Sunday, June 29, 2008

In the hands of the Lord of the harvest

This week I finished reading the account of the mission to the Lamanites (Alma 24-29). The story about burying the weapons of war screams to be discussed, but I’ve decided to save that for some future reflection. I feel moved, instead, to use today’s post as an opportunity to reflect on my mission.

As Ammon and Alma reflect on the mission to the Lamanites (especially in chapters 26 and 29), three themes stand out to me. First is love. In 26:9, Ammon rejoices that he and his companions have been able to love and be loved by people they thought of as enemies, as Other. In 26:13, 15, he rejoices that he has been an instrument in bringing people to “sing redeeming love” and that “they are encircled about with the matchless bounty of [God’s] love.” Ammon characterizes the burying of the weapons as a sign of the converts’ “love towards their brethren” and suggests that there has never “been so great love in all the land” (26:32-33).

A related theme is that of the worth of souls. Ammon says that he and his companions embarked on their mission with the “intent that perhaps we might save some few” (26:26). Had they been able to do that, they anticipated, their joy would have been full (26:30). In other words, their years of labor and everything they suffered would still have been worth it if instead of converting thousands, they had converted just a few. Immediately D&C 18:10-15 comes to mind. This is an utterly, utterly impractical way of thinking—all those years of work would have been worth it if you’d saved just one soul?—but what we’re being told here is that this is God’s way of thinking. That’s how much every individual matters. That’s how much God loves each individual.

Alma builds on this theme in chapter 29. He starts off with his famous wish that he could be an angel and preach with a voice of thunder to every soul (the way he was preached to), so that “there might not be more sorrow upon all the face of the earth” (29:1-2). But immediately he retreats from this grandiose wish: “I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me. . . . Why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?” (29:3, 6). Instead, Alma glories in the possibility—the sheer possibility, mind you—that “perhaps I may be an instrument in the hands of God to bring some soul to repentance; and this is my joy” (29:9). (I wish, frankly, that I’d gotten this message more often when I was a missionary: that being called to work for even the potential benefit of a single person is a sufficient reason for joy. It would have been a healthier message than being told there was no reason I couldn’t baptize thousands if I was just obedient enough and exercised enough faith, as per Alma 26:22.)

A final theme that stood out to me is the hope or trust that God will preserve the converts. Ammon uses a harvest analogy: the sheaves have been gathered into the garners, where they will be safe from storms. “They are in the hands of the Lord of the harvest, and they are his” (26:5-7). Alma closes this week’s reading by praying that God will grant that missionaries and converts sit down together in God’s kingdom, “that they may go no more out, but that they may praise him forever” (29:17).

What does all this mean to me? My mission to the Dominican Republic was the most powerful experience of my life because it was the only period in my life (thus far) when I have been blessed to experience full-time ministry. I feel guilty at times about the fact that the mission continues to be my life’s spiritual high point, because I’ll get to thinking that there’s no reason I couldn’t be having new powerful experiences of service to others. I worry that instead of going out and undertaking new forms of service, I’m sitting around enjoying the self-satisfaction of fondling the memory of service past. I think that’s a valid worry, and I think it’s the Spirit goading me to get out there and act.

At the same time, it’s also true that the mission was a unique experience because I was more separated than I will probably ever be again from mundane concerns. Virtually all I had to do for two years was go out and immerse myself in other people’s lives. And that’s what made the mission such a powerful spiritual experience: relationships. I met people—strangers, from another culture, another race, another history, another economic class—who allowed me to become intimately involved in their lives, their interior lives, their religious lives, their personal problems, their family problems. It occurs to me as I write this that the intimacy was not altogether reciprocal—they weren’t as involved in my life as I was in theirs because of the hierarchical nature of the missionary relationship. But I was certainly more open with them about my interior life than I am with most people with whom I daily interact. (Barring this curiously self-revelatory yet anonymous blog . . .)

I’m talking about this at an abstract level. Let me tell a story to make it more concrete—and to bring together themes from the week’s reading. In 1997, four years after completing my LDS mission, I returned to the Dominican Republic to work as an education volunteer in a set of isolated mountain villages. One day the other American volunteers and I drove into Santo Domingo. I made my way by bus to a shantytown on the outskirts of the city, beyond the city dump, where I had opened the area for missionary work in 1992. I dropped in on a woman—let’s call her Yolanda—whom I had baptized with her husband a few months before her husband unexpectedly died of a bleeding stomach ulcer. They were poor people, living with their four children in a one-room shack, but happy in a way I still have a hard time understanding. (I don’t mean to romanticize poverty; I’m just trying to explain how they approached their lives.) I have powerful memories of reading the scriptures by candlelight in their home, or taking my battery-powered portable keyboard to sing hymns together. Yolanda’s husband’s favorite hymn was “Know This That Every Soul Is Free,” which I was therefore pissed to see get cut from the new Spanish hymnal. Yolanda devoured the Book of Mormon—she loved to read. Random memory: I’m smiling as I remember the little pinwheel they drew onto their cardboard wall to spin to determine who would offer family prayer.

Back to 1997. When I arrived at Yolanda’s home, it was a wonderful reunion. We sat outside the house, I saw the kids, how much they’d grown. And as we talked, I learned that Yolanda was no longer active in the Church. She was now living as some married man’s second woman. That’s a not uncommon arrangement in the DR: it’s a way for women to get by financially. (Another woman I baptized early in my mission, who was very poor, was living in such an arrangement by the time I finished my mission.) So after the visit was over, I made my way back to the hostel where I was staying. Dinner was over, but my plate was still sitting on the table out in the back patio. I sat down alone and started to eat—and then out of nowhere I just broke down sobbing. (I’m tearing up as I write this, dammit.) There was this little boy playing on the patio—he was staying in the hostel while he waited for surgery—and as I sat there crying, he came over and stroked my hair and asked, “Qué te pasa? Qué te pasa?” What’s wrong? What’s the matter?

I thought at the time: It’s stupid for me to be crying about this. I mean, I’m no longer active. What entitles me to expect that Yolanda stay active? In fact, of all the people I baptized during my mission with whom I’ve managed to reconnect, only one is still active in the Church. Ironically, that person is someone whose baptism I didn’t really take seriously. She was the teenaged maid of the bishop of the ward where I was working, and I was sure she was doing this just to please her employer. Plus, she was a soltera, a young single woman, which put her at the bottom of our mission’s ranking of desirable converts. (Families were at the top, followed by single men, who at least could become priesthood leaders.) But in 2000, I revisited that ward and found that she was still active. Wipe the egg off my face.

What am I trying to say here? I thank God that I was blessed to experience the relationships I did during my mission: relationships with people I baptized, relationships with already baptized members, relationships with investigators who were never baptized, relationships with people who never really became investigators. I think about Chieko Okazaki’s cat’s cradle: the intersecting lines of our relationships which take their shape from the empty space between them, which is Christ. I believe that. I experienced Christ in the relationships I forged during my mission. And I pray that I did some good through those relationships. People had so many problems that we, as missionaries, were really powerless to do anything about. I’m thinking of one man who briefly gave up smoking, at his own initiative, right after we started teaching him. He wanted to quit so badly, and he was so addicted. But he didn’t go to church, so we dropped him, the way we were supposed to. I feel awful about that now. In the long-term, my mission is full of stories of failure like that one, at least if failure is defined as baptism and Church activity. And that’s when I have to trust in the teaching that the relationship itself—the love we shared for as long as we were together—is reason enough for my joy to be full. What has happened to all of us since then, and what happens in the future, is another matter. “They are in the hands of the Lord of the harvest, and they are his.” We are encircled about together in the matchless bounty of God’s love, and I hope that someday we’re able to sit down together in God’s kingdom and reminisce about the old times.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ammon: Missionary extraordinaire, cultural imperalist

As I’ve been reading about the mission of Ammon and his brothers, my thoughts have been running in at least three directions. (1) I’ve been reading this as a story about changing people’s minds and hearts and lives through God’s power. How can I, too, be an instrument in moving people to overcome false traditions of their forebears—which to my mind would include sexism, racism, homophobia, nationalism, consumerism, and laissez-faire capitalism? (2) At a more cerebral level, I was intrigued by the possibility of a feminist reading, based both on the roles that Abish and the queen play in proclaiming the gospel and on the conflict between Lamoni’s commitment to the gospel and patriarchal authority, as distilled in the confrontation with Lamoni’s father. (3) And this is what I want to write about today: I’ve been reading this missionary account against itself as an account of cultural imperialism.

Here’s my “method.” I’m reading the text in a loosely deconstructive way. In other words, I’m looking for “slips” or “lapses” in how the author has crafted this narrative, which reveal that there are alternative ways to craft the narrative, ways that don’t serve the author’s interests. For example: In Alma 1:15, we read about the execution of Nehor. The author wants a scene in which Nehor confesses his wrong-doing before he dies—we have similar scenes in the story of Sherem and the story of Korihor. I guess the significance of such a scene is that it helps to legitimize killing him. A confession like this needs to be voluntary to have the force the author wants. But in Alma 1:15, the author slips and gives away that the confession was compelled. Note carefully what the text says: “. . . they carried him upon the top of the hill Manti, and there he was caused”—oops! the author catches himself and moves quickly to correct—“or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God . . .”

That’s how I’ve been reading the account of Ammon’s mission: finding places where the text gives away that things are going on which don’t fit quite so well into the moral coloring that the author wants to give the story.

All right—what do we have? The cultural imperialism implicit in what the missionaries is doing becomes overt in Alma 23:5, where the writer enthuses that thousands of Lamanites have been “brought to believe the traditions of the Nephites.” The missionaries’ message—which, of course, they understand as universal, the gospel of Christ—is explicitly equated here with the traditions of a particular people. Ammon and his companions aren’t just teaching about the Creation, and the Fall, and the Atonement. They’re also teaching a Nephite version of history. We learned about the Lamanite version of history back in Mosiah 10: the Lamanites believe they were driven out of Jerusalem because of their forebears’ iniquities; they were wronged in the wilderness and while crossing the sea; Nephi usurped the power to rule and then robbed Laman and Lemuel by taking off with the brass plates, etc. Lamoni’s father invokes this vision of history in Alma 20:10, 13. From the Nephites’ point of view, the Lamanite version of history is simply “the traditions of their fathers, which were not correct” (Alma 21:17). In the Nephite version, Nephi was chosen by God to rule because he was righteous and the Lamanites’ ancestors were wicked. Ah yes, and there’s also that business in the Nephite version of history about God cursing the Lamanites with a dark skin so that the Nephites wouldn’t intermarry with them (2 Ne. 5)—which is interesting to bear in mind when you read about Ammon declining Lamoni’s offer to marry one of his daughters (Alma 17:24-25). Ammon and his brothers may love the Lamanites deeply enough to suffer privation for the sake of saving their souls; marrying a dark-skinned girl is a different matter.

Lamanite conversion has political, and perhaps economic, consequences for Nephite-Lamanite relations. We’re told that the converted Lamanites “were friendly with the Nephites; therefore, they did open a correspondence with them, and the curse of God did no more follow them” (Alma 23:18). The reference to the curse being lifted is important because it means that from the point of view of Nephite ideology, the converted Lamanites are a people with whom the Nephites can now have legitimate dealings: they can be allies, not enemies. This same verse tells us that the converted Lamanites “began to be a very industrious people,” which makes me wonder if their “correspondence” with the Nephites is meant to imply trade. The political ramifications of Ammon’s mission are important for explaining why the rest of the Lamanites respond so violently to converts beginning in chapter 24: as they quite accurately perceive, the converts are forging an alliance with those whom most Lamanites regard as a mortal enemy.

The Nephite dissenters—the Amalekites and the Amulonites—oppose the mission for similar reasons. As people who fled Nephite rule, the last thing they want is to see an expansion of Nephite political and cultural influence, especially when Nephite society is so strongly influenced by Christianity, a religion that opposes their own, i.e., the religion of Nehor. (Recall that until Alma gave up his seat as chief judge to dedicate himself to revival, the highest legal authority in Nephite society was also the high priest of the Christian churches and an avowed opponent of Nehor's religion. You might read that as helping to explain the violent hostility Alma encountered in Ammonihah.) The situation of the dissenters is similar, at least from their own perspective, to the situation of the Mormons, who fled the United States to relocate in what was then part of Mexico—only to find themselves, within a year, back under U.S. jurisdication as a result of the Mexican-American war, which quickly led to conflict between the Mormons and the U.S. government. The Amalekites fear a similar fate.

The chapter heading to Alma 23 says that after his conversion by Aaron, the Lamanite king proclaims “religious freedom.” Well . . . not really. What the king proclaims is that the missionaries cannot be detained or mistreated—fair enough so far—but also “that they should have free access to [the people’s] houses, and also their temples, and their sanctuaries. And thus they might go forth and preach the word according to their desires . . .” (23:2-3). The reason for this proclamation, we’re told, is because the king desires “that the word of God might have no obstruction, but that . . . his people might be convinced concerning the wicked traditions of their fathers” (23:3). This is not a declaration of religious freedom for all. This is privileged treatment for the religion that the ruler has come to favor. The king can’t force his people to convert, because the kind of conversion experiences that the missionaries want have to be voluntary by their very nature; but he can compel them to listen. According to the king’s decree, you can’t keep the missionaries from preaching at your religious gatherings (imagine the Amalekite reaction). You can’t even keep them out of your house!

There are hints that Lamoni also uses compulsory measures to spread the Christian message in his kingdom. Even though Lamoni, unlike his father, does appear to proclaim religious freedom for all (21:22), we’re also told that “he caused that his people, or the people who were under his reign, should assemble themselves together,” at which point he, and possibly also Ammon (the chronology’s unclear), preach and teach (21:20, 23). On the subject of compulsion, note that Ammon has no scruples against using the threat of death to get what he wants, including advantageous political concessions, from Lamoni’s father (20:21-25).

What am I learning from this deconstructive reading that’s relevant to spirituality? What I’m thinking is this: The author of the text intends us to see the missionaries’ work in black and white terms. They are proclaiming God’s truth, saving the Lamanites’ souls. How could that be less than praiseworthy? But the text itself allows us to discern things differently. There are ideological or political implications to the missionaries’ work that are not so clearly praiseworthy, especially when viewed from the perspective of others. I’m not trying to invert the black-and-white reading of the text, suggesting that we ought to see the Amalekites as the good guys and the missionaries as villains. I’m suggesting, rather, that instead of reading this story in black and white, we should be reading it in shades of gray.

The spiritual significance of this is that it cautions us against equating our own politics, ideology, culture, etc., with the gospel. As soon as I write that statement, I realize there probably isn’t anyone in the LDS Church who would disagree with it. The problem is, I think the majority of people who go around talking about separating the gospel from culture or partisan politics don’t do it nearly as well as they think they do. And I include myself in that. As people who are trying to apply gospel principles to assessing the righteousness of what goes on in the world around us, it is inevitable that we will equate the gospel with certain normative political and cultural judgments. I do that when I say that I believe God supports same-sex marriage as an expression of God’s zeal for justice. Church leaders do the same thing in a very different way when they instruct members that God opposes same-sex marriage. Obviously, we can’t both be right. In another post, I’ve said that I suspect we’ll find in the final reckoning that God isn’t on either of our sides because God's love encompasses us all despite these kinds of conflicts. But in the meantime, we still have to go on making those kinds of judgments according to our best lights.

But here’s the difference: If you see the world in gray instead of black and white; if you recognize that your perspective almost certainly doesn’t match God’s perspective as closely as you think; if you have a strong sense of the limitations of human knowledge, including our ability to accurately discern God’s will as revealed in scripture or to distinguish revelation from our own ideas, fears, and desires—if you do all that, it can be a corrective, a restraint. It can keep you open to continuing revelation that will revise your present understanding, and it can prevent you from exercising unrighteous dominion. But if you see the world in black and white; if you subscribe to an understanding of scripture that tends to insist on straightforwardly accepting the text’s claims and judgments; if you understand prophetic authority in a way that discourages an interrogatory attitude toward the teachings of church leaders—if you do that, then you’re walking a much more dangerous path. You’re less likely to be open to corrective revelation, and you’re more likely to practice unrighteous dominion without recognizing that’s what you’re doing. That’s what I see Ammon and his companions doing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"Re-baptism" anniversary

Today is the 10-year anniversary of a "re-baptism" ceremony I performed during a return trip to the Dominican Republic that I took with my then-partner and a lesbian friend who, like me, had served her mission in the DR. That's me in the photo, ten years ago, looking very serious. The trip was a pilgrimage of sorts. I wouldn't have articulated it this way at the time, but in retrospect I realize that I was hoping to tap back into the spiritual power I'd experienced during my mission.

At the time I took this pilgrimage, I'd been inactive in the LDS Church, and living as a selectively out gay man, for going on three years. But I'd come to realize that I didn't really have what I could call a testimony that coming out of the closet was what God wanted me to do. That mattered to me because I felt constantly bombarded with messages that living "the gay lifestyle" is wrong, and I felt vulnerable to them. The late 1990s were a pretty intense time for gay-related politics in Utah, so a lot of these messages were coming at me from politicians, or conservative organizations like the Eagle Forum, or people writing strident letters to the editor—in addition, of course, to LDS leaders. And I still carried orthodox LDS voices in my head—my mother's voice, primarily. So I had begun a process of frequent spiritual journaling, similar to what I'd done during my mission when I wanted to strengthen my testimony of the Restoration, where I addressed the voices head-on, studying out issues in my mind, deciding what spoke to my mind and heart, praying to know if what I was thinking and doing was right.

The pilgrimage to the DR was part of this process of recovering a strong spiritual foundation. I don't remember now how I got the idea of a "re-baptism," but the purpose of that gesture was to symbolically recommit myself to God. Also I'd say (I wasn't really conscious of all this then), I was trying to reach out to God—to strengthen or rejuvenate our relationship.

On June 18, 1998, we drove out to a beautiful but empty beach at the eastern end of the country. My friend Sara and I walked down to the water's edge. Sara invited me to articulate my intentions for this ceremony. I talked about a David O. McKay quotation I'd recently discovered that had spoken to me quite powerfully. McKay was talking about one of his favorite subjects: free (yes, he called it "free") agency.

I would like to say to youth everywhere, we desire them to feel free to do as they please. We want them to feel happy in that thought, too. [He then quotes from the hymn, "Know This That Every Soul Is Free."] Once we share this sense of freedom, we are conscious of the fact of responsibility. . . . And that consciousness is what brings your soul into activity and makes it an independent entity, the real offspring of our Father in heaven.
I told Sara that I wanted to feel the freedom David O. McKay talked about. I had made choices for my life based on my own best lights, and I wanted to feel good about that. I wanted the inner strength and security of conviction that I wouldn't feel threatened by anti-gay voices. Then Sara and I waded out into the surf, and Sara cupped her hands to sprinkle water onto my head. When we came out of the water, I picked a small piece of coral up from the sand to memorialize the occasion. I still have it.

If I were performing a personal ceremony like that today, I would do something more clearly rooted in the Mormon ritual idiom. But this was a time in my life when I told myself I was moving away from Mormonism. (The fact that I'm wearing a Sunstone t-shirt in the photo, and was meditating on teachings of David O. McKay, should probably have clued me in otherwise.) In retrospect, I feel that the ceremony accomplished what I'd hoped it would, plus some things I hadn't been looking for. It helped me tap back into the spiritual power of my Mormon roots. And as time went on, I gained the stronger conviction—the testimony—that I'd been seeking. I thank God for that.

By a curious sort-of coincidence, the ten-year anniversary of this spiritual recommitment is two days shy of the one-year anniversary of the phone call from my stake president that marked the beginning of disciplinary proceedings leading to my excommunication. That phone call came on June 20 of last year. Despite myself, I feel a vague impulse to read some meaning into that coincidence. The two events are milestones on the same journey, and though the road has taken some unexpected twists and turns, God is walking beside me the whole way.

Sunday, June 15, 2008


My Book of Mormon reading this week was Alma 13-16. Out of all the thoughts that occurred to me during the reading, I want to focus this post on Alma 13:27, where Alma says, “I wish from the inmost part of my heart, with great anxiety even to pain, that you would hearken to my words . . .”

From a previous reading, I had written in the margin next to this verse: “What do I most wish? What gives me pain?” That is, these words got me thinking about desire. Desire has been an important theme in my spiritual reflection over the past several years. I’ve come to believe that desire is a key dimension of the spiritual life. It’s by paying attention to our desires that we discern the guidance of the Spirit—what the Spirit is impelling us to do. It’s also how we discern our vocation, our mission on earth. Attaining our desires, or at least pursuing our desires, is how we achieve the joy God wills for us.

When I say “desire,” I’m not talking about spontaneous impulses. I’m talking about those desires that persist over years so that they become a driving force in your life. To paraphrase Alma: I’m talking about those desires that arise from what you apprehend to be the innermost core of your being; the longings, yearnings, aspirations, passions that won’t leave you alone, that keep coming back, that pursue you, that haunt you; the things that you can’t imagine living without, that you can’t imagine not doing; or alternatively, in the case of unattained desires, the things that you can’t bear to be without, that won’t let you rest.

Later in the Book of Mormon, the brother of Jared says that we have been commanded to pray to God “that we may receive according to our desires” (Ether 3:2). Nephi’s vision in 1 Nephi 11 begins with the Spirit asking him what he desires (1 Ne. 11:1). Twice during an appearance to the New World twelve, Jesus asks what they desire of him, or want they want him to give them (3 Ne. 27:2; 28:1). Some of the earliest revelations in the D&C include the promise, “Even as you desire of me so it shall be to you,” and, “According to your desires, even according to your faith, it shall be done to you” (D&C 6:8; 11:17). Also in these early revelations, we find an expansion of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus asks John, “My beloved, what do you desire? For if you ask what you will, it shall be granted to you” (D&C 7:1). These promises are a corollary to Jesus’ teaching that “whatever you shall ask the Father in my name, which is right, believing that you shall receive, it shall be given to you” (3 Ne. 18:20).

Obviously, these statements can’t be read facilely. For one thing, human beings have a knack for wanting things that are bad for us. So the scriptures’ promises about desire should prompt us to be discerning about the consequences of our desires, for ourselves and for others. “Trifle not with these things; do not ask for that which you ought not” (D&C 8:10).

For another thing, God can’t override agency—our own or others—to guarantee that we get the things we desire, even if those desires are right. Alma wishes from the inmost part of his heart that the people of Ammonihah will repent; but in fact relatively few do, and many of those who do are soon horribly martyred. In short, Alma doesn’t get his heart’s desire, though presumably that isn’t because of any lack of faith on his part. Many, many, many people never attain their innermost desires—slaves who never gained their freedom, suffragists who didn’t live to see women get the vote, people who never escape poverty. I could multiply examples endlessly, of course.

But what I hear the scriptures telling me is that God wants to give us the desires of our hearts. And to the extent that God is able to make that happen, God’s will is accomplished, and the work and the glory roll forward. An important principle to emphasize here is that God wills to give each person what he or she desires, and the scriptures make clear that God doesn’t expect us all to desire the same things. In the story of the Three Nephites, and then again in the story of John the Beloved as told in D&C 7, Christ gives different vocations and blessings to different people based on what he knows will bring each person joy. “You shall both have according to your desires,” Jesus tells Peter, referring to John, “for you both joy in that which you have desired” (D&C 7:8). This, I take it, is the logic of an afterlife composed of diverse worlds and glories: because in the end everyone will want different things, and God is perfectly happy to give each of us what we want.

There are three major desires, I’d say, that have shaped my life over the course of the past several years. One is the nostalgia that after my LDS mission kept pulling me back to the Dominican Republic. I’ve made a number of return trips to the island since then, the most recent being a mission trip to Haiti in December 2007. At one point I even went looking for a teaching job in the DR and received an offer from an English institute; but by then I’d realized that I didn’t have the emotional stamina to live there on my own, which is to say that I couldn’t have what I desired. That was a saddening, frustrating realization, and I didn’t really come to terms with it until almost a year later, during the retreat at the Trappist monastery I mention in my profile. But my desire for the Dominican Republic, and for the mission experience I had there, has been very important for nurturing my faith in God, my involvement in service, and my commitments to social justice.

A second major desire that has shaped my life has been my passion for writing about Mormonism, meaning both my Mormon studies scholarship and my interest in articulating liberal understandings of Mormonism. I’ve been writing in those veins since during my mission; I’ve been able to do quite a bit of publishing (or at least public writing), ranging from academic articles, to books like the Easy-to-Read D&C, to This passion persisted even through the years when I told myself I was moving away from Mormonism, and, in fact, this passion is largely what kept me rooted in the Mormon tradition after I became inactive. I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful that this is a desire I’ve been able to achieve. It is a chief source of joy in my life.

Third, there’s sexual desire, which as I understand it is about much more than hormones and genitalia. Sexual desire is an impulse toward intimacy—the desire to become one with another human being in a uniquely intense way, so that the two of you become one life, one soul, one flesh. It took me years to make sense of my sexual desire: first, to decide that I was gay; second, to decide to live as a gay man; and finally, more concretely, to begin to figure out how to build a life partnership with a particular man. This desire, too, is one I’ve been blessed to realize and a chief source of joy for me. There are a lot of people, of course—a lot of my fellow Saints, especially—who are convinced that it is wrong for me to pursue this desire. In the face of that opposition, I draw conviction from the knowledge that I prayed to seek God’s guidance about entering the relationships I have. I’ve taken comfort over the years in the message of D&C 7: that Christ gives to those he loves whatever will bring them joy; and if what brings someone else joy is different from what brings you joy, “What is that to you?” (7:4). “You shall both have according to your desires, for you both joy in that which you have desired” (7:8). As we’ve been promised elsewhere: God gives to all, liberally.


Desire of nations, Giver of all good gifts—

I give thanks for those wishes of my heart that I have seen, and am still seeing, fulfilled.

I give thanks for my experiences in the Dominican Republic and Haiti—for the relationships, for the physical environment, for the way that being in that place makes me come alive. I give thanks for how my experiences there nourished my faith and shaped my politics. I gave thanks for the service I have been able to render during my various visits, small though that has been.

I give thanks for my intellectual gifts and for the opportunities I’ve had to apply them to studying and expounding on the Mormon tradition. I don’t know how much service my writing has been to others. I pray that it will be of service—or at least, I consecrate it to you to do with what you will. But in any case, I give thanks for the joy that my study and my writing have brought to me.

I give thanks for being born in a time and place where I can live as an openly gay man. I give thanks for my partners—my first partner, with whom I first experienced the challenges of sharing my life with another person; and now my second partner, my current partner, the one I hope to be with for a lifetime and forever.

I pray for my parents, my siblings, and their families: may they have what they desire. We’ve all grown to have different desires, some of which are incompatible. I put that in your hands. I don’t know what else to do about it.

I pray for all the people I’ve known in the Dominican Republic and Haiti—those whose names or faces I still remember, and those I don’t. May they have the lives they desire.

This sudden thought seems strange to me, but I’ll say it anyway: I pray that you, O God, will have what you desire. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In Christ’s name, amen.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Maybe I believe in the afterlife more than I thought

Today I had the chance to finish a DVD I started watching a few days ago, a Dutch film called (in English) Antonia's Line. It's a beautiful, moving, lyric film about four generations of an idiosyncratic family, with assorted misfit hanger-on's, working a farm in Holland, I presume. I first saw the movie about ten years ago at The Tower, Salt Lake's independent theater.

Anyway, the reason I'm posting is because in one of those odd little coincidences that one of my spiritual mentors (now deceased) would have told me isn't a coincidence at all, there was this moment in the film when a little girl asks her great-grandmother if there's an afterlife, and the great-grandmother responds, "This is the only dance we dance." I hasten to add that in the context of the film, that line doesn't feel nearly as bleak as it may sound, since the film is a celebration of life and time. Still, when I heard the line, I thought, "No. Too bleak for me."

The coincidence here is that in the scriptural reflection I posted earlier this morning, when I was reflecting on Alma's teaching about the resurrection, I did my usual disclaimer about how I'm not really interested in whether there's actually an afterlife or not, because the value of LDS teachings about the afterlife for me is what I hear the Spirit telling me through them about how I should live in the here and now. Good and well. But watching Antonia's Line, I realized that I would simply not be comfortable saying, "This is the only dance we dance." Noble liberal that I am, tolerant of ambiguity and magnanimous toward secular humanists, I'm uncomfortable insisting dogmatically on the existence of an afterlife, and I certainly wouldn't maintain that disbelief in an afterlife leads to immorality since people won't fear future punishment. (I'm tempted to go off on a soapbox on that subject, but I'll save it for some future post). But I realized quite clearly today that LDS teachings about the afterlife are not dispensable for me. If I had children, I would not teach them that this is the only dance we dance. I would teach them that the scriptures of the Restoration tell us that someday after we die, we will regain our bodies and resume our lives with the people we love, possibly on this very earth and if not, then on someplace like it. When the kids get older, then we can complicate things, if their intellects run in that direction, with a conversation about the meaning of hope and looking forward with the eye of faith rather than knowledge.

Alma 8-12: On witnesses and resurrection

Before I launch into my scriptural reflection, I want to note that today my partner and I celebrate our seventh anniversary. Seven years ago, we exchanged vows during a commitment ceremony on the Saturday before Utah Gay Pride, which is held on the second Sunday of June. Celebrating our anniversary on Utah Gay Pride is the easiest way to remember the day, if not the date.

The ceremony was held at First Unitarian in Salt Lake City. Neither of us was Unitarian, but we liked the “pioneer” look of the space, and one of the ministers was happy to conduct the ceremony for us. The structure of our commitment ceremony followed the structure of the sealing ceremony—as is also true of an LDS civil marriage ceremony—though we freely revised to reflect a more liberal theology. It was important to both of us that the ceremony reflect our Mormon heritage.

Friends from various dimensions of our life attended: people we’d met though Sunstone; people we’d met doing volunteer interpretation work at Primary Children’s; members of the Spanish-speaking Episcopal congregation I attended during the late 1990s; members of Affirmation, the gay Mormon organization; members of Integrity, the gay Episcopal organization. After the ceremony, there was a reception with cheap but abundant finger foods and a small two-tier wedding cake we ourselves had baked.

I thank God for my memories of that evening, for the friends who shared it with us and helped organize it, and for our continuing partnership. There’s a lot more I want to say to God about that, but I anticipate it will get rather too personal to post here.


My Book of Mormon reading for this week was Alma 8-12. There are two themes I feel moved to comment on today: witnesses and the resurrection.

The text makes a big deal about the fact that Amulek is a second witness for Alma’s preaching. At first the people of Ammonihah ask Alma why they should believe the testimony of one man—then Amulek, as an insider to the community, stands up to attest that he has received his own angelic witness of the truth of Alma’s teachings. As a result, we’re told, “the people began to be astonished, seeing there was more than one witness who testified” (10:12).

Now, at one level, this faith in the persuasive power of a second witness is naive to the point of silly. I mean, really: Does the fact that there are two Jehovah’s Witnesses at your door instead of just one make you think, “Oh my gosh! Maybe they have the right religion after all! I’d better listen to what they have to say”? Of course not.

On the other hand, I can certainly attest to the psychological power of having someone speak up on your behalf. When you’re facing (literally or metaphorically) a hostile or skeptical audience, there’s a certain strength—a sense of support—that comes from having someone else say, “I think/feel/see it the same way.”

I don’t want to get maudlin about this, but living the Mormon tradition in the idiosyncratic way that I do can be lonely. I know from the feedback people have posted that certain things I’ve written at this blog or at have resonated with other people, and I’m grateful for that. But I also suspect that, ultimately, my approach to Mormon spirituality is too radical for most liberal-leaning people who are trying to work out a place for themselves in the Church; and I suspect that most Mormons who become as radical as I have simply give up on Mormonism. So I’m in a very strange position. As Jewish novelist Chaim Potok used to cheerfully acknowledge: I’m a freak. And, to be honest, that feeling appeals to my vanity.

Still, it gets lonely. There are scriptural precedents for that loneliness I can look to in order to make meaning out of it. Not all the prophets had the luxury of a second witness, or companion, standing at their side. A number of the prophets we read about in the Bible and the Book of Mormon appear as lone voices. Lehi, at least before the conversion of Nephi. Abinadi. Samuel the Lamanite. John the Baptist. The lesson I take from this is that following the path you feel the Spirit is calling you down may be a solitary journey. It may require you to face skeptics and critics alone. I accept that. In fact, knowing me, even if God sent me someone whose approach to Mormon spirituality was almost exactly like my own, I’d probably end up disagreeing with him or her as a point of pride. But still . . . marching to the beat of your own call can be lonely.


Alma preaches that in the resurrection our bodies and consciousness will be restored as they are now (11:43-44). This is consistent with other passages in LDS scripture which underscore that the resurrected life will be a continuation of our life now: the same bodies, memories, knowledge, character, and relationships (Alma 41:2; D&C 130:2, 18-19). It seems to me, in fact, that LDS scripture is more emphatic on this point than the New Testament.

Near the end of my mission, I taught a woman, Ramona, who was a Communist. Her father, who was Christian, had died a quite painful death not long before we met her. At one point Ramona asked him how he could go on believing in a God who would let him suffer like this, and he chewed her out for lacking faith. That experience, in connection with her grief over her father’s death and some other difficulties in her life, had shaken her up, which is why she was willing to hear us out. One day we were talking about the resurrection, and she said that she had a hard time with the notion of an afterlife because as a Communist—i.e., as someone committed to revolutionizing the world in the here and now—it seemed to her that promises of an afterlife simply served as “pie in the sky” to distract people from fighting injustice and inequity on earth.

An idea suddenly flashed into my head, and I became very excited. I told Ramona that if our eternal destiny is to live in a material world like this one—according to Mormon teaching, in fact, the celestial kingdom will be this very earth—then preparing for the world to come means learning now to organize the material world and its resources in the way God wills (which under the law of consecration includes equal distribution of goods on the basis of need, though I didn’t get into all of that talking with Ramona at the time. In retrospect, I probably should have). In other words, belief in the resurrection should make us take this world and its problems more seriously, not less—because we’re building now the world we hope to inherit hereafter.

I still believe that. I’m less committed now to the literal reality of an afterlife than I was then—at least, I’m less inclined to make firm assertions about the literal nature of the afterlife. But I continue to believe that teachings about the resurrection are intended to teach us how to live now. And I believe that LDS teachings about the resurrection are particularly instructive—because they emphasize so much the continuity between our lives now and our lives in the hereafter—about the importance of living now the kind of life we would want to live forever. We should build now the kinds of relationships we would want to experience forever; we should work on building now the kind of world we would want to inhabit forever. Because according to our tradition, when body and spirit are eternally reunited, we will pick up where we left off. We will occupy there the same kind of reality—the same sociality, the same glory, the same laws—we were willing to occupy here (D&C 88:22:33; 130:2). I believe that. When I say, “I believe that,” I don’t mean that I’m making an affirmation about what awaits us in the afterlife—at this point in my life I’m basically disinterested in that question. What I mean is: I believe that God wants me to construct now the kind of life and the kind of world I would want to last forever. And I have faith that if I do that, my life will be an instrument for whatever good God wills to bring about in the here and now—and, if that turns out to be the plan, forever.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Alma 5-7: Sacramental reflection

This is a follow-up to the reflections on Alma 5-7 I posted earlier today. I wanted to record/share something that occurred to me as I was blessing the sacrament for myself this evening at home. I'd laid out a saltine cracker and a mug of water, and as I was kneeling down getting ready to recite the prayers, I was looking at the cracker and the water, and I thought: "This is my spiritual sustenance? Christ's body and blood given for me—the meal that will make my soul never hunger or thirst—is this?"

[By the way, for those who think that business about "the meal that will make my soul never hunger or thirst" sounds more Catholic than Mormon—read 3 Nephi 20:8.]

And then I thought: Well, there's a lesson here. The food and drink God provides for the nourishment of my soul are simple. But they're adequate.

And then something else came to my mind: If this bread and water represent Christ's redemptive work—Christ's ongoing ministry of sacrificial love for the nourishment, liberation, and sanctification of all people—then they represent not only Christ's gifts to me, meaning Christ's atonement at work in my life. This bread and water also represent the work that Christ carries out in the world through me—the gifts of service that I give to God and others. They're simple. They're small. They're poor. They're maybe even stingy. But they're adequate—or at least acceptable.

That was important because as I was thinking today, and earlier this week, about what I have to learn from Alma 5-7 by way of self-examination, I'd been feeling pricked in my conscience about how little of my time and means I spend in service to others. I mean, I do approach my scholarship and my teaching as forms of service . . . but since that's what I do for a living, it isn't really a freewill offering of the kind I feel I should be giving. And a lot of what I think of as my spiritual practice—daily scripture reading, prayer, the weekly sacrament, the monthly fast, wearing the garment, this blog—these things are really more about my own identity work than they are about service to others.

So as I was preparing to take the sacrament today, I made a couple of concrete commitments: things I'm going to do in the coming months by way of volunteering my time for service to others. And this insight about the bread and water representing Christ's working in me—simple and poor though that work may be—made me feel that my commitment was acceptable. It's not really enough in the big scheme of things, of course. Only total consecration is enough. But in some small way, I'm offering up my gifts to nourish others, and that's good. Even if it is just the equivalent of offering them a saltine and a cup of water.

The perils of revival

My Book of Mormon reading for this week was Alma 5-7. I was looking forward to this reading, because it contains Alma 7:11-12, which encapsulates much of what the Incarnation and the Atonement mean to me. But I ended up finding the reading quite unpleasant—something like sitting through a sacrament meeting talk on, let’s say, the evils of evolution, or women working outside the home, or why we all need to support President Bush at a time when most of the country has turned against him. I realized that Alma’s sermons in Zarahemla and Gideon are an indictment of religious liberalization—an indictment, in other words, of religiosities like mine. So even though I kept reminding myself to stay teachable so I could hear what the Spirit might have to say to me in these chapters, a lot of my energy went into self-defense—and into psychologically defending my impulse to self-defense against the critical, orthodox voices in my head who tell me I’m rationalizing.

Let’s back up a little. We learn why Alma has embarked on this preaching tour—which is really a kind of revival—in Alma 4. As the church have become prosperous, many become proud. They set their hearts on the vain things of the world. They become scornful toward one another. They turn their backs on the poor and needy. And they begin to persecute “the humble followers of God” who still impart of their substance, who retain a remission of their sins, and who look forward to the resurrection of the dead. Later, Alma describes this humble remnant as those who still “walk after the holy order of God, wherewith they have been brought into this church, having been sanctified by the Holy Spirit, and they do bring forth works which are meet for repentance” (5:54). In his sermon at Gideon, Alma accuses the proud members of the church of “unbelief” and worshipping idols (7:6).

If Alma’s preaching were a general condemnation of pride and scorn and persecuting other church members and ignoring the poor, I wouldn’t be nearly so defensive about this. If anything, in fact, my challenge would be not allowing myself to be complacent—not patting myself on the back because as a good liberal, I believe in redistributing wealth for the benefit of the poor, and as an excommunicated gay intellectual, I’m certainly not the one who's guilty of persecuting fellow church members . . . which, of course, would make me guilty of the pride and scorn and presumptions of superiority over others that Alma condemns.

But there’s something more specific going on in these sermons—something more political. The scenario described in these chapters—the church become rich, they become lifted up, they look down on a humble remnant who keep the old faith—is a recurring pattern in the history of religions. Sociologist of religion Rodney Stark (who’s made rather flattering predictions about Mormonism’s future growth) has a model which predicts that in order to grow to the point where they claim a significant “market share” of their society, religious movements need to reduce the tension that their distinctive beliefs and practices create between themselves and the larger society. This means, basically, moderately liberalizing their beliefs and becoming less demanding. This reduction in tension is often associated with an increase in social status, including socioeconomic status. As the movement moderates, however, members of a more sectarian temperament—that is, members who desire a greater degree of tension between themselves and the rest of the society—will accuse the movement of having sold out. If they’re unable to regain control of the movement, they’ll break away and form a more conservative movement trying to get back to fundamentals.

A good example of this dynamic in nineteenth-century America is Methodism, the movement that Joseph Smith once considered joining. In the first few decades of the nineteenth century, Methodists grew very rapidly, becoming the largest Protestant group in the United States. The movement appealed to working people and people settling the frontier. It offered an intense, emotional, revival-oriented religion, with dramatic crisis-like conversions not unlike those described in the Book of Mormon, and close-knit communities in which members supported one another, exhorted one another, and monitored one another’s behavior. Over time, however, as more and more Methodists became middle class, there was a move to make the movement more respectable. This meant a move away from highly expressive conversions, a cooling of emotional ardor, professionalization of the clergy, and greater social stratification. Methodists who resisted these developments formed associations devoted to preserving the old-style revivals, with their dramatic spiritual manifestations, and they began to place particular emphasis on Wesley’s teachings about sanctification, or holiness, which were being downplayed by the more respectable, or we could say “liberal,” Methodists. Eventually, these Holiness groups were expelled from the Methodist denominations. Some decades later, the Holiness movement gave rise to Pentecostalism.

This is the kind of internal shift and conflict that prompts Alma’s revival tour. Alma is a sectarian—the Nephite equivalent of a Holiness preacher. He believes that the upwardly mobile, “respectable” members of the church have sold out. They don’t believe the right things any more. They’re not leading sufficiently pious lives (not producing works meet for repentance, in his words). They either haven’t had the right kind of born-again conversion experience, or they’re no longer living up to that experience. And they’re no longer making the sacrifices that typified the church in its earliest days, especially the expectation of imparting of their substance to aid the poor (Mosiah 18:27-28). Alma’s response is to launch a good old-fashioned Holiness revival tour—as the Book of Mormon puts it, “bearing down in pure testimony against them” (Alma 4:19). To be more precise, he’s bearing down against liberalizing trends in the church. The result is a new wave of conversions (6:2). That, and a purge. Alma ordains new priests and elders who will preserve the sectarian vision for the church (6:1). And members who won’t submit to this sectarian housecleaning—as our text puts it, who won’t “repent of their wickedness and humble themselves before God”—are “rejected” and their names “blotted out” (6:3).

There are two things about this that feel wrong to me. First, the moral high ground of sectarianism—the claim to be defending the original faith while other members are lapsing into the ways of the world—is relative. Recently, for a paper I’m writing, I’ve been reading or rereading a lot of articles by scholars at FARMS attacking other Mormon writers who say they accept the Book of Mormon as scripture but not as an ancient document. (That probably has a lot to do with why I’ve felt so defensive this week reading Alma’s sermons: I have these FARMS scholars’ accusations echoing in my head.) The FARMS scholars attack these other writers as apostates, sell-outs, people who are trying to accommodate the gospel to the world’s wisdom—liberal theology and naturalistic biblical scholarship—instead of the other way around. The FARMS scholars, in short, are claiming the sectarian moral high ground.

But FARMS scholars are themselves vulnerable to having even more die-hard LDS sectarians “pull rank” on them. Latter-day Saints who accept as prophetic teaching the idea that the Book of Mormon took place across both American continents and that indigenous peoples throughout those continents are blood descendents of the Lamanites could accuse FARMS scholars who promote a limited Book of Mormon geography of having accommodated to the wisdom of the world, as they’ve absorbed it through their fancy academic training, and presuming, as self-appointed intellectuals, to know better than the prophets. Shifting to a different example: Mormon fundamentalists claim the sectarian moral high ground when they accuse the LDS Church of having abandoned polygamy for the sake of accommodation and respectability. Any change in church teaching, or emphasis, or practice opens up the possibility of reactionary members accusing the Church of deviating from gospel truths or failing to live up to the gospel’s demands: the fact that missionaries no longer travel without purse or scrip; the Saints’ relatively recent embrace of a doctrine of grace; changes to the endowment; Gordon B. Hinckley downplaying the little couplet on Larry King, etc. What I’m saying is: it isn’t self-evident that God is on the side of sectarians, or that relaxing our commitment to earlier teachings and practices (even abandoning them) is necessarily apostasy.

The second thing that feels wrong to me about Alma’s revival is that I don’t believe purges and housecleanings are consistent with God’s parental nurture. Note that Alma 4:9 speaks of this period as a time of “great contentions among the people of the church.” It takes at least two parties to have a contention—and Alma and his fellow sectarians are one of those parties. And one of the lessons I take from the Book of Mormon is that contention is not God’s way (3 Nephi 11:28-30). Alma, no doubt, sees himself as “putting down” or “doing away with” contention; but in this kind of conflict, nobody’s hands are clean (though that’s not to say some may not be more blameworthy than others, especially where power is unequally distributed). Having said that, I will confess that when confronted with contentions between sectarian and liberalizing forces within the LDS Church—the intellectual controversies of the early 1990s, for example—I have not hesitated to conclude that the sectarians are out of step with God’s will, implying that God is on the side of the excommunicated liberals or the fired BYU professors. But if pushed, I would have to admit that in an ultimate sense, God isn’t really on either side. When all our hearts have been purified to the point that we are truly Zion, one in heart and mind, seeing as God sees, then sectarians and liberals alike will recognize that these conflicts we thought were so important simply dissolve in the mystery of the love of Christ. Because we’re not to that point yet, I continue to take sides based on my reason, intuition, and experience—that is, based on what I believe the Spirit is telling me—but I also feel guilty about it at some level in a way I think (or hope) is salutary.

The point is: I can’t believe that purges and housecleanings are the solution, even in cases where I would agree—with Alma or whoever—that the church really are guilty of laxity or straying from gospel teaching. My reasons for believing that have largely to do with my experience of the excommunications and BYU firings of the early 1990s. Or look at the “Mormon Reformation” of the 1850s—an effort to promote spiritual renewal and to bear down on laxity, not unlike Alma’s revival, but which ended up disseminating blood atonement doctrines and helping to produce the militancy that made possible the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Alma comes closer to the solution, I think, when he says that he is called to preach repentance to “everyone that dwelleth in the land” (5:49). That’s the gospel: preaching repentance to everyone, across the board, sectarians and liberals and everyone besides. Self-examination for all. Have you received God’s image in your countenance? Have you been stripped of pride? Have you been stripped of envy? Do you persecute your brother or sister? Do you impart of your substance to the poor and needy, and succor those in need of succor? In the context of these sermons, Alma uses those questions as a weapon, as an indictment of the party he believes is in error. But they’re questions that all the church—all the baptized—should be asking ourselves.

Alma 7:23-24 was where I felt the Spirit break through Alma’s sectarianism most strongly. These are the verses I should have written this post about, actually, as an exercise in self-examination. At the least, I can make them the focus of my sacramental reflection today:
And now I would that you should be humble, and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being temperate in all things; being diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all times; asking for whatever things you stand in need of, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks to God for whatever things you do receive.

And see that you have faith, hope, and charity, and then you will always abound in good works.