Friday, December 16, 2011

Making the Story Real

I walked the grounds of the Washington DC LDS Temple this evening with my husband. He noted that the lights were quite beautiful. I responded, "I think it looks like a Disneyland Nativity Theme Park." Bah humbug and so forth.

The scene unfolds. Happy people pour into the Visitors Center and onto the grounds, delighted and entranced by the spectacle. Elder Santa Missionary greets them coming up the sidewalk, "Merry Christmas! Welcome! Thank you for coming!" He means it. He's happy we came.

Colored lights shine everywhere, green, blue, red, and purple. Glittery strings drape every tree and shrub on the temple grounds, a million twinkly points of light to conjure up an ancient scene transpiring in the parking lot, complete with Mary, Joseph, the Babe, shepherds, and angelic voices singing hymns of praise while a loud, omnipresent narrator's voice tells the story.

I don't believe Jesus was born in a parking lot in Bethlehem. I don't believe it was a happy time for Mary and Joseph. I don't believe the ancient scene was adorned with a million colored lights. I don't believe the missionaries were there in Bethlehem. I don't believe that an announcer was giving bystanders the instant play-by-play action. I don't believe that hundreds of people were milling about watching it all happen in the stable. Bethlehem was a holy birth not a light show.

The scene at the temple is beautiful, but it's far removed from Bethlehem. Enjoy the lights, but remember, it's a production. It's not the real thing.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top 10 Reasons Why I Came Back to the Church

I started attending the LDS church again on November 20, 2011 after a 30-year absence. I am doing this knowing that I will not be able to be rebaptized in the church. I am also doing this knowing that I do not believe in many of the doctrines of the LDS church. I'm still pretty much the same apostate gay atheist excommunicated person that I was on November 19. I did not go back to church without a lot of thought and prayer(!) (yes, this atheist prays regularly). It's an uncomfortable fit right now, but you will see me on Sundays in the Kensington Ward of the Washington, DC Stake. Here's ten reasons why I'm back in the pew.

10. I need the love and support of my faith community.

Shortly after I was excommunicated by the LDS church, I started attending the Episcopal church. When I moved from Kennewick, Washington back here to Washington, DC, I quickly found St. Margaret's Parish, and attended it for many years. I love the Episcopal church, and I love its liturgy. It spoke to my heart and I felt the Holy Mystery of the eucharist every Sunday.

But belief eluded me. I felt like an interloper, like I was outside looking in – seeing the miracle wrought in the lives of other parishioners, but not feeling it in my own spiritual life. I wanted to believe in God and Jesus; certainly in my heart I wanted to believe. But my head just couldn't lead me there, and I couldn't bring myself to stay in the in the heart of St. Margaret's. So after more than five years, I quit going.

Even though I am skeptical about God, a Higher Being, a Universal Force, I have a spiritual life, and I missed not being in a faith community. Twenty-five years was a long desert to cross. So I'm returning to the faith community that touched me and made me its own. Because of who you are and what you call yourselves, I expect you to love me. I'm here. I'm yours.

9. I want to reconnect with my family.

When the LDS church and I parted ways, my already strained marriage pretty much fell apart. I lost my family, and I left it. I saw my children twice when they were growing up. All of my children have married in the temple, and all have remained in the church.

Coming back to church is a small way of coming back to my family. They may not be with me in the pew, but I'm sharing with them every Sunday in thought and deed the motions, habits, and reflections of their Sabbath. I remember them. My sitting in the pew is a token of my faith that the God in whom I do not believe can work on the messy details of my family. I do not believe that I'm an accident or a victim diverted from exaltation by a mistake in the Plan of Salvation. The God that I imagine in my heart is bigger than that. So I sit in the pew and wait (and pray).

8. I want to grow in an unconditional love for my faith community.

Just because I'm a skeptic doesn't mean that I don't believe in something. I believe in the all-encompassing love of Jesus. I believe in his example and devotion. While I may doubt the miracles and the stories, I don't doubt the teachings about love and sacrifice.

Being Mormon is part of my DNA. Just as I expect my community to take me in, I want to take it in as well. I want to love these people, and love them in their shoes, and not offer them up a version of my shoes. I want to listen, to share burdens, to walk beside them, to comfort them, to love them because that's what people who are in love do. I seriously wonder if I can do it. But that's a big part of why I came back. I want my heart to grow again.

7. I need to examine seriously my (lack of) Mormon faith.

I am examining in my life what I mean when I call myself “Mormon.” Some members may make the claim that I'm not even that, because I'm not a member of the LDS church, and I live a life that precludes me from ever returning to full fellowship in the LDS church. Some of my non-LDS friends think that I have a weird case of Stockholm Syndrome, that after I escaped from church thirty years ago, I have a need to go back.

The Mormon Myth is astonishing. The Restoration is astonishing. Set inside the ancient Christian narrative, our Restored collective notion of God has a much larger story. In my saner moments, I ask myself how can Christianity possibly be true. Mormonism confronts my skepticism with a much more problematic improbability. How can I reconcile the mythic restoration with the historic facts? Why did God restore The Church in historic time? Is this another cosmic joke? If I am to walk in faith within the LDS church, it will have to be a walk in spite of the facts, but I do need to know and understand the history of the Myth.

And my identity: why do I still call myself Mormon? Why is it in my bones? I cannot examine that outside the church doors. So I'm going to church. It doesn't fit very well. I'm not comfortable in my Mormon identity. I want to know what that discomfort is all about. I want to experience the discomfort, because I think it's in my distress and distrust that I shall truly discover my Mormon identity.

6. Someday, I'll be reconciled within the LDS church.

My relationship with the LDS church is quite simple: I'm not a member. But the truth goes deeper than that. My kids and grandkids are in the LDS church. I've gone around the last thirty years telling people that I'm a former Mormon. I've dropped the former. I was wistful in my former days. Now, I just bite my tongue a lot in Sunday School. Every Sunday I am confronted by ten dozen Mormon Stories, most of which aren't told, and I want to know them. What makes these people tick? Why is it such an itch under my skin?

I have another relationship with the LDS church. It has an expansive theology that has the capacity to embrace me and the realities of my life, if only it will. If I am not in the pew, I will never experience that. Someday, the Mormons will reconcile their families and embrace their same-gender loving daughters and sons. I'm not holding my breath for it to happen, but it will, and maybe I'll be sitting in the pew to see it. What a glory day for Zion it will be, don't you think?

5. I claim my Mormon® identity within the LDS church.

It may be an urban legend, but I heard once that the LDS church tried to trademark the term Mormon®.

My church, my faith community kicked me out, tried to rob me of my spiritual integrity (and my sexual orientation), then blamed me for it. My pitfall was thinking and asking questions. Somehow the Mormon didn't get kicked out of me. I really am a Mormon, and I go to the LDS church on Sundays.

4. I felt strongly moved to get back in the pew.

After I discovered Mormon Stories on Facebook, I attended two of their conferences, the DC Regional conference and the “Circling the Wagons” (LGBTQ) conference. At both gatherings, speakers challenged their listeners to remain in the pews. I felt strongly after each conference that I needed to go back to church. I did not go back without praying about it. I consulted with church members, with family, and with members of Mormon Stories. People offered encouragement, love, and support, which confirmed my feelings and my resolve.

The trip back has been good. The members of the Kensington Ward are gracious and warm. I talked with the bishop, and he was very welcoming. So the possibility confirms my feelings, too. So far, I've avoided all public introductions. I think by now that most people in the ward recognize that I belong there, even if they don't know my name. When people privately ask me questions, I answer them truthfully. No one has been unfriendly or put off by my presence.

All that being said, being excommunicated carries a stigma, so I've not mentioned it except when asked. Being excommunicated also carries restrictions, such as not speaking publicly in meetings, not receiving the sacrament, and not praying in meetings or classes. Those restrictions impede my path to being fully integrated in the ward life. At some point, I'm going to have to talk with the bishop, or the high priest group leader and ask for some clarification about how I fit in.

3. Members in the LDS church need love and succor from those of us beyond the reach of the LDS church.

I have a unique vantage point in my ward. I'm very much on the outside looking in, and I'll always be on the outside. Some of our ward members are in great pain whether it be grief, illness, or crisis of faith. I can share that burden with them. I don't have to believe what they believe, I only have to love them. That's all I'm called to do, and that may be the only calling I'll ever have. I think that's a pretty good calling.

2. My faith community needs to see my witness.

The LDS church needs my witness. It needs to know the truth about my life, and the truth about my life needs to be seen in my ward. The truth is this: my life has worth. Just because I'm gay or I struggle with my own unbelief doesn't mean I don't belong here. Because the LDS church cannot find an institutional means to have me back, I'll sit in the pew, waiting, bearing witness to the truth I know about my life, and the lives of other LGBT-SGL people. I'm not going away anytime soon.

1. My brokeness, openess, and presence can work for change in the body of Christ.

So I'm back in the church building sitting in the pew. It's not an easy place for me to be. I'm not sure what kind of a Mormon I am. I have a lot of anxiety.

When I left the LDS church thirty years ago, I felt beaten up. I felt robbed. I was angry and bitter. I was shunned. I lost my family. I had a big empty hole in my soul. Thirty years heals a lot. Sometimes, I still feel the pain of leaving, but the bitterness is gone. I used to believe that I was broken because I was homosexual. Now I realize I'm broken because I'm human. We're all broken. We all fall short of God's glory. Every single one of us falls short.

Sometimes we're shepherds. Sometimes we're sheep. The wisdom is in knowing the difference. When I'm a sheep in the Kensington Ward, I trust that a wise shepherd will set me right. When I see a sheep in distress, I hope I will have the shepherd's instinct and love for his sheep.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Top 10 Reasons Why I Left the Church

I recently listened to a podcast on Mormon Expression that detailed the “Top 10 Reasons to Leave the Church.” It got me to thinking what my own reasons were to leave the LDS church. I've written the reasons below. I'm writing from thirty years ago. So the recollections may be pure fabrication. It's through a haze of memories, some of which were full of pain.

10. The congregational music was awful.

I was a convert to the LDS church. I was used to loud, rousing music from the pews. As a Methodist, I learned to sing forcefully the praises of my Lord. That just didn't cut it in the LDS wards in which I worshipped. It was really a shock to me that this church put so little stock into the singing of its music. Mormons don't even stand up when they sing! Over the years, this minor irritation became much larger. I would try to salve it by always singing in the choir. It seemed I was always the backup priesthood chorister. I could never convince the brethren to sing with any feeling at all. It gnawed at me the whole time I was a member in the LDS church.

9. The Sacrament Meeting liturgy was a joke.

The LDS church has a liturgy, but it is an overstatement to say that it is “low church.” Although the LDS church celebrates the sacrament every Sunday, it is not like the eucharist in the Roman Catholic or Anglican traditions. It is not even like Methodist Communion. The whole sacrament part of Sunday worship consists of two young men (usually) saying a prayer over the bread and the water(!), and passing the elements to the congregation. The whole thing seemed so prosaic. It took me years to learn to focus on the prayers and on the experience of the sacrament. And I have come to realize that the very ordinariness of the sacrament is its strength. We can find the body and blood of Jesus in the very midst of our lives. Thirty years ago, though, the sacrament was sometimes very difficult for me to get through.

8. LDS Church Standards often have nothing to do with morality.

The LDS Church has standards, some of which do concern morality, but many which do not. I did not have a lot of problem with standards relating to honesty, chastity, etc., but I had real issues with standards that related to appearance. I did not then, nor now, believe that wearing a white shirt, tie, and jacket improves my relationship with Heavenly Father. I have difficulty supporting modesty standards that punish women because of the way their dress affects the male sex (a better standard would be to inculcate the priesthood with its own modesty standard about how to relate to women appropriately).

A larger issue for me in the church was its orthopraxy, with its emphasis on right conduct. Although I kept the Word of Wisdom as a church member, I do not believe that God cares at all about alcohol, hot drinks, and tobacco. These were the only parts of the Word of Wisdom that seem to have traction with members. The rest of the advice (and it was advice) seems to be ignored. I guess the heart of this issue is I didn't believe that many of the practices of the LDS church had anything to do with enhancing or elevating my relationship with God and Jesus Christ.

7. The LDS church revises its history.

This is beginning to get to the meat of my disaffection with the LDS church. This church continually re-invents itself, and recasts its history. I don't object to the principle of continuing revelation. I do object to the erasing of history, the changing of “facts,” and the reinterpretation of the past that is at odds with contemporary historical records.

When I started studying the historical record around the First Vision, the translation of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith's business activities, (this list could go on and on), it shook my testimony. Ultimately, I stayed in the LDS church for many years despite this knowledge because I realized that the mythic story of the founding of the Mormon religion happened in historic time. The fiddling, blemishes, embarrassments, and apologetics are simply part of the landscape of this religion. Still, I felt each new “discovery” I made was assaulting my integrity. Becoming a Mormon is not for the faint of heart.

6. Some doctrines of the LDS church are weird.

When I joined the LDS church, I knew that many of its doctrines were different than the Methodism I grew up with, but I was unprepared for the sheer sweep and amount of that difference. I was brought up in a Protestantism that provided a corrective to Catholic theology. The Mormons weren't out to correct Christianity. They were out to replace and reinvent it.

There is much in LDS theology that is familiar to converts from Christian denominations. There is also a steep learning curve. The LDS church doesn't talk much about blood atonement anymore. It disavows the Adam-God theory. It accepts men of African descent in its priesthood. Admittedly, these doctrines may be called outliers. The Mormon faith has mainstream doctrines that seem alien to outsiders, including an anthropomorphic God, a pre-existence of the soul before this life, what appears to outsiders as a conditional salvation, and a heaven with three separate kingdoms.

Practices that took some getting used to included doing baptisms and sealings for dead people so that the dead could have the same opportunities for salvation as the living. The notion of celestial marriage and exaltation, that is making the family links between the generations eternal in heaven was a little mind-blowing, which isn't to say that it's not beautiful or untrue. There's just nothing like it in other Christian denominations, and scant support for such a view of heaven in the traditional Christian scriptural canon.

Of course, in addition to the traditional canon of scripture, members of the LDS church believe the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are also divine scripture from Heavenly Father. Twice each year, the LDS church leadership provides counsel at the church General Conference, and that counsel is regarded by most members as scripture. If you are a True Believing Mormon, you accept all of this. If you are the least bit skeptical, you will experience profound cognitive dissonance.

5. The members were burdened with guilt.

After I got over the initial flush of conversion (this took at least a couple of years), I noticed how guilt-ridden many saints seemed to be. This really depressed me. Many LDS church members are striving to be perfect, to live every law of the Gospel, to honor covenants that they have made at baptism and when they have gone through the rites in the temples. When members fall short, they are deeply and spiritually pained. There is a reason that the lectern on the stand in the front of the chapel has a box of Kleenex®.

Most members appear to have a very strong personal holiness code that they've developed and personalized over the years. The code is nuanced and tweaked every Sunday in every meeting. Members are always being exhorted to be obedient: to God, to the Holy Spirit, to the Prophet, to the Apostles, to their bishop, to their priesthood leaders. The road to perfection and exaltation is long, narrow, and difficult. The road to failure is much shorter and much wider. The pain Mormons feel from the guilt is real. Suffering runs deep.

4. The LDS church often pays lip service to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

When I was growing up, I heard a lot about Jesus at home. Jesus was a Methodist. Jesus loved us, and through grace he covered our shortcomings so that we could have joy in fulfilling God's will. I don't ever remember that religious duty was heavy. I didn't know about the “rules.” The only rules taught us kids were the Golden Rule and to love our God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.

LDS church members talk about Jesus and his atonement, and the grace born out of his atonement, but it's a very different grace than what I had learned as a child. Mormon kids learn another scripture about grace, 2 Nephi 25:23.

“For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”

That grace, to me, seemed like low-octane fuel.

In their meetings, members often quote their prophets, but they aren't as likely to preach from the New Testament gospels. I think some LDS church members distrust the Bible, because they are always reminding themselves of their Eighth Article of Faith

We believe the Bible to the the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

It is my perception that church members regard the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants to be more trustworthy than the Bible because of this caveated correctness. Members can never be sure what parts of the Bible are translated correctly, with the express exception of those portions translated by the prophet, Joseph Smith. So the real story of New Testament grace is suspect. It doesn't get told in the same way. It gets trumped by other Mormon scriptures.

3. I'm gay, and I'm not broken.

Long before I joined the LDS church, I realized I was gay. I did not realize what an issue that would become in the LDS church. While I was attending college, I met another LDS student, and he and I became involved with each other. We talked to our bishops and stake presidents, and I got a phone call from the then-President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Spencer W. Kimball. To this day, I remember his gravelly voice, and him telling me that he had scheduled an interview for me with one of the church's general authorities. I talked with Elder Henry D. Taylor, and he promised me that if I got married, “it will solve your problem.”

Gay men should not get married to cure their homosexuality. And, to its credit, the LDS church no longer advises gay men to do that. However, because many such men have a well-developed personal holiness code from their church upbringing, and a desire to achieve exaltation in the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom, they go ahead and get married. In my own marriage my homosexuality was not as big an issue as my skepticism about the church doctrines. But I know that it was a tremendous strain on my wife, and I'm quite sure had we remained married long enough, the issue would have become magnified, especially if I had developed a relationship with another man.

My bishops knew that I was gay. My wife knew that I was gay. Some of my priesthood leaders knew that I was gay. Eventually it became a burden. They wanted me to change, and I refused. I did not believe I needed to be fixed.

2. I couldn't look an investigator in the eye and say, “Now do you understand why the church had to be restored?”

I was struggling with my lack of testimony, my skepticism. I really wanted to believe but my testimony simply wasn't there. I remember fasting and praying. It seemed to me like I was always fasting and praying, and still no testimony. My wife, my home teachers, my bishops would tell me that I simply wasn't fasting and praying hard enough. But years into the project, I realized, it was never going to happen. I resolved not to worry about it, to trust that God would take care of my lack of testimony. I would do my callings, exercise my priesthood, be a good father, a caring home teacher, a loving husband. I would get through it!

Then, I got called on a stake mission. I remember memorizing the discussions. I remember tracting. And I remember asking an investigator, “Now do you understand why the church had to be restored?” and not being able to look the investigator in the eye because I knew I had no testimony, that I would never have a testimony, and that I felt the LDS church was not true in the way that members believe it to be true. I was devastated. I immediately asked to be released.

1. God's love was completely conditional, and Christ's sacrifice ultimately didn't matter.

The “after all we can do” finally wore me down. I didn't have a testimony of the LDS church or its doctrines. I didn't feel God's love at all. The grace of Jesus seemed out of reach, even though I had experienced it, and knew that it was real. My life was outside Christ's atonement. No matter how much I fasted and prayed, I was gay and a skeptic without a testimony. I wanted the fullness of the gospel, and I knew I could never have it. I couldn't stay in the LDS church. I had to leave. Within a few weeks, I was excommunicated for apostasy.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Do You Desire to Surpise Your Female Partner at Night?

How do I answer this question that I found in my spam folder? I was raised to believe that, really, no one likes surprises. So I guess I do not desire to surprise my female partner at night. I'm afraid the surprise would be on me to find out that I had a female partner at night, and it would be a surprise that I am sure I would neither desire nor like.