Thursday, September 22, 2011


I had a powerful experience yesterday in yoga class.

Anyone familiar with yoga understands that the practice involves putting your body into postures that produce various forms of physical stress. Now there are right ways and wrong ways to do the postures, and often in yoga it's possible to experience added stress because you're doing the posture the wrong way. Instead of finding that place of perfect balance and harmony, you muscle your way through it -- and muscling your way through yoga becomes really exhausting really fast.

Of course, if you do yoga in a classroom setting, as I do, you have instructors who are constantly telling you what to do. Telling you to assume this position or that position, and also giving you pointers, tips on how to do the position right. "Fire up your quads! Lock your hips forward! Pull your belly button in to your spine! Lift your chest! Pull your shoulders back away from your ears!" And so on. (Yoga has taught me that there is power even just in the way we stand -- if we stand a certain way!)

Our instructors are often giving us so many instructions, it is easy to miss some of them. We tend to focus in on one instruction, figuring out how to follow that one instruction, but completely missing another instruction given right along with it. So it seems like every day at yoga I'm learning new things about postures I've already done dozens of times before. I'm learning how a posture I thought I was doing right, I've actually been doing wrong all along. So I'm learning and constantly adjusting. I have to accept that each new yoga class is in a way like starting from scratch.

So yesterday I was in class, and we were doing one of my least favorite postures. And as I was in this posture, sort of suffering and sweating, and praying for it to end, I heard the instructor say, "Release all tension in your arms and your back. Just hold tight with your hands and kick back! Your whole body except your legs should be completely relaxed." I think I'd heard this instruction at least a dozen times before. But now I realized fully for the first time ever, I had never actually followed this instruction. Every time I'd ever done this posture before, I had always tensed my shoulders, my chest, my arms. Now it finally sunk in. Hold tight with my hands, kick my legs hard, and relax everything else. So I did it, and all of a sudden, the posture was completely transformed! My shoulders relaxed and slipped down, and all of a sudden I was breathing fully and easily, and I felt this wave of relief move through my whole body. And I had this wonderful moment of pure illumination when I recognized: I Finally Understand This Posture! Wow!

It was a moment of spiritual illumination too, because I immediately understood the parallel between this experience in yoga and the larger spiritual principle of obedience. I recognized that God gives us commandments because he wants us to be strong and to experience our full potential. The commandments seem hard sometimes. There's lots of them, and we have a tendency to focus on certain ones, and miss other ones that are equally or more important. And so, figuratively speaking, we get into these postures that are extremely difficult. And we're not quite doing it right, so we just muscle our way through in order to make it work, and that hurts even more. But if we keep working at it (and there's no progress without working at it, so even doing it wrong is better than not doing it at all) eventually we have that "Aha!" moment when we realize, there's just that one simple adjustment we need to make, that one thing we need to do, and then all of a sudden everything falls into place. And we find our true power.

Yoga has certain broad principles that can guide its practitioners in getting into that groove, finding just that right posture. For example, in yoga, it is very important to learn how to breathe, and how to focus on breath. Similarly, there are broad principles in the Gospel that can guide us, and help us figure out how to make course corrections: principles such as love, forgiveness, trust, nonjudgment. (Yoga incorporates these principles too!)

The whole purpose of the commandments -- and this is what the Spirit spoke to me in yoga class yesterday -- is to teach us how to love, fully, completely, and without holding anything back. God's whole design for us is to help us become beings of perfect love. Obedience to God's commandments, in some ultimate sense, is the flip side of love.

Now obedience is impossible without trust. We cannot and should not obey someone we do not trust. We won't obey somebody until we are convinced that the person we are obeying loves us and desires our best interests, and also unless we believe that this person knows what he or she is doing. I've developed a level of trust with my yoga instructors that enables me to show up at class every day, and be willing to do some pretty difficult, physically stressful stuff, just because someone tells me to do this or do that. And my trust has been rewarded with strength and a feeling of physical well being.

So I understand how those of us who have been deeply wounded by the Church (and I have been deeply wounded too!) might be afraid of the Church. If we experienced grievous wrongs, it is natural to want to put some distance between ourselves and those who have wronged us, and then to want to stay away. Maybe some of those wounds can never heal in our life times. So maybe some of us GLBT folks who grew up in the Church and came of age in the 60s, 70s and 80s will never be able to experience sufficient trust to go back. Trust can be stretched pretty far, but once it is broken, sometimes it is impossible to restore no matter how hard one tries. So I understand why so many of my generation find it difficult if not impossible to imagine any sort of a positive relationship with the Church.

Some of us feel similarly betrayed by God. Though I would argue that it was never God who betrayed any of us, but rather a false image of God that was presented to us by fallible people.

The principle remains: in order to progress into the state of perfect love we all aspire to, we need to learn obedience. Obedience is a very, very good thing, and can help us to learn and grow in extraordinary ways. It can be a golden road to spiritual growth. If you have found the iron rod of the Spirit leading you through the mists of darkness, then all that remains is to listen to that, and to trust it and obey it. Obedience to God first and foremost outweighs all other kinds of obedience. Though I believe that obedience to God eventually leads us back into spiritual community, into the Church, where we can learn other kinds of obedience and trust and mutual submission.

And if you haven't found that iron rod of the Spirit (or if you're lacking your own Spirit Liahona), if you still feel lost, you need to find that. I think the best way forward, when we don't know who or what to trust, is to look around us. Who are the people in our lives who best seem to personify perfect love? Those are the people who are most likely to be building their lives on a foundation we can trust. Those are the people we can start to emulate, whoever they are, whatever religion they are, wherever we can find them.

If obedience leads us to perfect love, love can also show us the way to true obedience.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

On Keeping the Spirit

This is the text of the talk I gave at the Affirmation convention devotional, delivered Sunday, September 18, 2011, in the Kirtland Temple.

We all already know everything that we need in order to have the Spirit in our lives. We need the desire to return to God's presence. We need the patience to face our old selves, our sinful selves, and to begin the day-by-day work of making a new us. We need the humility to accept that there are things we do not know, that we need to learn, that only God can teach us. And we need to trust that if we open ourselves to God, that he will teach us, often through those we least expect to learn from.

Most of us in this room know what it is to be split in two, split between the part of us that yearns for human intimacy, and the part of us that yearns for spiritual community. Many of us in this room have wondered if, perhaps even at some point decided that, life could not go on when we feel split in two that way. Too many of us not in this room, no longer with us, have acted on that decision to end life. We know what it is to feel utterly alone, to realize that those who ought to care most about our souls will never understand. We know what it is to feel the light of our faith flicker out and go cold.

There came a point in my life when I decided that it must be some kind of sin to believe in God, that there was special virtue in forging ahead through life without him, finding my own meaning, free from the dilemma that came with devotion to a God and a Church that taught me someone like me couldn't truly exist. There came a point in my life when I believed it would be impossible to believe again, because I had seen too much, I knew too much, I had gone too far to believe in God any more. God was like Santa, and once you'd figured out he's not there any more, there was no going back.

But I have come to understand that my unbelief was a kind of blessing from God. I have come to learn that there is no faith possible without the grace of God. Faith is beyond our mortal grasp. It is too high for us. It eludes our best efforts to obtain it. Faith is a gift from God, such that when we receive it, we know from whom it comes. So the unbelief too is a gift. It is that state in which we must find ourselves before we can truly apprehend what kind of gift faith is.

After Moses spoke with God on the mount, “the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth. And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:9-10).

We each need to learn this for ourselves, in our own way. And our sojourn through faithlessness can be a similitude of our whole journey here below through mortality, outside of the presence of God. If we lack the gift of faith, we have a chance to see what we will do, to see what we are made of when we think we are alone, when we think we are not being watched. And it is a chance to come to our own appreciation of what our limits are, what our works are compared to the works of the Maker of the Universe.

When, after living for many years without faith, I found myself in the presence of the Spirit again, it was a bitter moment. I was confronted with the failure of my best efforts to make something meaningful out of my life and to find a true, meaningful love. But that confrontation was also a moment of pure joy and peace and hope; real hope, a completely new and genuine hope found on the other side; after the despair, after the darkness, after the struggling on my own and the failing. The Spirit presented me a choice: I could start to make the kinds of changes in my life that would allow me to have a more constant companionship with him, or I could continue to struggle on my own.

I resisted at first, because I did not know what kind of changes I might have to make. Would I have to leave my partner?

But the Spirit encouraged me, reassuring me that I would find joy and peace if I followed its promptings unconditionally, that I would find the strength and encouragement to do what I needed to do, and that I needed to learn to trust the Lord. Ultimately, I realized that this is what I needed and desired in my life, more than anything else. And so I began to build my life again on the principles of faith and repentance. And that has opened up in me a well of life everlasting.

I said that we each already know what we need to do to have the Spirit in our lives. And this is very true. I cannot tell any of you what you need to do to have the Spirit, partly because what you need to do might be very different from what I need to do. I now have a basic rule of thumb in my life which is that if something is driving the Spirit away, I need to stop doing it whatever it is, no matter how trivial. If something is enhancing my ability to feel the Spirit and receive personal revelation, I need to keep doing it. And I need to be attentive. I need to spend most of my prayer time listening to the specific instructions and commandments that the Lord has for me, for John, here in this time and in this place. And then I need to do them.

But if my relationship with the Spirit is very personal, I can still talk about three broad principles I've learned in trying to keep the Spirit in my life. I will be grateful if the Spirit can use my insights to give someone else here this morning some insight – even if our paths end up being very different from each other.

First, restraint, renunciation, and moderation are good things. Our ability to sacrifice is directly related to our capacity for love. Living the Word of Wisdom, honoring the Sabbath Day, and dedicating one tenth of our income to the work of the Lord can be living symbols, reminders to us and to others of our commitment to live close to the Lord and to follow him. Avoiding pornography, and being chaste in our thoughts, and in our words, and in our actions can heighten our sense of the sacredness of our sexuality and enhance our relationships with our significant others. Caring for our bodies through moderate eating and exercise habits; living within our means and spending less rather than more; being attentive to the impact our lifestyle choices have on the environment; can all be ways to practice attentiveness and sensitivity. And an attentive, sensitive life is a life open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Everything we do has an impact on ourselves and on those around us.

Second, if we are hungry for knowledge of spiritual things, we can be filled with the Spirit. If we make time each day for prayer and scripture study, we will begin to make connections, to see how, yes, every word in scripture has a direct relevance and meaning to us, to our particular circumstances. We will begin to know the truth as it applies very directly and personally to us, and the truth will begin to set us free. Most of us in this room have been deeply, deeply wounded at Church, so Church is a difficult place for us. Many of us are disfellowshipped or excommunicated. Church can be a frightening place for us. But if Church is more difficult for us, then so much greater are the rewards of facing our fears, and of cultivating the hope and charity and patience that it takes to wash our face and our hands, and put on our Sunday best, and show up in a spirit of love and reverence and humility, with a desire to learn. Though I have often sat alone in the pews, I have never been alone. The Spirit been there with me, by my side, a warm arm of fellowship around me, whispering truths of peace and love I never could have learned anywhere else. If we open our hearts, and have the courage to go, Church attendance can become the brightest time of our week. It can become something that we do not merely out of a sense of duty, but something we hunger for.

Third and most important, love is the beginning, the middle and the end of the law. There is no law, no commandment greater than the commandment to love. If our love is modeled after the love of Christ, we will not ask if those we love have treated us kindly, if they have loved us first, if they have understood us or stood by us. Even if those we love hate us, our love has the power to transform both us and those we love. Love shifts our view of the world around us, of the Church, of our neighbors, of our families, of ourselves. It teaches us to act into our greatest collective and individual potential, to above all seek Zion, the pure in heart.

I could not begin to be capable of this kind of love, until I experienced it firsthand from a loving Savior, who reassured me through the Spirit that whatever wrongs I had done, whatever sins I had committed, whatever anger and hate I harbored, he loved me perfectly and purely and completely. I was perfectly and purely and completely forgiven. In the warmth and light of that love and forgiveness, there was no wrong another could commit against me that I could not forgive. Whenever I have been tempted to hold on to anger or judgment or condemnation, I have remembered that pure love of Christ for me. I can only retain a perfect sense of his love for me, so long as I am willing to forgive, completely and unconditionally.

If we have experienced rejection and misunderstanding and hate, we are blessed! Because we can never know if we are capable of the kind of love Christ taught if we were always accepted and understood and loved by others.

The Spirit's mission is to sanctify and transform us, to make Saints out of us. And our ability to receive the Spirit and become Saints is not based on the acceptance we receive, either individually from Church or family members, or collectively from the Church as a whole. It is based on our willingness to enter into the path that Christ showed us.

We can be a light to each other, to our fellow Saints, and to the world. And we can experience a peace beyond all earthly peace, a love beyond all earthly love, a light beyond all earthly light, a joy beyond all earthly joy, and perfect companionship with One who loves and knows us perfectly.

That we might all enter into that perfect peace, love, light, joy and communion I pray,

In the name of Jesus Christ,


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Is a "Big Tent" Gay Mormon Movement Possible?

Yesterday I posted about my experience at the Kirtland Affirmation convention. This was really a spiritual mountaintop experience for me. And, trust me, not just because I was asked to speak at the devotional. For me, what was most powerful was being able to associate with other gay men and lesbians who have a deep love for the Church and who have testimonies of the Gospel. The experience with the choir was amazing, our director was amazing. The heartfelt prayers, singing LDS hymns, the testimony meeting, and being in a sacred place were what made this conference so meaningful. And the fact that I could be there with my husband, that I could be open about and talk about my love for him, and about being gay. For the first time, my husband was open to and responsive to my faith; he showed an interest in Mormonism and support for my expressions of faith that I've never seen before. And the hospitality of the Community of Christ people played a role too. I felt totally loved and embraced by them; and that was no small part of the power and beauty of the time I spent in Kirtland. I felt like I found some new brothers and sisters who affirm me both in my gayness and in my faith as a Latter-day Saint. At Kirtland I had an experience of wholeness. I could be both gay and Mormon.

Or could I?

This morning I found an angry message in my email in-box from an Affirmation member who was furious about yesterday's post. His message said, among other things:

Your blog posting about conference was predictable. I was only asked to read it by someone else. Your criticism of Affirmation members who don't believe in what you believe in lacked respect and reminded me of the elitist shit I experienced in Church. Affirmation is for BOTH types, ppl. who still believe in the Church and those who don't....

I, sincerely, hope Affirmation doesn't continue to exclude those who don't believe in the Church, as I'm noticing it has begun to. If so, I'll be one of the many long-time members who'll leave. And, at the low rate of consistent new members that Affirmation has, that'll kill off an org. that's meant for all.

The end of his communication, which I won't quote here, was hurtful, though clearly written in anger. I responded personally and privately, and I'm still waiting to hear back from him. I'm hoping we can resolve our differences and still be friends.

Yet, though this was a personal email, and I still want to try to resolve our personal issues personally, I wanted to post and discuss his criticisms publicly because I'm aware that others feel the way he feels, and because I want to try to discuss some of these issues more broadly with people who -- for whatever reason -- disagree with me.

First, I wanted to address the complaint that statements I made "lacked respect" for "Affirmation members who don't believe in what [I] believe in." Regardless of how what I said may have come across to people, I feel utmost respect for all members of Affirmation -- those who believe as well as those who don't. So I feel bad and want to apologize if I said anything in a way that comes across otherwise. I categorized myself as an unbeliever for a good many years, and my doubts were honest doubts. I've been on both sides of the faith/doubt divide, and I don't discredit anybody who's on the doubt side. I understand why gay men and lesbians are alienated from and angry at the Church, and I also understand why honest people of all sexual orientations reject certain teachings/beliefs of the Church.

Having evaluated and lived with my doubts for many years, I eventually came to a place of faith that has been incredibly empowering. It's natural for me to want to share that empowerment with others, to point out that there are ways past doubt, back into faith again. This is no less natural than the desire unbelievers in the blogosphere seem to have to share their views with us "unenlightened" believers. Everybody thinks they're right, or they wouldn't think what they think. Fair enough? I'm not sure if that's "elitist" or not. But if we're having any sort of conversation at all, isn't it because we're committed to the notion of a free exchange of ideas? That isn't disrespectful is it? So long as we acknowledge the right of each to exist and hold opinions different from one's own?

I think the difference between me and this person boils down to a question alluded to in his remark that "Affirmation is for BOTH types, [people] who still believe in the Church and those who don't."

He says this. Everyone says this. But someone honestly looking at the history and make-up of the organization will acknowledge -- and I don't think this is just me! -- that at best both types have co-existed uneasily within the organization, and for the most part the believing types have ended up feeling there wasn't much of a place in the organization for them. I haven't taken a scientific poll, but based on the experience I have had, it seems most members of the organization consider themselves ex-Mormon and feel hostile toward the Church. And I've experienced a culture of ridicule for those who do believe ("how can you possibly believe...!") and who practice (being made fun of because I don't drink alcohol or coffee, for instance). I personally know and am aware of many believing gay Mormons who simply do not feel welcome at Affirmation. Many have tried it, and not come back when they experienced the prevailing culture of doubt, anger and ridicule. Many more have not even tried it, based on what they've heard.

OK, so believers definitely don't feel at home in the organization. And apparently, according to this individual (and other individuals), if the organization attempts to sponsor activities that will attract believers, unbelievers will feel "excluded." In his words, "I, sincerely, hope Affirmation doesn't continue to exclude those who don't believe in the Church, as I'm noticing it has begun to." "Exclude" is a strong term, and it's not technically true. I assume he means is that he feels unwelcome. But if he feels unwelcome because this year Affirmation chose to organize a conference that might be more appealing to believers, then there's a problem with his original statement that Affirmation is supposed to include both believers and non-believers. If the organization only ever sponsors activities that appeal to non-believers, and if the non-believers get pissed off and boycott whenever the organization does something that appeals to believers, clearly the organization can't be inclusive of both.

After reading through this person's email, I actually felt terrible. It was not my intention to disrespect anyone. I felt really happy about having been able to participate in a conference where I felt fully and wholly affirmed -- both in my faith and in my sexuality. So my post was meant as a celebration, not as a snub.

This person didn't specify which parts of my post he thought were "critical," "lacking respect," or "elitist." But in reading through my post, I can see how certain statements could be read that way:

Why have an organization of GLBT Mormons, if it doesn't include fostering a positive relationship with the Church and fostering a genuinely Mormon spirituality?...

Given the sea change taking place in the Church right now, and the growing understanding of GLBT issues among Mormons and the greater acceptance of GLBT members, will Affirmation have a future if it continues to position itself as an ex-Mormon gay organization?...

At least three different Affirmation leaders had told me before the conference that members of Affirmation were boycotting the conference this year because it was "too spiritual."... Perhaps the fact that it was in Kirtland this year had the opposite effect as well; perhaps it attracted individuals who yearn deeply for that spiritual connection.

I can see how some of these (and perhaps other) statements taken out of context could be seen as critical or disrespectful or elitist. All I can say in my defense is that I have really been trying to honestly appraise the organization and determine if there's a place for me in it. I said in the post that "I've always been careful to check that 'outsider' perception [that most Affirmation members are non-believers who are alienated from and angry at the Church] against the perceptions of active Affirmation members themselves." Is it not fair simply to ask: Is this a fair generalization? And when numerous committed, long-time members I've spoken with not only agree that it is a fair generalization, but accept that it applies to them personally, then is it not possible for me to discuss this generalization and its implications not just for the organization but for me personally, without being accused of being "disrespectful"?

So, stressing again that I have utmost respect for people who disagree with me (on all sides of this issue!), let me point out that this exchange highlights a fundamental problem for Affirmation as an organization. And I hope that pointing this out is not taken as a criticism of anybody. It is simply pointing out that perhaps we cannot both have our cake and eat it too.

GLBT folks who consider themselves "ex-Mormon" or "post-Mormon" or "non-believers," however they want to put it, will look to an organization like Affirmation mainly as a kind of "recovery" space. Right? Is that unfair? "Recovering Mormons." Their interest in Affirmation is its potential to connect them to others with similar background who can relate to that experience of having formerly been Mormon, and of having grown up gay in that context. Other than that, they have no desire for any significant connection with Mormon faith, spirituality or institutions. All of those things feel toxic to them, and they have no desire to be exposed to it, because it brings up too much painful stuff. Or, at best, maybe if they're further along in their healing process, they're simply indifferent to it. It does nothing for them and feels boring or like a waste of time.

GLBT folks, on the other hand, who consider themselves still LDS or Mormon or "believing" or "practicing" or however they want to put it, will look to Affirmation for something completely different. They will want Affirmation to help them find answers to difficult theological questions. Like, how can I reconcile my sexuality with my beliefs? What do the scriptures really say about homosexuality? Is there a future for me and my significant other in the Celestial Kingdom? How does the Gospel apply to me in my situation? They will want to connect with others who have testimonies of the Gospel, and they will yearn for contexts where they can both express and live their faith, and feel affirmed for who they are as GLB or T. They will feel like a gay religious organization needs to be religious, or it's a waste of time, because if all I'm looking for is gay-friendly social events, there are already plenty of secular gay organizations that will affirm my gayness. There are also plenty of non-Mormon spiritual organizations -- for Quakers, Lutherans, members of the UCC, etc. None of these groups have problems accepting ex-Mormons. But I personally need something that affirms me both as a gay person and as a Mormon -- which is not something that any other organization does.

OK, so you've potentially got two sets of people with needs that seem to run directly contrary to one another. An organization that plans activities to meet the needs of folks in category A will very likely end up turning off or even offending people in category B. On the other hand, an organization that plans activities to meet the needs of folks in category B will likely turn off or offend people in category A.

This is why conflicts over the role of alcoholic or caffeinated beverages in Affirmation events has been so contentious in the past. It's really kind of emblematic of this problem. Category A folks see nothing wrong with drinking in moderation, and certainly see nothing wrong at all with coffee or tea. In fact, for them, drinking wine, beer or coffee is sort of symbolic of their liberation from every other constraint of faith they find irrational. They like to imbibe because it makes them feel free. And so they get really offended when folks in Category B might suggest that if Affirmation is a gay Mormon organization, it might be inappropriate to serve alcohol or coffee. This can become a really shockingly emotional issue, something to which I can testify, having been ridiculed on numerous occasions for my decision to order a ginger ale when every other person at the table is ordering actual ale. And, by the way, most of my non-Mormon or never-Mormon friends would consider it totally gauche and uncouth to tease me for something like that, but ex-Mormon friends feel no pain at all. The emotional issues around this are clearly a "Mormon thang."

So let me again, as I did in my last post, simply pose the question: Is it possible to have a "big tent" Mormon organization that includes both believers and unbelievers? Or are our respective needs too incompatible for us to coexist within the same organization? The question is not intended as a criticism. It's asked in all honesty, with a desire for a factual, honest answer. Because if the answer is No, and if Affirmation feels that it must cater predominantly to those in Category A, then I must, with sadness, say that those of us in Category B need another organization.

I say with sadness, because I have a genuine love for every single person I've ever connected with at Affirmation (or in any other gay Mormon context for that matter). As a human being, at a very human level, I don't care what you believe or don't believe. I never have. I don't judge you. I don't disrespect you. I have fun fellowshipping and laughing and crying with you. I love you. I honor the journey you're on. I've experienced too much pain in my life around all these issues to think any less of you for having made whatever decisions you needed to make to survive.

If you think I judge you just because I am a believer, that's your stuff. You deal with it. Because I don't judge you. I really don't care what you do so long as you are happy. I do what I need to do to feel whole, to integrate my spirituality and my sexuality so I can survive and thrive.

Maybe we can have a big tent. Maybe we can have one organization that meets all our needs. And maybe it only seems like we can't because we haven't figured out how to love one another the right way yet.

And if that's the case, I'm still willing to give it a try.

Monday, September 19, 2011


I didn't quite expect to feel the way I did, and to experience what I did.

This past weekend I was at the annual Affirmation convention in Cleveland/Kirtland, Ohio.

I arrived Friday night, in the middle of the opening reception. It was great seeing (and getting hugs from!) old and new friends! Right after the reception was over, there was a first rehearsal of the Affirmation choir, which was preparing to sing at the Sunday devotional, to be held at the Kirtland Temple. My friend Chuck, who lives here in Minneapolis, recruited me to sing! I almost didn't sing with the choir. I'm kind of an introvert, really! But I realized I didn't have any really good excuses not to sing, and part of me really wanted to do it, so I let Chuck persuade me. And I'm so glad I did!

We had a skilled choir director, J., who knows how to motivate, and had some great techniques for bringing out the best in our singing. More importantly, she has a deep love for the Gospel, and was full of the Spirit! We began and ended rehearsals with heartfelt prayers offered by choir members. And J.'s testimony came through in little inspirational talks about the meanings of the hymns we were singing. Her love for each of us choir members shone through in everything she did and said. In fact, thanks to J., singing in the Affirmation choir was probably my favorite aspect of the conference.

Saturday there were a series of workshops, held at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Cleveland. I attended two sessions dedicated to the topic, "The Future of Affirmation." There I spoke frankly about my sense that Affirmation has developed a reputation for having a membership and leadership that is largely alienated from and angry at the Church. I have to say at the outset that I've always been careful to check that "outsider" perception against the perceptions of active Affirmation members themselves. Whenever I have, however, Affirmation members have themselves confirmed the perception of Affirmation as an organization that consists mostly of "ex-Mormons" who have little or no desire to retain any kind of relationship with the Church. That perception was again confirmed in the discussions I participated in at the conference, by a preponderance of individuals who essentially said, "Yes, I am angry about what the Church has done to me/to gay people. And no, I have no desire to have any relationship with the Church any more. The Church is something that used to be a part of my life, but I have no desire for it to play any significant role in my life any more." One participant in the discussions said that if Affirmation started to put any sort of emphasis on having a more positive relationship with the Church, that he would likely leave the organization, and, he suspected, so would many others.

I posed two questions. First, Why have an organization of GLBT Mormons, if it doesn't include fostering a positive relationship with the Church and fostering a genuinely Mormon spirituality? Present at one of the discussions was Jill McCrory, President of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. She talked about AWAB organizing prayer meetings and Bible Studies, etc. I said that I didn't see much of that kind of activity in Affirmation. Unlike members of other gay religious organizations, Affirmation members didn't seem to have much interest in actually practicing the religion practiced by their straight counterparts. I talked about getting teased by Affirmation members, for instance, because of my desire to live the Word of Wisdom. (Apparently, the whole question of having alcohol, coffee and tea at Affirmation events has been a contentious issue in the past.)

My second question was, Given the sea change taking place in the Church right now, and the growing understanding of GLBT issues among Mormons and the greater acceptance of GLBT members, will Affirmation have a future if it continues to position itself as an ex-Mormon gay organization? As the Church becomes a more accepting place, won't more and more GLBT members prefer to stay active and connected to the Church if they possibly can, and won't Affirmation grow increasingly out of touch with the needs of those kinds of members? That question generated a fair amount of discussion.

One individual said he didn't want Affirmation to start "pressuring" him to go to Church. I'm not sure how he got that out of my question... For me, it is not a question of "pressuring" anybody to do anything. It's about providing support for those who do desire to remain connected to the Church.

The final workshop I attended was related to this whole question. The workshop consisted of a dialogue between Hugo Salinas and David Baker on the issue of whether the Law of Chastity could apply to same-sex relationships. The discussion revolved in part around the question of whether same-sex couples should adopt the same norms and values that exist in the Church for heterosexual couples. I posed the question: Is there value in sexual self-restraint? I clarified that I understand that excessive repression is unhealthy. But so is promiscuity. Are there principles built into the Law of Chastity that it makes sense for same-sex oriented individuals to adopt? This was a lively and fun discussion, that stayed on an upbeat note throughout. I hope Affirmation will continue to have many discussions like this.

But after the workshops began the most meaningful part of the conference for me: the time we spent in Kirtland, Ohio. A bus drove conference participants to "Historic Kirtland," owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and to the Kirtland Temple, which is owned by the Community of Christ. There we participated in tours of the sites, and heard a lecture on the history of the Mormon movement given by John Hamer.

The lecture emphasized the structural and doctrinal evolution of Mormonism. It highlighted the various schisms, and the effects that structural and doctrinal evolution of the movement had on different groups of Mormons. In the process, we learned a lot about the Community of Christ, and it's relationship to the LDS Church. It was a fascinating lecture!

At the LDS visitor center, we were greeted by a number of elderly missionary couples, who divided us into two smaller groups and then took us to various sites. The stream in the picture here was used for baptisms. The Saints would dam the stream up until the water became sufficiently deep to baptize by immersion. Later, they showed us saws that were used to cut the ice in the winter, for winter baptisms!

This is the Newel K. Whitney Store. We also took a tour of the Whitney home, where we learned a lot about life in 1830s America, and what life was like for the Saints in Kirtland.

The high point of that part of the tour for me was when they took us to the upper rooms of the Whitney store where the School of the Prophets was housed (a much smaller room than I had envisioned), and (pictured here) the room where Joseph Smith worked on the inspired translation of the Bible, and where he received a number of important revelations that are now canonized in the Doctrine & Covenants. At times, the tour was very emotional for members of the group. J., our choir director, wept as we sat in the School of the Prophets.

The tour of the Kirtland Temple itself was particularly poignant for me. I had been asked to speak at the devotional on Sunday, and had been anticipating this for some time, wondering what it might feel like to speak from the same rostrum where Joseph Smith and so many other early Church leaders spoke. The accounts of the temple dedication, of course, also described this as the place where Christ himself had stood. When the Community of Christ tour guides brought us into the assembly hall itself, and I saw the pulpit where I would be standing, it's hard to adequately describe what I felt. Awe. Longing. Reverence. Sadness. Gratitude. The welter of emotions took me by surprise. It was almost overwhelming. I think many members of the group there felt similarly conflicting emotions.

Göran arrived Saturday evening, after the tour. I wished he had been able to make it to the tour, but he wasn't able to get off early enough Friday afternoon to travel there with me. Göran did make it to the banquet Saturday night.

(There might be some strange rumors floating around on the Internet about me donning a geisha dress and wig and performing some kind of dance instigated by Hugo Salinas during the entertainment portion of the banquet. I cannot confirm or deny any such rumors, and certainly won't post any photographs!)

Sunday morning we arose early, put on our Sunday best, and got back on the bus for Kirtland. At 8:30 a.m., I went to the third and final choir rehearsal in the Kirtland Temple itself, while Göran met up with Jon Jon to explore the Kirtland Temple visitor center.

After the choir rehearsal, a testimony meeting was held in the Kirtland Temple. This was the high point of the whole weekend for me. After the opening prayer and hymn ("I Know that My Redeemer Lives"), one by one, conference participants stood up and started bearing their testimonies. Some shared powerful spiritual experiences. All spoke frankly and poignantly about their feelings about the Church and the Gospel, and their feelings about being in the Kirtland Temple. Part of the power of the experience was to be in a place that has played such a central, formative role in the history of the Church, and that is still used as a Mormon place of worship. For those of us who have been excluded so long from bearing our testimonies in a Mormon place of worship, this was unbelievably powerful. (I cannot thank the Community of Christ enough for their hospitality.) Rarely have I felt the Spirit so powerfully present.

Göran was there, and so as I bore my testimony, I was speaking mainly to him. I talked about our relationship, and all the ways he has supported me, and how difficult it was for him to see me go back to the Church, largely because of his desire to protect me. I spoke from the heart about my feelings for the Church -- first the intense pain and trauma I had experienced as a young adult, and then my alienation and anger, and then my surprise on learning at the age of 42, that I actually had a testimony. And I spoke about feeling the Savior's presence in the Kirtland Temple, and what it meant to me to be in that space. And I shared my perception that what I know about Christ and his Atonement and about the Restoration of his Church is so much larger than me or any one of us -- a sentiment that several listeners audibly and visibly assented to.

After I came to my seat, Göran gave me a gentle hug and a kiss, and put his arm around me. As other gay and lesbian Mormons stood and bore their testimonies, and spoke of their love for the gospel and their love for the Church, I experienced a growing sense of surprise. Some, true, spoke of their sense that their calling in life had now taken them beyond the LDS Church. But most didn't. Most testified of the continuing power of the Restoration in their lives. What was happening here? Had anything like this ever happened anywhere, much less at an Affirmation convention? There was just such a spirit of gentleness and peace, and tears were flowing like a river. And I was so grateful that Göran could see. I wasn't the only one. There was something powerful here. Maybe hearing others' testimonies, Göran could finally understand why this meant so much to me.

I have been in a state of amazement since that moment. Is there some new work of the Spirit here?

The devotional was at 11:00 a.m. The choir sang "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing" and "The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning." (It was.) Bill Russell, from the Community of Christ, spoke about GLBT inclusion within his own community, and shared his hopes for reconciliation between the Community of Christ and the LDS Church. Then I spoke on the subject of "Keeping the Spirit in Our Lives." The next speaker was John Behn, the father of an Affirmation member. He shared his testimony, and told about the spiritual experiences that led him to love and accept his gay son unconditionally. Then Joanna Brooks gave the final talk, telling of her journey as a GLBT ally and committed member of the Church.

It was all sort of overwhelming. Kendall Wilcox was there with his film crew, documenting some of the conference (though they were not permitted to film inside the temple). They also interviewed me and Göran after the devotional. One of Kendall's photographers was weeping during the devotional -- though he later protested that he never gets emotional at these kinds of things! This was just different. The LDS missionaries from Historic Kirtland were there too. The conference organizers had invited them to come, and they graciously accepted the invitation. One of them was weeping as well. As were many, both on the stand and in the audience.

I felt deep, deep gratitude and amazement for the conference as a whole, for all the big and small miracles that happened in the choir rehearsals and performance, during the historic tours, and during the testimony meeting and devotional.

At least three different Affirmation leaders had told me before the conference that members of Affirmation were boycotting the conference this year because it was "too spiritual." They felt uncomfortable attending a conference that was organized around the Church historical sites at Kirtland. Perhaps the fact that it was in Kirtland this year had the opposite effect as well; perhaps it attracted individuals who yearn deeply for that spiritual connection. I've never seen so many lesbians with testimonies! The stories shared by the lesbian sisters (including our intrepid choir director, J.) were the ones that made me weep the most!

Perhaps it was something about that place that put us in touch with our deepest spiritual yearnings, that gave individuals permission to open themselves up to feelings they'd been too afraid to come in touch with.

Whatever it was, I want more.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My Body

I've been practicing yoga now for almost two months. In addition to participating in the classes (and practicing postures and breathing on my own), I've been reading a book by a teacher/practitioner that has allowed me to learn more about the philosophy and spirituality undergirding the physical practice.

I'll say at the outset that my practice of yoga has been a profoundly spiritual experience. I have had a number of startling and powerful spiritual experiences, on the mat, in the classroom. And my practice of yoga has also deepened my prayer life and my spirituality off the mat, in my personal prayer life and in my day-to-day living.

I'll also add that I see a broad correspondence between the fundamental principles of yoga and Latter-day Saint teaching/belief. Mormons are profoundly committed to the principle of the fundamental unity of spirit and body. We recognize that "the spirit and the body are the soul of man" (D&C 88:15) and that "spirit and element inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy" (D&C 93:33). Yoga honors this connection between the physical and the spiritual. And it links the physical practices to spiritual principles, the "Yamas" and the "Niyamas." The physical practices are intended to develop the kind of discipline and spiritual insight that will better enable the five moral restraints of nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, moderation and nonhoarding (noncovetousness?), and the five observances of purity, contentment, zeal/austerity, self-study and devotion to God. I have found yoga as a discipline has been helping me to clear away many physical and mental and moral distractions that inhibit my prayer life and interfere with my ability to live the teachings of the Church. It has granted me greater insight into some of my own limitations, and has offered me a format for working on those limitations, and thereby deepening my love and commitment to my Savior and my Heavenly Father. So for me, yoga has actually provided me some spiritual tools to deepen my faith as a Latter-day Saint.

Yoga has been doing that partly by teaching me about my relationship with my own body. This has been invaluable to me. I have begun to experience some incredible healing of deep, deep injuries in the intersection between physical and spiritual.

For instance, one of the first things I became aware of through the practice of yoga was how my everyday posture was fundamentally fearful and protective. I began to realize that I walk and sit and stand in a way that is sort of drawn into myself, hunched over. Head down, shoulders drawn in, slightly bent forward. I've always sat with my legs tightly crossed, my hands or arms crossed. As if my whole life I've been trying to make myself smaller and less visible; and as if I've been trying to cover or protect my vitals. Standing up tall with my spine at its full height, with my head high and my shoulders back, I realized, has always made me feel vulnerable, so I've basically spent my whole life ducking, trying to avoid being seen.

The physicality of yoga has brought me in touch with something else more fundamental and profound. I've always had an aversion to sports, to physicality. I've never liked sports -- either watching or playing sports. And though I've always enjoyed physical exercise, I have never engaged in the kind of discipline that would actually build physical strength. Yoga does that. In two months of practicing yoga, I am slowly finding myself able to accomplish certain physical feats I never would have dreamed possible. I am finding my body has physical strength and flexibility I never dreamed I could have -- even when I was twenty-five years younger! And for the first time ever in my life, yoga is putting me in touch with the power of my physical body.

This, I realized, is what I've spent much of my life protecting myself from, hiding from. I was afraid of my own body, and the power in my body. I was afraid of the sexuality that was connected to that physicality and that strength. And I'm beginning to be aware of the distortions that that fear created. Because we can try to hide from our physicality, but it won't go away. And if we're hiding from our physical selves, we're not developing a healthy relationship to our physical selves.

So, for instance, I've always, since teenager-hood, struggled with masturbation. I honestly don't think the masturbation was a bad thing. It was the one connection I really had to my own physicality, my physical body. And I think at some level, through masturbation I was trying to figure myself out, figure out the link between the spiritual and the physical. It was also, I now realize, a way of closing myself off from what seemed very threatening and frightening to me: relational sexuality. I've always felt like, in or out of relationship, I had to have this private sexuality, this private relationship with my own body.

But as I've developed my yoga practice, I've found the urgent need I'd always felt for masturbation sort of evaporating away. I don't know how to say it other than that I find myself developing a different kind of relationship with my body, as I've begun to appreciate the goodness and power and strength inherent in my body. I don't know how to describe it other than to say that I feel like I'm finally furnishing the house of my body and fully living in it, and it feels very, very good. It's enabling me to let go of physical compulsions and anxieties and just be me. I feel like I'm really breathing for the first time ever.

And that's another example... My asthma is going away. Maybe it's just that the breathing exercises in yoga are expanding my lung capacity, so the asthma affects me less? I don't know. But I am breathing more fully and deeply than I ever have before in my life. And that alone feels like a physical miracle to me.

Yoga probably isn't for everyone. I'm not necessarily recommending it to everyone. I think what is fundamental is finding some kind of practice that permits us to deepen our relationship with our physical bodies. Last night, I met with my gay Mormon Family Home Evening Group, and D. was saying how important dance had been to him as a way of exploring that physical/spiritual connection. So people might find that connection through dance, or football, or whatever.

But I am incredibly grateful that I have found that connection, that I am finding that connection and continuing to deepen it and learn from it. It's not something I have to force myself to do, like going to the gym. Going to the gym was a chore. But this I hunger for, and I am incredible grateful for.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Foretaste of Zion

Today in Sunday School, the teacher shared a very intimate, painful story, as an example of the healing that is possible through the Atonement. Later, she told me she hadn't been planning to share the story, and was a bit surprised at herself having shared it. I said I wished such sharing were possible more often; I wished people felt safe enough to be able to share in such a way. And she said, sometimes its not even a question of whether others will accept such sharing, it's a question of being able to process one's own feelings about something in such a way as to be able to even speak about it.

We sat next to each other in Sacrament Meeting. I felt as if a real bond had been created between us through our discussion of pain, and sharing, and of the miracle of healing we have experienced through the Atonement, and of the presence of the Spirit as we discussed such things in class. I am so grateful for this sister, for the loving kindness, the sweetness she has always shown toward me.

I'm often so aware of my status as an outsider; I'm reminded of it every time individuals are sustained in callings and I can't raise my hand; whenever the Sacrament tray passes me by and I can't partake. I've always felt the Spirit at Church; I've always felt like I belonged in some spiritual sense. But still...

But this sister has always made me feel deeply as if that didn't matter. She's made that inner spiritual reality of belonging visible and objective through her loving kindness toward me. And that was manifested to me this morning as we sang the hymns together -- the way our voices harmonized.

As we sang the Sacrament hymn, I looked up around me. I saw the bishop and his counselors and the speakers singing together up on the stand. I looked around me. All these people I know as people, people I know in their quirks and individuality; some very present, some distracted; yet, all gathered. I watched the priests breaking the bread, one of them reverently singing the hymn along with the rest of us from memory. ("In humility, our Savior....") I felt this tremendous love and forgiveness washing over all of us, as one body. It didn't matter where we'd been. Somehow that love would unite us. Somehow we'd find a way to all get there together. We were each trying in our own way the best we knew how, and the grace of God could cover the rest. And there was this sister, singing with me; our voices blending beautifully together in praise of the love of Jesus.

I was overcome by the beauty of it. I had to stop singing for just a moment, to catch my breath, and steady my voice.

I'm glad I was in Church today!