(Also published at RationalFaiths.com)
I 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.