Heaven or Hell?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned widely. “That sounds perfect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fairy Tale Fears

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I grew up expecting a bit of fear in my stories. All stories would be boring without a sense of anticipation and adventure. And every ounce of that tension was completely worth it because I absolutely knew that there was a payoff in the end, a happy ending. The heroes would definitely triumph, the villains would definitely be defeated (and sometimes killed).

When the giant chased Jack down the beanstalk, Jack chopped it down and the giant perished. The Big Bad Wolf was burned in the chimney, Goldilocks was sent running, Cinderella got the prince, and Frodo threw the ring into the pit. I loved these adventure stories and from my youngest possible age, I began writing my own. I’d plan sequels to my favorite movies, and I knew immediately, as young as ages 2 and 3, that every good hero needed a great villain to face.

I saw these same elements in the scriptures we read together as a family every week. The stories were sometimes deadly, sometimes gruesome, but they always ended with the people of God winning, after periods when it seemed all was lost. Nephi cut off the head of Laban to get the brass plates, and he constantly overcame the terrible things his brothers did to him. Even though no one listened to Noah as he preached to the wicked people, he built the ark and saved the animals and God killed every other human outside Noah’s family with floods. Abraham almost killed Isaac with that knife, but God stopped him at the last possible second, just to teach him the lesson.

And so, as I grew, I saw the world in black and white, in terms of hero versus villain. There were no shades of grey present. I was the hero. My family were the heroes. Mormons and our leaders and those in our history were the heroes. And the villains were bullies and criminals and those who stood against the things of God. It was Jesus on one side, Satan on the other.

But those terms of hero and villain, they applied inwardly as well. When I was good, following the commandments and the things of God, I was the hero, following Jesus. And when I was bad, not listening to the carefully established rules or allowing myself to be tempted, I was bad, there was something wrong with me, and Satan and his followers had a bit of a hold on me. God expected nothing less than perfection, and I realized very early on that that was going to be a big, big problem moving forward.

Even in early childhood, I began to realize that I was not like the kids around me. And it made me… well, afraid. Afraid that I would never be good. And that would mean I would have to pretend to appear good always, even though on the inside I knew I wasn’t. The evidence was all around me. My dad was sad all the time, my mom was stressed all the time. My brother was a bully and sometimes he locked the door of my room and… did things to me. My back hurt every day. I didn’t like the things that other boys did, like sports, instead I liked writing stories, reading, and creating things. And while other boys had crushes on girls, I had crushes on boys, and that, I knew, was the worst thing of all.

So if I was born broken, what did that mean? Was I a villain? Was I a flawed hero? Was I inherently bad and trying to be good, or was I so good that God saw it to give me extra challenges so that I could prove to him how good I really was? Could it be possible that I was both, hero and villain, even though since I was born Mormon I was supposed to be just the hero?

It was only later that I realized, perhaps in my late teens, that early childhood was supposed to be consistently about play, and learning about the world with curiosity. I was supposed to learn independence, answer questions about what I wanted to be when I grow up, and to begin learning. Instead, all of those childhood things happened, but under the weight of learning how to hide, how to keep secrets, how to feel broken, and while consistently wondering if I was good, or if I was bad.

As I look back, I realize how much the suspense of stories I was reading, those with the heroes and villains I sometimes hated to love or loved to hate, they allowed me escape. They let me out of my life and into an interior world of fantasy, imagination, and wonder that let me be free, be someone else. The heroes weren’t so complicated, and the villains were easy to identify. In time, that would turn into a deep and abiding long-term love affair with comic books, one that would bring me well into adulthood. Childhood story books turned into Saturday morning cartoons, and those turned into action figures and kids adventure stories.  As a teenager, I developed a love for drama, stories more about human relationships, parenting, and working through trauma. We are always adapting what we love, what we pay attention to, but they all represent escape, full of complex emotions that are not our own.

And all of them full of fear and suspense. But nothing like the fear that I was turning inward on a more constant basis, the fear that I would never be whole, never be healed, never be like the other boys. And it would take me a long time to realize that those very traits, the things that made me me, made me different, those are the very traits that would make me a hero. First, I had a lot of years of feeling like I was the villain.

First, I had to get very good at feeling afraid.