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.

16 comments:

Brad Carmack said...

I'm a believer in marriage- I think it matters. Like you, I don't think cohabitation "cuts it." I think your comparison to baptism is apt.

Likewise, I believe "that the path to Zion does not lie through betrayal or denial of family or Church."

I agree that the church is not perfect. I agree that being a member of the Church incorporates us into a system of accountability that helps us keep covenants, and that you, like all of us, need the "lower law" aids that come with it, such as home teaching others, participating in worthiness interviews, taking the sacrament, worshiping in the temple, etc.

I am glad you have witnessed miracles before, and I acknowledge the deep conflict you experience.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Brad. I know how concerned you are about these things.

calibosmom said...

"The Church's current position is a terrible stumbling block for many"...and may I add for not only gay and lesbian's but for some heterosexually, card carrying, full time members as well. I too am struggling with this. I want so badly for ALL to enjoy the blessings. Do I march? Do I pray? Do I protest? Do I "just keep swimming"? What can I do?

MoHoHawaii said...

You're good enough to clean the toilets at church but not good enough to offer a comment in a lesson on Sunday. There's something very wrong with this, John. The thought of you vacuuming the foyer in tears is absolutely painful to me.

I agree with your bishop that you're now paying the price for past bad decisions-- bad decisions made by bishops who nearly drove you to end your life by your own hand when you were young. Calamitous decisions by LDS leaders to politicize our family relationships in hopes of scoring points with evangelicals. What else could your bishop be referring to? Unless of course he meant to imply that your decision to begin your relationship with Goran was a bad one. If that's what he actually meant, the man has a heart of stone.

Your exile is *purely* for the administrative convenience of the corporate church. It has very little to do with you or what's in your heart. You and I and the rest of our tribe aren't part of the plan. Our very existence threatens the edifice. For the sake of appearances (and this particular policy is only about appearances), letting a nonconformist quietly stay is a completely different act than letting one join. Of course this is the way it works. It's as corrupt as the sale of indulgences, but it's completely predictable organizational behavior.

Please excuse the rant. I know I should let go of this, but I just want to take you by the shoulders and shake you. (Lovingly, of course!)

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - It's been so long since I heard from you! Cyber hugs before cyber shaking!

OK, here's the thing... Yes, it's hard -- even at times painful -- to participate in a community where I'm not able to participate on an equal basis with everyone else. Still, the Spirit is present reminding me that I am not "less than." It's the Spirit driving me and urging me to participate, and giving me a vision of a time and a place when I'll participate in full equality. And when that happens, it will be all the sweeter and more perfect and beautiful for the difficult times I've had to wade through to get there.

I don't think I would have been blessed with the hope and the vision if I hadn't been willing to risk by going to Church and living into that vision by trying to live the gospel as fully as I can under the present circumstances.

J G-W said...

Calibosmom - When straight supportive folks ask me what to do, here's what I tell them:

1) Stay active in the Church. Live the gospel. Strengthen your testimony through righteous living, patience, and love.

2) Pray for us.

3) Be a fearless, welcoming presence. Let GLBT folks in your ward know that you are there for them in whatever way you appropriately can be.

4) When you hear open expressions of homophobia, find gentle, loving ways to correct misconceptions and express support. Don't feel obliged to fight every battle; trust that a loving example is a thousand times more powerful than an argument.

5) Trust that the Spirit is at work in the Church -- both among leaders and members. Don't be afraid! Listen to the Spirit... Let it guide you as you strive to know what to do to be more supportive of your gay and lesbian sisters and brothers...

Does that help?

Brian said...

I found this rather disturbing link posted on the Facebook Moho group:

http://www.fairblog.org/2011/11/30/fair-examination-1a-why-would-a-gay-man-with-aids-join-the-church/

It's so frustrating that the stories of gay LDS men who are/were not at peace with their sexual orientation -- and who chose to kowtow to the Church's current position -- are held up as and example of those who have chosen the "better path." While the stories of the many, who are at peace with being gay & spiritual, are not advertised!!

Rob said...

John, I'm with MoHoHawaii. And I've said many times, like he has, that the fundamental problem here is that gay people threaten the integrity of the LDS plan of salvation. We don't fit anywhere in that plan. It can't tolerate even the concept of homosexuality. Until that changes, the LDS church will have problems with us. And I don't see how it can change unless some future president of the church completely re-writes the theology in such a fundamental way that I think it will shake the church to its foundations and seriously imperil the credibility of all past leaders and thus the church's whole claim to legitimacy. No LDS leader is willing to do that.

I actually enjoyed cleaning the church when I was a member. It was completely quiet, I could just do my job without anyone interfering or micromanaging, I made an immediate difference, and I felt some sense of personal fulfillment by helping to maintain God's house in a clean and comfortable fashion as was befitting. It was just me saying "Here you go, God, I am taking care of your stuff for you, hope you approve." No bishops or stake presidents or interviews or statistical reports or guilt trips or boring meetings. Just quiet, private service.

You've listed in this post a number of reasons you want to be baptized and maintain affiliation with the LDS church. Your choice, of course. Personally I've found all those things in other places with as much fulfillment, more, actually, than I ever got from the LDS version. And since I don't accept the church's historical claims anymore, that's quite sufficient for me.

If you're satisfied with your current situation, then that's certainly your choice, and while I've read your blog for a long time and everything about why you're doing all this, honestly, I'm not persuaded. Perhaps I'm more hard-headed than you. I look at results, and what I see is you crying in the foyer as you vacuum, begging for crumbs from the table that are withheld by ignorant leaders insulated from any possible revelation by fear and inertia. I decided I wasn't going to put the rest of my life on hold just because somebody else was too scared or arrogant to question their own prejudices.

I wish you the best of luck in your journey.

J G-W said...

Rob - I disagree that Mormon theology requires a complete renovation to make gay people fit in the plan of salvation, though it might look that way to someone who's decided to make a complete break with Mormonism.

I spent almost 20 years active in a variety of religious communities outside the LDS Church. If I could find what I needed there, I suppose I would still be there. If I didn't have a testimony of the LDS Church, I wouldn't be active in my ward...

I guess I'd call it an understatement to say that I'm not naive about the historical "issues" either... I just no longer find them definitive in light of the spiritual experiences I've had that have led me back to the LDS Church.

No, it's not always easy... I hesitate to share, precisely because of the chorus of voices that inevitably rise telling me how stupid I am to want to affiliate with a Church that rejects me, etc.

J G-W said...

Brian - I guess it sort of fits the mainstream narrative that we must choose between EITHER self-acceptance/self-understanding as gay men and lesbians OR LDS faith... It seems there are a multitude of voices on all sides of the debate over homosexuality that insist this is so...

Obviously, I disagree... There's no true faith without self-knowledge and self-love. It's also equally true though, from another perspective, that the journey of faith is also a journey into deeper levels of self-knowledge and self-love, as we come to know and love God and others...

So don't worry about the hype... There is a way forward for us as gay Latter-day Saints. Just ignore the noise (from both sides) and go with what you know...!

Rob said...

John:

I'm intrigued by your statement that it might look to someone who's broken completely with Mormonism that LDS theology would require a total overhaul to accommodate gay people.

My experience was exactly the opposite. After a long and difficult struggle to avoid such a conclusion, I realized while I was still a member and trying to hang on that such a sweeping theological overhaul was the only way to resolve the problems.

So for me, this was not the conclusion of someone's who's decided to leave and thus looks backward to form his opinion. It was reaching this conclusion while still a member that led me to conclude that I couldn't stay. Because it meant that God's love, as taught by the LDS church, is conditional (well, Russell Nelson has actually preached this in Conference too) and that, from a current LDS perspective God creates and treats his gay children differently than his straight ones. I know you'll disagree, but in all honesty I believe these implications are unavoidable.

So I admit that I am puzzled by your statement that LDS theology does not require "a complete renovation to make gay people fit in the plan of salvation." I don't see how this can possibly be true. Please explain.

J G-W said...

Rob, I think maybe this is a chicken and the egg type question.

Did your inability to see the possibility of acceptance within the Mormon faith cause you to break completely? Or did your complete break with the Church cause you to lose interest in the possibility of complete acceptance?

In any event, by definition, someone in my position would not have lost hope... And I merely meant to point out the difference in our perspectives.

More concretely... I find it interesting that you would highlight Russell Nelson's statements about "conditional love." Because a lot of Mormons took note of that. It was a bit shocking to many Mormons because a statement like that seemed to run against the grain of what most LDS consider an axiom of their understanding about the nature of God: their belief in his unfailing and unconditional love for all his children.

To be honest, I haven't heard a lot more statements like that emanating from G.A. pulpits... So I don't even think Nelson's (and to a lesser extent Oaks') statements about conditional love even signaled any sort of a trend (despite panicky prognostications to the contrary from cranky liberals). These statements were, rather, desperate attempts to head off at the pass a perceived growing openness toward and acceptance of GLBT sons, daughters, brothers and sisters. An openness that continues to grow, those statements notwithstanding.

In other words... Those statements were, if anything, proof that traditional LDS faith is more likely to evolve toward a position of openness, because of basic faith-based instincts within the LDS community -- that include things like belief that we are literal children of God whom he does (ahem) love unconditionally; and belief that part of the process of evolving into the fullness of stature in faith involves seeking greater light, knowledge and understanding. Intelligence is the glory of God. And Mormons have also had a historic trust that the knowledge and intelligence obtained through science would eventually be reconciled into one great whole with religious truth. And the whole religion is built on the bed-rock principles of continuing revelation and eternal progression.

We've run into a cultural snag that has to do with the fact that the LDS Church is embedded in a western culture that inherited its basic attitudes toward homosexuality from a witch-burning age that associated homosexuality with Satanic possession. And the relationship of gays to the Church was complicated by the fact that Enlightenment atheism made sexual liberation a central plank in its campaign against (an essentially medieval) Christian theology and church.

Compare Mormon homophobia to mainstream Christian homophobia, and there's not much difference... Those aspects Mormon faith that set it at odds with Nicene Christianity seem to me precisely to hold great promise for reconciliation and redemption of gay Saints.

Rob said...

It wasn’t chicken/egg. My analysis didn’t stop with this issue, there was more. And that additional portion is what I wouldn’t have expected you to know about or factor in here.

So neither of your alternative questions is accurate. I neither broke with the church because I couldn’t see any chance of acceptance, nor did my break with the church cause me to lose interest in the possibility. Rather, I saw that LDS leadership had for generations been claiming to be inspired and speaking God’s truth about this issue, and then I saw what I believed to be clear and convincing evidence that they had been wrong. Repeatedly and blatantly. While claiming to be inspired. I saw prophet, seer & revelator David Bednar lying in a Youtube video released by the church during Prop 8. I saw the trajectory of teachings about this issue change over time so that it became self-contradictory.

Truth is consistent with itself. Therefore, given the above record, at some point some LDS leaders who claimed inspiration about this issue have taught falsehood ex officio as if it were truth. I simply could no longer trust them on this issue.

Logically, the next question is “If they are wrong about that issue, what else might they have been wrong about?” So my realization that there was no place for gay people in LDS theology led inexorably to my questioning the entire edifice. After a period of further study, investigation, meditation and prayer, I concluded that the church was simply not what it claimed to be. This conclusion went far beyond just “the gay issue,” all the way to fundamentals. I agreed with Grant Palmer that the evidence for the church’s key foundational and historical claims was either “problematic or non-existent.”

Rob said...

I also realized, after that protracted study and introspection, that every experience I had ever been taught to interpret as “the spirit” could just as easily and simply be explained in other ways, that such experiences were by no means unique to Mormonism, and that they were therefore an untrustworthy basis for claiming exclusive truth.

With historical and evidentiary bases discredited, and “the spirit” no longer trustworthy, I simply had no further reason to trust or affiliate with the LDS church.

As to current LDS cultural trajectories “toward a position of openness, because of basic faith-based instincts within the LDS community”, the LDS tradition of truth as holistic, based on continuing revelation and eternal progression, and the “cultural snag” of the church being “embedded in a western culture” from which it inherits its homophobia.

I agree with you on the cultural inheritance. I agree that the LDS church claims a holistic approach to truth. I have said myself that paradoxically, the blatantly homophobic LDS church has within its theology a greater possibility for change and welcoming of gay people than most other Christian sects which tie themselves strictly to creeds. But that’s not the issue.

The issue is that generations of LDS leaders have staked their entire legitimacy, and the legitimacy of the church, on the heteronormative model of exaltation so as to exclude any chance of gay men and women AS gay men and women inheriting the highest blessings. While more superficial policies for treatment of gay persons may shift toward tolerance, this doctrinal rock in the road remains unchanged.

If a future LDS prophet does change it, then everyone must conclude that his predecessors were wrong, and taught error as if it were eternal truth—something Wilford Woodruff said that God would never allow. The issue is not one of whether gay people have a place. The issue for the church is whether it can survive the test of its legitimacy which this doctrinal reversal would impose. The LDS church claims to be God’s sole authorized church. And even with continuing revelation, some things have been so fundamental since the earliest days that changing them would completely transform the whole enterprise beyond belief or recognition. The heteronormative model of exaltation and eternal increase is one of them. Any LDS prophet that changed it would risk destroying the church’s claims to consistent legitimacy and unbroken priesthood authority. It would be a doctrinal change more radical than anything LDS leaders have criticized “apostate Christianity” for in early church history. I honestly do not see how the church could survive with its credibility intact, even amongst its own membership.

That’s why I don’t think there is room for gay people in the LDS church.

J G-W said...

Rob - fair enough...

I'm not sure it follows that just because a leader or leaders have taught some untruth or untruths the whole edifice collapses.

I started to respond in greater depth, but decided to put my thoughts into a post of its own.

J G-W said...

As to the question of whether the Church could make major changes in its doctrines and practice of marriage... It's already done so twice: first in 1843, and again in 1890.