Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Testimony: Take It or Leave It

Since my last post, I’ve been able to connect with each member of my “Top 10 Support Corp”. This group consists of my 7 closest friends and 3 family members who would do just about anything for me (and I for them). I rely on each member of this decuplet in different ways. Some of them are active in the LDS church while others are ex-Mormons or nonmembers. Some are straight and some are gay. I talk to some of them about relationships and dating while I talk to others about the church and my faith.

As blessed as I am to have the support of this posse, I’ve realized in some of my recent conversations with them that some don’t understand or agree with the way I’m living my life. It made me cast a wider net and consider how I’m being perceived by others in my life. I’m not heavily controlled by how I’m perceived like I used to be. But it’s been a fun exercise in self-reflection. I’d break my circle of influence down to the following 4 groups:

·         Active LDS who want me to go back to church and marry a woman or agree to celibacy and loneliness. After all, they know that I can have the same blessings that they have and be just as happy as they are by choosing the same things they’ve chosen.
·         Active LDS who believe in marriage equality and want me to find a great guy and find happiness by building a life with him. They get that I’m a good person who means no harm to the church but still wants connection with the church. They also get that I’m finally ready to pursue a relationship with another man after years of isolation and suppression.
·         Ex-Mormons/Nonmembers who understand my faith transition quite well and think I’m approaching things in a healthy way and that I’m progressing at a good pace. Some even understand the balance and complexity of exploring one’s sexuality while going through a faith transition.
·         Ex-Mormons/Nonmembers who understand part of what I’m going through but don’t see how I could still want anything to do with the church. You’re in or you’re out, it’s black and white. Crap or get off the pot. Choose a side!

I should quickly point out that I love my Support Corp dearly and I benefit greatly through my association with each of them. They each challenge me to be a better version of myself, even if some of the advice and counsel varies quite a bit from person to person. I welcome it all and truly consider what each of them has to say. There’s a reason I’ve selected them as my nearest and dearest. But it does make me think “wow, perhaps the people who I’m meant to be the closest to in my life don’t fully get me”. I guess that’s something we all experience. We can all feel that way, I’m sure.

A couple of days ago, I had lunch with a good friend who is a bit of a mentor to me in a professional capacity. She gave me some feedback that was eye-opening. I’ll paraphrase what she said:

“Nate, the subtext of what I often hear you say is how your support system is this or that. What if you just did what your heart wants to do, whether you have a support system or not? I know there are things that you want to accomplish, things you are longing to achieve, but you make it conditional on whether you have the support system in place or not. Just do you regardless.”

With that setup, I’d like to step out on my own and open up without considering what anyone else has to say or think. I’d like to share my testimony, topic by topic. I’d like to bear it and “bare” it, nothing to hide. I share my testimony for the following reasons:

·         I’d like my LDS friends and family to see that we still have many beliefs in common. I’d rather focus on where we agree than on where we disagree. I’d rather have them feel happiness about the beliefs we share instead of sadness and fear because they believe that I’m doomed or that I’ve lost my way. Maybe this will help them, maybe it won’t.
·         I’d like for the gay community who follows my blog to try to understand why I still want something to do with the LDS church. I respect and totally understand the decision of many LGBT friends, acquaintances and allies to fully leave the church and never look back. My continued desire to be somewhat connected to the LDS church is complicated and in no way is it meant to hurt or offend anyone. I’m fully aware of the pain you feel and I have shared many of those same experiences. I also understand that sometimes, it’s just general disinterest or disagreement that leads people away from the church. But please try and understand that my journey looks different. We’re gay and we are/were members of the LDS church. Past that, we’re probably very different from each other. Can we see the beauty of that?

·         I’d like for my Ex-Mormon and nonmember friends to try and understand why I embrace the grey and why I can’t live my life in black and white. I respect and even admire the ways in which many of you have led your lives since leaving the church, but I can’t make the same type of separation and feel the same level of peace and happiness you’ve experienced. I get that some of you may feel frustration toward me for the way I express myself or the balancing act I’m maintaining. I can only say I’m doing the best I can, for me.

·         Most importantly, I’d like for other LGBT members of the LDS church to feel comforted and see that there are many options under the gay-Mormon umbrella.

Now then…my testimony.
MY testimony.
Shared willingly.
Subject to criticism and disapproval from either side.
I can’t make everyone happy by what I share.
But it’s mine and I cherish it.
It matters to me.
I hope that many of you draw strength and understanding from it.

Heavenly Father
I’ve always believed in God. I can’t imagine living my life without that belief. I believe we are created in His image. I believe He loves us more than we understand. I believe that we knew Him before we came to earth. I believe that we can return to Him through Jesus Christ.

I don’t attend church very often (for reasons I’ve previously shared on this blog), but I feel God’s love all of the time. I feel reassurance and peace. I believe in a loving and merciful God. I believe He has a plan and knows what He’s doing. I believe He loves ALL of His children and has all of them in mind.

That said, I have had some incredibly interesting conversations with agnostic or atheist friends. I think that some people who believe in God can get scared of or turn their noses up at atheists. Maybe they fear they’ll lose their faith if they associate with nonbelievers. The atheists I associate with are harmless, intelligent, interesting and open to many possibilities. I understand them in some ways. After all, in this mortal experience, I’ve never seen or talked with God. I simply believe in Him. But my belief is strong and I feel peace having that belief.

I just hope we don’t needlessly condemn atheists and nonbelievers. They’re capable of doing great things and having hearts of gold. Just because they can’t testify that they know there is a God does not make them bad people. I believe that God Himself would like His children to believe in Him, but I don’t think that He’s such a narcissist that He can’t deal with millions of nonbelievers. I think He is patient and kind and that He can totally understand why many don’t believe in Him. I think He has some tricks up His sleeve to see to their salvation and their fuller understanding according to His timetable and will.

Jesus Christ
I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe Him to be the Redeemer of the world. I have studied His life and believe Him to be more than just a prophet or historical figure. I believe that through His death and resurrection, I can overcome death. I believe that through His atonement, I can be forgiven of my sins. I believe in His teachings to love each other.

I have come to love Him without ever having met Him or talked to Him, at least, not here on earth. Some would dismiss this as a “Santa Claus” kind of love or hope, but I have felt peace too many times in my life to doubt. I want to be like Him and treat other people as He would. I hope that even this blog is accomplishing that desire in small and simple ways.

I believe that whether we are active in the LDS church or not, we are all hopeless without a Savior. Let’s say the cost of getting into “heaven” and returning to God’s presence is $100. Some of us may be able to pay $30. Others of us may only be able to pay 30 cents. Either way, we need Jesus Christ to pay the difference. I don’t think He cares whether that difference is $70 or $99.70. We just need to accept Him and allow Him to pay the difference. How we accept Him is a little more involved and I won’t get into it here. But I believe with all of my heart that I can return to Heavenly Father because of Jesus Christ.

My own faith and my own works put me in a place where I can lay claim to what He offers, but ultimately, my own righteousness does not save me. It is the grace and works of a willing Savior that will permit me to return to a loving Heavenly Father. We could get into justification and sanctification and all that, but suffice it to say that this is one area I feel passionate about. Because of Jesus Christ, I can return to Heavenly Father.

The Plan of Salvation
As a missionary, I taught this plan in many homes across England and Wales. However, I always felt a sense of sadness when I taught it. After all, I knew I was gay and I would often think “sounds like a great plan, I just wish it included me.” Can you imagine teaching discussion after discussion and feeling that way?

My personal understanding of the Plan of Happiness (as it seems to be referred to these days) has changed since then. I think God has thought of EVERYTHING. I don’t think the overall plan is just a cute little diagram that we draw on a chalkboard or put together with laminated pictures. I believe that it’s MUCH more involved than that. I believe a loving Heavenly Father has pulled out ALL of the stops and thought of everyone. Why would He send His children away and only have the faithful LDS return to Him?

As His son, I believe that He knows me very well and that He accepts that I’m gay. After all, I received a blessing from a bishop that told me in no uncertain terms that I agreed to it before I came to earth. It was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. I don’t think my purpose here on earth is to overcome or cure my “gayness”. I believe my purpose is to remind people that He is in charge and that He has provided us the ultimate gift: a willing, able Savior who makes it possible for ALL of God’s children to return to Him.

The Book of Mormon
Is it a bunch of bullcrap or is it a sacred record? Does science and archaeology prove or disprove the actuality of these events happening? My response will be unacceptable to some. Honestly, I go by how I feel when I read it. Sure, I don’t get why Nephi had to kill Laban when murder is a bad thing. I’m very confused by the actual translation process Joseph Smith employed versus the depiction I was taught growing up in the church. I struggle with timelines and locations and other descriptions that have made me skeptical at times.

At the end of the day, I’ve read it many times and I feel closer to God by having done so. I have developed a stronger love of Jesus Christ by studying and teaching from the Book of Mormon. The account of His visit to ancient America is incredibly moving to me. I’ve imagined being there many times, feeling what those people felt when they pleaded with Him not to leave. I don’t know for a fact that the Book of Mormon is true, but I hope that it is. Through my own experiences and my own study, I believe that the Book of Mormon can bring people closer to Jesus Christ.

Admittedly, I haven’t read it for a few years. I’m open to reading it again. While I don’t think it’s going to cure me of my sexuality or change my desire to build a life with a sweet man, I DO think I can continue to learn about and feel increased love towards Jesus Christ. Because of that, I refuse to dismiss it as bull. I understand why others do, but I’m not willing to do that.

Joseph Smith
This one is really tough. There are so many different opinions, accounts and records and troubling realizations as to who he was. I grew up having a deep love for him. I felt such peace and strong conviction when I’d sing “Praise to the Man” growing up. I can understand (through my own study) how an apostasy occurred and how a restoration was necessary. I believe in the idea of a restored church and modern-day revelation.

I have cherished memories of visiting the upstairs room in the Smith log house and the kitchen in the Smith frame house. I’ve been to the Sacred Grove more than once. I was fascinated by stories I heard at the Grandin building where the Book of Mormon was first printed. Some of the most meaningful, spiritual experiences I’ve had in my life were in notable places from Joseph’s life: Carthage, Liberty Jail, doing a session at the Nauvoo temple, visiting the Kirtland temple, Whitney Store and School of Prophets where many revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants were received. Adam-ondi-Ahman, Far West, Jackson County, I’ve done it all.

Here is the reason I can’t let go of my hope in Joseph Smith: In almost every single one of those locations, I felt something powerful and intense. Something I don't usually feel and something that was more than just a biological reaction. Because of these feelings, I am strongly convinced and hope with all of my heart that Joseph Smith was a man of God. I believe that he was foreordained and that he will play a prominent role hereafter in representing our dispensation.

Some of you will just cringe or become angry by this declaration. I can’t say that I know without a doubt that he was a prophet of God. But I will stand by the experiences I’ve had as a student of his life and say, without apology, that I find him to be fascinating, flawed, and faithful. I’m aware of his many wives, some of them teenagers. One only needs to truly dig into church history to become confused and frustrated by things that have come up about him. Many will dismiss Joseph Smith as a fraud, and I get why. But I can’t do that.

Temples and Garments
Receiving my endowment from the temple was a step to getting my mission call. I have great memories of the first few times I went to the temple. My late father was somewhat estranged to me growing up. We became quite close around the time I left for my mission. He was my temple escort and I have warm memories of sitting by him and sharing that experience with him.

Without going into a lot of detail, I will also say that seeing my mom and dad get re-sealed was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I felt something that I don’t usually feel. I could’ve sworn the ceiling was going to open up and angels were going to appear. Don’t roll your eyes, cynics. It really was an amazing experience for me and for my family.

These days, I feel some sadness when it comes to the temple. I’m open to the idea of temple work. I’m open to the idea that there are steps God’s children need to take before returning to His presence. That idea is not ridiculous to me. I find some of the symbolism and ordinances to be quite beautiful. But I also feel that I made covenants in the temple when I was trying to be who everyone else wanted me to be. I was young and my heart wanted so badly to get out on my mission. I would deal with the gay thing later and hope that it just went away through faithful service.

I don’t wear garments anymore. I’ve had people in my life become upset and express their judgment or major concern as they’ve noticed this change. I even wore Hanes white t-shirts for a while under my clothes so that I wouldn’t upset anyone. It was a very painful decision that I made over a period of time. I just felt extreme sadness when I’d wear them. So I stopped.

Some will find fault with that decision. Others will understand. I guess I should just share that I would never disrespect what goes on in temples. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but in theory, I think much of it is beautiful. I’m just not sure it includes me since I’m a gay man who has every intention of finding love and building a life with another man.

I feel like the temple is like a Disneyland fairytale to most members of the church. Now let me explain before you get upset. My straight friends in the church get to date whomever they want and they get to be sealed with a promise that their union will last forever. Not only that, but children who come from that union will always belong to an eternal family unit. How beautiful is that? I want that! What an incentive to participate and do the things that are necessary to ensure that those promised blessing are realized. Sign me up! I’d get all of my home teaching done. I’d hold 3 callings. I’d faithfully attend church and attend the temple at least twice a month. Oh wait, I’m gay. I don’t get that same privilege. Well, unless I settle for a quality of life that is nowhere near what others are experiencing.

I find that most of the people in my life who expect me to marry a woman or to remain alone wouldn’t be willing to consider that same sentence or existence in their own lives. Or, if they would, could they have lasted as long as I have? Some could last longer and be stronger and prove more faithful, perhaps. But I will always take comfort in the uniqueness of my background, my upbringing, and my strengths and my weaknesses. What someone else does with a similar set of challenges is none of my business because the details are different, and therefore, the expectation differs as well. I’m done comparing myself to other people in this harmful way.

I guess that sums up my feelings about temples. I’ll just add that one of my favorite Primary songs growing up was “I Love to See the Temple”. I was one of the most enthusiastic youths ever to go and perform baptisms for the dead. I spent a portion of my life visiting as many temples in the U.S. as I could. Now, I just feel a lot of sadness and I can feel like the temple experience isn’t one that’s offered to me. All because I’m gay and won’t agree to a life of loneliness anymore.

I miss attending the temple. I feel intense sorrow for not being able to keep some of the covenants I made when I was younger. We’ll see what happens in the next 20-30 years. Until then, I’ll admire the temples from outside of their walls and remember the good experiences I had when I was worthy.

Worthiness is a whole other topic. For now, I'll just say that I try to live a life that is positive and about doing good. I can't think of anything that I do that is so grievous or that causes others harm other than being gay and finally being open to date men (in my late 30's).

Missionary Work
I always wanted to go on a mission. Yes, I may have felt some pressure to go. Not necessarily by my family or parents. Some of us served missions, some of us didn’t. I felt pressure by the LDS community as a whole to go. Luckily, it was an experience I always wanted to have.

Because I kissed a boy when I was 18, I ended up having to wait until I was 21 to turn in my mission papers (it was the 90’s). I was 22 when I finally started my mission. That period of my life was extremely difficult. I faced ridiculous amounts of questions, judgment and speculation as to why I wasn’t on a mission yet. It was the second-most painful period of my life.

Eventually, I got to go and totally enjoyed the experience. I’m still in touch with several friends from England and Wales and well as a number of mission companions and cohorts I served with. I had many great experiences and will always look back on my mission with gratitude.

However, I’ll admit that I don’t understand how or why young men and women are prepared or qualified to tell people to live their lives differently. I get that Jesus Himself commanded His disciples to go out into the world and teach all nations. I’m all for any efforts to bring people to a knowledge of a Savior and some of the other great things I taught as a missionary. I just feel bad about some of the judgments and direction I gave to people when I had no life experience of my own to do so.

I’ll admit that this is one of those areas where I don’t understand God’s ways. If missionary work truly comes from Him, then there must be a reason He has young people serve in this capacity. Sure, I have theories and ideas as to why. I think that serving a mission can set up a young man or woman to be productive and effective in a number of ways that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. I just remember telling gay people they couldn’t be gay or telling baptized people that their baptisms didn’t count because it wasn’t in our church. I see now how that must’ve felt to them at the time. Also, there are questions that truly deserve to be answered with something more than “I know it’s true, just pray about it.” I know the idea is that the Spirit does the teaching and touching of hearts while the missionary is just an instrument. Even so, I have mixed feelings about some of the things I taught back then.

Patriarchal Blessings
This is another painful area for me. On one hand, my blessing says that I knew the Lord well before I came to earth. To me, that means that I walked and talked with Him. Wow! Can you imagine? I’m sure if I knew Him well, then many of us knew Him well. I’m not that special. But still, that always felt so good to think that little ole Nate was a contemporary of Jesus. I won’t share more than that on the plus side except to say that some of my blessing brings me great comfort because of what is promised.

But then there’s the promise that I’ll meet a young lady and be sealed and we’ll have kids. I have struggled with this portion of my blessing ever since I first received it as a 17 year old. You’ll just have to trust me that I’ve tried and tried to make it happen. After all, patriarchal blessings are not guarantees of what will happen. They’re conditioned upon our faithfulness. I just don’t see how this particular promise could ever be fulfilled despite being devoted and faithful for so long.

“Well Nate, maybe it’s not meant for this lifetime.” But, aren’t these kinds of blessings given as a guide for this mortal experience? And why does everyone else get what was promised to them? Other people actually WANT what was promised to them. I’ve prayed and prayed to WANT marriage with a woman. I’ve taken a variety of actions to make this happen. In the end, I have doubts about my patriarchal blessing. I have questioned its validity at times. But I have also felt tremendous peace as I’ve reviewed other parts of it throughout my adult life.

In the end, I just keep the parts of my blessing that bring me comfort in my heart. The painful parts of it feel like a tease or a cruel joke at times. But I don’t totally discount the blessing altogether.

Recent Church Policy Changes
Nothing has hurt me more as a gay member of the church than being labeled in the official church handbook as an “Apostate” and then having apostles state that we don’t believe in labels and that “we are not defined by sexual behavior”. Then why dismiss me so coldly as an apostate when I’ve spent my life trying to serve and be like Jesus? Why prevent my someday kids from being baptized when I have a goal of raising them with a love of Jesus?

I could on and on here. Suffice it to say that I do everything I can to give the Brethren the benefit of the doubt. I try to consider what they were trying to say instead of what was actually said that was offensive. I try to recognize these men as “special witnesses of Christ” and hold their callings with respect and admiration. I try to separate what is actual revelation from what is personal opinion or bias. But one by one, I hear some of them say certain things that are becoming increasingly heart breaking. I can’t say that I would hear Jesus Himself say some of the same things.

General Conference is approaching. I remember a time when I’d look forward to it and watch every session eagerly. I still try to watch, but while some of you can’t wait to be nourished by the good word of God, I’ve come to dread it in some ways. Not all of it. I’m capable of feeling the spirit through the music and many of the messages that are given. I like ideas on how to improve and be a better person. But then it happens every single time: Something is said that crushes my spirit for the next few weeks or months and I wonder why I keep setting myself up to be hurt again.

I can’t make everyone happy. I’m going to focus less on that impossible, unattainable notion. I’m going to make myself happy and, at the same time, do it in a way that pleases God. I will fall short on both counts at times, but that makes me no different than any of you.

I wouldn’t be happy leaving the church completely. I wouldn’t be happy agreeing to a life of total loneliness or marriage with a woman. I have a different hand of cards and I’m playing them in the best way I can. I get frustrated when others try to play my hand for me.

I have a clear conscience before the Lord and I feel like I’m in good standing with the way I live my life. I may have friends and family members that either don’t approve or fully agree with the way I’m approaching things. But I hope that sharing what I’ve presented helps. If it doesn’t, the problem lies with them, not with me. It took me years to realize that.

My testimony counts. It matters. I may not be able or willing to proclaim “I know!” What I’ve shared wasn’t spoken from a pulpit in a church meeting. I may be struggling in some ways and be mighty in other ways. All things considered, I’m still willing to share it. I can still give an earnest “I hope” and “I believe” on many things. By the way, each and every one of the church’s Articles of Faith begins with “We believe”. I think Heavenly Father accepts that. I know I finally do.

I could spend time approving or disapproving of how various people in my life are living their lives. There are members of the church who attend every week who I observe as some of the saddest or most depressed people I know. There are other members of the church who attend faithfully and seem to get it. They have joy and a light about them and they are able to maintain a really healthy balance. There are gay guys I’ve met who seem extremely happy without any kind of affiliation with the church. I didn’t think that level of happiness was possible outside of the church, but they’ve shown me otherwise. There are other gay guys who place importance on ridiculous things and whom I would never want to emulate. There are ex-Mo’s who have found a way to feel peace with the church being nothing but a distant memory. There are other ex-Mo’s who seem to be more conflicted than I’ve ever been.

Through it all, I want to receive all of them willingly and readily. I hope they can do the same for me. But even if they can’t, I will move forward. That’s something I’d like all of my readers to consider. If your support system shows up for you, how will that help you achieve your personal goals? When your support system doesn’t show up for you in the ways you’d like, or they don't agree with you on every point, how will you keep your head held high and focus on personal progress?

I’m blessed to have the support of many in my life. I try to give a lot of love and I am lucky to receive a lot of love. But as much as that love is appreciated and even needed at times, I’m more and more prepared to rely less on that support and rely more on myself and on a God who loves me dearly.