Closer to God, Farther from Religion
*If you want the quick answer, skip ahead about 20 paragraphs. Commence long personal history of Mormonism....* :)
To backtrack - I joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) on August 17, 1997. I was almost 19 years old. That was almost 19 years ago. So about half my life, I've been Mormon.
I can't say I ever felt, as many Mormons are fond of saying, "beyond the shadow of a doubt that this church is true." I felt for a very long time that the church was true enough. True enough in many respects so that I could ignore or forget about the parts that I felt were not true at all. True enough so that the things that hurt me as a woman and as a convert could be put up on a shelf somewhere and forgotten about.
For most of the years from 1997 until 2012, I was by most accounts an active, faithful Mormon. My husband and I were married (or "sealed" as Mormons put it - married for eternity) in the temple. Our children had baby blessings as infants and baptisms at eight years old, right on schedule. We served in many callings within the church. Sure, I had irritations and always that nagging "but you don't really really really believe it like everyone else does" in the back of my mind, but over time it just became my life.Little by little,I added my 'issues' to my shelf of things I cared not think about because they disrupted my idyllic lifestyle.
I am reminded of Meryl on The Truman Show, when she explains how she can be an actress pretending to be someone she's not, all the time. She says something like, "There is no difference between my life and The Truman Show. The Truman Show is my life, it's a noble life, a truly blessed life."
Not to say that I felt I was 24/7 pretending to be someone I wasn't. I did feel authentic at times. I did love certain things about the church. I did have good friends and good experiences. But other times, I felt on the outside of things. Once a month, we have a meeting where instead of assigned speakers giving sermons, any member can go up and share their beliefs. The technical name for this is Fast & Testimony Meeting (the idea being that members are also fasting for 24 hours during this time and donating the money saved on two meals to a fund for the poor), but the more accurate name is "Open-Mic Sunday." It was during these meetings that I felt the most like an 'other,' because I did not feel or believe or know the things that many of the members would profess. Sometimes I would go up to the microphone but I always kept away from the repetitive sayings like, "I know the church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet," and instead talked about things like, "I know Jesus Christ is the savior of me and of all mankind. I know that being a follower of Christ means being a true friend." Things that could feel authentic and 100% honest in saying, that hopefully would be a little inspirational as well.
To be succinct, I will just say that in 2011 my shelf became very heavy. I was given a new responsibility in the church, and the duties surrounding this caused me to come face-to-face with policies and practices that I'd been happy enough to ignore for all the years before. It was a little like Dorothy Gale discovering what was behind the curtain, except I'd never truly believed it was a wizard, but had just accepted that I could go along with the idea of the wizard.
I had many responsibilities, but no authority. Women are not allowed to have authority in the LDS church. Only males may be ordained to the priesthood, and the priesthood is required to bless or pass the sacrament (communion), perform saving ordinances like baptism, lay hands on someone who is sick or afflicted to pray for and heal them, oversee meetings, accept tithes and offerings, and other things. Women may have authority over children or other women only, but a woman may never have authority over a man. This was on my shelf, but ignored, until this phase of my life.
The anxiety and depression I began to feel as a result of this helplessness weighed on me. I had to start taking medication to simply attend church, and the stomach cramps and worry would begin as early as Saturday afternoon, wondering what nightmare might await me on Sunday. If a teacher didn't show up, and I asked someone to step in and sub, I would be flat-out told, "No." So we weren't truly "sustaining" one another by raising our hands when someone got a new calling, were we? The hand raising is a habit, not a true practice. Something else for my shelf.
Eventually, I got out of that job. It was rough. Soon thereafter, my husband was given a demanding calling as well. He hated it almost the entire time he had it. But Mormons have a lot of guilt. We are supposed to believe that there is a line that stretches from God himself, through a string of mortal men, down to our local ecclesiastical leaders. So in effect, if your bishop (local leader) says, I feel you should ____ (do whatever job in the church) you are supposed to believe that the Lord himself is asking you to do this job. No pressure or anything, but people don't often say no. I know my mother-in-law did once say, "Did you pray about this?" to her stake president when presented with a calling she felt unsure about, and he did admit he had not. But many members just accept whatever they are asked to do and then begrudgingly half-heartedly do the job because they feel guilt if they don't do it.
A little while later I was asked to teach the women's class, which at the time I felt ok about. It went well for a period of time and many ladies told me they really enjoyed my lessons. I always felt there were some issues started with the content of the lessons. Frequently, I found that I could use parts of what was in the lesson manuals and add to it from other church sources and create a good lesson. One woman (ONE) complained that I veered too far from what was in the lesson manuals. She also was a Relief Society instructor and she stuck closely to the manuals... and her lessons, quite honestly, bored most of us to tears. At least me. The lesson manuals were from a series called Teachings of the Presidents of the Church. They were amalgams of talks and journal entries of dead LDS church presidents organized roughly by topic. Somehow it felt that every time it was my turn to teach, the topic was on priesthood, or obeying the prophets. Every. Dang. Time. I remember the last lesson that I taught that I felt really good about was on baptism, and how it was a transplanting, and it coincided with my youngest (at the time) daughter's baptism day. It was great. I love the idea of transplanting a plant into a larger pot so it can flourish and grow even more. But after that, the lessons were all prophets and priesthood. Things such as, "Even if you disagree with a prophet you should stand with him." Similar statements that we should ignore our own intelligence or conscience if it ever differs from that which a Mormon prophet says. I could not say those things. I do not believe those things. Throughout the history of Mormonism there have been many times that Mormon prophets have done and said abhorrent things, things later disavowed by the church itself, yet members at those times were expected to follow along too. Things like,
-Man shall never reach the moon
-No man of African descent shall ever hold the Priesthood
-Africans may not have the priesthood because they were less valiant in the pre-existence than whites
-Homosexuality can be cured through painful physical aversion therapies
-Having multiple wives is not only allowable but desirable, and necessary for heaven (still taught)
At this point I was also about six months pregnant with my fourth child and thought, I don't need this. So again I told the bishop, I can't do this. I told him, "I am asked to teach things that I do not believe. I don't want to lie, and I don't want to feel like I'm leaving things out for those who come to church wanting to hear what it's the manuals."
The bishop's response was puzzling. He did NOT want to know specifically what I did not believe in. I was surprised by this. I don't know... I figured he'd want to address my concerns. He's a nice man, but he's very opposed to any confrontation. He just got weepy and said he loved me and my family and was glad I was willing to keep coming to church and we left it at that.
That was about 15 months ago and I have not been approached about another calling since that time.
It was also around this time that I decided to no longer wear garments. 'Garments' is a generic term that Mormons use to mean "garments of the holy priesthood" as they are described in the temple endowment ceremony. Adult Mormons who meet eligibility requirements (such as chastity or fidelity in marriage, giving 10% of your income to the church, among others) are allowed to take part in an endowment ceremony in which they believe they are given special hand signals that will allow them to enter heaven. I personally never took this literally - the hand signals are readily available all over the internet - but took it more as, the promises you make are what allows you entrance to heaven, not the signs themselves. In any case, after the endowment you are expected to wear certain underwear for the rest of your life, removing them only for activities which would preclude them, such as swimming or sex. The garment covers the shoulder cap, abdomen, and comes down to a couple of inches above the kneecap (or kneecap if you are unlucky enough to be short). Initially I gave them up because the maternity style was so freaking awful I could not bear to wear them. (In between my last pregnancy in 2007 and my one in 2015 they redesigned the maternity garment, and the new bottoms were apparently made for stick-legged, giant-bellied flamingoes; and there was only ONE fabric/style choice for maternity).I could not keep the waist part up, and the leg openings cut off my circulation and gave me a rash. I decided to not wear them for the remainder of the pregnancy. I didn't immediately go out and start wearing tank tops and hot pants, it wasn't about being defiant or disobedient, but just about trying to not be bitchy all the time because my undies were causing me pain. But then after Jacinda was born, I went to put my old (nonmaternity) ones back on, and it felt strange to me. I had to ask myself why I was doing it?
I had been in the habit of wearing them for almost sixteen years. I rarely gave them much thought. Yet suddenly here I was putting them back on after a period of time, and I had to consider why I was doing so. I realized that most of the 'covenants' I had made in that endowment ceremony weren't intended to strengthen my relationship with my Savior; they were intended to strengthen my devotion to the LDS church. I had been made to promise not to say bad things about church leaders; to give all of my possessions and even my life to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (not to the cause of Christ, but to the church). Some of the promises I still felt were pertinent to me - promising to be faithful to my husband, promising to keep the commandments in the scriptures. But others made me feel like I had been coerced into something I no longer felt was important to my salvation. For this reason, I made a conscious effort to not put the garments back on again. I discussed this with my husband. He said he understood. He has chosen to continue to wear the garments, even though he has some issues with some parts of the church. We are at different places with this, and we are both okay with it. I still dress modestly, and especially when I go to church or church functions I make sure to dress as if I were wearing them, out of respect for others, but I don't want to lie or mislead about the fact that I no longer feel they are a necessary thing for me. Did Jesus Christ wear temple garments? Did he go through an endowment ceremony? I have found myself striving more and more to follow the examples he set forth in his life, and beyond baptism, we have no record that he underwent any of the 'saving ordinances' we impose on ourselves as Mormons. I am sure this comes as a shock to some of my LDS friends, because in the temple itself we are warned that God will become angry with us if we do not keep ALL of the covenants we make in the temple, including the covenant to wear the garment. My personal feeling is that, God doesn't care if I wear it or I don't wear it. If wearing the garment helps a person to feel close to God and helps them to remember things that are sacred to them, then GREAT. If wearing the garment causes them to feel resentful and farther from God, then it is time to stop. For me, it was time to stop.
I still attend church fairly regularly, although in my heart I do not believe most of the basic truth claims of the church. I can find beauty and truth in some of its teachings, but I don't feel I must accept everything in order to accept some things. I love the idea of a premortal existence - that our spirits existed before our physical bodies, and our spirits go on existing when our physical bodies give out. That is referenced in the Old Testament and is not unique to Mormonism, but is not overtly taught in other churches I've attended. On the other hand, I don't believe in the Book of Mormon or that Joseph Smith was visited by an angel and translated a book by looking in a hat. When I've read the Book of Mormon, I have not felt peace or joy in my life, only anger and frustration. I can respect that the book gives comfort to many people, but for me, it does not do that and I don't feel it's necessary for me to read it in order to know my Savior.
I don't claim to be 100% I am right. I accept that I may be mistaken. I am simply trying to do the best I can with what I know and what I have experienced.
I know that God loves me. I know that Jesus Christ is his son and that he gave us a perfect example to follow. I know that God loves his daughters just as much as his sons and that my face is equally as acceptable before him as my husband's - I do not need to veil my face before God. I know that we are here to love each other and to be loved, that is the purpose of this life, not to jump through arbitrary hoops or feel guilty about every thought or action we have.
My shelf has fallen down. It got too heavy. The final weight on it was the November 2015 policy (which was later clarified to be direct revelation from God himself!) change that children of same-sex couples are not welcome to be baptized into the church or take part in callings or priesthood ordination (for the boys) until they reach age 18 AND they disavow their parents' same-sex marriage. For me, it flies in the face of pretty clear instructions from Jesus Christ on allowing children to come to him, and so for that reason, my shelf crumbled. It's a mess.
The ultimate shove for me was realizing that my children were reaching an age where they are forming their own opinions and beliefs. I want to be totally honest with them about what I believe (and just as importantly, what I do not believe). I also want them to know - because this is something we have been happen within our own family as well as other Mormon families we know - that we will love them exactly the same no matter what they choose to do with their lives or what they choose to believe. Our number one goal for them always has been and always will be for them to be happy, and if their path to that happiness is different than what we may have planned for them, that is completely okay. We're not raising children, we're raising adults, and I want them to think critically about things, weigh all sides, and be comfortable in their choices. If my children choose to be Mormon, choose to marry in a temple that deems me unworthy to attend, then I will accept that. My own parents had to accept that, and they did so because they love me.
Which in a very long long long story is my way of getting back to the original question... did Desmond's death suddenly make me realize my concerns were petty, that the Mormon church was true, that all was well in Zion once again?
The short answer: No,it did not do that.
The long(er) answer: Desmond's life and death have changed me, for sure. I know he was meant to come to earth, to our family, at this time. I know he was meant to die at this time. I know that he was loved and that he taught us all to love more, and that is just one of many reasons he came and left. His death and being able to spend time with his body has brought me a sweeter understanding of the miracle of the human body, and the intense love that goes into knitting a person together. I have no power to do that; David has no power to do that. We contain genetic material, but only God has the power to put those together and grow them exactly right into such a perfect, beautiful little body. Even at only halfway gestated, his body was beautiful and perfect. I feel privileged to have gotten a glimpse of that miracle. It has also made me aware of how similar we all are, that our bodies are outer coverings for our spirits and not who we truly are. When a spirit leaves a body, that body starts to degrade pretty dang fast. I mentioned in a previous post, even from one hour to the next we could notice the changes in Desmond's body. It was no longer needed, and was returning to the basic elements from which it was made. Inside all of us is a spirit that gives us movement, thought, and life. We all come from the same stuff, we are all related to each other because we are all the same inside our bodies, and I hope to be able to learn to see past the physical and care for people on a spiritual level.
But in terms of religion or church, I feel I have grown away from the idea of ordinances, rules about drinking coffee or covering shoulders, or anything else like that. It's not important. If anything, I now believe that the 'bar' set for us to get into heaven is much, much lower than we believe it is! What kind of Father doesn't want all of his children back? He doesn't keep us out because we watched a rated-R movie or went grocery shopping on a Sunday or drank beer or smoked or anything else. He wants us, and will do all he can to gather us all back to him. I'm not afraid to die. I'm not afraid of finding out that I'm wrong and not wearing the right underwear was a mistake, because I know God is love, and that love understands I am doing the best I can, with what I have. Desmond has brought me closer to God, even if that means bringing me farther from an organized church. The two are not necessarily the same.