Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I never read THAT in the Book of Mormon...

As I've been involved with Suicide Survivor and Suicide Loss support groups, I've been exposed to a lot of ideas about death; what death means; what God thinks about suicide; ultimately, where people "go" after taking their own lives. And have had some very spiritual and intimate experiences of my own that have sort of changed what may have been my more traditional Mormon view. And that's what I'd like to focus on in this entry.

I am the director of Breathe: Suicide Loss Support Group at Utah Valley University ( ). It's a group I founded about 1 1/2 years ago, specifically for those who have lost someone to suicide. At the beginning of our group meetings, I always think it important to let everyone know the group is non-denominational, though they are certainly encouraged to speak of their experiences in the terms in which they're most comfortable or familiar, even if those terms are very religious. Of course, being in Utah Valley, the predominant view/religion is Mormon-based.

My heart aches, and I cringe when I hear a widow crying, confused, and asking, "What did I do wrong? My husband was a priesthood holder; we paid our tithing; we held callings; we went to the temple as regularly as we could; etc..." As if mental illness stays out of religious communities. (It certainly doesn't, as Utah is always in the top 5 for prescription drug abuse problems and accidental prescription overdose deaths among its adults;, In the Mormon Church, as in many Christian churches, there are some severe stigmas associated with suicide. And there are old phrases in Mormon literature, such as "self-murder" that really give families pause when they experience a suicide. ( The statements are usually qualified thus: "Suicide is regarded as self-murder and a grievous sin if committed by someone in full possession of his or her mental faculties. Because it is possible that a person who takes his or her own life may not be responsible for that action, only God can judge such a matter." The bad thing is, a lot of people have never read past "self-murder."

My point in all this isn't to talk about suicide, though I will cover that topic on and off in the future. But I do want to talk about that sometimes rigid correlation I talked about in my last post. In losing someone to suicide, or even death, that correlation can be so damaging; it can be a mental prison if someone allows it. Fortunately for me, I had many years of unraveling my correlation before losing my mom in 2011. I thank God and the best influences around me for helping me sort of take my faith out of the box I had once tried to keep it in. The story I'm about to relate is not one that you've heard in Sunday School, and it's not one you'll read in the Book of Mormon. But that doesn't make it any less substantial and any less healing.

On July 11, 2011, I came home in the evening and found a Raven, perched on top of the light pole next to my parking spot. There are many Ravens in Utah, and I already had a fondness for them, per some Native American mythology and religion, as well as some reading about a symbiosis they share with wolves. And so, I noticed this Raven, calling out from the light pole. And I thought, "Cool." I hadn't before noticed one in our parking lot. But after "cool," I went up to the apartment for the night and went to bed. The next morning, I was awakened by the same Raven on the light pole, calling out again. When I went out to leave for work, there it was still. And this time, I thought, "Huh. This Raven must be my friend...or something." I was working as a finish carpenter and, about 2 hours into my work day, as I was about to hang this bulky length of crown molding, my coworker (and good friend) came into the room and grabbed me--like a one-armed side-hug. And he was gripping me tightly and told me to stop. I figured he wanted to tell me that I was doing something wrong, as we sometimes disagreed on our methods of getting things done. But he had me tight, and he was breathing heavy. He said, "Stop. Your mom died." Ugh. Even now, reliving this experience, I can remember having almost an out-of-body experience. It was like I hadn't really heard that. Suddenly it was a dream. But it wasn't, and after me asking, "What?' He repeated, "Your mom died." My world was shattered. Confusion, adrenaline, and fog set in....and stayed for the next several weeks. Yuck.

One month later, again on the 11th, I was awakened by that Raven, still calling from the light pole. And then I didn't see him, until the next month on the 11th, and the next 11th after that. In Native American culture, Raven has dozens of roles, including creator, trickster, and messenger of death. (Yep--that one rings true.) And so, not only did I allow the possibility that the Raven is somehow tied to me and my mom, I was very quick to embrace that. And every time I see a Raven now--it's now more sporadic--it puts a smile on my face and kind of makes my day. This is now a part of the unique relationship I have with my mom.  And the great thing is that my mom never knew about my affinity for Ravens; I had never discussed them with her. I smile and feel good just talking about it.

As I said, you won't find a story like that in the Book of Mormon, or hear about that in Sunday School most likely. But what does that mean for truth? Nothing, really. Just as our own faith is a personal thing, death of a loved one is incredibly personal. And thank God it can be that way; thank God for allowing that. So there's really no way the church could generalize it and put that in a Sunday School manual. Those experiences are too personal and too unique to each person. And what I'd like to say about it is this: Don't put God in a box. And don't try and fit life and death and faith into that box. Correlation can be so limiting. What if I had dismissed that whole Raven thing? What if I had told myself, "You're crazy--there's nothing like that in the Book of Mormon?" I think I'd be missing out on a lot of smiles and waves from my sweet mom. I'd also be sort of arrogant or presumptuous by saying, "Nah. God couldn't do that."

So take God out of the box, if you've put him into one. Let him breathe. Let God and faith really work in your life. Believe in miracles if you can, and believe that you are a prophet for your own life, entitled and able to receive revelation and inspiration from God, regardless of what a Sunday School manual says or maybe doesn't say. I would love to have shared about the Raven at my mom's funeral. (I had already presumed the messenger of death part by then). But I was afraid it would be lost on nearly everyone. And that's OK. It's an intimate thing, and it's not something I want to share to people who might dismiss it as crazy or some devil. (What--you don't have a crazy aunt who would think it was the devil?)

My question is, can any of you relate? Do you have your own "Raven" experience? Please feel free to share and leave a comment. And, if you see a Raven, wave and smile; it might be my mom :)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Pondering on my feelings of betrayal

"Church records offer no clear insights into the origins of this practice." (

The above quote will sort of outline this entire post. And hopefully I'll keep it sort of short and to the point. During this faith journey, I have learned a lot of things. I've also learned to see things in new ways. My eyes have been opened to things I probably should have seen before, but didn't. And I've discovered things that I thought were one way, but are really another. A lot of this discovery is making me a better person (I hope). But some of it has caused me some grief. I feel betrayed, but by whom or what?

I always thought I was learning all the correct things while growing up in the church: Jesus is the Savior; God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are separate beings; Joseph Smith was the prophet through whom Jesus restored the priesthood power; The Book of Mormon was translated by using a breastplate and the Urim and Thummum; Temples are for redeeming the dead, and binding families for eternity; Etc. You grow up hearing this stuff; it's a narrative that the entire <correlated> church follows. It was drilled into my head to believe every Sunday as a kid. Eventually, it becomes what you believe. (In Utah especially--it's what you believe because it's all you ever hear and everyone around you seems to believe it too.) I never really found a reason not to believe, or even to question any of it while growing up. You hear it at church, and all of the people you trust believe it, so why wouldn't you? You hear it in seminary, and you feel good while going to seminary, so it must be true. You go on a mission, and these 19 and 20 year old KIDS are all preaching the same thing and swapping the same stories and sharing answers to the same questions--answers which sometimes turned out to be made up by one missionary or another. Eventually, I came to realize that going to church can be like taking Mormon 101. Every Sunday. Month after month. Year after year. Never graduating, just repeating the same survey course, over and over again. Hearing the same lessons. Giving the same "Sunday school answers." Until you stop going, or until you die. OK, I might be being slightly dramatic, but it really does feel like taking Mormon 101 and never graduating beyond the survey course.

At this point in my life, I've been sort of caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts. My mind is more open, more willing to hear truth. I'm inquisitive and curious. I thirst for knowledge, not only about my church, but about the world at large. I'm a biology major so I'm adept to using the scientific method and there has been some carry-over into religion, which doesn't always work but I try to apply it as much as possible.

Now, I'm only going to use this one example; there are more than a handful of other examples but I'll stick to this one for the sake of brevity. (Though don't hesitate to bring anything to the table if you leave a comment.) BLACKS AND THE PRIESTHOOD. You've probably heard of it; or you've heard someone refer to it like that. For those of you who are unfamiliar, I'll give you the cliff notes: In the early Mormon Church (1830 ish), under Joseph Smith, ANYONE worthy could hold the priesthood. But not a long way down the road, that was changed and from that time until 1978, the priesthood was withheld from Black people. The policy was undone via a revelation given to President Spencer W. Kimball, the prophet at the time. Most presently, the statement I quoted at the top of this post was given. To me, it reads like a little kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but shrugs his shoulders when his mom/dad ask, "Who ate all the cookies?" Now, anyone who likes to read church history books, or who likes to use Google, can find many quotes from Mormon prophets and general authorities--perhaps most notable is Brigham Young--stating the reasons for the ban on conferring priesthood on "the Negroes." ( "Those who were LESS VALIANT IN PRE-EXISTENCE and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the NEGROES." LDS "Apostle" Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 527, 1966 edition. A similar statement by Young was recorded on February 13, 1849. The statement — which refers to the Curse of Cain — was given in response to a question asking about the African's chances for redemption. Young responded, "The Lord had cursed Cain’s seed with blackness and prohibited them the Priesthood." Brigham Young also said there could be no intermarrying between Whites and Blacks, or God would punish someone with "death on the spot." Etc...) However, this history is not generally talked about at church. Now that being racist is out of fashion, it's uncomfortable to discuss this uglier part of Mormon history. And so we don't; it's generally swept under the rug; avoided and ignored.

I served a full-time mission. Two whole years in the California Los Angeles Mission, both English and Spanish speaking. I LOVED it. I really did. Not always, and not everything. But I loved it and will always have fond memories of that time.

In Los Angeles, I spent most of my time knocking on doors and talking to Black people. And I gotta say, it was the first time where I was confronted with this whole "Blacks and the priesthood" issue. I was very much a correlated Mormon and I had never given it any thought. I remember thinking how cool those seminary videos were; the ones that showed the happiness of the African people to hear that they could receive the priesthood in 1978 and eventually go to the temple. But I hadn't considered the history of a policy I now consider nothing short of religiously justified racism. (And hey; who really had to justify it? The whole country was pretty racist during that time, right?) But as a missionary in Los Angeles, serving in areas like Long Beach, Compton, Norwalk and South Central, that whole Blacks and the priesthood thing scared me. I couldn't explain it. I had never really talked about it. And so I DEFINITELY wasn't prepared to talk about it with anyone I was teaching! I would avoid the subject. I hoped it wouldn't come up. I hoped I could get them baptized into the church before they'd ever find out. Once they were baptized, they'd have enough faith, and it'd be a while before they'd ever find out, right? Ugh...I have so much shame and regret over the way I handled such a dilemma. I was supposed to be there to serve the people of Los Angeles. I should have loved them enough to be completely honest. Sure, I had good intentions. But to me, the ends did not justify the means I often used.

Now, I feel betrayed. Betrayed because neither my primary teachers, nor my Sunday School teachers, nor my priesthood leaders, nor my bishops, nor my seminary teachers, nor my mission presidents, nor any general authority I have heard in my lifetime has tackled this issue with the candor and the forthright honesty it deserves. But I don't feel betrayed by those individuals. Most of them were just as oblivious and lost as I was. Most of them were just following protocol; teaching out of the Mormon 101 curriculum and textbooks. (That doesn't ACTUALLY exist, kinda does.) And tonight, as I write this and get it off my chest to you (I soooo wish I could go to Los Angeles and meet with every person I ever taught and tell them that I'm sorry I didn't have more integrity than that) I realize I was betrayed by myself, I was betrayed by the general authorities who knew the answers--at least to a good degree--and I was betrayed by what I describe as the cancer of correlation; I was betrayed by a system that pushes for group-think, and a system that says: "Don't think; just believe."

Fast forward to right this minute: I have made peace with my own understanding of "Blacks and the priesthood." It was a racist policy, implemented by prophets, seers and revelators, who were also mere men and subject to being human. It wasn't from God and I'm glad, for whatever reason it took, that the policy was undone.

**I will probably cover the other handfuls of issues like this one at some point. And I will soon blog about why I should never have held the prophets in such holy regard; I should never have put them on the pedestals that I did. They aren't holy. They are mortal men, who God figured he could make a little useful.


(This photo is to announce that my next entry will be about Ravens and how that relates to my spirituality.)

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Majority

It's Fathers' Day so, before anything else, let me wish all the daddies out there a GREAT one!

You're probably all wondering, "Did the unchurched Mormon attend any church meetings today?" No, I didn't. (That's not to say I'm against attending, mind you; it only means I usually want to spend my time in some other way.) I spent the morning hanging out with my wife and little boy. They got me an awesome gift for Fathers' Day: new undies and a box of Charleston Chews! (By the way, if you've never had a good, frozen piece of candy, run right down to the store and get a box of Charleston Chews, and then throw them in the freezer for a half hour. Mmm!--(And I don't even like candy most of the time.) After a few moments of "Happy Fathers' Day!" and "We love you, Daddy" I went outside and mowed the grass. When I came back in the house, my wife was complaining that she had a headache (NO--I wasn't trying to ask her for some "action" at the time), so I tried to make her a frozen chai. (Perhaps caffeine would do the trick.) I couldn't find the blender top, so I got a little chai all over the counter top. HATE that! After I finally got it made and gave her some, I realized it wasn't all that tasty--not like the girls down at Joe's Coffee make it ( ). Then, while trying to drink some, I spilled a bit down my chest. GRRR!!! Hey, maybe God is punishing me for drinking the tea. Nah, it was COLD tea, after all. ;)
(* In Mormonism, there is a RECOMMENDATION that was given through revelation, most often referred to as The Word of Wisdom. The general Mormon gist of it is that Mormons are not to drink coffee, tea, alcohol, nor are they to partake of any tobacco or harmful drugs. The Unchurched Mormon gist is that it's not that simple and it requires a little more thought than simply to read a short list of DON'T's.)

With that unnecessarily long introductory paragraph, let's get onto this blog post.

I grew up Mormon. In a Mormon family with a long line of Mormon ancestry. In a highly Mormon town. In the most Mormon county and in the most Mormon state --> Utah. Mormons were the clear majority of Utah's populace then, and they're still the majority today, though by a slighter margin. (According to Wikipedia, the last census shows 63% of Utahns reporting to be Mormon--that includes unchurched Mormons like me.) To simplify my point, growing up Mormon in Utah didn't take a lot of extracurricular thought, or courage. If being in the majority made you cool, I was WAY cool!

Mormons tend to be more conservative, politically --> between 80-90% of Utah's elected officials are of the LDS/Mormon faith. In 2004, for example, Utahns gave Bush his most decisive margin of victory of any state; every single county in Utah voted for Bush, Jr. Keep in mind, that's AFTER the 9/11 Attacks, and after we're already at war with Iraq. In contrast, only 34.22% of Utahns voted for Obama in 2008. This could be all because Obama ran as a Democrat, or partially because of the color of Obama's skin. But I'm not going to go there in this post. (By the way, LDS and Mormon are one in the same; I may use them interchangeably.)

Coming up in Utah schools, my faith and religion were NEVER challenged. As long as people from the neighborhood saw you going to or coming from the big building down the street with the shiny steeple on top, no one asked you any questions. There was comfort in homogeneity. In contrast, I'm sure there was great discomfort if you weren't "one of the fold." The thing that stands out clearest in my mind is that Mormon kids didn't easily mix with non-Mormon kids. (Oh, and we often think of the world's people in terms of A or B --> Mormon or non-Mormon.) It makes me cringe with regret that I never became good friends with any of the Catholic kids, for instance, or that the Jehovah's Witness kids were sort of isolated from the Mormon majority. It was bizarre; a kid was just...suspected of being up to no good if they weren't Mormon. Or, even if they were CLEARLY good people, they were at least "weird." The Mormon kids grew up together, went to church together, took their seminary classes together. Mormon kids understood each other. The others? Well, they weren't "like us." I don't for a second believe there was actually any ill will between the groups. I think most kids are good and nice to the core. But, as I said before, there was comfort in homogeneity, so why try and mix that up? And as a Mormon kid, I was in the majority; I didn't have a care in the world, and I certainly couldn't see the tiny problem of religious/cultural divisions, or marginalization of the minority groups.

As I said in my introductory post, I haven't been active for over a decade, so I don't know exactly how church is going these days. (I hope you'll all forgive me when you feel I get things wrong; I'll be using my own experience, mainly, to write this blog, understanding that my experience isn't necessarily universally applicable.) But I do regret the VERY limited understanding I had as a kid and as a young adult of what a Mormon was. I was very much a box-checker Mormon. That's all I could be with such limited understanding, and with what little thought I ever put into my faith. Quite honestly, I don't even think I could have called it "my faith" back then; it was, for all intents and purposes, my box of religion.

As a box-checker Mormon, I had a mental checklist of things that determined my level of righteousness in Mormonism:

1. Go to church every Sunday.
2. Don't use swear words.
3. DEFINITELY don't take the Lord's name in vain.
4. Profess knowledge in the following:
     a. The Book of Mormon is true.
     b. Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, who translated the Book of Mormon and, through whom,
        God restored the priesthood and His one and only true church on the earth.
     c. <Insert name of current prophet/president of church> is a prophet of God.
5. Don't drink and don't smoke.
6. Don't have sex until marriage.
7. Read scriptures.
8. Plan on being a missionary when old enough.
9. Pay tithing.
10. Plan to marry ONLY in the temple. Don't even date outsiders; that's risky. (My parents were     married in the temple, which somehow put me on higher ground than those kids whose parents weren't. MAN, I WAS WEIRD! And LAME!!!)
10. Etc...

From the above list, I could determine my level of righteousness and "worthiness." And I would feel justified as long as I was better than others around me at checking the boxes. For instance, if I used a swear word....well "at least I don't smoke like So-and-So does." If I didn't read my scriptures (and I RARELY read my scriptures)...well, "at least I go to church almost every week, unlike So-and-So." Or that one time in my whole life when I tried masturbation (You believe that it was just that one time, don't you?), well..."at least I wasn't feeling boobies or having sex with my girlfriend like So-and-So." These were the things I knew about righteousness; be able to check my boxes, and be better at it on some level than the next guy. I really had no concept of spirituality, let alone a personal, meaningful, intimate relationship with God.

Don't get me wrong; while I was a conscious box-checker, I also learned to be a good person and to love others, and to have compassion. I even did some really nice things for other people; maybe that'll come up later in the blog.

I've thought about this understanding, or lack of understanding, and wondered how it was that it happened? Was it just that I was simple-minded? Was it actually taught to me this way in Sunday School? Was I that insecure that I needed my mental box-checking to feel OK? Did my parents teach me this? The only one I can answer is that my parents did not teach me to box check. But the sad (though not THAT sad or depressing) fact is, this is what it meant to me to be Mormon; these were the amazing take-home lessons I learned while growing up LDS.

Fortunately, with age and life's experience, filled with joy and sadness, the mundane and the traumatic, I've been able to sort of reconstruct my Mormon belief. I'm able to start to see what is and what only seemed to be. I'm able to be real about a testimony. And most fortunately, I'm able to feel God's influence in my life on a much more meaningful level.

Question for all of you: Were you brought up in Mormontown, USA like I was? Or some place else? Was your experience similar to mine? Or was it greatly different? I'd love you to share your experiences with me. So leave a comment.

Let's get a short introduction out of the way...

Hi. I've decided to start a new blog, called The Unchurched Mormon. To be fair, I'm as churched as I am unchurched, meaning, I belong to the Mormon Church as much as I don't. Is that too confusing? Well, hopefully it'll all make sense as I write and keep this blog.

For starters, I just want to tell you about me so you'll be familiar with my background, and where I'm coming from:

1. I was born and raised in a rural part of Utah. (A little corner of "Happy Valley.")
2. I grew up in the Mormon faith, raised by Mormon parents, who were also raised by their Mormon parents, and their Mormon parents before them, etc... (My family--both sides--have been Mormon nearly as long as there have been Mormons. Yeah--my family was Mormon before Mormon was even cool.) My family was pretty run-of-the-mill I think; parents were married until my mom's passing; they had 4 kids--2 boys, 2 girls.
3. I was baptized at age 8--the "age of accountability."
4. I graduated from 4 years of seminary. (For those who are unfamiliar, Mormon kids--9th grade thru 12th grade--are encouraged and expected to attend a Mormonism-based religion class, along with our regular high school classes.)
5. I served a full-time, two year mission for the Mormon church.
6. After my mission, I returned to Utah...married a perfect stranger 6 months later, in the temple. (That'll come up again.)
7. Around 18 or 19 months later, I was divorced.
8. A couple of years after my divorce, I moved to Alaska, where I'd spend my summers for the next 6 or 7 years. Yeah!!!
9. Somewhere during this time, my church activity dropped off significantly.
10. One of the times I was back in Utah for some schooling at Utah Valley University (Utah Valley State College then), I met a great girl on a blind date.
11. Sixteen months later, I married her parents' backyard. (Mormons are encouraged to marry inside the temple, as that is where a "sealing" ritual takes place, binding the couple and any kids they have or will have, for time and all eternity.)
12. A few years later, we had a baby boy! SO HAPPY!!!
13. During the first few years back in Utah, and married, I worked as a finish carpenter. Eventually, I got back into school and started on a BS degree in biology. (I'm nearly finished now---FINALLY!!!) I'm currently a full-time student. My sweet wife works full-time and I do photography to supplement our income as much as I'm able.
14. Not quite 2 years ago, my mother took her own life.
15. A while after that, I founded--and now direct--a support group for others who have lost loved ones to suicide. This group is at UVU.
16. I've been mostly "inactive/less-active" for the past decade or so. (In Mormonism, members of the church are somewhat labeled, according to their church attendance; Someone who attends meetings regularly is considered "active." Someone who generally doesn't attend church with any regularity is considered "less-active" or "inactive."
17. I'm presently trying to find my way through the spiritual roads of life; I suppose I've been going through a "faith crisis," struggling to define my testimony or the way I believe or don't believe about Mormonism and other religions in general. I'm Mormon because I still feel like a Mormon, especially because I'm surrounded by Mormonism and Mormon family and friends, living in Utah Valley, AKA "Happy Valley." I have fondness for this church, and I also have a lot of doubt and yet a lot of apathy for organized religion. I want to belong to the local ward, but I feel no loyalty to the religion itself. The local clergy know my name; they know who I am, but they don't flinch at my continued absence from meetings or gatherings. They never expect to see my face in the pews but smile at me on the rare occasion they do.

So, I'm The Unchurched Mormon; nice to meet you.

I will try and post on interesting and relevant topics from here on out. And if any of you have questions you'd like me to answer, or topics you'd like me to discuss, please feel free to leave a comment. And let's try and enjoy this journey.

P.S. The photo of the Raven? It has a lot of significance, and I promise to get to that.