Thursday, May 17, 2012

My Peace I Give Unto You

I've been thinking lately of these comforting words of Jesus to his disciples:
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid. (John 14: 27)
In my mind, I've been cross-referencing it with:
Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. (2 Nephi 2: 25)

My friend Andrew recently posted over at Wheat & Tares, and also on his own blog about the argument made by a Christian minister (not Mormon) that America is essentially giving in to gay marriage because Americans have become too concerned with happiness.

Just to be clear here -- this minister thinks the American concern with happiness is a bad thing, and the rising acceptance of gay marriage is only proof of just how bad it is. Which I find rather odd, given that every American school child knows that our nation was founded on the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Now, before unpacking this, it's important to draw out the fact that for Christians in general, and certainly for Mormons in particular, there are different kinds of happiness. (I've blogged about this before.)

Even in a very worldly, secular sense, everybody understands the difference between long-term and short-term happiness. We understand that there are things that might gratify us in the short-term, but that eventually down the road exact a price of us we might be unwilling to pay, and that might, in the end, leave us unhappy. We also understand that there are degrees of happiness: certain things in life that grant us a certain delight, but that we would never trade for other things in life that give us a more profound, lasting happiness. So someone who is at least worldly wise can understand the value of deferred gratification and sacrifice in favor of some greater good, in favor of some greatest happiness that outweighs other, more fleeting kinds of happiness.

Now in a Christian context, we understand that the end -- the telos -- of created existence is union with God. We see that union as the very highest good of all, as the very meaning of our existence, and as the greatest source of all our happiness. So no matter how much happiness something gives us in any given frame, if it has the end result of denying us that union with God, it will taste like ashes in the ultimate frame.

Note that I've specifically avoided the terminology "in the here and now" vs. the "hereafter." Because respectable Christian theology -- Christian theology that is not a sham or a manipulative bait -- acknowledges that that ultimate happiness of union with the Divine is available to us right here, right now, in our every day existence. Anyone who tells you you can't experience that fullness of joy in this life is trying to manipulate you into buying something. And I'm here to tell you: Don't Buy It.

A Christian life has value because it enables us to access that deepest of all deep happinesses. And I can testify from personal experience, that the happiness offered by union with the Divine is resilient. It will keep us grounded through the very worst of the worst adversity that life can throw at us. We can be very, very unhappy in a worldly sense. And here I'm using the term "unhappy" in the very worldly sense of being "unfortunate." We can be sick or hungry or homeless or alone or in prison -- all very unfortunate, very unhappy states. And yet, we can be profoundly happy. A Christian who is devoid of the outward trappings of happiness can be profoundly happy and profoundly grateful. As long as you are alive, you can always be grateful for the air in your lungs, for the heart beating in your chest, for the very possibility that life itself offers you, no matter how desperate your circumstances. And through faith, the one thing the vicissitudes of life can never deny you is union with God; and compared with that great happiness, the rest is just... The rest.

That's what Jesus meant when he said, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33). The house, the car, the wife, the kids, the job, the nice neighborhood, the money. Those are "things" that are added. They can be taken away too, as Job acknowledged: "Who can hinder him? who will say unto him, What doest thou?" (Job 9:12). What counts is the seeking the kingdom. Receiving the peace that Christ gives as opposed to the peace that the world gives.

So Mormons have some great texts about happiness, and how it's the purpose of our existence and the goal of our life. We love those scriptures from the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine & Covenants that remind us of the fullness of joy that God means us to have as a birthright. But Mormons also understand what kind of joy we're talking about when we quote texts like "men (and women too!) are that they might have joy."

So now we can come back (again) to the whole question of happiness and homosexuality, and whether the twain can meet.

And here's the problem, I think as confronted by our Christian minister friend. If we believe homosexuality to be a sin (and it doesn't matter how big or small a sin we believe it to be, because in the ultimate analysis no matter how small the sin, a sin is a sin and will cut us off from God), then what do we make of homosexual happiness?

If we find a person in a same-sex relationship who is happy (and trust me, there are very, very many of us who are), that is not a theological problem, necessarily, for someone who believes homosexuality to be a sin. Because it is easy enough to explain away homosexual happiness as that fleeting, worldly happiness that doesn't light a candle to the depth of happiness that comes from union with God.

But, what do we make of a person in a same-sex relationship who experiences union with God? Many devout Christians don't believe that possible. So if you have a gay or lesbian person in a same-sex relationship who claims to experience the presence of the Spirit (or to have had even more transcendent experiences!), and who claims to find him- or herself tapping into that deeper reservoir of joy that comes from a daily communion with God, that poses a problem. So a devout Christian who believes that homosexual relationships are by definition sinful and therefore alienating from God must disallow that possibility. No homosexual in a same-sex relationship can have that kind of happiness.

At one point, the problem from my angle was that I couldn't know what kind of happiness other people experience. I know very well the breath-taking happiness that swells inside my own breast. I understand in my experience a kind of hierarchy of happinesses. I understand the happiness I receive from my communion with God, from the presence of the Spirit, as the foundation of all my other happinesses. But very close to that foundational happiness, that core of happiness I find as a never-ending spring in God, is my happiness in my marriage to my partner. He is a source of never-ending fascination and joy to me. His happiness brightens my happiness; his sadness darkens it. And further out are other happinesses: the happiness of having a son, of having wider family and friends, of community; of having work and purpose in life. And having a wealth of material blessings, and so on. I could count blessings all day. Way furthest out, on the outer darkness edge of my happiness is the joy I get from my brand new iPhone. If I dropped my iPhone in the street and it got run over by a car, I would feel a slight twinge of regret, but it would tarnish my overall happiness level not an iota.

But you get the picture. I think I have a clear understanding of what matters in life; in my internal spiritual and emotional life I have a picture of the world and of my own happiness in it that seems to map to the kinds of Christian happiness that other people describe themselves having. But I don't know what goes on in someone else's heart or head. I can't experience life except in my own flesh. That's a basic existential problem the philosophers have spilled a lot of ink over.

So when someone tells me: "You are a homosexual sinner who can't possibly experience the depth of happiness that I, a heterosexual in a righteous relationship experience," I can't really know whether what they're telling me is true or not.

I can know that I am deeply, profoundly happy. I can know that the happiness I derive from my relationship with my husband seems intimately connected to the happiness I experience in my relationship with God, because my relationship with my partner affords me opportunities for service, sacrifice, and caring, all things that bring me closer to God. I can know that I find such profound happiness in my relationship with my husband that I would never willingly leave it.

But I can't know if or how my happiness compares to someone else's. And it used to worry me that those who said I couldn't possibly be as happy as they were might be right.

But I've learned to get over that, largely because of my relationship with God. When I worry about those kinds of things, God reassures me that those kinds of comparisons are pointless and perhaps even sinful. And there's plenty of scriptural testimony to that effect.

I understand that the happiness I derive from my husband is a happiness that could be taken away from me. I don't like to think about those kinds of possibilities. But I acknowledge it. And I even trust that if I were to suddenly lose my life partner that God would be there for me, sustaining me through that loss. And I know that the love and joy and sustenance I find in my relationship with God is the one happiness that can never be taken away from me.

There is a happiness I yearn for that is very close to the happiness I find in God, and that is the happiness that would come from being a member of Jesus Christ's Church. But ultimately, the happiness I find in God trumps even that. God has reminded me that it's not my fault that the Church won't have me. I've been strongly incentivized by God to stay as close to the Church as possible; to attend it as often as possible; to live as many of its precepts and teachings as possible. God has made it clear to me that these kinds of efforts are the efforts I'm expected to make if I love him. And I do love him, so I do make them. Still, I would like to take the sacrament. I would like to go the temple. I would like to hold a calling. At some level, those things are unhappinesses in my life. But my joy in Christ allows me to endure that unhappiness with a certain amount of equanimity and patience.

So, I've resolved certain doubts for myself, though I guess my joy is still a problem for those of you out there who are convinced beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt that I am a terrible sinner. And I guess some Christian ministers will feel obligated to exercise themselves over it, lest I (and other happy homosexuals) offer a bad example to those who can still be saved from lives of false happiness. Some might even feel that their only recourse is to deny that happiness has anything to do with the meaning of life.

Plenty have also felt obligated to judge, and plenty more will, I am sure, as time goes on. In their minds I must be either terribly deceived, or a liar of the first magnitude. My blog is littered with occasional calls to repentance, and I'm happy to leave them there as little historic reminders of the road we're all traveling together.

I know there are far more others out there who, like me, are perplexed. Lots of questions that need answering. Lots of pain unresolved.

But somewhere, deep down, there's peace. That's what keeps me going.


Sarah said...

Amen to perplexity and unresolved pain. Thank you for the hope and reminder for peace.

Sundays are always the hardest day of the week for me, because regardless of what I do with my day, the unresolved pain--which I usually tend to ignore the rest of the week--is at the forefront of my mind. So much conflict and guilt within me for feeling like I've set an example for my children to be out of the church, when what they do not realize is that while I no longer attend, my heart is still there.

Today I have decided to give them an assignment--to read one article from a church magazine and write a response to it--good or bad. I just want them to think about their own spirituality and not ignore it.

And just writing this comment and thinking about all of this brings the perplexity and pain forward yet again. Sigh.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Sarah. I find a lot of happiness in focusing - as you have - on doing what you can do. No sense tripping about what others think you should do.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Sarah. I find a lot of happiness in focusing - as you have - on doing what you can do. No sense tripping about what others think you should do.