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.

___________ ____________ _____________ __________


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.


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.

___________ ____________ _____________ __________


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.


Saturday, October 22, 2016

My Faith Journey: In The Beginning- Part 1 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.

__________ __________ ___________ ___________


I was brought up in a completely secular home. My parents were raised Catholic and Protestant, but their upbringing did not flavor mine. We only attended church when it was with friends or my grandparents. As a little kid, I had no knowledge of Bible stories. To illustrate this point, let me tell you a funny story... When I was in first or second grade, I looked up my name in the big classroom dictionary at school. It said something like, "Sarah: Hebrew for Princess. The wife of Abraham." and I thought, "Oh! Abraham Lincoln's wife was named Sarah!!!" What other Abraham was there, anyway? In my childhood home, we didn't read scriptures, never prayed, and we didn't talk of God or the Devil. My parents instilled in me a sense of right and wrong, I knew the merit of doing good for goodness's sake, and learned to trust in a reality that was proven by facts and science. Thankfully, I never tasted religious-inflicted guilt or shame, and I never feared the wrath of a vengeful god.

Life was beautiful and I was a good kid. Honest, loyal, moral, hard-working, did great in school, obeyed my parents, brushed my teeth, and did my chores. Sure, I enjoyed experimenting with foul language and could curse like a sailor (no offense to sailors!), but that was the extent of my experimentation, if you get what I mean. Sarah = Good Kid. Good adult too, but I'll come to that later.

I loved my religious friends and respected them, but had no desire to learn more about their faiths. By my early teens I was pretty sure I was an atheist. That was also around the time I met a boy. Not just any boy, but THE boy. He made my teenage heart go pitter-patter, and he was the first Mormon I ever knew. The boy and I dated off and on from the time I was 14 years old until I was 21. I loved him. I loved learning everything about him, but I didn't want to learn about his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. However, spending so much time in close proximity to active Mormons meant that little pieces of Mormon info slipped through my carefully crafted walls. Family dinners at his home always featured a humble prayer said by his father, a good man whom I greatly respect. Sometimes the Mormon missionaries were also at dinner and shared a message afterward. Holiday celebrations in his home, like Easter and Christmas, focused on Christ. Once, I attended a play at the Oakland Temple with his family where I learned about the foundation of the church, but I never attended church with him, never read Church books or researched his religion with the intent of believing it. No thank you!

I did research it a little though, separate from him, during an Intro To American Religions class my freshman year of college. In my honors discussion group (See, told you I was a good kid!) we were assigned to attend a local religious service and write up a report. I picked the Mormons and attended an LDS church for the first time. It made me nervous and anxious. I watched it all with eyes open wide, trying to take in everything in a scholarly way. No, I didn't close my eyes when they prayed! I was in observation mode. I left that experience feeling like I learned a little about my boyfriend's typical Sunday, and that was that.

The boyfriend and I broke up several times because young hearts are passionate and fickle things. We broke up multiple times specifically because he couldn't see how we could eventually get married, since he was Mormon and I was not. It drove me batty. I didn't understand his logic. Then, after one such break up at the end of my freshman year of college, I decided that if he meant so much to me, and the church meant so much to him, maybe it was time I looked into it. Let me directly quote from my diary on September 8, 2002 - "I really hope that I can sincerely believe his church's teachings and be with him. I just can't let myself lose the real me for someone else. I'm a little afraid that I will."

I read a book, I felt spiritually touched, and I decided to dive in head first. I then read any books about the LDS church that I could find, which were all books written by LDS authors and published by a church owned publisher. I started reading The Book of Mormon and praying. I moved back to my college town and started attending church weekly, as well as an evening Institute class once each week. (Institute is a part of the Church Education System designed to teach LDS young adults religion classes outside of the normal Sunday services.) I decided to give it my all, play the part, and even close my eyes when I prayed. When in Rome, right?

The more I submerged myself in the Mormon experience, the more I felt moved upon spiritually. I felt a warmth and a goodness at church and institute. I met with the missionaries and was not surprised that their lessons made sense to me. Things I inherently believed were part of their doctrine: Of course families can be together forever, duh! LOVE is eternal. We watched videos with moving music and powerful visuals and I started to feel something for this man called Jesus. I also learned the lingo, moved within the culture of Mormon college kids, and I was so happy. Here were good people, kind people, who loved to have fun without getting drunk! (See, I TOLD you I was a good kid!) It was exciting! It was an endless emotional high of learning learning learning, while being embraced by a community like I had never known before. AND it meant my boyfriend and I could one day end up happily married? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had me. There were pieces that didn't fit well for me, but I placed them high up on a shelf in my mind, out of my view, so I could focus on all of the good that the church had to offer. Four days before my baptism I wrote, "I feel bad because there are so many church standards that I don't subscribe to. Some of them will just take time, others I may never accept, like their attitude toward homosexuality. Right. I swear. I have too many earrings. I feel bad about some of these things, but not about others" I went on to explain that I hadn't had a big spiritual confirmation that I should join the church, rather that... "I've felt good, but I've never been like "BAM! I Believe!" or anything. It just sounded right. Everything sounded comfortable, and good."

I wanted it, so I took the leap, and on February 15th, 2003 at the age of 20, I was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Where were my parents during all of this? Quietly and kindly supporting me every step of the way. They attended my baptism. They might not have agreed with all of my choices, but they love me and have always supported me in the endeavors that matter most to me, thank goodness.