Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Tree of Life

Here's the text of the talk I delivered at Circling the Wagons, San Francisco, CA, on August 11, 2012

I am indebted to my yoga teacher Meher, who is a Muslim and a woman, and who seems to empathize extremely well with what it means to be a Mormon and gay. She gave me this wonderful quote by the Muslim mystic Rumi, who wrote of the Tree of Life:

You have searched for the form of the tree, not the essence. Sometimes it is known as tree and sometimes the sun, sometimes the sea and sometimes the cloud. It is that from which a thousand places, life comes everlasting. Even though its source is single, it brings a thousand doubles, innumerable names befit its form. Without design it has all virtue. Whoever seeks it finds his own. Why stick to one shape or another? You'll fail to find the tree, and find ill fortune. Disappointment only will be your bitterness. Pass on from the name, and look closer at the source. The source will show you what you seek. Leave the form behind.

I remember first learning from the Book of Mormon of the Tree of Life, that tree whose beauty “was far beyond, exceeding of all beauty,” which was “precious above all,” whose fruit was “most sweet” and “desirable above all other fruit” (1 Nephi 8, 11). I have always known I wanted to partake of the fruit of that Tree. I have always known that my parents had it, and they wanted me to partake of it. Throughout my life, I have encountered others who have had it: my grandmother, Sunday School teachers and priesthood quorum leaders, missionaries, BYU professors, brothers and sisters in the wards I grew up in, ordinary people in whom I could feel some special quality, in whom there was some special light that I knew I wanted too.

I knew I was closest to the fruit of that Tree when I studied my scriptures, when I prayed alone or with my family, when I listened – really listened! – at Church, when someone laid hands on my head to give me a blessing, or when I engaged in service to others, maybe accompanying my dad on a home-teaching visit, or delivering Christmas gifts to a needy family, or volunteering at the Stake welfare farm, or helping to paint an elderly member's home with other members of my priesthood quorum, or going on a split with the missionaries. I knew that I would be partaking of the fruit of that Tree by becoming a missionary, and I realize now that is because we only truly partake of the fruit when we share it with others.

When I was at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, I remember being at my very first devotional there. It was the most incredible feeling. In this auditorium surrounded by other missionaries, I felt a combination of awe that I could be counted among their number, and terror that I might not be worthy. Was I really going to measure up? All the greatest apostles and prophets of scripture, before they were anything else, they were missionaries. Could I put myself in the same category as a Paul? An Alma? A Peter? An Ammon? Could I really be a missionary? And as we began to sing the opening hymn at that devotional, and I heard this incredible, powerful chorus of voices singing in harmony around me, and as I joined my voice to theirs, singing with all my heart, I was overcome with emotion. I felt a light radiating all around us, and I looked up, and I saw the ceiling of the auditorium fading away, and clouds drawing back so that I could see straight up into the Heavens. And there was God, surrounded by all the angelic hosts of heaven, shining down on us. And I saw the world: I saw war, poverty, misery, slavery, and cruelty. And the Spirit said, You are heralding the end to that slavery and unhappiness. That is your calling as a missionary. And I understood in that moment, more clearly than ever before or since, how my work as a missionary could have value, if it freed God's children from bondage, and if it created a world more filled with love.

I didn't fully understand it at that time, but that experience gave me a key to understanding what it meant to truly live my faith, to finding the essence of the Tree of Life as opposed to the mere form of the Tree. Is my action in the world making someone more free? Do my words bring healing, comfort or joy? If so, then I'm accomplishing the mission the Lord sent me to accomplish.

When Joseph Smith prayed to God to know where he could find truth on the earth, the Lord warned him against those who have “a form of godliness, but... deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith History 19). What is the power of godliness? It is love:
The angel said unto [Nephi]... Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw? And [Nephi] answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things. And [the angel] spake unto [Nephi], saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul. (1 Nephi 11: 21-23)

It is worth noting what the angel reminds Nephi of; that we can tell the love of God because of how it makes us feel; that it is “most joyous to the soul.”

But what does it mean to say we can have the form of godliness without its power? We can have all the trappings: we can wear our Sunday best to Church, we can quote scriptures and conference talks over the pulpit and in Sunday School discussions, we can hold a temple-recommend and follow all the rules. And we can be without love, and without mercy. That is the form without the power.

But if we can have the form without the power, we can also have the power without the form.

I was excommunicated from the Church in the fall of 1986, a few months after I had very nearly committed suicide because of my inability to reconcile being gay with my faith. God spoke to me that summer, and told me he knew me from my inmost parts, and that I was not condemned, there was nothing wrong with me, and I had no reason to fear.

In 1992, I met Göran, my husband of almost two decades. Everything of value I have learned in life, I've learned through loving him. We have parented a foster son together. His name is Glen, and he just finished his second year in college, at the University of Minnesota. We've just now, within the past week, become foster parents again, to a ten-year-old boy named Jeremiah. We can't wait to go back to Minnesota to be with him!

In 2005, I followed a prompting of the Spirit to become active in my ward. With the blessing and encouragement of my bishop, and following other promptings of the Spirit, I have sought to live my life as much as I can in accordance with the teachings of the Church. I have a testimony of the Church. I know that God lives, because I've tasted the fruit of that Tree of Life. But I've been told that unless I leave my husband, I can never be a member of the Church.

That has been painful to me. I know my love for my husband is sacred and blessed by my Heavenly Father. How could our love for each other be an obstacle to Church membership, when in it we fulfill the measure of our creation, and through it, we become more loving, faithful, patient, hopeful people? Yet, I've learned not to be frustrated. I've learned to seek the essence of the Tree, not the form.

I can be excommunicated from the Church, judged too unworthy to take the sacrament, much less hold a temple recommend, not allowed to pray from the pulpit, much less hold a calling.

But I can still have a conversation with someone who sits alone at Church, and really listen.

After a flood in North Dakota, I can join a team of LDS volunteers to build sandbag barriers around homes that are threatened by the rising river. Or I can serve meals at a Methodist church, or help distribute food and necessities at the Bishop's Storehouse, or keep watch at a homeless shelter at night.

I can invite people into my home, and feed them, and make everyone who comes in feel welcome and honored.

I can pray for and encourage a friend at Church who feels overwhelmed by his struggle with doubt, or who feels worthless because he hasn't found a life partner.

At work I can be patient with an attorney who's just yelled me, and focus instead on solving her problem.

When I make a commitment to a person – whether it be my husband, or one of my foster sons, or my father, or my bishop, or a friend, or a co-worker – I can keep it. I can let my life be an accumulation of commitments kept.

I can ask forgiveness, when I've failed to love as I ought.

I can forgive those who judge me. I can let go of the fact that someone refuses to see things as I see them, and love that person for who he is.

Over time I have learned that members of the Church recognize the power of godliness, and they respect it, even when it resides in forms they do not expect. LGBT people in the Church have the power to teach their straight brothers and sisters about the true nature of love. Perhaps there's a kind of redemption that our Church needs that only we can offer.

If someone looks at me and thinks I'm unworthy, or rebellious, or disobedient, or unclean, or thinks what I think doesn't matter much because I'm gay and excommunicated, maybe it's a good thing. Maybe it's good if that person will not be impressed no matter what I do or say. Because if I do something to impress others, I'm beginning to strive after forms rather than essence, rather than power. If you take everything away from me – church callings, the temple, the sacrament – that leaves me only the reward inherent in love itself. It gives me an interesting kind of chance. It can free me to focus on the essence of the Tree of Life, the power of godliness, rather than the form. Maybe we ought all to be excommunicated at least once in our lives. Maybe we all ought to have the experience of being hated or condemned by at least some one.

Or maybe not. We can always find new ways to accumulate worldly credit for ourselves, even when the Universe does its darnedest to humble us, to help us see more clearly.

The realm of the Tree's essence, of its power, is in our hearts. Only we and God can ultimately know what our true motives are, and that is a good thing. At some point, life must teach us that it does not matter how acclaimed we are by the world.

I don't mean to say that the forms are bad. It is good to go to Church, to follow rules. The forms provide a necessary structure within which love can be clearly expressed and received. The Church provides me a context within which I can learn the true nature of disinterested, unconditional love. It does not do this any less effectively if I am not loved by everyone at Church, or if I am not treated fairly. In fact, under such conditions, it may actually teach me the profoundest lessons anyone can ever learn about love.

My prayer is for God to teach me – to free me always and everywhere to see and seek after his love, even when it resides in the forms I least expect.

In the name of Jesus Christ.



Ron Schow said...

John, there is power in your words and in your example. It is undeniable, to me at least, and when I read these words I am touched powerfully by them.

Twice in the last year I have watched Terrance Mallick's 2011 film called "The Tree of Life" starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. If you have not seen it you might want to because it stirs some of the same emotions that you describe. It caused me to reflect back upon the many experiences of growing up and family life including experiences of life and death that were transformative. The last few minutes of the film feature Mahler's Resurrection Symphony and images that speak of the next life and evoke an eternal perspective.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Wow... Thanks, Ron. I'll have to check out that film. It sounds amazing! Don't think I'd heard of it till now!

Beck said...

I appreciate reading enabling words of "can" instead of "can't". Your example for good and being good and seeking goodness in others is inspiring.

Some may look at your situation as damning - unable to progress. You have shown me how enabling one can be by seeking the constant companionship of the spirit.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Thanks, Beck. I was just thinking of you yesterday. I'm grateful for your example too!

Anonymous said...

The tree of life with ev'ry good
In Eden's holy orchard stood,
And of its fruit so pure and sweet
God let the man and woman eat.
Yet in this garden also grew
Another tree, of which they knew,
Its lovely limbs with fruit adorned
Against whose eating God had warned.

The stillness of that sacred grove
Was broken as the serpent strove
With tempting voice to Evil beguile
And Adam too by sin defile.
O day of sadness when the breath
Of fear and sadness, doubt and death,
Its awful poison first displayed
Within the world, so newly made.

What mercy God showed to our race,
A plan of rescue by His grace
In sending One from woman's seed,
The One to meet our greatest need -
For on a tree uplifted high
His only Son for sin would die,
Would drink the cup of scorn and dread
To crush the ancient serpent's head.

Now from that tree of Jesus' shame
Flows life eternal in His name:
For all who trust and will believe
Salvation's living fruit receive.
And of that fruit, so pure and sweet,
The Lord invites the world to eat,
To find within this cross of wood
The tree of life with ev'ry good.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Anonymous - Beautiful! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

hmmm... there must be a remnant of Lutheranism left in Jonathan if he liked that hymn. (I tried, but couldn't find a youtube video of the hymn that I could have you watch.)

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

There's more than a remnant of Lutheranism in me.

I'll tell you a secret: when I joined the Lutheran Church, the pastor who gave me the catechism told me I understood the concept of grace better than most Lutherans. Mormons understand the Gospel. We just occasionally lose track of it like most other Christians.

As I was preparing this talk, I was reading 1 Nephi 11. In this chapter of the Book of Mormon, as the angel explicates the Tree of Life dream to the prophet Nephi, he gives an abbreviated account of the life of Christ as part of the explication. I realized that the angel is essentially telling Nephi that Jesus Christ IS the Tree of Life.

I LOVE how this hymn uses the imagery of the cross to convey the same message... Very beautiful!

Anonymous said...

an Eastern Orthodox hymn...

Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden hath been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha, for the tree of life hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin; for her womb did appear as a spiritual paradise in which is planted the divine Plant, whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam. Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of old.