Monday, April 13, 2015

Confessions from a Counterfeit: part two

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“I don’t know. Maybe I believe in life after death because it’s comforting. Maybe I just believe it because I’ve been taught to my whole life. But there’s something in it that feels so certain to me. I’ve just never doubted it before.”

“What’s so comforting to you about it?”

“I just love life. I don’t want it to end.”

“Haha. I’m like the opposite. My life has been really hard. I look at my baby sister, and I just feel bad that she has to live, too. She’ll have to suffer like I have. And I still have so many years of shit left to wade through. I kind of just want it all to end. I’d rather there be nothing after this life.”

“That’s so foreign to me. Isn’t there anything in life you’d like to continue? I mean, if you could choose what heaven was, would life after death be worth it?”

“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if there is a life after death, then I don’t think I get to choose it. It just happens. If I came up with my perfect heaven, it would just be some sort of counterfeit I made up in my head.”

“I guess you’re right. But I still want to know, if there were a life after death, and if it was the type that would satisfy you, and if you knew about it, don’t you think it would make the suffering more worth while?”

“It wouldn’t change that the suffering happened.”

“I guess that’s true.”

“Let me ask you a question. If everything ended when you died, and you knew it would end, would you still love life?”

“I’ve never really asked myself that question before.”

“Well what if you’re just doing what you asked me to do? What if you’re just making some counterfeit image of life, calling it heaven, and using it to comfort yourself? Death is just a part of life. If you can’t be okay with it, how can you say you love life?”

“Wow. That’s a heavy question. But I think you’re right about one thing. When I say I love life, I mean I love parts of life. I love the sunrise. I love holding hands with my girlfriend. I love laughing with my friends. But I really hate it when I get sick. And I hate watching people I love suffer. And my roommate really frustrates me. When I say I love life, I don’t think of any of those things.”

“Well if there was a life after death, and it was filled with sickness, suffering, and annoying roommates, would you want that, or no life after death at all?”

“I mean, if it was all just bad, I wouldn’t want it.”

“So you say you love life, but really you just love the parts you like. If life is bigger than just the parts you like, then isn’t your view of the afterlife just a counterfeit?”

“I’m going to have to think about that.”

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“We want our voice to be heard against all of the counterfeit and alternative lifestyles that try to replace the family organization that God Himself established. We also want our voice to be heard in sustaining the joy and fulfillment that traditional families bring. We must continue to project that voice throughout the world in declaring why marriage and family are so important, why marriage and family really do matter, and why they always will.”
--L Tom Perry, April, 2015

“The Lord ordained marriage between male and female as a law through which spirits should come here and take tabernacles, and enter into the second state of existence. What is the object of this union? is the next question. We are told the object of it; it is clearly expressed; for, says the Lord unto the male and female, I command you to multiply and replenish the earth.”
--Orson Pratt, 1852

“The Twelve…believe it to be their privilege before God to raise up as many children here in the flesh as they can, that they may have a greater kingdom to rule over in eternity…
Oliver Olney, 1845

“A man’s or woman’s glory in eternity, is to depend upon the size of the family… A husband’s rank in eternity must greatly depend upon the number of his wives.”
James H. Kennedy, 1888

“The purpose of increasing one’s family, by marrying several wives, was to have a numerous posterity. It was taught that the larger the family, the greater would be the Kingdom over which the father in the Celestial order of marriage would rule and reign in Eternity.”
Annie Clark Tanner

“According to Joseph Smith, ‘each new woman brought into an eternal union increased not only the potential size of the family kingdom but the man’s exaltation as well.’”
Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward

“The principle of plurality of wives never will be done away… go ahead upon the right principle, young gentlemen, and God bless you forever and ever, and make you fruitful, that we may fill the mountains and then the earth with righteous inhabitants. That is my prayer, and that is my blessing upon all the Saints and upon your posterity after you, forever. Amen”
Heber C. Kimball, 1855

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Tom Perry: You’re very lucky you didn’t live to see what happened in the world to the institution of the traditional family.

Brigham Young: I knew it would get worse. God revealed to me that the world would increase in wickedness until the end of days, and that only in the mountains of the west would the true order of the family be maintained.

Tom: We fought our hardest, but in the end the courts ruled against the traditional family, and even in Utah, counterfeit families were given sanction by the government.

Brigham: So the courts reached as far as Utah in banning the practice of plural marriage? Was monogamy forced on the people? Surely you maintained the sanctity of God’s proper order of marriage despite what the courts said?”

Tom: …                           

Brigham: You mean, you allowed governments of men to change the will of God???

Tom: Are you not aware of the Manifesto?

Brigham: The Manifesto? What Manifesto?

Tom: God revealed to Wilford Woodruff that it was his will that the church end the practice of plural marriage.

Brigham: Then Wilford went astray. God revealed to me as plain as I am speaking to you now that if the church of God ever abandoned the sacred practice of polygamy, or allowed his blessed seed to intermix with the seed of Cain, the descendants of Africa, then it would be apostate and no longer under his guidance.

Tom: With all respect, I think you are mistaken.

Brigham: Marriage between one man and one woman, or between men and women of different races, is just a counterfeit of the true order of heaven, as things shall be in the hereafter: that one white man should join in matrimony with many white women so that they can build kingdoms in this universe to glorify the Most High God.

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Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee
And Thou, oh Lord, are more than they.

Perplext in faith, but pure in deeds
At last [we] beat [our] music out.
There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me than in half the creeds.

--Alfred Lord Tennyson

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“So I thought a lot about what you asked me last time.”

“I’ve been thinking about it, too. What do you think?”

“I’ve realized that so much of what I think about the world and how people should live their lives is all based on what I think the world will be like after we die. But I created that world. I decided in my head what the ideal would be. And that ideal isn’t the way things are. It’s just a cheap counterfeit. I’ve believed for so long that my counterfeit vision was the real thing…but I’m starting to realize that it’s the opposite.

I always thought the suffering and bad parts of this world were just cheap counterfeits of what was to come in the next life. But I’m starting to realize, they’re part of the substance of life. They’re intimately tied to everything I love about life. I can’t just love a part of life, because the parts I love depend on the parts I hate. We haven’t talked in a few months, and in that time my girlfriend broke up with me. It’s been miserable. But I wouldn’t take the relationship back because of all the beautiful moments we had together.

Life after death used to comfort me so much—but I want to be done living my life based on counterfeits. I want to understand life as it is. If I believe in anything, I want it to be life before death.”

“Wow, that’s a big change. But I really like that. Life before death. I’ve been thinking lately that my perspective was a bit grim. I think there’s something to imagination. After we talked last, I started thinking a lot about what I wish my life was like, and it’s caused me to change a few things. And I’m a lot happier.”

“But you’re imagining things in life, not outside it. “

“I guess that’s right. And it seems to be a really important difference. If you start with an impossible ideal you’ve made up, and then judge life by it, life will never measure up. But I guess we can start with the way things are, and then imagine ways to make it just a little bit better.”

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Confessions from a Counterfeit: part one

           We were sitting at McDonalds in Sunnybank, Australia, relaxed. Laughing with each other. Enjoying our time. And then they told us they wanted to go see a movie. We told them we couldn’t, and we needed to get back to work. Leslie looked up at me and said, innocently,

“I always forget you aren’t real people.”

            Twenty minutes later, we were sitting at the bus stop, and something in me knew she was right. Real people actually get on the bus. Real people don’t sit at the bus stop for hours collecting the phone numbers of strangers who might be interested in their church. Real people can care about people because they’re people, and not potential baptisms.
            That night, when the day finally ended and my companion and I were back at the flat getting ready for bed, I felt for the first time like missionaries were counterfeits. I saw an incredible irony: our entire mission was supposedly to love people, but the very parameters of our mission experience inhibited us from doing just that—
            Like they had when we stopped meeting with Andrea. She had become a good friend of ours. We cared about her. She cared about us. And we had to stop contacting her because she decided she didn’t believe the Book of Mormon was true. She didn’t want to go to church anymore. And when we stopped hanging out with her I realized that instead of loved, she must have felt used.

It was easy to forget—we weren’t real people.

            Counterfeits aren’t just fakes. They’re fakes that are trying to pass as real. They’re fakes that are carefully designed to be nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. There’s an element of deception in a counterfeit. Maybe that’s why it stung so deeply this last weekend when L Tom Perry inferred that LGBT relationships are a “counterfeit lifestyle.” Maybe that’s why I had so much internal conflict when I felt that night on my mission that missionaries were counterfeit. I didn’t want to deceive people—and I wasn’t ever purposely doing that. But when you offer friendship to someone, and then take it away when they don’t live up to your expectations, you’re deceiving them.

            Offering love only to take it away when someone doesn’t meet your expectations is to lie.
            Offering acceptance with the hidden agenda of getting someone to behave a certain way is to deceive.

            It really is that simple.

            Something else interesting happened at this conference weekend. People were in uproar that anyone would dare decent when President Uchtdorf asked if “any were opposed” to the sustaining of the General Authorities. It was shocking. And that is fascinating.
It is shocking to answer a question honestly. Honesty is only shocking where deception and self-censorship are the norm.

            And I think that among the greatest deceptions is to say that someone else is a counterfeit. Because we are deceiving ourselves into believing that we know something more than it is possible for ourselves to know: the content of another person’s heart; the intent of their soul.

             I’m not calling missionaries counterfeit people. Missions are far too complicated to call any one thing. And I don't think that all the relationships I made as a missionary were counterfeit. But I am confessions something: I spent parts of my mission as a counterfeit. In fact, I spent 22 years as a counterfeit: deceiving others and myself into believing that I was something I wasn’t.
             Honesty was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Because when I finally was willing to honestly raise my hand in opposition to doctrines I find inhumane, people were shocked.

            Because honesty is shocking where deception is the norm.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Your beliefs are not sacred. And neither are mine.

                The last two posts on the Millennial Mormons blog have sent me thinking. Obviously my mind first went to Chinese literature and political philosophy. In what follows, I’ve tried to outline what I find troubling in the attitudes of Blake Oakley and Samantha Shelley. A brief recap of what they said: Blake Oakley reemphasized the astounding fact that the Church’s doctrine has not changed in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, while Samantha Oakley wrote thatthe Church, and Jesus, still love gay people. It’s the last bit that draws my attention, and that’s the aspect I’d like to address.
                I left a comment on the post that was sadly censored, but I’ll repost it here:

“The problem is not that “the church” “hates” LGBT people. The problem is that the culture and system of thought we have created cause LGBT people to hate themselves.

There are a few important points in what I just said that will raise questions:

1) “The culture and system of thought we have created”

I’m sure your first reaction to that statement will be that this is the revealed word of the Lord. The problem with holding to that is that in order to believe that anything is revealed by God by prophets, you either have to believe that EVERYTHING every prophet has ever taught AS COMING FROM GOD is in fact truth revealed from God, or you have to have an alternative method by which to judge what is and is not revelation.

If you choose the former, then by necessity, you believe: that everything Brigham Young ever taught was the word of God (he taught that there wasn’t a single word he had uttered on the pulpit that wasn’t the will of God)–this includes blood atonement, that slavery is moral, and that black people are inherently inferior. I doubt you accept that as the word and will of God.

That leaves you to choose the second option–that there has to be some criterion external to revelation by which we gauge whether or not what the prophet says EVEN WHEN THEY SAY IT IS THE WILL OF GOD (because Brigham Young did). To believe this you must, by necessity, believe that there is something higher and more important than revelation.

To discover what that criterion is, ask yourself this: in 1852 Brigham Young testified that slavery was ordained of God; would you as a Latter-day Saint at that time be morally obligated to believe that, or morally obligated to stand against God’s prophet and make arguments against slavery? If so, by what criteria would you judge the morality of Brigham Young’s assertion?

What’s happening here is far more complicated than revelation. I posit that it is the process of cultural creation. We create the culture, call it revelation, and then marginalize people as a result. For more information on the evolution of church doctrine over time, see the book “This is My Doctrine,” available on Amazon.

2) What causes LGBT people to hate themselves?

If it was only one or two LGBT people experiencing self-hatred or loathing for their attractions to people of the same sex or gender dysmorphia, then we could call it a statistical fluke. Based on research from John Dehlin, the accounts of LGBT people, and my own experience as a gay man in the church, I can say with surety that it is far more than just a few. Every LGBT person I have ever met has experienced deep hatred of themselves, their situation, or their life at one point or another. Because of its common occurrence, we must assume that there is some external variable causing this phenomenon.

All evidence that I have received and my own personal experience points that it is the very culture and system of thought we call “the church” or “Mormonism” that causes this. It is the very doctrines of the church that create a world view under which LGBT people do not belong in the eternities–they must first be transformed into something they are not or have never been–in effect, to gain exaltation, they must die.

Your sentiments here are well-intentioned, but they fail to grasp the heart of the issue. And the heart of the issue is this: that our experience in life is created by the paradigm through which we approach it, that our paradigms are constructed, and that any paradigm we construct that marginalizes people, causes disproportionate numbers of youth to be on the streets (see the LGBT youth homelessness rate in Utah), causes disproportionate amounts of people to kill themselves (see the research on LGBT youth suicide in conservative communities, and especially Utah), fails to live up to the values of universal compassion that we espouse as the crowning value of our faith community.

Declarations of “this is the word of God” are not and never will be enough in the face of the realities of self-hatred, youth homelessness, and suicide that I argue are the result of the system of thought you present. And yes, sadly, that implicates anyone and everyone who is a part of furthering the cultural paradigm that causes these phenomena. Me, you, and each of us bear responsibility.

May we all be brave enough to rethink our deeply held beliefs, because in the final analysis, beliefs are not sacred. Human life is.”

And now for the Chinese literature.
Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman,” published in 1918, laid the foundation of China’s “New Culture Movement.” Suffering from paranoia, the purported author of the diary brings the reader with him on his slow descent into madness. First, he fears that the Zhao family’s dog is somehow angry at him. Then, out on the street, he notices how everyone is talking about him. They’re watching him. They’re whispering plots against him. “It’s as if they’re afraid of me,” he writes, “but also as if they want to hurt me.” What is it? What could they be planning? What were they going to do?
                They wanted to eat him. He realizes it in third entry—the people on the street, his neighbors, and even his older brother were all planning on eating him. This sends the madman on a
frightened journey towards the source of their cannibalistic designs. Looking for any precedence in history, he looks back through the Confucian classics. Confucianism had been the foundation of Chinese society for nearly two thousand years. As he reads through the books, the madman slowly realizes that the hidden meaning between “benevolence,” “way,” and “virtue” was “eat people,” “eat people,” “eat people.”
                In the final scenes of the book, the community and elder brother confront the madman. As he begins to promise them that they can change—that they don’t need to eat him or anyone else—that there is still hope for them, they call him “crazy” and lock him in his room. In the closing passages, written in the confinement of his room, the mandman realizes that it’s too late to save any of them. But the children—they haven’t been corrupted yet. And so his diary ends with a simple plea. “Save the children.”
                The most striking piece of Lu Xun’s short story is what’s left out. While it’s very clear that the community thinks he is mad, there is never any explanation of whether or not he was correct about the people’s cannibalism. This forces the reader to ask a question—the very question that propelled readers of “Diary of a Madman” to rise up against the Confucian culture of the past—was the madman insane because he was imagining the cannibalism? Or was it because he was insane enough to speak against it?
                This question is reminiscent of the works of political philosopher Hannah Arendt. Attending the trial of Nazi war criminal Albert Eichmann, Arendt was struck that he didn’t seem particularly evil. In fact, he was disappointingly normal. He didn’t personally make the abhorrent decisions—he only carried out orders given to him from above. And yet, his work was responsible for the death of millions of Jews. Reflecting on the trial, Arendt wrote a piece for the New Yorker in which she argued that Eichmann’s evil was not spectacular in its villainy, but in its banality. In the German philosophical tradition, banality represented simple thoughtlessness; a refusal to engage in the critical thinking necessary for true selfhood and true moral living. Eichmann simply carried out the orders someone gave to him, refusing to consider his individual actions as carrying moral weight.
                Likewise, Lu Xun’s madman notes that no one particular person was to blame for the cannibalism that threatened his life. Rather, it was the system of customs and traditions that shaped them. Lu Xun’s critique was that the Confucian moral system turned people against each other, causing the rich to metaphorically consume the poor, and even families to turn against one another. But because they held Confucianism as sacred, they were trapped up in the banality of evil. Eichmann was not particularly wicked. He could have been anyone’s father or grandfather. He was merely convinced of the sacredness of Nazism. He held his beliefs as sacred. And the result was the ultimate tragedy.
                I hesitate to use the example of Eichmann because the hyperbole of Nazism is not directly applicable to the conversation of LGBT issues and Mormonism. I do not mean to say that any of my further analysis bears any resemblance to that particular brand of pure evil; I bring it up to explain and emphasize the banal characteristic of evil.
Walking away from Arendt’s insight and Lu Xun’s madman, we are forced to ask ourselves a series of questions. Are beliefs sacred? Can what we believe be a source of harm to other people? Are values we hold up, like “charity,” “obedience,” and “traditional family,” really just masks for “eat people,” “eat people,” “eat people”? I argue that these questions are essential for anyone who takes morality seriously. And I argue that your beliefs are not sacred. And neither are mine.

                I’ve got to qualify this. Belief is a complex process driven by sacred personal experiences, family connections, and deep historical relationships. I don’t mean to say that personal experiences with the divine are not sacred. I don’t mean to say that family relationships are not sacred. What I mean to say is that your conclusions in regards to what they mean are not sacred.
                We encounter a problem when people begin to lead conclusion-driven lives. When people treat their beliefs as sacred, they act as if the conversation is closed. Their beliefs enter a realm beyond questioning and beyond criticism. The answer has been reached. The solutions are at hand. This is how the Confucians in “Diary of a Madman” approached life. This is how Albert Eichmann approached things. And this is how so many on both sides of LGBT issues in Mormonism approach things. And I include myself in this criticism.
                But obviously I do have an agenda with this post. I’d love to say that we just need to listen to each other and everything would be fine. And I do think that we should listen to each other more. But equally important in that process is speaking up. And this is what I have to say about the church’s love for LGBT members:
                Behind the sincere (and I do think they’re sincere) expressions of love lies a dire, albeit banal phenomenon. The problem is not one of intention—it is systemic. As a system of belief, Mormonism simply precludes eternal LGBT identities. This leaves LGBT Mormons floundering for a place. And it results in real harms—youth homelessness, depression, anxiety, and suicide.
                And so I say that Mormonism eats LGBT people.
                Let me repeat myself: Mormonism eats LGBT people.
             And so, Samantha Shelley, when you tell me the church and Jesus love LGBT people, what so many of us hear is not "come, let us love you," but "come, let us feast on you." 
And this is a banal phenomenon. It is not purposeful. It happens because people hold their beliefs to be more important than the sanctity of life. It is a tragedy. And tragically those who realize it are often labeled insane. Doubters and LGBT people alike can easily identify with Lu Xun’s madman when, in regards to the eyes that peer at him and the whispers he hears around him, he says “it’s as if they’re afraid of me…but also as if they want to hurt me.”
I end now with the same wish I wrote at the end of my censored comment.
May we all, myself included, have the bravery to question everything we believe. Because your beliefs are not sacred. And neither are mine.
In fact, they may just be eating people.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Exploring the LGBTQ Experience and Faith through Art

My own ongoing journey of reconciling faith with a minority sexual orientation has been the defining struggle of my life. It's been deeply rewarding and transformative. Many times throughout the process, the only medium I've found adequate enough to express the complexity, nuance, and contradiction of it all has been poetry. When the thoughts and feelings became too much, they spilled out of my pen in an attempt to understand myself and my own experience.

The more I've come to know other LGBTQ/SSA Mormons, the more I've found many who have similarly turned to art to express their own experiences. Late last year, I had the idea of starting a community for people to share and explore the intersection of sexuality and faith through art. So many of the poems, songs, and stories shared in that group have touched me and resonated deeply with my own experience, and I think they deserve to be heard.

So in the upcoming weeks, I'd like to start a new blog dedicated to sharing the diverse artistic expressions of LGBTQ/SSA Mormons as they creatively explore their own experiences. In my experience, art has a unique capacity to express emotion and circumstance without judgement and inspire empathy and compassion in those who are exposed to it. My hope is that as we can build a community of empathy and creativity and find resonance and identification in the artistic work of fellow LGBTQ Mormons.

Anyone interested in sharing their poetry, stories, songs, or any other artwork that deals with themes of Mormonism, faith, and the LGBTQ/SSA experience, please contact me and join our Facebook community. I look forward to working together to release the artistic and creative potential of the LGBTQ/SSA Mormon community. I hope that this can be a place where everyone, no matter their perspective, current position with the church, or choices in regards to how to handle the LGBT experience in the Mormon context can feel safe to share their most intimate and creative expressions.

While the intersection of minority sexual orientation/gender expression and Mormonism is the main object of the community, everyone is invited to join the Facebook group, no matter how they identify in terms of sexual orientation, gender, or religion.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Short Story Narrated by God

Last night I was thinking of what I think of God...and so, in utter blasphemy, I attempted to write a short story from the perspective of the Almighty.

I'm not pretending to know what God actually is or means--this is just the best expression I could come up with of what I currently think of God.

Words and Wordlessness

There will come a point in time, if you have not reached it already, when the words you’ve put together to contain your life will burst from internal pressure. It was just such a moment, now, for Thomas. His arms curled around his knees; he sobbed. He’d thought of calling someone—maybe his sister, or one of his close friends. But he didn’t know what he’d even say.
                It was all too big, he realized. No amount of explanation would bring anyone close to understanding the immensity of it all. Nothing would fully explain the origin of the tears lightly licking his cheeks or the tremors of hyperventilation shaking through him. He’d had moments like this before. But there was something different about this one. It was the first time he couldn’t put together a complete explanation that was free of contradiction. There was no neat story-line that had brought him here. It was just too much.
                And so he sat there on the floor, curled up in the space between his dresser and the door to his bedroom, releasing the wordless immensity in wordless, inward cries.

                Allow me to introduce myself. I’m sure you’ve heard much about me—I don’t mean to be presumptuous, it simply happens that along with the title of “Divine Omnipotence,” most people think they know a thing or two about you. People have been labeling me for countless centuries—God, Yahweh, Shang Di, the Tao, Shiva, Kali, Krishna, Osiris, Zeus…the list goes on and on. I get quite bored of all the names, to be honest.
                In fact, it might surprise you to find out that the Word Made Flesh is not much of a fan of words at all. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of when I appeared to Moses at the burning bush. He asked me what I was called, and I had no idea what he even meant. Called? In many human languages to introduce their name, people say “I call myself…” But what do you say when you’ve never called yourself anything before? It caught me off guard. Most people had simply made up names for me—but Moses actually had the decency to ask what I thought of myself.
                And so I told him—No name. I simply am. Funny thing is—it just became another name. The Great I AM. Another thing to call me. Frankly, his people missed the point completely— I really wish they wouldn’t have called me anything at all.

                And here, now, Thomas finally understands a small piece of what I’m talking about. How did he get here? Why was he crying on the floor? Well the simple answer was that Alecia walked out on him. Yes, Alecia, the girl with the hair like a sunset and eyes as fierce as the sky on a bright summer’s day. Alecia, the girl whose voice was like the light breeze whistling through the trees. Alecia, the messiah of Thomas’ loneliness. She left him.
                But his tears were much more complicated than that. He wasn’t just crying for Alecia—he was also crying for his friend Anthony, who would perhaps never leave the hospital. And for his incurable loneliness. And for the time when he was six and hid in the bushes because he didn’t want his cousin to call him more names. And for the rejection letter he'd received from Ohio State University. And he was crying for his pathetic excuse of a job. No, it wasn’t just Alecia. It was the everything of which she was only a part.
                And to be quite honest, I think she was in the right. Really—despite all those beautiful words Thomas used to describe her (the above were his, not mine—like I said, I rarely work in words), he never quite understood her. Their relationship was like that of painter and his subject, always trying to force her to be still—not out of maliciousness, but because he saw some deep beauty in her that he wanted to capture on canvas. And Alecia, dear, wild Alecia, could not be kept still.
                Sure it seemed noble—he saw her beauty. He wanted to capture it—to preserve it—to keep it there for all to see. But in the end, he stifled her. And so she left. Earlier this very afternoon, she told Thomas she was leaving and not coming back. She had packed all of her important belongings into two, black suitcases, and took a taxi to the airport. She was returning to her childhood home, some small town in Oregon whose name Thomas could never quite remember. And a few hours later, his heart had finally processed what his eyes had seen and ears had heard, and his body could no longer contain the torrent of anguish it had been keeping inside for so, so long. The reservoir of pain finally outgrew the dam he’d built to keep it in. Rushing down, it became a flood of destruction.

                This will be a very short story. You’ll notice that it begins at the climax, with our hero
overcome. I’ll warn you that he stays there for its duration.
                I’m not the one to come to if you’re looking for solutions or prescriptions. I don’t solve things. Solving is something that ought to be partitioned to the realm of eighth grade algebra classes, and stay there. Solutions occur only in the world of the fixed and the finite, where just enough manipulations can create the desired outcome. No, I don’t deal in solutions. If I had to choose a name, it would, perhaps, be Infinity.
                But this is precisely why I don’t like names. I’m sure you’re familiar with the work of the artist Rene Margritte? My favorite is the large image of a pipe against a solid background, with the appellation, “this is not a pipe.” I wish that every name I was called, including “Infinity,” and every description of me, and every painting and image made of me, could be accompanied by the appellation, “this is not a God.”
                Words—it always comes back to words. They were your invention, you know. The sensory world was just too much for the human mind to handle. Oh yes, you humans like to think you’re somehow special—like your ability to manipulate symbols somehow makes you better than other creatures. But I’ll tell you just what words do. They steal you away and hole you up into fantasies of your own creation, fooling you all the while into thinking that the never-never land of your descriptions are an accurate map of reality. The words you use hardly describe things—they call forth simplifications, that’s all. Just simplifications. And I’ll tell you why, try as you might, you’ve never been able to find me completely—because I am a thing that cannot be simplified. Irreducible. Absolute, even. Which is why even my current attempt to describe myself will, ultimately, fail completely.

                And to be honest, that is not my intent. I hope to do no more in this short sharing than to show to you the tears of Thomas as he sat there in the corner between his dresser and his bedroom door, with his arms around his knees, rocking back and forth, and to tell you that you, like him, will reach the point where what you are is too big for the stories you tell about yourself.
                Thomas was too much now. He and Alecia were a contradiction—yes, you heard me say that he stifled her. But I could give you another picture to show that it wasn’t just a one-sided stifling. Imagine the oft-repeated image of the donkey whose master is leading it on by a carrot on a string. The donkey lurches forward, always trying to catch the carrot. Alecia often knew what she was doing, and did it anyway. And Thomas saw the maliciousness, but wanted the carrot too badly to care.
                Are you starting to see? I understand why Alecia left, and I don’t blame her—no one wants to be the subject of a portrait for that many years. But I can also see how pitiful it is that Thomas, after following the carrot for so long, had even its mirage stolen from him by her sudden withdrawal. And now, with no one to lead him forward, he sat bathing in the waters of his own tears.

                Living waters. That’s one description of me that is apt, indeed. And think of all the things that living waters do—they pour from the sky, bringing life-granting moisture. They escape from your eyes when the pain is too much. They surge with the destructive force of tsunamis, mercilessly ripping to pieces the homes of the innocent. Living waters can do much more than quench your thirst—you can also drown.
                And so I am life, love, joy, and creation, but also death, anger, vengeance, and destruction. No one name or description even comes close.

                Do you see now? I’m too much for words. Once you use them, you lose me. Now, sobbing and in the depths of misery, Thomas is closer to me than he’s ever been—and I don’t say that to try to give you some false sense of comfort and joy that I’m with you always. I say that because it is the literal reality of the matter. Thomas’s stories have broken down. He’s seen the contradiction of his life. Words have become smaller than him. Words can no longer contain his reservoir, and so it spills over, entering the wider, wordless world.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Thoughts on Salvation

I just ran across this poem/prose thing I wrote about salvation sometime last year. Thought I'd share it.

I often find myself pausing to ponder exactly from what it is that we want so badly to be saved.  The concept of salvation permeates our thoughts and theology to such a deep degree that it shapes our views and shifts our focus. An emphasis on salvation lends itself so naturally to the condemnation of sin. How often do we glory in salvation only at the cost of living a life of stress at our mistakes? And especially potent is salvation's potential in contrast to the destitute drone of our sometimes hellish reality.

Scripture teaches that man has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Religious rhetoric attempts to reveal the immediacy of our own imperfection. A theology manufactured to save so often succeeds only in condemnation--if not outwardly, then at least inwardly as the self resolutely rejects its every flaw. Psychology confirms that people have a proclivity to focus on negatives. In the mind's eye, a negative vastly outweighs a positive. And so while salvation promises the potential of a perennial positive,  it delivers the more psychologically potent damage of emphasis on the events from which we're taught we need to be saved.

And so the question coming to me over and over is this: if I was never told to want to be saved from sin, then would I feel so far removed from salvation? Is the need for salvation only truly found in the creation of the concept? Perhaps if I approached life more organically, not as if it were a test imposed by deity, but instead the grand evolving of a species that creates and extracts meaning from the paradoxical complexities of a reality beyond our comprehension, perhaps then peace would be more present and the ever burning need to correct the constant inconsistencies of the phenomenon of "self" would gently fade away. Is sin the problem? Or is it the concept of a salvation that keeps me bound in chains by promising to set me free?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

To be Free from Suffering

A comment on my last post made me realize I need to clarify something.

How can I accept the world exactly as it is, and yet desire that people be free from suffering? Isn't this an incredible contradiction?

It isn't, for two reasons: this sort of acceptance comes from a place of nondual thinking, and so to accept the world is to accept my desires, as well. Second, to be free from suffering does not necessarily mean that the suffering ends.

The path of accepting the world precisely the way it is begins with a deep inquiry into our own nature and the processes of our conception and cognition. The more deeply I understand the nature of reality, the more willing I will be to accept it. And this inquiry into nature's essence has, for me, yielded the conclusion of the nondual nature of the world.

What do I mean by this? Much of our philosophy and perspectives on life are based on the idea that we are something separate from life itself. There is this self, and there is everything that happens to it--two separate things. There is mankind, and then there is nature--two separate things. There is self, and there is God--two very separate things. Watch yourself, though. Watch your thoughts and your motivations and ask this one crucial question: where do they come from? Where is their origin?

This is the incredible thing about studying history. When you study a time period deeply and then read the writings of people who lived and thought in that time, you see their thoughts and feelings in context--almost everything they write can be viewed as the product of historical forces. Likewise, my every thought, and many of my fears and pains, are the product of historical and social forces. My hunger, thirst, and fatigue are the product of the laws of nature. So what exactly am I?

Nothing separate from the whole. I am the intersection of many different things, but I am not separated from the world or from life itself. And so, to accept the world is to accept my own desires and thoughts about the world--but to accept them for what they are, which is not any product of my own uniqueness, but rather the culmination of the intersection of historical and social forces that I represent.

And this is why acceptance is never quietism. I believe that the world is perfect just as it is, including my desire to change it. I do not want people to be hungry, and so I accept the world of hunger and my own desire to change that world. These are not two separate phenomena. They are one.

Second, to be free from suffering does not mean that pain ceases. Freedom from suffering comes when we stop identifying in suffering. When we recognize ourselves for what we truly are--which I believe is loving awareness--we find an incredible capacity to greet our own suffering with love. Instead of identifying in the pain, we can identify in the awareness that is aware of the pain (and the awareness of the pain is not in pain--it is simply aware of it. Awareness of depression is not depressed. Awareness of anxiety is not anxious.)

As we cease identifying in our suffering, something changes about its nature. We stop desiring for it to leave. We find an incredibly deep acceptance. Ironically, it is this very acceptance that changes things. It is this very acceptance that makes us, like Hafiz, "always kind and full of wonder." This is the step between desiring change and becoming change.

Suffering can be a beautiful and wonderful thing, because it is a call to awaken to our own nature.