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What Manner of Men and Women Ought We To Be?

April 28, 2014

 

 

 At this tender time for my family, I am grateful to my brothers for their willingness to plan our father’s funeral events around my commitment to join with you today. It seems particularly appropriate to be with you to pay tribute to both of my parents, for their great legacy is their sure witness of the Savior and the gift of loving as He loves.

 

I have been asked to share some of the insights that I have gained from my experiences, especially in my relationship with the church. I would make two quick points as we begin: first, as you surely understand I speak for myself only; and second, my journey is a work in progress, and thus I share my experiences as a means of relating some lessons I have learned along the way, rather than as a prescription that anyone else should follow the same path. To my mind, one of the most wonderful aspects of our theology is the opportunity and requirement that each of us must know for ourselves the mind and will of the Lord for our lives.

 

I was raised in an active Mormon family, I was born in Utah and we moved to New Jersey when I was three and to the suburbs of Chicago when I was nine. I served in the Canada Montreal Mission under extraordinary leaders, President and Sister Wayne and Marlene Owens. Before and after my mission I attended BYU. Without having the words to describe my knowledge, I sensed from about age five that I was different from my brothers in a significant way, and by the time of my freshman year at BYU I knew that I was gay but I also knew that I loved the gospel and that my identity was tightly connected to the church.

 

After my mission, it became increasingly difficult to integrate my desire for same-gender connectedness with my hopes for my life, and with the promises of my patriarchal blessing. Thinking that if I did all the right things the feelings I had would go away, I was married in the Los Angeles temple and that marriage was annulled some months later. The tuition for the school of experience can be dear, as we know, but to my great and lasting regret a large portion of that cost was borne by the talented and loving woman to whom I was married. That marriage ended as it became obvious to me that I could not, with any integrity in my soul, continue to pretend to be a straight LDS man.

 

As I decided I would try to understand and experience my life as a gay man, I felt the honest way to begin was to seek excommunication. I could not resolve in my own mind, and I certainly didn’t see any examples around me at that time, how one could be a gay Mormon (thankfully, that situation is becoming very different now). At the time, though, this seemed a pretty clear choice and therefore I did not feel any bitterness about that course of action, nor about the high council court experience. And so for a couple of decades, my only connection to the church was when I would visit my parents and attend Sacrament Meeting with them.

 

While living in San Francisco -– a stereotype, I know -– almost twenty years ago, I met Clarke Latimer, and after many months of dating we decided to build our lives together. At the time Clarke attended a church that practiced a wonderful gospel of social engagement and had an amazing choir. And at various times in our life together, Clarke and I have attended services of other denominations, and generally while they have been incredibly affirming of LGBT congregants, and active practitioners of a gospel of Christian good works in their communities; ironically and sadly, it has seemed to me that they were much less affirming of the actuality of Jesus Christ, of the reality of His atoning sacrifice, and of the singular veracity of the gospel He brought. Despite a successful career and a very happy life, over time I began to feel more strongly the lack of a clear spiritual dimension in my life.

 

Let me backtrack a bit in the story to talk about my dear parents and my relationship with them. I know that it was a struggle for them to reconcile their rock-solid faith in the gospel with their unconditional love for their gay son. Quite soon after I came out, they took an opportunity to express to my brothers and their wives their determination that nothing would be allowed to break the circle of love that binds all of us together as a family. As they expressed it, while none of us is perfect as individuals, we can be perfect in our unconditional love for each other. They loved and embraced Clarke upon getting to know him.

 

We had an experience during a time when they came to visit us in Oakland where Mom’s health took a downturn and, as Clarke was a hospital administrator at Alta Bates Medical Center, he was able to arrange for a doctor to see her immediately even though it was a holiday. That day, Clarke determined that he wanted to make a mid-career change and go to medical school in order to become a primary care physician: a process that required of him a decade of incredibly hard work and commitment. Over the years, and with those skills, Clarke has been a devoted and tender caretaker of my mother and father.

 

My parents were married for nearly sixty-eight years before my dear mother passed away two and a half years ago. Our father turned 94 at the beginning of this month, and my brothers and I count as a particular blessing from our Heavenly Father that we were given so many years of association with our wonderful parents. I recall one conversation with my father when I told him how much I love him and how greatly I appreciate the charity and empathy he shows to me. He was quiet for a few moments and then said, “I’ve thought about what would have happened if I went home and told my father I was gay, and I’m very sure he would have thrown me out of the house and had nothing to do with me ever again.” Then Dad said, “I think each generation gets better at parenting and learning to show our love.”

 

On another occasion just a few years ago my parents and I talked about how best we could be united in our prayers; we came to the determination that we could acknowledge in our prayers our faith that Heavenly Father is perfectly righteous and perfectly just, and that some of the things we don’t understand today we leave in His hands. I also know they have never ceased praying that there would be a way for me to fully return to membership in the church, likewise for Clarke, and that is another prayer where we have been united. I am so very grateful for the example I have seen of perfect love.

 

When visiting my parents, Clarke and I would attend church with them and, since my Dad’s birthday is at the beginning of April, we were often there during General Conference and would watch sessions with them or attend a session at the Conference Center. I came to hunger for the restored gospel in my life, having arrived at the same conclusion as Peter:

 

“Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”1

 

About seven years ago, when Clarke and I moved to New Canaan, Connecticut, I knew there was an LDS ward in town, and I began to periodically attend Sacrament Meeting. I would time it so that I arrived just after the meeting had begun, I would sit in the back rows of the cultural hall (on those hard and uncomfortable folding chairs), and I would bolt the minute “Amen” was uttered in the closing prayer. I began to think that acting like a thief in the night in order to go to church was a rather odd approach, so I called the bishop and asked if I could arrange a visit with him. We sometimes speak of the “tender mercies”2 of the Lord, and this occasion was one for me.

 

My dear Bishop, Bruce Larson, had been in his position for only a few months. He was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs who a couple years earlier had been asked to head Human Resources for the investment bank, including their diversity programs. I told him of my background and of my desire to attend church meetings. He immediately said that I would be welcome, as would Clarke, and that he looked forward to getting to know us. He asked me to bear my testimony, which was unexpected, and my expression was halting but sincere of my witness of the Book of Mormon and of the restoration of the gospel. He said that he would like to talk to the ward council, let them know of our conversation and see if they would have any ideas on how I might participate. We spoke again the next week and he said that the ward council wanted me to know that we would be very welcome, and he encouraged us to actively join church meetings and activities. I asked the bishop what I should say to other members if they asked if I had a wife. He thought for a moments and then said, “well, I don’t think it’s a good idea to lie at church, do you?”

 

In the early months as I began to attend more regularly, but still only Sacrament Meeting, many times I would feel out of place and uncomfortable because I didn’t know anyone other than the bishopric, who made a point of saying hello every time I walked through the door. But I keenly felt the Spirit of the Lord during meetings. After a particularly powerful Fast and Testimony Meeting, I spent some time writing the testimony I wanted to possess, both the things that I could then say with certainty and the things that I aspired to know. That summer, the bishop issued a challenge to all ward members to read and study the Book of Mormon during the school vacation break. I joined in reading and was reminded that I knew, as I had known since my teenage years, that this book is indeed another testament and witness of Christ, and that Joseph Smith, as the instrument of its translation, was the prophet of the restoration of the gospel.

 

One Sunday morning as we were visiting, the bishop expressed the thought that other ward members managed to be there for the full three hour block and that I likely had similar stamina, so I started attending Sunday School and was invited to meet with the High Priests group, and after more time had passed, invited to give the lesson from time to time.

 

Preparing for these remarks today, I sent my recollections to Bishop Larson to make certain my retelling of them to you would be accurate. May I share one portion of his reply?

 

“On the first night that we met in my home, … (the) thing that stands out boldly in my mind was my request of you to end our first encounter with a word of prayer. I recall of our meeting that I was as surprised at how quickly and effortlessly I was prompted and inspired to make that request, as I was to acknowledge that, of course, you are welcome in our ward family. I firmly believe that prayer, which was humble, heartfelt and full of the spirit, strengthened both of us for the road that lay ahead… I know it allowed me a glimpse into your heart and soul at the very onset of our relationship and immediately reaffirmed in my own mind that acceptance, love, friendship and a place in the ward was there for EVERYONE. As Jesus said to the Nephites, ‘And ye see that I have commanded that none of you should go away, but rather have commanded that ye should come unto me, that ye might feel and see; even so shall ye do unto the world’ 3.”4

 

As I have come to know and love the other members of my ward -– and I say “my” ward even though I have sometimes described myself as “the most active non-member of the New Canaan Ward” –- I occasionally have to remember that as wonderful as it is to feel wanted and welcomed there, “no more a stranger, nor a guest”5; the purpose of my participation is to commune with the Spirit, to progress on my road of discipleship, and to support others on their journey.

 

Recently, I have had the special privilege of a monthly scripture study session with my stake president. I feel so powerfully in those hours a spirit of love and brotherhood, as well as the enlightening power of the Holy Ghost, “for my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them” 6. I know the demands on my stake president’s time are enormous, in his calling as well as professionally, and likewise for each of you who are in leadership callings, so I am especially grateful that he, and you, are willing to create time to do as did the Nephite disciples at the time of the Savior’s appearance, “they taught and did minister one to another” 7.

 

I am learning, as Elder Neal A, Maxwell once said, “as you submit your will to God, you are giving Him the only thing you can actually give Him that is really yours to give. Don’t wait too long to find the altar or to begin to place the gift of your will upon it! No need to wait for a receipt; the Lord has His own special ways of acknowledging.” Elder Maxwell continued, “I testify to you that God has known you individually, for a long, long time. 8 He has loved you for a long, long time. He not only knows the names of all the stars9. (He) knows your name and all your heartaches and your joys! By the way, you have never seen an immortal star; they finally expire. But seated by you [today] are immortal individuals—imperfect but who are, nevertheless, “trying to be like Jesus” 10.” 11

 

I am learning that the process of submitting my will to His is not a one time event, but rather an ongoing effort each day to learn the principles of the gospel by living them, “All the principles and ordinances of the gospel are in a sense but invitations to learning the gospel by the practice of its teachings” 12, said President Harold B. Lee. I am learning that to pray, study and work for the gift of charity, the gift of loving purely as Christ loves is to catch a glimpse of what it is that Heavenly Father loves about each person with whom I interact. I am learning, in the words of Elder M. Russell Ballard, “The love [of] the Savior … is an active love. It is not manifested through large and heroic deeds but rather through simple acts of kindness and service.” 13 As with each of you, my ultimate effort is to act and become as the Savior desires, when he said, “what manner of men [and women] ought ye to be? Verily, I say unto you, even as I am.”14

 

To LGBT/SSA Brothers and Sisters

 

Specifically, may I apply that effort and goal to the experiences shared by those of you who identify as same-gender attracted or as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender? As my father observed, I also think each generation gets better in many ways. So, I hope that you don’t need to spend twenty-plus years away from the church in order to appreciate what is to be found there. I hope that you have had or are having a similar experience to mine with a ward that welcomes you with open arms and open hearts. Even if that has not been your experience, I hope that you know and feel the love of our Heavenly Father for you, that you sense His awareness of you as an individual and that He intimately understands your cares and challenges, your desires and dreams.

 

I hope that wherever you are on your road of discipleship you are making prayer, scripture study and service to others indispensible elements in your life. It seems to me that we are occasionally so sure that we know what our Heavenly Father thinks – and of course, those are the times when we are certain that his thoughts would be disapproving and chiding – that we don’t ask Him. We don’t give Him the chance to enfold us with His love and to gently guide our path. In the same way we would not expect a toddler who has just mastered pulling herself upright and taking some tentative steps to sign up for the next New York Marathon, I am certain that our Heavenly Father has patience for us in our journey, while always providing clarity of the ultimate destination He desires for us to reach, He is far less focused on the velocity of our travel than on what we are learning about the qualities of His heart, and how our hearts are experiencing “a mighty change”15 as a result.

 

You and I strive to avoid “looking beyon