Of Pain and The Journey

(Also published at RationalFaiths.com)

ironrodI am not an expert on pain.  I am not even sure I have a very high tolerance for pain.  My experience has largely been within the protective circle of a loving family and the doctrines of the Mormon Church.  I have never drunk alcohol.  I have never had coffee but I frequently dance on the edge by drinking caffeinated sodas.  I served an honorable mission and married far above myself in the Los Angeles Temple.  I have five beautiful, healthy children who have all excelled and are on pace to be better men and women than I.  I have no room to complain about life and you could say that my life has been blessed.

As members of the Church we have beautiful ideals that we live by.  The Proclamation on the Family is a powerful statement of these ideals.  Joseph Smith restored marriage from an earthly tradition to an eternal covenant that sealed not just a husband and wife to each other, but also to the family of God.  Our Mormon ideals don’t just target heaven, but we target the highest degree of the highest, bestest (Celestial) kingdom.

There is truth and protection in obedience to commandments that are designed for our happiness and safety.  Certainly, obedience can save us from much pain and suffering.  We have high standards and in the last generation we have ‘raised the bar’.  We model modesty and our clean cut missionaries circle the globe on bikes.  Mormons are renowned for actually living what they believe.  These are all amazing, wonderful things.

A year and a half ago, through the grace of a loving God, my wife and I discovered that our oldest son, Jordan, is gay.  He was alone and struggling with the complexity of an issue that has confounded prophets and driven countless tender souls to take their own lives.  My son felt the need to hide these new feelings to avoid ridicule and scorn.  Any yet even that act of self-preservation made him question whether his friends would still be his friends if they truly knew him.  And deeper still he lived with the fear that his family would reject him, that the Church he had been raised in would reject him and that he would be truly alone.

You see, five years ago I went from house to house advocating for Prop 8 in California.  Of course, I took time to review and study my religious ideals to come to a firm conviction that what I was doing was right.  Ultimately, I felt that the path my religion offered provided a better, happier path in life.  Stepping off that path has significant consequences that lead to heartache and unhappiness.  I felt that the “Traditional Family” is one of the most important things in this world, and worth defending and protecting.

What my then 9 year old son understood is that his family had no tolerance for gay people.  That gay people were lesser, deviant and chose evil.  He was suffering and in pain.  We were blessed that the Lord led us to understand what he was going through.  We were blessed that as parents we have been able to lift him up, support him and shield him.

But, oh the pain that life can inflict.  We were quickly acquainted with the persecution and intolerance that high ideals and perfection can breed.  We became familiar with the pain and stories of families broken by the suicide of a loved one.  We became familiar with the devastation of unyielding Mormon parents who threw their children out of their homes.  We became familiar with the tales of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, promiscuity and porn.  We heard the tales of the AIDS epidemic wiping out men and women in their prime.

As parents, there is a deep pain that you can’t avoid.  You mourn for the life you dreamed of for your child.  You envision peace and growth, happiness and success.  With a Mormon boy you expect the priesthood, mission, college, marriage, fatherhood and a future, young blossoming family.  For a Mormon you feel the eternal repercussions of lost opportunity.

Yet in our Mormon mindsets of perfection and purity, we often see only failure when expectations are not met.  Such was our initial feelings of loss when our son came out.  To be completely honest, there may always be an ache in my heart for what I wanted for my son.  But that is pain set to teach me.

In Mormon lore there is a great visual dream from a Book of Mormon prophet.  He sees a straight and narrow path that leads to the Tree of Life.  There is an iron rod the length of the path that we can hold to representing the scriptures.  Around the path is treacherous terrain with a deep gorge, a dangerous river and a mist of darkness, shrouding our sight.  A mighty building holds people who mock and deride those trying to get to the Tree of Life.  It is taught that holding to the rod and staying on the straight and narrow path is the safest and only path to the tree.

The man who spends his whole life on the straight and narrow path will never have the empathy or compassion for those traveling in the mist of darkness.  We always figuratively see letting go of the iron rod as sinning or rejecting the commandments.  Yet there are many who never find the iron rod or have opportunity to travel the straight and narrow path.  Life is lived for most of us in the mist of darkness.  In paraphrasing an old J. Golden Kimball quote, “I didn’t always stay on the straight and narrow path, but I crossed it as often I could (paraphrasing from memory).”

Might I suggest for those of us who have been blessed to travel for a time on the straight and narrow path that letting go of the iron rod and stepping off the path might have another purpose.  Hopefully, I can illustrate this with my own personal experience.  Five years ago when I advocated for Prop 8, I didn’t know one gay person (that I knew of).  In my insulated society, I could only see my friends as we traveled the straight and narrow path to a Prop 8 victory.

What I couldn’t see was that my son was not on the path with me.  Yet from the moment I knew my son for who he is, I have run to him and our family has rallied around him.  But from the straight and narrow path, all my friends saw was me disappearing into the mist.  And what they did not see from their vantage was that my son’s life was in danger.  Many, I am sure think we are lost.

But oh, what we have found!  In the bruising, painful journey to find our son, we have arrived at a place where multitudes look and search for the Tree of Life, but have been rejected from the known paths that might take them there.  Many are wounded deep in their hearts by wounds only those close to them could inflict.  And as we came to where they were, we got to know them.  And in the knowing, I began to gain a love and appreciation for them.  I began to recognize their worth to the Savior and to their Heavenly Father.  I began to realize that you cannot help those lost and in pain by standing still on the straight and narrow path.

You need to go to where they are.  You can’t just preach and yell and shame them back to the straight and narrow path.  Go to them.  Protect them from those that would mistreat or demean them.  Walk a mile in their shoes.  Use what you have learned from the scriptures to raise them up.  You don’t need to compromise your ideals to go to them.  Lead with your compassion.  Your purity will not be sullied by proximity.  If we truly are men and women of God and have the Gift of the Holy Ghost, let us lift up those in need.

“And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind….And He will take upon him death….That He may know according to the flesh how to succor His people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7: 11-12).

Our Savior did not stand idly by while others suffered around him.  He didn’t just heal them of their infirmities.  He suffered with them.  He endured pain.  He endured afflictions and temptations to be with them.  Ultimately he suffered death.  And the purpose of that pain was that He might know how to succor his people.

It wasn’t until I shared the pain of others that I found the compassion and mercy necessary to be with them.  I have found that I have not compromised my ideals, beliefs or disregarded the commandments on my journey.  I have found that the pain I have endured has awakened a compassion in me and a love for people I had never known before.  I still know exactly where the straight and narrow path is, but my primary concern is not how to get myself there.  The Lord has led me to where I am now.  My greater concern is how to get all those I have grown to love, not necessarily just to the path, but to the Tree of Life.  Who knows, it might be just beyond that rainbow.

9 comments for “Of Pain and The Journey

  1. Gina
    September 11, 2013 at 8:57 am

    (LOVE the last line!)

    It’s beyond me how anyone who perpetuates fear towards our LGBT brothers and sisters thinks they are on the straight-and-narrow path and somehow we (who love unconditionally) aren’t.

    I have my own saying: I may be straight, but I refuse to be narrow.

  2. Jim H
    September 11, 2013 at 9:39 am

    By going to your son, loving the people in his world, and opening your heart, you have not let go of the iron rod or stepped off the path. You have followed the footsteps of the Savior and kept your baptismal promise to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those in need of comfort. You didn’t step off the path. You stepped down out of the great and spacious building and got back on to the path.

    • Gina
      September 11, 2013 at 9:47 am

      “You didn’t step off the path. You stepped down out of the great and spacious building and got back on to the path.”

      YES! Perfectly said. Something like that has been mulling around in the back of my mind the past week or so. Every time I hear the “world” being referred to as the great and spacious building, I can’t help but think that some of the Church culture behaves as if they are in the great and spacious building, mocking those of us trying to live Christ-like behavior by loving and accepting our LGBT brothers and sisters. You said it perfectly. I can rest now. :)

  3. ProTruth
    September 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    http://www.lds-mormon.com/only.shtml

    By his choice, Tom is Mormon. By his choice he raises his children in Mormonism. By his choice he campaigned against the civil rights of men and women seeking equal treatment under the law.

    I see the struggle and do offer sympathy, perhaps pity, but ultimately it is the Mormon, the Mormon parent that makes the choice to believe and teach Mormonism. I wonder if this man would still associate with the hate preached by his Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer against homosexuals if he were not forced to Adapt because of his son. By his own admission he made it through a great deal of adulthood without the friendships of “sinful” homosexuals. Perhaps to this day he prefers to limit his association to church approved homosexuals (homosexuals that only feel homosexual, but abstain from acting sexual on their feelings until their death and eternal refurbishment), I don’t know.

    I can hope that he will see the “straight and narrow” as an arrogant fraud. The Mormon church is full of Pharisees and Saducees who fixate on a laundry list of not drinking coffee or alcohol while having at its’ core hate filled bigotry against homosexuals, people with dark-skin, and adherents to belief systems other than their one true straight and narrow path.

    I am hopeful for Jason that he will be safe. His mother appears to be prepared to protect him from their religion, think of all the Mormon parents who are teaching their straight children to hate her homosexual son, because they don’t have a homosexual child to force them to know a homosexual.

    Tom will begin to find Truth when he chooses to begin to let go of his belief that Mormonism is the straight and narrow. Perhaps this will happen when he sees his son break the modified Mormon rules that will allow him to be homosexual while forbidding him to act homosexual. That is when it will be more clear which he prefers his son or his beliefs. I hope he will choose well. The world has too many religious people espousing confidence in their straight and narrow and not enough just trying to be nice people.

    By the way, if you think drinking coffee is a sin, that’s a silly choice. It’s not a sin. Doctrine against homosexuals, now that’s a sin. The Mormon church has abhorrent sin in its’ doctrines.

    • Daniel Parkinson
      September 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm

      Tom has written several posts for this blog, and he has made his support for LGBT youth clear. He has also expressed regret for participating in Prop 8 and supports gay marriage. He also happens to be an extremely dedicated ally for LGBT Mormons and he and his family have sacrificed a lot to protect their son and promote LGBT rights both within Mormonism through LDS Family Fellowship as well as in their community at PFlag. They have many homosexual friends who are in same-sex relationships (me included) and they are anticipating that their son will choose gay marriage. In fact, all this is what he is talking about when he talks about going off the straight and narrow. His conscience took him away from standard Mormon viewpoints and took him into what most Mormons would consider the ‘wilderness’. He found that this was the most Christ-like thing to do. He wrote this essay precisely to point out that what most people in Mormonism consider the ‘straight and narrow’ is not where he was able to be with his son. He needed to go with his son outside of standard Mormon orthodoxy so that his son could grow and thrive without hostility, and with his family’s support. Now many Mormons consider that Tom and his family are now ‘lost’.

      I see that you don’t agree with Mormonism, but we need to remember that the LGBT youth within Mormonism badly need people like this family, who are willing to admit their mistakes, and then who make up for them by showing love and support for their son, and for all the other LGBT people who they advocate for. In my mind this family has made up for their mistake a thousand times over already and they are still ready to do more. This is not a family that is willing to sacrifice their son for ANY ideology including Mormonism, but they are an amazing example of a family who is trying to navigate Mormonism in a way that is embracing of their son and also that contributes to a change in our Mormon communities for ALL LGBT Mormons.

      • ProTruth
        September 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm

        Thank you for Daniel for your reply and insights. I was shooting for stern and if I missed beyond stern, I regret my aim. I see Tom’s beautiful family and I am very familiar how he was raised to look at human sexuality and the struggle in which he is now involved. It is so personal it seems to be nobody’s business, but then we have the Mormonism part of his story.

        Fortunately millions of people. very few that are devoted Mormons, who love his son and humanity regardless of sexual orientation have been long embattled with the fundamental beliefs and powerful resources of organizations such as the Mormon church. These organizations have forestalled justice and mercy far too long and must be defeated.

        I am loving his family and want them to do well, but I just need to express that in spite of all the training to see Mormonism as essential to life and eternity it can be an impediment to being the best person we can be. Donations and tithes, time and talent go to buildings, temples, mindless meetings and rituals, political campaigns like Yes on 8 and not to non-denominational soup kitchens, hospitals, and community centers. I would love to see the Mormon church exclusively fund a centers for youth in San Francisco and Los Angeles that find themselves on the streets regardless of religion of origin and begin to introduce its’ LDS membership to the damage they do to others with their iron rod by requiring them to participate in that effort. Much better time and money spent to help the living, than the silliness of the temple rituals for the dead.

        Tom speaks with such fondness and admiration of the straight and narrow that it is hard to see the person you describe. It is if he is saying “if only”, but you have heard him say otherwise and I believe you.

        Of course the Montgomery’s are great people and they will be most valuable in the change that has long been underway, and perhaps the niche needs of the Mormon church can be addressed in this area in spite of its’ stubbornness and commitment to backward doctrines. I just must say it again–choosing to believe Mormonism is the choice, not homosexuality. People choose to be Mormon, people choose to believe the Mormon doctrines, rituals, and fantasies. It would be nice to have Mormons stop training their children to have an elite, straight and narrow view of humanity. If that were to happen though, Mormonism as we know it today, and certainly since 1830 would exist no more.

        I wish them all the best and I find them lovely. I just hope that the Mormons don’t use them in a video campaign to slap an “I am Mormon” label on them and claim they care about homosexuals.

        • Daniel Parkinson
          September 15, 2013 at 8:55 am

          My greatest hope is that the Mormon Church uses them in a video campaign to slap an “I am Mormon” label on them!! That would save hundreds or even thousands of LGBT youth from suicide.

          People are going to keep believing in Mormonism (and Catholicism, and Evangelicalism, and Islam). Let’s accept that and help the church become a place that isn’t destructive to the children and teens who do NOT choose their religion because, like me, they were born into it.

  4. chris
    September 22, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    Great, great article. However, there is a serious flaw that ought to be changed. I understand your comparison of the iron rod to cultural orthodoxy, but that is not what it is. It doesn’t seem like you strayed from the straight and narrow path at all, not even for a brief moment. You even affirm that you never violated your standards. And I’m sure you didn’t stop reading the scriptures, which is what the iron rod represents

  5. Bryan K
    November 28, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    Thank you Tom

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