Monday, February 28, 2011

Pray Always

Bottom line: prayer is key to our salvation. And when I say salvation, I'm talking about here and now.

So here are some tips I've learned from both success and failure with prayer.

1. Prayer can feel silly when you're not sure God exists. But it can still be meaningful if it comes from the heart.

2. It's OK to start a prayer with, "God, if you exist, please help me with X..."

3. Rote prayer is about as useless as no prayer at all.

4. Rote prayer has nothing to do with whether you're reading a pre-written prayer from a book or not. It does have everything to do with whether your heart is in it. You can read a prayer from a book and if you mean it with your whole heart, it can be totally efficacious. And you can improvise a prayer off the top of your head, but if it's a litany of prayer platitudes that everyone just prays as some sort of prayer "filler," and you don't really mean any of it, that won't make it any more efficacious than if you had just read empty words from a book.

5. Some of the best prayers are when we don't ask for anything, and we just tell God what's going on in our lives, and thank him for all the good stuff.

6. Of course God already knows. But he still wants to hear from us.

7. If it doesn't feel like there's any good stuff, it's OK to just be silent and ask God to comfort you.

8. You can pray anywhere. On the bus. In the shower. Riding your bike. In between sentences while you're having a conversation. At a gay bar! (True!) God would rather hear a sincere prayer from you in any of those places than a rote, meaningless prayer mouthed while you're on your knees in some supposedly sacred place.

9. Think about what's going on in your life, and what you need to pray about before you pray.

10. If something feels amiss, if you feel bad about something, but you don't know quite what, that's a good time to pray.

11. God loves prayers of repentance. If we're doing things right, we will probably pray a lot of these kinds of prayers.

12. When you ask God to help with stuff, try to spend more time praying for others than for yourself.

13. When you pray for others, try to pray for them what they would pray for themselves. Otherwise, your prayers risk turning self-congratulatory and hypocritical. (Worse than rote prayers.)

14. Yes, we can pray without going through the motions of prayer. We don't need to be on our knees. We don't need to follow a prayer formula, etc. But going through the motions of prayer is important sometimes too. The motions can help remind us that when we pray, we are addressing a real person, who listens to us and responds to us.

15. It is important to listen after a prayer. (Or even before a prayer.)

16. Listening can continue after we get up off our knees. (Sometimes it needs to.) Sometimes we need to listen all day.

17. It's possible to listen while you're doing other things. Sometimes you have to focus on something else, but when you're done focusing on that something else, remind yourself to go back to listening.

18. One of the greatest blessings you can receive through prayer is the blessing of the Spirit's presence. That's one of the most important things to ask for in prayer.

19. One of the main reasons we need to pray is to help us gain an appreciation of the nature of our relationship with God.

20. We benefit the most from any individual prayer when that prayer is part of a life pattern of praying "always."

21. Prayer is a privilege.

I lived for many years without prayer. Looking back now, I'm not sure quite how I managed.

My greatest wish for anyone reading this blog who doesn't have prayer as a part of his or her life is that you might find some way to make it part of your life.

Gay Mormons need to pray for each other. Most of us are in need of all the help we can get. If anyone needs prayer, it's us. We need to remember each other in our prayers.

I will gladly pray with you, gay or Mormon or none of the above... I will gladly pray with you in person or over the phone. I will gladly think of you and offer prayers for you. Just email me, get in touch, however.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Check Your ______ At the Door

One of my students recently commented that she wondered if the more educated a person is, the less need they will feel for religion. This is an interesting comment coming from a person who is both religious and educated enough to be seeking a degree at a theological seminary.

My American Religious Histories class has been in session for three weeks now. And one of the things we tackle early in the semester is the decline of "establishment Christianity" in favor of the more free-wheeling, more individualistic "free-market" Christianity of the early Republic. (I have them read Nathan Hatch's, The Democratization of American Christianity, which includes an interesting account of early Mormonism.) We discuss how Americans in the early 1800s were openly questioning and rebelling against the then "Powers That Be" of organized religion. This resulted in a Christianity or Christianities that were more reflective of the deepest values and aspirations of ordinary Americans, but it also created a kind of chaos of competing religions, all vying with one another. This was the "war of words and tumult of opinions" that Joseph Smith, Jr. described in his own story.

This way of beginning my American Religious Histories class is always more than a bit disconcerting to my students. The majority of my students are liberal, well-educated seminarians preparing for ordained ministry in main-line Christian denominations. I sort of force them to confront right at the outset of my course the fact that most of the dynamism in American religion has come from less educated people who rejected seminary learning and religious hierarchy, who embraced a religion of the heart, and who had experienced a kind of "born-again" conversion in dramatic encounters with the Spirit of God. As the message sinks in, I often see my students' faces expressing puzzlement, disappointment and disillusionment. Last Thursday, one of my students raised his hand and asked, "If what you're telling us is true, then what are we doing in here, at a seminary?"

I always love those kinds of questions. I always love the struggle that comes with them. Everything we ever learn of value always comes from confronting those kinds of painful existential questions.

The same student who asked if education somehow made a person less religious also asked if it might be true that in order to be religious you have to somehow "check your brain at the door." This is a common accusation flung by liberals of many religious persuasions at more conservative or "fundamental" religion. But it seems to me there are many different things that individuals can be asked to check at the door in order to become acceptable to any given religious institution. Some of us have to check racial or ethnic or working class backgrounds. Some of us have to check our yearnings for transcendence or our spiritual experiences. Some of us have to check our deep emotions, our pain and our wounds. Some of us have to check our non-traditional families, our sexuality, or our gender-nonconformity. In so many ways, we get (or give) the message that whatever you are that doesn't fit with some arbitrary image of acceptability doesn't belong here. So if you can't check it at the door, you don't belong either.

These kinds of barriers are so commonplace in most religious communities, it's almost assumed to be what religion is all about. It's why in so many people's minds, religion is basically just some form of judgmentalism masquerading as godliness. This in spite of the fact that at the heart of the Christian message is the utter repudiation of this attitude. Isaiah denouncing the Sabbaths of the wealthy self-righteous. Jesus purposely violating purity laws and laying his hands on lepers. Alma turning his back on the wealthy, respectable Zoramites and addressing himself to the poor they had cast out of their synagogues.

True religion addresses itself to our fullness. When my heart is filled with the Spirit of God, my brain doesn't shut down. It actually starts working overtime! My hunger to understand, to know, and to experience actually deepens and broadens! When I feel a burning fervor and love for God, my love for my partner does not wither and atrophy, it is set on fire! The love of God fills me with a love that overflows all the bounds of my heart, that naturally stretches toward others, starting with my 'significant other' and our son and my family, and going ever farther out in concentric circles to every other child of God with whom I share this planet. To be religious in the truest sense, to feel a profound connection with the Spirit does not make me asexual. To the contrary, the Spirit lets me see and know with crystalline clarity the fullness of my experience as an embodied spirit, as an intelligence with a soul. Becoming pure is not a process of becoming disengaged from our bodies. Becoming pure, rather, is a process of understanding the profound connections between what we think, what we feel, and what we are.

We are so terrified of the power that exists in our fullness, we do almost anything to avoid or ignore it, to cover it up and deny it. And we do this in so many ways! We are afraid of intellect, we are afraid of questions. But we are also afraid of miracles! We are afraid of the mysterious! We are afraid of bodies, of sexuality. We are afraid of truth. We are afraid of the fullness not just in others but in ourselves! This is why every time God sends a messenger, the first words out of their mouths are almost inevitably, "Fear not!" We cannot enter into the way of Christ until we have understood the basic principle that perfect love casteth out all fear.

So whatever you've got, whenever you enter the spaces we define as sacred, don't check it. Bring it!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Time of Miracles

I was blown away by the scripture reading I did this morning, Mormon 9. There is so much incredible stuff going on in these few pages, so many profound statements both about the nature of faith, and about the challenges we face in the times we live in.

In Mormon 9:1-6 I appreciated in a way I never have before how belief is linked in this text to action, how true belief is nothing less than obedience to the Law of God, which is, of course, the Pure Love of Christ. So when Moroni speaks to those who do not believe here, he is speaking to those who do not, who will not, love as Christ loves.

In verses 7-19 he then goes into a discussion of miracles. Moroni explicitly links miracles to God's power as creater and redeemer, to God's power as the one who will raise us from death at the last day and bring us to judgment before the bar of Christ. He points out that we are still in the "in-between time," in between the Creation and the Final Judgment, and that because we are in this time, there is still a need for miracles. I cross-referenced this with 1 Corinthians 13: 8-12; where Paul talks about the end of what we think of as miracles -- when we see God face to face. But Moroni insists, we who are reading his words in the latter days are not past the time of miracles yet.

In verses 20-25 he talks about how, since we are not yet past the time when miracles can be performed, miracles are contingent solely upon our faith. And here comes the part where I got a sucker punch from the Spirit:
Behold, I say unto you that whoso believeth in Christ, doubting nothing, whatsoever he shall ask the Father in the name of Christ it shall be granted him; and this promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth.
The inclusivity of this statement is earthshaking. It's profound. Yes, even I am included in that statement. Whoso believeth in Christ. This promise is unto all, even unto the ends of the earth.

So verses 26 and beyond becomes a heart-felt plea to come unto Christ. And these words in particular I found cutting right to my heart:
O then despise not, and wonder not, but hearken unto the words of the Lord, and ask the Father in the name of Jesus for what things soever ye shall stand in need. Doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old, and come unto the Lord with all your heart, and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him.
This speaks so clearly to what I have experienced. So long as I censored myself, so long as I failed to ask God for whatsoever I actually needed, there was no space in which it was possible for the Spirit to work with me. So long as I was trying to be what I thought others thought I was supposed to be, so long as I judged and hated and condemned myself for not living up to someone else's expectations, so long as I refused to allow myself to speak to God from my own deepest needs, wants and desires (note, he says "work out your own salvation"!), so long as I failed to be fully honest with God, I wasn't really exercising faith, was I? I wasn't really believing in the miraculous power of God to meet me exactly where I am, in who I am, at the level of my needs, wants, desires...

Moroni continues in verse 28:
Be wise in the days of your probation; strip yourselves of all uncleanness; ask not, that ye may consume it on your lusts, but ask with a firmness unshaken, that ye will yield to no temptation, but that ye will serve the true and living God.
So in other words, when we come to God, when we find ourselves in the presence of God, there is a purification process. There is a process by which we become aware of the wants and desires that we have for things that are transitory, that don't matter in the grand scheme of things. The term "lusts" stands here for all our envy, pride, anger, greed, impatience... Everything that diminishes us by objectifying ourselves and others. God, in other words, invites us to come to him with a full recognition of the fullness of who and what we are as children of God; not as consumers of the trivial.

In my little gay family home evening group last Friday, we talked about Church attendance, and we specifically discussed the issue of partaking of the Sacrament worthily. And this chapter speaks to that as well (Mormon 9:29). Moroni, after making this plea to his latter-day readers to come unto Christ, says, "See that ye are not baptized unworthily; see that ye partake not of the sacrament of Christ unworthily; but see that ye do all things in worthiness." Read in context here, worthiness must be defined as sincerity of desire. The whole thrust of this chapter is toward coming unto Christ, trusting that he will meet us where we are. Worthiness does not equal perfection. It does demand that if we come to Christ, we must come from a place of genuine desire to know him and to find our perfection in him. (J., this is for you!)

I know the truth of this whole discourse, because I have been the witness of miracles. I have participated in miraculous healings. I have seen miraculous things. I have experienced outpourings of the Spirit and seen divine light shining through the ordinary. Now is still the time to come unto Christ...

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Want to Sing

And he hath brought to pass the redemption of the world, whereby he that is found guiltless before him at the judgment day hath it given unto him to dwell in the presence of God in his kingdom, to sing ceaseless praises... (Mormon 7: 7)

Everyone connected to the performance community in the Twin Cities knows Leslie Ball. She wrote a beautiful little song called "91 Wonders" that makes me cry every time I listen to it...

100 feet of snow
One dozen lilac days all in a row
One little rush of green that has to go
Can't travel the big bright blue
Wide awake in a dream come true

Rain washing off your tears
Wind whispering a secret in your ears
Moon smiling down to keep away your fears
To teach you to tell the truth
To lead you back to your youth

91 wonders
Shining in the air
91 wonders

91 wonders
Shimmer in the air
91 wonders

Some people never breathe
Some people never listen to the trees
Some people never get up off their knees
They don't even know to pray
Instead they just crawl away

91 wonders
Sparkle in the air
91 wonders

Lately, I've taken to finishing my morning scripture reading by singing a hymn. Somehow the vibration in my vocal chords dislodges stuff I need to get up out of my heart and into the air...

Starting with the new year, Göran and I decided to start singing with the Twin Cities Community Gospel Choir again. Tomorrow is my first rehearsal, and I can't wait...

Tonight I have family home evening with my Minnesota gay brothers, my favorite part of which has become the harmonies when we sing...

My brother Reuben asked me Sunday if I would sing a duet in Church with him. I wonder how that testimony will sound...

I am so thankful for the singing in my life. It's my reminder that the best prayers are about gratitude...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Re-thoughts on Cultural Mormonism and Cultural Mormons

OK, first of all thanks to everyone who commented on my post Why We Should -- All of Us -- Reject Cultural Mormonism.

I've always had strong feelings on this subject. When I crashed and burned in my junior year at BYU and ended up leaving the Church, I did not see any middle ground between being a full-on true-believing Mormon and being an ex-Mormon. I remember when -- years later -- a former BYU professor described himself to me as a "DNA" or a "cultural" Mormon, I remember being slightly perplexed. My feeling was, Why bother? Why, if the Church isn't true, would you want to have anything to do with it?

I guess thinking things through, of course, it became more obvious to me. Yes, there might certainly be individuals who for cultural or social or familial reasons might want to stay connected to the LDS Church, but who no longer believed in some or any of its tenets.

I've never been one of those people, trust me. I am one of those rare Mormons, I guess, who managed to be quite comfortable in high church liturgical churches as well as low church revival-style churches or intellectually oriented liberal churches. I guess you could describe me as spiritually multi-lingual -- and as comfortable in my acquired languages as I am in my native tongue. So, like many immigrants I know who are well adjusted to life in America, I saw no reason to go back to my native land just for cultural reasons.

When I did come back to the LDS Church, it was actually painful. I really actually didn't want anything to do with Mormonism; I was quite comfortable without it. And the only thing that ultimately did persuade me to come back was a clear and undeniable prompting of the Spirit. Even then, I had a long argument with the Spirit, pleading among other things that Mormons simply didn't want me, a gay man. The Spirit didn't let me off the hook.

It's just to say, I've never really occupied the middle ground of cultural Mormonism. What I do occupy is a kind of no-man's-land as a believer who is perpetually excluded from my home Church. I've become, I guess somewhat to my chagrin, the religious equivalent of the man without a country.

So maybe my country-less status has made me a bit crotchety. Or maybe I come across as crotchety.

I was mortified that one of my best friends in the Church would take my statement on cultural Mormonism as a sort of a condemnation of his own wrestling with doubt. For him, cultural Mormonism is a space that allows him to stay connected to the Church even as he struggles to understand what he believes in or what his belief means to him. And if you all knew this guy -- what a great big heart he has, how totally compassionate and passionate he is -- you would feel like I do. I just love him unconditionally, and whatever Church I belong to (or don't belong to, as the case may be) I can't imagine life in my Church without him.

And I realized that my statement could easily be misunderstood as saying, "If you're not a true believer you don't belong in the Church." And that is so totally not where I'm coming from. That, actually, would so totally be the opposite of what I feel with every fiber of my being. I so totally want a "big tent" Mormonism, with enough room in the pews for everyone who wants to be there, with all their faith and doubt, all their conformity and non-conformity and everything in between.

I called my friend immediately on the phone to let him know in terms that are absolutely unconditional and impossible to be misunderstood that I would be heartbroken if he ever left the Church for any reason. I told him on the other hand I'm not trying to guilt him into staying either! But he should know that I want and need him there.

There's an irony in that one of the things he struggles with is the fact that I can't be a member of the Church. I don't know what to do with that, except to say that if I can still have a testimony, I don't want others abandoning their testimonies for my sake. I don't want that on my conscience.

I still can't say I'm comfortable with "cultural Mormonism" as an end-point or final-resting-place of faith. But I want a Mormonism that allows its members to struggle more openly with doubt. I want Sunday Schools and Priesthoods and Relief Societies and Sacrament Meetings where individuals can share doubt and wrestle with doubt and still be embraced by a community that embraces faith. Actually the fact that we often are so uncomfortable with doubt that we just can't deal with it or talk about it in Church settings is one of the things I hate about "Mormon culture."

Doubt is so often the result of good things. It most often is the result of efforts to reconcile different forms of knowledge, but it also often flows from compassion. Doubt is the natural result of trying to apply deceptively simple gospel principles in a complex and terrifying world. Doubt can be a refiner's fire that helps purify faith, that enables it to mature and gives it depth and nuance. Without doubt, I believe, it is impossible for us to acquire a faith that can provide any sort of meaningful guidance through the storms of life. Doubt can play such an important role in the proper development of faith, I sometimes almost wonder if it shouldn't be elevated to the status of a Christian virtue proper.

I've always been a fan of Doubting Thomas. I always felt like Thomas had every right to demand proof. And the Savior, after all, obliged him; so perhaps Jesus agreed. After all, Thomas only demanded what every other disciple had already received: the opportunity to see the Savior with his eyes and feel the prints in his hands.

In the end, I agree that doubt is not a virtue in and of itself. I see it as valuable only in how it allows us to come to a place of deeper faith. But we certainly shouldn't recoil from doubt as if it were the black plague of faith. It's not. And neither are doubters.

And there's the rub for me. If I am uncomfortable with "cultural Mormonism" -- if it's not something I personally relate to -- I am not uncomfortable with "cultural Mormons." Actually, I like cultural Mormons, if only because they so often wrestle, like I do. They so often have to fight for a sense of who they are and what they believe, like I do. So for me there will always be plenty of room on the back pew next to me for folks who find themselves -- voluntarily or not -- in this category of Mormon.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Together or Not At All

Yesterday in Sunday School we talked about the miracles of Jesus. We talked about how Christ communicated fundamental spiritual truths through his physical miracles. The healing of palsy or leprosy was not merely a statement of God's power over the elements (though it certainly was also that). It was also a symbol of how we find our wholeness in Christ:
Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house. And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion. (Mark 2: 9-12)
But the one that moved me the most, was this one:
And there came a leper to him, beseeching him, and kneeling down to him, and saying unto him, If thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will... (Mark 1: 40-41)
It reminded me of my own experience with the healing Christ, kneeling down to him and beseeching him, "If thou wilt, thou canst cure my homosexuality," and receiving, in essence, Christ's response, "I will not; there is no need. But thy sins are forgiven thee. Be thou whole!"

The first counselor in our Stake Presidency was visiting our ward, and he concluded our Sacrament Meeting with some remarks about the importance of expressing affection to our life partner, and the importance of small gestures like holding hands. He spoke of how we can't be saved alone. He described that other person as a part of ourselves. All I can say in response is I know the truth of it from experience. I was so glad to see my sweet heart's smiling countenance when I returned home from Church. He got an extra warm hug from me. That's when we took the picture posted here.

I took account yesterday of how truly, deeply I love the Church. How I long to be a member of it! I realized -- I have long realized -- I would give almost anything for membership in it, up to and including my life, if that could make a difference. But I realized as well that I would give my life for the man in this picture too. There is no me without him.

The profoundest truths of the gospel -- love, hope and faith; patience, sacrifice, and humility -- I could not have learned without him. I would have shipwrecked long ago if I'd had to go this voyage alone.

So we have to be saved either together or not at all.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why We Should -- All of Us -- Reject "Cultural Mormonism" as a Valid Concept

Kiley recently posted, discussing her wrestling with a desire to believe and her wish for cultural Mormonism as an emotional / spiritual / intellectual space within which she could sort out her relationship to the Church while also honestly wrestling with belief.

Andrew, around the same time, posted on Wheat and Tares about whether cultural Mormonism is even possible. I thought Andrew's essay was interesting and thoughtful, and I absolutely agree with his conclusion that "Cultural Mormonism always exists as an unintended and undesired byproduct of a real religion predicated upon belief." Andrew comes to his conclusions by arguing that evolution of Mormon beliefs and practices makes it impossible for us to really define what Mormon culture is. (And, by the way, Andrew, I would argue that this was a problem long before the existence of "correlation." Rapid evolution of Mormon belief and practice even in the first 80 years of Mormonism is what accounts for the existence of the Community of Christ and Mormon fundamentalists -- two developments of Mormonism that have completely different cultures from the LDS Church.) I agree with Andrew's conclusions, but for reasons that have nothing to do with modern day correlation.

Steven Fehr, in his discussion of why he, as an excommunicated, gay Mormon, attends Church gives an account of an experience he had with the Spirit prompting him to read James 1:5 (and verses following). This was a breakthrough moment for Steven. He doesn't much discuss the exact content of the revelation he received upon following this prompting (though he mentions that it was the verses following James 1:5 that really had an impact on him... I recommend you read them!) I found myself deeply moved by Steven's account of this part of his story, because this same text has played a central role in my own coming to terms with faith. And it is -- as every Mormon knows, be they "cultural" or "true believing" -- a foundational text for Mormon faith.

I would add that my coming to faith has been a painful process. When the Spirit tapped me on the shoulder in August 2005, I did not want to believe in Mormonism. I was still profoundly angry at the Church. And I felt that belief threatened to disrupt and maybe even destroy everything I really valued at that time. I was angry, I wept, and I resisted for several months the prompting to start going to Church. My conversion was a painful one. I still wrestle with both faith and doubt. But believe you me, I am converted. And I wouldn't have it any other way. I would rather have a real faith that is painful than the empty, cultural shell of a faith that is comforting and easy.

To hunger for cultural Mormonism is to hunger for a faith that is eviscerated of its heart and soul. "Mormonism" (if there is such a thing!) is predicated upon a living, breathing, heart-thumping, blood-churning relationship with a true and living God who speaks to us in the here and now. Take away belief in that God and what you have left is not much worth having.

To be honest, I'm not sure if "Mormonism" is a valid concept. I even wonder if "Methodism" or "Catholicism" or "Lutheranism" or "Presbyterianism" or "Evangelicalism" or "Fundamentalism" or any Christian "ism" is or can be a valid concept. Because the heart of any Christian faith should be this relationship with a living God. And when you extract that from the cultural accretions of that faith, all you have left is "the traditions of men," something that in Joseph's first encounter with the Living God was execrated as an "abomination." Justly so.

I hate Mormon "culture." It is the part of Mormonism that least appeals to me. It is the part of Mormonism that, more than anything else, drove me away from the Church. It is the part of Mormonism that, more than anything else, undermines and eats away at real, living faith today.

You doubting, cultural Mormons who are heterosexual and blessed with Church membership, do you know how I envy you? Do you have any idea what I would give, just to be able to have the lowliest calling as a home teacher or a Sunday School chorister?

If going to Church makes you feel good, then my recommendation is that you simply go. If you don't want a calling, if you don't want to be bothered by worthiness interviews, if you wrestle with belief, there is still a place for you. True belief, true faith ought to make a warm, welcoming place for you, it ought to put its arms of love around you and fully embrace you with no strings attached.

Come to Church with me. I promise you, I will give you a welcome like you've never received in any church anywhere!

Friday, February 11, 2011

What can we do?

I was struck, in listening to Steven Fehr talk about his experience remaining active in his ward after his excommunication, by his discussion of how he has actually had a richer life of faith since his excommunication than he had before. That seems, on the face of it, paradoxical and impossible. And I suspect that I would probably disbelieve it, if I had not experienced the same thing myself.

Steven also described another seemingly paradoxical or impossible phenomenon. He spoke about how, earlier in his life, as he became more active in the Church and as he felt closer to God, his feelings of same-sex attraction actually became stronger. I have seen that same observation made time and time again by many different individuals -- both in and out of the Church. Again, given some of the teachings I received growing up about how same-sex attraction could be diminished or overcome through greater faithfulness, this seems counter-intuitive. And I probably wouldn't believe it if I hadn't experienced it myself.

I've experience another variation or corollary of this phenomenon as well. Now that I am in a committed relationship, I have found that as I have become more active in the Church and have nurtured a close relationship with God through prayer and scripture study and other efforts to be faithful (such as living the Word of Wisdom and the Sabbath, and so on), my feelings for my spouse have become richer and deeper. Greater connection to and activity in the Church somehow has correlated in my life to a closer, more meaningful, more joyful relationship with my husband. A seeming paradox, and something I don't expect anybody else to believe unless they've experienced it for themselves. But I digress...

Steven related that he now actually found Church attendance more rewarding as an excommunicated member. He explained this phenomenon by observing that now he goes to Church not out of a sense of obligation, but out of a genuine desire that comes from somewhere deep within. I can certainly relate to that observation. There is a sense of pure joy that I often feel attending Church, and some of that joy does seem to be connected to my awareness that I am attending as an act of pure, free will, solely motivated by a desire to be closer to God. This experience seems to connect to a fundamental scriptural principle, which is that all right action must flow from the heart. When we engage in spiritual practice only to please others or to fulfill external obligations, we accomplish nothing in a spiritual sense. Right action must be accompanied by right desire or right motivation, or it is as good in a spiritual sense as doing nothing. In fact, I would argue that repeatedly engaging in spiritual practice only to fulfill outward obligations or to please others is spiritually deadening.

But that doesn't seem to explain enough of what I have experienced as an active, gay, excommunicated member. Why is it that I actually seem to feel as if, at this stage of my life, my communion with the Spirit and with God seems fuller, richer, more profound than it has ever been in my life? Ever? Even when I was an active member of the Church in good standing, even when I was serving a full-time mission in France and Switzerland, never did I experience more spiritual warmth and richness, or a more continuous and powerful presence of the Holy Spirit in my life than I do now. Never have I experienced at any time in my life what can only be described as a greater fullness of joy. Why is that?

Steven used a metaphor that I have frequently used myself. (We are obviously both fans of the 1936 Judy Garland film version of the The Wizard of Oz!) He spoke about that moment in the film when Dorothy steps out of the front door of her house and leaves the drab black and white and gray of Kansas, to enter the fully vibrant, technicolor world of the Land of Oz. That, he describes, is what his life became like when he acknowledged his love for his partner. Like going from black and white to the full range, the full spectrum of color. And certainly it was what I experienced upon finally coming out of the closet and embracing "my gay side" as a fully valid, good part of me, something that is part of the fullness of my being. And the color became richer and more vibrant as I entered into a committed relationship with my husband of going on nineteen years, Göran. But I want to say that coming back to the Church, heeding the promptings of the Spirit, and seeking the Lord daily in prayer and scripture study and living a life founded on scriptural principles of charity, faith, hope, and patience... This is like stepping out of a world that is merely two-dimensional, and entering a world that is three-d, that has depth and a reality and a power previously unimaginable to me either in black and white or color!

There is a scriptural principle that comes from LDS, modern-day revelation that seems to explain this for me, found in Doctrine & Covenants 93: 33: "The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy." There is a height and a depth and a breadth -- a fullness -- that we experience in unifying body, mind (intelligence) and spirit into this mystical unity that Latter-day scripture calls soul. Doctrine & Covenants 88: 15: "And the spirit and the body are the soul of man." And how can we weave our body and spirit into a unity if we don't nurture our spirits while we're in these bodies?

If you are gay and excommunicated, it is not easy to come back to Church. Trust me, there are demons (and angels!) we need to wrestle; dark nights of the soul we have to sweat through. And there are plenty, plenty of people ready to cast a discouraging word or a discouraging glance your way. Plenty of folks to tell you you're crazy. Plenty of folks (both in and out of the Church) to tell you you don't belong; that there's no point; that no effort you make counts or is worthy or is acceptable to God in any way.

And there are your own doubts and fears. There may be anger you have to overcome in your own heart. Anger is a natural consequence of hurt, of being wounded. Anger was the biggest demon barring my way. I had to get over it. I had to repent of it, before I could take a single step in the right direction. We literally, I think, need to get down on our knees and ask God for help, before we can even begin a journey like that. And we won't get help until we've let go of the anger, the impatience, and have given God a chance to heal us through the loving, all-encompassing power of the Atonement.

Despite the limitations we face -- and the limitations do seem extreme, especially if we are excommunicated -- there are things we can do. There are steps we can take that will bring us closer to God. One of the first, and most powerful steps that we can take is simply to start attending Church. Just come, and sit on the back pew if you want (that's where I sit), and just listen. Sing along with the hymns. Bow your head, and join your heart to the hearts of others in the prayers. If you're not a member who's allowed to partake, let the sacrament tray pass by, but not without thinking about what Jesus has done for you. I promise, you will feel the Spirit in ways you have never, ever felt the Spirit in your life before. And the Spirit can open up a black and white door that leads into a three-d landscape full of color. Trust me, it's worth it. It's worth every single step you take.

I want to reach out to folks on this. If you are in my situation, and you feel even the least inkling of a desire, if you are willing to exercise even "a particle of faith," but you're not sure you can do it alone, call me. Go to my blogger profile, get my email address and email me and we'll talk. I am your willing travel companion in this journey.

There are things we can do, that can open our life to that fullness.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mormon Expressions Interview with Steven Fehr

Listen to this podcast.

Steven, this was a beautiful interview, with a beautiful testimony, and some fantastic insights. Thank you!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Practice Spirit, Do Justice

The NGLTF-sponsored National Conference on LGBT Equality -- "Creating Change" -- was in Minneapolis this past week. I'd heard a lot about Creating Change. I remember when this conference was held in Minneapolis the last time -- in 1990. A few weeks ago I received the Affirmation newsletter inviting individuals to take advantage of a group rate by joining the Affirmation delegation, and I realized it might never be easier or cheaper for me to attend this conference again. So I took two vacation days, and headed to the downtown Hilton bright and early this past Thursday morning.

I'm not entirely sure what I expected. I will admit I was a little apprehensive. Typical reactions from more secular folks in the GLBT community to my being both gay and a believing Mormon run the gamut from pitying me to seeing me as an oddity to condemning me as a traitor. The part of the conference I was most interested in was the "Practice Spirit, Do Justice" track, organized in part by a personal friend of mine, Rebecca Voelkel, who happens to be the Director of the "Institute for Welcoming Resources," an NGLTF-sponsored program that works with a variety of Churches on trying to improve the religious climate for GLBT folks. I know Rebecca well; I am very familiar with the work that she does. I could have known, based on what I know of her, that I had nothing to worry about. Still I was apprehensive.

That apprehension gradually melted away over the course of my first day at the conference. When I arrived, Rebecca was busy readying the ballroom space where the opening ceremony for the "Practice Spirit, Do Justice" portion of the conference was taking place. As soon as she saw me, she dropped what she was doing to come give me a warm welcome hug. She apologized for not responding to my last email to her. A local church had been considering airing and having a discussion about 8: The Mormon Proposition, and Rebecca had wanted to know if I would be willing to participate. I had told her that I didn't like 8, that I felt it was marred by reliance on stereotypically anti-Mormon tropes, that I (and other gay Mormons) had "wanted a film that might have the possibility of opening up dialog between gay and straight Mormons, and the general feeling [was that 8 would] shut it down." Rebecca told me she had been too busy organizing the conference to reply to my email, but she had passed my concerns on to the church in question.

I soon learned that most of the conference participants were people of faith like myself, of many different faith backgrounds. Gradually, I got the sense that other conference participants actually honored the fact that I wanted to be a Mormon. They did not judge me or look at me as strange; they did not pity me. They recognized that I find strength and joy in my testimony and in my faith. They understood that the best way for me to be centered and healthy as a gay man is for me to be a whole, complete human being, which includes nurturing my relationship with God and with the community of faith of my choice.

By the end of the first day I found that far from feeling alienated because of my religion, I was being invited to draw on the deep wellsprings of my religion to help me understand and come to terms with the profound injustices we live with in this world. A focus of much of the conference was racial and economic justice, with a particular focus on the demand to restore Native American communities and rights. My mind was naturally drawn to passages I've been reading recently in the Book of Mormon warning of the judgments that will come upon the Gentiles if they fail to repent of their oppression of the original inhabitants of this land, and if they fail to restore them to their rightful place (in 3 Nephi 21); and of the general Book of Mormon witness against the dangers of economic inequality and the pride that results from it; and about the judgments that will come upon the United States if they continue "to be lifted up in the pride of their hearts above all nations, and above all the people of the whole earth, and ... be filled with all manner of lyings, and of deceits, and of mischiefs, and all manner of hypocrisy..." (3 Nephi 16: 10).

Almost every session I attended was also attended by at least one or two members of Affirmation. Thursday evening, I met with members of the Affirmation executive committee just to chat and get acquainted. We had lunch together on Friday and Saturday. Over time, I got to hear bits and pieces of individuals' stories. Saturday George Cole was telling me about the Affirmation convention planned to take place in Cleveland, Ohio. Some of the conference events will be taking place in the Kirtland Temple. George mentioned off-handedly that a number of members would likely sit out the conference this year, because of this. When I asked him why, he said that for some members it was too painful to participate in a conference so explicitly connected to Mormon history and faith.

I could relate to this. Several months after my near suicide, I remember opening an American history text book and having a panic attack just from seeing a picture of Brigham Young. Through the course of my discussion with George, and through the course of other similar conversations I had over the course of the conference, I found myself grieving the deep alienation that so many gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints have experienced from their church, from the community that should have been a safe haven, that should have protected them.

At night I found myself earnestly praying for the Spirit to be poured out on us, to heal the wounds, to comfort us, to teach us, to reassure us of God's great love for us. The Spirit was poured out on me this morning. I wept all morning: as I prayed, as I read my scriptures, as I showered, as I dressed. Göran came with me to the closing worship service at the conference. David Melson, Director of Affirmation, was there. He gave me a hug, and asked me how the conference had been for me, and I just wept. Literally cried on his shoulder. Other Affirmation folks were there, Joshua, Mary, Robert. I sat down. We were all sitting together. I felt so happy being there with them, so grateful.

At the beginning of the service, we were invited to place a symbol of our faith on a table at the front of the meeting space. I placed the Book of Mormon on the table. There was a point in the worship service where we were invited to sit in silence, Quaker style, and then share words if we felt so inspired. David stood up and spoke of his hunger for a better world, of his desire for justice, for the poor, for those who have been marginalized and oppressed. I stood up and basically bore my testimony. I mentioned that today was fast and testimony Sunday in LDS churches. I explained that this is a day when we refrain from eating and give the money we would have spent to feed ourselves to those who are without. This is a time when Mormons also sit in silence, and wait for the Spirit to move them to stand up and bear witness of what they know.

I spoke of my love for the Church, and my testimony of the Church. I pointed to the Book of Mormon I had placed on the table, and spoke of the truths that that book had taught me, and how it had inspired me with a hunger for justice, with an understanding of how the Lord will hold us accountable for pride, how it calls us to repentance and faith and humility and love. And then I spoke of how I have been grieving this week: grieving for the pain of my fellow LDS gay men and lesbians, those with whom I was sitting there. I spoke of my grief over the pain that kept so many of us away from the Church. I spoke of my grief over the fact that I could bear my testimony here among strangers, but not in my own community. Not among those whom I love and claim as my own. And so I asked for the prayers of these strangers for me, for us, for those of us who are still grieving.

Many individuals came to me afterwards. I received hand clasps, hugs, kisses, blessings. An elderly man came to me and asked if he could bless me, and then reminded me that Christ blesses those who grieve, those who mourn. I was grateful and moved by the responses. I was most grateful to Robert, part of the Affirmation delegation, who like me had come to the worship service that morning fasting, who had wept during my testimony. I was grateful for more hugs and expressions of love from David and Joshua. I was grateful that Göran had been there to hear my testimony, and had lovingly held my hand and been quietly supportive through it.

I was grateful that none of the responses of those who came to me involved the least hint of pity. There was no suggestion breathed by anyone in that room that the appropriate response to my grief should have been simply to leave the Church, to stop believing in it, to pack up and move on. Not the slightest suggestion that someone else's faith must somehow be superior to mine because there was more place for them in theirs than there was for me in mine. One woman said she wished there were something she could do. I told her I had already received as much of a gift from this group of people as I needed: acknowledgment of my right to this journey, and a willingness to work with me in those aspects of our struggles for justice and mercy that we shared in common.

Though there were more activities after the ecumenical service, that was the end of the conference for me. Göran and I left together. I felt some of the same wistfulness I felt last summer after leaving Utah. But with a greater sense of urgency.