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,



blog author Duck said...

I really loved this talk, John. I wish I had been there to hear it in person. I learn so much from you. I, too, love the Spirit, and work at doing those things that help me to have access to it and its teachings.

I have been reading your blog posts from the past few days. I feel like you in relation to Affirmation. When I began the 'coming out" process, I was desperate to receive any kind of help or guidance along the way. I joined a couple of online support groups for a little bit until they no longer helped. I looked at Evergreen and Affirmation but felt they were such extremes of each other and neither helped me. Affirmation especially felt antagonistic and brazen in its contempt for things related to the Church. Like you, and David Baker among others, I want my community in the Church along with my being gay. I was hopeful when Northstar came along, but it does not meet my needs, either. With three organizations out there, it would be nice if one of them fit the "just right" category for me, but sadly, none does. I know you wrote, several months back, about the need for perhaps a fourth organization. Maybe that is what needs to happen, for those of us who are trying to embrace the Church and the fact that we are gay and want to love someone.

Thank you for your thought-provoking posts and for your keen insights.

love and respect, always.

blog author Duck said...

P.S. So glad that Goran could hear you speak and that this was a good experience for him, as well as for you, to be in Kirkland. Yahoo!

J G-W said...

b.a.Duck - Thanks! Kirtland was amazing. I wish you could have been there. I wish everyone could have been there!

You know, the thing is... There are so few GLBT Mormons, dividing up into 4 organizations seems crazy. I've been resisting the temptation to start a "fourth organization," partly because of that. But maybe that's all that's left to us... I have a hunger to gather with other GLBT folks who have testimonies of the Gospel (and the Church!), and who yearn to express and live that faith the best they can. I've been trying to work things out with North Star, but I feel only barely tolerated by a handful of folks over there. Again, with Affirmation there are many, many folks in that organization whom I love and who want to have me, but there are a lot of folks there, I think, who are baffled by me and pissed off at me... And I want more experiences like what we had in Kirtland, which is what can happen when people come together in faith, share their testimonies, and humbly ask the Lord for a blessing.

I have to think about this.

Matthew said...

This was awesome! I love what you said here. Understanding that our capability for love can be expanded, through the love of Christ, is such a powerful concept.

I really think this is important as well:

"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."

Christ passed through great suffering as He accomplished His Atonement. If we are truly to become like Him, I think we must pass through our own suffering as well. It is the only way we can understand the pain of others.

Thank you for sharing this talk with us all, John. It is truly beautiful.

J G-W said...

Matthew - Thank you! Of course, we don't need to go searching for pain or trial... It comes to us without having to do anything special. But when it does, it is a blessing to think that this is an opportunity for us to follow Jesus' footsteps.

GeckoMan said...

John, I'm so happy for you and Goran to be able to go to Kirtland. Your remarks here are so insightful, and I wish I could have been there.

Thanks to this post, I went over to the Affirmation website, to see if I could learn more about the conference, but instead found out that the Portland group was meeting the next evening. Sue & I were going to be in Portland anyway, so we went and had a very nice time meeting some great people. We hope to maintain the new friendships and be involved in other activities as they come up.

Thanks for all you do.

Anonymous said...

It's not possible to have the Spirit and engage in gay sex. Utterly impossible.