Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Who Knew?

The church recently released a series of essays about the prophet Joseph Smith, and his practice of polygamy during the early days of the church. Big news, apparently. I mean, who knew?!?

Turns out, a lot of people did. If the internet is to be believed, most of them were Mormons, and most of them were, and are, faithful. The big questions then became how did they know, when did they know, what exactly did they know, and what did they do about it. And the answers were infuriating.

"You're upset because you didn't know 'Ol Joe had multiple wives? Teenagers, some of them? Other mens' wives, men he'd sent on missions? If only you'd paid attention in church! This is not new information, and it wasn't hidden from those who cared enough to look for it. Dumbasses."

Okay, nobody called anybody a dumbass. Not that I saw, anyway. But the insinuation was that the fault lie with those who were ignorant of the history. Victim blaming.

"I knew, and it didn't change a thing for me. Joseph was a prophet of God, and was commanded by God to take other wives, much like prophets of old. Doesn't change a thing. Why you so upset? Why you gotta leave? Why you gotta be a hater? Wah! Wah! Wah! Big babies! Go! Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out!"


Way, way back in the mid 1980's, I knew. I don't believe my story is unique, but it is worth telling. If only to shut up those naysayers who knew, and were not bothered. Because I was bothered. A lot.

The first edition of "Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith", was published in 1985. I found it on my very believing mother's bookshelf, and was intrigued by the title, so I read it. It was an eye-opener for me, a lifelong Mormon girl, raised in Utah. I don't recall ever hearing in church that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. Or if I had, I hadn't paid much attention. It wasn't spoken of over the pulpit in glowing terms, unlike the account of the first vision as told in the Pearl of Great Price. It certainly was not common knowledge among my peers. I don't recall any mention of it in seminary or institute, though I was a graduate of both. Maybe it was a lesson topic one day, and I was out sick. Or I was goofing off on the back row, a reality on any given day. Both scenarios are possible.

Nevertheless, though I grew up in the church, schooled in the beauty of the gospel restored through the efforts of Joseph Smith, I was not aware of Joseph's history with polygamy. I believed, as did most of the Mormons I knew, that polygamy started with Brigham Young, and was an altruistic-attempt-to-care-for-the-poor-widows-and-orphaned-children-who-had-lost-their-husbands-and-fathers-in-the-terrible-struggle-to-cross-the-plains-in-pursuit-of-religious-freedom. That was our story, and we stuck to it.

The real story of polygamy I learned while reading the above-mentioned book about Emma Smith. It provided details about their marriage, and his marriages, that I had never heard. And it was disconcerting, to say the least. I was bothered by the idea that Joseph married other women without his wife's knowledge, and, once she was made aware, against her wishes. I was bothered by the fact that Joseph married a girl who was only 14, among other teenagers. I was bothered by the fact that Joseph married other men's wives, many of whom were alone on the frontier because he had sent their husbands on missions to spread the gospel word. I was bothered that Joseph Smith claimed God had commanded him to do all of this, at the risk of his own life should he refuse. And I was bothered by the fact that this was new to me, a lifelong member.

This new information sat in my brain for awhile, over a year, and festered. In July of 1987, I took a cross-country trip, with a younger brother along for company, and we made a stop in Nauvoo, Illinois. This was in the days before it had been restored to its former glory. We wandered up and down the streets, looking at the many, many homes that had been left behind by the saints, and stood for a while on the temple mount, contemplating the exodus of our Mormon ancestors. I didn't entirely trust the narrative fed us by the missionary couples, the story of a people who had been driven off by an angry mob because of their faith in God. The story of Joseph's polygamy was too fresh in my mind, and I couldn't help but wonder how much that had to do with the saints hasty departure from their beloved city.

Then we visited Carthage jail, the site of the martydom of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. I sat in silence in the upper room, listening to the story of Joseph Smith, the hero, and the mob that had gathered on that fateful day to carry out their evil deed. And I couldn't quiet my feelings of unease, thinking about the acts of Joseph Smith, the polygamist. Joseph Smith, the deceitful and, in my view, unfaithful spouse to Emma. Joseph Smith, the arrogant self-proclaimed prophet of the new dispensation, who had God's ear, and spoke God's word. I was very uncomfortable with these feelings, having been raised to revere Joseph Smith. "Praise to the Man" was an oft-sung anthem to our martyred prophet. And yet, there I sat, with a troubled heart. The story no longer resonated as one of faithful saints driven off by hate and fear. It had been tainted by truth, and I was in turmoil.

My journal entry, recorded the next day, reads, in part, ".... he was such a complex person, and one with whom I have a hard time identifying. I have a testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel, but my conviction that he was inspired in all of his actions is a bit weak. I guess I don't understand him well enough -- but I also think that the people of that time period bear some studying as well, since that could shed some light on Joseph Smith himself. He would most likely have gone about things much differently in this century, been similar to the apostles and prophets we have now. I don't have any trouble respecting them. Not that such is the case with Joseph -- I just don't understand him. I can empathize with Emma --."

If I recall correctly, this did not reflect my feelings entirely accurately, but I was reluctant to record for my posterity any doubt that Joseph was a prophet. I couldn't commit in writing my disquiet with the story as I now knew it. But reading between the lines, I was disturbed by the actions of Joseph Smith, and I couldn't make them fit what I believed to be true of prophets and apostles. I could no longer see him as a man of God. In my mind, he was a fallen prophet.

That fall, I lived in Boston, working as a traveling nurse. I took an institute class in Cambridge, on the Doctrine and Covenants, which included much of early church history. I listened carefully, but no mention was made of Joseph's polygamy. And I wasn't brave enough to bring it up myself. So, I shelved it. Again.

Until the next summer, when I read a fictionalized account of the church's early days, written by Orson Scott Card. Titled "Saints", it told the story of a woman whose life was based on that of Eliza Snow, who had married both Joseph Smith and, after his death, Brigham Young. The story included many of the same details I'd read in "Mormon Enigma", and stirred up all those feelings of disquiet about Joseph Smith and polygamy. I remember spending many nights lying on my couch staring off into space, trying to fit what I had learned into what I already knew. Trying to make it make sense. And failing. I wondered if the church was even true, and the thought terrified me.

I had been struggling with other issues that year, among them the excommunication of someone I loved dearly, who had been having an affair. I couldn't reconcile his excommunication with what I viewed as Joseph's unfaithfulness. The one was revered as a prophet; the other kicked out of the club. And their actions were eerily similar. My head spun in confusion.

In August of that summer, on one particularly emotional night, I told God that I couldn't do it anymore. I was done. I didn't want to participate in a religion that revered a man such as Joseph Smith. I didn't want to be a Mormon anymore. And I gave God an ultimatum. I told him that he had one chance to keep me in the fold. I was going to call on an old friend, a general authority by the name of Jacob de Jager. I knew from an article in the newspaper that my friend was on assignment in Asia, and wouldn't be available to take my call. But I told God that if I could get in to see my friend, talk to him a bit, benefit from his wise counsel, I'd stay. It was an ultimatum that I knew God would fail.  Only, God came through.

When Elder de Jager's secretary came on the line, I asked if I could speak to him, knowing he was out of the country. She said, in a cheerful voice, "Sure! He's sitting in his office. I'll connect you."

And so it came to pass that I found myself sitting in the office of a general authority the next day, pouring out my heart to him, confessing my grave sin of doubt. Telling him of my confusion and exhaustion at trying so hard to make it all work. As I recall, I did not reveal my misgivings about the prophet Joseph. I knew enough at the time to guess how that would be received. In retrospect, I very much wish I had brought it up. Maybe he would have had some useful advice on how to make peace with the past. Maybe he would have brushed it off as inconsequential. I'll never know, because of my fear.

What he did tell me was that I shouldn't give up, that good things were on the horizon, and that I should stay the course. I trusted him, and, as God had made Elder de Jager available when I most needed him, by extension I trusted God. I left our meeting with renewed faith in the church.

After speaking with Elder de Jager, I made good on my vow to stay in the church, and I began faithfully attending my Sunday meetings. I read scriptures daily, and prayed both morning and night, and re-committed myself to living the gospel as best I could. And I shelved, deeply, any doubts I had about Joseph Smith. I put my feelings aside, and became the best Mormon I knew how to be.

In November of that year, I met the man who would become my husband. After my final disaffection from the church, he confessed that had I not been an active, believing Mormon at the time we met, he would not have married me. And, to be honest, I married him, in part, because he was also an active, believing Mormon. We were both looking for someone with whom to raise a family, and neither of us would have considered a person out of the faith. And I am so very, very glad that we have had a life together. I have no regrets there. He was, and is, the right guy for me, and I feel fortunate to have spent the last 25 and a half years with him. He's the guy, my guy, and I guess I have the church to thank for that. I can't explain it, from my perspective now, and I don't try to. It is what it is. And what it is is good.

Fast forward 21 years, from the summer of '88 to the fall of 2009. As I have detailed elsewhere, I finally had to acknowledge to myself that I did not believe in the church. In the intervening years, I had successfully kept my feelings about Joseph Smith buried. Any time I was called upon to testify of his prophetic calling, I did so, as a good Mormon should, but always with a twinge of lingering doubt. Doubt that I pushed back forcefully, refusing to even acknowledge that it existed. What finally tipped me over into apostasy wasn't Joseph Smith's polygamy, however, but my own deep and abiding feelings that something was wrong. The church didn't make sense to me, the gospel itself confused me, and I couldn't accept so very many things I had been led to believe about God. And accepting my unbelief was incredibly liberating. Finally, I could allow my mind to wander into those dark corners, and take stuff down off the shelves for examination, and not fear where it might lead. And I didn't have to ignore my doubts about 'Ol Joe. He wasn't a prophet, and the church he 'restored' wasn't True with a capital T.

The only trouble was that I had no one with whom to discuss my burgeoning disbelief in the church. I hadn't yet brought it out into the open with my husband, and I had no friends who were former believers turned apostate. And even if I did, I wouldn't have dared talk to them. Conversing with known apostates was verboten. So, for about 3 months, I simmered silently. I was no longer talking to God, not in the way I had always done. I wasn't even sure He was there, and formal prayers felt foreign on my tongue. I have always been a verbal processer, never one to suffer in silence, so this period of my life was very lonely. And confusing.

And then I realized that there was one person I could talk to. One person to whom I could unburden my soul. My husband's Uncle Denny.

Uncle Denny was married to my father-in-law's sister, and had been excommunicated in the 1980's, for heresy. My husband's family were mostly very active, believing Mormons, and Uncle Denny's story was whispered about, but never acknowledged in the open. I knew bits and pieces of the story, but had never spoken with him personally about his own journey. I knew him to be a friendly, kind man, and I suspected that he would be open to discussing my concerns and questions. The only problem was, how could I go about meeting with him? I had seen him at my mother-in-law's funeral in December, but the topic of my unbelief in Mormonism hardly seemed appropriate at that particular venue. And I didn't feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling him. "Hey, yo, Uncle Den! How's about that excommunication? Crazy stuff, huh?!? Wanna talk about it?" That just didn't feel right, for so many reasons.

Then, in January of 2010, Uncle Denny was injured in an accident at his airplane hangar. No, I do not for a minute believe that God, or the universe, or whoever is in charge, caused his accident just to orchestrate a meeting with me. I don't have a good explanation for what followed, but it was certainly serendipitous. For me, anyway. Didn't work out so well for Uncle Denny, although he did survive his injuries. (Incidentally, he passed away the next fall, of a previously diagnosed cancer.)

I knew that Uncle Denny was an inpatient in the hospital where I was working as a nurse, and I had visited with him and his family, who were very close, and who were staying nearby to be with him as he recovered. I had been at a staff meeting at the hospital one evening, and decided, before I went home, that I would visit with him and his family, whom I suspected would be at his bedside. Only when I went to his room, I found him alone, lying in the dark, resting quietly. He was awake, and pleasantly surprised to see me. He invited me in for a visit, and what transpired that evening, in the darkness of his hospital room, was a pivotal point in my transformation from believer to unbeliever.

After exchanging pleasantries, I blurted out to him my doubt, and confusion. It was the first time I had uttered the words out loud, and it felt weird, and disconcerting. "Uncle Denny, I don't know if the church is true." He didn't express shock, or even surprise. Maybe it was due to his pain, but he seemed very calm, and sure of his words. And though I can't recall specifics of the conversation, I do remember that he asked me what had started me on my journey, and what I had read. He never once suggested that I should leave the church, and in fact didn't even confirm that the church was not true. He simply asked questions, and made suggestions.

What I remember most clearly is his quiet affection for me, and his gentle assurance that I was not flawed. I do remember feeling loved, and I trusted him. And in that conversation, I learned to trust myself, and my feelings. I realized that I could let go of God, and hang on to my humanity. I learned that morality, and love, and compassion do not come exclusively from a belief in God, nor from religion, but from within our own hearts. That conversation has become a precious memory of Uncle Denny, and when I doubt myself, or my doubts, I remember Uncle Denny's quiet assurance. And I know I'm okay.

As a result of that conversation, I picked up a book I had previously tried to read, but had found to be dry and boring. Richard Bushman's historical treatise of Joseph Smith, "Rough Stone Rolling", proved to be a fascinating history lesson. One that ultimately confirmed to me those feelings from years ago, and I knew then, as much as I'd ever known anything, that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God. And I knew that my eternal salvation, or eternal destiny, did not rest in my allegiance to his church. And I felt peace.

These two conversations, two decades apart, stand out in my mind as pivotal points in my life's journey. Each resulted in a different trajectory, neither ending in regret. And I have no explanation for either event.

Some would see God behind these fortuitous life events, but I cannot bring myself to believe in such a Divine Being. I cannot believe that He would care so much about the outcome of my life, and so little about the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust, to use a commonly known historical atrocity. Unfortunately, there are many from which to choose. No, I don't see God's hand evident in these stories.

So, what, or who, gets the credit for my amazing journey? No idea. And yes, it is amazing. I got to marry a beautiful soul with whom I built a beautiful life, and then I got to leave behind all the superstitions of my youth that were stealing my joy. And in the process keep that beautiful life with that beautiful man. Amazing.

No regrets.

And 'Ol Joe? What of him? He was simply a man, a deeply flawed, though charismatic and brilliant, man, one who started a movement that changed the world. His story is fascinating, with all of its sordid details, and I'm not sorry I got to know him.  And I'm not sorry to leave him behind. Nor the church he founded. It is now part of my history, but not part of my present. Or my future.

That belongs to me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Where Was God That Night?

I have friends all across the religious spectrum, from true-blue believers, to die-hard atheists. And their facebook posts reflect their biases on a regular basis.

I apologize, but I'm taking issue with the believers today. Because their facebook posts are the ones hitting me the wrong way lately. They have a tendency to attribute to their God all the happenings in their lives, big and small, thanking him for stepping up and taking care of business. 'Cause that's what he does, takes care of their business. And whether he fixes their current woes to their liking, or sends further trials their way, he still gets their reverent thanks. Lucky guy, can't do anything wrong.

A couple of months ago, a friend posted her gratitude that God had helped her find a precious piece of jewelry, a diamond earring that she had misplaced about a month previously. She was pretty sure she had dropped it on the bedroom floor, but after much fruitless searching, the earring remained lost. Fortunately, and miraculously, it would seem, the earring turned up a few weeks later, smashed into the carpet near where it had been dropped. It was saved, by what seemed to be divine intervention, from being hoovered into oblivion. She very effusively thanked God for preserving her earring until such a time as it became visible to her, deep down in the pile of the carpet. And there was an accompanying picture. A beautiful earring, to be sure, and I can imagine the joy she felt upon realizing that its twin would not be relegated to a permanent, lonely spot in the jewelry box, bereft of its mate for all eternity.

It may appear that I am mocking her joy, and I suppose I am. But not gleefully. It makes me sad that she worships a being who would so graciously find for her a lost piece of jewelry, precious as it may be, and refuse to answer the many prayers uttered in behalf of lost humans. Whom he claims are precious in his sight.

The most egregious example that comes to my mind occurred the same week my friend made her joyful post.

A family in Texas was brutally gunned down, in their own home, by the unhappy, vengeful, ex-husband of a relative. From what I read in the news, the five children were home alone when this man came to their door. He kicked the door in, proceeded to tie the children up, aged 15 and under, and then waited until their parents arrived home. He then tied them up as well, and forced them all to lie face down on the floor of their home, where he shot them, execution style, in the back of the head. Each one, shot, in the back of the head. And all but the oldest child, a 15-year-old girl, were killed.

This was a Mormon family, a faithful church-going family, headed by a priesthood holding man. The parents, by all reports, had been attempting to raise their family in righteousness, which I would assume included regular family prayer and scripture study, and regular Family Home Evenings, as recommended by the church, as well as regular attendance at church meetings. They seemed to be a pretty typical Mormon family, and, as I listened to news reports of this horrific crime, I couldn't help but imagine what went on in that family room that night.

I can envision those parents, in their positions face down on the floor, praying and pleading with their God for divine intervention. These would have been prayers unlike any other uttered in their faithful lives, as they were helpless against what seemed to be, and indeed turned out to be, pure evil standing over them, wielding a gun, threatening the lives of their precious little ones. These were children they had been raising to worship a supreme, heavenly being, one capable of stepping in and protecting them, as he had protected the children of Israel. As he had protected the righteous family of Noah. As he had protected and preserved the lives of modern day pioneers as they crossed the plains in pursuit of religious freedom. They had been taught, as was I, that this God was capable of wrapping his arms around them and shielding them from evil, if they lived up to the covenants they had made. And they were looking for him to come through on this promise. Here, in their moment of greatest need, they pleaded, pleaded, with God to please, please, please, stop this evil in its tracks. Please save their children. Please make the gun misfire. Please bring the police to their door. Please change the mind of their executioner. Please, God, do not let this happen. Please.

As a mother myself, I wept when I read this story, and I imagined myself in that position, lying helpless next to my husband and children, listening as the gun went off, then again, and again. Seven times. Defenseless against the evil being perpetrated against my loved ones. And begging my God to intervene. Pleading with him, bargaining with him, promising him anything if he would save my family. Anything. Please, please don't let this happen.

And then, nothing. No more cries, no more pleading. No more praying. Because no one intervened. No one stopped the evil. No one stepped up and stayed the hand of the gunman. He was allowed to accomplish his horrendous deed that night, and succeeded in killing all but one member of that family.

I have struggled to make sense of this, with my limited understanding of what it means to be a god. To be an omnipotent, supreme, being, with the powers of the universe at my command, and to decide not to step in and prevent the massacre of a family. A beautiful mother and father, and the five children they were lovingly guiding through this mortal probation. To allow them to die at the hands of a crazed, deeply disturbed, former family member.

And that same week to guide another of my children to find her precious earring hidden in the deep pile of her bedroom carpet.

I have spent a lot of time in the months since then contemplating this scenario, and I have attempted to discuss it with believers, those who look to God for intervention in their own lives. How can they justify the lack of intervention under such dire circumstances, but give God credit for what is ultimately worthless in the grand scheme of things? Given a choice, I'm betting the finder of the lost earring would have given it up forever in exchange for the precious lives of this family. If only God were the bargaining type.

The answers I have received range from "God's ways are not our ways", to "You're putting limits on what God can do". I have been told I need to have greater faith and know that all things will make sense in time. I have been admonished not to question God, the maker of us all, and the ultimate judge of us all.

And I have to wonder, in all of this, who will be God's judge? Who does he answer to?

If there is any justice in this universe, he will answer to that mother. He will look in her eyes, and see her anguish, and sorrow, and pain, and he will have to tell her why he did not answer her prayer. Why he allowed her family to be taken in this brutal manner. Why he allowed them to die when he had, has, the power to save them. What greater purpose can there be in the murder of an entire family? What kind of a monster stays neutral when so much is at stake?

Where was God that night?

Religion provides no satisfactory answer, for me. I understand that others find comfort in prayer, in the hope that the reasons will be clear in the eternities, and I have no wish to take that away from them. If believing in God helps them cope with tragedies such as this, great.

But it doesn't help me. It just makes me sad. And angry.

And determined to make every day count, and to love those close to me while I have them, because life can change in an instant. And when it does, God may not be there to intervene. He has earrings to find.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

My Father's Daughter

My father is one of the best men I know. He is kind, humble, positive, optimistic to a fault, and forgiving. His childhood was very difficult, growing up with a father who was gruff and cold, and a mother who was narcissistic and flighty. His mother left the family when my dad was ten years old, only to return months later to snatch his two older sisters from a street corner and disappear with them into the night. My dad records his feelings about that event in a life sketch he shared with me: ". . it was a miserable, lonely time for me. A lot of months passed before I saw Beverly and Lorene again. Us 4 kids were extremely close those first 10 years of my life, and for my 2 sisters to all of a sudden be gone, was like taking half my life away." My heart breaks for that ten-year-old boy, and at the same time bursts with gratitude that the boy grew up to become the loving, compassionate father I knew. How he came to be that man is a mystery to me, but I feel so very lucky to get to be his beloved daughter.

My dad calls me occasionally just to remind me that he loves me. I have known and felt that love my entire life, and have never, not even once, felt that love withheld from me. When my dad looks at me, I feel like I am somebody special, and indeed, I am. I am my father's daughter.

I know I've disappointed my dad, especially in the last few years. My dad is a devoted Mormon, and has never wavered in his testimony of the church, and the gospel. He still, knowing that I no longer believe in or practice religion, talks with me frequently about his experiences with prayer, and God, testifying to me of his belief in a divine Father who watches over us and takes care of us. He has never told me that he is disappointed in me, has never even intimated it, but has continued to share with me his deepest feelings about the meaning of life, and the importance of loving those closest to him. My dad is the epitome of a loving father.

I got lucky twice. I was born to a loving father, then I married a man who became a loving father. My husband, from the time our children were born, has never hesitated to express his love for them. One of my most tender memories is the day our oldest child was born. I looked over from the delivery bed to where Daron held tiny Erin in his arms, and witnessed the birth of a father. He looked her over from head to foot, and his gaze spoke volumes. He had fallen deeply, passionately, in love with this little girl. I had no clue in that moment how very deep that love would prove to be, but I felt the warmth of it from where I lay, and was profoundly grateful to feel its reflection.

The love born in that moment has never wavered, even though that child's life has not unfolded in the way her father envisioned it would. She grew up to become a beautiful young lady, who, at age 22, discovered that she was gay. Coming to that realization brought with it a variety of complications, and she has had to 'come out' many different times, to many different people. But the most difficult conversation of all, for her, was the one with her father. He was her first love, and she feared disappointing him, and possibly losing his love.

She agonized over this conversation in her mind, carefully rehearsing the words she would use, but could not overcome her fear at his reaction. I finally convinced her to get it over with, so the three of us sat down on a bright sunny Saturday morning, and she attempted to share her deepest secret with her father.

We sat on our couch, Erin between her father and me, with her back to her father, and the tears streamed down her face as she struggled to form the right words. Ultimately she failed, and I asked her if she'd like me to tell him. He sat behind her with a look of fear on his face, watching her back heave with sobs, wondering at the emotions running through her. I looked around her, and said, "Honey, your daughter is gay." At these words, a look of relief flooded his face, and he laughed and said, "Whew! I thought you were going to tell me she had wrecked my truck!" Then he gently took her in his arms, and he told her that there was absolutely nothing that she could say that would change how he felt about her. She would always be his little girl. And they both cried. Well, we all did. It was a beautiful moment, rivaling the moment they met in that delivery room so long ago. A father, tenderly holding his daughter, and loving her unconditionally.

This morning I received a newsletter from the church, thoughtfully left in my front door by a representative from the Relief Society. The topic was the divine mission of Jesus Christ: Advocate. It defined advocate as "one who pleads for another", going on to say that the Savior pleads for us, before our Father, for justice and mercy.

"Listen to [Jesus Christ] who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him- Saying: Father, behold the suffering and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life". (D&C 45:3-5).

Jesus Christ is described as our literal savior before our heavenly parent. His job is to intercede for us and plead for mercy with our father, our creator, as he, Jesus, is the only being beyond reproach. Jesus was our older brother, chosen as the firstborn of the father, the only one of all the children created by our Heavenly Parents who was perfect, and beyond sin. Because of our sinful natures, we were in need of an atonement, and Jesus was able to step up and fill that role. And because of that act, he is in the perfect position to intercede for us with our Father. This, in a nutshell, is Christian theology.

The journey out of Mormonism began with the acknowledgement that I did not believe that the church was True, with a capital T. I did not believe that it was the only way back to God, and I did not believe that its beginnings were divine in nature. I did not believe that in order to return to God, I would have to spend my life conforming to the principles of Mormonism. As I traveled further down the road of disbelief, I began to question the story that formed the roots of all Christianity. And I began to see that the roots of my own disbelief lay in my inability to believe in a Savior for mankind. 

The story, as I understood it, took on the dimensions of a horror tale, intended to frighten adherents into submission. Broken down to its simplest form, it is the tale of a father, who created a family of children who he considered to be flawed and imperfect. Too imperfect, as it turns out, to be allowed back into his presence. So he formed a plan to have his oldest child, the perfect firstborn, sacrificed by crucifixion, in order to make atonement for these imperfect beings, thus enabling them to once again enter his presence. And, as I understood it, this child, Jesus Christ, would suffer exceedingly for the sins of mankind, sort of a proxy suffering, that they, the children, would not have to suffer for their own sins. But only if they professed to believe in him as a savior and redeemer. And then obeyed his commandments, and followed him in word and deed. And then prayed in his name, the name of Jesus Christ, who would then petition our father, the father of us all, in order that he, our father, would hear us and extend his love to us. 

I remember many, many occasions sitting through the sacrament, listening to the prayers, attempting to ponder the act of divine sacrifice, and just not getting it. Not understanding why it was necessary. But shrugging my doubts off as the thoughts of a sinner, a doubter. I heard the story too many times to count, and I knew that God the Father was my Father in Heaven, and that he had created me and sent me here, and had given me a savior who would make it so that I could return to my heavenly home, and my heavenly parents. I knew the story, told in song and scripture, but I didn't understand it. Ever. It just didn't compute. I just couldn't understand why, if he was my father, he required someone to intercede between us. My earthly father didn't. The father of my children doesn't. Why would my father in heaven? Why was I not good enough to approach him myself? To talk to him without an intercessor? Why did I need a savior, if I had been created by a perfect being? These thoughts, though, were blasphemous, and I shoved them back into the darkest corner of my mind. Over and over again, I shoved them back. And over and over again, they worked their way to the forefront to haunt me. It just didn't make sense. The story didn't make sense. It didn't work. 

Then, this morning, as I read the aforementioned scriptural reference to Jesus as an advocate before our father, it came to me why I could not understand this story. I was lucky enough to be born to an earthly father who, while imperfect himself, loved me perfectly. He didn't require anything more from me than to be his daughter, and he loved me perfectly. Still does. No one has ever had to intercede on my behalf. My father loves me, his daughter. 

And my own daughter's father, my husband, loves her perfectly. And he requires nothing more from her than that she be his daughter. She may have needed me to say the words, but she didn't need me to plead her cause. He loves her because he is her father. No advocate required. 

Why, then, would a perfect heavenly father be unable, or unwilling, to hear from me, his daughter? Why would I need an intercessory, an advocate, a savior? Why couldn't my heavenly father love me unconditionally? 

The answer, for me, is that the story doesn't make sense, because the story isn't true. 

I know millions, billions, even, believe this story, and it brings them peace. But I found peace when I allowed myself to not believe this story. I don't believe in that god, and I don't believe in that father. And I don't believe in a savior of mankind. 

But I do believe in love. Because I've felt it, from my father. My imperfect, earthly father, who loves me unconditionally. I'll take that over the fairy-tale any day.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Have I a Mother There?

I stopped in to visit my mom recently, and she hugged me tight, and said, "I've missed you. We don't talk as much anymore, and it makes me sad." It made me sad, too.

My life has changed dramatically in the last few years. I used to be a stay-at-home mom, spending my days seeing to my family's needs. It was a good life, and I don't regret the years I was able to be available to them, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was also a busy life, but it seemed that I always had time for what really mattered, the people who really mattered. I had regular outings with my friends, sometimes as playdates with the kids, sometimes a well-deserved girl's night out. And I spent a lot of time with my mom.

Growing up, I wasn't close to my mom. I have seven siblings, brothers all, so my mom was kept busy caring for us, cooking for us, cleaning up after us, trying to get us to pick up after ourselves, attempting to get us to mind our manners. I don't envy her that job. We weren't an easy lot to raise, and she frequently lost her patience with our antics. It seemed to me that she was always angry, unhappy with the life she 'chose', and I tried to stay out of her way as much as I could. I have a few happy  memories from my childhood, but most of what I remember is colored by the contention that is a natural byproduct of a large family, living in a small home, with limited funds.

Once I reached adulthood, and moved out of the family home, my mom and I were able to establish a different kind of relationship. We became friends. She has always had a fabulous sense of humor, and an ability to see the funny side of most situations. She was, and is, well known for her wit and intelligence. And we frequently found ourselves laughing together at life's quirks and inconsistencies. I considered her one of my best friends, and we talked often, on the phone when I lived out of town, over lunch if I lived close by. I visited with  my mom several times a week, spilling the details of my life to someone I knew would be able to help me make sense of it all, and could get me to see the absurdity in taking any of it too seriously. She was my confidante, my therapist, my adviser, my mentor, and my best friend. I felt lucky to have such a mom.

Then, four and a half years ago, I went through some pretty big changes. I had been raised in the church, by a mom (and a dad) who were devout practitioners of Mormonism. The church meant everything to them, and played a big role in all our lives. Their faith continues to be very important to them, and I don't begrudge them this, as I can see how they have benefited from their devotion, and have both found the meaning and comfort that they felt were missing from their own upbringing. Both had experienced traumatic family break-ups, and tragedies, that they attribute to their family's lack of faith in God, and Mormonism. But finally, at age 49, I realized that I did not share their beliefs, and I left the religion my parents cherished.

The past few years have brought other changes to my life, as I returned to work full time, and went back to school, pursuing the master's degree I've always wanted. Those activities, combined with caring for my husband and children, fill my days almost completely, leaving precious little time for relationships I once held dear. Such as my close friendship with my mom. And knowing that I disappointed her by leaving the church has contributed to the distance between us.

For over three years, I avoided the crucial conversation that I knew would break her heart, in fact generally avoiding conversation with her at all. I lived in fear of her rejection, and I knew that she would blame herself for her failure to keep me faithfully in the fold. I knew my mother wasn't responsible for my apostasy, but I also knew that the church's teachings about a parent's duty had sunk deep into her heart, and I did not want to contribute to her sense of failure as a mother. I have never felt that my mother failed me; just the opposite, in fact. It is to her credit that I stayed faithful for as long as I did. She taught me well the tenets of her faith, and my attempts to live by those tenets were out of a desire to please her. But, once I allowed myself to acknowledge that I did not believe the story of Mormonism, I could no longer go along with the practice. My mom also taught me integrity. I could not act in contradiction to what I believed in my heart to be true. She may not like it, but she has to take credit for that as well. Model authenticity, and your children will follow suit

Finally, I girded up my loins, and I had 'the talk' with my mom. It went as expected, with her expressing her deep disappointment, and wondering out loud how she had failed me. I attempted to reassure her that she was not a failure, but the conditioning runs deep. It was a very difficult conversation, one I am glad is behind me. I don't think I could do that again.

That day was a new beginning for us. The wall that had grown up between us started to come down, piece by piece. We began talking more frequently, as I was no longer living in fear of being 'outed'. But, our talks were still somewhat stilted. It was difficult to know what topics were safe, and which would cause her more grief. She had expressed fear that my decisions would no longer be sound ones, made with God's approval. I tried to let her see that the fruits of my choices were good, that I was still a faithful wife and mother, and a contributing member of society. But there were many things I did not share with her, such as my new-found freedom to explore previously forbidden territory. I knew that she did not want to hear about my occasional forays into the land of the infidels. The drinking of alcoholic beverages was of particular concern to her, as the daughter of an alcoholic, and I shielded her from my experimentation. Not all truth is useful.

Many times it felt like we were dancing around a giant elephant in the room, neither of us willing to acknowledge its existence. And it wasn't the behavioral changes that were the most difficult to talk about. It was my changed philosophy of life that proved to be a sticky, uncomfortable topic. Leaving religion causes one to rethink many other presuppositions, and come to vastly different conclusions than one had previously reached. And many times, believers assume that others share their particular worldview, whether the topic be the purpose of life, or current politics, or what constitutes proper moral behavior. And learning how to navigate these topics without causing offense requires a skill many don't possess. Defensiveness is a natural reaction when one feels their way of life is being questioned or challenged. Emotions tend to run high in these circumstances. So, most of the time, we avoided talking about anything of substance. And I was beginning to accept that this was the new 'normal'. What we once had was no more, and there was no going back. Call it collateral damage. Authenticity indeed comes at a price.

Then came that visit a few weeks ago, when my mom told me how much she had missed me. Then she bravely broached the subject that lay at the root of our disconnection. She told me about a conversation she'd had with a friend, who had been informed of my apostasy, and how they had both cried, grieving together my loss of faith. And, interestingly enough, that conversation did not offend or disturb me, but instead opened the door to honest communication. I decided in that moment that if we were going to have any kind of relationship at all, we each need to be free to express our true thoughts and feelings, without fear of offense. We need to be able to talk about those things that move us, and make us who we are at our core. I don't mind my mom 'bearing testimony' to me about the church, as I know that her testimony is an integral part of her. But in return, I need to feel free to talk about my own hard won convictions and beliefs.

As we began to converse, my mom, for the first time, asked me what some of my issues were with the church. I reminded her of what she had said to me in the beginning of our conversation, about how much she missed me, and missed being a part of my life. I told her that I had missed her as well, as she is my mom, the one and only person in my life with whom I have that particular connection. The mother/child relationship is unlike any other relationship in the world. I grew inside of her, attached to her physically and emotionally, closer to her than I will ever be to another living soul. Except for my own children, of course. I had always felt lucky to have a close relationship with my mom, as I know many people, my mom included, who have not had that same experience with their mothers. The maternal bond can be broken in a variety of ways, and frequently is. And I was lucky enough to not only love my mother, I liked her. I could share my life with her, my feelings and my experiences. We laughed together, a lot, and cried together on many occasions. As I said before, she gave me comfort, and counsel, and support. That's what a mom is, and what a mom does.

Growing up in the church, I had been taught that I had a Mother in Heaven, who existed alongside my Father in Heaven. But she was never a part of our worship, we never prayed to her, we never even talked about her, other than the occasional brief mention of her existence. She was a silent partner to our Father. The only reason I've ever been given for this is that she was too sacred to be exposed to the vulgarities of humanity. And we were expected to become like her. But she wasn't really a mother, not in the truest sense of the word. She was not my mentor, nor my counselor, nor my friend. She was not there for me when I cried out in the 'dark night of the soul'. She did not send comfort my way when I struggled, or cried, or prayed. She was an absentee parent. She had no part in my spiritual upbringing. She existed only in a hymn. And once I allowed myself to consider her non-existence, I let go completely of any remaining belief in God himself. Without Her, I don't want Him.

So, when my mom told me how much she missed me, I asked her if she could envision an eternity separated from her children? Denied a presence in their lives, a place in their worship, simply for being 'too sacred'? Unable to comfort them, or counsel them, or just laugh with them at the absurdities of life? What part of this sounds like heaven?

My mom looked thoughtful, and said that she had never before considered this point. Then she added that she would just have faith in her Father in Heaven, and His plan. And I don't blame her. It is a frightening thing to consider the nature of our existence without heavenly parents. Faith in an interventional, personal God isn't an easy thing to let go.

But for me, if that is the only heaven offered, then I politely decline. The only kind of mother I want to be, is the kind of mother my mom is to me.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My Truth

Disclaimer: This post will be offensive to active, believing Mormons. I do not mean to offend, but I am speaking my truth. Proceed at your own risk.

"Was it ever right to sacrifice one's truth for expedience?" (The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd)

I have just finished reading the aforementioned novel, based on the true story of two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina, born to a wealthy, slave-owning family. These sisters grew up to become the voices of abolition and women's rights in pre-civil war America. The story was an emotional read for me, coming on the heels of viewing the movie, "Twelve Years a Slave". Slavery was an abomination, an evil perpetuated on a class of people who were perceived as less than human, not deserving of any more respect and consideration than that meted out to common farm animals. Less than, in many cases. I have no familial connections with slavery, either as a victim or a perpetrator, but I feel great empathy for those affected by this immoral, corrupt, vile, 'peculiar institution'.

As I read the story of these two sisters, and the parallel, fictionalized, account of their family's slaves, I was struck by the inhumanity on display throughout the country. The religions of the day were for the most part not only supportive of slavery, but used scripture to back up their rightful claim to own human beings. And those religions who were vocal in their opposition to this evil (such as the Quakers) were unfortunately still all too eager to keep women in their place: at home, keeping house and tending to the children. The plight of women in this country could not be compared to the plight of slaves, but neither had any rights, and both were regarded as property. We've come a long way, baby.

The Mormon church had its beginnings in the 1820's and 30's, right around the time the book's events took place. As I read this book, I thought about what was happening in the early history of the church, and I wondered why a God who loved his children would be so preoccupied with hot drinks and proper authority, ignoring the very real misery taking place in other parts of the world. The world He created, and populated with His children. Blacks, whites, men, women. All are alike unto God, right? Apparently not.

I realize that I've boiled Mormonism down to a bland porridge of trite commandments, and that the early Saints faced their own very real heartbreak and misery. But, what I can't understand is why God, being all-knowing and loving, would not have instructed the prophet of a new dispensation to oppose oppression in all its forms, including, and especially, slavery. And if He was really the head of this church, as the title claims, and He loved all His children equally, including those of the female variety, why not correct the attitudes of the day that preserved the second-class status of women? He had the perfect opportunity to do it right, create an organization that gave each and every member an equal voice and place at the table. And yet, He didn't. And the only conclusion I've been able to reach is that this new religion had no more truth than any other that existed at the time. Or has existed since. It was as man-made as the Rotary Club.

Which brings me to the point of this post. One of the book's heroines, Sarah Grimke, made the statement I quoted above: "Is it ever right to sacrifice one's truth for expedience?" She was on the brink of leaving her old life in Charleston behind, permanently, as she embarked on a speaking tour for the American Anti-Slavery Society. She would be acting in opposition to everything her family stood for, publicly proclaiming her support for abolition, as well as equal rights for women, a platform that was in its infancy in American politics. She was an embarrassment to her family, and a pariah in polite society. And yet, she knew her truth, and she could not keep quiet, even though the cost would be heavy to bear. Am I willing to do the same? Can I speak my truth out loud, even at the cost of relationships that I hold dear?

My truth is this: I do not hold the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a divinely inspired organization, nor do I believe it has authority from God to speak in His name. I do not believe in the God of the Mormons, and I do not believe that the man at the head of the church is a prophet who speaks in His name. I do not believe that the ordinances of the Mormon church are required for salvation. I do not believe in salvation, nor do I believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. And I do not believe that I will be relegated to a lesser kingdom in the hereafter for my inability to believe in its existence. I do not believe that the Mormon church is true.

Believing as I do, I can no longer be content to be numbered among the saints. The easy thing, the expedient thing, would be to coast along as I have, keeping my truth to myself, unwilling to sacrifice my reputation, or my family relationships. But allowing the church to claim me as a member speaks louder than any words I could utter. Being counted among them gives them my support, and my acquiescence, and my approval of their policies and practices. Being a member says that I too am opposed to equal rights for all, be they women, or gays, or lesbians, or bisexuals, or transgenders, or, worst of all, intellectuals. Being a Mormon is not consistent with who I am, and what I believe about humanity. It has become an indefensible position, and I am no longer willing to sacrifice my truth for expedience.

I have formally resigned my membership in the Mormon church. This is a radical step, one I did not envision four years ago, but it is the right step. And it is the right time for me to stand up and proclaim my truth. I will always be a Mormon by heritage, much as a Jew is always a Jew, but I am no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am now just me. And very happy to be so.

Disclaimer #2: This is the story of my path, and I do not believe that it is the right path for all. I do not believe that there is one universal approach to religion, or truth. I do not condemn those who choose to stay in the church. I realize that there is a price for authenticity, and everyone gets to choose just how much they are willing, and/or able, to pay.