I grew up singing songs with the children in my Mormon ward in the Primary program, a children’s organization. Mormon kids go to Church for three hours every Sunday. One hour is spent in Sacrament meeting, where families sit together and listen to members speak on Mormon topics, singing hymns to open and close the meeting. The other two hours are spent in Primary, while the moms and dads go off to learn more about Church doctrine and topics in Sunday School, then in gender-divided group settings.
Primary divided the kids up into age groups, calling them clever things like the Blazers and the Stars and the Sunbeams, giving the kids a sense of collectiveness, and each year the kids would move into a higher age group, until turning 12, when they would join the older kids in a different part of the Church (the men become Deacons, then Teachers, then Priests, while the women become Beehives, then Laurels, then Mia Maids). The first hour would be spent instructing the kids in scripture stories with a few fun activities, learning about Noah or Nephi or Joseph Smith and how they made good choices to follow God.
And the second hour would be spent with the large group singing songs, catchy little tunes that would stick with most of the kids throughout their entire lives. Little ditties with mesmerizing tunes, all about following God and being obedient to the Church.
Just last weekend, as a 37 year old man, I heard my 4 year old son singing one of the Primary songs I had learned when I was his age. A finger-snapping little number that makes you pop up with excitement when the music crescendos. Even though he isn’t being raised Mormon, he picked the song up from a Mormon family member who had been singing it.
Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam, to shine for him each day.
In every way try to please him, at school, at home, at play.
I took a literal step back as he sang, horrified at the realization that my child, so full of love and light and creativity and wonder, was singing a song that said, in effect, that Jesus loves him and wants him to obey. No separation of the thoughts. No iteration that Jesus loves no matter what. That would be like me looking my child in the eye and delivering two thoughts at once: I love you, and I expect you to do as you are told and never disappoint me.
My brain started spinning to the dozens of Primary songs I grew up singing, tunes that I hummed hundreds of times, words that I tapped my foot along with.
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, don’t go astray. Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, he knows the way.
Choose the right, when a choice is placed before you… Choose the right, and God will bless you ever more.
I am a child of God, and He has sent me here, has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear. Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way. Help me know what I must do to live with Him some day.
I love to see the temple, I’m going there someday… I’ll prepare myself while I am young, this is my sacred duty.
On and on and on, messages of “unconditional” love with clear conditions, with underlying messages of expected obedience, following without question, doing what you are told.
I watched my four year old idly playing with his super heroes as he sang, and I felt my hands turn cold. I pictured myself at that age, a time when I was interested in drawing and nature and birds, having no concept of sexuality or being gay at that age, and already with the expectations of self in place that I had to show my worth, earn God’s love, be good enough to be considered good.
I took a wider view of my life and saw how that programming, that brainwashing, spread across my childhood. Trying to fit in with other boys, realizing I was different and that I needed to change, entering puberty just knowing that I was broken, being promised a cure if I just tried hard enough.
In every way try to please Him, at home, at school, at play.
Then my brain shifted to the age of 15, when I received my Patriarchal Blessing, a once-in-a-lifetime event when a Priesthood holder lays his hands on your head to give you special messages from God that are meant for you. The Blessing is recorded, then typed out and given to you to reflect on again and again. My blessing, a full two pages long, talked about me serving a Mormon mission and marrying a woman, and near its conclusion was the sentence that would haunt much of my adult life, a message from God to me. “You are indeed one of Heavenly Father’s choice sons. Do not in any way disappoint Him.”
I steadied my breath in my nose, feeling an icy anger in my heart for a moment. Then I got down on all fours and picked up the Joker so my son could use his Batman to triumph. We played for a while, using cartoon voices and dramatic gestures, and Batman won again and again. And then we had a wrestling/tickle match, rolling and laughing and screaming until we collapsed onto the couch, his arms around my neck and mine around his back.
“You’re the best cuddler,” I whispered.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Hey, buddy, I need you to know something. I love you, always, and no matter what.”
He pulled back away, a no-nonsense look upon his face. “Well, duh. You’re my dad.”
And as he rushed off to play with his brother, a huge grin read across my face and all the ice melted away. Well, duh. You’re my dad. Unconditional love, accepted as fact, with no conditions. Just love.