Spirit 7: Truth or Consequences

When I was an infant, my proud parents held me up in front of a church congregation so the assembled Mormons could coo at the new baby boy. I wore all white. A group of men, some related by blood and some by belief, stood in a circle and placed their hands on my head to give me a blessing. They did not bless me to go forward and change the world, or to live my best life, or to find happiness on my own terms. They blessed me to be a good Mormon boy, to embrace the true gospel, to be a missionary, to marry a woman in the temple, to have babies, and to spend my whole life serving god. That was the path, the one for every Mormon boy. It was the true path, the right one. Anything else was deviant.  And I understood that right from the beginning.

Growing up, once per month, meetings at church were reserved for members to go up and bear their testimonies of the truth of the gospel. It was an act of boldness, of solidarity. Sharing beliefs according to the pre-established formula, in front of your like-minded peers, was to be admired. They all followed the same format. I was four when I tried it myself for the first time.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I love my mom and dad and my brother and sisters. I know the Book of Mormon is the word of god and that Joseph Smith was a prophet, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.”

Some small variance from this format was allowed, but not much. This profession of beliefs was a tried and true process, and there was a right way to do it. That single opening phrase was uttered more than any other. I KNOW (not believe, not hope, not think, but KNOW) that THIS CHURCH (this one right here, the Mormon one, the one we are in) is TRUE. The word true here is the operative one. In Mormonism, the tenet that if one part was TRUE then it was all TRUE. It was a power word, something to evoke loyalty, pride, ownership, a depth of power and rightness, and above all, conformance. It was a word like Freedom, or Justice, words used regularly in the American vernacular. For if Mormonism was true, then everyone else was false. If Mormonism was true, that meant it was all correct, all right. The bad parts were worth overlooking to focus on the greater good, because of TRUTH.

And so all the little rules blended in to the TRUE. Many Christians hold on to their understanding of the Bible, as justification for even unkind behavior. “I can believe this/do this/act this way because the Bible says it’s okay.” Mormons take that a step farther. They have a prophet who leads and guides the church, and one who communes with god. He has 12 apostles at his side to back him up, just like Jesus did. He gives regular addresses in which he uses prophecy and revelation to tell people what god wants them to do, to believe, to say. Thus if I say it is all TRUE, that means the prophet speaks TRUTH, and I have to follow his directions because it is what god wants.

And so, people pay ten per cent of their income to the church. They saved themselves for marriage. They marry young and have babies early. The devote two years of their lives to unpaid missionary service. They try and convert their friends. They go to church for three hours every Sunday. They wear the sacred underwear, and keep their haircuts and clothing styles in particular ways, and women avoid having more than one piercing per ear. They keep their sins secret and repent of them as needed. They conform, and blend in, and feel special for doing so, because they are part of the TRUE church, the only one who has it right. And, in many cases, they sacrifice happiness as they try to follow all of the rules.

This concept of TRUTH was huge for me, for all of them, because there consequences attached. If I didn’t follow one of the rules, that meant I was a sinner, that I was denying truth, that I wasn’t conforming or fitting in. Everyone would see, but worse, god would know. Some sins, some small rebellions, could be easily shaken off, like missing a church meeting, or wearing a blue shirt instead of white, or missing a month of home-teaching. But others had vastly greater consequences: sexual activity outside of marriage, NOT going on a mission, NOT marrying in the temple, turning down a church calling, or, the worst possible scenario, being gay. If the rules weren’t followed, that meant there was a denial of truth, that one was turning their back on god. Sometimes this resulted in minor consequences (a conversation with the bishop or not taking the sacrament for a time) and sometimes in more severe ones (being disfellowshipped or excommunicated). And even worse, sinning in this life meant an inability to be with family in heaven in the next life. An entire eternal heritage cast aside for laziness, or orgasm, or the easy way out.

When I was actively LDS, I looked at those who were sinners, who were cast out, or who didn’t conform which such sadness and disregard. I saw them as failures, as selfish, as weak, as poor in spirit. Look what they gave up, I’d think. Look at all they cast aside. How sad, how pathetic. There were believers and sinners, the righteous and the apostate, the member and the non-member.

And yet if I turned my gaze inward, I didn’t fit either. God had made a design flaw. I was gay. It took me years to sort this out, but there were deep psychological wounds that formed within me because I was born wrong. I was born gay, and I knew it early. And so I didn’t fit the standard. I couldn’t conform naturally, I could only do so by hiding in plain sight. I held on to the rules tighter than most. Any aberration, any entertaining of alternate thought, meant denying what was true, and that meant losing everything. I held on tighter than almost anyone I knew. I had to be the best if I had any hope of belonging at all. (I would learn later that many other gay men held on in similar ways).

Whenever I bore my testimony, I held tightly to the truth, and I never spoke the doubts out loud. “I know the church is true.” What I could have spoken, what I should have spoken, was an entirely different sort of testimony.

“I desperately want to believe the church is true because I so badly want to fit in with all of you. I’m afraid I can’t, and that I never will. I’m different on the inside, I’m gay, and I am worried that by telling you that, I won’t be accepted here, that you’ll look at me like you do the other sinners. If I admit I’m different, I’m afraid god won’t love me and that I won’t have a place in my family. I’m following all of the rules because I want to be what you are, I want to have what you have. I want to feel sure, but I don’t. I have doubts. I don’t believe deep down that it is all correct. I think that there is some good here, in this church, in these meetings, but as I look around, there are a lot of people in pain here, and I think all of you have doubts as well. I think our leaders get things wrong, and I think that people get hurt because of it. And I think that people here are so focused with fitting in that they allow themselves to compromise their own morals, and then they convince themselves that these actions are sanctioned by god. And I’m worried that I’m going to grow up and have to redefine every one of these beliefs, every aspect of truth, and that is going to cause me to leave the church I love, both because I won’t believe it anymore and because I won’t fit here anymore. And there are consequences for that, according to your rules. I stand to lose my salvation, my family, my entire belief structure.

“But I’m worried that one day, I’m going to have to ask myself the opposite. What are the consequences for staying? And I don’ think any of you are going to like the answers I find.”

Advertisements

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.

 

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.

Screen Shot 2019-04-05 at 9.41.14 PM

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.

Mrs. God

mrsgod

Despite the warnings not to, I once picked up an anti-Mormon pamphlet. I was a missionary at the time, and we had stepped into a Christian bookstore, casually browsing. My companion casually glanced over my shoulder as I read.

In poorly drawn comic strips, the pamphlet tore apart the Mormon version of God. Instead of believing in a divine being, it said, Mormons believed in an immortal alien, one who had once been a man before ascending to godhood and inheriting his own planet. God called his planet Kolob, it said, and he had pure white skin, white hair, and a white beard. He created Earth and possibly other planets so that he would have a place for his billions of spirit kids to get bodies and to be tested, so he could sort the good ones out from the bad ones.

More than anything, the pamphlet emphasized that God had millions of wives, a great eternal harem of women. They had all been mortal women like him, and he had claimed them, bounding them to him forever. They were his property, and the billions of spirit children descended from all of them. Though this may not be a direct quote (hey, it’s been 20 years), the pamphlet stated something like “Mormons don’t believe in a God. They believe in a white alien immortal who engages in endless Celestial sex with his millions of goddess wives.”

My companion and I had laughed about it at the time, and then quickly put the pamphlet back. We had always been instructed not to read things like that, because it could cause us to doubt our very testimonies and belief systems. He and I never talked about it again. But the pamphlet stuck with me. It made me give serious thought to the ideas I had around God for the first time. The pamphlet had worded it all in very abrasive ways, but it hadn’t said anything that was necessarily wrong.

I was taught all about God growing up. Above all else, I was taught that he was a loving father, one with infinite and unconditional love, who knew my heart and thoughts, who knew every choice I would ever make before I could make it. He expected repentance when I made wrong choices, prayer, ten per cent of my income, and strict obedience to all of his commandments, and in return he promised me eternal salvation and glory. And, yes, I was promised that the most very righteous would inherit his kingdom, in other words I could become my own god with my own planet someday.

But we were also taught about the origins of God. “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become,” they taught. God’s name was Elohim, and he was once a mortal who had been obedient to his god, and thus he had become his own God. Which meant there was god before god, and a god before him. It was like one giant capitalistic society, with vast trusts and inheritances built in. Follow the rules, and get the rewards. Don’t, and God will judge you (justly of course) as being worthy of one of the lesser levels of heaven, where you’ll just hang out for eternity. Unless you commit the extreme sin of denying God himself, then it’s Outer Darkness for you. (Those letters are capitalized, cause Mormons believe that is an actual place. Outer Darkness. Where the evil souls float for eternity, no bodies allowed).

And God did live on Kolob, his planet base somewhere in space. And he did look like a white-skinned man with a beard in all the Mormon pictures. And Mormons did believe in polygamy, and they did believe that God practiced it. And they did say that he was our literal father, and he did have billions of spirit children, which probably meant he had millions of wives. And that meant I had a Heavenly Mother in addition to a Heavenly Father. We just didn’t talk about her. I didn’t know her name. But apparently she was once a human too then, and she had gotten to Kolob by sealing herself to God in life, one among millions, and then he had taken her to Heaven with him. That’s how human girls now were supposed to do it. Men got to inherit God powers and kingdoms, and women got to attach themselves to men and go along for the ride. And presumably my Heavenly Mother was just one of those women, and my only Mother, so those other millions would be my Great God-Aunts?

I asked about Heavenly Mother once, when I was a teenager, in my Seminary class. (Seminary was an actual class that I attended during high school hours, in between History and Algebra, at the church across the street). She was mentioned in the Mormon hymn “Oh My Father”, a hymn that had been written by Eliza R. Snow, herself one of the plural wives of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. One stanza was clear.

“In the heav’ns are parents single?
No, the thought makes reason stare!
Truth is reason; truth eternal
Tells me I’ve a mother there.”

I had raised my hand and asked why we didn’t talk about Heavenly Mother much. The seminary teacher, a good man in his late thirties, who had been married for six years and now had five children under the age of five, had responded kindly, thoughtfully. “We don’t take the name of God in vain as a sign of respect. In the same way, God doesn’t allow us to speak about Heavenly Mother. She is far too sacred.”

I write all of this at the age of 39. When I try to reason through these logic puzzles of my former belief system, I crinkle up my nose like I’ve just smelled something unpleasant. There is no reason behind any of fit, it doesn’t hold up. Little things make me cringe (like if God is Mary’s father, yet he also fathered Jesus through her, but he is also Jesus…), and images of millions of women lining up in white with their faces veiled so that they can devote themselves to one man, well, that just flies in the face of every one of my values.

I have no idea if there is a God out there or not. I’m kind of leaning toward not. But if there is one, I’m just going to presume it is a she, not a he. Women give birth, nurture and sustain. Men chop and tear, rend and conquer. If I ever pray again, it will definitely be to Mrs. God.

Or is it Ms.?

 

 

 

Heaven

heaven.jpg

“Hey, monkeys, I heard your great-grandpa died. How are you feeling about that?”

My sons, now J (age 9) and and A (age 6), thought about it briefly.

A set down the toy crocodile he’d been playing with. “I’m sad. But he was really old, like 85, so I guess it’s okay.”

J didn’t look up from the pad of paper where he was drawing. “I’m just glad he is with great-grandma in Heaven now.”

Later that evening, I gave thought to Heaven itself. Growing up, I’d thought of it as some sort of city in the clouds with golden gates and marble spires, where everyone was white with white hair and flowing robes. For most people, Heaven was a simple construct, a nice cloudy place for the dead to keep existing and to relax forever.

But I’d been raised Mormon, a religion that taught that all of mankind existed as spirits before coming to Earth, and that in Heaven, after the judgment, those who were worthy would get to live forever in their resurrected bodies. But there also some kind of in between life, which Mormons called Spirit World, where the good and evil spirits were divided into paradise and prison before the final judgment. Then, after the judgment, there were various kingdoms where humans would get to live depending on their worthiness, and men could only aim for the very highest through obedience to complicated rules. Married heterosexual couples who were worthy would stay married and would be bonded to their children and their parents, and on and on forward and backward, creating a family chain from beginning to end. The unworthy were severed from these bonds, yet they still had their own version of the afterlife, just a little less nice, a shack instead of a mansion, or a mansion instead of a planet. In the end, the most worthy would get to live on Earth again, which would be made paradise and its own version of Heaven.

All of that, with afterlife and varying levels of worth and reward, suddenly made Heaven very complicated. And that was before introducing the concept of Hell.

My children, in their short lives, have already seen more death than I had in my childhood. By 9, I didn’t really know anyone who died, not personally, until I was a teenager, but they have lost five of their great grandparents (the other three having died before their births). Death, to them, is something that happens to the old, as a natural part of existence. They don’t seem overly impacted, sad, or distressed, they just know that someone who was a parent to their grandparents is now gone on. To them, Heaven is still simple, a place to rest and be happy.

I’m not sure what Heaven is to me now. As a therapist, I often have spiritual discussions with my clients, helping them discover their own truths and sort out the complexities of their religious upbringings in their own lives. When asked to give a label to my own belief structure, I often tell people that I’m a “spiritual atheist” and that, while I don’t believe in God or religion, that I do believe in the human spirit and its capacity for progress and change, for peace and purpose. And while I don’t believe in cloud cities and white flowing robes anymore than I do in winged beings with harps, I also don’t believe in a great void of blackness where souls just slip away into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to sort out thoughts on Heaven without being influenced by my upbringing, where eternal rest was equated directly to obedience within a narrow set of rules. “Do as you are told, and you get to have the best afterlife” no longer sits well with me. And there are billions and billions of human souls who have come before me. In a world where millions have been killed in concentration camps or by atomic bombs and were told that they deserved it because of their heritage, where millions spent their lifetimes in the bonds of slavery and were told that they deserved it because of their skin color, or where millions were ravaged by AIDS and told that they deserved it for their lifestyle choices… what is the afterlife for them? Is it a place that white Christians have determined is primarily set up for white Christians? I can’t reconcile those untold millions into the Heaven I was raised to believe in, and so I reject that concept completely.

If my children were asking me about Heaven, I wouldn’t list any sort of merit-based system. I wouldn’t discuss a premortal existence, or God, or fire and brimstone, or higher or lower degrees. I would instead describe the very images they are likely to draw. A place where we are happy and love the people we love. And there can be clouds and trees and peace, human development in healthy relationships, free of war and pain. That’s the place I want them picturing their great-grandparents.

An uncomplicated space of love and health where every voice is heard and every person is loved.

In fact, maybe I won’t ask them to draw it, and maybe I won’t draw it for them. Maybe we can draw it together.

the day Chad died

Word spread quickly the day Chad died.

To tell the truth, I’d barely known him, although we had been in both junior high and high school together. We were in different crowds. I had friends back then, but I was one of the quieter kids ins school, still learning to develop my confidence. My social group consisted more of the ‘outcasts’, we seemed to collect a bunch of kids who didn’t really belong anywhere else, and I was the unofficial activity planner, getting all of the friends together frequently.

The other Chad, he was blonde and skinny and obnoxious. He played constant pranks and made fart noises in the hallways and was always taunting girls in class. He wasn’t a bad guy, not one of the jerks. He was more on the edge of the cool crowd, sort of like the popular click’s class clown in a way. He was funny, cute, and nice. But although we were both named Chad, we hadn’t interacted much over the years.

My high school in southern Idaho seemed to be comprised of mostly Mormon kids. Across the street from the school was the Seminary building. Each Mormon student took a full class period during school each day to go to Seminary and be instructed in church doctrine. And on a particular evening after school, the Seminary program had a class activity where Mormon students could gather to picnic and play games.

I didn’t go that night, but word spread quickly. Chad and a friend had driven a truck too quickly into the park, likely trying to show off, and the truck tires caught the gravel wrong, and the truck flipped over. And Chad died, just like that.

I remember being shocked that night by the abrupt ending of a life, one so young. It was an absolute tragedy. I remember getting together with some of my friends and sharing stories of the last time we had seen Chad, telling stories of jokes he’d told or obnoxious things he’d done. It was a haunting feeling.

In a dinner table conversation with my mother and step-father that night, we’d discussed the Mormon belief structure, that God calls souls home when he is ready for them, that Chad’s spirit would be in the spirit paradise dwelling with other loved ones until the time for the resurrection and judgement and then Chad would likely go to Heaven. He’d see his family again and he’d get a body again. I took comfort in knowing what would come next, but I was also confused and sad.

The real grief didn’t hit until the following Monday morning. I’d arrived at school early, like usual, and a group of girls sitting inside the building looked at me as if they were seeing a ghost.

One of the girls stood up, a look of horror on her face that was quickly replaced by joy. “Chad Anderson! I heard you were dead! You’re alive!”

She hugged me tightly as I felt my heart sink. I pulled away from her. “It–no, it wasn’t me. It was the other Chad. Chad Johnson.”

And the girl sank back to the floor, a new wave of tears on her cheeks.

That moment repeated itself a dozen times throughout the day, and it was painful every time. “Chad, you’re alive!” and “Chad, I’m so glad it wasn’t you!” and even one accusatory “You shouldn’t have let people think it was you, that’s cruel”.

In class that morning, a literature course that Chad had also been in, one girl burst out crying and run from the class. In Seminary class that day, the lesson had been focused on the loss of Chad and everyone was in tears. Later that day, a special testimony meeting was held in Chad’s honor, and people got up to share their thoughts and feelings, expressing gratitude for the love of God and the joy they felt even in their pain knowing that Chad had gone home with God again.

For me, Chad’s death was surreal. The only other person close to me that I’d lost before was my stepfather’s sister, Wilma, and she’d been an old woman after a long life. I didn’t know how to comprehend someone so young being gone so suddenly.

At lunch, I heard passing comments, as people tried to find some reason in the unreasonable.

“He shouldn’t have been driving so fast.”

“You know, everyone is acting like he was such a great guy, but I thought he was a jerk.”

“He was the best person I have ever known!”

“I guess it was just his time.”

“God needed him more than we did.”

I didn’t go to Chad’s funeral. I’ve never been to his grave. It’s been over 20 years since he died. He likely would have gone on to serve a Mormon mission, go to college, get married in the temple, and have children, just like we all did. I knew very little of the world beyond our small Idaho town, and there seemed to be only one future plan for all of us at that time. And truthfully, like most everyone else from high school, I probably would have never seen Chad again regardless, except perhaps through some social media photo from time to time.

But as I write this all these years later, now as a professional who frequently helps those impacted by tragedy, including losing a loved one suddenly, my mind moves back to Chad from time to time. I think of how easily his death could have been averted. I think of the community and school that grieved his loss. I think of how horrible I felt when people had thought it was me who was gone. And while I still can’t make sense of it all, I’m glad to be alive.

And I remember.

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

IMG_2081

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.

Honorifics: a complicated prayer to a complicated god

Can-We-Change-God’s-Mind-with-Prayer

Oh God, the Eternal Father, hallowed by Thy name, Thy oh so many names.

Oh Elohim, Yahweh, Yeshua, Adonai, el Shaddai, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus, El Roi, El Elgon, Immanuel.

Oh great I Am, I Am that I Am, I Yam what I Yam and that’s all I Yam.

Oh All-Powerful, All-Seeing, All-Knowing, Unattainable, Unreachable, Unknowable, Unfathomable, Incomprehensible God

Oh Holy Trinity, Three-In-One, All-In-One, One True God, One-and-Only, One is the Loneliest Number.

Oh Abba, Heavenly Father, Father in Heaven, Everlasting Father, Son of God, Son of Man, Dad, Dada, Daddy, Poppa, Pops, Pop-Pop, Pappy, Sire, Paterfamilias.

Oh Creator, Comforter, Mediator, Savior, Judge, Jury, and Executioner.

Oh Lord of Hosts, Host of Heaven, Hostess with the Mostess.

Oh Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End, First and Last, One Eternal Round, Sideways, Up, Down, Upside Down, Downside Up, Within and Without, Around, Over, Under, Inside, Outside, Inside Out, Outside In, In Every Heart and yet Bigger than the Universe.

Oh Lamb of God, True Vine, Living Water, Bread of Life, Bacon-Wrapped Supreme Deep-Dish Parmesan Cheese-Stuffed Crust Meatlovers Deluxe, Hot Fudge Ice Cream Sundae Pretty Please with Sprinkles and a Cherry on Top.

Oh King of Kings, Lords of Lords, Prince of Peace.

Oh Light of the World, the Word, the Word of God, the Word of Life, the Word to your Mother.

Oh Bridegroom, Good Shepherd, High Priest, Rock of Salvation, and also Paper and Scissors of Salvation.

Oh the Resurrection and the Life, the Way the Truth and the Life, Great Life Insurance Policy for the Hereafer.

Oh Master and Commander of Vast Hosts of Archangels, with whom Thou canst wipe out entire cities that look at Thou funny.

Oh Greatest of Patriarchs, Thou who puttest men on top and says women belong to their husbands and should always be pregnant and beautiful and in the 1950s like immortal Donna Reeds.

Oh Great Married God, Thou who never discusses Thy wife (or perhaps wives because polygamy is in the Bible, and also perhaps daughters because incest is too), Thou who hast created billions of children to populate Thy blue planet, go Thou.

Oh Great White Bearded Old Man in the Sky.

Oh Great Heterosexual God.

Oh Rich Wealthy God Who Has All the Things.

Oh God Who Created Man in His Image, which is only one image and that is why there is only one gender, one skin color, one sexual preference because Thy children are all exactly the same, just like Thou.

Oh Fickle God, Maker of the Cute and the Ugly, Crafter of the Rose and the Thistle; Designer of the Bunny, the Panda Bear, and the Spiny Lumpsucker; Crafter of Lemonade and Ludefisk; Maker of Hawaii and Nebraska.

Oh God who blames the Devil for all the bad things that happen, but then Thou created the Devil in the first place, so…

Oh Lover of All Thy Children, Thou Who Brings all back to Heaven as Long as they followed Thy rules like getting baptized or accepting Thou in their hearts, and as long as they give Thee lots of money.

Oh Great Tease in the Sky, Thou Who Hast Created Pornography, Sex, Drugs, and other Tempting Things and then said ‘Thou Shalt Not Do These Things’.

Oh Great Master of Selective Hearing.

Oh Great Utilizer of Tough Love, Thou Who Givest and Thou Who Takest Away, Thou who slappest Thy children and sayest ‘this hurtest me more than it hurtest you’ and ‘I did it because I love you.’

Oh God Who Can Do All Things, Except Maybe making a mountain even Thou can’t move.

Oh Great Venti Quad Shot Pumpkin Spice Cinammon Frappucino Soy Milk Latte in the Sky.

Oh Mighty Killer of Babies; Declarer of War and Bankruptcy; Giver of Cancer, AIDS, and Diarrhea.

Oh Powerful Bully who tosses over the chessboard when Thou art losing the game; Oh Stomper of Ants; Oh Great Hitler in the Sky, user of atomic bombs, plagues, earthquakes, famines, cyclones, tsunamis, droughts, hunger, hurricanes, and floods that kill billions of people when Thou feels grumpy (but thanks for that rainbow Thou gavest the few people on the ark afterwards, that was nice).

Oh Giant Narcissist in the Sky.

Oh Giver of the Best Invisible Hugs.

Oh Creator of Saddam Hussein, Sarah Palin, Judge Judy, Soulja Boy, and Khloe Kardashian.

Oh Giver of Truth, Thou Whose Name is used in Hundreds of Separate Religions, Thou who must get a kick out of each one saying they have the truth while Thou remains silent with a bowl of popcorn.

Give me this day my daily bread, then leave me the fuck alone.

Amen.