Monday, December 20, 2021

David's Hallelujah

King David Playing the Harp. Honthurst, 1622
One of the titles Christ uses in the scriptures is “Son of David.” 

This Christmas I was pondering that title. Why would Jesus, the one perfect man, choose a title that ties him to a man as imperfect, complicated, and flawed as David? True, David started out as the boy who once faced Goliath and won, but he still ended up the man who looked when he shouldn’t have looked, and then went on to hide his sin. His actions even led to what amounted to murder. Why would Christ choose to be born in Bethlehem, in the city of David of all places? David seemed like an immensely inappropriate candidate for this title, despite his many beautiful, desperate psalms pleading for repentance. What was it about David that Christ thought worthy of making a key part of His title?

From the union of David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite that David committed adultery with, and she whose rightful husband David sent to the frontlines to die, came Solomon and the line of kings. Ultimately, from THIS complicated marriage came the line that brought us Jesus Christ.

Surely Christ should have come through the line of someone more worthy. Someone like Nathan, the prophet sent to call David to repentance for his sin. He seemed a decent fellow. I am sure there were plenty of other guys who didn’t whore around quite so much, men who didn't kill their lovers’ husbands quite so much.

But He didn’t.

David was indeed a paradox. He did both amazing and awful things.

Not unlike each one of us.

All of us have a little bit of David in us, I think. We all have, once upon a time, fought our own personal goliaths and won. Some, like me, have made covenants with God in spite of the considerable goliath of same-sex attraction. Many still strive to keep it together, often against great opposition midst immense trials of faith.

And yet we are also weak. Painfully so. Some of us struggle with temptations and sins not unlike David. Many of us have found ourselves more than once on the rooftop. Like David, I think we all could write psalm after psalm pleading for a Savior who would one day redeem us from our sins.

And then it finally happened.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

All of us have a Bethlehem. A miraculous birth. A silent night. Metaphorically, in our spiritual lineage and from the very unholy union of our divine spiritual selves to our natural man, a Savior is born. Despite whatever Bathsheba’s we might have, despite whatever addictions, sins, and mess-ups we might fall into, we each individually have a Savior “born unto us.”

This Christmas and always, Christ chooses to be born again through you. Imperfect and complicated you.

Christ does not condemn us of our mortal shortcomings. He made us this way. He knows all about your “natural man.” He knows exactly what it is like to fight against the weaknesses of the flesh, and He has the power to forgive. What can we do to obtain this gift? What He expects from us is simply to not give up on Him as our God. We keep trying even if, like David, we spend a lifetime trying to get it right. All he asks is that we turn away from the false gods of the world, whatever they might be for you, anything that would lead you away from the priesthood covenants that bind you to Christ.

Jesus Christ asks each of us to keep looking to Bethlehem, to the city of all your mistakes, where “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” in the birth of Jesus Christ. The Son of David. The Son of Christopher. The Son of You.

The little stone we need to pick up and sling at our personal Goliaths this year is always the same one. It is the little stone of Jesus Christ, the one that made its arc through generations of messes and landed in Bethlehem, in the "House of Bread." Jesus can turn your little stones into bread for you.

What was David’s “secret chord that pleased the Lord?” It was that he simply didn’t give up on Christ. That is the music we feel running through us. Even though the Savior David yearned for wouldn’t arrive in His city for many centuries, he didn’t give up.

And He was born to die for Him. And for you.

In the words of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah.”

Friday, December 10, 2021

Converting to The Church of Jesus Christ of Present-Day Saints

 "...And we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." (Article of Faith 1:9)

This week I am pondering what it means to have a testimony of a church that is always changing. When we say, "I know the church is true," to which church are we referring to? The church as it existed yesterday? The church how it was in 1983? The church of a pre-pandemic 2019? If we mean the church today, what does that mean if the church is different tomorrow?

When I taught the gospel as a missionary, I remember well the enthusiasm of the new convert. Many newly baptized members were willing to take their old beliefs and throw them out the window. They walked away from their old church, old teachings, old books, old friends, and old socio-political alliances to eagerly embrace a new worldview. As the church continues to change through revelation, I wonder if we are doing the same?

I have on my bookshelf a lot of old church manuals. Many of them mean a lot to me. I learned the gospel from those old curriculums, and I gained a testimony for myself from many of those mid-century quotes. I trusted them. And yet, going through them now, I have read things and thought about old interpretations that don't resonate with me anymore. Some make me very uncomfortable. And why shouldn't they? If I am still living in the church of 1992, how can I embrace an ongoing restoration? Old interpretations have given way to new ones, and thank heavens for that. And in the future, our understanding will change again. That's what having a testimony of revelation means, as long as each step is a step closer to Christ.

Does this mean we can't trust the church's correlation department? Should I throw all those manuals away? Well, maybe. Probably. But I don't find it helpful if we just categorize previous teachings as "wrong" and current ones as "right," because I see how our light grows by degrees and our understanding has grown not from wrong to right, but rather from a darker shadow to a lighter one, and today we still "see through a glass darkly." 

But I do think we can abandon some things. For example, we can stop trying to make sense of the "patriarchal order" when it hasn't been mentioned in a single conference talk for over twenty years. We can divorce ourselves from other spiritual millstones, too, like young earth creationism, and some of our anti-evolution, anti-science rhetoric. Digging around in old manuals can bring unnecessary hurt, and preaching them in Sunday can bring unnecessary doubt, especially to our youth. We can throw out our old interpretations of polygamy and the priesthood ban. And when we know more, I can't wait to throw away our current understanding of both gender and race, too, so we can embrace something even better. 

I believe our testimony should be based less on church as much as on the revelation that powers it. I think we can take seriously the mandate to seek revelation on everything that is being taught, and we can have confidence in this process when we do it with a spirit of unity and love. We are taught that it is very good to ask questions and seek for answers in faith. Accepting hook, line, and sinker every sentence that comes from the correlation department as if it were written by the finger of the Lord on Sinai just doesn't give us the same opportunities to exercise faith. 

For context, before there was Israel, there was just Jacob wrestling with the angel. Every problematic lesson plan can be our own personal invitation to wrestle with the angel. Some questions can take years. Others may even take a lifetime.

I used to think, back when the phrase "hastening the work" became popular that it meant God would change the world, but somehow leave me and my church intact. I felt pretty good where I was back then. I had all the answers I needed, or so I thought. Now I realize the Lord meant hastening His work in me. In my community. In the mainstream church itself. And now I believe changing me, and changing us, is prerequisite for God to change the world, because how can He gather Israel if the gathering place doesn't have the capacity to hold them all?

The official declarations in D&C regarding polygamy and the priesthood ban in this week's Come Follow Me lesson remind me that the restoration is ongoing. I also believe that not every degree of light and knowledge gets an official declaration and is canonized, either. As things become more clear by degrees rather than by official declaration regarding complicated issues, such as race and gender, we can still believe in the church, that it is not a static structure, but a developing one. We can have spiritual maturity enough to see that the church can be right on one thing and out to lunch on another, and yet still be the Church of Jesus Christ. This is because it is simultaneously the church of the latter-day saints, and we continue to live in problematic gender and racial contexts, and while still in them we work with Christ who gets us where we need to be.

I know this can be hard pill to swallow, especially for those hurt most by sexist, racist, or homophobic policies that existed (and likely continue to exist) in the church. For me, I take some degree of comfort knowing that God can work with imperfect people, because that means He can work with me. When I choose to "let God prevail" in flawed church leaders and members, I am better able to let God prevail in myself and my own imperfect life. 

Sometimes, this has less to do with staying in the church in order to change it from the inside (which to me is just a setup for disappointment and resentment) and more to do with staying in the church to change me, because I need the growth that comes from forgiveness and patience. I need to let my gospel experience change me before I can expect it to change everyone elseEven more importantly, I have enough experience being wrong about a multitude of things to think twice about relying on myself to interpret complicated issues. I believe following a prophet and staying connected to the body of the church keeps us emotionally, temporally, and spiritually stable.

We have been reminded several times in recent General Conference talks that the Restoration is ongoing. Meaning the church ten years ago was less restored than it is today, and in ten years it will be even more restored. One might fairly ask, what's left to restore?

That's the million dollar question, not just for prophets, but for all of us. We tend to interpret restoration to mean restoring things that existed anciently in the original church structure. But I think that has mostly already been done. Some things, like polygamy, have already been removed, making us less like ancient Israel, not more. Increasingly, I think restoration means restoring things that weren't there before. Maybe things that have never existed among God's people, not ever. As demonstrated in Official Declarations 1 and 2, that may mean things like gender and racial equality.

As human beings, we tend to cling to what we know. We who grew up on 1970s and 1980s CES and Sunday School manuals—ones that taught us that a woman's place is in the home, or that evolution and the gospel are not compatible, or that God was behind the racist priesthood ban—we have a lot of catching up to do. This can feel scary. It was perhaps more comfortable for us to let the manual do all the work, to guide us only to those questions we already knew the answers to. But if we can't trust the manual, what can we trust?

We can trust the Holy Ghost.

The new Come Follow Me curriculum invites us to examine our doctrinal baggage and make adjustments, however painful they might be, by using the Holy Ghost to keep us in line with revealed truths from our current prophet. The new curriculum peels back almost two centuries of scriptural narratives and invites us to study, work, and seek for answers using our most current interpretations of scripture. It is an invitation to be an active part of the Restoration, an agent in its unfolding instead of a passive recipient of it. It is a bottom up approach to revelation, rather than a top-down one.

I am excited to be a part of this as it happens in the Old Testament, which for me is the most exciting book of scripture, mostly because it is also the messiest one. I know not everyone loves the Old Testament, but I like it because when I see the mess of Israel, it helps me put my own mess into proper context. Reading about the hot mess that was God's people, and even seeing that hot mess reflected in the church today, reminds me that I truly belong in this very ancient, very dysfunctional family. If Israel were to read like a pious "museum of saints" I may think I could never belong in heaven with them. Reading the mess of Israel reminds me of all the reasons why I need a Savior.

This year, I look forward to converting once again to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at least as it exists in the year 2022. I will need the enthusiasm of a new convert to do this, and channel their willingness to let go of my preconceived ideas and beliefs. I pray for the humility to allow the Holy Ghost to penetrate the decades of lesson manuals that have been build up around my heart and mind, sometimes working like a much needed protection, but other times like a barricade to further revelation. I will try to let the Spirit sort out what parts of that fence to keep, and what parts should be thrown away.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

On Pandemics and Prophets

Listening to the prophet is as important in a pandemic as any other time, if not more so. But what does that mean, exactly? Can a prophet, whose job is to keep as safe spiritually, also act as a medical authority? Can he speak with authority about politics? Can we listen to him about spiritual matters, but ignore him when it comes to temporal ones?

Prophets often talk about laws and temporal affairs, especially when they see how certain political issues will have spiritual consequences. After all, they are "seers." They see things. This includes prophetic knowledge that is both spiritual and temporal. In a time when divides in our church over masks and vaccines are causing spiritual damage to our congregations at least as much as the ongoing physical loss, their voice is vital to maintain unity, navigate truth, and show us correct principles that can heal our wards and stakes. Their teachings point us to Christ.

And yet, I don't believe that when the prophet speaks "the thinking is done." I know what it feels like when you struggle to agree with something and someone comes in and instead of listening to what you have to say they fly at you with a bludgeon telling you to "follow the prophet!"

I know the hurt. I have felt it at certain times in my life when some of my political and social views did not line up with the church, like when I was a student at BYU during the church's campaign with Proposition 8. I can validate that feeling of confusion and hurt, especially when members marginalize you because you have a different perspective.

This is a learning experience for all of us. For me, it is a reminder to balance seeking truth with compassion. I am still trying, and I am truly sorry when I fail at this, because I still remember that feeling of rejection when you find yourself outside of the status quo of prophetic authority.

For context, here is the quotation that I heard a lot and had to wrestle with at a difficult time for me during Proposition 8, especially when it was hurled at me like some kind of spiritual weapon:

“You may not like what comes from the authority of the church. It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life…[but] your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow.” (President Harold B Lee)

This quotation means something different to me now than it did then. I still believe it is true, but now I believe getting to that place of truth and safety is less about blind obedience and more about experiencing a "wrestle in the spirit" as we learn to truly listen and work through our differences with each other and with God, and learning to do this with integrity and faith.

I know that for many years and for many members, following conservative radio and websites and following the prophet looked a lot like the same thing. For years, members felt it was always "those liberals" who struggled to follow the prophet. And maybe so. But in the end, that wrestle was good medicine. At least, it was for me. It deepened my faith and taught me compassion. It stretched me in soulful ways and kept me in a place of tension that brought me closer to the Savior. Following the prophet became less about changing my opinion and more about changing ME. Wrestling with difficult questions in the gospel helped me grow, and holding liberal views in a conservative church was a catalyst for much of that growth.

Now, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. For complicated reasons I don't fully understand, a vaccine has become a political lightening rod. After a discouraging political saga including Trumpism and an increasingly polarized newsfeed, the shoe is on the other foot. The prophet is now, in the strongest and most consistent messaging possible, urging us to comply with public health measures and government mandates, and this has been a hard pill to swallow for many conservatives friends.

No longer does the voice of the prophet align with the conservative news pundits and talk show radio hosts that were our closest allies during the cultural wars for religious freedom and traditional family values. But perhaps they weren't the horse we wanted to hitch our Zion wagons to, after all? At any rate, we know we can't keep one foot in Zion and the other one in Babylon any longer.

I am generally a positive person, and I want to first say that most church members I know have fallen in line, heeding the counsel of the prophet. Recognizing their quiet faith and obedience should not be lost to a vocal minority. Besides, I don't believe at all this is a "goats and sheep" type scenario, anyway. There is so much good in every single one of my friendly neighborhood anti-vaxxers to avoid categorizing any of them as apostate or unfaithful. They are good, decent disciples of Christ, every last one of them. Whoever is without fault here, cast the first stone.

But let's just say, I don’t hear the phrase “follow the prophet” taught quite as vigorously as I did in 2008. For some, that's because it's hard to say with an unmasked straight face.

Again, I know the difficulty in following a prophet when it conflicts with your political views. I know the pain, and I can validate that difficulty and intellectual stretching. But here is the thing: I learned for myself that it is not faith if everything you are asked to do is what you would do anyway. Where is the growth in that?

Today, my testimony is that marriage is ordained of God. My faith came because I kept listening to and wrestling with prophetic authority. I want to share my testimony of prophetic authority with the same people who lent their testimony to me when I needed it, because following the prophet has richly blessed my life. It has given me protection at a vulnerable time.

I admit that I feel hurt and little surprised as I watch the same people who taught me to follow the prophet even “when it contradicts your political and social views” apparently unable to do the same for me, a registered nurse, when it is their turn. My feelings are sometimes raw as I witness a letdown of my community that chooses not to do what they once demanded me to do so persuasively. 

For many members, especially LGBT members, following the prophet meant to turn away from a fundamental part of their identity, to exercise considerable faith to accept a teaching that contradicted feelings that ran so much deeper than politics. And then for us to not even put a piece of fabric on our faces? And what a disappointing attitude about the miracle that is a vaccine! Seeing us balk at something so simple when others gave up so much is difficult for me.

Actions speak louder than words. Today, the message from some (though not all) is less about obedience and more about convenience. From some (though not most) church members, the message is this: “Follow the prophet, but only when it doesn’t interfere with your political views.” When the message comes from a respected member in a position of authority, for the spiritually immature youth it can undo a decade of primary lessons to “follow the prophet” in no time flat.

We can’t be surprised if, when all this is over, our youth do exactly that—ignore prophetic counsel in favor of their own feelings or political orientation, especially when it comes to issues far more complicated than saving people’s lives by getting vaccinated.

So please, if you still don't agree with vaccines or masks, keep wrestling. Do what the prophet asks by going to the right sources. Seek good information. Just as you told me once that spiritual questions need spiritual answers from God, scientific and medical questions will need scientific and medical answers from peer reviewed sources.

Now, as much as ever, "your safety and ours depends upon [it.]"

Friday, November 5, 2021

What Is To Be Done?

Ivanka Demchuk, Pilate Condemns Jesus

As always, we are living in a world of a million complexities. As we witness the roiling political and ideological waters—this latest frantic recruitment into teams—and as our different ideologies narrow us and break us into "all manner of -ites," and as the world prepares for its foretold and inevitable spiralling conclusion, we might feel like Joseph Smith did facing such divisions when he wrote, "What is to be done?" (JSH 1:10)

What can we preach in such a climate? Where do we start after so many earthquakes of social and political change? How do we renovate the temple that is ourselves? "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." (T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland) How can we preach our old cherished latter-day saint ideals and shore up "these fragments" of belief against the ruins of a culture that is shifting, and old ways of knowing that are rapidly crumbling away? 

How do we move forward in such a time?

At some point, now or later, all of us will be faced with the great and terrible questions and forced to look into the eyes of the beast of the world's impossible binaries, the winnowing down of our lives into one choice or another, in which neither solution truly captures who we are. How do we choose between church and our loved one who is hurt by it? How do we choose between conformity and identity? Between family and sexuality? Between obedience and our mental health? Between politics and prophetic counsel? Between history and our traditional faith narratives? In my mind, these are just some of a million derivatives of the same basic and timeless question: How can we preach the heavenly ideal while respecting and acknowledging the pain, complexity and disappointment of a mortal life spent dabbling in a cave full of shadows?

And just to belabor a point, how do we teach eternal families and celestial marriage when so many find ourselves in family arrangements and personal situations that bring so much disillusionment and pain? How do we choose between teaching a gospel of joy and peace and blessings, while also preaching a gospel of suffering, growth, and sacrifice? How do we navigate so many competing narratives on history, psychology, theology, and science? Do we bury our heads in the sand and persist in our old narratives of celestial idealism? Or do we focus instead on teaching a narrative of how best to endure a lifetime of pain, abuse, and disappointment, and somehow manage to make this all sound very sane and desirable to ourselves and to our children?

The way forward in these impossible spiritual predicaments, these crises of faith, to me it is not to frame it as a choice between one or the other, between good and evil, ideology vs reality, since there are innumerable devilish decoys in both, and our own biases and human limitation can only ever lead us to eventually choose between one evil over some other lesser one. As Joseph Smith learned, "it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong." (JSH 1:18) Neither can the answer be found by an appeal to intellectual authority or tradition alone, however well they may have served us in the past.

Rather, we are faced, again and again, with a choice between Christ, and everything else in the world that is not Christ.

By preaching Him, instead of choosing between either idealistic or humanistic narratives, we rightfully end up preaching both the malady and the cure. This is how healing begins. We teach and preach the divine validation for every mortal struggle, the everlasting embodiment of every mortal pain and complexity. No matter what you are going through, Jesus Christ is the resolution for the tension we all face in this mortal experience. He is the narrative that includes us all, the Alpha and the Omega, the whole alphabet that we might use to speak or write what we think and feel. He is infinite, as He has borne every human suffering which anyone can experience. He is our way out of every possible human paradox, the Rock of Ages who clefts wide open for us to fit our sorrow in, the answer to every life chock full of tangled questions. 

Christ knows how to appear to each of us in our own unique sacred groves, but as Joseph Smith learned, this comes only after the unique crucible of our question has been formulated and articulated, sometimes after hours and even years wrestling in the dark over it. In that moment we exercise our faith to call out to Him, He is the light that breaks through. He can overcome every demonic fight for our souls in a world hell-bent on recruiting us to a side. Christ alone asks us to join "none of them." He is the Light, the Life, and the Way. He invites us to take His name upon us, to become a member of His body, because no other name we could call ourselves can quite cover the gamut of diversity and difficulty of human experiences.

I have watched friends and loved ones walk many paths that are not Christ (and I am not talking just about those who stop attending church. There are a million and one ways to sidestep Christ at church.) I have walked those paths, too. I imagine I am still walking some of them. At times, we all might follow our more cherished ideological pathways to their inevitable conclusion in order to learn that they don't achieve a resolution to the question within ourselves. Nothing this world offers can fully resolve what it means to be a child of God in a lone and dreary world. Sometimes we must experience this knowledge for ourselves, by trial and error. 

When faced with a difficult path in our discipleship, we might ask, "Isn't there some another road besides this one?" Even Christ shrunk from the bitter cup and asked if it were possible that it be removed. Eve asked, as we all do, "Is there no other way?"  Especially in our greatest suffering, anything may feel more comfortably suited to our tired feet than this burning road through the wilderness to the promised land, and so we might temporarily seek for something more comfortable, whether it be gospel of conformity and platitudes, or a gospel of rebellion and disillusionment. Both are easier than personal growth with Christ. Both are easier than walking His lonely path that passes by Gethsemane.

But every path that is not Christ eventually becomes a brick wall. Every ideological breakthrough, even when it may feel new to us, degrades over time to yet another version of the same old, well played human drama wrapped up in new packaging. It leads to the same, because only Christ can walk with us though our life beyond this one. Only He can keep walking with us beyond our own mortality and to a new life and resurrection.

Once we have chosen Christ and have yoked ourselves to Him by covenant, we will still have our work cut out for us. It is not a once and done experience. We will continually find ourselves required to choose Him again and again, as each and every alternative is placed before us. Some alternatives may hold greater appeal to one than to others. There is always something else at church that may temporarily hold our appeal. But when the loaves and the fishes inevitably dry up, will we follow the Savior all the way? Will we take up our cross and follow Him to Calvary?

One of the hardest tasks and greatest responsibilities as disciples of Him is to stand as a witness of Christ "at all times and in all places." For those of us who spend a lot of time standing around with other latter-day saints, we may be surprised and even disheartened to find how frequently our witness of Christ is needed. There are sometimes more members of the body of Christ converted to the cultural, political, or social aspects of our church than there are converted to Him whose church this is. Truth be told, at different times this is all of us.

In the end and after so many words, my commitment to Christ means more to me now than it did one year ago, or five years ago, or ten years ago, or twenty. I imagine the crucible of doubt comes more than once to all of us. At least, it has for me. While I would never go so far as to say I am grateful for my trials, I also know that my time spent underwater has made my faith in Christ all the more meaningful, because after acknowledging better the depths and the waves, now I see better the miracle: that with Christ, I can walk on water. 

When I stay focused on Him and not on the boisterous waves around me, and though I will inevitably sink at times, His hand is always there.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

"I promise you that if we will do our best to restore the correct name of the Lord’s Church, He whose Church this is will pour down His power and blessings upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints, the likes of which we have never seen." (President Russell M. Nelson, October 2018)

I reluctantly took up the challenge to try and use the proper name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more. My initial thought, I confess, was that there just seemed to be so many more important things going on than our name.

I thought I understood the reason, three years ago. I get it, President Nelson. It helps us focus more on the Savior and our identity as Christians. It helps others understand who we are, and gives Christ the center stage. "But," I protested, "how we act should already be doing that, more than what we call ourselves." The ensuing rollout of that initiative that kind of turned our name into a marketing tool annoyed me, because I thought we need something so much more than marketing PR project to fix the shenanigans and what I saw as decidedly un-Christlike behavior going on in my church.

But thinking and engaging with that request to use the full title taught me something unexpected. I feel differently about it now, and not for the reasons I thought I would. For me, focusing on our name brings to the forefront a tension that just fits the latter-day saint experience.

The tension is not just because it is so dang long to say, though there is that, but also because there is an obvious conflicting claim in the name itself. The little preposition "of" in the title suggests ownership. "Of" can be possessive. In Spanish, which is my mission language, we don't say, "John's house." We say, "The house of John." So the name of the church claims that the church "belongs to" not only Jesus Christ, but that it also belongs to the saints.

So, whose is it? Is it the Church of Jesus Christ or is it the church of the latter-day saints? How can it be both?

Jesus taught, "And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel."

And yet, for some reason, the church has our names printed right alongside Christ's.

I have often heard it said that "The church is perfect but the people in it aren't." But that doesn't make any sense when you think about it. The church is definitely not perfect. The policies, the teachings, the structure, even the ordinances are sometimes changing and adapting, and certainly the church as an institution makes plenty of mistakes along the way. I literally can't think of anything about the church that I would feel comfortable calling, "perfect." President Nelson even quoted Joseph Smith in the last conference regarding temple ordinances saying, "This is not arranged right, but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed." You could say that about a lot of things in the church. "This is not arranged right." While it is the Church of Jesus Christ, it is at the same time also the church of a group of very flawed latter-day saints.

The title of the church suggests that the tension is not really between imperfect saints and a perfect church, the way we often frame it, but rather between imperfect saints and a perfect Christ. We both claim ownership in this wild experiment that is the church. What happens when you become co-owners of a church with a literal God, with Jesus Christ Himself? What drama unfolds when you frame our relationship to the church this way? What happens when Christ shares His responsibility and priesthood with imperfect women and men, and lets them learn to practice His power to heal and bless? What chemical reaction happens when Christ is connected and paired, for better or for worse, with a group of deeply flawed men and women? What happens when He asks weak and simple people to be His hands?

Well, looking back on the past 200 years, a lot of stuff happens. Not all of it good. It's perhaps like teaching a five year old how to drive a car. We spend a lot of time in the ditch. But with Christ in the front seat directing things, we can expect to see good things. Like growth and learning. Repentance. Change, albeit at a glacial pace. Certainly not rapid growth, especially with such a large, international, and diverse group that are not always listening to the teacher. But steady growth.

I believe and have a testimony that this is the Church of Jesus Christ, but I also know it is, right now, also the church of the latter-day saints. That combination is complicated. Christ has made an ancient promise to gather Israel in the last days, and He is doing it through an imperfect group of people, and not always even the most qualified ones. Sometimes even fairly stupid ones, like myself, who perhaps most need this opportunity to grow up.

Accepting the invitation to be co-owners of this church makes it inappropriate for us to sit back and "let Jesus take the wheel" while we just keep showing up and let things happen on their own. I can't rely on others, either, even if I really like them. If this is really my church, too, it should not be a passive experience. Our actions truly determine the direction this ship goes. We can speak up and act and engage, and most of all, learn to love and include and minister to the marginalized. We must learn to serve in all the ways Jesus would.

And that is really hard to do.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

A Wrapping Paper Church

I am terrible at wrapping presents. I really am trying to be better, but sometimes it feels like such an unnecessary hassle, and for that reason I have been known to bypass convention and just skip that part. It's just wrapping paper, right? My lame present is thrust into the receiver's lap (sorry Becky) and they look at it and say thank you and that's it. That's the present. There is no performance, no ritual, no expectation, and no mystery. They either like it or they don't. It takes seconds to decide. Sometimes I go so far as to leave it in the plastic bag with the receipt in case they want to take it back to the store. We don't actually need wrapping paper or any of that commercial crap anymore. We're beyond that. Right?

Well, it turns out, gift presentation is actually a bigger deal than I thought, and I'm coming around to this truth. I have learned that you lose something when you take that presentation part away. The magic just isn't there. The way in which a present is given can be as much a part of the gift as the gift itself. Especially for the kids.

Case in point: last month, my in-laws gave my son his birthday present in a gigantic box. It was pure genius presentation, and walking through the door with a box that barely fit through it was a major part of the thrill for him. He whooped and danced and pranced around it, and thus the ceremony of opening his present had begun. When he tore the wrapping off the box and opened it, there was another box inside it. And then another. The comedy and build up of getting to the real present through a series of well-taped, sealed up boxes held marvelous tension and expectation for this boy. Would the present at the end be worth all this work? As the boxes became smaller and smaller, I could see doubt creep into his face, and sometimes even a hint of frustration that he hid well with a forced smile for Grandma (particularly when he got to the final envelope layered with packing tape!) and I could sense his growing question—what if what's inside is a huge let down? What if he keeps opening and opening and the final gift isn't worth it? Or worse, what if when the last box was opened, there is nothing in there at all?

Luckily for him, it was worth it. It was an Amazon gift card buried and sealed at the end of all those boxes, and he whooped for joy again because that was exactly what he wanted. (Thanks Mom and Dad.)

God gives us gifts like that, I think, where the wrapping is a part of the gift itself. He knows a lot about giving "good gifts" and that involves providing us with good wrapping paper. Christ comes to us in layers, revealed to us over time as we grow, like a series of nesting dolls. 

Jesus taught, "If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?" (Luke 11:11) In truth, Christ is the good gift from the Father. In fact, He is every good gift. He is everything we can ever get from the Father, be it stone, bread, fish, or serpent. Or how about all of them put together? Jesus Christ is the bread of life, but he is also the "stone of stumbling and rock of offense." (1 Peter 2:8) He is the fish that breaks our nets to overflowing, but he is also the serpent on the staff. He is everything we could ever want, and everything we never knew we needed.

Christ reveals Himself not in a plastic bag with a receipt still attached, because His cost is truly beyond our comprehension, neither is His gift something that can be returned. He is not presented to us already reaching His full stature and glory on our baptism day. He is carefully wrapped, with layers of meaning and a lifetime of ritual. He is cloaked in a multitude of religious tensions and contradictions that alternately comfort and provoke us as we grow. This is as much a part of the gift as He Himself is. He is both the process and destination, the Alpha and the Omega. He is form and substance, both the wrapping and the gift. He reveals Himself to us most fully in His church, the Church of Jesus Christ with all the wrappings. He is found buried within a priesthood structure "after the order of the Son of God" that He specifically organized when He was on the earth, and that He chose to restore again through Joseph Smith. For whatever reason, He chooses to present Himself to us in the symbolism and layers of interpretation as found in priesthood ordinances and covenants. "In the ordinances thereof is the power of godliness made manifest." (D&C 84)

A significant part of the wrapping is the church. This is a wrapping paper church consisting of the international body of Christ made up of its imperfect members. It is designed to match a spiritually diverse people and a broad spectrum of maturity and immaturity. For better or for worse, it matches us today. Christ presents Himself as the individualized unopened gift to every person who takes upon them His name. He matches our understanding and our yearning, and He grows only as fast as we do.

My kids, when they were babies, always liked the wrapping paper best. They crinkled the paper and toddled off with the box, and sometimes the present itself was tossed aside or lost in the thrill of the tissue paper. What did they know about the cost of that Fischer-Price playset, or the possibilities of a remote control airplane? They were content with just the box.  But as they grew older and matured, the expectation and joy over what was in the box grew, too. That is not unlike our experience with the Church of Jesus Christ. The box and wrapping that Christ reveals Himself in can be our initial intrigue, we might love the church before we love the Son whose church it is, but it is meant to point us to the real gift of Jesus Christ inside. Making the church the focus of the gift is a sign of spiritual immaturity.

More and more, I am learning that our experience in the church of Jesus Christ is like unwrapping a present. Traditionally, we are a people who love ritual, tradition, and culture. In other words, we love the wrapping paper—the ward potlucks, the classic jokes over the pulpit, the holy foyer banter, the suits and ties and the big hairdos, the roadshows and dances, and all our recipes for green jello and funeral potatoes. Digging deeper we get to a more meaningful layer of the gift—our sacrament meetings, inspiring talks, and beautiful hymns; and a lifetime pledged to serve and minister "to the one" through countless callings and assignments, both formal and informal. But as my son learned on his birthday, we must keep unwrapping. As wonderful as it is, or as important as each box is, we are not at the gift yet. There are many more layers to go.

Lately, we have been forced in this pandemic to peel the church back further and focus on the basic ordinances and covenants of our faith, even if it is just pieces of bread and cups of water on a paper plate in our living rooms while church meetings are on hold. But even those things, as sacred as they are to us, are only another layer of wrapping paper still to be removed in order to reveal what the gift truly is. Beneath the swaddling clothes and lying in the manger of all our sacraments, and waiting for us on the other side of that slightly parted veil that separates us like wrapping paper, is the final gift. The gift is Jesus Christ Himself.

In the last year and a half, I have been unwrapping this present with renewed vigor, maybe even with some degree of desperation at times and because of some galling questions. We all have been forced to do this, I think, in one way or another. The church has been peeled back, and then it was peeled back some more. The time spent in our chapel-sized box was reduced, then taken away completely. The giant box we loved to play with has been unwrapped a little more and now the gift looks smaller and perhaps even unfamiliar to us. More simple. Less pomp and more circumstance. We are left with the expectation, the tension, and perhaps even the discomfort of wondering what might be left at the end of all this, how much further the unwrapping will go, and what will be revealed as the ultimate heart of our faith.

The tension of opening yet another layer can be painful, especially when we need more than just showy wrapping paper and another box to get us through our trials. Some have gotten to this point—yet another box within a box within a box—and wondered if this process of unwrapping the Savior in the Church of Jesus Christ is really worth it. Who wrapped this thing, anyway? And why can't we just skip to end? Let Him appear to us now; we don't need Him to reveal Himself by degrees and clothed in ritual and metaphor. Sometimes, I admit, I just want to see Him. Yes, I have found some of His boxes beautiful, like that one experience I had at a youth camp, or that one lesson that was just what I needed to hear on that particular day, or my mission miracles, or that opportunity to serve that created a bond of love with someone completely unexpected. These are some good boxes. But as I grow, I know I need more than that. "Ask and ye shall receive." Turning my focus away from the wrapping paper and onto Christ has helped deepen my faith in the gift wrapping of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My faith has grown in both the wrapping and in Christ as He reveals Himself to me in this church. He has helped me find joy again in it.

I recognize that I am the type to pause and get caught up in admiring the shiny paper and beautiful patterns. In my discipleship, I know there have been times when I have focused so much on the wrapper and the pretty box that I forgot to keep on digging for the gift. Sometimes, like my kids used to do, I have toddled off with a piece of wrapping paper and called it Jesus. At least, I thought it was until I realized the wrapping I was holding wasn't enough to get me through a particular trial or question, and I had to go back to opening the gift further to find more.

While some things about this church are beautiful and inspiring, we all can recognize that there are some boxes, cultural boxes, ones that are not divine but have been added by men to the unwrapping process. Others maybe weren't wrapped very well, like of the way I wrap a present with bulky corners and crooked paper and an ugly tape job. Some boxes are completely unhelpful. Learning to separate the godly from the ungodly, the good boxes from the bad in this church, is a part of the process.

Sometimes we get to a box like my son did, and it is labelled Fischer-Price and we are turning 11 and we hate baby toys, and we wonder why Grandma and Grandpa would get us such a stupid present. Sometimes the gift wrapping of the church can feel like that, especially when we all parrot off baby milk questions, the kind we already know the answers to, and shy away from the harder, meatier questions that would make us grow and extend the margins of our understanding of who Christ is. I have even balked at boxes within boxes that I have come across labelled homophobia and patriarchy, as well as messy church history, and have almost stopped digging when I found them, because I couldn't imagine a Savior coming out of those particular boxes.

But with faith and determination I still keep showing up. I keep unwrapping this gift I was given, and I keep finding more boxes. Some of those boxes are taped up tightly, impossibly so, like that envelope my son found at the end that was layered in packing tape. Because of the stubbornness of our traditions I am learning that some boxes, like patriarchy, aren't going to open until we are collectively trying to open them, and are collectively ready for them to open.

But going through the process of unwrapping Christ with my questions has helped me grow. Most importantly it has connected me to someone who knows more about injustice and suffering and bureaucratic red tape than I ever could. I still feel powerless and without scissors to cut my way through these tightly sealed boxes, and sometimes I wonder if this must be it, the present of the Church of Jesus Christ is done giving. It can never open any further. And then I want to weep because sometimes the crinkling of opening this gospel gift has lost its joy and it sounds more and more like the crinkling of disillusionment, and I wonder why I wasted so much time opening this box labelled baby toys. Or maybe, as some warn me, it's anthrax. 

But we are not done unwrapping this gift yet. I have evidence based on the scriptures and on my own past experiences that there are so many things more beautiful and more healing to come, and in the latter days we need to work together to get to the end.

I have discovered beauty and meaning in some wrapping paper I previously could not understand, or was even repulsed by. Truth grows by degrees, and so does light. I still have confusion with some of the wrapping, and some boxes I am convinced should never have been there in the first place. But this is not the end. The restoration is ongoing and the complete body of Christ is still making itself manifest, both in us and through us. And sometimes the wrapping paper is more like a mirror, a way to learn difficult things about ourselves.

I am reminded over and over that the wrapping paper itself is not the gift. Even the most basic doctrines, the most essential ordinances from baptism to temple, are still just the wrapping paper to the eternal gift of Jesus Christ. How long does it take to get to the bottom of this? Will it ever end? Are we going to be stuck singing the millionth verse of "If You Could How to Kolob" forever because "there is no end to unwrapping?" Is the gift worth the struggle of opening it? And always there is this nagging question, "Will I leave this world having wasted my time on an empty box?"

The most important thing I have learned as I persist to unwrap this present is that I am not only unwrapping my Savior, but I am also unwrapping myself. I am making discoveries, often painful ones, about who I am, and about my weaknesses and strengths. I am also learning my limitations, and how much I need Christ. I see myself reflected in the patterns, some that are ancient and others that are entirely new. I have found myself in the wrapping paper in ways that are sacred to me.

Like the time I saw myself dressed in white with Becky in the temple, and we saw ourselves reflected eternally in those two mirrors on either side of that beautiful box that is a sealing room. We opened the box almost 15 years ago and learned, to our chagrin, that it may or may not have belonged to Pandora. We can never unopen that box—it has changed us forever in painful yet meaningful ways. As it turns out, it has not only been about getting to know Christ, but also about getting to know ourselves. It has been about learning love. It has been about finding connection to the Savior, less through joyful experiences than the painful ones, the kind that point me to His tokens of suffering and help me to hear, as Joseph Smith did in his hardest trial, a voice whispering to me, "Art thou greater than He?"

Christ's gift to me is not just Himself, but what I can become through Him. The gift is Christ, but only as far as I allow Him to be made manifest in me. "Now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." (1 John 3:2)

He is the good gift from the Father. The best gift, in fact. I know that sometimes we wonder why this box we are unwrapping is labelled a stone when we asked for bread, but as we keep going we may find out how much we needed a stone, too. We might give a little shriek to find a serpent box when we were really just hungry for fish, but then again we may learn how much we needed a serpent. As John teaches, the most surprising part of the gift may be to see ourselves reflected in it, that we will reflect His light when we finally get to the end of opening this thing. We will see Him with our own eyes and touch Him with our own hands, and it will be all the more glorious because of all we had to go through to get to Him, because when we thought we were unwrapping Him, we were also unwrapping our best selves. 

That is the best part of the gift.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Let There Be Light

"Love is a spectrum

of refracted light—

not sorting the world

into black and white."

We live in a world of dappled light. Nothing is ever perfectly bright, nor is it ever completely dark. It is a world of shadows, of waxing and waning cycles, of sunrises, of days that get longer and shorter, a mixture by degrees. I think it is also that way with ourselves. No one is completely good, nor is anyone ever completely bad. Nothing is ever black and white in a person. We are all a spectrum of light, and we fluctuate in cycles of increasing or decreasing light all of the time.

“Let there be light.” Separating the light from the darkness is a work that began at creation and is ongoing. I believe we are meant to be a part of that work with God today. Where do we start? Of course, we must start with ourselves. We begin by accepting that we are not all good or all bad, but that we are all growing, learning to differentiate the dark from the light by experiencing opposition in all things, and exercising our agency in order to discern better the light. Like the stones of the brother of Jared, we can sanctify and refine ourselves through repentance to better reflect the light of Christ. We make choices that can give more light to those around us, or take it away. Our choices are the prism that either lets the light through, or blocks it out.

Therefore, I believe it is no skill to point out the darkness in another person, since it exists in all of us in obvious ways. We are invited by Christ to withhold judgement against another, since we all live as creatures of darkness as well as creatures of light, and focusing on anothers’ mistakes usually makes us blind to our own. In a world of shadows, motes can look like beams, and beams can look like motes. Categorizing another person, especially ourselves, as either good or evil can cause us to lose focus on Christ, and all the ways he works through the shadows in us, separating our light from the darkness in our hearts. For that reason, it is dangerous to categorize even the most depraved person as entirely evil, neither can we consider the most righteous apostle as entirely good. Doing so minimizes the role of Jesus Christ. With Christ as our model of perfect light, we can all sort the light from the darkness around us.

Elder Holland’s recent talk at BYU has given me the opportunity to consider his light and mine, and sort out all the degrees of truth and error that exist inside both of us. It has made me recognize my need for more light in my discipleship, as I struggle to feel charity for people whose perspectives are different from mine, including the perspectives of many who have expressed their polarizing opinions about what he said about SSA on social media. And it has also caused me to consider how Elder Holland, in my opinion, imperfectly reflected the light of Christ in his words.

There has been a flurry of reactions across social media as people rush to either defend or demonize him because of what he said. From what I have seen, most people are determined to take his talk and categorize it as inspired word of God come down from Sinai, or as hateful spite. As light, or as dark. But I see his words as neither. I have read his words and see some light in them, as well as some dark. Some of the things he said did not give light to what it means for me to be a gay latter-day saint. Some words were clumsy at best, and hurtful at worst. But what can I do when I find the words of an apostle troubling, or when I find myself disagreeing with him? Is it allowed to disagree with an apostle?

I believe our task is to use revelation, not to blindly accept everything, nor to reject it entirely, but to wrestle with what he said in order to find truth, and to separate the light from the dark, and to do so in a way that allows us to continue to love and sustain those imperfect people who are called to represent the Lord.

On many occasions, I have felt light and truth in the words of Elder Holland. Once, eleven years ago, my wife and I sat in his office in Salt Lake City by his invitation to share our experience about same sex attraction. We felt of his love and light. Since then, many of his conference talks have filled me with feelings of light. I personally believe he is a seer and revelator, and special witness of Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t mean I believe everything he says is insightful or prophetic. In his recent address at BYU I felt his genuine love and concern for those with SSA, but I also found some words that did not fill me with light, some things that in fact felt very dark to me, and that I disagreed with based on my personal experience with SSA. 

Disagreeing, in this instance, does not mean I must throw away all the good things I know and have felt from him in the past. I know that he is not perfect, nor does he claim to be. Why would I try to join the clamor in social media that has chosen to create simplistic narratives of this apostle in order to categorize him as either the infallible prophet, or as depraved hater of gays? He is neither. He is a mortal man chosen and ordained to testify of Christ, and I believe he is doing his best. I choose to sustain him, and I forgive him for the same reasons I have to forgive myself—so that Christ can continue to work through flawed servants, that the light in both him and me can continue to grow. As Elder Holland said, “Imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”

Elder Holland continues to explain: “And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.”

I believe in the “divinity of the work” because I know that there is room in Christ for me. At times many of us, especially LGBT members, may feel like a drop of oil that is spilled from the sides of the imperfect vessel that is the church of Jesus Christ, its members and leaders. The darkness of homophobia and misunderstanding is difficult for many members and leaders to understand because most members and leaders do not know what it feels like to be gay. But over and over again, I have found that in spite of the limitations of the members in this church, there is room in Christ for me. There is room for you. I have a testimony that we can all fit in with Christ because of the bonds of perfect love, forgiveness, and infinite atonement. 

For anyone who has felt like the finite vessel of the Church of Jesus Christ doesn’t contain them and their life’s experiences, I believe that as you share your light, like the stone touched by the finger of Jesus in the barges of the Jaredites you can help illuminate the shadows that persist in His church. You can make the broken vessel of His church more whole. The church can expand to become more inclusive—and is prophesied that it will; it will fill the whole earth. We have seen it happen, even in our lifetimes. The tent of the gospel will grow, but only as far as we, the marginalized, are able to stay in it. You can help others see what you see with the light you have worked hard to find. In my mind, that is the best way to “deal with it.”

I choose to continue to love and accept others in the LGBT community, exactly how they are, even when I disagree with some of them. I choose to love and accept myself, exactly how I am, even when I don’t always measure up. And I choose to love and accept Elder Holland, exactly as he is, even when he makes mistakes. We are all imperfect vessels trying to hold the light of Christ, and sometimes we spill, but we always have the potential to increase in our ability to shine the light of Christ and love others better and better “until the perfect day.” 

I will also continue to sustain Elder Holland as an apostle by adding my light to his, and by shining my light on any dark he might have by sharing my experiences as a gay latter-day Saint as best I can, and in a way that works for me. To me that is what sustaining means. We all have something to share, a light that is uniquely ours, and by abiding in Christ it will grow until there isn’t any darkness left in this lonely, complicated world of shadows we live in.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The Prophet Said to Plant a Garden

When I was growing up, every spring there was a family home evening in which we would get dragged outside to plant a garden. Our opening song, of course, would be, "The prophet said to plant a garden so that's what we'll do!" And we really had no other explanation except for that.

The way we talked about it, I used to think it was about preparing for the Apocalypse. We had to learn to grow a measly row of potatoes and onions in case of a future famine, war, or some other physical crisis. It was always a little awkward when we tried to salvage a survivor bean or raspberry and realize we were toast in an actual famine. But as the world becomes more uncertain, institutional safeguards fail, and especially as climate change becomes more and more obvious, I don't discount that explanation at all.

But since I have started picking up the gardening tradition again the past couple of years (I am not an expert gardener yet, by any means) I have decided that for me, gardening has been more of a protection against spiritual disaster than a physical one.

I have learned things digging around in the dirt. I have learned about living sustainably, and most difficult of all, all the ways I need to repent. I have learned about diversity. Respect. Humility. I have learned about the conditions required for abundance. I have seen how our spiritual pollution accumulates until it manifests as physical pollution, and how toxins build up over time until they make us sick. I have learned that you reap what you sow. Most of all, I have learned that all life is a miracle. Even weeds.

I confess that these lessons are not easy for me to hold onto in a world hell-bent on depleting every resource available for a dollar, and exhausting every speck of my energy to be a consumer of products. I know that I am complicit in all kinds of devilish systems, and I feel powerless in the face of them. But for me, for a few months of the year at least, I garden. I defy the wasteland and pluck peas. I believe President Benson was right, but not for the reasons I though, or perhaps even the reasons he thought. We need more gardens. It is healing. It is connection. It is hope.

In the end, I believe we are not all that different from a carrot or a strawberry. "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." I believe that we are actually just complicated plants that once broke free from the dirt and are now stuck walking, rooting our way back to earth, severed from the womb until we eventually wilt and withdraw back into it. The harvest is a part of that cycle. So is the burning. But spring comes again.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Spiritual Scientist

Like many latter-day saints, I was taught in the church that the way to know if something is true or not is if it feels right. In talks and lessons I was told that the Holy Ghost speaks with a voice that we feel more than we hear, and so I learned how to "listen with my heart" and to trust my feelings. I believed that I could feel my way back to Heavenly Father. Growing up happy in the gospel as an easygoing and sensitive young boy, I quickly felt that the gospel was true, and that was enough. It was, I suppose, a great way to start learning about faith.

However, by the time I was a teenager, I started having some new feelings. These were confusing feelings, because they went against the teachings of the church, the scriptures, and the covenant path that I was expected to follow. These feelings were sexual attractions towards men. If feelings were really the way back to God, what on earth was I supposed to do with these ones?

I soon found myself at a crossroads between two contradictory feelings:  my love for the church on the one hand, and my desire for a same-sex relationship on the other. Choosing between them was excruciatingly difficult. The two feelings seemed irreconcilable. How could I choose which feeling was right? Finding a way forward meant I had to look for a different path to find truth besides relying solely on my feelings to point the way.

I was just starting seminary when all this happened, and in the scriptures I made a surprising discovery:  they didn't teach me to rely on my feelings. The scriptures did speak about feelings, of course—the "gospel of peace" (Ephesians 6) and the "happy state of those who keep the commandments" (Mosiah 2:41) 'the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace" (Galatians 5:22) etc. But those feelings corresponded to a confirmation, one that generally comes "after the trial of thy faith." (Ether 12:6) Feelings from the Holy Ghost can be a part of the process of learning truth by faith, but spiritual feelings are not the process itself.

So what is the process?

In the scriptures, I read that God invites me to "prove [Him] now herewith" (Malachi 3:10) and to "experiment on the word" (Alma 32:7) in order to find out for myself "if these things are not true." (Moroni 10:4) The invitation to find spiritual truths sounded not all that different from the scientific method I was learning about in high school.

I began to realize that living by faith is not always the same as following your heart. While expressing and receiving validation for my feelings in healthy ways was and is an important part of my mental health, it is not the way to accurately measure spiritual truths. We are taught that God speaks to us in our "mind and in our heart (D&C 8:2) and both methods are sources of external evidence that go beyond regular and expected human emotions. I read that faith is "the evidence of things that are not seen." (Hebrews.11:1) Faith is the "substance" of my hope, not merely hopeful feelings that come and go. 

In saying this, I don't mean that faith is meant to invalidate our feelings, but to contextualize them, to help us to see ourselves beyond what we may feel at a particular moment. To a teenage boy, all this pointed me to evidences outside of myself, and motivated me to seek for faithful ways to reconcile my testimony with my sexuality. I did not have to choose one over the other. This empowered me at a time when I was trapped in a cycle of crippling fear and anxiety about who I was.

I have now come to believe that we do a disservice when we tell members who are struggling with their faith to simply follow their feelings. What if they deal with depression or anxiety? What if they feel like there is no place for them in the church? What if they feel like Heavenly Father couldn't possibly love them because of something they did? What if they feel not good enough? What if they feel disillusioned when they read criticisms about the church? How do we help each other reconcile feelings when they conflict with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

I believe that we must do better at teaching what faith really is—that it is not a feeling. It is a proactive choice to move forward in the dark, often without a clear witness of what the outcome will be. It is not about requiring or expecting a particular emotion as we do this. Sometimes we feel nothing, or even negative emotions as we move forward in the gospel—at least initially. While we should find ways to work through our feelings, whatever they may be, and seek to validate them as needed, sometimes with the help of a mental health professional, we can and must also learn to separate our mortal, transient feelings from our faith. When spiritual questions arise, as they are bound to do, God's invitation for us is to become a spiritual scientist with Him, and to engage directly with the evidence for ourselves. Like science, questions without answers is how the process of faith begins.

C.S. Lewis wrote that faith is "the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods." This is good counsel, especially for me at a time in my life when my feelings were frequently tied to my hormones. My feelings about God and His love for me, or that my church is guided by revelation, or that keeping my covenants is worth it—all of these have fluctuated greatly. The strength of my faith is not measured in my ability to feel blissful about something indefinitely. I am a human being. Even now, sometimes my testimony burns brightly within me and I feel it strongly, and other times it dims down to almost nothing. My feelings can be easily affected by what I read in my social media feed on a particular day, or by the actions or doubts of those close to me. But as I consider the evidence, giving it more weight than I do my unstable feelings and mortal biases, my perspective changes. I go from passive feeler and consumer of faith to an active participant in my own spiritual experiment—changing from an object to be acted upon, to an agent to act. (2 Nephi 2:26)

I believe strongly that science and faith are both evidence based belief systems. The evidence is measured differently of course, with faith being the gathering of "evidence of things not seen"—the kind of things that may end up in a personal journal, as opposed to observable results that may end up in a scientific journal—but they both take us outside of our own bias, attempting to suspend our own preconceived ideas in order to measure the results that come only after rigorous testing. Furthermore, faith and science both invite others to replicate the experiment to determine the validity of the findings.

In both science and faith, evidence is not the same as proof. This is an important distinction, because they can be easily confused. It is neither the intent of science nor religion to prove anything. Anyone looking for proof in either the scientific world or religious one can lose their way in the experiment, and usually end up relying on simplistic narratives, avoidance of difficult questions, and a reliance on prepackaged platitudes and dogmatic certainties. This happens when we fall off either side of faith, as either rigid non-believer or rigid believer.

The underlying cause for demanding proof is always pride, and both disciples and scientists are vulnerable to it. If you refuse to change your mind or your heart in spite of growing evidence, you are no longer participating in the experiment with the humility that both discipleship and scientific research demands.

Nothing is ever settled, and one always recognizes the possibility of human error, but just as a scientist cannot throw away the weight of centuries of scientific evidence to make his own way, neither can the faithful treat lightly the weight of the recorded scriptural evidence from the great spiritual scientists: Moses, Isaiah, Nephi, Joseph Smith, and of course, the teachings of Jesus Christ.  There is unity in their theories and incredible evidence to their works, and to ignore them in order to create one's own theory for living is the spiritual equivalent of dismissing Einstein as irrelevant in order to write your own equations and develop your own theories of moral relativity.

In my experience, when there are contradictions in faith, as there always are, this is an indication there is a need for further testing and experimenting. I have dealt firsthand with many troubling things in the church, and I have grappled with uncertainty and inconsistency for many years. Everyone must address them in their own way as they come up in their own lives. For me, these inconsistencies and contradictions are an invitation to move out of the classroom and into the laboratory. Go to it, Christopher. Try the Lord. See if He delivers on His promises. 

These crises of faith may even be a sign that God believes in you enough to go beyond the theory of the classroom in order to do your own fieldwork. After a long struggle, the moment when we get to shout "Eureka!" for ourselves after grappling with a painful question becomes even more sweet and meaningful than if the answers were handed to us without ever having to engage in the process for ourselves.

The scriptures and living prophets provide us with the evidence we are asked to consider. It is the "evidence of things not seen." It isn't just whether we feel it is true or not. It is a matter of historical record. For example, the Book of Mormon itself is adamant that it is not just a book about feelings. It was extracted as tangible evidence written on gold that God remembers to keep His promises to gather His people. While we can believe or disbelieve the evidence, we cannot discount its existence.

I worry sometimes that many, especially faithful church members, talk about the whole gospel experience as some kind of "feeling" rather than simply accepting faith for what it is: an invitation to engage head on with the spiritual evidence offered to us. Faith is step 1 in the gospel, to study and "experiment on the word. The feelings and witness of the Holy Ghost do not normally come until step 4. This is a cycle that repeats itself with every new hypothesis that arises in our lives.

I also admit to feeling alarmed, even more so lately, that the religious people around me have even gone so far as to make their feelings the measuring stick for scientific claims, and even the key to interpreting current events. There is a reason why church members are frequently duped by baseless nutrition fads, vaccine hesitancy, and conspiracy theories. More than ever before, evidence is losing its importance in our society as we learn to filter it through our feelings and preconceived beliefs, preferring to believe only in the things that resonate best with us and rejecting the rest. Perhaps this is because we have been taught at church to believe that our feelings have more weight than the evidence. But how a person feels about controversial topics such as vaccines, or the presidential election, or a piece of spurious Mormon folklore, church history, or whether the earth is flat or round, is irrelevant. Spiritual truth, but also and especially scientific and historical truth, is ultimately determined by evidence, not by our feelings.

For my part, I take seriously the evidence of the historical record in the scriptures. I have read the witness of those that handled the golden plates and I believe their words have weight that cannot be dismissed. I also have read the written record of my grandparents and other ancestors who have gone before me, men and women who have tested the theories of the gospel against all odds and found them to be good, and wrote about their experiences. I have the monthly witness of people who live in my little neighborhood who get up on fast and testimony meeting to (hopefully) share real evidence from their own lives the truths they have learned in their own spiritual experiments. When my experience contradicts their evidence (which it does more than a few times) I can do my own fieldwork and find out for myself "whether it be from God, or whether [they] speak for [themselves.]" (John 7:17) Sometimes I change my mind, and sometimes I have to wait for others to change theirs.

For me, being gay and a faithful member of the church has been a very tricky experiment. I learned early on that while I do not necessarily need to follow my feelings, they cannot and should not be ignored. My attractions to men have not changed, and likely will not ever change as long as I have a mortal body to feel them with. To be clear, I am not advocating that anyone stuff away their feelings in order to live by faith. These feelings are what make us human, and denying them can lead to very real psychological damage. But, for me, there is always a way to keep my feelings "within the bounds the Lord has set."

By following along in this gospel experiment, I have learned that there is a kind of freedom that comes from "schooling my feelings" rather than letting them take control of my life. I interpret that phrase to mean I can take my feelings to school with me in my discipleship classroom in order to study them. I can be curious about them, let myself feel them without feeling shame, and I read in the scriptures and from the words of living prophets about other similar tests of faith, and see how my "truth" fits into the other truths I am learning about in the gospel. I have discovered some surprising results.

The first finding is that the church, speaking both generally as a culture and also ecclesiastically is, most definitely, not always right. Leaders and even prophets themselves can sometimes go amiss, especially about secular things—things like the age of the earth, the origin of man, or the origin of sexual attractions. We don't believe in infallible prophets, but for some reason we act like we do. 

Instead, I have learned that God will "yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." That means that incorrect doctrines, beliefs, and traditions will necessarily fall away and be replaced with more revealed truths. I do not have insight on what those changes will be, but I do believe this will be a painful process, and pride exists now in the church as it has at every other time when God has had a people. We cling to false gods and wicked traditions of our fathers as much as any other Israelite nation, and God will teach us, one way or another, how to repent. Refusing to give up these "wicked traditions" will scatter us as it always does, and regrettably it usually ends up hurting the most vulnerable. At times, they have hurt me. The church's policies, and especially the cultural practices in the church about homosexuality, past and present, have sometimes been wrong. There is clear evidence to support that. And so there is no reason to believe that we have it all figured out now.

But I have a growing body of evidence, supported and cross referenced by the literature, that I truly have a resurrected Savior who knows how to succor His people. I have evidence that God does His work of salvation in this church in spite of the imperfect people who run it. I have evidence that the "power of godliness" is manifest in the ordinances of the priesthood. (D&C 84:20) I have the witness of many miracles in my own life that I have recorded and refer to when my feelings try to take me away from my covenants and my Savior. I have a considerable amount of evidence, from my own life and from the records of my ancestors, that keeping temple covenants brings blessings. I have a growing witness that I am truly a son of God, and that I fit into His divine patterns of family even with my same-sex attraction. 

On the other hand, I also have a large body of evidence that not everyone in the LGBT community finds their place in this church. In fact, most do not. Right now, the evidence suggests to me that this is not due to Christ's failure as a shepherd, or due to the lack of faith of latter-day saints with SSA or are transgendered (the faithfulness of our LGBT members who try their hardest to stay is overwhelming) but it is mostly due to our faith communities' lack of charity, our many insensitive cultural practices and teachings, and, regrettably, our persistent, lingering homophobia.

All this is based on my own experience. I recognize that there is enough evidence for another person to arrive at a different conclusion. There is more experimenting to be done. But I think, for now, God is content to leave some things open to interpretation. Too much evidence one way could be taken as proof, and this would remove our need to exercise faith and be tested, and the way we interpret and interact with the evidence often says more about us than it does about the evidence itself. The evidences we choose to ignore or step over in order to support our own ideas can condemn both the believer and non-believer equally well. I also recognize that as a gay man who has chosen to marry and been able to stay committed to his wife and children, I have considerable bias that shows up in my findings.

My feelings, all of them, are still an important part of who I am. I am grateful for the problem that brought me to test my initial hypothesis, which was to find out if a gay person like myself can belong to the body of Christ as much as a straight one. Nothing is proven yet, but I have more evidence now than I did when I started. I also have evidence that the church will need to make adjustments, some of them major ones, in order to make this happen better.

But in the end, Christ's invitation is always for all to "come and see." Come see the bubbling test tubes of a consecrated life, and look into the microscopes of His laboratory for yourself. Take samples from your own soul and bring them to the lab to decode them and decipher and see how they fit into Christ's tapestry of atonement. Read deeply and consistently from the published and peer-reviewed literature of the scriptures, whose authors "delight in plainness." They are written for us to understand. Come fit your story into the greater gospel conversation, and see if it broadens your understanding of eternal truths.

Whether it is same-sex attraction, depression, anxiety, or any other lens that comes with a particular set of feelings that affects the way we see the world, we always need more spiritual scientists. I believe that taking our place as scientists of faith will help us reconcile every valid and human feeling with the gospel of Christ to create a more perfect and inclusive theory of faith, one that will lead us toward greater unity.

There are some clinical trials that seem to test us beyond our mortal limits, but I have personal evidence that we are working under our Savior Jesus Christ, who is the greatest scientist of all, the Creator of the world. He has already worked out for each of us the unique equations in Gethsemane, and He won't give up on any of us until we all get it right. I believe this with all my mind, and also with all my heart.