Monday, December 15, 2014

If any man will do...

Last night I had a dream. In the dream, I saw Christ speaking, saying, "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." After I woke up, I looked it up... John 7:17.

What a beautiful, happy, peaceful feeling I had during this dream! Thinking about it makes me yearn to be in the Savior's presence!

I had a few thoughts about it as I reflected on Jesus' words. First of all, the most important things about the Gospel we know from doing. So in any Gospel-related study we do, that gives us something to look for and to focus on: "How can I put this into practice in my life?" I think that can be a useful way of figuring out what is wheat and what is chaff. I definitely have a testimony of that, because there is so much peace and joy in my life that has come from practicing very simple, very basic Gospel principles.

The second reflection I had is that this is such a beautiful and simple hermeneutic. What is God's will in relation to homosexuality? There's a lot of contention and commotion over this question. I would suggest that we already have a lot of combined wisdom in relation to this question. Our experience, our "doing" is our teacher. Our various experiences have given us the most valuable data to "know of the doctrine, whether it be of God."

To me this doctrine allows us to put our minds at rest, to not be afraid. If something is working for you, giving you greater knowledge, keep doing it! If it's not working, if your gears are grinding, let it go... The truth is in a different direction.


Monday, December 1, 2014

On Being an Ex-Ex-Mormon

Recently I participated in a Facebook discussion that was started on the Affirmation Facebook group when a young gay Mormon posed a simple question: where could he "come back to church" now that he was married to a man?

The ensuing discussion reminded me a little bit of the Joseph Smith story, "some crying, 'Lo, here!' and others, 'Lo, there!' Some ... contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist." Well, not literally for Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists... But the general thrust of the discussion seemed to be creeping toward a debate over whether to stay in the LDS Church or go over to some other more "gay-affirming" non-LDS Church.

I still find it a tad weird that in a group for LGBT Mormons there are folks actively making the case for leaving the Mormon Church entirely and joining some other Church. I wonder how the good folks at Reconciling Works: Lutherans for Full Participation would take it if I hung out on some of their on-line support groups and started encouraging folks to leave Lutheranism! Or if I did the same in one of the many other spaces that have designed to provide support for LGBT Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, UCC'ers, or even Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists.

I was a member of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) from 1986 until 1994, and during that time I was an active member of Lutherans Concerned and worked for some time with Lutheran Churches in Minnesota to help them become more LGBT affirming in my capacity as the director of the "Reconciled in Christ" program. As long as I was a member of Lutherans Concerned I worked for and within the Lutheran Church to make space for faithful LGBT Lutherans. I am no longer involved with Reconciling Works, because I am no longer a Lutheran.

I think LGBT Mormons are smart enough that, if they decide they no longer want to be Mormon, they can (through a quick, easy Internet search) find other groups that will support them in whatever spiritual path they do choose. But, for some reason, individuals who no longer affiliate with the LDS Church feel obligated to evangelize on the Affirmation Facebook group.

I actually sort of get it. I get that the LDS Church doesn't operate like other mainline denominations. I get that because of the LDS belief that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has unique authority from God (which is a belief I embrace), and because of the  tendency among Mormons to believe that true happiness is only possible safe within the fold of the LDS Church (which is demonstrably false), certain dynamics exist among ex-Mormons that you don't find among former members of other churches. I think it's quite possible that ex-Mormons evangelize because as Mormons they were taught to evangelize. As Mormons they tended to view the world in terms of absolutes, in terms of black and white, good and evil. Individuals tend to join the LDS Church because they believe it is the true Church, so it stands to reason that when they leave it, it is because they believe it is a false Church.

There's no question that I experienced trauma during my last years in the LDS Church. It was painful enough that I almost committed suicide. Mormon culture (just like every culture) has a dark side. Authoritarian attitudes and mores in any culture create unhealthy dependencies, and dangerously weaken the individual confidence and self-esteem that  people need in order to be healthy and happy and to make good choices. So wherever we find ourselves, it behooves us to reinforce the positive aspects of the culture around us and to work at ameliorating what is negative.

I left the LDS Church for a time because that was what I needed to do. I didn't find it possible to function in that setting in a healthy way. But what I gradually discovered over time was that even when I was a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and, later, when I was a member of a United Churches of Christ congregation, I was still basically a Mormon. My worldview was Mormon. My way of thinking about morality was a very Mormon way of thinking about morality. My way of relating to God was a very Mormon way of relating to God. I once had a Lutheran pastor who counseled me for a time, and tried to point this out to me. He wanted to help me see how I had never really stopped being a Mormon. This was not necessarily bad from his point of view, it was just a reality. But I was in denial about it, and my denial was making it difficult for me to function healthily in other religious settings.

Gradually I realized that in running away from Mormonism, I was avoiding doing the real work that I needed to do. I couldn't work through the dark side of Mormon culture by being a Lutheran or a UCC'er. I could only work through the dark side of Mormon culture within the framework of Mormon culture. And I realized that in doing so, I might not only be helping myself -- becoming a healthier, happier, more truly Mormon me -- but that I might also be able to help other Mormons as well.

Religion is a complex phenomenon. And at some level, I think many of the distinctions we make by affixing labels to ourselves (like "Mormon" or "Presbyterian" or "Methodist" or "Baptist") are false distinctions. One way of looking at it that I find helpful is to think of a religion as a discipline or practice that we use in order to explore the world and grow. A religious community is a place where we commit to work together using a similar vocabulary and set of practices. Ultimately it is the growth and the exploration that matters, not necessarily the techniques we use to achieve it. That's one way of looking at it.

Another way of looking at religion is to see it as providing us a set of hypotheses about how the world works. We test those hypotheses by practicing the religion. We know that a hypothesis is only a model. But as long as that model gives us an effective way of interacting with the world, we'll keep working with it. We can revise the model, add layers of complexity to it. We might, at some point, find that it no longer functions well for us as a model, and then we might be obliged to find a different hypothesis or model.

"Mormonism" hasn't stopped being useful to me as a working hypothesis of the world.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Earl Wunderli's Imperfect Book

Ten years ago, I wouldn't have bothered to read Earl Wunderli's Imperfect Book, if only because I would have taken for granted his argument that the Book of Mormon is not what it purports to be (a book of ancient American scripture), but rather the nineteenth-century product of a single author (Joseph Smith).

In reading the book it has become clear to me that this is not so much Wunderli's argument as his premise. Occasionally he manages to cover his biases in the language of objectivity. His critique of the Book of Mormon will certainly be pleasing to rationalist materialists who -- denying the  objective existence of God, angels or miracles -- insist that of course the Book of Mormon can be nothing else than what Wunderli says it is, and who are annoyed that so many people stubbornly continue to believe in it and turn to it as a source of personal inspiration and as a vehicle for communion with the divine.

Ten years ago, as I said, I would have numbered myself among them. But nine years ago I started to "doubt my doubt," as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf so pithily put it in an October 2013 General Conference address. Being well aware of the various archaeological, anthropological, historical, and even biological (DNA-based) critiques of the Book of Mormon, I nevertheless read the Book of Mormon to see what, if anything, it had to say to me as a gay man. And I did so primarily because I felt prompted by the Spirit to do so. I put the Book of Mormon to the test, reading it, as Earl Wunderli himself purports to, on its own merits. I was surprised by what I discovered. The experience was powerful, life changing. I discovered I still had a testimony of the Book of Mormon after all, a welter of intellectual doubts notwithstanding.

Like others who have read Wunderli's book, I've found it entertaining and engaging. As someone who loves the Book of Mormon (I've read it cover to cover three times in the last nine years, and am currently reading it a fourth time as part of Affirmation's Book of Mormon Challenge), I appreciate Wunderli's careful textual, word for word analysis of the Book. Wunderli's critique can best be appreciated, I think, by someone who is extremely familiar with the text cover-to-cover, by someone who has, for instance, bothered to read the Isaiah quotations in the Book of Mormon side-by-side with Isaiah as found in the King James Bible, and who has bothered to read other, more modern (and more linguistically sophisticated) translations of Isaiah.

There was a certain mythology of the Book of Mormon I was raised with that was naive and, for lack of a better word, fundamentalist. There's a kind of Mormon romantic mythology about Joseph Smith and how he functioned as a prophet that not only doesn't square with the facts of history but that amounts to a kind of denial of core principles of the Restored Gospel such as our belief in the primacy of agency in God's plan and the fact that "all have fallen short of the glory of God." The sooner we dispense with those mythologies, the better off we are. So Wunderli does a service to Mormonism by showing how some of those mythologies are simply untenable.

Wunderli acknowledges at the outset of his textual analysis that, for those who believe in the Book of Mormon, there are two theories of how the Book of Mormon was translated. One theory -- bolstered by certain eye-witness accounts of the translation process -- is that Joseph literally received every single word by divine revelation directly from God through the "Urim and Thummim." The other theory -- bolstered by D&C section 9 -- is that Joseph got a certain sense of the meaning of a text, and then had to do the hard work of converting that meaning into his native idiom (early nineteenth-century frontier U.S. English). According to the latter theory, there would have been a cultural filtration process by which Joseph Smith adapted ancient meanings to a modern context, and would have borrowed heavily from the language and ideas of the King James Bible and of American religious culture of his time and place to express parallel ideas from the Book of Mormon text.

Wunderli's textual analysis makes the case for a literal, word-for-word translation process virtually impossible to sustain. Wunderli persuasively argues that the language of the Book of Mormon is the work of a single author with -- for that matter -- a fairly limited English vocabulary that is heavily dependent upon the King James Bible. That would be fairly descriptive of Joseph Smith's English. Wunderli, of course, is inclined to see this as proof that Joseph Smith is the sole creator and author of the Book of Mormon, not its translator. Though, his textual analysis is still consistent with the second believing theory of the Book of Mormon that would see the mind of Joseph Smith as a filter through which the original Book of Mormon text was "translated" into modern idioms.

Wunderli makes a lot of the supposedly "anachronistic" borrowings from texts that could not possibly have been known to Book of Mormon authors. A few years ago, my husband bought a book by Marcus Borg and Jack Kornfield called Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. The book places side by side teachings of Jesus and teachings of Buddha that are often so similar, they beg the question of whether Jesus was familiar with Buddist literature and/or teachings, since Buddha preceded Jesus by about five centuries. In my own wide readings of the sacred corpuses of different world religions -- ancient Greek, Hindu, Buddhist, Mesoamerican, Gnostic, Muslim -- I am struck by the fact that in comparing any given sacred text to almost any other, it is possible to find striking similarities. Is this because one is copying off another, or is it because there are in fact, as James Frazer argues in The Golden Bough, universal elements in all religion? If Jesus at times sounds like he's quoting Gautama Buddha, why wouldn't it be possible for ancient American authors to express ideas that on occasion sound so similar to Middle Eastern Christian writers that Joseph Smith could borrow turns of phrase from the New Testament in order to translate them?

What I (and other believers in the Book of Mormon) find so compelling about the Book of Mormon, however, is not the borrowings, not the parallels, but those aspects of the Book of Mormon that are unique, that shed new light on ancient theologies from a perspective that is often quite surprising and liberating. I'm familiar with the religious culture of nineteenth century America. I am a scholar and a teacher of it. And yet, I find the Book of Mormon to contain ideas that are unique and powerful, that set it apart from its time and place, that have caused it to transcend everything else that was written either contemporaneously or since then. I believe in the Book of Mormon largely because, when all is said and done, after all the textual and historical analysis has been waded through, I am still left with the book's undeniable power; because it has opened doors in my soul that couldn't have been opened by any other book.

In light of that, I can't help but smile a bit at the overreaching in a number of Wunderli's arguments. For example, in a section where Wunderli discusses Book of Mormon prophecies that have supposedly demonstrably failed, he cites 2 Nephi 3:14, a prophecy ostensibly about Joseph Smith that states "They that seek to destroy him shall be confounded." Since Joseph Smith's enemies did in fact "destroy" him when he died at the hands of assassins at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844, says Wunderli, this prophecy has demonstrably failed. To bolster his point, he cites a David Whitmer statement that the prophecy could not have been about Joseph Smith since "those who sought to destroy Brother Joseph were not confounded, but they destroyed him." He also cites Parley P. Pratt's argument (prior to Joseph Smith's martyrdom) that all efforts to destroy Joseph Smith legally had come to naught, thus falsely confirming the prophecy (since ultimately Joseph was killed/"destroyed").

Of course, the goal of Joseph Smith's assassins was not merely to "destroy" Joseph Smith, but to snuff out Mormonism itself. They believed that once Joseph was dead, his disillusioned followers would abandon the religion he had founded. In that goal, they were in fact notoriously "confounded." From a believer's perspective, Joseph Smith could not possibly be "destroyed" with an assassin's bullet. As Jesus taught, "Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Matthew 10:28). Joseph's assassins neither destroyed Joseph nor put an end to Mormonism. Rather, like the blood of the martyrs of early Christianity, the blood of Joseph and Hyrum became "the seed of the [Latter-day] Church." Still, Wunderli is satisfied to put that in the column of "failed" prophecies.

Still, a worthwhile read, perhaps  more for believers than for skeptics (who don't need to be convinced that the Book of Mormon is a fraud). Believers will appreciate the opportunity Wunderli presents to reflect deeply on the text, and what it means (and doesn't mean). Being gay and excommunicated, I should probably be an easy sell on the notion that the Book of Mormon isn't what it purports to be. But here I am, having doubted my doubts, still a stronger believer than ever.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Why I Follow the Word of Wisdom (and other wacky Mormon stuff)

Frequently asked questions

"Why do you think coffee, tea and alcohol are sinful?" 

I don't. 

I'm pretty sure Jesus drank wine. His critics actually called him "a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!" (Matt. 11:18/Luke 7:34). 

As I understand it, going around judging people for what they eat or drink (or smoke) is the sin, not eating or drinking or smoking. 

True, some substances can be addictive, and addictive behavior is harmful. But I don't even consider addiction a sin. It's a misfortune. And condemning someone with an addiction as "sinful" is not likely to help them with their addiction.

"Isn't everything OK in moderation?"

Pretty much, yes. Moderation (or the Catholic cardinal virtue of "temperance") is a good motto to live by.

When I did drink alcohol, I for the most part was a responsible drinker. But on occasion I drank too much and behaved badly. I'm glad that by choosing not to drink, I've decreased the likelihood in my life of behaving badly (though it's still quite possible for me to behave badly stone cold sober!).

Occasionally I dine with a group of friends who drink wine or beer with their meal. And sometimes there is an individual in the group who is a recovering alcoholic, or who, for whatever other reason, is uncomfortable drinking alcohol. I feel good about keeping them company, so they don't have to be the only "weird" one at the table. Though, I don't mind being the only weird one at the table! I don't mind being the perpetual "designated driver." 

I don't see this as making me better than anyone else. It's just my choice. It's how I feel most comfortable living. As long as others are comfortable with the choices they're making and how they're living, that's all that really matters to me.

I like the fact that by choosing not to take certain substances I can bear witness that we each get to choose what kind of life we want to live -- even if our choices make us a little eccentric.

"What about the health benefits from drinking wine?"

As I understand it, there is clinical evidence that drinking red wine (and only red wine!) daily does help reduce unhealthy cholesterol, which reduces the likelihood of heart attack and stroke. But I understand you have to drink a glass of red wine every day in order to get this benefit. And you lose the benefit as soon as you stop drinking every day. When I did drink wine, I never drank it that often. I'd have to become a pretty devoted wine-drinker in order to get this health benefit.

One reason I never drank wine daily is because even drinking just a single glass of wine in the evening would make me feel a bit sluggish the next day. That made me decide to save wine-drinking only for the weekend. I actually found that once I gave up alcohol completely I was sleeping more soundly at night, and I had more energy overall. My doctor told me that even minimal wine-drinking has a negative impact on overall energy levels and on muscle strength, and when he learned that I had given alcohol up completely, he congratulated me on making a wise choice.

I'm very concerned about health. I practice yoga daily. I don't own a car, so I do a lot of walking and biking. I eat a balanced diet with lots of grains, vegetables and fruit, and my cholesterol is extremely low... Actually slightly lower than what is recommended to minimize heart attack risk. So... I'll take my chances without the health benefits of daily red wine drinking.

"I understand avoiding drinking and smoking, but coffee, tea, and pop? What are you allowed to drink? And what about chocolate? That has caffeine in it..."

The Mormon "Word of Wisdom" does not specifically name "caffeine" as a substance to be avoided, but "hot drinks," which has been interpreted to mean coffee and tea. So technically, a Mormon can drink all the Coca Cola or Dr. Pepper or Mountain Dew (or eat all the chocolate) he or she wants, and be considered in compliance with the Word of Wisdom. Only coffee and tea are on the no-no list.

First, a word about caffeine... I used to be a serious caffeine junky. When I started working at the law firm where I currently work, there was always free coffee in the lunch room, and it was the good stuff. Really good coffee. So I got into the habit of drinking sometimes as much as five cups a day! Also, the firm had subsidized pop machines in the lunch room, and you could buy a can of pop for 25¢. So when I got tired of coffee, I'd go for a Dr. Pepper or a Mountain Dew. That was a lot of caffeine. And I found I was actually feeling kinda tired and jittery, and wasn't sleeping well.

At some point, I decided to go off it cold turkey. No more caffeine. I suffered from caffeine deprivation headaches for a few days, but eventually found that once my body had made the adjustment to a caffeine-free diet, my energy levels at work were actually higher. An OJ in the  morning, and cold water the rest of the day (and a good night's sleep the night before) actually made me a much more productive worker than all the caffeine I could drink. I still drink caffeinated soda once in a while (maybe once a month). If I'm on a long road trip and I'm feeling drowsy at the wheel, I won't hesitate to buy a bottle of Mountain Dew at a gas station on the way. But I have no desire to let this become a daily thing again.

I love chocolate. Chocoholism runs in the family. My dad's a chocoholic. My mom used to have her own private stash of Fazer chocolates that she had to keep hidden so we kids wouldn't dig into it. My sister's a chocoholic. And so am I. I have found two negative effects from eating too much chocolate. First, a nice piece of dark chocolate in the evening can keep me up till 2 a.m. Also, all chocolate (light or dark) is loaded with calories. When I eat too much chocolate every day, I start putting on more pounds than I'd like. It doesn't matter how healthy the rest of my diet is or how much exercise I get, eating a bag of Cadbury mini eggs every day will do that. Once I actually looked at the caloric content of chocolate and compared it to other foods, I decided that I could still eat chocolate every day, but only in small quantity. As a little treat! Not as a main course! And never near bed time. That keeps me a happy camper.

I should make it clear that my decisions about caffeinated soda and chocolate reflect a desire to be healthy, which follows the spirit of the Word of Wisdom. Since the letter of the Word of Wisdom does not prohibit caffeinated soda or chocolate, my decisions about that stuff would have to reflect my own decisions.

"Then  why won't you drink coffee or tea?"

Because the Word of Wisdom (as currently interpreted by Church leaders) prohibits coffee and tea. This brings us back to the meaning of the Word of Wisdom for me.

Even if there were no caffeine in coffee or tea, and even if there were no known negative effects on health caused by drinking it, I would still not drink it so long as it were prohibited.

For me, there is a symbolic value of following the Word of Wisdom that transcends any possible health benefits. By following the Word of Wisdom, I in essence say that I'm willing to make this small sacrifice (it is, after all, a small sacrifice in the grand scheme of things) as a sign of my love for God.

"Can't you have even just one teeny weeny little glass of wine to celebrate some special occasion?"


For the reason I've just given... Because my obedience to the Word of Wisdom has symbolic significance, even drinking an infinitesimally small amount of alcohol (a "symbolic amount"!) on purpose would be breaking it.

I love celebrating special occasions, but please don't feel insulted if I do so with a nice, tasty, non-alcoholic "sparkling" beverage, instead of with wine or champagne. This is important to me.

"But you're excommunicated, so you're not technically bound by Church rules."

That's right. This is my choice. It's one of the ways I can demonstrate my loyalty to God and to the principles of the Church, even if I am excommunicated.


I suspect that the Word of Wisdom as currently practiced in the Church is something for this time and place, and not an eternal requirement. Jesus did, after all, say he would "[drink of the fruit of the vine] with you in my Father’s kingdom" (Matthew 26:29). I look forward to that very special feast.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

By Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage, Is the U.S. "Choosing Iniquity"?

My scripture study today was Mosiah 29 (in the Book of Mormon).I can't resist commenting on verse 27 of this chapter, because of the frequency with which it is quoted (in conservative Mormon circles) against the legalization of same-sex marriage.

First of all, I believe this verse is true, and the entire chapter, actually, is a very interesting (and in some ways challenging and surprising) piece of political philosophy. (Political theology?) One of the most interesting concepts in this chapter, IMHO, is the idea that democracy encourages each individual to take responsibility for his or her own actions in a way that other forms of government can't.

The history of Nazi Germany is one demonstration of the "great destruction" wrought when "the voice of the people doth choose iniquity." (Though of course, Hitler came to power in a parliamentary system with only 33% of the vote.) It's also a classic demonstration of the notion in verse 21 that "ye cannot dethrone an iniquitous king save it be through much contention, and the shedding of much blood." There are plenty of other examples, but that one springs readily to mind.

If verse 27 is true, and if majority support for legal same-sex marriage constitutes "the voice of the people [choosing] iniquity" we should see "great destruction" falling on Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, France, the Low Countries, the U.K., Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, and of course the states in the U.S. and Mexico where it has been legalized. These are all democratic nations where same-sex marriage has been legally recognized through democratic and constitutional means.

Is it possible that the legalization of same-sex marriage in these democratic nations is a demonstration of the truth of Mosiah 29:26, that "it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right"?

You could argue that same-sex marriage has not been legal long enough to bring these countries under the judgments of God... But we can already see the fruit of legal same-sex marriage in the lives of gay couples, their families, their neighborhoods and communities, and it is good. We're seeing more stability, more commitment, more security both for adults and children. We are able to work at our jobs and receive the same benefits and protections for our families as other (heterosexual) workers. We're seeing the social safety net helping to protect many vulnerable who previously were not protected. We're seeing individuals who were once pariahs and outcasts integrated into their families and communities. These all seem like blessings of God being poured out in consequence of righteous choices rather than "great destruction" being visited in consequence of iniquity.

Let's also acknowledge that the predicted "destruction" of the family simply isn't happening. Gay individuals and gay families are being protected under the law -- not at the expense of but alongside heterosexual individuals and families. Heterosexuals are still getting married and having kids, as they have from time immemorial and as they will continue to do. Gay people will continue to be born into many of these families. But gay couples will now be able to get married, strengthen and support one another, support their parents, and adopt and care for kids whose heterosexual parents are not able to do so -- strengthening the social safety net for everybody.

And we will all be blessed, unless we -- like the voters of the Weimar Republic in the 1930s -- choose some genuine form of iniquity (like genocidal hatred of Jews) and bring destruction on ourselves.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Do Same-sex Marriages Fulfill the Law of Chastity?

In relation to this question, I feel kind of like I imagine Gentile believers must have felt prior to the Council of Jerusalem (described in Acts 15).

Many members of the Church prior to that council insisted that in order to be a member of the Church in full standing, you needed to live the Law of Moses. It was then that the Church finally clarified that conformity to the Law of Moses was no longer required. At the council, Peter testified: "And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost ["them" being the Gentiles -- who were not conforming to the Law of Moses], even as he did unto us; And put not difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?"

Ultimately the council issued a statement: "that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood."

It's interesting to me that they said "that they abstain from... fornication." The gay community has been going through an evolution in the last couple of decades, and is in the process of rejecting promiscuity in favor of commitment and continence within the boundaries of marriage. We've demanded no less than "marriage," we've been very deliberate about insisting on that word, because the word "marriage" clearly defines the kind of law we desire to govern our sexuality. And I believe, in consequence, we're seeing the Spirit being poured out on the LGBT community to the extent that we're willing to let ourselves be governed by this fundamental moral principle.

The gay community's embrace of the principle of marriage I believe is a perfect illustration of what Peter was talking about when he said "purifying their hearts by faith."

(And, for what it's worth... I don't see much evidence that mandatory celibacy is a "yoke" members of the Church are willing or "able to bear" -- though straight members seem willing enough to "tempt God" and "put [it] on the neck of [gay] disciples.")

I think the sign of whether same-sex marriages fulfill the law of chastity is whether we have the Spirit poured out on us in consequence of contracting and honoring our marriages. And I'm seeing an abundance of evidence that we do. So it's up to the Church now to figure out what to do with that evidence of the Spirit in our lives -- just as the Church had to contend with the signs of God's favor toward the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

How I saw myself as a gay Mormon youth / how others saw me

My mom has Alzheimer's disease. It really became undeniable about two years ago, when I and my siblings gathered with her and my dad to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. My brother Mark had put together a beautiful video about my parents' marriage which we watched together as part of the celebration. My mom watched it blankly -- as if she were watching a video about somebody else's life. We could ask her questions about events in her life as recently as a week before, but she couldn't answer them. Mom was happy to be surrounded by family. She still recognizes us, though it's hard for her to communicate. Her language has become a jumble of mostly incomprehensible words (except for phrases like "I love you!" and "I'm so happy to see you!"), making any form of communication but face-to-face expressions of love and affection frustrating. Gradually I have come to accept that from here on out, Mom and I can't really talk about the past or the future any more. I can be with her only in the present.

Ironically, one of Mom's greatest gifts to me has to do with memory. Before I was born, Mom started a scrapbook of stories of significant events in my life, photos, important documents and mementos. She called them "books of remembrance." A few years ago, when Mom was still lucid, she and Dad paid me and Göran a visit at our home in Minneapolis and she presented me with two volumes that she had lovingly kept up to date through some time after I started Grad School. Recently I've begun to read through them, and I'm astonished with the level of detail and thoroughness with which she recorded anecdotes, milestones, and significant events of my life, from infancy to adulthood. (Being a nurse, she also fastidiously kept track of every illness I ever experienced until I graduated from high school!) 

To give some idea of the level of detail, my mom actually periodically took note of the words in my vocabulary as I was learning to speak. My first language was Finnish, and my family's nickname for me growing up was "Jukka." (Mom's journal was kept in Finnish until about 1969.) In one entry from when I was two, Mom wrote, "Jukka's vocabulary at the end of February was isi, äiti, mummi, ukki, vauva, tyttö, poika, tonttu, tähti, pupu, kissa, kau, tiikeri, kala, kotka, kuumaa, ei saa, ei satu, se on, siinä, näin, siellä, vesi, suihkuttaa, kauhea, kukka, kakku, minä, bye, hi, o boy and o dear." (Mostly Finnish, with a few English greetings and exclamations!) Apparently the first time my Mom ever heard me praying out loud, she found me in my bedroom interceding on behalf of "pupuja" (bunnies).

Recently, I decided I wanted to put together a timeline of significant events in my life and in Göran's (my husband's) life. I have a sense of our respective biographies, the major twists, turns and decisions that have made us into who we are today. So I began by simply jotting down a rough outline of the major life milestones and events from memory. This was a good exercise, if only because it demonstrated the limits of unaided memory. There were many things I remembered only vaguely, and important events in my life that I remembered but couldn't remember exactly when they happened.

For instance, I remember being in a major car accident with my mom. In her book of remembrance Mom recorded that it took place on November 6, 1975. "Jukka hit his knee, Joseph got a little bump on his head, I hit my head and elbow. No-one was seriously hurt - but our car was demolished.... It was a terrible experience." It was a terrible experience. I remember weeping when I saw the occupants of the other car being helped out by paramedics, and saw a little girl with blood all over her face. What I hadn't remembered was when the accident had occurred. I would have placed it in 1971 (after I started the fourth grade), but it had actually taken place four years later, shortly after I had been ordained a deacon. I also hadn't remembered that my little brother Joe, an infant at the time, had been in the accident as well.

Going through Mom's books of remembrance, and through my own files and correspondence has not only helped me construct a timeline of my life more accurately, but it has also given me unexpected perspectives on myself, on the kind of person I was. I was apparently a very sensitive kid, with a goofy sense of humor. I was very open with my emotions. Apparently I cried a lot. I also prayed a lot. I was surprised to see how frequently my mother took note of times when I had encountered some hurt or disappointment, and my response to the situation had always been to immediately go to my room and pray. I had long forgotten this part of my growing up, but Mom took note.

Junior high was the time I remember being most difficult growing up. My mom remembered me frequently coming home from school in tears. My internalized self-image from that time of my life was that I was unpopular, not well liked. I pretty much stuck with three very close friends -- Bill McAlister, Ed Kaufman, and Erik Carlson -- without whom I can't imagine how I would have survived junior high.

During that time Mom wrote in her journal, "[Jukka] has courage against his peers and I'm thankful for that." She kept a report that one of my teachers had sent her of "comments [about John] made by his classmates." Here's a few that were typical:
A very serious person whom people need to listen to [to] completely understand.
John is the type of person I wish I had the strength to live. He seems to possess confidence in himself.
John's a pretty bizarre guy. He can be really funny. His parrot jokes used to crack me up. He has very definite and well defined values which he is willing to share with others. At the same time he is open-minded and accepts the way others think.
John is a person who sticks to his morals regardless of any peer pressure. He's intelligent but doesn't make others know it. Being kind and sincere he never hesitates to help another person. Being a Mormon isn't easy with a lot of peer pressure, yet John doesn't let this affect the way he expresses his opinions.
It surprised me to see those comments lovingly preserved in the book of remembrance. I didn't remember being admired; I mostly remembered feeling alone and vulnerable. Even though my parents (and apparently my peers) saw me as religiously devout and self-confident, I didn't feel either.

Around the time that Mom and I were involved in that terrible car crash, I was experiencing the beginnings of a psychic car crash. The onset of puberty was setting the stage for a terrible internal conflict between my religious sense of self -- the self that I projected publicly -- and my sexuality -- which I kept hidden and which became more and more of a crisis for me as time went on.

Mom once reminded me that as soon as the car stopped spinning in the aftermath of that November 1975 car crash, the first thing I thought to do was to pray. Prayer was my first resort in dealing with my sexuality too, though seemingly to no avail. I was praying for help to overcome it, for it to go away. I didn't really get an answer to my prayers until the summer of 1986, after I had given up all hope of "changing," after I had nearly committed suicide, when all I was left with was to confess to God that despite all my efforts, I was gay. It was only then that God spoke to me clearly, giving me guidance about where to go and what to do from there.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the challenges facing LGBT Mormon youth today. The challenges today are so different, and yet also the same. Some aspects of that experience seem to heighten the pressures and raise the stakes in terrifying ways, but in other ways, LGBT Mormon teens have more resources available to them than I could ever have dreamed of. It was helpful to me to read these notes in my Mom's journal, if only to get a sense of perspective about what LGBT Mormon teens are facing today.

Why did it take so long for my prayers to be answered? Why did it take more than a decade of painful struggle? Maybe it is just that there are no shortcuts to maturity and self-understanding. Maybe it is that the process of struggle itself is what refines us. If my fifty-one-year-old self could magically go back in time to my twelve-year-old self and tell him all "the answers," it wouldn't have mattered anyway. It wouldn't have saved me any struggle, because it was not having the answers that would help me, it was finding them.

What could help at that time in my life me was actually what I already had -- though it was hard for me to see it.

I had parents and friends who were trying to tell me about the good they saw in me. They saw a person who trusted God to help him deal with his challenges. They saw a person who was willing to be weird and unique and who was willing to stand for what he believed was right when nobody else was willing to stand with him. They saw a person who was kind and cared for others, and listened to and was considerate of others, even when he disagreed with them.

The challenge was learning to trust God enough to accept answers from him that were not what I was expecting to receive. The challenge was to apply my strong sense of morality to what I was beginning to learn about myself as a young gay man. The challenge was to listen to myself, and show myself the same compassion I tried to show others.

All the strengths that others recognized in me were there to help me sort through things, even though it was difficult for me to recognize them in myself. It just took time.

My advice to LGBT youth today would be simply that I can't offer you answers, because no answer can make sense to you unless you've wrested it for yourself, through whatever struggles and trials lie ahead. But you have strengths in you that you may not be able to see, and you have the ability to find those answers and make them work for you. And in time, you'll be able to use those strengths not only to help yourself, but to help others along the way.

When I came out to my parents, it took them time to wrestle with that information and come to a place of understanding and peace about it. It took Mom much less time than Dad. The weekend I flew out to Boston to meet with my parents and talk to them about it, Mom says she knew I was OK by the time they were taking me back to the airport to return to Minnesota. She told me that the Holy Spirit spoke to her in an audible voice as we were riding in the car to the airport, reassuring her that her son would be OK. Perhaps part of the reason Mom could know this, part of the reason she could receive that assurance, is because she had been writing love letters to me since before I was born. She had been watching me and telling me stories about my strengths and my gifts in a language that only my mother could know. That gift of memory Mom gave me, reminding me of what I have known since childhood, and what she knew that I knew, of God, of the Church and of myself and of my path through life is a gift I'll carry with me for the rest of this life and into the next.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The 184th Semi-Annual General Conference

Once again, I was able to enjoy every session of General Conference during conference weekend. (Some years I have had to miss sessions and then watch them later in the week.) There is something particularly powerful for me about gathering for conference when the Saints are gathering. 

The Saturday morning session and the Sunday morning session I gathered with other members of my ward at our ward meeting house in south Minneapolis, and participated in the potluck luncheons our ward traditionally holds in between the morning and afternoon sessions. After the potlucks, the introvert in me drove me home where I watched the remaining sessions on my computer. But I was incredibly grateful for interactions with other members of my ward that were sometimes serious, sometimes lighthearted, always genuine and loving. My former Bishop R. Chris Barden (who now lives in a different ward) surprised me with a handshake and a hug. His wife had been an angel of mercy to me on several occasions, including during a very meaningful visit at the hospital after my brain surgery. Tears came to his eyes as I asked him to send my love to his wife, and as he shared with me what it had meant to her to get to know me better.

For good or for ill, more than ever before I also experienced this conference in and through social media. Affirmation leaders committed to monitor social media during conference, so that if there were painful issues Affirmation members were dealing with, we could be there to help process. In general it seems that Affirmation members had a largely positive conference experience. We will be sponsoring a post-conference discussion on line this Wednesday (my birthday!), something that is becoming an Affirmation tradition.

I actually tweeted some of my conference highlights, including:
BKP: the true success of the Gospel will be measured by the spiritual strength of individual members 
Uchtdorf: nourish and encourage all light no matter how bright  
Christofferson: God neither compels nor abandons us 
Neil Andersen: opposition sends seekers of truth to their knees for answers 
Jörg Klebingat: make repentance your lifestyle of choice... and become really good at forgiving! 
Eduardo Gavarret: "I always knew it would be easier to follow the Savior with [my spouse] at my side" 
Holland: Jesus loved the impoverished in an extraordinary way. He was born to two of them. As an adult Jesus was homeless. 
Holland: Don't withhold because you think the poor brought their plight upon themselves 
Holland: The Kingdom of God is coming to deliver the poor. May we be the fulfillment of that prophecy. 
Craig Christensen: a testimony is more like a tree than a light switch  
Dean Davies: caring for the poor and needy is an essential gospel doctrine  
The Law of the Fast: if we want our cries for help to be answered, we must answer the cries of others  
Monson: "Wherever we go, our priesthood goes with us." 
Ballard: Latter-day Saints are always free to ask difficult questions. After all, that's what Joseph Smith did. 
Kacher: "Importance of acting for myself, and not forsaking my agency to others" 
Kacher: "No room for honest inquiry? Ask the young boy (Joseph Smith)." 
A fair amount of commentary on LGBT social media naturally focused on Dallin H. Oaks' talk in the Saturday afternoon session about the First Commandment, and its implication for social engagement on contentious social issues, specifically the issue of same-sex marriage. Many gratefully noted his statement that "we should be persons of goodwill toward all, rejecting persecution… based on…differences in sexual orientation," though some also expressed concern that his continuing denunciation of same-sex marriage might have the opposite effect intended by this statement on many members of the Church. What I found most noteworthy about Elder Oaks' talk were the four words he used to qualify the injunction to "hold out for right and wrong": "as they understand it." A call for humility to accompany any stand based on religious or moral conviction?

Dieter F. Uchtdorf's talk, significantly delivered during the Priesthoood Session, on the human tendency to project faults and flaws on others while failing to look inward was one of the most profound. Our ability to look inward, he taught, is the "key to personal wisdom and lasting change." No one is exempt from the need to daily engage in scripture study, prayer, service and sacrifice. He noted examples in the Church of "outward righteousness" accompanied by distressing signs of inward corruption. "Those who do not want to grow and change," he warned, "may find the Church increasingly irrelevant to their lives." "If our weaknesses remain obscured in the shadows, Christ cannot heal them." He urged members of the Church to use the scriptures and General Conference talks not to condemn others, but as a "mirror" to examine the state of our own soul.

Henry B. Eyring's talk in the third general session was my favorite, because of his nuanced discussion of one of the core doctrines of the Restoration: personal revelation. "Revelation begins, ends and continues," he said, "as we receive personal revelation." Never before have I seen in a conference talk such a strong statement about the right and responsibility of every Church member to seek and receive a personal, "confirming witness" of any and every Church  injunction and teaching. He described seeking personal confirmation as something "we all must [do]." A personal search for and concrete efforts to achieve holiness must also accompany any such search. Charity toward others, letting virtue garnish our thoughts, a personal commitment to studying the word of God and praying daily, were all prerequisites to any successful search for personal revelation. And patience. His talk ended with the blessing, "I pray that you will receive the confirming revelation you need."

Something Pres. Eyring said in his talk came back to me with force at the end of conference. As Pres. Monson said, "I invoke the blessings of Heaven on each of you," the Spirit descended on me with a force that overcame me. I was grateful to be at home, observing conference in private, I was so overcome. I fell to my knees in prayer, sobbing.

"Don't take lightly  the love you feel for the prophet," Pres. Eyring had said. "It is more than just hero worship." I had in that moment an undeniable testimony of God's concrete presence in the world today, represented in this mortal man, subject to all of the frailties and infirmities every human being is subject to.

That testimony, more than any specific words spoken in conference, was and is and will be what matters most to me here and in Eternity.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

General Conference: Text and Subtext

My ward has a long-standing tradition of watching General Conference together at our chapel, and then having a potluck luncheon in between the morning and afternoon sessions, Saturday and Sunday. So this year I decided to watch the morning sessions at the chapel with my ward, hang out for the potluck, and then head home to watch the afternoon sessions via the Internet.

Today I'm so glad I did. I have the most excellent ward. While waiting in line for food, a group of us had a stimulating conversation about why School of Rock is a most excellent film. (Highly recommended by a former ward choir director!) Lunch-time conversation began with a discussion of what each of us considered the spiritual highlights of the first session of conference. (I liked Boyd K. Packer's statement that "the success of the Gospel is measured by the spiritual strength of individual members"; D. Todd Christofferson's reflections on the relationship between individual agency and divine grace; and Chi Hong Wong's incredible use of the story of the man afflicted with palsy as an analogy of how the Church works at its best. More about Elder Wong's talk later.) But it progressed from that to light-hearted banter about the merits of certain caffeinated soft-drinks (say, Cherry Coke vs. Dr. Pepper; neither of which anyone seemed to think violate the Word of Wisdom), and whether the Jamaican jerk chicken served at Marla's Caribbean Cuisine qualifies as genuine Jamaican jerk chicken. But I digress... Except to say that even being out in my ward as gay and in a committed same-sex relationship, I feel genuinely loved, included, and respected by every member of my ward, and I actually began to weep as I was walking home, thinking about the marvelous qualities of these people who are so guileless, faithful, and Christ-like. They love me and I love them.

If there was a talk I wrestled with, it was the one delivered by Lynn G. Robbins, not because of the explicit content of the talk itself, all of which I agreed with, but because of a possible subtext of the talk. Since President Robbins' talk remained confined to generalities and never gave any specific examples of where in present-day society these general principles would specifically be put into practice, it's hard to comment other than to say that I agree, peer pressure is a terrible reason to change your opinion of anything, much less your deeply held religious convictions. But if, perchance, growing social acceptance of same-sex marriage is what he was referring to by the term "society's inappropriate behavior," and for which members and leaders of the LDS Church risk being accused of "not living in the 20th century" or being "bigoted," I would like to point out that few if any of the people I know who have changed their views on this particular subject have done so because they are being subjected to peer pressure. Rather, they are changing their views because of what they are coming to learn about gay and lesbian family members and friends, and about the powerful, positive impact that marriage equality has on these individuals. They are changing their views because they have come to understand that legally recognizing the marriages of gay couples may in fact be the right, compassionate, moral thing to do.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks' talk on the subject of love and civil discourse courteously and directly addressed the subject of same-sex marriage. Clearly the talk was given from the perspective of someone who believes same-sex marriage is wrong. But that was not the central point of his talk. "Love is the very essence of the Gospel," he affirmed. And love is challenging to practice because people disagree about things -- like same-sex marriage. The Devil is "the father of contention." "Wise men turn away from wrath." "The wrath of men worketh not the righteousness of God." Elder Oaks correctly advised Latter-day Saints not to allow themselves to be cowed by pejoratives like "bigot." (Nor, presumably, ought they to use such pejoratives.) But what I found most interesting in his talk was a particular turn of phrase. The Saints ought to "hold out for right and wrong as they understand it." Is it possible that those four words are an acknowledgment of the fundamental humility that ought to undergird any social engagement?

Oughtn't love and respect for the truth, as President Dieter F. Uchtdorf emphasized in his talk, be our ultimate quest, wherever we stand in relation to such painful issues? "It seems to be a trait of humanity," Pres. Uchtdorf stated, "to assume we are right, even when we are wrong." He warned of the way we tend to construct for ourselves "raft[s] poorly pieced together from our own biases."

The talk I most loved in today's general sessions was that by Chi Hong Wong. The story of the man with palsy became a powerful metaphor of how the Church is supposed to work, a metaphor he expanded by placing it in a modern day Church context, involving a member of the Relief Society, a member of an Elders Quorum, a youthful Aaronic Priesthood holder, and a full time missionary. Making the Church accessible to those most in need of help required creative solutions (taking out the roof and lowering the man down rather than bringing him through the front door), it required each individual using his or her unique skills, and working in a harmony achieved by practice and listening! He emphasized Church leaders listening to those to whom and with they minister, in order to serve more effectively! And he concluded that the faith described in this story was a story not merely of individual faith (not just the faith of the man seeking healing!), but collective faith. He spoke of Jesus seeing their faith. He spoke of the reward of our combined faith.

The Spirit certainly gave me a subtext for understanding that particular talk, and what it might say about making the Church more accessible to LGBT people. Maybe faithful Saints need to find creative ways to tear out some roofs, if the doorways are being blocked.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland hit it when he said, "I may not be my brother's keeper, but I am my brother's brother." A call for us to view each other not through the lens of "other" but as sister/brother.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Gay Dad to his Son and Son-in-Law on their Wedding Day

It’s been an honor for us to watch Glen mature from being a boy to being a man. He’s become a pretty amazing man. He’s smart, and he works hard, and he’s concerned about others. He’s chosen the career he’s chosen partly because he wants to make his life’s work about making life better for others. And Glen loves his family, his mom, his sisters, and his two foster dads. And now he’s starting a family of his own.

I’ve been thinking the last few days about what I would say to our son and to his husband on this day. I hope I’m not embarrassing Glen by telling everyone here that one year after he moved out of our house and started living on his own in campus housing at the University of Minnesota, he called me on the phone one day and said, “I’m starting to learn that some of those things you were trying to tell me all those years are actually true.” That is music to any parent’s ears, as all the parents here will attest. So I would like to try to offer one last piece of advice.

People generally get married because they want to be happy. They want happiness for themselves. They see happy married couples, and they think, I want that kind of happiness. And there is happiness in marriage, a very special kind of happiness. But dig beneath the surface of any marriage and you will also discover a certain amount of anguish. But it is a very special kind of anguish. And that special happiness of marriage and that special anguish are interrelated. This is a mystery, but it is true.

That anguish comes from the fact that you enter into a marriage thinking that this marriage is about your own happiness. But marriage has a special way of teaching you that the highest form of happiness comes from making others happy. And the anguish comes from the painful ways that we learn this lesson. And there’s no guarantee that we will learn this lesson. Whether you learn it or not will be up to the choices you make.

As you know, I am a born-again Mormon. (And Glen has always found that confusing. Gay? Mormon? How do those things co-exist in the same person? And I always forgave Glen for not being able to figure that out because that’s another mystery.) But I am what I am because God spoke to me. And God spoke to me at a particular moment in my life, after a particularly difficult moment in my relationship with Göran. There was a moment in Göran’s and my relationship when we didn’t know if our relationship would survive. It was one of those moments of deep anguish that can come to any marriage. And Göran and I knelt down together in that little hammock room upstairs, and we exchanged wedding rings again, and we made promises to each other again. And in that moment I realized, this marriage had to be about his happiness first. And it was after I had learned that lesson – really learned it deep down in my bones – that I was finally able to hear the voice of God. And I can honestly say that having learned that lesson, Göran and I are happier today than we ever have been before in our lives, and I expect that happiness to grow every day and every year of our lives, and even beyond this life, because, as the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed, life has a logic that points us beyond our own mortality.

Glen and Will, we are here because we love you. All of us who are gathered here today are here because we love you. And the people who love you here most of all are the ones who have the word “parent” connected with the way that we love you. I know that from knowing Julie and Paulette and Rob and Göran. Parents have a secret language that only parents understand. And there are things that parents see that only parents can see.

Some of us parents have travelled further than others to be here. And I’m not just talking about the distance your mom Julie traveled from Iowa. For you non-gay parents here, I know it’s a rude shock to learn that your beloved child is gay. I saw my parents go through that. I watched them struggle with that and eventually come to some deeper understanding about that. And my parents and, Will and Glen, your biological parents, were willing to travel that distance because of the unique love that a parent has for a child.

 And Glen has two gay foster dads, partly because he requested gay foster parents, and partly because the State of Minnesota agreed that it was a good idea for a gay teen to have parents who could be role models to him. But we have been your parents not because we are gay, but because we have the same quality that all your parents have. We love you deeply. We love you enough that we’d give our lives for you. And we learned that love from marriage, from those particular lessons that marriage teaches a person.

Parents don’t always give the best advice. For example, I think one thing Göran and I told you was that it was very, very, very unlikely that you would end up marrying the first person you dated seriously. We told you you would need to date a number of different guys, and take some time to learn about yourself and learn about others before you could make a decision as important as the decision of who you were going to marry. And here you are! Oh, well.

 I’m glad you disregarded that bit of advice. Listening to others, but always, always, always trusting your own hearts will take you far in life.

So don’t listen to every bit of advice we offer. But you can bank on this piece of advice I’ve offered now, today. Glen, put Will first and you will be happy. Will, put Glen first, and you will be happy. You will both be very, very happy.

Always know  that  we love you!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Affirmation: Zion or Bust

The Affirmation conference began for me Thursday morning, as I arrived at Randall Thacker's mom's home in Taylorsville, UT to pick up some supplies and then head to downtown Salt Lake for a lunch and some pre-conference meetings. When I rang the doorbell, I was pleasantly surprised to see the door answered by Adry Sán Román. I had known that two members of Affirmation Mexico would be attending the conference in Salt Lake, but it only really sank in when I saw them live and in person on the threshold with huge smiles on their faces. They greeted me with the first of many hugs at a conference whose woof and warp are hugs.

I have a souvenir to take back to me in Minnesota, a small Mexican flag that Adry, with flair and humor, planted on the hood of my car, so that everyone would know I was chauffeuring ambassadors of Affirmation Mexico. 

We spent some time exploring downtown Salt Lake together, which was a joy for three reasons. First, I really miss the friends I made at the Affirmation conference in  Mexico City last February, and reunions are always incredibly happy. Somehow, your time apart only makes you realize how precious your time together is. Second, I love practicing my Spanish! Third, this was Adry's and Francisco's first time ever in the United States, and their first time in Salt Lake. Francisco told me that for many Mexican Mormons it was a dream to be able to visit the center of Mormondom. Watching the excitement and wonder in their faces was like seeing these landscapes for the first time again.

As I  was driving them around Adry would share with me his philosophical and theological ruminations about the relationship between mind, body and spirit, usually some mixture of New Age energetic theory and Mormon theology. Francisco and I sang in the Affirmation choir together. He has this fine, operatic voice, and he loves to sing. After going to the parents' social in Draper, on the drive back to Salt Lake, he would spontaneously burst into song, mostly favorite LDS hymns, and I would join in with him. I'll miss singing with  Francisco.

I was in charge of media relations, so the first day of the conference I was a bit on edge, constantly watching my cell phone for calls or text messages from reporters. But after responding to a request for information from the Salt Lake Tribune, setting up and managing interviews with the Deseret News, and sorting out a communications snafu with ABC 4 news, my job was basically done. Unlike last year when I was on my own to handle media relations, this year I was assisted by PR savvy Dave  Schefcik who had helped out earlier that week with a media alert, and who was able to field requests from Fox 13 news reporters on the last day of conference. So I was able to relax and just enjoy conference most of Saturday and Sunday. My experience, I guess, was not atypical, thanks to a plethora of skilled and committed volunteers. We got some great media coverage.

In the three years since the Kirtland Conference, Affirmation has arguably put behind it its reputation as a predominantly post-Mormon organization in favor of being viewed as a "Mormon-normative" organization. Proof of this were concerns expressed at the conference about whether Affirmation was sufficiently welcoming to individuals who desired no affiliation with the LDS Church -- this despite the fact that 6 out of our 8 keynote speakers identified as ex-Mormon, and despite the fact that the "affinity group" break-out session included a group for "Faith Transition/Former Mormons" as well as for "Active LDS."

I posted yesterday about why I think it is not helpful to exclude people on the basis of labels like "ex-Mormon" or "post-Mormon," but to focus, rather, on fostering a healthy spiritual process, that protects individual agency and autonomy. Individuals who identify as ex-Mormon or post-Mormon must have an equal place in the organization alongside active or believing LDS. There shouldn't be any religious tests for membership. But Affirmation cannot fulfill its mission or potential as an organization unless "Mormon-ness" is in at least some sense normative for the organization. If it is not self-evident why an "LGBT Mormon" organization should in some more-than-nominal sense be a "Mormon" organization, I can at least cite Affirmation's founding documents. The Charter states the conviction that being gay or lesbian "can be consistent with and supported by the Gospel of Jesus Christ," and that a central goal of the organization is "to work for the understanding and acceptance of gays and lesbians as full, equal and worthy persons within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." I'm not sure what sense the Charter makes in the absence of members who are committed to LDS doctrine and the LDS Church. Non-Mormons or ex-Mormons can and should benefit from the work of Affirmation, but that work needs to be carried on in a way that does not eclipse the religious purpose of the organization.

Almost all official meetings at this year's conference (and the previous three conferences) began and ended with prayer, consistent with the history of an international organization that was founded in Los Angeles in 1979 after the organization's leaders "[knelt] in prayer and [asked] the Lord for guidance." Singing LDS hymns, organizing meetings where members can share their testimonies, engaging in scripture study, and holding devotionals or even organizing attendance at local LDS wards are the kinds of things that, for me, are a sine qua non for the organization. There's no rule that conference attendees have to participate in such activities, but an Affirmation conference that includes no such activities would unlikely be a conference I would consider worth attending. For me the heart and soul of the last four conferences has been the opportunities to pray together and testimony meeting/spiritual story-sharing time.

Darius Gray's talk was, I believe, one of the most important talks delivered at an Affirmation Conference in recent memory. It was important first because of the attention that it drew to issues of race and racism in the LDS context, and because race privilege is something Affirmation needs to think about as part of the process of putting its own house in order. But it was also important because it presented what I believe to be the theological framework most relevant to the work and mission of Affirmation, consistent with an orthodox Mormon understanding of priesthood authority and continuing revelation (the two preeminent concerns in relation to issues faced by the LGBT Mormon community). Gray presented a detailed account of his own wrestle with and search for answers to the problem of how a just and loving God could allow the Church to keep in place a policy barring blacks from the priesthood which was fundamentally unjust and theologically wrong. The  answer Gray eventually discerned was that God did not institute the ban, men did, but God permitted it to remain in place as a test of righteousness.

Gray's account of his wrestle with this question was intensely personal. In fact, he shared details at the Affirmation conference that he had never shared publicly before, a mark of the depth of his empathy with his LGBT listeners. He found answers to the difficulties he faced -- both as an individual believer, but also as the President of the Genesis Branch -- through personal revelation. He sought (and received) First Presidency permission before publicly teaching that personal revelation, and his method of teaching it was in conformity with conditions established by the First Presidency, a mark of his respect for priesthood authority as duly constituted in the Church.

Gray did not draw explicit parallels between the pre-1978 priesthood ban and the current challenges LGBT people face in the Church. He left it to his listeners to discern if and how the teaching was relevant to them. However, he described his theodicy in relation to the suffering experienced by blacks both in the Church and in the larger society as relevant to the suffering experienced by LGBT people in the Church.

I had my own spiritual experience in conjunction with his talk. I felt filled with pure light and warmth, and had what Joseph Smith described as a "flood of intelligence," something I'm continuing to process in the days since the conference. I spoke with others at the conference who had similar spiritual experiences.

Personal revelation was a theme that was repeatedly brought up in stories I heard during the conference, including in the talks of other keynote speakers and performers. Individuals who are currently active in the Church and individuals who have left the Church alike described praying for greater understanding and for guidance, and receiving answers to prayers that affirmed that they were "OK," that God accepted them as they were, and didn't have a problem with them being gay or transgender, or seeking an intimate relationship. Opportunities for story-telling and testimony sharing took place not just in formal talks, but in the "affinity groups" that met Saturday morning (for women, men, bisexuals, transgender people, youth, elders, people of color, families and friends, faith transition/former Mormons, millenials and university students, church priesthood and auxiliary leaders, individuals in mixed orientation marriages, married/partnered LGBT people, and active LDS).

The Active LDS (including Prepare) group was attended by 30-40 people. The lion's share of the discussion consisted of individuals describing their church affiliation and status. We then also had general discussion about issues related to the environment for LGBT people in their respective wards and stakes, how individuals coped with difficult environments and what kinds of support they felt they needed. There was also an interesting discussion of what people believe to be their "life calling." I asked the question, "How many of you believe you have a life calling?" Virtually every hand went up. There was also some discussion of Darius Gray's talk -- which most participants in the group seemed to view very positively. The discussion became quite emotional at times, especially as one individual discussed her testimony of the Gospel, and some of the pain she'd experienced in a rejecting ward.

The Testimony/Spiritual Story-Sharing meeting took place Saturday afternoon. Justin Keyes was polite but firm in timing the testimonies/stories so that they would be no longer than two to three minutes each. A gentle bell sounded from his iPhone at the two minute mark. Everyone who bore testimony/shared stories conscientiously limited their remarks to the allotted time, which was a beautiful collective gesture of consideration for others. Justin invited straight, cisgender allies to let LGBT individuals take the podium first, since many of us have restrictions placed on our membership and the Affirmation conference is one of the few opportunities we have to publicly bear testimony in a gathering of Saints. I had made a plea for a longer testimony meeting than the ones we've done in the past. The testimony meetings are usually intense. The presence of the Spirit is palpable. The yearning to share is deep, and the meetings have usually ended with a long line of people turned away. The meeting this year was no exception. But perhaps it was good to keep it to one hour, to ensure ample time for the outing to the "This Is the Place" monument, and for lunch and dinner, which gave people more time to connect and share stories one-on-one.

Sunday morning, a large contingent gathered in Temple Square at the Tabernacle to attend the live Music and the Spoken Word presentation. Church public affairs arranged for us to be seated in a large, reserved section at the front of the Tabernacle (I've never been that close to the stage!). Before the show starts, it is a tradition for groups of special visitors to be introduced to the audience. We were introduced as "Affirmation," so I suppose folks who were there had to be in the know to recognize that the Tabernacle Choir was hosting "LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends." There were so many of us present that we filled up five or six rows in the center section and then several more rows in the section to the right. When the announcer introduced "Affirmation," he actually gasped "wow!" under his breath when he saw the number of us that stood up.

Fred Bowers and I sat together. It was the first time Fred had attended a performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The show was well done, though nothing really moved me until the end, after the recording was complete, and the choir sang "God Be With You Till We Meet Again." It's become an Affirmation tradition to sing that song at the end of every conference. When they finally closed, and Fred and I stood up, we were both wiping tears from our eyes.

As we started filing out of the Tabernacle, an Affirmation member tapped me on the shoulder and introduced me to two women who had been sitting in front of  the section reserved for Affirmation. "He can answer your questions!" she said, gesturing to me to talk to the women. One of the women said, "Can you tell me what Affirmation is for? What you do?"

I said, "We provide support to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons, and their families and friends in navigating the challenges that are unique to being lesbian, gay, bi, transgender and Mormon." (I figured I better say the whole darn thing, because I was betting the acronym LGBT would go right over their heads!) I elaborated a bit by sharing something of my own faith and struggles and talking about how much it meant to me to have a community like Affirmation where I could experience unconditional love, openness and acceptance. I was getting a bit teary. Adry wandered up, and I introduced him to the women and said, "I want you to meet my brother who is visiting us from Mexico. I love him so much!" He smiled and shook hands with them, and I could see that they were starting to tear up too. One of the women said, "How can I find out more about Affirmation?" I replied "," which she dutifully wrote down on her program before we parted.

The night before the first day of the conference, I had a dream. Adry and Francisco were in the dream, as were many other Affirmation friends and loved ones. We were on a long journey through the desert, and we were trying to find a place to stay. We found a building that was stripped bare and too dilapidated to serve as safe shelter. We were thirsty. Trevor Cook found a water fountain near by. Unfortunately, when I took a closer look at the water fountain, I realized that the water was polluted, and we couldn't drink it, so we decided to leave and continue our journey on, in hopes of finding something better. We found a highway that made it easier to walk.

The dream made perfect sense to me. It was definitely about Affirmation. We are a community on a journey, through an inhospitable desert. We need shelter, and we need the living, pure waters. (That image in my dream sort of reminds me of Nephi's dream of the Tree of Life, and the pure waters of life flowing from it.) The dilapidated house and the polluted water fountain perhaps represented the things we're tempted to settle for that are less than the complete redemption, the complete reconciliation we seek. We might settle for less because the journey seems interminable, because we're thirsty and exhausted and we're not sure if there's water or shelter ahead. In my dream, even though we still lacked shelter and water, we found a road that made it easier for us to travel, maybe a reminder that God doesn't just magically transport us to the place we need to go, but he gives us strength to go without if we need to, and makes a way for us to get there, to find true shelter, and true and pure water, if we are willing to walk. In those circumstances, it takes courage to insist on "Zion or bust."

Randall Thacker, Todd Richardson and I have often said to each other that we are on a long journey. There were several times during the conference when Randall said something to the effect of, "If you think that the change you hope for will happen quickly, you will be sorely disappointed. Be prepared for a long, long, long, LONG journey." I don't know how long it will be. It may be shorter than many of us think. But however long or short the road is, it will take faith to get where we're going, and it will be worth it when we get there because it took faith to get there.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Disillusionment and Inconclusive Data

This past weekend at the Affirmation Conference in Salt Lake City, there was a consistent, golden thread connecting all of the keynote addresses, both Friday night and Saturday night. That thread was personal story and personal revelation.

Darius Gray, an African-American Mormon filmmaker, broadcast journalist, and leader of the Genesis group, shared a very personal account of a personal revelation that transformed his understanding of the history of Mormon attitudes toward race. Jazz singer Spencer Day used song to describe and document his journey out of Mormonism. Jeff Benedict's interview with Clark Johnson, a gay Mormon who was part of the original cast of the Broadway production of The Book of Mormon: the Musical, explored Clark's 15-year-long struggle to reconcile his LDS faith with his sexuality, ending in his decision to break with the Church. Spencer Stout and Dustin Reeser ("The Home Depot Boys") described the process that led them to accept a same-sex relationship as right for them (also ending in a break with the Church). Eri Hayward discussed her transition from male to female, and her father Ed discussed his, and his wife's, journey from disbelief to acceptance of their transgender daughter.

Examined superficially, some of these stories seem to run at odds with each other. Darius Gray and Ed Hayward, for instance, described personal processes that ultimately kept them rooted in the LDS Church, while Spencer Day, Clark Johnson, Spencer Stout, Dustin Reeser and Eri Hayward described personal processes that ended in cutting ties with the LDS Church  (even as they continued to identify with some aspects of Mormonism and as they continue to treasure ties to family and friends who are still a part of the LDS community).

I and other conference organizers in fact observed very bifurcated responses to the different keynote talks.

In the immediate aftermath of Darius Gray's talk that evening and the following morning, I heard from about 40 conference participants who described his talk as "powerful" and "inspiring." A number of individuals I spoke to described having spiritual experiences as they listened to the talk. Some described these spiritual experiences during the "Testimony Meeting/Spiritual Story Sharing" meeting on Saturday afternoon. I myself had an experience of feeling filled with light and warmth during his talk, and found his words triggering rich and comforting reflections on my own situation as an excommunicated gay man with a testimony of the Gospel.

On the other hand, in the debriefing session held by conference organizers after the conference, there were reports of individuals who complained that Bro. Gray's talk was "too religious," or "too churchy," and who even found his words "offensive." Some refused to attend the event or walked out of it. A number of those individuals, however, felt reassured after Saturday evening's event, which mostly featured stories of individuals who had left the  LDS Church. They expressed relief that the stories of leaving Mormonism had restored "balance," and left them feeling better about the conference as a whole.

On the other hand, at least one individual who had been deeply appreciative of Bro. Gray's talk, felt dissatisfied and let down by the Saturday evening event. The spiritual high experienced during Bro. Gray's talk and during the Testimony Meeting of Saturday afternoon had been dissipated and deflated by the Saturday night presentations.

During our debriefing discussion, one conference organizer suggested that the positive and negative responses were indicative that we were "doing things right"! Affirmation's stated values include providing a nonjudgmental space where individuals can find healing and can work out answers to difficult spiritual questions and challenges on their own. Affirmation does not prescribe any one path for anyone, but rather makes space for individuals to find their own path. We make space for faith, and for connection to LDS teaching and to the LDS Church, but we also honor individuals' decisions to make other choices that they find more spiritually nurturing. The fact that we had presented different stories at the conference that provoked dramatically different responses was a sign that we were accomplishing what we had set out to accomplish.

Well, that's one (perhaps reassuring) way of looking at it, though I think still a rather superficial way. Reflecting on the different stories I heard, it occurred to me that the stories look very different if we focus on process rather than outcome.

Focusing on the "end" of the story is extremely problematic if you think about it, because any story ever being told by a person about him or herself always only reflects where that person is as of the telling of the story. For example, as I listened to Clark Johnson's story, it occurred to me that 15 years ago, my story would have sounded very similar. In fact, you can link here to a version of my story, published in 1997, which ends with the statement: "God has freed me in two ways in the last decade of my life: God freed me of the Mormon Church, and God freed me to come out of the closet and accept myself as a gay man. Thanks be to God, I can breathe again." At that point in my life, I would have been shocked and appalled if someone had told me that less than I decade later I would find myself returning to the Church and yearning for full membership in it. But here we are.

That is not to suggest that there is something truer or righter about my journey back to the Church than Clark Johnson's journey out of the Church. Again, keep in mind that my journey is not over yet.

I just turned fifty, and I'm planning to live another fifty years or so. But imagine I were to die shortly after completing this essay. Say I die tomorrow. My epitaph would be, "He died having a testimony of the Church." But is my death the end of the story? I would argue it cannot be, neither from the LDS perspective of life after death, nor from an atheist perspective of my death as the final end of me. Because even an atheist would acknowledge that had I lived longer, my views might have evolved or changed. Whatever my endpoint might have been at the time of my death, it could only be viewed as historically contingent. Historians and biographers speculate all the time -- sometimes very contentiously -- about how individuals throughout history might have evolved had they lived longer. This is not just an academic, historical problem, it's a political problem. For instance, in debating constitutional law, we frequently debate the "intent of the founding fathers." What would the founding fathers say about the second amendment if they lived to see the proliferation of weapons far deadlier than they ever imagined in our society? In reflecting on Church history, we often speculate how the Church might have been different if Joseph Smith had not been assassinated in 1844. We could not have such debates if we didn't acknowledge that new information and new experiences can change people, and that where those individuals were at death does not tell us the totality of who and what they were.

So, what if we disregard the "end" of any individual's story (living or dead) as "inconclusive data"? The end of a story is only a hiatus, not a moral. We of course frequently act as if these incomplete stories of ours have a moral. And maybe they do have morals, but, as Darius Gray suggested in his talk, maybe "not what we think."

If we exclude the end of the story from our evaluation of what the story has to teach us, we are forced to focus instead on the process described in the story. And I would argue that if we focus on the process rather than the end, all of these stories -- the "Church-positive" as well as the "Church-negative" stories -- actually are more similar than they are different.

All of these stories had a common element of disillusionment. What I mean by disillusionment is that individuals telling these stories described how a series of experiences or encounters or exposure to new information led them to question and reevaluate and abandon old beliefs or old patterns of thought. What was once accepted as normal might now be viewed as oppressive and unjust. What was once viewed as impossible might now be viewed as necessary.

All of these stories also had a common element of self-empowerment. What I mean by self-empowerment is that individuals telling these stories describe how they came to trust their own ability to discern and make sense of facts. They claimed not only the right but the responsibility to act for themselves as free agents, to make decisions that might disappoint family or friends or the larger society, but that felt truer to the new understandings that emerged in the wake of disillusionment.

All of these stories also had a common element of faith. What I mean by faith is changing one's behavior in a way that feels more life-affirming. It means taking steps into the darkness, without necessarily knowing that one's new course of action will end well. It means being willing to make mistakes or to make sacrifices in order to make way for the possibility of something new and better to emerge.

I would argue that until we experience disillusionment, until we empower ourselves, and until we begin to exercise faith and act as free agents, we are not fully mature beings. When we fail to act out of fear, out of a need to conform, we become stunted. I would also argue that a major cause of depression and suicide stems from the perception that we have no choice, that an intolerable situation is inescapable because we must be wrong, or there is nothing we can do, or anything we do differently from what we're currently doing will only lead to disaster.

So, for instance, a common observation of individuals who had left the Church was that prior to leaving the Church they believed that happiness outside of the Church was impossible. I could relate to this. I experienced a very similar kind of fear. These individuals discovered (and I discovered) that in fact one could be quite happy outside of the Church; that in fact we became happier after leaving the Church than we had been as members of the Church. People who believe that true happiness is only possible within the Church may inevitably be disillusioned.

But I would argue that these necessary steps of disillusionment, self-empowerment and faith don't guarantee us happiness. They make us free agents. But they don't guarantee that all our choices will make us happy. We often feel a rush once we become free agents. It's a heady experience to realize that you can now do things you once thought impossible; to see spread out before you the virtually infinite range of choices that are now available to you. But the rush doesn't last forever, and eventually the choices we make (we can never not make choices) create new obligations and expectations and restraints, that lead us to new cycles of disillusionment, self-empowerment and faith. (Or... if we choose... stasis.)

What I found in my return to the Church is that I had a different kind of testimony based on a depth of experience I hadn't had before. I found that my decisions to practice my faith (by, for instance, living the Word of Wisdom) were decisions I made because I wanted to learn from them, not because I felt obligated to make those decisions. Not because I felt I had no choice. That kind of faith is powerful.

But by definition, it requires that I not begrudge others the right to perceive and to choose differently.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Traveling Without My Honey

Traveling without Göran is less complicated.

No need for cab fare, since I don't mind getting up at 3:30 AM in order to walk 1 mile to the train station to catch a train to the airport in time to catch a 6 AM flight. Actually, I like 6 AM flights. They are generally cheaper.

Without Göran, I generally get wherever it is I need to go faster. I like to walk. I walk fast. I walk up escalators. I walk down them. I prefer stairs to elevators. The walk to the train station is actually feasible since I generally can travel with a few changes of underwear, a few T-shirts, toiletries, a couple of books, my scriptures and my suit. Traveling with Göran is sort of like traveling with Downton Abby's Lady Grantham. Guess who gets to be the valise boy! He will not dispute this.

I prefer not to eat when I travel. When I do eat, it's cheap and quick. I don't need a lot of accessories to travel. I don't buy souvenirs. I don't take a lot of pictures. No music needed, no games on my iPhone. No special royal family issues of People magazine. Just a book. Usually a boring history book. I don't need overhead bin space on a plane.

I have been accused of being a monk. I probably would be, literally, if I didn't have a husband.

Life is cheaper and more logistically easy when you are alone.

But life is not just about logistics and cost.

Life is about connection.

I think that is why, when I was on the verge of joining a monastic order, the revelation that came to me was that I needed to be out in the world, and I needed a life partner to walk through the world with.

When I travel with Göran, kids smile and wave at us, because he smiles, because his clothes are colorful, because there are stuffed animals peeking out of his carry-on bags. Women (and men) compliment him on his sense of flair. Really! Walking down the street with him is sort of like accompanying a celebrity. 

Especially since I have been on the executive committee of Affirmation, I travel alone a lot. But wherever I arrive people always ask, Where is your husband? Wherever I go, I disappoint when I am without him.

Traveling with Göran means having encounters. It means going interesting places (like Sweden and New York City and Disneyland!). It means getting sidetracked on the way. It means stopping to smell the roses (and the coffee!).

Traveling with Göran means insisting on experiencing. It means touching the outside of the plane when I board, for good luck. It means insisting on remembering. It means posing for lots of pictures. It means suitcases that were already heavy when we left are even heavier when we return!

Being married to Göran means having lots more family. It means traveling not just to Utah and California, but to Iowa and Memphis... And having visitors from those places. 

When I travel with Göran, I always have someone holding my hand, someone leaning on my shoulder, someone hugging and kissing me, someone reminding me why I travel, reminding me that we travel because of people, because of family, because the world is beautiful, and because it is meant to be experienced. 

Traveling without Göran is lonely. It's good for feeling dramatic and melancholy. But it's not good. 

Traveling without Göran is like traveling to outer space. I'm only truly grounded after I get home.