Spirit 4: Moral Authority

I was 12 when I received the Aaronic Priesthood. They explained that this was the lesser Priesthood, or the official authority to act in god’s name, to perform his ordinances. It wasn’t the first Mormon ritual I underwent: I was blessed as a baby, then baptized at the age of 8, then I was confirmed a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I received the Holy Ghost. All of those ordinances were done by Priesthood holders, men who were given the Priesthood by other Priesthood holders when they were younger. It was like a treasure map with necessary stops along the way, all necessary to reach the final destination: salvation.

At 12, as a deacon, I was allowed to pass the sacrament, the blessed bread and water, to members of the congregation during church meetings. At 14, as a teacher, I was given additional responsibilities, those of home-teaching. At 16, as a priest, I could bless the sacrament, sanctify it. At 18, as an elder, I was given the higher Priesthood, called the Melchizedek, which gave me many more abilities. I could perform baptisms, perform blessings of healing and comfort, consecrate oil, and dedicate homes, among other things.

It was all very official, very coming-of-age. Other cultures let young men go on their first hunt to become a man, I received the Priesthood for mine. First, I had to pass the worthiness interview: did I pay my tithing, obey the law of chastity, believe fully in the church and the prophet and the teachings, etc, and if I said yes to all the questions, I was deemed worthy. I said yes to all the questions, but at the same time, I didn’t believe I was worthy, not truly. I hoped God would find me as such, but I didn’t believe it. I was attracted to boys, even back then, and that made me less than the other boys. Less manly, less straight, less worthy.

Worthiness was the key component to holding the Priesthood. That and having a penis. Boys held the Priesthood and ran things and girls got to be wives and mothers. In the temple ceremony years later, I would stand with the men and promise to follow God; the women would, with veiled faces, stand together and promise to follow their husbands. Clear chain of command.

All the Priesthood holders I knew had it rough, living up to the strict expectations of the church, paying ten per cent of their money, giving much of their time for free to church activities and meetings, all while providing for their families and keeping their families happy. They had to do so willingly and worthily or they wouldn’t be fit to carry god’s authority any longer. There was the full-time job, the full-time calling, and the busy household to maintain. All while staying worthy.

And even if you had the Priesthood, you couldn’t use it if you weren’t worthy, that was evident. See, god gave the authority to certain prophets before Christ, then he gave it to Christ, who gave it to his apostles, but they all died and the authority was taken away from the earth, but then god gave it back to Joseph Smith when he founded Mormonism in the 1830s, then Smith passed it on to his apostles, and it got passed right on down to me. One long chain of authority. Baptisms would have to be done for everyone who ever lived on the earth, as well as temple work, because Mormonism was supposed to fill the whole planet stretching back to the earliest days of the earth and on into the eternities.

But the thing was, men lied about being worthy all the time. Even as a young kid, I saw Priesthood holders performing ordinances like blessings for the sick and blessings on the sacrament, when I knew they weren’t worthy. There were members of my own family who did this, and many members of my friends’ families. Men who molested children, who viewed pornography, and who hit their wives were regularly attending the temple and participating in ordinances. And these men were the same ones guiding the families and the wards. These were the men that the women and children were supposed to follow. I used to believe these stories were few, but they seem to be a large minority of the households out there, these corrupted leaders guiding others with the sanctioned authority of god.

I brought up these concerns with church leaders a few times, and I was generally told to just be patient and trust that god would work it out. I knew at least seven girls in high school who were being molested by their fathers, and some of these men had high positions in the church. But we were to just trust in god. Just trust that he will work it out. These men are the leaders, and god knows their hearts, and god will guide them to do what is right. Only god could judge. God is in charge and he says the men are in charge, even the ones who hurt others. Just trust.

Some examples of this stand out more than others in my mind. I once reported to a church authority that a man was molesting his daughters; that man was given a ‘talking to’, I was told, but he was never released from his calling, never excommunicated from the church; he stayed right there where he was and he kept molesting his kids. And when my own stepfather’s physical abuse was exposed, he was temporarily disfellowshipped, and then reinstated three months later, still serving in the temple, still sitting in church every week. Meanwhile, the men who were exposed as being gay were being excommunicated right and left.

The whole ‘authority of god’ thing felt pretty special in the beginning, but as with all things in religion, it grew more complicated the more I learned. Joseph Smith claimed angels had come down from heaven to give him the authority. He used it to get revelations for the whole church, for the whole earth even, and the revelations were often complicated and contradictory. He used it to marry four dozen women, and he gave other men that right, but later men couldn’t do that anymore. He said only white men could have the power, but that changed too in the late 1970s. Certain men could do certain things, but only if they were worthy, and it all depended on their jurisdiction–one man could run his family, other men ruled congregations or geographic areas. There were “keys to the Priesthood” conferred to various men in various positions for various tenures.

Me? In the beginning, the Priesthood made me pretty special. But it added a burden to what I was already carrying. This intense pressure to be right before god when I knew I was wrong, it caused a deep rift within me, one that resulted in deep depression, pain, and anxiety. And eventually, when it all came apart at the seams, the release of that pressure gave me a new lease on life. Ultimately, giving up this pressure to be good according to a list of rules was replaced by just being good for its own sake.

And something I’ve learned almost more than anything else since leaving it all behind: women should be the ones in charge, and the men agreeing to follow them.

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Spirit 3: the Holy Books

Humans need stories. We have always needed stories. And stories can take many forms, from fables to myths to fairy tales.

I could tell a bedtime story to my children this evening, something about a llama prince in love with a crab princess, and they would laugh and smile, and that story would exist for that moment only, then forever be forgotten. Or perhaps I could tell them this story every night, until it becomes an unforgettable part of their childhoods, something they remember forever, and then they could re-tell it to their own children, and it could take on a form of its own as they alter the details and change it just so. Or I could even write it down, with or without pictures, and then it becomes more permanent, something read and re-told exactly as I wanted it, and then in future generations, it is re-interpreted, given its own life by those who read it. And if I published this story, well, it takes on a life of its own.

I’m much more likely to tell my kids a story I already know. The Three Little Pigs, perhaps. Someone made that up along the way and it became an American staple, this story of pigs being pursued by wolves. The basic details stay the same: houses of straw and stick and brick, but many parts change. Sometimes the pigs have a mother. Sometimes the pigs are eaten by the wolf. Sometimes the wolf is scared away and other times he falls into a boiling pot down the chimney. The story exists in the American consciousness, it is given life by a shared psychic energy, an astral reverence among millions of people. And it all depends on which version is used.

But then imagine they believed the 3 Little Pigs was true, based on real events…

Even stories that are written down are interpreted and absorbed differently by the public. Think of the world’s most famous works, told and retold and retold again. The Wizard of OzRomeo and Juliet. Moby DickLittle Women. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Manchurian Candidate. The Handmaid’s Tale. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Huckleberry Finn. Pride and Prejudice. And even more recent works: Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey. These stories are revered, held sacred, they are frozen in time and reinterpreted, examined and taught in classrooms, sometimes they are even forbidden. They’ve taken on a life of their own. Humans need these stories to latch on to. They give us a shared reality, something to think over and whisper about. But we still see them as fiction–what if these were believed to be real, any one of them?

To make it even more complex, humans tell stories frequently about real events and other humans. But the stories change in the retelling… they take on new forms as events shift. Minor characters become major, certain things get forgotten, and we remember events as they were told to us, taught to us. They become fiction in the retelling, yet we often believe them as fact.

And then there is the greatest story ever told, the long epic of the Bible. Some humans, long long ago, gathered stories and put them in a book, and that book came to be revered as mythological canon, as human historical events. The book told of the creation of earth and man, it conjured a loving god who would destroy civilization when crossed wrong. It told of angels and devils, floods and famines, plagues and enslaved races. The book outlines strict laws, harsh commandments, and the laws of god that will lead to salvation if followed or damnation if set aside. And then there is a savior, the son of god himself, who saves all mankind and dies for their sins. Miracles abound for those who follow the rules. This book has shaped the human consciousness for centuries. Wars have been waged in its name, people put to death over it, entire races subjugated or even wiped out in genocide by those who profess to follow it. It’s been rewritten, reinterpreted, and reissued millions of times. It’s stronger than government, than family bonds, than human history. It is sheer power. While the other mythologies of gods have faded away (Norse and Egyptian and Celtic and so many more), the Bible has cemented its place firmly. There are around 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 3 billion of them believe in the Bible in some form or another. Something around 40 per cent of human revere this historical book and interpret it as fact, in some form or another. But there are another 2 billion or so who identify as Muslim and believe in different books and mythologies. Another 500 million or so lean toward Buddhism, and another 900 million toward Hinduism. And every one of them can be divided down and down into different sects and branches. There are thousands of ways to be a Christian, for example, from Methodist to Lutheran to Amish to Catholic. And they all, every one of these groups, say they have it right.

And one of the newest and smallest Christian groups is the one I was born into. Mormonism. The founder of the church, Joseph Smith, introduced multiple new books of scripture, words on pages that would take on their own life in the human consciousness. The Book of Mormon (a supposed record of the ancient Americans), Doctrine and Covenants (supposed revelations given to Smith from God), and the Pearl of Great Price (a supposed record of the words of Abraham, Moses, and others). Smith and the Mormons reinterpreted all the rules, put a new spin on it, and said they had everything correct and the others didn’t.

As of 2019, there are an estimated 15 million Mormons on the earth, though clearly not so many active in the faith. An astounding number, it seems, until one does the math. 15 million out of 7.5 billion. Mormons make up… ready? 0.002 per cent of the world’s population. Not even half of one per cent. Not even half of a half of one per cent.

These books, these religious stories, held such a sway over my life, such a thick and heady force they were in my brain, that they shaped my entire psychology, biology, and spirituality for the first three decades of my life. It was only at age 32 when I allowed my doubts to take form and I chose to step away. As with all things, I look back at the things I used to believe and my brain curdles. I’m an educated man, yet I believed in two humans in a garden who were immortal until they ate an apple after being tempted by a snake; the appearances of angels with swords who destroyed cities; an entire planet wiped out by flood waters except for one man and his family who put two of every land animal on one boat; about the righteous white tribe conquering the evil dark tribe; about unseen buried golden plates; about immaculate conception and one man bearing the sins of billions. While I respect the rights of others to believe in their mythos, I see these events as nothing more than stories now. Powerful stories, yes, but not powerful enough to make me sacrifice my own happiness.

I love telling stories. I love reading stories. I love sharing stories with my children. But I will never again teach them that fiction is fact, and I will never place stories above their well-being and my own.

Spirit 1: On Heaven and Hell

Heaven and hell were easy to understand growing up. There was the devil on Bugs Bunny’s shoulder that tempted him to do bad, and the angel that tried influencing good. The devil was always gruff, focused on fun, and sinful, encouraging Bugs to lean into his appetites. The angel was always pious, innocent, naive, and focused on self-denial and sacrifice, with a few dire warnings of the consequences of sin.

Bad people went to hell (which was a curse word unless you were referring to the place) and good people went to heaven. And I was one of the good people. Born Mormon, I was baptized at age 8, and my path to heaven was assured, so long as I followed the rules and repented.

But the older I got, the more complicated heaven and hell became. I soon understood them to mean multiple things. Heaven and hell, for example, are both literal and figurative.

Hell can mean being sad or in a place of misery, something that happens even while alive. Hell was both the dwelling place of the devil and those who followed him, and the punishment for those who sinned in life. Hell was the end of progression, an Outer Darkness, a place where humans were unhappy spirits, severed from their bodies, trapped by their addictions, unable to have relationships. Hell was the end of existence. Hell was a place with lakes of fire, the smell of brimstone, and the unending screams of humans. Hell was where everyone ended up automatically because they had already sinned by being born, and only Jesus and his atonement could save them. But hell could also mean being in prison as a spirit before the final judgment. (More on that in a minute).

Heaven, meanwhile, was mirrored on earth in places like church, temple, and home, with worthy families united by religious bonds. Heaven was both the dwelling place of god and those who followed him, and the reward for those who were obedient in life. In addition, heaven was a planet, something called Kolob, but it was also the final state of the earth we dwelled on after god transfigured it into perfection somehow. Heaven also represented those who were in the spirit world after death but before the final judgment, those who were righteous and not in prison. In heaven, family bonds could exist, marriages between men and women (sometimes men and multiple women), who could go on having more children, and who maintained their relationships to the children they had on earth. God himself led this charge, with many wives and many children, as he was the father of every son and daughter on earth and also those in hell who never made it to earth.

I was very young when I learned that heaven and hell had origin stories. But there were origins before that origin as well. God used to be a man. He was a mortal named Elohim who made good choices and made it to his own heaven before he got his own planet, then he was eventually to make his own earth, the very one we lived on. But before god created earth, he had all his billions of children around him in heaven, and he wanted them to be more than spirits (cause god had a body but his children did not). So Jesus made one plan, to make the earth and test men, and Lucifer had another plan, and God liked Jesus’s plan, so Lucifer and all those who followed him (a full third of God’s children) started a war and they were all kicked out and sent to hell (which might be on earth in a spiritual form but could also be somewhere else). They would never get bodies and they would spend thousands of years trying to tempt the other children of god, the ones who did get bodies.

Simple, right? I was born to follow god, to obey all the rules, to make good choices, and then to go to heaven afterward where I could eventually become a new god. See? Simple.

Except as I grew older, it grew more complicated again. The prophet Joseph Smith, in expounding on heaven, revealed that there are multiple levels. Celestial is up on top, and underneath it are terrestrial and telestial, which are like lesser versions of heaven but also kind of versions of hell because they aren’t the top version of heaven. The celestial realm itself was split into thirds, and only those in the very very tip-top most worthy realm had the maximum heaven benefits, like family, eternal marriage, eternal progression, and presumably billions of spirit children and godhood and their own planets. Varying levels of happiness. Varying levels of misery.

But before heaven was the spirit world, the place that souls dwelled until the final judgment. There was a mini-judgment that placed souls in spirit paradise (the good place) and spirit prison (the bad place). Another heaven and hell.

Then it got more complicated again. There were ordinances that had to either be done while living, or in proxy for a human soul after they died, in order to get them into heaven. Baptism, the conferring of the holy ghost, and the temple endowment. In the endowment, I learned of all the sacred laws I had to follow, the covenants I had to keep, and all of the sacred/super-secret signs and tokens that I needed to know to access heaven itself. I got a new name. There were handshakes and whispered code words, a parting of an ethereal veil, a welcoming by god into the new realm.

As I look back on all I used to believe, I scoff. I balk. I swallow a stone. It’s a complex fantasy realm with competing realities. It’s allegory and fable interpreted literally. Transfigured planets, polygamist gods, new names, secret handshakes, lakes of fire, and a war of spirits.

But as a child, this mythos held so much power over me. Earth-life was but a blip. I was temporary, yet all of my choices had staggering potential consequences. I had to conform, follow the rules, stay focused, so that I could be with my family. Sinning, turning from god, and even being gay would mean that I lost everything. Were I to sin, were I to screw it all up, perdition would be the result. Sacrificing my happiness and enduring to the end meant vast eternal rewards. Sinning and being true to myself meant letting down everyone I had ever known and willfully breaking the bonds that held us together. Forever.

I regularly see clients in my therapy office who are so afraid of coming out, of doubting their religion, of divorcing. They are afraid of the consequences, the judgments of god. But they are often even more afraid of their parents, their faithful Mormon parents, finding out about their secret shames. They keep it hidden, often for years. And so often, when the parents do find out, their response is something like this.

“I don’t care that you are gay/sexually active/marrying a non-Mormon/divorcing/smoking pot (fill in any old sin here) so long as you stay in the church.” So long as you stay in the church. So long as we can know that there is a chance you will be part of our family in the eternity to follow. Because leaving the church, losing your belief, that would be the worst thing of all, because we lose our soul to hell. Whatever hell is.

I’m 40 now, and I don’t really believe in heaven and hell. I think every human is inherently good and evil both, and I think both of those words are hard to define, and are easily influenced by culture, morals, ethics, psychology, sociology, and history. I do believe in human potential to be happy, to strive for more, to be good, to be christian even. And if you were to ask me what I believe regarding what comes after death, I’m happy to report that I have no idea.

Perhaps death is a great unknowing void. Perhaps the soul returns in a new form. Perhaps the human spirit is absorbed back into the earth. Perhaps there is a great reckoning and an eternal punishment or reward. Perhaps death is a door to a great mystic realm of fantasy. Perhaps the most righteous souls, the ones who know the names and the handshakes, access the top third of the top third of heaven get to become gods themselves. But I do believe the soul finds peace.

And I believe that it is my duty to myself to find that peace right now, balancing the heaven and hell within me, making me the best person possible. An ethical, good, valuable life on my terms, one that is good to the world around me. And in that, I find all the love and peace that I need.

 

“Mom, it’s me, I’m gay.”

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I pulled my car into a remote parking lot, undid my seatbelt, and twisted the rearview mirror down so I could look myself in the eyes. My cheeks were bright pink and fluffy, and my eyes brimmed with tears. How long had I been crying? How many tears could I possibly have left? I squeezed my eyes tightly shut and let a stream of sadness roll down my cheeks and onto my shirt. The day had been terrible already, but I had to get this over with.

I picked up the phone and dialed my mom’s number. She answered at the first ring.

“Hello, son!” She had such enthusiasm in her voice. She was always singing, playful, sweet. Hearing her voice usually brought me joy. Today, it brought more pain.

“Hi, Mom.” My voice was cracking. There was no way to hide that I’d been crying.

She shifted to concern. “Chad? Are you okay?”

“I don’t think I am. I need to tell you something. Something hard. Is it a good time to talk?”

“Of course it is. Are you okay? Is it Maggie? The baby? Little J?” She immediately asked about my wife, my 2-year old son, and our unborn child.

“Everyone is fine. Physically. I just—are you sitting down?”

“Chad, yes. I’m sitting down. What is it, you’re scaring me. I’ve never heard you like this.”

“Mom, I’m gay.” I blurted it out abruptly. It felt like throwing a baseball indoors, unnatural and loud and not knowing what would break into pieces. The words floated there, heavy and painful, then passed through the telephone wires like a poison.

I heard a gasp, a long silence. “Oh, Chad,” she whispered, and that simple phrase was a knife, slicing open my heart. My gut clenched tightly as I began to sob, the tears running down my cheeks now. I pathetically hit the steering wheel with the palm of my hand. “Chad, hey, hey, my boy, my boy, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Her voice was soft, soothing, and in a flash I considered everything we had been through together. My father’s depression, the divorce, her second marriage to a man who hit us both, me being molested as a kid. I was 32 years old and she was still the most important person in my life, along with my wife and kids.

A few more sobs and then I tried, pathetically, to get more words out, to reassure her, to help her understand. “I’ve—this isn’t new. I’ve always been gay. I’ve known it for as long as I can remember, since kindergarten even, but I never knew how to tell you. I’m sorry, I’m so so so sorry. I’m so sorry, Mom.”

Her voice took on a tone of strength, but I could tell she was crying too. “You listen, the first thing you need to hear is that I love you and I will always love you and I will never stop loving you.”

More tears, more pathetic sobs. “I know, Mom, I love you too.”

There was a brief, pregnant silence, and then the hard questions started. “Does Maggie know?”

“Yes.” I swallowed, wiped my face again, got a hold of myself. “Yes. She knows. She knew before we got married. But—but I just told her again. I met a guy when I was on my business trip, and we kissed, and—and I didn’t feel broken anymore, Mom. I’m so used to feeling broken. I’m so tired of feeling like I’m shattered into pieces. I—I felt normal with him, like things would be okay, but now Maggie is hurting, and she’s pregnant, and we have a home and a kid and—and everyone hates me and—“

Mom interrupted, both stern and sad. “Oh, Chad, my sweet Chad. Hold on, hold on, just wait. Nobody hates you.”

“God does.”

“God doesn’t hate you! You have a stronger testimony of God and of our church than almost anyone I have ever met. God sees you and he loves you and he knows you. He’ll help you with this. Have you talked to your church leaders?”

I stuttered for a moment, then chose to remain silent. There was so much subtext with that question. I could tell her about the bishops I had come out to, asking for help from. I could tell her about the Miracle of Forgiveness and how it cruelly promised a cure if I just sacrificed enough. I could tell her about all of the years of being broken, depressed, disconnected, about all my years of faithful church service and dedication all in the hopes that I could be cured of being gay. I could tell her about the therapy, the journaling, the Priesthood blessings. Instead I just said, “Yes, I’ve talked to my bishop.”

“Good, son. I’ll be okay as long as I know your testimony is solid.”

And here I had to consider how honest to be. I could tell her that I wasn’t sure my testimony was solid anymore. But if I told her that, she would go into a full panic. Coming out and leaving Mormonism would mean that I was willfully turning from God, that I was breaking my temple covenants, that I was choosing a life of sin and pain. If I turned from God, I was turning from my eternal bonds to my family, and I wouldn’t be with them in the next life. Instead, I just changed the subject.

“I’ve told Maggie. I’ve told my bishop. I’ve told a few friends. And I’ve told Sheri.” My sister’s name brought it’s own pain. She had come out of the closet years before, and my family, including me, hadn’t reacted well. Sheri and my mom were still working on repairing their relationship all these years later.

There was another long silence, and I could tell my mom was crying. I thought of all the things I should say. I’m sorry for letting you down. I’m sorry I’m gay. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to find a cure. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I’m sorry this hurts you. But I didn’t want to apologize anymore. Maybe I should lie. I don’t have to be gay, I’ll keep trying to change. Don’t worry, I’m going to save my marriage and be the son you want me to be. I’ll make this right with God through repentance. Nothing is going to be different.  But I couldn’t lie anymore. Maybe I should reassure her. I’m still the son you always knew! I’m still me, I just want to be a better version of me! All the things you knew about me before, they are still true, I’m just… different… now. The words in me, the tune, it’s the same, but I have more confidence now, more love for myself. You’ll see. I’ll always be there for my sons, and Maggie and I will figure this out. Those were better, but the words wouldn’t come.

Instead, we just sat and cried together, hundreds of miles apart. And I realized I would have to have this same conversation with each of my sisters, my friends, my coworkers, the members of my ward. The word would spread to neighbors, cousins, old college roommates and mission companions, everyone I’d ever known. “Remember Chad? He’s gay!” I hit my head against the steering wheel and cried even more.

Weeks later, when some of the trauma of my coming out had passed, my mom called me again.

“I always knew you were gay,” she told me. “I knew you were different from the time you were a child. I was so afraid of it. I so badly didn’t want that to be true for you, because it would make life so much harder. And seeing you come out, it breaks my heart, because you were in all of that pain all of these years and I never knew it, or at least we never discussed it. I’m so sorry for your pain, my son. And I don’t know how this all works when it comes to religion, but I know I love my church, and I know I love my gay kids. Those two truths do now cancel each other out. So we will keep working on it, on us, because I love you, and you love me.”

“The difference now,” I whispered, “is that I’m learning to love me too

Heaven or Hell?

“Dad, how come you don’t believe in God now?”

I sat at the stoplight, looking up at a Christian billboard, one of those aggressive ones that shows up all over Utah lately. “Will you be in Heaven, or in Hell?” it asked, with dramatic images on each side. There was a phone number, and a scripture that I would never look up.

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I cocked my head, looking back at A, my precocious 7-year old. He was bouncing his new plastic red-eyed tree frog around in the back seat, idly playing. Although he’d been the one to ask the question, he was barely paying attention now. His older brother, J, now 10 years old, was looking out the window.

“Why do you ask?” I said as the light turned green.

“Well, you’re an atheist now, right? But why?”

I looked at him in the rearview mirror. “Well, I’m happy to answer, but I’m just wondering why you want to know that right now?”

A shrugged, looking at the frog in its red eyes. “I was just wondering, I guess.”

I considered for a moment. My kids had been asking me hard questions for years, and I had learned years before that the direct approach was generally the best one.

“Well, buddy, we can have more serious talks about this when you get older. But I just want you to know that I love you whether you believe in god or not, it just so happens that don’t believe in one anymore.”

I saw J turn his head, more intent in the conversation now. “We know, Dad. You love us no matter what.”

I smiled softly. I loved that he could say that with confidence. Just a few nights before, we had been watching an episode of Queer Eye on Netflix together, and a young woman had talked about getting disowned by her family when she came out as gay. J had snuggled tightly into me and said, “You would never kick me out for anything like that. You and Mom both love me.” I adored that assurance he had in that.

I pulled up to another red light. “Okay, so I was Mormon for a long time, you know that. When I was Mormon, I believed in God and I said lots of prayers and everything. But lots of people told me that I was bad for being gay. Some even told me that God could make me straight if I was a really good boy. And I was a really good boy, but God never made me straight. So when I stopped being Mormon, I stopped believing in God.”

I worried even that much was too much information, but they both seemed to understand. “Okay, cool,” said A.

J looked back out the window. “I haven’t decided if I believe in God or not. But maybe I’ll decide when I’m a grown-up.”

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

And soon we were home, and we played with toys together, then I made dinner while they watched a cartoon. As I grilled the eggs and stirred up the protein pancakes, I contemplated how far removed I am from my former lifetime. I used to be so caught up in the Mormonism of it all, both before and after I left the religion. Now I barely noticed an impact in my life at all, in any capacity.

In November, 2015, the Mormon Church implemented a policy that said that gay people who married a same-sex partner were considered apostate. Then it went on to say that the children of gay people couldn’t be blessed or baptized until they were adults, and only after disavowing their parents. Back then, those three and a half years ago, I had had such a profound anger response to this news. How dare they! How dare they use their influence to shame and label. How dare they use that dirty word, apostate. How dare they make it about children.

Well, this week, they changed their minds. Apparently God decided that it was mean to do this. Now gay people aren’t apostates, they are only sinners. And their kids don’t have to be kicked out any more. A step in the right direction, perhaps. The news came without apology, without acknowledgement for the extreme damage done in the lives of so many three years ago.

But the new news didn’t hit me at all. I barely reacted. When my friends posted notes on social media, heartfelt paragraphs about their coming out journeys, about their struggle to belong to a religion that didn’t want them, about their deep and abiding pain with it all, I just casually observed. I grimaced, I shrugged, I barely noticed the bad taste in my mouth. Look at this as evidence for god. Why would I possibly believe in god when he was always presented to me this way.

After dinner, and pajamas, and a dance party, and brushing teeth, I tucked my kids into their beds. I gave them both huge hugs and told them how much I loved them. I gave them both sincere eye contact. “You’re important to me,” I told them both. And they went to sleep, knowing they are loved.

An hour later, I went to bed myself, and I contemplated god for a minute. I thought of the rituals I had growing up. The shameful prayers on my knees, the waking every morning and reading chapters of scripture, the three hours of church every Sunday morning, the 2 years I spent as a missionary, the ten per cent of my income that I paid to the church for the first 32 years of my life, the pictures of Jesus and prophets and temples that lined the wall of my home growing up. I remembered how ‘all in’ I was, and how hard it was to leave it all.

And then I assessed my simple and beautiful life now. Happy kids, a job that makes a difference, and a man that I love who shares my bed. And if God looked down at all of this and saw me as a sinner, as an abomination, as an apostate, well, I want no part of that god.

I thought back to the billboard. Heaven or Hell? I’ll take whichever this one is, the one without god and Mormons and self-hatred. This one suits me just fine.

Release Time

moroni

“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.

Pride, Prejudice, and Protest

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HOMO SEX IS SIN

BELIEVE TRUST FOLLOW OBEY JESUS

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL

The signs were tall, large bright capital letters on bold backgrounds, yellow on black, black on white. The word Hell was bright red, the letters dramatically lapped in flames along the bottom. There were no exclamation points, but they were certainly implied. (At least there was no ‘God Hates Fags’ signs this time. That one makes me angrier than the others, somehow.)

And the protestors looked like normal people, men and women in shirts and jeans. They were relatively peaceful as they stood there with their signs of condemnation, their T-shirts (ordered out of the back of some fundamentalist magazine somewhere, perhaps) with similar messages of hate and judgment.

They occupied a prominent corner in Salt Lake City, on a major intersection, right in front of a hotel and restaurant, right where the parade began. Just across the street from the protestors, a large booth blared happy, peppy music like Born This Way by Lady Gaga and Holiday by Madonna, songs about embracing who you are and celebrating life. The streets were full of people assembling for the upcoming Pride parade, a lengthy procession that would last over two hours and would include lavish floats and huge groups of people. Those marching in the parade would include everything from men in leather with whips, mothers holding signs that said they loved their gay children, huge processions from local businesses in matching T-shirts that embrace diversity, Mormons holding signs like ‘Jesus Said Love Everyone’ who were trying to seek change from within, the local gay swim team in speedos and roller skates, mayoral and Congressional candidates with throngs of supporters, and drag queens in flowing gowns on the tops of trucks and busses. Every one of them would march past those signs as they were cheered by the thousands upon thousands of those there to cheer them on.

ASK ME WHY YOU DESERVE HELL.

My little family hovered in the shade across the street from the protestors, waiting for the parade to begin. My sons, J and A, ages 9, sat on the ground, talking back and forth about the adventures we had been having all morning. The night before, we’d rented a hotel room downtown in order to be closer to the parade route, and I had assembled a team of bird toys as super-villains, calling themselves the Bird Brigade. The bald eagle, flamingo, chicken, goose, cassowary, and others all had villain names and super-powers and they had been led by a cartoonish looking Baby Bluebird. The kids had made hero teams out of their animals and they had spent hours laughing at the antics of the Bird Brigade, who, of course, lost every battle. Now, after coffee and breakfast, they were still talking about the adventures and cracking up. (This quality time with them was my very favorite thing about being their father).

My boyfriend reached over and scratched my back. “Are you sure we should stand here? Do you think the kids will wonder about those signs?”

I shrugged. “Well, if they ask questions, it gives us an opportunity to talk about it. They’ve been at Pride every year, and there are always protestors here. They’ve never asked questions before. But I don’t want to move. I am kind of determined to stand my ground.” I put my arm around him as he understood.

Just before the parade began, one of the protestors grabbed a megaphone and began shouting over the music and the crowd. As I looked over to watch him, trying to make out his words, I noticed three policemen standing right behind him, against the wall. They were there to protect us, of course, but they were also there to protect the protestors who, I realized again, had every right to be there, every bit as much as we did.

“God condemns sin! Those who do not repent will all be burned! The Bible is clear in its condemnation of sinners! Turn back from sin now or burn! All sinners will burn in Hell!”

In response, the music was turned up louder. The protestor went silent, then he tried blaring a Christian song over his own megaphone to drown out Rihanna. Ultimately it was ineffective and he gave up, returning to standing there quietly.

I found myself voicing my thoughts out loud, my boyfriend listening as I sorted through my complex feelings. “The thing is, I believe in their right to protest. Freedom of speech and all that. They deserve to have a place to stand and protest. But it’s just… gross. It’s gross! Then again, they think that we are gross, for being a couple out here in public with my sons at our side.”

As I talked, I watched a Latina drag queen with bright purple hair, in a corset and skirt, with bold make-up, walk out in front of the protestors and raise her middle fingers in the air as people cheered her on and photos were taken. “We are responding to their hate with hate,” I thought to myself even as I found myself clapping for the drag queen.

“I just don’t understand why they are here at the start of the parade in such a prominent position,” my boyfriend said.

“Honestly, they probably just got here really early and claimed a place where they would be seen. In past years, they are usually at the entrance to the festival after the parade. In fact, they will probably be there, too.”

The parade started, and went for hours, but my thoughts kept going back to the protestors. Who were these people? Are they just locals who hate gays so much that they want to voice their fury in this way? Do they think that they are saving souls by turning people away from lives of sin? Do they do this professionally? Are these T-shirts their work uniforms, those signs their gear? Do they travel from city to city  at various Pride festivals, paid to promote their cause by a various church or business? There is a website at the bottom of their signs, I noticed. Is that it, are these just paid groupies of some kind? They seemed so calm as they stood there.

I thought back to a few years ago, when some of the protestors chanted hateful rhetoric at a group of gay people. I watched a furious young lesbian couple screaming at the protestors, who stood there silently.

“It’s people like you who fucking ruined my life! You’ve turned my family against me! My whole church disowned me! And you stand here saying that God hates me! God created me this way, you fuckers! How dare you stand here hurting people while you say you love them!”

And she was right, of course. Except her fury was misplaced. The protestors and their messages reinforce messages that most LGBT people hear growing up, over and over again. I was given those messages, and I still am. “If you work hard enough, you can cure yourself from being gay.” “I like gay people, I just don’t support your lifestyle.” “I’m happy you have found someone, but I still think being gay is a choice.” “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” “Homosexuality is a gross abomination.” “You say you are born this way, but God would never do that to anyone.” And are any of those messages any better or worse than “Ask me why you deserve Hell” or “God hates fags”?

Yet what good does it do to stand and rage at these (likely paid) protestors, screaming in pain and vulnerability at strangers?

Still reasoning out loud, I turned back to my boyfriend. “How different would the news coverage be if we gay people made giant-ass signs like this and we stood outside churches every Sunday with hate messages. ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’ ‘God said to love, not condemn and disown.’ Or worse. ‘You aren’t true Christians!’ ‘Burn in Hell!’ ‘God hates you!’ Or, even, perhaps, ‘Ask me why you deserve Hell!’ The media would label us haters, disgusting, sinners, anti-Christian, and the world would leap to support them.”

I looked back at my children on the ground, still laughing over Baby Bluebird. Then I looked around at the crowd of people, all of them, in leather, in purple wigs, in make-up, in tight shorts, in jeans and t-shirts and dresses and tank tops and body glitter, all there to celebrate life. I recognized the change happening in the world.

And I came to my own conclusion. “We are the future. My sons are the future. They are the past. I support their right to protest, and I protest them in return, and I have no desire to sink to their level. I choose to celebrate life rather than hold signs.”

 

I paused for a moment, speaking to myself. “I can’t do much. But I can write about it. I can live my own truth. I can help others. And I can raise my sons to live in a better future.”

Later, my boyfriend and I held hands. J held my right hand, A held his left hand, and we formed a little chain, walking down at the road, a different family, but a family all the same. We took up a whole sidewalk, my little family. And if that made me deserve Hell, well, I’ll see you there.

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.

Love the Gay Away

Jesus

The four “recovering Mormons” took the stand and, one by one, introduced themselves to the audience. All of them had found solace and belonging in a new faith community, an Evangelical church, and now wanted to share the good word with the public. A room with a few hundred people watched as they spoke on the topic of leaving Mormonism to find new religion.

The first woman spoke about her lifelong struggle with depression as she fought to be the perfect Mormon daughter, wife, housewife, and mother. She internalized her doubts and pains for years before learning about some of the more bizarre Mormon doctrines (like “the second anointing”), and she suddenly spiraled right out of the church. She replaced her depression, she said, with a profound love for Jesus.

The pastor of the church gave a fascinating account of setting up a Christian organization within the confines of Utah, which he profoundly described as different than any other place. The bulk of his congregation, which had grown by about 150 members per years over the past few decades, were made up of those who had left Mormonism, or at the very least who were constantly influenced by the Mormonism around them. He was handsome, cheerful, and charismatic, and it was easy to picture him leading a congregation in a sermon and inspiring them to belief and action with his words.

Everyone present talked about a great love for the Bible and for the teachings of Jesus, and they discussed everyone in the room being welcome. I remained skeptical, but happy to see this resource in this community. I remembered the months I had spent as a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia, two decades earlier, investigating other religions, and after a while all of them felt mostly the same with just a few differences.

And then the next member of the panel introduced herself. She was likely in her late 30s or early 40s and wore comfortable clothes, jeans and a jacket. She had short blonde hair. She reminded me immediately of my sister Sheri, who lives on the East Coast with her wife, and I wondered if this woman might also be gay. “If she is, then cool, they welcome gay people here,” I thought. And then the woman started sharing her story.

She talked about growing up with damaged parents and being raised by her grandparents, leaving Mormonism after coming out of the closet (“ha, I was right,” I thought), entering a series of bad relationships, and eventually finding Jesus in this faith community. She then began to refer to her lesbianism in the past tense. She now realized that she was part of a worship community that taught her actual truth, she reasoned, and if she truly loved Jesus, then she had to do as he commanded. Sex was to only be in the bounds of marriage, and marriage was only between a man and a woman.

I leaned over to my friend next to me and whispered, “oh, gross”, feeling the strain of all of the years before that I’d had in the closet. It exhausted me to see yet another person going through this damaging reasoning, away from Mormonism, years after being actively gay, only to return to the closet in the name of Christianity.

 

My friend whisper back, “Wait, is she saying she is ex-lesbian?”

The host of the event asked the woman that, followed by several other questions. He is an accomplished host, a straight male with a wife and family who was excommunicated from Mormonism for asking hard questions, and one who has done advanced research studies on LGBT change efforts in religious communities. He recounted basic research that showed that change efforts were universally successful, that mixed-orientation marriages almost always fail, and that the worst of all of the options for overall mental health was a life of celibacy (which is what the Mormon religion and other faith communities currently expect from their active LGBT members).

But the woman dug her heels in. “The more you try to persuade me, the more I extend my roots into Jesus.” She talked about finding more love in Jesus than she ever could in the arms of a woman, wanting to marry a man eventually (one who loved Jesus more than she does, she said), and about teaching others in a ‘homosexuality and Christianity group” in the church about her story. She said the church had a lot of gay friends, some of them even married, who attended or who came in for lectures in the group.

The charismatic paster then grabbed his mic, talking about how at the last sermon he gave, “four or five gay guys” came up to him after the service and shook his hand, saying how much they enjoyed it. He then reemphasized that everyone was welcome, and that we are all “sexual sinners” who have to become right before the Lord.

“Gross,” I muttered again. Because as a “sexual sinner”, he still got to have sex with his wife, and he was propagating the expectation that those who are gay never get to enjoy sex at all.

Listening there, I had the bizarre realization that this experience was the direct counter-point to Mormonism, yet still the exact same homophobia and discrimination. Growing up Mormon, I was told homosexuality was evil, abominable, and curable. Lately, the narrative had changed yet remained the same. Now homosexuality was seen as something that couldn’t be altered, but that must be just ignored and denied, for those who had sex even with a same-sex married partner would be shunned and kicked out. Yet here, the message was one of celebration and joy. Instead of “follow our rules or you are out,” it was “Everyone is welcome here! Jesus loves everyone! We don’t care about your sins cause we are all sinners! (And also, gay people are worse). Let Jesus love your gay away!”

I walked away from the broadcast feeling confused, angry, and sad. While each person has their own individual journey, including the right to be celibate or in a mixed-orientation marriage, I was so weary of people putting themselves on a platform to say “I did it, so you can too! Look at me as an example! If I can suffer, you can join me!”

I walked back into the cold night sky contemplating the ideas about Jesus, a bizarre concoction of unconditional love and required suffering, and realized that pretty much any moment I spent in any church was a moment I could be spending somewhere else. And if Jesus is real, I’m pretty sure he would be okay with that.

Spiritually Obese

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I spent most of my life drowning in religion with very little understanding of spirituality.

My experience with religion was very ritual-based, and very closely related to an all-encompassing sense of shame. Pray before meals, pray at night, read scriptures before bed, attend church every Sunday, go to youth meetings on Tuesday nights, pay ten per cent of earned income to the church, take the sacrament, prepare for baptism and then the Priesthood and then a two year missionary service and then marriage in the temple and then have children and then spend your life serving in church positions. When you sin (which you do just by existing) then consistently repent. Be modest, be chaste, be morally clean, keep a hymn in your heart, avoid temptation, don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol or coffee, don’t have impure thoughts, don’t see rated R movies. Strive toward perfection, even though perfection is impossible, and know that this is the only way to salvation. When you have questions, listen to the men God has called as prophets for answers because they will never lead you astray.

Except they did.

But religion also gave a strong sense of purpose and destiny, of community, of belonging. It made me feel as if I was chosen, if I was special, as if every mystery of life was laid bare with answers and spiritual assurances. I had answers to everything, in scripture, and I had a group of people who were just like me to rely on along the way.

Religion has a way of bottling up human spirituality and marketing it to a particular brand. Spirituality is an inherent human quality, regardless of religion. Spirituality is the human ability to find inner peace and purpose, and to connect to the wider world through gratitude and wonder. Spirituality can be found within religion, and it can also be found in human relationships, in travel, in service, in nature, in accomplishment. No religion has a monopoly on spirituality. No religion has the ability to say, ‘look, if you come to our church and you feel peaceful, well, that is God telling you that our church is true, and only our church is true, so now you must follow our culture and rules in order to be right with God.” No church can say that because every human feels peace. Peace isn’t something you can bottle and market.

Religion has a habit of saying that in order to be right you must be worthy, and in order to be worthy, you must follow a particular set of rules. Anything else is sinning. And if you sin too long or too much, if you make a choice to not be religious and to instead be selfish, then you stand to lose not only your religion, but your eternal destiny in the long run, and your family and  community in the short run. They will be ashamed, and so will God.

And so as a young man, I set a particular standard for myself. A high, unreachable standard. And since I could never reach that standard, I could never feel worthy. If I had an errant thought, if I sinned, if I struggled, then I knew I was not good enough.

I learned very early on that being gay was absolutely not allowed. Not only wasn’t it allowed, it didn’t exist. And I grew quickly to equate religious devotion with worthiness to be cured of being gay and thus made heterosexual. And so every morning when I woke up gay still, I knew, over and over, that I had no worth.

Which brings us to the topic of this blog: spiritual obesity. I was spiritually obese. I had put on so much spiritual weight, over years of learned behavior in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, that I was morbidly obese in my heart. I had no inner peace, I had no purpose except to try harder, and I had no internal balance. I developed terrible coping mechanisms like cognitive dissonance, placing any doubts or struggles high on a shelf where they couldn’t be seen or consciously felt–I simply needed more evidence to support my religious theories in order to make sense of why I was so broken inside.

When I began to lose my physical weight, I began to realize my spiritual weight as well. First, I needed clear introspection. I needed to actively realize my doubts and concerns. That was intensely painful at first, and required a lot of soul-searching and juggling. If the prophets I believed in got some things wrong, if the church and scriptures I gave myself over to were incorrect on some things, then by their very teachings, that meant they were incorrect on all things. My brain was in a tailspin for months as I passed through intense stages of grief: anger and bargaining and denial and depression, until I finally arrived at acceptance. And once I did that, I could begin to figure out what spiritual health was.

I realized swiftly that spirituality is an intensely personal thing, it is different for everyone. I needed to find the things that brought me inner peace, gave me purpose, and made me feel whole. Parenting hit the list first: spending time on the floor playing with my children. Then nature and travel: being outdoors and wondering at the sky and the trees and moving water, and being in new places among new people. Giving to others came next: the sense of pride, gratitude, and accomplishment I get from being there for a friend or helping a client in therapy realize their goals and achieve them. The list grew longer and longer: human history, befriending a stranger, excellent fiction, journaling, yoga, meditation. And perhaps above all else, the ability to treat myself with kindness and honesty, to accept myself as a fully realized person.

Becoming spiritually healthy took me months. I had a lot of spiritual weight to shed. I had to do it one spiritual pound at a time over a long time. I grieved a lot. I spent a few weeks crying intensely about the loss of my religion. Then, over time, I got in spiritual shape. And now it’s easier, now I can maintain my spiritual health through regular spiritual exercise and nutrition, daily practices that keep me centered and balanced.

After this mighty work within myself, I started recognizing other spiritually healthy people. They can be found anywhere, or can be missing from anywhere. Picture an excellent movie where one person is engrossed in it and moved by it while the other is bored and disconnected; only one of those is spiritually invested. Picture a Mormon sacrament meeting where one woman is doing careful self-introspection and has tears of gratitude running down her cheeks, and a boy who is playing on his phone during it; only one of those is spiritually invested. Picture a college lecture on the workings of nature where one student is furiously copying notes with underlines and exclamation points, and another is sleeping on her arm; only one of these is spiritually invested.

Every human is inherently spiritual. But learning how to listen to the human spirit, to invest in it and make it healthy and strong, robust and fit, well that takes a lot of knowledge and growth over time, and it generally involves acceptance of self as an organic changing creature who has varying needs and struggles.

It is a difficult balance to obtain after being spiritually obese, just like physical fitness can be hard to achieve. It requires looking inward far more than most people are comfortable with. Yet it is a journey well worth the footsteps.

I close this entry with a view of myself from ten years ago, kneeling at my bedside and begging God to make me whole, knowing I was broken and cursed, and compare that to me now, sitting next to a slow river and breathing in the sheer miracle of nature and existence, grateful for my very sense of self and the person that I am.

While I know many people who are spiritually healthy within religion, it took me leaving religion to find my own spiritual fitness.Ghost.png