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Saturday, October 25, 2014

Comparison: The Thief of Joy



For much of my life, I allowed myself to live inside what I call “the imposter syndrome.” When I was an adolescent growing up, I felt secretly and silently awkward around my straight friends, since life seemed to be a bit easier for them. I thought that meant they ‘got it’ more than I did.

When I was in college, I was secretly sure getting into Stanford was a clerical error—that my spot was supposed to go to someone else. Others around me seemed happy and confident, like they had all the answers. When I looked at them, I felt deficient.

Growing up inside Mormonism as a gay man, I watched the happy families around me each Sunday and wondered how I fit inside my faith. I must, I thought, have something terribly wrong with me if there is no plan for me.

In each instance (and in many others,) I was the imposter. What it fostered inside me was a sense of fierce competitiveness. I had to get better grades, do better at sports, and know more than pretty much anyone around me.

That changed when I made a commitment to build a personal relationship with my Savior. As I embarked upon this path, I met others who were a lot like me, and through those blossoming friendships and much prayer and meditation, I learned the true nature of “the imposter syndrome:” comparing myself to others was driven by pride and fear along with a deep sense of inadequacy. I judged my insides based on other people’s outsides.

Today, I know that when I compare, I lose. I may come up feeling better than someone this time, but I’m sure to feel worse eventually. A better path for me is keeping my focus where it belongs—on me, my path, and my relationship with my Savior. The only comparison that has any validity is when I look at who and where I was in the past, versus who and where I am now.

When I compare myself to others, I diminish my own capacity for happiness. I isolate myself from the very people I wish to invite closer to my heart. I put myself into competition with everyone—including my Savior. And when I battle my Savior’s will for me, I risk losing the one thing I really want to win: His love, His guidance, and His friendship.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Hearth both Wide and Warm

On Sunday, October 19, the Washington Park Ward of the Mormon Church held a special Sacrament Meeting, officially welcoming Mormons who have felt on the "outside looking in" for any reason. While the message of inclusion was broad in approach, it has special meaning for those of us in the LGBT community.

Taking as its theme Ezekiel 34:16, local stake leaders set out this year to "seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and bind up that which was broken" within its boundaries--including LGBT members who have been damaged by past experiences of prejudice at Church. 

This talk was delivered that amazing Sunday, heralded on Facebook as, "The best Sacrament Meeting of the decade." Delivered by Molly Bennion of the Washington Park Ward  (and posted here with her permission), it describes how diverse Mormon communities can not only survive--but thrive. 

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

###


We all want to love and be loved.  That’s our most basic human need.  We seek to fill that need by belonging to all kinds of communities, both large and small.  For instance, as Mormons, we want to love and feel loved in our wards.   Sadly, sometimes some of us don’t feel loved in our congregations.

Instead of cherishing unique core Mormon doctrines that unite us, too often we focus on less important doctrinal, cultural and personal differences that prevent us from fulfilling the Lord’s two greatest commandments: Love him with all our hearts and minds, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Such a failure of love is tragic in light of Mormonism’s enlightened teachings on acceptance and inclusiveness.

Two doctrines come quickly to mind. First, we believe we are all literally brothers and sisters, children of heavenly parents who created our spirit bodies long before our earthly births.  Can you imagine how different the ward, let alone the world, could be if we all truly believed and treated one another other as  literal brothers and sisters? 

A second unusual core doctrine is that of God’s grace as a free gift to all humankind.  For almost 400 years after Christ, Christians believed that God offers His grace, His love, His Son’s atonement to every single person.   It was St. Augustine who taught that God’s grace is not given to all but to only some—and that there was no way to know to whom God gave this precious gift. 

Luther and Calvin, two great Protestant reformers, extended Augustine’s false teaching during the Reformation and it has dominated the Christian world ever since. It was Joseph Smith, our Mormon founder, who restored Christ’s original teaching—that God’s grace and gifts are available to all His children.

The Church I want to attend is a Mormon Church whose meetings I can leave as though I were walking from this Sara Teasdale poem, “Grace Before Sleep:”

“How can our minds and bodies be grateful enough that we have spent,
Here in this generous room, this evening of content?
Each one of us has walked through storm and fled the wolves along the road;
But here the hearth is wide and warm.”

We all walk through storms and flee wolves and then come together, in this generous room, and in this Church. I want to leave the storms and the wolves behind and gather with loving brothers and sisters at a hearth, nourishing both to mind and body, wide and warm enough to welcome anyone who would like to deepen their spiritual strength among us. 

That’s my litmus test.  I simply want to sit in this room with anyone who is here to deepen their spiritual life, regardless of the storms and wolves they’ve encountered along their way.

A good friend sent me this quotation from Sue Bergin, a new Relief Society President in her ward in Orem.  That’s right, Orem, Utah—and what she said in her first Relief Society lesson may surprise you.

"I don't care if you smoke, drink, abuse substances, are unchaste, wear pants to church, hate relief society, don't sustain church leaders,  don't have a testimony, have a weak testimony, wear tank tops, don't know if you believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, have had an abortion, don't love your husband, don't like being a mother, think women should have the priesthood, are LGBT, don't know if you believe in God, don't relate to Jesus Christ, don't want to go to the temple, wonder about polygamy--you belong here.  You belong here.  We need you and you need us."

Of course, Sister Bergin’s list is not complete; I could add more issues, many of them my own. You may have yours as well, but nonetheless you get the point.

Of course, such an inclusive, healing community doesn’t just happen. Just because we say it once doesn’t make it reality.  So how does it happen?  

Community has been on my mind recently as I’ve been developing a new community and spending time with a treasured old one. Last Sunday, my husband Roy and I were in New York City with four other couples. We originally met 44 years ago, when the men were all classmates in business school, and we’ve met every few years since.  We were all married then, and are still married to the same spouses.  All ten of us are very different.  We live in all corners of the country.   We are actively Jewish, not so actively Jewish; actively Christian, and not so actively Christian.  We are politically and socially liberal, and conservative.   All of us have worked at very different endeavors.  One couple is much wealthier, and one couple much less wealthy than the rest.  And yet, no matter how long it’s been since our last gathering, we fall into each other’s arms and share our deepest secrets. 

This year we five women talked about why our little community works.  We concluded that it is because we trust each other.  We trust each other not to judge, and not to seek to control or change one another. We trust each other not to be arrogant or competitive.    In short, we trust and love each other enough to feel free to be our authentic selves with one another.  No community thrives if its members offer less than their authentic selves, or withhold their essential generosity and love.

In this small community of friends, we do not fear that what we say will be interpreted with less than the most generous interpretation.  Let me give you an example of what I mean.  If I say to my granddaughter, Catherine, “You’ve never looked prettier,” she won’t take that as a negative statement on how she’s looked previously. She’ll know I’m saying “You look great,” not feeling that what I am saying is, “In the past you’ve looked pretty ugly.” 

And, if her sisters hear me say Catherine looks pretty, they will not think “Why didn’t Grandma say I never looked prettier?  Doesn’t she think I look good?”  No, they all trust I love them dearly.  They know while I just spoke to Catherine, I could have said the same thing to any of them.  They interpret what I say generously, with the most positive connotation, because they know how much I love them, and they trust me. 

Our little community of ten old friends also sacrifices for our joint relationship.  Meeting is expensive, in both time and money.  Each gathering is usually quite inconvenient for at least some of us.  Sometimes one of us needs more listening ears, and others must forego their fair share of time in the spotlight. 

A Mormon Church community is similar in that it asks us to serve and bless, as we are simultaneously served and blessed. It is expensive in both time and money.  We each must give to the community to get anything meaningful in return.  

Visiting Teaching and Home Teaching are good examples of this. These programs are not about numbers, or even duty.  They are about widening and warming the hearth.

I’ve been trying to build a new community among old friends.  Over the last 18 months, I chaired a dinner dance for my high school’s fifty-year reunion.

There were 736 of us in 1964.  Originally bound only as Lewis and Clark Tigers, many of us have forged a new community which is likely to warm us for the rest of our lives.  To encourage many to come to the reunion, I posted on our website something Garrison Keillor wrote in a National Geographic cover story last February.  The piece was titled “Coming Home” and talked about his decision to return to Minnesota.  It also teaches us what makes communities work.

Keillor writes:

“I come home and feel so well understood.  I almost don't have to say a word.  I was not a good person.  I have yelled at my children.  I neglected my parents and was disloyal to loved ones.  I have offended righteous people.  People around here know all this about me, and yet they still smile and say hello, and so every day I feel forgiven.  Ask me if it's a good place to live, and I don't know--that's real estate talk--but forgiveness and understanding, that's a beautiful combination."

The trust that underpins healthy communities requires forgiveness and understanding.  The forgiveness starts with refusing to be offended in the first place;   we don’t have to get permission to forgive.  We can carry interpreting what others say generously to a new level, and we can let irritation roll off our backs.  

And if we have been offended, we can forgive—not for the sake of someone who has treated us poorly, but for our own sakes, to stop the canker of pain and anger in our souls.   Forgiveness demands that we decide we have our hands full working on our own salvation. 

My own patriarchal blessing warns me, “The cleansing of the soul takes time.”  I’m spending so much time cleansing my own soul, I figure I just don’t have time to cleanse yours, too. 

Forgiveness smiles, and says hello. And if we can live this kind of forgiveness, we can use our energy to try to understand each other.  Then we can trust and love without judgment, control or arrogance.  And only then we can have a healthy, satisfying community of Saints.

Brothers and sisters—my literal brothers and sisters—Joseph Smith was right. God offers His grace to each of us equally and always, whether we are reaching for Him or turning our backs.   Knowing that, together we can create a hearth both wide and warm, a generous room for those fleeing the storms and wolves of life, whatever they may be.

Together, we can do better.  Together, we must do better.


Taking as its theme Ezekiel 34:16, stake leaders set out this year to “seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and bind up that which was broken” within its boundaries.
That includes gay members who have been damaged by past experiences of prejudice at church.
- See more at: http://janariess.religionnews.com/2014/10/14/seattle-mormon-leaders-gays-join-us/#sthash.W9Q8pDgw.dpuf
Taking as its theme Ezekiel 34:16, stake leaders set out this year to “seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and bind up that which was broken” within its boundaries.
That includes gay members who have been damaged by past experiences of prejudice at church.
- See more at: http://janariess.religionnews.com/2014/10/14/seattle-mormon-leaders-gays-join-us/#sthash.W9Q8pDgw.dpuf

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Happy Birthday, Carol Lynn Pearson



This weekend we celebrate the birthday of Carol Lynn Pearson--kind of our Mormon "Grande Dame" when it comes to finding space inside our faith for people who feel on 'the outside looking in.' Well, that's who she is in my eyes, anyway. And I love her a ton. 

This is the story of how I met Carol Lynn. I guess you could say she was kind of the starting point for me for my work inside the faith to reach out to others like me, and all who don't quite fit the imagined Mormon mold. 

Enjoy.


A few years back when I was attending the Oakland First Ward, someone handed me a book in Sacrament Meeting—it was “I Love You, Goodbye,”by Carol Lynn Pearson.  I didn’t know what to say at first— while I wasn’t in the closet anymore (I was happily living a great Mormon life: partnered,  active in Church and teaching Sunday School) I also wasn’t as “out” as I am today. But I took the book gratefully, and I read it. 


Throughout my adult life, I’d ravenously read any books or articles that talked about the church and homosexuality—they had, for the most part, left me horribly depressed. But this one was different. Yes, the story was sad—tragic even. But in the honesty and candor I also found something else: hope.  
As I poured through the pages something within me stirred. It was as if someone was turning a key to a box inside my head, and in the box was this simple knowledge that my story—like the one I was reading—had healing power, and perhaps, maybe, it was time to share it.

I was inspired to take action, but had no idea where to begin. On a whim, I went to Google and typed in Carol Lynn’s name. Most of the references that came up were commentary on her work—and not all of it good, I might mention. It became clear very early on that this woman was not short of detractors of her perspective and her work. Yet, I remained undaunted and finally stumbled upon a website that looked to be a legitimate page of hers.

I scoured the page for an email address, and found one. Without really planning out what I was going to say, I dropped her an email. I wish I’d saved a copy of it—it was nothing short of me pretty much clumsily throwing my story down in a few short paragraphs along with my then-sketchy ideas of how I might make this come to life when I chose to share it with others. I sent the email, and honestly expected that to be the end of things.

Within less than an hour, there was a response in my inbox. “I assume you live in San Francsico,” she said. “If that’s the case, what are you doing Tuesday afternoon?” To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. Not only did this woman respond back, but she’d invited me out to her home to talk in person about my experience and how I might bring it to life to help others who muddle through this thing called “gay Mormonism.”

As I drove out of the city and got closer to her home, my palms began to sweat on the steering wheel. I was, admittedly, a little star-struck. Here I was, just a normal guy with no real published author credibility being invited to this famous author’s home! In my mind’s eye, I imagined her to have the commanding presence of Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wore Prada,” only much more kind and benevolent. I envisioned being invited onto a back patio with sweeping views of Mount Diablo and being served small sandwiches with the crust cut off by what I was sure would be her ample house staff. I knew, in that moment, my life course could very well be altered. And it was—but not in the way I expected at all.

I drove up to the upper-middle class home, and before I even had the key out of the ignition, out ran Carol Lynn from the front door—arms outstretched to greet me. She was a wiry framed, small woman with a bright shock of curly white hair that encircled her head like a halo. Her clothes were hiking clothes—cargo shorts, a tee shirt, and walking shoes. And her hug, deep and tender, was as genuine as her appearance.

“I would imagine you have to use the restroom after that drive!” she said, once we’d exchanged greetings. I smiled wryly, feeling a little awkward about my first exchange with somewhat of a literary hero to be about the rather small size of my bladder, but I agreed.

She walked me into the house, “The bathroom is over to the left, help yourself—and get a glass of water from the kitchen, because I am taking you on a hike!”

The first thing that struck me when I walked in the door was not that I was some sweeping palatial estate of the rich and famous—I was in a Mormon home. For those of you who have been in one—or grew up in one—you’ll know exactly what I mean. Front and center in the living room was a grand piano, since music played such a critical role in the homes and lives of Mormons. The furniture was well loved and well worn, and it was clear it had welcomed guests and family to this home for years. The walls were cluttered not with dazzling self portraits of the author or original works of art, but with frame after frame of family photos of all different shapes and sizes—some new, some faded—but clearly a shrine to a family that loved one another and called this place home.

But what struck me most about the house was the smell. Again, for those of you who grew up Mormon or had friends who did, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about. It was food—good food, homemade food, the kind of stuff relegated to June Cleaver and Mormon Mom’s.

Looking back, I think the truth of the matter is I had walked into a palace. I had walked into a palace that celebrated the lives, the love, and the talents of the Pearson family. And I was more honored to be there than if I had stepped into the Taj Mahal itself. You see, Carol Lynn had not just invited me into her home, but by extension, she’d also invited me into her heart—and the heart of her family.

The hike happened, as promised, and it was indeed an arduous one. I expected some easy stroll along side a creek bed, and Carol Lynn surprised me once more. She took me directly to the top of Mount Diablo—and without much rest for breathing, I might add.

Along the way I shared my story, and she shared more of hers. At the top of the mountain we stopped, and she asked me to join in her ritual of blessing mother earth—I heartily agreed, but didn’t really know what to do—but that wasn’t a problem. She turned and pointed me in each direction and told me exactly what words to speak. Here we were, two Mormons—albeit unorthodox ones—at the top of Mount Diablo, offering  a non-traditional blessing to the whole earth, without regard to specific faith—other than faith in our Creator.

As we walked the path home, I spoke more of my story, and finally of my fear. My fear, you see, was that of retribution. I loved my church, and I’d worked hard to eke out a quiet, little corner in the Bay Area where I could openly gay to a point, and still enjoy all the blessings that a straight member would elsewhere. My fear, I told Carol Lynn, was that I would come out both in print and in person, and then would be excommunicated for my honesty.

She stopped in her tracks, and looked at me for a moment, and didn’t speak right away. Then she shielded her eyes from the sun with her hands, and made direct (and rather piercing, I might add) eye contact. “Do what is right. Let the consequence follow. That is my advice to you.”

When she spoke, I thought of the chorus from the Mormon hymn she’d referenced:
Do what is right; let the consequence follow.
Battle for freedom in spirit and might;
And with stout hearts look ye forth to tomorrow;
God will protect you; then do what is right.

I knew I must begin.

For most of my life, I felt like I was a man with a foot in two different worlds—and that I belonged in neither. But as I have grown through this work—and in my testimony, I remain a man with a foot in two different worlds.

And I belong in both.

Thank you, Carol Lynn. And Happy Birthday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

It's About Love--Not Rancor


Yesterday, an article was published on Religion News Service (RNS) about an event we held in Berkeley on September 7th. The article was subsequently picked up by Washington Post, Huffington Post and a few others.

In it, the journalist talked about the evening itself as well as looking at how social media has fostered change in the hearts and minds of Mormons on topics like our LGBT brothers and sisters.

While I appreciate the coverage, I regret the positioning.

This isn't really about pushing back on Church teaching, our leadership, or our doctrine. This is about meeting people where they're at, and helping create a Mormon culture where everyone is welcome, just as they are--a culture our Savior Himself would foster. A more accurate headline would be, "Mormons use social media to build connectedness and community inside a faith that views them as 'different."

We're not the rebels the headline might believe some to think. We're simply the face of cultural change, and are engaged in this effort because we love our Savior, we love our fellow Mormons, and we love our Church--and we want us to be better.

This isn't about rancor. It's about love.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Gospel of Attraction

I spend a fair amount of time at the gym. Working out has become part of my spiritual practice for me--it's an almost meditative state where I can simply "be" in my own body, and when I use my earphones I can play music that helps me feel insulated and private even when I'm in a room full of other people. I find as I exercise my body, my thoughts become more distinct, my motives become more clear, and I am better able to respond kindly to those around me because I am more centered.

Once in awhile, I get interrupted by well-meaning personal trainers offering advice on technique and form when I'm working out. Sometimes they're right, but sometimes they're not. Either way, I'm invariably surprised when someone approaches me and shares what they see to be the definitive right answer to a question I've never asked them. I can understand their motives, because once upon a time I, too, was someone who was certain I had the right answer for everyone's problems and I was compelled to share that right away! Suffice to say, my certainty and need to be right didn't always score me a lot of points with the humans around me. One thing I learned is unsolicited advice is seldom welcome.

Sometimes the same thing is true of those of us inside faith communities, including Mormonism. Based on fierce certainty that our way is the right way, and our God is the right God, we can feel entitled to share our enlightenment with those around us without considering the question, "Did they ask?"

What works better for me today is striving to embody the peace and mindfulness I get from my spiritual practice and staying close to my Savior--while allowing others the dignity to walk their own path. Sometimes it means people will ask my opinion about things of a spiritual nature or beyond, and sometimes not. Either way, for me, it's more like living a gospel of attraction instead of a gospel of promotion. After all, I try to look to my Savior in all things, and one of His mantras was, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." It certainly wasn't, "I stand at the door and shout and will continue until you open up and do things my way, and if you don't open it I'll shout even louder!!"

When I'm at my best--meaning I'm really putting the principles of my spiritual practice into my actions, words, and deeds--I'm a lot better equipped to deliver the message my Savior would have me deliver, and I'm pretty certain He'll bring the people into my life who may learn from me--and me from them.

I continue to learn to be honest with myself. I will not use my spiritual practice as an excuse to change others or tell them how to live. They have a Savior too, and it's not me. Trying to control how other people think and act disrupts my spiritual center and moves me away from my Savior. Instead, I strive to promptly admit my missteps and then put the focus back where it belongs: on me and my connectedness with my Savior.

Besides, I'm starting to believe that how I respond to someone's lack of interest in any message I might deliver is a far more powerful demonstration of my commitment to my Savior than any lengthy (and unasked for) testimony I could deliver.

Today, I will strive to bring my spiritual practice to life in my thoughts, words, and deeds--and allow others the dignity to walk their paths without my interference. Only when my focus is on my own spiritual growth can I genuinely be who my Savior wants me to be--for myself or anyone else.