Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stars, Wishes, and Why I Believe in God

My first encounter with God was in a tree. Well, the first one I remember, at least. I couldn’t have been more than
five years old. I had been playing in the yard, and decided that I wanted to climb the tree. I kept going higher and higher—it was the furthest up I had ever been when I suddenly got stuck. I couldn’t go any farther up, and I couldn’t seem to get down safely. I started to panic. But then I remembered a song we had just learned in primary. The only line I remember is the first one, “genealogy, I am doing it, my genealogy.” The song went on to talk about how genealogy could help us. I knew that stuck there in that tree in that moment I was in desperate need of help, and so I prayed out loud and said “dear Genealogy, please help me get out of this tree.” I honestly don’t remember how the story ends. I’m obviously no longer in the tree, so I’m assuming I got down somehow, but I do remember the feeling of desperation and reaching out for help to some distant power. I clearly misunderstood what genealogy was, but I remember the deep trust that there was a being out there who could hear me and who wanted to help me.

Every morning when we got up, my parents would have us all come together for family prayer. Every night we would kneel in a circle again, and pray, and then read a chapter in the Book of Mormon. Every time we prayed we had a little family tradition. Once the person praying said “amen,” we would all put our arms around the people next to us and say together “Our family!” and then put our hands out in the middle of the circle and say “I love you!”             

Between primary, family prayer and scripture study, and weekly family home evenings, I put together an image of God at a young age. He was a father different than my dad. He lived in heaven, which was somewhere up in the sky. He could answer my prayers and help me get what I wanted. After watching Disney’s Pinocchio for the first time, I realized that just like you could pray to God for things, you could also wish on stars to get things that you wanted. And so that night after going into my room to sleep, I went to my window and patiently waited for the first star to appear. When it came, I made my wish. It must not have been too important, because I don’t remember what it is I wanted. But I remember wanting it. And I remember having complete faith that the star, like God, could grant my wish. And I remember the disappointment I felt the next day when it didn’t happen. And then I began to wonder, if the stars can’t give me my wishes, then will God really answer my prayers?

Santa Claus also played a big role in my early thoughts about God. I believed deeply in Santa Claus. Every Christmas season I would beg my older sister to tell me stories about Santa Claus, and she would recount incredible tales of life in the North Pole, and my imagination would light up with scenes of Santa’s workshop and of all of his elves making hundreds of toys. Christmas was my favorite time of year by far. It was magical. So much of the magic and mystery was created because I believed in Santa Claus. And when my dad told me he wasn’t real, it was hard for me to rebuild the magic of Christmas. I remember sitting on my mom’s bed, and I asked her if dad was right, that Santa Claus wasn’t real. She confirmed it. And my next thought was, well then what about God?

Part of me could sense, though, that while stars and Santa Claus were kind of trivial, that God was something far more serious. And that He wasn’t to be questioned. By this age I was beginning to get the feel of prayer. We ask for things, but we don’t always get them. We pray for knowledge, but it doesn’t always come. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we’ll feel something incredible as we pray. One time after family prayer, my oldest sister started crying and said that she felt the spirit. I tried so hard to feel it, too. I wanted to feel it so badly, but I just wasn’t sure what it was yet.

When I was six or seven an aunt and uncle came to visit us. My mom and dad went out to eat and go to a movie with them, and they left our cousin to babysit me and my brother and sisters. We had a great time, and our cousin, Andrea, took us out to the park across the street from our house for a few hours to play. We went back to the house a little while before the sun started to set. We found, to our horror, that someone had locked the door on the way out, and that no one had a key. We knew our parents wouldn’t be home until a lot later that evening, and we were scared of staying outside after it got dark. We played games for a while to distract ourselves. But we couldn’t get off our minds the question of what to do. I suggested that we say a prayer. We all knelt down in a circle in our driveway, and I said the prayer. I remember feeling naively certain that God would help us. And so I asked God outright to please unlock the door. After saying amen, we stood up and walked over to the door. Each of us had tried the door before, and it had definitely been locked. This time, it was open.

I wanted to tell everyone about what had happened. The next few weeks in primary, I could hardly stop talking about how God had opened the door for us. It was a miracle. It was proof that God was really there and that he really would answer our prayers. I was so sure of it, that a few months later when I got home early from a scouting activity to find no one home and that I was locked outside in the cold, I confidently knelt down on my knees, and uttered a quick prayer to God, asking him to open the door, and knowing full well that it would open. I stood up, but my hand to the door knob, and turned it. It was locked. It hadn’t worked. I sat outside for what felt like hours, but was really probably no more than fifteen minutes, until my mom got home from shopping.

I kept praying. I didn’t always get what I wanted, but sometimes it would happen. I didn’t pause until many years later to ask the question of why God would bother working the miracle of opening a door for a few kids from a middle class family so that they didn’t have to spend a few harmless hours in their front yard in the dark but leave countless hundreds of thousands of children to starve to death in distant places. I hadn’t yet stopped to contemplate the complexities of a God that claims to care, but brings his children into a world where they can’t help but experience pain. But those questions came all too soon.

As time went on, I began to recognize the feeling that everyone was calling the “spirit.” It was a bright feeling. It was a feeling of comfort. It felt like when I was little and I had a bad dream, and I would run downstairs and fall asleep in bed with my parents, feeling like their warmth was warding off the terror of my nightmares. Oddly enough, it was through nightmares that I first came to start feeling God. A few months after moving from St. George to Cache Valley, I started not being able to sleep at nights. One day near Halloween I heard people on the radio recounting their encounters with ghosts. Every night for months afterward I dreaded the time when the lights would be turned off, because I thought that if I closed my eyes I would see the pale white glow of a ghost coming to haunt me. I was bitterly frightened of the night, but was too embarrassed to tell anyone. And I prayed and prayed each night that God would help me to not be scared, but the terror persisted.

One night after family scripture and prayer, my mom told me that she wanted to talk to me. She said that the other night she was sleeping and had a really bad dream. She woke up, but the dark feelings wouldn’t go away. She prayed for them to leave, but they wouldn’t. And then suddenly she felt like God was telling her that this was how I was feeling each night, and that I was having troubles sleeping. And then she told me that if I prayed that angels would guard me from evil spirits that I would be able to sleep in peace. I was crying. I felt like my heart was on fire. I had spent months of lonely, frightened nights pleading with God to help me to no avail. And here He was answering my prayers in a moment through my mom. That night when I went to sleep I prayed that the angel Moroni , and Nephi, and Alma would all be in my room to guard me from evil spirits. And I prayed for specific angels to watch over each of my family members. And for the first time in months, I slept in peace.

 After that night, I never had problems with nightmares again. If I ever got scared, I would pray for angels, and the bright, warm feelings would come back to my heart.

I started to recognize those same feelings when I would read certain parts of the scriptures, or when I would pray, or sometimes during church. And I started to bear my testimony sometimes, and then I would feel it even more. And I wanted more of it. I wanted so badly to know more about God and to have more faith and be closer to Him. When I was fourteen years old attending my first EFY session, I remember sitting down and opening the Book of Mormon. It felt like the words on the pages that were on fire while Lehi testified that his soul had been redeemed by Christ that he was “encircled about eternally in the arms of His love.”

Inextricably connected to the history of my interactions with God was my experience with being gay. When it first dawned on me that the feelings I was having for other boys were what I was supposed to be feeling for girls, I turned immediately to God. I asked him to take it away. I asked him to fix me. I asked him to comfort me. I begged to know why I was this way, and why it was that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t feel anything I was supposed to for girls, while at the same time I couldn’t rid my heart of the feelings I had for boys. At first, God met my constant tears and prayers with silence.

One night during my junior year of high school, I was especially distraught. I fell asleep crying. Once I was asleep, I started to dream. In my dream, I was in my house at the kitchen table. My face was in my hands, and I was sobbing silently to myself. Even in my dream, I felt incredible despair. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. And I felt an electric, piercing feeling through my heart. Even before I turned around, I knew whose hand it was. When I did turn my head, I was surprised by His face. There was one picture of Christ that I had always disliked. It made him look so unappealing and weak. Staring back at me with eyes that pierced my soul was the face from that painting. I suddenly woke up, but I was still completely surrounded by a feeling of warmth and comfort that completely drove out all thoughts of despair. And I fell back asleep in peace.

During high school my thoughts of God matured. Instead of the magical being in the sky that listens to my thoughts and gives me things if I ask hard enough, God became an explanation. He became a purpose. I became deeply persuaded that God loved me and that He loved everyone. Pain, I learned, brought me closer to Him and taught me how to love people. For a time, it seemed like everything made sense. But no amount of dreams, warm feelings, or insights could take away the reality of my deepest secret. I felt like I was wearing a scarlet letter underneath my clothes. No one else could see it, but if they could I would be branded as different, and I would be hated. And no matter how much I felt God loved me, I still felt like this part of me was wrong. It wasn’t what He wanted. I had to change.

I left on my mission more sure of God than I had ever been before. I was so excited to share with people the love that had come to mean so much to me. I wanted so badly to teach people that they could personally communicate with God, and that He would answer their prayers, like He had so many of my own.

And I loved my mission. But in moments of honest reflection, I would often wonder just how many prayers of mine God had actually answered. At least eighty percent of them, I knew, could easily be coincidences that just interpreted as being from God. Most of the feelings I’d ever felt could just be positive emotions that I gave the label of “the spirit,” but really no different than I’d felt reading the seventh Harry Potter book. But try as I might, I could never explain the unlocked door. And remnants of the piercing feeling in my heart as I dreamt of Christ still lingered within, so I found the strength to go on.

As a missionary, I experienced many moments of clarity and closeness with God, but perhaps even more of deep loneliness and questioning whether or not God was really there. And when I got home from my mission, those questions continued. The spiritual experiences I had before my mission seemed to never come back to me, try as I might. And as I moved forward in confronting my sexual orientation, God seemed further than ever before. There were a few bright moments, such as when I finally asked God if I was okay the way I was, and felt peace. But the dark moments were manifold.

One night, all by myself in a hotel room in Changzhou, China, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I broke down into tears, lying on my bed. I started shaking and hyperventilating, and praying out loud. I was begging God to send me someone. Anyone. I needed something, because I couldn’t handle the pain on my own. I begged and pleaded, but the depth of emotional pain continued coursing through my heart and bursting through my eyes in the form of an endless stream of tears.

And a few months later as I travelled with classmates in Europe, I would pray and pray, but only ever felt enveloped in my loneliness. After a while, I felt completely abandoned by God. It was far worse than my nightmares as a child, because if it got too bad, I could always run down to my parents room. But there was no hand to be held in the depths of this new agony. There seemed to be no place I could go.

And as I returned from Europe and began questioning Mormonism, and everything I had ever believed, I found that so much of what I had experienced could be explained away. I began to doubt God’s existence more deeply than I had at any time since discovering the truth about Santa Claus. And I didn’t know what to think and what to do.

Looking back at this brief and incomplete history of my interactions with God is to me like looking out at the night’s sky. My experiences are like stars—seemingly random, chaotic, and senseless. God will open a door for me at one moment, while simultaneously leaving millions exposed to hunger. The vast majority of prayers I ever prayed were left unanswered. And yet He came to me powerfully in a dream. He was willing to alleviate the agony of my nightmares, but not the later agony of my nihilism. A starry night sky of experiences.

But we know what humans do with stars. They make constellations. They tell stories. And so I look at the random mess of my own experiences, and with them, I put together a constellation. I tell a story. My story is the story of a God who is a mystery. He is a God who may or may not exist, but if He does, I feel strongly that He loves me. When I connect the dots of my own experiences, I’m left facing a God as deeply complicated and paradoxical as the reality He created.

I now know that wishing on stars is useless. And I know that genealogy is not a mystical being that will help me get down from trees. But I also know that my life has been touched by the transcendent and is marked with the incomprehensible. I think I’ll keep loving this God, this constellation born of my life experience, because doing so gives me meaning. Just like when I was a missionary, standing out on my balcony feeling lonely and so far from home, staring at the stars and feeling comforted by the sight of Orion, so, no matter where I go in life, will God continue to give me meaning and inspire me to be a more compassionate person.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Today I've been thinking about the Wizard of Oz. A conversation I had a few weeks ago sparked me to think about the deeper meanings and messages in the story in ways that I've never really thought of before, and it's actually incredibly deep. There are lots of different aspects to it, but I want to talk about just one.

I've always really related to the song "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" because I've so often felt trapped and suffocated by reality. I don't think I'm alone in that. I've found in conversations with people that many of our deepest emotional problems come from staring in the face a reality we never wanted and contrasting it to the beautiful ideals we imagine in our minds. For me, one of those ideals has always been the specter of what it means to be "normal." I saw other guys so naturally developing feelings for girls, loving sports, and getting along so well with each other. Their normalcy evaded me completely. I only had feelings for men, which caused deep shame. I never liked sports. I felt like I could never fit in with other guys, because I felt so completely abnormal. And I dreamed of somewhere over the rainbow where I could be like them. Where I could be normal.

The beginning of the Wizard of Oz is in black and white. When Dorothy is singing about wanting be somewhere different, her world seems so simple and boring. And the interesting thing to me is that once she lands in Oz, everything is in full color, but it's nothing like the "over the rainbow" she dreamed of. The the first thing that happens is she lands on someone and kills them. And then she's met by a good witch (aren't witches all supposed to be bad?) She meets a smart scarecrow who things he has no brain, a loving tin man who thinks he has no heart, and brave lion who thinks he has no courage. They all think their problems will be solved by finding the Wizard, but he ends up being a hoax and they have to solve their problems on their own. The land of technicolor is anything but simple. It's filled with complexities and difficulties of which Dorothy had never before dreamed.

The lyrics from the song "Wonderful" in Wicked get to the point I'm driving at:

A Man's called a traitor or liberator
A rich man's a thief or philanthropist.
Is one a crusader or ruthless invader?
It's all in which label is able to persist.
There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities,
So we act as though they don't exist.

I've found that for myself believing that there is some fantasy "over the rainbow" only leads me away from what really brings peace, which as an acceptance of the complexity and ambiguity that is a life in technicolor.

I really love what Brene Brown said in her Ted Talk about vulnerability. She said that "Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up. That's it. Just certain." This mentality also seems to stem into politics, where it all seems to devolve into argumentation and polarization. And I'm far from guiltless of it. But I think that it's dangerous, because it's not in line with the reality of life.

And the reality that I find over and over is that life is deeply complex. It's not as simple as just finding somewhere beyond the rainbow where all of our dreams come true. Because even if all of my dreams came true, I don't think I'd be completely happy. Happiness, I think, comes from something deeper and more substantive than wish fulfillment. In my experience, it comes from being okay with who you are, and trying to improve where you can. Acceptance of reality is vital.