Shattered Silence

Shattered Silence

Friday, October 7, 2016

To Learn the Healer's Art

Ten years ago I forsook homosexual activity,
and returned to my Mormon faith.
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 ChurchThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormonsand 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 na├»ve 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—to so many young, LGBTQ Mormons still— 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 have wondered, if my choices had been
different, if I could've made a relationship
with a guy work.
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.

It's easy for me to feel left out of the
blessings I want most, or outside the
scope of the atonement.
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.

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 helplessness 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-Cured 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. 

I think I know that I can't be perfect all the 
time,but I certainly strive tirelessly to be so 
Ironically enough, I just 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 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.

Unfortuantely, 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; 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, I 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 emotional and spiritual
anguish; but I was looking in the wrong places.
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 lifesaving 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.

Pistacia lentiscus. 
Otherwise known as the mastic tree.
The illustration to the left is of the plant Pistacia lentiscus, or the mastic tree. It grows all over the Mediterranean, from the islands of Greece, to Turkey. It is largely prominent in Palestine where many of the events recorded in the Bible took place. This large shrub bleeds an ivory-colored, resinous sap (called mastic). It has been used for over 2,000 years as chewing gum, perhaps the first in the world. In ancient times, the resinous mastic was allowed to drip naturally from the bark, or from slits cut into the branches, onto strategically-placed strips of cloth or prepared ground. After the mastic had hardened to the cloth, it was collected and washed in water to get rid of impurities like dirt and bugs, and the cloth was pulled away. The hardened mastic was then ready for a variety of uses. 

Most often, it was pulverized into a fine powder—along with other aromatic spices—and combined with animal fat (tallow) and/or plant-based oils into ointment, or "balsam," like the kind famously known as the Balm of Gilead. It could then be traded and sold throughout the region. This highly valuable and expensive medicinal salve gained its name from the mountainous region of Gilead, located in ancient times just east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, where mastic trees and a variety of other balsam-bearing trees grew in abundance. Balm made from the mastic tree 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 Middle Eastern and Mediterranean world and beyond.

Commiphora gileadensis.
Otherwise known as the Arabian balsam tree.
The illustration on the right is of the plant Commiphora gileadensis, or the Arabian balsam tree. This large shrub (and many trees in the same genus) also bears a valuable, aromatic sap which was collected in ancient times in similar ways to the mastic tree, and made into the more common, more affordable (but still pricey) “store-brand” version of Balm of Gilead. The Arabian balsam tree 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 balm producers and merchant traders. It is thought that over time, the cheaper version of this balm became more widely used in the ancient world because it was more affordable, and the source trees were more plentiful in the region; thus, the original Balm of Gilead made from the mastic tree lost some of its consumer appeal.

The saps from the mastic and Arabic balsam trees have been used for centuries for gastrointestinal ailments, and were commonly administered by chewing the sap like gum. 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. Balm of Gilead was used on wounds to prevent infection and foster healing, and in lotions to stem illness and disease while also making its privileged users smell great. 

A bead of soft resin flowing
from a balsam tree.
Over the ages of time, there grew a disambiguation of the term “Balm of Gilead,” which could refer to the original mastic kind trademarked by growers in Gilead, or the copycat Arabic balsam kind; there are even versions made in the America’s today from balsam trees in the genus Populus. In the ancient world, however, Balm of Gilead was known for having special properties that could supposedly cure many ailments. Often times only physicians could acquire the balm, or could actually afford it; and once they obtained it, they advertised far and wide that they were in possession of the miracle-cure ointment, and they charged their patients accordingly to use it.

Balm of Gilead remained anciently a kingly gift to anyone who received it. Father Jacob (Israel) convinced his sons to return to Egypt for food, taking with them many precious commodities, including Balm of Gilead, 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). Some historical and religious records aside from the Bible record that when the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon (1 Kings 10), she not only brought with her Balm of Gilead, but also “the root of the balsam” tree to plant in his kingdom—a very prized offering, indeed.

A dish of  dried mastic drippings,
often called "tears."
Commiphora gileadensis is 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 (Matthew 2:11). Pistacia lentiscus mastic is still collected today for use in aromatherapy oils, food dishes and candies, medicinal substances, and incense.

So, 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.

Sins and transgressions will never make us
permanently unclean; we can always repent.
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. 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.

"Temptation of Christ" 
by Eric Armusik
Copyright © Eric Armusik
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.

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 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! 

If the atonement 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.

Jesus Christ offers peace, forgiveness, 
and salvation to all; He does so freely 
and without price.
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.

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 be clean, and so we can partake of that gift in full measure and potency.

A grove of mastic trees on the Greek
island of Chios, where mastic is still a
popular export. 
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 sap of the balsam tree is chewed, it turns white. 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 is 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 Elijah, a widow, and her son in the place Zarapheth (1 Kings 17:7-16). It remains, forever, a kingly gift from the Prince of Peace.

"Bind Up the Brokenhearted"
by Sandy Freckleton Gagon

Copyright © 2016 
by Sandy Freckleton Gagon
Where sin, hurt, unkindess, judgement, 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; even the smallest wounds can come back to haunt us just by the reminders that are attached to them. 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 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

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