Recently, I reconnected with an old friend from the ward I grew up in. He was a year ahead of me in the youth program. We are both gay.
We began our conversation via Facebook messaging. But I sensed a spiritual yearning on his part, and felt prompted to call him on the phone, where we could speak more freely. He told me his story – a story we’re all too familiar with in gay Mormon circles – about mission, marriage, career, kids, and then a marriage shattered and lives shattered by the inconvenient truth of the gay spouse’s sexuality. As he related the painful details we wept together.
Parenthetically, he’s not a “victim.” None of us are “victims.” I felt an incredible sense of awe of the sacredness of our lives, even in the messiest, most chaotic circumstances. This is how we often learn the most valuable and sacred lessons that life has to teach us: through trial and pain.
Despite everything he had gone through, I sensed the same gentle, compassionate spirit in him I had always known from the time we were youth. That flame had not gone out in his heart. As we conversed, I felt the Spirit. And I also sensed in him a yearning for the Spirit. He was intensely curious about the part of my journey that has led me back to activity in the Church.
I’ve told that story now many times and to many people, but in telling it to him – a friend I’d known when we were both teenagers – it felt like I was telling that story again for the first time. And I recognized the most fundamental truth of this story was about surrender to God, without conditions.
I have been a gay rights activist. In fact, I still am. I gave myself to the campaign for legal recognition of marriage of gay couples in my home state in an unprecedented way. I gave more money, more time, and more energy, and I took more risks in that cause than for any other political cause before or since. I was an organizer within the campaign; I was participating in phone banks every week; recruiting volunteers and then training them; knocking on doors; raising money. I regarded that cause as a sacred cause, because I did what I did in defense of my family. We finally won the right to marry in my home state of Minnesota last summer, and I consider it one of the great privileges of my life to have had the opportunity to fight for that cause and ultimately to be victorious. And I congratulate those of you gay, lesbian and bi men and women who live in other states where you do not yet have this right. Blessed are you, because this is a work that only you can do, and you will be blessed by it if you put your whole heart and soul into it.
Part of what I realized about this work is that I could not accomplish anything in it if I was coming from a space of anger or frustration or fear. If my goal had been to “stop the bad guys,” I think I would have burned out very quickly. If my goal had been to “right a wrong,” I might have been more easily discouraged. If I had believed that we “had to win,” I might have succumbed to despair. (I am not, by nature, an optimistic person.)
But my goals and motivations were of a different nature. Often when I went to the phone banks, I would bring with me a framed photograph of my family, of me, Göran and our son Glen. I would look at that photo, and remind myself that I was doing this because of a deep and abiding love for them; out of a desire to protect them; and to give a gift to my son that I didn’t have when I was his age. I refused to see the opposition as villains, as bad guys in black hats who had wronged us. I saw them as future friends; as neighbors and fellow citizens who simply didn’t understand yet, but who someday would understand, if someone like me had the patience and love to explain it to them. Finally, I trusted God to take care of and protect me and my family whether we won or lost the campaign. There are battles, and then there is the war; and I personally have been in the war for decades, and had always gotten along even in less auspicious times; God had always pulled us through somehow, and he always would. Somehow, that approach left me with a reserve of energy I never dreamed possible within me. Hope, faith and love kept me coming back day after day after day.
This was, ultimately, an act of surrender. Not a grasping, but a letting go.
So one of the fundamental recognitions that turned me back toward the Church was that I am a spiritual being and that I could not fulfill my spiritual needs through non-spiritual endeavors. I could not fulfill spiritual needs through material security; not through politics; not through philosophy; not through art; not through anything but spirit.
Oddly, I also found that I could not fulfill my ultimate spiritual needs at a church. I could not fulfill my spiritual needs by becoming a Lutheran or an Episcopalian or a Roman Catholic or a Pentecostal or a UCC’er. (I tried all of those.) Nor could I fulfill my spiritual needs by being angry at God, or denying God’s existence, or denying the reality of the human soul. (Intellectually I could buy the notion that it’s all brain function and hormones and DNA and what not; but my soul couldn’t buy that.) I had to acknowledge that I have a soul, that it is real, that spirit is real, and I had to acknowledge that God is real; and that when he speaks to me I need to listen to him. And I had to acknowledge that he had rekindled a spark of testimony in me and told me to come back to the LDS Church. So no other church could cut it for me. Like Jonah, I could have gotten on a ship and sailed in the opposite direction; I could have told myself the lie that it didn’t matter where I went or where I worshipped God, I could worship him anywhere. But that is not what God himself told me, and it would have been futile to hope that the thirst of my soul could be slaked in any other way than to do what God had commanded me to do.
Going back to the LDS Church put me deep in touch with certain kinds of pain and fear and anger that so many of us are so familiar with. During my conversation with my friend, we spoke about “fight or flight.” I have fought. I have fled. But there is a third option, and that is surrender.
Ways that I have fought have included shouting from the rooftops that the LDS Church is all wrong. Criticizing the Church or its members or its leaders didn’t help me. Trying to persuade people to see things my way didn’t help me. Putting too much stock in winning people over doesn’t help me. I’ve argued before, and have learned the hard way that arguments generally entrench your opponent in the rightness of their position. Contention breeds contention. I’ve never seen peace come of it, just dissatisfaction and frustration. I’ve found that buying into the notion that it is my mission to change the Church is a trap. I can’t speak for others, but for myself that premise eventually leads to burn-out and dropping out.
I fled by distancing myself. I used to say, “I’m not a Mormon, but I’m not an ‘ex-Mormon’ either. I don’t define myself by what I’m not.” That was denial. Or I’d say, “I don’t care what others believe!” Of course, the problem was never what others believed; it was what I in my heart of hearts believed. In truth, I cared about what others believed mainly when I was seeking some form of validation. But all the external validation in the world won’t help in the face of your own darkest doubts.
To seek God, to seek spiritual fulfillment, is ultimately a search for truth. And we cannot make truth, we can only discern it. And we discern only by listening, without fear. (If we’re afraid, our fears drown out the truth; we hear only our fears.) Finding this way of non-fearful listening is an act of surrender. It often comes after we’ve exhausted all our other options, all our other hopes, and we are just too tired to keep fighting or keep running. Then we have only that one option left: facing the unvarnished truth.
There are, of course, layers of truth. I think the search for ultimate truth is less like a light-bulb going on or a window opening, and more like an archeological dig. There are those flashes of light that create major shifts in perception. But the shift in perception is valuable because it allows us to pursue from an angle we had never explored, not because it reveals all the answers to us.
The archeological dig analogy of truth reminds us that our understanding can be completely transformed by what we find lying underneath. One of my favorite scenes in the original, 1968 Charlton Heston version of the film Planet of the Apes is the scene where Cornelius, Zira, Dr. Zaius and Taylor are at the site of Cornelius’ old archeological dig interpreting artifacts. Cornelius first describes his expected finding that at a level estimated to be over a thousand years old, there was evidence of a more primitive ape civilization. But it is when they dug beneath that layer that they found disquieting evidence of a “more advanced” civilization, with a “human doll,” “found beside the jawbone of a man, and no trace of simian fossils.” It was this evidence which led Cornelius, in Zira’s words, to “a brilliant hypothesis – that the ape evolved from a lower order of primate, possibly man”!
This scene was full of intended irony, meant to parody the debates that still rage in our own society over Darwinian theory and the challenges that theory may or may not pose to our own “sacred scrolls.” Whatever you think about men descending from apes or the other way around, the archeological analogy rings true. Each time we strike a new layer of facts, it forces us to reinterpret every previous layer we’ve found. Now imagine eternal truth as a million layers down from where we currently are digging.
So it shouldn’t disturb us that others, with different fact sets, hold truths different from our own.
Real life archeologists are extremely patient beings. These are the kinds of people who are accustomed to conducting digs with toothbrushes. And we should be patient as well.
It was a visit to another gay Mormon friend of mine during the past year that taught me the value of patience, and became a kind of touchstone to me through all the various challenges I have faced and continue to face. Like me, this friend is excommunicated from the Church and is in a committed relationship with a man. Like me, he attends Church regularly and strives to live his faith as a Latter-day Saint despite external constraints on his ability to participate fully in the Church. I was deeply inspired by ways in which this individual offered service in his ward – bringing meals to sick members and preparing food for ward socials. When attending church with him, I was moved to watch his interactions with other members of his ward. I could tell that they’d come to rely on him, because he’d shown himself to be reliable. I was a witness of how Zion is built through our simple, unglamorous, day-to-day actions.
I honestly don’t believe there will be any sort of a “break-through” in relation to the issue of LGBT folks and the Church without a deeper, more transcendent commitment, one that expects not instant answers, but a daily commitment to becoming better, more forgiving people. Love and forgiveness is our “toothbrush.” I believe it is not some dramatic revelation received by the prophet about the nature of homosexuality that will save us, but commitment to the first principles of the gospel, faith and repentance.