Teach me all that I must do
To live with him someday.
Naomi Ward Randall, 1908–2001
Last week I was out on my back patio enjoying some sunshine in our 70 degree weather, because that is what you do in Phoenix in December. I felt it time to listen to John Dehlin’s Mormons Stories Podcast where he interviewed Tom Christofferson about his book “That We May Be One.”
The interview was typical Mormon Stories Podcast format: Tell your story and then answer contemporary and relevant questions drawn from wisdom gained from your story. For me, I enjoyed his story and it was a disarming and refreshing experience listening to his conclusions and insights on such things as the Proclamation on the Family, the effects of the exclusion policy on the church, did he think same sex relationships and marriage were equal to opposite sex relationships and marriage, and his theology on LGBTQ in the plan of salvation. There really were no softball questions and John discussed subjects with Tom that have been wounding the LDS LGBTQ community for a long time.
As the hours of the interview rolled along and under the influence of the winter Phoenix sun, I let my mind wander through the possibilities couched in Tom’s answers.
Then Tom said something so stunning that my phone dropped to the patio floor as I was jarred back to the present moment. As I was searching for my phone under the lounger, John pressed further into what Tom had just said.
It challenged a deeply ingrained and very Mormon cultural issue… so deep that it is even hard to shake it if you leave the church.
It is not even an LGBT issue. It is a learned fundamental and foundational concept of Mormon life.
The following is a transcript of that portion of the interview with my reactions inserted.
John: What is your message to an LGBT Mormon youth or young adult? What do you want them to get from this book?
Tom: I love you. And your life can be a happy and full and complete one, and I encourage you to explore all aspects of who you are, including yourself as a spiritual being, and find that happiness.
(Eyes closed and lazily entranced in the Arizona sun, Nathan allows himself to play the devil’s advocate in a more serious way than he probably thinks he is doing. Even though he believes this statement that Tom just made, he dips down past the surface into the depths of what has made him Mormon. He thinks back on his almost 50 years of correlation, primary, seminary, religious instruction at BYU, priesthood leadership meetings, the missionary discussions he gave, the conference talks he heard… and instinctively runs the comfortable Mormon scripts: “In our search for happiness, our natural man desires are an enemy to God. It is the modern day prophets and apostles who teach the path of happiness. There is safety in strict obedience to the teachings of the Brethren, even if it is contrary to our own desires and happiness. We must overcome the natural man. Obedience with exactness. There is a way, and it is the approved Mormon way. The voice of the prophets is the same as the voice of God and they teach me all that I must do to live with Him someday. To think we can explore all aspects of ourselves and find happiness in who we are, and not in who our leaders tell us God wants us to be, is heretical.” ***Starts humming the catchy primary tune, “Follow the Prophet.”***)
John: And if they say I am doing that, but it leads me out of the church…I don’t have the ward you have, I don’t have the brother you have, I don’t have the patience or the “whatever that you have” — personality or disposition, or the testimony… If they say to you “This means I leave.” What would you say to them?
(Nathan feels jealous that he lives in a very conservative area of the church in Arizona, where our wards really do need to get better. Why can’t he be in one of those famous east or west coast wards known throughout the Bloggernacle as being accepting?)
Tom: I understand that. And that doesn’t stop me from continuing to pray that your ward will get better, and your family will get better, and you will have the opportunity to feel the connection to Jesus Christ that I feel. But I understand why you would make the choice that you’re making.
(Nathan thinks of his own choices in coming out, the loss of his mixed orientation marriage, and claiming his connection to Jesus Christ in the face of years of conference talks, Ensign articles, and priesthood leaders denying the dignity of the very path Tom is championing.)
John: Do you see the choice to leave the church and enter into a same sex committed marriage and to live out a life with a husband and adopting kids (and all that) as an inferior or sinful choice?
Tom: No. I feel like if you are doing the best you can to follow where you are being led and this is the healthiest and happiest outcome you can imagine, then you are doing the right thing. What I would say is that it’s a loss to the church. It’s a loss to my church because I want you to be there. I want you to add what you can add. And I want us to learn from you and all of us to learn together.
(Nathan’s eyes are open now and the Arizona winter sun is no longer hypnotic. He is paying full attention to another statement he completely agrees with, but the correlated Mormon keeps bubbling up: “THE THIRD MISSIONARY DISCUSSION! THE RESTORATION! The Great Apostasy was all about everyone doing their best and following where they were being led. But that was not good enough! Everyone was going their own way. God doesn’t restore prophets and apostles only to have everyone in the restored church just end up going their own way and doing their own thing.”)
John: But not inferior… sometimes the best you can may be heard by some as sub-optimal, as inferior. Do you mean it that way? Do you think of it that way?
Tom: I don’t know. What is better than the best you can? I don’t know.
(Nathan reflexively sits up, mouth open, phone is falling to the patio floor as the reality of this comment instantly shreds every Mormon obedience=happiness script accumulated through the years. Yes, what IS better than the best you can?)
John: The one true gospel way. The heteronormative or celibate Mormon faithful experience, some would say.
Tom: Great, but if you can’t, what’s the point of saying that’s the best?
(Where is that phone, I NEED to rewind the last 60 seconds of this podcast…)
John: What if you could, but you don’t want to?
Tom: Well, and I think that’s the personal element of it: Are we honest with ourselves? Right? Do we really know ourselves and are we being truthful with ourselves about what’s driving us and how we’re getting where we’re getting. And that’s, to me, that’s the healthiest way to live. And I don’t think it’s healthy to lie to myself about what I am doing and why. So I think if you are doing everything you feel can do to come up with the best decision you can make in that point in your life, Great!
“What is better than the best you can?”
Mormons are uncomfortable with this concept. For a bunch of perfectionists, often “the best we can” is not the considered “the best.” We WANT to know all that we must do… no unknowns… to live with God someday. We sing that over and over again in Primary in “I am a Child of God.” Teach me ALL that I must do: The one true gospel way. That’s the best! That is the bar! We have lots of “bests” in the church. We not only have the “best” heaven to get to, the Celestial kingdom, but we have a “best” of the “best” heaven to get to: the highest degree of the Celestial kingdom!
We seem to tell ourselves that we really can’t know for ourselves what the best path for us is. Strait is the gate and narrow is the way. The standard of “best” is set and given to us through prophets and apostles for us to strive for…to reach for. You cannot be trusted to make your own decisions, because what if those decisions take you out of the church? That cannot be of God. That cannot be what to “must do” to live with Him someday.
Because of this, when LDS LGBTQ decide to shed the lies and be truthful about themselves and about what they need to do to achieve happiness and a healthy way of life, they are often met with calls that such notions are selfish and dangerous because it is coming from within. Allowing yourself to make your own decisions and find your own happiness, especially if it defies the exclusion policy and leads you to apostasy, is not very Mormonormative.
Even if we do decide it’s best to leave, the concept of a one true gospel way sends years of self-imposed guilt and shaming our way. Spooky Mormon hell dreams are a real thing.
Why are we uncomfortable with this concept that there is nothing better than the best we can do? I think it is because as a church we are somewhat unfamiliar, if not uneasy, with the concept of grace. We truly are confused at the grace that so fully Christ proffers us.
Tucked away in Tom’s three hour interview is a brief but compelling illustration that reintroduces us to the very Mormon concept of “grace after all we can do”, framed for LDS LGBTQ:
“For we labor diligently…to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” 2 Nephi 25:23
As an LDS LGBTQ, you have the opportunity to feel a connection to Jesus Christ right now, not at some distant time and not dependent on policy, heteronormative standards, hierarchical approval, or where you live geographically in the church. It is up to you to do all that you can do to make the best decisions for your health and happiness. This means being accountable and truthful to yourself. Doing the best you can to follow where you are being led is the healthiest and happiest outcome for you. For after you have done the best you can, no matter where the church places you in this mortal moment, it is by grace that you are saved.
Grace is the saving gift, freely given. You do not earn it through any merit of your own. You are sufficient to own, to redeem, and to justify.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “But all is not lost. The grace of God is our great and everlasting hope.”
Be kind to yourself as you journey in this life. It is OK to trust in your personal revelation and truthfully be the best that you can. This is all we can do. Go forward in confidence.
Be confused no longer by the grace that so fully He proffers you.
Thank you Nathan for another beautifully and insightful post.
Thank you Samuel
For Mormons we seem to find saftey and security in knowing that we are acceptable towards God and have come to see being on an approved, heteronormative, and correlated path as proof that we are doing all we can. It seems like as a church we equate this to “holding to the rod” and Nephi has warnings for what happens when we let go of the rod and leave the path so many are on. Who really wants to go off into the mists of darkeness or end up in the great and spacious building? I know I have an eye on the tree of life. It’s uncomfortable to leave a prescribed path even if it’s for personal health and happiness.
For LDS LGBT holding to the rod still means mixed orientation marriage or celibacy to stay on the approved path.
Any Mormon who strays from the plan or path their peers are on immediately feels insecurity that their chosen path is not THE chosen path, and that will keep us from reaching the tree of life to partake of the fruit of the Love of God.
When you are living truthfully and the best you can as an LDS LGBTQ, often you leave the institutional certainty and you begin traveling a life dependent upon the grace of Christ, which is something you hope for, but cannot see. This takes courage. It takes much courage to live by grace!
Right now our same sex married members are living by grace. Totally by grace that the judgement of God will be different than the judgement of the church. Bless them all for their courage!
I know it’s not the iron rod that saves us… It’s grace. But the hope of grace doesn’t make it any easier when you feel a life independent of the church is letting go of the iron rod. It’s disquieting.