Sunday, November 11, 2012

Experiment on the Word

What I am about to write here is addressed primarily to fellow LGBT folks, though straight friends and allies are welcome to read and consider!

Seven years ago, I began an experiment.  Though we often associate the word "experiment" with science, I think it is a good word.  It's a word the Book of Mormon prophet Alma uses to discuss faith, so I think it's a good word.  But I also like the word with its current scientific connotations.

I should say I was tasked with performing an experiment in an encounter I had with the Holy Spirit in August 2005.

The experiment has had to do with testing some fundamental religious principles I was raised with.

I was taught as a young man that gross immorality will completely cut us off from the Spirit of the Lord.  I was also taught that there is a difference between the work and the influence of the Holy Spirit -- which is universal -- and the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which belongs by right only to confirmed members of the Church.  My experience, from the time I first learned these doctrines till the present day, has generally confirmed the truth of these doctrines.

I was also taught that all forms of homosexual behavior constitute  gross immorality.  In the way I was taught this, no differentiation was made between promiscuous, random sexual encounters among total strangers and a chaste, loving commitment between two life-long partners.  All homosexual behavior was put in the same bucket of gross immorality, and I was promised that it would cut me off from the Holy Spirit.

This is one reason why my discovery of a homosexual orientation (between the ages of 10 and 14) created a kind of spiritual crisis for me, a sense that something had gone terribly wrong in my life.  It's taken me a long time to fully appreciate how Satan uses fear to alienate us -- from God, from others, and from ourselves.  Satan has masterfully sown fear of homosexuality -- in our churches, our families and worst of all in our own hearts -- to reap a terrible harvest of alienation, depression, suicide and loss of faith.  It's time we deprive him of that harvest by setting fear aside.

So at the time the Spirit spoke to me very distinctly and clearly in August 2005, he invited me to "come back to Church."  That's all the Spirit asked me to do.  I made all kinds of assumptions about what "coming back to Church" meant.  Maybe I would have to leave my partner?  After much heartache and wrestling, the Spirit reassured me.  "Just come back to Church."  That was in September 2005, when I finally gave in and acknowledged I would do what the Spirit wanted. 

First, I gave in to the Spirit because, after two months of wrestling, I finally realized that what the Spirit was asking me to do was quite simple.  Sort of like Naaman the Syrian, I had doubted that something so simple could really be of any benefit (2 Kings 5:13).  Second, I did it because only on rare occasions in my life have I experienced a prompting of the Spirit with as much power as I did then.  It filled me with an overwhelming sense of peace and love.  And I recognized that I wanted to keep that.  I hungered for the Spirit's presence to stay with me always, and I knew that eventually it would leave me if I resisted it indefinitely.  So I needed to do what it asked me.

It was then I realized I was beginning a potentially very powerful experiment.  For one thing, I was testing my testimony of the Church.  There had been important junctures in my life since leaving the Church when I had felt the Spirit -- particularly related to some of my experiences coming out and eventually committing to my relationship with my partner.  For a long time I had doubted that the Church could possibly be true because I became convinced that what the Church taught about homosexuality could not possibly be true.  It just did not fit with my own experience of my own homosexuality.  But in August 2005 I had received one of the most powerful promptings of my life -- distinct and undeniable -- telling me to return to the Church.  Did this mean that the Church was true after all?  What would I learn about the Church by coming back to it?  More importantly, how could I possibly find a resolution to the conflict between what I knew about my sexuality and what the Spirit seemed to be telling me about the Church?

Boiled down to the simplest of questions: Could the Church both be true, and I, an openly gay, excommunicated man in a committed same-sex relationship experience a fuller, more powerful presence of the Spirit in my life?

As of this past October, 2012, I have been living this experiment for seven years.  I once read that at the rate cells of our body die and are replaced, at the end of every seven years every cell in our body has been replaced, reborn.  Medieval mystics wrote of the "seven ages" of man, that every seven years we enter into a new phase of our lives, a new stage of development.  At the age of 42, as I was entering the seventh of the seven ages, the Spirit called me back to the Church, and now I contemplate what my life looks like as I come to the conclusion of that stage of my life and enter the next.

What have I learned from this seven year experiment?  What has happened in these seven years since I have been active in the Church?

First of all, I have learned the answer to that "simplest of questions," Could the Church both be true, and I, an openly gay, excommunicated man in a committed same-sex relationship experience a fuller, more powerful presence of the Spirit in my life?  The answer is Yes.

Some will insist this is impossible.  Satan can counterfeit spiritual experiences, they will point out.  Or we can deceive ourselves.  And I will readily concede, this is true.  It's why I've really wrestled.  The contradiction between what the Church teaches and what I know about my relationship with my husband forced me to wrestle with and validate my spiritual experiences.

And here is all I can offer.  Satan may be able to counterfeit a spiritual experience, or we may deceive ourselves.  But counterfeit spiritual experiences or self deception will not have the power to transform our lives for the better.  False spiritual experiences will not produce lasting changes for the good in our lives.  They cannot produce lasting fruit of the Spirit.  "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance" (Galatians 5: 22-23).  Surely, after seven years I am able to judge: What has been the fruit of this path?

I began by gradually incorporating more and more gospel teachings into my life -- living the Word of Wisdom, prayer, daily scripture study, tithing, and so on.  Following promptings of the Spirit, I was applying the principles of chastity to my relationship with my husband.  Those promptings included publicly committing myself to my partner by legally marrying him in California in July 2008, and fighting to prevent our marriage from being constitutionally banned in my home state of Minnesota in 2012.  It will include working to make that commitment binding and legal here in the state of Minnesota by seeking the repeal of our state DOMA law.  For me this is a profoundly spiritual task, because it is a sign of my commitment to Göran, my expression of what it means to live the law of chastity with him.

We became foster parents, and we hope to become adoptive parents.  We discovered Göran's long-lost biological family in Memphis, and have deepened extended family relationships and commitments with my family and with Göran's family.  This has included doing genealogical work.  It has included playing a role in healing broken family relationships.

I have discovered a kind of boldness in bearing my testimony to others.  Over these seven years, I have experienced many powerful spiritual experiences that have strengthened my testimony of the Church, of the Scriptures (the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price), of Church leaders, and most importantly of the Living Christ and of our Living Heavenly Parents and of the active work of the Holy Spirit in the world today, and of the gifts of the Spirit.  I have literally witnessed (and experienced) miracles through the power of the priesthood.  And I don't hesitate to share these experiences with anyone who will listen!

I have experienced a joy and peace and gratitude and love and patience unlike any I've ever experienced in my life.  So much of the fruit of the Spirit I have experienced, I have experienced within the framework of my loving relationship with Göran, and in our experiences with foster parenting.

Now if someone asked me to compare: What is my experience of the presence and gifts of the Spirit in my life now, compared with what it was during the eighteen years I was away from the LDS Church; and how does it compare with the twenty-three years before that when I was active in the Church?

And the simple, honest answer to that question is I have never, ever in my life experienced a fuller, more powerful, more constant and sustaining presence of the Spirit in my life, ever.  Not even when I was a full member of the Church in good standing, baptized and confirmed and with the "Gift of the Holy Ghost."

I have never felt fuller or happier or more blessed in all my life.  Some days I feel like I will explode!

This past summer, I attended a presentation by John Dehlin and Bill Bradshaw based on their survey of 1600 LGBT/SSA Mormons.  I was particularly intrigued by their discussion of "average" "happiness and well-being" of individuals in particular relationship statuses.  They showed, among other things, that LGBT/SSA individuals who were single experienced the greatest distress and unhappiness, that LGBT individuals who had entered into committed same-sex relationships were considerably happier (close to the norm for married heterosexual couples), and that LGBT individuals who had married legally experienced the greatest level of happiness -- at or even above the average of physically healthy married heterosexual couples.

I remember thinking: true, finding a committed relationship helped me find a greater degree of happiness than when I was single.  (Though, by the way, you have to work at happiness in a relationship! it doesn't just "happen"!)  The ability to legally marry in California definitely brought me to a new stage of commitment, and to a greater sense of satisfaction and happiness in my relationship.  All true.

But if I had to answer the question, what has made the single greatest difference in happiness in my life, I would say it has been returning to Church and renewing my testimony and living the Gospel to the best of my ability.  The increase in happiness I've experienced since returning to the Church seven years ago, in October 2005, feels almost exponential.  Nothing else even compares to it.  I consider my testimony to be my greatest, most precious gift.

I once wondered...  Will this sense of the Spirit's presence leave me?  Will I lose this peace and joy and gratitude?  Will I get bored?  Will this experiment fail some day soon, and will I some day quietly drop out of Church feeling I hadn't found what I came in search of after all?

And the answer is an unqualified No. The joy I find in the Gospel is an ever renewing source of life and happiness.  I love the Church with my whole heart.  My heart aches when I must pass a Sunday away from the Saints.  I love the special outpouring of the Spirit I can experience when I am at Church (though I feel the Spirit in my everyday life, no matter where I am)! After seven years, I have a wealth of deep friendships with my sisters and brothers in Christ.  I hunger for prayer, for scripture study.  Every time I turn to God in meditation or study, I find my whole body renewed and filled with light.  Could I give it up, turn away?  No.

Could I lose this?  Yes.  Living the Gospel is movement on a path back to our Heavenly Parents.  If we are not actively taking a next step, we get lost.  Have I taken some mis-steps?  Yes, ample.  Made mistakes?  Many! 

But I know something now I didn't know seven years ago.  It is a powerful knowledge.  My life will forever be different, no matter what I do.  And I pray for the grace to stay true to what I know.

So I'm left with a kind of contradiction, at least in relation to fundamental teachings I'd received as a youth.  While I have learned (through experience) that immorality does cut us off from the Holy Spirit, a loving commitment between two people of the same-sex -- especially one sealed by a conscious, public commitment or even by legal marriage -- does not seem to fall in that category of immorality, gross or other.  What I've learned is that not only does my relationship with Göran not seem to cut me off from the Spirit, but deeper levels of faithfulness and commitment to Göran seem to deepen my sensitivity to the Spirit.

Also, I'm excommunicated from the Church, but I seem to experience a deeper, more vibrant, dynamic and sustaining relationship with God than ever before in my life, even when I was a baptized member of the Church with the Gift of the Holy Ghost.  I have had spiritual witnesses of the Church's doctrines regarding the "first principles and ordinances of the Gospel," and so I've scratched my head about this one.  But my best guess is that perhaps I am supposed to be able to be a baptized and confirmed member of the Church, and the Lord has extended me a special grace on account of the fact that it is not my fault I am unable to be one.  And I figure the Lord just expects patience from me until he, on his timetable, makes this right.  That's all I can figure.

Despite this special grace, I do feel a hunger to be a member not just in my heart, but in the official records of the Church.  I've confided some of the pain I've felt over this with close friends of mine, and they have comforted me the best they can.  The Spirit has prompted me to pray for membership in the Church, and I have and do.  Though I've also received reassurances from the Spirit to be patient and not feel sorry for myself.  And then I realize, I have received such an abundance of grace, it is definitely wrong (probably a sin) for me to be impatient on this score, and I've even found myself having to repent for this on occasion.

I love the Church, and I pray for the Church and its leaders and its missionaries.  I also pray for the LGBT community.  I pray for the Spirit to be poured out on us.

And I pray that if you feel the Spirit inviting you experiment on the Word, you'll give it a go.

Do it in the spirit of science!  (The word "science" coming from a Latin word which means "to know"!)


Steven B said...

Thanks for expressing the results of your "experiment." I have followed your writings for years. This post means a great deal to me because I have a deep respect and admiration for you as a person and for the choices you have made.

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: Though we often associate the word "experiment" with science, I think it is a good word.

I think "experiment" is a good word too. I also think "Science" is a good word. Actually, I think Science itself is good, not just the word! Hence then connection with Science doesn't turn "experiment" into a bad word.


OK, I guess that's probably not what you meant, but your sentence above made me laugh when I first read it. ;)

J G-W said...

Thanks, Steven!

C.L. - I think science itself is very good, as do most Mormons! "All truth can be circumscribed into one great whole," and all that... :-)