Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why I'm (still) a Mormon

I don't expect much more to ever be posted on this blog, and I'm largely just posting this to share it with some particular friends.  I won't be reading or replying to comments.  I'll talk about it via personal conversations but that's about it.

Why I'm (still) Mormon

I've read from a lot of friends who are dear to me that they've left the Church. Okay. Some friends did so very publicly and expressed an overwhelming relief to be done with it all. Others were very quiet about the matter, but the decisions they made and the way they spoke made it clear to me.
I didn't “unfriend” any of them, nor would I ever do so. These are people who I grew up with, who shaped my life and beliefs. Some of them were as close to me as any blood relative. One decision, no matter how big or important it is, doesn't devalue that relationship in any way to me, it just changes the direction it develops in for a time.
Before I go any further, no, I didn't “weep” over their decision. I am in no way mourning their choices nor do I even consider it lamentable. I don't see it as my mission in life to help them reclaim their faith and I am not much of a person for preaching.
What I am, however, is someone that cares about balance. After reading so many stories of friends leaving and giving detailed examples of why, I thought it best for me to share my own story of very nearly leaving on a number of occasions, and why I didn't.
I grew up in a good home with good parents. They were good parents because they cared and they tried to do their best. It wasn't perfect, even in the practice and expression of our faith. Most of my life fell under what I would call righteous dominion, and anyone who grew up in the church knows what I'm talking about. My priesthood leaders and adult mentors were patient with me, kind, long-suffering, and very god-fearing in general. I learned as much from good examples as I did from diligent scripture study.
Being the nerd that I was, I studied much harder than was required in Seminary. I actually read the complete Old Testament from cover to cover twice before I was 20 years old, and made it a goal to read at least one verse of scripture sequentially every night before I went to bed from the time I was 14 on.
I had a number of spiritual experiences which I won't recount in detail, but suffice it to say that I had "a testimony" and was very firm in my faith from the time I was 16 onward. I tried to read the Book of Mormon, and prayed about it's truthfulness when I was 7 years old and people were expecting me to be baptized. I hit 2 Nephi, which quotes Isaiah and, well, how many 7-year-olds do you know who can understand a word of Isaiah? I was frustrated and confused, and praying about it gave me comfort and helped me to be patient with myself. That experience was potent in nature and gave me a desire to study more and make study and prayer a life-long pursuit.
That changed significantly on my mission. It wasn't until recently that I've even been willing to talk about my mission experience publicly, and it was more than 10 years ago.  Everyone says, “it's hard, but it'll be the best two years of your life.”
That was a lie.
By far and away, my mission was the worst 10 months of my life.
I was spit on, I had things thrown at me. I had awful companions who had no business being out in the mission field (if you're reading this, you're not one of them, including you, MTC companion, you were one of the best ones and I just didn't see it at the time). The hatred, the violence, and the overwhelming disinterest did very little to shake my naïve faith in the Church.
About 5 months into my mission, my mission president passed away quite suddenly. We were told that he was sick, and 2 days after that we were told he was dead. This was a very kind and loving man who just wanted to help everyone around him. He was in his 50s, and left behind a widow and several teenage sons.
You teach people about death and the plan of salvation every day as a missionary. I had faith in what I was teaching, so I was confident in what his widow said at his (mission-specific) funeral service, that God needed him elsewhere and that she had been comforted knowing that our beloved mission president was still serving God.
I wish I could leave it there and say that I served an honorable full time mission and saw many people accept the gospel by perseverance, obedience, and faith. It makes a good story for the elderly relief society sisters to gossip about. That is sadly, not now how things went.
I had every investigator fall through, sometimes after months worth of promise and effort. The highlight, the absolute highlight, of my mission, was when I had an inactive member attend church after several years of inactivity only to have an anxiety attack during it and, to my knowledge, never come back again.
The man who was assigned to be the temporary mission president had no love for me in particular and was completely convinced that because I was experiencing stomach pain in the mornings that I was an irredeemable sinner. He made it his specific mission to make my time serving hell. He nit-picked at every action I took and everything I said, often calling my companions each night and asking for detailed reports as to what I said and did on a day to day basis. In our one-on-one meetings, he was outright abusive and had I been one of the kids on his basketball team at practice I'm convinced that he would've physically struck me on more than one occasion.
That paints the picture well enough, this man was awful and he had complete control over my life because that's how the Church has designed the missionary department. He told me what to eat, what to say, what to wear, and how to act, and he was absolutely abusive in character and in his position. What made matters worse, since he spent about 5 months picking apart every action I took, he made my particular case known to the general authorities in Salt Lake.
I began taking calls from staffers from general authorities who were examining every aspect of my life looking for sin. Living in a Church that heralds itself as being a champion of the Savior's forgiveness and experiencing this for several months on end was what finally shook my faith. What the Church did at a general level and at the mission-president level of administration was so far from peace and mercy that I began to question whether or not the Church even makes an attempt to practice their own doctrine.
I was sent home with no explanation other than a General Authority said I should be. Five months of severe scrutiny by more than two dozen Church employees, officers, and priesthood leaders turned up nothing that would disqualify me from priesthood service—although making out with a girl in college was very nearly turned into a capital offense. So, since they couldn't find anything on me, they just sent me home anyways without a word of explanation, likely out of frustration.
In the literal last hour of my mission, the temporary mission president gave a brief apology to me and put me on the plane home. My Stake President was at my home within a few hours of my plane landing and told me that I had been released and that I should get on with my life. No fanfare, no heroes welcome home as is common, just a Stake President in my dad's office saying that the computers of the Church's missionary department had released me and marked it as honorable service.
That's what happened, but it doesn't really say how I felt on the matter. I was the insufferable kid in deacon's quorum that always passed the sacrament and did everything asked of me. I was the perfect “Peter Priesthood” growing up and from the time I was ordained a deacon I knew that I wanted to be a missionary. I looked forward to my mission experience with hope for years. I wanted to serve God and my fellowman with my entire heart and I believed that a mission would be the best opportunity to do so.
I went to bed that night and didn't sleep a bit. I had been knocking doors for about 14 hours the day before and I worked myself to exhaustion each day prior to that, and yet many sleepless nights followed. My prayers were completely un-fullfilling. Had I done something wrong? Why was my service not good enough that it had to be cut short? What was wrong with me?
They never gave me a reason.
So that festered for years. I was obedient in action, but my heart drifted far from the Church. I resented the way that the general authorities had treated me. I couldn't find one bit of scriptural evidence or official policy that would dictate their behavior toward me. I read everything that fell into my lap for about two years afterwards before I gave up trying to understand their behavior. I became extremely well versed in “anti-mormon” literature both on my mission as an apologist and of my own interest afterwards as someone who felt that Morminism had failed me. Most of it's garbage that has no intellectual or historical rigor, but the same could be said of a lot of the heroic narrative that the Church paints of its history.
Because of that period of time, where I really had no idea what I was meant to become, I sought out everything on both sides of the argument. It took about 8 years to sort it all out.
On Joseph Smith, I concluded that he was a person who lived in the frontier period of America. I think John Taylor did him and his character a great disservice when he said that Joseph Smith had done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of souls. I think that's absolute crap and I'll just say that outright. Joseph Smith WAS inspired and led by God throughout his life, but giving any credit to anyone other than God is misplaced.
On the Book of Mormon, I believe it. I've read it so many times in so many different ways, and I've read the D&C so many times that it's pretty easy for me to pick out, line by line, what's inspired and what's just Joseph. Even the stuff that's “just Joseph” isn't too bad, it's just typical rhetoric of a firebrand preacher of his day. The Book of Mormon doesn't suffer from Joseph's misconceptions about the gospel nearly as much as the D&C does. I can see his influence in it as a translator's influence would have on Beowulf or something of that nature, but not beyond that.  That's a testament to it right there. I looked at the historical evidence for years and there are no certain conclusions one way or another about it. Emma said that she was astonished that her husband who could barely dictate a letter was able to translate this beautiful and flowing narrative for hours on end when she acted as his scribe and I have no reason to doubt her account.  I believe the Book of Mormon is everything it claims to be.
I can see, given years of experience dealing with this, and a bit of maturity, that the Book of Mormon will never be completely verified or refuted--and that is God's intent. Without going into too much detail on the doctrine, the reason behind that is so that God can be more kind and merciful to the people who don't believe it and still serve them without any hint of condemnation.  For those who do believe it, God uses the uncertainties in it as a catalyst to receiving greater things. As with all the things we're required to take on faith, we do so that our faith, or lack thereof, can be turned, in God's hands, to our benefit.

Going back to my journey to remain a Mormon: I was still obedient in action, but I had no desire to serve faithfully in any calling and much of my week to week church experience was lackluster. I had some severe anxiety issues in regards to even being in a crowd after my mission. Sacrament Meeting each week was a special kind of hell for me. I can remember a period of time where one week out of a month was all I could muster for Church attendance and it was a real struggle to do even that.
Really, what was the point? I get an anxiety attack nearly every time I go. My service isn't wanted, much less appreciated. My attitude isn't in harmony with what people in the happy community of the Church want to see or experience. My perspective and views are seen, by some, as outright toxic and not conducive to the conservative utopia that is the cultural edifice of the Church. As far as I could tell, I wasn't doing any good in the Church and the Church wasn't doing any good for me.

But it wasn't about me.

I had children with my wife right away. As a filter for the people who never really had their faith tried, I tell them that I came home early to meet, date, and marry my wife. She had a job offer fall through and found herself as equally unexpectedly living with her parents as I did, so dating came natural. We fell in love, were married, and we had our first kid a few months after my original two years of service would've been up.
It's accurate. I can see the hand of the Lord in the circumstances in which I met and married my wife and it's as plausible an explanation for being sent home as any if you still sub-consciously believe the Church is infallible. Nevermind the fact that if God intended for us to be married, than an additional 14 months of waiting would've been an easy thing for Him to orchestrate.
One reason I attended Church, despite my lack of faith in it, was because of what it did for me as a kid. I had hope that my kids would have some of the same experiences: that of seeing kind and patient adults who care about the well being of those they serve. They weren't getting that from school, and we were far away from any family. I wanted my kids to see that there were good people in this world. It just so happened that the wards I was in had excellent people called to Nursery and Primary.
I attended Church because I couldn't find a good outlet for charitable giving and service. They had a lot of programs that helped with that and I always told myself that you can do more good working within an existing system than trying to make or find your own.
But why the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints specifically? Other churches and government programs can provide service opportunities—heck the world is in dire need of more helping hands. Other churches teach much the same thing in practice and they wouldn't have the soured history I have with the general officers of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Well, here's why I don't preach to people (present blog post excused). I met two wonderful people during this dark time in my life. Michael Christofferson and his wife Claire. He was sitting next to me Elder's quorum right after D. Todd Christofferson was called as an apostle. He just moved into our ward and after he announced his name I made a joke saying, “better be careful, walking around Church with a name like that, you might get mobbed”
He smiled at me and said, “I'll just duck under the crowd and find the nearest exit if that happens.”
“I'll help cover your escape” I responded jokingly.
We became instant friends, and his wife and mine became close friends quickly. My wife had to go out of state briefly and she told Claire and Micheal not to let me go hungry. They invited me over, and this wonderful couple were the first people, apart from my wife and parents, that I opened up to about my missionary experience. I felt close to them, and they were good friends and it seemed appropriate—maybe it was just the Parmesan asparagus that Claire served that got me to open up. I knew them as Micheal and Claire, they were just my friends.
I found out months after (through facebook of all places) that Elder Chistofferson was actually Micheal's dad. He never mentioned it and I hadn't asked because it wasn't of any concern to me. Take that coincidence for whatever it is to you, but to me that became a bit symbolic. And Michael, I'm sorry to call you out so publicly on this, but he was raised by Elder Chistofferson to be the kind and loving man I knew him to be. He's a kind and genuine friend and a joy to be around. In some way, Michael became the man he is today because of the way his dad raised him.
This helped heal the festering part of my wounded Church experience. To see a kindness emanating from general level of the Church was a new experience for me. I started picking out different things at General Conference. I no longer worried about any of the statements taking a political stance. Instead, what started sticking out in my mind was the expressions of earnest love and devotion to my well being that the brethren expressed countless times over the pulpit. I started mapping it out and for every one or two statements that cause an uproar to opponents of the Church there are hundreds of statements pleading with people to be kinder, and more understanding, and to seek God's will, whatever that may be.

That's why you probably haven't heard me preach very much. Many people who have left say this was the path they were meant to trod. Who am I to argue? My life is so vastly different from theirs. God works in a mysterious way to the outside observer, but in an intimate and individually tailored way to the participant. That's the core of why I'm still a Mormon. I believe the Spirit is what gives the emphasis to what's taught. What we're seeking can affect the noise level to that emphasis. If we're looking for something to be amiss, we will inevitably find it, and we may find later in life that it was of no benefit to our souls. If we're looking for love, kindness, and guidance, we'll find that it was always there, but now our spiritual eyes are more open to it, and we can understand it. In the Savior's words, it's a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not. 

This counsel applies to how we treat each other, our neighbors, and our leaders. While I don't like the temporary mission president or the circumstances surrounding his reign, I do feel as though he learned some valuable lessons very late in his life that he could never had learned without going through that same experience. He was accustomed to sending young men home in an effort to clean up the mission he served, and had spent years doing just that. Because of his experience with me, I think he began learning the lessons he'd need to be a righteous priesthood leader in other callings. I'd like to think that the pain and suffering he caused me prevented the pain and suffering of many others after me.
In regards to the missionary department in general, I don't know if Elder Ballard and I could ever get along swimmingly. While I don't agree with how he runs his department (as I'm sure many reading would feel about other areas of the Church), I can still respect that we have differences of opinion and that the whisperings of the Spirit are likely to remain mum on those matters of lesser importance. The words he teaches as an apostle, when he acts within that mantle, still resonate with me, in particular his counsel to stay on the Old Ship Zion (Oct 2015, and Oct 2014).
God being at the helm doesn't mean all the rigging is right. It just means that we'll end up where He intends. Sailing around a storm is sometimes preferable, and other times necessary. That's what, I believe, is meant when we teach about the need for hope. Hope would be easy to practice if everything was always going well.
To finalize my thoughts and bring you up to where I am as of this writing today, I answer the question, why do I stay with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Well, I know the culture, I know the vocabulary, I know the doctrine better than that of any other group. If I'm going to have a positive influence anywhere in life, it will be most pronounced within the Church. I'll admit that some of it is purely habit. I groan a bit inside myself whenever someone gets up at Fast and Testimony Meeting and says, “I know the Church is true” because it's just not that simple.
The Church of Jesus Christ is, through varying degrees throughout its history and even in modern times a leader in moral thinking and in establishing what most feel to be the will of God. They were the first very vocal anti-slavery group. They advocated for equal treatment of women back in 1830. They were talking about the sanctity and need for strong family living back in 1995. They tend to be the either the first to teach a moral lesson if not the only one championing a worthy cause and many other churches and groups follow in their wake. They're right more often than not and I can see how there's Divine guidance in what they teach.
What I will say, for certain, is that I know that God is directing this Church. I see a lot of that same thing in other faiths, but not to the same extent as I do here—perhaps that's due to my familiarity or for other reasons, but that's what it is to me. I see it in the wards I feel prompted to live in and the people serving there. I see how the Lord will correct larger errors in the Church given time and the frustrating mediums He has to work with, and will let the smaller ones go for the sake of helping the most people possible. I love the analogy of the Church to the Savior. He is the bridegroom and the Church is always described as being His spouse with varying levels of fidelity.
When the Savior talks about His church, sometimes he speaks of how she's been unfaithful to Him. Studying Church history in detail, there was a very clear period of apostasy from 1910-1930, where Church activity rates were estimated to be below 10%. I can't imagine God was happy with Church members (and perhaps many of the leaders) at that time and I think the same can be true to lesser extent today. The Church isn't always faithful to God, but God is always faithful to the Church. My relationship with the Church of Jesus Christ is largely an extension of what I have with it's spouse. I love God, I believe in Jesus Christ, and for His sake I will do my best to get along with her and make things better for all of us. I don't think I could understand that without what I learned in Church.

Why I'm (still) a Mormon

I don't expect much more to ever be posted on this blog, and I'm largely just posting this to share it with some particular friends....