I am writing this blog entry on the heels of a category 5 social media firestorm. And, as I sit at my desk and observe the flooded mess left on my Facebook wall, it is with a heavy heart that I must say goodbye to my friends on social media. I guess “Facebook suicide” is not the most accurate term to describe it. More like “Facebook bankruptcy.” But in any event, I have come to the realization that my alternative perspectives on Mormonism (namely my hopes that our Church may one day come to accept alternative interpretations of Mormon history, and place less emphasis on prophetic authority and more emphasis on Christian living) will only continue to incite controversy, and fail to persuade my friends. And before I leave, I hope to share some personal thoughts that I haven’t quite had the courage to share previously.
As far as I can remember, my spiritual awakening began at the impressionable age of 13. I was among a large group of rowdy boys who made up the Willow Canyon First Ward Deacon’s Quorum. Some of us managed to keep it together more than others, but as a group we were a serious wrecking crew. The girls hated us and we loved it. And we went through sunday school teachers like Donald Trump goes through catchphrases. One leader only lasted two weeks before he lost it and lifted one member of our group by the neck and pinned him against the classroom wall.
You could imagine what scout camp was like. My dad was the Scoutmaster, and god bless him for it. I have yet to meet anyone who can match him in patience. His mild demeanor was endearing to all of us. Even today my First Ward friends will comment on how much they admire and love my Dad. He would keep us in check without us even noticing it.
There are many things I’ve forgotten about the summer camp of my 13th year, but one thing I haven’t forgotten is the Friday night fireside. It was the only time I can ever recall where all of us sat reverently, quietly, on our own volition, huddled around a blazing fire. Scoutmaster Dad invited us to share our testimonies (our personal conviction of the truth of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ). Everyone shared and we were all a crying mess.
My most poignant memory of that evening came when my friend Nate shared his testimony. Nate wasn’t at last year’s fireside because his dad pulled him out of camp early to go see a college football game. (Nate and his dad will both deny the fact that it was a BYU game, as they have since converted to Ute-ism.) I remember always worrying for Nate’s soul. His family didn’t follow all of the conventions of Mormonism like the rest of us. They drank Coke before it became generally accepted, his dad didn’t wear a tie to church, and Nate listened to alternative rock music. (It’s funny looking back how I saw all of these things as warning signs.) The point is that I remember being disappointed that Nate had missed out on our first testimony meeting because I felt like he could have really benefited from it.
I was excited for Nate to be with me that night to experience the warm glow of the fire and the bonds of Mormon fellowship. And it worked perfectly. I was even surprised to see Nate cry. He had never shown that side of himself before. And when he finally shared his testimony, of course, I completely fell apart.
But the thing is, Nate didn’t bear witness of the restored gospel. He didn’t say a word about Joseph Smith or Gordon B. Hinckley, or the Book of Mormon. He talked almost exclusively about how much he loved Scoutmaster Jack, and us, his fellow scouts, and how glad he was to be there with us around that warm fire. Even today, after 20 years, a marriage, and four children, experiencing that evening with Nate and Dad and all of my best friends was one of the most intimate human connections I have experienced in my entire life.
I continued onward in my Mormon life, and from that and other experiences, I recognized early on that we had something special. Our ward felt and functioned like a family. We created cherished memories together on a regular basis – block parties, Pioneer Day fireworks, Christmas programs, Bishops Youth Firesides, and field days. We knew each other’s secrets, shoveled each other’s driveways, supported one another financially, raised each other’s children, and buried our dead.
The governing leadership of the church was a natural extension of my ward family as well. We had a prophet and twelve apostles. We would memorize their names and order of seniority in Primary. We would hear romantic stories about their childhood among their own ward families, and how their experiences shaped them into the great men they had become. President Hinckley exhibited all of the characteristics of my own grandfather and local leaders. And I loved him that way. Hinckley was an important figure in my life for two decades, and I grieved when he passed away.
My treasured moments continued to pile up – going on a mission (the ultimate rite of passage), and dedicating every last ounce of effort to the Lord for two years. More friendships, more human connections, more intimacy. Then back home to BYU. More testimony meetings, more firesides, ward prayer nights. And then marriage and children, baby blessings, primary programs . . . more connections, more love, more “crying mess” moments, all within the Mormon framework, all 100% authentic.
What an absolutely wonderful, idyllic life.
And It begs the question. Why would I ever desire to leave this life behind? Why would I want anything other than this for my children?
And the answer is perfectly obvious. I don’t want to abandon it. I don’t want my children to experience anything less. The thought fills me with anguish, to the point that all I can do is close my eyes and take myself back to that quiet night in the Uintah mountains sitting in front of a warm flame, listening to Nate talk about how much he loves his boy scout troop.
In my youth, belonging to the Church was easy. I did not trifle with its teachings. They seemed to be natural expressions of my rich experiences–forever families and brotherhoods are lovely ideas. But as I ventured from my Sandy home to other strange places where I did not share a common heritage with my neighbors, friends, and professors, I noticed something peculiar. I experienced moments not unlike that fireside moment with Nate that were outside of the Mormon world. These moments occurred on my mission with good people who nevertheless rejected our messages. And at happy hours in Austin with my law school classmates. These interactions were equally rich and meaningful.
One particular example stands out to me as I write this. Liz and I attended the wedding of a close friend this summer. The groom’s parents immigrated to Florida from Pakistan 20 or so years ago, and the bride came from a Golden Gopher hockey-loving family in Minnesota. As we watched our odd-couple friends pledge their loyalty to one another at the feet of a female minister in the name of nothing more than love and virtue, I was overwhelmed by the power of the ritual, in all of its simplicity, absent of any appeal to a higher authority. I noticed the groom’s mother, dressed in her sari, a little weepy. She seemed to worry over the loss of the religious tradition and culture represented by this moment, as her son, thousands of miles from her Pakistan home, made his wedding vows dressed in a gray suit and wingtips.
Her inner conflict seemed to escalate as the dancing began, to the sound of an excellent hip hop cover band. Dear mother was a fish out of water, it seemed. But about an hour in, I noticed our bride and groom were missing from the dance floor. And a moment later I looked up to see my friends descending the Racquet Club staircase, dressed head to toe in elegant traditional Hindu robes, turbin and all. And I held back tears as I watched my dear friend dance with his weeping mother. It was an image I will never forget – a mother and son, who seemed to be drifting apart on two different ships traveling in opposite directions, coming together and recognizing that heritage is much more than culture or beliefs. It goes much deeper than that.
This sort of revelation probably confuses my Mormon readers. Something so simple and obvious shouldn’t shake one’s testimony. “We only add to the truth and goodness that is already out there,” they will say. But I can’t accept this any longer. I’ve come to believe that revelation does not come to us in 1s and 0s, like a switch. It is not just a universe of information streaming to us on spiritual wavelengths. No, to me revelation is like a scenic view. There is nothing to be added to it. It is something to be cherished exactly for what it is.
Moments like this have awakened me over time, as I have discovered that life’s meaning comes from these small intimate moments, rather than from my faith in the foundational teachings of Mormonism. I began to value my membership more for the personal relationships I was able to build at church, rather than for the Church’s teachings. And to be honest, I found it increasingly difficult to support a complicated belief system of golden plates, ex post facto priesthood restoration narratives, conflicting accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, illegitimate papyrus translations, underaged plural wives, and blood oaths. For a few years, I did my best to plug the holes with dubious explanations or even the possibility of mythic truth. But eventually, I discovered that, for me, there was no point in trying to justify this entire balancing act. True or not, prophets and the Book of Mormon don’t tell me anything my conscience doesn’t already reveal about how to live a good life. True or not, Joseph Smith’s revelations, detailed as they may be, don’t give me any hope for happiness in the afterlife other than what I have already found in my personal relationships. For me, the only real utility those beliefs provided was to support the Church’s claims of divine authority to proclaim teachings that did not sit well with my conscience.
I hope you won’t think me bitter or small minded for saying what I’m about to say. As good as the Church may be, as lovely as its fruits may be from time to time–the Mormon Messages, the primary programs, the endearing conference talks, and the family values–the reality, for me, is that it is not what it claims to be. I don’t believe in a god who sends down angels with golden books about a civilization that never existed. I don’t believe in a god who arranges plural marriages by order of an angel with a flaming sword. And I don’t believe in a god who reveals truth and understanding through a single man or group of men in Salt Lake City.
Truth is found in a much more humble place, hidden in the small, everyday moments we have as we go about interacting with one another. It’s found in bedtime rituals, text message conversations, at the dinner table, in the bleachers at the local high school football game, and in the checkout line at the grocery store. In these little moments, our interactions produce friction and heat, which rises up into the atmosphere where condensation occurs. Then, almost without notice, truth distills and percolates upon our souls. It is so delicate that it cannot be spoken in words, or written in a book. To try to do so would be careless. The best we can do is describe these little moments to one another and hope that others will feel what we felt.
Love, compassion, understanding, grace. These are the building blocks of truth, and they are used in church and boy scout camps, but also in a thousand other places. What more can be said about living a full, authentic life, than this? What more can we say about the afterlife other than that from our little interactions, relationships emerge that would seem to endure forever? In my opinion, nothing more can be said. Any talk of heaven or hell, and the various kingdoms in between, of eternal families and ministering angels, and judgement. To me, all of this is mere speculation, masquerading as truth, which may be harmless to a degree. But eventually, our loyalty to these ideas will be to the exclusion of a much richer and broader understanding too valuable and delicate to be canonized.
Heritage is a precious thing. The most difficult part of setting out on my own is finding a way to preserve my heritage for my children. I often feel like the way I expect my pioneer ancestors felt as they packed their handcarts, trying to decide what to bring and what to leave behind. (An image I discovered courtesy of Carol Lynn Pearson.)
Speaking of heritage, I penned the following poem a few weeks ago while on a plane. To me, the subtle, insignificant ways in which God reveals her majesty, is one of life’s most fascinating paradoxes. Life is absolutely beautiful.
My neighbor’s garden, green and fair,
Is something to behold.
Weeded, trenched, and mulched with care,
With drip lines down the rows.
Tomato vines grow to the north
With peppers to the south,
The rhubarb lies there tucked away
Where it won’t be crowded out.
Some find peace in rows and fences,
There’s solace in the shade.
But beyond the hedge a broad, green hillside waits,
Where the smells of mint and milkweed rise unbridled.
There, the senses yearn to grow,
Taking root in sunlight as it glances off the stream,
And in the timid sound of a thrush stirring in the trees.
The scratch of scrub oak on my thigh.
The sharp stench of spruce sap on my hand.
There, by accident, something percolates.
And extempore, it beckons.
As order yields to inspiration.
PS, I’m not committing virtual suicide as much as I am converting to a more fitting medium. I will be continuing my virtual life via Instagram, where you are welcome to follow me. You may also check in on me here at my blog from time to time, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Much love.