Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ward Temple Night

I've posted a couple of other times about visiting the temple. It has felt meaningful to me to go to the temple, even if I could only spend time outside of it praying, meditating, reflecting on the state of my soul and seeking communion with God.

Our ward has a monthly temple night, the first Friday of every month. I have actually long had a desire to participate in this in some way, though I wasn't sure how I would. To be honest, I wasn't sure if I would be welcome. But last month, my friend E. called me and asked if I would come to ward temple night with him. He assured me that he had talked to the bishop and cleared it with him. Every month, he said, there were always a few who came along to ward temple night who didn't go into the temple proper, but who either waited in the temple lobby or who helped watch the kids in the ward meeting house next door to the temple. I was more than welcome to come along. And, E. emphasized, he really wanted me to be there.

I wanted to be there! So that was really all the invitation I needed. If E. had specifically asked the bishop about inviting me to come along, and the bishop had said it was OK, that put to rest whatever remaining doubts I had about participating. Unfortunately, when E. invited me to come along last month, I had already had a commitment for that Friday evening. But I promised him I would put the May 4th temple night in my calendar, and I did.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, E. called me all excited to announce that he was finally going to be able to get his endowment. He was scheduled to receive it at the May 4th ward temple night, and he wanted to make sure that I was going to be there, because he really wanted me to be present on this momentous occasion. I told him I had already been planning to be there, but now that I knew he would be receiving his endowment that night, I would not miss it for the world.

At 5:20 yesterday evening, another friend of mine from our elders quorum showed up in a van with has family and E. in tow. I hopped in the van, and off we went to the temple.

During the first half of the thirty-minute drive we made small talk. L. asked me a few questions about my history teaching. Somehow we chatted a bit about Mitt Romney's campaign for president. But I was very aware of wanting to stay focused on the business at hand; not wanting the conversation to get frivolous such that it might detract from the Spirit in any way.

I asked E. how he was feeling. He said he wasn't sure. "How am I supposed to feel?" he asked nervously.

I decided to tell him how I felt. "I'm happy for you," I said. "I'm proud of you."

When we arrived at the temple and got out of the van, he took me aside. "I'm scared," he confessed.

"Don't be scared," I said. "There's nothing to be afraid of." We stood there looking up at the temple. A rain storm was coming in, and the sky was full of contrasts: pitch black clouds crashing up against bright white clouds, and whirling gray in between. We could see streams of rain pouring down near the horizon. The golden Moroni statue at the peak of the temple looked very dramatic against this backdrop. E. took a picture with his smart phone.

Now I had a confession: "I wish I could go."

"I wish you could go for me," he laughed.

I shook my head.

"You will go," he said.

"Maybe in the next life," I replied.

L.'s wife R. took the kids into the ward meeting house, while L. and I accompanied E. up to the temple lobby. E. gave me a long, very emotional hug, and then he disappeared with L. into the temple.

I had come prepared with my scriptures and my journal (both electronic and paper versions!). I settled down and began with some scripture study. There was a brother in the lobby who had come to perform baptisms for a number of his ancestors. He had the pink and blue slips of paper with their names and other information on it for those officiating in the baptisms. He was very excited. There was just a sense of profound joy, as he showed me some of the names he'd brought: a couple of ancestors from the 1600s; even one going back to the eleventh century! I had arrived particularly early, so initially it was just me and this other brother. But as time went on, youth from our ward started to arrive and gather in the lobby, in preparation to go in and do baptisms for the dead. Also, temple workers were passing through either on their way in or out. There was a little kitchenette area off the lobby, where someone had placed a huge pan full of rhubarb and peach pie and a tub of whipped cream. A few temple workers were helping themselves, eating and chatting quietly at a little lunch table behind the main waiting area.

All evening, even as I'd been hectically wrapping everything up from work, I felt a sense of peace and happy anticipation about going to the temple. At the moment I set foot in the temple, that peacefulness just enveloped me. I don't know how else to express it but to say I felt Christ himself present there, and I felt welcomed. I felt at home. There was a painting of the Savior in a green field with a flock of sheep, carrying one tenderly in his arms. I felt like that sheep. That peacefulness and happiness remained with me, deepening throughout the evening.

The people who were there added to that sense of welcome, of "at-homeness." I saw members of my ward as well as people I'd never met dressed from head to toe in white. I'd forgotten about the all-white clothes! It almost shocked me! But it wasn't just the dress that was different. There was this profound joyfulness bubbling just beneath the calm exterior. People greeted me with effervescent smiles, warm handshakes, and with hugs.

People were coming and going. Most of the evening, I was the only one in the lobby, or maybe one of two. At some point, an angelic elderly sister approached me and asked me how I was doing. I told her I was doing wonderfully, and I explained to her that a friend of mine was receiving his endowment, and I was here to support him. After expressing her delight, she smiled and asked, "Would you like some rhubarb pie?"

"I would love some!" I replied.

"Well, let me go get you some then!"

I went and sat down at the little dining table, and she brought out the most heavenly whipped-cream-topped rhubarb and peach pie I'd ever had. I could have cried tears of joy. It was much more than just pie she had given me.

Some time after the pie, M., one of my oldest friends in the ward, came out of the temple proper and entered the lobby. His face registered surprise when he saw me, and he raced over to give me a big hug. I explained to him I was there to support E. getting his endowment.

M. pulled a chair up close to mine and sat down. He asked me, "How do you feel right now? Tell me what you're feeling!"

I said, "I just feel this incredible peace. I feel home. Like this is a part of my heavenly home."

He smiled. "You are home."

To my surprise, M. began to share with me how his first visit to the temple had frightened and upset him. I had had a similar experience, and I shared my story as well. "But you know," I said, "I've had many years to think about the temple and put my experience in perspective. Now I wish I could go back again, with the understanding I have now."

M. lit up. "But you can go back, any time you want! You know what you need to do."

I was a little bit surprised. In all of my almost seven years attending Church, when I'd expected somebody in my ward to try to go down this road with me, no one -- not even my bishop! -- had. Until now.

He proceeded to tell me about a sermon he'd once read by Joseph Smith, in which the prophet had explicated Jesus' saying about plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand that "offends" you. The prophet, M. recounted, had explained that Jesus was speaking of family members who keep us from following the Savior. He shared a personal story again, this time from his former marriage, which ended in divorce. I think the story was meant to illustrate how a bad relationship can keep us from being close to God, and how the end of such a relationship can be a blessing. It was obvious what he thought the implications were for me.

I was actually surprised by what I was feeling, and how I was reacting to what he'd just said. I'd always imagined this kind of conversation would make me angry. But I was astonished to realize that there wasn't even the slightest hint of suppressed anger or frustration in any corner of my soul. Quite the opposite: I felt delighted. I felt joyful.

Perhaps it was that sense of peace, that unadulterated happiness I'd been feeling all evening. Perhaps it was that my friendship with this brother goes back to my first first weeks attending my ward, and I'd learned to trust his unconditional love for me. I didn't feel the need to be defensive. I felt like, in this space, nothing but truth between two people was appropriate. So I actually felt a great sense of relief that I could finally speak openly with him about my feelings for the very first time.

"Göran and I love each other profoundly," I said, "we take care of each other." Without implying that I was in any way judging his unhappy experience in his marriage, which had ended in complete alienation between him and his former wife and many of his kids, I described how Göran's and my relationship had been a success story, how we had faced and overcome challenges together and grown steadily in trust and love and intimacy. My relationship with Göran was very, very good, it was a blessing. Far from keeping me away from my Savior, it has helped me come closer to him. Göran has taught me more, and more profoundly, about the nature of love than any other person in the world.

He stared uncomprehendingly as I told him about our relationship. He couldn't understand that I didn't get the self-evident truth that my relationship must be keeping me from the Savior, because here I was, sitting in the temple lobby, unable to pass any further. That was as much proof as I or anybody needed.

There was an African American brother sitting in the lobby just across from us. Forty years ago, this lobby was as far as he would have been allowed to pass as well.

M. continued to press the point. Anything that was keeping me from regaining full Church membership should be renounced. I said simply, "You would have the first act of my Church membership be an act of betrayal."

He seemed a bit flustered. At one point he said, "I don't know what to say to you. I just don't know."

I'm not sure what he was feeling. On my part there was no bitterness, no frustration. That sense of peace hadn't left me. I felt the Spirit present, blessing this "moment of truth." I actually felt deeply grateful for this exchange. I wished my relationship with every member of my ward could be at this level, at a level of friendship, of trust and love and intimacy, where we could be this completely honest with each other.

M. has -- for years! -- been telling me he wanted to have me over for dinner with him and his wife some evening. We talked about the fact that we were long overdue to make that dinner a reality, so I promised him I would hold him to it in a couple of weeks, as soon as my night classes are done. Then we parted, more brothers than we had been before we'd had this conversation.

This amazing conversation happened at the temple.

After he'd left, as I sat in silence, I revisited his words with me. I reflected on them more deeply on my own. Could there possibly be any truth in what he'd said? Was I truly not open to the full meaning of Christ's words: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26)? I chose to ignore the fact that the brother who was challenging me in this way is currently happily married, that he obviously does not see fit to apply this saying of Christ literally to his own relationship. Could this gospel principle apply to me in my situation?

There have been many times in the last seven years, when I've wrestled with this question, and ultimately surrendered it to Christ. "I don't know," I've told the Lord, "I can't hold on to anything that keeps me from you. So you tell me." Always the Spirit has told me: "No. Don't do that. Don't leave your husband. That would for you be abomination. That would be sin." Always, the Spirit has reaffirmed that for me the greater sacrifice was forgiveness and patience. I wanted to be understood, I wanted to be accepted. I wanted resolution in my relationship with the Church. And to hastily grab at those things by betraying the love and the promises between me and my husband would be a great sin. Always the Spirit has said to me, "You be patient, and let the Lord resolve this in his way."

That was how my brother M. had ended our discussion. I had said to him that if my relationship with Göran came to an end -- either through death or by Göran's choice -- there was no question in my mind what I would do. I would do whatever I needed to do to be re-baptized. M. said, "I would never wish that on you or your partner. I can't pray for that. But I will pray that the Lord will find some way to resolve this for you."

As I sat and wrestled and prayed in the temple lobby, the Spirit reaffirmed to me that this was the only appropriate way forward for me: patience, love, fidelity to my husband, and letting the Lord set this situation right in his own way.

By the time E. and L. finally emerged from the temple at about 10 p.m., I had had to bat off some feelings of slight worry about the fact that I was late getting back to work. An attorney I work for needed me to file something for him no later than 11 p.m. I had not anticipated temple night going that late, and was worried I'd be able to get it done by the midnight EDT deadline. But there was someone, something much more important than that deadline: my brother E., in this particular moment.

When he emerged from the temple, he was beaming, radiant. Transfigured almost. Going in he had been edgy, worried, all pulled in. Now he was totally relaxed, fresh. He couldn't stop grinning. I was tempted to feel envy, but I batted that feeling away too. I loved him too much to let this moment be clouded by that. He rushed toward me and gave me a great big hug. A LONG, joyous hug!

As we walked down the steps of the temple toward the parking lot, he said excitedly, "When I passed through the veil, it came back to me, that moment when you and I were climbing up that mountain."

Last summer, E. and I had traveled to Utah together. He'd had a crisis of faith that summer, and we had gone mountain-hiking together to talk. He had literally wept on my shoulder, moistening my shirt with his tears. When we had reached the highest point of our hike, we had sat down together, and I had born my testimony to him, and encouraged him to keep the faith, to be patient, to keep searching and to hang in there. It was that moment that had come back to him at the culmination of the endowment ceremony. He thanked me for being there with him, for helping him to finally get to this point. There were tears of gratitude in his eyes.

I was grateful to have been "inside" the temple, even if only in his memory.


Duck said...

What a touching and beautiful temple experience.

Two of the things I so admire about you, John, are your humility and love for the Savior. They shine through in everything you share here. Goran is so lucky to have you, and you him. And, I am lucky to know you and have you as a friend. I am taught and learn so much from your words. Thank you!

I love you. Happy day!

J G-W said...

Duck - thanks. That's a beautiful post.

Brad Hess said...

Would that I had the long-suffering that you exhibited in the temple lobby with your friend. If I had been in your shoes, I fear that my quick tongue would have beaten my better judgment to the punch. I once found myself raising my voice with a fellow ward member over how best to set up a volleyball standard in the cultural hall. If ever there was something that might have merited a spirited response, it may have been the overture your friend made. It certainly not volleyball standards.


J G-W said...

Brad, to be honest, I was a bit surprised by my response as well!

I do honestly believe that the spirit of peace and love I felt there in the temple helped ground me. I felt totally loved and embraced by the Lord there, and so I didn't feel at all threatened by this conversation. I definitely felt that this brother was also coming from a place of great love and respect, even if I don't feel he really had a complete understanding of my situation or my relationship.

I was just telling a friend yesterday that I wish I could always have these kinds of conversations in the temple!

surakmn said...

A beautiful posting. Let me know if your ward does anything on a Saturday morning, that's when I work. I'd come out to say hello :)

J G-W said...

OK! :-)

Cherry said...

I think I love you. I just found your blog on a friend's facebook page. I looked through a couple of posts and I admire you. Way to be who you are and still believe what you believe, regardless of what others think. I try to tell some of my Mormon friends that it is okay to be who you are and be Mormon (if that is what you believe), even if that is not a cookie cutter example of a Mormon. I know many people who have left the church (but have professed to still believe its teachings) because they don't believe this is possible, and I know many people who pretend to be the "cookie cutter" for the same reason. God made us all diverse, because we were not meant to be the same. Anyway, I'm glad I was led here. It gives me hope that maybe someday diversity will be more accepted in the church. Thank you!

J G-W said...

Thanks, Cherry! I share your hope for the church. It's not an issue just in our church. I was talking with my aunt yesterday, who is a member of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and she was saying they also struggle with this as well... I think it's just part of the human nature that the gospel will help us overcome if we let it.