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Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thinking critically--and why we must

A few weeks back, I made a comment on my Facebook status about how much I enjoyed teaching my Sunday School kids—thus grooming a new generation of Mormons with critical thinking skills, unafraid to ask questions. A good friend of mine (and non-member) sent me a message in private: “Mitch, I think if you teach Mormons to have critical thinking skills, there will be no more Mormons.”

Her message to me was tongue-in-cheek, but she raises a valid—and alarming—point.

As a collective, we Mormons are very good at following: We follow the direction of our church leaders. We follow in the footsteps of our forefathers and ancestors, and go on missions. We follow (or try to) the commandments of God. And all of those things, are, to a point—very good things. But where does following become dangerous, and cross the line from doing what is right to eliminating our free agency?

While following wise counsel is always a good thing, questioning counsel is equally a good thing. After all, our Father gave us intellects to help us discern what is right, and quite frankly, I think we disappoint Him when we fail to use them. Moreover, I don’t think our Father or our Savior are ever offended when we question their counsel to us—whether that counsel comes through the church general authorities, or whether that comes to us individually as personal guidance.

Truth is not offended at scrutiny—truth welcomes scrutiny. Truth welcomes thoughtful, provocative questions that seek to deepen our knowledge and understanding of what we think we’re hearing. For truth has nothing to hide—and it is through scrutiny and questioning that the veracity of any position becomes known to us all.

Conversely, deception loathes scrutiny. Deception discourages intellectual debate, and does its best to quell critical thought and inspire a blind following—through bullying, through threatening, and through group peer pressure. For like truth, it is through scrutiny that fraud is exposed—and its betrayal and dupery become clear.

When we follow blindly, we risk tossing aside our agency entirely—which flies in the face of what Christ’s ministry was all about. If we think about the invitation of Christ, it was just that—an invitation: “Ask it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened unto you.” What Christ’s gospel is not, is a mandate—at no time during Christ’s ministry did he demand we follow him blindly—he offered us a choice.

If we think about our entire mortal existence here, it is a plan based entirely on choice. The Great War in Heaven was fought specifically around this very issue. On the one hand, one plan proposed we have a life of agency, be free to question our direction, and have the freedom to choose whether we wish to follow our Savior, or choose another path.

On the other hand, we had a plan presented that stripped us of our agency—of our ability to question—and compelled us to obey, but promised we would all return to our Father. We, as Mormons, know who proposed that second plan—and we voted before this existence to follow the first plan—Christ’s plan.

I think we need to proceed with extreme caution when we’re faced with any situation—regardless of the source—that discourages us from using the critical thinking skills we’ve each been blessed with. Whenever something changes Christ’s invitation from, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” to the mandate, “Behold, I stand at the door with a battering ram, and if you don’t obey you will be castigated and punished,” our guards should be raised. This sounds alarmingly like the plan we rejected so very long ago.

I remember back when the battle for Proposition 8 was waging hard here in California. One of the ads for this campaign told us that President Thomas Monson believed that marriage between those of the same gender was wrong. It showed images of heterosexual families praying together, and playing together. It ended with this question: “Will you stand with the Prophet?”

My response to this question—and any other that seeks to diminish my God-given critical thinking skills is this: I will stand with my Savior.

With whom will you stand?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

“I’ve just learned the truth about who you are."


A few weeks ago, I was standing in the chapel foyer on my way to teach my Sunday School class. I ran into Harry, the Second Counselor in the Bishopric from the Oakland First Ward. (For those who are non members, a ward is a local congregation from a specific geographic area that meets together. A ward is presided over by a Bishop, the equivalent of a pastor in other religions. Two counselors serve with the bishop to help with administrative duties and also preside in the absence of the bishop.)

Harry greeted me with his usual warm smile—he’s a tall, wiry man who’s built very much like a runner. His eyes had an unusual sparkle that morning, and his handshake was even more vigorous and enthusiastic than normal. “Mitch! How good it is to see you!” I couldn’t help but return that kind of smile and enthusiasm, and responded with “Harry, it’s great to see you, too.”

“Do you have a moment to chat?” he asked. “Of course,” I responded, “as long as you’re not going to ask me to teach another class,” I said in jest. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well,” he said in a more solemn tone, “I’d like to speak to you outside.”

We walked onto the flagstone patio outside the chapel foyer together. Once outside, I turned again to look at him, and noticed that behind his glasses, his eyes had begun to fill with tears.

“I’ve just learned the truth about who you are,” he said, and his voice cracked with emotion. I couldn’t help but smile a bit when he spoke—knowing exactly what he meant—that I am a gay Mormon. “I want to let you know that I love you,” he continued. “I am so proud that you come here week after week and fulfill your callings in good cheer. It makes no difference to me whether or not you are gay--I want you here, and I want you to know that I love you for who you are.”

By this point, we were both tearful. I said nothing at first, and even with my hands full of materials for my Sunday School class, threw my arms around him and gave him a big, heartfelt hug. He returned my hug with the same enthusiasm with which he had originally approached me.

Here was Harry, a middle aged, white, heterosexual and multi-generational Mormon, from a small town in Idaho—offering me his unconditional support and love. In that moment I was reminded again that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, and exactly where my Father in Heaven wants me to be. I was reminded that I belong, I have something important to contribute to this church, and I that I am loved.

How grateful I am that Harry was humble enough to be an instrument in the hands of my Father, to deliver the message that I am on the right track. We spoke for a few moments more, and while it never became clear how Harry knew—some of my published writing, word of mouth—it matters not. What does matter is that he took the time to reach out and let me know how much he valued me—not for who he thought I was, but for who I actually am.

I ended our conversation by thanking him, and asked him as he considers who I “really am,” to be careful to never consider me a victim—because I am not. I am exactly as my Father in Heaven made me, and exactly where he wants me to be. Rather, I asked him to consider me a unique and valuable asset available to him in his leadership role within the Bishopric—because that is what I am: An ordinary man, blessed to be in an extraordinary circumstance. And, a man who is willing to bring that experience to bear to help others in my situation as they strive to figure out their place within the gospel, and within the Mormon Church.

I am a blessed man to be where I am, and to have the kind of support locally that I have—and I know it. Any success I have touching the lives of other gay and lesbian Mormons who feel disconnected from a church—and therefore the God of their understanding—belongs not just to me. My success also belongs to people like Harry, and most of all, to my Savior. How blessed and humbled I am to be an instrument in His hands, and to be surrounded by those who are willing to be the same.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Progress, not perfection: More on changes to Mormon Handbook

The recent changes to the Mormon Guidebook on homosexuality are receiving a lot of press--and in some unusual places.

Surprisingly, one of the more moderate (and I think accurate) assessments of the changes was on Perez Hilton's website, where I was quoted as saying the changes are a step in the right direction--to which Perez agreed.

Additionally, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) issued a release today where they claim the Mormon Church now views same-sex attraction as "normal." The title of the release ("Mormon Church: Same-Sex Attraction is Normal") really doesn't do the article itself justice. While, for the first time, the Mormon Church does not advocate reparative therapy for homosexuality, it still is reduced to a sexual act, and a sinful one at that. The comments in the HRC article itself take a more temperate tone than the title--which leads me to believe they might need a little copy editing help. :-)

Of course, there are countless nay-sayers out there who still call for complete doctrinal change within the church. And while many would like to see that happen, I think it's important to walk before we can run--and equally important we acknowledge the small, but positive steps the Mormon Church is taking around the topic of homosexuality. 

It matters less how quickly we're moving, and more in what direction our feet are pointed.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Small steps, big hopes: Changes to the Mormon "Handbook of Instructions" dealing with homosexuality

Last week, the Mormon Church issued an updated “Handbook of instructions,” which advises local church leadership on how to address a variety of issues. I’ve included a description of the handbook and a link below, for those who are interested yet unfamiliar.

The handbook covers a wide variety of topics, including advising church leadership on how to deal with homosexuality and transgender issues. The changes to the document, while not sweeping, were a step in the right direction. For example, we removed the sections that said the homosexual relationships distort loving relationships, and the part that stated that homosexual thoughts and feelings were wrong.

On Thursday, Peggy Stack from the SLC Tribune called me to gauge my reaction to the changes. Essentially, I told Peggy this: While these are small steps, they are steps in the right direction. We’ve removed much of the damning terminology. But what remains troubling to me, is that we still reduce homosexuality to an act of sex---and it is not. Homosexuality is no more just about sex with someone of the same gender, than heterosexuality is just about sex with someone of the opposite gender. Sexual orientation is a key component of our identities, and is much more complex—and is about who we’re drawn to both emotionally and physically, and who we want to share our lives with.

I also told her that it was a little disappointing that the church left it up to the bishops themselves to advise members who seek counsel on the topic of homosexuality. With the very notable exception of my local church leadership (Adam Christenson, Dean Criddle, Craig Stewart, Matt Marostica, and a handful of others), most bishops—who are lay clergy—would probably lack the experience needed to guide on this subject.

I was thinking about your average Bishop, in, for example, Orem, UT. A man who has grown up in the community, and with the possible exception of his mission, has never left or traveled extensively elsewhere. Such a man, however well intended, would be ill equipped to advise on how to deal with being gay--and understandably so. There is no blame here, just honest recognition that his life experience would simply not allow him to be a solid source of information. We cannot transmit something that we do not have. It would be akin to you seeking my advice on nuclear fission; while I might have the best of intentions of helping you, the advice I give you could well blow you to bits.

I am a blessed man to live where I live, and to have the leadership, friendship, and guidance of the men that I do. However, not everyone is as fortunate. In fact, until recently, my own experience with church leadership on the topic of homosexuality has been rough going, at best. In all my years of membership, I have come out at least 5 times to various bishops, and without exception have been summarily ushered right back into the closet.
  • I've been referred to LDS Social Services and a therapist to be "cured" of my illness
  • I've been told I should always decline callings to work with youth and cite "personal reasons" (message being that homosexuality is also pedophilia, and by no means should I be honest with anyone about being gay)
  • I've been told that until I no longer have these urges I am to abstain from taking the sacrament
  • I've been told that since I am not in a relationship no formal action will be taken against me, and advised that I should not disclose the fact that I am gay to anyone within the church ever again

The message is the same: Homosexuality is something shameful. And, as long as we continue to enshroud homosexuality in secrecy and shame, it shall be a shameful thing. Shame brings about subversive, acting out behaviors—not healthy ones. It’s here where we see sexual compulsions develop, unsafe and drug/alcohol induced sexual binges, and secret gay sex in bathhouses and truck stops.

If all bishops and church leaders were as enlightened as the ones I am blessed to have now, there could be open, healthy, accepting dialogue about the issue of being a gay Mormon. It is this kind of counsel, advice, and listening that will truly affect change both within the church and within the gay community. It is my humble prayer that we continue to move in that direction.


Links to documents:

About the LDS Church Handbook of Instructions
The LDS Church issues instructions and guidelines to local leaders in a book called the Church Handbook of Instructions. A new version is being released this weekend, replacing the 2006 version and its updates. Local leaders, who are not professionally trained clergy, rely on a combination of worldwide satellite broadcast trainings conducted by General Authorities, regional and local in-person and satellite broadcast trainings, and the CHI to figure out to operate their local congregations on a day-to-day basis, with instructions both mundane and extraordinary.

The Handbook is published it two volumes, with the first one issued solely to priesthood presidencies of local units (wards, stakes, branches, missions and districts), temple presidencies, and General Authorities.

Average members, including all women (as only men are ordained to the priesthood) do not generally have their own copies of the Handbook, but theoretically can ask their local leaders to read/share specific potions of the volumes.


Sunday, November 7, 2010

You know who I am

In the fall of 2009, I was approached by my Stake President to help put together a stake-wide program to LDS members to help them better understand and become more educated about gay Mormons. I happily agreed.

Initially, I chose to remain anonymous and have this read by a long-standing, well respected heterosexual member of our ward. The reasons for this were twofold: First, I did not want the messenger to cloud the message itself. Outing myself in front of my ward could have detracted from the intent and impact of my message. Second, and perhaps more important, members of the church got to hear someone who was "just like them"  deliver a message from someone often considered "the other."
 
Little did I know at the time, but this work would soon become a major focus of my life, and this is the writing that started it all. I am now an openly gay, active Latter-Day Saint. From those small, first steps with the Oakland and Berkeley, CA wards, grew a passion and a direction for my life that I didn't even know I had. How grateful I am.

Enjoy.



You know who I am. You have sat next to me in meetings. You have greeted me with warmth and enthusiasm when I’ve come to church. You have heard my voice in prayer.

Yet, I wonder how many of you would treat me less kindly if you knew the truth of who I really am. I wonder if you would judge me—however mildly, however inadvertently, however silently.

Being honest about who I am has seldom led to a positive outcome. In my home, my father told me that my being gay was his ultimate fear, and my ultimate failure. My mother told me it would have been better for her if I’d been born dead than gay. Growing up, I was scorned on the playground, and ridiculed and bullied in the classroom. I have been fired from jobs because I am gay. At times, even though I had done nothing that would have disqualified me, I have been told by Church leaders that I am unworthy of ever taking the Sacrament. I have been told that I will never work with the youth of the Church. I have been told in meetings that it is because of people like me that the AIDS pandemic has come upon the Earth—that my sins are bringing punishment upon the wicked and the sinless alike.

It has not been an easy path, nor a path I would wish for anyone. But it is my path. And it has made me who I am today. I am, in fact, grateful for being gay. It has given me levels of compassion, understanding, patience, and forgiveness that I would never have developed otherwise.

Many Sundays, I look out at you across the congregation: young families, with your brood of wonderful and rambunctious children; mid-life couples with your fledgling children, offering them support as they leave the nest; husbands and wives who’ve shared this earthly path together for years, with your memories of lifelong love and companionship. And I know I will never have those things. If I am to live by Church doctrine, I am relegated to a life of solitude, and my sentence is to grow old and leave this world alone.

Those are painful realizations for me. Yet when the Sacrament is passed, when I bow my head and speak my sorrow to my Heavenly Father, something grand happens. Almost without exception, a feeling washes over me from deep inside my soul. A tender, warm, yet powerful feeling—and an unmistakable voice that tells me, “You belong here.” Not when I have it all figured out, not if I could become straight, not when I know all the answers—but today, right here, right now. With you. That, my dear brothers and sisters, is why I am Mormon. Because I belong here.

Being a child of my Heavenly Father was not a choice. Being gay is not a choice. Both things simply are. Both things are intertwined into the DNA of my soul so deeply that you could not extricate one from the other without destroying who I am. They are, in fact, who I am.

I am a gay Latter Day Saint.

I don’t want pity. To pity me is to make me a victim. I want understanding. To understand me, is to love me as an equal.

I don’t want tolerance. If I am tolerated, I am disliked or feared in some way. I want respect as a fellow striving child of God—an equal in His eyes.

I don’t want acceptance. To accept me is to graciously grant me the favor of your company. To accept me is to marginalize me with the assumption that I am less than you. I am your peer. I am neither above you nor below you.

I don’t want judgment. My path may be different than yours, but it is a plan built for me by a power greater than any of us. To judge me is to judge the designer of that path.

I don’t want to be labeled as “afflicted” or “suffering” or “struggling.” I do not have an illness that requires my soul be mended. I want to be recognized, like you, as a whole person, just as my Heavenly Father made me. I have suffered no affliction by His hand; I have, however, suffered affliction at the hands of others, including my brothers and sisters in the gospel.

I do not want to be viewed as a mistake. My path on this Earth was prescribed uniquely for me, just as yours was for you. It was designed to give me the experiences I need to grow as a child of my Heavenly Father. To view me as a mistake is to view Him as a maker of mistakes.

On a cosmetic level, we are very different, you and I. You have spouses, or the opportunity for spouses, I do not. You have children, or the opportunity for children, I do not. You are attracted to those of the opposite gender, I am attracted to those of my same gender.

What I want most of all is for you to look past the superficial and the cosmetic. I want you to look at what makes us the same: the simple fact that we are all children of our Heavenly Father, and we are striving day to day to understand how to best do His will, and how to return to Him. It is that simple sameness, brothers and sisters, that weighs more than all the differences in His universe.

You know who I am. You have sat next to me in meetings. You have greeted me with warmth and enthusiasm when I’ve come to Church. You have heard my voice in prayer. And now, you have heard my truth.