Monday, April 11, 2016

On His Blindness (LGBT Edition)

In March of 2016, Bishop Don Fletcher (the former bishop of the Bay Ward here in San Francisco, and the bishop who called me to serve as his executive secretary) delivered a talk at a Fireside here in the Bay Area.

The Fireside is part of an ongoing initiative by a group called The Hearth, which sponsors and hosts events that build and strengthen an LGBT-inclusive LDS community. I’m blessed to be part of a community of fellow Latter-day Saints involved in The Hearth, and blessed to know someone like Bishop Fletcher. 

Over the course of the past several years as I’ve worked deeply in the Mormon community on the LGBT topic, I’ve had the chance to meet what I think might be the absolute best humans to walk the planet. In fact, I secretly suspect they might actually be angels in disguise—the depth of kindness, the compassion, and the willingness to do what is right despite the consequences are among just a few of the qualities these folks possess.

Bishop Don Fletcher is among the best of them.  I hope you enjoy his words from the Fireside as much as I did. 

On His Blindness
by  John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Bishop Don Fletcher and his wonderful wife Terri.
In seventh grade, my English teacher gave our class the assignment to memorize John’s Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness”.  Amazingly I still remember it verbatim, now some 48 years later.  Though I still have it memorized, I am certain that I don’t fully understand it.  

If I recall the situation correctly, in about the year 1650, Milton had lost his sight and wrote this poem about aspects of patience with his visual impairment which profoundly impacted his talent of writing.  Interestingly, in seventh grade, I did not have any idea that I would not only become an ophthalmologist, but that I would also specialize in rehabilitation of the blind and visually impaired. 

At this point in my professional career, I have personally cared for over 25,000 visually impaired patients.  My comments today are going to merge my professional path with my spiritual path, and touch on blindness issues as they relate to the LGBT community.

I’ll start by admitting that I was actually “blind” myself, until I was over the age of 50, when my brother came out to me as gay. While my physical vision was perfectly fine, I was spiritually blind to and ignorant of the issues and challenges LGBT individuals face.  

Like the healed blind man in John 9:25, I can now say that through gifts of the Savior – “one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”  I owe a great debt of gratitude to my brother Bob and my good friend Mitch Mayne and the Lord for opening my eyes.

A few years ago, my brother contacted me and asked to meet. Bob and I had always been close, so it didn’t really come as a surprise when he made the request. But something unusual happened to me before that meeting. While I don’t want to pretend to be in the same class as Joseph of Egypt, I had a dream in which I had a vision that Bob was gay.  

By the time the meeting took place, I was pretty certain what the topic was going to be—and I was correct. While the dream was helpful in terms of giving me revelation, it did something else that might even be more important. By sharing the vision with Bob, he said, it made the whole coming out process easier for him. Coming out is never easy—and it’s certainly not easy when you’re a married man with a history of 50 years of living in the closet. But that dream gave Bob an extra boost of courage that enabled him to finally be his authentic self with me, and eventually with the rest of our family. The revelation made it clear to Bob—and to me—that there was indeed a grander hand behind all of this. That hand opened the doorway, and Bob—an authentic Bob—stepped through to the other side. 

While I am glad that I could be there for my brother, I am also profoundly grateful for what that dream did for me.  The Lord provided that dream for me as a tender mercy, to smooth the process for receiving the loving gifts of insight that my brother would open to my understanding.

My brother Bob and Mitch Mayne have shared many great insights with me over the years – Bob as a family member and Mitch as my executive secretary when I was bishop of the San Francisco Bay ward.  I estimate that the wonderful Bay ward may have a larger gay membership than any other ward on the planet.  While laboring in San Francisco, I would occasionally become impatient with straight “gay unfriendly” people.  I had to be gently reminded to give them a break, that there was often little malice behind their opinions, but instead blindness—not unlike my own.

We find ourselves now at another extremely difficult period of time for LGBT members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Much of the great work we did with reactivation of LGBT members in the Bay ward would now be much more difficult. 

But, the lens through which I would examine today’s circumstances is perfectly expressed by Sonny in the wonderful movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. And if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end.”  With all my heart, I believe that applies to our situation in the church today—it is not the end.

When we began our outreach in the San Francisco Bay Ward, one of the mantras we adopted was a quote by Elder Jeffrey Holland, and one that is still true today:

“… some members exclude from their circle of fellowship those who are different. When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them—and the Lord.”   (October 2007)  

Since I’m not as eloquent as Elder Holland, I paraphrased his words to come up with a common mantra of my own—and one that guided the work we did with the ward. That mantra was, “I don’t care whether you are straight or gay, or whether you have stripes or spots—you are welcome in our ward.” 

With Mitch’s help, I composed a quarterly hard-copy letter to every member on the ward records(including those who were less active) and personally signed each and every one. In that first letter, one of the things I wrote was this:

“In my tenure as a bishop and in the stake presidency, I’ve noted many reasons members hold back from their faith.  Some of them include:
  • Those who were offended by a crusty member or insensitive remarks
  • Those who are uncomfortable paying tithing, for whatever reason
  • Those who are gay or lesbian and struggle to understand how they fit within the faith
  • Those who grapple with the Word of Wisdom or other compulsions

None of those reasons - or any other - should keep you away from the faith you once called ‘home.’  Please come back.  We have a wonderful ward full of diversity – you are welcome too.   You will be valued here and welcomed as part of our ward family.  We meet in the chapel at Pacific and Gough at 9:00 a.m. on Sundays.”

I had the opportunity to personally meet with dozens of LGBT members (and straight members) who had become inactive for a variety of reasons. Many of them told me that upon opening the letter, they were skeptical—yet they kept it, and it laid on their desk or counter for several months. They would pick it up, reread it, ponder it—and often summoned the courage to give me or Mitch a call.

Several times I was asked, “Is this for real?  Do you really mean what you wrote? Am I really welcome at church?”  I was always enthusiastic when I responded in the affirmative—but inside, I quietly found it most distressing that so many LGBT members expressed surprise to learn that they were welcome to participate in the ward.

One memorable story involved a returned missionary who had not attended church in many, many years.  His was a frequently heard scenario.  He assumed that serving a mission as a 19-year-old would “cure” him of his gayness.   It didn’t. 

So, San Francisco became home and he found and committed to a wonderful partner with whom he
had shared a close relationship for over 20 years.  As he started to attend our church meetings he felt something very warm, wonderful and familiar return to his life.  His non-member partner noticed that he was significantly happier and more satisfied with life, as well. 

Liking what he saw in his partner, the non-member of the couple inquired if it would be okay if he attended also.  I enthusiastically agreed, and he was a great addition to our weekly meetings. He ended up taking the discussions, reading the Book of Mormon and gaining a testimony that it was true.  We really should not be surprised – the Book of Mormon is true. This couple moved across the bay, and they now attend another ward that welcomes and supports them.

One of the things I like best about holding the priesthood is the opportunity to use it a service to others through giving them blessings. As a bishop, I was very generous in my use of priesthood blessings. I always offered to give a blessing to all gay members (and non-members). 

I laid my hands on the heads of many wonderful men and women, and the situations were all remarkably consistent.   My first impression, without exception, was that I needed to tell this individual of the Lord’s love for them, right now, exactly as they were.  Every one of us needs to know that, but especially those who are LGBT often feel unlovable. 

As a doctor, I have seen blindness, ill health, and death.  I have done volunteer work in Asia and in Africa and in many impoverished areas where I have seen much suffering.  But perhaps the greatest human tragedy, with as great suffering as any I have seen, is in those who don’t feel they are capable of being loved by the Savior just as they are.

Many LGBT ward members and many disconnected straight ally members returned to active participation while we ministered in San Francisco.  I now live in Wichita but Mitch and I continue to have much passion for ministering to those who don’t feel the love of the Lord in their lives. And while the formal ministry of our work in the Bay Ward might, for now, be on hold, each of us continues to feel the call of our Savior to do the work necessary to help our fellows see His hand in their lives, and feel His love.

Carol Lynn Peason
One of the people who I most respect on this planet is Carol Lynn Pearson.  She was asked to write a song for the children’s hymnbook dealing with disabilities.  She has told me that, although a child in a wheelchair is pictured in the primary song book, she has always seen this as applicable to our members who are LGBT, as well.

If you don’t walk as most people do,
Some people walk away from you,
But I won’t! I won’t!
If you don’t talk as most people do,
Some people talk and laugh at you,
But I won’t! I won’t!
I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you.
That’s how I’ll show my love for you.
Jesus walked away from none.
He gave his love to ev’ryone.
So I will! I will!
Jesus blessed all he could see,
Then turned and said, “Come, follow me.”
And I will! I will!
I will! I will!
I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you.
That’s how I’ll show my love for you.
(Children’s Songbook #140)

That song proposes an easy doctrine for this group of people I am addressing tonight, but there is perhaps a more difficult twist for us now.  But even with the offenses of “visually impaired” Latter-day Saint mortals, please do not feel tempted to walk away from the Savior’s Church. In spite of what is said to us and around us, we need to remember that this church is His. 

Now, more than ever, we need His love and support—and He needs ours.  One way that we can show our love for the Savior is by being long-suffering and patient with other members of His Church.

I love the Lord Jesus Christ, and I know that He loves me.  The doctrine of His Church that is rock solid in my heart, and the cornerstone of that doctrine is His unconditional love for each of us.  And while I am mortal too, and I can allow myself to get frustrated with how mortals fail to express and demonstrate His love, in my heart I still know that His love for each of us is universal, and we are infinitely valuable in His eyes.

When I get impatient and feel inclined to question, I think back to my days serving as a missionary in England.  In addition to Milton, another passage I had memorized verbatim was Joseph Smith’s rendition of the first vision. 

In presenting the first discussion, I would retell it in the first person, with much feeling.  Every time I told that story, I would feel the Holy Ghost bear witness that it really happened as Joseph Smith described.  I have no question that it did.  He was a prophet, and the God of Heaven used him to restore His church to the earth. 

One of the things I like best about the Joseph Smith story is learning that Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father knew Joseph Smith personally, and called him by name.  Likewise, they know each of our names and love and care for us personally.  That is true, and as frustrated as I get at times, I cannot deny it. 
Like me, most members have a testimony of the first vision. At the same time, it feels like many good people lack a vision of the place of LGBT individuals in the Lord’s church. 

So, what are we to do?

Here, I will make another movie reference.  I am a Rocky Balboa fan.  In one of the sequels, the aging boxer Rocky gives advice to the son he dearly loves.  His son is having difficulty getting his life together and he blames his father’s shadow for his problems. 

To that, Rocky says:
“Let me tell you something you already know.  The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.  It is a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.  You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.

But it ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.  It’s how much you can take, and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done.

Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what your worth.  But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not point fingers and blame other people.  Cowards do that and that ain’t you.  You’re better than that!

I am always going to love you, no matter what happens.”

This has tremendous relevance to our discussion today.  In fact, I think there are a lot of similarities between the LGBT community and prize fighters.  Both are groups of people that get knocked down a lot.

In all of the things Rocky said, of especial significance is this line:

“If you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what your worth.”

That is where we have the most critical need in our LGBT ministering.  We need to help all internalize the label of “child of God” and “loved of the Savior” - that each of us has great worth.

A critical factor in self-worth is the labels we allow to be attached to us.  As a physician, labelling is also a critical factor in my professional life. And, I have learned that labels have a lot to do with whether or not my patients are successful in low vision rehabilitation. Let me tell you what I mean.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) coined a term almost a century ago that has been a great disservice to my field as an eye doctor.  It is the label “legal blindness.”  If you cannot see a certain size letter on the letter chart (20/200) you are labeled “legally blind.” 

But people who cannot see below the 20/200 size letter generally still have a good deal of remaining vision—they just need some magnification.  With the right devices and training they can read the newspaper, cross the street, cook dinner and answer emails on their computers.  In many cases, they live life just as normally as their perfectly-visioned counterparts.

I would contend that more people are blinded by that inaccurate definition than any eye disease known to man.  Labelling these people as legally blind is as preposterous as labeling someone who is sick and in the hospital, “legally dead.”

In spite of timely and competent eye care, many people in America lose vision with conditions like macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.  Here is the common scenario:

First, the patient loses vision, are told that there is no treatment to restore it and that, by definition, they are now labeled legally blind. Goodbye and good luck.

Then that patient finds their way to my office.  By this time, they have internalized many negative labels applied by trusted doctors and don’t believe there is any hope that I can help them.  Before I start the medical rehabilitation process, I often have to rehabilitate their self-perception to a degree, and in turn instill in them a little hope. In most cases, they are in fact capable of living independent, productive and happy lives—but the way they label themselves must change before that can happen.

So it was when I was bishop in the Bay ward.  Helping rehabilitate people’s self-perception was often the first order of business as I met with LGBT members.  I had to change negative labels into positive ones. Those included reminding them:

You are a loved child of God. 
You are loved of God the way you are right now.
You are welcome in the Lord’s church the way you are right now. 
You are a good person. 
You have great potential to do good and be good in this life. 
You are here on earth now by design and it is no accident that you are the way you are. 
You are not alone. 
You can become better and the Lord wants to help you to be your best.

Disciplinary councils are also the source of many negative labels.  I have been a bishop in three different states, and I have served as a counselor in a stake presidency.  Consequently, I have had lots of experience disciplinary counsels and those interested in repentance and utilizing the atonement in their lives. 

If it were up to me, I’d rename the whole process. Instead of, “Disciplinary Council” I would call it, “Proceedings for Atonement Application.”  People that are “Disfellowshipped” need anything but less fellowship. So I propose we change that label to, “Hyperfellowship Candidates,” where they would be included first in every activity and invited into the homes of their fellow members. 

“Excommunication” is also a potently negative word.  Microsoft Word gives me these synonyms for excommunication:  excluded, barred, ejected, removed, expelled, thrown out.  That’s not a great list of positive labels.  Here, I would solicit your input—I would love to hear your ideas. So far on my short list, I have “Reinvestigators” or “Lamb in Need of Lots of Love.”

I feel strongly that the Lord would have us as individuals and as a church do much better than we have at blessing the lives of the at least 500,000 members of His church that are gay (using an exceedingly conservative 3% epidemiological estimation).  We can do so much more to relieve suffering with the truth of the Lord’s love for us.

So as I close tonight, let me summarize with a list of things I hope you walk away with.
Let me summarize what I think is important:
  1. Beware of Labels – avoid negative, embrace positive.
  2. The most certain and positive label that can be applied to any of us is “a loved child of God.”
  3. Get up when you’re knocked down.  You are not beaten unless you give up.  It is a long fight but with the Lord in your corner, you will win.
  4. Everything will be alright in the end.
  5. Don’t walk away from the Savior.
  6. Challenge yourself by asking the question, “What can I personally do to relieve some of the suffering in this community?”

Let me close with a quote from our last general conference.  This is from Sister Neill Marriott.  Her talk was rich and powerful.  Listen to her closing sentence: 

“When we offer our broken heart to Jesus Christ, He accepts our offering. He takes us back. No matter what losses, wounds, and rejection we have suffered, His grace and healing are mightier than all. Truly yoked to the Savior, we can say with confidence, “It will all work out.”

There is much that the Lord would have us do.  Don’t jump ship.  Let the Spirit guide you as to how best to use your time, talents and resources in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. To my mind, there is no greater cause that I want to be involved in than ministering to LGBT Mormons – and to give sight to those who aren’t able to see the truth of their own important place in the Lord’s eternal plan.

I bear testimony that He loves each and every one of us, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.