When I wrote “My Lifelong Wrestle With Mormonism,” up to that time I had been writing for an audience made up of my friends, my parents, and nine and a half “extended friends”, give or take.
Imagine my surprise when I spent the next few weeks flooded with messages from every avenue social media has to offer, from people across the spectrum of Mormonism, members of many other religions, and a surprising number of Atheists. 95% were very supportive and kind, and none were hateful or antagonistic.
This has been a singular experience in my life, and has led to a deepening of my testimony from an experience that was supposed to be a sort of “coming out” with my testimony in the first place.
Since I included little context in the post, I received many questions regarding what “kind” of Mormon I am. Am I speaking from a traditional LDS perspective? Do I understand the culture battles between Utah/Jell-O belt LDS and members everywhere else?
Am I trying to be the voice of “Progressive” Mormonism, since I had struggled with the method by which some principles were taught, and because I didn’t overtly mention Joseph Smith or living prophets?
For kicks, here are some of the recurring questions I was asked:
- Why can’t all Mormons think/talk the way you did in the post? If they did, I likely wouldn’t have left.
- Don’t you understand that we are saved by grace, and these “lists” of tasks are only going to wear you out?
- All the marijuana questions…
- Well-meaning expressions of “feeling sorry” for me, for thinking I have to keep up with all the items on the list
- Wondering if I intentionally listed all of the things that are exclusive to Mormonism in the “first list”, i.e. the things on which we should not be exclusively focused, only to include in the “good list” all the things that all Christian sects have in common.* Thus, was I saying that the Mormon way is an unnecessarily hard way and we should all be other “kinds” of Christian?
*There are several items on the second list that are exclusive to LDS doctrine. Among them, God has a body of flesh and bone, He, Christ, and the Holy Ghost are distinct and separate beings, we have a Mother in Heaven, Heavenly Father’s wife, and that we lived with God and our families prior to living on Earth.
Frustrating plot twist: I’m not going to answer any of these. Instead, I’m going to add a little context for you, my dear reader, with which to do whatever you please.
When we started telling our friends in Holladay (Utah) that Jon had chosen Harvard Law for grad school, several well-meaning people made remarks along the lines of, “Congratulations! Hopefully you won’t lose your testimony out there.”
It was unclear if they were referring to Harvard, the East Coast, or Boston as “out there,” but we would smile and laugh, knowing that would never happen.
My time in my twenties was split between New York/Long Island and Salt Lake/Utah Valley. I had been in family wards and single’s wards ranging from enormous BYU student wards containing just one apartment complex, to small Long Island branches with 40 members spanning a 100 mile radius.
Basically, I thought I had done this all before. I knew how to hold my own as a Mormon, I knew what I believed and I knew how to maintain friendships with people from all walks of life without it getting in the way.
Then came Cambridge. From day one, despite my grumblings about the weather, I have loved it here. One day, shortly after moving in, I walked into our apartment, breathless with excitement, and declared, “This is my perfect place!” And other premature but sincere conclusions.
LDS Gospel-wise, it is a place all its own. Every Mormon in the area knows about Cambridge 1st Ward, the first in the Boston area, rich with tradition and a reputation for housing a high percentage of “intellectual Mormons,” as the majority of its members are affiliated with MIT or Harvard University.
It’s also a little notorious (can something be a “little” notorious?) for members sometimes looking beyond the mark and losing their faith. Our leaders here stressed the principle of staying focused on the small and simple practices to stay on track.
For me, this was what I had been after for a long time. Not exactly the beyond the mark thing, but I had longed for the kinds of gospel discussions people here were willing to have. Initially I was surprised by some of the views held by some, and my eyes were opened to many beliefs, non-beliefs, struggles, and insights that I don’t think are openly discussed in most other wards.
There is little-to-no ostracizing when someone holds a different viewpoint or has serious doubts about a given aspect of the gospel. Everyone is welcomed and supported, and charity work, locally and worldwide, is at its finest here.
The main thing I loved about it when I first arrived was that there didn’t seem to be any complacency when it came to one’s faith. Perhaps some thought differently about a doctrine than I did, but at least they had thought about it.
Much study and discussion and difficult questions had gone into forming the testimony one had, and I respected that (still do). I had grown weary of attending wards where there was little discussion, apparently not much thought put into what a scripture truly meant, and an overall sense of ‘coasting’.
At the same time, my first two years here, I couldn’t help feeling a little (or a lot) out of my depth. I put some people on a pedestal, and I stopped contributing to lesson discussions because I determined that I wasn’t as informed, studied, or passionate about the things being discussed. I was afraid of giving the “wrong” answer.
This wasn’t good for me. I had taken the positive attribute of my ward: anxiously engaged in learning, and translated it to: already learned, now sharing wisdom.
I began to confuse the whisperings of the Spirit as He taught me, with what I began seeing as naive, uninformed optimism. I wasn’t sure that I was the right “kind” of Mormon; I thought my views were too traditional, too conservative to add anything to the conversation, so I stopped adding.
This would be the reverse of someone attending church in Provo and feeling like they were too “rebellious” or “worldly” to fit in. I felt “too Mormon”.
The problem with this is, among other things, is that when you mute your inner voice for others, eventually you begin to mute it for yourself as well. I stopped listening when the Holy Ghost told me a line of thinking was incorrect or dangerous, and I started trusting in the arm of flesh. I started leaning more on my reasoning abilities than my well-honed inner compass.
While this was going on inside, outside I was connecting with more new people than I had in years. I was also reconnecting with friends from home who were experiencing massive life-altering events: crises of faith, divorce, loss, infidelity, illness, leaving the gospel… And also, POLITICS. They were everywhere, and they were destroying relationships at break-neck speed.
I started to get spiritual whiplash as I navigated these seemingly disparate worlds. While speaking to friends from home, parts of myself would come out that I kept under wraps in Cambridge, and, aspects of my personality, along with beliefs that had lain dormant for years, felt liberated when I engaged with my friends and ward-members on the East Coast.
I felt like each group saw an authentic part of me, but neither had it all. I was not lying or pretending to believe anything I didn’t… I was unintentionally hiding.
My own testimony began to stagnate. I found myself being more cynical than I like to be, skeptical of virtually any claim that I came across, and, like many people, wrapped up in politics in a way I never had been before.
Hope in humanity (or certain sections of it) was fading. Everything seemed so callous, so negative, and it seemed that positive thinking or feeling was simply living in denial to all the horrors at work in the world.
All of this is happening, I’m losing my sense of self, and I’m still feeling like it’s tacky of me to take a stand or lean any given way because I didn’t want to lose the faith of my friends who trust that I am on their side.
My millennial darlings from Harvard Law who were my first (and only) fan club for this blog…
My forward-thinking, faithful, charitable Cambridge ward-members from whom I gain so much insight and whom I can’t think too much about leaving or I will be weepy all day…
My friends of every color and religion whose perspectives have illuminated darkness and beauty in the world I would have never seen without their guidance…
And at the top of the list of “people I didn’t want to offend or alienate by talking about my personal view of the Gospel”: fellow Mormons who are in the throes of painful questioning, doubts, and frustrations with the Church.
The thing is, I am on their side. I love them, and I want them to feel as satisfied and joyful in their lives as is humanly possible. I want them to feel free to find what works for them and to be loved doing so.
But somehow I came to the conclusion that in order for them to feel my support for their light, I needed to hide my own.
My religion moved to the back burner, and with it, my closeness with Heavenly Father. I had a core testimony, but my motivation to take it to the next level was waning and I wanted something to “just happen” to make me strong and passionate about it again.
I knew it wouldn’t.
I was sick of waiting, sick of feeling irritated and uncertain. It’s what happens every time I close off parts of myself and live life according to a very murky, ever-changing set of ideas and expectations. Something like “being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine”.
It was exhausting. So, in a rare moment of clarity, I wrote “My Lifelong Wrestle” as fast as I could and posted it before I could chicken out.
Although some will read those lists as SO MUCH TO DO, for me, it was much more simplified than everything floating around in my head and heart: this group’s stance, that philosophical ideal, this political conundrum, that loved one’s opinion, and that other loved one’s current life circumstance.
I simply wanted to know what I knew. I wanted my work cut out for me, so I cut it out for myself in the form of a correctly prioritized list. It quieted the voices in my head telling me that I needed to hide some part of myself for every person I encounter in order to create a more comfortable seat for them.
In writing it down, I told the world the kind of person they could expect me to be, and thus, told myself to get back to work becoming that person.
The stories I’ve received from people who were touched in some way by my post will be among the most precious notes of my life. Knowing that even one other person gets what you are trying to say when you are telling your biggest truth has got to be one of life’s greatest joys. It has reminded me of the immense service I can do for another when I simply say, “me too”.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a force to be reckoned with, no matter where one finds oneself on the spectrum of belief; from stalwart member to ex-Mormon, from non-members to anti-Mormon, the world is being impacted by this church and each can benefit from understanding its teachings and its members.
For some, it can be a frustrating dichotomy that may never feel simple or straightforward, one that brings such great joy but equally great pain. Certain beliefs, unanswered questions, or practices incorrectly executed can feel like too much to bear.
These accounts are useful to help us reflect on our own faith and to progress the shared consciousness among the membership. They are necessary and helpful for us to understand and support those who are suffering, particularly those going through painful crises of faith.
The times when these accounts are damaging, however, are when we begin to believe that in terms of the general membership’s experience, they are the rule rather than the exception. They are not.
Once I was able to clear out the noise and reflect on my reality, I knew that in every city I’ve lived, single, married, lifelong or new member, the vast majority of Mormons are people with a deeply positive worldview, who try every day in practical ways to make the world a better place.
They hail from every country, background, ethnicity and culture in the world, and the Gospel works for them. Quietly, and without strikes of lightning, they walk along an upward trajectory with its fair share of dips.
They aren’t frustrated or questioning constantly, although they have questions and frustrations. They love the Gospel because they love our Savior, and find great peace in the midst of otherwise devastating challenges.
As things in our society and worldwide become more confusing and dark, the teachings of the church seem ever more peculiar yet ever potent by contrast in their ability to pierce through the darkness void of cynicism, with unabashed hope and peace.
I think the questions, “Do I believe the church is true?” or “Do I want to be a Mormon?” are missing the mark. They focus on the lifestyle, the organization, and the imperfect humans called to run it.
More to the heart of the issue, are:
Do I want to know if Jesus is actually the Savior of the World?
What do I need to be saved from, anyway?
Do I want to know if God knows me and loves me, or better yet, if He even exists?
Do I believe in Jesus Christ, and have a desire to know Him on a deeply personal level?
Do I want clear, tangible, effective ways to put His teachings into action?
Do I want to know what I was designed to do, to become?
Do I want to know how to access The Almighty God and to know what He would have me do here on Earth?
If the answer to any of those is Yes, then it’s my testimony that the most complete version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is found in the LDS doctrine. It is contained within a robust set of scriptures testifying of Christ, resources from living prophets, and a structure designed around near constant service to others, done the way Christ would have done it (with plenty of human imperfections, of course).
I live by the truth, “By their fruits ye shall know them,” and have hope that the fruits of my labor will reflect the love and respect I have for all of the incredible souls in my life, regardless of their beliefs. I know that we are all more alike than we are different.
So what kind of a Mormon am I? Probably the same kind you are.
There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God. –Book of Mormon, Fourth Nephi, Verse 17
“For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” – Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi chapter 26 verse 33