Wednesday, February 12, 2020

I’m (hopefully) Less Racist than I Used to Be

As a tall, white, English speaking, educated male with hair, I’m one of the most privileged people on the planet. And I have a lot of blind spots.

Last Thursday I attended a panel on race and immigration at BYU. The keynote address was given by a former professor of mine. She spoke of her experience as a black immigrant from Africa with poignancy and humor. I felt so lucky that I was able to be her student. After her talk she participated on a panel with black, immigrant students.

The panel of black women spoke powerfully and authentically. One of them spoke about living in a refugee camp for years before relocating to the US. I tried to put myself in her shoes and imagine what it would have been like as a teenager to have to flee my home, live in a camp with an uncertain future, and then move to a place where everything was different. Another panelist spoke of being adopted from an African country at the age of three. She grew up in a white family in Provo, UT. I wondered what it would have been like if I had been adopted by a family that didn’t look like me and grow up in a place where few people at all looked like me. Walking in their shoes for a few minutes expanded my heart. 

I noticed that one of the panelists described herself as Nigerian-American and I wanted to understand what the nuances were for her of identifying as Nigerian-American and not African-American. When the panel started, everyone in the room was told that we could submit questions via an app. I hadn’t planned on asking any questions, but I was suddenly curious about black identities and self-identification. So I pulled out my phone ready to type my question. Then I saw some of the questions that had already been submitted and I was deeply disturbed.

Most of the questions were respectful and inquisitive, but some of them were insensitive, antagonistic, and just plain racist. I was shocked. The auditorium we were in was not big. There couldn’t have been many more than a hundred people in the room. I knew about fifteen people in the room and I wondered, who on earth wrote these questions? I looked down at my right hand, at the rainbow ring on my ring finger, and I felt exposed. I remembered the LGBT panel I had been on at BYU two years before as a student where we had used the same app and homophobic and transphobic questions had been submitted. If there were people in this very room saying these things, what would they say to a gay person in the room like me? I realized that I could take my ring off if I wanted to and play straight. I could leverage all my other privileges and hide my minority status if I wanted to, but the black women on the stage couldn’t do that.

When I was 20 years old and on my mission in Mexico, my Mexican companion told me that something I said was racist. I disagreed and refused to listen. I was a good person. I loved Mexico. How could I be a racist? Unfortunately, I was more concerned with asserting that I wasn’t racist than I was with understanding why he thought I was racist. Now, with 16 years of hindsight, I understand that what I said was totally racist, but I wasn’t prepared to accept that back then.

When I was 29, just six and a half years ago, I wasn’t out publicly. After coming out to a close friend he asked me if I thought I was born gay. I told him that I thought homosexuality was like a mental illness, that there was something wrong with my brain that needed to be fixed. Looking back, I can’t believe that I thought that so recently. Something that seems so offensive to me now was true to me not that long ago. At 29, I had only talked to one other gay person about being gay--in my entire life. What changed my way of thinking was getting to know and getting close to so many other LGBTQ people. I’m grateful to my many friends who let me walk in their shoes because they helped me to understand myself better.

When I hear people say homophobic things, I try to be patient and remind myself that not too long ago I could’ve said something similar. I’m not trying to excuse ignorance or say that it’s okay to say hurtful things. It’s just that I know what it’s like to be incredibly rude without realizing it. And I’m so sorry for the ignorant things I’ve said and done (and most certainly unknowingly still say and do).

I’ve read a lot of articles about the panel last week and it is such a shame that a few rude, antagonist people hijacked a beautiful event. It’s disappointing that many of the articles focused on the racist comments while failing to highlight the powerful things that were shared by the panelists. I walked away from the panel wondering what I can do to help refugees and how I can be more inclusive of people whose backgrounds are different from mine. I walked home wondering what I can do to make my community better. I wish that the news had better highlighted how those in the audience felt a call to be better instead of those people who were trying to pull others down.

I have spent nine years at BYU. First as a closested undergrad, then as an out graduate student, and now as an employee. I have found that most people at BYU are so so good. And when they know better they do better. I’ve encountered a few people who are more interested in talking than in listening and understanding, but they are the minority. As a person of immense privilege, I understand how easy it is to miss my blind spots, but I’m trying hard to be better. One of the ways I try to be better is by elevating the stories of others. I have a painting of Jane Manning James hanging in my office. I tell almost every student who comes to my office about this faithful, black pioneer woman who is my hero. She, like so many others, deserves to be remembered.

I want to thank the courageous women who shared their stories at the panel last week. I’m a richer person because of their stories. And I’m so sorry that there were people in attendance who came to demean instead of be edified. I have no idea what it’s like to be a racial minority at BYU. I don’t know what it’s like to not look like everyone else. I don’t know what it’s like to feel judged because of my race. But I do know what courage looks like. And that’s what I saw in the panelists last week.

Monday, October 21, 2019

There Will Be No Conversion Therapy in Zion

The incomparable Buzz and Ginny Schilaty
In 2007, at the age of 23, my parents became the 5th and 6th people I told that I was attracted to men. They were immediately loving and kind. During our initial conversation my mom asked if I thought it was a phase. I responded, “I hope so.” My dad also said, “Well, you’re probably better off being single because being married is hard.” The next day they brought up the topic again. They thought that the problem was that I’d never really dated anyone, and that if I just had a girlfriend the feelings would go away. Having been on lots of dates I wasn't so sure. I ended the conversation as quickly as I could because I felt like they didn’t get it. Two months later my parents called me. Their bishop had encouraged them to encourage me to see a therapist to change my orientation. I followed their counsel and I went to two conversion therapy sessions. I wrote more details about that experience here

The issue here wasn’t the existence of conversion therapy. The problem was that my parents, their bishop, and I all thought my orientation could be changed. When I said I didn’t want to go to therapy anymore, my parents were extremely supportive. They never brought it up again. And then, years later, when I opened up to them and told them my gay Latter-day Saint story, they finally knew what it was like to walk in my shoes. When they saw into my heart, they knew that trying to change my orientation was not the right thing to do. They have apologized multiple times for encouraging me to go to therapy to change my orientation. They were offering the best solution they had. They were acting with the best of intentions. The existence of conversion therapy wasn’t a problm. The problem was that we all believed my orientation was a phase. 

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a statement explaining their opposition to “a proposed professional licensing rule governing sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts.” The statement went on to say: “The Church denounces any abusive professional practice or treatment.” The Church didn’t clarify in the statement what these practices or treatments are. However, the therapy arm of the Church, Family Services, issued a very long statement saying they don’t practice conversation therapy or anything like it (anymore). The Church, as an institution, is no longer promoting conversion therapy. But that doesn’t mean that all is well in Zion. 

The root of the problem is that many Latter-day Saints still believe that being LGBT is a choice and a phase and that it is changeable.

I don’t blame any Church member for believing this. I mean, I believed it. I was taught and believed that being gay is a trial. I was taught by Church leaders that it’s an inclination and temptation that won’t exist in the next life. It’s just an affliction of mortality. In my mind, I wasn’t gay, I just wasn’t straight yet. And if I was faithful enough I could be fixed. If not in this life surely in the next. I have a copy of The Miracle of Forgiveness on my shelf right now that says that my same-sex attraction can and should be cured. Many Latter-day Saints still hold on to outdated statements that reflect limited understanding of the issue and are unaware of more current teachings that reflect the further light and knowledge we’ve received. 

President Ballard taught in a CES devotional way back in 2014: "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that 'the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including [those with same-sex attraction] (emphasis added).'” This is a complex reality. This isn’t a choice. We should be reaching out in love to God’s LGBT children. From my experience, the truths taught by President Ballard are not yet understood by many in the Church. This is a problem. 

A very flattering picture of me giving a presentation
I speak about my experience as a gay Latter-day Saint a lot. Fifth Sunday lessons, firesides, trainings, class presentations, this blog. After these events someone will often approach me and say, “I came here today thinking that being gay is a choice. Now I know that it’s not. Thank you.” And then something else happens, but much less frequently. Later that night or the following day I’ll get an email from someone who attended. They’ll tell me that they learned so much from my fireside and thank me for my time. Then they’ll tell me that the Atonement can do anything. That if I just believe enough God will help me to live a happy life. That I can be married to a woman in this life and have a family and be truly happy. I always respond by thanking them for taking the time to write because I know that it comes from a place of sincere kindness. And then, if I have the energy, I’ll respond and try to let them walk in my shoes a bit.

Last week I spoke at a YSA stake FHE. After telling the story of my birth, I said: “I tell this story because people often ask me if I was born gay. I don’t think that’s the right question. I think a better question is, did I come to earth the way God intended me to be? I know that I did. And I believe you came to earth the way God intended you to be, too.” It’s a beautiful thing to feel that you are the way your Heavenly Parents want you to be. And yet, all of us need to change. We all need to be better versions of ourselves. All of us can more fully develop Christlike attributes. 

Last week a gay friend and I shared our stories at another friend’s house. Then we let people ask us questions. My friend and I talked about the November 2015 policy for a few minutes until someone raised his hand to interrupt us to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what the November 2015 policy is.” Then someone else said, “Yeah, I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” I was stunned, quite frankly, that this thing that has affected my life so intensely wasn’t even on their radar. The events of November 5, 2015 are seared into my memory and I spent the next four years talking about them regularly. Why didn’t these people know what the November 2015 policy was? Because it didn’t affect them. It wasn’t about them.

I want conversion therapy to stop. I think for that to happen, members of our community need to really listen to the LGBT people among us and understand our lives and stories. We need to really get to know the people in our lives. Not so we can change them, but because knowing them will change us. If all parents believed that being LGBT isn’t a choice or a phase, then no one would be sending their kids to conversion therapy. Zion is a people of one heart and one mind, a people where we truly see into one another’s hearts and minds. When my parents saw into my heart, they knew conversion therapy was the wrong course for me. I like how Elder Holland put it in October 2015. Speaking of a mother's gay son he said, "And, I must say, this son's sexual orientation did not somehow miraculously change--no one assumed it would. But little by little, his heart changed."

I hope that we will all take time to build Zion by getting to know and understand people who are different than us. I hope that we can listen with a Christlike curiosity. I hope that those who feel marginalized will feel empowered to share their stories and safe enough to do so. I will do everything I can in my sphere of influence to teach and educate anyone who is willing to listen and understand. I am grateful for the many LGBT Latter-day Saints who are sharing their stories with those in their circles of influence. I know that not everyone has the ability to do that like I do. We end conversion therapy by helping people understand our lives. 

Tucson was Zion for me
Usually when I give a presentation I quote Alma 33:23 and then say, “I used to think the Atonement of Jesus Christ was supposed to make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” Let’s focus on what is broken and work as a community to heal.  Broken things like feelings of intense shame, self-loathing, and wishing that death would come soon can be healed. I experienced all of these. After years and years of sincerely trying to change my orientation, I didn’t experience even a small change. But I have learned to be happy and thrive in my God-given circumstances. Good therapy can do that. Good therapy can help people to thrive. But it wasn’t therapy that cured me of my self-loathing. It was being in a community of people who loved me, accepted me, and sincerely sought to understand me. And that community was a community of active Latter-day Saints. It was a community of people that I call Zion.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Place Where I Found the Courage to Be Me

Last year after giving a presentation at BYU on the LGBTQ & SSA student experience at BYU, a professor came up to me and asked what it was that made me love Tucson so much. I said, “Tucson is beautiful. It’s basically surrounded by national and state parks. But I love it because of the people. Some of the finest people on the planet live in Tucson. And it’s the first place I was able to be myself.” 

I’ll be giving a fireside in Tucson this coming Sunday and I’m super pumped about it. Not only because I’ll get to see some wonderful friends, but because I’ll get to talk about my faith in the place where it really matured. If you're in the area, I'd love to see you. 7:00 pm at 939 W Chapala Dr, Tucson, AZ.

Tucson is the first place that I was asked to talk openly about my sexual orientation. Brother Bauer asked me to take ten minutes of our Institute class to share my story with a dozen of my classmates. I had no idea then that I would talk to way more people in the coming years.

What family looks like
Tucson is the place where I first gave a talk about my faith and my sexuality. When I walked up to the pulpit I said, “I was asked to give a talk about my experiences as a gay member of the Church, but I’m actually here to talk about the Atonement of Jesus Christ.” Later in the talk I first uttered a phrase that I have now repeated many hundreds of times: “I used to think the Atonement of Jesus Christ was supposed to make me straight, but instead it healed my broken heart.” 

Tucson is the place where I started I support group for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints. And the members of that group became my family. I still think that’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I did it for others, but I really needed those people in my life. 

Tucson is the place where I learned that I wouldn’t be treated differently if people knew I was gay.

Tucson is the place where leaders stuck their necks out for me in order to elevate my voice.

Tucson is the place where I first came out to ward members. I hadn’t planned it, but I told the whole Elders Quorum while teaching a lesson. A member of the bishopric told me months later that he watched me closely after the lesson ended. He said that I let out a deep sigh when I sat in my chair and that he saw a visible weight lift off of me.

Tucson is the place where I learned that I could be openly gay and still be trusted to hold a prominent calling.

Tucson is the place where I learned that sharing my story was empowering to others. 
The Minches

Tucson is the place where I met the baby who was middle named after me.

Tucson is the place where I almost left the Church. On a day when I just couldn’t sit in church and was ready to storm out, my friend sitting next to me told me not to go. She said, “Just come to Primary with me today.” I spent two hours sitting on a chair that was too small singing Primary songs in Spanish. And my heart healed and I knew I needed to stay.

Tucson is the place that I learned that my anger damaged me and other people. And that I needed to apologize when my frustrations got the better of me. And that I needed to be patient with others when their frustrations got the better of them.

Tucson is the place where I was shown so much kindness after coming out. Where I came out to my whole congregation unexpectedly and then my branch president hugged me in front of everyone and told them I was his hero. 
Georgina and I 

Tucson is the place where I stopped making decisions based on fear. 

Tucson is the place where I came out to my new ward and I received messages from strangers who would become dear friends telling me they loved me and wanted me in their congregation. 

Tucson is the place where I learned to trust God’s plan for me, even if it meant leaving a place that I loved so much to move to a state that I didn’t want to live in to get yet another degree. 

Tucson is the place that has most felt like Zion to me. My last Sunday in the city the Tucson Arizona Temple was dedicated. I drove my dear friend Georgina to the dedication and we both cried as we waved white handkerchiefs in the air and shouted “Hosanna!”

A few days later I had my last dinner in Tucson at Kevin’s parents’ house. I’d had dinner there hundreds of times during the five years I lived there. I had envisioned the moment that I would walk away from their house by myself and close their gate behind me for the last time as a regular visitor. I imagined I would burst into tears because I so didn’t want to leave. But when the time came to
My last sunset in Tucson
actually walk away, I felt my shoulders square and, instead of being filled with sadness, I closed the gate behind me filled with gratitude and peace. 

The next morning I drove away from the city with my car stuffed with my belongings. The car that my dad had given me when I moved to Tucson because he didn’t want my old car to break down in the middle of the desert. As the sun came over the mountains I once again felt peace and gratitude. I said an audible “Thank you” to the place that had done so much for me and I drove on to the next adventure.

I hope that everyone has or will have a place that was like Tucson for me. A place where you’re loved and encouraged to grow. A place where you’re celebrated for having the courage to be you.

Tucson is also the place where I learned the correct pronunciation of the word saguaro. And what a beautiful word it is!

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Greatest Law is Love

Just over a year ago I participated on an LGBT themed panel at the BYU Religious Freedom Review. During the session a man asked the panel a question that was a bit triggering for me (it was actually more of a long comment than a question). My friend Steve, who was sitting next to me, knows me very well and knew that this question would be hard for me to hear. Steve put his hand on my knee while this man was talking as if to say, “I got you. I’m here with you.” It was such an amazingly simple and kind thing for him to do. 

Me and Stacey on a recent hike
Yesterday I had different and yet parallel experience in the BYU Marriott Center. President Nelson spoke of the love of God and His laws. Some of what he said was hard to hear. No one put their hand on my knee, but the moment after thousands of people said, “Amen,” my friend Stacey turned to me and asked, “How are you doing, Ben?” knowing that I likely wasn’t okay. Once again, a simple and kind thing for her to do. 

When President Nelson walked into the room before the devotional I felt a wave of the Spirit. I’ve had that same feeling in similar settings many times. And I had a very profound experience 18 months ago when the Spirit taught me that he is God’s prophet today. His talk was unsurprisingly very polarizing. I saw people online say that it was beautiful and wonderful and perfect and full of love. I saw other people say that it was hurtful and unkind and another blow to LGBT Latter-day Saints. I walked out of the Marriott Center still sorting through my feelings and feeling pretty unsettled. 

Much of the talk really resonated with me. I believe that God gives us laws because He loves us. I’ve seen the positive fruits of living those laws. I’m so grateful that President Nelson said the words gay, lesbian, and LBGT so many times instead of saying “’so called’ gays and lesbians” like I used to hear. It was refreshing to hear the prophet use the term I use to describe myself. I love that President Nelson invited us to seek our own confirmation that he and the other apostles are God’s prophets. I’ve done that and I believe that they are. I’m also grateful that he shared how Church leaders saw the pain caused by the November 2015 policy and that they wept with us. Because my goodness, those were tough days. (Here’s a post I wrote about that day back in 2015.) I’ve done a lot of things in my life out of love that ended up causing pain to others. Being motivated by love doesn’t always mean that that love is felt or received or immediately leads to the best course of action. 

I walked out of the Marriott Center not feeling mad or angry. I didn’t feel happy or joyful either. I felt sort of neutral. I saw students holding hands as they walked back to class and I heard people say how amazing the talk was. As I shuffled along in the crowd of thousands I felt very alone, wondering if anyone else had experienced that talk the way I had. I realized that I felt dismissed. In a talk that was largely about LGBT folks I didn’t really find myself as an active, gay member of the Church mentioned in it. I totally understand that not every talk is about me, but this one felt like it could have been. 

The content of the talk wasn’t hard for me, but the reactions to the talk were. It felt like some students who had attended were saying, “All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth.” And I wished that President Nelson had quoted President Ballard who two years ago from the same pulpit said, “We need to listen to and understand what our LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly we must do better than we have done in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord.” Certainly we must do better because all is not well with the Church’s LGBT members. And I worried that so many BYU students walked away feeling good about themselves and the Church’s position instead of feeling called to love and listen and understand better. That weighed on my heart. 

I went on a walk a few hours after the talk to just clear my head. I prayed and asked for clarity. Then some of the words of the hymn we sang at the beginning of the devotional flooded into my heart. “We’ve proved [the Lord] in days that are past.” I’ve see too much of God in my past to have any doubt that He’ll be there in the future as well. “And we know that deliv’rance is nigh.” This line caused me to pause and consider what I’m hoping to be delivered from. I used to want to be delivered from being gay, but instead I was delivered from shame and self-loathing. I nearly started to cry as I walked along a brick path on Maeser Hill, remembering how dark my life used to feel and how bright it feels now. Then I thought of what happened this past Sunday. 

Me giving an LGBT presentation at BYU 
I gave a lesson in a wonderful ward in Salt Lake about how to minister to LGBT members of the Church and I shared much of my own story. Every personal story I shared was tied to a gospel principle and the counsel I gave came directly from Church resources. It was a beautiful and sacred experience. However, knowing that some people would be uncomfortable with my message, the bishopric arranged an alternative Sunday School class for those who didn’t want to come to my lesson. How would you feel if you were invited to talk about your life and your faith and an alternate class was offered because some people would feel uncomfortable with what you had to say? The deliverance I am hoping for now is deliverance from ignorance and misunderstanding. I’m looking forward to the day when I can be seen as I am and when my life and my choices aren’t triggering to members of my Church. 

When I got back from my walk I did some work, but was still really in my head. I just felt a little off. Towards the end of the day one of my new colleagues knocked on my door and asked if we could talk about my reaction to President Nelson’s devotional. I hadn’t quite articulated it in my own mind, but that is what I had been wanting all afternoon, someone to just sit with me and ask what I was feeling. 

We talked for more than 20 minutes and I just opened up my heart to Darren whom I’ve known only professionally and only for a few weeks. I told him that exaltation, as I understand it, doesn’t sound like heaven to me. The idea that I’ll be married to a woman for all eternity and perpetually have children just doesn’t sound that appealing. I admitted that I see through a glass darkly and that I really have no concept of what exaltation looks like. And so, I press forward on the covenant path unsure of what the destination will be like, but trusting it’s a destination that I want to arrive at. I told him that I often feel treated like a broken heterosexual, that I just need to be patient and faithful and someday I’ll be “fixed.” And he listened and he empathized and he asked questions. And I felt delivered from some of the weight I’d been carrying that afternoon. It’s an interesting thing that a devotional that left so many feeling light left me feeling weighed down. 

This post may feel a little disjointed with stories that might not seem to connect, and I’m sorry about that. For me as a gay Latter-day, whenever LGBT topics are discussed by a high-ranking Church leader I don’t experience that talk in isolation. Previous talks and life experiences all percolate together which is why I likely experienced yesterday’s talk differently than many straight members did. 

Next month I will raise my arm to sustain Russell M. Nelson as a prophet and I am looking forward to being able to do so. And I have no doubt, that if President Nelson had been sitting next to me yesterday during the devotional he would’ve put his hand on my knee to say, “I got you. I’m here with you.” I just wish those words could've been explicitly said from the pulpit to LGBT BYU students who so desperately want to know that they belong. I’m grateful for his reminder yesterday to follow the laws of God because that is something I earnestly strive to do. And what greater law is there than the commandment to love God and love our neighbor? I don’t know how you’ll live the law of love, but I have no doubt that you will strive to do so. Steve, Stacey, and Darren lived the law of love by being present with me, sincerely asking me how I’m doing, and seeking to understand me. Love was what I needed to feel yesterday and I felt it from my friends. 

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Gift My Mom Forgot to Give Me

As I write this post it is my mom’s 71st birthday. Three years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the day before her birthday. Two years after her diagnosis I was visiting home. I wanted to get some details about the story of my birth from her while I still could. While the two of us were walking along the Stillaguamish River at Cascade Park I asked her some questions. She didn’t seem to know what I was talking about and just gave some rambling, nonsensical answers. It felt like the memories were all gone and I’d have to rely on my own memory of what I’d already been told. 

At church the next day I saw Becky who has been friends with my parents for decades. At the time my mom was pregnant with me Becky was her visiting teacher. I approached her after church and asked if I could ask her some questions about my birth. She responded, “You know, Ben, it’s the craziest thing. Just a few days ago I had a feeling you’d ask me.” That week my parents and I walked over to Becky’s house and had a 30-minute conversation with her that I recorded. She gave me permission to share the stories she told. 

The remarkable thing about the stories that Becky told was that they matched perfectly with my dad’s memory of the events, and with what I’d been told by my mom before. Becky told stories of the sacrifices that were made during the 45 days that my mom was on bedrest in the hospital trying to keep me alive. She told of a woman from the ward who visited my mom in Seattle every day. She told of sisters in the ward who would rotate bringing the family food. She told of Relief Society sisters who would come over to clean the house and my dad would say that he could handle things on his own only to have them politely push by him and clean anyway. She told of two sisters who regularly drove my three siblings all the way to Seattle from Everett so they could visit my mom, allowing my dad to get some sleep. She told of my dad’s courage and all the sacrifices he made to keep the family together. My dad said that Becky literally saved my life. Always humble, Becky said, “It was a community effort.” So many ministering angels helped my family out. Too many stories to tell in this post.

As the conversation ended I asked if there was anything else she wanted to say. She added that during the 45 days my mom was in the hospital that she did a cross stitch of a woman praying. My mom had tried to give it to the Relief Society to thank them for all they had done to help the family, but Becky wouldn’t let her. She was worried that as time passed people would forget who had given it to the ward and why. She told my mom, “Save it for your kids for when they’re big. Save it for Ben. That’s your story to keep.” Then she told me, “Find that stitchery thing. That’s yours. That’s your story.” 

I had no idea where this cross stitch was. My sisters-in-law had been helping my dad organize the house so I told them about it in case they came across it. I started looking through random boxes hoping to find it. I wasn’t even sure it still existed or if we’d ever find it. And then I walked into one of the bedrooms and there it was on the wall. How many thousands of times had I seen it without having the faintest idea of what it meant or the stories it told? I took a picture of it and sent it to Becky to ask if this was the stitchery she was talking about. She replied, “Yes!! That’s it!” 

Last week I had this intense desire to get this cross stitch and hang it up in my office. It’s something that I want to see often. I sat in my living room last week thinking about this creation of my mom’s and how I had seen it so many times without understanding it’s profound meaning. I walked to my living room window where I have a great view of the mountains and I asked myself, “What message am I missing in this creation?” I wondered what messages of love and sacrifice there are all around that I just don’t see yet. I wondered what message of love and sacrifice there is in a smashed piece of bread and tiny cup of water. I worry that I miss that message more often than not. I feel like I miss so much. I want to be able to see the messages in creation that are all around me. 

When I look at the woman praying, I think of Becky. When she found out that my mom had Alzheimer's she started dropping off dinner at my parents' house every Saturday. No one asked her to do it, she just does it. Charity never faileth.

Today on the phone I told my dad that I’d like to take the cross stitch home with me to Utah after my next visit to their house. He said that was a great idea. I want to hang it in my office and see if every day. It won’t be the prettiest piece of art in my office aesthetically, but it is something that my mom created while she was sacrificing to save me. She made those stitches as her muscles atrophied so much that my dad had to carry her into our house when she came home. It represents her selfless sacrifice and her willingness to give up her life for mine. And yet, that's not the only story it tells. It represents the people who stepped up and ministered to my family in their time of need. What could be more beautiful than that? 

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Spiritual Nudges

Below is the text of a talk I gave at my stake conference last night. 

I am an optimist by nature. In spiritual terms, I was given the gift of hope. While I believe that in my case much of the hope I experience is indeed a gift from my Heavenly Parents, it is also the result of many experiences. As the hymn Be Still, My Soul beautifully teaches: “Be still, my soul: Thy God doth undertake / To guide the future as he has the past / Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake / All now mysterious shall be bright at last.”

At the age of 30 it felt like my life was over. How could I ever be happy as a gay Latter-day Saint? The future didn’t just feel mysterious, it felt bleak and hopeless. I spent some precious moments with my parents discussing my options and much time praying and searching the scriptures. If you had told me then, five years ago, that I’d be where I am now and doing what I’m doing, and that I’d be loving life more than ever before, I would have said you were crazy. A happy, thriving life just didn’t seem possible. There was no big revelation. No moment when my future was unfolded before my eyes. As the Lord said: “I will give unto the children of men line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little…” (2 Nephi 28:30). My path has been guided by small nudges of the Spirit, often facilitated by the counsel of loved ones, that pushed me in the right direction.

Almost three years ago I was beginning the final year of a PhD program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I started looking for jobs as a Spanish professor which is what I had trained to do. Every time I searched for jobs I felt sick to my stomach. Then one day my friend Reyna asked me to proofread a letter of intent she had written for a master’s in social work program. As I read the letter I felt an undeniable nudge from the Spirit to also pursue a master’s in social work. It was odd and unexpected. I drove two hours to the Gilbert, AZ temple to seek inspiration and felt the Spirit confirm within those sacred walls what I had already felt in my home—I needed to do a master’s in social work at BYU.

It was a very embarrassing thing to do, to get a PhD in one field and then immediately get a master’s in another. People accused me (in jest, I hope) of being an eternal student and not knowing what I wanted to do with my life. But that wasn’t it at all. I was simply obeying what I had felt prompted to do.

The last two years since I started and finished my MSW at BYU have been two of the most remarkable years of my life. The experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the things I have learned are well worth the embarrassment I felt, the rigorous assignments, the boring readings, and the tuition I paid. God guided me to the place I needed to be. As Proverbs 3 teaches: “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all they ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

In August 2017, the week before I moved to Provo, the Church expanded who was eligible to volunteer as a temple ordinance worker. The expansion included single men over 30 like me. I had wanted to be a temple worker for years, but had always rationalized that I was too busy and would do it later. At the age of 33 I called my dad who had spent 11 years as an ordinance worker in the Seattle temple. He is an incredibly pragmatic man so when I asked him if I should work in the temple while also doing a full-time master’s program at BYU I expected him to say, “You don’t have time right now. Focus on your studies. You can be a temple worker later.” But that’s not what he said. He went
into teaching mode and instructed me, “Ben, God can do anything. He can make time elastic if He needs to. If you put Him first you will be able to do everything you need to do and more. You don’t have the time to notwork in the temple.” I listened to my father’s nudge and spent 20 months as an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple. Tuesday evenings became one of my favorite times of the week. There were multiple weeks that I walked up to the temple thinking that I would tell my shift coordinator that I needed to be released because I didn’t have time, and then while I served the Spirit would nudge me to stay. And I’d walk out of the temple with my shoulders squared, invigorated and ready to face another week. I needed that time in the temple. My dad was exactly right.

As the Savior taught in the Sermon on the Mount: “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?” That is a comforting and humorously delivered teaching. God takes care of birds and so he’ll surely take care of us because we’re better than birds. So if you ever feel bad about yourself, just remember that you’re better than birds.

When we listen to inspired Church leaders we will often feel spiritual nudges. I was recently reading President Nelson’s talk from the priesthood session of General Conference about repentance. He encouraged, “Experience the strengthening power of daily repentance—of doing and being a little better each day.” He continued, “The Lord does not expect perfection from us at this point in our eternal progression. But He does expect us to become increasingly pure.” When I read these lines I thought, what can I do to be a little better today? And then the answer came—make your bed. Such a small nudge, but I committed to do it.

The next morning I woke up barely lucid which is pretty normal for me (I’m not a morning person at all), but I remembered my goal. I was in a rush to get ready and get out of the house, but I said to myself, “No, you committed to making your bed.” So I did. And I’ve done it every day since. My bedroom could hardly be considered tidy, but it’s tidier than it was before. And that little step is making me a better person, if only because I’m following through on a personal commitment. And the next nudge will do even more.

God will nudge us to serve each other. Last fall I was doing an internship at LDS Family Services in Salt Lake. The commute was long and I was gone for most of the day. One morning I made my lunch and accidently left in on the kitchen counter. That day was harder than usual and I was feeling inadequate at work. And then I realized I’d left my lunch at home. I kicked myself for being so careless and felt so stupid. One of my coworkers was there when I noticed I hadn’t brought my lunch. Without telling me, she drove ten minutes to her apartment, made me a sandwich, filled up a bag with baby carrots, and grabbed a bag of cookies. At lunch time Amy gave me this sweet gift. Making lunch for me was such a small thing, but it changed my day. She had felt nudged by the Spirit to do a good deed. And while the lunch literally fed me, what really fed me was knowing that I was seen, and noticed, and cared for.

I’m in the middle of reading Saints, the newly released history of the Church, and I came across a story that was just bonkers. Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards were on a mission in England. Heber was married, and Willard, despite being 33 was not (I can totally relate). Heber met and baptized a woman named Jennetta Richards (no relation to Willard Richards). Heber wrote Willard in a letter, “I baptized your wife today.” Quite a bold thing for him to say about someone Willard had never met. But things only get bolder. Willard later met Jennetta in person and while walking to a Church meeting with her said, “Richards is a good name. I never want to change it. Do you, Jennetta?” She replied, “No, I do not. And I think I never will.” They soon got married. A bold statement from Heber was the nudge that helped to unite Willard and Jennetta.

The people who have nudged me in the right direction have altered the course of my life, and I’m so grateful for them. But just because someone nudges you in a direction doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. I’ve had people recommend wives and careers and housing and lots of life choices that I didn’t take. The Holy Ghost will confirm to us when counsel or guidance or a simple nudge are the right course. The key is to be connected enough to Heaven that we can discern which direction to take.

Our Exemplar, Jesus Christ, showed us how to follow promptings. He said over and over again that He was about His Father’s business and doing His Father’s will. I’ve been keeping up with the Come, Follow Me reading this year which has greatly blessed my life. I’ve learned things and noticed things that I’d never seen before.
In Matthew 26 the Savior is in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” And then a few verses later He prayed a second time, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, they will be done.” And then two verses later it says that the Savior gave the same prayer a third time. I had never noticed that the Savior made that plea and promise to His Father three separate times. It’s very human to not want to do the hard thing, but it’s a Christlike attribute to do it anyway.

This example of the Savior and His ability to choose to do the Father’s will, even though it would be hard, gives me courage. Because God has asked me to do some truly hard things. And when times of decision come, and I feel nudged in different directions, I try to connect with God and go in the direction that He is calling me to go.

I have seen a lot of this beautiful world and interacted with some of the finest people in it. I’ve had a life filled with joy and I often marvel at how I got to be so lucky. I’ve had some truly stellar moments. But the best feeling I’ve ever had is when I ascertain the will of God and then have the courage to do it. That is truly the best feeling.

I testify that God is watching over us. He knows our needs. I believe that at some future day, and maybe not until the next life, I’ll look back on my life and say, “Oh, so that’s how He did it. That’s how God shaped me into the person He wanted me to be.” Our Heavenly Parents have guided our pasts and They will surely guide our futures. All that is now mysterious will make perfect sense. Jesus Christ lives. He is our Savior. And all of this is possible through Him. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.