Monday, November 28, 2011

The Third Day

Right after Matthew's description of Jesus' famous exchange with Peter on the subject of his divine identity (Peter: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God"!), Matthew states that Jesus

From that time forth began... to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. (Matt. 16: 21)

Now it's unclear to me whether this teaching of Christ about his impending torture, death and resurrection came right after Peter's testimony or not. The phrase "from that time forth began" suggests continuing activity over a period of time, and also signals a semantic break with what came just before this statement in the text. But it's still significant that this is placed in the narrative right after the description of Jesus' open discussion with the disciples about his calling as the Christ, the Anointed.

When Peter said "Thou art the Christ," he was bearing a witness that had been impressed upon him by the Father through the Holy Spirit. As Jesus put it, "flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven" (vs. 17). After Peter bears witness of what the Spirit has taught him, then Christ discusses it openly. It is almost as if Christ waited to discuss it until this sacred secret of Jesus' divinity and calling could no longer be withheld from the disciples, until their eyes and hearts were sufficiently open for them to be taught it directly from heaven.

And still... Human fear, human doubt intervenes. We are so fragile!

Jesus told them what would happen to him, and in the telling there was both good news and bad news. The bad news first. I'm going to Jerusalem, and there, things won't go so well for me. And I'm going to be killed. But now, the good news. The third day after I am killed, I will be raised from death. Death cannot conquer me! (Matt. 16: 21)

Peter didn't even hear the good news part. He went straight for the bad. And that despite what he knew in his heart, despite what the Spirit had just impressed upon him in terms he could not deny, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God! What greater knowledge did Peter need in order to trust in Jesus, in order to lay all his fears to rest? But this is the Peter who walked a few steps on the water, and then sank as soon as he saw the waves...

Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. (vs. 22)

I'd always wondered about the vehemence of Christ's response until I read it today.

Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. (vs. 23)

If you deny my crucifixion, my death, then there's no resurrection to follow. No redemption. No life everlasting for anyone. And, focusing on the bad news, it would have been tempting to turn away from Jerusalem, to avoid all that pain and sorrow. That had to be tempting to Jesus; every bit as tempting as those moments when he was starving in the desert, and Satan offered him a little bit of bread, a little bit of unearned fame, a little bit of power... Maybe Jesus was flashing back to that trauma in the wilderness when he remonstrated, "Get thee behind me, Satan...!"

Peter succumbed to the temptation to doubt, to recoil, to be fearful. And that in spite of the marvelous testimony he had just born. The contrast is striking here between Jesus' praise ("Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in Heaven") and Jesus' condemnation ("thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men"). Ouch! It just goes to show, that to have a testimony does not make us perfect. We can know things, we can have seen things and we can have received remarkable witnesses of the Spirit. And we can still falter, we can still waver in our faith.

Jesus' response (in verses 24-26) is to encourage his disciples to move into and through their fear. You're afraid of the cross? I'm not going to deny there is a cross ahead of us. So deny yourselves, and take up your cross and follow me. Let's go through this together. For in losing your life, you will find it.

To take up one's cross is to renounce fear of the consequences. To deny oneself is to deny the ego, to deny that part of us that wants to control. Jesus says, in essence, let go of your need to control. Let go of your fear. Come on, follow me into the darkness, into your fear, and through it, over to the other side.

Where, he reminds his disciples again, there is glory and life everlasting.

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then shall he reward every man according to his works. (vs. 27)

Bad news? Good news!

I can relate to Peter here. I've had that experience of receiving a revelation of bad news and good news, and getting so wrapped up in the former I forgot the latter, and stumbled a bit. But life is full of these kinds of opportunities to grow! Faith is that journey that teaches us to receive the message in its fullness, and to find hope in the good news of it at the end, and to not be afraid of the bad in between. It takes patience to walk in faith. It takes patience and trust to get up when we stumble. And in the patience and the trust, we learn the pure love of Christ.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Our Home

Today is a momentous day for me and Göran. As of today, our home is officially paid off. Our mortgage is paid in full.

The picture was taken in August 1996 when we signed the closing papers. It will be couple of months before we get the nice little piece of paper saying that the property is officially ours. When I scheduled the "pay-off" earlier this week, I was informed that we were paying a $46 fee for the county to re-issue the deed in our names, and that we should be able pick up the new deed at the county registrar's office some time around the new year. Göran is already making plans for a "mortgage burning party" to be held sometime next spring. Y'all are invited!

At a moment like this, it's tempting to go into raptures about "the American Dream." But we live in a neighborhood where a fair number of folks lost their homes a few short years ago, while billionaires were scrambling to make off with their life savings. I have friends and family who were not as lucky as Göran and I were... Who -- in pursuit of "the American Dream" -- took a chance and bought a dream home, only to have things fall apart. An ugly divorce. A lost job. And in the midst of that, trying to sell a home that had lost value in a market gone bust, and losing thousands.

In some larger sense that transcends U.S. law, the land our house stands on isn't ours. We didn't build the house. At best, it and the property it sits on are borrowed. Eventually, we'll pass it on, die, give everything back to wherever it came from. At best, we can only be grateful we have a place to stay, for now.

Göran and I were in the right place at the right time. We bought our house from friends who had bought dirt cheap and obtained grants to renovate, and who -- out of a sense of compassion or equity or whatever -- decided to sell cheap to someone who might not be able to afford a home of their own otherwise. We knew we were blessed. I still consider us more lucky than deserving.

So, we celebrate this moment with a sense of gratitude and hope, and a desire to share the love and sanctuary we've found here with others. If any of you are ever in the neighborhood, drop me a line! Stop by! All are welcome here!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Temple Attendance

This past Sunday was our Stake Conference.  As always, I was grateful to be able to attend; grateful for friends who gave me a ride, and friends who were there to be my surrogate Church family.  As is often the case, there was at least some discomfort.  Though I guess I've come to see the discomfort as a friend.  It is there to help me to avoid slipping into complacency or taking things for granted.

Our temple president spoke about covenants, which he defined (he said, according to the "Greek definition") as a strong commitment through which we come to resemble the one with whom we have made the commitment.  I reflected on the attributes of Christ: patience, compassion, sacrifice.  I reflected on how I might cultivate those attributes in myself; and on what doing so would reflect about the nature of my relationship with God.

Our mission president spoke, and invited every member of the Stake to "call yourself on a mission."  I reflected on my testimony; how it is the greatest gift that I have, and how it is the greatest gift I can share.

Those reflections filled me -- and fill me -- with peace and gratitude.

I found our Stake President's remarks, however, of greatest direct relevance to my own personal situation.  He began with an analogy between physical health and spiritual health (he used his efforts to monitor his cholesterol as an example).  He then asked us a series of questions, inviting us to ask these questions of ourselves as a way of monitoring our spiritual health.  "Do you know God and Christ and do you listen to the Spirit?" was the first question.  "Do you sustain the prophets and apostles?" which, he clarified, meant to listen to and apply their teachings in our lives.  "Do you keep yourself pure and clean of the world?"  "Do you strive to keep the covenants you've made?"  He broke it out for us: being open and honest; practicing contrition and repentance; obeying the Word of Wisdom; and so on.  This was all basically a reiteration of the temple president's message.

He reminded us that these were all basically temple worthiness questions, and he followed this series of questions with an admonition: Go to the temple frequently, because the temple is a place where you can find healing and revelation.

I determined to go to the temple.  I know I can't go inside the temple.  As long as I remain committed to my spouse, I won't be able to be baptized or receive a recommend.  But I can at least go to the temple.  I can pray and seek healing and revelation outside its walls if I can't inside.

He ended his talk with two more questions: "Are you willing to stand as a witness of Christ?"  (He quoted Mosiah 18: 8-9.)  And, "Are you willing to be an example?"  And he followed those two questions by reiterating our mission president's message with the admonition: "Share the Gospel."


The next morning, I knew I wanted to go to the temple that day.  I texted a friend of mine, a member of my family home evening group.  I told him what I wanted to do, and asked him if he would join me.  Synchronicity!  S. too had gone to his Stake Conference the previous day -- in the nearby St. Paul Stake.  And he had had a similar revelation.  Like me, he currently does not have a temple recommend.  Unlike me, he is currently a member of the Church, and has been working with his bishop and is confident of his ability to get a recommend soon.  But as of yesterday, neither of us could enter the temple.  But we both wanted to go to the temple.

So I rented an "hour car" around lunch time, and picked S. up from work.  We brought sack lunches with us.  When we arrived at the temple, there was no one there.  No cars in the parking lot.  There was a person outside the temple, cleaning the windows.  I parked the car so we could look at the temple while we ate.  My eyes were drawn to the gleaming statue of the Angel Moroni on the steeple.  We prayed together and we talked.  After we had finished eating, we got out of the car and walked around the temple.  The air was cool -- the forecast had predicted snow flurries, though we never got them.  But it wasn't too cool for us to sit down on a stone bench outside the temple and share our testimonies of Jesus Christ and of his Church with one another.


I have a little pocket charm.  Göran bought it for me years ago as a souvenir from a trip he made to northern Minnesota.  It's a little clear glass sun symbol that shimmers and reflects rainbow colors in the sunlight.  I like to carry it around with me as a reminder of Göran's love for me, but also as a reminder of the Kingdom of glory that is likened to the glory of the sun.  Its translucence reminds me of how I want to be a channel of light myself; how I want my soul to be pure and clean so that the light of Christ can shine through it.

The temple is like that to me as well.  It is a place where I can go and be reminded of what I yearn for, and what I want to be.  It is a kind of touchstone to me.  I want to go there often.

It was such a blessing to be able to worship last September inside the Kirtland Temple.  I look forward to the time when I can worship inside other temples of the Restoration as well.  But for now, I was grateful for the presence of the temple -- a place that has been consecrated by the power of God, and dedicated to the building of God's kingdom -- where I could go to be inspired and be reminded and feel the Spirit and have my testimony strengthened.


Yesterday morning, before deciding I was going to go to the temple, I began reading the Gospel of Matthew.  I was fascinated by the genealogy presented in verses 1-17.  There are a lot of very interesting things about that genealogy (the fact that it is a catalog of sinners as well as saints, not the least interesting of them).  But what interested me most that particular morning was the fact that Matthew presented the genealogy not of Mary but of Joseph.  Matthew goes on to emphasize in the ensuing narrative that Joseph is not Jesus' father by blood lineage.  But Joseph's genealogy is presented as "the book of the generation of Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham".
In the Annotated Scholar's Version of Matthew, there's a note appended to verse 25, emphasizing that when Joseph gave the name "Jesus" to the child (in accordance with angelic instructions), the "act of naming the child is tantamount to adoption, claiming the child as his own.  Thus, Jesus is the legal son of Joseph."

This somehow gave me hope.  It reminded me that in the Kingdom of God, blood does not make a family.  Faith and action do.

So I prayed for my family at the temple, as I did the first time I visited the temple a few years ago, with Göran and Glen.


My testimony doesn't depend on things in my life being perfect.  It doesn't depend on the world being a perfect place to live.  It doesn't depend on the Church or its members or leaders being perfect.  It certainly doesn't depend on me being perfect.

When our family home evening group met last month, I think I felt inspired to say something along the lines of, "The Church can only be as perfect as its most imperfect member."  And my brothers both giggled a bit at that saying, and J. said, "Well, knowing myself, that's not very perfect."  And S. and I both echoed his sentiment with hearty Amens in relation to ourselves.  If we desire to be forgiven, we must forgive.  Or, in order to receive forgiveness, we must cultivate an awareness of our need to be forgiven.  As soon as we are aware of our own sins, the need to judge dissipates, and the hunger for communion increases.

My testimony is an invisible touchstone, like my pocket sun charm, like the temple, pointing me in the right direction.  Pointing me in the direction of faith and repentance, hope and steadfastness, love and labor.

The temple is at its best a symbol of the perfection of the Kingdom, in advance of our actual perfection.  Patience and love are the virtues that will enable us to eventually realize that perfection.

Friday, November 4, 2011

And Should I Die Before I Wake...

Today I had my annual physical.

I always very much enjoy these, partly because I use it as an occasion for reflection, not just on my state of physical health but on my state of spiritual health as well.  I like that my doctor asks me very broad questions -- about how things are going at home, with my spouse and our foster son, my activities, my diet, my emotional state.  He asks me about eating enough veggies and brushing my teeth and wearing seat belts and bike helmets.  He asks me about sex.  He wants to know how I feel about myself, my sense of self-worth.  I like that he's not just taking blood and urine and feeling my lymph nodes, but that he sees my health as being interconnected with everything I do and am in life.

It's the closest I get to anything like a worthiness interview.  As I reflected on the questions my doctor asked me, I found me asking myself some worthiness-type questions.  I found myself reflecting on my state of spiritual health.  Lately I have found myself wishing I could have formal Church worthiness interviews.  If an annual or bi-annual physical is a good idea, why not an annual or bi-annual spiritual?  I guess it's assumed -- at least from the point of view of Church policy -- that because I am in a committed same-sex relationship there's no point in ever checking in on my state of spiritual welfare.  (It's hard to avoid feeling like that's a statement that I'm hopeless/worthless/not worth the time and trouble, as long as I'm in a same-sex relationship?  As a point of spiritual health, I try not to dwell on thoughts like that.)  But that certainly puts it on me to conduct regular self-exams, I guess.

But I digress...

Today, as the nurse was taking blood and urine samples, she asked me if I had a written "Health Care Directive."  I asked her what this was, and she said it was a written statement about what kind of treatment I would like in the event that I am unconscious or unable to communicate or unable to make decisions for myself.

I told her that, no, I didn't have a written Health Care Directive. 

She asked me if I'd like more information about preparing one, and I said I did.  So now I'm looking at this form that asks a bunch of really hard questions.

Now, part of the problem answering these questions is that I would be basing my answers on a lot of suppositions about an experience that I simply have never had.  It's fine and good for me to say now, "If I have a terminal illness, I don't want you to take any measures to revive me if I have a heart attack."  I can say that now, but how can I possibly know that's how I will feel when I'm actually in that situation?  Wouldn't it be possible -- likely even! -- that no matter how I actually feel about this in some vague philosophical sense now, that once I'm actually in that situation I might have a completely different perspective of the problem, and change my mind?

I remember having conversations with my mom about this when I was a kid.  My mom was a nurse for many years, and a very good one.  She actually worked in a kid's terminal ward at one point.  And she's witnessed people of all ages passing away.  And so I felt like she had some special insight about this.  From my mom I've inherited the conviction that when God is ready for me to die, there are no special measures that anyone will be able to take to prevent me from dying.  I will die.  But in the meantime, if God has put the knowledge and means at our disposal to preserve life, we should take them no matter what.

I also spent a fair amount of time with my grandmother in the last years of her life.  Grandma lived to what we generally think of as extreme old age.  She died at the age of 102.  And even though it was difficult for her to communicate toward the end, the time I spent with her was a gift.  Her life was a gift to her whole family, right up until the very end.  And I came away from that feeling that life is always a good thing, even under diminished circumstances.

But then, I wasn't in Grandma's shoes.  I wasn't on a feeding tube and oxygen.  I know it was extremely difficult for her.  I know she missed Grandpa, and was really anxious to rejoin him on the other side of the veil.  And I know how important physical activity and exercise were to her, and how difficult it was for her in those last months when she couldn't even walk.  She was getting lung infections from the feeding tube, and I know at least one family member who thought we should have taken her off it.

I don't know.

I'll be thinking about these questions in the next days and weeks, and probably putting together a written health directive.  I'm curious if others have thought about this, and if any of you have any ideas...  I'm open here, trying to figure things out.  Any insights that anyone has would be much appreciated...