Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Simple Gospel

Behold, this is my doctrine -- whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church. Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church. (D&C 10: 67-68)

Last week, I engaged in a long discussion on Andrew's blog about "Mormon Doctrine." First, it bears pointing out that this idea that Andrew repeats here that Mormonism is essentially a hodge-podge of contradictory doctrines and that no one really knows what Mormons believe is a very old anti-Mormon chestnut.

The main point I was trying to make on Andrew's blog is that, yes, many contradictory things have been taught and believed by Mormons. But "Mormonism" is not a "creedal" religion. Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ is about making and keeping baptismal, priesthood and temple covenants -- which is to say that it is about a relationship with a living God. It is not about adhering to a list of creedal statements or doctrines or formulas.

I think this is a popular misconception about religion generally. It's an error that has become so widespread as to be almost unquestioned in our culture that religion and belief are one and the same thing. So most folks just assume that religion is the aggregate of all the intellectual propositions we adhere to, plain and simple. This is, by the way, a most congenial definition of religion within a godless intellectual framework. Since, in this framework, there is no god with whom we can possibly be in relationship, our religion must, ipso facto be the (necessarily false) propositions we intellectually accept about God (or the gods). Religion is all about belief. So to study religion, you must study all the whacky beliefs out there; which can even become a kind of sport. Let's unearth all the religious whackiness out there and then we can all have a good laugh about how foolish it is to believe in anything, much less to claim that one has anything like a relationship with God.

Now, there's no denying that there's an awful lot of that type of religion out there. There are an awful lot of religious folks who agree that their religion is about what they believe. In fact, historian James Turner has argued that it was religious folks' growing insistence that religion and belief were the same thing that laid the groundwork for modern atheism. These religious types, often, are the folks who invest a lot of energy in arguing about religion. Because again, for them, as far as religion goes, as far as they suppose, belief is all they have. They're the folks, therefore, who become most defensive when belief comes under attack, because they realize that's all they have.

But there are folks for whom religion is about something much deeper. It is about an encounter with a being -- with God! -- that they cannot deny, and that is so powerful it completely realigns their understanding of the nature of reality. Folks in this category know that "belief" of any sort can't even begin to approach the reality of God; it at best gives us metaphorical approximations of who and what God is. And it is the reality, the real, living, true God and a real, living true relationship with him that they crave. Belief, for these folks, is our painfully inadequate effort to put into words what simply defies linguistic expression.

I've been reading William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, which is actually a series of lectures James delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901-1902. I'm only about a third of the way through, and maybe when I'm done I'll provide a more complete review. Though in some aspects it comes across as rather dated, it's still really a remarkable, powerful book. In Lecture III, "The Reality of the Unseen," James quotes a number of individuals who describe spiritual experiences they have had. One of the things that struck me was the similarity of the wording that people used to emphasize the significance of the spiritual experiences they had had. There was a turn of phrase that James quoted again and again, that was extremely similar to a phrase I have used myself in describing my own encounter with the risen Christ. My phrase was something to the effect of: It would be easier for me to deny my own mundane existence, than it would be for me to deny that what I experienced in that vision was real. It was more real than I am, if that is possible. I know the existence of Christ in some very objectively true way with greater force of certainty than that I "know" I or anything else in this world exists, and I would sooner deny any of that than deny Christ.

James describes varying intensities of experience. For some people, it was more along the lines of the "still, small voice," just a quiet nudging that opened new realities up to them if they followed it. For others it was something extremely intense and powerful -- like the experience I had, which reduced me for a very long time to a sobbing mass. James is right to class these experiences on a continuum, because I agree that even though I've had a very intense, powerful experience -- a vision -- what I experienced is not different in kind from the kinds of spiritual experiences I have on a more daily basis: feeling the Spirit prompting me to do this or that, or giving me specific comforts and assurances and helping me to keep courage in the path to which I've been called. So I can truly say, in a very real sense, that having witnessed and experienced the presence of Christ in a very powerful, intense way, that I have no greater basis for knowing the truth of him than I did before that experience, or than I do now, as the Spirit whispers peace to my soul, and bears witness to me personally of the truth I bear witness to now: that Christ lives in a very real, literal, objective sense, that he is the creator and ruler of the cosmos and has everything and all power of life in him.

When I sit in fast and testimony meeting on any given Sunday, I experience something like that: when the Spirit speaks, we are all of one faith. What I know is no truer than what any testimony-bearing member of the Church knows. Our experiences may vary, but the truth to which we bear witness is one and the same thing, one and the same truth. And so often that just fills me with this indescribable gratitude.

James acknowledges that while many people do have spiritual experiences, only a few seem to have the really intense, really powerful ones, and there are many, many who never seem to have any kind of spiritual experience at all. And it is not for lack of trying. There are many, many good people who follow all the steps. They obey the commandments, they read the scriptures, and they pray and ask and sometimes even desperately plead for some sign, for some spark of revelation that will make them know too, and they just never seem to get it. And James confesses (as I think we are all obliged to confess) that he simply doesn't know why some people seem spiritually tone deaf, and others seem to have this rich world of spirit that they access easily and intuitively.

But James also documents what may be a key to answering that question. Spiritual sensitivity can come and go. Some individuals described how, for a time in their lives they didn't seem to have spiritual experiences, and then some happening in their life triggered a spiritual experience and then they were newly sensitive after that. Other individuals described having had a period of their lives where this sense of powerful, objective, spiritual presence coming from outside of them one day, seemingly inexplicably, seemed to leave them. Sometimes they mourned the loss of it, sometimes they didn't.

Often individuals who have spiritual experiences -- both the more intense variety as well as the more common variety -- know, however, that they could easily be capable of losing their spiritual sensitivity if they are not attentive. If they do not live lives in harmony with what the Spirit tells them. This is congruent with what the Church teaches. What we do, how we choose to live our lives, whether we choose to live in harmony with the Spirit, has an effect, even if it is not always the determining factor. Grace -- the bestowal of a gift, over which we have absolutely no control -- also seems to be a factor, and we have no choice but to wait in patience on it if we don't get it.

True faith is an act of soul. It is an act of submission. And so the fundamental truth captured in the above quote from the Doctrine & Covenants: repentance and turning to God is the Church. Nothing more, nothing less. Not all the religious crap we carry around with us, the religious souvenirs we acquire like in so many gift shops, the beliefs, the dogmas, the foolish rationalizations we use to explain why somebody of a different skin color, or sexuality, or religion or whatever is worse than we are.

True religion is a kind of stripping away, until it is nothing but this turning to God, and the love, faith and hope that flow from that. And if we don't have that kind of religion yet, that religion of relation, all I can say as someone who has had that encounter, and whose life has become a process of renewing that encounter daily, is that it is worth everything you can do to get it. It's worth selling everything you have -- both figuratively and literally -- to acquire that one pearl. What you need to do or to give up in order to get it may be different than what anybody else needs. But I can't but believe that faith and patience and love will get it for you.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Eternal Law

These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance: Thus, in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God, do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being. Character is always known. Thefts never enrich; alms never impoverish; murder will speak out of stone walls. The least admixture of a lie -- for example, the taint of vanity, any attempt to make a good impression, a favorable appearance -- will instantly vitiate the effect. But speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there do seem to stir and move to bear your witness. For all things proceed out of the same spirit, which is differently named love, justice, temperance, in its different applications, just as the ocean receives different names on the several shores which it washes. In so far as he roves from these ends, a man bereaves himself of power, of auxiliaries. His being shrinks... he becomes less and less, a mote, a point, until absolute badness is absolute death. The perception of law awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is the power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Book of Mormon Witness on Wealth and the Poor

Sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mankato, MN 
March 20, 2011

Text: Mosiah 4: 16-26

I want to start by acknowledging the remarkableness of what is transpiring here. You've invited an excommunicated but believing gay Mormon to come preach to you on texts he's chosen from the Book of Mormon. I'm not sure how many Mormon congregations would return the favor and allow one of your number – excommunicated or not – to come preach to them from the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson or some other Unitarian or Universalist sage. So thank you for having me, and thank you for the trust implicit in granting me this time among you. I hope I can live up to that trust.

I also want to say a word about sacred texts, and about the way they are carried by religious communities. I think sometimes, when we are too close to something – like a book of scripture – we can take it for granted too easily, and we can take for granted what we think we know about it. The process of thinking about how to read the Book of Mormon to a non-Mormon audience in a way that you might appreciate it and learn from it I have found both intellectually and spiritually stimulating. So your invitation to me to come preach here has, I am sure, blessed me far more than it will bless you. So again, thank you for all the generosity that implies.

It is important for you to understand that I have personally wrestled much with questions related to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Like most Mormons who accept the Book of Mormon as the word of God, I have found my own resolution by actually reading the book, by meditating and praying about its teachings. As a young man, in preparing to serve a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I read the book a half a dozen times. In the last five years I have read it again twice, cover to cover, and have discovered in the reading profound answers to the most pressing challenges in my life. Its teachings have transformed my understanding, given me a growing sense of peace and hope, have helped me live my life closer to God, and have enabled me to hear and respond to the sweet promptings of the Holy Spirit.

One of the more profound ways in which the Book of Mormon has transformed my consciousness has been in what it has to say about the spiritual issues related to poverty and wealth. The Book of Mormon grounds its vision of society in the teaching that we are all utterly dependent on God for all good gifts in life, and that no blessing we receive, either temporal or spiritual, does not come to us as an unearned gift from a compassionate and generous Creator. For some time, I've been looking for an opportunity to more systematically collect my thoughts on this subject. And in reflecting on what I felt might be of greatest value to share with a group of people who know little about the Book of Mormon, this is what I felt most impressed to want to reflect on and share.

The Book of Mormon witness on wealth and the poor is consistent with the Biblical witness, though the Book of Mormon goes further than the Bible in explicitly theologizing the issue of poverty and analyzing the problem of wealth in historical terms. Biblical texts address the issue of poverty in four broad ways. First of all, the Pentateuch prescribes specific mercies for the poor and the unfortunate. Wealthy landowners were required to leave a portion of the harvest (or “gleanings”) for the poor. Every fifty years, in the year of Jubilee, ancestral lands that had been sold to pay off debts were returned to the families of who had originally owned them. Limits were also placed on the duration of slavery and on the treatment of slaves.

The second broad biblical way of approaching poverty is found in the prophetic literature of the seventh and sixth centuries before the Christian era. Prophets like Isaiah took concern with poverty to a new level, far beyond the minimal provisions for mercy found in the Law, essentially arguing that no ceremonial or ritual adherence to the Law was pleasing to God if the needs of the poor were ignored:

Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.... Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1: 13-17)

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

The third category of biblical teachings on poverty are found in the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. Jesus' teaching on this subject is in line with the prophetic witness, as Jesus boils righteousness down to the basic principle that in God's Kingdom “the first shall be last, and the last first,” and that our final judgment hinges on our treatment of those who are considered the “least”:

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.... Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. (Matthew 25: 41-45)

The fourth category of biblical teaching on wealth and poverty comes in the witness of the Book of Acts, where it is plainly stated that the early Church practiced what can only really be described as a form of Christian communism. This was a concrete manifestation of Christ's higher law of consecrated love, in which the welfare of each member of society was understood to be interrelated with the welfare of all others:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that bought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.... Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. (Acts 4: 32, 34-35)

When we turn to the Book of Mormon, we find similar themes and principles. The Book of Mormon, like the Book of Acts, describes a kind of Christian golden age around the meridian of time, in which “the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land” and “had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift” (4 Nephi 3).

But the Book of Mormon makes explicit in a way that the Bible does not, how the righteousness or wickedness of a people was directly related to their attitudes toward wealth and the poor. The biblical ideal, elaborated both in the Pentateuch and in the prophetic literature, that Israel brought down God's judgment for failing to obey God's law, is recapitulated in the Book of Mormon. But while the Bible tends to frame righteousness and wickedness in relation to the Law, the Book of Mormon frames it in relation to the existence of class divisions and inequity. In the Book of Mormon, inequality is either caused by or leads to pride, hardness of heart, and an unwillingness to obey God. The prophet Mormon summarized the process in the Book of 4th Nephi:

And now I, Mormon, would that ye should know that the people had multiplied, insomuch that they were spread upon all the face of the land, and that they had become exceedingly rich, because of their prosperity in Christ. And now, in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world. And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them. And they began to be divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain, and began to deny the true church of Christ. (4 Nephi 23-26)

Wealth leads to pride, pride leads to class division, and class division is implicated in the denial of Christ. The beginning of the end is signaled when people no longer share their goods in common, a sign that their sense of individual well-being is no longer tied to the common good. Apostate Christianity is a Christianity whose purpose is to facilitate the getting of “gain.”

The scripture reading for today was taken from the Book of Mosiah, from a much beloved text among Latter-day Saints, known as the sermon of King Benjamin. The clarity with which King Benjamin speaks to the requirement of mercy toward “beggars” has had a discernible impact on Mormon culture. Devout Mormons are among the only people I know who as a matter of principle cannot refuse direct requests for money from panhandlers. If someone asks me for a dollar, as much as this drives my husband crazy, I feel morally obliged to dig into my wallet. It's against my religion to say no. This was documented as a more general phenomenon in an essay published in Sunstone magazine a few years back, which followed the panhandling activities of homeless people in Salt Lake City. There's a story – I don't know if it's apocryphal or not – that former LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson – known for his arch-conservative political views – always gave money to panhandlers. When questioned by someone if he didn't worry that they were just going to spend the money on alcohol, Benson's reply was that he would rather give money to ninety-nine beggars who used the money poorly, than to turn away one person in genuine need.

Be that as it may, the theological principle in King Benjamin's sermon runs far deeper than how we respond to panhandlers. The sermon dispenses neatly with one of main historic arguments against welfare, namely that the indigent person is to blame for his own poverty:

Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4: 17-19)

All the material, physical goods that we enjoy are literally unearned gifts. Without the air we breathe, without the water renewed in cycles of evaporation and rain, without the earth from which crops grow and minerals are mined, we would have nothing; and all of this came to us as the unearned consequence of being born into a world filled with material abundance. So if only in this very literal, physical sense we are beggars in relation to God, and we have no moral basis to deny help to anyone in need on the grounds that they haven't earned our assistance.

But King Benjamin speaks not only to the implications of being born into a world of material abundance, he finds material, physical applications of principles we would ordinarily think of as purely spiritual. Spiritually, King Benjamin says, we are beggars, because we are all sinners. This is a common theme in the New Testament as well, the idea that human sinfulness makes us “debtors” in relation to God, that failure to forgive the debts of others will result in God's refusal to forgive us our debts. But King Benjamin takes this principle out of the realm of the spiritual and applies it back again directly to the material, temporal realm:

And behold, even at this time, ye have been calling on his name, and begging for a remission of your sins. And has he suffered that ye have begged in vain? Nay; he has poured out his Spirit upon you, and has caused that your hearts should be filled with joy, and has caused that your mouths should be stopped that ye could not find utterance, so exceedingly great was your joy. And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another. (Mosiah 4: 20-21)

In this framework, refusal to help the poor is a grievous sin, perhaps the grievous sin, for it is a sin that is directly implicated in a refusal to acknowledge the nature of our relationship with God, a relationship that is defined by complete and utter dependence:

And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth.... (Mosiah 4: 22)

In King Benjamin's discourse, receiving and retaining remission of our sins literally depends on sharing our material wealth with others:

And now, for the sake of these things which I have spoken unto you—that is, for the sake of retaining a remission of your sins from day to day, that ye may walk guiltless before God—I would that ye should impart of your substance to the poor, every man according to that which he hath, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and administering to their relief, both spiritually and temporally, according to their wants. (Mosiah 4: 26)

Beginning in 1834, in Kirtland, Ohio and later in Missouri, Latter-day Saints sought to implement the principle of having all goods in common. They called the system they were trying to establish “The United Order,” and the principle undergirding it “The Law of Consecration.” Those early efforts ultimately failed, and in 1838 were replaced with what the Saints to this day understand to be the inferior “Law of Tithing,” presently practiced by donating a mere ten percent of our increase to the Church. Latter-day Saints still understand that to fully live the higher law instituted by Christ, we are called upon to consecrate everything we have and everything we are to the building of Zion, defined as “the pure in heart” (D&C 97: 21), a state in which we will be of one heart and one mind, and dwell in righteousness; and where there will be no poor among us (paraphrased from Moses 7: 18).

For those of us who claim to adhere to the Restored Gospel established through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the very least we can acknowledge is that the present capitalist order of things is false and conceived in sin. As regards things temporal and material, we are at best living under the inferior law of mercy; at best, trying to limit the worst effects of poverty. Rather than kicking away the supports that provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, we would be actively looking for ways to extend supports, improve education, expand health care, build affordable housing, invest less of our gross national product in electronic toys or gas-guzzling SUVs, and more in a clean environment and in ecologically responsible agriculture. In other words, we would see it as our Christian calling to develop a more humane and environmentally responsible social infrastructure. And far from scoffing or hissing at the redistribution of wealth, we would recognize it as a profoundly scriptural principle, we would welcome it and long for it and prepare our hearts for it. The ability to see how, from the least to the greatest, from the last to the first, we all are profoundly interrelated, we would recognize as a mark of spiritual maturity, and we would make the highest goal of our spiritual institutions the fostering of that kind of consciousness. The terrifying, heart-breaking news that we see every day from Japan lately calls us to recognize and live into our interdependence, or risk descending each alone into our own individual hells.

I know that in the minds of many, to preach a sermon like this marks me, at best, as a hopeless idealist, though these days I find myself more motivated by hope than hopelessness. My own sister can't decide whether I'm a misguided fool or a dangerous radical. I can't help it. I can't help this deep yearning for Zion, any more than I can help cracking open a wallet when someone asks me for a dollar. I can't help it because the teachings of King Benjamin and the witness of the Holy Spirit won't let me go. They won't let me forget that the notion a dollar belongs to me is an illusion. They remind that if I'm not willing to give that dollar away, I'll never appreciate the full truth of my existence: that I am dependent, that we all are dependent, on Heavenly Parents who have given everything and all as a pure and free gift of perfect love.

That the Holy Spirit may plant that truth deep in our hearts and teach us the way of that pure and perfect love is my humble prayer, in Jesus' name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Healing Moments

JonJon recently wrote about a healing experience he had connected to a place where he had lived when he was a student at BYU. It made me remember a similar experience I had a few years back, in the fall of 2004.

Göran and I were visiting my family in Springville, UT. I had been contacted by an old friend I'd known when I was an undergrad at BYU. He was working in the BYU archives and wanted to meet me and Göran. He offered to give us a tour of the archives and take us out to lunch. I agreed to meet him on campus with a little bit of apprehension, because the last time I had been at BYU had been eighteen years earlier, when I had been suicidal. I wasn't sure what kinds of feelings would come up.

The visit to BYU itself went fine. Göran and I had a great time meeting with my friend. And my friend clearly didn't seem to be phased by the fact that I was gay and in a committed relationship. He was warm and inviting and politely curious, and Göran and I had a great time on the tour. I also realized that I had many pleasant memories from my time at BYU, and this friend was helping me get in touch with them.

But as we were leaving campus, I got a bit lost. I was trying to get reoriented and figure out how to get back to the highway to return to Springville, and we ended up driving along the edge of campus that is closest to the Provo Temple. Then I saw to my right the apartment complex I had been living in when I had made the decision to kill myself. Park Plaza Apartments. I pulled the car into the parking lot. I was just kind of gasping for breath and starting to cry. And Göran was kind of stunned, and didn't know what was going on and was asking what was the matter. So after I had composed myself a bit, I explained to him some of what I had been going through when I was living there.

I thought it would be bad, but it ended up being really good. It was this really cool, healing moment. I realized I was in a completely different place now and I had learned and grown so much since then -- very similar to what JonJon has described. I ended up asking Göran to take a picture of me there, which he did.

At that point, I was still pretty angry at the Church... But it was the following year that I started going back to Church. So that healing moment was I guess preparing me to open my heart and grow even more in some pretty incredible ways!!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Religious Histories

I'm launching a new blog called Religious Histories.

Young Stranger is my personal blog, dedicated to finding my way in the world as a person of faith, who has a testimony of the Restored Gospel, who also happens to be gay and in a committed relationship with a man.

Religious Histories will be a bit more intellectually and academically focused. I plan to use it in conjunction with my teaching of "CH 462: American Religious Histories," offered at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. On the Religious Histories blog, I will reflect on what I have learned, and what I hope we can all learn, through the study of American religious history.

There's some overlap, obviously, between the two blogs. My work and teaching as an historian is shaped by my unique experiences and perspectives as a Latter-day Saint, as a gay man, as a husband and a father and a son living in this time and this place; just as my personal life and my faith are informed by my intellectual pursuits and what I know as an historian.

So if you're interested in history, feel free to come on over and join the conversation over there. I still plan to live mostly here at Young Stranger. But when I'm feeling a little more heady, I may take a stretch over at Religious Histories!

P.S. There's a special prize for the first person who can correctly name all the people whose pictures appear in the masthead of the new blog!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Remember a few months ago when I was kind of in a funk, feeling a bit lonely and isolated? In the last few months, my prayers have been answered.

Last fall, I got an email from someone local who had read my Sunstone article, and wanted to talk. Another friend of his (who had given him the Sunstone article in the first place) also wanted to meet and talk. We all have testimonies of the Gospel, and want to support one another in efforts to be faithful in spite of the challenges that come with being both Mormon and gay, so since our initial lunch together we've been meeting once a month holding a "family home evening" together.

Our family home evenings always start with food. Lately it's been evolving into a full-blown meal that we prepare together! Eating (and preparing food) together is this great time for us to just talk and socialize. Then we eventually start the more devotional portion of our time together with a hymn and a prayer. I love it when we sing hymns together. Gay men really know how to sing! J. and S. usually sing harmony and I sing the melody, and we sing with real feeling, with real soul. The prayers are heartfelt too; we tell God what is really on our minds and in our hearts; we pray for each other and for others outside of our circle. We pray for our fellow Mohos! The time we spend together would be worth it, just for the singing and the praying. But then we spend some time reading the scriptures together and talking about gospel principles. And as we do that, we get to do what it's really difficult to do in our Sunday School and Priesthood meetings... We can talk in an uncensored way about some of the struggles and questions related to being gay and keeping the faith. We end the devotional part with another hymn and a prayer. Then we have an "activity," usually a board game. (Last time we played "Settlers of Zarahemla," basically a Mormon version of "Settlers of Catan"! You have the added bonus of getting prophets to call the people to repentance, and racing to build the temple!)

Our family home evenings usually end up lasting five to six hours! And the time just flies. Once a month feels like not often enough for us to get together and talk about stuff, so in between our monthly family home evenings, we've also taken to meeting occasionally for lunch during the work week. This month, a member of our group is performing in "Bare," a play about two boys in a Catholic boarding school who fall in love with each other. So Göran and I and the other member of the family home evening group (and anyone else who wants to come with!) will be going to watch him perform and cheer him on.

In addition to our small family home evening group, I've been extremely grateful for Moho brothers and sisters I've connected with long distance by phone and by email. This has really been so incredibly good for my soul. I actually had a dream a while back in which one of my Moho brothers was giving me a haircut. In dreams, our hair usually symbolizes our thought processes. So I understood this dream about having a Moho brother trimming or cutting my hair to be about him helping me to clarify my thoughts about things, helping me to "think right." That in fact is what he does for me on a regular basis in the various phone conversations we have. And I am so incredibly grateful.

I have benefited so much from these deepening friendships. I can't even begin to tell each of these individuals how grateful I am. I weep sometimes to think about it. I feel like I've been on a long hike in the desert. My feet were bruised and calloused and aching; I was hungry and I was dying of thirst. And I didn't even realize how hungry and thirsty and tired I was until I reached my destination and took a load off my feet, and started to eat and drink water to my soul. Only now that I have been blessed in this way do I realize how much I really needed this gift of friendship.

We all need it. Our journeys are too long and too lonely without it. We need to tend each others' injuries and feed each other spiritually. We need to give each other haircuts! We need to pray for each other. We need to take better care of each other.


If you live in the Twin Cities area, and think you might be interested in joining us for our monthly family home evening, just contact me through my blog! You are most welcome to join us -- whether you are LDS or not.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Vicarious Principle

I've been reading James E. Talmage's Articles of Faith recently. I read it the first time when I was sixteen, and first starting to get excited about the prospect of serving a mission. Later, after my mission, I read Jesus the Christ. Talmage is one of my favorite apostles, and one of the great LDS theologians.* Recently, I've been reading Talmage's discussion of the vicarious principle in LDS teaching and practice, and have been blessed to be reminded of a fundamental insight into the nature of the great vicarious work.

The principle of "vicarious work" is at the heart of all Christian theology. The vicarious principle is built into the Atonement itself. The idea behind the Atonement theology taught in most Christian churches is that we cannot save ourselves. There is nothing we individually can do to fully atone for our own sins. That work had to be accomplished for us by someone who was capable of atoning for sin. And that someone was Jesus Christ.

God regarded Christ's death on behalf of unfortunate sinners who could not save themselves not as a failure of justice but as its fulfillment. Christian theologians have long wrestled with the implications of such a principle. To many the vicarious principle has undermined conventional notions of justice and equity. This is one reason, for instance, that Deists attacked Christian doctrine as repulsive and offensive. If one person breaks the law, and another person is punished instead, in our society we typically consider that a miscarriage of justice. We have elaborate legal mechanisms set up in our society to ensure that only the one actually guilty of a crime gets punished for it. But in the economy of divine justice, it seems, a willing innocent may accept the burden of paying a debt for someone else who can't pay the debt him or herself.

The only real innovation of Mormon theology over the standard Christian principle of vicarious atonement is the extension and broadening of the notion to almost every aspect of Christian practice. If, for example, a person dies without ever having the opportunity to be baptized, another may be baptized in his or her stead. In the Mormon scheme of things, through vicarious work we can all become "saviors in Mount Zion." Many of us have this opportunity to labor and do for others what they cannot do for themselves, extending salvation to all who desire to be saved. Again, this is not considered a travesty of justice in the Mormon scheme of things. It is one of the finest expressions and examples of divine justice, in that it demonstrates the true universality of God's love.

The vicarious work is linked to the Atonement in another powerful way. The vicarious work acknowledges that, in an ideal world, everyone would accomplish for themselves whatever they need to do for their own salvation. Everyone would have a fair chance to learn what they need to learn, and to prove their moral worth. But the world we live in has been distorted by sin. Because of sin, the world is filled with illness and disaster; with war and tyranny; with cruelty and corruption. Families are torn apart by poverty. Infants die of starvation. Minds and bodies are wracked by disease. Relationships are distorted by physical and sexual abuse. Sin has a vicarious effect! Each of us suffers in various ways because of the sins of others! So many of us are caught in chains of causality that limit our choices and make it impossible for us to do for ourselves what we might otherwise do in an ideal world. The vicarious work acknowledges that because of the real power that sin has in this world, some of us are in desperate need of help and healing. And it permits those of us in a position to help and heal to join Christ in his work of reaching out and saving those who cannot save themselves.

The relationship between healer and healed, of course, is not just a one-way relationship, in which one person always plays the healer and the other always plays the healed. In reality, the uniqueness of our personalities and experiences and gifts means that there are areas of my life where I need healing that only someone else can heal, and that person may have other areas of his or her life where only I can heal. Healing is usually a two way street, or even an intersection where multiple paths intersect and healing needs to flow in multiple directions!

What's more magical about this is that sometimes the healing I need can only be provided by someone I regard as my enemy. It is also likely that there are individuals out there who regard me as their enemy, who can only get the healing they need from me.

We live in a culture that has been shaped by Enlightenment individualism. Despite the insistence of our prophets and our poets that "no man is an island," in our culture we insist on believing that we each, in fact, are islands unto ourselves. That we should be complete and self-sufficient in ourselves. The inability to stand on our own two feet is considered a failing and reason for shame. For a man to be dependent on another man diminishes him and makes him less than a man. (Women are allowed to be dependent on men, which tells us something about how women are viewed in our culture.)

In this culture, the vicarious principle is offensive and counter-intuitive. In our culture, those who accept the vicarious principle as valid, tend to accept it as "a mystery," as something that works in theology even though it doesn't really work out here in "the real world."

But if we allowed the vicarious principle to teach us, we might learn some pretty amazing things about ourselves and others. We might learn that:

* the destiny of each of us is interconnected with the destiny of every other one of us

* what happens to one of us has an effect on all of us

* if any one of us is left out, isolated and alone or in pain, left to fend for themselves, we have all failed

* there is no such thing as individual salvation, only collective salvation that links every individual to a family, and every family to the great human family, all offspring of a Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father

If vicarious atonement of sin is possible, if vicarious baptism or vicarious marriage is possible, it is because there is no meaningful difference between you and me and we are all one with Christ, who stands for us before the throne of God and pleads for every single one of us, and who reaches out to and saves the "least" among us.

Sunday we had Stake Conference and I sat next to my friend Mary. When Mary was struggling and in pain and wrestling with doubt before her baptism, I was there encouraging her, bearing testimony to her, and trying to model faith in the best way that I knew how. When Mary was baptized, there are few occasions in my life that have been more joyous for me. I wish I could have been baptized on that day, but I couldn't be. I had to experience the joy of Mary's baptism vicariously. I saw the joy in her face, and I accepted it as my own joy. Oh, that was sweet! It made me so happy to think, "At least she has been saved." And her first words to me out of the font were, "I won't leave you behind." And when I struggle and am sad, she is there to encourage me and bear testimony to me, and model faith in the best way that she knows how. And she's born witness to me again and again since then how she knows that her salvation isn't complete without me. That has been such an incredible comfort.

*Though Mormons are generally uncomfortable with the idea of studying "theology," which they tend to associate with "philosophies of men," Talmage didn't eschew the term, and certainly wouldn't have been uncomfortable applying it to his own work.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Except We Have Charity

I'm convinced that one of the great heresies is the notion that faith is primarily about accepting intellectual propositions.

It's not that certain intellectual propositions don't bear on faith. For instance, I would characterize the Doctrine of the Atonement as an intellectual proposition. Learning and studying and engaging with the Doctrine of the Atonement, I believe, teaches us how to approach God. But it is not the doctrine itself which connects us to God, it is the approaching. It is the postures and the movements of soul that are enabled once we accept the doctrine as true.

The intellectual propositions of faith are intended to stimulate unconventional perceptions of the world around us, to free us from the tyranny of mundane evil. The world is, for the most part, trapped in an endless cycle of hate, violence, counter-hate, and counter-violence. Few will take responsibility for ending the cycle, because most are obsessed with blaming someone else for starting the cycle of violence. Christ gave us the doctrine of turning the other cheek, returning love for hate. This doctrine makes no sense within the framework of mundane wisdom: justice demands returning pain and retribution for hate. Christ demonstrated the doctrine by living a sinless life, by succumbing to the full onslaught of the world's murderous hate when he died on the cross. And then he rose again from death, showing us the wounds in his hands and feet and side; demonstrating the power love has to overcome evil without responding to it in kind.

The Doctrine of the Atonement is offensive and incomprehensible to the world. At some level, I think, we all reject it and rebel against it. But if we can find a place in our hearts for it, it transforms our perceptions of the world. In my personal encounter with the living Christ I suddenly recognized how my hate and my anger had been returned by him with pure love and forgiveness. That recognition melted the hardness of my heart and replaced it first with immense sorrow for the wrong I had done, and then with inexpressible gratitude for the gift that had been offered me so freely. It also made me recognize that if I had been so forgiven, there was no grudge I could consistently hold against anyone else. Those who sin against me in anger and hate, I realized, have simply failed to understand the underlying principles of the cosmos; principles that are masked in the false, sinful reality we all participate in. Their misunderstanding is no different from my own, so I have no basis for judging them. When I accept the new reality established in the Doctrine of the Atonement, I realize that the only appropriate response is to conform my life to Christ's by returning love for hate; to join Christ in anticipating the New Heaven and the New Earth in which this false reality, this false awareness will be wiped away.

Faith comes in living that core proposition: that love must be returned for hate. It also comes in the surrender of ego. It is our egos that make our hurts, our pain, our offended sense of justice more important than that of others. Christ says: Surrender all that. If you cling to your life, you will lose it. It is only in letting go your life (your ego) that you gain eternal life. True faith only comes as we enter into this path; as we begin to wrestle with our egos, as we exercise the discipline of holding our desire for retribution in check. Yes, it is a struggle!

The propositions, the doctrines of faith, can only really be a light to us once we have accepted the deeper commitment to live them. Yes, we explore them at first tenuously, wondering if something so nonsensical as the doctrine of loving your enemies can make the least bit of sense in the world we live in. The doctrines open us to radically different possibilities. But it is only in embracing those possibilities, in committing ourselves to them, that the full light of the doctrines can shine into our souls.

This is why Moroni says, "Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith"! (Ether 12: 6).

For so many years, I only read half of the twelfth chapter of Ether because I misunderstood the relationship between faith and love. I shouldn't have misunderstood this chapter, because Moroni states pretty much at the outset of the chapter exactly where he's going with it:

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. (v. 4)

Moroni starts with an intellectual proposition ("whoso believeth in God"), which he links to "hope for a better world." But that hope, he explains, "cometh of faith... which would make them sure and steadfast always abounding in good works." So, it seems, the hope enabled by belief is a fruit of "faith" (different from belief!) which Moroni links with "good works." In other words, belief is the product of love.

Now somehow I always missed this teaching because I was raised in a culture that acted as if faith was the same thing as "belief." So when Moroni launches into a series of examples of the miracles that could be accomplished through faith, I was obsessing about the sheer miraculousness of the fact, for instance, that Alma and Amulek could cause a prison to collapse (v. 13), or that the three Nephites could live on the earth until the Second Coming (v. 17), or that the Brother of Jared could literally move a mountain (v. 30). As I read these examples, I thought Moroni was in essence saying, "You too could perform these miracles if only you believe in them." As if, by staring at a mountain for long enough, and really thinking about it enough, I could make the mountain collapse. That, of course misses the whole point of this discourse. Believing that I can move the mountain has nothing to do with my ability to move it.

In the second half of the chapter, when Moroni starts talking about "charity," I thought he had changed subjects. And in my immature brain and soul, I thought he had changed to a less interesting subject at that. I was more interested in the flashy stuff. Seeing the finger of God from behind the veil and all that.

In fact, the litany of things that could be accomplished by faith were just a build-up, intended to explain just how powerful faith actually could be. Yes, miracles can be accomplished by faith. But then Moroni explains precisely what faith is.

When we talk about "things hoped for but not seen," what precisely, in this world, are we talking about? Nothing less than the Kingdom of God, which is nothing less than the this-worldly embodiment of charity, or the perfect, pure love of Christ. "A better world." That's where Moroni started this discourse. Faith is that hunger, that hope for a better world which we see nowhere around us. "Wherefore, ye may also hope, and be partakers of the gift, if ye will but have faith" (v. 9).

The heart of this doctrine of faith is centered in the love Christ demonstrated through the atonement:

This love which thou hast had for the children of men is charity; wherefore, except men shall have charity they cannot inherit that place which thou hast prepared in the mansions of the Father. (v. 34)

It is this demonstration of charity, of the pure love of Christ, which constitutes the "trial of our faith" without which we will "receive no witness" (v. 6).

Moroni worries aloud in this text. What if we show charity, but others don't show it back? What if they mock us and refuse to believe us because of our weakness? (vs. 23-28). It's interesting to me how the verse we typically focus on in this half of Moroni's discourse is the part about how "if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.... for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them" (v. 27). We're all worried about our weakness. We don't want to look weak to others. We don't want to be weak. But the Lord's point about making our weakness "become strong" is ancillary to the main point here. It's not about strength. It is about charity. The Lord expects us to show charity in spite of weakness, whether we see weakness become strength in the short term or not.

There's not a single word in this entire chapter that doesn't apply as much to gay people as it does to everybody else. I was having a conversation with a member of my gay Mormon family home evening group. He is really struggling in his relationship with the Church; feels on the verge of completely dropping out. And the focus of his conversation with me was that the Church is not acting like the Church is supposed to act. The Church is supposed to cherish every soul -- including gay souls! Not forget about us and lose track of us and discount us and and fail to take seriously our deepest needs and yearnings and hopes for love and family, because it's decided that we are defective or handicapped or undeserving sinners. Yes, it hurts to feel the nurturing bonds of love that are so characteristic of LDS community, only to see them shattered by a revelation about one's sexuality. We feel betrayed and angry. And that's how the cycle of pain, anger and hate starts for us. Yes, this is real! It's not just some Sunday School lesson any more. This is the consequence of the failure of charity. This is what failure of faith feels like. That's when our challenge really begins.

I asked him, "Who is the Church?" Isn't the Church you, when you choose to exercise charity?

"If they have not charity it mattereth not to thee," explains the Lord, "thou hast been faithful" (v. 37). Whether others show charity or not, in other words, when we show charity we have won the same victory that Christ won. We will have shown the same faith that enables us "sit down in the place" he has prepared for us "in the mansions of my father."

Now Moroni bears witness at the end of this text that he has seen Jesus and talked with him face to face. Miracles do follow faith. Belief in miracles does stir hope, and it gives us courage to try faith. But there always comes that moment when we have to decide what we believe more. Do we believe in the possibility of love triumphing over evil? Or do we believe what the world tells us about the futility of all striving for goodness?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Lord, We Come before Thee Now

I discovered a little gem of a hymn in the LDS hymnal that I don't think I've ever sung before. The only reason I found it is because I've taken up the practice of singing hymns from the LDS hymnal that correspond to scripture texts I've been reading in my daily scripture study.

"Lord, We Come before Thee Now" (LDS hymnal #162) was written by William Hammond, who was born in England in 1719. Hammond became a Methodist in 1743 -- during the First Great Awakening -- and later joined the Moravian Brethren. He died in England in 1783, 22 years before the birth of the prophet Joseph Smith. He wrote a number of hymns that were popular on both sides of the Atlantic, in the American colonies and in Great Britain.

The words to this hymn seem so suitable to the situation GLBT LDS face:

Lord, we come before thee now;
At thy feet we humbly bow.
Do not thou our suit disdain;
Shall we seek thee, Lord, in vain?

In thine own appointed way,
Now we seek thee; here we stay.
Lord from hence we would not go,
Till a blessing thou bestow.

Send some message from thy word
That may joy and peace afford.
Comfort those who weep and mourn;
Let the time of love return.

Grant we all may seek and find
Thee, our gracious God, and kind.
Heal the sick; the captive free.
Let us all rejoice in thee.