Friday, April 30, 2010

On Being Offended and Being Offensive

Two Sundays ago, I heard a husband and wife speak in a sacrament meeting I attended. They looked and sounded like pleasant, down-to-earth people. They definitely didn't come out of central casting for a church video (thankfully). She spoke of some trials her family had faced the past few years. She spoke in general terms, but with a very meaningful, personal tone. The husband did likewise, for about the first half of his talk. Then, either out of heartfelt belief or out of a sense of duty to display public penance, I'm not sure, he spoke of his eleven-year period of inactivity in the church with rhetorical sackcloth and ashes.

I'm not writing this to argue with his feelings. I don't question his sincerity or his earnestness. But (you saw that coming, right), I feel SO frustrated when people tell stories in church about people--themselves or others--who have become inactive or left the church altogether because they were offended. The story usually ends with either 1) the return of the prodigal in a twisting of what
that parable really means, or 2) judgmentalism strikingly similar to that of a person standing on the Rameumptom. (Good tangent story here.) The problem isn't in the telling of the story. The problem is devaluing the person in favor of the needs of institutional integrity and reinforcing groupthink.

Removing oneself from a situation because someone said or did something offensive is totally legitimate in my book. Everyone has a limit to their patience. And it doesn't matter whether the offensive comments or actions where intentional or not. In Mormon culture, almost inevitable judgment and assumptions are made about the person who was offended. The offended person is deemed weak, unworthy, prideful, rebellious, faithless, bothersome. Some might even label them dangerous. Whereas the person doing the offending is seen mostly a divine instrument to test the patience, faith and devotion of the person who was offended.

Turning the tables, what would the Mormon cultural response be if I excluded a Mormon friend from a social event because it was a wine tasting because I didn't want them to feel uncomfortable? What if my Mormon friend felt offended because they were excluded regardless of my "good intentions?" Wouldn't Mormon culture dictate that being offended in that circumstance be justified because "How dare that unrighteous hedonist not invite you and allow you to just bring some sparkling apple cider rather than cut you out of a social event!"

What about being offended by something because the intent was to hurt, belittle or push away a person? Isn't being offended in that kind of situation justified and even a healthy short-term response? Granted, long-term bitterness and resentment over being offended can eat away at the soul. But being dismissive of someone because they haven't "gotten over it" within what we believe to be the correct timeframe is unworthy of a person professing to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

The confusion of personal righteousness for personal spirituality is one of the things that can lead to offensive treatment of others. The systematic exclusion and vilification of gay and lesbian members is an example (and that's not even getting into the treatment of bisexual, transgendered or people who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity). But the Mormon culture of exclusion extends to anyone who doesn't fit within the narrow band of "acceptable" or "worthy" or whatever term might be used. There are exclusions based on the word of wisdom, the number of ear piercings (women), wearing a non-white shirt to church (men), racial and ethnic background, the divide between descendants of Utah pioneers and converts, frequency of temple attendance, whether you have a temple recommend, political affiliation and belief; the list goes on. As of last General Conference, it also seems to extend to
wearing flip-flops to church.

The need for acceptance can compel many a Mormon to return to regular participation in the church feeling the pressure to proclaim how utterly miserable life was without the constant involvement of the church. Many fear confronting their questions and misgivings about the church out of fear of that same supposed misery. As though somehow the only way to true spirituality is through regimented attendance at church meetings and unquestioning obedience to church authority and culture. Fortunately, some
people of note in the church don't ascribe to this limited view, but it seems that most do.

Perhaps that view of spirituality works for some people. It certainly doesn't work for me. Believe me, I've tried it. This isn't some "casting the church away lightly" exercise. I poured my soul into it. The church just doesn't work for me like it does for others.

As I've built my friendships, support network and sense of spirituality apart from the church, I've felt much more fulfilled. I'm finding what works for me. That may offend the sensibilities of some in the church. I guess like most things, it's a mater of perspective. Cue Obi-Wan Kenobi telling Luke Skywalker "You're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view." Maybe I should tell the deacons quorum instructor I had as a kid that his use of Star Wars analogies in lessons at church opened the door to my disaffection. May the Force be with you.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Choice and Accountability

What is a choice?

Choice is a politically-loaded word (
Witness this brilliance by Samantha Bee from The Daily Show at the Republican National Convention in 2008). Choice in Mormon circles is usually called "agency" or the older form "free agency." But the word "choice" is used in the LDS church's Young Women Theme. For more about this, and other things pink, take a look here--if you dare.

There are those in positions of power and influence who seem to feel compelled and even entitled to determine what is and what is not a choice for their fellow human beings, without much regard for the humanity of those to whom they dictate.

The battle over whether sexual orientation is a lifestyle choice or something determined by our biology misses the point about what choice really means, and it oversimplifies what it means to be human. Whether you fall on the nature side or the nurture side of the divide, a person's innate sense of who they are and their search for happiness in life is just a bit more important than the need to categorize. It is most certainly more important than efforts to marginalize, demonize and engage in fear-mongering in a misguided crusade to label homosexuality as a desire to defy social norms or bring about the destruction of civilization. Although not a Mormon,
Mike Huckabee advocates a view eerily similar to that held by many Mormons.

I don't know if there is something mysterious in my DNA that makes me gay. I can't point to any particular experiences, influences or any other parts of my childhood or life up to today that molded me into a gay man. Quite frankly, neither can anyone else. And why exactly does it matter? I haven't heard a good reason yet.

I was born a Mormon, although there is nothing biological in my DNA to show that. Maybe there is some biological component to me being so drawn to Mormonism for so long, as well as the feelings of tribal attachment to it. I can't point to a vision or other monumentally historic event in my life that would count as the core experience or influence that led me to choose to be committed to the church for so long. (Because I no longer attend every week and don't believe in most of the core doctrines, policies and practices of the church, I don't fit the definition of what many people would consider "Mormon." Yet, I still consider myself Mormon because to do otherwise would be to deny an important element of my identity as a person.) So, is identification with my Mormon tribe or religious belief in general a choice or something more fundamental?

I have chosen not to attend weekly. I have chosen to disassociate myself with the church. I may detach completely from all aspects of institutional Mormonism. But it is part of me for the rest of my life. It may have caused me pain, but it isn't a disease. It isn't something I can simply remove from my being. I may choose to make it less important, but I cannot extract it--even if I wanted to. That is simply reality. And it doesn't matter whether it's biological, environmental or a combination of the two.

So, how is "being gay" any different that "being Mormon"?

A faithful Mormon (whatever that really means) would probably find it offensive to see sexual orientation compared to religious affiliation. That's their choice. When someone offended by this thinks about why they are offended, I simply ask them to consider the consequences of how the church's political involvement and views on homosexuality in general impact individuals and families in hurtful ways. Mormons of all people should be aware that choice and accountability go hand in hand. The church could be so much more than it is if it would cast aside its exclusionary cultural traditions in favor of listening to and including the souls it purports to value.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Prospects for change in Mormondom

There have been many groups that have come from the original organization established by Joseph Smith. The largest is the LDS church based in Salt Lake City, Utah--The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That's the church I grew up in. (I'm from Arizona, which is part of the so-called "Mormon Corridor.") The next largest group is the Community of Christ, which changed its name a few years ago from The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. There are several other smaller groups that have broken away at different times. The LDS church and the CoC don't really compete with each other. It's more like curious sideways glances. Most LDS people are very dismissive of the CoC, which is unfortunate. Fortunately, there is now significant cooperation among historians (professional and amateur) belonging to the LDS church and the CoC.

It's fascinating to me to see how the two main organizations growing out of Joseph Smith's original restoration movement have developed and changed over the last 180 years. The headquarters of the two churches are just over 1,000 miles apart. Their approach to many doctrinal, organizational and social issues is even further apart. The most recent example, and the one that has the most resonance with me personally, is the two churches' approach to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. (NOTE: I might normally use the familiar LGBT or LGBTQ or LGBTI acronyms, but I'm just using the term "gay" as shorthand here. Personally, I dislike the acronyms SSA and SGA for several reasons, so you won't see them often here on this blog.)

Just a few days ago, the CoC had its World Conference. Their conferences are vastly different from LDS General Conference. The CoC's conferences are much more like the conferences of other Christian denominations. The CoC voted to canonize a revelation which, most notably, fully accepts gay people and endorses gay marriage. This is now scripture in the CoC, Section 164 of the Doctrine and Covenants. For more on this, I recommend John Hamer's excellent coverage and analysis in his post on BCC. Thanks John!

I can't say this definitively because I'm no expert on the Community of Christ, but it seems that they are trying to find a way to really minister to the people. They appear to understand that showing true Christian love is often difficult and challenges our ideas, prejudices, and understanding of the world. The approach of the LDS church (in SLC and most places locally) is focused on "following the prophet" (or more accurately, "following the brethren" even if what they say may be contradictory or unclear) and complying with a restrictive code rather than engaging in a group effort to understand how to love others and help them discover the best part of their humanity. It seems like the CoC is willing to accept that the cost of this may be that some members leave in protest. (There was a rift in 1984 when the church accepted a revelation extending the priesthood to women.) The LDS church has made a similar bargain regarding its political involvement in gay marriage. (Not a few LDS members have become disaffected or resigned their membership altogether over this). The difference is that the latter lacks compassion and a willingness to understand.

I don't think the LDS church will come to a realization that they
need gay people in the church anytime soon. In 1978, the church finally realized that they needed people of African descent as well as the members who thought the "priesthood ban" was unjust and racist. And from a simply bureaucratic standpoint, as the church expanded into so many more places in the world, the old regime simply became unworkable. There may come a day when the church realizes it needs the undeniably valuable contributions women would make as holders of the priesthood. What I can't see is how the church can reverse its stance on homosexuality in my lifetime. If it can't do that, then it can't accept gay relationships and gay marriage.

While officially the stance is that the church welcomes gay people so long as they are celibate, that invitation is disingenuous. In some places in the church, two men or two women kissing is enough for formal ecclesiastical probation, or more. The real message isn't celibacy, it's a de facto requirement to "pass" as a completely straight person (whatever that means). The clear meaning of the message is that gay people must be silent and invisible. Call me jaded, but I think that means that the church as an institution doesn't want us at all. I think it
needs us. It needs our voice. It needs what we can bring to the table. But it doesn't want us. Hiding and passing as the condition of speaking and contributing renders the invitation hollow and cruel. For a variety of reasons (none of which can be truly reconciled with what Christ himself taught), the church doesn't want us as we really are.

I have contributed time, talents, money, blood, sweat and tears to build up the church for most of my life. I once saw it as the Kingdom of God. I felt good about serving those around me. I felt I had something to offer. I felt invested. Some church leaders apparently agreed since I was giving meaningful responsibilities and opportunities to contribute, both in my youth and as an adult. I even served as a bishop. Most of my callings and other service in the church would have never come about had church leaders and members known about me being gay.

I see no reason to resign my membership at this point. Besides, being Mormon is more than having a membership number. I know of many members of the church who fully accept gay people and try to reconcile their belief in the church with the love they have for their gay family members and friends. I applaud them and thank them. But the LDS church doesn't change due to a critical mass of members doing anything. Unless the top 15 unitedly agree on the need for change, it simply doesn't happen. Just speaking for myself, I can't wait around for that to happen.

So, I'm pretty much done with being an active part of an organization that essentially requires me to be unheard and unseen simply because of who I know I am. Working through the sadness of that is what comes next.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Retreating into myself

This post doesn't have much to do with my Mormon background. But it's an update since it's been a while since I posted anything. The past several days, I've found myself falling back into a not-so-wonderful pattern of retreating into myself. It's been something of a coping strategy during my life. I don't like how I feel when I do this, but it's familiar. I've done it less often the past three years, but I still find myself recognizing I'm doing it about three days or so into one of my hermitage sets. I think I'm coming out of it now. I was reading some of the blogs and discussion boards I follow, responding to some emails, checking up on some friends. And here I am blogging again.

I'm a pretty social person. Even during these retreating periods, I still talk to friends and other people. I even wrote up some draft blog posts and worked on my book project that's been languishing. But during these times, there's a palpable sense of loneliness that casts quite a shadow over my soul.

I have a lot going on in my life right now. There's a lot in flux. And I'm probably (as usual) over-analyzing everything and being overly cautious about decisions and opening up to people. I just have to remind myself how lucky I am and how many people I have in my life with whom I share really strong bonds of trust and love.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Spirituality vs. Religiosity

Although I am a heretic (and maybe even an unofficial apostate) when it comes to the church, I still consider myself a spiritually-minded person. I think my sense of spirituality and my perspective regarding my place in the universe have become deeper due to grappling with my disaffection. I may not share my ancestors' beliefs, but I appreciate their devotion to what they saw was the best way to live a good life and do right by their fellow human beings. Their focus was observance of religion. Mine is a search for spiritual meaning.

Spirituality and religiosity overlap for most people. But they are distinct. The dictionary is only a starting point, but here are a couple of definitions as food for thought:
Religiosity: excessively, obtrusively, or sentimentally religious

Spirituality: sensitivity or attachment to sacred matters and things affecting the spirit
How have devotion to religion and/or exploration of the meaning of spirituality in your life affected you?

I used to accept LDS religious doctrines as absolutes, believing that questioning was an act of ungrateful defiance. When something challenged my understanding, I tried to reconcile the best I could. I was a devoted religious person, an embodiment of religiosity. Eventually, there were just too many contradictory or non-sensical ideas to reconcile. Now I embrace my defiance. I'm generally a nice guy, I think, but I don't just accept things as given anymore. Questioning and Mormonism don't mix very well.

This hasn't been just an intellectual exercise. This is about the core of who I am and how I experience life. It is also about thoughtful observation of the lives and experiences of others who I know to be good people trying to do the best they can in the world. I am happy for anyone who finds a religion, philosophy, way of life or perspective on human existence that works for them. That includes people who find that Mormonism works for them.

Mormonism in its current state just doesn't work for me anymore. That saddens me. But I can't wallow in sadness either. A few generous people have tried to help me find a place at the table with the saints. I appreciate their efforts, but it feels like I'm being sponsored as a guest in my own community. Conforming to the narrow definition of "Mormon" that seems to prevail in the church simply isn't something I value or wish to do. Even if I were to be accepted, I would be pitied for for not be "in harmony" enough with the church to gain eternal life. This wrong-headed kind of pity has always frustrated me since according to LDS doctrine (not policy or practice), it is God alone, not men (yes, only men) in the church, who will judge us for how we lived our life. Because of who I am and what I believe and don't believe, I am not fully part of the church. I'm not really big on the whole second-class membership thing.

I can't remake the church in my image. I have no standing or right to do so. I have no power to single-handedly reshape Mormon culture. But I can live a life with meaning and just as much legitimacy as the most devout religious person. And I hope to have some small influence in the world--Mormondom included--with my one voice. As Margaret Mead said so well, "A small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that has."

I've tried for most of my life being inside the church. It's too agonizing to keep working for change on the inside, so I'm a self-designated outsider for the most part. And as painful as that feels sometimes, letting go of the fear, self-loathing and obsession with perfection is a far better alternative. If the cost of being spiritual and true to myself is being a religious outsider, I think that's a good (and emotionally healthy) trade-off.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Humanity, Compassion and Love

When I was growing up, I was a sensitive kid. I'd still consider myself a sensitive person as an adult. I consider sensitivity, thoughtfulness and compassion to be strengths. I wouldn't trade those characteristics for anything. I'm also self-critical, and have plenty of flaws. (See what I mean?) But because of how sensitivity is perceived, I've learned to build up walls and develop defensive tactics to protect myself when I come across people with little regard for the feelings of others. Those walls and defenses aren't always a good thing. At times, they prevent me from connecting with people on a genuinely human level. I've been burned in the past for being too open or too honest. So I can be too cautious. Most people aren't out to get anyone or cause them pain. Sometimes people just don't think enough before they speak or act. Heaven knows that describes me. There is an adage: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don't rule out malice." I think that's about right when it comes to most human beings.

My experience growing up in Mormon culture has a lot to do with the facades and defensive mechanisms I've constructed. The scripture says that God doesn't look on the outward appearance. Mormon culture tells us that appearance is vital to acceptance into the "true" community of Mormons. The "unwritten order of things" in the church directs that we dress a certain way, to have that “Mormon” appearance. We must say the magic words in testimony meetings and give proper responses in classes and other church-related social situations. The list could go on. It's true that new members of the church or people who haven't been active in the church for a while might be given a bit of slack for a time. But the expectation is that we all conform to a very narrow standard of appearance and speech. This is not what the gospel requires. It is what Mormon culture and the church require. And it's one of the most corrosive, emotionally and psychologically destructive things in all of Mormondom. It stifles spirituality and pushes good people away from the community of professed saints. There’s more to being good than merely “avoiding the appearance of evil” (which isn’t what the scripture passage this refers to actually states).

The essence of Christianity is to love God and to love our neighbor. That same message spoken by Jesus includes the love of self, which completes a kind of holy trifecta: Neighbor, Self and God. Whether your understanding or concept of God is an all-powerful father, a non-corporeal divine entity or a sense of our common humanity and the search for the divine in each of us, it doesn’t matter. If you accept Mormonism, some other form of Christianity or some other faith, great. If you see the basic tenets of the religions of the world (not necessarily the institutions) as providing guiding principles to live a life of moral goodness, great. This life is the focus. I suspect that God won’t care much what we believed, or even whether we believed in Him or not. I think the question we’ll be asked--individually and collectively--is, “What did you do to love each other?” The most enlightening and ennobling notion of God has to do with love. That love unites us, helps us to reconcile, heals what has been broken in each of us. It helps us support each other and moves us to become more aware of our true selves--good and evil, virtue and vice, light and darkness--to fill the measure of our existence.

I have struggled my whole life trying to feel like I have a place at the table in the church and in Mormon culture. I learned how to look and speak exactly the way I needed to look and speak to fit in and be accepted. I was quite successful. I was deacons quorum president, teachers quorum president, first assistant to the bishop in the priests quorum, seminary president, model cub scout, star student in church and school, eagle scout, faithful missionary. Eventually, I was called and ordained a bishop--at a far too young age. But that outward success was a failure when it came to my sense of self and my spirituality. For a time, I believed it was worth it. But repression isn't viable long term. Sure, I could still choose to fake it. But the cost is too high. The falling-apart of what I'd built is for another post. Yet another post and more are for the rebuilding that has happened and will continue.

So, with all that in mind, you can imagine the lift I felt when I heard Dieter Uchtdorf's talk on April 4, 2010 in General Conference. It was the kind of talk I haven't heard in a long time. I don't remember hearing any like it in conference. It rivals Ronald E. Poelman's 1984 “The Gospel and the Church” talk (the first version, not the one rewritten and re-filmed), and Stephen L. Richards 1932 “Bringing Humanity to the Gospel” talk in its importance and honesty. I hope it will have ripple effects throughout the church.

Here are some highlights, because I think we need to repeat these words as often and as far as we can so they can take hold.
"When I think of the Savior, I often picture Him with hands outstretched; reaching out to comfort, heal, bless, and love. And He always talked with — never down to — people. He loved the humble and the meek and walked among them, ministering to them and offering hope and salvation. This is what He did during His mortal life; it is what He would be doing if He were living among us today.”

"[L]et our hearts and hands be stretched out in compassion toward others, for everyone is walking his or her own difficult path. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our Master, we are called to support and heal rather than condemn.”

"I hope we welcome and love all of God's children, including those who might dress, look, speak, or just do things differently. It is not good to make others feel as though they are deficient. Let us lift those around us. Let us extend a welcoming hand. Let us bestow upon our brothers and sisters in the Church a special measure of humanity, compassion and charity so that they feel, at long last, they have finally found home."
Of course, no one person and no single talk can change entrenched institutions, cultures or minds. However, this talk was a start. While it doesn’t undo the frustration and pain I and many others have experienced, Brother Uchtdorf’s talk gave me hope. It resonated with me. I don’t know whether I’ll feel truly at home in the church again. But because of the genuine love of a brother speaking words of inclusion and fellowship, I feel more connected. I also feel hopeful that there are many more Mormons like Dieter Uchtdorf. He showed what is best in our heritage and the generous love we can each leave as a legacy.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

No they can't take that away from me

My name is Pablo. I'm a Mormon. I'm an eighth-generation Mormon to be exact. I don't say that to brag. I say that to give you a bit of context. Being Mormon is a very funny thing--especially when it's in practically in your blood. It's the legacy I've inherited. It's an inseparable part of who I am. It has brought me happiness. It has been a burden. It's complicated.

I know I'm not the only one who grapples with what it means to be Mormon. I want to own my heritage--to understand its meaning in my life, to accept the good and the bad of it, to reconcile all of it as best I can. If you're reading this, maybe something I write will resonate with you. Hopefully, I gain some insights if you decide to comment, which I hope at least some of you do.

This is not an anti-Mormon blog. Neither is it a blog to defend the church. The church has amazing potential to be a force for good in the world. Its members are generally good people. But the church has flaws, its members are simply human beings and Mormon culture can be both welcoming and infuriating. To me, the gospel, the church and Mormon culture are distinct, overlapping spheres. What I want to write about in this blog are my experiences living in those spheres and how I have struggled to find meaning and understanding in each of them.

I believe reasoned criticism has an important place. Our human brains allow us to question, search, experiment, believe, doubt and wonder. I like to study things out in my mind. I hope to enjoy the journey such active inquiry involves. I'm not so worried about the answers as I am exhilarated by the process of questioning itself. I like assurance as much as the next person I suppose. But "knowing" isn't what motivates me. What keeps me going is the fact that we have this amazing gift that lets us contemplate, examine and challenge.

Ultimately, this is about my experience as a Mormon. I don't limit that to my membership in the church, although that's obviously a big part of it. I am officially in full fellowship in the church, but I wouldn't call myself "active" or "believing" as those terms is most commonly used. Church authorities may have the ability at any time to determine my official status in the church, as is their prerogative. Individuals in and out of Mormon society may determine in their own minds what kind of Mormon they believe me to be. I alone have the power to determine what being Mormon means for me. No one can take that away.

I promise you that I will be critical and opinionated. It's my blog after all. But I try to be courteous, fair-minded and accurate. You'll find that I have some emotional baggage when it comes to the church and what it means to be Mormon. (I wouldn't be blogging about this if I were perfectly content now, would I?) I have no doubt that many people will disagree with my opinions. That's fine. I also presume that there will always be people with whom I'll disagree. But my experiences are my experiences and my feeling are my feelings. Those are realms where arguments serve no good purpose. Relating experiences and expressing feelings give opportunities to share and expand perspectives. With any luck, doing so here will advance at least some degree of mutual understanding, acceptance and respect. Call me naive, but I believe we can express strong opinions and be civil.

It was written long ago that there is "a time to keep silence, and a time to speak." Except for a circle of trusted friends, I've mostly kept my silence. Now, it is a time for me to speak. And hopefully for you too.