Thursday, March 1, 2012

Beyond the Dead End

I am at a dead end in my journey back to the LDS church. I'm frustrated, I feel anxious and alone. I wonder what I am doing back in church, and many of my friends wonder the same thing. I often feel that no matter what my intentions, getting back to the LDS church is filled with all kinds of difficulties, not the least of which are my excommunicated status and my long-term same-sex relationship. I also remain a skeptical soul. Advising me not to question, or telling me to fast and pray simply is no answer for me. Finally, the persistent call from all quarters to be obedient, repeated endlessly, sounds to me like a soulless mantra, robbing me of my agency and my intelligence. I am at a dead end.

In this spirit, I wrote an email to an LDS friend, setting down five or six reasons why I was feeling frustrated. Today he replied with an answer that gives me hope in my journey. He called the LDS church "our crazy family," and that description fits for me. The LDS church is family, and that is one compelling reason for me to be there. I feel connected to the members. That doesn't mean that I'm comfortable, but I know the drill. I'm realizing that my challenge isn't a matter of finding my place in the ward, but rather making my own place in it. I'm having to be far more extroverted than I usually am.

When I go to church, I want to keep my personal principles directly in front of me. I'm not an Iron Rod kind of guy, more a Liahona Mormon, and not even a cafeteria-style one, more like the soup and salad bar. There are whole parts of the menu that I ignore. I don't think this makes me any less a Mormon. I'm never going to pass an official litmus test of Mormonness, anyway, so I'm just going to baldly claim that I'm a Mormon, and let it go at that.

So here's what I believe that is consistent with Mormon practice, doctrine, and faith: I believe the gospel of Jesus, but don't question me too deeply. I believe in the prophetic call of Joseph Smith, but don't question me about the nature or consequences of his prophetic life. I believe the Book of Mormon is a prophetic revelation, but don't question me about claims the church makes about the historical nature of the Book of Mormon. I do have a testimony, but it's a narrative of belief, not a proclamation of truth.

More to the heart of my belief: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. I know, I ended that verse early. That's my skepticism kicking in. I have real difficulty believing in God, particularly a personal God that cares about me, but no problem believing in a personal Jesus, not so much that Jesus cares for me or loves me, but that his message speaks directly to my heart. The miracle of the gospel for me is that it touches my heart. The gospel has an uncompromising message of love, which subsumes doctrine and practice. After love, everything else is detail. The devil is, I believe, quite literally in those details. Because it's the doctrine and practice which divide us, and through that separation so much pain and hurt comes into this crazy Mormon family. Some of us walk out. Some of us get tossed out. Some of us silently nurse an unending hurt. Some of us shine in the love of Jesus and reach our arms around the rest.

I am surprised by the the lack of a distinct and coherent theological message from speakers in sacrament meeting, from Sunday School teachers, from Priesthood Quorum instructors, and from the General Authorities. It wasn't always so. Here is a community that has a sweeping explanation of good and evil, of the nature of humankind, of the creation from before the beginning of our time. It includes connecting all of us in one eternal family back to the very beginning. I hope that every Sunday we will all delight in hearing taught this amazing faith of ours. Instead, I hear so much less: obey, and be modest seem to be the lessons most taught. The LDS faith promises a great gem, but too often our theology is locked away for safe keeping, too precious or sacred to be examined.

I am determined to get beyond my Dead End. I feel confident in my own testimony. I feel confident in my own Mormon narrative. I've appreciated the many acts of kindness and love that church members have proffered, members in my local ward, and Mormons from all over who have encouraged me to embark on and continue my journey. I tentatively offer what I'm learning: when thrust into the life of a ward, members of the ward expect you to step up, introduce yourself, and tell part of your story. I have felt inhibited doing this because I felt that my excommunication and homosexuality would cause stigmatization within the ward. Consequently, I did not introduce myself in Priesthood meetings. I have been attending regularly for three months, now, and many members recognize me from Sunday to Sunday. After the beginning of the new year, I began intentionally introducing myself to other members. When it comes up, I share my story with members, one on one. I also joined the ward choir. This gives me a group of members to get to know in a little more depth.

Because I attend services by myself, I don't fit into the family orientation of the ward. It makes me quite invisible. To ameliorate this, I've started sitting in the very center of the chapel so that other members have to sit around me. After sacrament meeting is over, I spend a few minutes introducing myself to the members around me. I think it makes them feel more at ease and welcome, and it certainly makes me feel more comfortable on the pew.

Excommunication also is a peculiar and practical barrier to ward involvement. I do not take the sacrament. I do not pray publicly in meetings or classes. I'm sure that some members notice that I don't participate fully. Also, because I am not a member, I'm not on ward lists. I am doing what I can to rectify some of this. I asked for a home teacher, and I am requesting that I be put on the ward list so that other members can contact me and so that I can contact other members.

The church's position on homosexuality is also a concern and a difficulty for me. My husband and I have been in a relationship for twenty-nine years. I expect that relationship to last for the rest of our mutual life together. Ron does not attend church with me, but if a member inquires about my family status, I reply that I have a husband. I am worried that the civil marriage act that was signed into law in Maryland (where I live), is going to referendum, and how the fallout (or propaganda) from that referendum may affect members' perception of me in the ward.

Which brings me to having an authentic voice in my ward. There are places at church where I can appropriately speak and share my perspective on issues being discussed, for example Sunday School class or Priesthood meeting, or in the foyer (or parking lot) after meetings. Most of the time, I do not feel strongly moved to participate in class discussions, but if issues are discussed that directly affect my situation (or impugn or lie about LGBT people), I will have to publicly speak out. Certainly, one-on-one with members in my local ward I have never had a negative reaction when I have told another member that I am gay or that I have a husband of many years.

I also have an authentic place in the life of my ward. Members in the LDS church do a lot of striving for perfection. Consequently, many of us carry heavy burdens of doubt, grief, guilt, and shame. We grow up with a personal holiness code, an impossible standard that is tweeked every Sunday with the gospel of obedience. We all fall short of the mark we set for ourselves. So my work in the ward is to be present for any member who needs my presence. I have felt the spirit in my life. It continues a transforming work in me. So I go to church to love my fellow saints. I strongly feel that call.

What's happening to me feels a little strange. I'll never again be a baptized member of the LDS church. Yet, I feel strangely (and strongly) committed to my place in my ward. I love this people. I pray for this crazy Mormon family. I believe, ultimately, that my prayers will be answered.