Publicans and Sinners

It has been quite some time since I have fired up this blog, but stay tuned!  I have accumulated quite a list of topics and essays that I hope to share in the coming weeks and months.  Unfortunately, this subject is not one that I had planned to write about.

A couple of weeks ago I learned about a young man in my former LDS stake (the Austin, Texas Stake) who has been summoned for a disciplinary council.  Kyle went to his singles ward twice when he moved to Austin in 2012.  Two years later his bishop, whom he had not met previously, texted him asking him to come in for an interview.  In Kyle’s words, this is what followed:

“He asked me why I wasn’t coming to church, I told him it was difficult going to church as a gay man, and he asked if I had broken covenants. I told him I had (I’ve been dating my boyfriend for 2 years) and he started talking about a disciplinary council. This was all within 10 or 15 minutes of meeting him.  I met with that bishop twice for a total of 1 hour, and I met with the stake president once for 30 minutes. That’s all the contact they’ve had with me.”

I expect that this blog entry will be mostly read by a small community of my friends and family, most of whom are faithful members of the LDS Church. I do not wish to debate the validity of the Church’s views on homosexuality here.  All I will say on that subject is that it is anything but simple for Mormons, and current teachings require us to walk a very fine line when it comes to responding to these issues as they arise in our personal lives.

My hope is that other members of my faith can agree with me that disciplinary action is not a first step.  It is a last resort that cannot be properly exercised unless all other efforts to help someone have been made.  Unfortunately, I do not believe this to be the case with Kyle.

I have written the following email to my friends in the Austin Stake presidency and high council.  Kyle’s disciplinary council is scheduled to occur this Sunday, May 31.  The question of justice and mercy is a vexing one.  My belief is that when in doubt, we should err on the side of mercy.  Email below.

Dear friends,

I am writing you this email after having recently learned about the pending disciplinary council to be held for Kyle [______].  Kyle is openly gay, and has not attended church for some time.

As I have struggled to find the words to write, my mind keeps returning to the following scripture from the fifth chapter of Luke.  The scripture recounts a moment when Jesus was challenged for his association with publicans and sinners.

“And Jesus answering said unto them, They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick.  I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

I have sometimes heard it said at Church that the atonement of Christ is beyond our mortal comprehension. In some ways, it certainly is when we ponder its infinite power.  However, the manner in which the atonement works in our lives is no secret:

“For behold, my beloved bretheren, I say unto you that the Lord God worketh not in darkness.  He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. . . .”  2 Ne. 26:23-24.

The atonement was not a work of darkness.  His infinite power is the simple power of perfect love, and may be comprehended by anyone who has felt love.  The Savior’s love draws us to Him.

But the thing about love is that it must be expressed. Indeed, like faith, love does not exist where it is not expressed.  And to express love, we must know someone. We must spend time with them and make them a part of our lives.

Like everyone else, I have experienced moments of terrible darkness.  For me, these moments have come when I have felt that God was displeased with me and would not associate with me because of my sins. Imagine the light and warmth I felt when I came to understand that God really does love sinners.  He seeks their company.  He eats with them.  He stays at their homes.  As the “Son of Man,” he seeks to be counted among them.

I hope that you will consider other alternatives to excommunication for Kyle.  I hope you will instead consider inviting him to church as a member of the flock.  I hope you will consider taking the time to get to know him and associate with him.  I hope you will act in such a way that Kyle will feel “drawn” to you and the members of the [________] ward.  I hope your actions will reflect those of the Savior in Palestine, which caused the Pharisees and scribes to ask, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?

With love and regard,

Jeff

JN

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His Own Smiles

Last night my son went to bed upset.  As the oldest child and the only boy, he gets picked on by his mom and dad more than he should.  He also gets left out by his two younger sisters, who tend to be more interested in pretending to be puppies than in building with Legos.  The details are unimportant, but it was these circumstances that caused him to be so upset last night.

After I put the girls to bed, I returned to Jackson’s room, where I made a half-hearted attempt to cheer him up.  (Inwardly, I felt no sympathy for him since I felt he was being irrational—a common mistake of mine when responding to others’ problems.)  He would not shake off his own discontent, so I ended the ritual quite abruptly with a terse “goodnight” and left the room, hoping to teach him a silent lesson about “attitude”.

A few minutes later I had already settled into bed with a book, when Liz came in and asked how bedtime went.  Feeling a twinge of guilt, but not wanting to swallow my own pride, I told Liz that Jackson was still upset, and that he might like a visit from her.  Minutes later, Jackson entered my room with this peace offering (unsolicited by Liz):

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I’m still trying to dissect my emotions, but the feeling that seems to overshadow them all is pure awe.  Here, Jackson, a real person who feels stress, anxiety, hope, love, disappointment, and anger, just like me (I tend to forget this fact about my children), bravely set aside all of his frustrations with his own marginalized family situation, out of concern for my own emotional welfare.

I believe that parenthood is a sacred relationship that is designed to teach us about our relationship with our heavenly parents.  As I have cared for my children, I have felt that quiet assurance that my heavenly parents love me the same way I love my kids.   Frankly, while nevertheless special, I expected to have these experiences.  What I did not expect, however, is the converse experience of having that same humbling feeling at times when my child expresses his or her love for me, as Jackson did last night—yes, God loves me as I love my children, but God also loves me as my children love me.

Now this picture, drawn by a forlorn seven-year-old, 30 minutes past his bedtime with only a night light to aid him, means much more.  It represents the way God, a real person who feels marginalized by those He loves, whose sole desire is our acceptance, sets aside His own feelings of hurt, sadness, and frustration, to express His love for us notwithstanding our own callousness.

This humbling thought reminds me of some stanzas from a poem by William Blake:

Sweet babe in thy face,
Holy image I can trace.
Sweet babe once like thee,
Thy maker lay and wept for me,

Wept for me for thee for all,
When he was an infant small.
Thou his image ever see.
Heavenly face that smiles on thee,

Smiles on thee on me on all,
Who became an infant small,
Infant smiles are His own smiles,
Heaven & earth to peace beguiles.

JN

Dinosaurs and Domino Rally

Last week I eagerly digested everything I could find about a thought provoking debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, the curator of a creationist museum in Kentucky. (God bless both of these men for willingly submitting themselves to the criticism that will follow for months and years to come!) The premise of the debate is a simple one—could the Earth, and all of the living organisms that have ever lived on it, have existed only within the last 6,000 years, in accordance with the historical account of the Bible?

As a Mormon, this was my first real exposure to the evangelical doctrine of creationism, and I am completely fascinated! (Mormons by and large accept the account of the creation in Genesis as allegorical—even mythic, and have no problem with the science of evolution.) It was refreshing to watch a religious community other than the Mormons make their very best attempts to defend a position that the secular world views as nothing less than absurd.

The debate, and everything I have read about it since then, has led me to think about why we defend our beliefs so vehemently. Why is it so important that our children believe that our first parents ate spinach salads with dinosaurs at the Eden Country Club? Why is it so important that they believe that the Book of Mormon was translated using a purposefully crafted urim and thummim, as opposed to a peepstone in the bottom of a hat? I suspect that if all of us Mormons and evangelicals were honest with ourselves, we would accept that the answers to these questions are really quite trivial, even irrelevant, when it comes to the important questions. But, perhaps because it is human nature, we (I) tend to harbor an uneasy feeling that these outlying questions are the first dominoes in a really, really important game of Domino Rally that absolutely must not ever, ever, ever come crashing down. In other words, we tend to have this fear that if what we always believed about the creation or the translation of the BOM is wrong, then we must also call into question the existence of God himself or at least our understanding of God. And this simply cannot happen.

It is not my intention to (re)debate the veracity of creationism here. I think it’s perfectly fine to believe in something that from a secular view is unbelievable. After all, any believer must ultimately accept that with God all things are possible. But I think it is very important for us to continually evaluate whether our beliefs are worth the energy it takes to believe in them (much less defend them). Is believing that the world was created by God in six days important to my understanding of God and my relationship with Him? If the answer points more toward no than toward yes, perhaps I can be satisfied with simply hoping that it is true or expecting it to be true, knowing that it is not a dealbreaker either way.

As you can imagine, this belief-assessment test is quite helpful as a Mormon.  Most of the time, these inquiries lead to my taking a step or two back.  Instead of insiting that God created the Earth in just six 24-hour days, I can preserve my belief system by settling with a simple belief that God is the creator of all things, which requires no evidence other than a sunset or a perfect day of fishing on the Provo River.   Basically, this process helps me to identify which dominoes must remain a part of the Domino Rally game, and which ones I can throw back into the box. It frees me to move on and redirect my focus toward the really important questions.

Some may call this my own negotiated version of cognitive dissonance, but I disagree.  I have found that by changing the lens and broadening my focus, I get a much clearer picture of the truth, as opposed to trying to make sense of each pixel in a photograph, one at a time.  Take, for example, Wordsworth’s popular description of the origin of the human spirit:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

I love these stanzas, notwithstanding their overuse in high school English and Mormon Sunday School classes. As the lines above demonstrate, Wordsworth was a content-focused poet who emphasized the importance of the message of a poem over adherence to formalistic rules. His effective synthesis of a simple truth is the product of his careful “Goldilocks” focus—not too close, but not too far. To summarize it more crudely, the human spirit came from God and existed before birth and will continue after death. Perhaps to say anything more or less than this only takes away from the truth.

It is also important to point out that, at least for me, the truths that are really worth knowing tend to lack a sufficient amount of evidence to make them undeniably true (i.e., everyone must accept it). This creates a space where faith and doubt each make their case, like electrons constantly orbiting the nucleus of an atom. Their mere presence proves the existence of some truth—in fact, faith and doubt are in many ways a physical part of the truth. But their constant motion makes it difficult or impossible to identify the truth precisely.  The presence of doubt essentially forces us to maintain that wide focus, as if God were directing us toward the most meaningful viewpoint.  Yes, ironically, it requires faith to throw those little pixel-dominoes back into the box, but the idea that God is guiding my spiritual evolution gives me courage.

We tend to reject the truth (or at least become dissatisfied with it) because we want the factory tour. We want to fill in the gaps by unnecessarily adding a dangerous number of dominoes to our Domino Rally game. Like the math teacher, we want God to show his work. I look forward to seeing that worksheet someday. But for purposes of living a worthwhile life here on earth, from day to day and from moment to moment, I suspect that it would just be a distraction.

JN