Shattered Silence

Shattered Silence

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Hold To the Rod—A Lesson in Obedience

In 2009 I began participating in an online email forum for men who experience same-gender attraction. Aside from the commonality of having homosexual inclinations, all of the men were also members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and were seeking guidance and support in relation to the conflict between their faith and religion, and their tendencies toward the same gender. Eventually my involvement in the email forum transitioned into participation in a private group on Facebook where the purpose was still the same. This collective community, which reaches internationally, is known as North Star, a non-profit organization.

North Star’s mission is to provide a community of resources and support for individuals, family members, friends, and ecclesiastical leaders affected by the issue of same-gender attraction. North Star is non-affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but those involved in the organization consist primarily of LDS Church members. The level of active participation in their faith seems to vary by individual, but most members of North Star usually hold in common a desire to be active Latter-day Saints despite their homosexuality.

North Star fully promotes and encourages living in harmony with the doctrines, beliefs, and teachings of the LDS Church, which, among others, includes the requirement of all members, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual to obey strict laws of chastity; this is consistent with the higher law that the Lord Jesus Christ preached in his famous Sermon on the Mount. In the LDS Church, sexual intimacy is deemed appropriate and acceptable to God only within the legal bonds of marriage between a man and a woman. While homosexual attractions alone do not condemn a person, sexual acts with one’s same gender are forbidden, and participants in such behavior risk reprimand and formal discipline from their LDS ecclesiastical leaders, up to and including expulsion from the Church, known as excommunication. 

Furthermore, ordained Latter-day Saint leaders are firm in their admonishment that any person who uses their God-given agency to choose actions and behaviors contrary to the laws and commandments set forth by Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ will be forfeiting many choice blessings in this life, and that the unrepentant will be held accountable for their individual sins in the next life. This conflict between religion and sexuality is to some like a sort of tug-of-war that encompasses all the human emotions, where each side is trying to gain power over the other, as it seems that the two sides cannot coexist. It is no wonder that same-gender attracted men and women seek refuge in communities like North Star, where they can express themselves amongst others who share, to some extent, the same tug-of-war within them. 

Through my initial involvement in the email forum in 2009 and the relationships I made within the North Star community, I was invited (with some encouragement on my part) by the then-Director of North Star to write an essay that would be posted on the North Star website on their “Community Voices” page. At the time, I had recently finished what I called an elaborate journal entry, which was simply a personal musing about current events in my life in relation to my own experiences with same-gender attraction and my activity in the Latter-day Saint faith to which I belong. What started out as a simple way for me to document recent life occurrences ended up being a lengthy essay on faith, obedience, and perseverance that I desired greatly to share with others. I completed the essay in November 2009.

The article, “Obedience—Holding to the Iron Rod,” was published on the North Star website in May 2010. It was the first time in my life that I publicly “outed” myself as a same-gender attracted man, even though the article didn’t say anything specific about my sexuality. However, I did use my real name, and my real location (which I still do on this blog). I remember that it was terrifying, yet exhilarating, for I longed to be more open about my whole identity, and to help others see that faith and feelings can be reconciled.

Since I created my blog, I’ve wanted to post my essay, but I never seemed to get to it until now. Over the years, I’ve found more quotes from General Authorities of the Church and scriptures that fit well into the message of the essay, and I’ve added them to the original text. I have always been very pleased with this particular essay, so I’ve tried to keep alterations to a minimum to preserve the original sentiment. The “updated and expanded” version of my essay on obedience is what follows.

What I love most about this essay, as I’ve read it over and over again through the years—especially as I’ve prepared to publish it—is that my feelings haven’t changed at all. My desire to remain within the fold of the restored Church of Jesus Christ has not diminished; if anything, it has been strengthened. In my perfectionistic mind I am able to easily pick out all of the times when I stumbled along my personal path of discipleship, but the hindrances of my journey have only served to fortify me against the trials of life, including my experiences with same-gender attraction. I hope that my message of commitment to the gospel offers something to those who read it—especially those who experience the same tug-of-war of being a same-gender attracted Latter-day Saint.

          As I’ve reached a point in my life where I am the most happy and most active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as I’ve ever been, I’ve had to reflect curiously upon why I have been so blessed. The answer came unexpectedly, yet poignantly as I was recently reading the LDS Ensign. I came across a quote by the thirteenth President of the Church, Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994). The quote is as follows:

President Ezra Taft Benson
          “When obedience ceases to be an irritant and becomes our quest, in that moment God will endow us with power.” 
               ~ (In Donald L. Staheli, “Obedience—Life’s Great Challenge,” Ensign, May 1998, 82; as quoted in Cheryl C. Lant, “Steps to the Temple,” Ensign, Aug. 2009, 22.)

          I paused for a moment, and read the quote again, and then a third time. Something struck me about President Benson’s candid words. I later shared the quote with my institute teacher, who has become a trusted advisor and friend. He was familiar with it, and he gave me a glue-in of the quote to put in my scriptures. We started to discuss the aspects of obedience in the gospel. As I was explaining to him how and why this quote had struck me so deeply, I came up with a unique analogy—something I tend do frequently and with particular ease.
          I related to him my religious semi-activity of the past, as early as about three years ago (2006). I explained that though I was obedient to the commandments of God and His latter-day Prophets—though I held tightly to the iron rod—it was not necessarily because I was eager to be doing so. Rather, the rod of iron was a heavy burden of sorts that I was dragging alongside of me in my grudging effort to follow God, and maybe, hopefully, reach Celestial glory someday. Months prior to this fallen rod becoming my personal irritant, some of my particular trials and issues had become too heavy for me to stand, and I gave into the tantalizing beckoning of the adversary. Just months after I had strayed from my faith, I had a desire to return to the Church, and I decidedly did so. My time away from the fold of the Good Shepherd, however, had already taken its toll on my spirituality.
"The Good Shepherd" by Del Parson
Copyright © Del Parson
          I found myself a slave to unrighteous, carnal thoughts and desires; but I was making progress in leaving those things behind me. It was a long, slow road back to full activity and worthiness in the Church; after a year I had made considerable progress, but I still wasn’t quite there yet. My desires were righteous ones, and I wanted the gospel in my life, but I had strong feelings to rely on the arm of flesh, which I too often did. The iron rod that I clasped in my hands was not easy for me to hold. Following God and what I knew to be right became a heavy load under the already excessive weight of other significant life trials. 
          Soon it seemed the only way I could have the gospel completely in my life was to cling to that rod wearily as I paced myself along the path toward salvation, pulling the weighty iron bar behind me. Still, I was unwilling to purposefully let the rod go. I had experienced the despair of sin and the initial sting of repentance, and I knew that I didn’t want to feel it to that extent ever again. Yet I was unfulfilled in walking the seemingly-barren path that led to a better life in the gospel of Jesus Christ. 
          I trudged along through partial darkness—a shadowy veil that I was creating for myself from feelings of unworthiness, despite my hard work thus far. The light of Christ was shining brightly overhead, but my psychological battle with self-worth and self-confidence kept that dark cloud lingering directly above me. Occasionally I did make a mistake, dropping the rod and giving in briefly to carnal desires. But I was able to speak to a Priesthood leader, seek forgiveness, repent, and get back on the straight and narrow—whereupon I would begin searching in the haze of twilight for that elusive rod. Upon finding it, I would pick up the long, heavy iron load and continue drudgingly on my way, hoping that some kind of salvation would soon come to relieve me of the weight which I carried. Thus was my journey through life at that time.

"Lehi's Dream"
          I explained to my institute teacher just how differently I feel now about my journey toward exaltation and of that iron rod. The Prophet Lehi’s vision of the tree of life (1 Nephi 8) is clear in my mind’s eye, and in retrospect I can visualize myself in the scene, seeing my experiences both as they were then and as they are now. As I had always pictured it in Lehi’s dream, the rod is now suspended firmly in the air next to me—defying gravity, held by the invisible, yet real power of the word of God—and it is just within my reach, no longer hidden in the mists of darkness around me. I no longer feel that I am dragging my willingness to be obedient behind me with the strength of a weak testimony to bear me up. Instead the rod seems to take on a personality of its own, much like the personage of the Holy Ghost, and it wishes to draw near to me as I first wish to draw near to it. As James declares in his epistle, “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you” (James 4:8). And I trust that the rod of iron will properly lead me to the places that I righteously desire to be, because it is anchored in the Lord Jesus Christ and His gospel. It is the word of God.
          As for my skittish testimony, I now feel that it is full and powerful, a sustaining blessing in my life, and I marvel because of it and glorify God for blessing me to obtain it. And with that testimony is given to me not the power of men, but power from on high; a divine force which is upheld by truth and justice, together with the love and mercy of a supreme Father in Heaven.
          It’s true, there are times when I will stumble; but I know that the iron rod will never again elude me—because I will never again stray far enough from the path to lose sight of its subtle glint, nor forget the seemingly-tangible memory of my hand grasping tightly and trustingly to it. I surprised myself (as I tend to do) with the significance of such an analogy, more so because it came from my own mind and yet it was I who learned the lesson of it. Once again, in a glorious manifestation of the Spirit, God’s goodness toward me was laid out before my eyes to behold, and I saw how I had indeed learned line upon line, precept upon precept by my own experiences (2 Nephi 28:30). Even when I felt hopeless in the gospel, I was divinely blessed as I walked by faith—even when my faith seemed less than sufficient. Just as the Lord did when He gazed upon His own creative works, I too have set my eyes upon my work thus far “and [have seen] that it [is] good” (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25).
          How many of us carry our willingness to be obedient—our diligence in following the commandments, or our belief in our own ability to live the gospel—behind us in the form of a fallen iron rod? Is that rod of iron of which Lehi spoke our one and only steadfast director in the darkness of temptation? Is our obedience to what God has spoken to us through His servants the prophets, both ancient and modern, an irritant in our lives when it should be our sustenance? I imagine I’m not the only one who has ever, on occasion, felt it to be so. If you find yourself feeling the way I’ve described, I humbly admonish you to prayerfully ponder how the Lord can strengthen your testimony and help you to lift your fallen iron rod back to a level where you can anxiously and easily seek and utilize its guidance.
          Elder D. Todd Christofferson (1945 –) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has spoken of the crucial role our attitudes play in our discipleship:

Elder D. Todd Christofferson
          “We should not expect peace or freedom or faith or any other such gift from our divine head if our acceptance of His leadership is lukewarm or grudging. If it is ritual rather than real righteousness, we should not expect a reward. A detached, aloof allegiance is for Him no allegiance at all. Our submission must be full, wholehearted, and unstinting. What God requires is the devotion portrayed by Jesus, who was asked to drink a cup so bitter that it amazed even Him, the great Creator. Yet He did it, “the will of the Son being swallowed up in the will of the Father” (Mosiah 15:7).”  
                      ~ (“You Are Free,” Ensign, Mar. 2013, 41.)

          How easy it is to wander, even when walking the straight and narrow path. Just as Lehi beheld in vision, many can lose their way when the temptations and lies of the adversary blind us (1 Nephi 8:23). But we do not have to be encompassed roundabout by utter darkness to lose our way. Satan, the father of all lies, is cunning in his attempts to lead us away from what we know to be right. Even in the mediocre light of dusk in which we may sometimes live—walking in light and truth but dabbling in the shadows along the way—the mists of darkness can rise unexpectedly, and the devil’s deceitful whispers can pique our curiosities; He can encourage us to leave the correct path to pursue what we might find in that blackness, telling us that the path back to the rod will be easy to find again, or even that we do not need the assistance of our iron guide anymore. We may consequently seek after the great and spacious “buildings” that appeal most to us, or after the people who dwell therein. Slowly, Satan can lead us far from the firm grip of the iron rod—away from the word of God.
          Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–1985), formerly of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, wrote about the dangers of our path back to God, saying:

Elder Bruce R. McConkie
          “There is only light and darkness; there is no dusky twilight zone. Either men walk in the light or they cannot be saved. Anything less than salvation is not salvation. It may be better to walk in the twilight or to glimpse the first few rays of a distant dawn than to be enveloped in total darkness, but salvation itself is only for those who step forth into the blazing light of the noonday sun.”
               ~ (The Millennial Messiah: The Second Coming of the Son of Man [1982], 54.)

          We know that the principles and ordinances of the gospel do not allow for taking a piece of the iron rod with us as we meander about aimlessly through sin, transgression, and inactivity. Nor can we walk the path back to our Heavenly Father as we carry the gospel message as a burden. The Lord’s intention from the very beginning was for us to be happy and have joy (2 Nephi 2:25). As I carried the “burden” that I thought the gospel was to me, I was nonetheless being obedient, though I had not yet seemed to find the personal joy that I sought in gospel living. Coming to the realization that my obedience not only kept me in good standing with my ecclesiastical leaders, but made me acceptable in the eyes of God, caused my plaguing thoughts of unworthiness and feelings of imperfection to flee from me. I was doing something right, and that was enough. In time I realized that I was worthy of God’s Spirit and His love; I had the power of the Atonement at my disposal because of the infinite and eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ; and most importantly for me at the time, I understood that I had a sincere desire to love and obey God and the Savior and to rely on Their promises. How significant that is in following the commandments!
          President Dieter F. Uchtdorf (1940 ), Second Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, has eloquently affirmed my feelings in this regard by saying:
President Dieter F. Uchtdorf
“Isn’t it wonderful to know that we don’t have to be perfect to experience the blessings and gifts of our Heavenly Father? We don’t have to wait to cross the finish line to receive God’s blessings. In fact, the heavens begin to part and the blessings of heaven begin to distill upon us with the very first steps we take toward the light.

          “The perfect place to begin is exactly where you are right now. It doesn’t matter how unqualified you may think you are or how far behind others you may feel. The very moment you begin to seek your Heavenly Father, in that moment, the hope of His light will begin to awaken, enliven, and ennoble your soul. The darkness may not dissipate all at once, but as surely as night always gives way to dawn, the light will come.
                                         ~ (“The Hope of God’s Light,” Ensign, May 2013, 75.)

          That desire to follow the Godhead—that faith—was the only seed I needed to plant, but for the longest time I didn’t understand that planting it was just what I had done. That seed had long since germinated, grown, and matured; my testimony was increasing, and it was sustaining me, but I longed for more. All I wanted was to see the fruits of my labors—and by the grace of God, in His own time, the seed of faith that I had planted in gospel soil, finally blossomed and bore fruit—much fruit. I had finally found true joy in following my Heavenly Father and His Only Begotten Son; not only that, but the Godhead was pouring blessings upon me in abundance, and for the first time in my life I felt truly converted and able to fully appreciate the Lord’s hand in my life. Time and time again I have harvested the fruits of the Spirit and laid up those treasures in my heart (Alma 32:26-43). I can happily, and with a greater measure of confidence say that I am now on my own quest to be ever-obedient to the commandments of God, given through His ancient and latter-day prophets. As President Benson promised, I have literally been given power from on high to faithfully endure my trials and adversities of this life; and it is that power, in the form of a strong, unshakeable testimony, which still bears me up today.
          The words of a conference address by Elder Richard G. Scott (1928 –) come to mind as I ponder these unique experiences with which the Lord so blesses me. Said Elder Scott:

Elder Richard G. Scott
          “Honestly evaluate your personal life. How strong is your own testimony? Is it truly a sustaining power in your life, or is it more a hope that what you have learned is true? … Your testimony will be fortified as you exercise faith in Jesus Christ, in His teachings, and in His limitless power. …  
          “A powerful testimony distills from quiet moments of prayer and pondering. … A strong testimony comes line upon line, precept upon precept. It requires faith, time, consistent obedience, and a willingness to sacrifice.” 
               ~ (“The Power of a Strong Testimony,” Ensign, Nov. 2001, 87-88 [emphasis added].)
          To those who still find the road back to our Eternal Father weighted down by a burdensome iron companion, I admonish you with all my heart to keep going! Your obedience is the most critical element in the eventual lightening of your load, as you continue with the Master by your side, Who has promised to shoulder the yoke with you (Matthew 11:28-30).
          Keep in mind the simple, but encouraging words of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland (1940 –):
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland 
          “. . . Remember, the most significant sign of your progress on this journey is not so much your location on the path at the moment, but rather the direction in which you are moving.”
               ~ (“What I Wish Every New Member Knew—and Every Longtime Member Remembered,” Ensign, Oct. 2006, 16.)
          I am humbly grateful for the ever-consistent experiences in which my Heavenly Father so graciously sends to me His Spirit to acknowledge, confirm, and cement the testimony which I, through faith in Him and in His Son, was able to achieve. I pray that we all will seek opportunities to gain or strengthen our testimonies through thoughtful study, prayerful pondering, diligent seeking, and faithful obedience. I testify that in His own time and way, God will answer.

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