Sunday, July 21, 2013

Spirit Prison

Today our Sunday School lesson focused on the doctrine of vicarious ordinance work and "redeeming our dead." After introducing the LDS doctrine of "Spirit Prison," our Sunday School teacher posed a question: "Are those who are in Spirit Prison all there because they are bad people?"

The answer was: No.

Many of those who are in Spirit Prison are there because they have not yet received the saving ordinances that need to be performed on their behalf by those of us who have bodies. He used a particular turn of phrase that struck me forcefully: "They are locked in there until someone unlocks the doors for them."

In that moment, I opened my journal and wrote: "I am in Spirit Prison."


I know lots of Latter-day Saints would respond, "Of course you are not. You are excommunicated from the Church, but you have the power to rectify your own situation. All you need to do is leave your husband and go through the requisite repentance process, and then be re-baptized into the Church and have your priesthood and temple blessings restored. In fact, if you don't do this right now, knowing what you know and having the opportunity right before you, your opportunities in the next life will be greatly diminished. So repent and do it now!"

But the problem with that line of reasoning as I understand it is that my fullness of joy cannot possibly lie in "remain[ing] separately and singly" (D&C 132:17). Whatever I understand of "fulness of joy" I understand through my marriage with my husband.

The nature of that joy has become particularly poignant to me as we've begun to face the challenge of my husband's kidney disease together. I've realized there is something powerful and visceral within me that is willing to put everything on the line to fight for his life. I understand that to be "one flesh" with someone is much more than about having sex with someone. It is about having your life entirely intertwined with the life of another human being; to know that your whole welfare, temporal and eternal, is tied up in him.

To tell me that my only way out of hell is to leave my husband, is not showing me any way out of hell at all. It is only to point out to me what I understood most clearly in Sunday School this morning: that I am in Spirit Prison, and that I cannot get out on my own. Somebody else has to unlock the doors for me.


It could be viewed as a cruel doctrine, this notion that the spirits of our ancestors languish in prison until we do the work to free them. Of course the early Saints did not see it as cruel at all. To the contrary, they saw it as compassionate and enlightened compared to the doctrine it replaced: the doctrine that all of those who died without baptism were banished to eternal hell. To the Saints, the doctrine of vicarious ordinance work was proof of God's justice and mercy.

Yet, the doctrine puts the responsibility for saving the dead squarely in the hands of lazy, egotistical, and imperfect humans. Is that actually a mercy after all?

Many Latter-day Saints have heard stories in Church of members who were contacted by dead ancestors or family members, through a dream or through some other miraculous parting of the veil. Their ancestors often contact them to remind them of their responsibility. 

I had an experience of this nature myself in February 2008. I awoke in the middle of the night, and sat up in bed. As I sat there, I saw quite clearly in the northwest corner of our bedroom a man. He had very dark skin, aquiline features, and wore clothing I recognized as African style clothing. He gestured to me, and then he vanished.

This encounter did not frighten me. Quite to the contrary, I was filled with tremendous peace and a sense of well being. This was not a dream. I was wide awake, sitting up in bed. I immediately got up out of bed and went downstairs to our living room. The feeling of peace and well-being lingered, and I got down on my knees and prayed for understanding about who this was and what this meant. And then the impression came very clearly to my mind that this was one of Göran's ancestors.

Another impression immediately came to my mind. We had recently attempted to make contact with Göran's biological father in Memphis, Tennessee by sending him a letter via registered mail. The letter had been returned to us unopened, and at that point we felt stuck. We weren't quite sure how to proceed. As I was praying to understand the meaning of the presence of the man in our room, it also came clear to me that we needed to try sending the letter again. The next morning, I spoke with Göran about it and told him it was urgent we try making contact with his father again.

It took us a few months to actually get around to doing it, but when we finally did, our second contact attempt succeeded. We finally met Göran's biological family for the first time in August of that same year.

There are a few things that intrigued me about this encounter. First of all, I thought it was interesting that Göran's ancestor chose to appear to me rather than Göran. Was that because, being a Latter-day Saint, he knew that I would understand the importance of making contact with Göran's family, both for the sake of the living as well as of the dead? But it also intrigued me that if Göran's ancestors were attempting to make contact with Göran, that they did so through his same-sex partner. Was that an acknowledgment that, on the other side of the veil, our relationship is recognized as having validity? Do Göran's dead ancestors see me as a part of the family?

Another interesting thing had to do with the timing. It was only later, in August 2008 when we finally met Göran's family in Memphis, that we learned that Göran's grandfather had passed away in January of that same year. Less than a month before the spiritual experience that prompted us to renew our efforts to find his biological family.

When we arrived in Memphis, I had a notebook with me at all times, and a copy of "Mac Family Tree" installed on my computer. By the end of our visit, I had assembled a family tree with about 350 names in it.

Whenever I hear lessons of the nature we heard in Sunday School today, I feel a bit guilty. It's been a while since I've worked on Göran's genealogy. And it bothers me that even if Göran and his family were agreeable, we couldn't do vicarious ordinance work for them because both Göran and I are barred from the temple.

Are Göran's progenitors gnashing their teeth right now over the uselessness of their descendents, including that white Mormon guy who married into the family?

But why speak to me in the first place if I'm so frickin' useless?


I wept in Church today, during Sacrament meeting, particularly during the singing of this hymn:
Father in Heav'n, we do believe
The promise thou hast made;
Thy word with meekness we receive,
Just as thy Saints have said.
We now repent of all our sin
And come with broken heart,
And to thy covenant enter in
And choose the better part.

O Lord, accept us while we pray,
And all our sins forgive;
New life impart to us this day,
And bid the sinners live.

Humbly we take the sacrament
In Jesus' blessed name;
Let us receive thru covenant
The Spirit's heav'nly flame.
I don't know what to make of my current predicament. But what I do know is that my salvation is tied up with Göran's, and with his family's. I've had numerous other spiritual dreams and experiences that have confirmed that. So I can't be saved by divorcing him. This much I know.

But I also know that I'm waiting on the Church to unlock some door for me -- for us.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Ye Have Sinned a Great Sin

Exodus chapter 32 represents a key moment in the history of God's dealings with Israel. It is the moment where the children of Israel first face God's wrath. In preceding chapters of Exodus, it was the Egyptians who had plagues poured out on them because of Pharaoh's intransigence. But these plagues appear merciful in comparison with the utter destruction God threatens against the people of Israel in this chapter.

First, it's worth examining a few turns of phrase in the King James text that have dramatically colored the way in which this text has been read in American culture. In verse 6, the KJV reads, "and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play." Later, in verse 25, the KJV reads, "and when Moses saw that the people were naked; (for Aaron had made them naked unto their shame among their enemies)." If you've ever seen The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston, the portrayal of the events of this chapter as a kind of Bacchanalian sex orgy is pretty unforgettable. It gives the impression that when "the sons of Levi" rallied to Moses' call and slew "three thousand men," that they were being slain as much for their sexual licentiousness as for anything else. This translation/reading of the text has certainly cemented in the American religious imagination a connection between idolatry and sexuality. Better translations and a more careful reading of the text present a much different and, in my opinion, far more sobering picture of the relationship between God and his people.

The Jewish Publication Society translation of these texts (which is supported in the footnotes of the LDS edition) first of all reads away from the image of a sex orgy, and toward the establishment of a new (idolatrous) religion. In verse 6, JPS reads, "they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance." The contrast between the KJV and JPS translations of verse 25 are even more striking. JPS reads, "Moses saw that the people were out of control -- since Aaron had let them get out of control -- so that they were a menace to any who might oppose them." In other words, Moses finds in progress not a sex orgy, but an armed rebellion. And in that light, what is portrayed to ensue -- the quelling of the rebellion with armed force, resulting in the deaths of three thousand -- makes much more sense.

Read in context, we see that what is happening in this chapter is the establishment of a new religion without divine authorization. Moses, accompanied by Joshua, goes up into Mount Sinai to receive God's commandments. The people are distressed by his absence, which they feel has been long enough that they no longer know what's happened to him. At their urging, Aaron gathers gold from the people and fashions an idol. And here's where it gets interesting.

"This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt," he proclaims. He builds an altar for sacrifice, and then proclaims, "Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!" Exodus 32 proceeds to describe a standard religious festival, complete with sacrifices, sacraments (eating and drinking), hymns and liturgical dance. Not an orgy, but worship.

This is fascinating to me, because I had often read this text as a violation of the first commandment ("Thou shalt have no other gods before me" -- Exodus 20:3). In fact, it is a violation of the second commandment, "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image."

The difference to me between these two commandments has always been kind of fuzzy, especially given the Christian culture I am accustomed to where portraits of God are common -- in stained glass windows or on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Mormons don't think twice about fashioning images of God when portraying Joseph Smith's theophany in the Sacred Grove.  Such portraits in Sunday School manuals or films or in missionary flip charts is commonplace. To us that is not idolatry, that's missionary work. (Even though some of us have learned to squirm a bit about portrayals of God as a white guy with a beard.)

But the distinction between the first and second commandments is less fuzzy in the context of Jewish history and culture, where any visual portrayal of God is taboo, where even the writing or the careless speaking of God's name is considered off limits. I guess the Jews have stayed closer to the lessons of Exodus 32 (and Exodus 20:4-6) than Christians. Jews understand, as this text should make clear to any people who cherish the Bible, that false images of the one true God are just as dangerous as false gods. You don't have to worship Asherah or Beelzebul to have gone astray. You can worship something you have persuaded yourself to be the one true God but is actually a mere false image.

When Aaron stood before the golden calf and proclaimed, "This is your God... who brought you out of the land of Egypt," he intended to point toward the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Perhaps he hoped that this form of devotion was better than the lawlessness the people seemed to be careening toward in Moses' absence. Perhaps he reasoned, it is easier for people to stay focused if they have something concrete to worship.

The problem, of course, was once they had latched onto their own image -- their own idol -- of God, they became fixed upon it to the exclusion of any true revelation from God. When Moses reappeared in the camp with a bonafide revelation, they rejected it in favor of the one they had fashioned for themselves, and the result was violent rebellion, "a menace to any who might oppose them."

This is far more disquieting in my mind, than the image of the children of Israel engaging in orgiastic revelry so often presented to us from this chapter. A more accurate reading of this text reveals the children of Israel actually engaging in orderly worship, in devotion that looks not too different from the devotion demanded by the One True God. In the chapters just preceding Exodus 32, we have revelations in which the Lord spells out what kind of altar to build for the purpose of the sacrifices he requires (see particularly Exodus 30), and in Exodus 32 we see Aaron building an altar for sacrifice to "the Lord."
Idolatry, it seems, is a far graver sin than revelry; and it seems a much easier sin to mistake for the kind of worship God demands of us.


For what it's worth, what ensues in the story is revealing about the fundamental nature of idolatry versus true worship.

An idol is problematic because it is "graven," it is fixed. And so it seems all the more significant that the description of God presented in this text is of a being who is not fixed.

In verses 9-14 of the same chapter, the Lord clearly states his intention to utterly annihilate the children of Israel, to wipe the slate clean and start over with Moses. And Moses enters into a kind of pleading or bargaining with the Lord that is reminiscent of the bargaining that Abraham engages in on behalf of the city of Sodom (Genesis 18: 23-35). Moses actually, remarkably, puts himself on the line for the children of Israel. Moses pleads with the Lord, in verse 32, "Now, if You will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record which you have written." Moses was willing to go down with the sinking ship if necessary; and greater love hath no man. God accepted Moses' pleading, Moses' sacrifice of love, and made a different, more merciful, arrangement.

Idols can't do that. An idol is fixed. And a fixed idol can be an idea as much as a statue or a picture.

God preserve us from that.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Where Thieves Break In and Steal

My husband and I recently upgraded our home security system.

Years ago, after we moved into our current home (in the summer of 1996), a couple of our friends experienced break-ins and robberies. It deeply upset Göran, to the point that we invested in a home security system.

As it turns out, no one's ever attempted to rob our house in the seventeen years since. The alarm's been triggered a couple of times -- by our cats. One Sunday morning around Christmas time, for instance, we woke up early in the morning to the wailing of the break-in siren. Göran ran down the stairs, naked and armed with a metal baseball bat, ready to defend our turf, only to find out that one of our cats had triggered the glass-break alarm by knocking the Christmas tree over. On another occasion, while I was on a business trip in Chicago, one of our cats also knocked over a $350 raku vase, with similar results, but this time bringing the police to our residence (since Göran was out with friends). We weren't quite sure which cat, but we think it was Cleopatra.

Still, we have to have the system for Göran's peace of mind. Within the past week, our next door neighbor's garage and another neighbor's garage down the alley were broken into and plundered.

Our upgrades are pretty cool. Video camera surveillance of the property. And everything will be remotely controlled and connected to our iPhones. We can access the surveillance cameras on our phones and see what's going on at home any time we want. We will now get instant notification by text message (with pictures!) whenever an event is triggered.

Heh! Now we'll know for sure which cat to blame for domestic mayhem!

If I had my druthers, we'd do without it. I imagine myself living in pure and ascetic simplicity, without a TV or fancy game systems or computers or expensive furniture or precious china. I guess I'd need a fridge. A small one. And a stove. A few changes of clothes and my books and notebooks.

I'd be like Bishop Myriel of Les Misérables. If anyone stole something from me, I'd just say, "They must have needed it more than I did." You can't be robbed if you don't really consider yourself to own anything in the first place.

On the other hand, it doesn't distress me that we own lots of "stuff" that I honestly think we could do without. If my family needs it, then I "need" it. What counts to me is their happiness and safety. So we're getting the security upgrades.

But I do wonder if, one morning, we woke up like the Whos in Whoville on Christmas morning, to find that even the roast beast was gone, would we learn what it is that really makes us happy? (Each other.)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Surviving the Crash

I had a very peculiar dream last night that Göran and I were in a plane crash. Our plane hit an unexpected storm shortly after it had taken off from MSP International Aiport, and went down somewhere in western Wisconsin.

In my dream, I was watching (from outside my body) paramedics place my body in an ambulance and take it to a hospital. I was very aware that if I (my consciousness/my spirit?) were not quickly reattached to my body, my body would die.

I stayed very close to the paramedics, and I kept saying, "When are you going to reattach me to my body?" But the paramedics didn't seem to be paying much attention to me or even noticing me. I figured they were busy.

After we reached the hospital, they laid my body on some kind of cart in a big room. I went over to it to look at it, and it looked to me as if it were "wilting," the way flowers wilt after you cut them, if you don't put them in water. I was particularly studying my hands, seeing how crumpled up and small they looked, and I thought, "It's probably already too late to save my hands. There's probably too much neurological damage."

I gradually realized that I was probably actually dead, and it was time to go find Göran and move on.


I was struck by how weirdly similar this dream was to pop cultural portrayals of the after death experience in movies and TV, like, say, the movie The Sixth Sense. About a year ago, I shared my review of James Hillman's book, The Dream and the Underworld, in which Hillman argues that Greco-Roman underworld mythology was actually the product of dreams. Are our pop culture portrayals of after-death experiences also a product of dreams? Or was my dream the product of pop cultural portrayals? Another one of the many mysterious questions I'm filing away for future reference.

I told this dream to my husband this morning, and he was actually pretty appalled. I said, "I had a strange dream last night." And after I described it, he said, "That wasn't a dream that was a nightmare!" But oddly, I did not experience it as a scary dream. I felt quite calm and at peace throughout. The feeling I experienced upon discovering I was dead was more one of surprise than fear or anger or regret.

I woke up thinking, basically, "Oh, I guess I can survive a plane crash, even if I die in it."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Gay Mormon Ten Commandments

1. Thou shalt rest assured that I, the Lord thy God, do love thee with a fierce and unconditional love, for I have created thee as thou art and have redeemed thee at great personal cost, and will never abandon thee. Thou shalt not permit anyone to convince thee that anything in earth or heaven could ever come between thee and my love.

2. Thou shalt not worship convention or respectability, holding the opinions of others higher than truth or love. Thou shalt not idolize body image or materialism, or any other worldly stuff that distracts thee from what is really important in life.

3. Thou shalt not be misled by those who use my name in vain, claiming that I the Lord God hate thee and condemn thee or that I consider thee an abomination. They are full of it, sayeth the Lord, and I will not hold them guiltless for thus taking my name in vain.

4. Remember that there is always someone worse off than thee, and do something to make the world a better place for them. It's not all about thee. And if thou do this, all thy days shall be holy.

5. Love and honor thy father and thy mother, for they do love thee more than thou dost know, even when they don't always act like it; and have patience with them in the days of thy coming out that thou and they might live long upon the land together and enjoy a loving, full relationship with each other some day.

6. Thou shalt not kill thyself. For, thus saith the Lord, things do get better.

7. Thou shalt work for marriage equality, for it is pleasing to the Lord and will be pleasing to thee that love be given and received in the framework of everlasting commitment. And it is pleasing to the Lord that thou be held to the same standards of fidelity as thy heterosexual brothers and sisters.

8. Thou shalt come out of the closet, that thy younger and more vulnerable gay brothers and sisters might have hope and wax in confidence, that they may not kill themselves but live long upon the land, seeing thy good example.

9. Thou shalt not out thy brother or sister, nor steal from them the right and privilege of coming out on their own timetable, to whom they are ready, when they are ready.

10. Thou shalt not covet thy heterosexual neighbor's respectability and heterosexual privilege.