Thursday, November 28, 2013

Come Ye Thankful People, Come

A post by my friend Bob Rees, in honor of Thanksgiving. Enjoy.

“Come Ye Thankful People, Come”
Robert A. Rees

That is the title of a Thanksgiving hymn written in 1844 by Henry Alford which is still sung in many churches today. The imperative, repeated “come” give the hymn  the sense of both invitation and urgency. This is a season of coming together (as families, groups and congregations) to express appreciation, gratitude and thanksgiving (related but distinct human emotions).  The Institute of HeartMath in the Santa Cruz Mountains where I worked for a dozen years has studied gratitude and its associated emotions and their impact on our minds, bodies,  and spirits. Here is a summary of their findings: “[When expressing appreciation or gratitude,] you feel a deep sense of peace and internal balance­­—you are at harmony with yourself, with others, and with your larger environment. You experience increased buoyancy and vitality. Your senses are enlivened—every aspect of your perceptual experience seems richer, more textured. Surprisingly, you feel invigorated even when you would usually have felt tired and drained.” Another way to say this is that expressing appreciation, gratitude and thankfulness are good for us—physically, emotionally and spiritually. 

And yet, we often have to be reminded to be grateful. That happened to me just this week. I was at Best Buy involved in a long, difficult phone conversation with a computer repair technician somewhere in the antipodes. I was irritated, frustrated, and tired. To a woman standing next in line waiting to be served, I complained, “What a day!” She responded, “But it is a day.” Immediately, her words changed my perspective. Yes, having any day (even a difficult one) is better than having no day. Whatever difficulties I was experiencing, I was alive. I was also immensely blessed, especially in comparison with the vast majority of humankind, including no doubt the technician on the other end of the line.

Thanksgiving is also a day, a day set apart for expressing gratitude and thanks.  It is a day when we remember all of those others who have blessed our lives in some way, who have given to us beyond the limits of obligation and expectation, who have given time, patience, and love with grace and generosity and in doing so have made our lives fuller, richer, safer, and more meaningful.  With just a little thought a list of those who have touched or now touch our lives in some way expands exponentially. Thus, those for whom we should be grateful are not only those millions who have sacrificed to make our world as rich, comfortable and safe as it is, but, in Wordsworth’s expression,  the “little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love” of which we are daily recipients.

It is the nature of gratitude to engender gratitude—in ourselves and others. Which is to say that gratitude is contagious. That means that expressing gratitude on Thanksgiving is likely to elicit gratitude in others—and more gratitude in ourselves beyond Thanksgiving, finding in each day at least one thing for which we can be grateful. Expressing gratitude also often leads to our manifesting gratitude beyond words. Feelings of appreciation and thankfulness often motivate us to do something for others.  As John F. Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

One of our family rituals is to ask all those sitting around the Thanksgiving table to name one thing for which they are especially thankful and then to have a collective prayer of thanksgiving. When I was travelling in China years ago with a group of American writers,  Barry Lopez said something I have never forgotten: “An older meaning of ‘to remember’ means to pass something through our hearts once more.” This Thanksgiving, perhaps as we sit around the table with friends and relatives we can all take a moment to let some remembrance of gratitude pass through our hearts again. As the old French proverb puts it, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.”

Robert A. Rees, Ph.D., a member of  the  Marin Interfaith Council Board, teaches Mormonism at UC Berkeley and Graduate Theological Union. He lives in Mill Valley.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Salt Lake: We Have a Problem

Today, I share an article written by my friend Bob Rees--about another friend of mine, "Emily." This is a tragic story--for everyone involved, especially for us as a Mormon faith.

We can do better.

Salt Lake: We Have a Problem
Robert A. Rees

This is a true story; it is also a sad story; and it is a story that Mormons—leaders and lay members alike--need to hear.

 I got a call last week from a woman, I’ll call her Emily. This is her story.

Emily was raised in a large, Latter-day Saint family, one with long and strong pioneer roots. Growing up, she was furiously engaged in the Church, taking seriously its doctrines, standards, and gospel-centered lifestyle. She was aware from an early age that she felt differently about girls and women than she did about boys and men, but didn’t attach any particular significance to this awareness. Starting in elementary school and lasting into her college years, she had a series of crushes on her female teachers. She didn’t identify her feelings as gay, but when others made comments suggesting that there was something inappropriate about the relationships, even in early elementary school, she felt a deep sense of shame, a shame she didn’t know the cause of and couldn’t even name.

Wanting to be a good and obedient Latter-day Saint and believing in the promises that a temple marriage held, she married a returned missionary when she was nineteen. On the wedding night and thereafter, she knew something was terribly wrong as she experienced emotional and sexual intimacy with her husband as repulsive, although she still didn’t identify as lesbian. In spite of her valiant efforts to be a good, faithful and loving wife, after a year of marriage, she divorced her husband, feeling that it was unfair to both of them to continue in such a conflicted, unsatisfying relationship. Her siblings blamed her for the failure of the marriage as did her husband’s family.  And although it was very painful, she had prayed and fasted about her decision and felt a deep peace that it was right because she felt her husband should be loved in the way he deserved to be—something she knew deep within her that she could never give him.  Instead of attributing the failed relationship to her being gay, she continued to tell herself that she just hadn’t met the man who was right for her.
In the following years, her family kept pressuring her to remarry.  Heartbroken, lonely and full of despair, Emily redoubled her devotion to the gospel. For ten years, she tried dating other men but the relationships always ended the same way because she never felt emotionally or physically attracted to these men.  She threw herself furiously into school, work, and church service, often spending six or seven hours a week preparing her weekly gospel doctrine lessons.  She knew she was different. Ultimately she began to fear what that difference was but tried all she could to run from it.  She begged God to change her, to make her like all her women friends who were attracted to men. Experiencing an existential loneliness, Emily did the only thing she felt was still open to her—redoubled her efforts to live a righteous, even holy life and turn her life over completely to God.

During this period, she sought numerous blessings at the hands of her bishop and other priesthood holders. Reflecting on these later, she identified a common theme: all of them assured her that the Lord wanted her to be who she was. She wasn’t sure she knew what that meant, but finally accepted it as some kind divine validation of her identity. Even so, she saw no way to reconcile being a lesbian with being a Latter-day Saint and, after “crying for months,” made a deliberate and careful plan to commit suicide. When the night came to act on this decision, she had what she describes as a profound spiritual experience, one so sacred that she wouldn’t describe it to me except to say that it was clear that God wanted her to be who she was as a lesbian even though she didn’t necessarily conclude that this validation meant a relationship with another woman. Trusting God, she turned her life completely over to him, assuring him of her willingness to accept his guidance as she went forward, asking only that he show her the way.

At age twenty-nine, after this spiritual confirmation, she acknowledged her identity and orientation as a lesbian, but when she revealed this to her family, the majority of them became even more abusive, accusing her of being a deviant, a pedophile, and under the influence of Satan.  They rejected her and cut her off from family events and forbade her from having a relationship with their children, her nieces and nephews.  At the time, she didn’t even know another gay person.     

With a family she felt “hated her” and with no real friends, she once more poured herself into work and Church activity. Within a year, she met Rose at the place where she worked. Although not a Latter-day Saint, Rose valued many things about the Church and was in fact living its standards. Tentative about the relationship, they slowly began seeing one another but kept their relationship chaste. Emily says that her prayers were simply, “If I am to be with someone and this is the right person, please let me know.” After praying this way for a period of time, she says she heard a distinct voice saying, “You will be with her some day.” Rather than seeing this as permission to move aggressively ahead with the relationship, Emily was once again cautious, saying to God in effect, “I leave this completely in your hands and will accept whatever you desire.” Soon the confirmation came that this was to be a relationship approved by the heavens.

Wanting to keep her covenants and abide by gospel principles, Emily and Rose became bonded through a domestic partnership, the only legal option open to them at the time. Shortly after doing so and having no idea how it would come to pass, Emily told Rose, “I have confirmation that you and I will be married within five years.” Rose was incredulous. Four years later during the 2008 battle over Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative challenging the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, Emily and Rose were married during a brief window in which same-sex marriages were legal. They have now been legally bonded to one another for nearly a decade. Fortunately, family members who once rejected them are now loving and supportive.

Now for the rest of the story . . .

Knowing the Mormon Church’s stance on same-sex couples and same-sex marriage, Emily and Rose have been faithfully attending another Christian church—as they have done for the entire time they’ve been together. Like good Latter-day Saints, they have scripture study, hold family home evenings, regularly fast, and live lives of integrity.  Because of Emily’s love for the gospel, she and Rose would periodically attend Sacrament meeting at different wards just so Emily could re-experience the ambiance of the Church she loves so much.  Although wanting to attend other meetings, they avoided them because they knew they wouldn’t be accepted if they answered questions about who they were. Recently, Emily has felt during her prayers a strong impression that she and Rose should return to the Church and attend all meetings.  She has a deep longing in her soul is to find fellowship with her brothers and sisters in the Restored Church—and to find a place in a ward where she and Rose can worship together. They have also spoken of wanting to start a family and raise their children according to gospel standards in a Mormon congregation. Knowing how the Church regards their relationship and fearing what could be a painful experience if their efforts to find fellowship among Mormons fail, Emily sought the help of several allies in finding a hospitable, welcoming bishop and congregation.

Through connections, I found several possibilities in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live and, let’s say, where Emily and Rose live. Believing Emily and Rose would get a warm reception from a couple of bishops others had recommended, I suggested that Emily contact them.  She did so for one and had an ally help contact the other one and reported the following:

The first bishop, a university professor, told Emily that she and Rose would be welcome in his ward but suggested that it would be better if Emily severed what he called their “common-law marriage.” If she didn’t do that, they could still attend the ward but he warned that he would have to “call her to repentance every week,” and they could later sit down together and consider Church policies regarding excommunication.  

The second bishop, according to a person from whom Emily solicited help, said that she and Rose would be welcome in his ward but that if they attended, he would be compelled to excommunicate Emily—but that she could still attend the ward after that.  Emily was told by the ally that some members in this ward still have feelings about Prop 8 which they had experienced as their trial by fire similar to Mormon pioneers’ journey across the plains.

After these experiences, Emily wrote, “Oh Bob, why is this so hard for the members of the church?  I
think it is partly explained by the fact that they do such a good job of keeping gays and lesbians away from the Church that they never have any substantial interaction with real ones; otherwise, they would see the pain that is caused by such misunderstanding and rejection. If they only took time to feel our spirits, hear our testimonies, and understand our hearts, they would see that we are just like them with the same hopes and desires, the same need for love and acceptance.”

She added, “Not long ago, when Rose and I attended a ward, the sisters in Relief Society actually thought we were visiting from the General Board of the Relief Society! Imagine how surprised they would have been if we had revealed that we were a same-sex couple.” She added, “It's disheartening when I consider that if I want to attend church with Rose my options are: 1) divorce her, 2) get excommunicated, or 3) lie about my real name.  To me, none of these options seems in accord with God’s will.”  Emily wonders why if the Church now concedes that being gay is not a choice, it continues to believe that Heavenly Father’s purpose for His gay children in this life is different from his purpose for his heterosexual children.  

What’s wrong with this picture? The Church has a problem until it figures out how to deal with people like Emily and Rose. It is hard to believe that people like them who have a sincere desire to worship the Lord and find fellowship with other Latter-day Saints would not be welcomed in any Mormon congregation without fear of rejection or disciplinary action. 

I can’t help but feel that their experience (which is certainly not an unfamiliar one to anyone who has been involved in the long and tortuous relationship between the Church and its LGBT members) stems from several factors, all of which seem to me out of harmony with the spirit of the Christian gospel:

  •  As Emily suggests, a basic ignorance among the general membership of the lived experiences of gays and lesbians, of the normality of their daily lives;

  •  A plethora of cultural overlays that stereotype gay men and lesbians as perverted, deviant, broken and, most of all, deliberately sinful that many Mormons accept unquestioningly.

  • A failure to understand that Christ calls his followers to respond to others (including those whom we consider strangers or other) with generosity, hospitality, openness and, ultimately, with love.

  • The failure of the Church to communicate to leaders and members alike the more loving and enlightened messages found on

  • The failure of the Church to articulate a clear policy for leaders and lay members alike as to how to accommodate people of good faith who enter into legal same-sex relationships.

Fortunately, not all leaders respond to gays and lesbians (whether legally married or not) as the two bishops described above have. A few bishops and stake presidents are taking an enlightened, flexible stance toward LGBT Latter-day Saints. One bishop in the Bay Area told me that when a lesbian asked if she could come back to church, he responded, “On two conditions: 1) that you bring your partner, and 2) that you accept a calling.” 

I know another bishop who welcomes a gay friend of mine and his family to church where they are fully integrated into the congregation. A stake president of my acquaintance has created a welcoming spirit for gays and lesbians in all of the wards of his stake. 

In his recent conference address, Elder Dallin Oaks reiterated the Church’s position that outside the bonds of hetero-normative marriage all uses of our procreative powers are to one degree or another sinful. However, most sexual expression among humans, including among Latter-day Saints, does not focus on procreation but rather on physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy. To think of this complicated and even mysterious amalgam of expressions and emotions as primarily procreative is somehow to diminish their richness and complexity as well as their integral role in relationships based on romantic and erotic attraction. Part of Joseph Smith’s enlightened understand of our humanity is that our sexual powers, expressions and pleasures are gifts beyond procreation.

Elder Oaks was very clear, as is the church’s website, as to what is currently acceptable in the eyes of the contemporary church regarding same-sex marriage. However, the rapidly changing landscape with regard to same-sex marriage (in which many states and nations increasingly either have or will be making them legal) may suggest that we are in a state of flux, especially, as with Emily and Rose, for those who are legally and lawfully married. Historically, church doctrine and practice relative to marriage have been quite elastic, with various forms (monogamy, polygyny, polyandry) being accepted under certain conditions. In the 19th century under the practice of polygamy there were many kinds of marital relationships, some of which were procreative and some that were not, some that were sexual and some that were not, and some of which were eternal and some of which were not. In the past in Catholic countries that didn’t allow divorce, some Latter-day Saint marriages that were technically unlawful were recognized as legitimate by the Church. At one time, at least, common-law marriages were seen as acceptable, if not ideal. 

What I sense most gays and lesbians want the Church to recognize is that from their earliest years the Church itself teaches all children (whether they turn out to be gay, bi or straight) to desire, plan, and prepare themselves for that deep intimate bonding with another person who ultimately completes and fulfills them. This is taught at their parents’ knees, in primary, in Sunday school, in young women’s and young men’s programs, in seminary—everywhere. No one can grow up in the Church without understanding that his or her crowning achievement in life is to find that special someone and create an earthly and eternal nuclear family unit. To devote one’s life to that objective, as has Emily, and then be told that it is not a possibility, at least in this life, causes a profound existential crisis, one that can unravel all prior teachings and obliterate future promises. It is in a sense like growing up in a family in which every child is promised an abundant Christmas, only to awaken on Christmas morning to find that all of the other children in the family have multiple Christmas gifts and surprises, but there are none for you.  

Thus, something that is absolutely given in every normal human being to desire and that the Church itself emphasizes as the ultimate human relationship is denied to a significant group of people. Until the Church figures out how to accommodate people like Emily and Rose, I hope that as leaders, congregations, families and individual members we will err on the side of kindness, generosity, and patience, seeking the Lord’s direction and praying for a way forward that includes fellowship with our gay brothers and lesbian sisters.

In a recent e-mail, Emily wrote the following: “My relationship with Rose is one that I've sincerely fasted, prayed, and asked Heavenly Father about with an open and willing heart to do His will. I try to stay close to my Heavenly Father because that is the one place that I've always felt safe. This is why I pray fervently, listen closely, and have endured incredibly hard things in order to follow the will of God for my life. I keep trying to come back to the Church because the gospel and the Church are a huge part of my identity. I have hope that one day leaders and members will pray, fast, and be willing to open their hearts to God's answer on this matter even if it may be different from the one they hoped or thought it would be.”
In the middle of the night following this conversation, I awoke with a certain spiritual confirmation that Emily ‘s story was not only true but that she was an extraordinary Latter-day Saint.
Who would not want such a person and her family in their congregation?  I'm pretty certain our Savior sure would.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Who We Really Are

This post was written by a new friend, Ana Nelson Shaw. In it, she describes the role Prop 8 (and her own involvement in it) played in her own journey to becoming an ally to LGBT individuals, and strengthened her testimony to follow personal revelation and do what is right.

For Ana, as for many other straight Mormons, that means putting unconditional love--and her family--first.

Thank you, Ana.

Who We Really Are
How I learned about love and acceptance by failing to follow the Spirit and supporting Yes On 8

I’m the oldest of six children, born in Utah and brought up moving all over the country. Two of my three brothers are gay. Jake, almost four years younger than I, came out when he was fourteen via a very scary suicide attempt, born of his mistaken surety that his Mormon family would never accept him as a gay man. I am so grateful he survived. Tom, born when I was twelve, came out at seventeen, thankfully without such a terrifying risk to his life. I am grateful that the path Jake cut with so much difficulty made the going a bit easier for Tom. That’s grace, right there.

I am glad and grateful to be a sister to two brilliant, creative, resilient, strong gay guys who have helped me learn some vitally important things. This post explores the biggest lesson I’ve learned as their sister. Unfortunately, I learned it by really messing up when I was asked by LDS Church leaders to support the Yes on 8 campaign in California in 2008.

I thought for many years that my family was doing pretty well. My parents never disowned my brothers for being gay. We never cut off contact with each other. When Jake found his husband Dave, my family loved and welcomed him. Jake and Tom left the Church, and our third brother resigned, as well. This was a source of sadness to those of us who remained LDS, as we believed it had to be, but we who were in the Church didn’t see it affecting our relationships.

There were, however, tensions to which I was mostly oblivious - except when I really thought about them. I felt afraid for a long time that I would have to choose between the LDS Church and my brothers. Especially when I moved from Utah to California in 2003, I started to feel pretty sure that at some point there would be an anti-gay-marriage policy decision point, a re-visiting of what had happened in California in 2000 with Proposition 22. Our grandma, who lived in a Southern California retirement community, had done what her leaders asked her to do to promote the proposition. I knew how deeply hurt my brothers had been by her decision to participate. I also believed that if my church leaders ever asked me to do the same thing, I would have to do it. I dreaded that day.

In spring 2008, our dad let us all know about the faith transition he had been experiencing for several
years. It came as a giant surprise to me and required me to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about my family’s identity. It was tough. Because Dad would not be renewing his temple recommend after it expired that fall, my youngest sister decided to marry her boyfriend that summer so that Dad could be in the temple for her wedding. She was only eighteen, and her boyfriend (now husband) was several years older, and those in our family who had left the Church had serious concerns about her choice.

Based on this upheaval and on interactions on family communication vehicles like a Facebook group, battle lines seemed to be drawn: Those who were in the Church versus those who were out. Those who were in mourned the exits of those who were out. Those who were out wanted everybody out with them. Jake told me once that the Church was like a family member that had abused him his entire childhood. He felt incredibly betrayed that I would still welcome the originator of that abuse into my life. We saw things so differently. I learned that with my family, I could not even mention the events and connections that came with my church life - such a major feature of our growing up together - without getting a close-up view of the anger and pain felt by those who had left - sometimes directed right at me. Everybody’s feelings were raw. Every time we interacted with each other, we all hurt.

Then came the letter on a June Sunday. Everybody who was in the Church in California in 2008 remembers it. The First Presidency asked us to do all we could to further the “Yes On 8” cause. I struggled to hold myself together emotionally until I got home, and then I collapsed on my bed, crying and praying for some kind of guidance, some kind of help managing the conflicting demands of my family, my conscience, and my church. I don’t experience answers to my prayers all the time, but I had experienced them before that most miserable sabbath, and I experienced one then, lying on a tear-dampened pillow. “Your place is to teach love,” the Spirit said to me. I caught my breath and dried my eyes. That, I could do, I thought. That would be doing all that I could, which was exactly what the letter asked.

But getting an answer through the Spirit was not the end of the conflict for me. In our ward in the Central Valley, a relatively conservative community, we were expected to counterbalance the liberal influence of the coastal cities. There was only the most nominal effort to keep Yes On 8 activities separate from church meetings. Bumper stickers were handed out at the home of members who lived across the street from the chapel, but sign-up sheets for phone banking and other activities made the rounds in Sunday School and third-hour meetings. Leaders presented supposed reasons to support the measure  in formal lessons. One prominent (and financially well-off) leader suggested that members contribute the cost of their last vacation.

Church was squirmy-uncomfortable all summer long. But we loved our ward. The members had become a family to us through some pretty tough times. So we weren’t among the California Mormons who took a break from church during the Prop 8 campaign. We didn’t even consider it. But I don’t think I realized how much the pressure at church was affecting me and my previous prompting and resolve to simply teach love.

My husband was as uncomfortable as I was with the whole Prop 8 campaign as I was, but at the time he believed he was simply obligated to obey Church leaders. He felt greater pressure than I did to give time and money - I at least had the refuge of serving in Young Women, where we didn’t really discuss the campaign. One day - I think it was in August - he came into the kitchen with a $100 check to Yes on 8.

“I’m going to turn this in unless you tell me not to,” he said, offering me an out that I didn’t even see. I remember only that I felt weary. Weary of the pressure at church, weary of the impossibility of harmony within my family. Weary from the other stresses in my life.

I believe what I said was, “Fine.”

My husband reminded me that the donation would become public information. And what I said was, “Let them see who we really are.”

So the donation went in. I gave my approval to a $100 check taking a stand against one brother’s family and another brother’s future family. I did it not out of conviction but out of exhaustion, and in a sort of flip-them-off, angry gesture. My husband was asking for a sign from me at that point to bolster his convictions, and I failed him, too. By rubber-stamping that donation I actually betrayed who I really was and what the Spirit of God had told me I needed to do. Maybe worst of all, I thought very little of it.

As everybody knows, Prop 8 passed. My brothers found our names on an online donor roll, and Jake cut off contact with my little family. (To be very clear, I don’t believe he was wrong to do so. People need to be safe from hurt, and I was not a safe person during and after Prop 8.) Tom expressed his hurt in a gentle but uncompromising way. I put my parents in the horrible position of not being able to have their children all together. I felt heartsick that my little brothers whom I loved, were not speaking to me - that my kids would lose touch with their uncles. I never dreamed that any members of my family would be estranged from each other. I hated it.

But I was very much in a fog. I didn’t see clearly why my decisions were wrong, and so I didn’t see any way to make things better. I think it’s possible that because I took myself out of harmony with what the Spirit tried to teach me, I lost touch for a while, at least on this topic. Talk about a stupor of thought!

More than a year later, after my husband and kids and I moved to another state, I began to pray about how to heal the rift between me and my brothers. Only then I remembered the prompting I’d had the Sunday the Prop 8 letter was read in sacrament meeting. I suddenly saw so clearly  that I had failed to follow the Spirit - I had let my exhaustion and anger and fear overcome what I knew was right, and I had stepped outside the role the Holy Spirit told me was mine. I had failed to teach about love.

I took a few months to think about this new way of looking at the events of 2008. I had picked up “Women, Food, and God,” by Geneen Roth, and the insight that hit me hardest from her writing was something like this: Wishing life were different is an affront to the life God has given you. It’s ingratitude. It’s miserable and unhealthy. From this root grew a new conviction that I can no longer say to my brothers, “I love you,” and then continue in my mind, “but I wish you weren’t gay,” or “I wish you were an active member of the Mormon church.” That wish invalidates the love. It insults all the wonderful things they are.

I’d thought I accepted my brothers before, because I didn’t openly reject them. Accepting is much more than that. Accepting is embracing without reservation or condition. Accepting is gratitude for life and people as God made them. Accepting is trusting our fellow humans to see clearly their own best paths in life and supporting who they are and what they do, not just in word but with our whole hearts. I came to see that if I could not offer that complete acceptance to my family, I was offering almost nothing. But if I could - if I could, I would be offering love like Christ’s love, love that heals and offers hope for joy and togetherness in this life and worlds to come. That would be opening up the whole reason for trying to be a Christian person.

With these new insights about love and acceptance, and with my new understanding about my mistakes during Prop 8, I have begun - only begun - to rebuild relationships with my brothers. My husband has also reached out to apologize and express his deep regret about everything we did related to Prop 8. This is not a fast-moving process. Both of us consider our participation there among the biggest mistakes of our lives. I understand that humans learn from their mistakes, and the best way I can move forward from that mistake is to learn and do better. I can’t undo the hurt I  caused in California, and I can’t undo the abuse that Jake and Tom survived growing up in the Church. But I can try to fulfill the words I heard in my heart in 2008 - the calling to teach my brothers and sisters in the Church about love. Now, with Church leaders in Hawaii encouraging members to stand against marriage equality as the legislature there considers a new and inclusive marriage law, I believe it’s time for me to share. That’s why I’ve written this post.

To those in Hawaii feeling the doubts and struggles I felt in 2008, I hope with all my heart that your experience is different from mine. I want to remind you that you do not have to keep your heads down. You do not have to simply hear and obey. It is your divinely-given right and responsibility to pray about what your Heavenly Parents want you to do and to receive answers in personal revelation. Record the answers you receive so that you won’t forget them or let your best intentions be overwhelmed by negativity (as I did). Make a plan that will keep you in touch with your deepest convictions. Be aware of the pressures that might cause you to deviate from what you know is right, and avoid them if you can.

And please remember that “I love you, but,” is not the same as “I love you.”

Just love.

If we Mormons can grasp that, the walls will start to crumble. If we can just love without qualifications and without judgment, that’s when people outside the Church will see the reasons we want to stay members of the Church.

That’s letting them see who we really are.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

BYU Students Deliver LGBT Peers a Message of Hope--and Love

Last week members of BYU’s USGA (Understanding Same Gender Attraction) organization produced a video featuring LGBT BYU students talking openly about the struggle they face as gay Mormons. What’s profound here is the honesty with which these students talk about issues that we as Mormons don’t normally approach: depression and suicidal thoughts.

One vital way to keep LGBT Mormon youth from reaching this critical point is to help parents and extended communities recognize how their behavior affects LGBT youth. The Family Acceptance Project has produced the first LDS-based materials to help families and communities understand what helps gay kids, and what increases their risk for depression and suicide. These materials—which you can download free online—are the first faith-based suicide prevention resources to be named as a Best Practice by The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They artfully blend rigorous scientific research with the best parts of Mormon faith—the part that teaches us to love unconditionally, like our Savior loves.

It’s no secret that the LGBT youth suicide rate in Utah is well above the norm, and while talking openly about the isolation and other factors that contribute to those numbers is becoming a bit more common, what I like is the students have done a remarkable job of overshadowing the bleak times with a powerful message of hope. To hear this message from our peers is a big step, and an encouraging one.

I spoke with Adam White of USGA at BYU this weekend, and we talked in depth about the video. With his permission, I’m reposting part of that conversation.

Mitch: I think your video is a good one—and I admire the honesty of those who spoke. One of the most striking moments is one student’s candor about a disturbing lesson we’re all taught as gay Mormons: that being gay is a mortal experience and upon leaving this life, each of us is released from the bondage of being gay and is made straight. Like the student in the clip, many gay Mormons (including me) don’t find this to be comforting. In fact, I’ve heard from many who look at as the opposite: it’s almost an incentive to want to take their own lives.

Adam: I had never thought about that teaching in that way before, and I remember the first time I heard it, it perplexed me. It still does. I don’t know of any Mormon precedent or scriptural basis about our orientation disappearing in the afterlife—for gay people or straight. What’s troubling to me is we’re sending our youth that message often in the very moments they’re most vulnerable. I think it warps the way we see ourselves as gay Mormons to believe we’ll be someone else when we leave here. At its worst, it could very well leave depressed and suicidal gay Mormons with the message that is best to die.

Mitch: But the video also stresses something I’ve said for a long time: the importance of our own individual relationship with our Savior. I know from experience that our Savior is our constant companion—he know us personally and walks right beside us in this life, if we let Him. Your video sends a great message to gay Mormons to remind them of that fact. And I’d take it a step further and remind them that despite messages about our worth here or eternally, or any other message that damages our understanding of ourselves in the eyes of our Savior, that relationship belongs solely to us. It is as deep and meaningful as we choose to make it. We have not only the personal power to build that relationship, but the right to do so—whether or not we’re active inside the Mormon faith.

Adam: I agree! At the center of our Gospel is Christ—and our personal relationship with Him. This is one of the most powerful messages for me personally—if we think about the atonement and that Christ knows what it’s like to be LGBT—the stigma, the isolation, the rejection. This message alone brings hope to many who feel like no one understands what they’re going through. But our Savior does—he’s lived it personally. Knowing that our older brother has walked this before us, so he can not only empathize but help, I think there is so much hope here. When we remember what our Savior has experienced, we find healing, we find compassion—sometimes when it feels impossible to find that from any human. The hope of our Savior was at the center of our minds as we made this video.

Mitch: One of the questions I always get is people wondering how I reconcile standing for the LGBT community and still being Mormon. What do you say when you hear that question?

Adam: Well, I know from personal experience it’s difficult to be in that space between two communities that have been at odds for very powerful reasons on both sides. And at the same time, I recognize and respect my identity, and I also love my faith. I believe in the potential we have as Mormons to do good in this world, to be compassionate, and to be examples of our Savior. Being a gay Mormon and seeing the other side of our faith—those who have been cast out for simply being who they are—that’s hard to watch. To see Mormonism, which has been so good to me, actually do harm to people that I know and love has deeply affected me. Because I recognize our potential as a religion to do better, I don’t think I’ll ever walk away. But I also fully recognize the gifts our Father has given to us as LGBT people, and I firmly believe once we embrace our gay brothers and sisters their strength will add to our own, and as a whole we’ll be much closer to Zion.

Mitch: One of the things I grapple with is gay Mormon youth who live outside the country. It seems in the past few months alone I’ve gotten dozens of emails and messages from gay Mormons in their teens or early twenties, and they feel especially isolated. It hurts my heart to hear their stories—and quite frankly, I fear for some of them. When they’re in the states, it’s easier for me to help find others near them, but when they’re in the Philippines, China, or South and Central America our options are so much more limited in terms of the kind of support we can offer them. What would you say to them?

Adam: Wow…the first thing I would do is to let them know I recognize how difficult it is to be in that situation. My heart goes out to them—and I fully understand how hopeless it might seem. I’ve been blessed personally; even at BYU I have a community of support. But I would remind my gay Mormon brothers and sisters outside the country that our Savior loves them, exactly as they are—despite what others might say. And I would say to them that these videos were made for them. Your brothers and sisters here in America and at BYU—we know you’re out there. We love you. We want you to stay with us—we need you. So does your Savior.

Mitch: I’ve gone on record to say that historically we haven’t done a very good job in the way we treat and understand the LGBT community as Mormons. The same is true of LGBT people within our own ranks. I think we fall far short of where our Savior wants us to be. That’s one of the things I’ve worked to change over the past few years—kind of holding up a mirror to my Mormon fellows, and allowed them to see the reality of some of their behavior. Some of them haven’t really liked what they’ve seen. What would be your ultimate dream when it comes to LGBT people inside the Church?

Adam: I’m still kind of forming that dream, I think. But a good place to start would be complete open-door inclusivity for gay Mormons—the kind of inclusivity that Christ stood for and taught. I think it would be great to one day have gay couples at church with their own families, in our meetings and our activities, and have no one even think twice about it. I think we need to recognize that the way LGBT people struggle within their faith comes from a place of love. Meaning, they aren’t just upstarts who are trying to be inconvenient. These are children of our Father who deeply love this religion and want to stay precisely because of their profound love of our Savior, and of the gospel.

Mitch: I couldn’t agree more. And I think that’s why gay Mormons belong most of all.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

God's Strategy


Special guest post by my good friend and one of our Stake High Councimen, Matt Mosman. I've posted some of his writing here before, and like earlier talks, this one doesn't disappoint. 

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 


Good morning, brothers and sisters.  Always a pleasure to see so many of my friends here in the El Camino Ward. 

A few months ago one of our other high councilmen, Rob Hansen, cornered me after a meeting and said, “I’ve got your talks figured out.”  He proceeded to tell me that his observation is that I always take the assigned topic and draw the slimmest analogy to whatever it is I wanted to talk about, but in the end I always talk about whatever I feel like.

Rob is exactly right.  I’ve been doing that for years, I’m afraid, and he caught me.  So today I’m going to do this differently: I’m going to dispense with the analogy, I’m going to beg forgiveness of the stake presidency, and I’m going to talk about what I want to talk about.  I have something that’s been on my mind.

A couple of months ago I was in a ward in another state and overheard a conversation going on in the hallway of the church.  Some men and women were discussing what they thought should be done about a gay man who had started coming back to church.

The conversation was all about rules: what he could do, what he couldn’t.  It then turned for a while into the members’ own interactions with him: what if one of them was assigned to home teach him?  What if he invited them over to dinner?  What if he has a partner?  What then?

This particular issue is one I’ve been thinking about for years.  When I was called to the high council, I was called to serve in the Bay Ward up in the city.  That ward’s rolls are full to the brim with mostly inactive gay men and women, and it was my specific job to work on how we could minister to them.

If we want to talk about that hallway conversation, we could definitely take this talk in the direction of “he that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.”  For sure we could talk about that, and we all know that every one of us had better drop the rocks in our hands if we’re going to talk about that.  But that’s not where I’m going.  I want to take this in a different direction, just a little bit.  I want to talk about rules.  I want to talk about the Good Samaritan.

I think that those people in that church hallway were asking the same question that the lawyer asked Jesus in Luke Chapter 10: “Who is my neighbor?” 

Happily, this means that Jesus gave them a fairly direct answer.  Here is what is says:

And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
 And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

The priest and Levite both know better.  They work in the temple; they would know that Leviticus 19:34 says that if you see a stranger in need, you do whatever it takes to meet his need.  Exodus chapter 23:4-5 says if you find even your enemy's donkey astray, you make sure you rescue the man's donkey, let alone the man.  The priest would have taught this; the Levite surely would have known it.  They would surely have known the sayings of the prophet Micah, who said on behalf of God, "He has told you, O man, what is good.  What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?"  Both the priest and the Levite would have known all of that.
But they also knew some rules.  The stranger might have been dead, and it is forbidden for someone who serves in the temple to touch a dead body.  If either of them did, he would have to undergo a lengthy purification ritual.  The man sure looked dead -- Jesus said that the thieves had left him half-dead, and it could have been hours since then.  The priest and Levite knew the rules, and they kept the rules.  And in this instance, the rules meant more to them than compassion did.  They did not see the injured man as their neighbor; they saw him as a problem.
And now the story has its twist.  In verse 33:
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was:
If we know anything of Jewish/Samaritan relations, this is likely to be the worst possible thing to
happen to the injured man.  We assume the injured man is a Jew because this is Israel and a certain man in Israel would be a Jew -- so there lies this Jewish man.  And now into the story comes a Samaritan.  The assumption is that the Samaritan is not going to be any help at all, because the Samaritans and the Jews held each other in the most bitter contempt. 
Samaritans were of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, and some claimed to be Levites.  After the Northern Kingdom was taken captive in the Babylonian Exile, Samaritans remained in the land, which was then taken over by Gentiles.  These Ephraimites and Manassehites who remained in the land intermarried with the Gentiles, for which they were despised and hated by their cousins because they had “sold their birthright” and (in the eyes of the Jews) polluted the pure strain of God's chosen people.  
How much were they despised?  When Israel, led by Nehemiah, came back from Babylonian captivity, they wanted to rebuild the wall.  The Samaritans showed up.  In Ezra Chapter 4, the Samaritans who showed up were referred to as “the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin,” but they still offered to help.  They went to Zerubbabel, and said, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God, as you do.”  They want to reconnect with their Jewish roots, and rejoin the family.
But Zerubbabel and Jeshua said, “Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves will build.”  The bitterness was that deep.  So the Samaritans then turned to be their enemies, all the time the Jews are trying to build the wall, Samaritans try to prevent them from doing it, led by a man named Sanballat. 
Eventually the Samaritans built their own temple, on Mount Gerizim.  And in 128 B.C., a hundred and twenty-eight years before Jesus' birth, Jews from Jerusalem went and destroyed the Mount Gerizim temple and killed some of the Samaritans.
The animosity was profound.  Whenever a Jew traveled from north to south, or south to north, by far the easiest way would be to go through Samaria.  They never did -- they went around Samaria.  Nobody went through Samaria.  They wouldn't put the dirt of Samaria on their shoes, the hatred ran so deep.
And it cut both ways: a Samaritan was no more eager to interact with a Jew than a Jew was with a Samaritan.  This is important: the Samaritan has his own rules.  He’s not supposed to do what we all know he’s about to do.
and when he saw him, he had compassion on him...
This is where the Samaritan takes center stage in the story.  And here comes the main point: he puts aside all the rules and regulations and thinks of the big picture.  Samaritans are religious: the Samaritan religion claims to be the true Judaism.  So he must experience some of the same issues that the priest and Levite did:  He’s asking himself what the rules are, but he takes it just a little farther and asks himself, “Ultimately, what is the point of my religion?  What is the goal?  What is God trying to make of me?”
In my work we would say that he’s focused on the strategy and not the tactics.  Strategy is what executives think about: what are we trying to do as a business?  Who are we?  Tactics are the day-to-day activities that ideally are supposed to support the strategy.  But sometimes they don’t, and we have to watch that.  That’s really been my job as an executive in various businesses: to make sure that I’m keeping an eye on the big picture, and to ensure that the things that people are doing every day are keeping us on that path.
I hope you understand what I mean here.  I’m not saying that you don’t want to keep the rules, that you don’t want to follow the commandments.  That’s absolutely not what I’m trying to say.
But I also think that if you think of the scriptures as a rulebook, you are missing the entire point of religion.  God is trying to make something of you and me, and it’s worth asking ourselves, all the time, what He is trying to do.  It has something to do with kindness.  It has a lot to do with losing the temptation to judge others.  It is almost certainly about you and me learning to express love without putting conditions on that love.
Notice how the Samaritan loves.  His lack of conditions on that love is breathtaking, and the more you think about it, the more breath it takes away. 
First of all, he saw him, and he felt compassion.  This is where it all begins, something in his heart just goes out to the man, the way our hearts should ache for those who suffer around us -- a sadness, a grief, a sympathy, a driving need to rescue and recover the man. 
And so verse 34 says, "He came to him."  He doesn’t call up to him, ask him how he’s doing.  He goes to where the man is.  He evaluates him and gives careful attention to what's going to be required for his rescue and recovery.  He discovers that the man is alive, but has some wounds -- in Greek word is trauma. 
And so it says that after he came to him he bandaged up his wounds, and there is a lot of information there.  The scripture says that the man is naked, so whatever the Samaritan used for bandages came out of his own bag.  He used his own clothing.  You can picture that he starts tearing up his own clothes -- if not the ones he was wearing, then perhaps extras that he carried in his travel bag -- and he starts bandaging the man up. 
The scripture tells us that in the process of binding the wounds the Samaritan also pours in oil and wine.  Wine was used because of its fermentation as an antiseptic, and the oil would soothe and soften the damaged tissue.  The Samaritan wasn’t wandering around with a medicine bag.  He carried wine with him to drink on a long journey, and oil to cook with.  The Samaritan is divesting himself of his own clothing, and he's divesting himself of his own provisions. 
After doing his best to handle the man’s wounds, the Samaritan drapes the injured man over the back of his donkey and takes him to an inn, walking beside his living transportation, holding the man on to make sure he doesn't come off. 
After a time -- we don’t know how long, but it couldn’t have been around the block --, the Samaritan gets him to an inn.  This wasn’t Jerusalem; this was somewhere on a dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho.  An inn in a place like that would have been a meager place at best.  I wouldn’t suspect that the innkeeper was an honest man, though I guess he might have been.  Most weren’t.  But there was no choice here; the Samaritan needed to find a place to offer this man some rest and care, so he no doubt took whatever he could get.
And then the scripture says wonderfully, "And took care of him."  Having negotiated the place to stay, the Samaritan took the man in, put him down to rest, continued to work with him with his bandages, continued working with his wounds, provided food, sleep, comfort, water, cleansing.  And he did it all night.
How do we know that?  Well, because it says so in verse 35, "And on the next day..."  He stayed with him all night.  He set his whole agenda aside.  He gave up his own clothes, his own supplies, his own time.  This is amazing for a stranger who was his worst enemy.  And he stayed all night by his bed, making sure he was cared for.
And that wasn't all: in verse 35 it says, "On the next day he took out two pence and gave them to the innkeeper and said, 'Take care of him.'" Wanting to go on his journey the Samaritan now puts him in the care of an innkeeper, and gives the innkeeper two pence.  I spent a long time wondering, how much is two pence in those days?  So I looked it up and did a little math.  Sources from that day suggest that the cost of a night at a low-end inn in those days would have been about 1/32 of a pence.  So he gave him enough for something like two months worth of room and board.  Even if I’m wrong about it being meager and it’s a better place, the Samaritan left the innkeeper with somewhere between a month and two months worth of room and board for the injured man.
The story goes even further when the Samaritan says to the innkeeper in verse 35, "Take care of him and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you."  Now he has exposed himself to serious extortion.  Unbelievably, he's left an open account. 
The whole story is remarkable -- even more than we thought at first, isn’t it?  He stops.  He tears up his own clothes to use for bandages.  He uses his own provisions to speed healing, and then he pays for two months’ stay and leaves a blank check with the inn. 
There are two points to this story, I think:  First, that here is an example of boundary-less concern.  There was no end to what he would do, and there was not a moment’s concern for who this poor stranger was.  Didn’t matter that he was a Jew.  He could have been rich, poor, a good guy, or a bad one.  None of it mattered.  There was no holding back of his desire to bless.  It depended on nothing.
Second, and here is the point I’m trying to make: He let the principles, the big-picture things, rule over the little rules and regulations about how he was supposed to interact with Jews. 
So now go back with me to that hallway conversation: what is the answer to those who wonder whether they should accept the dinner invitation?  I’ve tried to figure out what their point is: are they trying to express their disapproval?  Is the condemnation of our brothers and sisters a gospel principle?  Is that what Jesus was trying to teach us?  Is that part of God’s strategy for you and me: that we become really good at expressing our disapproval of others?
It’s worth noting a couple of things about Jesus: first, that the primary thing that people in his day criticized him for, is that he hung out with the wrong crowd.  A prophet, they said, would find a better class of people for friends.  But Jesus was never very concerned about how things looked to others: he saw goodness in fishermen and tax collectors.
Second, it’s worth noting that Jesus really reserved His criticism for people like the Pharisees and Saducees who all shared the same trait: they became so wrapped up in following all the rules that they forgot to pay attention to whether or not they were becoming good people.
Brothers and Sisters: I know that this is the kind of talk that can be taken all wrong.  But you’re smart folks, and you’ll figure out how to take it correctly.  God has a strategy, a big picture, for you and for me -- and we should keep that always in the forefront of our minds.
So, do you take that dinner invitation?  Do you home teach without judgment and with real love?  Of course you do.  God’s strategy, His big picture for you and for me, asks us to open our arms wide to welcome, and our hearts all the way without reservation.
I leave these thoughts with you in the name of Jesus.  Amen.