Monday, November 9, 2015

My Grace Is Sufficient For You

One week ago, I stood in front of my Sunday School class and discussed some of Paul’s teachings that are most dear to me.  I talked about Paul’s “thorn in the flesh,” likely a physical infirmity which constrained his efforts to do the work of the Lord, which he thrice sought to have the Lord remove from him.  But the Lord left Paul with his thorn, promising instead that “my grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” and Paul gloried in his infirmity, “for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  I said:
“Paul’s story is another “but if not” story for me.  He was a man on fire for the Lord, the greatest evangelist of his age, willing to live and to die for the Lord he loved.  And yet, rather than heal his disciple, the Lord chose to leave him wounded, to manifest His strength in Paul’s weakness, and Paul became a living testament of the power of God.
“‘But if not’ stories have always had a special resonance with me.  They aren’t pretty, they don’t have happy endings, you don’t often tell them to illustrate a principle in your talk, you don’t often read them in the Ensign.  And yet, they are filled with the power of God.  They’re the stories of a family who faithfully paid their tithing, and still didn’t have enough money to pay the mortgage, the stories of the bishop on his way to care for a widow who is struck and killed by a drunk driver, the stories of prayers that go unanswered, of heavens that are silent, of prophets martyred and promised blessings seen “afar off” that never materialize.
“Sometimes, God removes the thorn, mends up the torn skin, and we go forward rejoicing in His miracles.  Sometimes the cancer goes into remission, sometimes the baby’s life-threatening condition is resolved without the need for surgery, sometimes we wake up and our addictions are gone.  But sometimes, perhaps even most times, God meets us on the plain every day, and as we cry out to Him for relief, says simply, “my grace is sufficient for you,” and we learn to walk in the strength of God.”
Since last Thursday, when the new LDS policy (banning children of gay parent(s) from full participation in the church community, including receiving saving ordinances) hit the news, my own words (and Paul’s) from a week ago have been ringing in my ears, a reminder of Paul’s knowledge that God is good, that nothing can separate us from His love, that His grace is sufficient.  Even with that knowledge, I have felt spiritually torn in half, blindsided by the agony that consumed me—not only for myself, but for all the individuals and families, people I love and people I have never met, who are going to be deeply damaged as a result. I have felt like my whole identity was gone, like I no longer knew who I was, like I was trapped in a well so deep that I could see no way out.  
The policy is contrary to scripture.  It is contrary to the doctrine of Christ.  It is contrary to the nature of God.  It denies the mercy and atonement of Christ.  Every bit of my heart, every scrap of my conscience, and every God-given impulse within me bears witness that God is better than this, that Christ is greater than this.  I will not defend this policy.  It is indefensible.
The policy, and the theological and cultural currents on which it rides, will tear families apart, and do untold damage to “these little ones which believe in [Christ].”  It is a wound to the body of Christ.  It is a thorn in the flesh of the Church.  I will continue to pray, as Paul did, that God will step into the breach, that Christ will bring healing and hope, that this thorn “might be removed.” Broken-hearted prayer seems to be all I can offer in the face of such unrelenting, terrible darkness.
“But if not”--If it isn’t removed, if we continue to be hindered by this infirmity, if this thorn in our flesh remains to fester, I will pray that we will come to know what Paul learned in his extremity—that Christ’s grace is sufficient for us, both individually and as a church.  His strength is made manifest in our weakness, His grace overflows when all we have to offer is our broken, bleeding hearts.  I have seen an outpouring of that grace in the past few days, as my friends have shared their experiences of wrestling with God, and having their agony remade into something holy, sanctifying, and pure.  I have wept with others, received their counsel, been blessed by their insights, and together resolved to do better, to be better, to be more worthy to be called Saints, to live by Christianity’s radical creed: “Bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you, that ye may be the children of your father in heaven, who makes the sun to rise on the evil and on the good, who sends rain on the just and the unjust.”
I am not yet at the place where I can glory in this infirmity, or pray for my enemies.  My prayers are still the [also Pauline] “groanings which cannot be uttered.”  I am still working to find meaning in the fog, at doing my small part to mend this wound.  I am searching for, and seeing glimpses of, Christ’s radical, sacrificial, transcendent love.  I hope that, in our awful weakness, God will meet us on the plain and show us His strength, that, in humility, we will learn to walk in the light of the Lord.

With this thorn in our flesh, I will pray that we might be given the strength of our Savior, who wore His thorns as a crown.
Other resources:

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

O My Mother

Last Friday, the Church released the last two in a series of essays dealing with controversial or difficult topics about church history and doctrine. I have mulled them over for several days, trying to find the right way to express what I thought and felt. It turns out I had a fair number of thoughts, so I’ve decided to bring my blog out of hibernation and post them here. This post will consider the essay on Heavenly Mother (read it here). If I get time, I will address the other essay next week.

First, I am grateful that this essay exists, grateful that one of our most important doctrines is stated in black and white, rather than being something we whisper about.  I know that in doing so, the Church has put itself squarely outside the theological framework of the Evangelical right, and I’m grateful for that—they were never going to like us anyway, and Mormonism says fundamentally different things about the nature of the Divine than any iteration of Protestantism does, so there’s no reason to pretend otherwise.

The essay is at least as remarkable for what it didn't say as for what it did say.  I am grateful that it didn’t perpetuate some of the more common LDS folk doctrines about Heavenly Mother.  It didn’t say that we’re not to talk about Her, or that She’s too sacred to be discussed, or that Heavenly Father hides Her to protect Her name from being sullied, or that He is a polygamist and there are lots of heavenly mothers.  All this is a step in the right direction.  

I’m grateful that this new essay opens the door to talking more about Heavenly Mother, to talking about Heavenly Parents, about our Divine Family, instead of just Heavenly Father alone.  Think of what beautiful inclusiveness (and doctrinal correctness) we can achieve by changing our pronouns, by publicly expressing gratitude for our Heavenly Parents’ plan of happiness, testifying of Their love for us and desire for us to return to Them, the refining influence of Their Holy Spirit, which teaches us how to become like Them, etc.

Of course, we run into trouble with that last part, becoming like Them.  Though the essay concludes that our knowledge of Heavenly Mother is “sufficient,” I respectfully disagree.  Our knowledge of Heavenly Mother is practically non-existent, the place where She should be in our theology is filled with a giant question mark, even after this essay.  We have a vague notion that She exists, more as a logical necessity than an actual personality (“In the heavens are parents single?  No, the thought makes reason stare”[1]).  We have no account of Her words, no idea of Her attributes, no records of Her commandments, no history of Her interaction with Her children, no sense of Her power.  When we speak of divine beings, they are always male.  Despite our insistence on the need for both a mother and a father in an earthly family (and specifically to create and raise children), we are perfectly at ease depicting only divine men creating the earth and nurturing Their spirit children.  We have given Heavenly Father the “divine roles” of both earthly fathers and earthly mothers, and left no room for Heavenly Mother (except, I suppose, to be eternally pregnant, which is hardly my idea of exaltation). If there is, as the essay claims, a "divine pattern established for us as children of heavenly parents" in our current doctrine of Heavenly Mother, one would have to assume that the divine pattern consists of an all-powerful man (who is also creative, loving, and nurturing) and an absent and voiceless woman we never speak to and rarely speak about.  That doesn't sound like the pattern for an ideal marriage or a happy family.

The fact is that our knowledge is not sufficient—we need more.  We need more because, as Joseph Smith put it,“if men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” [2]  And without an understanding of the both the male and female parts of Deity, we do not understand ourselves, for we are made in Their image with the potential to become like Them.  We need more knowledge so that we can have a sense of what that image looks like for women, what exaltation looks like for women, what creation looks like for women, what godhood looks like for women.  We need more knowledge so that women will know the Goddess they are trying to emulate—for, despite many well-intentioned sermons at Church—I cannot become like Heavenly Father, for I will never be a father.  I need an image of what I can become.  It isn’t enough to have a vague knowledge that Heavenly Father logically exists—we need to know His character, attributes, power, commandments, and how we can approach Him.  Similarly, it isn’t enough to have a vague knowledge that Heavenly Mother logically exists—we need to know Her character, attributes, power, commandments, and how we can approach Her.   

Another line from the essay felt hollow: “The fact that we do not pray to our Mother in Heaven in no way belittles or denigrates her.”  That simply doesn’t resonate with me.  Using the analogy of an earthly family again, I can imagine how my mother would feel if I never spoke to her.  If when I called home to share good news in my life I insisted on speaking only to my Dad, if when I was confused or needed guidance I only ever asked for advice from my dad, if when we sat down to Christmas dinner, I only acknowledged my dad’s presence, thanked him for cooking the meal (even though my mom is the cook in the family), my mom would feel pretty slighted, and rightly so.  If only dad and the kids were in family pictures, if when I talked about my family and my childhood I only mentioned my dad’s influence, the things my dad taught me, and how much I want to be like my dad—then yeah, I think that kind of treatment would belittle and denigrate my mother.  And I couldn’t use the fact that the Bible hardly ever mentions the mothers of the prophets as an excuse for my poor treatment of my mother.  Similarly, I think that Heavenly Mother wants to be deeply involved in our lives, and is disheartened that when we call home, we never seem to want to talk to Her.  Relying on the Bible (which is not error-free, as our articles of faith attest) to justify our lack of attention to or communication with our Heavenly Mother is pretty weak theology.

I hope that this essay will not be the last statement on the matter, but that as a church and as individuals we will continue to expand our knowledge and understanding of our Heavenly Mother, that we will recognize Her teachings, Her power, Her love, Her influence in our lives, that we will be driven to give thanks to Her, as Elder Holland did during the last General Conference.  By doing so, I hope we all, both men and women, will gain further understanding of our own divine potential and attributes.  Just as we look at family photos and can see that we have our mom’s smile and our dad’s eyes, I hope we will come to see that the divine characteristics we recognize within ourselves come from our spiritual DNA that we inherited from our Heavenly Parents—some of it from Mom, and some of it from Dad.  And I pray that some day, when we call home, we will have the courage to ask to talk to our Mom, to express “the soul’s instinctive sigh for a Divine Mother," and that "we shall find her and be satisfied.” [3]  

The essay quotes Elder Clawson who, more than 100 years ago, wrote,“we honor woman when we acknowledge Godhood in her eternal Prototype.” I think it’s high time we took those words to heart, and I hope this essay provides the impetus for the dawning of a brighter day.  I believe that when we more frankly acknowledge, celebrate, and seek revelation about the Goddess, we will naturally come to recognize, honor, and make place for the full spectrum of Her daughters’ spiritual gifts and Godly power. As we do so, we will come to love God, to understand ourselves, and to build Zion together.


[1] “O My Father” by Eliza R. Snow, LDS Hymns # 292.  The original title was “Invocation, or the Eternal Father and Mother”.
[2] The King Follett Discourse
[3] The Millennial Star, Vol 34 no. 9, Feb 27, 1872, p.140