Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Horror and Great Darkness

I'm currently reading the Old Testament from cover to cover for the third time in my life. I seriously debated whether that was necessary. Most people who read the Old Testament from cover to cover feel that one time is enough. But the reason people don't like reading the Old Testament is because it's challenging material. And on the third go, I'm discovering that my greater familiarity with the material is making the reading much more profitable and enjoyable.

Most Christians, I think, pass through life with a mental Cliff's Notes version of the Old Testament that is heavily filtered through the writings of the apostle Paul and through the Gospels. Mormons take the Old Testament a little bit more seriously, partly because our "restoration" encompassed significant parts of the Old Testament. In any event, there's nothing like delving into the nuance and intricacies of the text itself. I've recently invested in a new Jewish translation of the Old Testament, English side-by-side with the original Tanakh.

One of the ways in which the original text is foreshortened in the New Testament is in Paul's characterization of Abraham as a pre-figuration of Christian faith. Paul describes him as "the father of faith."I don't deny that Abraham is a model of faith, for Jews and Christians, not to mention Muslims. But if Abraham is a model of faith, the Book of Genesis provides a much more complicated, darker image of what it means to have faith.

A key element of the Abrahamic story involves God telling Abraham that he is to be a father of many nations, with seed as numerous as the grains of sand in the ocean and as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Abraham, the paragon of faith, apparently has a difficult time believing this, because the Lord tells him the same thing three times, recorded in Genesis 12:7; 13:14 – 18; and 15:3 – 7.

After the third reiteration of this promise the text records that Abraham (then still Abram) asks God, perhaps with impatience, "Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?"Despite the frequent promises, as of yet there is no evidence that this prophecy will be fulfilled, as Abraham has no children.

In response, God asks Abraham for sacrifice, which he offers. Carrion fowl arrive, attempting to feed on the meat, forcing Abraham to stand watch over his sacrifice to drive them away. After the sun sets, Abraham falls asleep, "and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him" (Genesis 15:12).

I don't know how many of you have experienced horror by darkness at night. I have. Promises, hopes, and dreams for a better future seem to evaporate in fear of seemingly inevitable evil and misfortune. I can really relate to this piece of Abraham's story.

It is comforting to me, because it reminds me that God's promises to us stand, in spite of our inability to imagine them coming to fruition. Abraham wrestled with doubt. If he did, then none of us should regard it as abnormal to wrestle with doubt in our own lives of faith. I'm speaking not just about doubt over the truth claims in our belief systems, though I think this applies to those kinds of doubt as well. I'm speaking about our doubt of the good that God intends us to experience as his children. Doubts of the former kind contribute to doubts of the latter kind. But it is doubts of the latter kind that are much more serious to our well-being and our ability to fulfill the measure of our creation.

Real faith is not doubt-free. I doubt faith that claims to be.

What I can say empirically is that I have had a special class of experiences that are extremely vivid, that have made a lasting impression on my life, through which I've caught glimpses of a larger realm in which our souls exist and find meaning. And there have been times and there are contexts in which I'm tempted to doubt those things, for any number of reasons. But as I've kept faith with those experiences, I've found joy and I've prospered, and I see my life unfolding into something completely unexpected and amazing.

The Book of Genesis describes this "horror of great darkness."  St. John of the Cross wrote of "the dark night of the soul."  Joseph Smith described "thick darkness gathered around [him]," that caused it to seem "for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction" (Joseph Smith History verse 15).  I've experienced that.

It is interesting to me that in this moment of darkness described in Genesis 15, the Lord does unveil to Abraham a darker aspect of the thrice-granted prophecy of his descendents: "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years" (Genesis 15:13).  In this moment when Abraham himself was struggling, the Lord made it clear that the future was not all going to be easy, either for him or his descendents.

It's in the next chapter (Genesis 16) that Sarai despairing of having any descendents of her own, hatches a scheme for her Egyptian handmaid to bear children for Abram.  Sarai is not pleased with the results of her own scheme (and ultimately, we see the full fruits of her jealousy and cruelty in chapter 21), though the Lord begins to fulfill his promises to Abram through the castaways, Hagar and her son Ishmael. Sarai faces tests of faith of her own, in chapter 12 (where she becomes the object of Pharaoh's lust) and in chapter 18 (when she learns that the prophecies of Abraham's descendents are to be fulfilled through her as well).

With hindsight, the journey of faith looks like a golden road to Heaven. But from within the journey, it looks mostly like darkness and roadblocks.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Living Death

A bizarre post inspired by a bizarre dream.

The George Romero classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) spawned a whole genre of zombie apocalypse movies that have continued to grow in popularity to this day. Romero established, among other things, the movie precedent of killing zombies by destroying their brains. That zombie movie convention always puzzled me a bit. As a kid, I was accustomed to the Brahm Stoker version of living dead. Vampires could only be killed by mystical means: a rosewood stake through the heart, exposure to sunlight, or immersion in running water. This is because mystical forces had raised them from the dead. You couldn't kill a vampire by conventional means, by, say, shooting it through the brain or the heart with a gun.

Maybe that's because Brahm Stoker wrote his classic in that quaint period of history preceding our day, when most of his readers believed in God. Romero knew that if his living dead were empowered by mystical forces, no modern viewers would believe in them. So he relied on science to explain his living dead. Modern-day zombies are the result of genetically engineered super viruses, Haitian pharmacology, extraterrestrial mind control, or bizarre mutations. Since the modern, scientific human soul resides in the brain, that's how you kill zombies. By destroying their brains.

For what it's worth, modern-day movie vampires, despite the best efforts of Brahm Stoker and Montague Summers, have also been crammed into the modern scientific paradigm.  It used to be that good, old-fashioned vampires were literally immobilized by the rising of the sun, the celestial symbol of God's power.  A vampire during the day was dead, confined to his coffin, and could come back to life only with the waning of day and the return of night, symbol of the rising powers of darkness and evil.  Modern day vampires are not affected by the divine power of the sun, but rather, by U.V. radiation, an aspect of the sun's power that was revealed to us only by modern science. Give them a broad-brimmed hat and some SPF 30 suntan lotion, and they're good.  Modern day vampires like to hang out with their human friends during the day, and go shopping at the mall. They're sexy and chic and they live forever, and, hey! Who wouldn't want to be one? (We hates you forever, Stephenie Meyer. Forever.)

I generally prefer my horror movies to have a more supernatural or mystical twist to them. I'm not a big fan of the blood and gore that is stock fare for zombie apocalypse movies (and for most modern horror movies, for that matter), though I admit I have somewhat enjoyed the TV series Walking Dead, mostly for its human elements.  I love Hershel.

But there is a way of looking at the Romero-style zombie apocalypse genre in more mystical terms. I didn't discover it until I read Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Mysticism, written by an anonymous French Catholic mystic in the latter half of the 20th century. In his entries on "The Wheel" and "The Devil," he describes mortal existence as a serpentine coil, sort of like human intestines, or like the human brain. In his reading of tarot symbolism, he sees the brain as representing the summit of human achievement, both for good and for ill. This is where Romero and Christian mysticism meet: the brain is the summit of human achievement.  But for modern science, the brain is the highest summit we can hope for.  For Christians, the brain is the bottom-most rung in a ladder that ascends high into the Heavens, if we're willing to use it in God's service.  For Christians, there is life after the brain.


I had a zombie apocalypse dream last night.  Zombies were overrunning the world, dining on the flesh of the remaining living humans, who were badly outnumbered, and not faring so well even backed up by modern tanks, artillery, and special security forces.  The zombies were eating everybody: man, woman and child, soldier and civilian alike. Humans would soon lose the battle and then the zombies, presumably, would run out of food.

The zombies were eating everybody, that is, but me. Somehow they didn't seem to notice me. I glided past the battle front where people were being eaten, behind zombie lines.  For many long miles I sped along, until I reached the zombie apocalypse epicenter.  There the zombie forces were being commanded by a zombie general, who was 8 to 10 feet tall, and was dressed in full Nazi/SS regalia.  There were two living, uneaten humans there: a doctor in a white lab coat, and a woman who was being held prisoner by the doctor for some nefarious reason.  I then realized it was the doctor who had started all of this, and who was in control of the whole zombie military operation.  The giant Nazi Zombie General reported to him.

One thing I noticed about the zombies in my dream was that shooting them in the head or bashing their brains out would clearly have no impact, because their brains had already exploded, and were hanging out the sides of their skulls like pink, fleshy dreadlocks. Their guts were also exploded, their intestines draped out in front of them like aprons. These zombies would not be killed by any mundane, conventional means. (Sorry for the graphic imagery. I don't like watching it in movies, but apparently I dream about it.)

In another part of this dream, there was a conduit to Heaven, like a great, serene pillar of light between Heaven and earth, to which I had access.  Perhaps that's why I wasn't scared of the zombies or the Undead Nazi General or the doctor.  Though I knew it would be important to rescue the captive living woman.

I know.  Weird.  But I woke up strangely hopeful.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Affirmation Leadership at General Conference

For some of us, it was a gesture of good will.  Not all members of the Affirmation leadership team that gathered in Salt Lake this past weekend are active Church members or believers in the LDS gospel, but attended the Saturday morning session of General Conference as a way of demonstrating their desire for reconciliation between members and leaders of the LDS Church and the larger LGBT community.  But for some of us -- myself included -- it was not so much an act of good will as of faith.

Fourteen of us attended General Conference together as a group.  That group included Göran's and my 16-year-old son, who came carrying the triple combination Book of Mormon/D&C/Pearl of Great Price he had begged me to give him as a gift the week before we flew out to Salt Lake.   Göran boycotted the conference for the same reason he generally refuses to attend the LDS Church with me.  As he puts it, when they allow me to be baptized without having to divorce him, then he'll come.  Our son came, mainly as a gesture of solidarity with me.  "If anyone says anything bad to you," he warned, "I'll spit them in the eye."  (He hadn't needed to worry -- we were warmly welcomed!)  For me, it was an incredible experience attending General Conference live for the very first time, and being able to do it with my son.  A few months ago, I had a dream about attending General Conference with my husband, and if that dream was prophetic, the prophecy is yet to be fulfilled.  Though not because the Church would have excluded us.

When I asked my son afterwards which talk had been his favorite, he told me it was Boyd K. Packer's.  He'd loved the poem at the beginning about growing old, and about not wishing to trade old age for youth because of the reward that old age offers: a greater understanding of the truth.  It's a poem I could relate to.  Elder Packer took an oh-so-common (albeit indirect) swipe at same-sex marriage by bemoaning "these times" when the family is "under attack."  Maybe same-sex marriage wasn't in his mind at all.  Families certainly face many painful challenges in these difficult times.  Of course I know better than to hope Elder Packer was thinking about something else with that coded reference.  But if my son caught it, it didn't phase him.  He still liked Elder Packer's talk best.

I refer to "my son" at my son's insistence.  Technically, he's our "foster son."  But shortly after he was placed with us, he took me aside one day and said, "When you introduce me to people, don't tell them I'm your 'foster son.'  Tell them I'm your son.  And you're my dad."  We are his "dads."  He knows people won't assume I'm his biological father, because he's African American and I'm very, very Scandinavian American. Before being placed with us, he had never had a father in his life, and he feels very lucky to have two dads now. During conference, he wanted to hold my hand, and would occasionally lean his head on my shoulder. He saw another father at conference affectionately massaging his teenage son's back as they listened to conference.  He knows better than most young men in that room what it means for a family to be in crisis, to be torn apart by forces seemingly beyond the control of its individual members.  And he knew better than most of the other young men in that room how lucky a young man could be to have a loving father by his side at a gathering like General Conference.  He had his own context for hearing and understanding, and being grateful for, Elder Packer's words about the importance of family.

Thursday evening, I met with Randall Thacker and Tina Richerson, the other members of the Affirmation Executive Committee, to discuss our work together as a team.  All day Friday there were Affirmation leadership team activities.  (By the way...  If you feel called to serve, you are a part of the leadership team!  Contact me if you want to know more!)  We discussed our progress in achieving the goals that had been set at our leadership gathering in Washington DC this past January, and we engaged in planning for the upcoming months, including for our annual conference, September 12-15, 2013, in Salt Lake.

Both in the Affirmation board meeting Friday morning, and in a Friday afternoon gathering hosted by Kendall Wilcox and Anne Peffer, who discussed their "Circles of Empathy" model for reconciling perceived conflicts between being LGBT and Mormon, we discussed the challenges of diversity within the Affirmation community.  Many members of Affirmation left the Church long ago, and have no desire for "reconciliation" with the Church any more.  For them, that ship has long sailed.  Some of us -- like myself -- left the Church for a time and now, through some surprising twists and turns in our personal journeys, find ourselves coming back.  Some of us never left the Church.  A few of us, even, have never been Mormon, but find ourselves drawn to the Church.  The only thing we all have in common is some intersection of LGBT-ness or same-sex-attractedness (if you prefer that language) and Mormonism (whether that connection to Mormonism be a profound faith commitment, or just a cultural or familial connection).

Some of us are still processing the anger and pain we feel about experiencing rejection by our Church and our families.  (Anger, by the way, is not a sin; it's a natural reaction to rejection and unfairness that we all need to wrestle with honestly at some point in our lives.)  Some of us have healed in various degrees.  Some of us are ready to move on and become healers.

In addition to attending the Saturday morning session of General Conference with the Affirmation leadership team, I was privileged to attend the Priesthood session Saturday evening, also with my son, and with a member of the Affirmation board.  During Dieter F. Uchtdorf's incredible talk, that board member leaned over and whispered in my ear: "This is what Affirmation's mission is."  President Uchtdorf talked about not judging each other.  He talked about celebrating diversity within the Church.  We should not, he warned, "confuse differences of personality with sin."  For members of the Church to demand conformity would "contradict the intent and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ."  But it was toward the end of the talk that his words struck me with the greatest force.  "YOU ARE NEEDED BY YOUR CHURCH," he said.  That call was regardless of where we found ourselves, regardless of whether we held a calling in the Church.  He reminded us, "GOD HATH CHOSEN THE WEAK THINGS OF THE WORLD TO CONFOUND THE STRONG."  We are children of God, we are disciples, we are heirs, but one of our most important roles, he emphasized, was as "healers."

It reminded me of the exchange I had with James Kent last year after the Seattle Affirmation Conference was over, when he took me aside in the hallway and reminded me that as an organization we urgently needed "spiritual healing."  Affirmation's current board and leadership teams urgently understand this need, and we are determined to become a healing force within the LGBTQ communities touched by our lives, and within the Church, for those of us who feel called to be a part of the Church community.

I was vividly reminded again of our call as healers the moment our plane touched the runway in Minneapolis.  Göran and I received an urgent call from our number one son, Glen.  He had just received a call from his mother.  His sister had been in a terrible car accident.  His sister's fiancé was dead by the time they were able to pry him from the wreckage.  His sister died late last night, with her family gathered around her, in the hospital.  We'd been traveling since 3:30 a.m., and had gotten straight into a rental car at the airport to drive down to Rochester, Minnesota to be with Glen and his family.  Families face too many challenges in this world for us not to become acquainted with the healer's art.

It is ironic that some of the worst wounds we sustain in life can be inflicted by the members of our own families or by the members of our own church.  Ironic, because, if we are to be healed, it is in family, and in community.

We have a work ahead of us.