Is Truth Optional?

A number of events over the past couple of weeks has me contemplating the importance of truth. Specifically, how important is truth when it comes to storytelling, history or religion.

Augustine-Quote

A few weeks ago, Kim and I attended an event where Carol Lynn Pearson discussed her book, Ghost of Eternal Polygamy. I haven’t read the book but was interested in the topic because polygamy was one of the first major issues I had with my church.

I knew Brigham Young married a lot of women, but I was shocked when the church admitted that Joseph Smith married at least 30 women, some as young as 14 and about 10 who were already married.

The bigger question I’ve considered is this: Is it worth investing my time and resources in a church that plays so loose with the truth?

I wish the LDS church had come clean with all the unsavory parts of their history before the internet came along and forced their hand. Put it all out there. And then allow each person to decide if it’s worth the investment the church asks of them.

One of my frustrations since leaving the church is that some friends and family assume I was looking for any reason to leave the church. They assume I lost my testimony or could not resist that Starbucks iced mocha.

But I didn’t lose anything. I gained knowledge and can speak to the history of the church in much greater detail than I could as a young missionary. I was willing to go wherever the truth took me, even if that meant out of the church. I didn’t select my desired destination and then search only for evidence that supported my decision.

That’s what I’d like my friends and family to understand. Truth matters more than feelings. Every member of every religion feels their church is the true one. Good feelings can come from reading a book, watching a movie or listening to music. How some religions tell their followers that feelings substantiate truth is absurd to me.

Especially when you say you are the only church on earth that has all the truth.

Be willing to demand the truth. And let it take you wherever it leads. In the long run you’ll be better for it.

Raising Children Outside of Mormonism

One thing I’ve noticed since stepping away from religion is how many choices I allowed it to make on my behalf. One quote I heard while I was a teenager: “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” In other words, you’re free to make your own choices, but the leader of the church has already decided what you should do…so choose wisely. I didn’t need to spend a lot of time figuring things out on my own because God’s prophet had already told me what to think and how to act.

For most of my life, I believed that prophets were directly called by God. I believed they spoke with God and were given important advice for them to pass along to his followers on earth. This advice would find its way into talks given each week at church, manuals from which lessons were taught as well as magazines and videos published and produced by the church.

There are few topics which prophets and other church leaders haven’t covered such as what activities are appropriate on the Sabbath, why Coke was OK but coffee was evil, and how many earrings are appropriate for women (one pair) to wear. And as a parent, it was easy to default to church policies instead of discussing it to see if it made sense for our family. That recently changed when the topic of dating came up in our home.

Mormons are taught at an early age that 16 is the proper age at which boys and girls can begin dating. So when our oldest daughter, who is 15, mentioned that she was going to be asked to the high school prom, Kim and I had a decision to make. If we were still attending church, the debate would be over.

Instead, something really cool happened. Kim and I discussed how we felt about our daughter attending the prom. We gathered more details about her date, her transportation to the dance, and the post-dance activities. We talked openly about the evening with our daughter. In the end, we didn’t see a problem with her going to the prom before she turned 16 and gave her permission to do so.

This is just one example of how things have changed over the past couple of years. I don’t blame the church or its leaders because they are trying to be helpful and provide general guidance to their followers. I don’t plan to throw away everything I learned as a Mormon. I still feel that dating in groups at young ages is wise, even if I don’t believe there’s anything magical or sacred about the age 16.

But Kim and I know our daughter better than any prophet or church leader, and we are in the best position to advise and guide her through her teenage years. This experience has made me reconsider a number of topics on which the church takes a particularly harsh and vocal stance. One of those issues is the church’s stance on homosexuality. I was taught it was a choice and an abomination before God, and I’m happy our children won’t grow up hearing such harmful language in church.

The good news is that our nation is growing more accepting of groups who have been historically marginalized. We’ve got a long way to go, but I like what I’m seeing in our youth who hear about the church’s stance on some social issues and wonder what all the fuss is about. Of course, everyone regardless of their sexual orientation should have the same rights as everyone else. Of course, women should have as many opportunities to serve in leadership positions as men do. And no, God didn’t place a curse of black skin on a group he deemed unrighteous no matter how many prophets claim such nonsense or how many times the curse is mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

These and other social issues are non-issues to most of the kids I meet. They strive to be accepting and loving and inclusive. Maybe one day the church will be just as progressive. But it’s too little, too late for our family. We’ve found happiness working through a number of difficult and complex issues together. Topics we thought were settled by the church are back on the table and open for discussion. It’s interesting that leaving the church has brought our family closer together.

Standing Outside the Temple

My grandparents on both sides of my family lived in Bountiful, or about 30 minutes from our home in Ogden, Utah. We visited them often. My grandpa Tingey was the first person I knew who owned an Atari 2600, and I spent many hours sitting on my knees at a wobbly card table playing Asteroids, Combat and Blackjack.

While the Tingeys were Mormon, my father’s parents were not, and I understood this at an early age, because they committed a major sin: they drank coffee! I loved to smell the coffee as I entered their home, but was reminded how breaking God’s health law could have a lasting impact on my body and soul.

Tingeys would attend special church milestones such as baptisms and confirmations. When I turned 12-years old and was ordained a deacon, the Tingeys gave me a leather-bound bible for my birthday and a matching Book of Mormon for Christmas. My grandmother took the time to write a note on the first page of each book stating how much she loved me and how she hoped I’d get closer to Christ by reading each book. She was a loving grandmother who made me feel like I was the most important person in the world when we sat around her dining table eating Snelgrove’s ice cream.

While we spent more time at Tingeys, we also visited my other set of grandparents; the Nordquists. They lived in a humble brick home not far from Bountiful High School that had a steep driveway to the side of their home. When my father would park the car, I’d open the door and race up the stairs to ring the doorbell. My grandma would always open the door, and then call to my grandfather, who was often watching 60 Minutes or All in the Family in their dark basement. My grandma Nordquist was an amazing cook, and if we were lucky, she’d make roast beef with mashed potatoes with gravy. They also kept Coke in bottles in the basement. That might not seem like a big deal to most, but some Mormons in the 70s and 80s believed that beverages with caffeine were against the Word of Wisdom. My parents didn’t purchase Coke and neither did the Tingeys so getting a cold bottle of Coke was a real treat!

My grandparents have passed away, but I think of them often. And lately I’ve been thinking about how I treated my grandpa and grandma Nordquist.

I loved them very much, but I also felt sorry for them because they were not members of my church. At times I felt superior to them, although I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time. While I was attending the University of Utah, I often visited them. One time I stopped by after school and we talked about religion for a couple of hours. They both expressed to me how they felt excluded from activities and discussions because they were not Mormon. I went home that evening bothered by what I’d heard because I felt I’d talked to them openly about my mission to Germany and other aspects of my life. I wish I had opened up to them about my questions surrounding polygamy and some aspects of LDS church history that bothered me. I wish I had found the CESLetter in my 20s instead of in my 40s.

Looking back to that time, I can understand how they would feel excluded. My three sisters and brother were all married in LDS temples which means the Tingeys were able to witness and experience each marriage as it took place inside the temple. But the Nordquists could not and were left to stand outside the temple and wait for the ceremony to end before joining up for family pictures.

At the time I was married, I didn’t think about it. I felt superior and blamed my grandparents for not putting themselves in a position to witness our marriage in person. I’m embarrassed to admit I used to think this way.

Now that I no longer believe in the primary truth claims of the Mormon church, I wish I could apologize to my grandparents. I left the church after they passed away, and I wish I could speak to them today and tell them how much I admire them for standing by their convictions while raising children in Utah where the pressure to convert can be immense.

For so many years, I felt I had found the truth and was better off for it. I had been raised in a church that teaches its members they belong to the only true church in the world. Other churches might possess bits and piece of truth, but Mormons believe they have ALL THE TRUTH. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for alternative ideas about religion.

Today I realize my grandparents were many years ahead of me in recognizing no one church holds all the truth or recipe for happiness.

I take some solace knowing I carry on a part of them as I raise my children to be critical thinkers and be leery of anyone who claims to speak for God.

You Have a Choice

I was 10 years old when the Mormon church lifted its ban on African Americans holding the priesthood. I was happy yet very confused because I’d been taught at home and in church that God cursed them with black skin because they had not been as valiant before they came to earth.

Other people around the world also had dark skin, but only those of African descent were held to the ban. I don’t recall anyone mentioning what these people did to deserve this curse, but like a lot of other confusing Mormon doctrine, God would figure it out. Just have faith!

But the issue never really left me. I thought about it often over the next 20 years. And I would add a few more issues to this one. For example:

1. Why did we believe that Abraham was noble for being willing to kill his only son, Isaac? (I know this isn’t exclusively a Mormon belief, but it bothered me a lot.)
2. Why was pre-marital sex considered the sin next to murder?
3. Why was the role of women in the church so minuscule?
4. Why did Joseph Smith practice polygamy and polyandry?
5. Why did Joseph Smith marry a 14-year old girl?
6. Why was the LDS church on the wrong side of history when it came to social issues?
7. How did Mark Hofmann fool the prophet and apostles if they are in direct communication with God? Wouldn’t God give his prophet a heads up he was making major financial deals with a serial forger and killer?

These were a few of the issues I had with my church. But while they bothered me, I still felt I had to defend the church’s position and accept, that in time, God would explain it to me. When I asked church leaders about some of these topics, I came away feeling that the problem was with me. My mind was too small to fully comprehend the complexity of the issues. And even if I could make sense of of the doctine, it wasn’t required for my salvation. The church leadership counsels its members not to look too deeply into controversial topics like those above.

One major benefit that’s come from stepping away from the church has been the fact that I no longer feel the need to justify its positions. When the church released an essay detailing how Joseph Smith used a rock in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon, I watched as a number of confused friends and family rushed to defend their church, even if they had never heard of the rock-in-hat translation method. “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” was a common theme.

I had a similar feeling a couple of weeks ago when the church announced a change in policy for children of same-sex couples. Going forward, these children would not receive a blessing nor could they be baptized until age 18, and only after disavowing same sex relationships and marriage. To say that the new rules haven’t been met with excitement, would be an understatement, with the news of the changes hitting every major news outlet.

In years past, I would have lined up to defend the church’s position because that’s exactly what members are supposed to do. Members are asked to pray to confirm the marching orders the leaders give on behalf of the church. If you pray and receive an answer that contradicts, the prophets, guess who wins that battle? But I no longer feel the need to defend the church or any of their policies. I feel no pressure to explain away their racist policies of the past or their discriminatory policies of today.

I don’t want to minimize the hurt these policies have caused so many people, some of which I consider good friends, but remaining part of an organization that’s causing you pain is a choice. It’s seldom an easy choice. It can break marriages and tear families apart. I understand why people go through the motions and keep the peace for many years. I did the same for well over a decade until I could no longer take part in the charade. Reasoning and common sense were at war with the church teachings and something had to give. I decided my sanity came before any threat of missed blessings of assignment to a lower kingdom of glory.

I made a choice to remove myself from a church that was hurting people I care about. But mostly I stepped away from a church that was hurting me. I was getting dizzy from the number of mental gymnastics required to justify so many extraordinary (some might say, outrageous) truth claims. I was finally able to step back and ask myself, “Does that sound realistic?” or does that sounds like an organization using subterfuge?

There is one part of the same-sex marriage policy I do agree with and it’s the part where children must wait until they turn 18-years of age to be baptized. That sounds like a rule that should be in place for all children, not just those of same-sex couples.

You Are Not Alone

Leaving your religion can feel like a lonely solo journey. When I decided to halt my activity in the Mormon church I felt Chuck from Castaway, stranded on my own island. Living in a small town in Utah didn’t help my feelings of isolation. I joined a couple of Facebook groups full of people who were going or had gone through a similar transition. Many of them were confused, but most were angry. And that anger can be exhibited itself in ways that can feel combative or hostile to those who still believe.

Reading accounts of former Mormons who came out to spouses and family helped give me the courage to do the same. Telling Kim was stressful, but our marriage was strong. We’ve gone through tough times together and emerged with a stronger love for each other. I told her, “Well get through this.”

She listened while I did most of the talking that evening. I told her how I felt. I told her my research had brought me to a place where I could no longer accept the truth claims of the only religion I’ve ever known. Kim told me she wasn’t surprised, but I know that didn’t make it any easier to hear in such clear terms. I could no longer go through the weekly charade. I could no longer donate my time and money to an organization in which I no longer believed.

Kim remained calm, at least on the surface. What did this mean for our marriage? What would it mean for our children? Our future? We’d have to figure that out.

I spoke with a good friend a few days later. We’d served a mission together in Germany, and he told me that he no longer believed in the Mormon church. But he continued to attend each week to keep the peace with his spouse. I told him of my plans to tell my parents, and he advised against it. “You will only hurt them”, he told me. I heard his counsel, and then went home and wrote my father a letter.

I should have listened to my friend.

I’m not going to go into many details here, but my decision to leave the church has adversely affected all but a couple of relationships with my siblings and parents. I was the first of the kids to leave Utah, the last to have children and the first to leave the church. Three strikes and I was out. Families are the most important unit on earth, according to Mormon teachings. The family can be together after death, but only if every person does his or her part here on earth. By rejecting Mormonism, I was rejecting not only their church but the family unit that was supposed to last an eternity.

I knew the risks going in and have accepted the outcome of my decision to be open about my faith crisis. Some friends and family have told me to go about my business in private. Just walk away from the church and keep my mouth shut. It’s nobody’s business. Nobody cares.

But they are wrong in at least one regard: people do care. I’m not alone.

In the last 18 months, I’ve received dozens of emails and texts from people who have questions about the LDS church. Most of them still attend church each week but have nowhere to turn and nobody with which to discuss their concerns. Most are scared to share their concerns with their spouse. Some have told their spouse, but go through the motions for everyone else, as a way to keep the peace.

I’ve felt overwhelmed at times. People I care about deeply are asking for my advice on how to proceed through a field full of landmines and I have little guidance to impart. Kim’s side of the family has been wonderful, loving, and accepting. But my decision to leave the church has utterly torched relationships on my side of the family. “I’m batting .500 with family.” sounds reasonable in baseball terms, but provides little solace when dealing with those you love.

Yet I enjoy hearing from others with doubts similar to mine. These doubts come from people I admire. They are smart, thoughtful individuals who have been faithful members. But then they came across the church essay on polygamy. Or the one about blacks and priesthood. Suddenly their world is turned upside down.

Whatever the reason for their doubts, there are few avenues for sharing these doubts within a safe environment inside the church. Some who have taken their questions to bishops or stake presidents have left without their temple recommends or church callings. There’s just little room for doubt in a church that claims to be the one and only true church on earth. You’re either all in or you’re out. Critical thinking is seen as a sign of weakness in a world where faith and obedience are paramount.

If you are one of these people who have doubts or questions, know that you are not alone. If you could discern the thoughts of those sitting next to you in church, you’d realize that a number of them are going through a faith crisis in silence. Only you know when the time is right to share your thoughts with your spouse and your family. I’ve stumbled through that process, making mistakes along the way. But I decided that going through the motions was doing more harm than good.

If you would like someone to talk to, I’m happy to listen. Just know that I’m a better listener than advice giver. I’ve been asked many times what resources I studied, or what websites and podcasts helped me the most when searching for answers, and I’m hesitant to share everything I’ve studied over the years. I don’t believe that would be helpful and I don’t pretend that my route is the only route to take. Your research may confirm your beliefs, and that’s just fine. As President J. Reuben Clark said:

If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation.
If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.

I will mention one influential (and less controversial) resource because it affected me immensely: John Dehlin’s interview with Brent Metcalfe on the Mormon Stories Podcast. Brent worked as security at the church office building in Salt Lake City in the early 80s, and became an expert on the Book of Abraham and church history. His story is fascinating and touching and ultimately sad.

You are not alone. Keep searching for answers. Make connections with those in the same boat, and be willing to change course based on what you learn.

Serving a Mormon Mission in Germany

Leaving the MTC for Germany was an exciting time. I’d never been out of the country, and I was headed to a country to teach people about my religion in a language I could barely speak. But I was with a group of people I’d learned to trust and love, and I figured I’d be fine as long as I could have some contact with them and my family.

I was assigned to a small town named Siegen which was a 90-minute train ride from Frankfurt. When we arrived, the first thing I did was purchase a bike. It would be the first of three bikes that would be stolen over the next 22 months. My bike was light blue and had a basket on the back where I could tie down my man-purse which held a few Books of Mormon and my scriptures. Nobody looks cool riding a bike with a basket hanging off the back.

We spent our days going door-to-door begging anyone to listen to our message. I could speak only if asked about very specific church topics found in the discussions, which meant I didn’t say much during my first month. I could tell you why I didn’t drink coffee, but I couldn’t give you directions to the nearest coffee shop. On a good day, two people would let us in their homes. But even then few wanted to hear about our church. Many people were interested in America and wanted to hear us talk about any topic that wasn’t religious. I got asked a lot of questions about Micheal Jackson, Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. Germans would act surprised when I couldn’t share many details with them about the two deceased stars.

The first month of a mission is similar to having a first child: you recall a lot of details. Details about subsequent children and cities will fade, but you remember your first well. Our apartment was in a seedy area of town, right next door to a business named “Crazy Sexy” that sold a lot more than adult toys. I would wake up each morning to the store’s orange neon sign reflecting off my bedroom wall. I would lay in my bed, staring at the ceiling and ask myself, “What the hell am I doing here living next to a sex shop?”

Although the work was frustratingly slow, I enjoyed riding my bike around town and speaking to anyone who would talk to me. I craved connecting with someone besides my companion, which was difficult because my language skills were poor at this time. When transfer calls came, my companion was sent to another area and I remained in Siegen for another month. My next companion became one of my closest friends. Elder Shupe spoke German so well that many people we met assumed he was German or Austrian. I told him I was frustrated learning German, and he taught me a valuable lesson.

“Get up early and study”, he told me in his usual blunt style. I began getting up around 5am to jump-rope and study grammar. We went to the bookstore and I bought a German thesaurus. Elder Shupe spent hours grilling me with grammar and vocabulary words throughout the day. I enjoyed going to church because I could speak with the young children without feeling foolish. Every missionary that learns to speak another language has at least one embarrassing story of using a word or phrase incorrectly. While knocking on doors, a young lady answered the door in a towel. I apologized as best I could. She said she was getting ready to move and didn’t have time to speak with us. At least that’s what I thought she said. I asked if we could come in and help her, and she immediately slammed the door. My companion at the time was from Austria, and he doubled over in laughter. I was confused. When he settled down he told me that the woman had told me she had just got out of the shower, and I asked if we could come inside and help her get dressed.

Another time a woman asked me why there were no Mormon missionaries in East Germany. I tried to tell her that we were restricted from sending proselyting missionaries there. When she tried not to laugh, I realized I’d made a mistake. I had told her that we couldn’t serve in East Germany because we were retarded.

I’d heard stories from returned missionaries about how much they admired their mission president. Many viewed the president as a second father and kept in touch with him and his wife after returning home. I’d met the president and his wife briefly the first evening in Frankfurt. They seemed larger-than-life to me but I didn’t have a chance to get to know them. It would be another month or so before I’d see them at a zone conference. I was excited to say hello and stood in line to shake their hands. The wife of the mission president shook my hand, gave me an odd look and said, “Your hair is touching your ears. Get it cut.”

That one interaction sums up my impression of the mission president and his wife and would hold true for the duration of my mission. They were cold and intimidating. I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut or face their wrath. I learned to tell them what they wanted to hear and then use my best judgment, even when that conflicted with their rules. One such rule was that we were allowed to read our mail only on our preparation day (P-day). The work was depressing, and letters from my friends and family kept me optimistic from day to day. Of course, the mission leaders taught that if you’re not having success (baptizing Germans) it’s because God is withholding such blessings until all the rules are followed.

I would serve in ten cities and have 13 different companions while in Germany. I really enjoyed all my companions although a couple of them were more difficult than the rest. Some of them have become close friends. I also got to know a number of Germans who made lasting impressions on me. Most would not join the church, but that wasn’t as important to me as leaving them with a good impression of Americans and the church. Our second son, Kai, is named after a young man I taught and became good friends with.

About a year into my mission, I began to see a different side of the church that I’d not seen before. The church began to feel more like a business than a church. At every district and zone conference, it was drilled into our heads that the only measurement of success was how many people we could baptize. Handing out Books or Mormon and teaching discussions were merely a means to an end. We were not called to Germany to give service unless that service resulted in a convert baptism. In fact, we were not allowed to eat at member’s home unless we had an investigator (a person taking the discussions) with us. This single focus on baptisms came at the cost of connecting with people, and I occasionally felt like a robot that had been stripped of all compassion and empathy. Many times I was quick to dismiss a person because they were Catholic or Seventh-Day Adventist when had I slowed down, I might have learned something from them or helped them in some way. But numbers and quotas superseded humanity. We either committed the investigator to baptism at the end of the second discussion or we moved on to the next victim.

It was difficult to keep track of all the rules being added by the president each month. Most of them didn’t bother me much until a sister missionary sprained her ankle while jogging on p-day. Once that happened, the president said we were not able to participate in any activity we couldn’t do while wearing a suit and tie. This was the first rule I called BS on. Being able to play basketball or soccer allowed me to set aside the work for an hour and have fun. We also got to know a lot of youth which gave us the opportunity to teach a number of discussions. I didn’t look to intentionally break rules, but this is one exception. The mission president tried to lay it on thick by telling us that God had inspired him to make this rule change, but it was one revelation I couldn’t get behind.

I’m most proud of how I spent my time in Germany. But there is one experience I wish I could go back in time and change. The pressure to baptize was so great that at times it was suffocating. If you were not baptizing, you were being smacked over the head with questions from your district leader about what sins you were committing which was keeping god from blessing the companionship with baptisms. It was always the missionaries fault if the numbers were down.

One month I found myself in an area with a lot of Nigerian refugees who had fled their land to seek political asylum. These groups were comprised mostly of men in their early 20s, and they often spoke decent English. The mission president made it very clear that we’d been called to teach Germans. The assumption was that baptizing those seeking political asylum was not worth the effort because many would be sent back to their land of unrest, never to return to a country with a Mormon chapel. They were also poor and unable to tithe. Yet many of these Nigerians were eager to speak with us. While Germans tended to take a while to warm up to us, the Nigerians seemed thrilled to see us. So my companion and I began teaching rooms packed full of refugees. I don’t want to make excuses here. But most of our days were spent among people who didn’t want to speak with us, and when they did they often mocked us. One time a guy spit in my face while I worked at a street display and another time a teen tossed a beer bottle that hit me in the knee while I was riding my bike. It was flattering that these Nigerians wanted to hear our message. I can understand why this was appealing to two 20-year-olds.

One month the zone leaders came to visit and asked to meet with those we were teaching. I took them to meet a group of Nigerian men, assuming they would instruct us to stop teaching them. Instead, they saw rooms full of people who liked Americans and were willing to do whatever we asked them to do. The zone leaders wanted them baptized as soon as possible. I didn’t feel good about the idea, but I didn’t push back either. I don’t recall all the details, but the baptismal font was not available over the weekend we’d promised our zone leaders these men would be baptized. So my companion and I baptized them in a fountain in the middle of town. It was an absurd sight. All of us gathered around a city fountain dressed all in white. People were looking out their windows at us, and I remember feeling so sick to my stomach that I thought I would throw up right there in the fountain. It was terrible. I was disrespectful to these men, and I’m ashamed of my actions that day. They deserved better. The only good that came from this experience was that it kept the zone and district leaders off my back for the rest of my mission.

I also began to have some questions about the LDS doctrine, specifically details about how polygamy was practiced by the early prophets. I was also bothered by the story of Abraham and Isaac. I couldn’t understand why a loving God would perform such a cruel test on his prophet. I wrote my grandfather with these and other questions and decided I’d look into them more once I returned home. I knew little about other religions and had accepted what my parents had taught me as truth. One question I got asked a lot was why blacks could not hold the priesthood until 1978, and I had no answer. Well, I should say, I had no answer that wasn’t racist. It would be a few more years before I began to wonder why the Book of Mormon contained such strong racist themes and why women in the church were often treated like children.

Although there were many times I wanted to be back home, I never once seriously considered leaving early. I knew how much my parents had sacrificed to allow me to serve for two years. I served from 87-89 which was before the mission costs had been standardized. I believe my mission ran about $700 a month. I felt close to my parents while in Germany. My mom wrote me a letter every single week. My father wrote me at least once a month, and it was special to get a hand-written letter from him.

As my time in Germany wound down, I focused on spending more time with the members. Instead of having doors slammed in our faces for hours on end, we’d visit ward members and those who were less active in the church, but were friendly to us. Before long, they began inviting us to activities like indoor soccer and BBQs. Members began to trust us and would put us in touch with people to teach which is really how it’s all supposed to work. Although few joined the church, I met many kind and generous people.

In the end, I stayed out of trouble, met a lot of great people and made a lot of friends. I spent so much time studying German grammar that I decided to study the language when I attended the University of Utah. I eventually graduated with a B.A. in German in 1994. Although I’m no longer an active or practicing Mormon, serving a mission was a life-changing experience. Although “increasing the number of convert baptisms” is the mantra under which I served, I don’t believe it’s the primary reason the church strongly encourages young men (and now) young women to serve missions. I believe the primary reason is to take young men and women, often before they go off to college and learn critical thinking skills, and put them in an intense 2-year indoctrination camp where they come out more committed to the church than when they entered. Today’s missionaries are tomorrows leaders of the church.

I’m thankful I had the chance to serve when I did.

Preparing to Serve a Mormon Mission

Over the past 6 months, I’ve watched as our oldest daughter went back and forth about which high school to attend. She eventually decided to attend a smaller school that most of her friends will be attending. We discussed the different approaches to academics, orchestra, and other after-school activities, but her decision was primarily influenced by friends. Had most of them decided to attend another school, I have no doubt that’s where she would be.

In the mid-80s, I came to a decision to serve a mission in much the same manner as my daughter selected a school. I didn’t feel a lot of pressure from my parents to serve. They made it clear that it was my decision. I did feel peer pressure from my friends and had heard all the lessons in church about how serving a mission prepares young men for life. Nearly all the girls I dated in high school were Mormon, and if I felt any pressure to serve a mission it came from them. None of them admitted they wouldn’t marry a man who didn’t serve a mission, but it was implied. Or at least that’s how I took it.

As a graduation gift, I wanted braces and had them put on about 6 months before I turned 19-years old. I knew that I would not be able to enter the Mission Training Center (MTC) in Provo until my braces were off, or about 5 months after I turned 19. This allowed me to do two things: attend a quarter of school at Weber State College and further contemplate serving a mission. During this time I attended a Missionary Prep Class. I hit it off well with the instructor who was the father of a girl I’d been friends with for many years. During this time I also read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover.

Taking these preparation courses was a turning point in my decision to serve because I took them with several close friends. I couldn’t imagine hanging around Weber State College for two years while my friends were serving missions around the world. My first friend to be called on a mission was John Minnoch, who was serving in Portugal during this time. The couple of letters he wrote me were filled with positive experiences. Two more friends, Darin Bosworth and Daniel Ulrich, were also planning to enter the MTC around the same time I would be there. That we’d all be teaching the gospel at the same time was compelling.

I had taken four years of German in high school and figured that might play into where I’d be called to serve, so it wasn’t a surprise that I was called to Frankfurt, Germany. Darin was called to Brazil and I was thrilled to hear that Daniel and I were called to the same mission. It felt like God had a hand in the process. Any doubts about leaving home for two years were abated when I knew Daniel and I would be in Germany together.

About 3 months after my calling arrived, I was headed to the MTC.

The MTC is an odd place. I had heard so many different rumors about it that I was genuinely intrigued to experience it for myself. I was placed in a District of 10 men (Elders) and 4 women (Sisters) who would be serving in Germany or Austria. We spent at least 12 hours a day together studying, singing, playing basketball and cleaning toilets. It didn’t take long until I loved each of them. I missed my family, but I had joined another family of young men and young women who were there for the same reasons I was. They had the same insecurities, fears, and self-doubt I had.

I loved the MTC. I really loved it, even though I struggled to learn German. I was overconfident in my ability to learn another language and quickly fell to the bottom of our district in terms of language proficiency. But my struggles didn’t dampen my enthusiasm to be a missionary. I figured once I got to Germany, I’d pick up the language in a flash. As you will see in my next post, I was mistaken.

Although I loved the MTC, I had a few experiences that challenged my perception of the church. I assumed that I’d been called to serve in Germany because that’s where God wanted me to be and that my personality and way of teaching would mesh well with those I met, taught and eventually brought into the church through baptism. From the time I stepped into the MTC until the day I returned home, it was pounded into my head that I was called to “increase the number of convert baptisms.” I wasn’t called to make friends, tour the country, attend the temple or even render service. Everything I was taught was centered on the goal of convincing others be baptized a Mormon. In this regard, my personality or individual traits were not important. At times I wasn’t sure if I was part of a church or a military because obedience superseded everything. Rules such as what color of tie I could wear felt arbitrary, but I found out that wearing the wrong tie could get me kicked out of class.

Another part of my MTC experience is more difficult to discuss and might come as a surprise to those who are not familiar with the church’s obsession with chastity.

At least once, and sometimes twice a week, each member of our district was asked to step into the hallway to be interviewed by one of two instructors. One instructor focused on teaching German and the other spent most of his time teaching us how to teach the six discussions that cover the core doctrine of the church. Each time I was called out of class to be interviewed, I was asked a set of questions ranging from how I was getting along with my companions to the growth of my testimony. I was also asked if I had a problem with masturbation.

I didn’t think much about this last question the first few times it was asked. Missionaries must pass at least two worthiness interviews before entering the MTC. Both my bishop and stake president had already asked me if I was engaged in any sexual behavior with my girlfriend or myself. Since I passed both pre-MTC interviews, I didn’t understand why I was continually asked about masturbation at these weekly interviews by men just a few years older than myself. I began to wonder why my church was so obsessed with my sexual activity. And why they didn’t trust the answers I gave them? I have no idea if other missionaries in my district were asked similar questions. It’s not something I felt comfortable discussing with them at the time.

One last experience I want to share is about testimony. While at the MTC, each missionary is expected to have a firm testimony of God, Christ, Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. I was also expected to believe that the Mormon church is the only true church on earth, meaning the only church that is directed by God himself and therefore able to perform required ordinances in his name such as baptism and confirmation. I was raised in the Mormon church and knew little about other Christian religions let alone other world religions such as Islam, Buddhism or Judaism. I was taught at home and in church that other religions could have a fraction of truth to them and that they consisted mostly of honest believers, but they didn’t contain a fullness of the gospel like my church did. I believed that I had something most others did not, and my job was to take that message to Germany and help others understand the error of their ways.

Maybe every other week our district would assemble, often outside on the grass, and bear testimony to each other. Many tears were shed as my fellow missionaries knew that God was at the head of our church, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the Book of Mormon was true. Those were the core beliefs, and each of us was expected to witness of their truthfulness. No doubting allowed. I sat through these testimony sessions wondering if something was wrong with me because I couldn’t say I knew for certain these events were true. Unlike Joseph Smith, no angels had descended upon my bedroom at night. Neither god nor Christ had ever whispered in my ear that these doctrines were true. Some Mormon doctrines sounded realistic while others, such as Joseph digging up plates of gold, sounded more suspect. Why would god take the plates back and not leave them here for us to examine? Why was I being asked to believe the extraordinary claims of another man? It was all so confusing. Like my struggles learning German, I assumed that once I got to Germany, my testimony would flourish as I witnessed miracle after miracle. I believed I was on God’s errand. I was part of his army. Surely he would provide me with the same conviction and assurance he provided the rest of my district, wouldn’t he?

A week before I flew to Germany, each missionary in my district stood up and said they knew this and that doctrine to be true, beyond a shadow of a doubt. I sat on the grass, contemplating what I should say. Did I know anything for certain? Was I less of a person because I had doubts? Why did everyone else seem so confident in their beliefs while I had questions? When it was my time, I stood and said I hoped that one day I could say I know what they know to be true, but that I couldn’t say that today. I sat down in silence, wondering if I’d been too honest. Nobody quite knew what to say to me that evening, although most tried to offer their support, telling me I’d eventually be able to say “I know”. But I felt I had been true to myself that evening.

I flew to Germany having learned a lot about myself. Although I struggled to learn German, I was confident in my ability to teach others. I never once considered leaving the MTC to return home. I made a number of close friends I still keep in contact with today. When I think back to my time at the MTC, it brings a smile to my face because the good experiences far outweighed the bad.

I’ll cover the time I spent in Germany over the next post or two.

**I’m sharing my recollection of my mission mostly for myself but also for my children. I want them to know about this time of my life, and this allows them to learn a little more about their father. Each missionary experience is unique, and I don’t claim to speak for any other missionary, including those I served with.

My Early Years As A Mormon

I don’t remember a time when my parents told me I was a mormon. It was like being American or caucasian. I didn’t choose to be either of those, and being a mormon wasn’t a choice either. My parents were mormon, so I was mormon.

Most of our neighbors in Ogden, Utah were mormon as well. I did have a good friend named Ken Pretti whose family wasn’t mormon. I believe they belonged to the Catholic church. In church I was taught that it was best to stick close to people who believed the same things I did. When I was 10-years old Ken invited me to his home to play, and I was surprised when my mother said that was fine. Other than the coffee maker, I thought Ken’s home looked like any other I’d seen.

My parents made it clear at an early age that as long as I lived under their roof I would attend church each week. It was a non-negotiable. As I got into my teens I often used this rule as a way to stay out past my curfew by promising to get up for church the next morning. I got really good at balancing my chin in my hands and falling asleep during sacrament meeting.

I didn’t like attending church very much until I got into my teens. I didn’t understand why we had to hear the same stories over and over. I guess they figured repetition eventually wears down our minds to the point that anything they told us sounded true after a while. Around age 16, I viewed church as a place to socialize and looked forward to attending.

During this time I never gave much thought to whether what I was learning was true or not. The idea of a loving god made sense to me. Jesus sounded like a good guy, although the idea of him dying for my sins made no sense. But god and Christ are almost an afterthought in the mormon church I remember. Most of our lessons centered around the teachings of Joseph Smith, who was told by god in a vision that he shouldn’t join any of the churches in the early 19th century. Eventually Smith was shown the location of a set of golden plates which, once Smith translated, become the Book of Mormon. Every doctrine and truth claim of the mormon church hinges on the Book of Mormon being an authentic translation of the word of god. It’s the lynchpin of the church.

One summer our youth leaders challenged us read the Book of Mormon. Those of us who read it from cover to cover were taken to a fancy dinner in Salt Lake City. I would have been 15 or 16 at the time, and this was the first times I finished a book that wasn’t required for school. My favorite story of the Book of Mormon is when Ammon cuts off the arms of the thieves attempting to steal the king’s horses. I read that story over and over.

My mother was raised in a devout mormon family. My father was not, and became active in the church after meeting my mother in high school. My mother would often ask me what I learned at church which lead to discussions. My mom read from her Book of Mormon each day, as instructed by the church leaders. She seemed to know a lot about the church, although I don’t recall having many doctrinal discussions with her. I had no doubt she believed the church was as its leaders stated: the only true and living church on the face of the earth. I don’t remember my mom ever complaining about church.

While my mother was devout in her beliefs, I felt like my father gravitated to the church because he admired the organization and the structure. I felt the church provided a sense of duty in my father, and it’s one he took seriously. The church is also a patriarchal organization which suited my father well. I’m sure I had conversations about the church with my father, but I don’t recall any details from those conversations.

My parents expected me to take part in the major milestones of the church. I recall my father telling me how he and his friends would break into the church gym to play basketball, which I thought was cool at the time. I think he also talked to me about the church around the time of these milestones. I felt my parents encouraged me to be involved in the church, but never really forced it upon me. I mean, I had to attend church each week, but once I was home I could watch NFL football or whatever other sporting event was on TV. We were not an orthodox mormon family. Two sports I was not allowed to play on Sunday were tennis and swimming. But I could ride my bike or play kick-the-can with the neighbor kids. Once I began mowing lawns for money I would sneak over to McKay Dee hospital and purchase a Coke and Butterfinger.

I believe my parents thought that raising their children in the church would make them better individuals. For much of the time I’ve had children of my own, I could relate to this feeling. Today I have some major issues with the truth claims of the mormon church, but I have no doubt that it provides opportunities to grow and serve.

When I began dating, my parents never told me I had to date girls who were mormon. At church that point was hammered home though. My father was a teacher and coach at my high school from grade 9 thru 12 which made dating awkward at times. But my father was well liked by students, and he gave me space to enjoy that part of my life without any interference.

My parents didn’t put pressure on me to serve a mission when I turned 19, but I knew that not serving would disappoint them. My father didn’t serve a mission so I didn’t grow up hearing mission stories from him, and I commend my parents for allowing me to come to my own decision about serving a mission.

I’ll save details about my mission for tomorrow.

No Turning Back

How many time has someone told you that happiness is just a matter of being yourself?

It seems so simple. But I’m convinced we often don’t mean it. Or we mean it but only within a narrow range of behavior.

Schools, companies and churches reward compliance and attempt to categorize us based on traditional roles. Teachers reward a very narrow band of behavior. Companies reward predictable behavior. It seldom pays to rock the boat at work. Churches reward members who toe the line, and punish those who question why things are done a certain way.

I’ve spent most of my life being the person I thought my parents, teachers, friends, and church leaders wanted me to be. In high school I was rewarded by performing well in sports. I wasn’t expected to be a stand-out academic. When I was called to serve a mission, I assumed I should pack my personality because “being myself” would be the best way to meet and convert Germans to my beliefs. The first time I was dismissed in class I understood that what the church actually wanted was a doctrine spewing clone that never went off script.

Even as I write this blog, I’m aware that a few people come here expecting me to write a certain way and use language that’s not upsetting. Recently I’ve been told that I shouldn’t write about my beliefs because they are too personal and they upset others. This has never crossed my mind because I figured if what I wrote was upsetting anyone, they could stop reading what I write.

This blog is one place I can be myself. I’m OK that my children know where to find it and have enjoyed the questions they bring to me after reading it. They know I make a lot of mistakes. My son read my post about being married before and had some tough questions for me. I was caught off guard, but the result was a memorable discussion with my son who came away knowing a bit more about my life, even if it included periods for which I’m not proud.

I’m struggling to figure out what it means to be me. My entire belief system came crumbling down a year ago. It’s been challenging to pick up what pieces are left and see how they fit into my new life. My beliefs have ostracized family members and cost me a few friends which has been the worst part of it all. On the flip side, I’ve had a lot more people with similar theological struggles reach out to me and provide support. But most of them are looking for a sympathetic ear because they are in a situation where making their beliefs known could cost them their marriages.

But there’s no turning back. After nearly 5 decades of allowing people to define who I am, I’m taking a step towards being the person I want to be rather than the one others expect me to be.