Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Notes on Romans

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:2)
I have been carefully reading and rereading the central argument of Paul's epistle to the Romans, and I have come to a few conclusions.

First off, I think many of us have a tendency -- or I should say, the tendency has been inculcated in us -- to read Paul's discussion of "the Law," and to want to apply it only to the Jewish or the Mosaic Law, thereby exempting our Law.  And I believe if we do this, we miss the entire meaning and purpose of this text.  After all, Paul was writing in relation to his Law.

Not to mention, that when we read these texts, in the conventional way of many Christians, as a diatribe against Jewish Law, it distorts our understanding of and demeans Judaism.  No, Paul is speaking to us (i.e., whomever is seeking to learn from this text), to our idolatrous thought-ways and patterns and conventions, and how we need to break ourselves free of them, and not proving how Christianity is superior to Judaism.  This is what is meant when Paul affirms that what God revealed to the Jews was perfect in every way; that he was seeking to fulfill that revelation, not transcend it.

So Paul here is writing to us about our own Law, which is to say, everything we conform to (and demand everybody else conform to), everything we use as a kind of social or spiritual ladder, to ascend higher than everybody else and prove how righteous we are. We all have laws we use in this way.  Christian Law.  Mormon Law.  Whatever Law you use to ascend to God.

And the whole point of his arguments about Law and Grace is to prove to us that we can never measure up to anything significant or win God's love in this way.

(And this doesn't mean, by the way, that Law is valueless.  Only that we are supposed to use it as an offering, as a way of expressing Love; not as a ladder; not as a hammer.)

And the culmination of this argument about Law is the text I've quoted above, from Romans 12:2.  Be not conformed to this world.  That is his summary of the proper attitude toward Law/Legalism.  And the rest of this chapter is about Love, and about the value of diversity, and about using our gifts to serve one another and care for each other.  (And the sermon in this chapter could be read every morning of my life as a reminder that this is what my day is supposed to be about.)


I occasionally grieve that I am not able to hold a calling in the LDS Church, the Church that I have a testimony of and that is my spiritual home, where I feel the Spirit, and where I am most nourished.  Sometimes I feel as if my gifts are languishing, unused.

But the Spirit reminds me that gifts are only languishing unused if we don't use them.  And no one is stopping me from using my gifts to build up the Kingdom of God.

That is, no one is stopping me from using my gifts to love and serve others.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Seven hundred fifty is the number, in a new survey of individuals identifying as both LGBT/SSA and Mormon, who reported having spiritual experiences in which they were reassured by their Heavenly Father that their gayness was a good and intrinsic part of who they are.  This was 47% of a sample of 1600 respondents to an in-depth survey that covered information about early perceptions of sexual difference, sexual identity formation, efforts to cope with sexual orientation, and the role of faith in all of this.  Preliminary findings from the survey were presented by John Dehlin and Bill Bradshaw at this year's Sunstone Symposium.

That number made me feel much less alone.  I had a very powerful (and unexpected) experience of this nature in 1986 (as I've described in my spiritual autobiography).  For many years, I was the only person I knew who had had such an experience.  Gradually, over the years, I read of or encountered others who shared experiences of a similar nature.  I've encountered these types of stories often enough to realize that they are not uncommon.  Still, 47% out of a group of 1600 gay men and lesbians seemed like an astonishing number to me.

Any reckoning of the ultimate significance of this number, however, will need to account for the fact that 16% of survey respondents reported receiving spiritual confirmation that God rejected their homosexuality.  The apparent conflict highlights the challenges of validating spiritual experiences and evaluating them in a broad context.

The other presented data I found interesting had to do with respondents' reported levels of happiness and quality of life.  This is the first time I've seen the different relationship configurations of gay men and lesbians evaluated in this way.  Single or celibate gay men and lesbians reported the least happiness.  Gay men and lesbians in mixed orientation marriages reported the next lowest levels of happiness.  Gay men and lesbians in some sort of committed relationship reported quality of life slightly less than healthy heterosexual married individuals.  Gay men and lesbians who were legally married reported levels of happiness comparable to or even slightly higher than healthy, married heterosexuals.

What I thought noteworthy about this is the fact that while, on average, gay or lesbian individuals in mixed orientation marriages reported lower quality of life than gay or lesbian individuals in committed same-sex relationships or in same-sex marriages (or, for that matter, married heterosexual individuals), they were still happier than single/celibate gays and lesbians.  This is logical, when one considers the fact that needs for human touch and companionship will be fulfilled even in a less than ideal marital relationship.

This data confirms the observation that the Church's recent emphasis on celibacy as the only acceptable option for gay and lesbian individuals is unlikely to deter individuals from entering into mixed orientation marriages.  Since the Church's emphasis on singleness/celibacy for gays and lesbians effectively consigns them to the most stressful and unhappy life status, no one should wonder why, if gay individuals don't opt for a mixed orientation marriage, the vast majority eventually end up leaving the Church if a same-sex relationship is an option.

I think these data also beg the question: If singles (gay and straight) are the most unhappy of these demographic groups, how have we as a Church/society failed singles?  These are the individuals that demand our most serious and immediate attention.  What can we do to address this problem?  Are our families, Churches and social groups configured in such a way as to create or exacerbate the unhappiness measured in this survey?  And if so, what do we need to do to change that?

Finally, these data speak to the question of why legal relationship recognition in the form of full marriage equality matters.  Based on the data that was presented, it's impossible to know conclusively why legally married same-sex couples reported higher levels of happiness than same-sex couples who were only in extra-legal committed relationships.  Is it because commitment in the form of marriage offered a greater sense of security and stability in the relationship?  Is it because gay couples who are legally married are more likely to live in states where society treats them as equals?  Whatever the case, it seems to me that any commonwealth that claims to be concerned about the well being of all its citizens, needs to consider the impact that denying marriage rights will have on the health and well being of its gay citizens.

Parenthetically, it's worth considering the implications of this data about quality of life and happiness for religious beliefs about homosexuality.  Religious opponents of same-sex relationships have always argued that a lifetime of diminished happiness is a small price to pay for exaltation in eternity.  Regardless of what the data say, in other words, we still have to wrestle with larger questions about the meaning of suffering, and the relationship between holiness and happiness.

I think it's worth noting that I did experience an increase in personal happiness after I found and made a commitment to my life partner, Göran.  However, I feel like my level of happiness in life increased even more dramatically after I opened myself up to wrestling with what my testimony of the Gospel and of the LDS Church meant to me as a gay man, and after I started attending Church and applying Gospel principles to my life.  Our decision to get legally married and the personal satisfaction I've derived from getting married are connected to my faith.  In other words, I am happy to the extent I am able to live a life of integrity and wholeness -- in my relationship with my husband, as well as in my relationship with God and with my community of faith.

None of the data presented by Bro. Dehlin and Bro. Bradshaw free us of the responsibility of wrestling with difficult questions.  Data never just speak for themselves.  All the same, it is helpful to have data.  With or without the data, we still have to wrestle with the questions of meaning.  But it is better to wrestle with these questions in the presence of good data, than with no data or bad data.  I've personally wrestled with a lot of these questions, and I've for the most part found resolutions to the most troubling questions, and Bro. Dehlin's and Bro. Bradshaw's data offered me some helpful perspectives on my own experience.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Gay Mormon Spiritual Autobiography

I've shared different parts of my story in detail on my blog.  These are the major milestones in my spiritual autobiography.
I was born in Provo, Utah in 1963, though I didn't really grow up in Utah Mormon culture. On my dad's side I am a fifth-generation Mormon, but my dad's parents moved from Utah to Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, and my dad was born in Pittsburgh in 1936. My mom was from Finland, and was a convert to the Church. I was basically a BYU baby. When I was four, after my dad finished his graduate degree in Chemistry at "the Y," we moved back out east.  I grew up in upstate New York, a few miles from Palmyra; near the Sacred Grove, the Joseph Smith Home and the Hill Cumorah.

The Church was everything to me growing up. My family were very active and very committed to the Church. Growing up in an area where Mormons were only a very small minority (I was usually the only Mormon, or one of two or three other Mormons in my school), we didn't take anything about our faith for granted. I did experience some teasing and bullying in junior high – first for being Mormon, later for being perceived to be gay.

I first became aware of my feelings of attraction to members of my same sex at about the age of 10 or 11. It wasn't till I was 14 that I consciously made the connection between these feelings and being a “homosexual.” (I looked that word up in a dictionary, and concluded that that was what I was.) At about that time, like many gay boys in the Church, I became much more serious about my faith, hoping that my faithfulness would help me overcome or banish my feelings of same sex attraction. I became a star seminary pupil and began seriously studying the scriptures and praying every day. At the age of 16, I started going on bi-weekly splits with the missionaries and began preparing myself mentally and spiritually for a mission. When I was 18, I went to BYU on a Kimball Scholarship. I majored in history, having prayerfully come to the conclusion that one of my callings in life was to become a Church historian.

I served my mission in the Swiss Geneva Mission. My feelings of attraction to my companions were a source of anguish at first. My first night in the mission field I wept as I prayed to God, asking him how I could possibly serve him with these feelings. The Spirit reassured me, and I made it through my mission, serving honorably and baptizing five new members in a mission where the average at the time was one baptism per missionary per mission.

After my mission, I came back to BYU, where my first BYU bishop informed me that my number one duty was to get married and start building a family. Basically, that's when things started to fall apart for me. My feelings of same-sex attraction were stronger than ever. I had no interest in dating. I did essentially force myself to participate in the BYU dating scene, and dated a number of women. But I slowly sank into a depression. In my junior year, my bishop took away my temple recommend, denied me a ward clerk calling, and told me to stop taking the sacrament until I could be masturbation free for four months. When I asked him how I could possibly do that, he told me to get married as soon as possible. After that, I basically gave up. I couldn't bring myself to pray any more. I went through the motions attending Church, but didn't think I believed in anything any more. By the time I went home for the summer at the end of my junior year, I had a plan to commit suicide.

I was deterred from this plan by the loving attention of a next door neighbor who was an Episcopal priest. Later that summer, while on an internship in Helsinki, Finland, I felt the Spirit inviting me to pray. I got on my knees and poured my heart out, and essentially “came out” to God. God told me he already knew I was gay because he knew me from my inmost parts, he knew how I was made. There was nothing wrong with me, and he loved me and was pleased with me. After that, I began to pray and read the scriptures and attend Church with a renewed sense of hope. Though later that summer, I had another experience in which, as I wrestled in prayer with what to do about my homosexuality, what my place was in the Church, I had a visionary experience, in which I was standing with my ancestors before the throne of God. The Lord told me I needed to leave the Church for a time. I was astonished and upset and wept, and was worried about my family, but the Lord reassured me my family would be taken care of. Later that summer, I resigned from the Church. I also left BYU, fearing that if I went back, I might become suicidal again. In response to my letter resigning from the Church, a formal Church court was held on my behalf (in absentia) in my home stake (at that time, in eastern Massachusetts), and I was excommunicated from the Church.

My Finnish heritage led me to become active in the Lutheran Church for a time. I finished my undergraduate degree at Northern Michigan University, and then went on to grad school at the University of Minnesota, completing a Ph.D. in American History, with an emphasis on religious and social history.

In the fall of 1987, during my first semester in grad school, I began a fast. I told the Lord that I would drink water, but I would not eat until I had the answer to a question: Should I seek to marry a woman, or should I be celibate for life? (Being in a same-sex relationship was not on the table in my mind.) The answer came to me on the third day of my fast, as I was crossing a foot bridge over the Mississippi River on the University of Minnesota campus. A voice speaking in my mind and heart very clearly said to me: “Be open to all your options.” I wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but I felt a sense of peace, and I accepted it as the answer I sought from the Lord. Later that evening, after I had broken my fast, I met an openly gay man – the first I had ever known. I was attracted to him and realized I was interested in dating him, and it was at that point I understood the full meaning of what the Lord had told me about being open to all the options.

A few days later, I began coming out publicly to friends and colleagues in grad school, and at the Lutheran Church where I was a member.

Despite the fact that I was now open to dating men, I took the “all options” part of the revelation I had received seriously. I had continued to date women at the University of Minnesota. There was a woman who still showed interest in me even after I had come out of the closet to her. We were on a date one evening, and we talked about the possibility of a relationship. I could tell in the way she spoke that she felt a kind of intensity of desire toward me that I knew I would never, ever reciprocate. My heart broke. I went home that night and thought about it, and then, later that week, hard as it was, I told this woman we could not date again. I scratched that option off the list.

I made arrangements to spend the following summer in a Roman Catholic monastery in France, where a former missionary investigator of mine had become a brother. I realized that if I wanted to consider the possibility of life-long celibacy, there would be no better place to learn about it. I got dispensation from the head of the order to ask any brother any question I wanted, so I talked to them about their sense of call (what led them to want to join the order), and how they managed the celibacy requirement. All of them told me that celibacy was not for me if I were “running away from my sexuality.” Life-long celibacy would only work if I had it as a gift, if I literally felt called to it. At the monastery, I had 4-5 hours a day of prayer, scripture study and meditation, which was ample opportunity for me to petition the Lord and seek my answer about this option. By the end of that summer, it was clear to me that if celibacy was a gift or a calling, I did not have it. Shortly before leaving the monastery, I went for a walk with my friend and former investigator, and we had a conversation about this. After I described to him my sense that celibacy was not my calling, he shared with me that he agreed.  “You have a more apostolic calling," he told me.

Having explored the first two options, and feeling convinced that they were not right for me, I decided it was time to explore the third and final option: a same-sex relationship.

Dating in the gay community was messy. At that time, more casual attitudes toward sex were prevalent. A lot of guys basically initiated a dating relationship with a hook up. You saw someone you were attracted to (at a bar or at some other social event), you'd go to bed with him, and then, if you still liked each other, you'd exchange phone numbers and see where it went from there. You could take a more traditional approach – go on a nonsexual date first. But, basically, if you hadn't fallen into bed with a guy by the second or third date, he was starting to wonder if you were really interested in him.

In all my time dating, I met and dated one guy who seemed to have a more traditional attitude. I was very attracted to him – head over heels infatuated with him. We used to go out country western dancing every Sunday night. We dated for a few months without it ever getting sexual. I began to wonder if he was really attracted to me. Ultimately, he ended up moving to Washington, DC, and we lost touch without me ever really knowing if he reciprocated my feelings at all.

I ultimately entered into the gay dating scene with the attitude, “If I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this.” So I accepted and played by the rules as I understood them. Basically, it sucked. It was jarring to share myself with someone physically, to open myself up totally in this sense, only to have my need for a spiritual or emotional connection spurned. To call someone I thought I'd connected with, only never to get a call back.  It left me feeling really empty much of the time. In order to go on, I had to kind of desensitize myself to the emptiness.  I had to start thinking about sexuality more casually.

I was essentially “saved” from this scene by my husband and life partner, Göran. Göran and I met in the expected way – at the Gay 90s, a major gay bar in downtown Minneapolis. We'd seen each other around. I'd been attracted to him and he to me, but neither of us had acted on it until he invited me to dance one night. We went home together.

But Göran early on made it clear that he wanted much more from this relationship than just sex. He still insists to this day that he knew from the beginning I was “the one.” It took me longer to figure out. We dated for a couple of months. Then I broke up with him. Then we started dating again less than a year later after a chance encounter on the University campus.  We've been together ever since. By the time we started our second round of dating, I realized that I was ready for a relationship, and I knew he was the one too. We moved into an apartment together after we'd been dating for a few months.

After living together for a couple of years, Göran insisted he wanted to “get married.” So in 1995, we had a commitment ceremony that was attended by my parents, a couple of my siblings and my grandmother, as well as Göran's mom, stepdad, and siblings, and about a hundred other of our friends from all walks of life. A year later, we bought a house together, the house we currently live in.

Göran and I created a stable life together. Shortly after moving into an apartment together, we started attending Church at a neighborhood UCC congregation. Over the years, we found better and more stable work situations, though, after completing my PhD in 1994, I was unable to find a full-time teaching position, a source of great personal disappointment. Both our families accepted our relationship, and we participated fully in family reunions and holiday celebrations and so on.

I published my book, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand (a history of gay men and the YMCA) in 1998 with the University of Chicago Press. After that, I began to work on a variety of creative writing projects. I was struggling with depression, and my way of working through my depression was my writing. Even though Göran and I were active in a church, I was also struggling with doubt again (as I had been as a young student at BYU), not sure if I believed in God. I couldn't deny the various spiritual experiences I'd had in my life, though I wondered if there were purely psychological explanations for them. My fiction writing dealt with religious and spiritual themes, at first in a very abstract way. But as time went on, I found myself wanting to deal explicitly with my heritage as a Latter-day Saint. As a form of research for my fiction writing, I started reading non-fiction: Mike Quinn's Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, his books on The Mormon Hierarchy, and Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History. I was self-publishing some of my creative writing attempts (and some autobiographical essays and sermons I had preached in my UCC congregation) on a web site on line.

In late 2004 and early 2005, I was contacted by a former missionary companion of my Dad, who had found me through the web site. We started corresponding on the subject of Mormonism. Actually, our correspondence was mostly in the form of an extended argument. He was encouraging me to consider Mormonism again, and I was explaining to him all the reasons why, as an out gay man in a committed relationship that would be utterly impossible.

In August 2005, on a trip to Utah, I learned that a former BYU professor of mine, Mike Quinn, was going to be speaking at Sunstone. Mike Quinn was one of the few Mormons I'd stayed in touch with more or less continuously in the 19 years since I'd left BYU after almost committing suicide. I had always liked and admired Mike. As a student I had confided in him about some of my spiritual struggles, and I had always been inspired both by his testimony and his historical scholarship. Mike and I agreed to meet at Sunstone, and I decided to attend some sessions of the conference while I was there.

At Sunstone, while attending a session where Lavina Fielding Anderson was speaking, I had a spiritual experience that was so powerful, I could not explain it away in terms of "feelings" or "psychology." There was an undeniable presence of a being I had recognized from childhood as the Holy Spirit. Only a few times in my life had I felt it so strongly. The Spirit spoke to me very clearly and distinctly, and told me it was time to come back to the Church.

I was very troubled and angry about this revelation. I wanted to argue with God. Why now, when there was so much water under that bridge? Furthermore, the Saints would never accept me back. What would this mean for me and my relationship? And so on. I argued for several months after having that experience, but I could not deny the experience. And the Spirit continued to press me. I felt such a sense of peace and happiness when the Spirit spoke to me, and I wanted more of that. And ultimately, I realized, my desire for that peace of the Spirit in my life was greater than my fear of going back to Church. So I started attending the LDS Church again in October 2005. In January 2006, at the prompting of the Spirit, I began to read the Book of Mormon again. By then I had also begun to incorporate prayer back into my life.

I met with my bishop, to discuss my situation with him. I was afraid to meet with him at first. I called my parents and asked them to fast and pray with me before my first meeting with him. (By this time, I had come out to my parents about my renewed testimony.)  It turns out I had nothing to be afraid of. My bishop responded to me with great love and encouragement. He did not pressure me in any way to leave my relationship with my husband. He encouraged me to be as faithful as I could in living gospel principles given the constraints of being excommunicated. That I have done ever since then to the best of my ability.

For some time, after I'd begun attending Church, I continued to wrestle with the question of my relationship with my husband. Each Sunday I attended Church in my ward, I was having powerful spiritual experiences. The Spirit was present in my life in a way I had never, ever experienced before. I realized, I had a profounder testimony of the gospel than I'd ever had in my life. I had a testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Joseph Smith, of the Restoration, but also of the fact that those leading the Church today were called by God. And yet, my relationship with my husband – which I'd entered into as the end result of equally powerful spiritual experiences many years before – seemed to fly in direct contradiction with what those divinely called Church leaders, of whom I had a testimony, were teaching. This created a new kind of spiritual crisis for me.

At first, when I would pray, if my mind wandered into that area of concern or doubt, the Spirit would simply nudge me away from the question. The Spirit would say: Don't worry about that. Just keep doing what you're doing, attending Church, studying the scriptures, praying, living the Word of Wisdom, and so on. That's what the Lord asks of you right now. Don't worry about that other stuff.

There were times when I also had prayed to the Lord and said, in essence, “Thy will be done. I'm not sure if I could leave my partner, but if you require it of me, I trust there will be a way for me to deal with that.”

But at a certain point, I could no longer live with ambiguity and uncertainty. One night we were having a party, and Göran had sent me on some errands, to pick up food for the party. As I went I was in agony. I began pleading with the Lord, and I said, “I need to know. If I'm supposed to leave him, I need to know. I just can't put this off any more. I can't remain in uncertainty.” And at that moment, the Spirit spoke very clearly and unequivocally to me. It told me: Do not, under any circumstances, leave your partner. To do so would be a great sin. Be faithful to him. Take care of your relationship with him. Do everything you can to nurture and care for him. Do not do anything that would push him away or cause him to leave you. That is your duty and your obligation.

In the spring of 2007, Göran and I decided to become licensed foster parents, and in December 2007, our foster son Glen was placed with us. In February 2008, I began to teach American Religious History at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minnesota, finally fulfilling at least in part that sense of calling I had had as a freshman at BYU. In June 2008, Göran made contact with his biological father (and the rest of his biological extended family) in Memphis, Tennessee – an answer to prayers both on my part and on his family's part. (There's a long story behind this, but the short version is that at the age of four, Göran had been kidnapped by his mother, who took an alias and denied Göran any knowledge of or contact with his biological family. She passed away in 1996, and in 1999 we began a search for information about his past that nine years later led to this discovery.) From the time that the California Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in California in the spring of 2008, Göran and I knew we wanted to go to California to be legally married, which we did in July 2008, at a religious ceremony that was attended by my entire immediate family. In August 2008, we drove to Memphis, Tennessee where Göran and I experienced a joyous, very emotional reunion with his family. At the time I was distinctly aware that all these tremendous blessings that were poured out on me and Göran were a direct result of my willingness to exercise faith and follow the promptings of the Spirit to be active in my ward and to bear my testimony of the Church.

I have continued to grow spiritually as a result of my commitment to my husband, and my commitment to the Church. It has not always been easy to reconcile the contradiction between what I've experienced personally in my relationship with God and in my relationship with my husband, and what Church leaders currently teach about homosexuality. I have sometimes wondered, for instance, if the Lord was holding me to the commitment I'd made to my husband, because it was wrong for me to break a promise, even though being in a homosexual relationship would mean that I could not achieve exaltation in the next life.

I've sought answers to these questions from the Lord, and have gotten nothing specific. Sometimes I got a very specific answer that the Lord would not give me specific answers to such questions!  However, though the Lord has not answered all my questions, he has given me very specific assurances. My relationship with my husband is blessed by him and is a blessing from him. Our efforts to build a family as a couple and with foster or adoptive children who come into our life will ramify and continue to grow and be blessed in the next life. We will not be disadvantaged in any way in the next life as a result of being excluded from Church membership or other ordinances. If I have faith and am patient, the Lord will work all of these things out eventually, and all I need to do is trust and wait on him. These things I know.

I feel incredibly blessed and encouraged by the tremendous growth of understanding, and what seems like a geometric growth in dialog around the place and role of LGBT people in the Church that is happening among Latter-day Saints today. In June 2012, I marched with a contingent of Latter-day Saints in Twin Cities LGBT Pride. I continue to see signs of hope, as members of the Church who were once closed off around this issue are opening up and experiencing changes of heart and mind.

I think the best is yet to come.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Change of Heart / the Spirt at Work

Six years ago while visiting my parents in Utah, I attended church with them, only to be treated during Sunday School to the most homophobic tirade I had ever heard in any LDS congregation.  I was about to get up and walk out, I was so upset.  Instead, the Spirit spoke to me very clearly, reassuring me that the brother who was saying these things didn't have the full picture.  He didn't know what he was talking about, and his ignorance was no reflection on me.  The Spirit reassured me that God was very pleased with me, that I was doing what he wanted me to do, and I was where he wanted me to be -- in Church.

The presence of the Spirit was so sweet and so reassuring, and filled me with such peace, not only did my desire to leave evaporate, I actually felt grateful that I'd had this experience.  This experience taught me that there was nothing anybody could say that could hurt me, because I knew who and what I am, and I knew where I stood with God.  I knew God's love for me, and that was all that mattered.  I immediately and completely forgave the brother who had said all these things.  I recognized -- or I should say, the Spirit helped me to recognize -- that he was not a bad man.  He was a very good man who was ignorant.

This week I am visiting my parents in Utah, to celebrate their 50th Anniversary with them.  As I always do when visiting my family here, I attended Church with my parents.  And it so happened that today the brother who had made all these homophobic comments six years ago in Sunday School was the person giving the priesthood lesson.

At one point in the lesson, this brother was talking about the fact that even though we have the full, restored gospel in the Church, still there are many members of the Church who believe in "false doctrine."  In light of his comments years ago, I was more than a little apprehensive about precisely what false doctrines he worried were prevalent in the Church.

He didn't leave me in doubt very long.  False doctrine, he immediately explained, was whatever caused us to be exclusive, to make the Church less accessible, to view anybody as "less than" or to think of ourselves as better than others.  He then proceeded to say that many members of the Church need to be more open to all those we've often been closed to, including those who are gay or lesbian.

I literally almost couldn't believe my ears.  It took a minute for his words to sink in.  This brother who, six years ago, had been railing against gays and lesbians, was now announcing to the High Priests' Quorum that an understanding of true doctrine in the Church would open us up to receive and learn from our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.  As the reality of what I'd just witnessed sunk in, I felt the warmth of the Spirit inside.  Tears of amazement and gratitude welled up in my eyes.  This was quite simply a miracle.  I realized that I was literally witnessing the Spirit at work in the Church, teaching the Saints true doctrine, opening and changing hearts.  That was, quite simply, the best priesthood meeting I've ever attended.

After we met my mom outside the Relief Society room, as we walked out of the Church toward the car, Dad immediately commented on it.  "Do you remember Brother ___?" he asked me.

"Oh, how could I forget him?" I replied.

"Do you remember what he said in Church a few years ago when you were visiting?" he asked in amazement.

"Oh yes! I remember!" 

We told the whole story to my mom.  Then we went home and told Göran and my sister Anne, who had stayed at home baking while we were at Church.

Tears came to my eyes as I told the story again, and then as I recounted to Anne and to my parents the experiences I'd had during and after Twin Cities LGBT Pride, marching with a Mormon contingent.  Dad said, "You know, after Bro. ___ made those comments years back, I didn't know if I could ever feel the same way about him."  I reminded Dad that all of us have had to work through our homophobia.  None of us could claim that we all started out enlightened on this issue.  So it shouldn't surprise us as others who've expressed these kinds of attitudes in the past begin to see and understand and have a change of heart as well.

The talks in Church today focused on the theme "Judge not that ye be not judged."  I realized that what the Spirit told me all those years ago was true.  This man was not a bad man.  He was a good man whose understanding was incomplete.

I feel so humbled by this experience.  In what ways is my understanding incomplete?  And what kind of fellowship will we be able to experience in the Church some day if we give each other half a chance?  If we can find it in our hearts to be patient with one another, and forgive, and trust that this is the Lord's Church, and that he is at work in it today teaching us and perfecting us and preparing us for Zion?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Romans Chapter 1

At Gay Pride this year, I had a chat with a woman who was giving out free King James Bibles.

I was kind of curious to see where she was coming from, what was motivating her to give free Bibles to homosexuals.  As it turns out, she indeed did think we were all sinners in particular need of her call to repentance.

We ended up having a chat about Romans chapter 1.  I think all the Christian Biblical arguments about homosexual relationships boil down to a few verses in this one chapter, particularly what Paul means by a Greek phrase that, in the King James version is translated as "natural use": phusikos chresis.  That term could be very properly translated, "instinctive sexuality."  Phusikos is related etymologically to the English word "physical," but is best translated "instinctive," hence "natural."  It would apply to those things which to us, in our physical being, are natural in the sense of being instinctive.  So Paul here in these two verses (26 & 27) is discussing individuals who reject or turn away from their sexual instincts.  I pointed out to the woman giving out Bibles at Gay Pride that, given that homosexuality is the natural, instinctive sexuality for gay people, the situation Paul seems to describe in these verses applies not categorically to gay people, but to heterosexuals who are so carried away by lust that they engage in sexual behavior that is unnatural to them.

Could it apply to gay people?  Absolutely.  It would apply to any people, gay or straight, who get carried away in the pursuit of sexual pleasure to the point that they exceed natural limits and natural desires. 

My current scripture study has taken me into the early chapters of Romans, so in the last couple of days I've had a chance to read the entire first chapter (and following) and reflect on it some more.  When you read this chapter in its entirety, you see that Paul is painting a picture here of individuals who are self-centered and ego-driven, who refuse to acknowledge God as the creator and center of all things.  Unbridled sexual lust is only one characteristic of such individuals.  Other characteristics include covetousness, maliciousness, envy, murder, debate, deceit, whispering, backbiting, spite, pride, boasting, disobedience to parents, lack of understanding, covenant breaking, lack of natural affection (hard-heartedness?), implacability, lack of mercy.

The picture that emerges is someone with a hard-hearted, self-centered approach to the world.  This, by the way, is the "natural man" spoken of in scripture, not to be confused with the "natural use" alluded to by Paul in verses 26 and 27.  The whole thrust of Paul's discussion here is to emphasize that we all fall short in this way. There are times in all of our lives when we think only of ourselves.  When we become impatient and let our anger get the better of us.  When we are argumentative, hard-hearted, and unmerciful toward those who offend us.  When we let ourselves be more driven by our lusts and our hungers than by love.

True love for our Creator would demand that we tame the ego, that we shift the center of our universe from ourselves to God and, through God, toward our fellow human beings.

Thus, interestingly enough, the very beginning of Romans chapter 2 begins with:

Therefore [this follows on Paul's argument at the end of Romans 1] thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest: for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself; for thou that judgest doest the same things.

In other words, the impulse to judge and condemn others flows out of that same category of self-centered, hard-hearted attitudes that mark us as in rebellion against God.  So ironic, I guess, that this section of scripture is used so frequently and so harshly to judge and condemn gay people.  Of course, for gay people to turn it around and use it to condemn and judge conservative Christians would be equally ironic.

Or would equally well prove Paul's point.  It is this hard-heartedness, this eagerness to fight and condemn others that marks us all as in need of the mercy and grace of God.  If we fight over scripture, and use scripture to condemn each other, it is only proof of exactly what Paul is talking about here.


So a gay person reading this passage of scripture could respond to it a couple of ways.  Some can and do read it and see chapter 1, verses 26-27 as a categorical condemnation of all homosexuality -- even homosexuality that is expressed in accordance with our natural, instinctive sexuality.  They respond by disciplining themselves in such a way as to live celibate lives.  Or perhaps, the right confluence of circumstances and finding the right life partner allows them to successfully marry heterosexually.  Those paths, no one can seriously dispute, require discipline, patience, and faith, and require extraordinary selflessness.  In other words, they would represent the kind of repentance process that Paul describes here as essential.

But other gay people can and do read this section, and do not see it as a categorical condemnation of homosexuality, but as a condemnation of unbridled lust, and of that egotistical, self-centered attitude I've already described.  We may choose a loving partner with whom we make and honor a life-time commitment, and with whom we seek to live chastely and affectionately just the way loving heterosexual couples might.  In doing so, we are frequently judged and condemned by conservative Christians; we may suffer various forms of exclusion and discrimination in our churches.  For us, the challenge is to respond with forgiveness, patience, and kindness, all the while not judging those who judge us so harshly.  In a way, this is every bit as -- perhaps more -- "unnatural" than remaining celibate or living heterosexually.  For what is more natural than to respond to misunderstanding and judgment with anger and counter-judgment?

My point is, both ways of living as a gay person would be congruent with Paul's teaching in this passage of scripture.  Both ways would require the virtues of patience, steadfastness, selflessness, faith, hope and love that demonstrate that we have centered our lives around the worship of the Creator rather than "the creature" as Paul so aptly puts it here (vs. 25).

The possibility that different gay people would apply this scripture differently in relation to how they govern their sexual lives is allowed for in the Pauline understanding of proper devotion to God, which is conscience-centered and conscience-driven.

Paul argues in chapters one and two that even those who have not received God's law as revealed to Moses (the Gentiles) know God's law in their hearts.  It is our own, innate knowledge of right and wrong, Paul argues, that ultimately condemns us when we sin.  So we must exercise caution and heed our conscience, not harden it.

But where honest differences of opinion emerge, the highest law is to live in harmony, kindness and patience, being careful not to wrong one another by judging each other.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dreams, Death and Transformation

A friend of mine recently recommended I read James Hillman's The Dream and the Underworld (New York: Harper & Row, 1979).  Hillman, who passed away just before Halloween of last year, was a Jungian psychologist best known for his work on dreams.  I came to this delightful little book expecting a theory of dream interpretation, and what I got instead was an anti-interpretation theory.

Hillman makes a convincing case that the function of dreams can best be understood through mythologies of the Underworld.  Hillman begins with a careful analysis of Greco-Roman underworld mythologies, showing how precisely they reflect the human experience of dreaming, even hinting that underworld/afterlife mythologies are the product of dreaming.  Hillman then goes on to argue that if you want to understand how to approach dreams, you have to understand and accept the rules and etiquette of Hades.

One of the most obvious underworld/afterlife-like features of dreams is the fact that we can and frequently do meet and interact with the deceased in our dreams.  I've had a number of dreams in which I've interacted with my grandfather -- who passed away long before I was even born!  In another underworldly dream, I encountered a friend who has been dead many years, who invited me and Göran into his home and offered us a meal of pizza topped with caviar.  Göran was afraid to eat food with the dead, and so declined.  I was not afraid to join my deceased friend in a meal, but unfortunately, as is quite often the case with food offered in the house of the dead, it wasn't the tastiest.

Initially, I found Hillman's book a tad frustrating.  I kept wanting him to finish critiquing Freudian and Jungian dream analysis methods, and start telling me how he thinks we should analyze.  He never does.  At the very end of the book, he does have a chapter entitled "Praxis," in which he discusses possible meanings of very common dream tropes and images.  Though he prefaces this chapter essentially by saying: Well, I'm putting this chapter in here because I have to.  Because you'll get mad at me if I don't, and because I can't resist the urge to critique some more.  But please ignore everything I'm about to tell you, because it may or may not be useful in working with your own dreams!

What I did find both fascinating and helpful was his insistence that most dream analysis is an exercise of the ego.  We tend to impose our "dayworld" preoccupations and interests on our dreams, and this, he suggests, is a violence.  Dreams are not symbolic recapitulations of what goes on in our waking life.  They are underworldly (from the viewpoint of death/the dead) commentaries on or critiques of our waking life.  The question is not, "How can understanding my dreams help me to achieve my goals?" so much as, "What does my dream-self think of my goals?"

I was particularly intrigued by Hillman's discussion of the impact of what he calls "Christianism" on dream work.  Bottom line: it's bad.  Hillman sees Christian doctrine undermining a healthy valuation of "the Underworld," of the "psyche" and the subconscious.    Christianity substituted pneuma (spirit) for the old pagan psyche (soul), an impoverishment in Hillman's opinion.  In the Christian worldview, the Underworld is transformed into Hell, and Hades into the Devil -- a very unhealthy development in his opinion.  "Christianism" as he describes it sees "death" and "Hell" as bad things that are vanquished or banished by Christ.  He discusses, at length, the psychological significance of the biblical doctrine of Christ's descent into Hell, and his resurrection from the dead.  Christ, he says, went into hell so that we would not have to.  He vanquished death.  And what this means, in psychological terms, is that "Christianism" provides no healthy context for wrestling with our demons.  (The old Greek word daimones had a more morally neutral connotation -- not evil minions of the Devil, but powerful sacred beings.)  Hillman argues that modern psychology is finally setting right what a couple of millennia of "Christianism" set wrong, by recovering a classical understanding of the subconscious/Underworld.

That critique was interesting to me because Mormon doctrine and belief, I think, rescued and rehabilitated the Underworld from what Hillman describes as "Christianism" long before modern psychology.  First of all, Mormons believe in a literal Spirit World which, for all intents and purposes, functions in many ways like the classical Underworld.  The Mormon Spirit World, in addition to being coterminous with the literal, physical "dayworld" (much as Hillman describes the classical Underworld being), is a world with which Mormons communicate through visions, partings of "the veil," and -- significantly! -- through dreams.  For Mormons, Christ's descent into Hell was not a vanquishing of or annihilation of Hell, but simply an opening up of missionary work.  Thus, Mormons have a concept of being "saviors in Mount Zion," which boils down to the notion that not only did Christ descend into Hell, but so can we, for the sake of carrying on the missionary work he initiated -- an activity that our salvation is considered to depend on.  Many Mormons imagine that the most valiant of our dead family members are already doing that work "on the other side of the veil."  And we participate in that work on "this side of the veil" through genealogy and vicarious ordinance work, among other things.  From Hillman's point of view, surely Mormonism at the very least should be acknowledged to have opened up a psychological space within which dream work and work with the subconscious is both possible and meaningful.

One of the insights I particularly appreciated from Hillman's book had to do with the function of death, disease, chaos and degeneracy in dreams.  Nightmarish dream images usually point us toward the transformation that death promises.  I guess how we feel about this depends a lot on how we view death.  Hillman argues that one reason dream work is important is because it allows us to integrate death into a healthier understanding of the meaning of life.  This is why it is important to let death, in essence, speak to us, speak to and critique our dayworld life.


This insight helped me understand a particularly puzzling or troubling dream I had this past weekend.  In the dream, I was at some kind of high school prom.  It was the kind of social event that I dreaded when I was in high school.  I was not one of the "popular" kids in high school.  (I guess most of us weren't.)  I guess I was what you would call socially awkward, so these kinds of events often left me feeling isolated or lonely.  The prom in my dream was no exception.

At a key moment in the dream, the Prom King and Queen arrived.  They were a male-female couple, but there were a number of things about them in the dream that were very bizarre.  First of all, they arrived dressed totally in winter clothes -- scarves, overcoats, gloves, hats, etc.  Second, they looked kind of alien.  They had long limbs and tiny bodies, and their skin was whitish and rubbery, and crinkled like the skin of a reptile or an amphibian.  Actually, up close their flesh looked like it was flaking and diseased, about to be sloughed off, so it might even have been leprous.  Also odd: even though I knew them to be male and female, they looked totally androgynous.  The only way I could tell which was the guy and which was the girl was the eyes.  Something about the (big, googly, amphibian) eyes gave away that they were masculine or feminine, but that was it.

Everybody was ooh-ing and ah-ing over them.  They became the immediate center of attention.  People hung on their every word, and everyone was gathered around them in a big circle.  In my dream, I had other duties I needed to attend to...  Specifically, I had a student who was taking an exam, and I needed to proctor the exam.  So instead of getting caught up in the buzz around the Prom King and Queen, I attended to my duty of taking care of my student.

I woke up with a sense of: "Yes, don't get caught up in worrying about status or popularity, focus on your duty."  That was my "dayworld" sense of the dream's significance.  But the bizarreness of certain aspects of the dream bothered me.  Hillman said death images point to transformation.  And the diseased, "leprous" appearance of the Prom King and Queen (as well as their winter clothing) suggested there was something "special" about this heterosexual pair, that they were undergoing some sort of "transformative" process.  Was this communication from the Underworld/Other World telling me that heterosexuality is indeed special?  That only heterosexuals get to experience the kind of "transformation" that Mormons imagine in terms of apotheosis?

Of course the hitch in the imagery of my dream was that the transformation experienced by the Prom King and Queen seemed to be erasing or dissolving sexual difference.  The "male-female" couple in my dream were being rendered androgynous by their transformation.  It was only the eyes (the perspective, the way of viewing the world?) that seemed to remain gendered in any way.

Hillman stressed that dream messages frequently are ambiguous.  They are both/and.  Simultaneously black and white.  So this dream was, perhaps, reaffirming my sense that I need to learn to live and work without envy; while also pointing me toward a sense of marriage as sacred, as transforming.  And on the question of whether transformative marriage is gender exclusive in a way that would invalidate my relationship with my husband, the dream seemed ambiguous.


A dream I had earlier this week, after the Prom dream seemed like a sequel, at least in relation to this question.  In this dream I was engaged in genealogical research with my family.  We were in a big genealogical library.  Some of us were doing research, while others of us were tending children.  The kids were being occupied through arts and crafts projects.

Later, Göran and I went to a big conference.  The conference was in a Heavenly Convention Center.  It was literally high up in the sky.  There was sort of an infinitely tall highway we drove up to get there.  And I expected it to be crowded, but it was not.  Somehow, Göran and I ended up approaching the center from a direction different from everyone else.  So I couldn't get immediate access to the parking across the street.  I had to push our vehicle -- a faded red (pink?) convertible across the highway meridian by hand, and then pick the car up and place it in its parking space.  Apparently the car was super light, or I had super strength, because picking it up and putting it down in the right space was easy for me.  Then I rejoined Göran at the front entrance, where we could enter the Heavenly Convention Center.

This dream began with an activity (genealogical work) Mormons see as central to the plan of salvation, that has to do with our relationship to the dead, and that situated me in both an immediate and extended family.  The presence of the kids, and adults who were tending the kids, seemed to say to me that in achieving the tasks necessary for exaltation, some of us might be delegated different roles.  Some of us might be having kids -- tending to the future of the family.  Others of us might be doing genealogy -- tending to the family's past, and to its larger relationships.  But we were all part of the same team.

The end of the dream had me and Göran entering together into what was, essentially, a symbol of Heaven, of the Divine Presence.  The pink convertible was, like the Leprous Prom Couple, also a symbol of transformation from the mortal to the heavenly, a convertible, of course, being a car that changes from one form to another, and the faded red/pink color of the car being an obvious symbol of the flesh, of embodied existence.  The final step in Göran's and my journey involved getting out of the car, and literally putting it away for a time.  The fact that we were arriving by an unconventional route, from a direction different from most others seemed to speak to the fact that even when we don't fit the typical mold, there was a way for us.  There was plenty of space there for us.

Again, there is ambiguity in the dream symbolism.  The "putting away" of the car could symbolize a desexualization of our relationship, necessary to enter into Heaven.  Yet, we had arrived at Heaven together, partners traveling as "one flesh" (in one shared automobile).  If putting away the car symbolized putting off the flesh, it could have been a putting off the flesh only in the conventional sense of death as the threshold we need to cross at the end of this existence.  In that sense, the "transformation" Göran and I went through in this dream was not fundamentally different from the transformation of the Prom King and Queen that seemed to efface their sexuality too.


The gift of Hillman's book was to help me be more OK with the ambiguity of these dream symbols, to let me be more OK with just puzzling over them, letting the dream images puzzle me, challenge me, and perhaps speak to me at some more subconscious level.  It was partly because of Hillman's discussion of dream work that I let my mind explore more fully the imagery of the Leprous Prom Couple which had initially troubled me, and disinclined me to much want to think about this dream at all.  So thank you, Dr. Hillman, for your words literally from beyond the grave.  It has renewed my hunger for the next installment, my next meal with the dead.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Of Mormon Politicians

OK, just so everyone knows where I'm coming from, full disclosure right from the beginning: I support Obama, and I plan to vote for him in November.  The health care plan isn't perfect, but in my opinion it's an improvement over what we had previously.  (In my opinion, it doesn't go far enough.  I'm a believer in single-payer universal health care, like the system they have in Finland, my mother's home country.)  Also, in my opinion, Obama is the only real choice for the gay community, and for gay families.

I want to lay out up front what makes me tick, politically.  From the time I was a teenager, I have embraced the notion that the ideal social and political order would be something along the lines of the United Order of the early Mormon Church.  And for those of you who are unfamiliar with early Mormon history, what I'm specifically talking about (in ideal terms, at least) is the brand of Christian communism described in Acts 2:44 and Acts 4:32 (i.e., having "all things in common").  As a teenager I would have explained that the ideal social and political system would be NEITHER American style capitalism NOR Soviet-style communism, but a blend of the best features of both those systems.  I liked Mao's dictum: "To each according to his need, from each according to his ability."  Give me Mao's economics, but with total political and religious freedom, and you have some general idea of what I'm talking about.

Now people will hasten to point out to me that Utopian/Christian communism has been tried many times and failed.  Early Mormons tried it, and ultimately abandoned it.  It's all well and good to say, each of us will work to the best of his or her ability, contributing to the welfare of the whole, and each will receive according to their needs, receiving no more nor less than anybody else.  But unless you link financial rewards to performance, people will not be motivated to work hard, and the whole system will come crashing down in a puff of disincentives.  Only raw capitalism (the argument goes) with its haves and have-nots, will truly motivate the vast majority to create the kind of social wealth that the good life requires.  We need inequality, even poverty.  It's not perfect, but it's the system that works best, given human nature.

And I would always have agreed, that in order to have the kind of system that I think is ideal, the human race needs to evolve to the next level spiritually.  A central message of the Book of Mormon is that Zion, that ideal political and social order in which people have all things in common, is not possible until we collectively vanquish pride, envy and covetousness.  In order to have something like Zion, we collectively, as a people, need to evolve to the point where we are motivated more by the common good than we are by personal rewards.  In other words...  Kind of like the Star Trek universe.

My youthful idealism has been tempered somewhat in middle age.  I still believe that the United Order is the highest political, economic and social goal toward which we should be striving.  I still believe that my faith, in it's highest expression, has profoundly real-world political, economic and social implications.  In order to truly live my faith, I should strive to build a world where there is no poverty.  However, that youthful idealism has been tempered by the recognition that compromise, patience and allowance for human weakness is a virtue.  I've come to accept that the "ideal" is often the greatest enemy of the good.  I've accepted another profoundly spiritual principle as my guide in politics: "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little" (Isaiah 28:10; Doctrine & Covenants 98:12).  If I live in an imperfect world or an imperfect social order, it is still valuable to make incremental improvements -- as along as we're moving in the right direction.

In order to get there, we all have work to do -- both personal work and political work.  Part of the reason I'm committed to the Church is because I believe it will help me become more like the kind of person who can abide Zion.  (Vis-à-vis the social order: there's profound wisdom in the principle of tithing!)  If my faith is not helping me grow into a more selfless, more generous, more humble, more loving human being, then my faith is in vain.

To illustrate my political evolution...  As an eighteen-year-old, when I first registered to vote, I registered as a Socialist.  Understand that I registered as a Socialist out of my deeply held, orthodox religious convictions as a Mormon!  I saw the Socialist Party as being closest in its overall goals to the United Order of early Mormonism.  Now, in my late forties, I am a registered Democrat.  I'm not a big fan of either the Democrats or the Republicans, but I've resigned myself to the fact that we have a two-party system, and the best way to move things along is to work within the system, and the Democrats are closest to my values as a Mormon.  As a Mormon and a Christian, I feel that my political choices ought to be driven by a concern for the less fortunate, that I ought to be willing and glad to pay taxes so that a portion of my income can go to make things better for everybody.  I believe that the Republicans are too much about private good versus public welfare, about coveting one's means and being stingy about the common good.  To my mind, those are profoundly anti-Christian, and anti-Mormon values.

Now I say this, without trying to cast any aspersions on my Republican brothers and sisters.  I acknowledge that they might see things differently; that they have totally valid reasons for believing that the Republican Party is closer to the religious values they espouse.  I grant them the same freedom and respect to engage in the political process as they see fit that I hope for myself.  In other words, I'm not saying here that being a Republican necessarily makes you a bad Mormon.  I'm just saying that based on my personal history and perceptions and understanding of my faith, I must engage politically as a Democrat; and I see my engagement as perfectly consonant with the religious values I hold.

I feel it's important to put that all out there, to preface this brief statement about the Romney candidacy: I'm glad Romney's running.  I truthfully think he's the best candidate that the Republicans have put out there in a while.  I'm glad that Romney's faith as a Latter-day Saint has spurred a lot of dialog about Mormonism, and I think the fact that we have a major party candidate who is a Mormon has had the beneficial effect of generally increasing Americans' understanding of Mormonism, and has helped to dispel a lot of negative stereotypes about Mormonism.

At the same time, I hope Romney's candidacy will not promote the impression that Mormons must all be extreme, politically conservative Republicans.  I hope it will not encourage Mormon Republicans to act as if Mormons of other political persuasions are bad Mormons.  (For what it's worth, I don't see any signs that that is happening, at least not here in Minnesota.)  I deeply disagree with most of the platform that Romney is running on, and I disagree with it as a Mormon.

My faith is much, much bigger than Romney's politics.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Gay Saints

The Book of Mormon describes a group of Lamanites who were converted to the Gospel, and who took a new name to describe themselves: the "Anti-Nephi-Lehis."  A Wikipedia entry "Anti-Nephi-Lehi" suggests that the word "Anti" is related to the Egyptian word "nty," meaning "he of, one of," implying that in taking this name, these Lamanites were formally affiliating themselves with the people of Nephi and reminding themselves of their Lehite heritage.  It also occurred to me that the word "Anti" sounds similar to "ante" -- meaning "before" or "prior to" -- and I wondered if the name might also emphasize the common heritage of Nephites and Lamanites, from a time before they had become two warring peoples.  In any event, whatever the name might mean, it is interesting to me how this story illustrates the importance and the power of naming oneself in order to make a statement about who we are and what kind of heritage we want to claim.

Last night I was thinking about the problem of naming for homosexual / gay / SSA Mormons.  How you choose to identify / name yourself is both a personal and political statement.  Using the terms "SSA" (same-sex attracted) tends to marginalize or minimize the sexual aspect of one's identity: it's just an attraction or maybe an affliction or a condition that does not form an essential part of one's identity.  Or, using the term "SSA" might merely reflect one's loyalty to the Church, since in recent years "SSA" has been the term of choice used by Church leaders to talk about same-sex-oriented sexuality.

Using the term "gay," on the other hand, tends to integrate the sexual aspect of one's identity into one's whole personality.  When we use the term "gay," we tend to emphasize that it's not just about sex, its about emotional and social and spiritual connections as well.  It also, significantly, rejects pathological labeling of our sexual orientation as a sickness or an affliction.  It emphasizes that our gayness or our straightness are part of the normal variation we find in nature, such as being red-headed or left-handed.  Using the term "gay" also, of course, can align us with political movements for "gay rights" and "gay freedom."  Using the term "queer," once an epithet, now aligns us even more emphatically with an identity-based political movement for recognition, rights and freedom.

How we name our religious identity also says something significant.  Lots of gay folks who at one point have had a significant connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may no longer claim the label "LDS" or "Mormon" at all.  They might claim the label "ex-Mormon" or they might not even go that far.  There are "disaffected" Mormons, "post-Mormons" (PoMos) who, to varying degrees acknowledge their historical ties to the LDS Church, but who also stress their current disaffiliation or their dissent from doctrines and practices of the Church, or their separation from the body / authority structure of the Church.

When I was a kid, the term "Mormon" was used as a synonym for "Latter-day Saint" or "member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."  Today that term has evolved, I think, to have a much broader significance.  I think now the term "Mormon" can mean anyone who includes themselves for whatever reason within a fairly broadly defined sphere of Mormon history or culture.  So the term "Mormon" could include ex-Mormons or people who identify as Mormons culturally, even if they don't embrace the totality of Mormon beliefs or practices.  Of course, as an adult, I've become aware that the Community of Christ and other churches tracing their roots back to the Restorationist movement led by Joseph Smith also claim the term "Mormon."

So now, "LDS" or "Latter-day Saint" is a label that identifies one more closely with the formal institution of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The term "member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" identifies oneself completely with the institutional Church.

Since I started going back to Church in the fall of 2005, I have had to wrestle with identity issues.  My identification of myself as a "Mormon" was challenged by the editor of Sunstone magazine, when I submitted the piece, "A Gay Mormon's Testimony."  He pointed out that I was excommunicated, and that many people would challenge my right to identify as Mormon.  I pointed out that I believed in the central tenets of Mormonism.  I had a testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, and I was trying to live by at least some of the principles taught by the Church.

I've sometimes used the term "believing Mormon" to describe myself, though I admit, that's not a turn of phrase that most "believing Mormons" themselves use (partly, I think, because Mormons think of their religion more as a way of life than a "belief" system).  It had the advantage of distinguishing me from folks who claim the "Mormon" label for cultural or historical reasons, but who rejected Mormon beliefs.

But the truth is, I'm not particularly a fan of the term "Mormon."  When I was a kid, Church leaders actually campaigned against it, scolding members of the Church who used the term, and urging them instead to proudly tell their non-Mormon friends and neighbors that they were "members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."  Now, the Church has built a whole identity campaign around the phrase "I'm a Mormon!"  So times, they are a-changin'.

So maybe I have a cultivated disdain for that word because of the officially espoused attitude toward it when I was growing up.  Or maybe -- and I think this is actually closer to the real reason I dislike the word Mormon -- it's because I dislike the particularism of the word.  The word Mormon identifies me with a particular historical and cultural configuration that I often feel conflicted about.  As I've written elsewhere, I "hate" Mormon culture.

I actually like the official name of the Church.  It identifies us as followers of Jesus Christ.  It places us in a more universal -- more cosmic, even -- context.  It also places us in the "latter days," asserting that we stand at a crucial moment in the unfolding of God's plan for the whole world.  And it identifies us as "saints."

The term "saint" is frequently misunderstood.  In common parlance a "saint" is someone who has achieved perfection or near perfection.  But those who are familiar with its usage in scripture understand that to be a saint is merely to be someone who -- perfect or not -- has been claimed as one of God's own.  Sainthood is achieved more by faith and by loyalty than perfection, per se

The story in Acts 10, as I've written elsewhere, really speaks to me as a gay man, because of that section where God warns Peter, "What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common."  It is God's claiming of us that makes us saints -- regardless of what other human beings do or say, what they believe about us or how they treat us.

If there were a label I could claim for myself without being too much misunderstood, it would be the label "Gay Saint."  I understand that label as identifying me by my faith, by my testimony, by my loyalty, by the desires of my heart; by my relationship with God; by my connection to that part of the history and the identity of the Church that is most meaningful to me; that also identifies me as gay; that acknowledges there are heterosexual saints and there are gay saints, and I am one of the latter.

That identification as a Gay Saint acknowledges a history of hatred, fear and exclusion; of present institutional barriers that forbid my full participation and inclusion; that condemn my love for my husband, that condemn the family we've created.  If it weren't for the barriers and the exclusion and the condemnation, there would be no need to call me anything but a Saint or a Latter-day Saint.

There's another passage in the Book of Mormon that speaks to the fact that labels are necessary only because of pride and divisiveness.  In 4 Nephi, after the Nephites and Lamanites all merged into one body, and created a Zion-like community, it says, "neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites."  I always used to laugh at that word.  "-Ites."  I don't any more.

I look forward to the day when there will be no Gay Saints or Straight Saints, only Saints.