Thoughts About God

From 1987 to 1989 I left my home in Ogden, Utah and served a mission in Germany for the Mormon church. I made a number of friends, visited dozens of lush German towns, and began to question everything I’d been taught about God.

The nature of God has been something I’ve pondered since I was a young boy, leaving grade school and walking a half mile to the church to attend primary. I met up with friends and a few adults who lead us in songs and taught us about Mormon doctrine including Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon and Heavenly Father (God).

When I was 10 or 11 years old, one lesson focused on how the Mormon church was the only true church on the face of the earth. She emphasized the “only true” part over and over as if she wanted it ingrained in our young minds.  I was confused and raised my hand, asking how anyone could know for certain that we had the only true church with so many different churches around the world. Did someone attend each church and declare the Mormon church the only true one? I don’t remember the answer, if one was provided, but I would continue asking these questions as I entered the Mission Training Center.

One year into my mission, I wrote my grandfather to inquire about this and few other church doctrines that didn’t make sense to me. He sent back a reply explaining his views pertaining to the topics I inquired about, but gently advised that I’d have to figure things out on my own.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of God, and asking myself a number of questions such as:

1. Why is the God of the Old Testament such a mean, vindictive, jealous God? I can’t relate to a God that commands armies to slaughter every man, woman, and child regardless of the sins they committed.

2.  Why would the Mormon God devise a plan that would result in so few of his children returning to him?

3. Why would the Mormon God deny African Americans the priesthood until 1978?

4. Why would the Mormon God select to restore his church through Joseph Smith, and then watch while he uses his church authority to recruit, groom and marry at least 33 women? Some of Smith’s wives were as young as 14 and eleven of them were already married to other men.

5. Why would the Mormon God command his church to be organized in a manner whereby women are relegated to second class members?

Speaking with friends in and out of the Mormon church, I realize my understanding of God is very different from theirs. I met a number of Pantheists while serving in Germany who told me they believed God lived in nature and could take any form he liked.

Some of my friends don’t believe in a God. Or they aren’t sure there’s a God. I’ve found these people to be the least judgmental of any group. I wonder why?

Others believe in a God to the extent that nearly ever action they take is somehow influenced by him. This God helps them find their car keys, travel from church to home in safety and ensures they perform well on a math test.

If God has so much free time on his hands to help locate your keys why wouldn’t he spend that time helping children who are dying from famine and starvation around the world?

In short, God can be whatever you want him or her to be, and yet that doesn’t feel right to me either. Since nobody has seen God (which is surprising given the billions of camera phones) I’m left to wonder if God is man-made. That’s the conclusion made by Christopher Hitchens in his book titled, “God Is Not Great”. No other book in the last 20 years has rocked my world more than this book. I bought the audiobook and listened to it for the first time as I was traveling from Arizona back to Utah through Nevada. I stopped at the Hoover Dam to take in this amazing man-made structure and pondered what I’d heard.

What I felt was a slap across the face. I’ve listened to it three times already.

Until that time I’d been in a 20+ year religious slumber, going through the motions week after week, but finding myself unhappy at best and depressed at worst.

I’m finally awakening, but finding what I’ve been taught for so many years doesn’t make a lot of sense to me today. I’m still searching, still learning. I feel alone on this journey much of the time, but I suspect that’s normal. My grandfather was right: everyone has to figure this out on their own.

The Age of Ignorance

From the Age of Ignorance by Charles Simic:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe.

I experienced this when I signed up for Obamacare this past year. Many smart, well-educated friends of mine slammed the program without having done any research themselves. Most were spouting outright lies about the program they gleaned from Fox News or other anti-Obama sources.

All any of them would have had to do is actually visit and read for themselves. Instead they chose to regurgitate lies because, well, that’s a lot easier to do than form their own opinion.

Recently Learned

Over the past month I’ve discovered a few things about myself.

I do my best work under pressure.

The writing I’m most proud of uncovers pain.

Joy begins with being honest with myself.

Faking it hurts me more than anyone else.

Saying something is true doesn’t make it so.

Question everything. Respect everyone.

Be skeptical of those proclaiming one truth.

Few skills in life are as valuable as being able to say “no”.

If you don’t learn to think critically, others will think for you.

True friends don’t put requirements on the relationship.

Facts speak louder than feelings.

Feelings can be easily manipulated.

Nothing of Consequence

Everyone is dealing with something.

Often it’s something noticeable like eating healthier or quitting a bad habit like smoking. A few years back I decided to exercise each day and eat a healthier diet. Over a few months I dropped nearly 60 lbs. The change I had made to myself was easy to recognize. Friends and coworkers encouraged me. I recall one office gathering where someone ordered pizza for everyone. The office manager knew I was trying to eat better ordered a salad for me instead.

But what if you’re working on something that’s not visible? Maybe not only is it not visible but amorphous and difficult to put into words?

When you’re trying to lose weight or quit smoking it’s not uncommon for a group of supporters to morph into your personal cheering section. They are on the lookout for anyone or anything that might cause a setback. But they have your back and are ready to jump in on your behalf to keep you focused and progressing towards your goal. Sure, you want to meet your goal but you also don’t want to disappoint this group.

We are all dealing with something, and chances are it’s something internal. Maybe you’ve shared it with a spouse or close friend. Or you put out feelers to see if it’s even safe to share. That’s what I do, but it’s not easy to determine if the coast is clear. When you share you open yourself up to scrutiny. You feel vulnerable. You could lose a friend.

With so many outlets like Facebook and Twitter to share ideas or passions or even the mundane, I find myself sharing less about the stuff that really matters to me. I tend to joke around or share a quote from one of my children. Nothing of consequence.

Knowing that others are working on issues provides comfort. I could always tell when a good friend of mine had something on his mind. I’d ask him what was going on and he’d reply that he was working an issue over in his mind. To this day, I have no idea what he was dealing with and never pushed for details.

I need to find one of those friends again. One who doesn’t live 1200 miles away.

Losing a Friend

A German once told me that a person never has more friends than fingers on one hand.  To a 20-year old, that seemed absurdly low.

But today it feels on the high side because I recently lost a friend. Recently, is my interpretation because it’s possible this person checked out a while back, and I just didn’t realize it.

Losing a friend at any age is no fun. Yet this one stings because I have no idea what happened. For the past six months I’ve been trying to recreate the last time we saw each other. Was it something I said that day? Was it something I posted to Facebook or my blog that caused the rift? I’m at a loss.

The worst part is that I lost a good friend. A close second is not knowing why.

I’ve tried to reach out to this person on a number of occasions. I would like know what happened, but maybe that’s selfish. But I’m finished kicking myself over something I may or may not have done.

I’m still bummed about it though. This was my friend I could talk about what it was like going through a divorce and he understood because he’d gone through the same.

I find that the older I get, the more difficult it becomes to make friends. I don’t trust people as quickly, and I don’t get out as much to meet new people.

I suspect that not knowing why may not be the second worst part of losing a friend. That would be running into the friend and realizing he hadn’t given much thought to the situation.

Rehashing the Weather

Find people you can be yourself around. That’s where you’ll find the most happiness.

It sounds so simple. It even sounds trite. But it’s true.

Most people take this to matter most when selecting friendships, but it matters just as much when choosing where to work, attend school or even church.

For two years I decided to morph into another person when dealing with my mission president in Germany. I quickly learned what he wanted to hear and then I regurgitated that each time I had to speak to him. I wasn’t myself. I never told him what was on my mind. By being honest with him I risked getting ripped to shreds so I kept each meeting as short as possible by telling him exactly what he wanted to hear. Then I walked out the doors and did what my heart told me to do.

I recall well the last meeting I had with him. I was unable to contain my joy, and when my mission president asked me why I was grinning I finally had the guts to tell him it was due to never having to speak to him again.

I’ve had a few jobs where the boss only wanted to hear the good news. Good news was always welcome, and if someone had bad news, it was best kept to oneself. I saw what happened to messengers bearing bad news and learned from their mistakes. Bring good news or don’t bring any news at all!

Contrast that with Bill Gates who once said the goal of any CEO was to create an environment where bad news flowed to the top in a hurry so it could be acted upon.

Some of my friends laugh when I tell them my in-laws live next door. That’s usually followed by, “Wow, I could never live that close to mine!”

But what they don’t understand is that my in-laws are some of the most non-judgmental people I’ve ever met. They have had their fair share of trials with their own children. But even before I knew that, they accepted me into their family. I’ve made a number of bone-headed mistakes while married to their daughter, yet I never been lectured or frowned upon. Instead they look for the good in me. No wonder I fell for the youngest daughter they raised.

If you find yourself discussing the weather or rehashing the past each time you hook up with a friend it might be worth asking yourself, why?

Until Proven Otherwise

“I’d have a better chance of finding a boyfriend in church than a bar, but we both know that’s not happening.”

“Well, then, good luck!”

As I stood in line at the grocery story tonight I caught the tail end of a conversation between the checker and the young man bagging my groceries. I finished setting  the last 2-liter of Diet Coke on the counter and pushed my card through the check stand.

When I told the checker I did not have a rewards card she asked if I was from out-of-town. When mentioned I’d recently moved from the Seattle area she began nodding her head and pulled two more tellers into the conversation.

“I’ll bet nobody in Seattle cares about religion, right? I mean, isn’t that how it should be?”

All I could do was smile, collect my receipt, and head for the door as everyone within a 15 foot radius was chiming in with their opinions on the difficulty of finding love in Utah as a non-Mormon.

Although I spent the first 26 years of my life in Utah, I’d forgotten how much Mormon influence is woven into the fabric of everyday life here. When I met my daughter’s middle school counselor for the first time, he asked, “So your daughter must be a beehive?”  And less than two minutes into my haircut, my barber asked, “What ward are you in?”

“What ward are you in?” in Utah is the same as “How are you doing?” anywhere else.

You’re a Mormon until proven otherwise.

Kim and I both understood this well before we decided to move to St. George. Our children made many friends in Seattle, and few of them were Mormon, yet we seldom thought much about it. Sure, there was the occasional birthday party on Sunday that would bring our beliefs to the forefront when our kids explained to their friends that Sundays were time to spend at church and with family.

As Luca would say, “That’s not fair.”

One of our reasons for returning to Utah was to be closer to friends and family. Our children are able to spend a lot of their days with cousins and grandparents and friends who have similar beliefs. I doubt we’ll have to decline many birthday parties or youth sports because they were scheduled on Sunday.

The kids have already made friends who belong to other religions and we’ll continue to encourage them to that end. I don’t know how it will all turn out. The diversity of Seattle was a major reason we decided to stay there for 16 years. It almost feels like the polar opposite of Utah in terms of religious influence on the culture.

Maybe next time I’m at the grocery store I’ll seek out the same checker I had tonight and tell her about the college wards.

Then again, that might guarantee she remains single or flees the state.