Tuesday, June 27, 2006

David, Iraq, Pioneers, and Being in the Same Boat

My apologies. This is going to be a very long post.

Church was actually quite excellent on Sunday. Generally, I’m so tired on Sunday mornings that if what’s going on isn’t holding my interest, I tend to doze off, but today I was pretty wide awake for most of the meetings.

I went to Primary first. I used to be a Primary teacher in my home ward (where I currently attend), and I loved it. I loved teaching the kids, and I loved how the gospel was taught at its most simple, basic level without all the tangents and frivolous stuff that, albeit interesting sometimes, isn’t always essential. Even though I’m no longer a Primary teacher, I still attend Primary in my home ward; one, because I like Primary a lot, and two, it isn’t Priesthood meeting, which I’ve never been a big fan of, mostly because I don’t feel I fit in and because 90% of the time, Priesthood instructors have seemed less than prepared, and my attitude is if they didn’t take the time to adequately prepare a lesson, I don’t want to waste my time listening to it of there is no thought or objective behind it.

During Primary I noticed two young boys being playful and affectionate with each other, and I thought, “Why does that seem to become a stigma later on? Why can’t men just be affectionate with each other?” In France and Belgium, where I served my mission, it’s no big deal for men to be affectionate with each other, and yet Western culture seems to frown on men being affectionate with each other or crying, and I’ve never really understood why. I think it’s sad in a way. I actually don’t think homosexuality would be that big of an issue if it weren’t so taboo. Nobody seems to care when women are all touchy-feely with one another, but if men do it, it’s looked on as something odd. And yet, you look at sports figures, for example, who are looked on as such a symbol of masculinity, and you see them slapping each other on the butt or hugging when their team wins, and nobody seems to care. I just find it interesting. I like men who aren’t afraid to be affectionate. Interestingly enough, some of the most openly affectionate men I know are some of the most heterosexual men I know. I find that interesting.

One of the songs we are singing in Primary right now is the 11th Article of Faith, which is “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may,” and was thinking that as members of the Mormon Church, I don’t think we’re always so good at following this. I think we say we do, but we don’t always do it.

Sunday School was very interesting. A ward member who has been serving in Iraq just came home a week ago. It was really good to see him and know that he was safe. He and I don’t often agree politically, but he is a good man, and it was really good to see him. It had been a while since any of us had seen him, and he asked if anybody had any questions for him about the war. It was odd that we were talking about the Iraqi War in Sunday School, and yet it seemed strangely appropriate. I was just worried that it would get political or confrontational, which it didn’t. I have always been against the Iraqi War from the very beginning and feel more so each passing day. And yet as I listened to him talk, I felt my spirit open to his words. I’m still against the war, but what he said at least gave me a different spin on things, which was nice for a change.

He says he was really surprised by how much the media portrays the war as all “gloom and doom,” because, from his recent vantage point, things were different. He says most of the Iraqi people he’s dealt with on a personal basis are happy the US forces are there and are grateful for many of the things that have been done for them. That doesn’t mean there aren’t complaints, but overall, they are grateful for the American forces. He talked about providing solar energy for a school and building (and rebuilding, after it was bombed by insurgents) a water treatment plant for Iraqi civilians. I specifically asked him to tell me some positive things about the war since we get so much negative. He told me about the school and the water treatment plant, but also talked about simple things like the joy he saw in the faces of two different children, one who was given a lollipop, and had never tasted a piece of candy in his life, and another staring at a box of coloring crayons, which he had never seen before.

Somebody asked him what the morale of the troops was like, and he said it really depended where they were. He said where he was was “hell on earth,” but that the soldiers’ morale was pretty good, and that they were happy to be making a difference. He said in other areas where the fighting is especially bad, morale isn’t always so good.

He talked about the many poor, uneducated people there were in Iraq and how they felt they were helping them better their lives. He talked about how one of the problems is that the Sunnis and Shiites and other factions can’t agree on the democratic process. They even want it, but no one can agree on how to make it work so all sides are happy, and that until they choose to work together, the process isn’t going to work as well.

He talked about how the weather has been 145 degrees before, which I can’t even fathom. All in all, he was very positive about things, and even though I am still against the war, it was refreshing to hear another, more positive point-of-view for a change from somebody who’s actually been there. Of course, I’ve also heard negative things from two soldier friends of mine who are there, so I guess it depends on where you are, who you are, and your attitude. In any case, it was enlightening.

The teacher, a man I like and respect very much, was quite emotional today, both because this returned soldier is a very good friend of his and because the lesson seemed to touch him particularly (the teacher, not the soldier). The lesson was about David. For those of you who may not be familiar with the story of David, he slew Goliath and became a chosen king of God. However, he committed adultery and was responsible for the death of his mistresses' husband. The teacher asked which David we think of when we think about David. Do we think of the hero, the man who was loyal to God, or do we think about the fallen sinner? Do we think of the guy who spared Saul, his enemy’s life, or do we think of the guy who took Uriah, an innocent man’s life? “Do we emphasize the David who killed Goliath, or the David who killed Uriah? Should we view him as the servant who refused to lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed, or as the Lord’s anointed who lifted his hand against a faithful and loyal servant?” (Old Testament Student Manuel, pg. 287)

When my brother wrote to me after learning Jonah and I were together, he inferred that I could be like Joseph, who fled from the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, or David, who chose to linger and lust after Bathsheba, whom he eventually committed adultery with.

When I read the scriptures, I find I’m pretty mercifully-minded. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. I feel sorry for people like David or Pilate or even Judas Iscariot, who made grave errors. And it isn’t that I believe the choices they made were right or that they won’t be punished for the evil things they may have done. It’s that I believe they were human and made human errors just as all of us are apt to do. I once gave a talk on the mercy of God. I think Mormons (and most other Christian religions) are really good at understanding the justice of God (thou shalt… or thou shalt not…), but the mercy of God sometimes escapes them. I am guilty of this as well. In my talk I gave four examples from each book of Mormon scripture (the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants) about people who made mistakes but still received a great deal of mercy from the Lord. Rahab, from the Old Testament, was a harlot (a prostitute) who harbored the spies that the prophet Joshua sent to Jericho. When Jericho was eventually destroyed, only Rahab and her family were spared, and there is scriptural evidence that Rahab was in Jesus’ bloodline. In the New Testament, Peter denied Christ three times, and suffered much for it, but he eventually became the leader of the Church. In the Book of Mormon, Alma the Younger and the sons of Mosiah led many people away from the Church and did much wickedness, but after they repented, the sons of Mosiah became great missionaries and Alma became one of the greatest prophets of the Church. In the Doctrine and Covenants, Martin Harris was responsible for the loss of 116 pages translated by Joseph Smith from the gold plates, and yet he was eventually permitted by the Lord to be one of the three witnesses to actually see the gold plates. He and Oliver Cowdery as well as David Whitmer were all excommunicated from the LDS Church, but eventually the former two were rebaptized, and although David Whitmer never was, he never denied his testimony of the Church. I think that’s got to count for something, and I believe the Lord will show mercy. A prostitute’s life is spared, and it is through her line that the Savior comes; a man denies knowing Jesus because of fear (the same man who’s lack of faith caused him to sink in the same water Jesus walked on, the same man Jesus said, “Get thee behind me, Satan” to, the same man who was rebuked for not wanting to wash the Savior’s feet) and becomes one of the greatest prophets of the Church; a very wicked man who leads others astray is able to repent and becomes the President of the Church; a man responsible for the loss of holy scripture because of his pride is allowed a great privilege. Even David, who we are taught will not receive exaltation, is promised that “the Lord [will] not leave his soul in hell.” Why? Because He is a merciful God. When the woman taken in adultery was brought before Jesus and told she should be stoned, Jesus said, “He who is without sin cast the first stone,” and of course no one did because all men sin. That didn’t mean Jesus condoned the woman’s actions. He told her, “Go and sin no more.” But he was tender with her and forgiving. Jesus told us to forgive those who sin against us seventy times seven times. If we are to follow the example of our Savior in everything, and if he follows God’s example in everything, doesn’t it stand to reason that they would use the same criteria for themselves.? The point is I believe in a loving, forgiving, merciful God, and I think it‘s important to remember that. God knew we would make mistakes here. He knew we’d sin. Otherwise, why would we need a Savior at all?

But back to David. The fact is he has fallen short of exaltation. He has paid, and is paying the price, for the choices he made in his life. He paid the price in his mortal life and is paying the price in the afterlife. And yet, the question is, was David’s life a tragedy or a triumph? “If a triumph, why, then has ‘he fallen from his exaltation and lost ‘the greatest of all the gifts of God?’ If a tragedy, why is the Messiah prophesied to sit ‘upon the throne of David’ and be called ‘David their king’? Why are we told that Jesus shall receive ‘the throne of his father David’ and that he has ‘the key of David’?” (Old Testament Student Manuel, page 287)

One of the points the teacher made was that David made the mistake of not enduring. On the other hand, he also made the point that our experiences, good and bad, are what shape us, and that only God (and eventually David) truly know what David’s final reward or state will be.

I’ve said it before, but I just don’t believe that everything is so black and white. Perhaps I am wrong, but it is what I feel in my heart. I was thinking today that if I make the choice to live my life as a gay man, wherever I end up in the afterlife, there are going to be a lot of people there with me; a lot of really good people. And whether my actions are deemed good or bad, right or wrong, I feel in my heart that my intentions are based in love, not in selfishness, and I believe that has to count for something. And I also know that Heavenly Father must know how incredibly difficult things are for some of his children. He must understand even better than we do what each of us is individually going through, and that’s precisely why He is the only one qualified to judge any of us; because he knows the inner workings of our hearts. So it is with David.

The teacher brought up the point that Bruce R. McConkie brought up in Mormon Doctrine (pg. 520): “Murderers are forgiven eventually but only in the sense that all sins are forgiven except the sin against the Holy Ghost; they are not forgiven in the sense that celestial salvation is made available to them. After they have paid the full penalty for their crime, they shall go on to a telestial inheritance.” Now, granted, in the theology of my religion, a telestial glory is not what we should be shooting for, but the point I want to make is that it is still a degree of glory. Dallin H. Oaks gave a talk about the degrees of glory, which I quoted in an earlier post. The point is, it all goes back to forgiveness and mercy. God wants us to be happy. The fact that any of us are here in the mortal existence already bodes well for us. We followed the Lord and chose to come here. Maybe I’m rationalizing (I probably am), but I think things will be better for us in the afterlife than we sometimes imagine they will be. We all commit sins. We all make mistakes. We’re imperfect. God knows that. Sometimes you’ve just got to do the best you can do under the given circumstances and hope things will turn out all right.

After Sunday School we had Sacrament Meeting, and there were many signs posted up behind the podium that said things like, “Faith in every footstep,” “The best is yet to come,” “Be strong and do it,” “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I,” and “We shall walk and not faint.” I wondered if God was trying to tell me something.

The youth had gone on what is called “Pioneer Trek,” where they dress as the Mormon pioneers did and reenact just a small portion of what the Mormon pioneers went through as they walked across the plains from the east to the Utah valley. I’ve never been on a Pioneer Trek myself. I had opportunities to do so when I was younger, but was never interested. Hearing the youth and some of the leaders talk about their experiences was very uplifting and spiritual, and it’s been a while since a church meeting affected me so.

The first youth talked about how tired he was and also talked about the “Women’s Pull,” where the women had to pull handcarts full of stuff up a sandy, rocky hill, and the men could only watch without being able to help. It made me think of how sometimes our Heavenly Father has to watch us go through such tribulations without being able to help us. He could, but he doesn’t because he knows we have to go through that experience ourselves. It causes us to learn something about ourselves that we might not have otherwise learned had he intervened. Would Abraham have learned just how much he was willing to sacrifice for the Lord when God commanded him to sacrifice Isaac? I think the Lord knew Abraham was willing to go all the way, but it was Abraham who needed to learn that he was willing to go all the way. But I imagine it pains Heavenly Father and makes him cry as it did many of the helpless brothers who had to watch the women do this incredibly difficult thing without being allowed to aid them.

The second youth was a boy named Anthony who has just amazed me. His father is dead, I believe, and his mother is not active in the church, but Anthony has been coming to church on his own for many years now. My mom taught him in Primary when he started coming to church, and he has turned into a very dedicated young man. He talked about how he tried moving rocks out of the way during the “Women’s Pull” until he was eventually told not to because the objective was for the women to do it all on their own. But it told me a lot about Anthony’s character that he would do that (while some of the younger, more immature kids were doing the opposite) and made me think about what kind of people we are in life: obstacle makers or obstacle removers. Anthony also talked about how he became ill during the trek and how hard it was to move the handcarts as a result of his weakness

The third youth was a girl who kept a journal. These were some of the things she wrote during the trek: She talked about the many people who chose not to make the trek to Utah (or Zion) and the ones who did and made the statement about the pioneers “giving up so much to come to Zion” and the ones who remained behind “giving up so much more not to.” She made a comment about the physical endurance showing “our brain what our body can do.” She made the comment “We can’t do it alone.” She said during the “Women’s Pull” “I looked up the hill and doubt filled my heart.” She talked about the handcart slipping back and pushing the cart only to have it remain still. She talked about how she felt angels helping her and that “the load wasn’t easy but the burden was light,” and how “angels are always willing to help you if you give them a chance.” I thought about how her words could apply to our life here on earth. I think the Lord uses metaphors for life, one being treks through the wilderness (or across the sea), whether it be the modern day pioneers, Moses and his people, Nephi and his family, or the Jaredites. There are many parallels one can glean from the scriptures that can be applied to our life’s trials. But not everyone makes it in their trek (or even chooses to make the trek at all). The ones who stayed behind may not have made it to Utah, but does that necessarily mean they weren’t happy? Even Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife stayed behind. Does that mean she’ll be punished for that? Many died on the way. Does that mean they were somehow weaker or less worthy than the ones who survived?

The next speaker made the comment that these pioneers shouldn’t have lived. What they were required to do was nigh impossible. But they did it. I guess that says a lot about faith and the Lord supporting you. He showed a famous picture of the pioneers trekking through winter cold pushing their handcarts and how unseen angels were helping them accomplish it. A later speaker speculated that those angels helping the pioneers may very likely have been us. But it was hard thing they were asked to do, and some weren’t able to do it. In Matthew 7:14 it even says, “strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Italics added). It struck me again how it must pain God to watch us suffer, but how we must go through our own experiences to learn and to know that our final reward will be exactly what we are supposed to get. This trek was incredibly difficult for these youth. Some couldn’t even do what they were required to do, and that was just a taste of what the original pioneers were required to do.

As these youth speakers and leaders talked of their experiences and later sang the hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints (a hymn which is not my favorite, but which I saw in a completely different light on Sunday), you could really tell that they had been through something together that none of us in the congregation could fully understand unless we had been through it ourselves, and it occurred to me that you only can only truly understand the experiences you have because you have them yourself, and no one else can judge those experiences except for the Lord himself because he knows us perfectly, inside and out. It really clarified the concept of not judging others, if that makes sense. It reminded me of people who have been through a war together or a tragedy (such as the Andes airplane crash in 1972). Only they can really understand what they’ve been through. That’s why I feel like gay Mormons understand each other like no one else can. Other gay Christians can certainly relate, but it isn’t exactly the same, and, of course, each gay Mormon’s experience is different, so really, the bottom line is that only you and God can wholly know your true soul, intentions, desires, and progress.

Another girl talked about her handcart sinking in the sand, and how the cart wouldn’t move, and how she had to look at the ground to avoid looking at how much more of the hill she had to climb.

A boy talked about watching the “Women’s Pull” and crying and being afraid that the other guys would think he was a wuss and how surprised he was to see so many men crying, and again it struck me, “Why is it such a shameful thing for a man to cry?” I don’t believe it is consciously, but subconsciously I wonder if I do because I don’t often allow myself to cry in front of other people. It’s not something I do consciously. I just don’t cry in front of others very often.

Another boy talked about how know one can do it alone and how we all have to help each other, and how one needs to work beyond what they feel they’re capable of doing. It again resonated in me the parallels between the trek and our mortal “trek.”

A girl talked about finding strength inside her that she didn’t think she had and how the only thing that holds us back is us. She talked about how God loves us and believes in us, and how we need to trust in ourselves as he does. She talked about how sometimes we think we know more than God and are rebellious, and how he loves us just the same in spite of it. That’s a hard concept to grasp for me sometimes, that God loves everyone the same. For example, it’s hard to fathom that God loves Hitler as much as he loves Gordon B. Hinckley because they are both his children. Sometimes I catch myself believing that God loves me less when I commit grievous sins. I say I think He loves me just the same, but I sometimes feel I don’t believe it as I should. I just want to feel that regardless of the choices I make, God’s love will always be strong and present in my life. He has to love us the same, doesn’t he? I think the story of the Prodigal Son in the Bible is a good illustration of that. And I think that father loved his son just as much while he was sinning as he did when he repented and came home. He did because he was his son. I think as imperfect human beings (some who have one parent or another that doesn’t show them that love or who have people in their lives they can’t fathom loving that way), it’s a hard concept to grasp.

The final speaker talked about the reason the pioneers sacrificed so much was because they believed in Christ. He talked about how today’s challenges are different, but just as challenging, and how these people lost their lives physically, and how we face similar loss spiritually.

I thought about how my religion is like a marriage (and the scriptures even make that comparison) and how I’ve made certain covenants in this “marriage.” Being with Jonah would cause me to break those covenants. And, yet, at the same time, I don’t know that I am willing to sacrifice my love for Jonah for the Church. It’s so complicated. Ideally, I just would like to be Mormon and gay. But I can’t seem to have both. It’s a wonder Jonah isn’t sick of me yet. But he isn’t. He loves me that much. He also loves me enough that he’d be willing to let me go if he thought the Church is what would make me happy (although both of us would be terribly devastated by that). I’ve never experienced such a strong love in a relationship before, and I don’t know that I’m willing to let it go, consequences be damned. And maybe that says something about the choice I am faced with.

I read other blogs from people in similar positions, and it’s always back and forth, back and forth, and I yell at the screen: “Make up your mind already! Make a choice and do it!” And yet I’m fully aware that I am in the exact same boat. But I was reflecting the other day about how nice it is to be in the same boat with a lot of people. At least we’re all in the same boat and understand to some extent what each other is going through. And that is comforting.

It's funny, when the youth were singing "Come, Come, Ye Saints," they seemed so somber and serious and teary-eyed because of the experiences they shared together. I imagine the Pioneers sang it in a similar fashion. And yet the words go, "All is well. All is well." The song struck me in a profound way it never has before. I leave this entry with those words:

Come, come, ye Saints,no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day.
'Tis better far for us to strive
Our useless cares from us to drive;
Do this, and joy your hearts will swell-
All is well! All is well!

Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard?
'Tis not so; all is right.
Why should we think to earn a great reward
If we now shun the fight?
Gird up your loins; fresh courage take.
Our God will never us forsake;
And soon we'll have this tale to tell-
All is well! All is well!

We'll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the Saints will be blessed.
We'll make the air with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we'll tell-
All is well! All is well!

And should we die before our journey's through,
Happy day! All is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
With the just we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh, how we'll make this chorus swell-
All is well! All is well!


-L- said...

The part where the boys were being affection and you were wondering about why society has to put stigma on such things reminded me of an experience on my mission in which a father told me (aside) that his 6 year old little boy was showing an interest in art (coloring) and that he was worried about that because he sure as hell wasn't going to raise a queer. It's horrifying to think about the stress children face from each other, from adults, and from themselves to try to be all that is expected of them--most of which is boloney anyway.

There was a lot of stuff in this post and I enjoyed reading it. I appreciate the difficulty of comparing and feeling required to choose between two supremely important things--your faith and the person you love most. I wish you the best as you work through this and come to a peaceful endpoint.

Beck said...

David and Jonathan have always fascinated me. There are statements there that imply in my mind a deep and endearing friendship between two guys that is rarely found in today's LDS world. I've experienced that kind of deep emotional friendship that I imagine they had -- and it was one of the happiest time of my life!

The trek is an amazing adventure. My kids went through it last year and still talk about it - and the bonds that were made with people that they really don't see on a day-to-day basis anymore, but still treasure - as they shared something of significance, something beyond this world in that magical experience together.

Your struggles between the Church and Jonah tug at my heart. I wish you didn't need to make a choice, but I know you need to find the right path for yourself as you seek the peace between the two. It's exciting to follow your feelings of things while attending Church and it's fun to see Jonah's true respect for you and your beliefs.

You have a lot going for you.