Sunday, November 26, 2017

No Need of Repentance

There's a turn of phrase that Jesus uses in the Gospels that fascinates me. On numerous occasions, Jesus refers to "persons which need no repentance" (for instance, Luke 15:7). Whenever Jesus is quoted as saying this -- and he does in numerous contexts throughout the Gospels -- it is always to contrast such people with repentant sinners. It took a while for this to sink in, but I've gradually realized that Jesus is teaching through irony whenever he uses this phrase. Of course there is no such thing as a person who has "no need of repentance." Of course plenty of people both then and now think they have no need of repentance. And until we get that we do, the whole import of these teachings will be lost on us.

Consider, for instance, a reading of the parable of the prodigal son that has become popular in Mormon circles. I can't help but think that many Mormons, when they read this parable, just can't help but identify with the Elder Brother. They think of themselves as the righteous faithful who have labored in the heat of the day and deserve all that the Father hath because they've earned it. And so they've read this parable in a way that actually completely undermines it by suggesting that of course the Father was happy to see his wayward son return, and so threw a nice party for him, but the prodigal son still has no inheritance any more. Nope, he spent it on prostitutes and wild living. It's gone now, and the Elder Brother is the real winner in this story and still gets "all that the father hath."

The whole thrust of Jesus' teaching was to push us to see the ways in which we are ALL the prodigal son. The account of this parable in Luke is set in a context of Jesus condemning pride and self-righteousness, all of which are the primary obstacle preventing us from seeing our need to repent. In the story of the prodigal son (we'll call him P.S. for short), P.S. acquires two qualities that Jesus presents as essential for salvation: humility ("I am no more worthy") and a desire to serve ("make me as one of thy hired servants"). The Elder Brother (or E.B. for short) has the latter quality of a desire to serve, but is utterly lacking in the former quality of humility. He is judgmental and has no compassion for his little brother. E.B.'s lack of humility actually reveals the one quality he does have as self-serving. And that grasping and lack of humility block him from entering into the Kingdom! In many of Jesus' parables, the coming Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a great feast. And Jesus says of E.B.: "He was angry and would NOT GO IN." The Father has to plead with him to enter, to remind him of the qualities that would allow him too to be saved: compassion, forgiveness and humility.

Many of us live in a religious culture marked by privilege. In that cultural context we prefer to think of ourselves as always good, always righteous. But I am convinced that failure is essential to growth. Did P.S. screw up? Heck yeah. But lessons learned the hard way are usually the most indelible ones. And what P.S. became as a result of those hard lessons is what we all need to become, regardless of the specifics of the path by which we become, namely, humble, compassionate, and forgiving. Those are the qualities that will unlock the Kingdom to us.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Fruit of the Garden

With a certain amount of regularity, when folks learn that Goran and I have been together for 25+ years now, we get asked, "How do you do it?" I think I had a dream last night that is an answer to that question.

It was a very long dream full of rich symbolism that took me about an hour and a half to write down from beginning to end, but the Cliff's notes version goes like this:

I was paying a visit to a woman most of us in the LGBT Mormon community know, someone regarded as a kind of Elder Stateswoman and Matriarch of the Mormon gays (I don't need to say her name, you all know who I'm talking about) at Oxford University (arguably the world's oldest and most eminent place of learning). After giving me a very strange and delicious fruit to eat (kind of like an apple, but it had a thick, brown husk that I needed to break and tear off first), we conversed as she took me on a walk with a spectacular view of a well-tended Garden. She eventually took her leave of me as she had womanly business to attend to (she met up with some other woman of similar age and rank, and they went off to a gathering of other women). I ended up in the kitchen of a young, married heterosexual couple with young children. Very cool, millennial types who didn't mind hanging out with the gays. While I was there, I noticed some itchy scratchy bumps on my left ring finger (wedding finger). These bumps began to slough off and started hatching into really hideous, nasty, noxious arthropods of varying shapes and sizes and colors, all poisonous and mean. I had a major battle with these evil critters in the kitchen of my friends, but eventually managed to stomp, smash and kill every last one of them. When I looked at my left ring finger again, it was clean and healthy and infection free.

One of the things I've gradually learned about marriage over the years is that in order to be successful in it, you have to do battle with all that is worst in yourself. For gay and lesbian couples, that includes the vicious critter known as internalized homophobia. But there are a whole host of other demons we have to wrestle with that are not unique to us, and that every sensible, solid virtue we ever learned about in Sunday School or Priesthood or Relief Society such as self-mastery, fidelity, and sacrifice stand us in good stead to wrestle. There were some bad, shame-inducing messages in Sunday School too that I have had to unlearn. Please forget everything you ever learned involving metaphors of used chewing gum, ink stains or nails in boards. I might add, however, that in my own personal journey (can't, of course, speak for others), one of the least helpful (most damaging?) messages "out there" in the world was the message that all of "those values" that we learned at church are bourgeois, heterosexual values that don't really apply to us. It takes a while to sort out the good stuff from the dreck.  But for the most part, my Mormon upbringing has stood me in good stead to find a kind of happiness that is beyond words to describe.

I want to say that that Elder Stateswoman Matriarch in my dream actually stood for none other than Mother Eve, who gave me a certain fruit to eat, knowing that I needed the knowledge of Good and Evil that would come from it, so I could successfully learn the lessons I had come here to learn. The well tended gardens of Oxford University were symbolic of our post-Garden-of-Eden cultivation and mastery of the lone and dreary world. The specific site of learning for me was a kitchen associated with marriage (the kitchen of a married couple, kitchens being in many ways the heart of married life). My commitment to my husband (symbolized by my wedding finger) engaged me in a battle with "my own demons" that was quite scary at moments but ultimately ended in success, health and happiness.

At least, that's what I think that dream meant.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Take Up Your Cross

So I think a fundamental truth in the Gospel is that if we want to follow God, there are things we need to give up.

I was reading in the Gospel according to Matthew the other day, and I was struck by these words of Jesus to the apostles: "Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat." (Matthew 10:9-10) It seems to me there is a "travel light" ethic in the Gospel. The more we get weighed down by the things of this world, the harder it is to be responsive to the Spirit. Many of the sayings of Jesus express the principle of these two verses, which basically says, "Don't concern yourself with stuff. God will provide for you and that is enough."

I have a working thesis about gay celibacy. Liberals and conservatives both have things wrong and both have things right on this issue. What conservatives have right is they understand this principle of sacrifice that is in the warp and woof of God's way. They insist that God can and does ask hard things of us; sometimes extremely hard things. I think what liberals have gotten wrong is that they have run away from this principle. They often want to deny that God asks anything of us that isn't easy, fun and natural to give.

I think what conservatives have gotten wrong is that they often confuse societal prejudices or tradition with the divine order. So if blacks suffer because of systematic racism, or women suffer because of patriarchy or gays suffer because of homophobia, that's just the divine order of things. You just need to accept your cross and grin and bear it. They'll say to the oppressed other, "Well, that's what God is asking of you." And liberals have been right to critique that, to point out that society is wont to build and worship idols, and that the burdens that blacks or women or gays are forced to bear are the legacy of idolatry and of the kind of pride that the entire Book of Mormon is an indictment of.

Of course there are folks who identify as conservative who get that; just as there are folks who identify as liberal who understand that there are things we have to give up in order for there to be real justice and love. But I'd say there are liberal and conservative tendencies that end up distorting the true principles on either side of our political or theological divides. Conservatives really get the "serve the Lord with all thy might" (D&C 4:2) principle, while liberals really get the "thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:2) principle. If you can just put those two things together, what you really have is the first two Great Commandments ("thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind [and] thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Matthew 22:37-39), which transcends politics and theology, doesn't it?

So this still naturally begs the question, What does God ask us to give up? What do we need to sacrifice in order to build the Kingdom?

And I think finding the answer to this is at the heart of Christian discipleship. It's at the core of the individual encounter with God, which is at the core of everything else in spirituality and religion. It is in that encounter where we experience a call to service that can take us to very strange and interesting places indeed.

Once we recognize this, we come to terms with the fact that there will be a point in our relationship with Spirit (or with "the Spirit") when the rubber meets the road, and we just have to accept something difficult. That might be the moment when a soldier discovers that she really might die for her country. Or it might be the moment when a young man discovers the commitment of fatherhood. Or it might be when a public servant is willing to sacrifice an election for doing what is right. But when or what that moment is for each of us is something only we can recognize.

The daily path, I think, demands that we listen, that we open ourselves to that every time we get on our knees. "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily." (Luke 9:23) Then be prepared.