affects us in the here and now. Whites don't like to acknowledge that, in many ways, the chains of slavery are still rattling in our psyche. I desperately want white folks collectively to consider what a powerful thing it would be for us collectively to do something to acknowledge it. We can say, "I personally never owned a slave. I disapprove of racism. But the culture I belong to is racist; and the founders of the country I am a citizen of held slaves; and I may have some ancestors who held slaves; and I want to take responsibility for making that right." Because God knows, our slave-holding ancestors and founders never made restoration for the wrongs that they did. And without restoration, can there truly be repentance? So maybe, just maybe, we ought to consider making restoration for what they did. Maybe, just maybe, this burden, this debt of restoration our ancestors left us is as much a part of our inheritance as all the good things they left us that we are eager to claim.

But those bigger cultural and social and political questions aside (bringing the political back to the realm of the personal)... I never understood why the way my husband takes care of his hair could be such an emotional issue. I never understood why figuring out what his name was and having the power to change his name if he wanted to was such a powerful thing. I never understood why holding on to mementos of his past is such a powerful, emotional thing for him in a way that it probably never will be for me. Why he documents every single thing in his life in photographs and scrapbooks and boxes. This book I've been reading on African American Folk Healing has helped me to understand how and why those traits of my husband may connect to deeper cultural issues related to race in America.

Which brings home to me the role that Göran and I need to play in relationship to each other as healers and healed. I am more aware than ever of the wounds that need healing. And if I am attentive, and if I pray for help from God -- the God who knows each of us better than we know ourselves, and who, I truly believe, can give us the key to overcoming racism if we really ask him for it and desire it -- perhaps I can be granted some insight, as well as the courage to follow through on the insight. I need to pray to God to give me a new vision, a different vision, a better vision of how love and relationship look restored and healed from the effects of racism and other "-isms."

Oh, yeah. Heterosexism is in the mix there too, something that complicates our relationship with each other. Heterosexism that rears its ugly head, for example, in the knee-jerk reaction I get from some people that every problem in our relationship must stem back to the fact that we are two men in a relationship (rather than two people in a relationship) and that the solution to our relationship problems, therefore, would be for us to give up on each other, to leave each other. That there is no value in the love we give each other, or in our attempts to care for one another.

As a Latter-day Saint, I take courage in the doctrine of Restoration (which is beautifully explained in Alma 40-42; and of which we see a powerful example related to the problem of race in Helaman 14). The doctrine of Restoration suggests to me that, through the Atonement, and with the Power of God, it is possible for us to envision a world without racism, without homophobia, without sexism, without all the "-ism's" that distort human relationships. We can imagine a history and a humanity without hate. And we can trust in some ultimate healing that is complete and total: human personality and human relationships healed of the pain and anguish and ugliness of sin. And some redemption of human history.

I think that in the eternal scale of things, there will have to be some restoration made for slavery. Our ancestors didn't make it. If we don't take responsibility to make it now, ourselves, I believe there will come a time when God will require it of us. Better to do it now, when we have a chance to do it of our own free will. To do so now would make better people of us than to wait until we have no choice.

I do approach the problem of healing with this fundamental hope. With this knowledge that we can and will be healed, if we put our heart, might, and mind to it, and if we ask God for help.


(Thanks to our exchange student, Farzad, for the pretty picture, his image of our love!)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Evil in the Arctic

The Dream

Last night I had a dream that Göran and I were about to embark on a tour of the Arctic. We were on the southern border of Finnish Lapland being briefed by our guide, a Saami woman. I was studying a map of the world that showed with colorful little flags the major settlements of Arctic peoples like the Saami and the Eskimo. I saw a trail of flags leading all the way from the Arctic region of Alaska down the west coast of North and South America to Tierra del Fuego in Southern Chile and from there to Antarctica.

Our Saami guide led us to an isolated town in Lapland, to a mansion. The mansion was occupied by two men, a black man and a white man. They had a huge book. The book was about four feet tall and about a foot and a half wide, and it was bound in a thick, black leather cover of extremely unusual workmanship. The pages were yellowed with age, and covered with strange, magical symbols in some exotic language. The two men had been studying the book, and had learned powerful magic from it. One of the men -- the black man -- had been possessed by a demon from the book, and his right arm had been transformed into a disfigured claw.

The Saami woman told me that I had to get the book away from the two men and try to destroy it. We arrived at the mansion just as they were trying to cast the ultimate spell from the book to unleash a powerful evil. They had the book on a dais on a landing of the main staircase leading up into the mansion. The book was bubbling like boiling tar, and looked like it might try to swallow the two men up or merge with them somehow. As I arrived, there was a confusing struggle going on. The black man had managed to fight off the demon possessing him. The demon left him and went into the white man, who went temporarily crazy and ran away. The black man, who had now regained his senses, handed the book to me, and told me to hurry up and destroy it before the possessed white man returned.

I took the book and ran back downstairs. The Saami woman led me down more stairs and through a series of corridors into a kind of kitchen. There, I met a friend of mine, with whom I had sung in a gospel choir for many years. The Saami woman told the two of us to take the book down into the basement and burn it in a wood-burning furnace. We ran down the stairs. The book was too big and the furnace too hot and the door too heavy for one of us to have accomplished this task on our own. But between the two of us, we were able to open the furnace door and shove the Book of Evil into it.

My friend cried out in dismay, when she realized that the evil of the book was so powerful, it was actually extinguishing the fire in the furnace. We realized that we would need a fire much more powerful and much more hot to destroy this book. Perhaps we could not destroy it on our own. But at least, for the time being, we had hidden the book away.


The Interpretation

I'm actually curious to see what others think about the meaning of a dream like this. I have a few ideas of my own. When I have dreams that take place on or near the north pole, they're usually dreams about the end of the world.

I suspect this dream had something to do with the nature of evil...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Age of Unbelief?

I've been reading a book lately by James Turner, Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). Turner argues that while atheism has always existed as a philosophical option, and while, throughout recorded history, believers have always wrestled with doubt, atheism has not existed as a life choice for significant numbers of people until modern times. And by modern, in the United States at least, we're talking since 1860.

In France, around the turn of the eighteenth century, there was a vigorous atheist philosophical movement connected to the French revolutionary effort to reconstruct human society and mores along more humanistic lines. And of course, Turner concedes, there have been isolated skeptics throughout history. And we certainly find ample condemnations of "atheism" in the sermons and writings of Christian theologians that go back to the early centuries of the Christian era. But we do not seem to find large numbers of actual atheists. Wrestling with doubt and fear that one might become atheist, yes, that we can find. But in the end, prior to the 1860s, the vast majority of believers who wrestled with doubt ultimately opted for belief. They ultimately felt that belief explained more and provided a more rational, more workable philosophical basis for life than the alternative of unbelief. It is only after the 1860s that we begin to find significant numbers of individuals for whom the reverse proved to be true. It is only in the last century and a half that large numbers of people who wrestled with doubt ultimately came away concluding that only philosophical unbelief could provide a workable philosophical and moral basis for life.

So the question, from Turner's perspective, is why? Why was unbelief virtually impossible to sustain before the 1860s, and why did it all of a sudden take the world by storm after the 1860s? Especially among the educated classes in Western nations, we increasingly see unbelief as the unchallenged norm. Instead of wrestling with doubt, educated Westerners wrestle with faith.

Turner's thesis is intriguing. He goes back to the Enlightenment era, at the dawning of the Newtonian Age, when what might be called the "scientific world view" first began to coalesce. He argues that religious thinkers and leaders consciously adapted religion to the new ideas emanating from scientific inquiry. They sought to make religion more rational, more moralistic and more individualistic. They sought to prove the existence of God scientifically (thus the rise of modern "creationist" or "intelligent design" arguments). They created a faith of intellectual propositions, to which the believer needed to assent, a faith of creeds and dogmas extraordinaire. They did so largely as a way of coming to terms with their own doubts. But it was these religious thinkers and leaders, argues Turner, who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries believed that they could make an iron-clad scientific case for God, who laid the foundations for wide-spread philosophical unbelief in the nineteenth century.

Not all thoughtful religious followed the "rationalizing" trend that the majority seemed to have followed in the Newtonian Age. Some -- mostly what we would describe as mystics and pietists -- insisted that the encounter with God cannot be "rationalized" or "tamed" or made comprehensible in human terms. To make the attempt is ultimately to create a false god, a god-in-the-box that we can pull out to serve our petty personal or political agendas. But it is not the true, living God, whom we can truly encounter only on God's terms. In North America, Jonathan Edwards was one of the leading spokesmen for the anti-rationalizing view (though Edwards himself was a man one would never think to describe as other than eminently rational). But Edwards' preaching of a God who is both perfect Love and perfectly terrifying is largely viewed as a cultural eddy in the larger historical movement toward rationalized faith. By the mid-nineteenth century, Edwards had been forgotten, and America entered the throes of a Fundamentalist-Modernist conflict that in many ways still engulfs us.

Fundamentalism, by the way, far from resisting the rationalizing trend in American religion actually imbibed deeply of it. The opponents of fundamentalists love to mock and parody fundamentalists as irrational rubes. In the 1980s, George Marsden finally put to well-deserved rest the notion that fundamentalism was some sort of irrational atavism, destined to atrophy and die away as the modern age progresses. Fundamentalism is in fact the militant defender of the "modern" Christian view that emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It certainly -- to this day -- trots out all the old arguments produced by that age (and not much earlier).

By Turner's account, what happened in the 1860s is that advances in geology, biology and anthropology finally made it possible to explain human origins and the origins of religion and to develop a moral and ethical system in terms that didn't require a God. This alone, argues Turner, wouldn't have necessarily convinced anyone, if religious leaders had not been drilling into the minds of the modern faithful certain rationalistic, moralistic and individualistic values for the previous two centuries.

Turner poses an intriguing question. What if, instead of investing in the God of the rationalists, religious leaders had insisted on a God who can never be known through reason? What if they had insisted on a God the knowledge of whom has always required and will always require an encounter, for which the believer can attempt to prepare him or her self, but the terms of which are never within the control of the believer? Turner suggests that had religious leaders avoided the temptation to rationalize God, had Western civilization turned instead to the God of the pietists and the mystics, science could not possibly undermine such belief.

I would argue that the kind of faith Turner argues would have been immune to scientific skepticism is precisely the faith that could never have been opted for by the religious movers and shakers, the leaders and theologians who were in bed with "The Powers that Be." State and social power has always, from time immemorial, required a god more amenable to empire-building; a god who was OK with war and slavery (so long as it was war and slavery justified for the purpose of spreading civilization and faith); a god who winked at or even blessed our social and cultural and philosophical Towers of Babel. In other words, a god whom we could always create (and recreate) in our own image. That is the god who was always destined to rule our political and social order.

And such a god deserves to be torn down by the same human reason that created it. So I would argue that modern-day atheism has done and is doing a service. It can't lead us to God -- to the true and living God -- any more effectively than any of our other devices. But it can help us see the folly of our idols.

To find the true God, we need to begin by seeing clearly again and for the first time our own inability. We need to recognize that we need help. And we need to ask for help.

Monday, January 3, 2011

In at the Gate

The baptism of my friend Mary on Saturday was incredible. I actually had the kind of mountaintop spiritual experience there that left me looking down at my day-to-day problems and feeling like they really aren't problems after all. It left me feeling like most of the things I worry about and wrestle with just don't even register much in the light of God's love.

I got to see my friend Mary transformed. I've watched her go through so much pain and doubt and anguish of soul, but Saturday there was just such a peace and assurance about her. I saw calm and light and confidence. After all the wrestling, she finally knew this was the right thing to do, and she was doing it. She stood there literally like an angel. I was astonished.

And the Spirit there was so powerful and so pure. I had envisioned this event for a long time (from the first time I met Mary), and had always imagined that I would weep to see my friend take this step. But the only way I can describe the baptism Saturday is to say that the Spirit was so clear and so strong and so resplendent, there was no room for weeping. I think I finally understand what it means in the Book of Revelation when it says that in the Celestial Kingdom, Christ shall wipe away all our tears. It was joy beyond tears. I just sat there and glowed. I tried to describe it in an email I sent Mary yesterday, and the best I could say was that it was like being filled with light, from the bottoms of my heels to the top of my head.

There were tears though, later... As soon as the service ended, Mary turned around to give me a hug. And then the tears were like a waterfall. I actually sobbed, great, big, billowy sobs. It was embarrassing, actually -- I almost wanted to leave. I so wanted what she now had. I wanted to go in at the gate, as she just had. I felt so alone, still outside.

Mary knew what I was feeling, without me saying a word. She whispered into my ear: "I won't leave you behind." I am so thankful for Mary.

I know what is most valuable in life. It is to be in the presence of God, to be filled with God's pure light and love. I understand that we can only see what we are. And to become, we must pass through this vale of tears. So let us continue on...