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 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 time 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.

The Price of Fidelity

Unfortunately, I’ve recently heard from a couple of readers of this blog who are dealing with a similar situation portrayed in this video. I can’t think of a single example where Mormon leaders should advise a man or woman to leave their family over differences in beliefs.

Feeling Truth

Two nights ago, I sat in a small auditorium waiting for my daughter to perform in her end-of-the-school year dance program. I don’t know much about dance. If the dancer’s movements are in sync with the music I’m satisfied.

My daughter’s group finally strolled onto the stage and began their routine. As they began dancing I noticed a smile grow across the face of my daughter. She was in her element, beaming ear-to-ear. As the rest of the girls stood back, Anna came to the front of the stage and performed while the spotlight shined on her face. She twirled, spun and floated across the stage and then faded back in with the rest of her group.

I felt a surge of pride inside my chest. But it was more than just pride. I felt immense joy watching my daughter do something she loves. Although I didn’t understand every technique or action she performed, I was moved to tears as the routine ended.

I’ve thought about this experience for a couple of days now and compare it the feelings I had when I was active in a church where I was told that feelings can confirm the truth of anything. Have questions about the Book of Mormon? Pray and ask god and he’ll tell you it’s true through a feeling. The same goes for any question I might have. Or so I was taught.

I spent two years in Germany as a missionary challenging people to join my church because they felt “good” when we visited their homes. I manipulated their feelings for my own benefit. Any feeling an investigator had, I attributed to the spirit confirming the truth of our message.

While in Germany, I studied many aspects of the church that I hadn’t been taught before. The story of god commanding Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, disturbed me. What kind of god would do that? I discovered that early Mormon prophets practiced polygamy, several taking as many as 50 wives, some as young as 14-years old. I wrote my grandfather and asked him to help me understand. I prayed that I might understand the reasons behind these actions that seemed cruel and immoral to me. But I never received an answer. If anything, pondering my concerns only made me more depressed and confused. There’s little patience inside a church that claims to be the only true church on the face of the earth.

What does all this have to do with watching my daughter dance?

Well, I no longer believe that feelings confirm truth. The good feelings I had while attending church or the temple were no different than those I had while watching my daughter dance. I feel good listening to my spouse play the piano or while skiing down the mountain with my son at my side. Good music, a play or even a good movie can bring feelings of joy. But those feelings don’t mean what I’m doing or hearing is true anymore than having a good feeling while reading the Book of Mormon means it’s true.

Today, I don’t dismiss my feelings, but I’m aware of what they represent and what they don’t. I no longer attempt to justify the behavior of early Mormon prophets or worry about why a god would command a father to kill his son or why this same god would flood the earth, killing every man, woman and child.

With a wonderful spouse and five kids, I appreciate opportunities to share in their passions and feel of their love and warm spirit. I’m thrilled when they are willing to share their talents with me.

Maybe the “truth” lies in those small moments.

Mormonthink Responds to Plural Marriage Essay

Mormonthink released a response to the LDS church’s essay titled “Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo”, and it’s well worth reading if you’re interested in the early history of the mormon church.

The details about Helen Mar Kimball are especially tragic.

“Joseph told Heber (Helen’s father) he needed to surrender his wife to Joseph in marriage. Then, after 3 days of agonizing over this, Heber led his wife to Joseph only to be told by Joseph that it was just some sort of Abrahamic test. Then Joseph asked for Heber’s only daughter Helen to take as a plural wife.”

Helen was 14 years old at the time. Joseph Smith was 37 years old and had already taken 25 wives. Smith promised Helen that, if she would be his wife, her family would receive eternal salvation. I was taught that I was responsible for my own salvation.

As a father whose daughter is a few months from turning 14, this makes me sick to my stomach. It’s impossible for me to understand anyone who believes Smith was acting under some twisted directive from god. This is Warren Jeffs territory.