Friday, May 23, 2008

Learning To Fly

My parents joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS church) when I was three years old, so I don't remember much about our previous non-LDS life. I do recall the missionaries being fun guys who would swing me over their shoulders and flip me around. I loved it! I also remember attending church on one of my first occasions and being placed in a classroom with an older grandmotherly type woman as my teacher along with a bunch of other kids that I did not know. When I saw my moment, I hastily ran from the classroom and eventually found my parents in the main hall. For good or for bad, those are my first LDS memories.

I've been an active member of the LDS church ever since my great escape. I went on to attend Primary regularly, YW's, seminary, the local YSA branch, I attended a semester at Ricks College, married in the Portland, Oregon temple to my RM husband, and pretty much planned the balance of our lives around the church. We were the typical true blue Mormons who tried our best to institute all things LDS into our family (FHE, family scripture study, family prayer, etc).

Along my way in life, I would have occasional LDS faith related questions or concerns creep up and take centre stage in my mind. I would gently mull these concerns over for a time, ask my peers for their insight, and then either resolve my question with some kind of possible solution, or shelve my concern for another time. The thought of really, critically evaluating any of my questions or concerns was fairly overwhelming. If you are willing to really evaluate something, you must be willing to accept the outcome, whatever it may be. I was not that willing. If I found the church wasn't 'true' it could completely change my life as I knew it, and I was fairly comfortable right where I was. I had a happy family, good friends, all the answers to life's hard questions, etc. Why rock the boat?

My husband was led to the book, "Rough Stone Rolling" by a member of our Stake Presidency. While reading it, he would occasionally share his thoughts on some aspect of Joseph Smith's behaviours, or other interesting and previously unknown LDS history nugget. Our conversations were kept quite light on the surface, but inside, it was sparking the beginnings of more critical thought. After Rich was done reading it, I tried to get into the book, myself. After slogging through the more tedious personal family history of Joseph Smith, I almost abandoned ship out of sheer boredom. However, I would occasionally flip around in the book and find the more interesting chapters. Some of those more interesting reads were ones that spoke to the different first vision experiences, the controversy with Lehi's dream and Joseph Smith Senior's dream, the treasure seeking, the Book of Mormon translation method, and one night I remember reading about some of the deeper intricacies of polygamy as well as polyandry. Things were really getting exciting!

As I read various excerpts and did further readings elsewhere, I was struck by how different LDS history was taught compared to what really occurred. There was so much detail left out, cleaned up, or just completely opposite to what actually happened, that it was startling. In my mind, I began to wonder just how many other things were possibly not what they claimed to be within the LDS church.

However, knowing that recorded history is always going to be a bit biased, based on the recorders perspective, I wasn't ready to abandon ship just yet. After all, there was a lot at stake here. I was willing to give the LDS church the benefit of the doubt.

I don't remember the first 'real' conversation that Rich and I had regarding our deeper church concerns, but I do remember talking together, in the dark lying in bed, unloading various concerns we both had and seeing how the other reacted. We spoke lightly at first, but when we both discovered we were struggling with some very important topics from within the LDS faith, we began to speak more freely. It was extremely satisfying knowing that we were still on the same side, still a team, and both in this search together.

Soon our conversations moved from being based in historical LDS concerns, to more current LDS doctrines. There were mindsets and doctrines that had often bothered me, but I was taught regularly and often to support and sustain the Priesthood leaders, and that to critically question their revelation and counsel is to show a serious lack of personal faith and committment to the gospel, as well as sinful pride to assume I knew better than 'the brethren'. I was often told that what did not make 'sense' now, would all come to my understanding at some point... wait, be patient, and humble myself until that time. But I just couldn't figure out how, for example, the God I had come to understand would withhold eternal blessings from an entire race for such a long period of time. I couldn't figure out why women were supposed to be obedient to their husbands, while husbands were to be obedient only to their Heavenly Father. I couldn't wrap my head around the idea that someone, anyone, would choose to be homosexual, a lifestyle that often entails all manner of social abuse and family abandonment. To voluntarily sign up for that life would be insane. Isn't it just possible that those tendencies are genetic, as are my tendencies to be attracted to males? Why would a loving God help Sis. "X" find her car keys, but not hold back the waves of an awful tsunami? Why was Bro. "Y" blessed by being waylaid on his way to work at one of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11th, but not the hundreds of other people who had already arrived? Those were just a few of the topics that we weighed out and pondered on. It was freeing yet scary to open my mind that much at first. It was like opening a window to a small house that had been closed and sealed off for so long. My eyes squinted in response to the bright sunshine that was pouring in now. It was uncomfortable at first to try to focus my eyes, but slowly, I adjusted and was able to take in a whole new world. And it was not the miserable, selfish, de-spiritualized world I had come to believe it was. In fact, it was a peaceful, welcoming and spiritually stretching place that felt 'right'.

The more that Rich and I talked, the more we saw that we needed to make some changes in our lives to better reflect our new reality. Trying to untangle ourselves from the life encompassing web of the LDS church, and create some distance there, required lots of adjustments and new thought processes. Firstly, we talked with our children on a long road trip home from a family reunion. We shared with them, in a way that wasn't too heavy, some of our concerns regarding being a part of the LDS church. We let them know that we, Rich and I, would no longer be attending church any longer, but they could do what they felt was best for them. After all, we were allowing ourselves to find our own 'right' in life, we felt it was only fair that they, too, had that same chance. The kids all took things in stride and four of the five decided that they were happy to move on from the church. Our eldest, the child who had just graduated from Primary and joined the 'big boys club' was less anxious for those changes, though heard our concerns. Upon arriving home from our trip, we went about making real the changes we had decided upon. In doing this, we needed to let our close LDS extended family know of our changes. As gently as I could, I expressed my love and appreciation for my siblings (as both my parents have passed away, there were no parents on my side of the family to inform), and then shared my recent decisions with them. Reactions were varied, and it took a bit of time for this bomb shell to completely percolate through, but all in all, I was so proud of my siblings for being so supportive and loving towards me, regardless of what building I went to (or didn't go to) on Sunday. Though I know they disagreed with my choices, we were 'family', and nothing would change that.

Rich had varied reactions from his family, too. To some degree, it was a bit easier for him, as his older brother, Bob, had already blazed a bit of a trail after he left the LDS church. However, his family roots run quite deep in the LDS faith, so it's never 'easy' going against long standing family traditions and letting so many people down. But our decisions were important enough to us, we knew we had to go forward even when it would sew such discord.

Next, we spoke to our Stake President, letting him know of our decisions to step back from the church. Rich was a high council member, so there would be changes made right away. I was the ward YW secretary, so our Stake President said he'd speak to our Bishop so I, too, would be released. It was a quick but civil conversation. I have a lot of love and respect for our Stake President, as he had been a voice of love and reason at different times in my life when I felt the world crashing down on me. I will always appreciate his kindness extended to me and my family, and hope we will always count ourselves as friends.

At this point, we sat back and decided to just be still for a while. We knew the ward wheels would begin to turn soon and our news would spread as it often does when you live in a fish bowl. Some people responded with extra love, for which we appreciated. Those friendships transcend organized religion. The rest of our ward had a mixed bag reaction with a smattering of all sorts of emotions. Fair enough, as we are all different. The bishopric asked if they could come and visit with us, to which we agreed. They were long-time friends and we appreciated their sharing concern for us. The first visit was with just the Bishop. He is a good man and someone who can walk alongside someone else, sharing a bit of that persons journey, while not completely agreeing with that person's choices. He had encouraged me, in my youth, when I had asked him about being a mechanic. Previous to getting into the school administration, he had been a mechanics teacher at a local high school and gave me every reason to believe I could be a mechanic, despite being a minority. I'm forever grateful to him for being so encouraging. His visit was gentle and positive. We didn't get into much of the details for our leaving, with his focus being mostly on knowing that we are loved and are wanted to come back to church. We thanked him for his love and concern, but didn't think we'd be coming back anytime soon. As he left, he suggested he come back again next week to visit again. This visit had been good, and though we didn't want him to waste his time that could be better spent elsewhere, we agreed.

Our bishop came by for several more weeks, bringing with him one or the other of his counsellors each visit. Most of the time the visits were warm and welcoming. We touched on some of the concerns, dancing around the edges of anything too controversial, and most times agreed to disagree for a peaceful solution. The invitation was always extended towards us to come back to church. At one visit, the idea of coming back to church, not necessarily as a believer, or embracing it all, but to just take it as it comes, was put forward to me. That was a new concept to me. I had always been an 'all or nothing' kind of Mormon. I hadn't considered being anything less until that moment. The idea seemed to twig something in me that I even decided to attend the following Sunday, just to see how that felt.

I attended church that Sunday, flanked on both sides by my in-laws, which I appreciated greatly. It helped deflect some of the uncomfortable stares and looks I got as people did a double take upon seeing me there. Most people I interacted with were very kind and went out of their way to say hello. It was nice to be so welcomed. Over the next few weeks, I decided to attend regularly with my oldest son. I would come as someone trying to work out my concerns, smorging from the talks and lessons the things that felt right, while discarding the things that I felt were wrong. I also had decided I should accompany my oldest son so he didn't feel unsupported, and so he wouldn't be perceived as a church orphan.

By now our weekly visits with the bishop and one of his counsellors were winding down. Our bishop was preparing to leave and serve with his wife on a mission, and we were growing weary of rehashing the same conversations week after week. On our last visit, Rich and one of the counsellors got into a more 'spirited' discussion, and the good feelings that had more or less accompanied the other visits, were growing tattered. Since the visits were no longer serving their purpose, we decided it was time to stop them.

I was still attending, week after week, trying to sift through talks for little pearls of wisdom that would stir my soul. Some were able to reach me at that level, but increasingly, they made me want to shake my head and walk out. At one point, I tried just attending sacrament meeting and then for the following two hours, hang out in the foyer, reading from the Bible or writing in my journal. This was more tolerable and more social, but still two hours spent doing something I wasn't gaining a lot from.

Upon encouragement from family, I decided to pick a 'concern of the month' and chip away at my questions one by one, systematically. I made an appointment with the new bishop (our old bishop was gone by now) and forewarned him about what topic I wanted to touch on. When the alloted time arrived and I stepped into his office to really hash out my 'concern of the month', things immediately began to fall apart. Though this man was one of the kindest men I knew who would literally give you the shirt off his back, he was not the right person for this job. His nervous energy came across as he talked on and on about nothing related to my particular question, not even breaking long enough for me to get a word in edgewise. And when we did broach the topic I had selected and forewarned him of, he lacked the background knowledge needed to really jump into anything deep. Again, I will reiterate that this was a good man, but just not the right one for this job. Upon leaving his office, I decided it might be more productive to book a meeting with the Stake President.

Within a week I was in the Stake President's office with the same question. I let him know that I was wanting to tackle one issue at a time, and after my attempt to council with my bishop hadn't worked, I was now here, in his office, to get his input. He thought that was a fabulous idea and so we began. I asked the Stake President if a personal, heartfelt prayer was just as powerful as a priesthood blessing, to which he replied, 'no'. He felt that though prayer is important, to receive the extra blessings available one needed to tap into the power of the priesthood. I asked if a mother, holding her very ill child in the middle of the night who had no priesthood in the house, offered her own heartfelt prayer, would that child receive less divine assistance than if that same child had received a priesthood blessing. He suggested that perhaps, if there was no other way to access the priesthood, that hopefully the Lord wouldn't withhold a particular blessing, but usually there is priesthood available to all who want it, and that only through the priesthood could the extra blessings be made available. I asked if that meant that me, on my own, without any priesthood in my life, was not 'enough'? Were my prayers not 'enough'? Was my being a daughter of God not 'enough' to allow me access to those extra blessings? In a way that I deeply appreciated it, he was straight with me and didn't dance around his answer. He said that though we're all equal, the priesthood is simply the only way to opening that door. With that answer hanging in the air, I broke down crying. Perhaps I misunderstood what he was trying to say, but what I heard was that I, alone, as a female, was not enough to my Heavenly Father. According to my Stake President, nothing I could do would allow me the special blessings unless I found a male who held the priesthood. I had nothing left to say. I got the answer that I was searching for, it just wasn't what I had hoped for. I thanked him for his time and retired to the bathroom to clean myself up. While I sat in the bathroom stall, it occured to me that I had my answer now. I had searched, pondered and prayed, and now I had my answer as to whether or not I could stay in the LDS church. I now knew it wasn't going to work for me, as it went against what my heart was telling me was true.

I attended church a few more times with my son, trying to be supportive, but in the end, it was just making me a grumpy person. It began to feel like such a mis-use of my time to spend three hours every Sunday listening to things I did not agree with, searching for that one pearl of wisdom that was becoming harder and harder to find. Finally, I had enough. It was time to move on.

There's no real conclusion to this story yet, no neat and tidy ending, as we're still following the adventure and letting it unfold in front of us. But I'm okay knowing there are some things that are unknowable, now. There is peace to be found in letting go, and flying.

-Heather McCue

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