Spirit 6: Inspiration

The Catholics call it the Holy Trinity, or the Three-In-One. The Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. They are easily understood with clearly delineated roles, yet they are impossible to understand. They are the same and yet different, and it is in the mix of understanding and non-understanding that the beauty of the belief exists. At least, that’s house I understand it. I was never Catholic.

For the Mormons, the three are separate and distinct entities. The Father is the god of heaven and all things, the literal father of every spirit on Earth. The Son is the son of god, Jesus Christ himself, who came to earth and died for the sins of man. And then there is the Holy Ghost, an ethereal presence that is everywhere on earth at once, in the heart of everyone  simultaneously.

The Holy Ghost was difficult to grasp when I was a child. It sounded like some haunted being in a church, but it was the most sacred of things. Words in the scriptures called him things like the comforter, who was there to teach and warn. It was explained to me that every human had access to the holy ghost, through the “light of Christ”, which was never really explained to me, but that believing faithful Mormons who had been baptized had a honed access, a special receptor if you will, an ability to commune more directly with the spirit itself. Mormons were baptized at the age of 8 and then, after they had been purified in the water, there was a laying on of hands by someone with the priesthood who confirmed them a member of the church and gave them the GIFT of the holy ghost. After that, it was up to each member to stay worthy of the gift by doing things that god commanded, being obedient, following all of the rules, and then the spirit would guide them in their daily lives.

The holy ghost was supposed to warn of danger and evil, to provide comfort, and to whisper direction, but it could only dwell the loudest in places of reverence, love, and kindness. I mean, it dwelled everywhere and always, but could only be felt most acutely in places of obedience, of holiness. I was taught early to watch for this spiritual guidance form this holy entity. We sang songs like “Listen to the Still-Small Voice” and “Sweet is the Peace the Gospel Brings”. We were trained to search for a “burning in our bosom”. We were taught repeatedly that following the rules would elicit the spirit in our lives and result in happy, positive choices that god was proud of. Tell a lie, fight with your sister, or disobey your mom, no spirit. Tell the truth, get along, do as you are told, the spirit is there.

It was all rather esoteric, and there was a whole level of bizarreness beyond that, subtle mentions of the dark spirits of the devil constantly trying to tempt you into doing wrong. Always follow the right path, hold to the rod, listen to that still-small voice, otherwise you are giving in to the devil and god will be disappointed.

Mormon conversions are almost solely based on this spiritual concept. Non-members are challenged to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it. I handed out dozens of copies of the Book of Mormon as a missionary, and I always highlighted the same verse at the end of the book. The verse basically invited people to read the book, then think and pray about it with “a sincere heart and real intent”, and then the spirit would teach them if it was true or not. How did it do that? By bringing peace. If they felt peaceful and good about what they read, it was true. And if it was true, it was ALL true, every part of the church. The priesthood, the baptism, the tithing, the policies, the requirements, every ounce of it. If it feels good, it’s true, and if it’s true, we are right about everything. And if you didn’t feel peaceful or good about it, well, you didn’t try hard enough so try again.

What I didn’t realize until later is that feeling peace, experiencing conscience or internal thought, experiencing a gut reaction to something… that are HUMAN qualities. They aren’t divine messages from god through an ethereal spirit. They are just human nature, impacted by nutrition, sleep, endorphins, and weather. And what Mormons have done, what many religions have done, is the taking of these HUMAN principles, bottling them as a product to ensure religious conformance. If I stand on a pulpit and tell you that you are special, and if that warms your heart to hear that you are special, then that means I speak for god because you felt warm, and now you have to follow my rules.

Holy ghost? Holy shit, it’s just the normal human brain, and I believed in some godly alien entity who has no form and dwells in the hearts of billions, but mostly those following the rules. How did I believe that? How did I teach that to others?

But the Mormons take it one step farther. They teach that those who feel the holy ghost are also entitled to “personal revelation”. In other words, god will give direction and guidance through his spirit to help people make decisions. Women can get guidance for themselves and their children. Men can receive it for themselves and their families, and their revelations supersede the others because they hold the priesthood. Bishops get it for their wards, and so on and up to the prophet, who gets revelation for the church. A man can get a revelation that says his wife should have another baby, or his son shouldn’t go to college, but he can’t receive it for the neighbor family. Mormons use this spiritual guidance constantly to reaffirm their own decisions and lives, sometimes positively and sometimes otherwise. “I prayed and God told me I should have soup for lunch/ should quit my job and go back to school/ should ask Sally to marry me/ should take a different road to work today/ should try to convert my cousin.” And I’ll notice people who grow up Mormon using the same spiritual feelings to justify their decisions later, even when they are entirely contrary to Mormon rules. It’s a bizarre form of programming that takes people years to clear their heads from.

I listen to my gut, my conscience, my inner thoughts all the time now. It’s crucial for me to hone in on that inner guidance system. But I no longer think of these parts of me in accordance with ghosts, or rewards for obedience. I don’t use my guidance system to justify my bad behavior, or to judge others by. Instead, I use it to try to be the best version of me that I can. On my terms.

And I still balk at what it was I used to believe in.

Release Time

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“Brothers and sisters, I want to bear you my testimony that I know that this book is true. I know it in the depths of my soul. I know because I have prayed about it, and God has confirmed in my heart that it is a true work.” My seminary teacher straightened his tie, clutched his hands behind his back, then continued with his testimony. “I will now quote to you my favorite scripture, the one I used on my mission over and over again, from Moroni Chapter 10, verses 3-5. ‘Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.’

Brother Acey quoted the scripture with a loving reverence in his voice, and somehow a sense of both drama and urgency. It was a familiar tone to me, one that Mormons used when bearing testimony. They didn’t just know the truth, they know the truth! All of the truth! With every fiber of their beings and beyond the shadows of any doubts!

Then Brother Acey concluded his testimony. “And I promise to you, to all of you, that if you feel that same spirit, then you too can know that what I say to you is true. And I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”

Brother Acey let a long silence hang in the classroom for a few seconds. His eyes scanned over over us. “Do you feel that?” He asked. “What is it you are feeling now?”

I felt goosebumps break out on my arms. I felt my heart pounding. I felt joy in my soul. I raised my hand and waited until he called on me. “The Holy Ghost,” I said, with enthusiasm. “I feel the Holy Ghost.”

“That’s right. Now take a minute to consider the story of Moroni, the one who wrote the words I just read to you. His father was the great prophet, Mormon. Moroni grew up during a time of war, when he saw the people of God being slowly slaughtered by their enemies because they had turned away from their beliefs. His life’s work became protecting the Holy Scriptures, the words of God etched on plates of gold. He spent years wandering in the wilderness, alone. And before he buried those records, knowing that they would be found hundreds of years later, he took time to carve those words I just read to you into that gold. He knew. He knew with all of his heart of their truth. Now, we have no idea how much longer he lived after that, but eventually, he was blessed to come down as an angel, an immortal being, and tell Joseph Smith where to find those plates. And now you, Chad, all of you in this room, you hold that record in your very hands. It is an absolute miracle.”

A few other students shared their thoughts when Brother Acey called on them. I felt electric the entire time he was speaking. I had always loved the Book of Mormon, since I was a very small child. I’d read it when I was still in kindergarten for the first time. And I’d always believed it was true. But at times like this, it was more than belief, I just knew it. I was so blessed to just know, to have my testimony come so easily to me.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I was 16 years old, and sitting in my Seminary class. On my report card, this block of time was just called ‘Release Time’. It was the fourth hour of my academic schedule. Before this, in third hour, I had U.S. History, and after this was lunch and then fifth hour, English class. Then Band, then P.E. to finish the day off. As the majority of my school in southern Idaho were believing members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, around 60 per cent I estimated, Release Time was a popular selection for many students. We didn’t get actual academic credit for it, instead we just attended the class during the school day, just like a regular class. It was held in a specially consecrated building across the street from the school. There were pictures of Christ on the wall and hymnals and scriptures on every desk. We had a lesson plan that covered church-approved content, turned in homework, and opened and closed every class with a prayer. It was my favorite time of day. And it was the most important. The things of God would always be more important than the things of the world. And my religious education mattered more to me than my regular classes.

In Seminary, I belonged. I blended in. It didn’t matter that I was attracted to boys, or that my step-father had hit my mom in front of me the night before, or that I was teased for being a sissy simply because I was less athletically inclined. I didn’t fit in the world around me, but here I fit in. I didn’t notice boys as much, the temptations seemed to diminish when I was worshipping and learning about the things of God. Thus it was easier to keep my thoughts clean, meaning I didn’t feel like a sinner as much. This class was a refuge for me, and I simply loved being there.

Brother Acey issued us a challenge at the end of class. “The prophets have taught for years that every member should be a missionary. Every one. That means each of you. If you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, then it is your duty, your obligation, and your privilege to share it with others. I challenge each of you to think of someone you know who is not a member of the church, and I want you to bear them your testimony and give them a copy of the Book of Mormon. If you do this, your life and theirs will be richly blessed. If they choose not to be converted now, well, at least you tried, and maybe you’ve planted a seed for the future. But maybe they will gain their own testimonies and choose to be baptized, and then how great shall be your joy! Go forward and speak boldly, without fear. After the closing prayer, please grab a spare copy of the Book of Mormon from the box at the back of the classroom. I will invite you to share your experiences in class next week.”

I was filled with excitement in my next class, and I immediately began making a list of every person I knew who was not a Mormon. Most everyone in my life already was, but I could still think of a few. I had a large group of friends, and at least two of them were not Mormon, Kenny and Desiree. And there was one neighbor down the street. My mom had a few non-member co-workers. There was the lady at the bank. Oh, and there was Mrs. Campbell, my English teacher. She liked me, I bet she would enjoy a copy. Maybe I could help save their souls! Maybe I could help convert them! The thought thrilled me. Maybe if I could do this, it would make me just a bit worthier in the eyes of God, and maybe I could finally be cured.

I had only recently told my Bishop that I was gay, and he had responded with kindness and love. He’d explained to me that this was a particular challenge that I had been given to overcome and to prove my worth to God. He’d given me a blessing, and then sent me home with a copy of the Miracle of Forgiveness, a book that loudly proclaimed the evils of homosexuality. Gay people were an abomination, and they could be cured if they tried hard enough, the book assured me. And then there was my patriarchal blessing, which told me that I would be an effective missionary, and I knew deep down, that maybe if I could help bring more people into the church, then maybe I could help make myself straight. I couldn’t ask that of God, not directly, but he knew the desires of my heart, so just maybe it would work.

I prayed that night for guidance, that I might know the best person to give my testimony to. And after careful contemplation, I chose three names off of my list. Kenny, Desiree, and Mrs. Campbell, all three of them. We’d only been challenged to give out one copy, but I would give three, to show my commitment. I got two more copies of the Book from Brother Acey the following day, and on Friday, I was ready to go.

I woke up and said my prayers, and then I began my day with a fast, avoiding food and water for the school day to make me spiritually sharper. The day before, I’d asked Kenny to meet with me before school, and Desiree during lunch, because I had something I wanted to talk about with them. They’d both agreed.

Thus, I met with Kenny first. He and I were close, and his parents were super nice, but we didn’t really talk about religion that much. So when I sat next to him in the school cafeteria and got out a copy of the Book of Mormon, one where I had written my testimony inside, he looked shocked. I started to tell him how I knew the book was true, but Kenny interrupted me.

“Chad, look. We are friends. But don’t try and shove your religion down my throat. Your church is totally historically inaccurate, and weird, and it doesn’t make sense. And if you are going to try and convert me to your church, we can’t be friends.”

I began apologizing, but then remembered how Brother Acey had encouraged us to be bold. “Just try it, Kenny. Just try and read it. If you do, I know you’ll find out the truth just like I have. Let me share one scripture with you. I highlighted it here.”

Kenny agreed to take the book, but he was hurt. He walked out of the classroom and didn’t speak to me for days. He never mentioned it again, and neither did I.

After Seminary, my lunchtime meeting with Desiree was even more painful. “What? Are you actually trying to make me a Mormon? I thought you respected me more than that, Chad. Do you have any idea how much teasing and bullying I put up with here because I’m not Mormon? Do you know how cruel the other girls are to me, or how hard it is to find a date? Do you know what I go through? You are one of the few people I feel safe around. Don’t do this.”

“But I do respect you!” I argued. “I respect you so much! And I care about you! And that’s why I wanted to share with you something that is so important to me.”

“Fuck you, Chad,” she said, furious, a wounded look in her eyes. “I thought you were my friend.”

“Desiree, please, just give me one minute. Let me read you just one–“. She gave me a death stare, then she walked out, taking the book I’d forced on her and throwing it in the trash. She didn’t speak to me for weeks afterwards, not until I apologized and promised to never bring up religion again.

As lunch ended, I tried hard to find my courage to give my final copy to Mrs. Campbell. I thought of all of the prophets, from Noah to Moses to Ammon to Abinadi, who had been rejected in their efforts. But if I was going to be a missionary for two years, when I turned 19, I had to learn how to do this now. I walked into English class a few minutes before the bell rang. Mrs. Campbell sat at her desk alone. The other students hadn’t started entering yet.

“Hi, Mrs. Campbell,” I said, cheerfully. She was a young teacher, with a husband and a few kids at home. She’d moved here a few years before to take this teaching job.

“Chad, hi! I wanted to tell you how much I loved your essay comparing Batman to Beowulf. In fact, I would love to keep a copy of it to share with students who need to see how great writing looks.”

I was thrilled at her words but muttered a simple thank you. My heart was thudding in my chest. I was so nervous. Without speaking, I pulled the final copy of the Book of Mormon from my backpack and placed it on her desk.

“Mrs. Campbell, I wanted an opportunity to share with you—“

“Oh my God, this again?” She rolled her eyes as a look of significant annoyance crossed her face. “This is my third year at this high school. Every damn year. Ugh.” She made eye contact with me, her usual look of kindness back on her face. “You got the Seminary challenge, didn’t you? Which means you are the first today, but between now and Monday, I bet about 12 of you offer me these damn books with your testimonies written in them. I respect you, Chad. I like you. I love your writing. You have a tremendous talent, and you have a great future ahead of you. But I need to be able to come to my job and not have religion be a part of it. Separation of church, and state. Of your beliefs, and mine. Please put your book away, sit down, and we can talk about your essay after class.”

I fought back tears the entire class. My head burned hot with embarrassment, and my heart thudded in my temples. I had clearly exasperated Mrs. Campbell, who was normally the friendliest and funniest teacher, but today she seemed flustered. She looked over the classroom exhausted, perhaps wondering how many more books of scripture from eager young 15- and 16-year olds would be tossed her way by the end of the day.

That night, in my prayers, I apologized to God for being an ineffective missionary. I prayed for the souls of my three friends, all of whom were not Mormon and would eventually need to be if their souls were to be properly saved. Maybe I’d planted some seeds today. I asked for comfort and guidance, and then closed in the name of Jesus Christ.

And then I turned on a cassette tape of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, pulled the knot on my sweatpants extra tight so that I wouldn’t be able to masturbate while sleeping, pushed out thoughts of the really good-looking wrestler in my P.E. class, and went to sleep, wondering if my efforts had been enough to make me straight yet.

Fragile Mormon Ego

In a college class I taught a few years ago, right in the heart of Salt Lake City, what many locals might call the “Mormon Bubble”, during which we discussed the way Utah is viewed by the rest of the world. (In fact, I think I even blogged about this. It can be hard to remember). We talked about all of the times that Utah has hit the international media circuits over the past few years.

The actively LDS students in the room had hoped that stories about Utah would be related to charity work, to missionary work, and to Christian examples. But universally every story that we found was, well, negative. Maybe even a little bit embarrassing.

We found stories on CNN, Fox News, and other sites that were related to how Mormons make policies against gay people and fight gay marriage, about how gay teens are committing suicide, and about young women coming forward at BYU and in churches who were told to keep their sexual assaults quiet by church leaders (or worse, they were blamed for their own assaults). There were stories about tithing dollars being used to build a mall, about how BYU was being considered for a list of institutions that were known to hate gay people, and how Utah was leading the nation in gender discrimination in the workplace statistics. We made lists of these headlines, and they were hard to face up to.

One student in the classroom, a lovely LDS girl who worked hard to love everyone, raised her hand and wondered aloud why people saw the church she and her family loved so much with so much hatred and vitriol, why they laughed at things that were sacred to her. We had a discussion about reputation, and about how things can look different from the inside than from the outside. She was receptive to feedback, and ultimately it was a strong and openminded lesson for all involved. (She is my favorite kind of Mormon. She loves her church, and she is open to the ideas of others around her).

Well, yesterday, Utah hit the national headlines again, this time for a bizarre poster that was printed up on BYU campus. A small organization that is part of the school’s math department, called Women in Math, created an event in which four of the school’s beloved math professors would speak to those in attendance. The young woman who created the poster placed four photos of the teachers across the top, then the name of the organization underneath them. So it resulted in… four white guys over a heading that read ‘Women in Math’. And then, in the most Mormon way possible, the poster finished with “There will be treats. All levels of math welcome.”

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I copied this to my own Facebook wall with a roll of my eyes, and the tagline “Mormons gotta Morm. Oh BYU, what have you done now?”

Swiftly, like all things on Facebook, some of the comments became politicized. Some decried that all Mormons are misogynistic. (I argued that while the organization and belief system is misogynistic, that doesn’t mean the individual members are). Others, actively Mormon, felt their religion was being attacked and began writing out lists of facts in defense of their beliefs. This lead to some back and forths, some private messages, and, well, a few Facebook unfriendings before it was all finished.

These days, it takes a lot to get me fired up. I use a life motto, a Jewel song lyric that I refer back to often: “No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.” As such, I am careful with who I allow into my life, who I choose to engage with. I keep a far distance from all things Mormon in my day-to-day life, but it still hits me regularly because of my family, my community, my friends, and my clients. It’s hard to stay far from. And when you’ve lost a few friends to suicide, it is very difficult not to get very passionate about.

In a few of those private chats, one friend abjectly refused to admit that the Mormon religion is homophobic, racist, and misogynistic, and they felt that my stating such was a direct attack on their beliefs and family. “How would you feel if I said terrible things like this about gays?” they said, to which I responded, “Many gays are absolutely misogynistic, racist, and even homophobic, but not inherently. And there is a huge difference between a sexual orientation, which is not chosen, and a religious belief system, which is chosen.” Despite this, they refused to bend.

Now here is the thing, I remember how fragile my ego as a Mormon used to be. The slightest criticism of the prophets, the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, or the Church led me to defensively dig in my heels and refuse that there could be any flaws. But even when I dug in, I knew I had doubts about polygamy, about the way the church treats women, blacks, and gays, and about its weird mystical/esoteric history. (God lives on another planet, remember. It’s all very Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.)

But even the most rational person can admit that the Mormon church (as well as the wider society around it) is abjectly homophobic, racist, and misogynistic. It denied blacks the Priesthood and taught that they were cursed with blackness by God! It currently calls gay marriage apostate and doesn’t allow children of gay couples to be baptized! Women bow their heads in temple ceremonies and promise to subject themselves to their husbands… with their faces veiled!

If you are Mormon, I understand you. I empathize with you. And I probably like you. But if your ego is so fragile that you can’t admit basic facts, well, I have very little room for you in my life ultimately.

But back to that Women in Math poster, come on, that is hilarious. And if you can’t laugh with me, well there is probably not much room for you either.

Poz: my first encounter with AIDS

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In 1999, I was a Mormon missionary in inner city Philadelphia. At that time, the Mormon Church ran ads on television stations, advertising free copies of the Book of Mormon or Bible, or free videos about forever families. A person who called the phone number would request a copy of the free merchandise and give their name and address, and then a “media referral” would be passed on to the missionaries who were closest to that person geographically. We would grab the merchandise, walk over to the individual’s house, and deliver it, while offering to teach them about the Church in the hopes of converting them. At the end of each week, we would call the local leader and report how many media referrals we responded to, how many doors we knocked on, how many lessons we taught, and the data was collated and sent back up the chain to the presidency of the Church in Utah.

And this was how I met Vincent.

Now keep in mind, I was a 20 year old white kid in the inner city, and I looked like I was 16 at best. I was skinny in worn out shoes, a faded shirt and a thrift shop tie, with a bad haircut. I sported a backpack full of supplies every day, stuffed full of Mormon merchandise I hoped to pass out. At the time, I had a strong testimony of the Mormon faith and I went to no small effort to share that testimony with whoever would listen. And I was constantly praying to God that my efforts would prove to him that I could be cured from being gay; I went the entire two years hoping that if I baptized enough people, my homosexuality would go away and I could like girls like a “normal” guy.

When my companion (my fellow missionary, who I had to stay in sight of 24/7) and I knocked on Vincent’s door to deliver his Bible, we could immediately tell something was wrong with him. He was very ill and looked like he was likely in the last stages of cancer or another terminal illness. He was probably only in his mid 30s, but he looked 60. He was tall, about 6’5”, and had a thin gaunt face. He wore a large pair of glasses, a black beret, and was in very baggy sweat pants and a sweatshirt, a scarf around his neck. He was sweating slightly from shivering, a feverish sweat. He had a few sores on his face, including one on his lip that was distracting, hard to take my eyes off of.

Vincent invited us in. He was very effeminate, yet very kind. We pulled up two chairs next to the hospital bed he had in his small apartment. I remember feeling nervous, like whatever he had I might catch it. He climbed back into his bed and drew the covers up around him.

Vincent quietly explained that he was dying. He said he had been watching television a few days before and that he had seen the ad for the free Bible. He didn’t think he had long left to live, and he wanted to make things right with God before he passed.

I was young and knew very little of the world, and I asked Vincent what he was dying of, very little compassion in my voice.

He was unapologetic as he explained that he had AIDS. He told me he had grown up in a religious family in central Pennsylvania, that he had been kicked out as a teen for coming out as gay, and that he had been with the same man for years before a sad breakup. He said he made a few choices a few years back, and got HIV, and that he couldn’t afford to take care of himself, and now he was dying. He wanted to be baptized and to make himself clean.

We were kind to Vincent, but truthfully, we had no experience with anything like this. We were two very young men from rural Idaho, and this man was looking for absolution. We promised to come back and see Vincent the next day. That night at home, I called up my Priesthood leaders and explained the situation, and we were told that we were not allowed to teach a gay man by ourselves. We explained that Vincent wanted to be baptized, to be forgiven of his sins, and we were told that given his condition it was very unlikely that baptism could be approved, that Vincent would have to meet with local Priesthood leaders first and be interviewed.

The next day we visited Vincent, and he seemed sad and dejected. He said he had spent the evening researching our church and he realized that gay people didn’t have a place in it. He politely declined our invitation to teach him about the Church and said he would seek forgiveness elsewhere. He kindly asked us to leave.

I tried to visit Vincent a few weeks later, when I had a new companion. He didn’t answer the door. I can’t imagine he lived much longer.

Vincent crossed my mind yesterday for the first time in years. It’s nearly 20 years since I knew him so briefly, and I don’t even remember his last name. He was among the first gay people I knew, and the first with AIDS that I had met. Since coming out five years ago, I have met many people who have HIV, some of them are my very closest friends. They are incredible men with healthy lives, jobs, and routines. Technology and medical procedures have come so far, giving amazing quality of life.

Yet since its inception, HIV and AIDS has infected an estimated 78 million people and taken an estimated 39 million lives, wiping out entire generations in some countries.

I’ll have more to write about all of this soon, but for now, I want to honor my memory of Vincent, that quiet man who wanted peace with God before he died, but who was unable to find it with two 20 year old Idaho boys, one of them gay himself.

 

Like Lambs to the Slaughter: a critical exploration of children in religion

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I came across a photo recently, quite by accident, while doing a google search for “crazy lambs”, looking for a funny image to cheer a friend up with. I initially just clicked past the image, but then found myself going back and staring at it for several minutes. I found it sad, entertaining, thought-provoking, profound, and painfully true.

In it, a small girl of about five is smiling, wearing a pretty, white, frumpy church dress. The dress is modest, extending up to her neck and all the way down to her hands. She has brown curly hair, a bit messy. She has on a small necklace. She seems to be missing a tooth. In her small hands, she holds a large knife, black handle with a long silver blade, in a delicate grip. The blade of the knife is making a small incision in the neck of a large white lamb, sculpted of butter or frosting; with just a small thrust of the knife, the head of the lamb will lop off and on to the plate. The lamb is peaceful, all in white, and on a bed of frosting and flowers, seemingly unassuming, unsuspecting, his head literally about to roll. Behind the girl stands a man, presumably her father. Not much of him is seen, only his black apron and his white sleeves, with his two hands guiding the girl. One hand lies suspended above her hands, guiding her to push the knife forward, the other hand holding the plate, ready to collect the lamb’s head.

I contemplated this little girl, about to mutilate a frosting animal as her family stood around her smiling and encouraging her. I pictured this as some sort of rite of passage, something the girl dressed up for, something she will be celebrated for. Her friends have all cut the lamb’s head off, now it is her turn. She’s been waiting for this for years, and she is so proud. Her dad gently guides her, the knife is freshly sharpened, and everyone celebrates and smiles. And one day, she will grow up and have daughters and a man can show them the same ritual.

Images from my own childhood, as a young Mormon kid in Missouri, flashed into my brain. All the little rites of passage. Making my first dollar, and learning how to give ten cents of that as tithes to the church. Taking the sacrament every Sunday and praying to be forgiven of sins. Entering the waters of baptism at age 8 and pledging myself to the church. Receiving the Priesthood at age 12, then 14, then 16, then 18, with new responsibilities each time. Going to the temple and undergoing a series of rituals, involving wearing sacred holy undergarments, getting a new name to enter Heaven with, and pledging my all and my everything to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I remember being walked up to the front of the Church during fast and testimony meeting at age 5, where my mom whispered in my ear the things to say to the congregation, a chance to bear my testimony of beliefs for everyone to hear. “Brothers and sisters, I would like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith is a prophet of God and that the Book of Mormon is true. I know God loves me. I’m thankful for my family. I can’t wait to go on a mission some day. In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.” And the crowd oohed and aahed, how cute, as the next child lined up behind, another parent whispering a testimony in their ear, just as their parents had with them years before.

I looked back at the image, and I thought of the little girl.

“But, daddy, I don’t want to chop the lamb’s head off. I like animals.”

Honey, no one likes to chop the lamb’s head off, but it is what good little boys and girls do. It’s what Jesus wants you to do. Mommy and I love you so much. I will help you and be so proud of you.”

I thought of all the terrible and bizarre stories I grew up believing.

God commanding Abraham to take Isaac up in the hills, to tie him down, and to stab him through the middle with a knife, before saying ‘just kidding, Abe. I was only testing you.’ The lesson? You do as God says, whether that means stabbing your son, or laying there to be stabbed; you don’t have to understand, just do it and don’t ask questions.

God destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, tens of thousands of his children wiped out for sinning (where in other cases, sinning souls are saved out of love). He lets Lot and his family escape and commands them not to turn back. But when Lot’s wife turns around, curious likely at the fiery destruction of her home and all her friends, she is punished and turned to salt. Lesson: God will crush you if you deserve it, and he might decide to save you as long as you do what he says, but don’t question him or he can crush you, too.

Or one from the Book of Mormon: God commands Nephi to cut off Laban’s head, wear the dead man’s clothes, and steal his treasure so that Nephi’s family could have the scriptures in the wilderness. Surely, God could have found a way for Nephi to get the scriptures (the Liahona was left outside their tent magically, for example) that didn’t require him to violently murder a man and steal his things. Lesson: God will test you and make you do terrible things to prove you love him.

I pictured then all the terrible things people teach their children in the name of religion. The little girls in polygamist compounds who are married off at 14 to 70 year old men. The little boys in Aryan gangs who see Neo-Nazi tattoos on their father’s chests and believe a White America is the best America. The kids who grow up thinking marriage is forever, and only between a man and a woman, and you stick it out no matter what it takes, no matter the abuse, the infidelity, the lovelessness.

I was 12 when I sat down with a new bishop in our ward, a man I didn’t know, and he interviewed me to see if I was worthy to receive the Priesthood. Part of our conversation went like this:

“Chad, do you obey the law of chastity?”

“Chastity? What’s that?”

“Well, do you masturbate?”

“Um, I don’t know what that is.”

“Well, masturbation is when you stimulate your penis. It feels good and you touch it until you ejaculate. But that is a sin and it shouldn’t be done.”

Later, I went home and tried it out. A 12 year old kid with a 70 year old man learning about masturbation? I can’t tell you the number of young girls and boys I know who were sexually molested by church leaders in similar circumstances, the man behind the little girl gently guiding her to hold the knife. Just do as I say, it’s what Jesus wants.

And so much of the damage happens beneath the surface. Growing up, we focused most of our lessons in Church and family about love, and sacrifice for the greater good, and the blessings of being a Mormon. But the subtext, the things that are believed but not as actively taught: Gay people can be cured and made straight. Black people exist because God cursed wicked white men with black skin, and if they live righteously, eventually they will be made white again. In Heaven, one man will marry multiple women, have and create their own planets, and become Gods themselves. The subtexts of this religion, of any religion, and the sanctions it creates for profit, for abuse, for discrimination… it’s horrifying.

The dad in this picture, he may not think that what he is doing is horrifying. He may truly believe what he is doing is right. He teaches his daughter about Biblical sanctioned murder, Christ on the cross, and the destruction of cities and sinners, and believes it is right. And then he guides his daughter in using a knife to chop the lamb’s head off. And similarly, the parents who let their children receive interviews about sex from old men, then parents who marry off their teenage daughters, the parents who send their gay teens to reparative therapy, the parents who kick their questioning children out on the streets to homelessness, the parents who raise their kids to believe in justifiable hate of minorities… in their minds, they are doing the right thing, the good thing, the thing God expects.

Richard Dawkins, the famous atheist, once said, “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but a child of Christian parents or a child of Muslim parents. This latter nomenclature, by the way, would be an excellent piece of consciousness-raising for the children themselves. A child who is told she is a ‘child of Muslim parents’ will immediately realize that religion is something for her to choose -or reject- when she becomes old enough to do so.”

I plan on raising my sons to be free-thinking, to love others, to have critical and searching minds. I will teach them to be moral, kind, charitable, and loving. But I will not let them hold knives to the necks of lambs.