Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Parable of the Combo Meal

I don’t claim to be a great storyteller, but humor me for a few minutes, eh?

The Parable of the Combo Meal
by Nate Benincosa

One afternoon, two friends found themselves waiting in line at Mo's Burger Joint.

"I'm starving!" grumbled Gay Ray.

"Me too," replied Straight Kate. "You're going to love this place! Thanks for letting me choose."

“It’d better live up to the hype, Kate. You’ve been trying to get me to eat here for months.”

Kate turned to Ray, placed her hands on his shoulders and with conviction, she offered, “Mo’s Burger Joint is the only true burger joint on the face of the earth.” With wide eyes and a grin, Kate approached the counter and placed her order.  "I'll have a Mo’s all-star cheeseburger, please."

"Would you like that in a combo meal?" asked Norman, the Mo's employee.

"Um, sure. Why not?"

"Fries or onion rings, ma'am?"

"Fries!  And, instead of a drink, can I upgrade to a shake?" Kate requested.

"Chocolate or vanilla?"


Ray could hardly contain his excitement. After all, he skipped breakfast that morning. "I'll have a hamburger with no cheese," said Ray when it was his turn to order.

"Oh, uh...sorry. But you can't order that," said Norman, with an uneasy look on his face.

"Why not?" exclaimed Ray.

"It's our policy. We can only offer you a cheeseburger, not a hamburger."

"Seriously? A hamburger is the same thing as a cheeseburger, just leave the cheese off of it. Please, I'm not supposed to eat any dairy."

Somewhat perplexed, Norman stuck to his guns. "Those are the rules. Sorry."

Ray was shocked. With frustration, he continued to ask Norman to allow him to order a hamburger, but there was no budging. Ray then asked for a manager. Eventually, the manager came and backed up what Norman had already said to Ray. No other alternatives were offered. "Stop discriminating against my employee. He’s just doing his job! So, do you want a cheeseburger or not?" huffed the manager.

"As I told Norman, no, I don't. I can't eat cheese. This is unreal. Ok, fine. I'll just have an order of onion rings, please."

The manager sighed and responded, "Your friend here gets to choose between fries and onion rings, but you'll have to make do with fries. But you'll like them, they're really tasty."

"But I want onion rings! How can you offer them to Kate and not to me?"

"Sorry, those are Mo's rules, and I have a job to keep."

Ray was irritated and gave Kate a look of utter disappointment. Kate shrugged, not knowing what to do. "Ok, let me get some fries and since I'm lactose intolerant, I'd better not get a milkshake. How about a Coke?"

Reluctantly, the manager and Norman looked at each other and explained to Ray that it was policy that Norman could not order a drink or shake. Just then, another Mo's employee handed Kate her order: a Mo’s all-star cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate shake. Kate took the tray and found a table while Ray struggled to finish placing his order at the counter.

"Just the fries," Ray said in a defeated tone. Ray joined Kate at the table with only his side of fries in hand.  "Can you believe what just happened, Kate?"

"Yeah, it was kind of embarrassing, Ray. You made a scene."

"A scene?! Are you kidding me?"

"Well, yeah. Mo's rules are clearly posted and you totally ignored them. It's clear that Mo's doesn't serve hamburgers. They serve cheeseburgers, and yet you kept pushing the issue. Why not just order a cheeseburger and take the cheese off? You can be so dramatic, Ray."

"Wow. Really, Kate? Ok, what about you getting your choice of a chocolate or vanilla shake, OR soft drink, but I don't get a beverage of any kind? You got to choose between fries and onion rings?"

"That's how Mo wants it. It's his restaurant and he can set whatever rules he wants. Who are we to question them?"

Ray sat there in disbelief. They sat across the table from each other in silence for a moment or two. Kate then picked up her all-star cheeseburger, taking big bites while chasing the cheeseburger down with sips of her chocolate shake. She then pulled her phone out of her pocket and took a picture of her meal. Kate was so eager to share how delicious her meal was that she went on Facebook and posted the picture on her wall with the following tagline: “My true, eternal love. So grateful, God is good!” She then showed Ray her status and laughed as she continued to devour her cheeseburger.

At this point, Ray was so hungry that he started wolfing down his side of fries. He watched Kate as she took her fries and dipped them into her shake. "I'm so full, but I love doing this. My dad always used to dip his fries in his shake."

Ray's mood picked up. "Can I dip my last few fries in your shake?" he asked with a hopeful expression.

"Um...this is awkward, Mo has established from the beginning that people like you don't get shakes. Besides, fries deserve to be eaten by people who can give them the best home in their belly. I can offer that, but you can't."

In a rage, Ray stood up and yelled, "That's it! I can't just sit here, starving, and watch you pig out on your cheeseburger and dip your fries in your shake when I just sit here with fries. That's not fair, and you know it!"

"You could've had a cheeseburger too, Ray. Just eat the cheeseburger and if you get sick, you get sick. Cheese is yummy! I believe in a traditional burger and traditional burgers have cheese on them. That doesn’t make me a burger bigot!”

"What part of 'no dairy' don't you understand, Kate? I'll get sick. I wanted the same thing you wanted. A burger. Just one little detail is different. No cheese. So, I'm gonna go next door to Dexter's Burger Stop and get a hamburger there and bring it back and eat it here!  AND...I'm gonna get an extra-large Coke because I'm thirsty, dammit!"

"Don't you dare, Ray. I'll be so embarrassed!"

Just as he threatened, Ray got a hamburger and an extra-large Coke from Dexter's and returned to Kate's table at Mo's.  He started eating his burger and taking huge gulps of his Coke. "Mmm, this is so good. Finally, I get to eat and drink, too."

Tears started forming in Kate's eyes. "How could you be so selfish? You are totally threatening my fast food freedom right now! If you keep this behavior up, I might not get to eat at Mo's anymore. Mo will either kick me out or they'll shut the place down. Or worse, Mo will start serving hamburgers to people like you. Is that what you want? To force Mo to put his beliefs aside and serve hamburgers to your people?"

"Kate...I just want what you want. I want a burger, you want a cheeseburger. We're both hungry. Why can't you let me eat my burger the way I want it? And, seriously, you're cool with sipping and dipping with your shake while I am parched and am not offered anything to drink? How can you eat at Mo's or even be here when they treat me this way?"

"I can't change Mo's laws! Don't you get that? You are welcome to come inside and sit here and order fries and even embarrass me with the food from Dexter's. Isn't that enough for you? It's absolutely ridiculous and even sinful for you to expect more than that. I don't approve of of yours!”

"Lifestyle?! So, you get your full combo meal, no questions asked. Your order just conveniently goes along with Mo's policy. You're happy, he's happy. You'll continue eating here and want others to eat here as well. But, at the end of the day, they wouldn't serve me a hamburger without the cheese. One little detail is different. No choice of onion rings and no drink offered? You're cool patronizing a place like this that treats your friend this way?"

"Yes, Ray. Because I know that this food is true with every fiber of my being. And if that causes you sadness, I'm sorry. But I'm not as concerned with your level of hunger as I am keeping Mo's rules. I love Mo and I want him to love me and be pleased with my decisions. Besides, I’m SO close to becoming Mo’s Customer of the Month.”

At that point, Ray got up to leave. He knew there wasn’t any getting through to Kate. He looked around Mo’s and realized that it was a really nice restaurant. People seemed really happy, the d├ęcor was cool, the seats were very comfortable; he really liked the environment. It made sense to him in some ways why Kate was so taken with the place. But at the end of the day, Ray knew that he could never enjoy Mo’s Burger Joint as much as Kate could.

This story may be a little over the top, but it expresses to some degree how I feel belonging to the LDS Church as a gay man. Some of us get the full package deal as part of our Church experience. Others are expected to get by on much less. Kate was able to enjoy her combo meal without any violation to Mo’s rules. But as soon as Ray requested what Kate had (albeit one minor difference), he was made to feel unwelcome. Instead of taking a moment to fully appreciate Ray’s plight and overall experience at Mo’s, Kate was preoccupied with Mo’s rules and how inconvenienced and embarrassed she was by Ray’s persistence.

I feel like Ray, sometimes. As long as I’m content with my side order of fries and just ignore how hungry I am, one day, I'll get the same blessings that Kate gets. Meanwhile, Kate gets to gorge on her combo meal while I just watch. It can be tricky to watch your brothers and sisters “pig out” on love, marriage and the gift of having and raising children when your very membership is threatened by seeking the same thing (but without the cheese). My heart gets heavy when the “Kates” of the Church lash out at the “Rays” of the Church for having the audacity to want (and voice this desire for) the same things.

I’ll close with a quote from the late Boyd K. Packer that actually makes me smile:

“Romantic love is not only a part of life, but literally a dominating influence of it. It is deeply and significantly religious. There is no abundant life without it.”

See the correlation to my little story?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Place At the Table

As I prepared to head home from my LDS mission 14 years ago, the members of the Neath Branch sang a traditional Welsh song called “We’ll Keep a Welcome”.  The words of the chorus went as follows:

We'll keep a welcome in the hillside
We'll keep a welcome in the Vales
This land you knew will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales

I remember the looks on their faces as they sang it to me.  Emotions were high and I truly felt their love and assurance of acceptance and hospitality should I ever return to Wales.  The sweetness and sentiment of that song has stayed with me through the years.  The words speak of an unconditional “love that never fails”.

As a continuation to my last entry, I’d like to suggest that there are many members of the LDS Church who choose not to attend weekly meetings.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t still have testimonies.  It also doesn’t mean that we don’t want anything to do with the Church anymore.  I dare say that my brothers and sisters still cry out to the Lord and strive to do things that please Him.  For a whole variety of reasons, some of us are just not in a place where we can attend with you.  I can only speak for myself when I suggest that I haven’t made a final decision on this front.  My heart is open, even broken and contrite.

I get that there are some who have left the Church and will never return.  As I listen to their explanations as to why, my heart is moved with compassion and I totally understand.  I am not at that place.  I still want involvement and identity as a member of the church.  There are many others like me who may not be prepared to worship with you each week, but whose memberships mean a great deal to them.

While we work out our salvation before God, may I humbly make the following 5 suggestions to active members of the Church:

1.   Be a citizen of the world.  Some of us In the Church have taken on a “be in the world, but not OF the world” approach.  I get the sentiment, but I think we take this way too far sometimes.  We exclude others and shut ourselves off with the intention of not getting caught up in the world.  We pit our 1% against the 99% as if to say “we’re too good for you”.  In doing so, we rob ourselves of some amazing, potentially life-changing opportunities and associations. 

God has billions of sons and daughters with an incredibly diverse array of backgrounds, beliefs, cultures, ethnicities, traditions, priorities, challenges, interests and passions.  I’ve chosen to surround myself with a variety of people, to see the beauty that exists in ideas and beliefs that differ from the ones I was raised with and still hold dear, and to remember that their existence and purpose in life matters just as much to God as mine does. 

2.   Don’t be so afraid of disagreement.  I should mention, in all fairness, that most of the active LDS people I have in my life are full of love and compassion.  They are prepared to be understanding, kind and non-judgmental.  They are willing to have a conversation where differences of opinion are freely and lovingly expressed.  They truly understand the 9th Article of Faith where we purport to believe that God will "yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom", that we don't have ALL of the answers.  However, I should also express that after a recent Facebook post (the one about Caitlyn Jenner), I had approximately 28 people unfriend me, including a family member or two.  I shared those thoughts last time as lovingly and thoughtfully as I knew how to and still, some decided that they just couldn't continue to be my friend.  What I presented was just too challenging or offensive or different to even consider having contact with me.  I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me, who am I to expect such?  But is it too much to ask to continue familial and friendly relationships even after disagreements occur?

I’m happy to report that since those 28 people unfriended me, I’ve had 35 new people request friendship since the launch of my blog.  This is encouraging.  Some of them I’ve known but we lost touch, and others are new friends.

I think we can be scared to allow others to speak up and share their beliefs.  We’re quite ready (well, some of the time) to knock on doors or to invite our non-member or less-active friends to church or an activity or to meet with the missionaries, but when others want to share their beliefs, it’s a scary thing for us. 

As I look back at what I’ve shared on this blog and my previous blog, I’m not sure I consider anything to be scary.  It’s just honest.  Some have approached me and just expressed nothing but love.  No other agenda or motive.  Others have felt the need to teach me or call me to repentance.  I’m certain their motives are nothing but good, but it really comes down to fear.  Fear of something they’ve regarded as a dear friend who thinks about things a little differently.  I imagine a world where all can take a turn and share.  I imagine a gospel doctrine class where we can share openly, without fear of rejection.

I should challenge my LGBT friends in this area as well.  We become so convinced that if a member of the church speaks up and says they support traditional marriage, that they must be a hateful bigot.  I’m convinced that most active LDS who support traditional marriage are not hateful or vindictive people at all.  They’re just trying to adhere to what they believe with their entire hearts and souls.  Does it cause pain to us in the LGBT community?  Sure, it does.  But I’m learning to be less afraid when a TBM supports traditional marriage.  Instead, I take a deep breath, consider their life and come to an understanding as to why they support traditional marriage.  And then I move on.

3.   Accept that not everyone is having the same experience in the Church that you're having.  My experience has been that active members of the Church can sometimes look down upon the less-active with attitudes of "that's just an excuse to shirk their responsibilities", "haven't they read Bednar's talk on being offended?", "I don't base MY activity with the Church on whether people offend me or not", "they just lost faith and stopped praying", "the devil led them away carefully, over a period of time", etc.  The truth is, people fall away from the Church for many different reasons and we need to be more prepared to mourn with those that mourn.  I currently do not attend church regularly.  I miss many things about it and I reserve the right to come back into full fellowship.  But for reasons that are very painful and difficult to describe, I have decided not to attend at this time.  I know that some of my brothers and sisters in the Church will never understand why and that, to them, there is just no excuse.  But I'd ask those brothers and sisters to consider that the Church means different things to different people. 

In a future post, I plan to share my story in more detail in an effort to help my active brothers and sisters understand why someone like me chooses not to attend for a season.  In the meantime, I'll just plead with you:  Don't be the guy that makes the ridiculously offensive comment in Sunday School or Elder’s quorum.  Try to show love before you feel the need to preach exact obedience.  Be the girl who is willing to entertain a conversation where not everything is black and white.  There's a lot of grey area (God will yet reveal many great and important things) and, as members of the Church, we don't always deal well with uncertainty.  If someone in the Church isn't at the same level of activity or testimony, it doesn't mean they're less than.  It also doesn’t mean that they’re done with the Church.  It means that they've had a very different set of experiences and trials that have led them to that place.  They need your love, not your judgment.

4.   Can we be more careful when we use words like "lifestyle" and "agenda"?  Just because someone isn't active in the Church doesn't mean that they have some secret, scary agenda or that they want a lifestyle that's different from your lifestyle.  Most commonly, I hear members of the Church use these words with regard to the LGBT community.  Can we actually consider that God has MILLIONS of sons and daughters who are gay?  Can we further consider that most of them want the same things you want as an active member of the Church?  They want to find someone and build a life together.  If your "lifestyle" is to work a 40 hour week and watch television in the evening with your spouse and kids, I'm willing to wager that the "lifestyle" of your gay friends and neighbors is remarkably similar.  We let one detail justify dismissing someone else's life as an alternative or “counterfeit” lifestyle.  Anyone willing to actually make close relationships with their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters will learn that we all want the same things. 

Is there a negative generalization that exists with the gay man who parties and has unprotected sex with multiple partners and has no regard for his health or the well-being of others?  Absolutely, and in some cases, these generalizations ring true.  But guess what?  Our heterosexual brothers and sisters are just as capable and responsible for perpetuating these stereotypes.  But somehow, the gay community at large is accused of living a "lifestyle" that differs from your own. 

As for an agenda, the Church has a clear agenda.  It's the three-fold mission of the Church:  Proclaim the gospel, Perfect the Saints, Redeem the dead.  It's a clear, unapologetic agenda.  We sent missionaries in masses, door to door to spread the gospel.  I did that for two years and even now, I'm in touch with a number of my Welsh and English brothers and sisters.  I was happy to be a part of that agenda.  But then, we throw the word "agenda" at the gay community.  When I've asked a few people in the Church what the "gay agenda" is, few can respond with a specific answer.  I'm asking for more understanding and acceptance for our LGBT brothers and sisters. 

Just because someone identifies as gay doesn't mean they don't want anything to do with the Church.  I have gay friends who are active every week, I have gay friends who have left the Church after devastating experiences, and I have gay friends who are somewhere in between.  I'm prepared to listen to them all.  I love hearing their stories, their sets of experiences and decisions and how they're striving to be the best person they can be.  I'm often told of how close to God these gay brothers and sisters continue to feel.  Meanwhile, we have parents disowning their own children, kicking them out of the house.  We have leaders of the Church suggesting that their gay sons and daughters would not be expected to be introduced to friends for fear of sending a message that they condone that lifestyle.  The suicide rates and hate crimes (even within the Church) are alarming. 

Do your homework and please, make the Church a safe place for LGBT members to be.  I've had friends and family members ask why the gays don't just start their own church.  "Why do we have to have the gay agenda shoved in our faces?" they ask.  Can you even imagine growing up as a gay member of the Church and having various doctrines shoved in your face that make you hate yourself and feel at constant odds with who you are supposed to be?  My experience is that, in many cases, gay men and women can be much more Christlike, loving, compassionate and understanding than LDS men and women.  I'm not trying to be provocative, it's just my experience.  Let's allow our LGBT brothers and sisters who want to participate do so in peace and confidence.

5.    Be as eager to let others share their experiences as you are to share the gospel.  We get so caught up in our missionary zeal that we often don't close our mouths and listen to the experiences of others.  When we do listen, we don't allow others to have their experiences be as special to them as our spiritual experiences are to us. 

As a missionary, I taught an African man who shared with me his experience of coming to Christ.  With tears in his eyes, he told me and my companion about the day he was baptized (in another Christian church).  I felt the Spirit as he shared, but then I took away from his experience.  It was my duty, after all, as a missionary to explain that while he may have had a very meaningful experience and that it was a step in the right direction, that his baptism was not performed by one who holds the proper priesthood authority.  Here, he had this wonderful experience where he dedicated himself to following Jesus as his example.  He shared his experience with me in a vulnerable and beautiful way. 

I remember seeing his expression change when I basically said "sorry, doesn't count".  To this day, I feel bad about taking away from a very personal and special experience he had.  In the end, he was baptized into the LDS Church, but I still wonder what kind of damage I did to a very authentic experience he cherished.  What if I had asked him to describe his experience and asked him why it meant so much to him and how it helped him be a better person?

Do we really care about the experiences of our non-member friends and family members?  Are we truly prepared to listen, uninterrupted, without motive and just let them bear their testimony in their own beautiful way?  I think the missionary efforts of the Church would be much more successful if we took this kind of approach instead of the "forget what you've been told or raised with, here's the truth" approach. 

In closing, I'd like to express gratitude to my mother and some of my siblings for the great care they've taken to assure me of their love and support.  I have friends from all backgrounds who are prepared to love me just as I am.  Some of them challenge me to be a better person and consider fuller activity within the Church.  That's ok.  Others challenge me in other ways.  At the end of the day, I've made decisions with a clear conscience before the Lord.  I believe that He truly understands my heart. 

At present, I may not be meeting the expectations of my active LDS brothers and sisters, and yet, I feel that I'm meeting the Lord's expectations.  Food for thought, eh?  I'm not sure if I'll ever want a permanent plate set within the Church, but I'd like the option of having a place at the table, should my path lead me there.

May we, as members of the LDS Church, come together and see the beauty and purpose and importance of ALL of God's children.  May we not live in fear that 99% of the world's population is going to hell in a hand-basket.  May we have confidence in a Father who gave us a Savior to atone for our shortcomings.  Perhaps there are ordinances and steps and formalities each of us must take to return to the presence of the Almighty.  I'm not asking anyone to change those beliefs.  I'm simply asking that we relax a bit and treat each other in the most Christ-like way we can, active LDS or not.  People like me need people like you to understand, accept and share our journey.  Our paths may differ, but the destination is the same.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Free Exchange of Ideas

I wrote the following with love and an open heart.  I hope that it’s received with compassion and an open mind.  I’ll begin with a few stats for my active LDS friends to consider:

-Worldwide membership of the LDS church:  15.4 million.
-Worldwide estimated population:  7.2 billion.
-Percentage of Heavenly Father’s children who are not LDS:  99.7%.

Can we just stop and re-read the last stat one more time:  99.7% of God’s children on this earth are NOT members of the LDS church.  Now, these aren’t exact numbers, but you get the idea.  The Church was restored in 1830.  Here we are, 185 years later, and the worldwide membership of the Church isn’t even half of 1% of the world’s population.  85,000 missionaries?  145 operating temples?  Impressive and staggering to consider, but is this rate of growth enough to ensure that the other 99% is converted within the next 185 years?  

As I consider the math, I don’t lose sight of miracles and the phenomenal growth that the Church has experienced over the last two centuries.  I am also mindful of the millennium and the events that we believe will take place during that span of time.  But I strongly feel that a loving, kind, merciful Heavenly Father is just fine with the math I’ve presented.  It's 2015 and still, a tiny portion of His children are active LDS.  He knows what He’s doing and He has everything under control.  I believe with all my heart that He loves ALL of His children and that He is fully invested in bringing about the eternal life of the believers and non-believers, the righteous and the wicked, the Mormons, the ex-Mormons, the Catholics, the Buddhists, the Jewish, the Muslims, the non-religious, the Atheists, etc.  I believe that through His Son, He has truly made every possible consideration to ensure that the majority of His children return home to Him.

I don’t share these stats to discourage, to disrespect or to dishearten anyone.  My membership in the LDS Church still means a great deal to me.  I’ve been a part of missionary work and temple work and have enjoyed some very meaningful experiences as a result.  I’ve taken time to visit Kirtland, Nauvoo, Carthage, Palmyra, Adam-ondi-Ahman, Far West, Liberty Jail and other places where I experienced real and powerful emotions that I, to this day, believe came from a heavenly source.  I have served in a variety of callings within the Church and very much enjoyed these experiences.  I continue to believe and have a testimony of things that I consider to be sacred.  

I have loved this Church and have truly been grateful for my membership in it.  But consider this:  Members of the Church like some of you are pushing members of the Church like me out.  In droves.  Completely.  Unapologetically.  In the name of righteousness.  I am here to speak up and ask for change.  I’m asking my brothers and sisters in the Church to expand their views and open their hearts.  If God is just fine with 99% of His children not being members of “the only true church” in the year 2015, perhaps we can calm down and be more prepared to accept our brothers and sisters from all walks of life.  Then, maybe we can go a step further and see that many different paths lead to the same destination.

For the most part, my experience has been that members of the Church are among the kindest, most loving and most giving people around.  It's this kind of association that makes me proud to be a member of the Church.  But at the same time, I become amazed at how unwilling we can be to have conversations where beliefs are presented that differ from our own.  Our entire world view can be shaped by how we were raised without any thought as to what God has in mind for the billions of men and women who weren't born and raised in the Church or given the chance to accept the gospel as taught by the Church.  We tend to especially freak out a bit when someone who has been raised in the Church turns away and pursues a different path.  "How can that differing path lead back home?", we demand.  My next entry will provide 5 different ways that we, as members of the Church, can be more open and show a willingness to have interesting, insightful conversations with each other and, more importantly, with those who do not believe as we do.  Check back later this week for that.

I'm going to close this entry with a quote that one of my dearest friends, David Bennett, turned me on to.  It's from Hugh B. Brown, a former member of the First Presidency of the Church:

"I admire men and women who have developed the questioning spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas and stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent—if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression. This free exchange of ideas is not to be deplored as long as men and women remain humble and teachable. Neither fear of consequence nor any kind of coercion should ever be used to secure uniformity of thought in the church. People should express their problems and opinions and be unafraid to think without fear of ill consequences. We must preserve freedom of the mind in the church and resist all efforts to suppress it (emphasis added)."