Left to right: John with son Glen and husband Göran; John with his dad, Donald.
The kind of love that resides and grows within families does not discriminate against gay and lesbian couples
by John Gustav-Wrathall
There are two conflicting scriptural messages about honoring parents.
Of course, there is the fifth commandment: “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Exodus 20: 12).
But then there was Christ’s more iconoclastic approach: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Or try this one on for size: “Call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). If we deny that any earthly individual has a right to claim the title of father, it threatens to moot the fifth commandment all together, a point not lost on Rabbi Jacob Neusner in his critique of New Testament ethics (see Jacob Neusner, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus [Image, 1994]).
Many LGBT people have had the experience of utter rejection by their parents, merely for being truthful about their sexual orientation. The idea of honor can lose meaning in that framework as well, though many LGBT individuals do their best to honor parents even under difficult circumstances. There was a time when I could relate better to Christ’s ethic of honesty over honor than I could to the Old Testament ethic of absolute obedience to parents. It seemed to me that if my parents considered it an offense to be honest about who I was, then I was better off without parents.
To come out as gay or lesbian once meant being excommunicated from familial patterns and relationships. Your parents disowned you, and it was assumed that without heterosexual marriage, parenthood was no longer a prospect for you. You were outside of family.
I grew up expecting to be and looking forward to being a father. And there was a time in my coming-out journey when I grieved the loss of family, and the loss of the prospect of fatherhood. Yet, here I am, more than two decades after I thought all those dreams had died, and I have a very close relationship with my father, and with my husband’s father. As I write this essay, I have a sixteen-year-old son leaning against my shoulder, reading what I write as I write it! I have another son who recently finished his junior year in college. My home state of Minnesota just passed a law that will officially recognize Göran’s and my marriage on August 1 of this year. Father’s Day has become an important holiday in our home. My husband Göran insists on it! Who’d a thunk!
It’s comforting, as a gay man, to be able to participate in the rituals and celebrations of fatherhood. A few months before our first son Glen was placed in our home, I was deeply touched when a young woman in my LDS ward who knew of the coming placement knowingly smiled, congratulated me and Göran, and handed me a treat at the end of that Father’s Day Sacrament Meeting. That this was in the context of Church made it especially moving.
American public opinion moves today toward inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the social constellations of marriage, parenting, and family. Increasingly, lesbians and gay men are celebrating Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, both as children of affirming parents and as parents themselves. As I contemplate those trends, I find my mind drawn back to that seeming clash between two biblical principles, one that affirms earthly fatherhood, and one that at least interrogates it, if not outright denying it.
Christ, in his iconoclastic statements about fatherhood, was upholding the prior, and more important commandment of not having any other gods before God. It makes me ponder, at least, what it means to be a father who eschews all forms of idolatry.
It makes me want to be the kind of father who understands the danger of abusing parental power (à la D&C 121); to understand that my primary ministry as a father is to protect and to nurture. It makes me want to be the kind of father who shows his sons (or daughters) the value of truth in how he lives, rather than demanding obedience “because I said so.” It makes me want to be the kind of father who points those in his care to God, God being the only one with an absolute claim to the kind of allegiance too often usurped by idolatrous convention.
It’s really hard being a dad. It’s hard parenting teenagers! It’s hard finding that balance between letting them learn, and protecting them; between giving them what they want, and giving them what they need; between knowing when and how to teach your kids, and when and how to learn from them. I love being a dad. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. And it also makes me completely crazy sometimes. I’ve never appreciated my dad as much as I do now. It gives me insight into the nature and the challenges of God’s love for us.
It has often been pointed out by Christian theologians that one of the most important teachings in the ministry of Jesus was his emphasis on the parental nature of God’s relationship to us. Jesus brought God closer to us by referring to God almost exclusively as “Father.” The term used in the Lord’s prayer is “Abba,” a child’s term of endearment for a father, like the English word “pappa.” Jesus emphasized the accessibility of God when he insisted time and again that “he that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9).
Most of the Christian world has distanced itself from the radical implications of this central teaching of Christ, suggesting as C.S. Lewis famously did in Mere Christianity that when Christ showed us God as Father, he did so only as a metaphor. Through Christ —most “orthodox” Christians insist— we become like sons and daughters of God, but when push comes to shove, we are creations of God, not children. (The corollary: Christ, one with the Father, is God to us, not Elder Brother.) Mormons notoriously (to the horror of much of “orthodox” Christianity) insist the opposite: that we are children of God in some very literal sense, with all the divine potential that implies somehow embedded in our spiritual DNA. Furthermore, in Mormon theology, in the immortal words of Eliza R. Snow, the thought that in the Heavens parents are single “makes reason stare”! The families we form are models of the divine family in Heaven, a family that includes mothers as well as fathers.
I understand how that familial imagery of divinity has frequently been devastatingly applied in Mormon culture, laying heavy burdens on childless couples, on single people, and, of course, on gay and lesbian people. But Mormonism taught me to approach God with trust, the way I would a loving and nurturing parent; to seek and trust his immediate, personal guidance. Mormonism taught my parents how to be loving, nurturing models of divinity in our home. And as I have accepted the Spirit’s promptings to become a parent myself, I have learned that that divine potential exists within me, and within the partnership I’ve formed with my husband. I’ve learned that the best teacher of divinity is love, the kind of love that resides and grows within families. And that love does not discriminate against and does not distance itself from gay and lesbian couples. That love invites us to enter into the divine love, if we dare. Gay men and lesbians can, like all of God’s children, learn that divine love through emulation.
This, to me, is the bridge between the truth in the fifth commandment, and the truth in Christ’s iconoclastic approach to earthly families. Our families —even gay families— are a schoolhouse for divine family. Joseph Smith insisted they were not just a schoolhouse, but a kernel for, a seed of divine family. So they deserve our honor and our respect; not an idolatrous honor, but an honor full of hope and full of faith in the eternal potential of parental love.