Of HIV and UNO

I was 20 when they told me I was going to die.

This was not an existential revelation about the transitory nature of human existence. It was much more immediate and personal than that. They told me that my death was imminent.   In this instance, the ‘they’ were doctors, one of whom was the president of the Frankfurt, Germany mission in which I was living at the time. How did this come about? According to my diary for September 3, 1993, it started like this:

“I was in an accident. I was biking down the street (sidewalk) in Laemmerspiel when a car pulled out of basically nowhere and thumped me. I flipped over the car and landed on my head. I bled quite a bit and by the time the ambulance arrived I needed an I.V. (cool!)”

Well, like any dumb kid writing in a journal, I didn’t really take the time to preserve accurate details for posterity. I was hit by a car (an Italian man driving a Citroen, actually), and I did fly over the vehicle; I hit my head and lost consciousness for a brief time, having only vague awareness of the blood transfusion I received. Fast forward a couple of months and you find me, at Christmas time, battling pneumonia yet feeling no small excitement as I call home for the holidays, speaking with my family for the first time in a year.

“Did you hear about the German Red Cross?” My mother asked.

“I don’t get the news these days, Mom.”

“Apparently they accidentally distributed blood that was contaminated with HIV and Hepatitis C to German hospitals in your area a couple of months ago – when you were in the hospital. Merry Christmas!”

Okay, that’s not verbatim, but it’s closer to it than you might think…

According to this website, http://chealth.canoe.com/condition_info_details.asp?channel_id=0&disease_id=291&page_no=2, the odds of getting HIV from a blood transfusion are approximately 1 in 4,000,000. Apparently, the odds go up significantly if the hospital you are admitted to was mistakenly given HIV contaminated blood. Apparently they go even higher if the blood you receive came from the contaminated blood batch. I don’t really mind the 1 in 4,000,000 odds so much. The, “you have AIDS” odds that I was given, were less encouraging.

Thus I found myself a few thousand miles away from home, with pneumonia, and apparently AIDS (how do people with AIDS die, I asked rhetorically, PNEUMONIA!). The cherry on this particular sundae was the Dear John letter I received from a certain young lady, which I will discuss at greater length another time. It would be fair to say that I was a little ‘down’ at this point in time.

Fortunately, it was in this dark moment that I found the spiritual guru who provided me with a change in perspective that completely changed my life. His name was Shaun Frost, and he was a hockey enthusiast from Arizona with a prominent nose and already slightly receding hairline. He was the one who came shuffling through my apartment door, bearing Coca Cola and UNO cards, and uttering the phrase that changed everything: “Let’s play.”

Despite the ridiculous simplicity of this statement, this was a transformative moment for me. Dark nights of the soul still come, and I find myself often tempted to surrender to self-pity, cynicism, or even nihilism. But then I remember the dopey dude from Arizona and his UNO cards.

As the story ends, apparently they were wrong.  After months and months of more tests than I care to remember, it was determined that I was not HIV positive, either I had never been, or I ‘got better’ (they were never clear on that – doctors and Germans neither one liking to admit error).  But, while my life continues on 20+ years later, I hope to never forget the lesson: life goes on for a few more days, or a few more years, we cannot know.  So let’s wring the last drop of living out of that life.  Let’s laugh, love and learn.  Let’s sing in public to embarrass our children.  Let’s be open and honest with one another, but never cruel.

Let’s play.

Gays and Mormon Musings

I’m Mormon. I feel no reluctance or shame in making this statement. I’ve been Mormon my entire life, and for the most part it has seen me in good stead.

I’m a raving liberal. I feel no reluctance or shame in making this statement. I can’t say I’ve been liberal about everything my entire life, but I certainly am about most things, and it too sees me in good stead.

Having ‘liberal’ and ‘Mormon’ as identifiers means that since last Friday the 26th of June, my Facebook feed has looked like the Salt Lake Temple is belching rainbows and is searching for a very powerful antacid. I’m pretty selective in whom I follow on my newsfeed, and so I am pleased to state that most of the posts I’ve seen have been predominantly respectful, even in disagreement. I have been much sadder as I have observed in spaces where I don’t control the feed an unpleasant mixture of alarmist fear-mongering (no, Jesus is not so upset about gay marriage that he’s letting it dictate the date of his return – if the Holocaust and its attendant world war didn’t move the meter, gay marriage isn’t either) and arrogant gloating.

The volume on both types of negative reaction has been turned up in the wake of the news(?) that the LDS Church has sent out a letter to bishops and stake presidents to read to members, that for the umpteenth time, states the church’s position regarding same sex marriage. I don’t understand why this was felt to be necessary, and given the text of the letter itself, I don’t see how much good could come of it (unless continued marginalization of certain groups is seen as a good).

All the discussion that I have seen has led me to attempt to identify my own thoughts on the issue of homosexuality – not on gay marriage, I’m unabashedly in favor of it, but that’s because I view it as a ‘people’ issue more than a ‘gay people’ issue. Homosexuality, for me, is a difficult nut to crack. I’m not homosexual and cannot understand it. To be frank and completely honest, I find the notion rather off-putting. As far as how homosexuality fits from a God’s-eye view, I think I have found a pretty solid answer: I don’t know.  I’m finding this answer to be surprisingly satisfying.  In fact, I have a whole list of questions to which I can respond with great conviction, “I don’t know.” This list includes:

Is homosexuality is experienced by others the same way heterosexuality is experienced by myself?
Is homosexuality nature or nurture or some mixture?
Is homosexuality just a metaphorical cross to bear?
Is homosexuality a choice a person makes that isn’t particularly loaded with moral implication?
Is homosexuality something that will exist post mortem, assuming some form of after-life?

In a way, I’m very relieved that I have a comfortable uncertainty about these issues. It relieves me of the burden of judging others. I am (in the words of an insightful friend) freed to love others unconditionally. Awareness of my uncertainty allows to me to love others as I love myself and I can put myself in another’s shoes and ask ‘How would I want to be treated?’

This then leads to another question, where my answer is far less uncertain:

Is homosexuality in any way part of the calculus in determining whether or not I will offer someone love, friendship and understanding?

Of course not.

Dear God

Dear God, is there somebody out there?

Is there someone to hear my prayer?

I don’t really like praying. I find it difficult to not be contrived, and too often it feels like simply muttering things into the immediate space about me. When I try to think about times in my life that prayer had a lasting positive impact on my life, I can ever think of only one instance.

I’m a simple man with simple words to say.

I don’t sleep well at night. I never have. When I was a child, my parents let me have a small black-and-white television with me in my room so that I would be occupied and let them sleep, despite my own resistance to Morpheus’ beckoning. What I watched most often was the 10:00 news. I would watch and then discuss the events depicted therein with my parents in the morning as they got me ready for whatever it is pre-kindergarten age children do with their days. It wasn’t long, though, until I became troubled in my young mind about what was going on in the world. There was so much suffering in the world: wars, poverty, ecosystems being destroyed, children losing parents, parents losing children … I began to feel both deep sorrow and a vague fear in my heart, I felt as though the world were perilously close to collapse.

So, walking home from kindergarten, I asked God about it all. Why was there suffering? Why do people do terrible things? What could be done to make it right? Would the world last long enough for me to grow old?

Is there some point in asking?

Asking for more only got us where we are today-

Lost and alone and afraid.

Funny thing was – He answered.   I could almost hear an audible voice speak peace to my little heart. Whatever it was, it was powerful enough that I still remember it today.   I spoke to God, and He answered. As I question everything in my life pertaining to faith and religion, I am unable to bring myself to disbelieve that moment was anything but a two-way conversation – and I’ve tried.

Dear God, can you hear me crying?

A whole world crying-

Looking for something to say.

We had it all and we threw it all away.

But ever since that time, I have failed to find anything that has approached that moment. I’ve had some positive experiences/feelings involving prayer and faith and religion, but nothing that has been able to leave an indelible mark upon my psyche. I weep, but I don’t feel the same comfort. I rage, and I find no lasting peace. I feel as though perhaps there is so much noise inside me that the signal gets lost.

Is there somebody watching

Somebody watching over the mess that we’ve made?

We’re lost and alone and afraid.

Everyone Is Wrong

Everyone is Wrong

I have observed with more than passing interest the saga of Kate Kelly’s church discipline. When I first heard that she was to have a disciplinary council, I took the news rather personally. I empathize greatly with Sister Kelly, and am a moderately active participant in both the bloggernacle and jabbernacle (the written and spoken portions of online LDS activity). In addition, I think that Kate raises issues that are both valid and important. I think that it is quite clear that women are marginalized in the LDS religion. It’s deeply ingrained in our culture as can be seen from the fact that women have only just started being allowed to pray in General Conference, women have traditionally not been the final speaker in sacrament meeting, ward budgets regularly are imbalanced against girls and women, and the list goes on, including some troubling moments in the LDS church’s most sacred sphere, and of particular interest here, the fact that a council of three men determined Kate’s religious fate, whereas if she were a priesthood holder, it would be a council of 15. In no circumstance would a woman be part of the panel of judges.

For myself, let me be clear: It is my personal belief that the LDS church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was well on his way to giving women the priesthood. Mormon theology is wonderfully progressive in its treatment of woman: We believe in a female deity, we believe that Eve didn’t sin and screw everything up for everyone. We have apostles saying things like this (in 1914, for Pete’s sake):

“Woman shall yet come to her own, exercising her rights and her privileges as a sanctified investiture which none shall dare profane… When the frailities and imperfections of mortality are left behind, in the glorified state of the blessed hereafter, husband and wife will administer in their respective stations, seeing and understanding alike, and co-operating to the full in the government of their family kingdom. Then shall woman be recompensed in rich measure for all the injustice that womanhood has endured in mortality. Then shall woman reign by Divine right, a queen in the resplendent realm of her glorified state, even as exalted man shall stand, priest and king unto the Most High God. Mortal eye cannot see nor mind comprehend the beauty, glory, and majesty of a righteous woman made perfect in the celestial kingdom of God.” –James E. Talmage, Young Woman’s Journal 25 (October 1914): 600-604

Yet, in applying that doctrine, I believe we have fallen far short of the mark. I personally support female ordination to the priesthood, but I do not pretend to know God’s will on the matter. To be completely honest, I haven’t even asked Him. But I do think we have failed in the church to create a space where difficult questions, such as those posed by Sister Kelly, can be adequately and safely addressed.

In the wake of Sister Kelly’s excommunication, there have been primarily two reactions: 1) Anger, coupled with fear and name-calling; and 2) Smugness, coupled with arrogance and name-calling. I believe that both of these positions come primarily from that heady combination of ignorance and fear that seems to be as prevalent during the ‘information age’ as it was during the ‘dark age’.

What then is the sequence of events that led us to where we are today? I will attempt to lay it out based upon what evidence I can gather, and taking all parties at their word to the extent that there is no direct conflict. On June 8, 2014, Kate Kelly received an email from Mark Harrison, the bishop of the Virginia ward in which she had, until recently, been living. This email informed her that she was facing potential excommunication on the grounds of apostasy.[1] Subsequent to the June 22 hearing, a letter was emailed and mailed to Kate informing her that they had decided to excommunicate her[2]. The letter outlines a number of communications that had taken place prior to the disciplinary hearing:

  1. 12/13/13 meeting with Stake President and Bishop, where Kate was ‘urged … to dissociate yourself from Ordain Women’.
  2. March and April 2014, Stake President informally confirmed prior urging.
  3. March 17th, Church Spokeswoman Jessica Moody sent a letter to Kate and OW, asking them not to come to General Conference seeking admission to the priesthood session.[3]
  4. On May 5, 2014, Kate was put on probation (which limited some aspects of her participation in the church) with the intent that she would discontinue her involvement with OW.

The Letter also points out a few other relevant facts: Kate was offered an opportunity to appear at her hearing via video, or could have rescheduled the council to a date when she could have attended in person.

In setting out the basis for the decision, the letter from Brother Harrison states that the issue was not Sister Kelly’s belief that women should be ordained, but rather that she has “persisted in an aggressive effort to persuade other Church members to your point of view and that your course of action has threatened to erode the faith of others.”

While the letter of excommunication doesn’t use the word ‘apostasy’, it seems clear that is the basis for the action. ‘Apostasy’ is defined by the church as: “1. Repeatedly act in clear, open and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders; 2. Persist in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected by their bishop of a higher authority…” It seems fairly plain that Kate did act in clear, open and deliberate opposition to the Church by her repeated appearances at General Conference Priesthood Meeting, particularly after having been asked not to. The Six Discussions (essentially missionary discussions arguing in favor of female ordination) also may have been in violation of both #1 and #2, particularly if the timeline above is accurate.

Kate’s critics suggest that she didn’t really want a dialogue but rather had drawn a line in the sand, as evidenced by this statement, “The ordination of women would put us on completely equal spiritual footing with our brethren, and nothing less will suffice.”[4] Whether the ‘nothing less’ she is referring to is ordination, or ‘equal spiritual footing’ is an important ambiguity to this statement.

 

For her part, Kate has stated that her agitation on the issue is based upon self-respect and her personal beliefs: “I respect and value the church and myself too much to be silent on this question. I truly believe that God wants us all to equally share the burdens and blessings of the priesthood.”[5]

She also seems to take issue with the suggestion that she had conversations as described in her letter of excommunication: “It’s just not true. Point out the emails. I have all my phone records. There aren’t any [communications].”[6] However, the letter, as I read it doesn’t say there were telephone calls or email, but merely that Stake President Wheatley ‘again reminded you of the counsel given in December.’ This sounds more like an informal statement made perhaps merely in passing.

Ordain women also has repeatedly stated that they have tried to have some sort of meeting with LDS church leaders[7], but have never been responded to.[8]

 

The excommunication of one member of the church has no precedential value for me. In this case, a bishopric in Virginia thinks that Kate crossed a line. While I understand that there is some indication that the act against Sister Kelly was at least influenced from higher up the totem pole[9], ultimately I don’t think the ‘Church’ has spoken through this action, and I will not change how I act based upon it.

In order to deal with my own emotional reaction: I have asked myself two questions: First, what if Sister Kelly, instead of advocating a position with which I agree, advocated something else, such as plural marriage? What if she had put forth compelling historical and scriptural arguments in favor of polygamy and had managed to get a sizeable number of people to agree with her, or had found a group of like-minded people and organized themselves and perhaps stood outside of temples politely asking to be allowed in to be sealed to their spouses? Would I feel the same upset about her excommunication? Probably not.

Second, and perhaps more importantly for me, what if Kate Kelly really received spiritual confirmation that women should be ordained to the priesthood and that she should work toward that end? What if her bishop ALSO received spiritual confirmation that she should be excommunicated? Is such a thing possible? To me, it is. In Daoist philosophy, the concepts of yin and yang are seemingly opposite forces that are, in fact, complementary. Everything has aspects of both within itself. In Mormon Scripture, echoes of this concept are found in 2 Nep 2:11 “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things…Wherefore all things must needs be a compound in one”. Note that the opposition is in all things, not an opposition to all things. Without the opposing forces of good and evil within ourselves, we do not learn, progress, or even live. Could it also be that in order for life and progress to occur that the seeming contradiction of Sister Kelly’s witness to promote female ordination and Brother Harrison’s witness to excommunicate Sister Kelly are both true? Both real? Both necessary?

Then there are other questions: Could Sister Kelly have ‘agitated’ differently? Was she less than completely open about the discussions she’s had with local church leaders? Could Brother Harrison have chosen a different sanction? Could he have forwarded Sister Kelly’s records to her new ward to that she could appear in person without having to travel across the country? Was he less than completely open about some pressure to act against Sister Kelly coming from above?

Maybe. I don’t know, and that’s the ultimate point: I don’t know whether Kate Kelly is a modern day Joan of Arc, or a sophisticated apostate who is seeking a personal agenda without caring what she may damage along the way. I don’t know if Brother Harrison is a modern day Solomon (before the bad part), or a savage misogynist. What I do know is that she is my sister, and I am to love her, even if she’s wrong. He is also my brother, and I am to love him, even if he’s wrong.

That is why everyone is wrong. We presume to know the hearts and minds of the players in this modern Mormon drama, and take upon ourselves the mantle of judge, and in so doing we tend to overlook the possible culpability of the side we support. Perhaps we should overlook everyone’s culpability and just do what we know we are supposed to do.[10]

 

[1] http://www.scribd.com/doc/229281605/Letter-threatening-excommunication-to-Kate-Kelly

[2] http://www.nearingkolob.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Notice-of-Decision.pdf

[3] http://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/church-asks-ordain-women-group-to-not-protest-at-general/pdf_a098d600-ae1b-11e3-bde4-0019bb2963f4.html

[4] http://thestudentreview.org/exclusive-interview-with-kate-kelly-from-ordain-women/

[5] http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865586996/LDS-Church-responds-to-priesthood-meeting-request-by-activists.html?pg=all

[6] http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/58104587-78/church-kelly-women-ordain.html.csp?page=2

[7] Perhaps of the sort Mormon Women Stand had: http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/lifestyle/57968474-80/women-church-mormon-lds.html.csp

[8] http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/opinion/58095510-82/church-women-ordain-lds.html.csp

[9] http://kutv.com/news/top-stories/stories/discipline-ordain-women-came-high-level-lds-leaders-12001.shtml

[10] http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/2014/06/we-are-better-than-this/