Shattered Silence

Shattered Silence

Friday, October 7, 2016

To Learn the Healer's Art

Ten years ago I made the choice to cease dating men and return to
the Church I had separated myself from.
September this year was a special anniversary for me. It marked ten years since I broke up with the one and only boyfriend I ever had, and came back to my Church—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons—and began rebuilding a broken faith (see my posts, “The Greener Side” and “The Best and Worst of Times”); ten years of growing, stretching, struggling, discomfort, rising, falling, learning, and failing. In some ways it seems like it has been the longest decade of the three I’ve been alive thus far; in other ways, by the grace of God, it seems to have flown by happily and blessedly.

Sometimes I can hardly remember myself as a struggling twenty year-old young man, attempting to reconcile my feelings of attraction for the same sex, and the religion I had joined only four years earlier. Other times I ponder those dark days of resuming my religious activity, nurturing my weak spirit, which felt barely existent inside me, and I wonder how I made it through alive.

It certainly wasn’t easy; it was the hardest decision I have ever made in my entire life, yet I still feel so young and naïve in this world. Truthfully, I feel that no one should ever have to make such a monumental choice—faith or feelings; family or fear; heaven or hell; happiness or misery. To me, at that time—and to so many young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) Mormons still today—it is black and white; no in between that is still righteous, no middle ground that isn’t sinful. I never encourage anyone in the same position to take the same path I took; but I cannot say now that I am unhappy in my choice.

I wonder sometimes if I would've found a man to love and be with
if I had not chosen a life of faith and abstinence.
Sometimes I think about how things might have been different if I had happened to find someone I really wanted to be with that first time dating men, rather than taking the first person with whom I found mutual attraction and trying to force love. The world that I can build in my head of my “other life” is interesting, even if not very detailed.  Mostly I wonder if I would’ve had the guts to defy Church and family, and bring home a boyfriend for holidays and special occasions. I wonder if the one and only girl I ever loved would be my wife now, if I hadn’t broken up with her to venture into the gay dating world. I wonder if there would be someone, anyone, lying next to me at night, or if my bed would still be just as small and empty as it is today.

I ponder what I might be doing now if I had a hardened, indifferent conscious that kept me from feeling God’s gentle pull on my heartstrings as easily and powerfully as I do—and which I always have, even before I knew there was a God. I do not suggest that to leave the faith means one can only be heartless and unfeeling; to the contrary, it is because I feel so deeply and intensely that I, personally, could not pass on the eternal blessings that my Father in Heaven offers me if I govern myself according to the bounds which He has set.

I wish that I could say now that the past decade has been free of all sin related to my homosexuality; but I can’t. I have done my best to keep the covenants I made not just at my baptism, but when I entered God’s Holy House and covenanted further and deepened my commitment to Him and the Savior, Jesus Christ. But some of the bounds were loosened, so to speak, even if not entirely broken. Like all of us, I am not without my mistakes, even though I would love to lie and tell you that the past ten years have been as clean and pure as the day I was born, or the day I felt reborn as I was raised up from the waters of baptism.

Sometimes I feel like my lifelong moral struggles are excluded
from the changing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ.

Pornography has always been a vice, since a young age, and I bet it always will be. I struggle to keep that toxic influence out of my thoughts and life. I know that it affects me greatly and I hurt from the feeling of helpless lust it plants in me. I hear often that the atonement of Jesus Christ has the power to save us and change us from anything to which we fall prey; I usually, ashamedly, scoff out loud at the idea. Because in my mind I see a paper attached to a clipboard, reading, “Wade’s List of Atonement-Curable Struggles,” and far at the bottom of the already short list is the asterisked disclaimer, “Pornography not included in this offer.”

Still, the list of greater sins is very short; I am thankful for that. But more often than not, if I am not striving to be a positive optimist, I am playing the part of a pessimistic perfectionist. The space of a decade doesn’t shrink those regretted encounters; it only magnifies them. Huge is the calendar in my head documenting every single day of the last ten years, and all I see are a handful of huge, black blemishes splattered in random places on the pristine, white sheet.

Ironically enough, I happened to trip and fall flat on my face just days before the month of September began and my milestone was reached. I’ve thought of the irony of it since then, and I wondered if there was something God was trying to teach me. In my mind, His feelings on the matter usually hover between, “Ten years; you’ve come a long way!” and “Ten years; you were so close!” Likely, those are the black-and-white, all-or-nothing thoughts coming from my own head, and not from His Spirit. God, I’m sure, is much better than I when it comes to being emotionally and psychologically reasonable.

In my quest for absolute perfection, I am often left feeling guilty
and ashamed when I fall short of my goals and covenants.

Unfortunately, it’s just a part of my nature to see small mistakes as major failures; heaven forbid I ever get an A- in a class, because to me it might as well be an F. “Oh, I got 90/100 on my test; I can’t believe I missed ten questions. I am such a moron!” There is no middle ground in my view of success and failure—either I excelled above and beyond what was expected of me, or I crashed and burned with not even my pride left intact. It doesn’t matter what the real measure of my success was; if it’s not perfection, it’s all for naught. I’ve been this way all my life. I’ve struggled to change for years.

I tried to carry the weight of guilt for too long, after my most recent mistake; significant changes in my mood since then have brought me to my knees, both figuratively and literally. For some time I was angry with God; I wanted to punish Him by refusing to offer myself as a servant. I skipped Church and ignored promptings to pray. Other times I was so overcome with grief and tears that I couldn’t kneel quickly enough and get the words out without stumbling over them. I delved into the scriptures and words of the prophets seeking comfort. My frail faith would buoy me up for a while, but I would soon start to sink again. The month of September came and went with me just keeping my head above water, and that included work and school as well.

I needed a remedy for my mental pain and suffering, and a song
reminded me where I could find that miracle cure.
I often turn to music as a release and a relief. Music has immense power. I believe that God can speak through music, even the kinds of songs you wouldn’t expect He would have part in or approve of. The Lord Jesus Christ taught in the scriptures, “And whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do good is of me … I am the same that leadeth men to all good” (Ether 4:12). So why not the song on the radio, or playing in the grocery store, or on your iPod, or on your phone?

I can recount many times in my life when life-saving music has come at just the right moment—and a recent experience was no different. The words of a song hit me strongly while driving one day, amidst all these anguished anniversary feelings, and the Spirit whispered to me that running away from God to find peace was never going to work. I needed to come to Christ in order to be healed by repenting and seeking forgiveness.

“When the pain cuts you deep,
When the night keeps you from sleeping,
Just look, and you will see
That I will be your remedy.

When the world seems so cruel,
And your heart makes you feel like a fool,
I promise you will see
That I will be your remedy.”

“Remedy,” Adele. 25. XL Recordings | Columbia Records, 2015.

The Lord had my remedy. He was my remedy. As I drove in my car, listening to this song, I pondered the meaning of it. When I got home, I was still thinking about it. How is Jesus Christ my remedy from all things with which I am laden and may struggle? I began to recall titles that I had heard which referred to the Savior as the Healer, the Great Physician, and the Balm of Gilead. I was intrigued by these for some reason, the latter particularly; so I decided to study the subject. What I discovered (and what was opened unto me by the Spirit) was beautiful, and I wanted to share it here.

A botanist's illustration of Pistacia lentiscus,
or the mastic tree.
The illustration to the left is of the plant Pistacia lentiscus, or the mastic tree. It grows mostly throughout the Mediterranean region, as far west as the Canary Islands and the Iberian Peninsula, then east into Greece, Turkey, and even extending into some parts of Iraq and Iran. The mastic tree is also prominent in present-day Israel and its surrounding countries. Anciently, this area at large was called Palestine, where the majority of the events recorded in the Holy Bible took place. This large shrub bleeds an ivory-colored, resinous sap (called mastic).

In ancient times, the resinous mastic was allowed to drip naturally from the bark, or from slits purposefully cut into the branches, onto strategically-placed strips of linen cloth or small earthen bowls. After the mastic had hardened to the cloth or bowl, it was collected and washed in water to get rid of impurities like dust and bugs, and extracted from the bowl or gently pulled away from the linen. The hardened mastic was then ready for a variety of uses.

Often, it was pulverized into a fine powder—along with other aromatic spices and substances—and combined with animal fat (tallow) and/or plant-based oils (like olive) to make a variety of different unguents; it could then be traded and sold throughout the region. An unguent is a soft, viscous material commonly used topically in ancient times for its delightful scent and healing properties. Different translations of the Bible, along with other religious records, refer to the more popular unguent(s) as “balsam,” like the kind famously known as the Balm of Gilead. “Balsam” can also refer to the types of trees and shrubs that bear these versatile resins.

The highly valuable and expensive medicinal salve, Balm of Gilead, gained its name from the mountainous region of Gilead, located in ancient times just northeast of the Dead Sea, near the Jordan River, where balsam trees and a variety of other resin-bearing plants grew in abundance. Though highly debated, balm made from Pistacia lentiscus in this region of Palestine is believed by many botanical scholars to have been the original, trademarked, “brand-name” ointment to be mentioned in Biblical scripture and to travel the incense trails of the ancient Mediterranean, Arabian, and Oriental regions.
A botanist's illustration of the Arabian balsam
tree, or Commiphora gileadensis.

The illustration on the right is of the plant Commiphora gileadensis, or the Arabian balsam tree. This plant takes its scientific name from the land of Gilead because it was believed for many centuries (and still by some experts) to be the most popularly-used by balsam producers and merchant traders in that area. This large shrub (and many trees in the same genus) also bears a valuable, aromatic resin which was collected in ancient times by methods similar to those used with the mastic tree. However, some experts purport that it was in fact the Arabian balsam tree which was the actual progenitor of the original Balm of Gilead, as evidenced by the association of the name “Gilead” and its retention with local inhabitants over many centuries (to later be used in the scientific identification in more modern days).

Some ancient researchers have suggested that Commiphora gileadensis (Arabian balsam) resin was actually used to make a more common, more affordable (but still very prized) “knock-off-brand” version of Balm of Gilead. It is thought that, over time, the cheaper version of this balm became more widely used in the ancient world because it was easier to obtain, and the source trees were more plentiful in the region; thus, the original Balm of Gilead, supposedly made from Pistacia lentiscus (mastic), lost some of its consumer appeal. Over the ages of time, there grew a disambiguation of the name “Balm of Gilead,” which could refer to the original mastic kind likely trademarked by growers in Gilead, or the copycat Arabian balsam kind, which eventually overshadowed the mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus, as the believed source of the miracle-cure ointment.

Similarly, in our day, disambiguation of product names and brand names still occurs. Think of a disposable tissue being called a Kleenex, after the leading U.S. brand established in 1924 as a replacement for cotton. Another example is Clorox bleach, a chemical whose uses were virtually unknown to consumers until the Clorox name was patented in 1913, tying the brand name to the chemical substance as its use in homes became more common. It is proposed by some that a similar thing happened with Balm of Gilead; it was extremely popular with consumers and a lucrative business for anyone who could produce anything similar to it. However, Balsam resin (of any kind, really), remained the key ingredient for the famous unguent along with the right combination of other aromatic ingredients.

Sticky resins from mastic and balsam trees were allowed to dry
and then used to make unguents, like the famous Balm of Gilead.
In all reality, the true identity of the plant used to make genuine Balm of Gilead in its pure, original form is now lost. It is more likely that there were many species of aromatic-resin-bearing trees utilized in making the famous salve. There are even versions of Balm of Gilead made today in the western world from balsam trees in the genus Populus; methods vary by the type of balsam tree that is used, but a common procedure involves boiling the sap-sticky buds and branches in water to extract and liquefy the resin. It can then be mixed with vegetable oils (like coconut) and/or beeswax for body creams, or added to glycerin bases to make soaps and shampoos. I have also seen some recipes for using liquefied balsam resin to make natural cough syrups.

The resins from balsam trees like the mastic and Arabian varieties have been used for centuries for gastrointestinal ailments, and were commonly administered by chewing the sap like gum. In fact, mastic and balsam resins were probably the first chewing gums in the world. The sap is very bitter at first, but as it is chewed it turns from gold to white, and has a fragrant smoky or piney taste. In powder-form, the saps also have proven antifungal and antibacterial properties, which is not coincidental in their use as topical ointments. Balsam unguents could be applied to burns, rashes, boils, cuts, and scrapes to ease pain and prevent infection.

Groves of mastic and balsam trees, like this one in present-day
Chios, Greece, were highly valued treasures for the resins they
As stated previously, balsam resin was used to create perfumes and oils for anointing the body, and was actually one of the most sought-after scents in the Old World. Ancient historian and gardening columnist Robin Lane Fox has remarked that in antiquity the balsam was “the plant which was the source of the world’s most famous scent before Chanel No. 5 existed,” referring to the legendary women’s perfume launched in the 1920’s by French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Individuals of royal or noble birth poured balsam oils into their baths for added luxury and aromatic appeal.

Balm of Gilead remained anciently a kingly gift to anyone who received it. In the Old Testament of the Bible, Father Jacob (Israel) convinced his sons to return to Egypt to retrieve food during a sore famine; he advised them to take with them many precious commodities, including “a little balm,” with which to persuade the keeper of the granaries to sell them corn (not knowing that the keeper was their brother, Joseph, whom they had sold) (Genesis 43:11).

It is interesting to note here, however, that in Jacob’s day, it seems unlikely that this luxurious balm went by the name of ‘Gilead,” even while it was still enormously popular in trade. Historical speculation suggests that it wouldn’t be until many hundreds of years later that Palestine’s landscape would be dotted by balsam trees of any kind—long before the industrious residents of Gilead would begin to produce the famous salve that would eventually bear that region’s name.

Ancient aromatic unguents were stored in elaborate
vessels of ivory and alabaster, like this one found in
the tomb of Egyptian boy-Pharaoh Tutankhamun.
Indeed, the introduction of balsam trees to Palestine seems to be a mixture of both history and widespread folklore carried among Jewish, Arabian, and Ethiopian cultures over millennia. The Old Testament, as we have it now, makes no mention of the origins of the priceless sap-bearing shrubs. It does, however, briefly mention (twice, actually) the Queen of Sheba’s legendary visit to Jerusalem around the tenth century bc, recording that “she came … with a very great train” to visit Solomon, King of Israel, “to prove him with hard questions” (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12).

Other historical and religious records—including the writings of first-century Jewish scholar and historian Flavius Josephus, and the sacred texts of the Jewish Talmud—indicate that the Queen of Sheba not only brought along with her balsam unguents (among numerous other extravagant and expensive treasures) but also gifted King Solomon with “the root of the balsam” tree to plant in his kingdom—a very prized offering, indeed.

Historically, at that time, the balsam tree only grew in the kingdom of Saba, which lay in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, in present-day Yemen; the kingdom of Saba has been identified with the biblical land of Sheba. And so, these more detailed texts credit the Queen of Sheba as the benefactress of balsam trees in Palestine.

Another interesting tales involving the famous sap-bearing balsam tree is related to two of history’s most famous lovers: Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Cleopatra was the active ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt just decades before the emergence of the Roman Empire, and the subsequent transition of Egypt into a province of that growing power. Marc Antony was a Roman military general and an agent to Julius Caesar; both men played critical roles in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Cleopatra had a son by Julius Caesar as an act of consummation related to their political liaison, which helped keep the Queen in power.

Frankincense and myrrh also come from sap-bearing plants;
they were among the priceless treasures given to the boy Jesus.
After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Cleopatra became entwined with Marc Antony, both politically and romantically. As their relationship blossomed and burned passionately, Marc Antony asked his lover, Cleopatra, what he could do to prove his love to her. It is rumored that Cleopatra long desired to possess the treasures of the fertile lands west of the Dead Sea, where were planted groves and groves of balsam trees, among other rich commodities. To own the plants from which was made the most famous scent in the east would be a privilege of unmatched worth; so, she asked her lover to deed to her this land.

Unfortunately, that land belonged by sovereignty to King Herod the Great of Israel, and Marc Antony claimed he could not give it to her, but proposed that he could arrange for them to share the wealth from that region. In quick time Cleopatra became a co-owner and financial confederate with Herod. No doubt she obtained not only wealth from this partnership, but also an endless supply of her own product—bottomless vials and dishes filled with balsam oils and unguents to keep the Queen smelling like all royal women of her time should.

Commiphora gileadensis (Arabian balsam) happens to be in the same genus as the plant from which myrrh comes, Commiphora myrrha—another tree whose resin is highly valuable, and has been for many centuries. Myrrh was among the gifts that the three wise men from the east brought to the young Jesus; incidentally, frankincense also comes from tree resin—another gift bestowed upon the boy who would become the Messiah (Matthew 2:11). Pistacia lentiscus mastic is still collected today for use in aromatherapy oils, food dishes and candies, medicinal substances, and incense.

Satan strives to convince me that I am beyond repair.
"Temptation of Christ" by Eric Armusik
Copyright © Eric Armusik
History fascinates me! And this rich record of the past was especially interesting to dig through—so much that I have had to rewrite this post several times to include more compelling trivia. But, in the end, why do I care about these seemingly insignificant facts? I didn’t—until the Spirit of God, Who testifies of all truth (Alma 5:44-45) guided me, who “[had] not faith” to “seek … diligently … out of the best books words of wisdom, … learning even by study and also by faith” (D&C 109:7). I needed to expand my knowledge in this way so that God could expand my heart and make me receptive to the Holy Ghost. This hard (but fun!) research was not without its benefits and blessings.

I have been in need of healing recently; I have been in search of healing. I have had wounds that have been opened through poor choices, and I have not cared for them in proper ways. They have slowly festered and poisoned my soul and weakened my heart. I delayed repentance for a time, and allowed Satan to convince me that I was beyond repair. I have also slackened in my duties to worship God on the Sabbath, and to be worthy of the Redeemer’s flesh and blood offered at the sacrament table.

But the mercy and compassion of Christ the Savior have beckoned to me through my stubborn grief. He has spoken to me when I am alone with my thoughts; He speaks through my music, and manifests Himself in my dreams; His pierced hands are stretched toward me through the reach of beloved friends and family who care for and support me. I have been reminded that I am missed when I am gone, and that I am loved by people more than I know, and by more people than I know.

One cannot place a value on the atonement of Jesus Christ; He
offers forgiveness and mercy to all, freely and without cost.
I had the agency to choose to sin; we all do. I still have that agency, and I still choose the mists of darkness too often (1 Nephi 8:23; 12:17). Each time I stained that huge, almost-spotless calendar with mistakes that ruined my “perfect record,” I also used my agency to delay repentance and to try to make it on my own. That is perhaps a worse mistake that I make even more frequently: To believe that I am outside the scope of Christ’s atonement. I thought for a time that I did not need a Redeemer. I thought for a time that I did not need His grace. Sometimes the god of this world cries out louder for me to follow him into the darkness, even when I have been so long accustomed to living in the light of the true God of heaven.

All while the adversary tugged my wrist impatiently in the direction of Babylon, I looked longingly over my shoulder for one more glimpse of Zion. My stance was one of uncertainty, and I dug my heels into the ground. Satan’s powerful pull recently inched me over the line that I thought I would never cross again. For a while, it seemed as if I was hesitantly straddling the divide between eternal life and eternal death, and that those were my only two choices. The aura of the atonement of Jesus Christ was almost visible, like a halo of light stretching far across the universe; and I felt then—like I often do still—as if the light stopped short just before it illuminated me. This is wrong! It is not true!

Like this unique balsam tree bearing crimson mastic,
Jesus Christ shed His blood willingly for all mankind.
If the atonement of Christ were a force we could behold, it would have no edges or ends; it is all-encompassing in every way, shape, and form—in every direction! This is the most important thing I have needed to learn in my recent trials—and I am still struggling to learn it. Satan wants me so much to fall, because he and I both know that to let go and fall is so much easier. But I am learning all over again, after many years of peace, how to climb. Climbing is harder; it is tiring at times. But it is getting me closer to home; it is taking me back to where I came from. And there are little moments along the way where I see my progress, and feel the angels nudging me gently up the eternal ladder.

That’s what happened when I heard that song in my car—the ladder appeared. That is what happened when the Holy Ghost guided me to several encyclopedia articles on trees in distant lands—I began to climb. Taking time to study a title of the Savior—one of many—not only filled my brain with fun knowledge, but filled in some of the holes in my heart that have kept me from feeling like myself lately. It all reminds me that the Balm of Gilead is still offered to me at all times, without cost; it has already been bought and paid for, at the highest price, and I am already in debt to the Purchaser. That’s when the angels appeared and pushed me on, helping me get farther away from the devil and into a brighter sphere.

Perhaps not coincidentally, there are numerous balsam trees whose sap is actually deep crimson when it seeps out of the bark. Like the lifeblood of the mastic and Arabian Balsam trees, there is great value in the divine blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Though, like the branches of the trees, He was pierced to let that blood run freely, He gave it still for us as a gift of immeasurable worth. And as we take the gift that His blood affords us in mortality—the love and forgiveness of our Father and Savior—there is need still to wash ourselves clean of all our impurities by repenting in sincerity, penitence, and all humility, that our garments may become clean, and so we can partake of that gift in full measure and potency (Isaiah 1:18).

At the sacrament table we come unto Christ to partake of His flesh
and blood with the promise that we "may have His Spirit to be
with [us]."
Like the bitter taste of the balsam sap, repentance is uncomfortable. It is never easy to approach our leaders and admit to wrongdoings. It may be even harder to approach God in prayer and confess our sins and ask for help and forgiveness. As the golden-brown sap of the balsam tree is chewed, it turns white; likewise, red mastic lightens when chewed as well. As we exercise faith in God and our good leaders, the bitterness of making repairs to our broken hearts and contrite spirits becomes a little sweeter, and the blemishes we have taken on begin to lose their color. Slowly, with continued obedience and diligent work and study, our spirits can finally become clean and white, and the bitterness of the past can become the fragrant aroma of peace in the now, hope in the future, and gratitude always for the redemption that Jesus Christ offers.

The prophet Jeremiah asked, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22). Though I need to be often reminded of this, my answer is a resounding ‘Yes!’ Jesus has the miracle cure in his possession; He holds the keys to our salvation, He paid the price for the healing balm. He does not charge for it; He offers it freely, saying “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28).

Christ’s healing does not run out, nor does it expire. It was as powerful and effective in ancient times as it is today. It is as everlasting as the cruse of oil and barrel of meal that fed the prophet Elijah, a widow, and her son in the place called Zarapheth (1 Kings 17:7-16). The grace of the Messiah is endless and ever-present; it is the light which is never extinguished, and the fuel that is never exhausted. His power is as an everlasting light unto the nations of the earth, lighting the way back to the Father, to be exalted on high in the presence of the Almighty God and his angels.

Jesus rescues the captive and heals the wounded.
"Bind Up the Brokenhearted"
by Sandy Freckleton Gagon
Copyright © Sandy Freckleton Gagon
The Savior’s atoning power is not restricted to only the rich and powerful; it can be accessed by both king and slave, wealthy and destitute. It can humble the mighty that are puffed up in their pride, and redeem the meek and lowly of heart (2 Nephi 28:12-14; Matthew 5:5). No one person or group can hold singular claim to His divine power. All who sincerely seek the Lord can come to know the mysteries of his truth, the goodness and mercy of His character, and the strength and peace of his forgiveness. And there is no ambiguity or confusion in the true identity of the soothing Balm of Gilead the Savior lends to us. It remains, forever, His—a kingly gift from the Prince of Peace.

Where sin, hurt, unkindness, judgment, or abuse have cut us deeply, the Balm of Gilead can be applied to cast out the pride, depression, guilt, and guile that would cause our wounds to fester; when by choice we allow these negative things to linger, there can be more pain than is necessary to learn the lesson that Heavenly Father wishes for us to learn. If our wounds are already infected with these destructive emotions and feelings, the blood of Christ can still cleanse the wound, and He, the Balm of Gilead can cover the open, vulnerable flesh so that it may rest, soothe, and heal.

There will always be scars; some may not agree with that notion. Even the smallest wounds can come back to haunt us just by the reminders that are attached to them. Though God is willing to “remember [our] sins no more” as we sincerely repent, people like me don’t forget our mistakes as graciously (D&C 58:42). But by applying the healing balm of Christ, the scars can be less noticeable, and more constructive to our understanding of ourselves and God.

With hope and an eye toward the future, healing through the Balm of Gilead can be permanent. That doesn’t mean that we won’t commit the same sins again—certainly not. But if we bind up each wound as best we know how—as if it were the first time—and apply the Healer’s ointment while asking and expecting to be changed, that chapter in our life can be closed, and we can be better prepared for the continuation of our eternal story, which, for this time on earth, will still have its cuts and bruises. I have needed to internalize that the most.

Being caught up in the whirlwind of a few particular “temptations and … sins which do so easily beset me” (2 Nephi 4:17-18), I have a hard time feeling like my repentance is ever complete, and that I am just counting down the hours or days until I commit the same sin again. But I am learning to see each scratch and dent in my virtue, my patience, my kindness, or my righteousness not as old wounds that never heal, or which I keep opening up through bad choices—but simply as small reminders that I was healed by the Balm of Gilead offered by my Redeemer Jesus Christ, and that “He is merciful unto the children of men, and that he has all power to save every [person] that believeth on his name and bringeth forth fruit meet for repentance” (Alma 12:15).

"Balm of Gilead" by Annie Henrie Nader
Copyright © Annie Henrie Nader

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

When I've Died and Gone to Heaven

I often have such vivid dreams that I rarely forget them.
As I slept on the evening of January 28-29, 2016, I dreamed a rather lengthy and interesting dream. When I awoke, the various scenes of the dream were still vividly present in my mind, and weighed down with much emotion and provoking thought about what I had just experienced. I had the desire to record my dream, perhaps in an attempt to discover more meaning in it, if not just to remember it for how unique it was. I will leave interpretations aside, for now, and give the details of the dream as it played out.

My dream began with me sitting in the downstairs level of the house I grew up in; it’s not unusual for me to return to my childhood home in my dreams. In fact, a large portion of my dreams actually take place in or around that house, with its yard, street, and neighborhood just the way I remember it. The room downstairs was the one that my mother used as her sewing and craft room, which had a door that led outside, up some steps, and into the back yard.

In my dream, the light of two Heavenly Beings was shining
from the outside into my darkened room. 
I don’t recall why I was there, but I was comfortable and at peace; the floor seemed to be heavy laden with blankets and pillows and other fluffy objects. It was nighttime, and I was reclining in the soft pile, reading from a book that I interpreted to be scriptures, though they were not like my own actual, familiar set of scriptures. There were bright lights shining through the basement door window from the outside, and I could see the shadows the light cast as it moved through the trees in the backyard.

I knew somehow that the light was radiating from two heavenly Beings who had descended from on high with a special task. The Beings were God, the Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ. They were here to cleanse the earth, carry away the righteous with Them into glory, and destroy the wicked who were not prepared for Their coming. This is not the first dream I have had with the theme of Christ’s Second Coming or of the end of the world; surprisingly, I have these dreams frequently, and almost always I am at my childhood home when the last days arrive and the earth all around me begins to crumble and the sky begins to fall.

I was eagerly preparing to meet the Heavenly
Beings by perusing the scriptures. 
Surprisingly, though, I was not scared this time, as I often am during my other dreams of the end of the world. I was anxiously waiting for the illuminated Beings to make Their decision of who would die and who would live through Their culminating visit to earth. I was preparing the room for Them—arranging, cleaning, and straightening things in the room that I remember always being there while my mom used the room for her work.

I expected the Godhead to enter the room at any moment, and I apparently wanted to make a good impression. More so I was preparing myself mentally and spiritually for what might happen next (hence, delving into the scriptures as I waited) as I knew in my dream-mind that the only options were to live to see heavenly glory or to perish in my wicked state at the moment my Father and Savior decided which of the two I was most worthy and deserving of.

As the light increased in the room, still shining from outside, I seemed to hear one of Their voices; it filled my whole body like great, booming thunder, but was as gentle to my soul as a feather floating on the breeze. Whether God or Christ, I do not know, but He spoke of ancient and modern prophecy predicting that the earth would be consumed at the end of days, and that that day was finally at hand. I waited there, listening carefully to the voice, in the sea of blankets and fluff to discover if I would be chosen to live or to die.

Suddenly I found myself flying upward through the clouds
and bursting into a realm of light.
Suddenly, I began to feel lighter, as if I were a balloon swelling with helium and rising against gravity. My consciousness began to slide, and my awareness shifted out of my mother’s sewing room in my childhood home, and into another approaching realm. I was somewhere in between the floor and the ceiling, but continued to rise; I quickly felt no longer present in the room, as if I must be miles into the night sky. My eyes darkened slightly, but only for a moment, when to my view I saw blue sky and white clouds, touched by golden sunshine and bright with light. I lamented briefly, realizing that I must not have survived the cleansing of earth; until I saw myself in a place of beauty that seemed so strange, yet so familiar.

As I flew up through the clouds, I turned again to face downward, where I saw numerous structures, lush gardens with waterfalls, and various people. It seemed then that I was flying downward past all these structures, waterfalls, and people, but not falling. All of these things passed my view numerous times, as if they were repeating on some visual loop. In my mind, some spirit whispered to me that the vastness and beauty I beheld was representative of eternity, both literally and figuratively. 

From the wondrous scenery I beheld around me, I knew
that I must be in heaven. 
The repetition of the scenery symbolized a life that goes on forever and ever, without beginning of days, or end of years, and the vastness and beauty represented the immense and glorious community of Heavenly Father’s children of which I was now going to be a part. This was the place where I would now spend my afterlife, yet I knew that there was even more to come in eternity of which I could not yet even dream.

As I soared to a stop on the ground, amidst a sort of town square with high, white-stone buildings, there was immediately a man next to me whom I had never seen before, but I recognized him immediately—it was the Savior Jesus Christ. I was in heaven. Whether dead or translated in the twinkling of an eye, my spirit lived on, and I was in the presence of the Man for whom I had lived and fought so hard to follow and emulate during my life.

The moment was one of disbelief, followed by a sense of joy and fulfillment that was both unexpected and familiar. I embraced Him, as if He were a familiar friend whom I just hadn’t seen in a while. I knew Him, and He knew me. We were not strangers to one another. He looked different than I had imagined, and I made the remark in my head that I never would have thought he’d look so normal, so average—a human, a Man, just like me.

"Home" by David Bowman
Copyright © David Bowman
The next few moments were quite shocking, even for a dream. Without saying a word, Jesus faced me, closed His eyes, and out-stretched His hands. He did not speak, but in my mind I heard Him say that He was sorry for all that I had to go through during my life in order to make it back to Him. He said He didn’t blame me if I was angry with Him, and that He understood if I wanted some closure in relation to all the pain that He had put me through. 

Then unexpectedly, I realized that He was right; I had experienced a lot of turmoil during my mortal life. I had experienced homosexuality all my life, yet had sacrificed much to be an active Latter-day Saint. I lived with the challenges of Tourettes, obsessive compulsive disorder, and anxiety. I had experienced so much stigma and judgment; people were mean at times, inconsiderate, and heartless. Many times my trials weakened me and made me feel worthless, unloved, and unwanted. I had plenty of reason to be angry with a God and a Savior Who would allow me to experience so much lifelong grief. I wondered why I had to suffer all of that just to be saved. I wondered why Jesus didn’t save me from all of those things, to keep them from happening.

He was right; I was angry! I was angry with Him for my sufferings. It was all His fault. He was the reason! He was the cause! Then all at once, without hesitation or reserve, I struck my Savior. I tore down His outstretched arms; I slapped and punched His face; I delivered blows to His chest and kicked Him, and He stood completely still and suffered it. I wanted to punish Him the way He seemed to have punished me. I wanted Him to feel the pain that I had felt so many times, and this was the only way I knew how. With hot tears of rage wetting my face, I threw my arms and fists at Him almost helplessly until I had not the energy to do so anymore. 

"Safely Home" by Ron DiCianni
Copyright © Ron DiCianni
Slowly, the rage subsided into shame and sorrow. My blows weakened, and so did my body. With immense regret, and still a tinge of frustration, I collapsed into Christ’s chest with heavy sobs. My knees buckled, and I slipped to the ground as He wrapped His arms around me and descended with me into a tearful heap. He held me as I cried, and didn’t say a word. Then the voice came again to my mind, saying that I had suffered in mortality as He had once suffered in mortality. He had taken on the sins of a fallen world in order to succor the weak in their infirmities and offer grace to the souls of men and women who believed on His name and trusted in He and His Father’s ultimate love.

The turmoil, pain, suffering, loneliness, and frailty that I experienced was just a tiny, incomparable portion of what He suffered on my behalf; but through my faith in Him, it was just enough to refine and perfect me, even as He is perfect, so that I could once again be here in His mighty arms. He was beaten, He was struck, and He was pained. He was pierced through, He bled, and He died—all in far more terrible ways than I could inflict upon Him in my selfish moment of resentment. I had survived mortality, and then died and gone to heaven because of my faith in Him. He was the reason! He was the cause! He was everything that I needed and wanted to help me through, and everything I needed and wanted to become. He didn’t save me from my trials, but He saved me in my trials, to keep me from becoming lost on my way back to Him.

During my assault on the Savior, I felt in my mind that this was what all of God’s children experienced when they died and met their Lord for the first time. Each man and woman who ever travailed through life had the chance to confront their Savior and question all that they had ever done to follow Him. The reality of standing in heaven at that moment was not enough, apparently, for me to know that I had succeeded in the test of mortality. I had to confront the reasons for my test of life, and the Man Who made it possible for me to conquer it, and consider whether or not it was all worth it. It was a beautiful message to me, even in a dream state, as it is now. I had to acknowledge that no matter how I felt about Jesus Christ, every knee would eventually bow, and every tongue confess that He is the Savior and Redeemer of the world (see Philippians 2:10-11).

I do not have to wait until I see my Redeemer face to face, and look into His eyes, to know of His divine nature and living reality. And I do not have to wait for that moment to take His hands into mine and feel the scars of the crucifiers nails to know that His life, His death, and His resurrection were all for me. To be sitting there, tangled in the loving arms my Lord and Savior in my unconscious mind, fully and unspeakably grateful for His sacrifice, was something so glorious and almost-tangible that I hope to live my life in every possible way to make that interaction a living reality someday.

"Every Knee Shall Bow" by J. Kirk Richards
Copyright © 2012 by J. Kirk Richards

Here the dynamic of my dream shifted as I realized that if I was in heaven, I had left my family and friends behind. Gone was the previous notion that the earth was destroyed in Christ’s Second Coming. My dreams (probably many individuals’ dreams) do this often—changing directions while holding onto elements from previous scenes on the stage of my subconscious. However, during the next scene I was given the charge and the honor of being a guardian angel for my family, and to watch over and comfort them as they grieved my departure.

Though perhaps a bit macabre or depressing, I’ve often visited my own funeral in my mind and wondered about it—who would attend, what would be said about me, what it would be like. And in my dream, I didn’t want to leave my family behind without them knowing that I was okay. I knew that time in heaven was different, and I was afraid that I would have missed attending my funeral. Like looking at the clock and realizing you’re late for an appointment, I suddenly discovered that because I had died recently, I could still make it to my funeral, where all my family was gathered to pay their last respects to me. 

After I had died and gone to heaven in my dream, I then had
the opportunity to attend my own funeral.
And in an instant (because spirits can travel quickly) I was walking toward a crowd of my family members who were standing about talking just after my funeral had finished. In my dream, no one could see me, but I was interacting with them and they could feel me there and gauge my actions and responses, as if the veil between us were very thin. Everyone looked somber and drained, and many eyes were wet and red from grieving tears.

I was surprised that the first person I rushed to embrace in spirit was my dad. He was one of the first people I saw at my funeral, and I longed to tell him that I was okay. Because my immediate family members are not actively religious, I worried that some of them, like my dad, might be confused and unsettled about where I had gone, and if my death was final. As I wrapped my arms around my dad, he held me tightly and said, “I can feel Wade like he’s right here with me.” It’s strange (as dreams are), but I talked to him face to face, as if he could see me, but according to the unspoken laws of this dream, I knew I was just a spirit, and he could not see or hear me. But he discerned my presence through some special, sweet force that I had been given as their guardian angel.

In my spirit form, I hugged my dad, and reassured him that
I was okay—that I had made it to heaven.
Worried that my dad might not find closure in my death unless he could know that I was okay, the first thing I said to him with my spiritual voice was, “Dad, I made it. I made it.” He smiled, and commented to the others around him that he knew I was in a good place—that I was in heaven—just like I had always wanted. I was so happy that I was able to convey this peaceful message to him.

Subsequently I hugged my favorite aunt, who was also in attendance, as well as my brothers, my sister-in-law, and my oldest nephew; to each of them I reassured them, “I made it. I made it back.” I knew that if I had done anything right in the way I lived my mortal life, then they would know that my greatest desire and goal in my existence, death, and the afterlife, was to go to heaven when I died. And not just to glory and peace, but the highest glory attainable—even the Celestial Kingdom, to live in the presence of God the Father and Jesus Christ forever. I wanted them to know that I had achieved my goal, and my purpose.

Even in my sleep, I feel emotions so strongly when I dream. I have woken up from intensely emotional dreams with tears in my eyes, or shouting out to people in anger, frustration, or with passion and love. The feelings of this part of the dream were so bittersweet. After seeing all of my family, I was terribly distraught that I couldn’t find my mother in the crowd of attendees at my funeral. My relationship with my mother is one of immense closeness, love, and respect; so naturally, even in a dream (and even in death), she was the person I wanted to see and comfort the most.

The most bittersweet moment of attending my own funeral,
was attempting to comfort my grieving mother.
Finally, I saw her. She came staggering into the area, aided by a couple of unknown people who were holding her hands as if to help her to stand. I ran to her, and stood a few arm lengths away. She was looking at the ground as she walked, as if to be careful of her steps; then she looked up, as if she knew I was there, but she peered into the crowd of others gathered around. She smiled at everyone and whispered greetings, thanking everyone for coming; but her weak body language was that of anguish, and her demeanor spoke of deep stress and pain. 

My emotions were caught up in a rush of empathy and love, and I fell into her bosom and sobbed. Like my dad, she made a similar comment about feeling me nearby, as if I were right there; though, again, I knew I was only there in spirit, she still reciprocated my embrace as if I were there in the flesh. I pulled away to look her into her eyes and I yelled that I was there, that I was with her, and that I always would be. 

Despite being reunited with my Lord and Redeemer only moments earlier—the Man I had lived my whole life for—the next person with whom I felt the most connection and intense love was the woman standing right in front of me, grieving the death of her youngest son while trying to stay strong. It was heart-wrenching. It cut me to my core, even as I slept alive and well in my room, dreaming up the scene in my subconscious mind. It was she who had been the largest contributor to my very existence since I had been born to Heavenly Parents prior to my conception on earth.

I promised my family that no matter what, we would all be
together in heaven someday.
I didn’t know how long I had been dead; according to the conversations I heard going on around me at the funeral, it was just before Christmas that I had passed away. But I thought of the anguish my mother would still have to experience as she cleaned out my apartment and sorted through my belongings. I couldn’t bear to cause her any more pain than she had already experienced in saying goodbye to me physically, but to then have to part with all the reminders of me as well was enough to tear me apart.

As I comforted my mother in spirit, I made her a solemn promise that I would prepare the way to receive her when the time came for her to pass on. I promised her that I would do everything in my power as an angel to put in a good word, save her a seat, and get her ready to spend eternity with me. In fact, I told my whole family this—my dad, my brothers, my nephew—all of my non-religious family members who many people of faith might suppose would not have a place in heaven because of their unbelief. I dreaded so much the thought of being without them in the eternities that I knew I would give anything to ensure that we could stay together. 

I kissed my mother many times before I parted; apparently, my responsibilities as an angel required me to be elsewhere, and I knew that my time with them in that moment was running short. But I promised them all that I would never be far away, and that in an instant my spirit could be with them whenever they needed me, and that I would know of their prayers and be there to answer them, God willing.

I'm not sure I believe that every dream has to have a
meaning; but I believe they can still have powerful messages.
Now, there are many people who put a lot of stock into dreams and their interpretations. I often wonder about the meaning of the common threads that run through many of my dreams—such as that I dream frequently about the Second Coming of Christ, the end of days, and about my childhood home—but I’m not sure I necessarily believe that all dreams have to be premonitory or symbolically meaningful to my current life, or a reflection of my thoughts, actions, or behavior patterns.

Nevertheless, this dream struck me hard. I woke up with an array of emotions that I can feel strongly now even as I type. I am reminded of the life that I live in faith—being gay and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons)—and of why I choose to align my choices and actions with God’s laws rather than man’s, by refraining from giving into very natural yet carnal wants and desires. If you’ve read my blog in the past, particularly posts like “The Greener Side,” you know that my example to my family and my desire to serve them in righteousness as a man of faith was a major factor in my decision to return from a life of sexual sin and inactivity in my religion, to living in worthiness before God and Jesus Christ.

My dream of dying and going to heaven was a beautiful
reminder of Jesus Christ's gifts of salvation and immortality.
My dreams are often vivid, colorful, and full of life, and this dream was no exception. To imagine how my new life might be when I finally cross through the veil into the spirit world is something that keeps me in check, not because I fear God or His punishment, but because I trust in His blessings and power. I do not doubt that when I stand before the throne of God to be judged, with Jesus Christ acting as my Mediator and Advocate with the Father, that I will be fully aware of all my deeds and thoughts in life—those that were acceptable before the Lord, and those that were not. 

But I trust that through the application of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ, my mortal inadequacies will level out with what I have offered to the Godhead through personal sacrifice, and I will not be surprised by where I then stand in the kingdom of God. The sacrifice of the Savior of the world will make up so much of the difference then as it does now in daily life; at the final judgment, I like to think that it will make up all the difference, and maybe then some.

Over the last few years, I feel that the godly characteristics I have come to know and trust in the most are mercy and compassion. I have learned how to better navigate through occasional transgressions and shortcomings in constructive and meaningful ways that help me to build upon a foundation of repentance and grace, rather than tearing myself down with destructive feelings of guilt and shame. I feel that I am far, far harder on myself than my Heavenly Father ever is on me, and that He is quick to forgive and help me move on in my discipleship, even when I can’t help but obsessively focus on all the factors that caused me to falter. He doesn’t want me to dwell long on failure, but to hold my light and little higher and take the next step on the darkened path ahead. 

I have come to cherish and embrace the overflowing mercy
and compassion offered to me by my Father and Savior.

I believe that God’s mercy is overflowing in its availability, if we can but take the cup to our lips and drink of it generously and let it fill us and make us whole. And as our “cup runneth over,” we can conclude as King David did, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever (Psalms 23:5-6). Also, I know that the united compassion of God and the Redeemer is such that Their divine and immaculate hearts swell within their breasts out of love, care, support, and favor for the children of the Eternal Father who suffer, travail, and triumph on earth.

Like Job of old, I can testify of the reality of an afterlife with God, made possible through the merits of a Savior, Jesus Christ, who saved me in the kingdom of God by giving all that He had and all that He is in diligence to His Father’s will:

          “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:         
          “And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:         
          “Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my [heart] be consumed within me” (Job 19:25-27).

Importantly, I know also that I will not be without my family in heaven. Though I have never been sealed to my family in the temple, and will likely never have that opportunity while my family members are yet alive, I know that through Heavenly Father’s mercy, compassion, and the ordinances of the Holy Priesthood, I will not be denied the blessing of an eternal, forever family. And though I dread the day when I will have to say temporary goodbyes to those I love so much, I glory in the knowledge that my parting is just that—temporary!

Eternal life and salvation through Jesus Christ the Lord are not dreams or fantasies like the one I recently had during the night. They are a glorious reality that I will one day be part of; and the emotion, the peace, and the power of it all will be far more vivid, colorful, and spectacular than my unconscious brain could ever concoct. The time away from my family members who will eventually move on to that next step of their eternal journey will be so difficult for me, I’m certain. But I know that I will be reunited with them again someday when they come to meet me at the veil after I’ve died and gone to heaven.

"Dream as if you'll live forever; live as if you'll die today."
~ James Dean, American Actor (1931 - 1955)