Tuesday, January 21, 2014


One of my favorite parts of the UCC (United Church of Christ) Statement of Faith is the part where it says that God "seeks in holy love to save all people from aimlessness and sin."

That word "aimlessness" made me stop and think for a moment. The word doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible -- at least not the King James Version. Yet, thinking about it, it has always seemed right to me. Lives that have been touched by God are, in fact, not aimless. They are full of purpose.

It seems to me that one way of being aimless is to allow ourselves to be distracted by the worries and obsessions that seem to make the world go round.

For instance, I was poking around on Facebook and ran across a link to a YouTube video featuring members of the Westboro Baptist Church explaining why God hates fags. Then I ran across a quote from that guy who vowed to fast until gay marriage was stopped in Utah. That after reading a series of email correspondence expressing concern about growing support for reparative therapy in certain religious circles. And the recent passage of a series of oppressive anti-gay laws in Nigeria. And on. And on.

The facts in themselves may or may not be distressing (depending on your point of view). What is more distressing to me is the tone of voice in which such tales tend to be recounted -- especially in social media. Usually indignant, annoyed, worried or mocking. Often with a rallying cry to "do something!" or to "make your views known!"

It's easy to get caught in the miasma of angst, especially when the stench gets equally pungent on both sides of any given controversy. I don't agree with Trestin Meacham's view of things, for instance, but I guess he must be pretty upset and scared. I'm not sure what else to make of his behavior or his statements. (Assuming I don't just dismiss him as attention hungry... Though hunger for attention seems to drive a lot of media.)

To me, aimlessness would include letting myself get drawn into these brawls. It would include taking the insults and the assaults personally or letting them worry me.

To me, a purposeful life involves listening first to the "still, small voice." A purposeful life begins with prayer, which leads to knowing who we are and what we need to be about. And then staying focused on that.

I'm not saying we need to be unconcerned about hate groups, or political conflict, or misinformation, or injustice or violence. We live in a broken world, so purposeful lives will very much be about devoting ourselves to making that broken world a better place. But our devotion will be more likely to have an impact if in emerges from deeper, more grounded, more thoughtful selves; from the self-knowledge that comes through listening.

When I listen, things come into focus: my husband, our family, our neighbors, my students my church. The people whose lives cross with ours. Taking care of each other.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

How to Recognize Love

The last few weeks have been tough for us. Göran and I came down with a flu a couple of weeks ago, which took us each more than a week to get over. Then, Monday night, Göran started complaining of a blinding headache, and I had to rush him to the emergency room where they treated him and ran some tests to figure out what was going on. We were both exhausted by the ordeal, which it took him a full day to recover from.

In the meantime, it had been snowing. There have been two major snowfalls in the past week, and neither of us were up to getting out and shoveling. Yesterday, I finally had time and energy to do some chores around the house. There were so many neglected chores, it took me a couple of hours. I had "shovel the walk" at the back of my head, mainly because we had a grocery delivery scheduled, and I thought it might be impossible to safely deliver our groceries over the unshoveled sidewalk and up our snow-covered front steps.

Just as I was getting dressed and getting ready to go out and shovel, I heard the doorbell ring, and my heart sank. Our grocery delivery man had arrived. I half expected him to be there to tell me that he couldn't complete the delivery with all the snow blocking the entrance to our home. But when I opened the door, I was amazed by what I saw.

Our front steps, the sidewalk leading up to them, and the entire sidewalk running the length of our house had been shoveled. It was snowing lightly, and a bit of snow had begun to accumulate over the freshly shoveled steps and walk. But it was all still beautifully clear.

The delivery man was there with our groceries, grinning at me through a ski mask.

Whoever had cleared our walk for us had done it just in time for our grocery delivery, and had done it secretly and quietly, without sticking around long enough for me to see who they were or even to thank them.

That is love.

Whoever you are, thank you.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Doubt Your Doubts

Göran and I have had a rough year.

It started with me still recovering from brain surgery to treat a subdural hematoma. Last summer, after a sudden, frightening decline in Göran's health, we learned that he was experiencing kidney failure, and we needed to start him on dialysis and start the process of getting a kidney transplant. (That process has ended up being longer than I had ever imagined it would be. He won't be able to get on the transplant list until next month at the earliest.) Then there were family worries. My mom's decline in health, with Alzheimer's-like symptoms. Our loss of our foster son. A few weeks ago, learning that my sister has been diagnosed with a rare form of sarcoma that does not respond to chemo or radiation therapy.

Then, last night, Göran came home tired, wanting to take a nap. At about 7:30 he got up complaining about a sudden, severe headache. I asked him to rate it on a scale of 1 - 10, and he ultimately rated it at 10. He said that it was a "strange" headache -- at the back of his head and neck -- and there was a "strange" pressure. I rushed him to the nearest emergency room. (Fortunately, we live six blocks from one of the best hospitals in Minnesota, Abbott Northwestern.) When I finally left the emergency room at 1:15 a.m., they were keeping him overnight for monitoring and more tests, and they were talking about meningitis, and as I write this post he's consulting with a neurosurgeon, though as of right now (10:51 A.M.) we're still not sure what it is.

That is the latest in a series of events that explain why I haven't been blogging much the last few months... It's been one family crisis after another. But that's not why I'm blogging now. Certainly not to complain.

Still, when bad things happen, I think it is natural to wonder. Or I should say, I have wondered.


Rhetoric in the LDS community has gotten increasingly vitriolic over the issue of same-sex marriage, which has made this all that much more difficult. Let me see if I can explain this.

I know the Church is true. That has been my polar star the last eight years of my life in trying to navigate a way forward. I've discovered -- partly by following very personal spiritual promptings, as well as through some very special priesthood blessings received from my bishop, from my father, from home teachers, and last fall from an apostle of the Lord -- that I have a unique earthly mission. In order to fulfill that mission, I have needed to stay close to the Church and to exercise a certain kind of faith.

I also know my relationship with my husband is true. That has been the ground beneath my feet, it has been the horizon that has made following that polar star of my Church testimony meaningful. The journey of making sense of my gayness and eventually finding and committing to my husband is a journey I have been making from the time I was old enough to be aware of my sexuality, and old enough to begin to figure out the nature of my yearnings for relationship and family. (Since I was roughly 11.)

Last October there were some strong statements issued over the pulpit by leaders I totally in my heart sustain as prophets, seers and revelators, even though I am excommunicated and don't have the right to raise my arm physically to sustain to them. They made very pointed statements about same-sex marriage. And those statements invoked a chorus of pointed "amens" from Church members. I've been reading a chorus of very pointed statements on-line from LDS Church members.

All I can say about these statements is that they feel very "dogmatic" to me. Let me explain what I mean by "dogmatic." They seem to me to be made in order to sustain some doctrinal point which Church leaders and members feel is at risk here, but it's all speculation made at a very theoretical level, that doesn't take into account the full range of real, lived experience of real people. There are a handful of individuals whose experiences are being taken into account, but they are a small minority within the gay, lesbian and bi community. It's not clear to me that we're not talking about a handful of bisexual people who are projecting their experience on gay men and lesbians. And the experience of the majority is being excluded a priori from consideration. Many have been driven from the Church. And the end result is I hear a lot of people "telling" me about my life, about the meaning of my life, and about the nature of my relationship, and what they are telling me makes no sense at all to me. It doesn't resemble at all my experience of my own life. It doesn't feel respectful. It doesn't feel as if people really want to hear me or know me at all because to do so would threaten some doctrinal commitment they think ought to override everything else. Instead of listening to and ministering to real people, there's just talk being generated as grist for a misguided political adventure.

Because, bottom line, despite all the smoke and noise generated in the debate over marriage, nothing is being taken away from heterosexuals. No rights have been denied. No religion has been trampled. And I am a human being. I have intelligence. I have agency. I have sought and received guidance from God in my personal decisions and in my life's journey. And, bottom line, I have not just a right but an obligation to seek knowledge and to live my life according to the best light I am able to obtain. And, by the way, I am also a citizen of the United States and I have a right as a citizen to seek rights and protections for myself and my family, to seek equal rights and equal protections; to demand freedom of conscience, and the freedom to pursue inalienable rights endowed on me by my Creator, rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Nevertheless, when very pointed statements are being made by Church leaders I sustain, and by members of my Church, I listen. I honestly believe in their love for me. I have had occasion for doubts in the past year; and those kinds of doubts loom with a particular urgency when you are experiencing a series of health and family trials.


So last night, I slept alone in my bed because my husband was in the hospital. And these were some of the kinds of thoughts I was having in the darkness of the pre-dawn hours of a cold Minnesota winter: How serious is this? Is he going to live? If he dies, what does it mean for us? Do I commit to be celibate the rest of my life and try to get my Church membership reinstated? What does this mean about our relationship? Was it all a mistake? Were we misguided to get legally married? Am I paying some price for this wrong decision? Will we be eternally alone in the next life?

So I got up this morning after about four hours of sleep. I got on my knees and I started praying. And here is what God said to me: Do you remember after you got legally married in California, in response to my direct commandment to you to do so, after you returned home to Minnesota with your husband and your son Glen, and you were praying alone in your room, and I told you that because of your obedience to me, you could now call upon the powers of Heaven as a husband and as a father -- as a head of your family -- to bless your husband and your son? And do you remember last night, when you were weeping in the emergency room and praying for help, and I told you to do the same, and you doubted it, because you thought it could not possibly be right in light of the statements by Elder Oaks and Elder Nelson at the last conference? I'm telling you now: You and your family are blessed and protected by me. Don't worry about what other people say. I will deal with them in my own way. I'm telling you again: you may call on the powers of Heaven on behalf of your family. And now is the time for you to do so on Göran's behalf.

So I prayed, and I was filled with a warmth as I did so. I prayed that he would be completely healed of whatever affliction currently has him stranded at the hospital; and I prayed for health and vigor to return to him; and I prayed for him to have a long, happy life. And I saw certain things. I saw Göran and me growing old together, and spending our old age in service together. To me we looked like missionaries; though all I can say for sure is we looked old, and we looked like we were engaged in community service to others. And I saw that there was not going to be a long period of time on earth when I was separated from him by death; I saw that I would spend all but a very small portion of my life on earth united with him. And I saw us in the next life too. I saw that in the eternal kingdom we were part of a large, extended family that cherished us; that both our families -- my husband's family and my family -- all cherished us; and that Göran and I were the link between our two families. I saw that gay couples in the next life were considered special, and that a family considered itself very lucky to have a gay couple as part of their family; and that those families that had cherished and cared for and loved their gay family members received blessings and glory not available to those who hadn't. That's what I saw.

When I got up from my knees, I realized my face was wet with tears, and I was filled with this incredible warmth that radiated from my inmost being and filled me up. And I felt the Spirit prompting me to write this all down, which I did in my journal.


The last year and a half has been tough. I feel like we've been wrung through some awful mill, and I'm not sure it's quite done yet, though whatever we have to face, I'm willing to face it with patience if I know God will be with us, which this morning I can unconditionally say I know he will be.

None of the major decisions that I've made in my life have been made without seeking guidance from God. It was God who led me to resign my Church membership in 1986. It was God who led me to open myself to the possibility of a relationship with a man in 1988. It was God working in Göran that brought us together in 1992. Göran always "knew" we were "supposed" to be together, and he has been the guiding light in our relationship. It was God who led me to come back to the Church in 2005; and when my testimony of the Church and the seeming conflict between that and my relationship with Göran led me to question myself, it was God who reminded me in 2006 that I must commit to Göran. It was God who led me to insist that we get married at the first opportunity that marriage became available (in California, the summer of 2008). It was God who paved the way for that by helping us find his long lost birth certificate, and with it, his long lost family in Memphis, Tennessee (all of whom are busy praying for him right now). It was with God's help I fought for our marriage here in Minnesota last year, in 2013. These are all things I know.

And yet, I still worried, wondered and doubted... Because of health and family trials, some of which have been more painful than I can really recount here. And because of a vitriolic debate that is creating deep pain among LGBT Mormons, and much pain, anxiety and doubt among members of the Church.

When I prayed, when I turned to God, I was always comforted. God kept reminding me that this was an opportunity for my faith to be strengthened. I was still afraid. At some level, I understood. That's the nature of many of life's trials. Sometimes we have to feel our way forward on our hands and knees in the dark and cold.

But this morning, I did remember those kind, generous words of President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, that we must doubt our doubts, not our faith.

There's no faith that's meaningful or possible if I doubt myself or my ability to hear God's voice or if I doubt that God has delivered me and my husband from adversity before, or that he will deliver us again.

Some day, the faith and the stories of the many of us that the Church refuses to hear right now will be heard.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Innocence Lost... and Regained

A few days ago, I received a Facebook friend request from an old friend that took me quite by surprise.

He and I were in the same deacons and teachers quorums when I was a youth in the Church, growing up in the Rochester, NY area. He and his brother were both my friends.

One of my favorite memories of our friendship was of him and his brother teaching me how to dance. I was a socially awkward teen (to say the least), and one day while confessing to them my feelings of inadequacy on the dance floor, they promised me personal lessons to alleviate that. So we met one afternoon, and they took turns showing me dance steps, how to lead, etc. I guess I thought it was a little odd, three guys getting together and dancing with each other. But it was also thrilling to me literally being swept off my feet by them.

See, they were good-looking guys. An unspoken truth of our friendship was that I had an unrequitable crush on them both.

Unfortunately there was, truth be told, some rather unkind speculation I occasionally heard expressed in the form of jokes or innuendos or gestures or nicknames given them by other members of my deacons and teachers quorums that these two young men were gay. They talked a certain way, with a certain inflection; had certain interests (in dance, theater, the arts); presented themselves a certain way. I say "unkind speculation" because certainly in the Mormon ward I grew up in -- in the Mormonism I grew up in! -- such things were not looked upon kindly.

Yet, these friends of mine were unfailingly kind, generous and faithful. They were innocent in every meaning of that word.

I lost touch with them after graduating from high school. It was at the end of my junior year at BYU that everything in my life crashed and burned (almost committed suicide, resigned from the Church, left BYU, etc.) and I lost touch with almost all of my LDS friends at that time, including these two brothers.

Still, I always remembered them. I still always thought of them from time to time, wondering whatever had become of them. As I was coming to terms with my homosexuality, I remembered the speculation about them. I wondered if they were gay too.

Through the miracle of social networking, in the last year or two I've begun to reestablish relationships with quite a few old friends from that time in my life. And then a few days ago, this friend's name showed up in a Facebook friend request.

I immediately clicked "Confirm." I went to his FB page, and it didn't take much exploring to confirm he was gay. I messaged him, and we started a conversation via FB messaging. Eventually, the emotional and spiritual charge of the conversation outgrew the capacity of FB messaging, and we exchanged phone numbers. And through the miracle of modern phone technology (namely iPhone "Facetime"), we were suddenly looking each other in the eyes and talking to each other.

His first words to me were, "Hello, Old Man!"

I laughed. "I suppose I am fifty now," I replied.

"Are you that much younger than I am?" he riposted, "I just turned 51."

The shock of old friends seeing each other literally for the first time in over thirty years.

It's hard to express the sense of awe I felt seeing him and hearing his voice. Old friendships really never die. They might go dormant when friends are separated, but they can spring instantly back to life again when friends are reunited.

(This is why I trust the Eternal Kingdom will be a most marvelous place.)

So he told me his story. BYU. Mission. Marriage. Kids. The whole messy sexuality thing. The ugly, painful divorce thing. Coming Out. Family/loss of family. But the reason I had felt the need to call was because of what he had expressed about spiritual yearning. I knew we had to talk voice to voice, face to face about that.

After telling me some of the facts of his life, he actually apologized to me. "I didn't mean to load you down with all this stuff." But, see... I always loved him. I realized, hearing his voice, seeing his face (what a beautiful man), I still love him. No, he wasn't loading me down. Telling me about his life -- including the parts about the abuse and the heartbreak, and losing everything that ever mattered -- nothing is more sacred than this.

I remembered us as young teachers, as young Boy Scouts, as young men. We were innocent then. We had no idea what kind of pain life had in store for us. What life had to teach us. He told me the part of his story that I didn't see back then. The hidden pain. The hating oneself, the wanting to die. He said he used to write down every night: "I want to die." There was suicidal ideation and suicide attempts and suicides in both our stories.

At a key moment in our conversation, when he had asked me to tell him my story, particularly the part about coming back to the Church (which is what interested him the most), he asked me: "Were you angry [at the Church]?" I was telling him about leaving the Church, resigning my membership. "Hell yeah, I was angry," I said. We had both been angry.

Yet, here I was looking into his face. And yes we were "old men" now! And now we both knew about particular pains that had been part of our lives that we dared not speak of back in those days of our youth and innocence. And now we'd told stories of since then, that had led through still more pain, and the plethora of ancillary stuff that comes with that kind of pain.

And yet, here he was, still the same kind, generous, beautiful man. The same man who had once taught me dance steps on a Saturday afternoon so I could have a little more confidence at the next Stake youth dance. The man I had secretly loved and still love!

We talked about our faith and about our lives, and I didn't see bitterness or recrimination or anger.

We can choose to be innocent, no matter what life throws at us. Perhaps we feel at a certain point that we have lost innocence, that innocence is irrecoverable. But we only truly lose innocence when life makes us bitter, and we seek to give bitterness back. Even when that has happened, we can always choose to lay down our arms. We can always choose peace. And as he and I spoke, I had a growing sense of awe, a dawning realization that whatever innocence he might have lost in all these years, he had regained it. He has claimed the high ground of love, and he's not relinquishing it any time soon.

When it was time to say goodbye, we both wept. Not because we will never see each other again! We are already plotting an in-person reunion, possibly at the Affirmation gathering in Mexico City in February, where he promised me the hug to end all hugs.

I wept mostly tears of gratitude for what we now can see in each other with a clarity that only the vicissitudes of life can have taught us.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Disentangling the Gospel from Culture

When I teach my American Religious Histories class at United Theological Seminary this year, I plan to introduce a new monograph by George E. Tinker entitled Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide (Fortress Press, 1993).

Tinker examines the ministries of four of the most celebrated Christian missionaries to work among Native American peoples: John Eliot (1604-1690), a Puritan missionary in New England; Junípero Serra (1713-1783), a Catholic missionary in California; Pierre-Jean De Smet (1801-1873), a Catholic missionary in the American Midwest; and Henry Benjamin Whipple (1822-1901), the Episcopal bishop of Minnesota. What is most interesting about the book is how forcefully Tinker documents the moral uprightness and the good intentions of these missionaries. Each of these missionaries -- as best historians can discern -- worked tirelessly and selflessly, and genuinely loved the Native peoples among whom they served, desiring to help them. And yet Tinker also demonstrates how the programs and policies these men were instrumental in developing resulted in economic, social and spiritual ruin that endures today.

Tinker poses the question, how could the best of intentions result in such horrific outcomes for Native peoples and their descendents? Tinker's purpose is not to lambast Christianity or Christian missionaries. For what it's worth, he is himself a Christian minister who is also Native American (Osage/Cherokee). To me, that makes his answer to this perplexing question about good intentions going awry that much more interesting. The culprits, according to Tinker, are two-fold: political and cultural.

First, each of the missionaries he studied was in various ways dependent on the sponsorship and support of governments that were committed to the (mis)appropriation of Native lands and the elimination of Native peoples -- if not through outright genocide, through cultural assimilation. These men have each been celebrated because they criticized and stood up to proponents of outright genocide; but they accepted the corollary that if Native peoples could not be physically eliminated, they had to be culturally and socially assimilated or amalgamated into the American (or in the case of Serra, the Spanish) body politic. In other words, these men were on a political mission as much as -- if not more than! -- they were on spiritual missions. That political mission was to serve serve state demands that Native lands by incorporated and Native populations be pacified. In other words, culprit number one was a corrupt relationship between church and state, in which state power was used to force Natives to convert, and in which churches allowed themselves to be used as apologists for state-sponsored theft, murder and exploitation.

Second, each of these men wholly identified Christianity with European or Euro-American culture. Tinker specifically shows how, especially among American missionaries, Christianity was identified with individualistic capitalism and with the nuclear family. It was also, for what it's worth, identified with European dress and personal grooming and the use of European languages (and abandonment or suppression of native languages). (As if God wears a suit and tie and speaks exclusively English.) This is particularly interesting to me, as a Latter-day Saint, since neither the New Testament nor the experience of the early Latter-day Saints seems to support the notion that God intended the Saints to be good capitalists. (Read Acts 2:44-45 if you don't believe me.) And of course nineteenth-century Mormons were in the process of reforming marriage and family in a way that would make Mormon families look more like the polygamous, extended kinship networks common in Native American societies, than like the nuclear families that were becoming the norm among Victorian Protestants and Catholics. Of course, Mormon polygamy was considered every bit as much an affront to "Christian" America as Native American family and sexual norms of the same period.

Tinker shows how disruptive imposing American agrarian capitalism, nuclear family values and English language was to Native American communities. And none of these things (not to mention European dress or other paraphernalia of American culture) is demonstrably Christian, at least not as far as I can tell.

But that's where Tinker's argument gets really interesting. Because American Christians (Protestant, Catholic and other), both in times past and in the present, have been absolutely convinced that you couldn't be a good Christian unless you were a capitalist. The New Testament notwithstanding. I'm sure there will be a fair number of people to read this post whose blood is kind of boiling right now at my suggestion that a good Christian is really something more like a communist than a capitalist. And I think it would be rather bad theology not to admit that the Gospel ought to be a disruptor of culture. Tinker says "culture consists of habitual responses to the world" (p. 113). And it seems to me that nothing is so clear as the fact that our collective "habitual responses" may or may not be constructive or life-giving. Culture can provide stability and a framework for growth. But it can also reinforce addictive, demeaning, destructive patterns of behavior. Revelation often comes in the form of divine reprimands, calls to repentance to abandon idolatrous, self-destructive "habitual responses." So it seems to me that good Christians ought to be cultural critics.

What was particularly appalling about European Christian treatment of Native Americans was that they were only too glad to be cultural critics of other peoples' cultures, but they were completely blind to the idolatry in their own culture. In fact, they generally behaved like fanatical adherents of their own cultural superiority in relation to all non-European culture (and even in relation to other European cultures than their own!). It seems to me the Gospel ought to make us critics mainly of the culture that defines our own "habitual responses." Morality is most meaningful to us within the framework of our own culture, because that is the culture we understand best; that is the culture that has formed us, when the Gospel ought to be reforming us. Europeans knew that stealing other people's land, murdering them and reducing them to slavery was wrong. They justified it by developing rationales of racial and cultural superiority, but they still knew it was wrong. I don't buy that "their-understanding-was-limited-by-their-time-and-place" bunkum. It was wrong and they knew it. When we do unto others what we most definitely would not have them do unto us, that would always be a good place for Christian cultural reformers to start. Not by telling other people how long their hair should be or what language they should speak or whom they should be allowed to marry.

One thing I found particularly ironic in Tinker's book was the numerous sections where he describes Native American reverence for the sacred and for God that was misinterpreted by European and European-American Christians because they didn't speak Native languages or understand Native culture. Far too often, Europeans were trying to destroy just those facets of Native culture that -- I think -- a true understanding of the Gospel might have moved them to appreciate.

Tinker ends his essay not by suggesting that Christianity is the wrong religion for Native Americans, but by insisting on Native American spiritual and social autonomy. Indian peoples, he says, need to believe in their own ability to determine what is right for them spiritually, economically and politically, and he asks for genuine non-Native-American "friends who will join us in the struggle against the continuing imperialism of Western, European-American culture." He continues:
Genuine friends do not invade one another, physically or spiritually. Genuine friends do not prescribe for one another. But genuine friends do stand beside one another, supporting one another in times of need and crisis. (p. 121)
As a gay Mormon, caught in the cross-hairs of an ugly culture war, I resonate with everything Tinker says here. I don't believe there are necessarily easy answers to the question: "What, in our culture is idolatrous, and what is the Gospel?" The rightness or wrongness of same-sex marriage continues to be debated, though there are growing numbers of Christians who insist that the Gospel demands that gay couples be encouraged and blessed in their desire to make loving commitments to each other. There's evidence that denying marriage to committed same-sex partners has disastrous effects, not only on gay individuals, but on larger familial and social structures. How does the Gospel speak to this?

Ultimately, as a Mormon I believe in the power and centrality of agency in God's yearnings for his children. And as a gay Mormon, that inclines me want to be the kind of friend to Native Americans that George Tinker invites to join the struggle.