Friday, November 20, 2015

Why I Love the LDS Church Enough to Both Criticize It AND Step Away From It

In March (2015), on the 50th Anniversary of "the March" in Selma, Alabama, President Barack Obama delivered a masterful speech with the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a backdrop. He captured the spirit of America and the importance of drawing inspiration from specific episodes of our history to better shape the present.

 I especially love this quote: 
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
I re-read and re-listened to President Obama's remarks, and was moved each time. Not only did it capture my patriotic commitment to speak out against injustice in order to make America better, but it likewise encouraged me to look inward at the imperfections of my church and courageously work to remake it to be better--to be a church more focussed on compassion than righteousness and purity. I was about to blog about the connection between love and loyalty and criticism but Rachel Held Evans beat me to the punch with her powerful column on CNN: “Strong enough to be self-critical: In America AND the church."

She was later interviewed by Valerie Tarico:
Tarico: Some fellow believers see your questioning and critique as a betrayal of Evangelicalism. But in one of your recent blog posts, “Strong enough to be self-critical: In America and the church,” you came down hard on the side of criticism as a sign of love and loyalty. You said, “Mature people and mature communities are strong enough to be self-critical and wise enough to speak the truth in love.” Are there limits on that? 
Held Evans: A lot of cultures set limits on how much you are allowed to ask. They encourage curiosity and questioning up to a point but your answers need to fall within a certain framework of what the answers are supposed to be, and I think I pushed up against that one too many times for some critics. 
Criticism can be hard to do well, and I am often clumsy at it, but those who advocate for reform in the Church often do so out of a deep love for it. I want the Church to be a more hospitable place for LGBT people, precisely because I want the Church to grow and thrive and welcome all of God's children through its doors. I want the Church to embrace science precisely because I want the Church to remain relevant in the world and tenable for those who shouldn't feel like they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith. In my work, I feel it's important to hold both the good and the bad of my faith tradition truthfully, candidly. If I weren't deeply invested, I wouldn't care. I wouldn't speak up.
That right there is a perfect summary of my own personal feelings regarding the LDS Church. I've loved it enough to be critical, however clumsily at times. Yet regardless of one's heart, so many Mormons view any criticism as "anti-Mormon" and jump to question one's motivation. Yet I persisted in blogging and speaking up on Sunday's because my interest in reform was greater than my interest in preserving the status quo.

It didn't matter to me if now and then someone misunderstood my lack of acquiescence as a lack of faith or even compassion. I knew where I stood. And my leaders knew where I stood. I wanted the LDS Church to be a more hospitable place for LGBT people and their families and to welcome all of God's children through its doors. I wanted to add my voice to those concerned about gender inequality. And I wanted to add my knowledge of our history to lend perspective to our present circumstances. Because "to love something is to see it for what it is, flaws and all. To love one's country, or one's church, is to invest in making it better." And I deeply believed that I could likewise love my church just like I love America enough to be critical of its shortcomings.

It's been years since I've believed in such a thing as a "one and only true church." I'm a Mormon in the mold of Gina Colvin of "A Thoughtful Faith." I don't need the church to be true. I just need it to be good. And the infamous handbook change is most definitely NOT good. I don't even need the church to be right. I just need it to be ennobling. And this was anything but noble. In fact, I feel it's exclusive, divisive, and hurtful.

My idea of Zion is so much more inclusive--one that welcomes all of God's children. Thus, I will now use my personal authority to love without conditions and be radically inclusive. Those are my values. And I've never felt more Christian. After all, Jesus was a radical activist, bent on bringing the practice of love and compassion to a religious orthodoxy mired in man-made religious rules. And that's why he was killed--he was seen as a threat to conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom has been that Mormons over-emphasize righteousness and purity over grace and mercy, but the historical Jesus was actually quite subversive to the righteousness/purity system of the contemporary religious establishment. I saw this most clearly while reading Marcus Borg's "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith". One of my favorite quotes in the book is the following:

"Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God" (Borg, p. 54.)

In other words, "an interpretation of scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity." Borg uses a specific example on page 59 that is particularly relevant to the handbook policy nightmare:
I am convinced that much of the strongly negative attitude toward homosexuality on the part of some Christians has arisen because, in addition to whatever nonreligious homophobic reasons may be involved, homosexuality is seen (often unconsciously) as a purity issue. For these Christians, there's something "dirty" about it, boundaries are being crossed, things are being put together that do not belong together, and so forth. Indeed, homosexuality was a purity issue in ancient Judaism. The prohibition against it is found in the purity laws of the book of Leviticus.

It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code's perception of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. It also seems to me that the passage [Galatians 3:28] in which Paul negates the other central polarities of his world also means, "In Christ, there is neither straight nor gay." Granted, Paul didn't say that, but the logic of "life in the spirit" and the ethos of compassion imply it.
I know that speaking and writing this isn't going to make me popular among Mormons who believe the prophets have got it all figured out and we should just follow them. But as John Pavlovitz wrote, I'm resigned to "be the Samaritan: judged, despised, but merciful." So I appreciate voices such as Marcus Borg above, and Matthew Vines' insights into the Bible and homosexuality. And I appreciate Natasha Helfer Parker, who just a few days ago wrote the following:
I know it is difficult for many within the Church to hear an LDS therapist take the position that homosexual behavior, in of itself, is not a sin and not completely dismiss me. I have advocated for a long time that LGBTQ individuals be held to the same standard as heterosexuals when it comes to the Law of Chastity. And for many this will mean I am taking a blasphemous position. But let’s please remember that we have a history of redefining sin; with several clear examples being interracial marriage/sexuality, polygamous marriage/sexuality, and what is considered appropriate marital behavior for heterosexual couples. Those sins have been redefined largely due to the social pressures and education/research of the time. Not because of God. But because of us. The essay written by the LDS Church on the policies around denying the priesthood to black males explicitly says our own biases got in the way. And now we “disavow” past racist teachings once considered doctrine. So it is completely feasible that we may not currently understand all that will change, shift and be revealed in the future in regards to LGBTQ issues. And when the positions we have taken as a church lead to so much heartache, rejection, unhappiness, mental illness, family & community turmoil, excommunication, and even high rates of suicide – you better believe I’m on the side of ‘we are making a mistake.’ I don’t have the luxury to wait around for authority figures to decide for me, while I’m in the trenches with capable hands to help those who are bleeding.
It has been both hard and rewarding as I've participated in the LDS church post faith-transition. I wouldn't be the person I am today had I not traveled this unique path. I'm glad I stayed in the boat as long as I did, even when I was seasick, because I was able to help fellow passengers and helping felt good. But lately I've been stunned as it appears the crew of the boat, rather than reform the culture onboard, have preemptively begun throwing people overboard in order to "protect" a minority from being exposed to potential hurt. Already, just like in the past, people settle their conscience by pointing the finger at God. I'm too sickened by institutional bigotry and discrimination to stay. Whether the metaphor is a boat or a bus, I'm tired of being confined by a segregated boat/bus, entirely a human construction. Moreover I had already learned and previously written that "I am in the drivers seat of my own search for the divine--not the Church™."

Still, I went along for the ride in the collective vehicle of the church that sustains fifteen men as "prophets, seers, and revelators" (regardless of if or how often they actually do any of those things). And while I wrote that many Mormons have their own "grievous sin" of elevating their leaders into the realm of idolatry, I acknowledged:
It's not my place to grab the steering wheel (not even God coerces the driver), [but] I still have a responsibility to love and help the driver as best I can. I believe our prophet-leaders are entitled to our sympathy, our support, and our suggestions. We're not lemmings just along for the ride. We're free agents. It would be easier to just sit back and trust the authorities. But we've seen what happens when we go down that path. (And that path starts looking a lot more like Satan's plan than God's plan.) 
The easy path is to let someone else do all the thinking for you. It's harder to follow prophets when you have to seek revelation/inspiration for yourself to discern when a prophet is acting as a prophet, discerning if the counsel is inspired and/or applies to your circumstances. If all we do is tell people to sit down and shut up in the proverbial boat, we're no longer expecting people to exercise freedom of the mind and think for themselves, seeking their own spiritual confirmation. Or is the expectation to be told what to do, just obey, and get in line and don't rock the boat? If so, Hugh B. Brown is probably rolling in his grave. 
Obviously there's an extreme line somewhere that I wouldn't want to cross in becoming that annoying back-seat driver. I want to always remain loving and respectful, but I feel I have a duty to alert the driver of dangers I may see out my window, especially if the drivers attention is so focused on the road ahead that he doesn't see what the passengers in the back seat may see. Of course it would be extreme if all someone did was ride along in order to criticize your driving. But there's another extreme of actually having an insight that might help the driver out but failing to speak up because of fear it's not your place. And it would be an extreme driver indeed that was too stubborn to listen to suggestions. I believe in trying to navigate the healthy middle ground between the extremes.
The two underlined sentences above underscore the fact that if I were to continue actively participating, I risk becoming that annoying back seat driver. The gap between my conscience and the direction of the leadership of the LDS church has never been wider. And the truth is that I find as much truth and goodness outside of the LDS church, and far less frustration.

Unlike many who are resigning their membership, I'm not "divorcing" the LDS church--my Mormon identity is too entwined--but I will be separating. As a matter of fact, I think there are persuasive public reasons NOT to resign. They would have to kick me out for loving too much. It's now a matter of principle. As I step away, I commit to extend grace and show love. It's not healthy to be antagonistic, and that would only hurt my family and my marriage. I want to maintain the loving relationships I do have with both friends and family.

I've been active all my life. It's been years since I've believed in such a thing as a "one and only true church" but I've still managed to attend church to try to be a bridge builder, and because I believed in big tent Mormonism, or even better, expanding grid Mormonism. I showed up to look for and contribute to goodness, as well as appreciate the truths that I do find in Mormonism, even while personally rejecting that which I now see causes harm. Mostly I figured it was as good as any place to practice the gospel of Jesus Christ that I do believe in (compassion and grace) among people who are radically different than me. It hasn't always been easy, but I have a local community whom I truly love and who truly love me and my family. Many of them are true Christians who prioritize love over dogma.

But something broke open in our church culture with these recent handbook changes. The culture now officially excludes people I personally deeply desire to include. I cannot in good conscience participate with an organization that stubbornly insists on labeling that which is normal as "grievous sin."

The institution doesn't appear anxious to learn from its own mistakes, such as when it was too stubborn to see how it wrongfully labeled good people and persisted in being too stubborn to change for too long; long after society had awakened to a new truth about racial equality. Society likewise is awakening today to a new truth regarding our LGBT brothers and sisters but the LDS church is reluctant to accept it. It digs in even deeper (because heaven forbid we be influenced by "the world") and elevates its Family Proclamation over the Book of Mormon. It labels good people who commit to each other in marriage as "apostates," and deprives their children (in the present) of the blessings and ordinances it spends countless resources and energy on convincing others (in the present) to urgently embrace.

Unfortunately, when most Mormon apologists read the foregoing they'll dismiss it as an "attack." That's one of the unhealthy aspects prevalent among many Mormons with whom I interact: any criticism is seen as an attack or "anti-Mormon." There isn't much discernment between loving critics and antagonistic critics. Most welcomed are the uncritical lovers. Nevertheless, Mormons are my tribe, my heritage, my people, and I want them to be better just as I know they want me to be better. I don't want to be antagonistic. I want to be compassionate. Moreover, whenever people spew forth antagonistic stuff about Mormons, they just get more and more defensive. I want to extend grace and show love.

But this sucker punch from Salt Lake took all the wind out of me. It's too painful. My wife isn't going anywhere (she's the stake primary president) but she supports my decision to step away from active participation in the LDS church as a way of maintaining my own sanity and well-being and to be able to focus on loving and putting my own family first (because I could easily let this eat at me and ruin my balance.) I don't want to become a stumbling block to the people in the pews next to me, nor to my own family, so it's finally reached that point where I need to take a serious sabbatical (indefinitely) because the gap between my conscience and the LDS church is unbridgeable at present.

I still find inspiration in the teachings of Jesus, but they're often missing or misrepresented in church. But I applaud, as the New York Times put it, those "growing number of churches of various denominations [that] have come to embrace all people" just as God made them. I will now spend my days using my personal authority to INCLUDE rather than EXCLUDE. To embrace ALL people. Because we're ALL broken and we ALL need God's grace. Another friend of mine who has left the LDS church to find her calling in the Lutheran church put it this way: "When we freely admit that we're broken and need God's grace, it opens us up to be vulnerable with each other, to tend to each other in sorrow and pain, to be compassionate with each other, to find growth and healing together in community. The gospel, y'all. It's a thing."

I have a dream that one day the LDS church embraces that gospel of grace, rather than refuse to admit its own brokenness and imply infallibility by never apologizing for its wrongs and mistakes (past or present.) And I have a dream that one day Latter-day Saints will join in singing with their Community of Christ cousins my new favorite hymn: "For Everyone Born, A Place At The Table." I sing of justice, joy, compassion, and peace with great conviction, because it represents everything I've come to believe about the Divine.

For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table

For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star over head.


And God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace;
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice, and joy.

For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding to share, 
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that's fair.


For young and for old, a place at the table,
a voice to be heard, a part in the song,
the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,
for young and for old, the right to belong.


For just and unjust, a place at the table.
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mind-set of mercy, 
for just and unjust, a new way to live.


For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free.


And God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace;
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice, and joy.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Call For Simple-Minded Mormons To Repent

A family member just shared with me today a public Facebook post by a man named Dustin Sweeten that starts with the words "come on members of the LDS church, be honest..." followed by how this rift in the Mormon family is all about following a prophet of God or not:

I'll be honest. I have a strong testimony and conviction of Jesus Christ. But I also have a testimony of the fact that He doesn't control men like puppets (even prophets). He works with what He's got, but we all have our own bias', including prophets (who aren't infallible). They can and do make mistakes, including boneheaded decisions and policies that hurt real people, because that's what it means to be fallible.

Our loyalty ultimately is to God, not to men. And if you see no difference between God and prophets, then that is the epitome of idoltry. And it's time time for you to repent.

PS: If Dustin Sweeten (or anyone else who applauded his words) reads this, please just skip everything I said and watch this short Brene Brown video to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Christians in deed (as opposed to just word) show empathy. Showing love is more important than establishing your dogma.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

When The Mormon Church Was Dead Wrong And Too Stubborn to See It

This past week I've experienced a roller coaster of emotions. My wife and I welcomed a baby boy into our family. This most peaceful and good news was followed two days later by the sad and troubling news that our collective Mormon family will now officially exclude many (one is too many) priceless souls from joining the collective church family. Though the gospel of Jesus Christ is radically inclusive, the LDS Church is anything but. Even if you want to hope that the news is okay, you have to admit that the optics of this are brutal. And I'm left with the same question as Arwen Taylor, who hit the nail on the head:
Here's what I want to ask everyone who defends the new anti-gay family policy: What can you imagine the church doing that you would absolutely not support? Can you imagine the church taking an action that would cause you to say, 'No, this violates my conscience, this goes too far, this is not done in love?' Because if not, then you don't get to make moral arguments in support of this; you've ceded your moral reasoning to someone else's authority.
At every single juncture in the past we've been demonstrably wrong about homosexuality. A few months ago I implied my personal belief that our church persists in being wrong about homosexuality in a carefully worded open letter to Elder Christofferson. (A counselor in my stake presidency expressed concern to me about suggesting the Brethren are "wrong", but that just sparked another blog post on how if we acknowledge they're fallible then we should probably stop pretending that they can't be wrong.)

To learn of the problematic handbook changes feels like a sucker punch straight out of Salt Lake. And to be clear, my sorrow lies with Salt Lake, not my local ward and stake. My local leaders have been most loving and kind as well as inclusive and sensitive as we've counseled together. My loving stake president even reached out to me personally Saturday morning because he knew this would cause me great concern (like his counselor, he too had read my open letter to Elder Christofferson and we'd previously spoken in person about some of my concerns.) The thing is I haven't been able to respond--I'm too stunned. I think I'm going to need time to step back and take a sabbatical. In the meantime I simply wish to restate unequivocally my conviction that ALL families, regardless of the sexuality of the parents, deserve to be strengthened. Are we collectively too stubborn to see the harm the Church is now doing to real families and children? Even more sad than the handbook changes is to see so many loved ones try and defend it or pass the blame to God.

I thought we were learning to be better. I'm afraid I was wrong. This much is now clear: a significant number of Mormons--including Mormon leaders--have failed to learn some critical lessons from our collective past. One couple, in writing to their stake president, wondered about how some of the saddest episodes of our past may have played out differently if only someone had spoken truth and reason to power: 
Perhaps if someone in the Parowan and Cedar City stakes had had the courage to voice their opinion to their stake presidents in those fateful secret meetings back in 1857, the Mountain Meadows Massacre could have been avoided. Or perhaps if others in the Willie and Martin handcart companies had joined their voices with Levi Savage who warned against the late travel (and was severely chastised for not having faith in his leaders), the resulting suffering and death could have been prevented. Perhaps if church leaders in Brigham Young’s day had stood up to the policy change he instituted that denied blacks the priesthood and temple blessings (and which the church now acknowledges was based on racist cultural attitudes of that age), our church could have avoided causing untold emotional and spiritual injury to thousands of black people – as well as to the white members who perpetuated harmful racist attitudes (even to this day) because of the false folk doctrines they were taught in an attempt to justify an increasingly unjustifiable policy.
I sometimes wonder who, if anyone, has the ear of the First Presidency. I wonder if they're simply surrounded by "yes men" or if any have expressed to them concern about these handbook changes. I'm particularly concerned that they're not listening to our LGBT brothers and sisters. Most people don't get the chance nowadays to have the ear of the First Presidency directly. The distance can give the impression that the First Presidency doesn't need the collective wisdom of the rank and file church membership--apparently we are to presume inspiration despite a lacunae of any compelling evidence.

Moreover, despite President Uchtdorf's frank admission that there have been times when church leaders have made mistakes, too often we've been too stubborn to learn from those mistakes to be better in the present. Apparently leaders are also too stubborn to apologize for past wrongs. Of all the wisdom in The Lion King, this may be the ultimate: “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.”
The Mormon Past Can Hurt (the Present too), But We Must Learn From It.

It is clear that many Mormons today still have much to learn from our past. I particularly have in mind The Stewart Udall Sequence--"a remarkable tale of conscientious dissent", which is filled with all kinds of customized lessons Latter-day Saints ought to be learning from today. Stewart Udall wasn't the only dissenting Mormon voice shamed for correctly following his conscience over the "authority" of church leaders. Readers of my blog may recall I once shared how brother Lowry Nelson had the ear of the First Presidency but they refused to allow themselves to question whether it was perhaps Nelson who was right while they were wrong. In fact history is filled with other Mormon voices who followed their conscience to dissent and have since been vindicated by history. But as a member of President John F. Kennedy's cabinet (Secretary of the Interior), Stewart Udall was likely the most prominent. I can't help but think about today's parallels and how Mormons who fail to remember the past are indeed condemned to repeat it.

It's already happening. On the one hand, there have been many Latter-day Saints who have responded with compassion and grace in the face of this weeks news. By far my favorite story comes from my friend Lon Young, who exemplified what it means to "mourn with those that mourn". On the other hand, this week I've heard/seen "Latter-day Saints" shame fellow Latter-day Saints for placing greater loyalty to following their own conscience over following LDS authorities. Though the nature of the issue is different, the behavior being exhibited and arguments being made today are almost exactly the same as those you can read in the saga of Stewart Udall (particularly parts 4 & 5), so without further ado, I present The Stewart Udall Sequence: a remarkable tale of conscientious dissent, written by a local friend of mine, Jonathan Streeter, here in San Antonio:

Part I: The Conscience of a Jack Mormon

Meet Stewart Udall and discover how he let his conscience guide his life. His deliberate decision to distance himself from the church is articulated in a note he wrote at the time. Those principles can be seen in his remarkable record of compassion.

Part II: Orthodoxy and Antipathy

When Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall took office, he received criticism about racist Mormon teachings. His exchange with the First Presidency reveals much about the perspective of Church leaders at the time.

Part III: The Letter

After seeing no change in church policy or teachings for years, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall writes an open letter condemning the priesthood ban and racist teachings. It did not go unnoticed.

Part IV: Who's On The Lord's Side Who?

After writing his letter, Stewart Udall received numerous letters from faithful Latter-day Saints. What does the content of those letters tell us about the heart of Mormonism regarding race at that time? (Spoiler alert: We're seeing today some of the same messages of chastisement: "Don't criticize the leadership," "Don't embarrass the Church," "Get out of the Church," "You're too prideful," etc. from both members and leaders.)

Part V: The Apostles and the Primitive Church

In addition to letters from other members, Stewart received letters from two Apostles. Would they echo the sentiments of the many members who castigated the outspoken Udall or take a different tone?

Part VI: By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know

The exchange between Udall and those who wrote him reveal the fruit that Mormonism bore in race relations. By examining 4 remarkable individuals at key points in the history of segregation, we may compare fruit and discover the lesson of Stewart Udall.