Owning Our Stories, Living Authentically and Standing as Witnesses
Over the course of the last few years there has been a remarkable shift in the conversation we’re having around homosexuality in LDS culture. While core doctrines of the Church with regard to the appropriate bounds of sexual expression have not changed (and will not change), there has been a clarifying and nuancing of Church teachings (i.e., sexual attraction or temptation is not a sin—it’s simply part of the broad range of human experience we’re called to channel and transcend if we’re to become divine—only inappropriate indulgence in thought or behavior is), as well as a notable shift in our cultural attitudes. We’re becoming much more open and compassionate and loving in our relationships with others wherever they may be in their journey of faith (or lack thereof), even as we continue to embrace our own faith in the Savior and the doctrines of the restored gospel.
One of the shifts that I’m most pleased to see (and to be a part of) is the increase of voices of those who understand the experience of homosexual attraction firsthand who are both speaking up in the cultural conversation around sexuality and embracing and sharing their faith in the restored gospel of Christ.
The Role of North Star in Empowering Individuals
The mission of North Star has always been to be a place of community and support primarily for those who desire to live within the framework of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. In 2006, when the website of the newly organized North Star launched with a few online discussion groups and a community blog, our desire was to heal and lift and empower individuals as they sought resolution around these issues—and to create our own resources where there weren’t any.
It wasn’t long before a group of women in the Spouses group decided that they wanted to create a healing retreat for themselves where they could share stories, develop a sisterhood and learn how to become more whole and healthy as individuals so they could have whole and healthy marriages. The fruit of that effort, the Women of Worth Conference, was first held in the spring of 2007, was a huge success and has continued to grow every year with the women wrapping up their sixth annual conference just a few weeks ago (hear more about it on this month’s podcast episode).
As the membership in our discussion groups continued to grow, there also grew demand for new and more specialized groups to meet the specific needs and common interests of those coming to North Star looking for resources and emotional and spiritual support. We’ve expanded our support onto Facebook where we have an active and vibrant group, and this last year we added groups for both Married Women and spouses of transgender Latter-day Saints. Along with the online community growth, we’ve organized additional events such as the Couples’ Summit and Fall Festival for men and women in our community to come together and build and strengthen friendships, and last year we offered our first Couples’ Retreat that took place aboard Carnival Cruiseline as it sailed to Cabo San Lucas—also a huge success. Our most recent offering was the inauguration of a quarterly fireside series, with the first of which, held in April, packing the chapel.
And finally, North Star’s biggest undertaking so far has been the Voices of Hope Project—a website extension of the book that was published by Deseret Book on 2011. So much good has already been accomplished through this project and we’re only 19 video profiles and 7 essays profiles into our goal of 1,000 voices. The following is one comment we’ve received from Latter-day Saint woman impacted by the project:
“I have been living with same-sex attraction on my own and very privately for decades. I decided long ago that I wanted to live a Christ-centered life and remain fully active in the Church. This meant choosing the spiritual over the temporal, and I was, and still am, happy with that choice. But the journey has been long, at times painful, and solo… Until two weeks ago, I thought I would take this particular trial to my grave. And then I saw someone posted a link to the Voices of Hope website. And that’s when everything—and I mean everything—changed for me.
“Hope, strength, courage, love, comfort, and peace. The testimonies of my fellow brothers and sisters on this website helped me to feel all of these things, which tells me it is good, and from God. These voices of hope have also provided for me a sense of community, which is what I have been missing for so long. And because of how much this has helped and changed me, I know it is now my turn to do this for others. I have begun opening up to friends, and soon I will to my family. Although I still feel somewhat fearful and a little unsure of myself, I know it is the right thing, and I know the Lord will lead the way. He is aware of us, He loves us, and He is with us.
“I am a daughter of God. And I am not alone.”
But this is all just the beginning. There is so much more to do.
Fortifying Our Faith Against Pop Cultural Trends
In addition to efforts to help the general membership of the Church gain an understanding of homosexuality that inspires sufficient empathy and emotional support, we also need to be better educated on these issues as a faith community so we’re spiritually fortified against the tidal wave of worldly philosophies around homosexuality that are increasingly becoming the broader cultural norm, but which are antithetical to the truths of the restored gospel. My belief is that homosexuality is one of the great Abrahamic tests of the last days—and not just for those whose personal attractions challenge their commitments to live the gospel (which, in reality, includes all of us in way or another), but also for our broader Church family whose compassion—if not rooted in firm conviction of the gospel—may become permissive (“sloppy agape” or “greasy grace” as they say in evangelical Christianese) and lead them to question their own spiritual commitments. It seems that an increasing number of individuals are leaving the Church around this issue, or who are trying to change it from within in ways that run counter to the doctrines set forth by those we sustain as prophets, seers and revelators.
It will also affect how the world sees us and responds to our message. As I wrote in the introduction to the book Voices of Hope,
“As cultural battles continue to wage ever more passionately, and as the restored gospel of Jesus Christ continues to go forth to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, the Church’s teachings regarding homosexuality will increasingly affect how people respond to our message. I suggest that in addition to the continued witness and teachings of the Lord’s prophets and apostles around this issue, there will be an increasing need for ‘a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1), Latter-day Saint men and women who have personally dealt with these issues” (p. 21).
So, what more can we be doing? Each of us who embraces the gospel needs individually to seriously consider God’s call and commission to stand as authentic witnesses of His love and redeeming gospel “at all times and in all things, and in all places that [we] may be in” (Mosiah 18:9). The fulfillment of that commission may look very different for different people, but I would invite each of us to consider the ways in which even our sexuality is tied to our covenant to consecrate our entire self to building God’s kingdom and to spreading the message of the restored gospel.
Owning Our Stories
I personally believe that we can’t stand as authentic witnesses unless we’re willing to own our stories, transcending shame and pride, and be willing to access the courage that will be required to be as vulnerable as such a step will surely be for many. For those of you who haven’t heard of Brené Brown, she’s a professor of social work here in my (current) home state of Texas. Her research and writing focuses on shame and vulnerability, and her two TED addresses, “The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to Shame,” are must-sees. One of the reasons I believe her books and talks have gone so viral (aside from the fact that she has a fun and endearing personality) is that they resonate with people on a deep “soul” level. She wrote that “owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
Each of us has a story to tell, and our experiences are often as much for others as they might be for us. Concerning our own divine tutorial, Elder Neal A. Maxwell often talked about how each of us is given a “customized curriculum” of experiences that will help us to develop the Godlike qualities we came here to learn. We came to this world, affected by all its fallenness, to have experiences that would require us to develop qualities and capacities of godliness. The only way we can truly do that is to begin where we are, owning our lives and living out of our hearts, seeking to understand the weakness(es) God gave us to learn humility (Ether 12:27) and understand grace (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). As difficult as this can be when we’re blinded by our own shame and weakness and vulnerability and insecurity, it is required for our growth into wholeness and holiness.
I love the oft-quoted statement by Elder Orson Whitney that “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude and humility. All that we suffer and all that we endure, especially when we endure it patiently, builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God… and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education that we come here to acquire and which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven.” The Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has similarly noted, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
Elder Maxwell also taught, however, that sometimes our trials or circumstances are not fully for us. There’s a broader, divine meta-narrative at play in the universe that ultimately subsumes all our individual narratives—thus, there’s great need for patience and to realize that at times when things don’t make sense, or when God doesn’t intervene in the way we want him to, a bigger story is playing out and our responsability is to be patient and simply trust His divine orchestration of the kosmos. “Patience,” Elder Maxwell said, “helps us to realize that while we may be ready to move on, having had enough of a particular learning experience, our continuing presence is often a needed part of the learning environment of others” (“Patience,” Ensign, Oct. 1980, 29).
I’ve always loved that sentiment. Sometimes our circumstances or our temporal differences are to help others learn the meaning of love and to develop a greater capacity for charity, which “seeketh not her own” (Moroni 7:45). As Joseph Smith was teaching about baptisms for the dead he made a statement that I believe applies even more broadly: “For we without them cannot be made perfect; neither can they without us be made perfect” (D&C 128:18). The body of Christ will never be whole as long as it’s fragmented, or as parts of the body are hiding in shame or being inauthentic, putting on false fronts in order to appear as something they are not.
Becoming a Zion People Through Greater Authenticity
We will never be made perfect as long as we are cut off from the covenant body of Christ, and the covenant body of Christ will never be made perfect without being blessed by the gifts and strengths—and challenged by the weakness(es) and imperfection(s)—of every member. We cannot develop a capacity for divine love and charity for one another if we are not allowed to fully know one another. Elder Maxwell taught, “The two great commandments are inextricably bound up with each other… For those who think they can keep the second great commandment without keeping the first, it may be enough for now to say that we cannot really love others unless we know who others really are. How can we know their deepest needs without knowing their true identity?” (All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience, p. 70).
When we hide ourselves from people, we in some ways thwart the processes of Atonement by preventing our fellow saints from ever fully learning the essence of the second great commandment. I believe that the more we own our stories and live with greater authenticity the more we gift to others an opportunity to know and to love us; the more we gift to ourselves the empowerment and life and joy born of vulnerability and deeper human intimacy; and the more we gift to God the opportunity to heal and sanctify us, engendering within us spiritual life and holiness. He cannot change anything that we keep tightly and shamefully tucked away in our metaphorical bushes or closets. We must first come out of the bushes and into His light. From there, He, as the author and finisher of our faith, helps us write an ending to our story that is worthy of His promise to make “beauty for ashes” (Isaiah 61:3) and which “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which [He] hath prepared for them that love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
There is a thirst in the human soul to be fully known and fully loved, to be seen and accepted even in our weakness and frailty—our “shadows” to use the language of renowned psychologist Carl Jung. I believe that thirst is something of an echo of what we had in the eternal world we came from, and toward what we hope for in the eternal world we’re preparing for. I think it’s interesting that one of the descriptions of the Celestial world in Joseph Smith’s vision of the kingdoms of glory is that those who are members of the Church of the Firstborn will “see as they are seen, and know as they are known, having received of his fulness and of his grace” (D&C 76:94).
How vulnerable and intimate and truly connecting and joy-full it must be for us to be fully known and seen and embraced by beings who have become love such that this divine capacity defines and exudes from the very substance of our being—even as God is love—and for us to fully know and see and embrace others of the divine family in a deep and binding and intimate communion. In my sense of these, this is the heart and principal constitution of the sociality that Joseph Smith said would be like this one “only it will be coupled with beternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy” (D&C 130:2). And yet, as we seek to establish Zion here and now, and to become pure in heart here and now, it’s our responsibility and blessing to be cultivating and practicing this divine nature of intimate sociality here and now.
I was recently having a conversation with a friend who mentioned the loneliness he feels in even close relationships with some of his friends because he doesn’t feel he can be open with them about the most intimate and vulnerable parts of his life (in this case his SSA). He yearns to be being more open and authentic—for the feeling of being seen and known and loved by them, fully—but he fears their judgments and rejection. And while our fears are often unfounded projections of our own shame, that is not always the case. People can be cruel, or at the very least insensitive, leaving evidence that they cannot be trusted with our hearts. I’m of the conviction, however, that we’ll never truly become a fully Zion people until we collectively learn to truly and fully love, and true love doesn’t exist without knowledge. We can’t fully love someone until we fully know them, and the more we hold pieces of ourselves back from the most important of our relationships around us, the more we rob them of opportunities to learn to love in the way God loves us, and in which He calls us to love others.
I’ve thought a lot about why it is that we are so reticent to be open and authentic with others around us. Humans long for human intimacy and connection, but then in shame and fear we close ourselves off from that for which we most yearn. Daily we seem to be like Adam and Eve who hearkened to the call of Satan to “hide” in the bushes, shameful of what we’ve done or what we perceive ourselves to be, fearing to be fully seen, while God is constantly calling us out of the bushes and into His light.
One of the common catch phrases of the popular LGBT ideology is that those who are same-sex oriented need to be “true to themselves”—and, by implication, that the truest way to do this is to adopt a particular socio-culturally constructed sexual identity and pursue a same-sex relationship. While I do believe that someone can do so from a place of authenticity, sexual orientation is not the central organizing principle of an authentically lived life. I believe that authentically owning our stories, fully acknowledging our humanity and weakness without shame, and living the deepest values of our hearts is. I also believe that is the only way to live an authentic and sustaining faith in Jesus Christ.
Standing As Witnesses
While Christ is the Savior, we all called to be undersaviors and to participate in the work of redemption—and not just our own redemption. Christ took upon Himself flesh so that that He might succor the children of men in all their affliction, and to show us what mastery and transcendence of the flesh looks like—what reconciliation with God looks like. I believe that as God’s covenant people, both here and premortally, if we are to be undersaviors—or small “s” saviors—as talked about in D&C 103:9, we had to be willing to come to earth experiencing all manner of the temptations “such as is common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13)—and may even have been individually “predesignated,” a term used by Elder Maxwell, to certain of those conditions as part of our covenant role in the salvation, redemption and exaltation of the divine family.
I believe the one of the reasons individuals may experience conflicts related to homosexuality is so that they, like Jesus Christ, could experience in some smaller measure the wide range of human experience common in a fallen, disordered world so that 1) we could develop the empathy prerequisite to succoring others in their afflictions and, in turn, point them to the Succorer/Healer so they can be transformed through His atonement and 2) to figure out how to navigate this most healthily, and transcend it, within the context of faith and covenant so we can then, again, “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in” (Mosiah 18:9)—leading people to Christ so they can experience the fullness of Eternal Life in Him.
The only way we can do that is by gaining a spiritual witness and conviction of the mission God has given us—a mission that is informed by both our gifts and our weaknesses—and by living true to that mission, and by standing with the prophets in their Divinely appointed commissions. My wife and I were recently reading Third Nephi in our family scripture study. One of the themes that was again impressed upon me by the Spirit was the importance of fidelity to prophetic leadership and guidance. That, and that it doesn’t take long for even God’s faithful to put too much confidence in themselves and for their faith to atrophy into total loss. Much earlier in the Book of Mormon, when Nephi was warned by the Lord to separate himself from his rebellious brothers, he noted that “all those who would go with [him] were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they hearken[ed] unto [his] words” (2 Nephi 5:6).
My own human frailty notwithstanding, I believe in the warnings and revelations of God as mediated through the collective voice of His prophetic witnesses, and I stand firmly with them.
One of the reasons I feel so strongly about the mission of North Star is that there are too few places, whether in cyberspace or elsewhere, where believing Latter-day Saints who fully sustain the prophets can engage in meaningful discussion about the intersections of sexuality, faith and culture. We all must stand as individual witnesses in our respective spheres of influence, but as we come together there is a power in the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that we collectively become.
I hope that each of you will join—or stay connected with—our growing euphony of voices and cloud of witnesses, witnessing and testifying of the Savior, the power of His atonement, and of the truthfulness of His church and the prophetic guidance of those who lead it. God needs us as much as we need Him, and the Church and its leaders need us as much as we need them. And only as we embrace that sanctifying relationship can we all truly be made perfect in Christ.