Recently we held a fireside at our home. There was no specific topic, speaker or agenda. We simply sent out the invitation and 20-30 people came. Many were our LGBT+ friends who live in the area and a few visitors from out of state. At one point, we all gathered around and basically went around introducing ourselves and each person shared a bit of their story.
Personally, I reminisced about my gay son. He had just graduated from high school. There was a picture of him taken then that I just look at and think, “He is happy.” Which is followed by thinking of the long road it took to get him to this place; both the price that was paid and the thought of what might have been if we had made different choices. For a time, his life had hung in the balance. That smile was once buried under a weight that crushed his soul.
“God doesn’t love me.”
“My family doesn’t love me.”
“I am broken.”
Our choices over five years created a space for him to thrive. There isn’t anything I would change or price I wouldn’t pay to see that smile.
As comments moved around the room, others offered their story. I soon noticed a common theme from our LGBT+ guests. Each had reached a point of crisis in their life where the stress and suppression of their sexual identity was so severe it threatened their mental health to the point of suicidal ideation. For some, the illusion of the ideal Mormon family with a wife, husband and children took so much effort to maintain and at the same time left them with such hollowness as to fill them with despair. They had done everything the Church had asked of them. They truly loved their former spouses and children. But it was not enough. Most of the marriages had stretched out for over a decade, sometimes two, with no relief or even someone to talk to. Secrets like this are, unfortunately, the stuff of scandal and shame.
One gay friend who had lived through this exact scenario said, “My wife blames me for ruining the marriage. My older children are angry that I hurt their mother. Tomorrow, I will get to stand by and watch as my father in law ordains my 16 and 12-year-old sons. I will congratulate them and support them in their choices. I was once a High Councilman and now no one will look me in the eye. Everyone sees me as the villain, yet in the Church I never had a place to begin with. The Stake President met with me recently and made it clear that if I lived as I was made, I would no longer be sealed to my family.”
Another close friend and his wife will experience the anniversary of their son’s death today. He was a beautiful gay youth who was Jordan’s first kiss a few years ago. As I sat outside the temple at the wedding of a nephew last year, I watched pictures of Jordan carrying his friend as a pall bearer scroll across my phone. This wonderful boy battled rejection from his religious community in the heart of Utah. Even the valiant effort of his Dragon parents was not enough to save him from taking his own life.
Where is God? Where is His grace? The pain of theologically not fitting into a Plan of Happiness – a plan made for straight people – doesn’t offer happiness if you don’t fit the mold. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Family is the bedrock of modern Mormonism. The temple is full of symbolism and promises that focus on making families eternal. In many ways, it is the culmination of Mormon belief and culture. Families Are Forever. Keep yourself worthy to marry in the temple. Do temple work for your ancestors. Connections and bonds that last for eternity. When all your family is “worthy” and attending, it can be the pinnacle of Mormon happiness. However, if any one family member is considered unworthy or can’t enter, it threatens the core of an eternal family. So, for some, the temple can be a bitter and dividing place. While for others it is the heart of what binds them together.
Five years ago, those theological tremors left a gaping hole where my gay son was concerned. And now, the Exclusion Policy of today encodes into policy that my son will never set foot in the temple. Is my family broken asunder? Have we lost our hope for an eternal family?
As I looked around the room during our little fireside the other night, I realized how intimate and close these bonds of friendship, pain and community are. We were listening and weeping and loving.
In the same five years that we have struggled, I realized that the relationships that have been born during this time have been some of the deepest and richest of my life. For every home teacher who had come to our door out of obligation, I had a dozen people who were now dear friends. Where once we put on our Sunday best and put on airs of perfection, we sit with those we love and hear the burdens of their souls. Where once we sat in the pews and heard the same lessons over and over again, we reach out and lift the crosses too heavy to bear alone. Where once we testified of a Plan of Happiness, we hear and share and lift the sorrows of the world.
And our hearts expand.
In the Church, we talk of the Atonement as a past event where Christ suffered for us. We rejoice that He paid a price that pays for our sins. We navigate our own sins by creating a lifestyle of obedience whereby we avoid our own pain and believe that the act of obedience is the path to eternal life.
But the Atonement is so much more. It is a living moment. A moment where two souls meet. It is when one soul is being crushed under the weight of their cross and another steps in and lifts. It’s about showing up when you are at your worst. It is about your pleas reaching ears that hear and understand. It is when another looks into your innermost soul and sees all of the good and all of the bad – and still validates your worth.
Christ begs us to feed His sheep. That isn’t done with rehearsed discussions and a commitment pattern. It is done by opening the door of awareness to the suffering of others and showing up.
I stumbled into this by simply opening my heart and listening to the sorrow of others. Somehow in the hearing and lifting and seeing of another child of God who is suffering, I felt an expanded capacity to share their pain. As I sat in our little fireside and listened to the pain of others, I saw relief, peace, and community begin to spread. A group of souls willing to bear one another’s burdens. As a result, all of our souls expanded.
In tangible ways, Christ’s Atonement and grace can flow through us. That grace doesn’t come with strings attached.
What I have learned is that these intense bonds of suffering and sharing, hearing and being heard, are the foundation of truly being sealed to another person. While the ceremony and symbolism of the temple may point us toward truly being sealed, without paying the price to earn those bonds, the words and ceremony are empty and worthless.
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm
For love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave
The coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a vehement flame.
Song of Solomon 8:6
Seals leave an imprint or a permanent mark. When we leave these marks on the hearts of those around us, their bonds are as strong as death. The passion and intensity of those bonds are a vehement flame. For the 99% of the world who will never steps foot in a Mormon temple, they will be sealed to those they love. For the LGBT families that are barred at the door of the temple, they will be equally sealed to those they love with bonds stronger than death.
While a cruel grave may have taken some of our loved ones, by the grace of God we will not just be with them again, but they live within us. They have left their seal upon our hearts. The passion of our love for them still burns hot.
Perhaps we gain a glimpse at why a loving God has allowed us to come here knowing the hardships and the suffering we will face. It is inescapably true that pain is our greatest teacher. We are here to be schooled. But the grace that I have found is that pain doesn’t have to become suffering.
Suffering is optional.
Whether you believe in Christ or Buddha or no God at all, I have found the greatest joy in life is having deep, meaningful relationships that transcend. Relationships that are unconditional expressions of love and hope for our best selves. Relationships that make us stronger and more compassionate than what we are alone. To me, this is grace. This is the essence of being sealed (the highest ideal of Mormonism.)
And it is available to everyone.
Written for my wife whose love burns like a vehement flame and has left her seal on my heart.
Written for my close friends George and Alyson Deussen who have proven that love is as stronger than death.