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.


Trev said...

Yes! Oh, amen!

Beck said...

Ridiculing the path that others may take that may be different than our own, especially among those of us in this community where it is hard enough as it is, let alone to deal with disdain from within, is anything but "extending understanding".

Thank you for your eloquence as usual and your example as always in seeing the light.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Beck! I'm really looking forward to the panel. I had a great conversation last weekend with Steve, Josh, Craig and Jay. I look forward to continuing the conversation this Saturday.