Friday, May 30, 2014

Cycling in American Fork Canyon

Once again, I marveled this past Wednesday at the astounding beauty that exists only a short distance from the busyness of the greater Salt Lake metropolitan area and the aridity of the valley floors. Some friends had suggested that we all go for a ride up American Fork Canyon, the mouth of which is about a 30-minute drive from our house. Mark, even though he has been cycling in this area for years, had never done this canyon, and I certainly hadn't (though we had both been in the canyon before in a vehicle or on a motorcycle). 

We were both astonished. 

We live in Holladay. The red indicator marks the mouth of American Fork Canyon.

As we entered the dry mouth of the canyon, I was impressed yet again at how different are each of the canyons along the Wasatch Front. The aridity at the mouth of the canyon quickly gave way to a shady and steadily cooler route. The climb was gentle and the traffic, light, allowing us to talk with each other as we worked our way up. 

Mark and our friend Tina

After a while, we entered more Alpine-like terrain. At one point while climbing a hill, I looked over to my left and gasped at the view that greeted my eyes (photo below), and it just kept getting better and better, with various views of Mt. Timpanogos and Box Elder Peak.

Once we reached the summit, we asked Tina to take some pictures of us as we headed back down.

Upon arriving back at our truck near the mouth of the canyon, we looked across the road and saw several Bighorn sheep. It was unusual to see them at such a low elevation.

Next time we do this ride - and there will be a next time - we will continue on past the summit and ride down to Sundance, perhaps even going past, down to Provo Canyon, then completing a loop back to our point of beginning. I can't wait.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sasbachwalden: What's a Gay Man To Do?

"Zwei Personen?" The older woman across the desk from us was peering over the top of her glasses, a kindly yet puzzled look on her face.*

We were in Sasbachwalden, a tiny village at the edge of the Black Forest of Germany, only a dozen or so miles from the Rhine River. This was the first stop on a cycling trip that Mark and I took in September 2012. From the Black Forest, we would go on to the French Alps and Provence before joining a cycling tour group in Corsica. A couple of days before, Mark and I had landed in Paris and had then spent the weekend there before picking up our rental car and heading for Germany.

Sasbachwalden was my idea. Some of my ancestors were from there, and for years I had wanted to visit. So we had worked out a plan: we would stay one night in Sasbachwalden, then cycle in the Black Forest, then spend the following night in southern Baden in a village where some of Mark's ancestors were from.

I had picked up some German over the years, but this consisted primarily of being able to read genealogical terms. I definitely couldn't speak it. But I thought it prudent to learn at least one phrase before we arrived in Germany: "Ich habe ein Zimmer reserviert"(I have reserved a room). As we drove through Champagne and Lorraine, I occasionally practiced the phrase. I'm glad I did.

We had reserved a room online at what looked to be a very charming place, quintessentially German, über quaint, the Hotel Engel Gasthaus (pictured above). Thanks to our car's GPS, we drove directly to Sasbachwalden - which had been previously selected as one of Germany's most beautiful villages - and we couldn't miss the Hotel Engel, partly because there is only one main street in Sasbachwalden that climbs uphill toward the Black Forest.

As we stood on the main street and looked around, it was difficult to know where to start taking pictures. Every house was quaint. In all directions, we could see hills planted with vineyards and trees.

We parked across the street from the inn and walked up to what appeared to be the door, but it was locked. We looked around but didn't see any other way to enter. This was when we were first confronted with the language barrier. No one there, we were to realize, spoke English. It was baffling.   

Finally, after some minutes of us looking around in bewilderment, walking around the inn to see if there was another door, some women who were sitting across the street said (we surmised, since they were speaking in German) that we needed to ring the buzzer next to the door. We did so, and after a few rings, a woman's voice came through the speaker. I then uttered the line I had been practicing since leaving Paris: "Ich habe ein Zimmer reserviert." The woman's voice said something, then was gone. 

Now we were even more bewildered. We waited a couple of minutes. Nothing happened. No one appeared. I rang again. No answer. Then, across the street, we saw a woman walking towards us with keys in her hand. She had come to let us in.

We managed to get through the formalities of "checking in," which turned out to be her simply finding our name on her list.  She pointed to my name and asked for confirmation that that was me.  "Yes."  "Zwei person?" she queried (two people).  "Da," I replied, then realizing that was Russian, not German, I added, "Ya." Then, once again, for emphasis, she said, "Zwei," holding up two fingers. "Ya" I again answered in my very best German.

"Hmmm," she replied. She pointed to my name again and said something I didn't even come close to understanding. I imagined that she was trying to do the mental gymnastics to understand why two men were checking into a room with only one bed. "Hmmm."

Finally, she beckoned us upstairs and unlocked our (very comfortable) room for us. (By then, we had realized that, the high season being over, the place wasn't opened until guests arrived in the evening. We, as it turns out, were the first ones there that day.) She went in, indicated the bed and again said, more emphatically, "Zwei person."  "Ya," I replied, nodding.  Apparently satisfied that no mistake had been made, she smiled somewhat nervously and left.

Welcome to Germany!

*This post was originally published in February 2013 on one of my former blogs, now closed.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Thrusting and Parrying With the Bishop

I had just sat down to watch Queer as Folk.* Brian was engaging in his favorite activity. My phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway, muting the volume as I did so. It’s a good thing I did: it was my new bishop, calling to see when might be convenient to drop by for a visit. Hmmm. I was distracted by what was happening on the TV screen. “How about next week,” I finally replied. He said that would work. 

“Oh, by the way,” he added, “I understand you play the piano?” Hmmm. “Yes,” I hesitantly replied. “Do you think you could play for priesthood sometime?” Hmmm. “Um, sure,” I responded, my brain trying to figure out just how he had discovered that I played the piano. I strongly suspected my roommate and began imagining the various ways in which he could die. 

When I confronted him the next morning, however, he said that he had not told him. That could only mean one thing: my new bishop had talked to my former bishop in my family's ward. This plus the fact that my records had not yet arrived made me somewhat apprehensive as our appointment approached. Would he outrightly ask me if I am gay? Would he ask questions about “morality”? My roommate assured me that he would not. Nevertheless, I rehearsed certain responses to hypothetical questions with a couple of other friends. I was somewhat apprehensive, but only because I didn’t know what this new bishop new and where I stood.

The Bishop arrived at the appointed hour, and I motioned for him to sit down in our living room. He was dressed casually; no suit and tie. That was a good sign, I thought. I felt good. I was prepared. 

“So,” he said, after sitting down. “Tell me about yourself.” The opening thrust. No way. I wasn’t about to respond to such an open-ended question. 

“Well,” I responded, parrying, “it sounds like you’ve talked to my former bishop, so you probably already know a lot about me.”

And so it went for the next hour. He would ask a probing question, and I would parry. In the process, we talked about a lot of things: his profession (he had been a practicing attorney, as was I), how I felt about the Church, where my testimony is at, whether I would play piano for priesthood opening exercises (reluctant agreement, when I’m there), whether by chance I also played the organ, etc., etc.  But … I sensed that he knew I am gay and was waiting for an opportunity to engage me on this issue.

Finally, he decided to make a decisive move. “Your former bishop has suspicions about your sexual orientation,” he announced. 

At this point, I knew I couldn’t parry anymore without getting into a ridiculous situation, so I did the next best thing: I proceeded to take control of the story. I gave him the 10-minute overview of my life: that I had known since I was 12 that I am attracted to men; that I had repressed this attraction all through my teen years and early adulthood; that I had joined the LDS Church believing that it would provide a “cure”; that I had married, trusting in the Church’s teachings that marriage would “cure” me; etc., etc.

So, my roommate was mistaken about whether the bishop would ask directly whether I am gay, and he was also mistaken about the second question he said the bishop wouldn’t ask me. He asked the same questions he had asked of my roommate last fall: what are my intentions; do I intend to “act” upon my attractions; etc. More gamesmanship. 

In these discussions, the bishop used the term “SGA” (same-gender attraction, the Church’s current term of choice for being gay) several times. Each time he said it, it was like fingernails on a chalkboard. I finally got to the point that, if he had used it one more time, I would have informed him in no uncertain terms that I find that term insulting. I didn’t want to have to do that, however, because I really felt that this guy was trying to reach out and that he had a comparatively open mind. He also seemed to care.

We talked about other things, such as the change the Church had made the previous fall to prevent fathers who weren't "temple worthy" from participating in Melchizedek priesthood ordinances involving their own children. He argued that this move did not represent a negative change but a positive one. I begged to differ. He said he would look into it.

Then came the first of two questions that blew me away.

"So, what can we do to get you back to the temple?" I was flabbergasted. He had obviously not been listening or was making what I'm sure he considered a bold move to "soften my heart" by reaching past everything we had just talked about. It struck me as a spiritually arrogant - though well-meaning, of course - move in that he thought he could connect with what he assumed were the remnants of my testimony. He was wrong.

"I have no interest in 'going back to the temple'," I replied. I think this shocked him. Here was someone (me) who had been extensively involved in genealogical and temple work - having submitted over 10,000 names to the temple over the past 28 years - who was simply walking away.

The second question, however, was even more shocking that the first. “I’m just curious,” he said tentatively, “did you, in your young married years, ever pray that these feelings of attraction to men would go away?” 

I was dumbfounded. First of all, I found it difficult to believe that a bishop who seemed to be pretty hip with respect to gay, er SGA, issues would ask such a question. Secondly, I couldn’t tell whether he was asking because he wondered whether I had tried to “pray the gay away” or because he was gathering information for his own benefit, to confirm a belief that he had already formed that “praying the gay away” doesn’t work. 

What kept me from blowing up was his obvious sincerity. But I couldn’t help throwing my head back and saying, “Oh, God!” It was an involuntary reaction. “That is universal among young gay Mormon men!” I exclaimed. “Everyone prays, and fasts and prays, and then prays some more! But I don’t know of a single instance where that particular prayer has been answered.” 

“I do know, however,” I continued, “of instances where gay men have finally realized that they were perhaps asking the wrong question; and when they instead asked God if it is ok that they’re gay, they’ve receive a witness that He’s fine with it.” I think this was a bit more answer than the bishop was looking for, however (just as was the opinion I expressed that the policies and doctrines of the Church dealing with homosexuality will continue to change, especially after certain members of the Twelve have passed to their reward).

By the time he left (after asking me one more time whether I’d be willing to play the piano for priesthood - never mind everything I'd just said), the bishop had been there for two hours. I was exhausted. But at least I now knew where I stood, I was out to him, and I had successfully severed my connection to my former ward, which had a liberating effect on me. I was ready to move forward, whatever that will ultimately mean.

Postscript: As it happened, I never attended that ward again. Four months later, I resigned my membership in the LDS Church. I had no quarrel with the man who came to see me that June night. He was a good man.

* This is a slightly edited version of a post that was originally published in June 2011 on my Invictus Pilgrim blog.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

"Faith Is a Disability"

"Faith is a disability insofar as it constrains you from self-interest."

I found this line from Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree to be sobering and tremendously thought-provoking.* It caused me to reflect upon the many times in my life – and in the lives of those close to me – when faith in religion, faith in what I had been taught by parents or others, or faith in my own abilities, had prevented me from seeing and/or accepting reality – which was definitely not in my self-interest.

One of the supreme ironies of religion is that it teaches people that they must have faith in their creeds and in their gods in order for their adherents to ultimately achieve what is in their best interest, i.e., salvation; but all too often that same faith causes adherents to do what is not in their self-interest.

I am a poster child for such a proposition.  I could write a book about why I joined the LDS Church, what it meant to me, how it affected my life, etc. My life after joining the Church became a synthesis of the Church’s doctrine and how it mixed with and impacted my own trauma, dysfunctions and identity issues that I had brought along out of childhood with me into adulthood. Then, when I got married, added to the mix was my former wife’s own brand of spirituality and faith.

So, I cannot blame the Mormon Church – entirely – for how I conducted the majority of my adult life, but it certainly was front and center stage in the drama that unfolded. I remember writing in my journal, shortly after I joined the Church, that I never had to worry about making another mistake in my life because the Spirit would guide me. Then there was that pithy statement by Joseph Smith that, “When the Lord commands, do it!”And that scripture in the Book of Mormon: “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.”

I (and my former wife) made many decisions in the decades that followed in the face of illogicality or even irrationality simply based on the “feeling” that this is what the Lord wanted me/us to do and that, in so doing, I and my family would be blessed in some way. A lot of these decisions were just plain crazy, financially; and the belief – the faith – that I/we were recipients of “special” guidance and direction that called us out of the herd of “ordinary Mormons” resulted in a blindness to reality.

Then there is the faith that we put in the teachings of others, such as parents. Many is the child that has come to learn, usually when they enter adulthood or later, that what was taught to them as “gospel” by one or both of their parents ain’t necessarily so. When undue faith is placed in such teachings, it can and often does result in the child doing things that are not in his or her best interests, primarily because such faith prevents the child from seeing his own reality. 

Lastly, there is the faith we may have in ourselves or in our situation that causes us to refuse to see or accept reality. Whenever we are in such a state of denying reality or refusing to see reality, we cannot possibly act in our best interests. Decisions must be made on what IS, not on what we might HOPE it to be, no matter how desperately we might desire it.

*This post was originally published on my Joseph's Journeyings blog (now closed) in January 2013. I am in the process of importing into this blog many of my previous posts from other blogs I have had over the past 3-1/2 years.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Archives: Dying To Be Me

I don’t remember how exactly I came across Anita Moorjani’s book, Dying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing.* It was touted as the extraordinary story of Moorjani’s near-death experience and her remarkable recovery from terminal lymphoma. Among her many admirers are Dr. Wayne Dyer, the noted author and spiritual teacher, who wrote the Foreword to the book. 

I was intrigued, and I was surprised at how quickly Moorjani’s book captured my interest. Expecting a somewhat sensational story, I was rather surprised as the author, in prose that was fluid and captivating, proceeded to tell a story that could easily be dull and lifeless, but which she crafts as very readable, even compelling. Born in Singapore to Indian Hindu parents who shortly thereafter moved to Hong Kong where she grew up, Moorjani describes what it was like to be raised in an upper-middle-class Hindu household in a Chinese city heavily influenced by Christian westerners.  

Upon entering school, Anita was confronted with the confusing intersection of the various worlds in which she lived.  Her parents first sent her to a Catholic school that was attended primarily by children of foreign nationals. Here, she was told she wouldn’t “go to heaven” unless she converted to Catholicism.

This challenge to Moorjani’s identity caused her considerable angst, and her parents eventually transferred her to another school. While secular in nature, the atmosphere of this school, which also catered to foreign nationals, challenged Anita’s identity as an Indian Hindu girl. She wasn’t like her Caucasian Euro-North American schoolmates, nor was she a part of the Chinese majority, and as she matured, she came to feel increasingly uncomfortable and out of place in her own Indian Hindu community.  

As a result, Moorjani found that she was constantly criticizing herself for not fitting in, not being good enough.  “In fact,” she wrote, “I regretted everything about myself.” “Why am I always apologizing,” she asked herself.  “Why do I have to apologize just for being me? I just couldn’t understand what was wrong with me.” 

This deep-seated feeling of self-rejection, low self-worth and internal conflict was one of two major themes of Moorjani’s life that served as backdrops to the story of her near-death experience. The other was her fear of cancer. As several young friends of hers contracted various cancers, she embarked on a quest to learn about and, if possible, prevent cancer.  

Anita’s efforts, however, only heightened her fears. “The more I read about the disease,” she wrote, “the more I was afraid of everything that could potentially cause it. I started to believe that everything created cancer—pesticides, microwaves, preservatives, genetically modified foods, sunshine, air pollution, plastic food containers, mobile phones, and so on. This progressed until eventually, I started to fear life itself.”

Meanwhile, Moorjani met and eventually married an Indian man who had, like her, forged a path in the world that broke the bounds of the expectations set by their culture. Life was very good for them as they each pursued promising careers and looked forward to the time when they could start a family.  

Their world, however, changed irrevocably the day that Anita was diagnosed with Stage 2A lymphoma. What she had feared most in life had come to her, was within her. Moorjani thereafter describes her “fight” with cancer, her refusal to subject herself to chemotherapy, and her attempts at various types of “alternative” treatments, including traditional Indian and Chinese medicine – all to no avail.

Eventually, Anita ends up in a hospital in a coma, the end near. This is when she begins the account of her near-death experience. Her story is fascinating and compelling, but the key messages that she took away from that experience relate to the two primary backdrops to the experience:  her long-standing ambivalence towards her own self-worth and her fear of life cancer which had caused her to fear life itself. Of the former, she wrote:
“I [came to understand] that I owed it to myself, to everyone I met, and to life itself to always be an expression of my own unique essence. Trying to be anything or anyone else didn’t make me better—it just deprived me of my true self! It kept others from experiencing me for who I am, and it deprived me of interacting authentically with them. Being inauthentic also deprives the universe of who I came here to be and what I came here to express ...  
"Why, oh why, have I always been so harsh with myself? Why was I always beating myself up? Why was I always forsaking myself? Why did I never stand up for myself and show the world the beauty of my own soul? Why was I always suppressing my own intelligence and creativity to please others? … Why have I violated myself by always needing to seek approval from others just to be myself? Why haven’t I followed my own beautiful heart and spoken my own truth? … I deserved to be loved simply because I existed, nothing more and nothing less. This was a rather surprising realization for me, because I’d always thought I needed to work at being lovable. I believed that I somehow had to be deserving and worthy of being cared for, so it was incredible to realize this wasn’t the case. I’m loved unconditionally, for no other reason than simply because I exist.”
As to her cancer and the cause of it, Anita concluded:
“I also [came to understand] that the cancer was not some punishment for anything I’d done wrong, nor was I experiencing negative karma [as taught by her family’s religion] as a result of any of my actions, as I’d previously believed. It was as though every moment held infinite possibilities, and where I was at that point in time was a culmination of every decision, every choice, and every thought of my entire life. My many fears and my great power had manifested as this disease … [It] was then that I understood that my body is only a reflection of my internal state. If my inner self were aware of its greatness and connection with All-that-is, my body would soon reflect that and heal rapidly."
This is in fact what happened. Against all odds, Moorjani revived and began to dramatically heal, eventually being certified as cancer-free. She has since dedicated her life to sharing what she learned from her experience.

I found Anita Moojani’s story to be well-written, compelling, enlightening and challenging. And inspiring. Like Anita herself, her account of what she learned during her near-death experience moves beyond the confines of tradition, culture and religion and offers fascinating insights into the mysteries of health, sickness and human existence. 

* This post was originally published a little over a year ago on one of my blogs that is now closed.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Archives: The Prince and the Gay Pea

“The divorce classes this evening were emotionally draining.* I kept thinking of the children. I feel I have failed them. But I have tried to do the best I could. Not for the first time, I am reminded how perversely unfair it seems that I – of all men [given my homosexuality and background] – have had such a large family of children. I wish to love them all, to nurture them all, but it has been difficult to escape the ‘herd mentality.’ I am reminded of thoughts I have had on other occasions: do I get credit for trying?  
“ … Guilt. What if I just say, ‘Yes!  Yes! Yes! I am guilty as charged! I am a frail, faulty human who has tried to play the hand he was dealt to the best of his ability, but I have failed in some important respects. Yes!  I’m guilty!’ What if I just let go of trying to hold onto the illusion of innocence, if I stopped trying to justify myself? Why is this concept of ‘fault’ so all pervasive, so powerful? Is this a desperate attempt by the Ego to excuse itself?  Wouldn’t I be a lot more at peace if I just said, ‘Yes! I’m guilty … Now what? How much of my life have I spent trying to justify myself? To escape guilt … for my sexuality and other things?”
These are feelings and thoughts I expressed in my journal [in January 2012] as I tried to process the feelings I had after attending state-mandated divorce classes - one of the last hurdles on my way to completing the legal divorce process. 

As I pondered what I had felt and thought during and after those classes, I dimly sensed how feelings of guilt had, throughout my life, pushed me – or rather pursued me – to achieve unrealistic goals and an unreasonable standard of conduct. That’s just it: my life became all about conduct, rather than living. I was an actor on a stage, and my performance never satisfied me or others.

In talking about these things with my partner [my now-husband], he mentioned the fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, analogizing that “guilt” is like that pea hidden under all those mattresses, under all the layers of the psyche that one constructs to try to hide the feelings engendered by the guilt.

For obvious reasons, I prefer to re-name the tale, The Prince and the Pea. The analogy has its limits, perhaps, but one is prompted to ask, “If the prince hadn’t been so hypersensitive, he wouldn’t have cared about or been able to feel the freakin’ pea.”

I thus, in this sense, get back to the questions I posed in my journal:  Is guilt a function of the Ego, is blame the fuel that feeds it, and are justification, self-flagellation and self-defeating/self-hating behaviors the Ego’s tools for dealing with it? Does the entire Judeo-Christian tradition/religion furnish the fuel that stokes this furnace? Can I escape all this by simply surrendering?

In this regard, a couple of passages come to mind that I read in Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now:
“Instead of having a wall of resistance inside you that gets constantly and painfully hit by things that ‘should not be happening,’ let everything pass through you … Instead of going into unconscious reaction and negativity, such as attack, defense or withdrawal, you let it pass right through you. Offer no resistance.  It is as if there is nobody there to get hurt anymore …  
“Forgive yourself for not being at peace. The moment you completely accept your non-peace, your non-peace becomes transmuted into peace. Anything you accept fully will get you there, will take you into peace.  This is the miracle of surrender.”
Guilt, for the average gay person who has been raised or otherwise spent a significant amount of time in the LDS Church, is actually more like a boulder, rather than a pea. It sits there underneath so many layers that it sometimes seems we will never be able to find it and remove it.

But until we are able to remove it, we can at least do what Tolle suggests, i.e., accepting the presence of the boulder (or pea) instead of trying to pretend it’s not there, letting its presence cause us suffering, and/or complaining endlessly about its presence. Doing so allows us to examine the guilt, reduce its size and, eventually, dissolve it. This is what I have tried to do and am trying to do, and I know that – eventually – I will be free of it.

*This is a slightly edited version of a post that was originally published on one of my blogs that is now closed.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"I've Never Seen a Penguin"

So, we're driving down I-15 last Friday afternoon. Well, I'm driving and my passengers are my four younger children (the "Quads"), I having picked them up in Bountiful for the weekend. The song "Let it Go" from "Frozen" comes on the radio. My two sons immediately voice protest. "Oh my gosh, I'm so sick of that song!" wails Aaron. The two girls are happily singing along. But I'm getting sick of this song, too. I turn the channel. Aaron says, "When I hear that song, I think of pooping (Let it go)." He's 11. Enough said.

On Sunday, I took the kids to the recently opened Living Planet Aquarium in Draper, which is apparently the ninth largest such facility in the United States. In Utah! One of the exhibits the children were most anxious to see was that of the penguins. They haven't had penguins at Hogle Zoo for years, and the educational value of the aquarium was made poignantly plain to me when my daughter Esther said, "I've never seen a penguin!"

I was also a bit taken aback. It was one of those moments when I realized how relatively limited these kids' experiences with the larger world have been - like the time that we were driving in Salt Lake and the kids saw a taxi cab. They were excited. "We've never seen a taxi cab!" A sweet, funny moment. Or the time that I took them to the zoo and their favorite animal was a squirrel they saw next to one of the walkways, it being such a rare creature in domesticated Utah.

There were lots of other things to see, including a short documentary about sharks that played in the facility's "4-D" theatre. It isn't exactly up to Disneyland standards, but it is a pretty cool concept.

Annie and me waiting for the movie to start. Nice glasses, eh?

I think everyone's favorite area of the aquarium was the Journey to South America Gallery. Lots of interesting creatures to see here, but the kids - being kids - most enjoyed the swinging bridge in one corner of the gallery.

Aaron and I share a moment after we both found one of the galleries a bit too crowded for our liking.

Another fun activity for the kids was playing in the gift shop. I have to remember to always have my phone out, ready to take pictures such as these.

As with Esther, our visit to the aquarium marked a first for me as well. I decided to buy a membership because it would pay for itself in less than two visits. The young female clerk took the information about me and the Quads then asked who the other adult would be. I gave her Mark's information and told her that he is my husband. She didn't bat an eye. It was nice.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rev. Jimmy Creech: A Prophetic Voice Affirming Gays and Lesbians

Jimmy Creech at the Regulator Bookstore in Durham, NC. (Photo by Natalia Weedy)

This post was originally published on my Invictus Pilgrim blog in June 2001. As I mentioned in my last post on this blog, I met Jimmy Creech in April 2011 while visiting my sister in Durham, North Carolina.

In May 1984, a closeted gay man in a small town in southeastern North Carolina went to see the pastor of his United Methodist congregation. The man – “Adam” – was upset and announced that he was leaving the church. When the pastor asked why, Adam replied that he could no longer be part of a church “that thinks that I’m some kind of pervert.”

In the exchange that followed, the pastor – Rev. Jimmy Creech – learned that Adam was gay and that he was upset at the new policy, just adopted by the United Methodist Church, which prohibited the ordination and appointment of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” “I don’t want to be ordained,” Adam said. “But I don’t want to be told I can’t be because I’m gay. I’m just as moral as anybody, just as good a Christian.”

Before that meeting, Rev. Creech had not known any “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” After that meeting, he would never be the same.  Creech later wrote:
“That morning, Adam revealed to me a hidden world of oppression in which people who are gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual suffer an insidious violence disguised as Christian morality that attacks their very beings, their very souls. It’s a reality created and sustained by the claim that gay people are sick, sinful and criminal, a claim that is declared to be God’s truth in pulpits, courtrooms, workplaces and schoolrooms …The cruelest aspect of this hidden world is that gay people internalize these demeaning proclamations and hate themselves for simply being who they are. It’s a world they cannot escape and have little defense against, except to hide their sexuality and pretend to be someone they are not, or to end their lives.”
Jimmy Creech cared enough about Adam that he decided he couldn’t simply sit back and do nothing. He challenged his own conventional education, religious upbringing and beliefs and began an intensive study of what the Bible did and did not have to say about homosexuality and researched the latest scientific findings concerning homosexuality. 

As a result of his Biblical studies and other research, Rev. Creech came to the conclusion that it was unjust and immoral for the church to maintain anti-LGBT policies and positions.  In the years that followed, he became an outspoken advocate of gay and lesbian rights within his own United Methodist denomination as well as the Christian community generally. 

Rev. Creech’s official ministry as an ordained Methodist minister came to an abrupt end in 1999 when he was “defrocked” in the second of two trials conducted by the Methodist Church in the late 1990’s. He was put on trial the first time for conducting a covenant ceremony between two lesbians at the church in Omaha, Nebraska where he was then pastor, and his second trial resulted from him participating in a similar service involving a gay couple in North Carolina. 

After he was expelled from the ministry, Creech joined the board of Soulforce – an organization that resists religious and political oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people through dialogue and creative forms of nonviolent direct action – where he served as Chairman for five years. Creech remains active in several organizations that campaign for LGBTQ equality and has recently published an account of his life and ministry, Adam's Gift which opens with that meeting in 1984 and culminates in his second trial and its immediate aftermath.

Up until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of Jimmy Creech. I was traveling in the East and read an article about him in a local paper and was intrigued. The next morning, I visited a local bookshop and saw a flyer indicating that he would be doing a reading and book-signing of Adam’s Gift the following evening. I purchased a copy of his book and began reading, looking forward to meeting him the next day.

Speaking as someone who has not only lived in the closet his entire life (until a few months ago) but has also lived the relatively insular life of an active devout Mormon, I was frankly “blown away” as I read Creech’s book, starting with the account of his investigation of the Biblical passages that are usually used to bash gays and of what modern science is contributing to a better understanding of homosexuality.

“It is not behavior that determines and defines a person’s sexual orientation. Rather, sexual orientation is an essential aspect of personality that predisposes a person to be sexually attracted to one-or both, in the case of bisexuals – of the two genders, whether or not the person is sexually active … Orientation does not begin and end with sex acts. It is a constant and vital part of who a person is, encompassing erotic attraction, affection, and bonding, as well as genital activity.”

Wow!  To see that in print, written by a ordained minister in a mainline Protestant faith, was indescribably affirming to me after living in a faith/church for most of my adult life that has denied that “sexual orientation” even exists! I felt like I had just gulped in fresh, clean air after having been locked up in an airless crate.

Creech then goes on to describe how, once his intellectual and theological barriers to an acceptance of homosexuality had fallen, he then had to face and overcome another barrier:
“… the emotional resistance of my culturally conditioned assumptions about healthy sexuality, assumptions shaped more by fear and misinformation than by knowledge and understanding. Deep within my psyche, fighting against my new knowledge, as an irrational revulsion to the idea of men having sex with men …  It would take much more time and work before this barrier would fall, too. That would happen because of the humanity, dignity and integrity of people like Adam whom I would get to know. Books changed my mind.  These people changed my heart.”
Jimmy Creech at a Soulforce event in Lynchburg, Virginia in 1999. (Photo from Soulforce Archives)

The people who helped change Jimmy’s heart were initially located in Raleigh, North Carolina. A few years after his meeting with Adam, he became pastor of a large Methodist church in Raleigh. Here, he put his newly acquired knowledge into action.  He marched in his first gay pride parade. He helped found the Raleigh Religious Network for Gay and Lesbian Equality. He met and ministered to men dying of AIDS. He worked to make his own congregation more accepting and welcoming to members of the LGBTQ community, but was ultimately dismissed from his position as pastor. He then worked with the North Carolina Council of Churches for several years, focusing on LGBTQ issues, before being asked to become pastor of the large First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska.

The bulk of Rev. Creech’s book deals with the time he spent in Omaha, including the events that led to his two trials, the trials themselves, and the immediate aftermath of his ejection from the ministry. This account was interesting in its own right, but what I found compelling and incredibly enlightening and empowering were his statements concerning the morality of “heterosexism” – a term used to describe “a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships.” These statements included the following, which formed part of his response in connection with his first trial:
“It is my belief that the position taken by The United Methodist Church regarding same-gender unions, as well as that regarding ‘the practice’ of homosexuality, is wrong, unjust, discriminatory and inconsistent with the spirit of Christ and our Wesleyan and Methodist traditions … 
“Sexual orientation is not a moral issue; it is morally neutral. Sexual ethics are simple:  sexual relationships should be mutual, non-exploitative, nurturing and loving. What is immoral are unequal, exploitative, abusive and unloving sexual acts toward another person. This is true regardless of the orientation of the persons involved. I believe that sexual activity which is considered moral when practiced by two people of different genders, is no less moral when practiced by two people of the same gender … 
“I believe that the sin of heterosexism is no less a sin that that of racism. While some of the dynamics may be different, they are fundamentally identical in nature as an expression of a dominant culture over another. 
“Just as it was the church in the South that perpetuated racism so that slavery and white supremacy could have legitimacy, the Christian church has been responsible, more than any other institution, for perpetuating the sin of heterosexism as a form of control over what is feared within all of us: the mystery of human sexuality and intimacy (sexual or non-sexual) with persons of the same gender.”

Jimmy Creech during the Millenium March in Washington in 2000. (Photo by Chuck Phelen)

We who are part or have come out of the Mormon tradition think of the term “prophet” in a unique way:  we automatically think of the president of the LDS Church, and we usually associate the term “prophetic voice” with a “voice of warning”, i.e., a statement that typically warns of undesirable results if the Lord’s commandments are not honored and obeyed. 

In the traditional Christian church, however, there is a different connotation associated with the term “prophetic ministry.” As one definition has stated it, “Prophetic ministry involves incorporating God’s reign of compassion, justice, generosity, and joy into personal values and actions, institutional structures, and governmental policies. It includes leading congregations to be alternative communities that look and act like God’s reconciled and redeemed community where “the orphans, widows, and strangers” are welcomed at God’s table of peace and abundance.”

Or as has been expressed by Creech’s own United Methodist Church:
“The Church, throughout history, has maintained that faithful ministry must be prophetic. The church must not be afraid to boldly speak its ‘convictions … to the church and the world’ ... Active participation in social ministry and advocacy for social justice are deeply rooted in the history of the United Methodist Church … Methodism's founder John Wesley preached boldly in the public square against slavery, beverage alcohol, war, and economic injustice … In the 19th century faithful Methodist women and men followed Wesley's lead in opposing slavery, and in organizing the temperance movement … In the 1950s and 60s, faithful Methodists demonstrated and worked tirelessly for civil rights for all Americans in a time of widespread segregation and blatant racial injustice.
“History has proven that many positions taken by the church through the years, though often controversial in their day, have been proven with time to be both right and just. As the Body of Christ we are called to be bold witnesses, not just to one another, but to the world; to proclaim the good news of God's grace and call, not just in the church but also in the public square; to witness to society not only when it does right but also when it does wrong. This is our prophetic call.” 
It is in this tradition that Jimmy Creech has raised a prophetic voice, calling for equal treatment of ALL of God’s children, boldly denouncing, even at the cost of his calling as congregational pastor, injustice and immorality. It is a voice that brings hope and light to dark places, a voice of love, affirmation and compassion to those who often face misunderstanding, rejection and hate. It is a voice, I would suggest, that reflects the true love of God and a voice from which gay and lesbian Mormons could profit and learn.

Creech concludes Adam’s Gift with a truly prophetic statement that calls each one of us to assist in its fulfillment:
“Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people will be successful in attaining full civil and human rights and social acceptance because of those among them who believe in their inherent dignity and integrity and have the courage to let the world know who they really are … It’s a gift that all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have to give.  And by giving it, they change the world for good.”
I submit that the voice that Jimmy Creech raises is one that needs to be heard by us who are gay or lesbian and who come out of the Mormon tradition. It is a voice of affirmation and acceptance: one that we are not accustomed to hearing. The perspectives that he shares are ones we need to contemplate; they are ones to which we are not normally exposed. The love that he preaches and the equality that he demands are our birthright; we need to claim them. In so doing, we can change ourselves, our church and our world for the better.

As I mentioned in my last post, Jimmy Creech graciously accepted an invitation to speak at the first Circling the Wagons Conference. Additional information about his visit, as well as links to two of his addresses at this conference, can be found here.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

My North Carolina Closet

I first visited my sister Martha and her husband Koen at their Durham, North Carolina home in April 2011. I had started the process of coming out six months earlier, in which Martha had been a huge support. I was blogging as Invictus Pilgrim and could not for various reasons reveal my identity at that time. So I have decided to come out of my "North Carolina Closet" by posting some pictures that were taken during that visit.

Martha and me in front of Duke Chapel on the campus of Duke University

These other pictures were taken on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Martha was at that time teaching French course. She had not yet started working on his dissertation at that point.

It was during this trip that I had the opportunity to meet Jimmy Creech, a (straight) former United Methodist minister from Raleigh who been active in LGBT issues within his church as well as others - locally as well as nationally - for over two decades. He had just published a memoir about his journey entitled Adam's Gift (which included being "defrocked" by the UMC for performing a same-sex commitment ceremony.) Martha and I happened to decide to visit a bookstore in Durham one morning while I was there, and Jimmy was doing signing books.

I loved reading Jimmy's book. When I had finished, I wrote a post about it on my Invictus Pilgrim blog, which I plan to republish here in the near future. When the first Circling the Wagons Conference was being planned for the fall of 2011, I invited Jimmy to come speak at and participate in the conference. He graciously agreed to do so (with no honorarium), and his presence and words of hope and love added much to that memorable weekend. He is a gracious, humble, loving man.

In December of 2011, I made another trip to visit Martha and Koen, only this time I was with Mark. We had a great weekend during which we visited various historical sites in the area.

"Yesterday was a an eventful day," I wrote in my journal on 14 December 2011. "We went to several historical sitesThe first was the Bennett House which was where General Johnston surrendered to General Sherman. I learned a lot - things I never knew about the Civil War. I found it interesting, too, to hear things presented from a southern perspective. We then went to the Duke homestead, followed by a visit to an old plantation [Stagville] which was one of the largest in in antebellum North Carolina."

"What was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the afternoon," I continued, "was how I felt while at these sites. Martha was trying to tell me that this - history - is my passion and that I should pursue it. Of course, I know this, but I have denied it and relegated it to the place of avocation rather than vocation my entire life. Now, I find myself approaching the end of middle age, wondering what I'm going to do the rest of my working life, wondering whether I've wasted my [profession] life."

Martha and Koen on the campus of Duke University, where Martha will be teaching this fall. Most of the pictures here were taken by Koen.

"Last night," I wrote, "I had a bit of a crying breakdown. I felt so very lost. I have felt this way from time to time since coming out - disoriented, unsure of myself. My relationship with my children is so different. In many ways, it's better. But it's different. My professional life is in upheaval. My one constant that I cling to is my relationship with Mark ... So at times like this, like last night, I open up the chambers of hidden sorrow and pain in the dark recesses of my soul and I let it out. I cry. Mark was so sweet ... I love him. That is my one constant."

This photograph was taken by Koen, my brother-in-law. At first, I just thought it was a really cool picture. But since Mark's diagnosis, the clairvoyance of the image has become increasingly haunting.