Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Why Mormons March in LGBT Pride

June 26th was the fifth year we've marched in San Francisco LGBT Pride. It's one of the world's largest celebrations, with usually well over 500,000 people attending. Over the years, I've learned to spot the Mormons in the crowd. It's easy once you know what to look for. Yesterday right in the middle of Market Street a young woman caught my eye--she was looking at me, jumping up and down and yelling, "Thank you!"

I looked back and mouthed the words, "Are you Mormon?" already knowing the answer. And then over the screaming crowd and music I actually *heard* her. "YES!" she yelled back to me.

I left my place at the start of the contingent and ran over, reached across the barricade and into the crowd. Her arms reached out for mine. We hugged, and I told her "You are loved, sister. By many Mormons and most certainly by your Savior." She started sobbing--her breath was actually heaving and she pushed out the words, "Thank you, thank you, I never thought I would see this, thank you and I love you, too!"

I broke away and she held my hand and I looked into her eyes for just a split second. I don't know the details of her history with our faith and I may never know, but her eyes told me it was a painful one. And she clearly misses the love she once felt in this faith that used to be her home.

All of that happened in under ten seconds. Yet it's a memory that for both of us, I am betting, will last forever.

So, why do Mormons march in LGBT Pride? 

For the girl I hugged and who hugged me back.

For the millions like her.

For the healing it represents not only to those in the crowd--but to those who march.

For the fact that we belong together.

And because expressing unconditional love is never the wrong thing to do.

To view more of our contingent check out this quick and well done video

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Coming Out From Our Safe Places

Diane and her son, Ross
Mama Dragon and active Latter-day Saint Diane Oviatt kindly agreed to share a talk she delivered in Sacrament Meeting recently. The focus: How loving her LGBT son for who he is (and seeing others do the same) has deepened her faith in Christ, and given her the ability to envision a Church where everyone fits--independent of any markers we place on others to make them different from us.

I've had the distinct pleasure of knowing Diane since 2008, when we worked together as part a stake-wide effort to repair relationships with the LGBT community after the damage we caused with our involvement in Prop 8.

I loved this woman the moment I met her. Time hasn't changed that--if anything, it's made it stronger. Her kindness, her compassion, her humility and humor--all combine to make her a remarkable human being, and I'm quite confident in my belief she is a blessing to everyone who has the good fortune to encounter her.



Author Fiona Givens wrote:

“The body of Christ needs its full complement of members:
-the devout,
-the wayward, 
-the uncomfortable, 
-the struggling.”

I have been all of these at different points in my lifetime. But I am still here because hands and hearts of my fellow Latter-day Saints have lifted me; because I feel the need to return the favor; because here, within this church, I have come to know my Savior.

I know many who have not had the experience I have. They have been shunned for doubting, for questioning, or for standing up for the right of their LGBT loved ones to belong in a religious environment that appears to have no place and no plan for them. I weep with them and have vowed to be a voice for keeping Christ’s example at the forefront of how we practice our theology.

I have always imagined myself a “live and let live” sort of person—tolerant and accepting. But I did not realize how far I had to go until my immediate family became the square peg that didn’t fit.

I grew up with an alcoholic, chain smoking mother. I would sit in primary and inwardly cry at the thought that I did not have a celestial family. The idea that we might not all be together after we died terrified me. I grew up determined to create my own celestial family by marrying in the temple and keeping God’s commandments, so that my children would never feel that fear that I felt.

To be sure, I felt inadequate as a mother and keeper of the religious flame that flickered off and on in our home over the years. But nothing had prepared me for the despair I felt when our son Ross came out as gay to our family nine years ago. The cavalcade of questions borne of fear about what this meant for him and our family in the eternities took me to a dark and lonely place emotionally. Yet, as the Persian poet Rumi said, “…the wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

Fast forward nine years, and that light is still coming and I am still learning what it means to love as Christ loves. I am being taught by those who have been marginalized for not fitting into the plan. My life is richer, more textured, more meaningful from these associations. Knowledge and faith have replaced fear.

I am now converted to the idea that in order to be one in Christ, we must do as Apostle Elder Renlund counseled. We must:

“…see people through a parent’s eyes, through Heavenly Father’s eyes. Only then can we comprehend the true worth of a soul. Only then can we sense the Savior’s caring concern for them. We cannot completely fulfill our covenant to mourn with those who mourn and comfort those in need of comfort unless we see them through God’s eyes.”

I received my Patriarchal blessing at age eighteen. There is a beautiful passage in it about learning to embody Christ’s Beatitudes in word and deed. I have loved the Sermon on the Mount my whole life. I never tire of its simple yet profound message. I keep the Sermon uppermost in my mind as I run a support group in our home through an organization for LGBT Mormons called Affirmation.

Diane with Carol Lynn Pearson
My husband Tom and I spend time affirming these mostly twenty something gay young men, many of whom have felt degrees of rejection from family members or church leaders.I mourn with them, I comfort them. I see them through a parent’s eyes—not hard for me as the mother of a gay son. I say to them, when they worry about their connection to their faith, what Carol Lynn Pearson said to me when I sobbed out my anguish over my son nine years ago. She said, “Tell Ross that I have a testimony of HIM!”

My patriarchal blessing also has a passage about my home being a refuge for God’s children who do not feel welcome elsewhere. A passage I did not understand until I was asked to do this work that is now so sacred and holy to me. My dear friend from Arizona, Bryce Cook, faithful Latter-day Saint and father of two gay sons, echoes my feelings about this perfectly:

“I have experienced a joyful awakening and enriching of the soul and have seen it happen to many others who have become involved in getting to know and serving our LGBT brothers and sisters. It is truly an awakening because you see with new eyes and are given a new heart. What many thought they once knew- the firm convictions, the doctrinal justifications, the prejudices- all seem to fade in to irrelevance once they see someone as Christ sees them. This kind of conversion experience will both enlarge your spirit and refine your faith like nothing else I know.”

I have mentioned how much fear ruled my head and heart when my son came out and I saw my dreams for him evaporate and felt his utter despair at the thought that he would never marry in the temple and have a family unless he lived a lie. Fear is what causes us to judge what we don’t understand. We fear difference, we fear doubt. We value certainty. 

Brian Whitney, LDS scholar said:  

“For me, when I see the example of the Savior, I see Him spending His time with those who want to be healed and desperately want to feel his mercy, not those who were so certain of their own righteousness.”

Fear impedes faith, and it impedes love. It keeps us from opening our hearts to change and learning from others. It is borne of insecurity. It is behind the divisive rhetoric we are hearing in this election season. It is what creates emotional distance.

Does fear make us like the priest and the Levite who pass on the far side of the road from the wounded so as to insure our own purity? My friend Tom Montgomery posed this question after his gay teen son was shunned by ward members who refused to take the sacrament from him on Sundays.

I have learned to be vulnerable on this journey, to admit that my notions are not always correct; that different kinds of people with different views enrich my life; that there is more than one way to be a Mormon, a follower of Christ; that Christ-like action can come from unlikely places.

Christians can be un-Christ-like. Conversely Muslims, like my favorite family at work, can literally embody the beatitudes in word and deed, even though they do not believe in Christ the way we do.

A friend wrote in real time, recently, of an experience in his ward back east that touched me deeply.

“In Sunday school, a substitute teacher is talking about how his son, now on parole after six years in jail for selling cocaine, is making a life outside of the church. He is speaking about how people make beautiful lives amidst great diversity. He is speaking from a place of vulnerability, going way off the script, and bringing out the real gospel of Christ. Now others are sharing more personal experiences. The people who are sharing don’t typically talk during the meetings. It’s beautiful. The teacher just now related how the prisoners miss his son. Apparently this now non-member son was instrumental in reaching out and helping his fellow prisoners. The teacher brings it back to how Mosiah spoke of how these groups that support one another were called “the churches of God”.

Are we brave enough to go off script? The script of our tidy little lives in order to break through that emotional distance borne of fear and ignorance, in order to reach the one? To create the “churches of God” in diverse places?

I love what sister Neill Marriott has to say on this:

“With the help of the Holy Ghost, we can create an emotionally healing place for the discriminated against, the rejected, the stranger. In these tender yet powerful ways, we build the kingdom of God. All of us need a spiritual and physical place of belonging. We can create this. It is even a holy place.”

Elder Kearon, in a talk about ministering to refugees, spoke this beautiful passage:

“We [Latter-day Saints] have found refuge. Let us come out from our safe places and share with them, from our abundance, hope for a brighter future, faith in god and in our fellowman, and love that sees beyond cultural and ideological differences to the glorious truth that we are all children of our Heavenly Father. “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and love.”

I would posit that there are refugees of a different kind in our midst here within Mormonism. Those of us who fit nicely in to the plan must come from the safety and certainty of our abundance to literally “touch the cross” as Fiona Givens says, of those who are hurting, because they don’t see a place of welcome here. These spiritual refugees need a healing place, a place of belonging.

In his marvelous book “Planted,” Mormon studies professor Patrick Mason gets right to the point:  

“In order to fulfill its mission to invite all to come to Christ, our meetings must be a place where all people feel welcome: smokers and nonsmokers, women and men, the elderly and babes in arms. Native Americans and Arabs and everyone else. Welfare recipients and billionaires, single and married, divorced and widowed, childless and child blessed, soldiers and peace activists, believers and doubters, straight and gay. Every weekers and once a yearers, feminists and non- feminists, intellectuals and the illiterate, groomed and unkempt. Those in suits or jeans and those in dresses or pants. Conservatives and liberals, publicans and Pharisees. This inclusiveness is not by way of contemporary political correctness. It is by way of commandment.”

My four year olds in Primary get this. Every week we talk about how Jesus loves everyone, and how great it is that we are all different, and they enthusiastically embrace this concept. This is why Primary feels like a sanctuary to me. Kindness can never be over emphasized; it is the light that enters our wounds.

This poignant poem by Naomi Shihab Nye speaks to my soul:

Before you know what kindness really is, you must lose things. Feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever. Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive. Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore. Only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say, “It is I you have been looking for”, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.

My husband Tom and I are still here sitting in these pews in part, because of two humble leaders who let love and kindness rule their response to our child’s anguish and subsequent departure from a church that did not want him as his authentic self.

My friends with gay children in other parts of the country have not always been so lucky. There have been judgement and condemnation. Most of their children have left the church. Some have left their life here on earth as well when the pain became too much.

What we do and say to others matters tremendously—more than doctrine, more than policy. Lives are at stake. As stated in first Corinthians chapter 12, we cannot cut off parts of the body of Christ if we are to be one in Christ. My former Bishop knew this. My Stake President did, too. They reached out and gathered us up as a shepherd gathers his flock. They answered this question Patrick Mason poses in “Planted”:

“In our ward families, can we, in our pale imitation of Christ, develop deep empathy for those struggling with doubt, disbelief, feelings of betrayal, or suffering from God’s silence? Can the church be a place for people who cannot now, always or ever say I know?”

Our family’s experience says yes, it can.

I will close with the simple declaration by Rumi: 

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

It is my fervent prayer that that field can be right here, right now.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

On His Blindness (LGBT Edition)

In March of 2016, Bishop Don Fletcher (the former bishop of the Bay Ward here in San Francisco, and the bishop who called me to serve as his executive secretary) delivered a talk at a Fireside here in the Bay Area.

The Fireside is part of an ongoing initiative by a group called The Hearth, which sponsors and hosts events that build and strengthen an LGBT-inclusive LDS community. I’m blessed to be part of a community of fellow Latter-day Saints involved in The Hearth, and blessed to know someone like Bishop Fletcher. 

Over the course of the past several years as I’ve worked deeply in the Mormon community on the LGBT topic, I’ve had the chance to meet what I think might be the absolute best humans to walk the planet. In fact, I secretly suspect they might actually be angels in disguise—the depth of kindness, the compassion, and the willingness to do what is right despite the consequences are among just a few of the qualities these folks possess.

Bishop Don Fletcher is among the best of them.  I hope you enjoy his words from the Fireside as much as I did. 

On His Blindness
by  John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Bishop Don Fletcher and his wonderful wife Terri.
In seventh grade, my English teacher gave our class the assignment to memorize John’s Milton’s sonnet “On His Blindness”.  Amazingly I still remember it verbatim, now some 48 years later.  Though I still have it memorized, I am certain that I don’t fully understand it.  

If I recall the situation correctly, in about the year 1650, Milton had lost his sight and wrote this poem about aspects of patience with his visual impairment which profoundly impacted his talent of writing.  Interestingly, in seventh grade, I did not have any idea that I would not only become an ophthalmologist, but that I would also specialize in rehabilitation of the blind and visually impaired. 

At this point in my professional career, I have personally cared for over 25,000 visually impaired patients.  My comments today are going to merge my professional path with my spiritual path, and touch on blindness issues as they relate to the LGBT community.

I’ll start by admitting that I was actually “blind” myself, until I was over the age of 50, when my brother came out to me as gay. While my physical vision was perfectly fine, I was spiritually blind to and ignorant of the issues and challenges LGBT individuals face.  

Like the healed blind man in John 9:25, I can now say that through gifts of the Savior – “one thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”  I owe a great debt of gratitude to my brother Bob and my good friend Mitch Mayne and the Lord for opening my eyes.

A few years ago, my brother contacted me and asked to meet. Bob and I had always been close, so it didn’t really come as a surprise when he made the request. But something unusual happened to me before that meeting. While I don’t want to pretend to be in the same class as Joseph of Egypt, I had a dream in which I had a vision that Bob was gay.  

By the time the meeting took place, I was pretty certain what the topic was going to be—and I was correct. While the dream was helpful in terms of giving me revelation, it did something else that might even be more important. By sharing the vision with Bob, he said, it made the whole coming out process easier for him. Coming out is never easy—and it’s certainly not easy when you’re a married man with a history of 50 years of living in the closet. But that dream gave Bob an extra boost of courage that enabled him to finally be his authentic self with me, and eventually with the rest of our family. The revelation made it clear to Bob—and to me—that there was indeed a grander hand behind all of this. That hand opened the doorway, and Bob—an authentic Bob—stepped through to the other side. 

While I am glad that I could be there for my brother, I am also profoundly grateful for what that dream did for me.  The Lord provided that dream for me as a tender mercy, to smooth the process for receiving the loving gifts of insight that my brother would open to my understanding.

My brother Bob and Mitch Mayne have shared many great insights with me over the years – Bob as a family member and Mitch as my executive secretary when I was bishop of the San Francisco Bay ward.  I estimate that the wonderful Bay ward may have a larger gay membership than any other ward on the planet.  While laboring in San Francisco, I would occasionally become impatient with straight “gay unfriendly” people.  I had to be gently reminded to give them a break, that there was often little malice behind their opinions, but instead blindness—not unlike my own.

We find ourselves now at another extremely difficult period of time for LGBT members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Much of the great work we did with reactivation of LGBT members in the Bay ward would now be much more difficult. 

But, the lens through which I would examine today’s circumstances is perfectly expressed by Sonny in the wonderful movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “Everything will be all right in the end. And if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end.”  With all my heart, I believe that applies to our situation in the church today—it is not the end.

When we began our outreach in the San Francisco Bay Ward, one of the mantras we adopted was a quote by Elder Jeffrey Holland, and one that is still true today:

“… some members exclude from their circle of fellowship those who are different. When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them—and the Lord.”   (October 2007)  

Since I’m not as eloquent as Elder Holland, I paraphrased his words to come up with a common mantra of my own—and one that guided the work we did with the ward. That mantra was, “I don’t care whether you are straight or gay, or whether you have stripes or spots—you are welcome in our ward.” 

With Mitch’s help, I composed a quarterly hard-copy letter to every member on the ward records(including those who were less active) and personally signed each and every one. In that first letter, one of the things I wrote was this:

“In my tenure as a bishop and in the stake presidency, I’ve noted many reasons members hold back from their faith.  Some of them include:
  • Those who were offended by a crusty member or insensitive remarks
  • Those who are uncomfortable paying tithing, for whatever reason
  • Those who are gay or lesbian and struggle to understand how they fit within the faith
  • Those who grapple with the Word of Wisdom or other compulsions

None of those reasons - or any other - should keep you away from the faith you once called ‘home.’  Please come back.  We have a wonderful ward full of diversity – you are welcome too.   You will be valued here and welcomed as part of our ward family.  We meet in the chapel at Pacific and Gough at 9:00 a.m. on Sundays.”

I had the opportunity to personally meet with dozens of LGBT members (and straight members) who had become inactive for a variety of reasons. Many of them told me that upon opening the letter, they were skeptical—yet they kept it, and it laid on their desk or counter for several months. They would pick it up, reread it, ponder it—and often summoned the courage to give me or Mitch a call.

Several times I was asked, “Is this for real?  Do you really mean what you wrote? Am I really welcome at church?”  I was always enthusiastic when I responded in the affirmative—but inside, I quietly found it most distressing that so many LGBT members expressed surprise to learn that they were welcome to participate in the ward.

One memorable story involved a returned missionary who had not attended church in many, many years.  His was a frequently heard scenario.  He assumed that serving a mission as a 19-year-old would “cure” him of his gayness.   It didn’t. 

So, San Francisco became home and he found and committed to a wonderful partner with whom he
had shared a close relationship for over 20 years.  As he started to attend our church meetings he felt something very warm, wonderful and familiar return to his life.  His non-member partner noticed that he was significantly happier and more satisfied with life, as well. 

Liking what he saw in his partner, the non-member of the couple inquired if it would be okay if he attended also.  I enthusiastically agreed, and he was a great addition to our weekly meetings. He ended up taking the discussions, reading the Book of Mormon and gaining a testimony that it was true.  We really should not be surprised – the Book of Mormon is true. This couple moved across the bay, and they now attend another ward that welcomes and supports them.

One of the things I like best about holding the priesthood is the opportunity to use it a service to others through giving them blessings. As a bishop, I was very generous in my use of priesthood blessings. I always offered to give a blessing to all gay members (and non-members). 

I laid my hands on the heads of many wonderful men and women, and the situations were all remarkably consistent.   My first impression, without exception, was that I needed to tell this individual of the Lord’s love for them, right now, exactly as they were.  Every one of us needs to know that, but especially those who are LGBT often feel unlovable. 

As a doctor, I have seen blindness, ill health, and death.  I have done volunteer work in Asia and in Africa and in many impoverished areas where I have seen much suffering.  But perhaps the greatest human tragedy, with as great suffering as any I have seen, is in those who don’t feel they are capable of being loved by the Savior just as they are.

Many LGBT ward members and many disconnected straight ally members returned to active participation while we ministered in San Francisco.  I now live in Wichita but Mitch and I continue to have much passion for ministering to those who don’t feel the love of the Lord in their lives. And while the formal ministry of our work in the Bay Ward might, for now, be on hold, each of us continues to feel the call of our Savior to do the work necessary to help our fellows see His hand in their lives, and feel His love.

Carol Lynn Peason
One of the people who I most respect on this planet is Carol Lynn Pearson.  She was asked to write a song for the children’s hymnbook dealing with disabilities.  She has told me that, although a child in a wheelchair is pictured in the primary song book, she has always seen this as applicable to our members who are LGBT, as well.

If you don’t walk as most people do,
Some people walk away from you,
But I won’t! I won’t!
If you don’t talk as most people do,
Some people talk and laugh at you,
But I won’t! I won’t!
I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you.
That’s how I’ll show my love for you.
Jesus walked away from none.
He gave his love to ev’ryone.
So I will! I will!
Jesus blessed all he could see,
Then turned and said, “Come, follow me.”
And I will! I will!
I will! I will!
I’ll walk with you. I’ll talk with you.
That’s how I’ll show my love for you.
(Children’s Songbook #140)

That song proposes an easy doctrine for this group of people I am addressing tonight, but there is perhaps a more difficult twist for us now.  But even with the offenses of “visually impaired” Latter-day Saint mortals, please do not feel tempted to walk away from the Savior’s Church. In spite of what is said to us and around us, we need to remember that this church is His. 

Now, more than ever, we need His love and support—and He needs ours.  One way that we can show our love for the Savior is by being long-suffering and patient with other members of His Church.

I love the Lord Jesus Christ, and I know that He loves me.  The doctrine of His Church that is rock solid in my heart, and the cornerstone of that doctrine is His unconditional love for each of us.  And while I am mortal too, and I can allow myself to get frustrated with how mortals fail to express and demonstrate His love, in my heart I still know that His love for each of us is universal, and we are infinitely valuable in His eyes.

When I get impatient and feel inclined to question, I think back to my days serving as a missionary in England.  In addition to Milton, another passage I had memorized verbatim was Joseph Smith’s rendition of the first vision. 

In presenting the first discussion, I would retell it in the first person, with much feeling.  Every time I told that story, I would feel the Holy Ghost bear witness that it really happened as Joseph Smith described.  I have no question that it did.  He was a prophet, and the God of Heaven used him to restore His church to the earth. 

One of the things I like best about the Joseph Smith story is learning that Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father knew Joseph Smith personally, and called him by name.  Likewise, they know each of our names and love and care for us personally.  That is true, and as frustrated as I get at times, I cannot deny it. 
Like me, most members have a testimony of the first vision. At the same time, it feels like many good people lack a vision of the place of LGBT individuals in the Lord’s church. 

So, what are we to do?

Here, I will make another movie reference.  I am a Rocky Balboa fan.  In one of the sequels, the aging boxer Rocky gives advice to the son he dearly loves.  His son is having difficulty getting his life together and he blames his father’s shadow for his problems. 

To that, Rocky says:
“Let me tell you something you already know.  The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.  It is a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.  You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.

But it ain’t about how hard you hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.  It’s how much you can take, and keep moving forward.  That’s how winning is done.

Now, if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what your worth.  But you gotta be willing to take the hits, and not point fingers and blame other people.  Cowards do that and that ain’t you.  You’re better than that!

I am always going to love you, no matter what happens.”

This has tremendous relevance to our discussion today.  In fact, I think there are a lot of similarities between the LGBT community and prize fighters.  Both are groups of people that get knocked down a lot.

In all of the things Rocky said, of especial significance is this line:

“If you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what your worth.”

That is where we have the most critical need in our LGBT ministering.  We need to help all internalize the label of “child of God” and “loved of the Savior” - that each of us has great worth.

A critical factor in self-worth is the labels we allow to be attached to us.  As a physician, labelling is also a critical factor in my professional life. And, I have learned that labels have a lot to do with whether or not my patients are successful in low vision rehabilitation. Let me tell you what I mean.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) coined a term almost a century ago that has been a great disservice to my field as an eye doctor.  It is the label “legal blindness.”  If you cannot see a certain size letter on the letter chart (20/200) you are labeled “legally blind.” 

But people who cannot see below the 20/200 size letter generally still have a good deal of remaining vision—they just need some magnification.  With the right devices and training they can read the newspaper, cross the street, cook dinner and answer emails on their computers.  In many cases, they live life just as normally as their perfectly-visioned counterparts.

I would contend that more people are blinded by that inaccurate definition than any eye disease known to man.  Labelling these people as legally blind is as preposterous as labeling someone who is sick and in the hospital, “legally dead.”

In spite of timely and competent eye care, many people in America lose vision with conditions like macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.  Here is the common scenario:

First, the patient loses vision, are told that there is no treatment to restore it and that, by definition, they are now labeled legally blind. Goodbye and good luck.

Then that patient finds their way to my office.  By this time, they have internalized many negative labels applied by trusted doctors and don’t believe there is any hope that I can help them.  Before I start the medical rehabilitation process, I often have to rehabilitate their self-perception to a degree, and in turn instill in them a little hope. In most cases, they are in fact capable of living independent, productive and happy lives—but the way they label themselves must change before that can happen.

So it was when I was bishop in the Bay ward.  Helping rehabilitate people’s self-perception was often the first order of business as I met with LGBT members.  I had to change negative labels into positive ones. Those included reminding them:

You are a loved child of God. 
You are loved of God the way you are right now.
You are welcome in the Lord’s church the way you are right now. 
You are a good person. 
You have great potential to do good and be good in this life. 
You are here on earth now by design and it is no accident that you are the way you are. 
You are not alone. 
You can become better and the Lord wants to help you to be your best.

Disciplinary councils are also the source of many negative labels.  I have been a bishop in three different states, and I have served as a counselor in a stake presidency.  Consequently, I have had lots of experience disciplinary counsels and those interested in repentance and utilizing the atonement in their lives. 

If it were up to me, I’d rename the whole process. Instead of, “Disciplinary Council” I would call it, “Proceedings for Atonement Application.”  People that are “Disfellowshipped” need anything but less fellowship. So I propose we change that label to, “Hyperfellowship Candidates,” where they would be included first in every activity and invited into the homes of their fellow members. 

“Excommunication” is also a potently negative word.  Microsoft Word gives me these synonyms for excommunication:  excluded, barred, ejected, removed, expelled, thrown out.  That’s not a great list of positive labels.  Here, I would solicit your input—I would love to hear your ideas. So far on my short list, I have “Reinvestigators” or “Lamb in Need of Lots of Love.”

I feel strongly that the Lord would have us as individuals and as a church do much better than we have at blessing the lives of the at least 500,000 members of His church that are gay (using an exceedingly conservative 3% epidemiological estimation).  We can do so much more to relieve suffering with the truth of the Lord’s love for us.

So as I close tonight, let me summarize with a list of things I hope you walk away with.
Let me summarize what I think is important:
  1. Beware of Labels – avoid negative, embrace positive.
  2. The most certain and positive label that can be applied to any of us is “a loved child of God.”
  3. Get up when you’re knocked down.  You are not beaten unless you give up.  It is a long fight but with the Lord in your corner, you will win.
  4. Everything will be alright in the end.
  5. Don’t walk away from the Savior.
  6. Challenge yourself by asking the question, “What can I personally do to relieve some of the suffering in this community?”

Let me close with a quote from our last general conference.  This is from Sister Neill Marriott.  Her talk was rich and powerful.  Listen to her closing sentence: 

“When we offer our broken heart to Jesus Christ, He accepts our offering. He takes us back. No matter what losses, wounds, and rejection we have suffered, His grace and healing are mightier than all. Truly yoked to the Savior, we can say with confidence, “It will all work out.”

There is much that the Lord would have us do.  Don’t jump ship.  Let the Spirit guide you as to how best to use your time, talents and resources in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. To my mind, there is no greater cause that I want to be involved in than ministering to LGBT Mormons – and to give sight to those who aren’t able to see the truth of their own important place in the Lord’s eternal plan.

I bear testimony that He loves each and every one of us, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

On the Vilification of Disagreement

A guest post by my friend and Stake High Councilman here in the San Francisco Stake, Matt Mosman.

I can't underscore enough how much respect I have for this man. A multi-generational Mormon who almost unceasingly exhibits Mormonism at its best--even when he disagrees with others, including me. He's also among the most well-read Latter-day Saints I know when it comes to scriptures and our history, and has consistently been a voice of reason in rooms where there doesn't seem to be enough of it around. He is not only someone I admire, but he is someone I'm quite honored to call my friend.

Here is his take on the growing trend to vilify individuals who disagree with the new LDS policy on LGBT indiivudals and their chidlren. Whether or not you agree with the policy, there is something for you to learn here.


In the past month, because I’m struggling with the church’s recent pronouncement on people who enter into a same-sex marriage and the children of those couples, I’ve been accused of a few things:
  • Lacking a testimony
  • Not being an active member
  • Not knowing my own mind
  • Being a person who values “fitting in with the world” over “God’s truth”
  • Being part of a “quitter culture”
  • “Taking the easy way out”
  • Literally being “Anti-Mormon”
  • Et cetera

All of this -- all of it -- from folks who live hundreds of miles from me, none of whom has ever had the opportunity to meet me or talk with me. A few were positively stunned to learn that I hold a stake calling, as I have at one level or another for the past decade. I can’t know for sure, but none seem to have considered the notion that perhaps I am a man who loves the Mormon church, wants desperately for the church to be as amazing as I think it can be, wants to help in every way, prays for the leadership of the church to be guided by the hand of God, and yet honestly wonders if the church has gotten this one right just yet.

I’m not alone. This vilification of those who disagree has been playing out across wards and stakes all over the world. That’s a problem, I think. And I want to think out loud about issues that seem to give rise to it.

On Accusations of “Anti-Mormonism”
More years ago than I care to admit, I was walking down a Chicago street with my missionary companion, Elder Hansen (not his real name). It was one of those sweltering Midwestern summer afternoons, where the air just sort of lays on you like steaming barber’s towels. We were in the middle of a particularly fruitless day of tracting, knocking on door after door without success.

As we approached a street corner, a cluster of teenagers, not much younger than we were actually, appeared with what must have been thirty water balloons in their hands. Each of the kids was soaked; apparently this had been going on for a while.

Seeing us, they laughingly called out “church boys!”, and proceeded to unload their stash of balloons on us. All of them. We were drenched.

Which, to be honest, felt wonderful. I ran my hands through my wet hair and stooped to pick up my scriptures, which I’d dropped when I threw my hands up to ward off the “attack.” Cool water ran down my back. The boys ran away laughing.

I stood back up, and Elder Hansen was looking at me very seriously. I think maybe tears were welling up in his eyes, though it was hard to tell with his face all wet. “Elder Mosman,” he said quietly, “we will be blessed for enduring this kind of persecution.”

Mormons, it turns out, are hyper-sensitive to persecution. A bunch of kids having a good time on a hot day becomes a mob bent on harassment, and just about any attempt to disagree becomes “anti-Mormon.”

At some level it’s understandable, since we are simply recalling a time when persecution was real. It’s worth noting that Missouri’s Executive Order 44, calling for Mormons to be “exterminated or driven from the state,” was formally rescinded less than forty years ago (though to be fair, it was unused and dormant for many years before that). Mormons didn’t happily resettle to Utah -- they were driven there by threat of mob violence in Illinois, quite by force, and settled there at least in part because it was far enough away from everyone else that they felt safe from being murdered.

So I get it.

But part of being a religion that people can take seriously is an ability to allow that people, both from within and from without, will disagree on all kinds of things -- doctrines, policies, whether Diet Coke is allowed by the Word of Wisdom, how and when to bring up to that one deacon that he needs to comb his %$#@ hair before passing the sacrament. Most disagreements are between well-meaning people who just see things from different perspectives. I’ve had people “do me wrong,” to borrow the old cowboy phrase, but almost never on purpose.

Disagreement is not persecution, and a Mormon who just doesn’t see a certain topic the same way as you do is not necessarily even trying to get you to see things his/her way. Persecution implies a certain degree of ill intent -- while I may actually do some kind of harm to you on accident, it is surpassingly difficult to accidentally persecute someone.

Likewise, I think it would be very hard to accidentally be anti-Mormon.

Moreover, “anti-Mormon” is a bit of a dog whistle for believers, and should be applied with a significant degree of caution. The accusation puts the person with whom you disagree outside of the circle. They become, not a brother or sister who may have a perfectly good reason to feel hurt or who has a genuine and prayerfully-considered position on a matter, but simply an enemy of Christ’s church. It’s a heck of a thing to accuse a person of that.

The accusation effectively ends any possibility of a decent discussion, where I might learn from you and you from me. There can be no give-and-take after that. I am the enemy. You hold the Standard of Liberty. I’m wrong. You’re right. The End.

But Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf suggests that debate is okay. In fact, he says that it’s central to our church’s history: “In this Church that honors personal agency so strongly, that was restored by a young man who asked questions and sought answers, we respect those who honestly search for truth,” he offered in the October 2013 General Conference. I suggest that we all take him at his word, and allow for people to wonder (and, maybe, wander) a bit.
And in any case, I presume that no one is claiming infallibility for the church’s leadership.

Do Mormons Believe in a Doctrine of Infallibility?
Mormons do not believe in infallibility. As George Q. Cannon wrote, in “Gospel Truth”: “The First Presidency cannot claim, individually or collectively, infallibility. Infallibility is not given to men. They are fallible.”

There is a sort of pat Mormon response to this that allows that the leadership of the church can make mistakes, like I suppose miscalculating a tip or something, but not in the guidance of the church. But this simply does not hold up to even the most casual scrutiny. Elder Uchtdorf refreshingly told us in the talk referenced above: “To be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”

I don’t want to overstate that. I don’t believe that he meant that it happens all the time, or that everybody in church leadership in Salt Lake is just blindly guessing, or that doctrine is some kind of drunkard’s walk that eventually settles on truth. But this great leader of our church, in a bold attempt to cast the net wide and draw all of us together, nevertheless cast the notion of infallibility aside rather dramatically.

That this is true is not only self-evident from the fact that we are dealing with mortals, it is also evident in our history: Brigham Young’s ideas about Adam and Wilford Woodruff’s notation in the Journal of Discourses that “God himself is increasing and progressing in knowledge, power, and dominion, and will do so, worlds without end” would be considered heretical today (at least the knowledge part), and one cannot read the church’s essay about “Race and the Priesthood” without stopping a bit on this sentence: “Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.” (My italics)

Now, I want here to say that I am very reluctant to point those issues out. Many members feel strongly that the church’s leadership has never erred, and it gives them comfort to believe that. And for myself, I view those instances and others like them as anomalies in the stellar guidance that the church’s leadership has given to its membership over the years. I’m not saying that the church’s leadership is as likely to be wrong as it is to be right. I’m only saying that it can and does happen that mistakes are made, and I’m suggesting that it shouldn’t bother us much to say that.

Ultimately, you cannot at the same time hold that the leadership of the church is not infallible, and yet believe that they never, ever make mistakes. That is like suggesting that a person is not left-handed while observing that they never, ever do anything with their right hand.

In the end, the determination of what is right is our own responsibility. As J. Reuben Clark said, “The question is how shall we know when the things they have spoken were said as they were 'moved upon by the Holy Ghost?' I have given some thought to the question, and the answer thereto so far as I can determine, is: We can tell when the speakers are 'moved upon by the Holy Ghost,' only when we, ourselves, are 'moved upon by the Holy Ghost.'

In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.” (To seminary and institute faculties, Brigham Young University, July 7, 1954.) I am aware that one could produce a mountain of quotes that say, in essence, “just follow the prophet without fail.” That certainly solves for a lot of issues. But it removes from us the responsibility to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. I do not doubt that I will never be led astray by the prophets and apostles. I am satisfied that they are amazing men, and that they are guided quite remarkably by the hand of God. They will never lead me southwest when the proper path is due north. But to say that they will never be mistaken at any point on a matter of policy, or even on a matter of doctrine, is to ignore settled facts and to shirk our own responsibility.

Policies can certainly be incorrect and require change, and we have to allow that even some doctrines will change over some period of time. To say that nothing can ever be revised or modified is to say that you do not believe in the ninth Article of Faith. Joseph did not write that a few niggly things would be revealed, so long as they were revealed within a few years surrounding the church’s founding. He wrote that “many great and important things” were yet to be revealed. This thrilling possibility is one of the most attractive things about the church, in fact.

So where does that leave us, or maybe more accurately, where does that leave me? A little askew, is the short answer. I don’t easily or flippantly stand apart from the leadership of my church. It’s not something I do without feeling “off.” But when I search my own mind and heart, and yes even when I pray about this latest policy, I don’t feel good about it. I don’t feel peace or warmth or goodness or any of the things I’ve learned to associate with truth. I feel confused and discouraged.

I’ve read that a fairly large number of church members who feel similarly discouraged have chosen to leave the church, but that is not for me. I respect their choice (another thing Elder Uchtdorf asked us to do in that conference talk), but it’s not mine. I’ve raised my hand to say that I will sustain my church leaders, and I intend to do that. “Sustain” to me means something like “support them in every way to magnify their callings,” and I don’t think that is accomplished if I were to leave, or if I were to pretend I’m okay when I’m not.

This is how I’m sustaining them: by being honest. Being honest is supporting. Being honest is helping. Doing nothing never is. A fake assent never is. Church leaders can do with that what they will, but at least they’ll know.

So here I am, along with thousands and thousands of others, feeling a little unmoored. And here’s the thing: you don’t have to feel that way. I’m just asking you to be respectful and thoughtful when friends tell you that they do. 

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The LDS Church’s Policy on Gay Parents and their Children as Seen through the Lens of Love

A guest post by my friend Bob Rees, who shares his views on recent Latter-day Saint policy changes that affect LGBT members and their children. Bob served as a bishop, stake high councilor, Institute teacher and a member of the Baltic States Mission Presidency, currently teaches Mormon Studies at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Previously he taught at UCLA and UC Santa Cruz and was a Fulbright Professor in American Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, Lithuania.

One of my Lithuanian students sent a note the night of the terrorist attack on Paris expressing appreciation for an essay I had written after 9-11 titled, “America’s War on Terrorism: One Latter-day Saint’s Perspective,”[1] and informing me that there would be a special Pietà or ceremony of mourning in Vilnius during what she called a “week of God’s mercy.” I wrote back, “These periodic episodes of madness, as troubling as they are, do not cancel or contradict the essential rightness or goodness in the world, especially when we understand that they break God’s heart as well as our own. Broken hearts mend and become more tender.” That’s pretty close to how I have felt the past several weeks as so many of my fellow Latter-day Saints have been in pain over the Church’s new policy on gay and lesbian parents and their children. 

That policy ,which labels such parents as “apostates” and places strict limits on their children in relation to baby blessings, baptism, confirmation, ordination to the priesthood and mission calls—in other words most of the cardinal rights and rituals of membership in the Church--has caused  what scientists refer to as “a disturbance in the field.” Although this term has specific meaning within both physics and psychotherapy,[2]    I am using it here to describe a significant disruption in the social and emotional fabric of the LDS church, a disturbance of the normal healthy functioning of the organization. While such disturbances are predictable, they are none-the-less challenging and can be wrenching both to the organization/system and to its constituent parts—individual members-- as is clearly the case with regard to LGBT members and their families and friends affected by the new policy change.

 I have experienced (and endured) a number of such disturbances in the field of my faith from the time I joined the Mormon Church as a ten-year-old boy at the end of the Second World War. Some of those disturbances have been part of the necessary process of developing a mature faith; others have been a result of my own inadequate and sometimes failed attempts to live as fully a Christian life as I have hoped; but most of those disturbances have resulted from policies, practices and positions instituted by the Church that have resulted in psychic and spiritual discord. This has been particularly true of policy or positions that have been injurious or harmful to others, including the Church’s ban on priesthood and temple ordinances for blacks of African descent, the unequal treatment and marginalization of women, and, more recently, policies relating to LGBT members.  

*I am indebted to my friend and colleague, Dr. Raymond Bradley, and his revolutionary work on love as articulated in his forthcoming The Lens of Love: Holographic Eye of Universal Consciousnes.   

 All systems (including all organizations and cultural groups) constitute fields that have their own order and coherence—a manifestation of the essential wholeness and integrity that is the basis of any system’s long-term ability to endure. In human systems, such system integrity is based in love and our success in expressing that love as a coherent wave field of energy that radiates literally from our hearts out into the world in all directions. Such coherent heart-generated energy travels like the coherent light from a laser, virtually without limit. By contrast, negative emotions, such as fear and anger (which likely  lie at the heart of the new policies, in spite of assurances to the contrary), generate an erratic, disorganized wave field of energy, again from the heart, which is the most powerful generator of electro-magnetic energy in the human system. [3] By its very nature, such an incoherent field of energy has short duration and limited reach, although its disruption and damage may be felt within the system for some time, as I feel will be the case with the new policy changes. In relation to the power of love, such fear-based energy is small and weak. Eventually, it is overwhelmed by the more powerful force of love-generated coherence.

Viewed from this perspective, this most recent disturbance to the field of Mormonism is but an aberration—a temporary, but necessary expression of pent-up negative energy that some feel in relation to the truth of the wholeness of love. True love is comprehensive and inclusive, embracing all, without class, creed, color, life circumstance or life-choice. That is God’s truth, the truth that Christ willingly gave his life for on the Cross. Holding the truth of the wholeness of love is not only the Christian and “right” thing to do, but is to be aligned with the reality that will prevail as the system ultimately purges itself of all untruths and the sources of anything less than whole, unconditional love. 

As Latter-day Saints (members and leaders) we can choose to remain in the wholeness of love, and, in doing so, empower the coherence of love to prevail—as indeed, it always does, even if in the short term it may seem not to. Even if we succumb with fear to unloving, divisive and destructive action, the wholeness of love will still ultimately prevail, for this is the power of God’s love, whether manifested directly from him or through us. This is the essential message God reveals to us through to the prophets and our own hearts; this is the truth that Christ gave his life for. Thus, as leaders and members, as followers of Christ, there is only one question for us to ask at this critical time: What is the most loving thing we can do?—the most loving toward our fellow saints (including those who don’t agree with us), the most loving toward our leaders (even when we may have been hurt by their decisions) and, especially at this time, the most loving toward our gay brothers and lesbian sisters and their families. Such love will help restore order to the field of faith which constitutes Mormonism as well as the larger and wider field of Christ’s kingdom.

Jews have an ethical imperative called ”Tikkun olam,” which means “healing, repairing and transforming the world.” In a lecture I gave last year, I coined the term “Tikkun k’nessiah,” which means “healing, repairing and transforming the Church.” This ethic can be traced back to the sixteenth-century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria, who taught that when God created the world, he sought to light it by shaping special lamps or vessels to hold his light. Luria explains, “But as God poured the Light into the vessels, they catastrophically shattered, tumbling down toward the realm of matter [the earth]. Thus, our world consists of countless shards of the original vessels entrapping sparks of the Divine Light. Humanity’s great task involves helping God by freeing and reuniting the scattered Light, raising the sparks back to Divinity and restoring the broken world.”[4]

Many Jews believe it is their duty to participate in the repair, healing and redemption of the world by “freeing and uniting the scattered Light,” which is tantamount to freeing and uniting the scattered love imbedded in our hearts. This is the shared, sacred work of God and humans. 

Today there is immense pain in the Church. Addressing that pain depends on our individual acts of courage, of sacrifice, and especially of love. It is in that realm where much of the most important work of repairing, healing and transforming is to be done. But there is also the larger realm, the Church beyond the individual broken heart; beyond the sin and insensitivity with which each of us must contend in trying to make the gospel and the Church work in our lives, our families and our congregations; and beyond the madness and mystery that characterize disturbances in the field of faith. That field, especially when we experience disturbance in it, is where Christ calls us to labor with love. It is as if he saying to us, to use words penned by Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”[5]

[1] “America’s War on Terrorism: One Latter-day Saint’s Perspective,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 36:1 (Spring 2003), 11-32.

[2] The term is used in physics with reference to electromagnetic waves (see “Fundamentals of Physics/Electromagnetic Waves” at https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Fundamentals_of_Physics/Electromagnetic_Waves). It is more controversial in medicine and psychotherapy (see “Defining the Terminology of Nursing” at http://www.nanda.org/DEFINING-THE-KNOWLEDGE-OF-NURSING-Priorities-for-Terminology-Development-_b_7.html). See also Steven H. Cooper, A Disturbance in the Field: Essays in Transference-Countertransference Engagement (London: Routledge, 2010). I use the term herein both as metaphor and to suggest its relevance in any energetic field. See also Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s novel, Disturbances in the Field: A Novel (New York: Open Road, 2005)

[3] See Rollin McCraty, et al, The Coherent Heart Heart–Brain Interactions, Psychophysiological Coherence, and the Emergence of System-Wide Order, .http://www.heartmathbenelux.com/doc/McCratyeal_article_in_integral_review_2009.pdf
[4] “Tikkun Olam: The Spiritual Purpose of Life,” http://www.innerfrontier.org/Practices/TikkunOlam.htm.
[5] Rumi, “There is a field,” http://www.elise.com/quotes/rumi_-_there_is_a_field.