Friday, May 28, 2010

10 Favorite Things

Reina tagged me yesterday, so here I am with my 10 Favorite Things list. Please note that I am not a fan of snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes. But when the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I'm feeling sad, these are some of the things I try to simply remember (in no particular order, though I did save the best for last):

 1. Ocean waves on a beach. This is one of those primal things. Watching the waves, hearing the crashing of the surf and the breeze swirling in my ears, smelling and tasting the salty air. Nothing else like it.

 2. Making food and drinks for friends. I don't get to do this often enough. But I love it. The combination of food, drink and friends is a sacred trio.

 3. Music. Playing, singing, listening, writing, improvising, you name it. Alone or in a group. Playing the piano and singing are two of the most cathartic things I know.

 4. Relaxing by a fire. Cozy fireplace, campsite fire ring, beach bonfire, etc. Like the ocean, there's something both comforting and primal about this.

 5. A Blueberry Vodka Martini (or two). Granted, this one is kinda frivolous, but my list can't be all serious. These are fun to make and beyond delicious. Recipe upon request.

 6. Good writing. I love reading a good book, article or any piece of thoughtful writing. Fiction, history, biographies, politics, philosophy, science, journalism, opinion, editorials, art, culture, humor, satire, blog posts, anything good.

 7. Language. I've always been fascinated by how we human beings communicate, assigning simple and complex meanings to sounds and symbols and gestures--and all the different ways we do that. I studied French in high school. I learned Cambodian (Khmer) on my mission, and learned Lao shortly after. I can speak, read and write all three, to varying degrees. The adaptability of English staggers my mind. I also geek out over the writing systems J.R.R. Tolkien invented/adapted. Don't judge! I should have been a linguist.

 8. Traveling. It's so fun to explore new places and discover new things about familiar places. Diving into the history, culture and food of a place is inspiring. Meeting interesting people on trips is a big part of the experience for me too. I'm more about the journey than the destination.

 9. Watching Science Documentaries. Cosmos. (Carl Sagan is on my hero list). Planet Earth. Any episode of NOVA. Walking with Dinosaurs, especially with the kids. National Geographic specials. Stephen Hawking's UniverseOMSI (the science museum in Portland) has a cool planetarium film narrated by Lawrence Fishburne. (Never underestimate the power of a good narrator). Watching these kinds of programs is when I really experience the awe of being part of something bigger than myself.

10. My Kids. I have two amazing sons. I'm far from being a perfect parent. But I love my boys more than words can describe. When I see them, think of them, look at their pictures or hear their voices, I feel alive and very blessed.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


A quick prologue: I've been pretty down the past couple of days because of some personal circumstances (which I may blog about later). Even though I have some truly amazing friends and family who love me and support me, I'm feeling really alone--mostly because I have some decisions confronting me that I alone can make. Fortunately, I haven't relied on my old stand-by method of retreating into myself. I've reached out, and that's made a huge difference because I've opened myself up to feeling the love and support so freely given by these fantastic people in my life, who I appreciate so much. So, this post may be a bit sharp in a few places.

The subject of fellowship is one that I've given a lot of thought to for a very long time, even since I was a kid. Deep, meaningful human connections are really important to me. It's a big part of what kept me so involved in the church for so long. The church used to be my whole world--the first place I'd turn to find friendships and connections with other people. I've had to mourn the loss of the church playing that role in my life.

Fellowship is a slippery thing. It's a somewhat archaic term. (For instance, the church was disfellowshipping people long before anyone was ever de-friended on Facebook). Fellowship means vastly different things to different people. It's something most Mormons love to talk about. It's something most Mormons have no clue how to do with real humanity. As with many things Mormon, fellowshipping is viewed as a duty, a project, a program, a box to check, a statistic to report.

In most quarters of the church where the Intermountain West (Utah-Idaho-Arizona) Mormon Culture Mentality prevails, a sense of fellowship is directly correlated with the degree of social compliance among the membership. New members, "re-activated" members or members who have just moved in to an area hear a statement something like this: "We will add your distinctiveness to our own." The message then becomes, "Your culture will adapt to service ours." Not long after that, anyone who values independent thought and inquiry begins to see a stronger message: "Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply." Of course, these exact words aren't used, but the standard Mormon version of "fellowship" is social assimilation. The assumption is that fellowshipping is successful only when a person is fully integrated socially and culturally, fully engages in groupthink and gives service to the collective. Resistance is futile, because resistance earns you several possible labels: inactive, heretic, apostate, prideful, ungrateful, unworthy.

Gordon Hinckley said that three things were important for new members of the church (although it seems this would apply to all members): 1) a friend, 2) a responsibility, and 3) nurturing by the good word of God. (By the way, the over-use of initials in general authorities' names bugs me, so you'll have to mourn the loss of the "B.") In the corporate culture of the church, this usually gets turned into a New Member Training Program. I believe the intentions of members are good. But this approach in practice is like putting some meat and bones into a blender to make chicken nuggets. (Which, despite Jamie Oliver's chicken nugget "experiment," doesn't really bother me that much. But people aren't chicken nuggets. Please refrain from the Soylent Green references). The rub here is that most people in the church have become conditioned to like (or at least tolerate) the way we fellowship and are fellowshipped even though the process and the results seem a bit off.

The reality is that human beings thrive best when they can contribute and participate in a way that has meaning for them, rather than being told the correct way to contribute and participate based on a model that even Ward and June Cleaver would see as restrictive. Fellowshipping shouldn't be designed to convince people of the superiority of the white shirt as the "uniform of the priesthood" (and by all means, please click here for utter ridiculousness regarding white shirts), the evils of multiple ear piercings or the wearing of flip-flops to church, and other such nonsense. The great symbol of the early saints, the beehive, is no longer about industry. It's about creating drones that busily service the hive, sting anyone who threatens to question the unwritten order of things and find happiness in being the same as the drone next to them. (I wonder what the Scandinavian saints of the 19th century would think of the Borg we have become.) Harsh? Yes. But the real harshness is what is felt by the honest in heart who were sought out only to discover that Lovely Deseret imposes harsh limits on the degree of honest inquiry and personal expression among its people.

The church has spent decades of time and millions of dollars on fostering a brand. The programs inside the church and the public relations efforts focused on those outside the church have served well to imprint that brand on the psyches of practically everyone. Some people like the brand. It works for them. That's wonderful for them. But I don't feel truly fellowshipped. The church as an institution and a disheartening number of its members cannot and will not fully accept me for who I am, what I think and what I don't believe. I don't fit within the narrow demographic the church's brand targets and sets apart as the noble and great, the elect, the chosen people. Fellowshipping as the church practices it just isn't going to work with me. I can't comply. Having been assimilated once, I'm not really crazy about that happening to me again.

It's sad and frustrating that maintaining the purity of the brand has become the focus rather than the worth of souls. I'm sure that most members and leaders of the church don't see it that way, but it's the reality for so, so many of us who once saw the church as our home. It seems the soul of the church is being sucked out as though it were being kissed by a dementor from Azkaban. I'm going to work on my Patronus.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The McConkie Doctrine

Word has come down from on high that Deseret Book will no longer be printing or carrying Bruce R. McConkie's book Mormon Doctrine. My search on the Deseret Book website using the search term "mormon doctrine" gave me 13 results, none of them the book Mormon Doctrine. It appears that indeed it has been exiled, but not repudiated. The Bloggernacle will provide you with more facts, rumors and speculation about the decision to send Mormon Doctrine to Siberia. Some have said that copies of the book pulled from Deseret Book shelves will be shredded and made into high-tech pulp for building materials in the soon-to-be-announced Yakutsk Temple.

As an aside, my personal copy of Mormon Doctrine was printed by the defunct publisher Bookcraft, which Deseret Book acquired in 1999. As you probably know, Deseret Book is the church-owned seller of books and sundry items (a subsidiary of Deseret Management Corporation, which is the for-profit management company for church assets and holdings). Signature Books publishes Mormon-themed works, but most often not the kind the church wants published.

I'm not surprised at this decision. Much of Mormon Doctrine is an incendiary, convoluted, contradictory mess. Oh, and then there's the book.  McConkie's magnum opus is based in significant part on all manner of Mormon folk doctrines, unverifiable statements of early church leaders and the personal musings of a man many Mormons look to as master scriptorian, gospel genius and hero of modern Mormonism. It's also based on a lot of published, absolutely verifiable statements and writings, many of which are absolutely and verifiably wrong.

It's difficult to overstate Bruce R. McConkie's truly wide-ranging impact on Mormon beliefs, practices and culture. McConkie wrote many other books (perhaps most notably his Messiah series) and gave many other talks (definitely most notably his final testimony in General Conference in April 1985, which I remember well) that are regarded as de facto canon. The LDS Topical Guide to the scriptures and the LDS Bible Dictionary both have McConkie's fingerprints all over them. Yet Mormon Doctrine stands alone and above all of these. This one volume has had the biggest impact of all his writings at all levels throughout Mormondom.

That there is no official repository of what is doctrine is a problem. Not even official church publications are "doctrine" per se. They are simply accepted as such by the rank and file membership of the church, like many things that come from charismatic church leaders. This seems to suit the hierarchy of the church. The brethren prefer having wiggle room to modify things bureaucratically rather than through a credible process of re-assessment.

When it comes down to it, "LDS doctrine" is whatever the current GAs with the strongest personalities say it is. Even David O. McKay didn't publicly repudiate McConkie's Mormon Doctrine. Most of what we know of his private opposition to its printing is from historians like Michael Quinn. McKay made it very clear to McConkie and among the high-ranking leadership that the book shouldn't see a second printing, even with corrections. He viewed it as presumptuous and problematic. One consideration seems to have been that so many corrections would be necessary that a it might appear that McConkie was being reprimanded (which is exactly what it would have been), and that this would undermine McConkie's credibility as a church leader. That in turn would call into question the authority and unity of the rest of the brethren. (McConkie was a member of the First Council of the Seventy in 1958 when the book was first published.) Since the authority of the brethren is very often the ultimate consideration (which has been made very clear to me personally by local and high-level church leadership on more than one occasion), they tried to handle the original publication of Mormon Doctrine behind the scenes. When McKay became very frail and Joseph Fielding Smith (who was McConkie's father-in-law and the next in the line of succession) was able to exert more influence, McConkie was allowed to do a second printing in 1966 with Smith's blessing. McKay couldn't do anything about it at that point. Then there was the post-1978 revision to take out the most inflammatory racist bits. Still lots of crazy talk though, couched in quasi-intellectual language.

The church's official bookstore has carried this book for decades. It has been used as source material for talks and lessons presented by church leaders throughout the church. This has made it de facto doctrine. We will see vestiges of the book for years to come. There are unattributed sections in the new Gospel Principles book that are taken directly from Mormon Doctrine. (At least for now, you can see the previous version of Gospel Principles, with a list of books cited at the church's own website). I don't think there will never be a public repudiation of any of the outlandish things in Mormon Doctrine. The brethren have painted themselves into a corner. It's nearly impossible for any one of them to directly question or openly disagree with another. This is because they appear to believe that to do so would destroy the delicate veneer of unity and destabilize the entire authoritarian system of church leadership. Maybe it would. Which leads me to ask, How would that be such a bad thing?

The First Presidency will send out press releases and official letters to be read in sacrament meetings to repudiate rumors of the "generals in the war in heaven" talk and all sorts of other petty stupidity. Yet they won't publicly clarify that Mormon Doctrine isn't official. Better to write a mid-level memo in an attempt to consign the book to oblivion but let useful falsehoods linger. That is the real secret to changes in doctrine, practice and procedure in the LDS church. It takes a while, but it usually works.

This is what happens when you run the church like a corporation. The marketing department (a.k.a. Correlation Committee) visited the people who run the gift shops (Deseret Book) and decreed it was time to discontinue an item that's been causing PR problems since it was first released. Mormon Doctrine is simply an old product line that's been cancelled. Just like the Journal of Discourses before it. But don't worry, there are always new products to roll out. Case in point: The new Gospel Principles book is the "New Coke"--just less filling.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Caution and Contrast

Note: This post is expanded from a comment I left recently on Reina's blog. She's awesome, by the way.

I'm a very cautious person. Probably too cautious. I told a friend of mine that recently, and he immediately agreed. I take a long time to make decisions. I'm a researcher and a questioner. I know how to make decisions and reach conclusions, and I can make them quickly. But when it comes to personal decisions, I take a long time. I usually gain more from the process of deliberation than the moment of decision. One of the important things I've learned from this approach is that, despite our attempts to paint with large brushstrokes, life is most often more nuanced, filled with important subtleties and a richness that can be lost if we focus too much on the things that are most obvious. That said, taking too long has left me stuck at times--halted "between two opinions" as it has been said.

As Mormons, we're raised to see everything in stark contrast--good/evil, virtue/vice, light/darkness, health/sickness, pleasure/pain--and that the truest way to knowledge is to understand things this way. But life isn't that clear cut. I don't buy into that way of thinking anymore. For some, it might make decision-making an easier process. But it doesn't work for me.

The process of letting go of the dichotomy mindset can be rough. And I'm not sure we're ever done sorting through things. But that's okay. Life doesn't always have to be messy. But if it's too neat and tidy it can be pretty boring and unsatisfying. Kinda like the saying: "A clean desk is the sign of a disturbed mind." (My desk is messy, in case you were guessing).

I think of my life as a big library. I keep collecting books and grouping them on shelves. Most of the books belong to clear categories. But a few aren't so clear. For a while I'll be content with leaving one on the shelf and then, for whatever reason, conscious or mysterious, I'll pull it down to re-read and reassess it. I might move it to a different shelf because the meaning or application of the book for me has changed. There are times when I have a few books on the floor that I'm sorting through. The library is pretty well-organized, but it changes and grows.

I kept my feelings about the church on the shelf for a long time. Reconsidering the church's role in my life has involved a lot of shifting of the "books" related to the church. The same goes for honestly dealing with my sexuality. During the past few years, I've done a lot of reorganizing, compiling and re-evaluation.

When any of us are going through times of change, things can get messy and we might make some mistakes. But, in our own time and in our own way, if we're honest with ourselves (even if that involves struggle and frustration) we find our way, make new discoveries, gain new insights and enjoy the journey--both for ourselves and with our fellow travelers.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

To the Parents (Note: This post stolen with the best of intentions)

Thanks to my friend Jon, I found a posting by Gay Saint that is a re-post of an old advice column piece by Cary Tennis at I can't find the original piece on, so I haven't read the letter that inspired Tennis' response. But the response is amazing. Every parent should read it. As you read it, imagine the impact for good in the lives of kids wondering about their sexual identity if their parents and other adults in their took this advice to heart. Here's what Tennis wrote:

"To paraphrase a Frank Zappa song from the 1960s, I'm not gay but there's a whole lot of times I wish I could say I wasn't straight! I mean, we straight people have to really step up on this whole homosexuality thing. We walk around like we're the normal ones and everybody else is, like, different. But just think about it. Like, on a gut level, remember when you were 13? It was weird, right? Getting hair, and having urges, and wondering about girls and jobs and the future, and wondering, wondering, wondering. Can you imagine what it's like for a kid as these natural processes, spiritual and biological and utterly beyond his control, are taking him on a strange ride that he didn't really buy a ticket to but he's on anyway, as he's trying to grow up and conform and figure out what he's supposed to be doing, what it's like for him to realize that the way he's developing, just, by the way, is utterly freaking out the adults, so they're having conferences in the kitchen and they're looking at him funny and not believing what he says, and now he's lying about what he's looking at because he has no idea what's going to happen to him if it turns out, horror of horrors, that he might actually be gay, that it's a scary, weird problem that he has to hide from others, especially those in his own family? Can you imagine what that's like? Can I? And we straights wonder why gay guys sometimes wait until their 20s or 30s or 40s to come out to their families? Or never come out? Or prefer not to mention it or make it a topic of national discussion or get a little testy when we assume that in our latterly discovered enlightenment we will treat every gay guy as regional spokesman for, like, Gay America, and we bring up the gayness of others as if we were the ones who, naturally, because we are so wise in other areas such as the conduct of foreign policy and stewardship of the environment, will take it upon ourselves to decide for them how they ought to act and what they are entitled to and whether they can live together and get married and visit each other in the hospital? And whether what they do and who they do it with is a sin? As if we could speak not only for the powerful white Christian heterosexual majority of America but for God himself? Jesus! If I was gay but had the benefit of knowing how we straight people think, would I ever come out? I'm not so sure. I might prefer to just keep the whole thing between me and a few friends.

"So. Take a deep breath. A posture of utter humility before the mystery and grandeur of life is appropriate. And be cool. It's going to be OK.

"And also just generally reassuring kids about all this nonsense is appropriate too, don't you think? So could you just tell the kid that you love him and that how we develop sexually is just one part of who we are, and that however you develop it's completely and totally fine? Could you just tell him that you were 13 once and you remember it's a very weird and uncomfortable time, and that though you have rules in your house, your No. 1 rule is that you love your kids and you're there for them?

"Could you just do that?"


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Seeds of Reality

It seems that people from many different cultures like comparing things in life to farming and gardening. I tend to like those analogies more than the ones dealing with money, which seem to pervade American culture and language, as well as much of Christianity. I prefer to think in terms of planting, growing and harvesting than investment, "buying into" something and being redeemed like an empty bottle. I'm not a farmer or gardener. But I'm not an investment banker or economist either.

We hear about seeds of faith, seeds of doubt, seeds of dissent, seeds of disaffection, seeds of change, seeds of renewal. I've sewn seeds of all those types during various seasons of my life. (Change and renewal seem to be dominant right now.) I've harvested both good and bad things. Sometimes nothing has grown from what seemed at first to be a promising seed. And sometimes things have grown that I didn't expect--those expectations being based on my own assumptions or the assurances I got about what I planted. For a long time, I just assumed the seeds I was given were ones that would work for me. Bad assumption. Believing or assuming a tomato seed will grow an orange tree will never make it so.

When I finally started questioning and researching for myself what would be truly good for me (both in terms of personal issues and specifically the church's role in my life), I began to find and plant seeds of reality. The garden of my life is healthier now as a result. What I'm growing now is thriving in the soil of my soul. I still have some pruning and weeding to do. There are still some things to remove and some seeds yet to plant. Going through that process helps me feel good and more like a whole, integrated person.

The seeds of reality for me regarding the LDS church were mostly planted during the time I was in the same ward with Steve Benson, a grandson of Ezra Taft Benson. Much has been written about Steve (a lot of it by Steve himself) and his experience questioning and leaving the church. I haven't spoken to Steve for many years. Not due to anything bad. It's just that I was a teenager at the time I was in the same ward with him and his family and had moved away from home by the time he finally left the church. I think the last time I saw Steve was at the airport not long after my mission.

I followed news accounts and internet chatter surrounding Steve's experience. It would be fun to reconnect with him sometime--especially now that I see the church from a non-believer's perspective. My critical thinking and search for sensible reasoning in my professional life has helped me to apply those same things to my personal life, especially when it has come to the church and its history, doctrine and culture.

My own experience has been different than Steve's. But those who question the church and disconnect from it institutionally in the way that works best for them share many things in common. Among the most significant commonalities is the staggering shift in one's perspective. It takes a lot to move from a magical, authority-worship worldview to embracing the reality of uncertainty and finding joy in questioning. Conformity in Mormon culture is a very powerful thing. Asserting oneself can be a dangerous prospect. Many who do are forced out or no longer feel truly welcome among "the saints."

The price of cultivating a healthy sense of reality may be disconnection from the familiar. But I've found that reassessing what the church and my Mormon upbringing mean to me doesn't have to mean casting away all that I like about my Mormon heritage. There is a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted. My personal garden may not be full of as many typically Mormon things as it used to, but much remains and will always remain. As the seasons of life continue to unfold, it will be interesting to see what the seeds I'm tending now will become.