Sunday, December 11, 2011

835 Dreams

This morning, I recorded my 835th dream in my dream journal. It actually appears in the journal as Dream #815, but there are exactly 20 other dreams that escaped my numbering system, either because I jotted them down in the dark and promptly lost or forgot about them, only to find them later, or because I wrote them down before the days when I actually started numbering my dreams in a journal. Some day, probably in the next year or two, I will record my one thousandth dream. And then I think I will throw a party. I'll invite anybody who ever made an appearance in one of my recorded dreams. I doubt George W. Bush or his dad will come to the party, nor Barack Obama, nor Thomas S. Monson, nor J.K. Rowling, nor that actor who played the Scarecrow in the new Batman movies. But if even half the people I know in real life who've made an appearance in one of my dreams show up, that will be quite the rockin' party!

Oddly, I have yet to have an actual dream about practicing yoga. That is really strange, because since mid-July, I've become something of a yoga addict. There's only been one week (the week of Thanksgiving) when I didn't make it to yoga class six times in seven days. (I typically go every day except Sunday.) I've recorded 68 dreams since I started practicing yoga, and in those dreams I've dreamed about work and home and teaching and church, bathing, eating, going to the bathroom, sleeping, sex. I've even dreamed about dreaming! I've dreamed about just about every activity and experience that plays an important role in my life, except yoga. Weird, huh? I'll let you know if I have a dream about yoga, but so far none.

I have a working theory about why that is. I think it's because yoga actually brings me into a state of consciousness that is similar to dreaming. (I said that I've dreamt about dreaming, so I guess that wouldn't rule out dreaming about yoga. More on that in a second, but...) In my experience, through the breathing and the physical postures of yoga, I actually do begin abandon the conscious mind and move into a more subconscious state of awareness. That's actually what they tell you you're supposed to do in yoga. My teachers encourage me to empty my mind and to focus. Actually, if you're doing yoga right, you eventually can't help it. The breathing and the postures are designed to stress your body and mind in ways that force you to empty your conscious mind and focus, if you are going to be able to continue. The achievement of that relaxed state of focus is the whole goal of yoga.

Often when I achieve that, I experience moments of pure ecstasy and inspiration, and it's not uncommon for me to re-experience dreams. Dreams that I have forgotten or partially forgotten sometimes come back to me with vividness and clarity during savasana, the resting posture we always take at the end of a yoga class. After I had experienced this a few times, I wondered if perhaps the state of consciousness achieved through yoga was not similar to or connected to the state of consciousness I experience when I'm dreaming.

My dreams about dreaming are actually exceedingly rare: I've recorded maybe 2 or 3 of them out of 835. And even these weren't technically dreams about dreaming, they were more what I would calls "dreams within dreams": dreams where you "wake up" from a dream, only to find you are still dreaming. So if my yoga practice brings me into a similar type of consciousness, that might explain why I haven't dreamt about it yet.

I recently read through all my dreams, from beginning to end. I've actually created an index of my dreams. When I have a dream, I record the date of the dream, I assign it a number, and I give it a title that is descriptive of the main character, activity, or theme of the dream. For instance, the dream I recorded this morning I titled "Universalism Debate," because the portion of the dream that had the deepest emotional resonance for me involved me trying to explain to people why I was not a Universalist. (I know, I am utterly bizarre.)

I also assign the dream a category or type. The dream type is determined by two factors: where the dream took place, and what type of role was played by the central character in the dream. (Usually I am the central character in my dreams; often it is someone else.) So, for instance, if I have a dream that takes place in Utah, and my father is the central character in the dream, I would assign that dream the "12D" type. (12 = dreams that take place "Out West," D = dreams involving a father/father figure. If I were the central character in the dream, but the dream focused on my role as a father or father figure in Utah, that would also be a 12D dream.)

All of this dream data goes into a spreadsheet I've been keeping. The spreadsheet let's me sort the dreams alphabetically or by date or by category. The main reason I reviewed all my dreams recently was to make sure I was happy with how I had categorized them. (Categorizing is a very subjective process, especially since some dreams have multiple locations and multiple important characters, and it can be difficult to figure out which are most important in the dream.) Once I had completed this review and updated my spreadsheet (with 800+ dreams, it took a couple of weeks), I generated some reports. I was curious if a statistical analysis of my recorded dream life would give me any insight. It did actually give me some helpful perspective about what kind of person I am.

One nice thing about having all my dreams recorded in electronic format is that it makes it much easier to do studies of dream symbolism. For instance, the other night I had a very striking dream (#812, "Queen of the Underworld"), which took place on a train that was speeding through the English countryside. If I wanted to research the meaning of the symbolism of being on a train, I could just do a word search on "train" or "railroad," and easily find every dream I've ever had involving a train.

So far, I've sorted my 835 dreams into roughly 250+ categories. Many of these dreams are unique -- the only type of dream of a particular category. For instance, my "Queen of the Underworld" dream is the only "15Q" dream I've ever had -- a dream that takes place in "the old world," and in which the central character (the "Queen of the Underworld") plays the role of "herald."

The most common dream category I've identified is the "3B" category: dreams whose setting is my immediate home or neighborhood, in which the central role is what I call a "communications specialist" role. I have a lot (a LOT) of dreams that involve me being a scribe/writer/communicator. I guess anybody who knows me well won't be surprised by that. Almost one in five (well, 17.49%, actually) of my dreams has this as the most important role/activity. And a little over one in five (21.44%) takes place in my home or immediate neighborhood. In roughly 3% of my dreams, these two dream elements intersect.

The more common dream settings and characters tell me about my "default" mode in life. These are the dreams I tend to find least interesting, because they are so common. But they are important, because they tell me most about who I am and what my concerns are in day-to-day life. The top four dream settings for me are: first, my immediate home/neighborhood (21%), second, downtown/work (15%), third, "out west" (California and the Intermountain West -- yep, I clock a lot of dream time in Utah) (9%), and fourth, a university/college or other institution of higher learning (8%). The top four main roles/main characters in my dreams are: first, communications specialist (17%), second, father/father figure (9%), third, researcher (9%) and fourth, fool/child (8%). (I spend a fair number of dreams being lost, confused, or desperately trying to find something!)

The more rare/exotic settings and characters are the most entertaining, partly because they are so unusual. They are the dreams that grab my attention, that I find "cool" and that I'm more likely to talk about with friends or family, or spend more time puzzling over and analyzing. The four rarest settings in my dreams are: first, the "Far East"/Pacific rim (0.8%), second, Heaven/a Heaven-like place (1.2%), third, outer space (1.3%), and fourth, Canada/"the Northwoods" (1.6%). (Yes, in my dreams I go to Canada slightly more frequently than I go to outer space.) The four most unusual main characters/roles in my dreams are: first, Jesus Christ/a Christ figure (0.4%), second, a "herald" (0.7%), third, someone in distress (0.8%) and fourth, God (0.8%).

In the past week I have intuited my angelic name while looking into the eyes of a long lost friend, used my power of flight to go in search of missing brothers in L.A., celebrated Seder with Jewish neighbors, witnessed the coming of the end of the world, exposed a polygamist plot being hatched by a corrupt Mormon mission president, hunted vampires in Eastern Europe with Göran by my side, and served as a military chaplain in Iraq, all from the comfort of my bed.

I guess when I do the math, it's slightly shocking how much time I spend recording and analyzing dreams. It's not just that it's good therapy, though often it is that, I guess (and a lot cheaper). I frequently have the experience of waking from a dream that on the surface I found rather alarming, only to puzzle over it for a while and, after taking a deeper look at its symbolism, being comforted or pleasantly surprised by the insight it offered into a difficult situation or question in my life. No matter how disturbing a dream may be to me, I've learned to get over it, and just write it all out, in all its gory detail. Sometimes it's the really weird, embarrassing stuff that holds just the key we need to understand something profound.

The day after Thanksgiving I had a dream in which I had decided that the disconnect between being gay and the world I lived in was too great, so I set off in search of a place on earth where being gay was normal. I decided to start looking in China (#801, "In Search of Gay America (in China)"). It was a sprawling dream that involved the heartbreak of leaving friends and family, getting lost in Shanghai (which, in my subconscious mind's feeble attempt at humor, had a quarter known as "Americatown"), struggling to get by in a place where no one spoke my language, but also occasionally being helped by angels in disguise (like a tall lesbian waitress dressed in white). The dream ended without me having found my destination, standing in a vast atrium in a glass building, near a fountain where the sun was shining down. A gay waiter (dressed in white like the lesbian) had led me there, and told me this was the place, but I still couldn't see it: just endless corridors heading off in different directions, and throngs of people coming and going. Maybe that was my subconscious mind's way of telling me that whatever we consider Utopia is not a place that we find ready-made for us, but a place we create through our choices.

That dream is a good symbol, though, of why I'm obsessed and fascinated by my dreams. It's about that life-long search to try to find myself in the place that's just right.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Twilight of Atheism?

I recently read The Twilight of Atheism, by Alister McGrath, a historian and theologian who has been engaged in the various public debates/discussions over "the New Atheism" in recent years. McGrath grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 70s, where the continuing bloody, religiously motivated fighting between Protestants and Catholics helped to convince him that religion was a plague on humanity and that belief in God a delusion that could only continue to fuel bloodshed and hatred. Through his teens and early adult years, McGrath was a committed atheist, embracing the view that humanity could only come of age and overcome past barbarism by shedding its religious beliefs and embracing a new age organized under the principles of rationalism and science.

In his later adult years, however, McGrath experienced a religious conversion. He became disillusioned with institutional atheism, which he saw as reactive and emotionally unsatisfying. Furthermore, in the few instances where atheism was officially promoted through state policy -- in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, and in the Soviet Union, Communist China, and later in various eastern bloc countries -- he did not see atheism bringing on a new dawn of humanity and freedom. Quite the opposite... In these states, when atheists in power were unable to rationally persuade believers to give up religion (or cooperate with their economic, social and political agendas), they resorted to coercion and persecution -- just like the religions they had supposedly risen above.

In The Twilight of Atheism, McGrath sees the high point of atheism as the roughly two centuries between the French Revolution -- which brought atheism out into the open as a viable philosophy -- and the fall of the Soviet Union -- which constituted the collapse of the first modern atheist establishment, and coincided with a trend of increasing religiosity, not just in traditionally religious countries (like the United States), but in the traditional heartland of atheism, in northern and western Europe.

McGrath argues that the stridency of polemicists like Richard Dawkins and Samuel Harris is proof that atheism is losing traction in the post-modern world. Classic atheism, McGrath says, was a philosophical commitment that insisted on the absence of God as a precursor for the liberation of humanity. It would involve a philosophical commitment the reverse of Voltaire's (in)famous dictum: If God existed, we should have to uninvent him. The hardline denial of even the possibility of God's existence was a moral necessity, even if we couldn't prove it. The extension of the label of "atheist" even to those who merely doubt God's existence, who aren't sure, those once referred to as merely "agnostic," McGrath argues, is a sign that atheism is in retreat. The hardline atheist position has lost its power to inspire and to convince.

McGrath argues that historically, atheism has appealed most strongly when religious institutions were most corrupt and oppressive. The birth of modern philosophical atheism took place in eighteenth-century France, where the Catholic Church was completely in bed with the stale and wicked Ancien Régime. In fact, corrupt Church-State establishments throughout Europe were vulnerable to criticism, and provided rich fertilizer for the rise of philosophical atheism all over the continent. By contrast, in the United States, where religion was disestablished and governments democratic, atheism never really took hold. Modern-day statistics tell the story. In France and Germany, the atheist population is close to fifty percent; in Scandinavia, a solid majority, around eighty percent; in Catholic Italy and Anglican Britain, around thirty to forty percent. In the U.S., one percent... Or about nine percent if you count people who label themselves as "agnostic."

McGrath argues that Classical Protestantism may actually have helped sow the seeds for atheism as well. Catholicism invited believers to experience God in the world around them, through ritual and sacrament, in the sensual visual, audible and tangible expressions of faith found in stained glass windows, in statues, in holy water and incense, and in music. Protestantism took all of that away, emphasizing the Bible alone and the rational, preached word as the only means to know about a God who was distant, and who no longer manifested himself miraculously in this world. From this distant, rational clock-maker God, McGrath suggests, it was a short step to no God at all, or to rationalism as God.

Old-line Protestantism, however, gave birth to Pietism. In Britain the predominant form of Pietism was Methodism. Methodism spread like wildfire in the Americas, becoming the predominant form of U.S. Christianity by 1850. When American Methodism started to go mainline and decline, it spawned other, more fervent movements: the Holiness movement which eventually, around the turn of the century, gave birth to Pentecostalism. A century later, Pentecostal and "Charismatic" Christians (Christians in mainline denominations who practice Pentecostal-style worship) number about half a billion worldwide. If growth in the Pentecostal movement continues at its current rate, it will eventually come to outnumber Catholics and become the predominant expression of Christianity in the world.

Pietism, McGrath argues, is the ultimate antidote to atheism, because it encourages the believer to experience, to feel and to see God alive and at work in their daily lives. Someone who has had personal experiences with God, experiences which have developed into an active and personal relationship with God, is very unlikely to find any atheist argument convincing, no matter how intellectually cohesive it may be. How can you refuse to believe in someone that you know personally? The fact that Pietism has been the predominant form of Christian expression in the U.S. is probably a second contributing factor -- along with the early disestablishment of religion -- to the low appeal of atheism on our shores.

McGrath does not take a hardline position against atheism. Atheism, he argues, has actually played an important role in critiquing religious corruption. The Churches, he argues, have responded to atheist criticism. They have taken a hard look at doctrines such as the belief that the unbaptized automatically go to Hell, and have revised or dropped them. Christian churches that once believed a state-church establishment was necessary to uphold faith have now accepted and embraced disestablishment and religious freedom. The Churches have also taken a good, hard look at their role in collaborating with various forms of political, social and economic injustice. What nineteenth-century atheists didn't expect has happened. Churches have evolved and changed and embraced positive social change. The Christianity that atheists critique, McGrath argues, is a "moving target." It's no longer the Christianity of the pre-French-revolutionary ancien régime, though, he suggests, many atheists continue to critique that Church. For that reason, atheists, McGrath ironically suggests, have become the main modern bastion of religious conservatism. Atheism will continue to play a valuable role in society, however, to the extent it remains ever vigilant against new forms of religious corruption.

In a recent post, in explaining why he has embraced atheism, Keith stated that atheism helps him to be "more intrinsically motivated to do good, rather than being extrinsically motivated by my church." This, to me, is a classic example of the way that atheism can actually bring a breath of fresh air to religion. Any careful reading of the New Testament will show that -- from a purely religious perspective! -- "intrinsic" motivation (desire to be loving, kind and compassionate because it's the right thing to do) must trump "extrinsic" motivations (fear of Hell or damnation, desire to be praised or viewed as a good person by others, etc.). This is a basic faith principle. Motivation matters in faith, and extrinsic motivations cannot save us. Yet, religious institutions get too easily wrapped up in the extrinsic motivational structure; they buy into legalism and hierarchy and pride. They easily become rigid and inflexible and intolerant.

When they do, if McGrath's argument is right, atheism will start to hold greater appeal to rank and file members of these institutions; and religious institutions will start to die.

I've continued to be struck by the truth of a line from Ockham's Razor, by Alan Michael Williams:

Every gay person in the LDS Church is fated to float in doubt and skepticism...

Why is this? Because there's no place for us in the institutional Church as we are, as we experience ourselves in the goodness of our created selves. There's no room for us to love, to connect, to find and build family and experience all the growth that comes from that in the way that works for us, that honors who we are and how we experience ourselves. As long as this is true, being gay and Mormon will be problematic.

Like Alister McGrath, I embraced atheism for a time. Perhaps a much shorter time than he did. As a youth and young adult, I had a vibrant prayer and spiritual life, and experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit. As an adult, it was my anger about the lack of place or respect for gay folks in organized Christianity that alienated me from the Church and even from belief in God for a time.

Like McGrath, I demanded a philosophically robust atheism. The kind that insists humanity must mature, must take responsibility for both the good and the evil we have done, and must open its heart in compassion to those who have been marginalized and oppressed, and whose marginalization and oppression has been callously justified as God's will.

I still believe that! But from within a perspective of faith. I've come to believe that faith -- trust in God -- is our best hope at achieving truly loving, just society. Like McGrath, I ultimately abandoned my atheism, and turned instead to a renewed, personal, immediate relationship with God, a God who has spoken to my mind and my heart, who has appeared to me, healed me, comforted me and taught me. Grounded in that relationship, I find a seemingly endless reservoir of love and patience for the very, very long journey ahead of me, and ahead of all of us. That road led me, for good or for ill, straight back to the Church.

I wish others could or would join me in that path. It's lonely sometimes. I have been so heartened by and so grateful for the emotionally and spiritually intimate friendship I've found with other gay Mormons who experience the Holy Spirit in their lives and who affirm both their gayness and their faith. There are a handful of us. It breaks my heart when I see the fervency of faith and love fade among gay Mormon friends. We are the leaven in the dough. What happens if we cease to quicken? We are the salt. What happens if we lose our savor?

There's joy in this path we can't find in any other, if only we can hang in there! There's a reservoir of strength and love in God that can renew and uphold us, and that fills us with sweet, sweet delight... If only we can trust that extra measure.

And yet... I can't blame gay Mormons for losing faith. That's a witness too. A negative witness, but a witness nonetheless. When institutions fail their own, the lesson of history is that people lose faith. This is a religious principle, not an atheist principle. Our lives touch other lives, for good... or for ill.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth

Most Latter-day Saints are familiar with what I like to call "The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth." It's a hermeneutic that goes something like this:

If the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith must be a prophet.

If Joseph Smith is a prophet, then the church he restored is the True Church.

If the Church is true, and Joseph Smith was a prophet, then Thomas S. Monson must be a prophet.

If Thomas S. Monson is a prophet, then it's my duty to go out and make sure Proposition 8 passes.

I'm not a philosopher or an expert in logic, but I think it's not too hard to find flaws in these kinds of chains of reasoning.

Now, granted, truth does tend to cling together. Truths in one area support and lead to and illuminate truths in other areas. Everything is interconnected. Still, reality is far more complex than what the Domino Theory suggests.

I understand why Latter-day Saints find the Domino Theory attractive. Especially for new members or for young and immature members, the Domino Theory encourages folks to persevere in the Gospel even when their testimonies are weak and their knowledge is sparse. If the Domino Theory encourages one to work hard, to apply gospel principles, and to keep seeking light and knowledge, then it has served its purpose.

But the problem is, the Domino Theory just as easily becomes a faith crutch. It can actually encourage rigidity and shut down thinking and growth. "I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, therefore..." Therefore, I should just march lockstep with what everyone else in the Church is doing. I should not think. I should not ask questions. If I encounter information that conflicts with what I think I already know, I should shut it out of my consciousness and deny it as untruth.

The other major problem is that the Domino Theory just as quickly and easily becomes The House of Cards Theory of Gospel Untruth. The House of Cards goes: if I find even one single significant error, then it all must be false. The whole thing comes crashing down like a house of cards.

People who are content to let the Domino Theory guide their faith can't shut out conflicting information forever. And conflicting information they will find in abundance, because their testimonies and their approach to Gospel Truth are far, far too simplistic. The more simplistic our world view is, the more likely the world is to come crashing in on us and disillusioning us. And this, by the way, is a good thing. Nobody is entitled to remain a simpleton forever. That's not part of the agreement we made with God when we came down here... Quite the contrary.

The Domino Theory of Gospel Truth is not only illogical, it is unscriptural. Just a few key texts on spiritual hermeneutics should suffice to make my point. The hermeneutic described in D&C section 9 suggests that reception of truth requires labor before hand, it requires wrestling, and it requires careful listening. The Lord in this section essentially says, “Garbage in, garbage out.” If you don't do your homework, no revelation. The apostle Paul said “Prove all things, hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5: 21); implicitly: "Prove all things, chuck that which is bad."

Alma 32, that great sermon on how faith and knowledge sustain and interact with one another, emphasizes how we learn truth by applying it, by putting it to the test. And Alma is at pains to point out that this is a process that only enables us to establish one truth at a time:

And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing.... (Alma 32: 34, emphasis mine)

Alma doesn't say, "Well, now you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, so you don't need to work at establishing the truth of anything else. Now just do what I tell you to do without question." He says quite the opposite. His sermon on faith anticipates that the search for truth will be a lifelong quest. The Gospel that Alma describes is a gospel whose truth is established piecemeal, "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little" (Isaiah 28: 10-13 and D&C 98: 12).

To borrow another metaphor from Jesus, our testimony is like a house that must be built on a solid foundation (Matthew 7: 24-29). And an edifice of truth, like all edifices, is built one brick at a time. That's how I've approached my return to Mormonism. Yes, I had a very powerful experience in which the Spirit told me it was time to come back to the Church. I've learned to trust the Spirit in my life. The Spirit guided me in my process of coming out. It has guided me in every significant decision in my life, and those decisions have worked out for the best in ways I never could have expected or foreseen. So when the Spirit told me to go back to the Church – quite out of the blue – I was surprised, shocked, angry, worried. But I had learned to trust the Spirit, so I started going back to Church again in 2005.

Did that mean I automatically assumed that every single thing in the Church was true? No... I've slowly been rebuilding my testimony from the foundation up. I prayerfully reread the Book of Mormon. I incorporated daily prayer and scripture study into my life. I gave up pornography. I started living the Word of Wisdom. At each point, my approach was, let's try this, and see what happens. In the process I began to learn powerful spiritual truths. I gained insight into who I am, what my strengths and what my weaknesses are. I began to learn that, in terms of the principles of daily living, what the Church teaches is more right than wrong. I found the basic edifice of LDS faith to be sound. I found I could begin to build my life on it, and as a result I could become a better, happier, stronger person.

I've taken the same experimental/experiential approach to the teachings of Church leaders. I listen to the talks at General Conference in a spirit of , “Let's see what I can learn from this.” If I hear anything surprising, or if something is said that I find uncomfortable or that I need to wrestle with, I think, let's give this a chance and see where it takes me. If I try something and it doesn't work, well, then I've learned it doesn't work. Do I hold a grudge against the leader who said that? Well, maybe he meant well. Maybe that principle worked well for him in different circumstances, but it doesn't work for me. That's OK. He's trying to help, I'm trying to learn. In the end, we'll get there with patience and work.

But if it does work, I've learned something new that I wouldn't have learned if I hadn't been willing to wrestle with something uncomfortable or unusual.

Of course Church leaders occasionally spout homophobic crap. Fortunately, Boyd K. Packer's out-of-line comments were quietly removed from the record; official statements were made to contain the damage. And still, I've learned so much from Boyd K. Packer. He was a major formative influence on my youth, and on balance I would say for the good. His teachings have given me confidence in my ability to seek and receive answers to prayers. He's inspired me with a profoundly democratic understanding of how the Church works and what my role in it might be. I've learned much about love and courage and forgiveness and faith from Elder Boyd K. Packer. Has he said things that were probably uninspired and that injured me? Yes. Has he said things that were inspired and that have made me a better man by listening to and following them? Definitely. Boyd K. Packer will be the first to admit that he is just a man, that he is fallible. And he has also said from the Conference pulpit that we are as entitled to revelation as he is and that we are responsible to seek the Lord's guidance directly in evaluating the truth of all things. That's the Mormonism I believe in, and he believes in it too.

There's stuff that I've tried that failed spectacularly. I did the best I could with the advice President Kimball offered about homosexuality in The Miracle of Forgiveness. I went the road of 1970s and 1980s Church teaching on homosexuality. It did not produce the results claimed, and almost led me to suicide. I don't have to try that again. I've pretty much proven to my permanent satisfaction that Church leaders got it wrong on that score.

A sort of corollary of the Domino Theory of Gospel Truth is the Doctrine of Mormon Papal Infallibility. Now how many times do we have to say, Mormons do not believe their leaders to be infallible? This has been so well established in Church teaching that it's exasperating to have to keep repeating it. But both members and non-members proceed to act as if we believe our leaders are infallible. A sort of proof text of the (false) Doctrine of Mormon Papal Infallibility is the Wilford Woodruff quote provided in a footnote to Official Declaration 1:

The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)

It is worth noting here that Woodruff is actually speaking to a fairly narrow circumstance: a circumstance in which a Church leader deliberately lies with the intention of leading the Church astray. Please note Woodruff's repeated use of the word "attempts" here: "attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty." That choice of words implies intention, a willful effort to discourage the Saints from obeying the Gospel as transmitted through scripture and the previous teachings of Church prophets. The full quote does not seem to address a situation in which a Church leader is unintentionally mistaken about something, in which a Church leader's knowledge of something is incomplete or inaccurate.

More importantly, the Wilford Woodruff quote must be considered in historical context. Wilford Woodruff said what he said in order to address the terrible confusion and doubt that had been created by the release of the Manifesto. Wilford Woodruff had to reassure the Saints that in ending the practice of plural marriage, he was not leading the Church astray. That was the context of that quote. The Saints had so come to view plural marriage as a bedrock, foundational principle of their faith, there were serious doubts that a prophet of the Lord could receive a legitimate revelation bringing it to an end. Woodruff was, in essence saying, perhaps with a bit of hyperbole, that he was not leading the Church astray in making this major course correction. Did he lead the Church astray in ending polygamy? That's a judgment bigger than one human being could make; but it's hard to argue that the Church hasn't prospered since then, in large part as a result of that course correction.

Does that Wilford Woodruff quote mean that we must take it as an article of faith that no Mormon prophet or apostle anywhere could ever teach a single untruth? That seems contrary to my understanding of how God works through mortals. But that's just me, testing one principle of the gospel at a time, building the edifice of my faith one brick at a time. The truth is, no leader of the Church ever could lead the Church astray, so long as its members continue to apply scriptural hermeneutics to the search for truth, so long as they are willing to work at and test and try all things, clinging to that which is good and rejecting that which is false.

I realize that many gay LDS have had their faith shattered because of the aforementioned erroneous teachings on homosexuality. I had my faith shattered for many years. As I stated in an earlier post, this has been a stumbling block for me and for many. Does it prove that the Church in its entirety is false? That we can't trust anything that is taught? Well, oddly enough, it is the broad principles of Church teaching -- that I am a child of God, that I have the light of Christ in me, that the Spirit will lead me into all truth -- that have healed the anguish caused by those false teachings, and that have enabled me to grow and thrive as a human being, as a son, as a brother and, yes, as a husband of a same-sex spouse and a father of our foster son.

I do have a testimony of the Church. But my testimony goes something like this: I've tried gospel principles. I've tested them in my life. And so far, they work. They've brought me joy, peace and blessings too many to enumerate and too great to repay God for. And based on what I've experienced, I'm willing to keep going, to keep seeking and listening to and following the Spirit.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On the Cost and Nature of Discipleship

In my last post, I shared some of the sadness and the wrestling I occasionally experience because of my desire to be a member in full standing in the Church.

Today I read a text in the Gospel of Matthew that seemed to speak directly to this experience.

Matthew 20 begins with the parable of the day laborers, one of my favorite of Jesus' parables. In it, the master of a vineyard goes out in search of day laborers at various shifts throughout the day. He starts early in the morning and hires some laborers for "a penny." Then he comes back at "the third hour" (what we'd call 9:00 A.M.), then again at noon, and at 3:00 p.m. Finally, he returns nearly at the end of the work day... At "the eleventh hour" (our 5:00 p.m.). He finds laborers standing there idle, and he asks them: "Why stand ye here all the day idle?"

Their response: "Because no man hath hired us."

The master's response? To immediately hire them and put them to work.

The story gets really interesting when, at the end of the work day (which ordinarily would have been less than an hour later), the master pays up. Everybody gets the same pay -- a penny. Those who had labored through the heat of the day get a bit worked up... How come these guys, who showed up at the eleventh hour are getting the same pay as everybody else? The master puts them in their place. This, he says in essence, is how I choose to pay you. I'm honoring my agreement with you... You have nothing to say to these others. Are you upset because I choose to be generous?

Of course, what particularly struck me today is that perhaps this strikes the Lord as fair because it is not the fault of the day laborers that no one had hired them. They were there, waiting in the market all the day long, waiting for someone to hire them. They wanted work. (Does this sound familiar in today's economy?) Had someone hired them earlier, they would gladly have gone. When the master finally hired them, off they went.

Depending on how literally we want to read this parable as a metaphor of the Kingdom of God, we could look at the "day" as the period of history spanning the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ, and the Second Coming, the final harvest. And maybe this is the Lord acknowledging that even in the eleventh hour of the Kingdom, not everyone who is willing and able to participate in its building will have been hired... Some of us won't be hired till the final minutes of the work day. Is that our fault? God forbid... When the Master sees fit, he will hire us, and our reward will be no less than others'.

But it makes sense to cross reference these verses in Matthew with the numerous revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants that boldly invite: "Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work" (e.g., D&C 4: 3). I have always found these verses deeply comforting. If I'm willing to "thrust in my sickle," to live my life in faith, hope and charity, and bear my testimony, I'm laboring in the vineyard! There's no invitation I need from anybody, no labor contract needed, to do that kind of work in the Kingdom.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus reminds the disciples again of his impending imprisonment, torture, death and resurrection (vs. 17-19). While an earlier, similar declaration elicited denial from Peter, who couldn't seem to see past the bad part of this prophecy, this declaration elicited from the mother of James and John a request that, when he returns in glory, James and John be permitted to sit on his right and left hands. This was sort of the opposite error of the error Peter committed, and James, John and their mother are also rebuked. They were eager for the glory and the reward, but had somehow forgotten about the cost of discipleship. While Peter failed to see the resurrection at the end of the pain and death, James and John sort of missed the pain and death that stood between them and future glory:

Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?

They (perhaps arrogantly) answered in the affirmative, and Jesus' response was, "Ye shall indeed drink of my cup..." But he then proceeded to a lesson about the nature of discipleship. To walk that road is not about claiming a glorious spot on the right or the left hand of the Son of Man. It's not about striving for preeminence of place or the satisfactions of power ("as the princes of the Gentiles," v. 25). It is about being the servant of all (v. 27). The Greek word here rendered as servant could just as easily be rendered "slave." If you would be great in the kingdom, in other words, get used to no rank whatsoever, get used to doing the shit jobs. If you think about exactly the work that Jesus did for us (dying the ignominious death of a convicted criminal on a Roman cross), he's asking of us no more than he did himself.

If our status is something like that in relation to the Church, perhaps we should count ourselves blessed.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why Church Membership Matters -- and So Does Family

This is something I perennially struggle with.

I go through periods in my prayer life where every day I pray to have my Church membership restored, to be fully reunited with the Church. This is something I really desire, and I think it's a righteous desire. I want to be baptized.

And I have done my homework and wrestled with the Church's current position that someone in a same-sex relationship cannot be a member. I have fasted and prayed and pondered and wrestled with the implications of this: i.e., that the fastest and easiest road to membership in the Church would be for me to simply "put away" my partner. (That's a nice biblical euphemism, isn't it?) I guess one way of looking at this is that for me, my entry into the Church would have to begin with an act of betrayal and abandonment. The end result of my fasting, praying, pondering and wrestling with this was a clear message from the Spirit that to do so, for me, would be a sin.

My bishop isn't pressuring me to leave my husband. He does feel that I am paying the price right now for past "bad decisions."

I have on numerous occasions received comfort through the Holy Spirit. My Heavenly Father does not expect me to fix this. My relationship is blessed by him, and is a good thing, and is part of his intention for me to be happy in this life and find eternal life in the next. And it is not my fault that to be in relationship with Göran means I cannot be a member of the Church. And the Lord will not withhold any blessings from me of which I am deserving, just because of circumstances that are beyond my control. He knows my righteous desire to be re-baptized and to enter into the Church; I've expressed this desire to my bishop. And I have received an abundance of spiritual gifts greater than anything I ever received when I was a Church member. And the Lord has blessed our relationship, helping to resolve my husband's birth certificate/passport issue, and reuniting us with his family in Memphis; and opening our respective families' eyes and hearts in such a way that they fully love and support us and honor our relationship and accept us both as full and equal members of our families.

So sometimes I have felt it was ungrateful to ask for more. And sometimes I have felt the Spirit quietly prompting me to simply be patient and wait on the Lord to fix this. It is his Church, and he will work things out in his own way. So sometimes in my prayer life I let go of praying to become a member of the Church, and I just express gratitude for the many blessings we've received. The blessings we receive are tailored to our unique, individual circumstances, and they might not make sense or be applicable in someone else's circumstances. Though like all blessings, they are conditioned upon our exercise of faith. That's how the Lord helps us to grow.

Recently, I heard about a situation of two gay men who are members of the Church and who are legally married, and who are now facing excommunication. It's not unlike the situation Buckley Jeppson faced some years ago. In Buckley's case, after a flurry of media publicity to the effect that the Church was about to excommunicate a legally married individual, his Stake dropped disciplinary proceedings against him and he was allowed to remain a member in good standing. As far as I know, to the present time Buckley remains married to a person of the same sex, and also a member of the Church.

Buckley's case is a little confusing to me. Does it mean that the Church is willing to violate its own principles merely for the sake of avoiding bad press? Or does it mean that there in fact is no reason why two members of the same sex who are married couldn't be members of the Church? On numerous occasions, I've invited my husband to go to Church with me. The Restored Gospel gives my life meaning and it has opened my mind and my heart in incredible ways, and I wish that he could experience what I have experienced. But my inability to be a member of the Church is a huge stumbling block for him. He says if I am allowed to be a member, then he will consider attending, not before. This is understandable (even as it breaks my heart). If Buckley's case in fact means that I could be a member, I wish my bishop and stake president could be informed about this.

The Church's current position is a terrible stumbling block for many -- I want to say the vast majority of -- gay men and lesbians. The price that gay men and lesbians have to pay to remain members in good standing is so high that only a small minority are willing or able to do it. And this creates terrible contradictions in their lives that has resulted in much pain, cynicism and loss of faith. This breaks my heart, almost every day of my life, every time I witness the light of faith going out in the heart of yet another one of my gay or lesbian brothers or sisters.

The Lord has taken and is taking good care of me; and I trust implicitly in the promises I've received from the Spirit that I won't be disadvantaged in any way due to circumstances beyond my control. But I believe that my situation is an anomaly. It's one of those many things in this world that is not right, and that will eventually need to be righted by the Lord.

Here are some reasons why Church membership matters, why it continues to matter and will always matter to me:

Baptism is the first ordinance of the Gospel. It is a visible, tangible reminder of the commitments we make to God.

A very Biblical metaphor of the relationship between us and God is the metaphor of marriage. The covenants we enter into with God have been compared in numerous places in scripture to the covenant of marriage. We are, in essence, married to God through baptism.

Göran and I lived together without marriage for a couple of years before we finally had a commitment ceremony in 1995. (In 2008 we were legally married in California, an option that was not available to us until then.) For many years, as a young gay man in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I felt bitter about the fact that legal marriage was not available to same-sex couples. I convinced myself that what matters in a relationship is the commitments we make in our hearts; that external ordinances and artifacts such as marriage ceremonies or certificates don't matter or make any difference. When we finally got married (it was Göran's idea to do so!) I learned how wrong I had been. The gathering with family and friends, the making of a public promise, and even (years later!) the state acknowledgment of that promise and the issuing of a certificate to that effect made a HUGE difference. These things deepened our commitments to one another in incredible ways.

It's the same with baptism. Right now I am, in a very real sense, "cohabiting" with the Church. My testimony and my desire for complete and total union with the Church does matter, it does make a difference, just as the love between two unmarried people does make a difference. But it isn't complete until it is sealed by the outward ordinance.

Being a member of the Church incorporates us into a system of accountability that helps us keep covenants. I long to be able to participate in that system, to be able to be held accountable by Church and priesthood leaders. This is a good thing. I do the best I can to live the gospel, but I need help from time to time, and the temptations to stray are greater when it's just me, by myself, trying to live the gospel on my own.

That's what I must do, I have no choice. I guess in some ways, when I do live a gospel principle, it becomes that much more powerful a statement because there is no system of accountability for me except my own conscience. For instance, Göran and Glen and I had Thanksgiving this year with Glen's boyfriend's family. (That was, parenthetically, a WONDERFUL occasion. We felt so grateful for this family that completely welcomed us and made us feel right at home around a HUGE Thanksgiving table with lots of other extended family present!) There was wine being served, and it was tempting to feel like I wanted to join everyone else. I felt a bit like an oddball. A common reaction I get from folks is, "gay, Mormon? why care about a glass of wine? are you crazy? etc." I wavered for a moment mentally; and I know, personally, that I wavered in a way I'm sure I would not have, if there hadn't been that doubt gnawing at the back of my head: "Oh, it doesn't matter. You're not a member anyway. It's not like you can be more excommunicated."

I know better than that, of course. While I don't condemn others' decision to drink -- I really, really don't! I simply recognize that their commitments are different from mine, that's all!! -- I know that my decision not to drink is an important symbol, and important statement of faith. The fact that it can come from within is a powerful thing. So I don't regret that I am placed in this situation. It allows me to grow in incredible ways!

At the same time, we need the Church precisely because human beings have weaknesses, faults and failings! Having the structure of public, outward ceremonies and commitments is a good thing. It helps us in the struggle with temptation. I am denied those public, outward ceremonies and commitments. Worthiness interviews, taking the Sacrament on Sunday morning, having and using a temple recommend, all important aids to faithful living that I am denied.

We should all eventually grow to a place in our faith where we don't need outward observances. If I understand anything about the Gospel, it is that the fullness of the higher law doesn't require these things. But to say that I don't need those things would be to assume that I've reached a state of perfection I simply haven't. I want and need those things.

Being a member of the Church means we publicly covenant to bear one another's burdens. Fortunately, my bishops over the past six years have decided that there was no reason I couldn't have a home teacher. So I've had a number of home teachers over the years; and I am grateful for the service they render me. But I want to be a home teacher. I want to give, I don't want just to receive. I have been blessed by the testimonies of others on Sunday morning. I want to be able to share my testimony. I have been blessed by what I've learned from teachers in Priesthood and Sunday School lessons. I want to be able to teach!

I can and do take advantage of opportunities for service -- occasionally participating in Church cleanings, helping ward members to move, volunteering in service projects (such as the flood relief that Göran and Glen and I all volunteered for under Church auspices a few years ago). I love these opportunities for service -- they make me feel good.

Though it hurts sometimes too. Sometimes I feel so incredibly lonely. I wept the last time I helped clean the Church. I was one of two people who had shown up, and I was vacuuming the hallway outside the sanctuary, and I just wept. I don't know how to describe it other than that I felt incredibly alone.

It makes a difference, when our service to one another is publicly acknowledged as part of a framework of covenant and love... Something I am excluded from.

I don't want comments on this post about how faithful I am, blah, blah. That's not the point. I try to be faithful. Sometimes I am not faithful, and I need the blessings that have been divinely prepared for us through the establishment of a Church to help us build and strengthen faith.

The Church is not perfect. If it were, we wouldn't be down here working out our salvation, we would be up in Heaven, with Enoch and his city of perfected Saints. The Second Coming would have been long ago, as Christ would have come to receive his Church as a perfect bride. No we are not there yet.

We are in process of getting there. This is the process: Us making a public commitment to one another to bear one another's burdens and to perfect our faith together. That's what the Church is.

I know I'm not perfect by any measure. Some people think they know exactly how and why I'm not perfect, because I'm "living the homosexual lifestyle." Their judgments may or may not be in accordance with God's... I don't presume to have any final word on whether their judgments are righteous; though I know the scriptures have reserved some pretty harsh words for those who do judge unrighteously and who withhold forgiveness. We all need to be careful on that score. Even if unrighteous judgments are made, well, that's to be expected among people still perfecting themselves! If we're blessed enough to see and understand that, well, we're doubly blessed!

Perhaps the greatest gift of the Spirit is to receive that gift of knowledge: that it's OK if we've often failed one another. The point is to get back up and keep trying. Every time I watch the film Finding Nemo, I weep when Dory (played by lesbian comedian Ellen Degeneres!) sings, over and over again, "Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!" That more or less summarizes our obligation as disciples of Christ. Don't get distracted by the difficulty of the task. Don't get distracted by other's failings, or your own. You just keep trying to do what you know you need to do.

I want to be part of the process of perfecting the Church and perfecting myself. In order to do that, I need to make and keep public commitments: both to the Church and to my husband. Right now I am told that I must choose to break/betray/deny one in order to honor the other. But I know that the path to Zion does not lie through betrayal or denial of family or Church. It all needs to -- and I trust some day will -- fit together perfectly, lovingly and harmoniously.

But in the mean time, in this time and place, I am forced to accept cohabitation as the highest form of commitment I can make to the Church.