Showing posts with label Mormonism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mormonism. Show all posts

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Tale Of Two Seminaries (Part Two)

Note: This post is part of a two-part series.  Part One can be found here

         After the schism, I was sent to the seminary class held at the ward building. I was pretty torn up about the matter – I had known the bishop’s family for years, which made the exclusion all the more painful. I felt, more than ever, like the apostate leper. But attending a different seminary class – without all of the attendant baggage – helped me to resolve my feelings about my apostasy. Bit by bit, I made my peace with my lack of beliefs. Full activity – seminary, Mutual, Sunday School, Young Women’s – helped me realize that my atheism was not due to a flaw in my moral character. The longer I attended, the more I understood that I just didn’t believe.
          The following summer the stake president became aware of the situation regarding the separate seminary classes and intervened, making the decision to send me back to the class taught by the bishop’s wife. This was a pretty intimidating situation; I was being told to return to a class that had made it clear my presence was not welcome. I was angry and confused about the situation, which was exacerbated by the fact that my psyche was beginning to crack under the burden of living a double life. I was in a very dark place at the time and the complication of the seminary situation only made the issue worse.
          The school year started and I began attending seminary class at the bishop’s home. The situation made me very tense and edgy; my mood was going downhill rapidly. Then, one day, I read a touching story in Newsweek; the story of a couple that had adopted a disabled child from Russia. The story had a happy ending – the child was smiling and laughing. I figured the fact that the parents were gay would probably be a side-note, a slight complexity that still didn’t take away from the fact that the child was happy and in a stable home, as opposed to living life in an orphanage. I was scheduled to give the spiritual thought in seminary the next day – I figured this story was as spiritual as it could get.
          Naïve, I know. But this was a story that helped me believe in humanity at a time when I was in desperate need of that faith. I had been through hell the past few years, as I navigated the roller coaster of emotions that come after losing your faith. During the last few years, as I went back and forth, back and forth on my state of disbelief, I had watched my sense of self-worth slowly erode. Being a closeted apostate among Mormons is the loneliest feeling in the world; the events of the past year had taught me that I couldn’t trust the people I grew up with.
          The next morning, I went to seminary class. When the bishop’s wife asked me to give the spiritual thought I opened my copy of Newsweek and began reading. About a third of the way into the article, the fact of the parents’ sexual orientation was introduced; that was when a very deep silence entered the classroom. I became acutely aware of the thinness of my voice and the slight wobble of my words. I pushed on with the story, determined to finish. I could feel my hands shaking and my heart pounding in my chest but I refused to stop. I did not want my voice to be silenced, not this time. And so, I pushed on.
          When I finished reading, I looked up from the magazine to meet the eyes of my teacher. I have never, in all of my days, seen such a look in anyone’s eyes. Perhaps it was hate, perhaps it was fury, or perhaps it was anger. Either way, I felt a chill that sunk down to the bottom of my toes.
          The bishop’s wife flicked her hand at me in a dismissive gesture and said “Well! That child will certainly grow up to be open-minded!” I almost laughed but caught myself. The teacher was right. Her comment, although it didn’t ease the tension in the room, helped me see clearly again.
          I never went back to church or seminary after that; I was tired of living a double life. I was tired of feeling ashamed of who I was and dishonest about my beliefs. The time had finally come to stop living a lie and start with the business of living my life.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Follow The Prophet

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints – more commonly referred to as Mormon - believe that their leader is a modern-day Prophet, imbued with the power of revelation from God.  With this teaching of modern-day revelation is the burden to always follow the teachings of the authorities, as their dictates come from the Almighty God himself. 
I was raised in a family with a literal interpretation of Mormonism.  My father was convinced that one day the U.S. government would fail and that Americans would turn to the Mormon leaders for guidance; that one day the entire world would know of and gravitate towards the Mormon faith; that modern-day revelation was real and that visions were a fact of life.  Above all, the President of the Mormon Church is venerated as the mouthpiece of God, qualified to receive revelations for the entire church. 
The lessons on un-wavering obedience to Mormon authorities start at an early age.  In the official lesson manual of the Mormon Church is a lesson titled “Follow The Prophet”, aimed towards the youth of the Church.  One of the quotes drawn from this lesson is by Marion G. Romney, talking about the past President and Prophet Heber J Grant:

“I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting, I drove him home. … When we got to his home I got out of the car and went up on the porch with him. Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray"

Marion G Romney, in Conference Report, October 1960, pg 78                                                                                                                                                                        

Or as I sang as a little girl in Primary – “Follow the Prophet, follow the Prophet. Follow the Prophet, he knows the way.”  When my Primary teachers talked of the apostles and the prophet, I imagined the bearded sandal-clad, linen-clothed men of the New Testament.  I was shocked when I realized the apostles and prophet of whom my teachers spoke of were in fact the old white guys that showed up on the screen twice a year during the world-wide televised General Conferences.  Then I grew up and I began to crush under the burden of trying to follow the leaders’ will, as their teachings on the role of womanhood and striving for perfection stuffed  me into a tiny little box that just didn’t fit.  Like Cinderella’s ugly step-sisters, to fit into the narrow box of Mormon womanhood I needed to chop off pieces of me that just couldn’t fit inside that box. 
          The Mormon Church’s approach to dealing with the messy history of the prophets’ teachings is to deny the fact or to claim that the teachings of current prophets outweigh the teachings of old prophets.  The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) made the following statement when addressing the messy and very uncomfortable topic of the teachings about race within Mormonism

          Past church leaders should be viewed as products of their times, no more racist than most of their American and Christian peers (and often surprisingly enlightened, given the surrounding culture). A proper understanding of the process of revelation creates a more realistic expectations of the Latter-day Saint prophet, instead of assumptions of infallibility foisted on the Saints by their critics.
          Previous statements and scriptural interpretations that are no longer in harmony with current revelation should be discarded. We learn "line upon line, precept upon precept," and when modern revelation has shed new light, old assumptions made in the dark can be done away with.”

To combat the openness of the Internet era, where the messy history of the Mormon Church is easily accessible and a source of chagrin to many faithful Mormons, members are now justifying that these leaders were “speaking as a man” or that certain beliefs are “folk doctrine”.  There is no way to draw a distinction between a leader “speaking as a man” or “speaking for God” – these distinctions all depend on the convictions of the individual interpreting the quotes, as well as the potential embarrassment factor of the quote.  And once again, I would like reiterate the lesson that the Prophet is considered the mouthpiece qualified to receive revelation from God for the entire church and that as members we were taught that the Prophet will never lead us astray. 
Perhaps Heber J Grant was “speaking as a man” when he had that conversation with Marion G Romney.  Or perhaps Marion G Romney was “speaking as a man” when he gave that speech.  Or perhaps all of the talks by the authorities that I attended as a youth will one day be dismissed as been “spoken as a man, rather than from God”.  But how can members distinguish between the two?  How do members balance the past teachings of the Prophets with the idea that the Prophet will never lead his people astray?  Were the Prophets leading the people astray with their teachings on race?  Was the Prophet leading the people astray with Proposition 8?  And if members don't agree with the teachings of the Prophet, what about the consequences of challenging authority?  But to admit that the Prophets can lead the people astray is to strike at the very root of Mormonism itself – question the legitimacy of the Prophets’ teachings and you question the very foundation of Mormonism. 
Some members are able to shrug off the confusions of doctrine, focusing instead on the good points – the plan of Salvation, the idea of eternal families, the idea of Christian love.  But I was not one of those members; I was a member that took the teachings literally.  My literal interpretation of the leaders – enforced by the attitudes of members around me – turned me into a person at war between my conscience and the teachings of my leaders. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Book Review: The Girls From Fourth Ward


“The only thing you can’t repent of is leaving the Church.  Then when you die you go to Outer Darkness.”  Sarah Renfro, from “The Girls From Fourth Ward” by Donna Banta

          In her book, “The Girls From Fourth Ward”, the author Donna Banta draws on the  key strength of fiction - she takes a real-life issue and then twists her characters into the situation in such a way that leaves you thinking “What if”?  What if Mormon theology gets mis-construed in such a fashion?  
          This book is a murder mystery centered around the murder of the Mormon bishop Brent Loomis.  The quandary in this book is the fate of four young Mormon girls, who are determined to achieve the highest level of Heaven.  Since Mormon theology teaches that you can only attain the highest level of Heaven by marrying a Mormon man in the temple - and that polygamy exists in Heaven - these girls are determined to get into Brigham Young University (BYU).  BYU is where all of the high-achieving Mormon boys study and is where the girls have their best shot at finding a suitable mate, so that they can spend eternity as top-tier first wives.  These girls are smart, ambitious, and boxed in by the narrow expectations of life as a Mormon woman.  
          Standing in the girls’ way is Bishop Loomis.  Loomis is, to be frank, the bishop from hell.  Sanctimonious and controlling, he runs his ward with an iron fist.  One of his powers as bishop is deciding whether or not to recommend students for admission to BYU.  He is the roadblock standing in the way of the girls achieving the highest level of salvation.  And so the girls find themselves contemplating the relative nature of sin.  As one of the girls Betsy says, “You can repent of anything, even murder.”  
          The narrative weaves between the Lieutenant Matt Ryan, who transferred to Abbottsville for a quieter life; the four girls of Abbottsville Fourth Ward; as well as an assortment of other peripheral characters.  There were a lot of characters that I recognized, both in myself and in the people around me.  The sweet, naive housewife; the overworked mother of nine; the girl expected to shoulder her mother’s burden; the brainy girl who wishes for the forbidden pleasure of graduate school, her own apartment, and a dog.  Donna describes the everyday details of Mormon life in a way that is very intimate and real.  Reading this book brought back a lot of memories for me; memories of being a Mormon girl frustrated about the narrow future that was ahead of me.  
          This is a excellent book to read if you grew up as a Mormon girl or if you want to understand a little more about the frustrations of life as a Mormon woman.  This is also a fun read, as Donna takes you on a romp through the darker underworld of Mormonism in such a way that you end up laughing and shaking your head at the girls that just won’t break free of their narrow world.

Donna is also the author of the very funny blog Ward Gossip, which features some of the characters portrayed in her book.  

This book is available both in ebook and softcover from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Powell's.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Hill Cumorah Pageant

          As a child, my family and I used to attend the Hill Cumorah pageant every year, which is a large theatrical production put on every year in the birthplace of the Mormon religion, Palmyra, New York.  The pageant is a dramatic re-enactment of the Book of Mormon.  The pageant was a festive affair -- my family and I packed snacks and piled into our rickety blue station wagon for the two-hour trip to Palmyra.  We sat on the hill, waiting for the show to start.  When darkness fell and the hill lit up, I sat in wonder at the story that un-folded before my eyes.  All of the Book of Mormon stories I learned about in Sunday School were appearing right before my eyes, larger than life.  Lehi, being ordered to leave Jerusalem.  The rift between Nephi and his brothers Laman and Lemuel.  Jesus, coming to the Americas after his resurrection to preach the Gospel.  A dying Moroni, burying the gold plates in the very spot that we were sitting in, which was later found and translated by the prophet Joseph Smith.  I was enthralled by the re-enactment of the stories my family held so dear.  
          One year, when I was five or six, I noticed some people standing at the periphery of the show, holding up sheets of paper.  The pageant had just ended and we were heading back to the car.  I was sleepy -- the time was hours past my normal bed-time.  My family looked at these people askance, while my father warned us in the strongest of terms not to accept anything from them or to engage them in conversation.  These people seemed so out-of-place, standing mute with their sheets of printed paper while pageant-goers streamed past them.  I had been warned that Satan was trying his hardest to tear the Church apart with lies and deceptions.  These people seemed to be proof of what the leaders had been saying.  My little-girl mind just knew that whatever was printed on those sheets of papers would be vile untruths.  And maybe they were untruths.  Or perhaps they weren’t.  Either way, my family and I refused to find out.  And perhaps that was for the best -- any attempts to engage the protesters would have lead to anger and turmoil during a peaceful family outing.  
          That night, as my father drove us home, I fell asleep in the backseat snuggled up against my siblings.  The unsettling hum of the speeding car combined with the eerie muteness of the protesters to give me uneasy dreams about a world stacked against my family.  

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Coffee Love Story

          I was raised to believe that drinking coffee was a sin.  No one in my family touched the black liquid; to bring coffee into my home would have been sufficient to spark a small war.  Having never been exposed to coffee, the very smell was enough to make me feel queasy.  Even after leaving the church, I stayed away from drinking coffee.  Sometimes, when I was cramming for exams and needed the caffeine, I would drink large cups of badly brewed coffee, which was sufficient to convince me that coffee wasn’t anything to get excited about.  If I needed the caffeine, I stuck with my standard Diet Coke.  
          And then I met a boy.  I was at a party when I struck up a conversation with a grad student in engineering.  He was funny and smart and we talked for hours as the party slowly died down around us.  He gave me his number and I resolved to call him again.  Which I did.  I called him, we talked, and we decided to meet for a coffee.  He picked me up after work and took me to his favorite coffee-shop.  
          This was not just any coffee shop.  This was a special coffee shop, with some of the highest standards in the industry.  The beans are ethically sourced and roasted locally by a master with years of experience.  The coffee is then prepared by baristas that have gone through months of rigorous training in order to pull a single shot.  The result is an espresso that is rich and earthy, with a beautiful caramel crema. 
          We talked for hours as I savored my coffee.  My horizons opened up, both by this new realization of the art of coffee as well as my conversation with a man who was raised by a single mother in India.  He told me about the trials of growing up in a highly orthodox Brahmin family while I told him about the trials of growing up in a highly conservative Mormon family.  We discovered a commonality in our experience that transcended cultural barriers.  Here was another person who had challenged his up-bringing and in so doing, had become more open-minded, more tolerant, more aware of humanity in all its glorious diversity.  I sensed I was on the verge of something spectacular.  
          Six years later and I find myself married to the same man that introduced me to good coffee.  There have been challenges of the sort that are inherent when two stubborn, strong-willed people from two very different cultures choose to get married.  But in-between these struggles have been a lot of good times.  We have shared a lot of laughter and had a lot of conversations that have challenged my view of the world around me.  I have a partner that makes me laugh, that reminds me to stop taking life so seriously, whose smile lights up the room.  More than that, I have a partner who understands the trials of walking a different path in life. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is There A "Right" Or A "Wrong" Reason To Leave The Mormon Church?

          There is a perception among Mormons that people who choose to leave the Church do so because they are prideful, or because they want to sin, or because they were offended by other members, or because they have been deluded by Satan.  Since Mormons believe that the LDS Church is the “one true church” on Earth, by extension this means that they also believe that no one ever leaves simply because the Mormon Church isn’t true.  
          This places a heavy burden on the person who chooses to leave; they find themselves in a position of needing to defend their actions and “prove” that they are not sinful or delusional.  Over the years, I have had people ask me if I was on drugs or alcohol.  I have been treated like a simpleton; when I finally gathered up the courage to tell my bishop that I didn’t believe in the Mormon Church, he looked at me and said in a very slow, very loud voice --- “Did you know that Joseph Smith was a fourteen-year old boy when he was visited by God?”  This was coming from a man I had known for years, who had been my visiting teacher, whose daughters went to school with me.  He knew that I was a straight-A student that attended seminary faithfully.  But with a single admission of disbelief, all of his respect for me as a person was suddenly erased.  In his mind, I was a simpleton who had never been educated about the Church, in spite of all of my actions that indicated otherwise.  
          For a long time, I felt a sense of shame about my reasons for leaving.  I didn’t leave because I learned that Joseph Smith was a serial adulterer who used his status as leader to acquire countless wives in secret, the youngest of whom was only fourteen.  I didn’t leave because I discovered that the papyri that Joseph Smith had purportedly translated the Book Of Abraham from, when evaluated by proper Egyptologists, turned out to be just a run-of-the-mill funeral papyri.  I didn’t leave because I found out there were multiple versions of the First Vision, all of which varied in crucial details.  I didn’t leave because I discovered a smoking gun that “proved” the Mormon Church wasn’t true.  All of this knowledge came later, after I left.  My exit out of the Mormon Church was based on intuition and logic, rather than facts.  
          I left because I didn’t like the person I was becoming; my thought patterns were starting to settle into a rigid mold.  I was judging non-Mormons and inactive Mormons for being less worthy.  I judged and then I felt bad about judging.  Did I really want to spend a lifetime feeling bad about my actions as a person?  When I thought about the matter, I realized that converting some of my non-Mormon friends into Mormons would cause them to lose what was most precious about them.  I liked having friends that pushed boundaries, that challenged authority, that dared to dream of a different life.  As a Mormon girl, I was powerless to do any of that.  My life was already planned out for me; temple wedding to a Mormon boy, lots of children, a career as a home-maker, and a life of obedience to the authorities and to my husband.  The future that had been dictated for me filled me up with panic and dread.  I wanted to choose my life’s path but as a Mormon girl, choices were not an option available to me.  
          Most of all, I knew that there was no way of knowing if the Church was true.  I knew that the feelings subscribed to the Holy Ghost and considered as proof of the Church were flimsy evidence of truth at best.  Did I really want to go through life subscribing to a religion that made me uncomfortable, that made me more judgmental of others, on the off chance that it might be true?  So when the time came for me to ask “Do I believe this church is true?”, the answer was no.  
          Even after I left the Mormon Church, I was still plagued by doubts.  I had friends within the Church with the same frustrations, who had stuck with the Mormon Church in spite of their differences.  Were they better than I was, for staying in spite of their issues?  Were they stronger, more faithful?  I just couldn’t shake off the mind-set I had grown up with.  
          And so, for a few years after leaving, I went around saying “There is no God” with the same certainty that just a few years ago I had been saying “The Mormon Church is true”.  I was embarrassed by my reasons for leaving; a part of me wondered if I was simply weak and prideful.  I thought I had left the Church for the “wrong” reasons and so I felt compelled to bolster my insecurities with certainty.   
          But life moved on and I began to settle into my new identity as an post-Mormon.  I began to see the Mormon Church with the eye of an outsider, viewing my life’s experiences in a wider lens.  The issues inherent in the Mormon Church started to become clear.   I realized that I was, truly, genuinely, not a Mormon.  My identity as a post-Mormon girl began to feel as natural as breathing.  Bit by bit, my heart began to soften and heal.  
          This was when I realized I am an agnostic.  I don’t know if there is a higher power.  I can’t say “There is no God” with any more certainty than I can say “There is a God”.  And I have accepted this fact; I may never know the truth.  I am comfortable with who I am.  I take delight in the small joys of everyday life --- I love learning, my family, and my husband.  And for me, that is enough.  I will live my life with integrity and respect.  When I die, and if there is a higher power, I will say that I lived the best life I knew how.  
          My journey out of Mormonism was confused and circuitous.  But I am out and I am happy that I am out.  And I don’t think that there is a “right” or a “wrong” reason for leaving the Mormon Church.  If Mormonism works, then stay.  But if for some reason Mormonism doesn’t work, then leave.  Life is too short and too precious to waste doing something that you can’t believe, that doesn’t make you a better person.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Peculiar Heart-Break Of A Mormon Wedding

          As a Mormon girl, I was raised to believe that the pinnacle of my life would be when I entered the temple to marry a worthy Mormon man.  My very salvation depended upon getting married in the temple --- a temple ceremony seals a husband and wife together for eternity.  The highest level of Mormon heaven is reserved for members that have married in the temple and born children.  The doors of heaven are closed to those who are childless, single, or un-worthy to enter the temple.
          To enter the temple, a member must hold a temple recommend.  To get a temple recommend, a member must be of a certain age and have been active for at least a year.  A member must also pass an interview, during which he/she must demonstrate that their belief in the Church.  A member is asked if he/she believes in the Church; supports the authorities; abstains from mind-altering substances such as coffee, tea, and alcohol; obeys the law of chastity, including abstaining from premarital sex, masturbation, and porn; and have paid a full tithe.  If a person can’t fulfill all of these requirements, then they are denied a temple recommend.  
          One of the most heart-breaking consequences of leaving the Mormon church meant that I was banned from attending my siblings’ weddings.  One of my brothers got married around the time I was starting to leave the Church.  My parents didn’t even bother to bring me along for the wedding --- I stayed at home while they made the trip to D.C. for his wedding.  Three days of wandering an empty house, wondering what was wrong with me.  
          A year later, another of my brothers got married.  By that time, I was fully out of the Church.  His fiance was a convert --- her family was Catholic.  His fiance’s mother was upset about the idea of a temple wedding and insisted on organizing a church wedding.  She wouldn’t take no for an answer --- she had spent years dreaming of organizing her daughter’s wedding.  
          This is when the matter became very delicate.  If members choose to have a civil ceremony, they are barred from getting sealed in the temple for a full year.  If they do choose to have a civil ceremony instead of a temple ceremony, church members begin to doubt their worthiness and faithfulness.  Church authorities also warn them about the dire spiritual consequences of waiting.  There is an intense amount of pressure --- both social and doctrinal --- to have the wedding be in the temple.  My sister-in-law was forced to choose between her family and her religion.  
          So my brother and his fiance evaded the situation.  They down-played the importance of the temple ceremony to the in-laws.  The wedding was in Pennsylvania, so my brother and his wife woke up at 3 the morning of the wedding, drove to D.C., had the temple ceremony, and then came back for the church wedding.  To circumvent the issue of a civil ceremony, they hired a Mormon minister who was very careful about his wordings.  Instead of saying --- “I now pronounce you husband and wife”, at the end of the ceremony he turned my brother and his wife around and said “I now present to you Mr. and Mrs. G-----”, thus avoiding saying the words that would have made the ceremony real.  And no one in my sister-in-law’s family was any the wiser.  They danced, drank, and partied, never knowing that the ceremony they had just seen was a sham.    
          My sister got married last year.  Once again, the issue of my break with the Church was brought to the forefront.  My sister’s fiance came from a long tradition of Mormons.  My husband and I were the lone non-Mormons within the two families.  And so we were relegated to baby-sitting the children during the ceremony.  My mother asked me --- after the ceremony was finished and the photography had begun --- if I was upset about being left out of the wedding.  I longed to tell her my true feelings --- that being banned from the wedding felt like a knife to the chest --- but I also knew that making an issue of the matter accomplishes nothing.  My family performs their weddings this way because they place their faith in a church that demands the exclusion of non-members.   

Correction: The sentence "Members are required to show their W2’s to prove that they have paid a full tithe of 10%, was removed", as this is not church-wide policy.