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.

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.

Controlling God

I used to believe that I could control God.

I know that sounds odd. It feels strange to write it out and read it, but it’s the truth.

From a young age I was taught that god was watching my every move. Not only was he watching what I did and said, but he could read my thoughts. Based on that information, god would divvy out rewards based on how closely they matched his rule book.

His rule book consisted of what I was taught at church and included a lot of “don’ts”.

Don’t date till you’re 16.

Don’t think impure thoughts.

Don’t drink coffee, tea or alcohol.

Don’t have sex till you’re married.

Don’t watch rated R movies.

Don’t go shopping on Sunday.

Don’t be gay.

The list of don’ts was exhausting. But if I stayed away from these and hundreds more, I’d be blessed. Or punished if I decided to ignore them.

While serving a mission in Germany, I was transferred to a new area. We didn’t  have a single investigator to teach, so we went door-to-door eight hours a day searching for anyone who would listen to our message. When the mission president asked me how many people we were teaching I told him we were not teaching anyone. He said, “That’s because you aren’t worthy. When you’re worthy, the Lord will send you someone to teach.”

On the train ride home, I thought about what rules I could be breaking that would cause god to punish me. I eventually settled on one rule I broke a few times each week: opening mail and reading it. My mission president thought reading letters from home was a distraction so he created a  rule that stated we could only read letters on Monday, our preparation day.

What became clear to me was this: If anything good happened to me it was because god was pleased with something I did. When something bad happened to me, it was my fault. I was being punished because I broke a rule.

From Mormon scripture called Doctrine and Covenants 130: 20-21:

There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicate. And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.

Not just some blessings. No, “any” blessing.

The scripture was repeated time and time again. My takeaway: I could control god.

My senior year in high school, I hit a half-court shot to win a basketball game. For years I attributed the success of that shot to the fact I said a prayer before the game. I ignored the hours of preparation I had spent in the gym since I was a young boy. I ignore the coaching and conditioning I had received. I ignored the fact I spent many hours shooting shots from all over the court, including many from half-court. I ignored all that. Had I not said the prayer, god would nudged the ball off target.

When I hear people say that god helped them find their car keys, score a touchdown, lose weight or other trivial activity, I wonder if those same people believe god is simultaneously punishing those who forgot to pray? Why did god decide to help you locate your car keys but allowed the young girl down the street to be abused by her neighbor? This sounds like a god with screwed up priorities. And let’s be honest, it’s selfish to think god cares about every trivial part of your day.

I’m still coming to terms with what it means to live my life without the fear of a god peering over my shoulder ready to reward or punish my every move. I’m a little upset with myself that it’s taken so many years for me to figure this out, but I’m happy I did because many never do.

Dealing with Doubt

Few topics give me pause to write about more than religion.

I don’t find it difficult to write about my own thoughts and experiences regarding my beliefs, but I’ve found that people close to me either misinterpret my writing or I offend someone.  In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if I possess the skill to pull it off, but here it goes anyway.

A few weeks ago I read the New York Times article about Hans Mattsson who was called to serve as an area authority for the Mormon church in Sweden. Members began asking him about historical facts that conflicted with what they had been taught in church. When Mattsson went to church leaders in Salt Lake City for answers, he wasn’t satisfied with their response and later decided to go public with his frustration.

As links to this article circulated on Facebook, I watched at the reactions that ranged from shock to dismay to mild disappointment.  I read the articles a couple of times and thought, “Yep, I can relate to that.” I can only imagine the pressure Mattsson must feel as a leader responsible for a large number of church members. His beliefs in the church are expected to be rock solid. Is there any room for doubt in a leader?

As a young missionary entering the Mission Training Center in Provo, Utah, I had a lot of questions myself. I studied the scriptures for many hours during my 8 week stay in Provo. By the time I arrived in Germany I was prepared to teach Germans about my beliefs. It would be a few months before my language skills would catch up to the doctrine I had memorized, and I was able to deliver my message to those handful of Germans kind enough to listen. As a side note, I found most Germans to be incredibly friendly and open once I earned their trust. There just weren’t many who wanted to listen to a 20-year old tell them their church didn’t have all the truth. 

I had ample opportunity to deliver my message (called discussions) that began with our belief in a God and Jesus Christ which hopefully softened up my audience enough before I dropped the Joseph Smith story bomb on them. All those head nods and hey-you-aren’t-so-strange looks I got while talking about Christ often turned to stares of you-expect-me-to-believe-that!? when I told them about Joseph Smith digging up plates of gold on a hillside.

Most pieces of the Mormon doctrinal puzzle fit within a framework I could comprehend. A few points of doctrine became clear to me the more I studied. But there were two topics I struggled with to the point that I eventually pulled out a pen and paper and wrote a letter to my grandfather asking for his take on the matter. I was close to my grandfather, and we often discussed the early history of the church. He seemed to devour books written by  church leaders and would share what he learned with me. I valued his opinion as much as anyone’s because he once told me that he’d gained both a spiritual and intellectual testimony of the church.

To a 20-year old young man, gaining an intellectual testimony meant that all the doctrinal pieces fit together. He had solved the puzzle while mine was still a work in progress. But knowing that each piece fit somewhere was comforting.

I wish I could tell you those two pieces found a home, but that’s not the case. I still pull them out and examine them from time to time. I’m resigned to the fact that one or both pieces may never fit my puzzle. Occasionally, I’ll bring up one of these topics with Kim because I know she won’t mistake my doubt for something it’s not. 

There remains an expectation that I’ll figure it out or keep my mouth shut in some circles. My doubt has often been misinterpreted as various larger issues concerning my activity in the church. I tend to let these assumptions roll right on by because a person’s beliefs are his or her own.

So Mattsson’s story gives me hope that maybe we are at the point where people can feel safe expressing their doubts without being judged. With so much information available on the internet it’s wise for the church to support their members who are searching for answers instead of attempting to hide or hush it.

My children are getting to the age where they have questions about doctrine or the history of the church. With the answer often being a Google search away, my goal is to keep an open dialog with them so that I’m part of the discussion.

It’s OK to admit that I don’t have all the answers. Not every piece has found a home. My beliefs continue to change as I learn more about the church and myself. I haven’t always respected people with beliefs at odds with my own. But I’m improving as I focus on searching for common ground instead of highlighting the differences.

My grandfather eventually responded to my letter, the tone of which was, “Hey, everyone has to figure this out on their own.”

That answer means more to me today than it did when I first read it back in my tiny apartment in Fulda.