Saturday, October 29, 2016

My Faith Journey: The Next Chapter - Part 4 of 4

Life is an epic journey, full of failures and successes, ups and downs, light moments and dark. It reads like a novel, with many chapters and infinite opportunities.

Like a bookmark or turned down page, November 6th will mark one year since I openly announced the ending of one chapter of my life. I haven't shared the details about my faith journey with many people, because many have not asked. Now, here, in my little corner of the internet, the time has come for me to share my story. I do so to give myself a moment of reflection before I turn the page, and so those who care about me can better understand why I walk my current path.

___________ ____________ _____________ __________

THE NEXT CHAPTER

Now I am here. 

The last time I attended an LDS church service was at Christmastime in 2015. I have chosen to completely disaffiliate myself from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and have found great peace in my decision. I am technically still a member of the church, as my name is on their records and rolls. I will continue to be a member counted in their statistics until I resign my membership, or they excommunicate me. According to LDS policy and belief, when that time comes I will be stripped of all my saving ordinances and blessings received through the Church. That is fine with me. I no longer subscribe to the concept that an organization on this Earth can hold power over my salvation. My standing in, belief in, and loyalty to a church has zero sway over my eternal soul and where I go when I die. I have reclaimed that power for myself.

I no longer believe in the teachings of the LDS church, so I no longer do all of the Mormon things. I don't read my scriptures anymore. I don't go to church. I don't wear garments or pay tithes. I try not to put on a mask of perfection while quietly judging or comparing myself to others. I don't believe that god cares what I eat or drink, so don't be surprised if you see me with a coffee in my hand or a bottle of wine in my shopping cart. I don't believe I should berate myself or feel guilty for trying my hardest. I don't believe that I should silence my voice against my better judgement.

All that being said, I am grateful for my time in the LDS Church. I am especially grateful for the friends I made, they are some of my closest, dearest friends still. I am grateful for the community, for the beautiful music, and for the opportunity I had to explore faith and feel a connection to the divine in my life.

So, what do I believe now?

After believing in a high-demand religion that required strict obedience and a sure knowledge in its teachings, I am giving myself permission to not need to know everything. I don't know if there is a god or not. Maybe god is bigger than any of us can comprehend. Maybe god is found in the chemicals that exist in the synapses of my brain. You could call me agnostic because I feel that it is impossible for anyone to really know whether or not there is a god. You could call me a secular humanist because I think that people are capable of morality and self-fulfillment without needing a belief in god. You could call me Sarah, because that's who I really am.

As of right now, I have no plans to ever belong to a religion again, but I suppose that could change. I am okay with not knowing how it will all work out. I hope to wind my way through this world using the wisdom of my brain, the kindness inherent in my nature, and the sound morals that my parents instilled in me when I was a kid.

My morals are the same as they have always been. I am still a good kid. I still believe in honesty, responsibility, hard work, generosity, forgiveness, humility, and gratitude. I believe all humans are entitled to empathy and equality. I believe that love is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. I believe we can change the world with our smiles and kindness. I believe in giving service. I believe that everyone should find a path that leads them towards light, knowledge, joy, and self-improvement - I believe there are a great many such paths.

I will honor and respect your path, I ask that you respect mine in return.

Friday, October 28, 2016

My Faith Journey: The Last Year - Part 3 of 4

Life is an epic journey, full of failures and successes, ups and downs, light moments and dark. It reads like a novel, with many chapters and infinite opportunities.

Like a bookmark or turned down page, November 6th will mark one year since I openly announced the ending of one chapter of my life. I haven't shared the details about my faith journey with many people, because many have not asked. Now, here, in my little corner of the internet, the time has come for me to share my story. I do so to give myself a moment of reflection before I turn the page, and so those who care about me can better understand why I walk my current path.

___________ ____________ _____________ __________

THE LAST YEAR

When 2015 began, I had a plan to bring back the religious light and joy that filled the first half of my membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and that plan involved making New Year's Resolutions.

I used The New Year as a starting place. I set a goal to read my scriptures again every day, even though it was difficult to find the time. I set a goal to pray every morning, on my knees, even if the kids woke up early and started destroying the house. Also, I set a goal to follow more church accounts on social media, so that I would be uplifted even when I was zoning out on my phone while scrolling through Facebook and Instagram.

The scripture reading goal worked out okay. I have always viewed the scriptures as embellished stories, sometimes historically based, sometimes not, and only sometimes containing valuable lessons. I never read them literally. People didn't literally move mountains. No one literally angered God by building a tower to heaven, resulting in scattered people and language diversity. Nope. Those stories were written by people long ago to explain the inexplicable that was found in nature. So, there's that. Still, I made time every night to read, after the kids (and sometimes even The Cowboy) were asleep. Reading my scriptures was a familiar, comfortable habit, but it didn't bring me greater light or religious enthusiasm.

The prayer goal was a joke from day one. Squeezing in a quiet moment with God every morning was literally impossible. After staying up to read and pray before bed, I woke up in the mornings with no energy or time to spare. My kids were my priority and an Eternal Father in Heaven could not take precedence over what was happening here and now. So I prayed when I could, but it wasn't first thing every morning.

The Internet goal was working out, though. I liked seeing uplifting quotes, beautiful pictures of temples, and church news mixed in with my friends' photos and stories on social media.

One night I was reading the comments on a photo posted by the official LDS Instagram account. A comment was made by someone with an account called Mormon History and I thought, "Ooh! Another inspiring account to follow!" So I checked it out. I scrolled through the posts and quickly realized it wasn't published by official church resources. This was what the church would call "Anti-Mormon" because it didn't paint the church in a positive light. However, the history I found here was supported by quotes from early church books and church leaders, so how could it be classified anti-Mormon? The information there revealed a little more than I had previously learned from my Institute church history classes, though. Why this discrepancy? Why did I suddenly feel that I didn't know as much as I had been led to believe after my deep investigation and years of learning about the LDS Church? I had very mixed feelings during this initial discovery. I had never allowed myself to look at anything that might possibly by considered "Anti-Mormon Lies" because Church leaders cautioned STRONGLY against doing so, but these posts weren't full of lies. I found truths in the words I read. How could truth possibly be harmful to me or to the Church?
I had to understand this. I had to learn more.

I'm hungry for knowledge. I love to research the Hows and Whys behind new discoveries in my life. That is why my investigation into the church when I first converted was so incredible and uplifting. Back then, I spent hours every day learning as much as I could from the church about the church and it was beautiful and emotional. Suddenly, in 2015, it occurred to me that it was time to learn as much as I could about the church from all of the evidence available to me. I'm not sure why I didn't do so earlier, in my days as a new convert and undergrad student, when I was constantly practicing my skills of impartial investigation, observation, gathering evidence, and making logical conclusions. I guess I reserved that for school and kept the church in a separate, emotional space.

So, 2015 was a year I allowed myself to use my critical thinking skills and dare to ask hard questions about my religion. It was a year of endless searching, reading, and discovery. Thanks to the Internet, there was (and is) an abundance of well documented research and information available at my fingertips. I sat at my computer and read original papers written by Joseph Smith Jr. I read the words of a Prophet from the original Book of Commandments that filled me with disgust. I read old articles that were published in the church magazine, the Ensign, that blew my mind. I read through the newly written essays on the LDS website, clicked the links in the footnotes, and found that I came to very different conclusions than those presented by the church. I discovered changes made to the scriptures that altered fundamental teachings. I learned of contradicting timelines of events. I read transcripts of temple ceremonies and learned that core pieces had changed many times. I learned about Masonic temples, multiple versions of sacred first visions, the Priesthood Ban against Blacks, and disturbing details about the Prophets' polygyny and the resulting polyandry for several women.

It became clear to me that the history and foundation of the church that I loved so dearly was not everything I had been taught, and I had been taught many of the difficult truths during Institute classes. However, in 2015, I learned that those Institute lessons had been carefully filtered, and the bits that had been left out were too large for me to ignore. It felt like I had been lied to by my best friend.

Still, that was the past, right? The church of 2015 wasn't so bad. It was my spiritual home and I loved it there. I continued to go to church and do all of the Mormon things, but I started to see more problems than just the history. I learned about current events that didn't sit well with me, I contemplated the complete lack of financial transparency, and I wondered when the last time a Prophet or Apostle had spoken the words: I have received a revelation from God. I learned of malls and offices being built up while people all over the world starved or went homeless.

I couldn't unsee the imbalance, injustice, and untruths. I experienced cognitive dissonance as I tried to reconcile my increasing awareness of problems with my long-held belief that the men running this Church I loved were inspired men of God.

Do you remember my shelf? It was that spot in my mind where I quietly tucked away the difficult church issues that didn't sit well with me, so I could focus on the good instead. My shelf got heavy with all of the issues I discovered, and eventually it broke. Crap scattered everywhere. I was wading through all of the problems constantly, I couldn't ignore them and I couldn't pretend that the good outweighed the bad anymore. I had to stop lying to myself, and I had to find me again beneath the church mess that had exploded all over my world. 

I realized that my religion and I were no longer compatible. I went through the stages of grief as I processed the huge loss of my church from my life. It was painful, akin to the loss of a dearly loved friend or family member. My feelings were raw. I felt alone and I didn't feel comfortable talking to most people about my pain, anger, fear, and loss. Thank goodness for my Cowboy. He allowed me to be vulnerable with him. When I needed him most, he was there to hug me and hold me up. Our relationship grew stronger than it had been in years. 

I also found support in my earbuds as I listened to podcasts and discovered the stories of so many people who had traveled paths similar to mine. I found support on Facebook among groups of people who were also leaving the church and looking for ways to thoughtfully transition on with their lives. I came to realize that I was not alone, and that meant the world to me.

As I regained some composure, I started to rediscover myself. Extra earrings that were removed in an effort to conform went back in, and with each burning sensation that comes with the piercing of skin, I regained a bit of my dignity. Swear words that were silenced in an effort to obey started coming back out, and with each fierce piece of adult language I uttered, I regained a bit of my voice. I would no longer be the meek woman who sat back quietly, ashamed of myself for my silence, while people scoffed at the idea of human evolution. I would never again endure the disgusting taste of shame in my mouth after voting against my conscience in an effort to be obedient to an church who didn't know or love my gay aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. I rediscovered the kiss of sunshine on my shoulders. I once again felt the peace that comes from believing that all humans are filled with goodness and that they need not berate themselves or seek righteousness from an external source.

I knew that I could no longer find peace and joy inside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Still, I didn't know how to simply walk away from an organization that I had once loved, so I intended to fade away from it slowly. I planned to attend church part-time, to support my still-believing husband and stay connected with my church friends. I love my ward family and I didn't want to weigh them down, so I fully intended to quietly slip away without making waves.

Then November 5th came along and changes in church policy were leaked all over the internet. The first change defined homosexual marriage as a serious transgression alongside rape and murder, and grounds for excommunication from the church. Another change barred CHILDREN of homosexual couples from becoming baptized members of the Church until they turned 18 and "specifically disavow the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage."

After a year of learning heavy truths and planning my slow exit from the church, that policy change was the final straw for me. I could not see Christ's love in it, no matter what justifications people tried to provide. No. I could no longer fathom the thought of people associating me with an institution that would enact such blatantly bigoted policies. My intentions of slowly fading from church went right out the window. The following day I made a bold declaration on Facebook that I no longer believed in, supported, or sustained the LDS Church. I was done and I wanted everyone to know.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Monday, October 24, 2016

My Faith Journey: The Beautiful In Between - Part 2 of 4

Life is an epic journey, full of failures and successes, ups and downs, light moments and dark. It reads like a novel, with many chapters and infinite opportunities.

Like a bookmark or turned down page, November 6th will mark one year since I openly announced the ending of one chapter of my life. I haven't shared the details about my faith journey with many people, because many have not asked. Now, here, in my little corner of the internet, the time has come for me to share my story. I do so to give myself a moment of reflection before I turn the page, and so those who care about me can better understand why I walk my current path.

___________ ____________ _____________ __________

THE BEAUTIFUL IN BETWEEN

At the age of 20, I became a Mormon.

If you know much about me, you know that I'm Type-A, maybe a little bit of a perfectionist, a worrier, and a serious rule follower. I like to make lists and check off tasks; it makes me happy. That aspect of my personality allowed me to continue my headlong dive into becoming a fantastic Mormon woman. If I'm going to do something, gosh-darn-it, I'm going to do it well! So I did.

I went to three hours of church every Sunday. I went to many hours of Institute classes throughout the week. I went to firesides, learned from incredible people, made enduring friendships, read my scriptures, prayed often, took out my extra earrings, got a Patriarchal Blessing, kept quiet about my love and acceptance of LGBTQ people, didn't mention my uncertainty about certain pieces of the gospel, watched Church movies, went to the temple, fasted once each month, and attended weekly "Family Home Evening" activities. I did all the things. I became Type-A Super Mormon. I out-Mormoned my Mormon boyfriend. Finally, when he decided to serve a full-time mission for the church (to my great relief!) he also decided we should break up for real (to my horror!) and stay that way.

Yes, a little over a year after my baptism, the boy who was my impetus for joining the LDS Church was no longer MY boy. By then, the church had become MY church, so I stayed in and stayed strong. I found peace in faith. I prayed to God frequently, we became close friends, it was beautiful. I dated other Mormon boys, I did all the Mormon things, and learned as much as I could. I attended General Conference in Salt Lake City, twice. I dragged my father and aging grandpa around church historical sites in Kirtland, Ohio. I believed it, and lived it, and loved my religion.

I graduated college (I received my BS in Biological Science with honors, because YAY! Science! AND because I'm a good kid!) and moved home to live with my family while I went to school to earn a teaching credential. Attending church and institute in this town was new and different because I didn't have my support system of amazing Mormon friends or even more amazing Mormon roommates. Still, I pushed through my initial shyness and found a lovely LDS community here, made new enduring friendships, and found a new space for my faith to grow. I continued to do and believe all of the Mormon things, dated other Mormon boys, and I was happy.

Then I met a young man at church who asked me on a date and thoroughly confused me. He didn't walk the walk, talk the talk, or wear the right clothes. He was raised LDS, went to church sometimes, but wasn't fully-believing or fully-practicing. I called him The Cowboy, but he wasn't really a cowboy either. We fell in love, like young people do, and I suddenly found myself in an old situation with the roles reversed.

How could I marry this man since I was Mormon and he was not? We broke up many times and it drove me batty. (Does this all sound familiar? If not, go back an entry and read Part 1.) Then, finally, I decided if he meant so much to me, God would understand and sort everything out. So I loved this Cowboy fiercely with all of my heart, and we got engaged. I still believed in my religion and did all of the Mormon things. I went through the temple to be endowed (It's a sacred rite in the LDS church that involves wearing white clothes and making covenants.) because I wanted that for myself, whether my future husband ever wanted it for himself or not. Meanwhile, The Cowboy started to do some of the Mormon things too. I watched with curiosity and pure delight as he began participating more at church.

Two years after we officially began dating, we were married civilly, in a church building surrounded by all of our friends and family. It was fabulous! The following morning we attended church so that my brand new husband could be ordained an Elder in the Melchizedek priesthood. We were serious about our faith. We went to church every Sunday, we read scriptures together, we prayed, and we were sealed together for eternity in the Oakland Temple a few days after our first anniversary. Life was good. I was happy.

The one picture from our rainy sealing day.
I believed all of the Mormon things, and did all of the Mormon things, but those things changed after we were married. The LDS church wards I went to when I was single were congregations of young, single people. It was socially and mentally stimulating to be surrounded by peers of the same age group. The leaders that presided over us were older, married men, but they always made sure to have fun, spiritual, and exciting activities planned for us congregants. Once The Cowboy and I were married, we started attending a local family ward, designated by the area where we lived, and church was different. Gone were the fun, uplifting weekly activities. Now we were supposed to do those at home with our families. Gone were the evening Institute classes where I could learn more about the history of the church, the scriptures, and the doctrine. Now we were supposed to get all of our study done at home with our families. I'll tell you what that did for this Type-A Mormon, checklist loving girl - It put the pressure on me and my husband, and it was not pretty. To be more clear, I put the pressure on my husband, and it was not pretty.

I loved my religion. I believed in the teachings of the LDS church, and at church we are taught that our feelings reveal truth. I felt spiritually moved many times at church, in the temple, studying scriptures, and praying. Therefore, I KNEW my church was true. One teaching within the church is that we always must be growing our religious testimonies, or they will falter. It was important to me to always be learning more, reading more, praying more, studying more, and trying more in my effort to do Mormonism right, but I kept feeling like I was falling short. I kept nagging my husband to help me, lead me, inspire me, read with me. He kept feeling nagged. I found it odd that my effort to be more perfectly religious, in a church that focuses on family unity, actually drove a wedge in my marriage, but I brushed it aside and added it to my shelf.

Do you remember my shelf? It was the space in my mind where I tucked away little things about the church that didn't sit well with me. It started with a few items: The church's teachings on homosexuality, earrings, the ONE and ONLY true church, Joseph Smith's First Vision, evolution, and the literal interpretation of scripture. Married life, parenthood, and some of my experiences in my family ward caused my shelf to grow more crowded with things like Prop 8 in CA, patriarchy and sexism, the lack of opportunities for learning and growth, marital wedges about who should plan Family Home Evening, and the fact that God NEVER answered my prayers for more sleep as the mother of young children.

Still, I loved the church. I knew it was true. I loved my relationship with God and the faith I felt. I believed it and did all of the Mormon things, I just felt bland and dull. I missed the luster of my early days as a Latter-Day Saint, when learning about the church was a continuous emotional and spiritual high. I longed to bring that high back into my life, and I had a plan to do just that.

TO BE CONTINUED...