Sunday, October 28, 2012

God moves in mysterious ways. . .

Gracie was slow to dress this morning, as is usual for her, and Daron had to meet someone at church before the meeting, so it fell to me to run her over as soon as she was ready. As I pulled into the parking lot (hoping that no one would notice that I was still in my jammies!), I saw happy, peppy people exiting their cars and heading into the building. I thought to myself how glad I was not to be joining them for yet another boring church meeting, and I felt a little sorry for those poor souls who can't get out of it as easily as I do. Because nobody likes church, right? They aren't really as happy as they look; they were just putting on their 'happy' faces and faking it, because that's what we do, right? Right?

But then a memory hit me. I remembered walking into our last ward building before a meeting, and I remembered the feeling of anticipation as I contemplated joining my fellow saints and ward members in worship. Happy anticipation.

I used to enjoy going to church. Most of the time, anyway. I enjoyed seeing my friends and neighbors, greeting them and being greeted. I loved the feeling of community, the idea that we were in this together. They were like family to me, and I felt a sense of belonging that kept me coming back, week after week. It wasn't fake, or shallow. It was real happiness, and real friendship. Real love for my fellow ward members. Real joy at sitting with them and worshiping our God together. It was real, and this morning I remembered, and I missed it.

About a year after Daron and I were married, we moved into our first house together. The local ward was well-established, full of people who had lived in the area for years, many of whom remembered Daron from his childhood, as we were not far from where he had grown up. They were what would be called 'stalwart' in the church, steady and faithful. Unquestioning believers. Salt-of-the-earth. The kind of people who were frequently called to serve on the stake level, and at the university in the bishoprics of student wards. People who lived the gospel as it should be lived. They were kind, accepting, warm, generous, Christ-like. A lot like my parents. And I fell in love with that ward.

It took a bit of time, about 2 years, before I felt like I was part of the ward. My first real calling was as secretary of the Young Women's organization, then shortly after that I was called to be the Primary president, and that solidified my place amongst my peers. I was one of them, one of the leaders, steady and faithful. At least in their eyes. There was a part of me that resented the notion that, as a ward 'leader', I was more acceptable in their eyes than I'd been previously. But mostly, I was just glad to be a part of things, to be able to participate on that level with people I respected so much. I had found my place amongst spiritual giants, in a celestial ward. And it truly was a 'celestial' ward. There were many people from throughout the stake who referred to us that way. We were known for our inclusiveness, our genuine love for one another, our ability to gather any and all within our ward boundaries to join with us for meetings and activities. There were a few non-members who lived within the neighborhood who were faithful attendees at our frequent ward parties, and who occasionally joined us on Sundays. My memories of that ward might be a little too golden to be accurate, but the point is, I was very fond of that ward, and my time there was a happy time.

Until it wasn't. I've already written of a time when I doubted the truthfulness of the church, and the efforts I made to choose to believe. And the fact that I lived in a ward with so many true friends made that choice easier to bear. I could push my doubts aside because the fruits of my faithful attendance were so sweet. I had a ward family, they loved and accepted me, and that was enough, most of the time.

The house we lived in during that time was not my favorite house. The floor plan was awkward, and the neighborhood was comprised of a gas station, the school district office, the fire station, a group of apartments that tended to attract beer-guzzling, condom-wearing tenants (we know this because occasionally these items would be thrown over the fence into our backyard), and a few scattered houses. My husband liked the neighborhood, as it fit his need for social isolation. I, on the other hand, have always needed and loved neighbors. I'm very social, and very outgoing. (Incidentally, my husband's dream home would be nestled back in the foothills of the Tetons, with only wolves and pine trees for neighbors. I would be delighted to live in downtown Manhattan. Somehow, we have managed to stay together in spite of our differences, mostly because my husband loves me and wants me to be happy. Bless him. He's a good egg.)

Our house was on a street that divided the two main neighborhoods of our ward. I longed to live in one of those neighborhoods, and I went through every house in either area that went on the market while we lived there. But, my husband found something wrong with each house, some reason it was unsuitable. He liked our house, and the street it sat on, and he made plans to remodel it to fit our growing family's needs. I, on the other hand, was obsessed with house plans, daydreaming about living in a house with a more workable floor plan, and neighbors on both sides. I dreamed of living in a neighborhood, similar to the one I'd grown up in. A place where my kids could just run outside and find playmates, where they would be able to frolic without the danger of fire engines, beer cans, or condoms. A place where I could run next door to borrow a cup of sugar, or visit with neighbors while I weeded the flower garden. (That last part was definately dreamland material, as I didn't then, nor do I now have a green thumb. But, if one is going to dream, one might as well dream big, right?)

We lived relatively happily in that house for several years, and I figured, based on my husband's attitude, we'd live there until our dying day (yes, we are going together!). But my husband, being the sensitive, kind soul that he is, sensed my restlessness and desire to move. Not so much sensed, really, as heard me whine, complain, and downright bitch about the house and the neighborhood. I've never been one to suffer in silence. So, one day soon after the birth of our last child, he took me out for a drive, and we stopped at a house he'd been eyeing that was for sale. He took me into the house, where his parents and a real estate agent were waiting for me, to discuss the possibility of buying said house. I was floored. Yes, I'd been vocal about my dislike of our house, but he had never said anything that had given me the slightest indication that he would ever in a million years be willing to move. But he had been listening to me over the years, and he really did want me to be happy, and he knew that I wasn't happy there. And most likely never would be.

The house we were interested in was already under contract at the time, unbeknownst to us. We put in an offer as well, and waited to see whether the original contract would fall through. (We really aren't so heartless as to wish for someone else's plan to fail, but there were conditions on that contract that made it less likely to be honored.) This took several months, and throughout that time we continued looking at houses. I really, really wanted to find something within our current ward boundaries, as I did not want to leave my beloved friends and ward family. There weren't many options, however, as my husband rejected any of the existing homes that were available. There was a small tract of land within our ward that was finally subdivided, and 1/3 acre plots went on the market. There was a corner lot that seemed perfect for us. We had decided that the best way to meet our family's needs would be to build something ourselves, and here was the opportunity to do that, and stay in our ward. It felt heaven-sent.

The house we'd originally wanted finally went to the first offer. I wasn't upset, as I figured that God would not put something I wanted so desperately in my path just to taunt me, only to yank it away from my grasp. I believed something equally as good, or better, would find it's way to us. And then we found the corner lot. We were elated, and started to make plans to build our home. The day we signed the papers to make our purchase official, however, I felt uneasy. I called Daron and told him that I didn't feel okay with this purchase, and I wanted to wait. He was so excited though, and convinced me that it would be okay to go ahead and buy the land; even if we didn't end up building on it, land was always a good purchase. So we signed the paperwork, and the lot was ours. We began to design our house, looking at floor plans we liked, tweaking them to meet our specific needs. But, I still felt restless, not 100% sure that we were doing the right thing.

Unbeknownst to me, Daron had continued to look around our community at property for sale. He really is very much in tune with me, and, though I tried to be excited about building a house on our new lot, he knew how I was feeling. He's just so good at reading me. Plus, as stated, I share my feelings. A lot. Overshare, probably.

So, one day in 2002, Daron asked me to take a drive with him. We went to a neighborhood a couple of blocks away, outside our ward boundaries, where he stopped outside a newly constructed house that was for sale. We went inside and met with the builder. It was a nice house, but very small, and I was confused as to why my husband thought it might be the right house for us. As we finished our conversation with the builder, my husband asked if I'd like to live in that neighborhood. I hesitantly said yes. I didn't want that house, but I did like the neighborhood. Very much, in fact. It turns out that there was one lot left, in a cul-de-sac, that the builder was looking to unload. We walked down to take a closer look at it, and it felt like home. It was just what I'd imagined my neighborhood should look like. Houses on either side, bikes on the sidewalk where they'd been abandoned by their young owners, dogs barking in the distance. A view on either side of the mountains that ring our valley. I think I cried. And I said yes, I want to live in this neighborhood.

So, we bought the new lot, and eventually were able to re-sell the other one, the one in the celestial ward. The one I thought God had hand-picked for me. The one I knew was not the right place for me. And we began to construct our new home.

Building a new home is a lot of work, and a lot of fun. And a lot of work. But it was exciting, and I looked forward to meeting my new neighbors and my new ward. Breaking the news to my old ward was hard, but people are always moving on, and my friends were happy for me. I had mixed feelings. I had been trying so hard to maintain my testimony, but there were days when I wondered if maybe a new start might not be just what I needed. A new ward where I would have opportunities to grow in different directions. I didn't want to leave, but I discovered that, underneath that desire to stay, was a longing to break free. From what, I wasn't sure. But I was excited. And I was confident in my ability to make new friends, and make for myself a niche in my new ward. I'd done it before, I could do it again.

Around this time, the mother of one of my current ward friends came to their baby blessing. She had at one time been in my mother-in-law's ward, and I had met her a few times. She was, and is, one of those rare individuals who could probably make the devil want to be good. She's a very loving, kind, sincere person, the embodiment of a saint. We visited for a minute in the parking lot, and she asked about our plans for our new home. She mentioned how much she loved my ward, calling it a celestial ward, remarking that, while she loved her own ward, she felt that my ward was truly a heavenly place to be, and that, if she could, she'd move just so she could be in my ward. She then asked where we were moving, and I told her, "Into your ward." She was silent for a moment, looking like she'd swallowed her tongue, then tried to backpedal and tell me what a great ward we'd be moving into. Too late; she'd already told me that her ward was not a particularly friendly ward. I can't remember the words she used, but she made it very clear that she much preferred my ward. And I remember thinking to myself, "It will be okay. I'm friendly and out-going. I can make friends with anyone." I really believed that. And I was at peace with our decision to move. It felt right. I didn't have any misgivings. I felt God had led us to our new home.

The time finally came to move. It had been a a difficult time, as our old ward knew we were moving so we had been released from our callings. It felt like we had already moved on, and were just visitors in the ward each Sunday. Our first few weeks in the new ward were somewhat exciting, being the new family, greeted by a few ward members who introduced themselves. But then the excitement wore off. And we became bench warmers. There were many Sundays when nobody talked to us, or asked how we were doing. Many Sundays, I would leave the ward building without anyone even saying my name. It was weird to me. And it isn't because I didn't try. I am truly an extrovert, and I went each week with an open, friendly spirit. I smiled at those I passed, I asked, "How are you?" I attempted conversations with others. But they were always rushing off to teach something, or to get the front seat in Sunday School, or to calm a crying child. I had never felt so invisible.

This was a new experience for me. I was always popular in school, due in no small part to my inability to be quiet for long. I'm a smart-alecky, sarcastic, loud-mouthed, funny, fun-loving girl. And people are usually drawn to that. (I'm not really all puffed up with pride, I'm just acknowledging the personality I was born with, one that has generally been a positive thing.) But, for some reason, I just couldn't make friends in my new ward. After a few years, I was called into the Relief Society presidency, which provided a great way to meet people. And I did meet, and get to know, some really great people. But it wasn't the same as my previous ward. I still didn't feel like I was worshipping with family. I didn't feel like I belonged. I didn't have the social connection that made my doubts seem insignificant. And so, much to my dismay, my doubts grew. My depression grew. And my anxiety grew.

There will be many people, I have no doubt, who will read this and assume that I left because I was offended, that I didn't feel loved enough, that I didn't get that sense of belonging I needed. Boo-hoo, woe is me. So I left to go eat worms. (Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go eat worms. . . my parents recited that little ditty to us frequently when we complained about our social status. And it usually could make me laugh and get over myself!) I see this situation a little differently than those naysayers. I think God led me to this place, because God, whoever He or She is, knew that this was what I needed. I needed the space to leave, and I would never have found it amongst so much love. I needed to not belong, so that I would be compelled to find myself. To discover who I really am, and what I really believe. And being the social extrovert that I am, I never would have been able to break free from the bonds I had formed with my fellow saints, had I not been forced to it by loneliness.

I believe that I was led to my new home, by whatever force is at work in the universe, because it was time for me to get in touch with my center. To figure out that while I love religious people, I do not love religion. I do not love church. But I could never have acknowledged that to myself, or my community, had I not come to this place where I had little to no social connections. I was finally at peace with our decision to move when we found this particular lot, in this particular ward. And I have finally found peace within myself now that I am not bound by friendship to my ward family. I have no deep connections here, beyond a couple of people who I can and do still see outside of church, so I have been allowed to walk away. And that is exactly what I needed to do.

Mormonism does community very well. And the people who are active in that community generally find happiness there. I would never argue that they should leave, or that it isn't 'true' for them. But, for me, community wasn't enough. For me, it isn't 'true', and I don't believe I would ever have found the peace I sought within the bounds of a religious community. I am finally in the right place, at the right time. I am at peace. It is well with my soul.

Monday, October 22, 2012

For Karen. . .

Hey, Karen, guess what? You get your own blog post! This one's for you! . . .

Imagine my delight at opening my email inbox today, and receiving not one, not two, not even three, but four new comments on my blog today. I was excited, thinking maybe someone had read what I'd written, and wanted to let me know they'd been touched by it. It's happened before! Honestly! But, sigh. . . not today. Each response was from just one person: my new friend, Karen. And each one was a recitation of all the ways in which I was wrong on that day's topic.

My first inclination was to respond to each comment, point by point, and explain what you'd failed to see in the original post. To refute your criticisms. To defend myself and my hard-won positions. And then I realized the futility in such an effort. Because I realized, Karen, that you haven't come here to engage me in enlightening dialogue because you're interested in my viewpoint and perspective. You want only to point out where I am wrong, and to bolster your own views by tearing down mine. As I pointed out once before, you seem much more interested in confrontation than conversation.

Karen, you have expressed yourself in a most articulate manner. Your faith seems to be well thought out, and your testimony well grounded intellectually. You obviously are committed to the church, and seem to have spent considerable time studying the gospel. But, I think maybe you have missed the point. Granted, this is only my opinion, but you don't seem to be communicating from the heart, with love and compassion for your fellow man (or woman). Your comments feel condescending, written only to point out the flaws in my arguments, not with any attempt at truly understanding where I'm coming from. In other words, I feel attacked and condemned. Misunderstood. Misjudged. Is this how I've made you feel in my posts? And I ask that question in all sincerity, as I'd hate to think I've made you feel a smidgeon of what I'm feeling. If that is the case, I'm sorry. I am truly sorry.

Karen, you said that your sister-in-law has also left the church, and has said many of the same things I've posted. And I think maybe you are reacting to that situation much more than to my writings. Are you perhaps scared, fearful for her soul, and sorry for her family's loss? I understand those feelings. But maybe you would be better served addressing those concerns with her, and not here, where it does little good. Maybe it's time for a conversation with your sister-in-law. And keep in mind the admonition to seek first to understand, then to be understood. That's what we all want, isn't it? To be understood, and then loved, in spite of our flaws.

Yes, Karen, I am flawed. Deeply so. And I admit that I could be, and in fact probably am, wrong on so many things, in so many ways. I blame it on the human condition. I try to stay open to new ways of looking at life, and the meaning of our existance. But, like you, I have also spent considerable time considering my positions, and my beliefs. Many years, in fact. And I came to the conclusion that, for me, religion does not have satisfactory answers. I have found the peace I seek outside of the Mormon faith; in fact, outside of Christianity. I never anticipated finding myself here, but here is where I am. And I like it. It doesn't feel dark and lonely. I don't think I am under the influence of Satan. I feel happy, lighter, peaceful. And I'd really like to know, Karen, why my feelings are less valid than yours, that the church, and the gospel, are true? How can you be so sure that what I feel, what I've experienced, comes from a dark and evil source? Why are you so convinced that I've been deceived by Satan? Why can't you admit the possibility that I'm okay where I am, and that I'm right before God?

I made a decision early on that I wouldn't debate believing members of the church, for several reasons. Mostly, because I have no desire to win converts to my way of thinking. I have no desire to convince you, or anyone else, that I'm right and you're wrong. I have absolutely no intention of swaying anybody toward my way of thinking concerning religion. I'm of the opinion that we are each entitled to believe what makes sense to us, what leads us to peace, and what inspires us to make the world a better place. And believe me when I tell you that I have found all of that outside of the Mormon church. Of course, you don't believe me, and you won't, no matter how eloquent my argument. And that will have to be okay. I can't convince you that there is any validity to my views. We will have to agree to disagree.

Which brings me to another reason I don't debate believing members, such as yourself. These conversations rarely bring understanding. Neither party walks away feeling better about the other. It's a no-win situation. For that reason, maybe it's time for you to walk away. Maybe it's time for you to go back to your life and focus on how the gospel of Jesus Christ can penetrate your heart and bring peace to your soul. Maybe you can take a little of what I have said to heart, and look for ways to connect with your sister-in-law, outside of religion, and maybe reach a different understanding of her. Just think of the difference you could make in her life if you reached out to her with a desire to understand rather than to convince. Maybe you could be friends. Imagine the pain and loneliness you could alleviate just by loving her. Without judgement. Without condescension. Just love, Karen. You can do that, can't you?