Tuesday, June 17, 2014

District Meeting Devotional: Your Purpose

This kid has some serious questions. So did I. Photo credit.
            Growing up as a gay Mormon can be confusing for many obvious reasons, not least of which is the challenge of coming to terms with a theology that hasn’t set a very clear place for you at the table. My youth was certainly confusing. This confusion led to a lot of questions. Though I had felt real and powerful spiritual experiences in my childhood and adolescence which contributed to my growing testimony, I still had questions about my sexuality buried deep-down. Information published by the church and church-related organizations about homosexuality was inconsistent and unhelpful. Instead of finding the answers I craved, I found more questions. Did God make me this way, or did some unconscious action in my childhood shape my sexual orientation. Could God change me? Would God change me? Was my faith strong enough to earn such a miracle? What unresolved sin was impeding God’s intervention on my behalf? This led to more questions. Did the atonement cover me? Did I truly know how to repent? Did God even love me, or did my sexuality disqualify me from feeling his love and approbation? As I got older and began to question the information I had previously read about homosexuality, my questions changed yet again. How could church leaders be called and inspired of God if what they taught about the origin and changeability of homosexuality was so incongruous with my own experiences and those of my gay Mormon acquaintances? If church leaders were wrong on that, what other mistakes had they made? If church leaders were occasionally wrong, was the church even true? Was God real?

            I don’t mean to be melodramatic or self-pitying. I also realize that I’m not charting any new or profound territory in sharing the questions that harried me in my youth and young adulthood; these are extremely common questions that most LGBTQ Mormons and many, many straight Mormons ask. They have been written about and explored extensively. Nevertheless, these questions largely defined my adolescent spiritual life. Thankfully, I was blessed to grow up in a family and a ward that gave me the tools to work through crises of faith with my testimony intact. I have since found satisfying and comforting answers to almost all of those questions. I am happy with my bisexual identity and I no longer feel that my orientation represents any kind of unworthiness or shortcoming. I believe that God loves me and I also believe that the church is true. I was able to serve my mission with surprisingly little cognitive dissonance. I’m grateful for that.

            The point is, recently I have spoken with several friends who, for a variety of reasons, chose not to serve missions. One of the common concerns for them was that they felt they couldn’t serve as a missionary for and bear testimony of a church they only partially believed in. They felt that their uncertainties and questions about certain aspects of church doctrine and policy would color the rest of their missionary work a shade of insincere. Their individual situations and perspectives of course are much more nuanced that that, but that sums up a common theme of their decision-making processes.

            I fully recognize that for many LGBTQ Mormons, there are many excellent reasons not to serve besides these kinds of faith questions. For many, choosing not to serve is the best option for their health and happiness. That choice is just as legitimate as choosing to go on a mission. But for those who face these questions yet still want to serve, or those who are grappling with these questions while in the field, I want to offer a few words of encouragement.

Missionaries are awesome, but they don't know everything. Photo credit.
            You don’t have to have a perfect, shiny testimony to be a good missionary. I would even venture to say that you can disagree with and question some things that the church teaches and still be a powerful missionary. This may seem a surprising claim to some readers, but take a moment to think about it. Do the run-of-the-mill missionaries serving in your ward know everything? Certainly not. Do they have experience-based testimonies of everything the church teaches? Of course not. They teach about the blessings of tithing, but few young missionaries have had the experience of working to support a family and make ends meet and still exercising the faith to pay that ten percent when things are tight. They teach about enduring to the end, but the 18, 19, and 20 year-olds knocking on doors in your town are just at the beginning of their lives. No missionary has a finished testimony. No missionary understands everything.

Having questions or doubts should not discourage a future missionary who otherwise wants to serve. The ninth Article of Faith declares that God “will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” Current church teachings do not provide answers to many of the profound questions that LGBTQ saints (and missionaries) face, and I believe that questioning and eagerly awaiting future revelation is a perfectly acceptable part of anyone’s faith journey. It’s part of our doctrine and history. Furthermore, Doctrine and Covenants 4 makes it clear that “if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work” (verse 3). This statement is not qualified by any disclaimer excluding those who question. Most importantly, the work to which we are called is currently defined by a very simple purpose, that missionaries the world over recite every week, if not every day:

Invite others to come unto Christ by helping them receive the restored gospel through faith in Jesus Christ and His Atonement, repentance, baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and enduring to the end.
            Preach My Gospel, Page 1

Your purpose is the doctrine of Christ. Photo credit.
            Take a second to ponder this charge. It’s simple. It’s beautiful. And it leaves room for a whole lot of questioning, as long as a missionary’s testimony is firmly rooted in the doctrine of Christ and the restoration. Missionary work is about helping people develop faith in Christ and act on that faith. Missionary work is about serving others in such a way that they feel the divine love of God. Missionary work is about helping people approach God and become disciples of Christ who will then go out and love their neighbor more fully. Questioning does not have to get in the way of this.

            So, my dear gay missionaries and future missionaries, do you have questions, doubts, or hesitations? So did I. The question you must ask yourself is if you believe that Jesus Christ is your savior and that the principles of faith, repentance, baptism, and confirmation have helped you get closer to him. The question you must ask yourself is if you believe that Christ restored the gospel through Joseph Smith. So ask yourself. Do you believe?

Go ahead, pray and ask God. Photo credit.
If you do believe these things, then hold on to your questions and keep asking them, but don’t let them stop you from sharing your testimony of the fundamental things that you do believe, because the world needs the power of your testimony. If you aren’t sure whether you believe or not, then pray and ask God. Find out for yourself. Going through this process will only make you a better missionary in the future if you choose to go. Also, remember that it’s okay not to know right now. The scriptures are full of stories of people who had questions, who were unsure, who didn’t have all the answers, but were willing to ask. Joseph Smith is the best example of this. God loves you all the more for not knowing but asking anyway; it’s through people like you that he works miracles.

Once again, it’s okay to not know everything. I certainly don’t. We must each go through the process of searching, pondering, and praying to find the truth for ourselves and understand it as best we can. No one can do it for you. But if it’s any help, remember that I know that God loves us—loves you—and that Christ is our savior. I know that he died for us and that through his sacrifice we can be cleansed and sanctified. I know that through faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the Holy Ghost we can experience joy and feel divine peace in our lives. I know that God called Joseph Smith as a prophet and that through him, new doctrine was revealed and the church of Christ was restored. I still have lots of questions about that church and doctrine and how we fit into it, but I believe that God has set a place for us at the table of the church, and that he wants us in it. This knowledge and testimony of Christ was enough for me to fulfill my purpose as a missionary; it will be enough for you, too.

It's because Joseph didn't have all the answers that
the gospel was restored in the first place. Photo credit.

Friday, June 6, 2014

District Meeting Day

Once a week, missionaries all over the world excitedly gather for district meeting. It’s one of the few moments of the week for elders and sisters to get together, learn from each other, share struggles and triumphs with each other, and take a breath of fresh air. For those who don’t know what a district or district meeting is, I’ll explain. Each mission in the church is made up of anywhere from 80 to 300 missionaries (approximately—I don’t know what those numbers are like now with the surge in missionaries over the last year and a half). These missionaries and their companions are assigned to zones. Zones usually consist of 20 to 40 missionaries and are further sub-divided into districts. The mission president designates one elder as a district leader, who, in effect or at least in theory, supervises the other five to nine missionaries in the district.

Among his other responsibilities, the district leader is expected to prepare a training to present each week during district meeting. This training is intended to give the district leader the opportunity to “teach other missionaries,” “train [them,] and coordinate the work” (Missionary Handbook 61-62). District meetings could be spiritual, doctrinal, practical, or (ideally) all of the above. Together, we would study gospel principles laid out in Preach My Gospel, discuss and improve on the day-to-day tasks and techniques of missionary work, and practice teaching. More than anything, district meeting is a time to recharge your missionary batteries and rediscover the drive to work hard.

District meeting was one of my favorite days of the week! It meant train rides, exchanges, good friends, good food, good laughs, and for than half of my mission, it meant Paris! District meeting days taught me many lessons throughout my mission. Though most lessons that missionaries learn must be discovered by the individual, and those that can be taught aren’t very well transmitted through a blog, I’d like to have a weekly “District Meeting” post to focus on passages from Preach My Gospel and the scriptures that teach gay missionaries how to be successful in authentic and healthy ways.

Now behold, a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men. Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that ye serve him with all your heart, might, mind and strength, that ye may stand blameless before God at the last day. Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work; For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul; And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work. Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be unto you. Amen.

This scripture is perhaps the best-known and most-quoted missionary scripture in the Doctrine and Coventants. I am sure I will revisit this scripture in the future because there is so much to be learned from it, but today I want to focus on one line from this section that is especially pertinent to LGBTQ missionaries: “Therefore, O ye that embark in the service of God, see that you serve him with all your heart, might, mind, and strength… Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work” (Verses 2-3) These words are frequently used along with the adage “forget yourself and go to work” to encourage missionaries to forget about distractions and personal matters and engage fully in the work. I wish to suggest a different reading: accept yourself and go to work. I think that for you, a gay missionary, to truly accomplish what you are capable of on your mission, you need to remember and accept who you are. Serve God with your heart, might, mind, and strength. Sure, this means that you need to cultivate the discipline and diligence to keep knocking on doors when you’re tired, but this also means that you need to incorporate every part of who you are into your work; you need to offer your heart and your mind, not just your talent and hard work.

When I began my mission, I was terribly ashamed of my sexuality. I had never spoken to a soul about this colossal, mysterious secret that I carried around with me. I was convinced that if I served a faithful mission, worked hard, and obeyed the rules, then God would simply take this secret away from me. I would be transformed through the grace of God, and in my new life as a straight man, I would never have to speak of my past orientation. I was so sure that because I was bisexual (though I didn’t use that word at the time) there was something fundamentally wrong with me and therefore my worth as a person and child of God was diminished. I tried to ignore these insecurities and bury them away in hopes that they would disappear. That didn’t work so well. As time went on, my inner turmoil increased and as I disconnected from myself, I disconnected from other people. I was so emotionally broken that it was extremely difficult to form close relationships with my companions. Because I felt unworthy (as if my sexuality were the result of some unresolved sin or inner failing) and incapable, I lacked confidence in my interactions with members, investigators, and the people we met on the street. As my depression grew, my ability to function crumbled. I was frequently sick, slept horribly, and lost all motivation to get up and go. Anyone who has served a mission knows how essential that spring in your step really is. In other words, because I couldn’t accept myself, I wasn’t serving with everything I had—I had very little to give and no strength to give it.

With some good help and God’s grace, I began to recover, and was in a very healthy place for the last fifteen months of my mission. I certainly wasn’t where I am now, but I began to learn to love myself and to trust that God loved me, too. As I slowly remembered who I was (a child of God with eternal worth and potential), I was able to give more of myself to those I served. I even reached the point where I felt comfortable talking to my mission president about my sexuality, in whatever halting terms I could find. That brought me even more peace and I was able to serve more effectively and love more fully.

I wonder how my mission would have been different if I had been sufficiently self-aware and self-accepting to acknowledge my sexuality from the start and served my mission authentically as a bisexual man. I don’t know, but I’m sure I could have touched more hearts, because I would have been at peace with my own. In the end, however, that doesn’t matter because I did my best where I was and I made progress. You see, the grace of God did transform me over the course of my mission, just not in the way I expected. It didn’t change me from gay to straight, but it opened my heart and taught me to accept who I am and the gifts I’ve been given.

I hope that you, as a gay missionary, can learn and internalize this truth. The more you are at peace with and accept yourself, the more you can connect with and love others. Love, connection, peace, and acceptance. These are central to missionary work and to the Savior’s message. The sooner you can learn this for yourself, the sooner you can help others do the same.

So, elders and sisters, you have the desire to serve, so you are called to the work. Now it’s up to you, not to forget yourself and go to work, but to accept yourself and go to work. Serve the Lord with your whole self, sexual orientation included. Remember who you are and serve him with your heart, might, mind, and strength.