Last night we had the latest in our monthly gay Mormon get-togethers. Seven of us gathered together at the home of one member of the group, and we put together an amazing taco bar. The only slightly awkward moment was just before we started eating. Someone new to the group, D., asked, "Will we say a prayer?" We took a quick poll to see if everyone in the group was OK with that. They were. So the person hosting offered a beautiful prayer, directed to "Our Heavenly Parents," giving thanks for everything that had conspired to bring us this food: the laborers in the fields, the sun, the rain, the earth, the hands that brought it to our table.
Over food we shared stories. We talked about family. Since there was a new person, there were lots of questions about coming out, and about reactions of Mormon family members to being gay, and experiences at BYU, and so on. The usual gay Mormon stuff.
At one point, a member of the group, J., shared an experience. This individual has sort of dropped out of activity in the Church. He feels very conflicted about his membership in the Church. One of his co-workers had approached him earlier that day, and had asked him: "You're a Mormon, right? So what do you think about that John Smith guy? Was he crazy, or a liar?" J. hadn't known how to answer that question. He actually stood there, sort of deer-in-headlights stunned for a minute or two. A customer interrupted their conversation long enough for him to think about it a bit. As he recounted the story to us, he realized that he really wasn't sure what he believed about Joseph Smith. It was a painful question for him. When the co-worker returned and they resumed their conversation, he replied to the effect that it just wasn't as simple as chalking Joseph Smith's career up to fraud or psychosis. "You still believe!" his co-worker taunted him. To J.'s chagrin, he realized that perhaps he did. He realized that voluntarily or not, he had just born a kind of testimony.
As one member of the group later put it, by virtue of being gay, our relationships with the Church are necessarily complicated. Her response to the story was to ask: Does this guy believe in the reality of "spiritual phenomena"? (Those were her words.) J. said, "No, this guy's an atheist." "Well then," she replied, "I guess in his mind Joseph Smith could only be one of those two things -- crazy or a liar." She expressed that she had questions and doubts about the Joseph Smith story. Maybe it didn't happen exactly the way we think it did, but perhaps there was something real in it too.
I shared my own journey with the Prophet Joseph Smith. I said that a major turning point for me was reading Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History. As I read her account of the martyrdom of the prophet, she described that moment when Joseph had crossed the Mississippi, and was getting ready to flee to points west. Knowing full well that he would probably not get out alive if he turned himself in, he did precisely that. He went back, and was taken to Carthage. When I began reading Brodie's book, it was at a point in my life where I took for granted that Joseph Smith must have been a fraud. But that part of his story worked its way into my brain. It bothered me. That was not, I was forced to conclude, the behavior of a fraud. The deeper I looked into the life of Joseph Smith, the more I saw ways in which his life had been marked and shaped by the divine. Joseph Smith was a deeply flawed man in significant ways, yes. But he was also a prophet of God.
Our story-sharing and conversation was heartfelt and real. People expressed doubt freely, people asked questions, people shared faith. It was one of the coolest conversations I've ever had. One member of the group who's been gathering with us is not Mormon. He was asked if he felt awkward listening in on such a very Mormon conversation, and he said something to the effect of, "No, not really. It's about faith. It's about stuff that we all have to deal with, one way or another."
After we broke up for the evening, I gave a member of the group, S., a ride home. He was curious about my yoga practice. I had mentioned earlier that my experience with yoga was very spiritual, and he wanted to know more about that. "How is yoga spiritual for you? Do you pray while you're doing yoga? What is it like for you?" I told him that I usually arrive at yoga practice early, and I often pray before class starts; and that I sometimes have had the experience of receiving revelation during yoga practice. I explained that one of the purposes of yoga is to help calm the mind and heart, to clear the mind of those inner voices, that constant chatter that goes on in our brains, and to open up and listen. That's why, I think, I often receive revelation while practicing yoga: because it helps put me in a posture of listening. Yoga also teaches you patience and endurance, and it teaches you to face stress and adversity with calm and strength.
I said I was grateful for all of these gifts which yoga gives me. But I told him it was the gospel of Jesus Christ that gave me understanding of who God is, and who I am, and the nature of my relationship to God. Without that, the rest could not be as meaningful to me. The gospel means everything to me.
I've been thinking a lot about President Monson's talk at the Sunday morning session of conference the last day or two. I shared some of it with the group. I loved that he used words like: "learning through experience," "thinking," "choosing," "striving," "seeking," and "finding."
D. talked about our intentions: how we can make mistakes along the way, but if our intentions are right, we'll always get back on track. "Maybe the branch in the path," he said, "is the path."