Sunday, May 31, 2015

Excommunication and Sacramental Theology

I was able to attend Sacrament meeting in my ward for the first time in over a month today. I've been to three sacrament meetings during the last five weeks. I attended with friends in Mesa, AZ on April 26, after participating in the ALL conference. I attended sacrament meeting with Affirmation members at local wards in Santiago, Chile on May 3 and Buenos Aires, Argentina on May 10. On May 17, I participated in a testimony meeting on the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, NY, not an official sacrament meeting, though a very significant gathering that was attended by the Palmyra Stake President. Last weekend, my husband and I were camping with a friend in western Minnesota, where my only church was private prayer and scripture study surrounded by lakes and prairie and blessed by wind and rain beating on the roof of my tent. Though I've had my share of church in the past month, it felt really good to finally be home and to be greeted warmly by members of my ward. I've missed them.

One of the things I realized in worshiping at my home ward is how important my home ward is to the spiritual work I need to do in my life. The Gospel is true in Mesa, AZ, as it is in Chile or Argentina, or in the Church's home stake of Palmyra, or even in the wilderness on the Great Plains of western Minnesota. But there's a sense of accountability I experience in worshiping with people who know me. And there's something about being at home that puts the focus back on day-to-day soul-building work. I felt I had been gone too long and I was grateful and relieved to be back.

The theme of our Sacrament Meeting talks was Church attendance, and then we had a special fifth Sunday lesson on the Sacrament. In between, the title of the Sunday School lesson was "Woe unto you, hypocrites!" (We focused on texts in Matthew 21 and 23.) The end result, for me, was deep reflection on my motivations in attending Church (realizing, with gratitude, that I still attend out of a deep yearning to be close to my Heavenly Father, and to put myself in a place where God has promised to meet me). It also involved some wrestling with a sense of loss or exclusion at not being able to take the bread and the water at Sacrament.

I have a lot of complicated thoughts and feelings about not being able to take the bread and the water. On occasion friends have told me that I'm not unworthy and I should just take it. Whatever my state of worthiness or unworthiness, my understanding of the Gospel requires me to respect good order in the Church, which includes accepting the restrictions placed on me as an excommunicated member. I want to take the bread and the water only when my membership has been fully restored, when my right and obligation to partake of the Sacrament in that way is recognized by duly ordained priesthood leadership.

But an insight I had long ago, almost from the first time I started attending the LDS Church almost ten years ago, is that I can still participate in the Sacrament and experience the healing power of the Atonement through my participation, even without partaking of the bread and the water. I've always had a sense that "partaking of the Sacrament" was something you do fundamentally in your heart. And some of the scriptures we studied today in Sunday School and in our fifth Sunday meeting on the Sacrament helped clarify for me that this isn't just my idiosyncratic take. It's a profoundly scriptural way to understand the Sacrament.

First I reflected on this text from Matthew 21:28-31, which we read in Sunday School:
But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.
My reflection on that was that saying you will go work in the vineyard is sort of like making a covenant. It's like baptism. Baptism is a formal way of saying you will go work in the vineyard. But as we know, you can make that covenant and still not show up for the work. And Jesus' commentary here is that there are some people (like publicans and harlots) who haven't entered into the formal covenant, but who are doing the work. In other words, there is work for me to do, even in my covenant-less state. In other words, it's not pointless for me to show up at Church and to work on my soul and to seek guidance from God about what work he'd like me to do.

There was a sweet brother, who in the opening prayer at Sacrament meeting, thanked God for his mercy, and asked for God's mercy on all of us. That prayer was balm to my soul.

Those reflections on the mercy of God and of the work I have to do, whether under covenant or not, were still with me as we began the fifth Sunday lesson on the Sacrament. We started by reading together 3 Nephi 9:20:
And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not.
This was cross referenced with D&C 59:12:
But remember that on this, the Lord’s day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord.
In 3 Nephi Christ commands (invites?) his followers to "offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit." My bishop explained to us, in relation to D&C 59, that this is "the sacrament we offer to God": a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And I realized that this has nothing to do with what we are eating or drinking while the Sacrament is being administered. (Cross reference with Matthew 15:16-20? "Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?" etc.) I also noticed that the Lamanites, "at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not." Again, not outward ordinances that matter, but what is going on in one's heart. "Everything depends," my bishop emphasized, "on getting and keeping the Holy Spirit in our lives."

I felt the Spirit at Church today, inviting me to ignore the distractions of the adversary that would try to convince me that it is useless for me to attend or participate because of the limitations placed on me by my excommunicated status. I felt the Spirit comforting me, inviting me and including me, and strengthening me for the challenges of the week ahead, helping me to do the work that I've been put on the earth to do. I also felt something of a reproach from the Spirit to be mindful, never to let my membership status be a reason to get discouraged or to forget mindfulness.

My bishop reminded us that perhaps the most important word in the Sacrament prayers is "remember." Amen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Somos Bendecidos (We Are Blessed)

It feels extremely difficult to capture what I feel in words, but I will try.

I just spent eleven days in Chile and Argentina with a group of LGBT Mormons and their families and friends. Four of us were norteamericanos (gringos in Chile), two of us were from Mexico, and the rest of us were native Chileans and Argentinians. Oh, and one very special friend who is puertoriqueña, and only an honorary Mormon, but someone who makes me very proud to include people of all faiths in my extended family circle.

We spent plenty of time there socializing, just hanging out eating (I put on 10 pounds down there), seeing sights, talking, laughing, singing (!!!)... Our last night in Chile, Roberto, our dear new friend and brother in Christ, invited us over to his apartment and played his guitar for us and serenaded us with songs about the love of God, and the tears ran down my face, as they are now, just thinking about it. He looked us right in the eye and sang to us. Beautiful! Gringos don't know what it is to wear their hearts on their sleeves, until they have gotten to know a few South Americans.

We also, of course, spent time gathered in Jesus Christ's name, praying, singing hymns and telling each other the stories of our lives. Some of us gave formal talks, but we all, every single one of us, shared from the heart. The vulnerability was incredible. We told stories about what it means to be gay or lesbian or bi and Mormon, and we laughed and cried and hugged and kissed, and just were together, in the kind of beautiful silence that allows the Spirit to shine in our hearts.

Our first night in Argentina, as we were sitting and sharing our stories, as we were listening to Roxana Lopez, the Affirmation Argentina coordinator for years, share her story, my husband, who does not understand much more Spanish than "gracias" and "¿como estás?", leaned over and said, "I don't know if I should tell you this. It is kind of weird, and I don't know if you will believe me." And I replied, "You can tell me. I will believe you." And he said, "I see auras around the people." I asked him what color the auras were, and he said: "They are all white." And then, nodding at Roxana, he said, "Hers is huge. It's rising up like a flare."

My husband Göran is not from the land of Woo. He is not the kind of person who has spiritual experiences, or the kind of person who talks about them if he does. But that happened.

Our last night in Argentina, as we were sitting in another more informal circle talking, a young man who had arrived late to the conference because of the demands of work shared his story with us. There was just a quality of brightness about him. I don't know how else to describe it than that. Something that I could discern only spiritually. As soon as he started to speak, I could tell there was something, very, very special about him. He described his conversion to the Gospel as a youth, how he went on to serve a mission for the Church in Nicaragua, and then his heartbreaking struggle to come to terms with his sexuality since his mission.

(Such a typical gay Mormon path -- deferring dealing with this aspect of ourselves until after our missions! And, by the way, yes, gay people have to come to terms with our sexuality, especially in this heteronormative society, but our sexuality is not the sum total of what it means to be gay!)

And at this point, he is facing a disciplinary court in the Church and is likely to be excommunicated. He has told his Church leaders that he simply can't feel that he is supposed to live single just because he is gay. It's a truth so self-evident to him that the only choice remaining to him is to be excommunicated, given the Church's position on this. But he loves the Gospel. He still believes in it, and he has the sweetest, most bright testimony, which he bore at the testimony meeting we held Sunday morning, a few hours before Göran and I boarded our plane for New York.

This young man said he was was wrestling with the question of whether to attend his Church court or not. Everyone turned to me, I guess because I was the only person in the room who had been excommunicated, and they asked me what I did. And I said I did not attend my Church court. I might have, if I hadn't been a poor student, and if the plane tickets from Northern Michigan to Massachusetts (where my court was being held) hadn't been so expensive. Though at the time I didn't see any point. But had I known then what I know now, I think I would have attended. And that is what I said to him and to the group. I thought, they need to see the light and the beauty and the brightness in this young man as they contemplate doing this.

We wept as we hugged each other goodbye. We've chatted on Facebook since and he's promised to keep me posted about what he decides and what happens with the Church court, and I've promised to keep him in my prayers. But whatever happens, I know he is well cared for by our Heavenly Father. Angels will bear him up.

At our testimony meeting on Sunday I bore my testimony too. I bore testimony of what I had experienced in Chile and Argentina. The Spirit had been present in a particular way during those ten days, and it had been engraving a particular message in my mind and heart. And that message was that we -- LGBT sons and daughters of God -- are blessed. There is some special plan that God has for us, that he is reserving just for us, that only God knows.

And in the meantime we should be of good cheer. We should live our lives with every ounce of love we can muster. We should be bright. We should shine. God put us here to bless not ourselves, but others. We have this chance to do this, even or especially when others don't see the special in us. When they see us as dirty or less than our outside of the grace of God. That gives us that special opportunity to love without asking anything in return.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Christ and Culture

Göran and I have been traveling in South America since the end of April, to participate in two Affirmation gatherings, one in Santiago, Chile and the other in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Chile gathering last weekend was powerful, despite being relatively small. The Argentina gathering is coming up this weekend. In between, we have been enjoying the sites and smells and tastes of the southern cone of South America.

Yesterday morning over breakfast, I was having a conversation with a couple of other Affirmation members. We were talking about the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical Evita, a topic inspired by our locale! Adry mentioned another Weber musical he loved, Jesucristo Superestrella (known in English as Jesus Christ Superstar). I got excited. That's my favorite musical ever. I have the album and love listening to the music, especially at Easter time. I feel the Spirit when I listen to it, and there are so many songs in there that I find very insightful about the nature of Christ's ministry.

Beth said she was pretty sure some General Authority (she wasn't sure if it was an apostle or a seventy) had said that Latter-day Saints shouldn't watch Jesus Christ Superstar because it portrayed Jesus Christ as wrestling with his calling, occasionally feeling overwhelmed by it. We agreed on the theological merits of this portrayal of Christ. In Gethsemane, Christ prayed for the Father to take this cup away from him if it were possible. Part of the reason we love and are so grateful to Christ is because his earthly mission on our behalf was extremely difficult, one that was so difficult even he, the Son of God, recoiled from it. The musical simply took the expected sorts of artistic license to dramatize that aspect of Christ's ministry.

Now I don't know if a General Authority ever told Church members they shouldn't watch Jesus Christ Superstar. I can certainly imagine lots of Mormons recoiling from a rock opera that comes across as not quite reverent enough for the subject matter, or that may portray Christ in some way that seems incongruent with LDS teachings about Christ. I had to admit that I personally didn't feel at liberty to watch the musical until I had left the Church, but was glad I had watched it.

I said that one of the reasons I felt it was good that I had left the Church for a time is because it had freed me to find the good in things that I never would have found in the restrictive environment of "Mormon culture." There were so many things that Mormons assume to be part of the Gospel, but are not the Gospel at all, just our own cultural biases and prejudices cloaked in the mantle of religious respectability. And it was then I said, "Mormon culture does not interest me in the least. Only Mormon doctrine, only the Gospel interest me." And it was then I entered into a very interesting discussion with Beth, because, as she has described it, she is not so sure about Mormon doctrine, but she identifies "culturally" as a Mormon.

My bias (well documented in this blog, I think) is that I don't identify with the idea of calling oneself a "cultural Mormon." I disagree with John Dehlin, for instance, when he says that being a Mormon ought to be like being Jew -- namely that it should be about belonging to a people and a community, and not about our beliefs. For me, to be a "cultural" Mormon is to take the take the worst part of Mormonism, and leave behind the most precious part. Mormon "culture" has redeeming aspects, I'll grant. It's not all terrible. Though I would argue that the best parts of the culture are in fact the product of Mormon belief, the part of Mormonism that cultural Mormons want to jettison. That's my bias. I've named it right here.

Now Beth clarified that her definition of Mormon culture is inclusive of the beliefs; she sees Mormonism as the whole package, beliefs, culture, etc. She said that we can't really know what the beliefs are separate from the culture, because the beliefs come to us in a cultural context. And in fact it is impossible for a person to receive or interpret a belief outside of a cultural context. Which actually is all quite insightful.

I agree with that, and I would even go so far as to say that, assuming God is real and he transcends human culture, when God reveals himself to us, we can't help but frame our experience with God in our own cultural context. Though in my experience with God, there are always aspects of God's revelation of himself to us that shock us, that surprise us, and that snap us out of our tidy cultural paradigms. In fact, I think that's exactly how we can detect God's fingerprints in human history. We see traces of God's influence on human culture in those moments when revelation forces a break with the norms and values of the time and place in which God revealed himself.

I realized that perhaps what stood between me and Beth was the question of how, precisely, we define "culture." And I have a tendency to define "culture" as purely human production, that which we create for ourselves apart from God's influence, inclusive of all the various literal and figurative idols we create to bow down and worship. And Beth has a tendency to define culture as the human context for understanding anything, including God. Which I think is a very insightful way of thinking about culture.

Still, I am left with the sense that the process of exaltation, if you will, involves gradually changing our context for understanding God. In other words, there are aspects of our context that are immature, and that need to be trained, that require certain kinds of discipline and experience. That's what life is for! Life is designed to give us that experience and discipline, if we will accept it, if we will engage. That's what covenants are! They are us accepting certain kinds of challenges that will help us receive that discipline and experience.

Another way for me to think about it is that human "cultures" (Mormon "culture" included!) are never in stasis. They are in motion. A human society is always on some kind of journey. The journey can be very slow, so that it almost appears to be in stasis. But it's actually in motion. That's what history is about, both secular and religious history: tracking the motion, whether it takes place over decades or over millennia. And if a people are in covenant with God and in relationship with God and if they are open to and are receiving revelation, they will gradually be letting go of old aspects of the culture that are no longer helpful and accepting new concepts that align it more with a divine framework for understanding things. This can be a very uncomfortable process, if we're doing it right I think.

What I don't grant is that everything about Mormonism is culture, that it's all human production. That is the same thing as denying the existence of God. Which, given my experience with God, is as absurd as denying the existence of my parents. Or, had I had no personal experience with God, as absurd as denying the existence of my grandfather (whom I never met, because he died before I was born). Beth agreed with me on this. But the difficult question is to figure out where God ends and human culture begins. My sense is that the places to look first are those places where we are most troubled.

In any event, this is the truth communicated in that wonderful musical Jesus Christ Superstar. I love Mary Magdalene's song, "I don't know how to love him," which communicates an emblematic theme of the musical. All the disciples are portrayed as troubled by their relationship with Jesus because there are aspects of him that they just don't comprehend. (Very true to the biblical text, I think!) Judas Iscariot's problem is that he wants to force fit Jesus into a purely secular, political context:

I remember when this whole thing began
No talk of God then, we called you a man...

All Your followers are blind, too much heaven on their minds
It was beautiful but now it's sour, yes it's all gone sour
God Jesus, it's all gone sour

Listen, Jesus to the warning I give
please, remember that I want us to live
Come on, come on, listen to me
Won't you listen to me?

Isn't that the ultimate Christ-and-culture clash? And isn't the transformative moment when our failed solutions prompt us to stop asking God to "listen to us," when we finally still ourselves enough to listen?

Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he said that it is better to pluck out an eye and enter into Heaven blinded, than to keep our sight and be cast into hell. At some point, unless we allow our perspective, our "view," to be challenged we will never look to that which can exalt us.