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.

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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.

Considering My Health

At the end of November I went in for what I figured would be minor surgery. I took a few days off work assuming I’d be back within a week at the latest. But sometimes your body has other plans, and I ended up being in bed for most of December.

I was able to read, watch Netflix and listen to podcasts during that time, but at about the two week mark I felt like my mind wasn’t holding up well. Getting up from bed and dragging myself to the bathroom to brush my teeth took every ounce of energy I possessed. I half-jokingly mentioned to Kim that I could understand how someone with a chronic illness that kept them down without hope for recovery might consider ending his or her life.

My mother and my mother-in-law have health issues that limit their activity and ability to move about at times. One of them is on oxygen and both use canes and/or walkers to get around. When I attended a funeral last year, my dad wheeled my mom around in a wheelchair because that was the safest choice. That was a shock to me as I hadn’t seen my mother in a few months and didn’t realize how much her mobility had been reduced. I’m happy my father is healthy enough to take her out of the home to the store, to church and to family activities.

It’s been about 2.5 months since my surgery which has given me time to consider my own health. I’ll be 50 in two years, and my health could be a lot better. Although the recovery has taken longer than I anticipated, I’m glad I got it done. My next issue to get resolved is my toe that’s caused me a lot of pain the past couple of years and has limited my physical activity. I’ve been to two doctors and both recommended surgery. I’m not looking forward to that, but the pain and limited mobility is enough that I need to have it done.

Back in 2006, I lost about 60 lbs over a very short period of time. I drastically changed my diet to the point that it wasn’t sustainable. But my body felt good, and I was able to do more physically demanding activities with my kids.

So my goal for 2016 is to find a balance between health diet and exercise that I can maintain for my life instead of merely a few months. If any of you have successfully found this balance I’d love to hear from you.

Giving Thanks

After the last of the meat was removed from the turkey, the dishes placed in the dishwasher, left-overs bagged and put in the fridge for tomorrow, I had a few moments to contemplate the day without hungry kids pulling at my sweatshirt.

The week had been a rough one with Kim having tooth pain and two root canals within a 4-day period. A couple of kids were coming off illness that kept them home from school. Like most holidays, Thanksgiving snuck up on us while we weren’t quite ready to face it. With new meds in hand, we decided on Thanksgiving Eve at 9:30 pm while standing in the bakery at Harmon’s that we would attempt to make a traditional dinner because that’s what our kids wanted more than anything over the fall break.

And we pulled it off. Well, we were not ready to eat till 6:30 pm, but we prepared the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams and the pumpkin cream pies that take two hours of constant stirring over a hot stove.

I sat at the table and listened to the kids tell corny jokes to their aunt and uncle whom our kids love to death. At one point, Anna’s laugh so we obnoxiously ear-piercing loud that I considered asking her to tone it down a notch. But I decided to sit back and let it go because they don’t have this opportunity to laugh and spend time with aunts and uncles and cousins very often.

Later in the evening Kim’s brother and spouse stopped by with two more relatives from Costa Rica. Our living room was so full of kids that the adults sat on the floor next to our lit but otherwise undecorated Christmas tree. I sat back against the wall exhausted from the day’s activities and watched the kids run back and forth. Our guests from Costa Rica spoke Spanish to each other while my brother-in-law translated for them. Luca played Christmas tunes on the piano while the boys played Super Smash Brothers.

I loved every minute of it.

In spite of a tough week of sickness, we ended it on a high note with family and friends. The food tasted wonderful, but what made the day special was spending it with people who value our friendship and accept us as we are.

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 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.”

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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 not 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.