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.