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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Last week I stumbled on a couple of Ask Me Anything threads that Lindsay Hansen Park did on Reddit last year and back in 2015. Lindsay is the executive director of Sunstone, a sometime poster at Feminist Mormon Housewives and the creator of the Year of Polygamy podcast. The AMA threads (here and here, in case you’re curious) were really fascinating. Reading what Lindsay had to say about expanding the definition of what it means to be Mormon and claiming a Mormon identity on her own terms really resonated with me, especially in light of the things I have been thinking and writing about for the past couple of weeks. Really compelling stuff that hit me in an unexpectedly close way.

So I decided to give the Year of Polygamy podcast a try. One of the facets about claiming a Mormon identity for me is taking ownership of all of what Mormonism means, including the ugly, dark and strange parts. For me, Mormonism isn’t just like a club I belonged to that I can walk out of and wash my hands of it. I was born into a Mormon family, was raised in the church, graduated seminary, served a mission, and married in the temple. Mormonism formed me in a deep way that I can’t just minimize or ignore. I decided that meant finding out more about Mormonism’s relationship (past and present) with polygamy.

In an one of the early podcast episodes, Lindsay encourages her (mostly Mormon or Mormon-adjacent) audience to look into their family history and see how much polygamy is there. That sounded interesting to me, so when I got home from work that night, I hopped onto the internet and started poking around on FamilySearch to see what I could find. Turns out it’s not actually that hard to figure out–there’s not a big scarlet P on the polygamists, but if you look for male ancestors in the second half of the 19th century and pay attention to how many marriages they had, the timing of those marriages, and the timing of children from those marriages, you can read the story between the lines. And, as it turns out, HOLY SHIT MY FAMILY TREE TURNS OUT TO BE JUST RIDDLED WITH POLYGAMISTS.

Virtually every ancestor on my maternal grandfather’s line since 1840 has been a polygamist or a descendant of polygamists. That’s crazy.

I mean, this should not have been a revelation for me. I know I have pioneer ancestors, which means I have plenty of ancestors in the right time, place and religion. But it’s not like my family brags about (or even ever talks about) their polygamist history. So for me, growing up, polygamy was a weird, embarrassing thing my church used to do a long time ago but stopped doing a long time ago and it’s tricky because it’s hard to understand why but it’s all sort of abstract and hypothetical or dry and historical.

But nope. It’s not really like that at all, is it? These people were my flesh and blood. Their DNA is swimming in mine. The experiences of these people (men, women, their children) living in and surviving polygamy shaped and formed my family and ultimately shaped and formed me in ways that are not obvious but are nevertheless there.

I’m not 100% sure how to unpack this all, but it just struck a nerve pretty deeply in a really raw, visceral way. Polygamy isn’t just some weird thing that the church I used to go to did back in the 1800’s. Polygamy turns out to be part of who I am–I am the descendant of sister wives and their children. It’s not someone else’s history; it’s mine. It’s pretty heavy.

Also, for the record, the Year of Polygamy podcast is pretty great and you should listen to it, especially if you are Mormon or Mormon-adjacent.

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As I indicated in a post last week, I have this whole list of things I am struggling with spiritually right now, and the second item on the list says SATISFACTION/SPIRITUALITY. I don’t know if I have as much to say about this one as I do about the last, even though in many ways it is bigger. And again, it’s more of a cluster of interrelated issues (that are themselves related to other things on the list) than one discrete one. And it’s a hard one to talk about because it’s vague, abstract, and super personal.

One of the facets of this problem is trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that I hunger for God. I desperately want to know God and be known by God, to experience God’s presence and have that hunger somehow be satisfied in God.

The problem is that God never satisfies, and I don’t know what to do about that.

I can sometimes get little tastes of God’s presence and momentary mild satisfaction in God, but never in the deep, complete sense that I desperately long for. And I only get any of that when I engage in some kind of dedicated spiritual practice. God never calls me; I always have to call God. And even when I call God, never fully satisfies.

Really, it would be easy to just not care about God. That’s what a lot of people do. They’re not worried about it, it doesn’t interest them, so God presence or distance is just irrelevant. God is not a thing they have in their life and they don’t miss God or sense a lack. That would work great for me, except I sense the lack. I have this hunger, and it wants to be satisfied. I want God. I can’t just, not. So here I am.

I have yet to find an approach to spirituality, prayer, spiritual practice, rule of life, or “relationship with Jesus Christ” that leads reliably to any kind of satisfaction in God. Granted, I have never been able to do any of that stuff very reliably or consistently, but that’s one of the relevant variables, isn’t it? A pathway that leads to God that I am unable to walk may as well be a pathway that doesn’t lead to God at all.

This drifts into a second facet, which is that I consistently find that, the darker things are for me (whether it’s a matter of depression, anxiety, or just terrible shit happening), the less I am able to pursue God through spiritual practice. Really, it’s more extreme than that: I am only able to bring myself to pursue God through sustained spiritual practice, but I am only able to engage in sustained spiritual practice when I am in a good place, things are going well, and I am generally emotionally and spiritually healthy. When things are dark, I can’t. And that means that when I need God the most, God is the least there for me.

I mean, on the one hand, I could just totally blame myself. I’m not doing a good enough job of connecting with God, so how should I expect God to be there for me? But I need God to have enough grace for me to be there when I’m unable to reach out for him. I need God to call me when I’m unable to call him. If my relationship with God is solely dependent on my ability to consistently maintain it, then I’m basically screwed. Also, if that’s the case, then God is an asshole, because that’s not how healthy relationships work.

Many very lovely people have recommended all kinds of approaches and spiritual practices to me as ways to connect to God, but most of them are non-starters. I have had some success (during good times) praying the daily office from the Book of Common Prayer, but, like I said, that only holds for as long as things are going well. When I really need God, God is never there. But the hunger stays.

Someone smart told me that the hunger itself is actually a connection to God. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t solve the problem of never feeling satisfied.

Finally, I wonder if I am onto something with last week’s revelation about Mormonism, i.e., that one of the biggest obstacles I have to knowing God deeply (and experiencing God’s presence) is knowing God with all of my pieces, and that means collecting them and honoring and acknowledging all of them. Even–especially–the Mormon ones. But I don’t know what that looks like. My gut says that the way to connect to God is through depth–engaging deeply in a set of spiritual practices over time, but that also involves choosing a framework to engage with, to the exclusion of others, and I don’t know if that works. So it’s a frustrating paradox. Setting aside the fact that God pretty much utterly abandons me every time I even have a dim twilight of the soul, my intuition says that I could theoretically commune with God in, for example, an Anglican way (the daily office, like I’ve been trying to do), but it turns out that doesn’t work because I’m not an Anglican person. Or at least not just an Anglican person. I’m also, deep in my heart center, a Mormon person. So, somehow I need to figure out how to reach out to God in a way that honors all of my messy pieces, I guess. But I don’t have any idea what that even looks like in practice.

And I know there are some of you out there reading this and thinking “oh man, you’re seriously over-complicating this; it’s really so easy to just (fill in the blank with something trite or vague.” Well, fuck you, you smug asshole. I’m doing the best that I can with the tools I have. I’ve already tried simple and it doesn’t work.

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Dear LGBTQ+ friends, neighbors, family and assorted loved ones: I have wronged you and I want to confess it to you and beg for your forgiveness.

I have spent several years trying to reconcile Jesus’s explicit command to love my neighbor with a “biblical” view of human sexuality that tells LGBTQ+ people that they are uniquely broken and uniquely sinful.

As you know, of course, better than anyone else, it just can’t be done.

When I first became a Christian a few years ago, I went headlong into conservative theology because it seemed like the only real, authentic way to believe in and follow Jesus. I immersed myself in garbage theology because I thought I had to and I allowed myself to be convinced by the lie that I could somehow really love you without also loving who you actually are.

But when systematic theologies and worldviews and constructed ethical systems–or anything else for that matter–meets the actual words of Jesus, everything else has to give way. At the end of the day, Jesus is the lens through which we see God most clearly, and it is most clear to me that Jesus loves you and has a seat for you at his table the way you are. You are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Jesus also said that every good tree bears good fruit, and every bad tree bears bad fruit. The fruit of conservative Christian doctrines about human sexuality for LGBTQ+ people has been one long nightmare of pain, rejection, heartbreak, isolation, and even torture and murder. If that’s not an indictment straight out of Jesus’s mouth, I don’t know what is. The fruit is not just bad, but heinous, so the doctrine is also heinous.

So to my LGBTQ+ friends, neighbors and family, I tell you this: I am sorry. I was horribly, horribly wrong. I love you, I affirm you, I am here for you, I will advocate for you. And I am committed to speaking truth to a church that cannot possibly love Jesus the way it says it does, because it refuses to love you.

Postscript: I posted this back in April elsewhere on social media, but I wanted to make sure it was here too, especially today in honor of National Coming Out Day.

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God is Gay

This is something I posted on Instagram during Pride Month, but I wanted to post it here, too, as long as I have this thing back up and running, and especially today in honor of National Coming Out Day.

So, Here is what I mean when I say that God is Gay:

First, I mean that Jesus was gay. Maybe not literally gay in the sense that he experienced exclusive same-sex attraction (although maybe; we don’t know), but in the sense that to understand who Jesus was through a 21st century lens we have to see him first and foremost in the faces of oppressed and reviled minorities. I just read a headline that says that 55% of people surveyed would be okay with having a gay or trans coworker. That means that more than 4 out of 10 would not. We live in a country where LGBTQ+ people can legally be discriminated against, where they are routinely made victims of violence, and where their right to exist is up for discussion. Jesus, as a member of an oppressed people under the heel of a brutal empire, had a lot more in common with 21st century queer people than with suburban well-off white cishet Evangelicals.

Second, God personally identifies with LGBTQ+ people. The Bible shows over and over again that God identified with the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. In Matthew 25, Jesus says “I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.” God identifies with queer people in the deepest, most personal way. God stands with them so completely that he becomes one of them.

Third, God is queer in the sense that God breaks down our binaries and disrupts our categories, turning everything upside down. God blurs life and death in the resurrection. Jesus breaks down the distinction between creator and created in the incarnation. The trinity dissolves the difference between one and many. The last will be first and the first will be last. The gospel turns the world upside down. God is not just queer, God is the queerest thing that exists because God rewrites existence itself.

Finally, when I say that God is Gay, I am saying, unequivocally and without reservation, that God made LGBTQ+ people in his image, including their sexuality. If you are queer, God doesn’t just love you for who you are, he made you who you are in his own image, including your queerness.

Postscript: I had that t-shirt custom made. You can get one if you want; I have them set up to sell for cost so I don’t make anything off of them (I think).

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I have this whole list of things I am struggling with spiritually right now. It’s a thing I do maybe every six months when my level of frustration about God and church and spirituality starts to bubble over and I lose my grip on my ability to articulate just what exactly is the problem. Because it’s never just one problem, it’s always a bunch of interconnected problems so the one-sentence answer is never really sufficient. So I try to write it all down, chart it all out, and explain it, first and foremost to myself, but also to anyone else who is trying to come alongside me and finding me frustrating. Inevitably, the list/chart/diagram/equation is completely different from what it was when I did the same thing six months earlier. I definitely have a sense of a moving target. Someone less charitable might say that I am always looking for something to be dissatisfied about, but being dissatisfied feels bad, so I am definitely not being dissatisfied on purpose.

So right now I have a new list, and at the top it says BELONGING/INTEGRATION. I don’t know that this is the most important thing on my list, but it’s arbitrarily first, so I’m going to write about it first. It also clearly connects to my previous post, about embracing my identity as a Mormon despite my non-membership and non-belief. And, of course, it’s two different things, and could certainly be two entries on the list. Sorry; this is just gonna have to be the way it is.

Deep in my gut, I feel like knowing God and following Jesus is something that should be done in deep community. This is probably partially baggage from my Mormon upbringing–I first learned about God in tight-knit Mormon spaces, as a part of a community of believers with a strong, discrete cultural identity. So, by default, that’s what it feels like how knowing God and following Jesus should be shaped.

My problem is that I don’t really have that, and I might have to make peace with the idea of never really having that.

In the past few years of so, during which I have been sort of evangelical or at least I have existed in various states of evangelical-adjacency, one thing has been crystal clear to me: evangelicals are not my people. Everything about evangelicals and evangelical culture and evangelical expressions of worship and spirituality feels like petting the cat backwards. And it’s not just a matter of unfamiliarity or newness. I have put in the time and effort, and it always feels 100% wrong. Setting aside my theological problems with evangelicalism (I will write a post about them later, but it boils down to Matthew 7:16), the whole endeavor just does not fit me right. I never feel at home.

This ill-fittingness isn’t just in evangelical churches; it’s in all evangelical spaces. I have many lovely evangelical friends with whom I love spending time and being in community, but as soon as you get more than about three of them in a group together, the air changes and I can’t breathe anymore.

I could certainly go and look for community in non-evangelical churches, but to be honest, my community bandwidth is pretty full already. My wife and I put hospitality at the top of our list of values, and we have a lot of people in our lives. And, as I alluded above, despite my dissatisfaction and difficulty with evangelical spaces, we do have a lot of community with evangelical people. So the idea of making space for a whole additional community of church people is pretty daunting, especially since church people are not exactly on my new friends wish list.

And more importantly, I have no particular reason to think that I will fully fit into any community of believers because I am coming to realize that I will never be able to be just one thing, spiritually. I can’t fully be one with my Methodist congregation (not that I have one, or am planning to; it’s just an example) because I have discovered that I still have a big part of me that has a Mormon identity. And I have some part of me that has a pagan identity, too. And probably another spiritual identity or two. I’m not going to be able to fully become part of a community because I will always be fractured. I belong too many places, so I will never really belong in any of them. In being true to myself and trying to know God with all of me, follow Jesus with all of me, I have to let go of the idea that I will be able to do that in deep community with others, because, in the wise words of Rocket Raccoon, “Ain’t no thing like me, except me!”

And that’s how we get to Integration. I am discovering that one of the biggest obstacles I have to knowing God deeply is knowing him with all of my pieces, and that means collecting them and honoring and acknowledging all of them. And that places limits on the extent to which I can truly know God in community.

I will admit that this makes me sad. It is a thing I have to mourn. I miss it. The Mormon idea of Zion, the utopian vision of a people who are deeply in community with each other and with God, of one heart and one mind with no poor among them, is an idea that is deeply embedded in my psyche. But I don’t know that I am able to be of one heart and one mind with anyone. It’s certainly not going to happen at church.

On the other hand, I had lunch today with Pastor Lura Groen, and she said that there are more people like me, with fragmented spiritual identities and messes of baggage, than I realize, and that for people like me, building a deep community can mean constructing a support system from people who are a part of or on the fringes of different groups and circles–a person or two here and a person or two there. So maybe there is still a Zion for me, even if it doesn’t look like the image of Zion that I have in my head.

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Over the past few weeks it has become more and more apparent to me that, in a very real sense that will never go away, I am still a Mormon.

It’s been more than a decade since my de facto exodus from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and nine years since I formally resigned my membership. I am not likely to become a member ever again, and I disavow many of the church’s truth claims. I never, ever wonder if I made the wrong choice, or if the Church is Really Actually True After All.

But as I continue to struggle to find my way spiritually through the world, and to navigate my relationship with God (and it’s a big struggle, and one I hope to talk more about in the coming few days), I have realized that one of the many issues I have to work through, spiritually speaking, is how to integrate all of my pieces.

The reality for me is that, as attracted as I am to unidirectional zeal, I am never just going to be One Thing. I’m never going to be a Methodist, and nothing but a Methodist, through and through. (I mean, I don’t think I’m ever going to be a Methodist at all, but that’s just an example). Every time I try to be just one thing, I wind up only able to hold it together for a little while and then I disintegrate again. Because it’s always a lie. The truth is that, spiritually speaking, I contain multitudes.

I have a lot of pieces and I have to figure out how to integrate them.

Some of my pieces are bigger than others, and one of the biggest pieces is that I am a Mormon, regardless of my membership status in an organization or my belief in a given set of truth claims. I am still, in a real and deep sense, a Mormon. I was raised in a devout Mormon family, I went to primary, I was baptized and confirmed at age eight, I was ordained to the Aaronic Priesthood at age twelve, became a deacon, teacher and then priest, I was active as a youth, I passed and blessed the sacrament every week for years, I graduated from Seminary, I received a Patriarchal Blessing, I was ordained an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood, I made covenants in the temple, I served a full-time mission for two years, I returned with honor, I went to Institute, I met a girl and married her in the temple, I read the Book of Mormon fifteen times in two different languages, I prayed, fasted, and sought the guidance of the Holy Ghost, I spoke in Sacrament Meeting, I taught Sunday School, I served as Ward Mission Leader, I blessed my firstborn child in front of the congregation. I can walk away from that in the sense of formal disaffiliation from an organization, and my beliefs can evolve over the years, but come on. How am I going to say that all of that didn’t form and shape who I am as a person? Of course it did. To claim otherwise would be absurd.

My ancestors crossed the goddamn plains. How am I going to say that I am not Mormon?

When I talk about integrating my pieces, I am not talking about combining religions into some sort of weird syncretism, so much as I am just talking about figuring out a way to hold those pieces loosely together and not neglecting them completely. Because I am all of these pieces and if I just pretend I am not, then I think I will never be satisfied and never know God the way God knows me, becaue God knows me in all of my multitudes.

Of course, this also means, on some level, dealing with the fact that I will never be a full-insider in any religious community. And that makes me sad, because it’s something I want, but it’s also something that I wind up never really wanting, because the shoe never really fits right.

And I worry that it means that real spiritual depth might be elusive. I have an intuition that commitment to a spiritual direction is the key to truly diving deep. I hope that’s not the case, but I am afraid it is, because I want spiritual depth, but I just can’t pursue it at the cost of neglecting who I am spiritually. (Like, I literally can’t–I have tried and I always fail.)

So then, what does being a Mormon mean to me? Because, like I said above, it certainly doesn’t mean re-affiliating with the Salt Lake City church. Mostly, I don’t know what it means in terms of the big picture. I don’t really know what it means to hold all of my pieces together, even loosely, and still try to find and know and experience God in the middle of that. And I don’t know what it means in terms of navigating Sunday mornings, which are always complicated for me, no matter what I do. But I do know a few things that it means:

-It means I’m allowed to listen to “Come, Come Ye Saints” and still get choked up about it. And I can claim it as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to find this crazy nineteenth century prairie vision of Zion incredibly compelling. And I can claim it as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to still believe that families can be together forever (whether or not that has anything to do with what a bunch of octogenarian men say about The Temple), on a gut, visceral level. And I can claim that as mine.

-It means I’m allowed to find the Book of Mormon’s imagery and symbols compelling and meaningful. And I can claim them as mine.

-It means I can identify with and align myself with the people on the fringes of Mormonism (in and out). There are some pretty great people out there doing some pretty great un-correlated things. And I can claim them as mine.

I am a Mormon. I have always been a Mormon. I will always be a Mormon. It’s time that I made peace with that.

Postscript: I guess it’s interesting that I am thinking through this right at the time when the Salt Lake City Church, under Russell M. Nelson’s leadership, is distancing itself from the name “Mormon.” As silly as I think that is, I think it is infinitely preferable to the SLC Church trying to claim the term for itself alone and zealously police it’s use. Mormonism is a lot bigger than one organization.

Second postscript: My good friend Katie wrote a great post recently on similar themes, except hers is way more poetic, generous and Christlike and way less navel-gazing than mine.

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Let’s talk about the Bible, fratres et sorores.

Luke 17:20-21 says,

20. And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:
21. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.

This passage comes from the end of a big section of the Gospel of Luke that contains things Jesus taught on the way to Jerusalem, in the transition between his earlier Galilean ministry and the final road to his Crucifixion.

For the sake of context, verses 20-21 are the lead-in to a longer sermon about the coming kingdom:

22. And he said unto the disciples, The days will come, when ye shall desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and ye shall not see it.
23. And they shall say to you, See here; or, see there: go not after them, nor follow them.
24. For as the lightning, that lighteneth out of the one part under heaven, shineth unto the other part under heaven; so shall also the Son of man be in his day.
25. But first must he suffer many things, and be rejected of this generation.
26. And as it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.
27. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and the flood came, and destroyed them all.
28. Likewise also as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded;
29. But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.
30. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.
31. In that day, he which shall be upon the housetop, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away: and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back.
32. Remember Lot’s wife.
33. Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.
34. I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.
35. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
36. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
37. And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together.

What I really want to focus on, though, is that bombshell in verse 21: “for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you”.

So think about it, chew on it, put it in your gospel pipe and smoke it for awhile, and then come back and leave a comment about it. Feel free to let your theology hang out boldly, whatever kind of a dox it is. I’ve got a follow-up I’ll post once we get some ideas in the air.

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Born 11/11/11. Middle name (one of them, at least) Apollo. Baby and his mom, my beautiful and sexy wife, are doing great, but c-section recovery can be a bit harrowing, so they’ll be in the hospital for a few days while I herd our other two here at home.

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My son and I, arrayed for a night of trick-or-treating of which the bards will tell in tale and song for all the ages.

It is glorious.

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A couple of years ago when I was in the Army National Guard, we flew down to Puerto Rico for an excellent weekend of training that culminated in a live-fire exercise.

Before my squad ran through the live-fire exercise, we were (as is typical) sitting around our rucksacks, taking care of our equipment, sleeping, and generally bullshitting. Since our turn on the lane was coming up, I pulled out my white portable altar-cloth, lit a candle, and prayed to Ares. My pagan-friendly classics-major buddy joined in while our Christian platoon leader looked on. We sacrificed a bag of M&Ms from an MRE to the Lord of War, and at the end, I handed one of the M&Msto the PL. He got all nervous and said “If I eat this, will it make me pagan?” I told him that was ultimately up to him. So he ate it. Big shocker, it did not “make him pagan…”

The live-fire exercise was brutal, but it went well and nobody got hurt. The weather was dry and everything pretty much burst into flame. By “everything” I mean an entire mountain. I’m not going to lie; it was completely awesome.

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