You might think my first day at church after being excommunicated might be awkward or uncomfortable or depressing, but "au contraire, mon frère!" Truth be told, I had a perfectly lovely day at church today.
I will admit that as I approached my wardhouse, I felt a feeling of weirdness, but as soon as I entered the chapel for Sunday School, things seemed just as ordinary as they always have. One of the guys on the very council that excommunicated me (and who is also a good friend who always sits behind my mom and me during Sunday School and Sacrament Meeting) greeted me as always with absolutely no indication that anything was amiss. I sat down and listened to the lesson as I always do and listened to the comments. It was a lesson about what things we should devote our time to learning. It was pretty good.
My neighbor who testified in my defense the week before came up to me and said she was happy to see me there, and I thought to myself, "Yeah. Of course. Where else would I be? This is where I belong," and I just felt a feeling of ease and peace.
In Sacrament Meeting, a girl I taught some time ago in Primary was the Youth Speaker. At the time I taught her in Primary, her parents were having some marital problems and were going through a separation. She was quite an insecure girl and was in great need of a father figure, and she kind of adopted me as that person. It was a role, I admit, I was reluctant to take at the time, but I did. Now her parents are together again (in fact, her dad teaches the very Sunday School class I just mentioned), and she has grown into quite a confident young woman. It warms my heart to see that and, again, I was reminded of the good I have done in this church.
Her father then spoke about his own father and also spoke of how much Heavenly Father knows us as individuals and that he is aware of our individual situations and knows our individual hearts. I felt like much of the talk was directed at me by a loving Heavenly Father once again letting me know that he knows my very situation and that all is well.
There was a lovely violin number in between the talks, and then my former bishop gave a terrific talk about following Christ and also reaffirmed what was said in the previous talk about God knowing our individual situations and how all He expects from us is that we do the very best we can, and again felt Heavenly Father telling me that He knew I was doing my best. It was just an awesome day and an awesome reminder of how much my Heavenly Father cares about each one of us (and specifically me, in this instance) and how He knows exactly (and I mean exactly) what each one of us is going through.
Another thing happened that was a great reminder of that. There is a lady in my ward I have known my whole life. Her husband died a couple of years ago, and every time I've seen her since then, I have felt great concern for her. I kept feeling prompted to write her a letter telling her I was concerned about her, but I kept ignoring it because I wasn't quite sure what I would say in the letter. Finally, about a month ago, I felt the Spirit practically smacking me upside the head to write this letter, and this is what I finally wrote to her:
I’m sure this will be a strange letter to get. I am not sure why, but you have been at the forefront of my mind these past few weeks. When I see you at church, I have felt very compelled to write you, and I have no logical reason for doing so. I can only assume the Spirit is directing me to do it. At first, I just ignored it, but I have felt more and more compelled to write you, and so I have finally decided to act on it.
All I can say is that is that I have thought a great deal about you since [your husband] passed away, and for some reason I have been concerned about you and am hoping you are doing well. I realize it has been nearly two years since his passing, but I do think about you a lot. I assume one reason for that is that my own mother is a widow, and I know that even though she sees her kids and grandkids quite often, there are still times when she feels lonely and rudderless. I know she sometimes feels the pain of an empty nest. I am currently home with her now, but am not often home because of work, and I know she gets lonely and bored and pines for the times she shares with her children and friends. That may not be the case with you at all. Perhaps you are doing great. But I simply wanted you to know that having seen my own mother’s experience, I know the loss of a spouse and having children move away can be a challenge.
I guess all I want to say is that I have been thinking about you and hope you are doing well. Like I say, I’m not sure why I have felt so worried about it, but I have, and every time I try to ignore those feelings, I feel more and more prompted to drop you a line and just let you know that someone is thinking about you and cares about your well-being. I’m sure you have many people in your life that feel that way, and you’re probably doing just fine, and I don’t know that my words are even necessary. But like I said, I feel (and have felt) prompted to write to you, and I knew if I didn’t do it, it would keep eating at me.
I’m sorry if this letter is awkward, and I hope that I am not out of line writing it to you. I feel kind of dumb writing it. I just wanted to convey my love to you and let you know that you are not alone. [Your husband] was a great man and a good example, and I’m sure you must miss him just as I know my own mother still misses my dad who’s been gone 17 years now. I know it gets easier with time, but the temporary separation from one’s eternal companion is a difficult thing, even when you know you will eventually be reunited. I just wanted to remind you that you are not alone and that Heavenly Father is very much with you and looking out for you. I’m sure you already know that and don’t need me to tell you that, so take these words for whatever they might be worth to you.
I hope you are well.
She wrote me back a few days later saying:
Since I don't often get a chance to talk to you in church, I wanted to let you know how kind it was of you to share your thoughts and feelings with me. Thank you for following the spirit and bringing a spirit of peace to me, for I have indeed been through a very difficult time these past several months.
It always makes me feel good when someone shares a thought or remembrance of [my husband]. So thank you for your kind words and for the message that I truly needed to hear.
I've seen this sister at church several times since this correspondence, but it was today that she came up to me and once again thanked me for my thoughts and said how much they had meant to her. She looked so happy today (whereas some days I have seen a sort of sadness and loneliness in her). It all reminded me that the Lord knows exactly what she's going through just as He knows exactly what I'm going through and how He works through other people to help each one of his children. Her thoughts, my neighbor's thoughts, the talks I heard, the high councilman's greeting, etc. were all ways my Heavenly Father let me know He's just as with me as He's always been.
You know, Jonah and I were talking the other day about how even though I've been formally excommunicated from the Church that the Lord is still with me and hasn't withdrawn His spirit from me (at least, that hasn't proven to be the case with me), and he brought up the fact that if being in a homosexual relationship was so awful, the Lord would have withdrawn his spirit from me a long time ago, and yet just relatively recently he chose me to help this woman in my ward. He could just have easily chosen another ward member, but he used me, and thank goodness I was willing to (finally!) follow those promptings.
I do not feel any loss of Spirit at all. I do not feel that my relationship with God has diminished in any way. He is a loving and merciful being, and I am grateful for His enduring love and for a great day at church.
I am currently reading a really good book about the Puritans called The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. I highly recommend it. It's a history of the Puritans, but told in a very light-hearted way and includes pop culture references and social commentary. I'm really enjoying it.
One paragraph struck me. In it, she's talking about John Winthrop, governor of the particular colonists she is writing about. She is talking about the idea of predestination and writes the following:
"Winthrop and his fellow Calvinists believed in the doctrine of predestination. Since God decides everything, God decides whether a person will end up in heaven or hell before the person is even born. The people who are going to heaven are called 'the Elect.' This is God's own aristocracy. And if that sounds like some frolicsome foxhunt, understand that to be a Calvinist is to be the Duke of Discomfort or the Duchess of Fear. Because here's the thing: How does anyone know? How does anyone know if he's saved? He can't. What he can do is work, try, believe, repent, love God, and hate himself. The diligent, hardworking, and pious are the 'visible saints.' If a person seems saved, odds are he is saved. Thus, he will spend every waking hour trying to seem saved, not just to others but to himself. Because if he says or does or even thinks heretical things, isn't that just proof he was never saved in the first place?"
This paragraph got me to thinking about how we as Mormons sometimes are so worried about all the things we're doing in this life to achieve exaltation in the next, that we seldom find the joy on the journey we're on and instead feel guilt or unworthiness for all the things we're doing wrong instead of appreciating and rejoicing in the things we're doing right. There are certainly remnants of Puritanism to be found in our religion. I spent a good portion of my life trying to live up to a certain ideal and feeling terrible about myself because I was unable to. I finally feel like I'm living life on my own terms instead of somebody else's idea of what I'm supposed to be. Wrong or right, living this way has brought me a great deal of happiness, joy, and freedom, and I think things are working out well. Whether I'll feel that way in the next life remains to be seen, but I've decided that instead of stressing about what I have to do to achieve a great reward in the next life, I'm going to enjoy the journey I'm on right now and just live the best life I possibly can. That doesn't mean I'm not continually trying to improve myself or progress, but it does mean that I'm not beating myself up anymore when I fail. I've decided it's a better way to live...for me, at least.