Wednesday, November 11, 2015

My Mormon Story

In light of my recent admission on Facebook that I am no longer a member of the Mormon/LDS church, I've decided to pop back onto my blog for a minute to share my story. My really, really, really long story. Hopefully you have nothing better to do on a cold November night, because it's a novel if you decide that you want to read it. But it comes from my heart. The bottom of my heart. I share it because I consider myself an honest person, and my friends and family deserve to know how I got to this place. I wrote this a little over a month ago with plans to work up the courage to share it by the end of the year. It didn't happen in quite the way I expected but I have now met that goal. Thank you for your patience with me as I navigate my new beliefs while holding on to what has made me who I am.

October 1, 2015

I have started writing this in my head so many times that it seems strange to finally be putting it on paper (virtually speaking). But I knew that at some point I would, because truth means everything to me, and I don’t want to hide my personal truth from the people I care about the most.

First, let me tell you what I loved about being raised a Mormon. There are so many happy moments when I look back at it now (sprinkled with a few very boring lessons and playing the piano when I didn’t want to of course!).  I loved the sense of inclusion. I loved the relationships I formed with teachers and strong role models. I loved many of the Primary songs (especially “We’ll Bring the World His Truth” and “I Love to See the Temple”). I loved the Young Women’s program and the responsibilities I had. I loved conference and hearing old guys talking about loving our families and being good people. I loved seminary. I loved having good, pure friends who supported each other and still do. I loved having a soft place to land and a system that guided me when my parents’ marriage ended and left me feeling very lost. I loved the order, the community, the service, the faith, and the people.

By the time I was engaged and preparing to go through the temple, I felt 100% ready. I had dedicated myself to the church early on in my teen years and had made it through high school and into college at BYU-Idaho without drinking, trying drugs, getting frisky with boys in the backseat, and, believe it or not, without using cuss words! I already had the habits of reading the scriptures and praying every day. I embraced everything about the church, the Book of Mormon, and the temple. I considered it a compliment when people called me a “Molly Mormon.” I was ready to go to the temple and make even greater commitments to my Heavenly Father. I was so excited throughout the endowment process, knowing I was making special promises to the church, God, and my soon-to-be husband. I soaked it all up, believing that this act of receiving such sacred ordinances and marrying there in the temple were the greatest, most life-altering decisions I would ever make.

I didn’t know that roughly seven years later, I would be making another decision that would surpass it all.

My husband Aaron has always been a well-rounded individual. He was always much more likely to try to see things from the perspectives of others than I was. A critical thinking lesson in a class at BYU-Idaho made him even more considerate and likely to sympathize when someone expressed a thought or feeling. So when he started to ask questions about the church and its doctrines, I knew it was because he was honestly trying to define his beliefs so that he could give sincere and truthful answers to others. He would ask me the questions, and I would give him the answers as they were taught to both of us growing up in the church. But in the end I would often find myself shrugging my shoulders and saying, “There are lots of things we don’t know. God will reveal more when people are ready for it.”

For a long time, that was enough for me. Whatever I didn’t understand was placed on my proverbial “shelf” and I continued with my church attending, homemaking, and stay-at-home mothering. But I could tell that Aaron was struggling. He slowly began asking questions that I couldn’t answer at all and it was causing a bit of a rift between us. He was thinking a lot, reading the scriptures a lot, and praying a lot, but his questions remained. I was confused. This was not the person I thought I had married. How could someone trying to prove his faith right be losing it instead? So I prayed for him too. I prayed for help to understand his questions, to find some answers for him, to know how to encourage him. I had faith that he would find satisfactory answers in his studies in time.

            One night, not long after Aaron’s intense search for answers had begun, I was fighting some anxiety over a health problem and I asked for a Priesthood blessing. He hesitated. I could tell he didn’t want to. After a while he could see that it was the only thing that was going to help me feel better and he obliged. This happened on a couple of other occasions and finally he told me, “I just don’t know if it really does anything.”

I was incredibly hurt by that statement. It opened my eyes to how much he was really beginning to doubt, and not just one or two things about church doctrine, but the entire religion. I was scared and I was beginning to wonder how someone so faithful could be struggling so much. It wasn’t happening the way I had always heard of it happening. Aaron was a good person. He wasn’t offended or prideful or lazy. He was spending huge amounts of time trying to connect with God and follow the guidance of the Spirit.

It just didn’t make sense.

Seeing this, I too, began to question certain aspects of my faith. I couldn’t find a balance between the love and understanding I wanted to show my husband and the love I was supposed to have for a god I could not see or hear. I couldn’t understand why God did not seem to be giving me any sort of direction despite my frequent, fervent prayers. I continued to beg for His help. I attended church with our children. I committed myself to extra scripture study. I visited the temple. I fasted. I talked to my parents and Aaron’s, all of whom encouraged me to be strong. I kept doing what I was supposed to do and I continued to hope that everything would be set right eventually. I just had to keep the faith.

In 2013 after a summer of working a job that often required him to miss church, Aaron asked if it would be okay if he didn’t attend anymore. He told me that our relationship was the most important thing to him and that if I wanted, he would keep going. But it was obvious that he was not happy there anymore. I wanted to support him in whatever way I could but at the same time I was crushed. I could no longer follow the storyline I’d created as a little girl of a perfect, righteous marriage with Aaron. I was praying harder than I had ever prayed before to make this work. I was pouring my heart out to Heavenly Father all day long. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I imagined many scenarios, and all of them ended with one or both of us being completely dissatisfied in our marriage. I wondered if it would end in divorce because it didn’t seem possible that we would ever be able to agree on how to approach life and raise our family if we didn’t hold the same beliefs.

It felt as though my worst nightmares were coming true. My life seemed to be falling apart in a way I had never expected.

But there was one truth that seemed to pull at me, to keep me engaged in the struggle: I loved Aaron. I loved him so much I couldn’t stand the thought of being without him. I could feel it inside, deeper even than my faith. He was everything to me. And he was so good. A good husband, a good father, a good person. Whatever ideas I had about “apostate” Mormons, he was the exact opposite. If he was so “tricked” by Satan, was it wrong that I still felt so good about him? If he was so good, was it right to be questioning my relationship with him? Did our entire history together come down to this one issue and end because we could not agree?

No. Not for me.

I knew who he was. He was not the kind of man who would casually walk away from his beliefs, his family, or the god he had served. I knew that the things he had been telling me, the questions he had asked and the answers he was finding, must have some truth to them.

So I started to ask him questions. I asked him how he had come to his conclusions, what he had read, whom he had talked to. I began to realize that the resources he had found were not “anti-Mormon” as I had feared, but simply historians, educators, and good, honest people who were just telling their own stories. And I was finally ready to listen.

I’m going to pause here and say one thing – I am not here to tell you everything I have learned about the history and origins of the LDS church. I am not here to change your mind or alter your faith. I’m just telling my story. But I will tell you that despite what you may have been told, not everything outside of the Sunday school manuals is false or anti-Mormon information. There are a lot of things – a whole lot – that are just facts. Honest to goodness facts. There are books, letters, journals, and a hundred other resources that back them up. The church itself has even become more candid about its past. If you haven’t read the church essays on regarding black members and the Priesthood, Joseph Smith’s polygamy, and the seer stone, you should. The church is making an effort to be more open and it is in the interest of every member to know these things.

But back to the story.

I felt that I had doubted my doubts for a very long time. It didn’t seem to be working. I would latch onto a story, a scripture, an experience, or a feeling, only to have it overshadowed by the lack of communication I felt from Heavenly Father. I was still struggling with why He seemed to be unavailable to me when I needed Him the most, especially if He really expected me to remain faithful at this critical, pivotal moment. I had been through the oft-quoted Mormon method of pray, read scriptures, fast, visit the temple, go to church, be faithful, and on and on and on, with absolutely nothing to show for it. My faith was taking a hit and I felt a strong urge to start figuring things out. Really figuring them out.

I started by watching part of a historical documentary that discussed the origins of the Book of Abraham. When it was over, I was dumbfounded. I was sure there must be some mistake. I simply couldn’t believe that the Book of Abraham was God-given scripture if I was to accept the evidence presented in the documentary, and it seemed incredibly solid and unbiased. And if I couldn’t believe the Book of Abraham was what Joseph Smith had claimed, I had to wonder what else might be amiss during his time as prophet. I immediately wanted to know more about Joseph Smith.

I turned to a man who had been an early morning seminary teacher and had put some videos online to try to help Mormons who had doctrinal questions. He talked about Joseph Smith’s process in writing the Book of Abraham and confirmed what the documentary had said. He also mentioned that Joseph Smith had been married to many more women than just his first wife, Emma (again, please read the church’s essays on this topic). I was so confused. I, a lifelong Mormon, didn’t even know that. I thought that polygamy had started with Brigham Young. It certainly had never come up in any Sunday school lesson that I could remember. So what else was there that I didn’t know?

A lot of things, as it turned out.

And that was the problem. It was not just one thing. I could have gotten over it if it was. The problem was that one thing led to another, led to another, led to another. Over the course of a few weeks I learned more. Despite starting out with a real desire to prove everything about the LDS church right, I found that the evidence was stacking against me. And much of the evidence could be found in the church’s own records, like the Journal of Discourses, old conference addresses, and books sold in the church’s own store, Deseret Book. I watched the PBS documentary about Mormons and although I had watched it when it first aired I couldn’t believe all the things I had glossed over. The sketchy translation process of the Book of Mormon. Historical issues with the Book of Mormon and its writers. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Brigham Young’s radical ideas. There was so much to take in and it just kept coming. I was seeing everything in a new light and the fog of my denial was rapidly disappearing.

Aaron helped me through it all. He had already been through this. Sometimes I felt like everything I had known was crumbling before me. My entire brain was being reorganized and my thoughts redefined. I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking so much. And praying! So much praying. Day and night and in-between diaper changes and mealtimes. Father, please help me to make sense of all this! Point me in the right direction! I need you now more than ever before!

            It didn’t take long before I realized that I would never be the same again. My entire worldview had shifted. I no longer felt that I could choose belief. There was no light that was leading me to discover the church’s truth. I was finding no peace there. I continued to attend church, but I could no longer look at the lessons and teachings with the same eyes. Everything that was said became a question for me. Is that really true? And, of course, there were things that were true. The good people of the church teach love, kindness, family, perseverance, and many more wonderful values. I could not fault those things. But it was the reliance on the Book of Mormon, the hero-like status of Joseph Smith, and several other topics that eventually caused me to avoid Sunday School altogether. It was too much. It felt wrong to sit and listen to members testify of all these things when I knew they didn’t have all of the information.

            Several things happened in the year of 2014 that led up to my leaving the church entirely. On Sundays I taught a class of seven and eight-year olds and I loved it. I loved them. But I could not testify of everything that was written in the manual. When it asked for the teacher to bear testimony of the truth of the Book of Mormon or the prophet, I skipped over it. And even as I attended the baptisms of each of those children I had grown to care about so much, I knew, at some point, that I would have to let it all go.

            It wasn’t easy. I was going to church in the same building I’d grown up in, with many of the same people. People I had known my entire life were there. Many of them knew my husband was no longer active and I felt like they had me on some kind of spiritual suicide watch that made them extra nice. The missionaries and members of the Elder’s Quorum had been making occasional visits to our home and were trying to keep us going. I knew they were doing it because in some ways they really did care. And I appreciated that. But in the end I could no longer convince myself that the positive things about staying in the church outweighed the negative. And that was when I could no longer look them in the eyes and tell them I still wanted it to be true.

I had a baby at the end of the year and I planned my exit around it. After the typical amount of maternity leave from church, I simply didn’t return.

            It wasn’t as cut and dry as it sounds. People visited us in our home, I went back to be released from my calling, and a few people asked if we would be blessing our baby. The answer, without question, was no. It had taken me a long time to come to these conclusions but I knew I didn’t want anyone “sympathy blessing” our baby because they knew Aaron wasn’t going to. And when you no longer believe in the Priesthood authority, it doesn’t make much sense anyway.
            Since then I have not gone back to church. Two of my children still ask to attend on occasion (who doesn’t love nursery?), so I take them. But I don’t stay. I happily attend baby blessings and missionary farewells because I love and support the people involved, but not because it touches my heart to be there. I still love the people of the church. I still love some of the things it teaches. I still read the Ensign and listen to Conference talks because those things have been a huge part of my life and I always hope to find little nuggets of wisdom that I can hold onto. But because I cannot believe that the church is “true,” I have found it too dishonest to continue participating in its customs.

            I have a feeling that after reading this far you are very likely saying to yourself, “She just didn’t do enough. She should have prayed more. Waited longer for an answer from God. Gone to the temple more. Read her scriptures longer and paid more tithing! Was she serving others? Was she listening to the Spirit?” I imagine you are trying to find the one thing I did or didn’t do that got me to where I am now. I suppose you think Satan must have wormed his way in with one tiny doubt and made it grow bigger and bigger. You might even think, when you look at me, that “the light is gone from my eyes.” I have a feeling you are thinking those things because those are the same things I used to think about people who left the church. I have a feeling you are thinking those things because they are all things people have said about me, sometimes to me. And they are painful. They hurt. They hurt because people who know me, people who love me and have trusted me their entire lives and know what kind of person I have been, are saying them. They say unkind things about my husband, whom they often blame for starting me on this path, and I feel like the church continues giving them fuel to be insensitive toward us both. Somehow they seem to think that this change has made us entirely different people and that makes it okay to say those things. Obviously we are now lacking godliness, guidance, blessings, and perhaps lacking some sanity.

            It’s not true.

            Parts of me have had to change with the awareness I’ve gained, definitely. When you no longer see certain things as absolute sin, no longer think of the prophet’s words as indisputable, no longer believe that the world is getting worse and worse until it spontaneously combusts and Jesus comes to save the good kids… you change. Your opinions change.

If you are friends with me on Facebook, you have seen some of my opinions change. I speak out more about women’s equality, gay rights, and I will absolutely point out something intolerant, insensitive, bigoted, or racist. I see the world through new eyes. But where you might consider that a bad thing, to me it feels so right. I feel good. I feel good when I say that gay marriage doesn’t bother me. I feel good when I say that women can and should do anything a man can do. I feel good when I say that it doesn’t bother me at all if someone has tattoos, drinks coffee, goes shopping on Sundays, or even has sex outside of marriage. I feel good being able to look at those people with absolute acceptance.

I feel good.

And I guess that’s what has been the most perplexing part of my transition out of Mormonism. Practically nothing they told me about being “apostate” has proven true. I don’t feel darkness around me. I don’t feel Satan’s influence washing over me or demons leading me further and further away from the iron rod. I don’t feel lost. It’s to the contrary, really.

Now, I can picture some of you saying something like this: “She just doesn’t recognize it. It’s there but she’s blind to it because she’s so far gone.” I used to say things like that about people who left the church. I would never say that now. When a person tells me how she (or he) feels, I believe her, because I know that she is the only one who truly knows. Anything else is my projection, the way I think they should feel based on my own paradigms. And that doesn’t do much to make someone feel loved or understood.  

Please believe me when I tell you how I feel.

Ironically, I feel more Christ-like than I have ever felt in my entire life. I honestly feel at peace. I have a positive outlook on the world. I am open to serving and loving all kinds of people. I feel more understanding, more kind, more willing to forgive. I am far less judgmental. I also feel very confident in who I am as a person, a mother, and a wife. I feel like I can listen to various opinions, study topics, and make my good choices based on facts rather than what someone else tells me I should do. I am open to anything and anyone so long as I can draw my own conclusions from the facts. None of those nagging questions or fears I used to have about life and church are bothering me anymore. The pressure I used to feel to be a certain kind of mother and a certain kind of woman are gone. I can be myself and I have many great plans for my life. I can make it whatever I want it to be without worrying that I am following the right formula. I believe in the goodness of others. I am dedicated to my husband and my family and I love them completely. I have gratitude. I have joy. I am content.

I know that there will be hardship in my life. I know that there will be happiness. I know that I will have ups and downs. But the beautiful thing about it all is that that is life. I don’t have to try to explain why some people get cancer and some people win the lottery. That is life. And it is wonderful, and terrible, and exciting and sad and so many other things. And I accept that. I accept it, and I love it. It is extraordinarily simple.

If you get nothing else out of my story, please remember this: The ideas you may have about “apostate” Mormons, ex-Mormons, and Mormons with doubts are very often wrong. Really, truly wrong. There are a few people who left because someone said something that offended them, people who left because they never felt included, people who left because the Word of Wisdom was too much for them to follow, people who left because it was a lot of work and they are lazy, or whatever other reasons people come up with. Yes, there are those people. But I am not one of them. I have never even encountered one of them. I have met with and heard the stories of dozens and dozens of former Mormons and they are all the same kinds of wonderful, sincere, thoughtful, loving people you sit next to in church every week. You know why that is? It’s because they are those people. They no longer have the same beliefs, but they are still the same good people.

Leaving the church has not changed who I am. I am the same person, with the same love for my family and friends and community. My opinions have changed but my core is the same. I don’t believe the church is true anymore. But it hasn’t turned me into a Satan-worshiping lunatic and it never will. I think for myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to only make stupid decisions. It doesn’t mean my life will be any harder or that my kids will grow up to be murderers. I am a decent person with a decent head on my shoulders and I will stand up for myself because I believe that I have made a good choice for me, for my family, and for my life.

I hope you can see that.

I hope that you will still be my friend. I hope that you will focus on what we have always had rather than on what I lack now. I hope that you won’t be afraid to share your stories, your experiences, and your successes in the church with me. Because even though I don’t believe in the church, I love you. And the church is a part of you. And it’s a part of me. And I embrace that about us both. I am not “anti-Mormon.” I will never deny the good things the church has brought to my life, including my good friends, moral courage, strong family values, and much, much more. I will not try to lead you astray. I will not weigh you down with information about the church or force my beliefs on you. I know it’s hard for you to understand now and I know you may never fully understand why I left. But remember that I have been in your shoes and I used to think the same things you think about people like me. I understand you. It’s okay if we don’t agree. It doesn’t hurt me if you don’t share my opinions. What hurts me is if you don’t feel we can still be friends, because despite our differences, that’s not how I feel at all.

            Please feel free to contact me personally if you have questions. I’m happy to answer Facebook messages, emails, texts, and phone calls. Please share your thoughts and feelings and Ensign articles and spiritual experiences and anything else you have to offer. I will never reject you when you are being kind and sincere. And if you have your own questions or doubts I am here to support you in every way I can. I know what it’s like to feel very alone in all this, and I don’t want you to feel that way. You’re not crazy. You’re not less. You are normal. You are brave. You are going to be okay.

            Thank you for reading. Thank you for your love and kindness and support, especially those of you who have not or will not let this affect our relationship. It means more to me than you know. You are exactly the kind of people I need in my life.

Seriously – thank you.

Dressing up as Katniss for Halloween, smiling, and loving life. Still Kayla.

Addendum: A few people have expressed their concerns that although I have left the church, I continue to speak against it at times (and why do I care if I don't believe?). The church has been my life. My family, friends, and most of the people I know are still a part of the church. I know many people who are like me, but who are still trying to be a part of the church. I know that there are people in the church who have questions, but are scared of what will happen if they ask them. I will advocate for those people indefinitely. I will advocate for the people in the church who struggle to raise their own voices. I will ask questions of the believers that will make them reconsider their treatment and thoughts about minorities in the church and about people, like me, who have made the choice to leave. My experience in the church and leaving the church have made me more aware of how many people need more love, more answers, and more support. I'm here to do that for them when they need it most.