Saturday, July 29, 2017

Why I Stay

This is the text of the talk I gave at the 2017 Sunstone Symposium session "Why We Stay" at the Ray A. Olpin Student Center, at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, on Friday, July 28, 2017. Other presenters were Robin Linkhart, Maxine Hanks, and Nathan McCluskey.

I was excommunicated from the Church in 1986. I am a gay man in a 25-year-long relationship with my husband Göran Gustav-Wrathall. We were legally married in July 2008. Over the years people have asked me how it is that I could consider myself Mormon if I'm not a member of the Church. What covenants are there for me to renew on Sunday morning, sitting in the pews, as I pass, without partaking, the sacrament tray to the person sitting next to me? To the extent that there is a relationship between me and God that has the Church as a context, real as it is to me, it is invisible to outside observers. That’s OK. I stay because I cannot deny what I know.

God is real. Christ is real. The Spirit is real. When the Spirit is present, I know it is present. When it is gone, I feel its absence. When I obey its promptings, I have it with me. And when I disobey, I lose it. I can and do lose it on occasion. And with the Spirit, my life is infinitely fuller and richer and more peaceful and meaningful, than without it, so I obey, to the best of my ability. And when I lose it, I do whatever I need to do to get it back again. And one of those things is to stay active in my ward and to keep the discipline of the Church and the Gospel in my life.

I stay because God has told me that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is his church and it's where he wants me. It’s where, time and time again, as recently as the last time I attended my south Minneapolis ward two weeks ago, the Spirit meets me and teaches me. My heart is softened, the Lord shows me my weaknesses and works with me and draws me to him. At times I have been reassured. At times I have been corrected. I find myself renewed as I meditate on the Sacrament prayer, as I make those promises in my heart, and ask for the Lord’s help to keep those promises. I have had sacred experiences with my priesthood leaders, including through blessings they have given me, that convinced me of the reality of priesthood power. I have witnessed and been the beneficiary of the miraculous healing power of the priesthood. I revere the priesthood as I revere God. I have been blessed to have my fellow Saints claim me as one of their own, and care for me, and encourage me. They accept me and my husband with love and without judgment, and they trust me to find my way forward through faith and hope and love the same way as everybody else.

Are there complications and contradictions? The main one is that I feel prompted to stay true and committed to my husband. We experience all the challenges of any couple, as I've observed both among those who've managed to make their marriages work as well as those who haven't. My marriage to Göran is a school in which I learn patience and sacrifice and empathy. I learn what it is to be one with another human being. My relationship with Göran does not cause me to lose the Spirit. To the contrary I've experienced a richness of the Spirit as I've honored my commitments to him.

What does this mean? I trust that the seeming contradictions between my experience with my husband versus church teaching and policy will all work out. It will work out for me personally as long as I keep that Spirit guide in my life. In my last meeting with my stake president, he simply counseled patience. “What is time unto the Lord?” he said. I am learning patience above all. Time and life experience will grind away everything ephemeral and show what is eternal and what is not.

The older and more experienced I become, the more I am aware of my weaknesses and failings and my need for grace. I have learned how utterly dependent my happiness is on the first principles of the Gospel, faith and repentance. Faith is not merely belief, it is allowing oneself to trust divine providence, even when one cannot see the ends toward which that providence guides us. Repentance is not merely an act, it is a posture, a way of life, an openness to learn and grow and become. When we fall, it is a willingness to pick ourselves up and start over. I am grateful for the grace God has shown me time and time again, often when I knew myself unworthy of it. This is a journey that must be renewed daily. It does not matter how far I've travelled in my journey up to this point. I will never reach my destination if I ever stop walking.

Sometimes I can barely believe I've been on this path for 12 years already. There have been a couple of moments in my journey with the Church when I have wondered how I would continue on with it. Not necessarily doubted that I would continue, but wondered as in having a sense of amazement. One of them was in the immediate aftermath of the November 2015 LDS policy on gay families.

On the afternoon of November 5, 2015 I was chatting on Facebook with other leaders of Affirmation when news of the policy began to break in social media. It wasn't until I saw copies of authenticated text from the new handbook that it really began to sink in. My initial personal reaction was not positive. I think among the first words out of my mouth were, “That's barbaric.” It seemed vindictive to me. In that moment, it looked to me like revenge for the Church’s stunning defeat in the Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges. And to me it was barbaric to use children to strike at the parents. I knew, and still know the personal situations of enough LGBT Mormons in same-sex relationships raising children in the Church to immediately grasp what impact this would have on them, not to mention the larger impact that this could have on LDS attitudes toward the LGBT community.

As I continued to reflect, there were two dominant thoughts in my mind. The first was that any hope of broadening connections between the larger LGBT community and the Church had been dashed. During my time of service as senior vice president and as a member of the board of Affirmation I and other leaders in the organization had been working hard to broaden those contacts. We had opened up a dialogue with church leaders at all levels, and had been meeting with LDS Church public affairs since December 2012. We were striving to make room for LGBT Mormons to claim their faith as Latter-day Saints, as I have since my profound conversion experience in September 2005.

In September and October 2016, Affirmation conducted a survey of its membership worldwide. Based on the survey data, which looked representative of the Affirmation community that we served, over half of Affirmation members reported being active in the Church prior to the policy. After the policy that percentage dropped to somewhere between 20% and 25%. In a January 2016 leadership gathering in Los Angeles, Affirmation leaders expressed anger, a sense of betrayal, and even guilt for having encouraged LGBT Mormons to engage with the Church. We had observed widespread trauma among LGBT Mormons and their families.

My other dominant thought was less a coherent thought and more a sense of gnawing hurt, sadness and doubt. If I had to put words to it I would say I was wrestling with my sense of my own place in all of this. Hadn't the Lord told me to come back to the Church? Hadn't the Lord reassured me that my relationship with my husband was blessed by him, that I should honor it and safeguard it as one of my greatest personal treasures? I was running for president of Affirmation, and had made the decision to run based on personal prayer and fasting and a clear sense that this was also something the Lord wanted me to do. How was I supposed to do this now? I remember the morning of November 6, I got up out of bed, went downstairs to kneel in our living room and pray before beginning my daily scripture study. I remember feeling heartsick, wishing that what had happened the previous afternoon had been just a bad dream.

But then I began to pray. I began to pour my heart out to the Lord, saying simply, please help me to understand. Please help me to know what to do. And it was like a light went on. Peace flooded through me. My mind was filled with light and reassurance. And the Lord in essence said to me don't worry about this. I've got this one. And you and your husband are still OK.

It was hard for me to articulate what this personal revelation meant, because my sense of things was so counterintuitive. Most members of the LGBT Mormon community saw the policy as a giant step backwards, as a triumph of bigotry. I saw it now as a step forward. A step through. We had to go through this to get to the other side. And the other side would be very, very good.

What had we lost? We had lost some illusions about a liberal progressive evolution of church policy on this issue. I was always skeptical of that kind of a scenario. I always suspected that this issue could only be tackled head-on, in the form of listening deeply to the real stories of LGBT Mormons, followed by doctrinal searching and prayer for new revelation.

What we hadn't lost was ourselves, our stories, in their depth and totality. The Church might not understand us, but God does. God sees us. God saw me and said I was OK and that I need not worry and that he had this one.

In the weeks after, I saw signs that ordinary, mainstream, believing heterosexual Mormons were really struggling with this. My Bishop called me to see if I was OK. We met and talked. He told me that by his estimate at least 60% of the members of our ward were struggling with this. The Sunday after the policy a stranger came up to me in church and asked if I was John Gustav-Wrathall. When I told him I was, he told me that he was investigating the Church. He said to me, “I just wanted you to know that I'm with you on this one.” Other members of my ward came up to me and hugged me and promised me that I was not alone.

At the end of November my mother passed away, and I spoke at her funeral. I told the story of her own personal revelation telling her that her gay son was OK, and prompting her to accept my husband as her own son. After the funeral, it seemed like there were a procession of members of my dad's ultra conservative Springville, Utah ward coming to me and wanting to talk about the policy, many of them with tears in their eyes.

In early December, I asked for and was quickly granted a series of meetings with church representatives and leaders in Salt Lake. I met with an apostle, and, after telling some stories of the trauma that I had observed among ordinary LGBT Mormons, I said, “On the drive up here, I was discussing the policy with my father. My father was very troubled by the term apostate. I am now defined as apostate under this policy. I told my father that I did not believe it was the Church’s intention to stigmatize me or others in my situation. The concept of apostasy is simply used to draw a line between what the Church currently understands as doctrine and what it does not. Was I correct in what I told my father?” The apostle’s response was that what I had told my father was exactly right. It was clear to me that in his willingness to meet with me there was a desire to engage, to draw in and include despite very difficult doctrinal understandings. After writing about this meeting in a blog post in Times & Seasons, I was accused by some of lying about having met with church leaders. The disbelief was proof of what I already knew about the situation, namely that it is more complex, and our leaders recognize it as more complex, than labels like “apostate” are widely understood to imply.

Yes, there has been defensiveness. There has been retrenchment and doubling down and an intensification of anti-LGBT attitudes in some quarters of the Church. But there has been an opening up as well, an opening up and a deepening of dialogue. For good or for ill this is an issue that the Church can only move through, not back or away from.

The policy did create genuine trauma for LGBT Mormons. And it has been a duty of mine as president of Affirmation to make space for people to distance themselves from the Church. But I believe that some of us are called to stay, and the Lord has a very important role for us as part of his plan to move us not away from or around but through.

My testimony has never required members of my ward to “be nice” to me. Nor has it required that the Church treat me as equal. It has nothing to do with the membership of the Church somehow collectively holding correct beliefs about everything. It doesn't piss me off when somebody says something stupid in Sunday school or priesthood meeting. My testimony doesn't require an aesthetically pleasing account of church history. As an historian, I like my history messy, by the way. I like it human and real. The hand of God is more recognizable in that kind of story. I don't know what to make of the Book of Mormon, other than to say that it is the most spiritually powerful and transformative text I've ever encountered. For me, the jury is out as far as Book of Mormon historicity goes. I haven't been satisfied by the critics that it's a fraud, but there are certainly aspects of the text that are puzzling if we want to try to take it literally (which the text itself somewhat demands of us). I suppose that's fundamentally no different from any foundational scriptural text that exists anywhere. But I certainly know that the Book of Mormon is true in the way that is most meaningful to me, which is in the reading and the application of it.

For me the Church is not true “in spite of” the flaws of its members, “in spite of” our individual and collective missteps. It is true in them. It is true in our bearing with one another through them. The scriptures are more or less an archive of human error and divine correction. The trueness of the Church is in having an authentic relationship with a living God who is drawing us into a more god-like life. That’s what priesthood, at its core, is about. That kind of relationship, which demands the discipline of priesthood, necessarily involves us making both individual and collective mistakes, and requiring correction. I’m not sure God’s plan works any other way.

So I’m here, I’m queer, I’m Mormon. Get used to it.

In the name of Jesus Christ.

Amen. 

15 comments:

Reach farther.... said...

Thanks John, you are a powerful witness. As you know, my recovery from the traumas inflicted by the Mormons has taken me in a very different direction during the same thirty years since BYU. Stories like yours remind me to avoid hasty generalizations, and to resist the temptation to project my own gay experience on everyone else. Even evil Mormons.

www.rogerleishman.com

Les said...

Thank you for this. I grapple with this from a different perspective (my son is gay), but the struggle is still real. I appreciate hearing how you make this messy life fit together.

Anonymous said...

If the Mormons began to allow GLBT folks to become full members of their organization, would you be less interested in membership and desire to find another cause to protest?

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Roger - You were in my thoughts on Thursday, when I met and had lunch with Bill Bradshaw. We both talked about you... He loves you and thinks about you and would love to hear from you.

I'm struck right now with a sense of providence. I believe you are where you are right now because that's where you need to be... I hope we each will always have the courage to "go where he wants us to go, and be what he wants us to be."

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Les - yesterday I had the chance to give hugs and shed tears with numerous parents of LGBTQ kids. I still can't get over the power of the love that I see in their eyes... Such a force for good and for transformation.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Anonymous - I've been accused of being lots of things, but I think this is the first time I've been accused of being a protester! :D

I can truly, truly assure you that nothing would please me more than to just be an ordinary, plain ole member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, living a quiet life and worshipping God with my husband and kids and other family by my side. Nothing would give me more gratitude than to see an organization like Affirmation go out of business because there was no need for it... Because LGBT people were fully embraced and integrated into the Church.

Gwendy said...

First of all, this was beautiful.

Second, would you mind sharing how the text of the BOM inists that we believe in its literal, historical truthfulness? I'm currently working through some issues with the BOM and am trying very, very hard to consider all angles.

John Gustav-Wrathal said...

Gwendy - thank you!

In answer to your question, the Book of Mormon consists entirely (with the exception of some excerpted texts like those from Isaiah, Zenos and Zenock) of plain, historical prose. Its primary redactors -- Mormon and Moroni -- very self-consciously address a future audience, and speak plainly about the methods used to produce the text, including numerous discussions of the medium (plates fashioned from various precious metals) and the languages (evolved Hebrew language written in Reformed Egyptian text). They write with great specificity about historical dates (for a good chunk of the book, we get a literal year-by-year chronicle of events). Prophecies in the Book of Mormon are also presented with a degree of specificity unparalleled in the Bible, complete with the names of individuals who will fulfill the prophecies (such as Joseph, Mary, and Jesus) and exact places where the prophecies will be fulfilled (Jerusalem, America). None of this leaves much room to read the text at anything but face value.

This isn't in itself an argument against the Book of Mormon. I'm currently reading the Book of Mormon as part of my daily scripture study, and this time around I've been paying attention to the tendency of Book of Mormon authors to want to account for every single year. They'll say, "In such and such a year, X happened. And then the following year, Y happened. And Z took place for the year following, and the year following that, and the year following that," etc. I find that fascinating, because that is not how modern, western authors treat time, but it IS very similar to how time was accounted for in Native American cultures (including in ancient central America).

But it can make it tricky to account for seeming anachronisms in the Book...

Lisa said...

Thank you for sharing your story.

Duck said...

I love you, John. Thank you for your friendship, for sharing this incredible post, for loving the Savior, and for loving and helping so many of us.

I had written a very lengthy comment to you, but it did not post and I simply do not have it in me to try and post the same thing. I'm sorry- there was a lot there that I needed to say and that I wanted you to know. Perhaps in the future, I can attempt to share it again.

I feel humbled to be able to call you my friend. I feel honored to know you, to know your heart, and to see and feel all the good in the world that you do. Thanking you with my whole heart, Duck

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Thanks, Duck! I've missed you! It's been a long time since I've heard from you!

Andrew S said...

Hey John,

Loved hearing this in person at Sunstone.

I've been thinking for a while about excommunication. It seems that a lot of people are very afraid of it -- that to them, excommunication is the ultimate invalidation or rejection. So, so many people try to avoid excommunication, or, once excommunicated, they will (finally) disengage.

but for you, obviously, this has not been the case.

Do you think that people let a preoccupation with their institutional status in the church get in the way of their own personal stance with God/their own spiritual experiences?

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

I've seen that, yes. I remember chatting with a guy who really wanted to go to church. But he told me, "I'm afraid to go because I don't want to be excommunicated." I remember thinking, he might as well be excommunicated anyway then. He had effectively excommunicated himself through fear of church discipline. I guess to some people the symbolic significance of having one's name on the records of the church is very important.

But my philosophy when it comes to the church is I don't see any point in sneaking in through the back door. If a church leader knowing about my situation would lead to excommunication, I might as well be excommunicated. Get that out of the way so that I can be open and honest about where I am, and go from there. If being gay and in a same-sex relationship is morally wrong, then excommunication is good for me. It's part of a necessary repentance process. But if being gay and in a same-sex relationship is not morally wrong, if it's OK, if I can still be good with God, excommunication can't possibly hurt me either. My status in the kingdom is always ultimately up to God. Being excommunicated has certainly prompted some soul-searching, sometimes very painful soul-searching. But ultimately I came through it with an even stronger sense of myself and my relationship with God.

I can't be mad at church leaders for my situation. They are just enforcing the rules, they don't make them. As I said in my talk, I'm convinced this is a situation that ultimately can only be resolved through revelation. In the meantime, my focus needs to be on keeping the Spirit in my life, and learning how to be more Christlike. If I do those two things, my life can't go terribly wrong. And being active in my ward has opened me up to a richness of relationships and experiences that I never could have had if I had been staying away in fear of church discipline. It's contributed to my ability to keep the Spirit and to practice Christlike virtues.

therealnewiconoclast said...

John,
Thank you for all that you do, and thank you for doing it in Minnesota. As you have probably found, it's tough for us to talk about our feelings, and church culture doesn't lend itself to expressing doubts or reservations, especially about church policy like the POX. However, I have to think that many of us (those of us who are aware of it, anyway) have serious issues with it.

What can we do, those of us who don't have gay children, spouses, close friends (that we know of) in the church? How can we help move the acceptance needle?

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Real New Iconoclast (love the sobriquet!):

When people ask me that question, I usually just tell them: Be faithful. Live the Gospel. The full, unexpurgated Gospel is about freedom, about knowledge, and about love, all in far more radical ways than we tend to explore any given Sunday morning, It's good to be an iconoclast. The Gospel doesn't enslave us to convention, it utterly rejects convention, Jesus was an iconoclast. He flouted Sabbath laws, ate with sinners, included women in his inner circle. But the Gospel also teaches us to deepen our engagement with one another. If our iconoclasm isn't broadening and deepening our lines of connection with one another, it's the wrong kind of iconoclasm, Be a good Mormon... Pay tithing AND love justice AND observe the weightier aspects of the law...