Sunday, December 24, 2017

Repentance / Forgiveness

A key moment in my spiritual journey came during a sacrament meeting talk in my ward given by a visiting high councilman. It was probably the second or third Sunday attending my LDS ward after about 19 years away from the Church. I had returned in response to a prompting from the Spirit, but I was still feeling very conflicted about my relationship with the Church.

The high councilman gave a talk on forgiveness, and by the end of the talk, tears were streaming down my face. The Spirit had not only testified of the truthfulness of what he was saying, but had also told me the specifics of how I needed to apply the principles of his talk in my life. I needed to forgive the Church.

In the years leading up to my near suicide in 1986 I was harmed by teachings about homosexuality that have since been recognized as wrong and have been disavowed by Church leaders. I was harmed by Church leaders who had counseled me and and disciplined me without knowledge. I was harmed by family and friends who didn't stand by me, some who had turned against me, when they should have listened to me and tried to understand. As a result of the harm I experienced, but for the grace of God, I might not have survived to tell this story. Many haven't survived the harm. And no one in a position of authority in the Church has ever formally acknowledged the harm, much less apologized for it.

The idea that I could forgive the Church was revolutionary for me. Part of the revelation was my realization that forgiveness was much more about the one doing the forgiving than it was about the one being forgiven. Forgiving would allow me to become whole. It allowed me to let go of a burden of anger I had bowed under for far too long. It also opened up possibilities of receiving and being transformed by forgiveness for the wrongs I had committed in my life. (Forgiveness is a two-way street: Until I could forgive, it would be impossible for me to truly believe there were situations where I might need to be forgiven or that forgiveness of my sins might be possible.) I didn't need to wait for a formal apology to benefit from the gift of forgiveness. The tears flowing down my face in that Sacrament meeting were tears of relief and joy. I let that burden go. I left it at the Savior's feet and I have never looked back.

What I also realized in that moment, thanks to the teaching power of the Holy Spirit, is that forgiveness is an ever-flowing fountain. I realized that I could forgive not only past transgressions, but all future ones as well. I could choose never to take offense at wrong, but instead to focus on creating a zone of understanding and connection. I trusted that future knowledge would create future repentance and repentance could heal every harm, past, present and future. That realization has transformed my whole life.

Some Church members reading this might be offended at the notion that the Church is something that could ever need forgiveness from anyone. I guess there are different ways of defining "the Church." If we look at the Church as the teaching and practice of the pure and unsoiled Gospel of Jesus Christ, then of course the Church could never be "forgiven." The pure Gospel is itself a call to repentance (and forgiveness). But if the Church is also its mortal, imperfect members and leaders feeling their way forward the best they can, then forgiveness will of necessity be part of the path of becoming a Zion people.

In this Christmas season I ask forgiveness of some of my fellow LGBT Mormons and ex-Mormons. Many have felt invalidated by me. I don't always talk about every aspect of my spiritual journey, including the part of my spiritual journey that included a recognition of wrongs committed in the name of Christ and under the authority of the priesthood that might require a process of repentance and forgiveness. Your anger is not only understandable, but maybe even righteous. The harm and your need for healing deserve recognition.

Never let any aspect of my story be used to make you feel like you are the ones somehow in the wrong. In the matter of the ways in which a combination of bad science and bad doctrine have led to misunderstanding and mistreatment, sometimes by those who were most under an obligation to try to listen and understand, there's no excuse.

And you are entitled to forgive when you are ready, when your path of healing from the trauma you have experienced allows it. You are not wrong and I somehow right in this matter. Our paths are individual and unique and equally God-led toward ends that God only knows.

I am grateful for my many, many friends in the Church who have experienced a bright light coming on in the darkness around LGBT issues, shining understanding on sins of commission and sins of omission. Many of you have conscientiously began to work, in both open as well as quiet, behind-the-scenes ways to right wrongs and heal hurts. Please keep up the good work.

In this season when so many hearts in the world pray for peace, I add my prayers to theirs, and I pray for the gift of forgiveness that makes peace possible.

In Jesus' holy name, Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

No Need of Repentance

There's a turn of phrase that Jesus uses in the Gospels that fascinates me. On numerous occasions, Jesus refers to "persons which need no repentance" (for instance, Luke 15:7). Whenever Jesus is quoted as saying this -- and he does in numerous contexts throughout the Gospels -- it is always to contrast such people with repentant sinners. It took a while for this to sink in, but I've gradually realized that Jesus is teaching through irony whenever he uses this phrase. Of course there is no such thing as a person who has "no need of repentance." Of course plenty of people both then and now think they have no need of repentance. And until we get that we do, the whole import of these teachings will be lost on us.

Consider, for instance, a reading of the parable of the prodigal son that has become popular in Mormon circles. I can't help but think that many Mormons, when they read this parable, just can't help but identify with the Elder Brother. They think of themselves as the righteous faithful who have labored in the heat of the day and deserve all that the Father hath because they've earned it. And so they've read this parable in a way that actually completely undermines it by suggesting that of course the Father was happy to see his wayward son return, and so threw a nice party for him, but the prodigal son still has no inheritance any more. Nope, he spent it on prostitutes and wild living. It's gone now, and the Elder Brother is the real winner in this story and still gets "all that the father hath."

The whole thrust of Jesus' teaching was to push us to see the ways in which we are ALL the prodigal son. The account of this parable in Luke is set in a context of Jesus condemning pride and self-righteousness, all of which are the primary obstacle preventing us from seeing our need to repent. In the story of the prodigal son (we'll call him P.S. for short), P.S. acquires two qualities that Jesus presents as essential for salvation: humility ("I am no more worthy") and a desire to serve ("make me as one of thy hired servants"). The Elder Brother (or E.B. for short) has the latter quality of a desire to serve, but is utterly lacking in the former quality of humility. He is judgmental and has no compassion for his little brother. E.B.'s lack of humility actually reveals the one quality he does have as self-serving. And that grasping and lack of humility block him from entering into the Kingdom! In many of Jesus' parables, the coming Kingdom of Heaven is likened to a great feast. And Jesus says of E.B.: "He was angry and would NOT GO IN." The Father has to plead with him to enter, to remind him of the qualities that would allow him too to be saved: compassion, forgiveness and humility.

Many of us live in a religious culture marked by privilege. In that cultural context we prefer to think of ourselves as always good, always righteous. But I am convinced that failure is essential to growth. Did P.S. screw up? Heck yeah. But lessons learned the hard way are usually the most indelible ones. And what P.S. became as a result of those hard lessons is what we all need to become, regardless of the specifics of the path by which we become, namely, humble, compassionate, and forgiving. Those are the qualities that will unlock the Kingdom to us.