Wednesday, December 18, 2013

I'd like to bear my 'untestimony' . . .

It has come to my attention that certain family  members see it as their responsibility to testify to my children, and save their souls. Your actions are very upsetting to me, as you can probably imagine, and I feel the need to address that here. I understand that most of my family members read this blog, so it seems like a good place to express my own feelings on the subject.

You say you love them as if they were your own, and your desire to share with them your own testimony of the truthfulness of the church, and the gospel, is motivated by this love. I get that, I truly do. But I would assert that your understanding of what is true stems from your own experiences with the church, and your own studies of its history and doctrine. Trust me when I tell you that my untestimony of the church, and the gospel, have come from extensive studying on my part, and I would like to share with you a very small part of my journey to this point.

If you have read other posts I've written, you are aware of my struggle to obtain a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel. I never took lightly the admonition to study it out in my mind, then to take it to the Lord in prayer. I spent many, many years in the pursuit of this testimony. I spent much time on my knees, and many hours studying the scriptures and other writings by leaders of the church. There were many times when I thought maybe I had been the beneficiary of enlightenment by the spirit, but, in retrospect, this was my own mind attempting to confirm what my beloved family members already 'knew'. I so much wanted to have what they had, to know as they knew. I begged and pleaded with God, but, in the end, what I got was confirmation that I didn't believe, and that it was okay go with that.

I didn't, and don't, believe that The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints is the one true church on the earth. I don't believe any church, or religious philosophy, deserves that distinction. And the overwhelming feeling of peace I experienced upon that realization confirmed to me, without a shadow of a doubt, that I had arrived at the right conclusion. For me, anyway. I do not attempt to speak for anyone else. Including my children.

Once I realized that I did not believe in the church, I struggled to know where to turn for answers to the questions I had about Mormonism, and religion in general. I received some much needed guidance from another family member, a compelling story of its own, which will need to be addressed another day. Suffice it to say that I was directed to some books that proved invaluable in my search, and I'd like to recommend these same books to you as a source of knowledge about your beloved church's history, and changing doctrine.

Every one of the books I turned to was written by an active, believing member of the church. The majority of these authors were historians, whose only interest was in chronicling the events that transpired in the early days of the church. Mormon history, you must acknowledge, provides some fascinating stories. These stories have much more to offer us than the faith-promoting tidbits we are fed in Sunday School and Seminary. Much of it is inspiring, as it details the courage of a people who wanted to follow the God they worshiped, and who believed that they had found a prophet to lead them in this pursuit. However, there have been many details omitted from the history as presented to the general membership, and these details reveal a history rich in contradiction and human frailty.

We so want to believe that the founder of the church, and his contemporaries, were men of God, inspired and led by God, who were pure in heart, and only sought to do good. This is the picture painted for us by the church. The reality is that they were first and foremost human beings, subject to all the missteps and failings of the rest of humanity. Maybe they were truly seeking God's will, and believed they were receiving it. Maybe they were evil men who desired to take advantage of those who looked to them for spiritual and temporal guidance. More likely they were somewhere in between these two extremes, which, to me, is a much more compelling story.

The first book I was directed to was "Rough Stone Rolling", written by Richard Bushman, who is currently serving as a stake patriarch in the church. This book goes into great detail on the life of Joseph Smith, and has stories that most lay members of the church have never heard. In fact, my own husband (your brother, and a co-descendent of Hyrum Smith) challenged me early on in my studies by asserting that "this is family history, and you can't tell me anything that I don't already know". I took his challenge, and shared with him a few facts I'd learned from Mr. Bushman, such as the fact that Joseph Smith was married to at least 33 wives (a fact that can be documented in the church's own archives); that 11 of those wives were currently still married to another man at the time of their marriage to Joseph; that there is documented evidence of sexual relationships with some of those women; that a few were teenagers, at least one as young as 14; that there were a couple of sets of sisters and one mother/daughter duo; and that he lied to his own legally and lawfully wedded wife, Emma, about the existence of these other marriages. That's just for starters.

Your brother was visibly sick when I told him these facts, and I regretted the direction the conversation had taken. I have no desire to shake anyone else's testimony, especially my beloved husband's, but these are facts that can be verified by the archives of the church. Archives that have been closed, incidentally, to any but a select few historians, hand-picked by the church for their devotion to the mission of the church. The point is, don't tell me that you know more than I do, if you haven't availed yourself of the sources I have read.

The next book I read was "In Sacred Loneliness", written by Todd Compton. This book didn't just solidify my untestimony; it broke my heart. Mr. Compton's book was rich with detail, footnoted with extensive references to other verified church sources. It told the stories of the many wives of Joseph Smith, and the hardships they experienced throughout their lives, much of which can be attributed to their association with the church as plural wives, both of Joseph and other leaders of the church in its early days. Read it and weep. Literally.

From there, I read "Mormon Enigma", a biography of Emma Hale Smith, written by 2 women who were at the time believing, active Mormons. Linda King Newell was an associate professor of history, and Valeen Tippetts Avery was a writer, editor and researcher who had an interest in early Mormon history. These women told Emma's story in such a way that I felt deeply her devotion to her husband, and her pain at what she perceived to be his betrayal, and her desire to continue to follow him as a prophet of God. This was another heartbreaking read for me.

You might guess from the above paragraphs that polygamy was a major trigger point for me, and you would be right. However, there were many other issues that came to light through my reading that were new to me, a lifelong member of the church, and further confirmed my untestimony. In fact, the more I read, the more I became convinced that I'd been deceived. Maybe it was with the best of intentions, and those who attempted to educate and teach me throughout my life were most interested in saving my soul. And, most likely, they were not aware of the true, un-whitewashed version of our history. I believe this is also true for you.

You say that you are motivated by love for my children, and that you want what is best for them. I am also motivated by love for them, and also want what is best for them, but what that 'best' is will most likely always be a source of contention between us. All I ask of you is that you reserve your judgement until you have read and studied the history as I have, and can base your opinions on more than your conviction that what you have is a sure knowledge of the veracity of the church. I know that your testimony is deeply meaningful to you, and you have likely arrived at that testimony through prayer and scripture study. My aim here is not to ask you to question what you believe to be true, but to simply walk in my shoes, read what I have read, consider what I have considered, and give me the same respect I have afforded you.

After all, I have not seen fit to bear my untestimony to your children, nieces I love as if they were my own daughters. And I only want what is best for them, motivated by love. Same as you.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Gone, but not forgotten

When I was 19 years old, my good friend, Carolyn, was killed in a car accident. She and I had spent a lot of time together that summer, and I was in awe at what a genuinely good person she was. And that she wanted to spend time with me, a known reprobate! When I heard the news that she was dead, I was stunned. I couldn't assimilate the information, couldn't get my brain to accept that she was gone. I would never get to see her again. I would never again hear her voice on the phone, or her giggle when she was embarrassed at something I'd said, or see her eyes light up when she talked about her boyfriend. She was gone, and I wouldn't see her again.

Friends tried to cheer me up by reminding me that we would be reunited in the hereafter, and what a glorious reunion that would be! Only it didn't help. That seemed far, far away, in some nebulous future I couldn't quite imagine. I spent that first night sitting up on my bed, unable to sleep, wondering where she was and what she was thinking. And missing her. Because I knew that someday, probably fairly soon, I would go on with my life, without her, without her friendship, without her giggle, without her delightful personality. There would come a day when I would not think of her several times an hour, or several times a day, or at all. My life would go on, and she would not be a part of it. I would not see her get married, and have babies, and become the mother she'd always dreamed of being. We could no longer be buddies, sharing secrets about boys, racing around in my car with the tunes up as loud as they could go, singing along to our favorite songs, being young and carefree and happy.

In all likelihood, we would have lost touch at some point anyway. She was anticipating marrying her boyfriend, and our lives would have diverged onto different paths. I believe she would have gone on to be a fabulous mommy, and would have become so wrapped up in her little's lives, she would not have had much time to spare for old friends. It's a common theme. I can think of quite a few friends from my past who are not part of my present. Some I've run into when I visit my hometown, and we spend a few minutes catching up on one another's lives. Some I've run into on facebook, and we have become new/old friends.

But because my friend left me in her youth, I cannot hope to run into her in the grocery store, or see her 'like' a post on facebook about my kid's accomplishments, or visit with her at a high school reunion. She is just gone, and I still can't reconcile myself to her absence. I still miss her, and her giggle.

Four years ago today, my mother-in-law passed away. She had fought the good fight for three long years, and I was glad that she was out of her misery. But, as Grace said, "When Grandma died, it put her out of her misery, and put us into ours." Profound words. And, while I can't say that we have been miserable without her, our days are frequently punctuated by expressions of loss and grief, as her name is mentioned on a regular basis, remembering the gentleness and compassion she brought to our lives. Grandma was the steadying influence, the rock upon which the family was built. She was unflappable in the face of adversity and conflict. She was, after all, married to my father-in-law, a person I have always struggled to understand, or to like. But, she made it look easy. I'd ask her how her day was going, and she would always respond, "Plugging along." Said with a smile. I wasn't the only one who loved my mother-in-law, and I'm not the only one who misses her. Her passing left a hole a mile wide, and it has yet to be filled. I don't anticipate that it ever will be.

As I sat with my mother-in-law during her chemotherapy, I'd frequently look at her face, and try to memorize every detail. She was 78 years old when she was diagnosed, and we both knew that she would not outlive the diagnosis of cancer. It would eventually win, and she would leave us. I looked at her features, and her smile, and I listened to her talk, and I told myself to hang onto this, lock it away somewhere safe, so that I could take it out someday and have her with me still. Only, as it turns out, that is impossible to do. At least for me. I remember how much I loved her, and I remember her profound influence on my life, but I struggle to recall her features, or the sound of her voice. The memories do not suffice. I miss her presence.

At the time of my mother-in-law's passing, I was in the midst of a faith crisis. I was struggling to figure out what would remain of my religious beliefs, once I realized that I did not believe the Mormon church was true. What did I believe, about the afterlife specifically? Where did my mother-in-law go when she died? I was there, in the room, when she passed, and I wanted so much to feel her spirit as it left. But I felt nothing. I don't interpret that to mean that there was nothing to feel, or to tell anyone else that what they may have experienced wasn't real. Just that, for me, it was over. She was gone, and I wouldn't feel her presence ever again while in this life. It was too much at the time to absorb, so I back-burnered it for a few years, refusing to consider the possibility that she had ceased to exist anywhere, not just here. That death was the end of all consciousness. That the essence of Norma had disappeared into oblivion.

Over these past four years, I have considered many different explanations for this life, and the possibilities are indeed boundless. There are almost as many ideas about what happens to us upon death as there are religions. Even among people of the same religious persuasion there are variations. Ask any two Mormons what happens after death, and you will get two different answers. Each interprets the doctrine in a way that makes sense to them. And since no one has returned from the other side to confirm or deny an afterlife, we are left on our own to figure it out. No matter what religion you belong to, you still have to come to your own conclusions on the specifics. Many will argue that they base their beliefs on revelations received about the destination of our souls, but, in the end, they still have to decide what to keep, what to discard, and what to backburner for later dissection. Coming to terms with death is no easy proposition, not for any of us.

I've spent considerable time myself trying on different philosophies of life, testing the fit to see what makes sense. What brings me peace when dealing with loss and grief, and, more importantly, what I can live with. After much deliberation, I finally arrived at agnostic atheism, albeit with a hopeful bent. A happy, hopeful agnostic, if I must have a label. Basically, the idea that I don't know why we're here, or where we came from, or where we are going, and I'm okay with that. Generally.

But, a couple of months ago, I dabbled in pure atheism, bordering on nothing-ism. The idea that there is no greater purpose to this life, and there is no final destination. This is it. This is the end. Finito. Over and out. Norma, and Carolyn, are gone forever, worm food. And whatever it is that made them them, gone. The idea sunk me into deep despair. I sat in my favorite chair and cried, all day, watching the rain come down outside, and I felt empty. Completely empty, and void of hope. Life felt bleak, and pointless, and I struggled to come to terms with this conclusion. Fortunately I only spent a short time in this desolate place. I can't exist in a place with no hope, so I retreated away from the edge of the abyss. I decided that, for me, the notion that death is the end of all existence was an untenable proposition. And I decided that it would be okay for me to embrace hope in something more, even if I don't know, or even believe. Hope would have to be enough.

Belief is a funny thing, and feels elusive to me. I can't just decide to believe something, just because I want to. And I certainly can't know a thing that others claim to know, just because they say it is so. But I have an imagination, and it can be pretty powerful when I need it to be. And I can hope that what I imagine to be true, is actually true. Because you know what? It doesn't matter what I think, or believe, or want,  or even hope. It is what it is, and it will be what it will be, regardless of my wishes.

That hope is built upon the gratitude I feel at having known my beloved mother-in-law, and having had the opportunity to be by her side as she fought the ultimate battle. And how grateful I am that I took the time to be with her, and to know her, while she was here. Reflecting on our friendship reminds me of the importance of loving my loved ones while they are here, instead of putting my hope in a future that might not come to pass.

So, what do I hope about my mother-in-law's ultimate destination? In my imagination, she is walking through a meadow of wildflowers, with our beloved dogs, Sammy and Libby, frolicking by her side, and the sun is high in the sky warming her face, and the breeze picks up the scent of the flowers, and she is smiling with that beautiful Norma smile. Carolyn is there, too, pulling petals off a flower, saying, in her little-girl voice, "He loves me, he loves me not." And Elvis sings in the background. 'Cause there can't be a heaven without Elvis. And, since it's my imagined heaven, I can put anybody there I want to. Imagination is a beautiful thing.

And so is hope.