Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Extending the Saints' Understanding

This phrase from my favorite LDS hymn ("The Spirit of God," LDS Hymnal, #2) has been bumping around today in my recently operated skull.

I'd always assumed that the "understanding" referred to here was doctrinal.  But one of the basic principles of the gospel is that doctrinal understanding does not come until we've been able to demonstrate obedience to the principles underlying those doctrines.  Jesus Christ demonstrated through his life and death and teachings that the central principle of the gospel is his pure love.  We can align ourselves with Christ, and we can understand the doctrines of Christ by loving as Christ loved.

So what if the "Saints' understanding" that God wishes to extend in the latter days is understanding of each other?  What if it is empathy and compassion?  What if it is love that does not coerce or compel? For if I understand anything about the plan of salvation, it is that kind of love upon which our Heavenly Parents have founded the entire creation and plan of salvation.


Göran and I recently received a phone call from a young family member.  It was kind of a coming out phone call.  I say "kind of," because this family member didn't call us to inform us that they were gay/lesbian.  They called to inform us that they are "struggling" with this; trying to figure this out.  Maybe gay, maybe bi, maybe straight.  We were talking via "Face Time" on our iPhones, so we could see the worry and consternation in the face of this youth.  We could see how difficult, how risky it was to talk about this.

It might have been tempting in this kind of situation to advise this individual about what they need to do.  But instead, our response was simply to say, "We are so proud of you.  We know what a good person you are.  We've seen how compassionate and caring you are toward others.  We know that you will let that love and compassion guide you in trying to figure this out.  We love you so very much!"  By the end of our conversation, this youth was beaming.  Consternation and anxiety had transformed into tears of joy: "I feel so happy!"  We ended the conversation by saying: "If you EVER need someone to talk to, if you EVER have any questions, we want you to call us IMMEDIATELY.  We will always be there for you.  We LOVE you."  We left the ball in this young person's court.  We knew that the most important role we could play in this individual's life was not the role of adviser, but the role of loving supporters and sources of information.

The first religious leader I ever came out to was a Lutheran pastor.  This pastor's approach to the issue of homosexuality is what I would describe as the more "liberal" approach.  His basic perspective was that "gay is OK," and that gay individuals should just seek to apply the same standards to same-sex relationships as straight individuals.  I think this pastor thought that the best way he could help me was to make this sort of "policy statement".  He did help me, but not in the way he thought.  I took that notion -- that "gay is OK" notion -- and I filed it away in my brain for future reference.  Eventually, yes, I did come to embrace my own version of that notion.  But not that night.

That night that was not what I wanted to hear.  At that point, I did not want to be gay.  I had come out, I had made myself vulnerable to this pastor, hoping that he would explain to me exactly what I needed to do to "make the gay go away," to become straight. I thanked him, and left his office and walked out into the night.  I was angry.  I was in pain.  I had not wanted him to tell me that.  I walked several miles, until I passed a Catholic Church.  I paused at the threshold of this church.  I knew that Catholicism was more conservative on this issue.  I considered whether I ought to walk into that church and seek out a priest.  Maybe a priest could tell me what I wanted to hear.  That change of sexual orientation is possible with the help of God.

I didn't actually end up walking into that Church.  Partly because it dawned on me that there were no guarantees that a different pastor in a different Church could be any more help to me than the first one I'd gone to.  I realized that this was my quest.  I needed to figure this out on my own.

Other people might mean well.  They might want to help.  But their opinions on this issue could only ever remain that: their opinions.  I had a sacred obligation to God and to the truth.  Making the congeries of all-important decisions I needed to make around this was something that ultimately I could only do for myself.

I did find ways to explore different paths on my own.  I dated women.  I spent a summer in a Roman Catholic monastery learning about celibacy.  I fasted and prayed and meditated.  I studied the scriptures.  I read books about homosexuality.  I tested my own emotions.  Finally, as the result of a prompting of the Spirit to "be open to all the options," I opened myself to the possibility of a loving, committed, same-sex relationship.  Eventually, when I was ready, I tested that notion, and found the truth in it.  Eventually on my own I found the spiritual and moral principles that have allowed me to chart my course through life since then.  This past summer, Göran and I celebrated our 20th anniversary.

I am concerned about despair, depression and suicide among gay youth.  I almost committed suicide myself.  But what I can say about my near suicide at the age of 23 is that it was not a clear-cut case of "gay self-loathing."  For me, it was more about the fear of being cut off from God.  I eventually found the answer to my problem by turning to God.

There's a kind of zeal I see among some folks who are concerned about  the well-being of LGBT individuals, and particularly about the well-being of LGBT youth.

I believe that we must find as many effective ways to communicate unconditional love to LGBT youth.  But I do not think the answer is to try to shelter our youth from viewpoints or perspectives on homosexuality that we disagree with. When we try to shelter youth from these perspectives, we do them a disservice.  Because ultimately, I believe it will undermine our credibility in the eyes of our youth.  We can try to shelter them from certain questions but they will still ask themselves these questions.  They will never, ultimately, be able to be confident in whatever path they choose unless they are satisfied that their decisions are based on the fullest exploration of the truth, however that truth reveals itself to them.


I have received numerous worried emails from friends asking if I really intended to participate in the upcoming Circling the Wagons Conference in Salt Lake City, where two prominent individuals in so-called "mixed orientation marriages" (Steven Frei and Josh Weed) would be offering keynote talks.  I think the implication has been that by agreeing to participate, I would somehow be legitimizing a perspective or a path that does not deserve legitimacy.  How could I as a self-respecting gay man in a committed same-sex relationship do that?  Isn't that a sort of treason?

I hope it's clear, based on what I've said, that I can't possibly view things in this way.

First of all, I know Steven Frei personally.  He has never treated me with anything but respect.  He's never said or implied that my choices in regard to my relationship were wrong.  He's empathized with the challenges I face and the pain I experience being excluded from full communion in the LDS Church because of my relationship status.  He's expressed admiration of the faith it's taken me to pursue a path of testimony and faith in spite of these obstacles.  He's only ever expressed love toward me and treated me as a brother.

Likewise, the more I've gotten to know Steve, the more I've learned to respect him for the challenges he faces as a member of the Church and as a faithful husband to his wife and father to his children.  I couldn't dream of advising him what to do in his unique situation.  All I can do is love him and support him in the path he's chosen and pray for his greatest happiness.

Steven's life experience has challenged me. There was a point in my journey where I would have assumed that my path is the best possible path for a gay man.  The life experience of people like Steven Frei and Josh Weed have complicated that perspective.

Steve and Josh and I (and another panelist) will have an opportunity to talk together about an issue that (as a marriage equality activist) matters a lot to me: marriage.  I assume it matters a lot to them too.  A lot of people are struggling to figure out how to feel about marriage as it relates to LGBT people.  In November (literally 2 days after Circling the Wagons), Americans in four states (including in my home state of Minnesota) will be voting on referenda related to marriage for gay and lesbian people.  Shouldn't we have good, thoughtful conversations about this issue that explore this issue in depth? Won't people feel better about the decisions they make in relation to this important issue if they've heard it explored from different angles?

Ultimately I believe that the safest, most responsible way to work our way through these issues is to learn from each other's experience.

Ultimately, we need to perhaps deal with the paradox that there is no single solution that works for everybody in relation to challenges like this. 

Ultimately, I believe the most important test for me is whether I can "extend my understanding" of those whose paths are different from my own.  That is ultimately how I am most faithful to God, how I begin to help to build God's kingdom -- Zion -- here on earth.

I hope as many as possible will come join us at Circling the Wagons in Salt Lake, November 2-4, 2012, and participate in the conversation.

Monday, October 22, 2012

A Gay Mormon Revival

I am exhausted but deeply happy.

Earlier this year, I was recruited to join the Affirmation Conference Planning Committee.  My main accomplishments as a member of the committee were to persuade Kendall Wilcox to be the opening keynote speaker at the conference, and to persuade members of BYU's USGA (Understanding Same Gender Attraction) group to come speak at the closing general session.  My bike accident and subsequent brain surgery prevented me from functioning effectively as a member of the committee after late August.

I had also organized a workshop -- to be co-facilitated with Kendall -- about "Having Difficult Conversations," and had purchased a plane ticket to be in Seattle, Washington Oct. 19-21.  After my surgery, I accepted the possibility that I might no longer be able to attend the Affirmation Conference.  But after checking numerous times with my doctors, I was informed it would probably be safe for me to travel, so long as I could avoid over-exerting myself.

I knew I needed to be at the conference if it were at all possible.


Last year's Affirmation Conference in Kirtland, OH was a spiritual mountain-top experience for me. I didn't assume that I would ever have that type of experience at Affirmation again.  I supposed that having a conference centered around important Church historical sites had created a spiritual dynamic that would not be replicated elsewhere.  I could not have been more wrong.  I could only describe this year's conference in Seattle in terms of a great outpouring of the Spirit, unlike any I have ever experienced anywhere, including Kirtland last year.

What astonished me most was seeing individuals I'd never seen express any sort of religious sentiment -- including individuals I'd heard express some distinctly anti-religious sentiments -- stand and, for the first time, offer heartfelt prayers and testimonies.  Bro. James stood up at the testimony meeting on Sunday, and prefaced his comments by saying, "I've always thought that the last place I would ever willingly go is to a meeting like this, and that the last thing I would ever do is stand up here and bear my testimony.  But..."  He then proceeded to bear a sweet, gentle testimony that reduced me and most of those sitting around me to tears, delivered with all the more power for being offered by a brother who hadn't been sure he'd had a testimony any more.  I still cannot think on that testimony, and the hugs and words of love we exchanged afterwards without weeping.  Brother James and I will always be brothers from now on, in the profoundest sense imaginable.

One after another Affirmation member took the stand, prefacing their testimonies with words to the effect of, "I haven't born my testimony in 10 / 15 / 20 years.  But I do have a testimony.  I've never lost my testimony."  Each then proceeded to recount profound stories of how God had touched their lives and impressed knowledge on their minds and hearts that has stayed with them ever since.  There were rivers of tears that morning.

Sister J., the conference choir director, had been a major force in creating the spiritual mountain-top experience at Kirtland.  She directed the choir with a sense of mission, with prayerful fervor.  She understood, and made us understand, that every hymn we sing, whether in rehearsal or in performance, is a prayer.  So every choir rehearsal -- opened and closed with heartfelt prayer -- became a devotional.  During the second rehearsal, on Saturday, a woman singing in the front row directly in front of me, in the soprano section, broke down weeping.  "I can't sing," she said, "I am overwhelmed by the devotion I hear in all of your voices."  Sister J. hugged her gently, and asked her if she would pray.  She replied, "I can't pray.  I am an agnostic."  She was neither lesbian, nor Mormon, nor a believer of any kind.  "That doesn't matter," Sister J. invited, "You can still pray even if you are agnostic."  Duly encouraged, this woman bowed her head and addressed to "Heavenly Father," "in the name of Jesus Christ," one of the most genuine, heart-piercing prayers I had ever heard.  I wept then, and I weep now remembering this powerful experience.

Testimony was added to testimony -- in the choir rehearsals, in the testimony meeting Sunday morning, and in the devotional following the testimony meeting.  But also privately in hallways and hotel rooms.  Randall Thacker and I had agreed to room together, since neither of our respective partners were able to accompany us to the conference.  At night, after conference activities were done, we counseled with each other and wept together as we shared spiritual experiences with each other late into the night.

As hearts melted, deep wounds were healed and love was openly expressed.  This was a conference of hugs and hand-clasps and profound expressions of gratitude.  Brother James confessed to me in the hallway that he had never before, in 33 years of Affirmation conferences, experienced such great healing as what he had experienced at this one in Seattle.

A few individual contributions beg to be acknowledged.  Brother Colby, one of the more energetic members of the conference planning committee, for months prior had invested all his energy and creativity into preparing the Saturday night dance.  When we entered the ballroom at the appointed hour, we were awed to find ourselves in a magical space, overflowing with flowers, glitter, and color.  I was astonished not just by the physical beauty of what he had planned and executed, but by the love that was so evident in this labor.  What a magnificent gift of heart and soul and art!

At the beginning of the Testimony Meeting, Brother Adam, one of the BYU students who had come to present on the BYU USGA panel, sang for us:

It may not be on the mountain height, or over the stormy sea,
It may not be at the battle’s front my Lord will have need of me.
But if by a still, small voice he calls to paths I do not know,
I’ll answer, dear Lord, with my hand in thine:
I’ll go where you want me to go.

Refrain I’ll go where You want me to go, dear Lord,
Over mountain, or plain, or sea;
I’ll say what You want me to say, dear Lord,
I’ll be what You want me to be.

Perhaps today there are loving words which Jesus would have me speak;
There may be now, in the paths of sin, some wand’rer whom I should seek.
O Savior, if thou wilt be my guide, though dark and rugged the way,
My voice shall echo the message sweet:
I’ll say what you want me to say.

There’s surely somewhere a lowly place in earth’s harvest fields so wide,
Where I may labor through life’s short day for Jesus, the Crucified.
So, trusting my all to thy tender care, and knowing thou lovest me,
I’ll do thy will with a heart sincere:
I’ll be what you want me to be.

Brother Bob Rees honored us by bearing testimony of what he'd witnessed of the devotion Adam sang of, among the many hundreds of LGBT Saints he has ministered to and with in his decades of Church service.  But he also challenged us -- in the words of the St. Francis prayer sung by the choir -- to sow love where there is hatred; sow pardon where there is injury; to become instruments of God's peace.

Tina Richerson bore testimony of the "futility of resisting the truth."  The "irresistible truth" of which she spoke, she clarified, was not to be confused with the limiting mental constructs we humans love to create, cutting ourselves off from God, and wounding each other with judgmentalism.  She then eloquently shared with us the story of her return to activity in the Church by way of Zen Buddhism.


Sunday afternoon, I felt increasingly heartsick, as the hour approached when I had to abandon this most remarkable fellowship.  But the great sadness -- the loneliness -- I felt creeping into my bones, was more than recompensed by a dawning realization that still fills me with hope and gratitude.

Kirtland, I realized, was not an anomaly.  It was merely a beginning.  I believe that the days have come to an end when Affirmation can be characterized with any truth as a "bitter" or "angry" or "anti-church" organization.  When those characterizations have been made in the past, they were of course always overdrawn.  They always exploited anti-gay lies and stereotypes.  Yes, there was a kernel of truth in the stereotypes.  Yes, many members of Affirmation have struggled with understandable anger about the ways they have been treated by "devout" members and leaders of the Church.

But I believe in these last two years I have witnessed a blossoming of hope, of courage, of love, of faith, of patience, of a turning to God that is healing the anger, and forging Affirmation members into very special Saints.  If there was ever a kernel of truth in those old characterizations of Affirmation, it is evaporating in the flames of a new outpouring of the Spirit.

This has been the answer to my prayers of many years.  It is the literal fulfillment of prophecy:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions (Joel 2:28)

A Personal Note

Many of you may not know that I have not been on-line much in over a month, because of a very frightening personal health crisis. Unbeknownst to me or any of my doctors, my bike accident and concussion on August 21 resulted in a small subdural hematoma (bleeding in my brain).  The hematoma did not show up in the CT scan performed on me in the immediate aftermath of my bike accident.  So even though I appeared to be recovering well in the three weeks or so immediately after the accident, by early September I was beginning to experience increasingly frequent and severe headaches, and brief episodes of numbness in my left arm, my left leg, and in the left side of my face.  My doctor was baffled by the intermittancy of these symptoms, and did not recommend a course of action other than to just monitor it and let him know if it got worse.  Then, Sunday, September 30, while I was attending Fast and Testimony Meeting in my ward, the entire left side of my body went numb for about 20 minutes.  I was planning to call my doctor the next day.  But a brother in my ward who is a former EMT insisted I go immediately to the E.R.  As it turns out, this brother's advice literally saved my life.  I will always be grateful to my brother Matthew.

A new CT scan revealed a hematoma that had progressed to the point where only immediate brain surgery could relieve building pressure that would likely have killed me within the next twenty-four hours. After signing a waiver acknowledging the risks of 1) infection in the brain, 2) permanent neurological damage caused by drilling two nickel-sized holes into my skull, or 3) the possible need to remove as much as one third of my cranium, I submitted to this emergency procedure the following day, exactly one week short of my 49th birthday.  Göran took the day off work to be with me in the hospital.  I have been so grateful for my loving husband's presence and support through all of this.

After my doctors had revealed to me the nature of my condition, I called the brother who -- I now realized -- had saved my life.  I asked him to minister to me again, this time by coming to the hospital and giving me a priesthood blessing.  He arrived with a friend and former home teacher.  They laid their hands on my head and promised me, in the name of Jesus Christ, successful surgery and a speedy recovery.  I felt the Holy Spirit present, confirming that the blessing was true.

Throughout this frightening time, I experienced the presence of God in a way that I know he is real, and that he loves me deeply.  He was present with me as I was being rolled into the operating room.  As I slipped away into the darkness of anesthetic sleep, I felt his loving embrace, and his assurance that he would keep me safe.  Not safe in a merely proximal sense, but safe in the ultimate sense.  Safe in the sense that even if I died, I would be eternally cared for.  I was not afraid to die.  It was a remarkable experience.

I learned that I may not take my life or my intellectual capacities for granted.  God could take both these things away from me in an instant.  I belong to God, and if my life or my intellect are worth anything, it is because I have dedicated them to his service.

I learned that the Lord has yet a work for me to do, but that I can only accomplish it if I acknowledge his hand in everything.

Thank you to all you who have comforted and helped care for me through this ordeal.  The blessing I received through Brother Matthew has all come true.  It was a model surgery, and my doctors were surprised to observe that within four days of the surgery I had recovered sufficiently to be released from the hospital, with tests showing I had sustained zero to minimal neurological damage.  For a long time now, I have felt like the luckiest, most blessed person on the planet.