Spirit 4: Moral Authority

I was 12 when I received the Aaronic Priesthood. They explained that this was the lesser Priesthood, or the official authority to act in god’s name, to perform his ordinances. It wasn’t the first Mormon ritual I underwent: I was blessed as a baby, then baptized at the age of 8, then I was confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I received the Holy Ghost. All of those ordinances were done by Priesthood holders, men who were given the Priesthood by other Priesthood holders when they were younger. It was like a treasure map with necessary stops along the way, all necessary to reach the final destination: salvation.

At 12, as a deacon, I was allowed to pass the sacrament, the blessed bread and water, to members of the congregation during church meetings. At 14, as a teacher, I was given additional responsibilities, those of home-teaching. At 16, as a priest, I could bless the sacrament, sanctify it. At 18, as an elder, I was given the higher Priesthood, called the Melchizedek, which gave me many more abilities. I could perform baptisms, perform blessings of healing and comfort, consecrate oil, and dedicate homes, among other things.

It was all very official, very coming-of-age. Other cultures let young men go on their first hunt to become a man, I received the Priesthood for mine. First, I had to pass the worthiness interview: did I pay my tithing, obey the law of chastity, believe fully in the church and the prophet and the teachings, etc, and if I said yes to all the questions, I was deemed worthy. I said yes to all the questions, but at the same time, I didn’t believe I was worthy, not truly. I hoped God would find me as such, but I didn’t believe it. I was attracted to boys, even back then, and that made me less than the other boys. Less manly, less straight, less worthy.

Worthiness was the key component to holding the Priesthood. That and having a penis. Boys held the Priesthood and ran things and girls got to be wives and mothers. In the temple ceremony years later, I would stand with the men and promise to follow God; the women would, with veiled faces, stand together and promise to follow their husbands. Clear chain of command.

All the Priesthood holders I knew had it rough, living up to the strict expectations of the church, paying ten per cent of their money, giving much of their time for free to church activities and meetings, all while providing for their families and keeping their families happy. They had to do so willingly and worthily or they wouldn’t be fit to carry god’s authority any longer. There was the full-time job, the full-time calling, and the busy household to maintain. All while staying worthy.

And even if you had the Priesthood, you couldn’t use it if you weren’t worthy, that was evident. See, god gave the authority to certain prophets before Christ, then he gave it to Christ, who gave it to his apostles, but they all died and the authority was taken away from the earth, but then god gave it back to Joseph Smith when he founded Mormonism in the 1830s, then Smith passed it on to his apostles, and it got passed right on down to me. One long chain of authority. Baptisms would have to be done for everyone who ever lived on the earth, as well as temple work, because Mormonism was supposed to fill the whole planet stretching back to the earliest days of the earth and on into the eternities.

But the thing was, men lied about being worthy all the time. Even as a young kid, I saw Priesthood holders performing ordinances like blessings for the sick and blessings on the sacrament, when I knew they weren’t worthy. There were members of my own family who did this, and many members of my friends’ families. Men who molested children, who viewed pornography, and who hit their wives were regularly attending the temple and participating in ordinances. And these men were the same ones guiding the families and the wards. These were the men that the women and children were supposed to follow. I used to believe these stories were few, but they seem to be a large minority of the households out there, these corrupted leaders guiding others with the sanctioned authority of god.

I brought up these concerns with church leaders a few times, and I was generally told to just be patient and trust that god would work it out. I knew at least seven girls in high school who were being molested by their fathers, and some of these men had high positions in the church. But we were to just trust in god. Just trust that he will work it out. These men are the leaders, and god knows their hearts, and god will guide them to do what is right. Only god could judge. God is in charge and he says the men are in charge, even the ones who hurt others. Just trust.

Some examples of this stand out more than others in my mind. I once reported to a church authority that a man was molesting his daughters; that man was given a ‘talking to’, I was told, but he was never released from his calling, never excommunicated from the church; he stayed right there where he was and he kept molesting his kids. And when my own stepfather’s physical abuse was exposed, he was temporarily disfellowshipped, and then reinstated three months later, still serving in the temple, still sitting in church every week. Meanwhile, the men who were exposed as being gay were being excommunicated right and left.

The whole ‘authority of god’ thing felt pretty special in the beginning, but as with all things in religion, it grew more complicated the more I learned. Joseph Smith claimed angels had come down from heaven to give him the authority. He used it to get revelations for the whole church, for the whole earth even, and the revelations were often complicated and contradictory. He used it to marry four dozen women, and he gave other men that right, but later men couldn’t do that anymore. He said only white men could have the power, but that changed too in the late 1970s. Certain men could do certain things, but only if they were worthy, and it all depended on their jurisdiction–one man could run his family, other men ruled congregations or geographic areas. There were “keys to the Priesthood” conferred to various men in various positions for various tenures.

Me? In the beginning, the Priesthood made me pretty special. But it added a burden to what I was already carrying. This intense pressure to be right before god when I knew I was wrong, it caused a deep rift within me, one that resulted in deep depression, pain, and anxiety. And eventually, when it all came apart at the seams, the release of that pressure gave me a new lease on life. Ultimately, giving up this pressure to be good according to a list of rules was replaced by just being good for its own sake.

And something I’ve learned almost more than anything else since leaving it all behind: women should be the ones in charge, and the men agreeing to follow them.

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Spirit 1: On Heaven and Hell

Heaven and hell were easy to understand growing up. There was the devil on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder that tempted him to do bad, and the angel that tried influencing good. The devil was always gruff, focused on fun, and sinful, encouraging Bugs to lean into his appetites. The angel was always pious, innocent, naive, and focused on self-denial and sacrifice, with a few dire warnings of the consequences of sin.

Bad people went to hell (which was a curse word unless you were referring to the place) and good people went to heaven. And I was one of the good people. Born Mormon, I was baptized at age 8, and my path to heaven was assured, so long as I followed the rules and repented.

But the older I got, the more complicated heaven and hell became. I soon understood them to mean multiple things. Heaven and hell, for example, are both literal and figurative.

Hell can mean being sad or in a place of misery, something that happens even while alive. Hell was both the dwelling place of the devil and those who followed him, and the punishment for those who sinned in life. Hell was the end of progression, an Outer Darkness, a place where humans were unhappy spirits, severed from their bodies, trapped by their addictions, unable to have relationships. Hell was the end of existence. Hell was a place with lakes of fire, the smell of brimstone, and the unending screams of humans. Hell was where everyone ended up automatically because they had already sinned by being born, and only Jesus and his atonement could save them. But hell could also mean being in prison as a spirit before the final judgment. (More on that in a minute).

Heaven, meanwhile, was mirrored on earth in places like church, temple, and home, with worthy families united by religious bonds. Heaven was both the dwelling place of god and those who followed him, and the reward for those who were obedient in life. In addition, heaven was a planet, something called Kolob, but it was also the final state of the earth we dwelled on after god transfigured it into perfection somehow. Heaven also represented those who were in the spirit world after death but before the final judgment, those who were righteous and not in prison. In heaven, family bonds could exist, marriages between men and women (sometimes men and multiple women), who could go on having more children, and who maintained their relationships to the children they had on earth. God himself led this charge, with many wives and many children, as he was the father of every son and daughter on earth and also those in hell who never made it to earth.

I was very young when I learned that heaven and hell had origin stories. But there were origins before that origin as well. God used to be a man. He was a mortal named Elohim who made good choices and made it to his own heaven before he got his own planet, then he was eventually to make his own earth, the very one we lived on. But before god created earth, he had all his billions of children around him in heaven, and he wanted them to be more than spirits (cause god had a body but his children did not). So Jesus made one plan, to make the earth and test men, and Lucifer had another plan, and God liked Jesus’s plan, so Lucifer and all those who followed him (a full third of God’s children) started a war and they were all kicked out and sent to hell (which might be on earth in a spiritual form but could also be somewhere else). They would never get bodies and they would spend thousands of years trying to tempt the other children of god, the ones who did get bodies.

Simple, right? I was born to follow god, to obey all the rules, to make good choices, and then to go to heaven afterward where I could eventually become a new god. See? Simple.

Except as I grew older, it grew more complicated again. The prophet Joseph Smith, in expounding on heaven, revealed that there are multiple levels. Celestial is up on top, and underneath it are terrestrial and telestial, which are like lesser versions of heaven but also kind of versions of hell because they aren’t the top version of heaven. The celestial realm itself was split into thirds, and only those in the very very tip-top most worthy realm had the maximum heaven benefits, like family, eternal marriage, eternal progression, and presumably billions of spirit children and godhood and their own planets. Varying levels of happiness. Varying levels of misery.

But before heaven was the spirit world, the place that souls dwelled until the final judgment. There was a mini-judgment that placed souls in spirit paradise (the good place) and spirit prison (the bad place). Another heaven and hell.

Then it got more complicated again. There were ordinances that had to either be done while living, or in proxy for a human soul after they died, in order to get them into heaven. Baptism, the conferring of the holy ghost, and the temple endowment. In the endowment, I learned of all the sacred laws I had to follow, the covenants I had to keep, and all of the sacred/super-secret signs and tokens that I needed to know to access heaven itself. I got a new name. There were handshakes and whispered code words, a parting of an ethereal veil, a welcoming by god into the new realm.

As I look back on all I used to believe, I scoff. I balk. I swallow a stone. It’s a complex fantasy realm with competing realities. It’s allegory and fable interpreted literally. Transfigured planets, polygamist gods, new names, secret handshakes, lakes of fire, and a war of spirits.

But as a child, this mythos held so much power over me. Earth-life was but a blip. I was temporary, yet all of my choices had staggering potential consequences. I had to conform, follow the rules, stay focused, so that I could be with my family. Sinning, turning from god, and even being gay would mean that I lost everything. Were I to sin, were I to screw it all up, perdition would be the result. Sacrificing my happiness and enduring to the end meant vast eternal rewards. Sinning and being true to myself meant letting down everyone I had ever known and willfully breaking the bonds that held us together. Forever.

I regularly see clients in my therapy office who are so afraid of coming out, of doubting their religion, of divorcing. They are afraid of the consequences, the judgments of god. But they are often even more afraid of their parents, their faithful Mormon parents, finding out about their secret shames. They keep it hidden, often for years. And so often, when the parents do find out, their response is something like this.

“I don’t care that you are gay/sexually active/marrying a non-Mormon/divorcing/smoking pot (fill in any old sin here) so long as you stay in the church.” So long as you stay in the church. So long as we can know that there is a chance you will be part of our family in the eternity to follow. Because leaving the church, losing your belief, that would be the worst thing of all, because we lose our soul to hell. Whatever hell is.

I’m 40 now, and I don’t really believe in heaven and hell. I think every human is inherently good and evil both, and I think both of those words are hard to define, and are easily influenced by culture, morals, ethics, psychology, sociology, and history. I do believe in human potential to be happy, to strive for more, to be good, to be christian even. And if you were to ask me what I believe regarding what comes after death, I’m happy to report that I have no idea.

Perhaps death is a great unknowing void. Perhaps the soul returns in a new form. Perhaps the human spirit is absorbed back into the earth. Perhaps there is a great reckoning and an eternal punishment or reward. Perhaps death is a door to a great mystic realm of fantasy. Perhaps the most righteous souls, the ones who know the names and the handshakes, access the top third of the top third of heaven get to become gods themselves. But I do believe the soul finds peace.

And I believe that it is my duty to myself to find that peace right now, balancing the heaven and hell within me, making me the best person possible. An ethical, good, valuable life on my terms, one that is good to the world around me. And in that, I find all the love and peace that I need.

 

Skeleton of myself

I reduced myself before you.

I sucked in my stomach and puffed out my chest,

Seeking to be both small and strong.

I lay at your feet and cried

At my own unworthiness.

I raised my arm to the square

And demanded you notice me.

I ignored your harsh words,

Convinced they were only for my good.

I took on a new name

And thrust my hands in the air

While I begged you to hear the words of my mouth.

I listened, ever so carefully,

So sure that in the silence

I would find you.

I walled off entire sections of me,

separating them from the rest,

forgetting that they were there.

I held my breath

Until I forgot how to breathe.

then turned blue from the cold.

I tried anger, pain, depression, apathy.

I tried being a martyr.

I gave two years. Ten. Twenty.

I placed a ring on my finger

And made promises I couldn’t possibly keep.

And as the years passed,

I slowly, ever so slowly,

Withered away,

Becoming the skeleton of myself

That you expected all along.

And then one day,

The sun hit my skin just right,

And I realized,

With finality,

That you were there all along

For you were never there to begin with.

Learning to hate

shadow

Hate.

Humans are the only species that hates. We dominate. We smother, choke, and silence. Anything that is inconvenient to us. Anything that isn’t like us. Anything that makes us uncomfortable. Even when, especially when, it is within us.

I was raised by a loving mother in a busy family home. She taught me to follow God, to love my neighbor, to be a good and ethical person who is kind and Christlike. Every Sunday, we sat in church and sang songs of the love of God while learning about family, service, eternal bonds, and sacrifice. It was idyllic. It was wonderful. Except I didn’t fit the mold.

I realized early on that I was gay. I didn’t have the words, but I knew I was different as young as age 5. And I learned to hide. I know I didn’t fit. I wasn’t like the other kids around me. God had made me different. The messages of love I was being taught became conditional, based on my ability to conform.

There were no hateful messages delivered across the pulpit in my Mormon congregation. There were no sermons on how gay people should burn in Hell. There was just no mention of gay people at all, anytime, ever. Mumbled conversations in hallways about the AIDS epidemic being a curse from God toward the immoral, yes. But no hate speech against gay people. And this silence spoke volumes.

Instead, there were reinforced narratives. Poster boards showing the paths that everyone takes to get into Heaven. Worthiness. Obedience. Sacrifice. Church attendance, scripture study, repentance, baptism. Ordinations, temple attendance, tithing, two years as a missionary. And then, marriage to a woman and children and service in the church for a lifetime. All to ensure that whatever came next, after this life, would be good. A life with God, rich with blessings and family.

And I didn’t fit into that. Right off, in learning how to blend in, I learned how to deny those deeper parts of myself. Every television show, every story book, every song on the radio reinforced that men were men, and women were women, and men were supposed to be with women. There was no alternative. I knew no gay people. I had no role models for a successful or happy gay life. There was only one path, only one way. And so I learned to hide. To lie. To seek a cure. To try and fix it. All without anyone ever pointing a finger at me that said “You are broken, fix yourself.” They didn’t have to point. I just knew I was broken.

Until I turned 15. When I was 15, I finally asked for help. And a kind religious leader gave me a book that was written by a long-dead Mormon prophet, a book written before I was born. Homosexuality is a sin. A crime next to murder. An abomination. A curse. A curable curse, but a curse nonetheless. It was detestable, horrific, a blight upon the land. I got the message loud and clear. Everything I’d ever worried about myself in silence was confirmed in print. I was broken. I learned to hide even more.

Hate can be subtle. It isn’t always like a fist to the face, sometimes it is more like shadow, creeping over walls and under doors, unseen until you learn to see it clearly. I didn’t fit. I was an abomination. God created me in his image, but he made me different. He loved me without condition, yet I was an abomination. He expected honesty and authenticity in service, yet I didn’t know how to face myself. I had no narrative, no ability to speak truth. And so I hid. In plain sight. For decades. He hated me. Those around me hated me. And I learned, early and deeply, to hate myself.

The boys at school weren’t so subtle. Manhood needed to be proven there. Athletic prowess, an interest in girls, a tolerance for pain, no show of emotions. Be a man. And anyone who wasn’t a man, they got called the humiliating names, the ones that every boy dreaded. Sissy. Fag. Queer. Homo. Fairy. Faggot. Fudgepacker. Playground taunts would go dark and extreme sometimes. “You can’t throw a ball, you fag, go die of AIDS.” Children saying this. Children.

And every word, directed at me or at anyone else, sent quivers through my soul. They shook me to my core. I was so scared of being exposed. What if someone caught me looking at a guy. What if I got a boner at the wrong time. When if I wasn’t good enough, man enough, at any given moment. And so I learned to hide, deeper and darker. I learned to lie even more. In order to survive.

When I mix these three origin stories: the suffer-in-silence child side, the not-man-enough-little-queer-kid side, and the God-created-a-monster side, it boils down a complicated stew of self-hatred. It’s a miracle I survived. It’s a miracle any of us did. I used to shut entire parts of my brain, my body, my psyche, my spirit. I shut them down so I could stop feeling, so I could try to survive. It physically hurt. I’d stare at myself in the mirror and call myself names for not being man enough. I’d sob my eyes out in anguished prayer while begging for a cure. I’d look girls in the eye and tell them that I was interested in them, of course, as I delivered some excuse for not engaging in physical activity with them. I hated myself, because I just knew that everyone hated me.

Hate.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned to hear and share the stories of others. My story is my own, but it is in no way unique. There are millions of other gay Mormons from across the decades who learned to be silent like I was, who learned to believe God hated them. They considered suicide, and in some cases completed it. They submitted themselves to therapy practices that promised a cure. They got electro-shocked, harming their brains in the hope of reducing or eliminating their sexual attractions. They got married and then cheated on their wives, hoping to never get caught. They were excommunicated, disowned, extorted by the police, and assaulted for being gay. In the worst cases, they were killed, by men who learned to hate other men for being gay.

And it isn’t limited to Mormons. Gay people in every corner of the world, in every country, culture, religion, and time period, have learned the same hate. In some culture, the hate comes from God and religion. In others, it is societal norms or government practices. Hatred has become generational. It’s in the DNA of gay people. It crosses every border and barrier. It is the shadow on the wall, the one I forget to look for sometimes.

I’ve been out of the closet for eight years now, and I love my life. My home, my job, my partner, my children.  I see a future for myself, where I once saw no future. And in my work as a therapist, and as a storyteller, I’ve learned to embrace the stories of queer people as they begin to sort all of this out and learn how to love themselves. They began to see clearly how they learned how to hide in their own homes. And then they start to look at the world around them and figure out how to live in it, how to understand and even embrace the hate and use it to propel themselves forward. It is an epic and exhausting journey, and one that gets easier with time.

And I don’t hate that at all.

In fact, I love it.

Love.

So Carefully Contained

Lately, I feel fingers scratching at the edges of reality. 

It’s like those moments when you first wake, 

when you slowly come aware, 

when you remember you have a body and a bed in the darkness

when everything downloads itself back into your brain

and then you pick up where you left off. 

There is more to all of this

(there has to be)

meaning behind the madness

not God but… something. Something out there that I can make sense of. 

 

I created these walls around me. I painted them brightly. They protect me. 

When I grew weary of boundaries, of need, of being hurt by others, 

I changed myself. I made it so that I would reduce hurt, 

so I could expect more from myself and less from others

I set my own terms and began dreaming bigger and achieving more. 

And here I am, in the dwelling I desired

Full, ripe, plentiful, rich

So carefully contained in this space

the one I created

and wondering what else is out there to be discovered. 

I love it here, but I’m outgrowing it, I can feel it. 

The old itch is returning, the one that tells me I need to change. 

I need. To change. I need. More. I need. (What is it I need?)

Desire, lust, forgiveness, sanctification, release, horizons, animal passion, to be seen, to be heard, to feel loved, to forgive, to change the world.

I need. 

 

Lately, I feel fingers scratching at the edges of my reality. 

They mean something. Some success, some discovery, something

Right around the corner. 

And it’s going to require me spilling over the edges of this container I’ve built and embracing.

Embracing. Risking. Trying. 

It’s right there. 

(I need.)

 

 

Milk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2030

I’m afraid.

Lately, my fears for the future have been regularly realized.

Every little news headline seems to reinforce how corrupt we are as a species, how doomed our planet it, and how without hope we are. Some days, I have to work hard to find the hope that will reinstate my faith in humanity. Some days, I have to dig very deep.

Nothing is quite as infuriating as politics and religion. These issues charge me up and fill me with outrage. Hearing about the sexual abuse of a minor from an adult makes me angry; hearing about the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest and then learning that case was willfully ignored by men who claim to speak for God, well, that fills me with rage. Hearing a boss or a neighbor or even a parent say they hate gay people, that hurts my heart; seeing a straight elderly white man stand up and say that God says gay people are sinners and apostates, and then hearing about suicides that take place afterward, well, that fills me with dread. Seeing a man post on Facebook about how times are tough for men right now and how alleged victims of sexual assault need to come forward with proof, that makes my heart ache; seeing an elected official who has been accused of sexual assault multiple times and who is a known sexual philanderer appoint another man accused of sexual assault to a lifetime position on the Supreme Court and then afterwards talk about how difficult men have it, well, that fills me with hopelessness.

And, as I write this, I realize I willfully take part in this outrage. I recognize that the world around me has learned how to capitalize on it. Logging into Facebook recently, I clicked a few buttons and realized that the computer algorithms have labeled me as an extreme liberal. I get fired up over transgender rights, and gay marriage, and fair wages, and victim advocacy, and #metoo. And entire political campaigns seek out my information and run ads that will get me fired up. The content that shows up on my page, in my Email, in my mailbox, it is often targeted just for my eyes. And it isn’t just me,  this is everyone.

I have a habit of waking up in the morning and checking CNN, or Rachel Maddow, or the New York Times, and I look for evidence that my beliefs and affiliations are justified. I want facts and figures that back up my beliefs. I want to feel validated. I want my hope back. And sometimes I find it. “See! There is a new trial for Paul Manafort! I knew Trump was corrupt! I knew Obama was the best president! I knew Russia was behind it all!” And sometimes I don’t find it. “Oh. Oh! There isn’t enough support to impeach the president, and there weren’t enough senators to keep Brett Kavanaugh off the Supreme Court. How could they! What is the world coming to! Why do I even try!” And then I realize that every one of these places runs on advertisements that are geared toward me. And I realize that the same thing is happening on the other side, too.

Recently, I had a long, several-hour drive through central Utah, and I could only get one radio station to play, and it was broadcasting the Sean Hannity show. And I thought, well, why not. The show opened with something like this. “On today’s show, we provide evidence that there isn’t one single decent Democrat among the whole bunch! They are all extreme liberals! And we will show you how Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to influence the efforts of Donald Trump, the greatest president of the greatest country on Earth!” And then an ad came on featuring a man saying something like “I love what I love. I love my woman. I love my children. I love my trucks. And I love my guns.” And I didn’t stick around after that because I wanted to pull over and vomit.

With compassion, I realize that there is someone not that unlike me who wakes up across the country somewhere and brews his coffee and checks his Fox News and Breitbart headlines, where he finds stories that reinforce his own hopelessness and outrage. He talks to his friends about it, posts some things on social media, and wanders around wondering if the world will ever stop being so broken.

And so, to clear my head, I went on a long walk. I set aside the outrage, the pain, the hopelessness, and I focused on the beauty of the world. The changing leaves, the crisp fall air, the hilarious photos my children sent me the night before, the progress I helped one of my clients make in our latest session, the way my boyfriend snuggled me tight last night. The world is okay. The world is okay.

Except it isn’t! My reassurances weren’t working. I can’t just explain the feelings away, or even just breathe through them. The issues I am passionate about are real issues for me! Gay kids are committing suicide! Trans women of color are being brutally murdered! Sex trafficking numbers are higher than ever! Human populations keep growing and consuming, and entire ecosystems are critically endangered if not on the verge of extinction! People of color are still fighting for equality and recognition! Survivors of sexual assault are still not being believed! The air is being poisoned, and the icebergs are melting, and the hurricanes are growing bigger, and the climate is rising! It makes me want to scream! I’m afraid for the future! What kind of world are my sons going to grow up in! What world will be left for them to have a future in! (And those on the other side are outraged about their own issues, I realize. Abortion! Religious discrimination! The fall of basic morals and values! Sigh.)

And then it is another deep breath. I think of the protestors, those who fought against the Iraq War in my youth, those who fought against the Viet Nam and Korean Wars in the youths of my parents. I think of the hippies, and the feminists, and the Freedom Riders, and the Suffragettes, and the Underground Railroad, and I realize that things are changing. They are. And my heroes have always been those who rose up against impossible systems and made change. Gay marriage is legal now, and the Berlin Wall came down, and segregation was deemed illegal. Sally Ride went into space, and Barbara Jordan got elected, and we had a black president for eight years, and Elizabeth Smart survived to tell her story, and there is a street down the road now named after Harvey Milk. There will always be something to be outraged about. But only if we have a planet and a society in which we can be outraged at all.

I woke days ago to a headline that basically said, from a scientific standpoint, that we have until the year 2030 to get our shit together as a species or the planet is doomed. That’s basically what it said. We can cut back on plastic, and stop mass-slaughtering animals, and quit fracking the earth open, and shift to solar energy. We can take care of our air, and our water, and our animal habitats, and our trees, and our mountains, and our soil, or we can realize that they simply won’t be there any longer to take care of at all.

I sometimes feel like modern society is far too much like the one in the Game of Thrones. The people slaughter each other in political games, playing dirty and wiping out the well-meaning, all while the Apocalypse rises from the north, ready to consume them all. They have a limited time to get their act together if they want to survive at all. And even then, it may be too late.

In 2030, I’ll be turning 52 years old. My sons will be 22 and 19. (They are 9 and 7 now). This is not a far future. This is the amount of time from 2008 to now. It’s the simple difference between ages 20 and 32. It’s barely more than a decade. And no matter the state of the world, I’m sure humans will still be arguing, screaming, and protesting with each other about their personal outrages. But I don’t know if this is a future where the oceans are choked by plastics, garbage, and poisons, where massive storms ravage our coasts, where animal habitats have been almost entire consumed, and where humans have to wear masks outside to breathe. Or if this is a future much like the one that presently exists, damaged but salvageable, where convenience is somewhat sacrificed in the name of preservation. Will my sons get college, careers, families? Can they plan vacations? Can they breathe fresh air, see sunsets, climb trees, ride on a boat to see whales diving in the ocean? And can they raise their children to do the same?

Or is it too late?

I’m afraid.

sunrise

Mrs. God

mrsgod

Despite the warnings not to, I once picked up an anti-Mormon pamphlet. I was a missionary at the time, and we had stepped into a Christian bookstore, casually browsing. My companion casually glanced over my shoulder as I read.

In poorly drawn comic strips, the pamphlet tore apart the Mormon version of God. Instead of believing in a divine being, it said, Mormons believed in an immortal alien, one who had once been a man before ascending to godhood and inheriting his own planet. God called his planet Kolob, it said, and he had pure white skin, white hair, and a white beard. He created Earth and possibly other planets so that he would have a place for his billions of spirit kids to get bodies and to be tested, so he could sort the good ones out from the bad ones.

More than anything, the pamphlet emphasized that God had millions of wives, a great eternal harem of women. They had all been mortal women like him, and he had claimed them, bounding them to him forever. They were his property, and the billions of spirit children descended from all of them. Though this may not be a direct quote (hey, it’s been 20 years), the pamphlet stated something like “Mormons don’t believe in a God. They believe in a white alien immortal who engages in endless Celestial sex with his millions of goddess wives.”

My companion and I had laughed about it at the time, and then quickly put the pamphlet back. We had always been instructed not to read things like that, because it could cause us to doubt our very testimonies and belief systems. He and I never talked about it again. But the pamphlet stuck with me. It made me give serious thought to the ideas I had around God for the first time. The pamphlet had worded it all in very abrasive ways, but it hadn’t said anything that was necessarily wrong.

I was taught all about God growing up. Above all else, I was taught that he was a loving father, one with infinite and unconditional love, who knew my heart and thoughts, who knew every choice I would ever make before I could make it. He expected repentance when I made wrong choices, prayer, ten per cent of my income, and strict obedience to all of his commandments, and in return he promised me eternal salvation and glory. And, yes, I was promised that the most very righteous would inherit his kingdom, in other words I could become my own god with my own planet someday.

But we were also taught about the origins of God. “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become,” they taught. God’s name was Elohim, and he was once a mortal who had been obedient to his god, and thus he had become his own God. Which meant there was god before god, and a god before him. It was like one giant capitalistic society, with vast trusts and inheritances built in. Follow the rules, and get the rewards. Don’t, and God will judge you (justly of course) as being worthy of one of the lesser levels of heaven, where you’ll just hang out for eternity. Unless you commit the extreme sin of denying God himself, then it’s Outer Darkness for you. (Those letters are capitalized, cause Mormons believe that is an actual place. Outer Darkness. Where the evil souls float for eternity, no bodies allowed).

And God did live on Kolob, his planet base somewhere in space. And he did look like a white-skinned man with a beard in all the Mormon pictures. And Mormons did believe in polygamy, and they did believe that God practiced it. And they did say that he was our literal father, and he did have billions of spirit children, which probably meant he had millions of wives. And that meant I had a Heavenly Mother in addition to a Heavenly Father. We just didn’t talk about her. I didn’t know her name. But apparently she was once a human too then, and she had gotten to Kolob by sealing herself to God in life, one among millions, and then he had taken her to Heaven with him. That’s how human girls now were supposed to do it. Men got to inherit God powers and kingdoms, and women got to attach themselves to men and go along for the ride. And presumably my Heavenly Mother was just one of those women, and my only Mother, so those other millions would be my Great God-Aunts?

I asked about Heavenly Mother once, when I was a teenager, in my Seminary class. (Seminary was an actual class that I attended during high school hours, in between History and Algebra, at the church across the street). She was mentioned in the Mormon hymn “Oh My Father”, a hymn that had been written by Eliza R. Snow, herself one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. One stanza was clear.

“In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.”

I had raised my hand and asked why we didn’t talk about Heavenly Mother much. The seminary teacher, a good man in his late thirties, who had been married for six years and now had five children under the age of five, had responded kindly, thoughtfully. “We don’t take the name of God in vain as a sign of respect. In the same way, God doesn’t allow us to speak about Heavenly Mother. She is far too sacred.”

I write all of this at the age of 39. When I try to reason through these logic puzzles of my former belief system, I crinkle up my nose like I’ve just smelled something unpleasant. There is no reason behind any of fit, it doesn’t hold up. Little things make me cringe (like if God is Mary’s father, yet he also fathered Jesus through her, but he is also Jesus…), and images of millions of women lining up in white with their faces veiled so that they can devote themselves to one man, well, that just flies in the face of every one of my values.

I have no idea if there is a God out there or not. I’m kind of leaning toward not. But if there is one, I’m just going to presume it is a she, not a he. Women give birth, nurture and sustain. Men chop and tear, rend and conquer. If I ever pray again, it will definitely be to Mrs. God.

Or is it Ms.?

 

 

 

Fragile Mormon Ego

In a college class I taught a few years ago, right in the heart of Salt Lake City, what many locals might call the “Mormon Bubble”, during which we discussed the way Utah is viewed by the rest of the world. (In fact, I think I even blogged about this. It can be hard to remember). We talked about all of the times that Utah has hit the international media circuits over the past few years.

The actively LDS students in the room had hoped that stories about Utah would be related to charity work, to missionary work, and to Christian examples. But universally every story that we found was, well, negative. Maybe even a little bit embarrassing.

We found stories on CNN, Fox News, and other sites that were related to how Mormons make policies against gay people and fight gay marriage, about how gay teens are committing suicide, and about young women coming forward at BYU and in churches who were told to keep their sexual assaults quiet by church leaders (or worse, they were blamed for their own assaults). There were stories about tithing dollars being used to build a mall, about how BYU was being considered for a list of institutions that were known to hate gay people, and how Utah was leading the nation in gender discrimination in the workplace statistics. We made lists of these headlines, and they were hard to face up to.

One student in the classroom, a lovely LDS girl who worked hard to love everyone, raised her hand and wondered aloud why people saw the church she and her family loved so much with so much hatred and vitriol, why they laughed at things that were sacred to her. We had a discussion about reputation, and about how things can look different from the inside than from the outside. She was receptive to feedback, and ultimately it was a strong and openminded lesson for all involved. (She is my favorite kind of Mormon. She loves her church, and she is open to the ideas of others around her).

Well, yesterday, Utah hit the national headlines again, this time for a bizarre poster that was printed up on BYU campus. A small organization that is part of the school’s math department, called Women in Math, created an event in which four of the school’s beloved math professors would speak to those in attendance. The young woman who created the poster placed four photos of the teachers across the top, then the name of the organization underneath them. So it resulted in… four white guys over a heading that read ‘Women in Math’. And then, in the most Mormon way possible, the poster finished with “There will be treats. All levels of math welcome.”

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I copied this to my own Facebook wall with a roll of my eyes, and the tagline “Mormons gotta Morm. Oh BYU, what have you done now?”

Swiftly, like all things on Facebook, some of the comments became politicized. Some decried that all Mormons are misogynistic. (I argued that while the organization and belief system is misogynistic, that doesn’t mean the individual members are). Others, actively Mormon, felt their religion was being attacked and began writing out lists of facts in defense of their beliefs. This lead to some back and forths, some private messages, and, well, a few Facebook unfriendings before it was all finished.

These days, it takes a lot to get me fired up. I use a life motto, a Jewel song lyric that I refer back to often: “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.” As such, I am careful with who I allow into my life, who I choose to engage with. I keep a far distance from all things Mormon in my day-to-day life, but it still hits me regularly because of my family, my community, my friends, and my clients. It’s hard to stay far from. And when you’ve lost a few friends to suicide, it is very difficult not to get very passionate about.

In a few of those private chats, one friend abjectly refused to admit that the Mormon religion is homophobic, racist, and misogynistic, and they felt that my stating such was a direct attack on their beliefs and family. “How would you feel if I said terrible things like this about gays?” they said, to which I responded, “Many gays are absolutely misogynistic, racist, and even homophobic, but not inherently. And there is a huge difference between a sexual orientation, which is not chosen, and a religious belief system, which is chosen.” Despite this, they refused to bend.

Now here is the thing, I remember how fragile my ego as a Mormon used to be. The slightest criticism of the prophets, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or the Church led me to defensively dig in my heels and refuse that there could be any flaws. But even when I dug in, I knew I had doubts about polygamy, about the way the church treats women, blacks, and gays, and about its weird mystical/esoteric history. (God lives on another planet, remember. It’s all very Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.)

But even the most rational person can admit that the Mormon church (as well as the wider society around it) is abjectly homophobic, racist, and misogynistic. It denied blacks the Priesthood and taught that they were cursed with blackness by God! It currently calls gay marriage apostate and doesn’t allow children of gay couples to be baptized! Women bow their heads in temple ceremonies and promise to subject themselves to their husbands… with their faces veiled!

If you are Mormon, I understand you. I empathize with you. And I probably like you. But if your ego is so fragile that you can’t admit basic facts, well, I have very little room for you in my life ultimately.

But back to that Women in Math poster, come on, that is hilarious. And if you can’t laugh with me, well there is probably not much room for you either.

A Good Person

single white cloud on blue sky

All right, let’s talk about the word ‘good’ for a moment.
Okay, what about it?
I just googled the word ‘good’ and there are several different definitions.
Okay.
I am going to read each definition out loud and I want you to tell me which of the definitions are merit-based, which ones are based in measurements of values and morals.
Okay.
Okay, definition 1. ‘Good: to be desired or approved of.’
That’s merit-based.
2. ‘Good: Having the qualities required for a particular role.’
That’s merit-based, too.
3. ‘Good: Possessing or displaying moral virtue.’
Merit-based.
4. ‘Good: Giving pleasure; enjoyable or satisfying.’
That, too.
5. ‘Good: that which is morally right; righteousness.’
Merit-based.
6. ‘Good: benefit or advantage of someone or something.’
That, too. Are any of these not merit-based?
Almost done. 7. ‘Good: merchandise or possessions.’
Merit-based.

Okay, awesome. Now what does that teach us?
I’m not sure what you wanted me to get out of that.
Seven different definitions of good, all based on merits, values, and morals.
Yeah, I got that part.
So let me ask you a basic question. Are you a good person?
I try hard. I work hard. I care about the people around me. I try to do good things, but it never seems to be enough. I still get my heart broken. I’m not sure I’m good.
But that didn’t answer the question. Are you a good person?
Sometimes.
Nope, try again. It’s a yes or no question.
I’m either good or I’m not? It’s not that simple!
It is that simple. Are you a good person? If you answer yes, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have struggles or heartbreaks or challenges. It just means at your essence, at your core, you are a good person. You have value. Are you a good person?
Yes?
That sounded like a question.
Well, I think that is the answer you wanted, isn’t it? For me to say I’m a good person, even if I don’t believe it?
It’s not about what you think I want to hear, it’s about what you believe. Do you believe you are a good person?
I’m honestly not sure if I can answer that right now.
You and I are both parents, let’s start there. You know what it feels like to hold a brand new child in your hands and see the ultimate innocence and potential there. Can you remember what it feels like to do that?
Yes, with both of my children. It’s a wonderful feeling.
Are your children good people?
Yes, of course! They are kids!
Do they make poor decisions sometimes? Do they challenge your patience sometimes? Are they difficult sometimes?
Yes.
So does that mean they are only good people when they are making good choices? When they listen? When they aren’t being difficult?
No. They are good always, even when they have struggles.
Okay, there we go. And I believe the same thing about you, and about me. I have struggles. I make bad decisions sometimes. I get sad and angry and grumpy and tired and disconnected. And at the same time, I am a good person. I’m not better or worse than anyone around me, I’m just me. I’m just human. And at my core, I’m a human who tries hard and does my very best and who is consistently trying to better myself.
I see it in my children. I see it in you. I just have a harder time seeing it in me.
Well, you’ve had a lot of years with a lot of pain. You’ve had people who have hurt you, who have taught you that you only have value if you follow the teachings of the Mormon Church or if you are never sad or if you do as you’re told. People have told you over and over at times that you are ugly or unworthy or difficult or not worth it. And somewhere along the way, you started to believe that.
But what if they were right?
Would you ever love your children with those conditions? Would you ever tell them they they are only good, that they are only worthy of your love if they are always well-behaved?
Of course not. I could never do that to them.
Okay, so the big goal we need to be working on is helping you believe those things about yourself that you believe about your children.
That… sounds nice. To be able to do that sounds nice.
I know you don’t believe in God anymore, neither do I, and I know being a Mormon was hard for you. But beneath all of the struggles you had in that Church, there is one truth that is the most beautiful that is at the essence of all of their doctrine. That core belief is that you were created as a perfect daughter of God and that He loves you unconditionally and sees you as a being of ultimate potential. He sees you as you see your children. It isn’t based on how happy your marriage is or how many hours you serve in Church callings or how strong your testimony is. It is infinite and unconditional love.
I remember feeling that once.
Can you still feel that now? Can you still see that part, that version of yourself? The part of you that exists, that sees you as good, with potential, the way you see your children as good, with potential?
Yes. I can feel that.
So tap into that, and that is where we begin to heal. We have a lot of work ahead, but that is where we begin.
Okay. I can feel it, it’s there.
Let’s try one more time then. Are you a good person?
Yes. I am. I’m a good person.
Okay. Hold tight to that. Now, now is when the healing starts.

 

Enough

Enough

I have a serious hate relationship with the word ENOUGH.

When will I be good enough, smart enough, penitent enough, strong enough, fit enough, loved enough, rich enough.

We humans take the very experience of existence, a waxing and waning of needs being met and unmet (hungry/full, tired/slept, lonely/tired of people, hot/cold) and measure our worth in accordance to our experience with the word Enough. We create these picture perfect ideas of what it is that will make us happy, what will finally bring contentment.

But here’s the thing: we are never content. It will never be enough.

Make your million, then struggle with sadness because you are lonely. Find the love of your life, then realize you are bored at your job. Find the perfect job, then realize you hate the city you live in. Get in that perfect shape, then realize you are poor.

This is humanity. A constant state of searching and exploring and needing and wanting.

It will never be enough. You will never be enough.

Except that you are. In the very act of needing and wanting, in the very act of being human, in the very act of being a work in progress, you are indeed enough, not based on what you have or acquire or complete, not in a measure of anything except in being at peace with your very humanity.

And because we are so uncomfortable looking inward, we look outward. We see others who have things that we want, and then we measure ourselves against them. She has more sex, he has more money, she has more love, he is in better shape, her children love her more, he has more friends, he has his own company, she owns her own home. We look at all the ways people are better/more than we are.

And then we turn it around, we start measuring the ways in which we are better/more than others. I finished college, I work harder, I am in better shape, I am a better communicator, I am a better lover/cook/friend/parent.

I spent a lot of years measuring myself. Humans constructed a God that I was raised to believe in, one who wrote a list of rules for me to follow: the more rules I followed, the more righteous I was, the more I didn’t, the bigger a sinner I was. Judgment lied at the end: heaven or hell, the ultimate measure of worth.

It is only in the last few years where I have found peace with my own humanity, my own process of being a person with changes and needs and wants, with head and heart and gut, with spirit and intellect and feeling and form, all in careful measure. I am me. I like me. I am no better than or worse than any other, yet my only experiences are mine.

This peace within self, it is integrity. It is authenticity. It is strength.

Sometimes others who aren’t at peace with themselves, at least in my eyes, measure my worth against theirs. “I love you more than you love me.” “I work harder than you do.” “I care more about others than you do.” “I’m sicker, I’ve been through more, I feel more.” And ultimately, the message, “I need you to be different than you are so I can be more comfortable within myself.”

The very idea of this rankles me. It’s been a difficult quest to find peace. And yet, here I type about this experience, perhaps not as at peace as I had hoped I was, perhaps measuring my own authenticity against theirs and growing angry at the comparison.

And yet this is all I have, this control and centering over myself. Careful measures, open heart, balanced spirit, willing to change and grow and adapt over time, but not willing to be criticized for the person I am. Slow change over time.

Someone told me recently that I have walls up and I can’t let them go. And upon self-reflection, walls are things we put in place to protect things. And I have a wall or two that refuse to let me be actively dissatisfied with the person that I am, to be made to feel less, to be more or less than what I am now in order to find worth.

It will never be enough.

And in that, I am enough.

Enough is enough.

This me, the one that exists now in the here, this is what I have. And that’s enough.