One Epic Fantasy

MagicJesus

There is a reference in the Book of Mormon that talks about the “great whore that sitteth upon many waters”, meaning the “great and abominable church” established by Satan to confuse and corrupt men. Growing up, I was taught that this meant, basically, that every religion except my own was a confused or corrupted version of the truth, and that only I had the real, whole truth. I was taught, as a child, to stand at the pulpit and profess this truth. I was taught to thank God daily for blessing me with this truth. And I was taught that I must consistently seek to help others find this truth. Every other religion’s claims of heavenly visions, divine miracles, spiritual truths, and godly gifts were false, they were corruptions at worst, misunderstandings at best. Only my church was true.

“I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true.”

This gave me a sense of superiority. I was a choice son of God from a chosen generation, in the last days, preparing the world for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. I was taught that my religion would slowly spread through the world, breaking borders and barriers, and every soul on Earth would slowly and surely join the true church of God. (That word again, true, my word we used that word a lot).

My religion, like all others, stared science in the face and stuck its tongue out. Forget scientific advancements, delete evolution, overlook the dinosaur bones. The truth of the world was part fairy tale, part epic science fiction story, and the closer you looked the more complex it became.

See, the world was created thousands of years ago, not millions, and it was by godly beings, Michael and Jehovah, angels with epic powers commanded by a Celestial man named Elohim who lived on the planet Kolob. Elohim had billions and billions of spirit children, and he needed a place for them to live, where they could be tested properly and receive bodies. Satan had one plan, and Jesus had another. God liked Jesus’ plan, so Satan and a third of God’s children declared war and were cast out, forever unable to get bodies after that, leaving the billions of them to only try and tempt mortals all the time. God sent Michael down to be Adam, took out a rib to create Eve, and told them not to eat some fruit, and when they did they were cast out to live for hundreds of years in toil. The following generations encompassed the Bible stories, epic adventures all. There were major floods with ships full of animals, a whale who swallowed a guy, mass genocides of cities full of sinners, and slave revolts. There were oceans parted by a man’s hands, plagues of frogs, voices out of burning bushes, and little guys knocking over big guys with a slingshot. There was incest, adultery, slave-mongering, diseases, mass murder, and untold numbers of dead babies. Oh, and lots of white guys with beards who spoke for God. White guys with beards in the Middle East who spoke for God.

And then Elohim finally sent Jesus down through a virgin birth, kept most of his life a mystery, then gave him all kinds of godly powers to change water to wine, survive starving in the desert, and multiply food sources, all while teaching mortals a lesson. Then he let Jesus bleed from every pore, be whipped and flogged, and then get nailed to a cross to die painfully, only so mortals could be told they would never be good enough to make it on their own, they would need to learn from all this, cause Jesus suffered for them, way worse than any mere mortal could suffer, and he had two because Adam and Eve ate that fruit that one time. And then God raised Jesus from the dead. So if we want some of that, we better listen and do as we are told.

And although the world had a few thousand years of religion prior to this, this is when religion as a culture really kicked in. Christians had already separated from Jews. But then lots of different men said that they were doing the Jesus thing the right way, and they formed their own churches, cultures, and governments around it, then started fighting with others. And as humans expanded from millions into billions, they divided themselves along those religious lines. Hindu. Islam. Buddha. Jewish. Christian. Far too many to count. Then they subdivided again, then again.

The way I was taught it, God was so upset over the way Jesus was treated that he took religion away from the Earth for nearly 2000 years. He waited a good long time for a nice righteous white boy in America. In fact, lots of history happened just to get the world ready for that white boy. There were wars and revolutions, slavery and crusades, but finally Joseph Smith came along. He was visited by God and Jesus, floating in the air in white robes, and then a series of angels and magical powers followed. There were buried artifacts, stones in a hat that could translate old records, and relics from an ancient civilization that has somehow evaded every scientist ever. Outside of Jesus, Joseph was the most important man to ever live, they said. He set up the true religion with the true scriptures, and he started converting people by the tens, the hundreds, the thousands, moving them from city to city and asking them to focus on his holiness and his revelations, and not on his increasing number of wives, his failed banks and smashed printing presses, and his youth full of treasure-digging. He retranslated the Bible, then brought forth more scriptures from some hieroglyphics he found in a mummy case. When Joseph died, the Mormons moved west and set up their own government, even though it meant fighting against the American government, and the Mormons changed their laws when they had to, which meant changing their belief structure and pretending  God had planned it that way all along.

Things are different nowadays in the true church. There is way less magic, fewer visions from the sky. Now there seems to be a strong focus on forgetting the past and focusing on conformity and obedience. Only certain things should be talked about. In a new world focused on equal rights, in a world where we talk about sexual abuse openly, where gay marriage is legal, and where it is considered cruel to discriminate against transgender people or anyone else, the Mormons want to keep the focus on happy families, and not on the excommunication of gays, the sexual abuse of women, the 150 years of denying blacks the Priesthood, the opposition of the Equal Rights Amendment, or how they treated young women as acquisitions for old men for many years past the time when it was declared illegal.

Some days, I feel angry about the religion I grew up in. Some days, sad. Some, numb, confused, or embarrassed. Some days, I even grow nostalgic. But others, like today, I look back on what I grew up believing and I can’t help but choke on my own laughter. It’s all just so asinine, so full of holes. It’s corruption from the inside out. It’s rotten to its core. It’s abusive, bizarre, ridiculous, beyond comprehension. It’s Star WarsLord of the RingsLord of the Flies, Animal Farm, Lolita, and Wolf of Wall Street all in one bizarre life-ruining epic. It’s crazy-making.

And it’s a system I’m relieved to be free from. But damn if it isn’t a good read.

 

 

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.

Heaven

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“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 Lion of the Lord

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“Welcome to the Beehive and Lion House. Hopefully you all had a chance to try one of our delicious, famous rolls with honey butter next door. Now, if you will all follow us, the tour is about to begin.”

The two sister missionaries led the crowd of 15 people through a narrow passage and up a flight of stairs, where we gathered in a room filled with a dining room table and chairs. Pictures of old bearded white men lined the walls, with Brigham Young’s being the first.

The two missionaries were pleasant-looking in colorful skirts and shirts, sweaters on their shoulders to keep them warm. One was slightly shorter with brown hair, and she had a tag that read ‘Sister Miller, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ on it, with an American flag fastened beneath it. The other sister, blonde with longer hair, had a similar tag, except her name read ‘Sister Bellows’, and her flag was Canadian. The both held a copy of the Book of Mormon in their hands as they guided the tour in this historical building.

Over the next few minutes, the sisters recounted how the Mormon pioneers had settled into the Salt Lake Valley and how Brigham Young had become prophet, and the first elected governor of the territory. This home, they explained, was where he conducted his business, as he spoke for the Lord in his day-to-day dealings, calling 12 apostles to serve along with him and run Christ’s church. (Thus the other pictures on the wall).

Sister Miller’s voice was low and it droned on a bit, like a college professor reading from a textbook for an afternoon class as sun poured in the window. She kept a false smile plastered on her face as she spoke in a voice without enthusiasm.

“And just as Brigham Young was a prophet, so was Joseph Smith, the man to whom the true Church of God was restored upon the Earth.” She then proceeded to give a full account of the First Vision, when God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees. I could recite her entire speech verbatim from my own days as a missionary 20 years before.

As she spoke, I saw a few of the tour group give each other looks, confused. One man muttered to his wife, “What does this have to do with the tour?” and another mentioned something about “propaganda.”

When Sister Miller finished, Sister Bellows mentioned how Brigham Young, no matter how busy he was, would always make sure to be home with his family every night for dinner.

“Family was very important to him. His was a forever family. What do you all enjoy doing with your families?”

After an awkward silence, a few muttered answers cleared the air. “Watch television.” “Travel.” “Play games.”

Then someone interjected with a question. “You mentioned Brigham Young’s family. Isn’t it true he had dozens of wives?”

Sister Bellows smiled, showing no teeth. “I haven’t really looked into that. But in another room you can see a painting of the wife who lived here with her children.”

The tour shuffled into another room, then another, and in each the sister missionaries gave a small historical blurb, then shared more information about the church they belonged to. Their voices maintained a lack of enthusiasm, and they sounded almost bored sometimes.

“Did you know that Brigham Young served 12 different missions? I am happy to just be serving one, here and now, so I can share my testimony of the truth of the gospel with everyone.”

“In this painting, you can see one of Brigham’s daughters who died. But as Saints, Mormons get the chance to be reunited with their forever families in the next life, just as all who believe can be reunited with their families. I’m grateful for my forever family.”

In the final room, the confused crowd asked a few last questions, the answers only increasing their perplexed looks.

“And, um, how did Brigham Young die?”

“He died of old age!” she said, finally, bizarrely, enthusiastic.

“And what about Joseph Smith, didn’t he die in his 30s?”

“Yes, he died in Illinois, a victim of an angry mob of people who had painted their faces black.”

“Ma’am, is it true that the original Latter-day Saints were, according to your beliefs, the actual Native Americans, and they believed in Christ even though they hadn’t met him?”

Sister Bellows nodded, slowly. “Yes, that is true. The Book of Mormon is an account of their ancient history, between 600 BC and 400 AD, and Christ visited them after his death because they believed in him like I do.”

“”I heard from a friend that the Church of Mormons actually owns the mall across the street, is that right?”

Sister Miller didn’t even look at the man. “Yes. Well, if you will all look over here, you will see Brigham Young’s actual desk. Over there are some dishes he ordered but never got to use because he died first. And over here, you will see a picture of a lion. The lion is there because Brigham Young’s nickname was the Lion of the Lord. He was called that because he was never afraid to share his testimony. In his honor, I’d like to share my testimony now.”

She looked straight forward, not at anyone, just through us all. “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this church is true. I believe there are prophets who walk the earth today and who give us new scripture, like that in the Book of Mormon. I believe in the atonement of Jesus Christ. If any of you feel nice feelings of peace in your heart and would like to learn more about the church, we could gladly give you a free copy of the Book of Mormon on your way out. Now please, follow me out the front door of the house here and feel free to come back anytime.”

As I walked out of the tour, I was laughing on the inside. The friend who attended with me, the one I had been showing around Salt Lake City, looked at me with wide eyes.

“What. Was. That. Like what actually was that?”

And I could only laugh because, although this was all very familiar to me, a manifestation of the culture I had grown up in, I still had no idea how to answer him. I could only think of how differently I would have seen all of this ten years before.

So instead, I turned to him, put a false smile on my face, stared out into nothing, and said, “Welcome to Salt Lake City. Would you like to learn about my church?”

the unintentional hypocrite

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before i went on my first date with a man, i did marriage counseling for dozens and dozens of couples

before i knew what i wanted to do with my life, i successfully completed six years of college with a 3.8 grade point average

before i considered myself authentic, i wrote hundreds of pages of journal entries and poems exploring my soul

before i knew how to tell my story, i published a book

before i had my first real kiss, i had a successful marriage to a woman, and everyone thought we were the perfect couple

before i knew what being mentally healthy was, i was the director of a community mental health center

before i understood my own spirituality, i completed a two year dedicated missionary service and baptized several into the faith i was born into

before i understood how to take care of myself, i was taking care of two sons who required my everything

before i lived well, i merely lived

 

 

Minty, Harriet, and Moses

Her parents called her Minty. Their names were Rit and Ben, and they only met because their mutual owners had married each other, placing the two on the same plantation. Minty knew who her mother and father were, but she didn’t belong to them, she belonged to her white owners. In her younger years, she was fed and clothed and housed, an investment for a few years later when she would be required to work for her masters, like the other pieces of property she lived among.

Rit’s mother, Modesty, had crossed the ocean on a slave ship the generation before. Rit herself would work mostly as a cook and would go on to have nine children, Minty being one. Three of Rit’s daughters were sold to other white owners and never seen again. When a man came to take away Rit’s youngest son, Moses, Rit hid him for an entire month, and she threatened to split the head of her owner if he took her son away, though she could have been whipped or killed for her resistance.

As a young child, Minty was loaned out to a white woman named Miss Susan, who had a new baby. Minty was whipped when the child cried, even at night, and whipped again when she couldn’t clean something to Miss Susan’s liking. As an old woman, decades later, Minty could still show others the scars she still bore from those beatings she received as a child. Minty was regularly beat as a child by her white masters. As a young teenager, one man hit her so severely with a metal weight upon her head that it did permanent brain damage, leading others to believe she was slow. For the rest of her life, Minty had headaches, seizures, and powerful dreams and visions. She was only 5 feet tall.

A deeply religious woman who believed in deliverance, Minty spoke often to God and believed that he answered. She saw her father join the ranks of free black man living around them when he reached the age of 55, he having been manumitted, or set free by his previous owner through a stipulation in the will. Minty’s mother was later freed by her husband, who purchased his wife’s freedom for $20, hard-earned.

Minty married a free black man named John Tubman, and she changed her name from Araminta, for which Minty was short, to the more Christian name, Harriet. Free black men and women lived all around the slaves in their community, there for the slaves to watch and envy. Harriet knew that any children she had would be born into slavery despite the free status of her husband, based on her laws at the time. Considered of low value because of her health struggles, Harriet faced being sold to another plantation in the deeper South and away from family, and instead she risked her very life and chose to run. Using the informal Underground Railroad, she found help from slaves, free men, and abolitionists like the Quakers and, avoiding the slave catchers, found her way to the free North.

Within a few years, Harriet became known as a veritable legend, a secret woman who led escaped slaves through the wilderness with her quick and careful pace and her gospel songs. Harriet soon became known as Moses, leading her people from captivity to the promised land: freedom. Though most of her adventures remain private, it is estimated she guided several dozens of slaves to freedom, and none of them were ever recaptured.

Harriet saved fathers and mothers, children and infants, who she sometimes had to drug during the long journey so their cries wouldn’t alert nearby slave hunters. She saved some of her family members, those who wanted saving, including brothers and nieces, but her husband married another woman (and was later killed by a white man in a dispute). It was only decades later that Harriet gave interviews about her time on the Underground Railroad. She shared only a handful of stories, highlighting the hopes and the dangers.

Moses planned her escapes in the uncomfortable winters, when slave hunters would not want to follow, and she generally left on Saturdays, since missing slave notices wouldn’t show up in the newspapers until Monday. She hid and slept during the day, and walked endlessly at night, over hundreds of miles, dozens of times, to the North, often all the way to Canada. Moses blended into crowds when she needed to, using disguises and props to lower suspicions. She carried a revolver for protection, and would threaten to kill any slaves who wanted to turn back as that would put the entire group at risk.

Years later, during the inevitable Civil War, Harriet provided intelligence to abolitionists and even lead armed assaults in a battle or two, saving thousands more lives. While on a military trip, white men in a train assaulted her, breaking her arm.

In her older years, Harriet was lauded as a hero, but she lived most of her life in poverty, giving much of what she had to others. She married Nelson Davis, two decades her junior, and they stayed married for decades, even adopting a child. Harriet went on to fight for women’s right to vote alongside Susan B. Anthony and others.

Harriet Tubman died when she was in her early 90s. Despite her poverty status, she inspired the opening of a home for the elderly who were in poverty.

The 5 feet tall disabled black girl grew up being beat by masters, told she was worthless and never good enough, and she went on to save hundreds of lives. Heroes show up in the most unlikely of places, and I am thrilled to call Harriet Tubman one of my heroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Chastity? What’s that?”

“Well, do you masturbate?”

“Um, I don’t know what that is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honorifics: a complicated prayer to a complicated god

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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.

Muslims at my Door

Saudis watch a religious program in Riyadh

A man with a thick dark beard and a white and red checkered head covering talked briskly on the television screen, crisp clicks and beautiful trills a part of his Arabic language. Curly curved Arabic letters adorned the bottom of the screen, looking to my American eyes a bit like how a child would draw a fire or water, or a swift rippling cursive.

I watched the man speak for a few moments, listening to the lovely language with no context for what it might mean. The camera shifted to two other men, in similar garb and with similar beards, who laughed and continued speaking. Then the camera shifts to a long-distance view of a sports field, and numbers flashed across the screen, reporting scores and victories. I realized the television show was some sort of sports commentary, perhaps a Saudi Arabian version of ESPN.

My Saudi house guests looked over at me, noticing me in the kitchen. Both college students from Saudi Arabia, now living in the American midwest for several years, Ibraim and Nasser were in my home for the week as Airbnb guests, visiting the west coast on a road trip over their school holiday. Ibraim was 21, tall and lanky with thick black hair and a short mustache and glasses. Nasser was 23, heavyset with large hands and large features. Ibraim was quiet and thoughtful, Nasser more loud and boisterous with an infectious laugh.

“Is our television show offending you?” Nasser asked.

I smiled broadly. “No, of course not.”

“It’s just that it is in Arabic,” Ibraim looked up.

I turned back to putting away the groceries. “Well, that is very easy to tell.”

“And this does not offend you?”

“Of course it doesn’t. You can watch Arabic shows in my home and you can speak Arabic here, why would that bother me?”

Nasser rested his hands on his stomach and laughed. “Well, it is not your language. We would not want to make you uncomfortable.”

I shrugged. “I don’t understand it, but it doesn’t make me at all uncomfortable. Make yourselves at home, honestly.”

Ibraim relaxed back into the sofa. “Many Americans aren’t so tolerant.”

My mind shifted to recent media reports of Islamaphobia, and how often it was showing up on the news. I thought of all the recent mass gun killings by mentally ill Americans and how they seem to be shrugged off, yet how when one Muslim couple shot many others, the Muslim religion was blamed, automatically associated with terrorists and the Taliban and Isis. I thought of the support going toward Donald Trump, who threatened to ban all Muslims or to require them to wear identification on their clothing, like the Jews in World War II Germany with the Star of David.

And then I looked back to these two young men, bravely seeing America on their own, who were nervous to watch Arabic television in the home they were staying in. Both of them literally around the world from their homes, families, and communities, one of them studying to be a doctor and the other an engineer. When they had first checked in, they had asked detailed questions about the things there were to do in Salt Lake City. They asked about ski hills and cuisine, about the Mormon temple, about local parks and bars. When they ate at a local Middle Eastern restaurant, they had come in raving about the food. When they spent a day snowmobiling, they were both beaming when they returned, and Nasser declared the event “the best day of my life!”

I thought about asking them about their experiences in America, wondering how well they were treated, but decided it against it. Instead, I listened to the Arabic on the television, listened to the laughter of my house guests, and finished putting away the groceries.

“Did you have a busy day?” Ibraim asked.

“I did. I worked a lot. What about you guys, what did you do today?”

Nasser muted the television again. “Oh! We went down to the Mormon temple for a tour, as you recommended. It was very beautiful. Some of those female missionaries approached us and we politely declined their tour. I must admit, I know very little about Mormons.”

I took a seat. “Well, they probably know less about Muslims.”

Ibraim joined the conversation again. “I understand very religious communities like this one. A lot of religious cultural influence. Although I suppose it happens more pervasively in small towns than in big ones like this. That is how it is in Saudi Arabia. The religious culture there is everywhere, but in the larger cities there is more people and culture, more room for diversity. In the small towns, they remain very traditional.”

“That’s a very good way to put it. Salt Lake City has much more diversity. Many of the smaller local towns have a lot more religious influence on family and community.”

Ibraim and Nasser told me a bit about their families, and I told them a bit about mine, talking mostly of my sons. They mentioned their plans to wait to marry and have families until they were finished with college in a few years. We talked about their adapting to the small midwestern university they were attending, and how they had grown accustomed to it now, and they talked about both missing home and being glad to be away.

Soon, both of the young men went to bed, and I looked over to see the television still on, a beautiful Muslim woman in a head covering, speaking, and I thought about how little I know of Muslims, a religion that makes up one fifth of the world’s population, and how I really should take the time to learn more.

Nasser came back out to turn off the television, smiled, and bid me a simple good night.

I shook his hand. “It’s a pleasure to have you in my home, Nasser.”

He closed the bedroom door and I thought how these young men and I have far more in common than we have different.

Dr. Phil and the Critics

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“I was watching television one day, Dr. Phil was on, and I saw one of those advertisements. ‘If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, call the Dr. Phil Show now, we want to hear your story.’ And I thought, ‘well, my husband is abusive’ and so I called. They took down a bit of my story, and a few days later a really nice lady calls me back, her name is Stephanie. She’s sweet and supportive. She asks me a lot of questions about me and my family and situation. And she checks on me a few times, saying that at some point she would like to get me one of their shows for a special about abused women.”

My friend Liz look sat me from across the table, taking a sip of her bowl of soup. We are in a small town diner, just a few miles from where she lives. A few minutes ago, a woman had walked up to her and, with a look of disgust, said “I hate what women like you stand for” and then walked away. I had, of course, asked why the woman had said that. Now Liz was explaining.

“So eventually they scheduled a time for me to go out there. They offered me a free plane ticket, a stay in a nice hotel. I mean, it’s New York City, how could I turn that down? I had a nice meal, explored the city a bit, got my hair and makeup done, and then they took me over to the Dr. Phil stage. Stephanie greeted me, gave me some instructions, and I was shown on the stage in front of a live audience. There were a few other women there. Dr. Phil came out. He hadn’t even met me before. And he was a huge jerk. He was disrespectful. He read some stuff off of cue cards about me, asked me a few really personal questions, and made a comment about how ‘women like you’, about how we let ourselves and our kids get abused. The audience clapped sometimes, booed sometimes. Then it was over. They sent me on a plane back home.”

I nodded, listening to her story with fascination. I had, of course, seen daytime television shows, but had never given much thought to the people or production behind them.

“So the show aired a few months later. And my town went nuts. I got mean letters in the mail, dirty looks, nasty notes left on my front door from some. From others, I would get hugs from strangers, random advice, disgusting looks of sympathy. After a few months, though, I just became the person people would whisper about. I’d walk into a room and people would be like ‘there is that lady who was on Dr. Phil’ and someone would walk up to me and say horrible things like ‘I bet you like it’ or ‘you need a real man’ or ‘how could you go on television and be disrespectful to your husband like that’. It was terrible. There were several months where I didn’t even go out.”

My stomach felt ill for her. “Liz, geez, that’s terrible. How long has this been going on?”

Her skin went pale and she pursed her lips in disgust. “Six years. I should probably just move at this point.”

_____________________________________________________

I have thought about Liz a lot of times over the years. Everyone is a critic. Every time we read a news story or a Facebook status or hear a headline, we form opinions. As a society, we talk about it and discuss it. I have a lot of opinions, and when the opinions of a person don’t match my opinions, I have opinions about that.

We share, and opine, and criticize, and confront, and lambaste strangers over the most sensitive of topics. In recent headlines, for example, women’s right to health care, immigration, gay marriage and religious freedom are topics that are thrown around right and left. People insult blindly, support blindly, and use hard words. Rarely, however, am I at the center of all of this.

Yesterday, I wrote an open letter/blog post called “Dear Mormon Leaders” and posted it on my Facebook page. I expected the post to reach a few hundred people. Some of my blog posts, even those I’m most proud of, only get a few dozen reads. This one, for some reason, has been widely shared and re-shared, with over 7500 reads in 24 hours. I have had dozens of Email, Twitter, and Facebook messages. At the last view, the majority of the readers were based in the United States, Canada, and north-western Europe, but isolated hits in smaller countries began showing up, from Israel to Barbados, Kenya to Antigua. My  mind was spinning in all of this.

And then private messages started showing up in my inbox, dozens of them, strangers with opinions acting as critics. I thought of my friend Liz as I read through them.

Many were positive:

“Chad, thank you for your words. I have a transgender teenager that I have been very hard on. Reading this helps me see things from a new perspective.”

and “I’m a gay Mormon in an isolated place. I’m not out. I felt like I was alone. These words give me strength.”

and “Your words echo my feelings. If only the leaders I believe in could be just a little bit kinder.”

And many were sheer ugly:

“No matter how many hateful words you spout about the chosen leaders of God, you will never convince the church to accept sinners into its ranks. God’s policies do not change, and if you can’t follow the commandments of God, you are a sinner. You had your chance to accept God’s truth, and you only get one. You’ll see on the judgment day.”

and “So you had an abusive father. Now you think everyone is abusive. Way to be a grown up.”

and “Making up unsubstantiated rumors about teenager suicides is disgusting. Rumors are just that: rumors. The truth of God is unchanging.”

And then there were the private ones. “I have considered taking my life recently” and “my son killed himself years ago. If only I had known” and “I attempted suicide in November. Thank God I lived.”

______________________________________________________

Meanwhile, I’m going about my day. I drank coffee, read a book, and played with my sons.

And in my head, on a loop, are the lyrics to Anna Nalick’s song, Breathe. 

2 AM and I’m still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer inside of me,
Threatening the life it belongs to
And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you’ll use them, however you want to