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Resilience and Wrestling with God

This address was originally given at the Gather Conference in Provo, Utah on September 15, 2023

Good morning and let me be the first to say, “hello” to my guys, gals, and non-binary pals. I am honored and humbled to be with you. I believe in what Christ told His apostles in Matthew 18, “for where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (verse 20) Here we are-gathered together. I believe that our Heavenly Parents, Christ and the Holy Ghost gather with us, too. I pray that They can translate the thoughts and intentions of my heart into something meaningful and useful for you. And I also pray that you will be open to and receive all that They can offer you today.

If you are in this space, then I doubt that “internally wrestling” is a new concept for you. I’d probably guess it’s one of your oldest companions and if we held Olympics for it, you’d be a gold medal contender. We wrestle with whether we can trust ourselves. We wrestle with what other people will say, think and do, or what they have already said, thought and done, including past and present leaders. We wrestle with every gospel principle and doctrine taught to us as we try to see how it applies to us and our loved ones. We wrestle with staying and we wrestle with leaving. We wrestle with the cognitive dissonance we feel when we ask big, soul-deep questions and can’t find any comforting answers. We wrestle with the peace and the joy that we feel, wondering if we deserve either.

So. What can we do? I don’t have all the answers, and I certainly don’t have your answers. But, I do believe that we all have the tools and resources that we need, and learning how to utilize and hone what we do have can make a remarkable difference. I believe the wrestling term for that would be learning how to “leverage” what we do have. Growing up a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided the opportunity for me to build and practice a relationship with my Heavenly Parents and Christ. My eight year career as a full-time seminary teacher has given me additional time and resources to continue building that relationship. Being gay has provided a unique way for me to rely on the foundational relationship that I have built with heaven and to realize that our Heavenly Parents aren’t done with me—not after I graduated from seminary, or from institute, made temple covenants, served an 18-month mission in Spain, became a seminary teacher, served in a Stake Relief Society Presidency, and certainly not when I came out. My Heavenly Parents will never run out of lessons for me to learn or ways to continue becoming like Them. So nothing is a “test” as much as it is “practice.” So the question for me becomes, “what do I want to practice with God?”

Part 1: Bringing God into ALL of my wrestles.

One of the questions I could count on to be asked every year I taught seminary was “How do I have agency if God already knows what I am going to do before I do it?” Every semester, every class, without fail. The answer lies in the perspective. Yes, our Heavenly Parents know every permutation of every choice you could ever make. But They don’t share that info with us. While They might know what we will choose, WE don’t know.

We might question the purpose behind inviting Heavenly Parents, Christ and the Holy Ghost into whatever wrestle we are currently facing because They already know about it, but think about it in terms of your family or business right now. Just because you already know your child is dealing with something big, doesn’t mean that you don’t have to wait for them to choose to confide in you before you can help in certain ways. It feels infinitely different to know your best friend or business partner is making plans versus they want to make those plans with you.

I find so much more power when I confide in God what is in my head and heart, and envision God as living it with me. We all become co-creators in my life. I am not running a pre-set maze, where I have to wait at every turn until I receive the heavenly nod for the correct path. Nor is God the on-call emergency team for when I am in trouble. Instead we are all shoulder to shoulder building and creating one step at a time. There are so many options and so many of them are right. So we counsel together, and I make choices. I share how I am feeling and what I think. And They share through confirmations in my heart or nudges in my mind. Rarely do I get overwhelming strong impressions with clear instructions. Mostly I just stay close to God, try to live intentionally, and trust that if something isn’t working, we can push through or push pause-together.

So what does this look like in real time? At the beginning of 2020, I felt a mounting internal pressure. And no, it wasn’t COVID. I was missing something and nothing was filling the void. All my devotions—prayer, church attendance, my calling, the temple-—had taken on an obligatory “have to” quality, but I wasn’t feeling the same return that I had come to expect. One line of wisdom from my sister-in-law Becca that led me to serve a mission over a decade before came back to me: what are you avoiding? There was something that I had never had the courage to talk to God about: the possibility that I might be LGBQ. I had never entertained the thought in my 32 years, because I was taught that it was a choice, and it would never, could never be my choice. As the COVID pandemic continued to linger, I continued to learn more about emotions and recognized how much I was avoiding. And if I was avoiding these emotions within myself, then I was definitely avoiding them with God. I had multiple students who were asking me questions that led me to study the Same-Sex Attraction tile in the Life Help section of the Gospel Library. I was reading and rereading the material, watching and rewatching all the videos. Why was I fixated on this topic and so frustrated when deep dive after deep dive turned up more questions, and the answers that I thought I knew held less and less water? As my anxiety increased and sleep became more and more elusive, I came to realize that I needed to ask God some questions. But in typical Jonah fashion, I kept trying to do anything else. Luckily, Arizona is landlocked so being swallowed by a great fish was not on the table, but I can find a lot of parallels to being swallowed in my own anxiety; swallowed in my fear of what the truth might do to the world that I had created in my head.

It was July 2020 when I couldn’t keep my head above the water any longer. After a conversation with my mom and sister, I said some things that I thought were true but they didn’t feel right anymore. My calling at the time was a Sunday School teacher so I faithfully attended every Zoom Sunday School lesson. That Sunday, we were studying the interaction in the New Testament between Christ and the rich, young ruler who asked the Savior “What lack I yet?” The class teacher asked us to consider: “What would Christ say to you if you had the courage to ask Him ‘what lack I yet?’” Well, that was an amazing question. And I hated it. I spent the rest of the day laying on my floor at home, in existential crisis mode, wrestling with knowing exactly what Christ would say to me that would cause me to walk away, sorrowing like that rich, young ruler. He wouldn’t ask me to quit my job and sell all my possessions. I could do that; in fact, I was TOO eager to do that. And now we both knew what I was avoiding: He would look me in the eye and ask me to love me. To accept myself. All of me. As I was created. Because He was already asking me, and that was why I was sorrowing, drowning, and anxious. I couldn’t do that in the world that I had built and what I was told was the correct narrative to live.

Side note: insert hours of existential crisis and gross, ugly crying. Thankfully, for all of us, we can skip that part in writing.

In case you have gotten lost in reliving my internal turmoil with me, we were talking about bringing God into ALL of my wrestles. And this particular wrestle led to a really raw conversation with Heaven about me not loving myself, and not even knowing who I was. It was terrifying to admit that in prayer, and then to ask how I could begin to love myself and undo so much self-loathing and shame. The answer came through feelings and the realization that we, Heaven and I, were going to have to break what I had spent a lifetime building. To love and accept me would mean not just letting go of the carefully crafted, unmessy life narrative I had been living in...but intentionally breaking it all down and searching through the rumble of my life for the grains of truth that had been buried within; hoping that there would be enough left to start over.

Side note again: insert unlocking a new, unknown level of ugly crying, 0/10 would not recommend.

Could God really be the catalyst for this? Would God really prompt me in this way? I had to weigh what I felt against what I thought I knew. And in that moment of crisis, three verses of scriptures came back to me. The first is universally familiar and breathtakingly personal, from Christ Himself: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” (Matthew 26:39) I wanted any other cup. And while I was thinking about wanting cups to pass, three words said by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the Old Testament, standing before a king and a fiery furnace, echoed in my heart: “but if not.” (Daniel 3:18) There are some cups that while they are unbearably bitter now, lead to beautiful places that can only be reached by moving through the bitter and the unbearable. And right on the heels of that verse was another that I have known by heart since I wrote it in sharpie on my basketball shoes sophomore year of high school: “Look unto me in every thought; doubt not, fear not.” (D&C 6:36) God had patiently guided me here, and Heaven would not abandon me. I had brought Heavenly Parents into this wrestle and now I had to trust in Their eternal attribute of CREATOR; that They would create a new life with me out of the shattered remains of what I had tried to build on my own FOR Them. This time, I wanted to build WITH Them.

It’s been a wild ride in the three years since then. We continue to have lots of wrestles, including the recurring impression in 2021 to come out publicly on social media. I wouldn’t say that wrestling with God gets any easier. Quite the opposite. But I would say that trusting in God and trusting that the outcome is always better than I expect is a consistent pattern. So how can we facilitate these wrestles? Because we have more control than we think we do. We don’t have to cower in fear waiting for something unknown and horrific to fall into our lives so we can reach out to God about it. In fact, our Heavenly Parents have set up a way for us to do this as often as we want: prayer.

Part 2: Are we leveraging the power of prayer?

Growing up in the Church and church culture as we all have, we hear a lot of prayers. Here is my observation: We often say the prayers of a spectator. We want God to intervene miraculously and save the day like a superhero while we get a front row seat. If we want to learn resilience and wrestle to become more like God, that growth can’t begin until we actually put ourselves as the focus of our prayers instead of on the sidelines.

Here’s an example: let’s say Sarah’s brother Alex comes out to their family. We might expect to hear her pray for something like “please help Alex to know that Thou lovest him,” or “please help Alex get through this difficult time and that people will be nice to him at school and work,” or “watch over and protect Alex, that he can remember that he is a child of God and that there is a place for him in Thy church.”

These are familiar-sounding prayers...but is Sarah engaging in the wrestle? Not yet. None of those prayers actually require anything from Sarah except saying them and then hoping God and other people do the work. What would change within Sarah if her prayers sounded more like this: “please help ME to see and love Alex as Thou seest and lovest him. Please inspire ME to discern how I can create a safe place for Alex. How can our loving, welcoming family show Alex that WE don’t just accept this truth about him but make sure he feels that WE need him? Show ME how my careless actions and words in the past may have hurt Alex or lead him to internalize fear and lies about himself. Give ME the strength to accept those realities and apologize to him today, knowing that I can’t change the past but with Thee I can do better in the future.”

An interesting exercise might be to take an account of what my prayers with God sound like lately: How often am I asking for miracles that require nothing on my end? How often am I bringing ideas and solutions and suggesting my own wrestling and work to heaven? That breakdown might be pretty informative on what my relationship with heaven is really like. Of course I’m all for bringing God in for the hail mary pass when the game is on the line...but I also want to be just as eager to collaborate with God to create the pre-game plan, check in with God during timeouts on the field, and make adjustments for the second half in the locker room. Which brings us to the final part of my game plan:

Part 3: Resilience-what keeps us getting back up off the floor when life knocks us down.

Remember the wrestles I listed out at the beginning of this talk? I just listed a few that I think are relatable to many here and your loved ones. I would like to remind all of us that none of our wrestles, including the ones I’ve mentioned, have an assigned script to follow and there isn’t just one acceptable outcome. That reality means constant tension and cognitive dissonance will be unavoidable for LGBTQIA+ individuals and allies within the sphere of church culture. It can also be a beautiful testing ground for resilience.

So what keeps me getting up off the floor when the hits keep coming and I am so tired and frustrated? For me, my understanding of resilience really distills down to one visual that President Russell M. Nelson painted for me in a worldwide devotional in 2018. He said, “Think of this...right now I am preparing for the day when I will be required to give an the Lord—about my stewardship as God’s prophet upon the earth today.” (Hope of Israel) When I heard him say that, I did think about it. A lot. I, too, am going to have a conversation with my Savior, Jesus Christ, some day. What do I want that conversation to be like?

Picturing this conversation has become the foundation of my resilience. I don’t envision Him across the room or in front of me interviewing me, but standing by my side. I don’t know exactly what kinds of questions He will ask, but I do know two things I want in this conversation. First, I want any evaluation of my life to be based on what I did with who I am. The prerequisite to that discussion is me investing over a lifetime to figuring out who I am and understanding that pretending to be anything else is harmful, even if the pretending fits every societal expectation and mold. Second, I don’t EVER want my conversations with Christ to sound like, “well, I did or didn’t (fill-in-the-blank) because so-and-so told me to.” Such as: “I read the scriptures because President Nelson said I should. I went on a mission because I was supposed to. I didn’t drink alcohol or do drugs because The For Strength of Youth pamphlet said not to, etc.” I don’t want to tell my Savior that any of my actions were because I gave my agency to anyone or anything else. I want to own my choices. I want to look Him in the eye and be able to say, “You and I, WE, made that choice together. We know why we did or didn’t do everything because we created my life one choice at a time.” And choosing to accept that I am gay isn’t going to be left out of our conversation. On the contrary, it is a crucial piece; one of the beautiful threads of the tapestry that we are weaving to make the masterpiece of me and my life.

I want to own the good, the bad, the miraculous, the difficult, the confusing, the angry, and the joy with Jesus Christ because creating my life with Him isn’t about only making the right decisions and never making mistakes. It is about growth and learning and becoming. With Christ, I can fail without being a failure. Because this life isn’t Pass/Fail. It’s practice. And I want God to be there with me for all of it. I have found that every wrestle is worthwhile when we do it together. And with God, we continue to find the strength to get up and keep moving, keep learning, keep gathering, and keep becoming. Thank you.

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