Sunday, November 17, 2013

Marriage and my relationship with the gospel

When I first started this blog, my good friend Rachel commented on my testimony post and said this, "I believe that testimony is a relationship that developes bit by bit. Just like a human relationship builds over time and through shared experience, so do testimonies grow over time."

I really, really like this idea.

Think back to the time before you were married. Do you remember what you thought marriage was back then? Now have a good laugh, because I'm sure you think your pre-married self was pretty naive. Or is it just me?

I had so many theories about how to have a happy marriage. I come from divorced parents, so my ideas were mostly theories. I just couldn't understand how people who loved each other enough to get married could ever say truly hurtful things to one another. I believed that there was sort of a formula for a happy marriage. That formula included simple things like praying together, going to church together, having weekly date nights, writing each other love notes, always kissing hello and goodbye, etc. I believed that if I satisfied this formula, things would flow smoothly.

Well, I still believe that following that formula will make it pretty likely for things to turn out well.  But that doesn't mean we won't go through trying times where we really wonder what the hell we got ourselves into. Am I the only person who has wondered what I was thinking!

As marriages progress, we learn more about each other. Our bond deepens, for sure, but marriage is HARD. As we grow closer, we learn things that aren't so simple to understand. In the beginning, your partner is all good things. That's the Primary stage of the gospel. It's all simple and sunny and happy and straightforward. Then you get to the point where some things just don't make sense. That's like the first time you and your spouse have a real fight. You know, the kind where you get in the car and go for a drive because you just can't be in the same physical space as that person. You are physically angry. And it makes you question your relationship. You start thinking you're not the couple you thought you were. But you come back and you make up, and things are actually better after that--better than before the fight, because you dealt with some things, you got to know each other better, and you recommitted yourselves to each other. The struggle makes you grow. That's normal marriage crap and that's normal testimony questioning. It makes you stronger.

But for some couples, there are worse times. Way worse. (This isn't me and my husband, just for the record.) Some couples deal with very serious problems. The kind of problems that make them want to quit. And sometimes they do quit. This is like being inactive. You can't be around each other anymore.

For many of those couples, the spark never returns and they move on. But for some, they are so deeply tied together, that they never can truly quit each other. This is like me and the Church. I tried to leave, because things just didn't work out. But I can't get away from it. It's too much a part of me. So I had to come back and "work things out". Working things out involves compromise. For me and the Church, that compromise means that our relationship can't ever be the way it used to be. In order to move forward, our relationship needs to change. And while I would certainly prefer that we had never broken up, and that our relationship had continued in its honeymoon bliss, I would rather be together like this than not be together at all. Does that make sense?

So at this point, all I can do is hope that my relationship continues to grow. I can work to make it as good as it can be, but I also have to accept that it won't be what it once was. It's a new relationship.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Coming out of my closet

Have you guys seen this TED talk from Ash Beckham? You should watch it before you read my post. :)

"All a closet is, is a hard conversation."

I think most agnostic Mormons have probably been in a closet to one degree or another. I'm a really open, "take me as I am" kind of person, but even I lived in an agnostic closet for a few years. When my husband and I first stopped attending church, we didn't tell anyone outside of our immediate families (and "telling" might be a strong word for what we really did with our families, which was more like just letting it spread) for about two years. We didn't tell some of our very closest friends. For TWO YEARS. I didn't openly discuss it with my best friend--who also happens to be my sister-in-law--for THREE YEARS.

It wasn't because we were ashamed. I've never been ashamed of my status in the church, whatever it has been. It was because of what Ash Beckham says--we were nervous about our friends' reactions. Now, I have never been friends with the kinds of Mormons who would cut off their relationship with me over beliefs. I tend not to choose a-holes for my friends. So I wasn't afraid of losing my friends. But I think I was afraid that their opinions of me would change. Indeed, I believe many opinions of me did change, if only a little bit. Some of my friends actually looked up to me, especially in high school when I was super duper righteous. I was nervous about the letdown.

I was also nervous about how people would judge the testimony that I had lost, the one that they had admired. I was afraid of people judging my old faith as insufficient or unauthentic. My previous faith was genuine and that genuineness was important to me. I didn't want it questioned.

I was afraid of people's assumptions about my reasons for leaving the church. Mormons have a tendency to assume that you're sinning--or want to be sinning--if you choose to leave. I was afraid that everyone would think I was that weak and shallow. As if I would throw away the very structure of my life, something that formed me, something i loved, something I had dedicated actual years of my life to building that I could drink a margarita every now and then? I don't think so.

The other assumption people like to make about those who leave the church is that they were somehow offended. I was afraid that my friends might think I was that petty. First of all, I really don't get offended that easily to begin with. But mostly, again, I wouldn't throw away something important to me over something someone ELSE did. I like to believe my character is stronger than that.

I think I wanted to avoid people's efforts to reactivate me and the inevitability of them praying for me. I didn't want anyone to try to resolve my concerns. I didn't want anyone's sympathy (come on, you know Mormons feel bad for people who have "lost their light"). I just wanted to believe what I believed and live how I wanted to live. And I wanted my friendships to go on as they were before, unaffected by my loss of faith in a gospel that played a role in most of my relationships.

But they were affected, because I felt like a liar. I was lying to my friends. I was letting them believe something that was no longer true. And just like Ash says, a closet is no place for a person to live. I didn't like tip toeing around certain topics for fear that I might have to fess up.

So I slowly started telling people. Facebook really helped. I got brave and posted  my "religious views" on it (you know, back when it had that option). At the time, I think I classified my views as "agnostic deist". I later abandoned the deist part. Some of my friends asked me about it, and I was happy to tell them my story. I despise feeling misunderstood (hence my blog all about explaining myself).

Most people were quiet about it. I assumed there were conversations. "So, did you hear Adrienne is inactive??? I can't believe that!" And maybe there was speculation about "what happened". Or maybe none of that happened and I'm just incredibly narcissistic. Yeah, probably none of that happened. But I've heard comments and conversations like that about other people, so I wondered if people were having those conversations about me.

And you know what? I had to shrug my shoulders. What else was I going to do? I was being authentic. Honest. Me. I can't apologize for that. And it felt better than living in my agnostic closet.

I like how Ash gives people the benefit of the doubt when they react to her. Starting with the little girl in the diner, and on to her parents' friends at her sister's wedding, when people are trying to understand her or be supportive, she accepts that graciously, because she's accepting their intentions, regardless of the awkward expression of those intentions. The little girl just wanted to know if she was a boy or a girl. Her parents' friends just wanted to tell her, "Hey, we accept you and love you, even though you're telling us something that we know you were afraid to tell us, and even though maybe this information makes us a little uncomfortable. We love you. We accept you."

I really believe that most people in our lives will react like this when we come out of our closets. They accept us. They love us. They try to express that in whatever awkward ways they can muster. They might be uncomfortable. They might even be devastated. But once they recover from that (which, admittedly, can take some time), if they're being totally honest, I think even they are happy to have us living out in the open.

And then our relationships can become as authentic as we are.

When I finally brought it up with my best friend (of 20 years!), she was so relieved that I did. Obviously she knew everything (since she's also my sister-in-law--remember that letting it spread thing?), and it kind of hurt her that I had never brought it up, that I hadn't opened up that part of myself to her. She didn't want to make me uncomfortable, though, so she just waited for me. She was, of course, incredibly accepting. And I was surprised by how much she really understood where I was coming from. Our relationship finally went back to being truly authentic, and it was so refreshing. Oh, and it wasn't as different as I feared it would be.

Unfortunately, some people may not react with love, acceptance, or understanding. That's their problem. It might be difficult for us and it might make relationships hard, but it's their issue. All we can offer to any relationship is ourselves--our real selves. If someone rejects that, then they reject it. But you can't have a real relationship that involves fake people.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Are you Mormon?

"Are you Mormon?"

Simple enough question, right? You either are or you aren't.




"Oh, you're from Utah? So, are you Mormon?" can be an incredibly complicated question. I've chatted with many a non-believing, non-ex Mormon about this question. Clearly it's not just me who feels uneasy about it, so let's chat.

I've been through three stages of Mormon identity.

Stage 1 comprised the first 25 years of my life. That's when the answer was simple. "Are you Mormon?" Um, yes. Duh.

Stage 2 consists of the six years I was completely inactive.  I lived in Utah for most of this period, so answering in the affirmative definitely gave the wrong impression. Saying yes would imply that I was going to church every Sunday, wearing my garments, reading my scriptures, etc. But saying no would imply that I didn't have any relationship with the church, and that was obviously not true. It made me feel like I was hiding something, and I wasn't. I was never ashamed of my inactivity. I finally settled on something along the lines of, "Well, yes, technically, but I'm not currently active."

My husband was going to the University of Utah during some of that time (the dirty U!), and he would totally answer no. That bothered me! I felt like he was denying his upbringing or something. I don't know, it just hurt me that he wanted to ignore any relationship at all with this church that formed him, and frankly, is and always will be a huge part of who we are as a couple. He has since become a little more comfortable with his Mormon upbringing and he can just answer, "I was raised Mormon." On the East Coast, nobody bats an eye at that answer. Back here, pretty much everyone's answer to questions of religious identity is, "I was raised [blank]." I think that answer would even work in Utah. People would get the idea.

Stage 3 is where I'm at now. I've come to realize that I almost can't become un-Mormon any more than I can become un-Italian. It's just what I am, regardless of my actual religious beliefs. So sometimes I just answer yes. Because you know what? I AM Mormon. My name is on the rolls and I know a thing or two about the church's doctrines, practices, culture, etc.  I have also started telling people that I'm an agnostic Mormon. It is AWESOME. People are obviously fascinated by the idea and I think it has actually been good for people to see that Mormons aren't as homogeneous as they're made out to be. It sums me up perfectly, because my beliefs are agnostic, but culturally, I am very much a Mormon.

Ultimately, I think this is a very personal question. I'm curious how all of my blog friends with similar faith issues answer it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The permanence of my agnosticism

Some people consider agnosticism a temporary state on the road to belief or atheism. Indeed, many Mormons and readers of my blog think I'm searching for that. They make well-meaning comments wishing me well on my "faith journey". Some people even make comments about how "we're all in a different place" in this journey, as if my hope testimony is kind of a "step in the right direction" (which is actually kinda condescending, but I try to focus on the well-meaning part, because these really are wonderful people with good intent).

Well, I'm not searching for real belief. I don't expect to ever have the convictions that I used to have. I'm not seeking them. My beliefs are what they are, and I'm comfortable with them. I hope for the things I hope for, and that hope drives my behaviors, but I don't require that hope to ever progress to belief or knowledge or conviction. It's enough where it is.

When I first felt the urge to start this blog, I started looking around at what else there was like it. You know, market saturation and all that. I found a lot of blogs about being an agnostic Mormon but they were all about an active Mormon who was a closet agnostic, working through their belief problems and ultimately leaving the church. My blog is obviously kind of the opposite. It's about being agnostic and trying to work my way back into the church. But it's about being Mormon AND being agnostic. I don't ever intend to separate the two (though you should see my disclaimer). This journey of mine is not a journey toward faith. It's just a journey toward happiness, using principles from the LDS gospel to guide me and my family, because I believe that those principles are good and effective ones.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

I'm still here. Also, the hardest part of agnostic Mormonism...

So, maybe some people have noticed that I've sort of been MIA for, oh, two months (then again, maybe nobody noticed and I'm just flattering myself). I wouldn't be telling the whole truth about my absence without mentioning a little thing called morning sickness. That's right, I'm pregnant. With my fifth baby. Hey, I may be agnostic, but I'm still Mormon!

I swear, this has been the worst of them all. Luckily, it's starting to wear off a little, so I might be blogging a bit more. I might also be regularly cooking dinner again. And maybe napping less, which means my kids will be feeding themselves peanut butter and crackers a little less often. Maybe.

Anyway, I also wouldn't be telling the whole truth about my absence without confessing the thing about agnostic Mormonism that is extra hard for me. See the tag line on my blog? "Coping as an active Mormon, when technically, I'm agnostic." Active Mormon. The hardest part of all of this is the active part. I haven't been very good at that since we moved in July, and it makes me feel a little bit hypocritical to be preaching about how to be an agnostic but active Mormon when I'm really not living up to it.

The thing is, getting to church every Sunday is HARD when you aren't motivated by real, hardcore belief. I used to wonder at people who came back from inactivity. They would talk about how hard it was every single week, and I really just didn't get that. I mean, it's just showing up, right? You really just don't realize how hard it is until you've had a good long time away from it. Adding a few kids during your absence doesn't make it any easier.

On top of that, my husband works long hours and has a beast of a commute--the kids really only get to see him on the weekend. The last thing I want to do on Sunday is put them in the van and go spend three hours away from their dad.

On top of that, did I mention that we moved in July? And have I also mentioned that our previous ward was just so perfect for me? The people were just the best. They not only made me feel super duper welcome when I showed up after being a name on the rolls for two years, but they also accepted me and my crazy ideas. In fact, they were terribly supportive of it all. AND I just really liked them. I had a lot of great friends there. I really believe that ward was a huge factor in my decision to make Mormonism work for me. The ward culture was highly motivational. Who wouldn't want to be part of a group of people like that?

I knew when we moved that navigating the social waters of a new ward was going to be tricky for me. I thought about maybe trying to come off like a normal, believing Mormon. That thought lasted for about three seconds, because it's just not my style to fake it. Plus, what if they put the spiritual education of children into my hands? Heaven help them. But I also wasn't sure how to break it to everyone that I'm kind of complicated. I mean, do I just stand up in the first testimony meeting, introduce myself, and direct everyone to my blog?

Luckily, it all kind of worked itself out. When my mother-in-law came to visit, I went to church with her--my first time in this ward, a month after we moved in. Then I didn't show up again for two months. When the missionaries came to visit, I told them everything (I think I kinda scared them). When I ran into a girl from the ward when I was at Petsmart the other day, and she mentioned not seeing me (don't you love Mormon concern for absence?), I just told her, "Yeah, that's because I'm kind of a rebel and I'm not great at getting to church every week." And you know what? She was super cool. Today when I finally went to church and people asked me if I was new, I said, "Kind of. But mostly I'm just kind of sporadic."

So anyway, the hardest part is out there. I'm NOT a conventional Mormon. It feels good to be transparent.

So about that church activity thing...I didn't watch all of General Conference last weekend, but I did watch several talks. It only took one or two of them for me to really start missing church and really start wanting to do this again. That's how very close to the surface my feelings about all of this are. It's so easy for me to be away from it for a little while and get confused about what I want. During my two-month absence, I actually started to wonder if I really wanted to do this agnostic Mormon thing at all. I mean, it's a tricky (and time-consuming) dance. But when I so easily felt those strong urges to really try to be a good Mormon, I realized that I just need to keep plugging along.

So I went to church today. And I'm glad I did.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ta-dah! My new blog series

Okay, so I'm writing this blog and I'm reconciling my renegade agnostic beliefs with my desire to be active in the church. Sometimes I'm straight up rejecting church teachings, other times I'm doing complicated brain gymnastics to make things fit into my own world view. Some people find it disingenuous at worst, pointless and silly at best.

So what is the point of it all?

You may have noticed three things that pop up in a lot of my posts about why I value the church and why I'm pursuing this tricky path of agnostic Mormonism: 1) It makes me a better person, 2) It strengthens my family, and 3) It enriches our lives. In fact, these things are the only things I KNOW about the church. I actually know these things are true. They are my testimony.

Well, I've decided that in addition to listing them all the time (super useful, huh?), I'm going to provide evidence of them. Starting today, I'm going to share specific ways that the church (and my participation in it) is making me a better person, strengthening my family, and enriching our lives. This series is called, "Ta-dah!"

For my first post in the Ta-dah! series, I just wanted to share how our Relief Society lesson yesterday made me evaluate the way I treat my husband and my neighbors. It was on Chapter 16 in the Lorenzo Snow manual, about unity. One of the quotes:

"And the father and the mother should be very careful. The wife should never in the presence of her children speak disrespectfully of her husband....And the father the same. He has no right to speak disrespectfully of his wife in the presence of her children."

This quote is not earth shattering, either in content or language. We all know we shouldn't belittle our spouses, right? Especially in front of our children (or anyone else, for that matter). Please tell me everyone knows this. But it was a good reminder for me. For one thing, it made me realize that my husband never, ever does this. He never speaks disrespectfully to or of me in front of other people. Oh, we have our knock-down-drag-out fights, for sure, but he is very respectful of me, especially so in front of our kids. It made me more grateful for him.

It also helped me see that I could probably be better in this area. I honestly don't disparage him in front of the kids very often, but I probably do sometimes. And it never hurts to have a reminder to be vigilant about these things, you know? My family is strengthened just a little bit, and maybe--hopefully--I am a slightly better person than I was on Saturday.

The lesson also talked a lot about unity within the church and with our neighbors. This was especially timely for me, because we have a rather difficult neighbor. We haven't even officially met him yet (we moved in fairly recently), but he has done some crazy things to our other neighbors and even to our daughter! He's just a little bit nutty. He has been keeping to himself lately, and so we've been tempted to just ignore him. But after yesterday, I feel like maybe we should try to reach out to this man--in some subtle, safe, discretionary way. Being able to forgive this man's strange and confrontational behavior will make us better, happier people, and having a functional, neighborly relationship with him will probably enrich our lives.

So, basically...Ta-dah! It's working!

*Just to ward off some inevitable reactions, of course I realize that I don't NEED to go to church to encounter reminders or ideas like this. But the thing is, as someone who spent six years trying to find another system for regular self-improvement and relationship inspiration, I can tell you that DIY-ing self-improvement just isn't as easy as having it built into your life through a community of people working together to help each other be better. It just isn't. I also realize that I don't necessarily need the LDS church for this, but I tried others, and this one just fits me better. That may or may not have something to do with the 25 years I spent completely immersed in it, but either way, this is the place where I feel most comfortable and the program that is most effective for me. And this blog is kind of about me and my experiences with religion, know. :)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Book of Mormon Girl

Do you all know Joanna Brooks? She blogs at Ask Mormon Girl and regularly contributes to Religion Dispatches and the Washington Post, among other things. Most importantly, she was interviewed by Jon Stewart last year, so...she's legit. Anyway, I read her memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl, awhile ago and I just wanted to share my thoughts about it here.

I love Joanna Brooks for her courage, both to question AND to embrace Mormonism. It seems like most Mormons choose one or the other: criticism or total endorsement, rejection or complete acceptance, bitterness or unquestioning devotion. I'm so happy--and encouraged--to have a Mormon voice to unite those of us who cannot accept all of Mormonism, and yet want it to be a part of our lives. Because, as Brooks points out, it IS a part of who we are, regardless of how we react to it.

On page 159, she talks about her grandmother, who grew up in Garland, Utah, in a Mormon environment where her parents had a coffee pot on the stove and "people weren't as strict about rules or doctrine, but still taught the gospel as it should be taught, and who else were they to be anyways but Mormons? Who else in all the world were we supposed to be?" As someone who spent six years away from the church, all the while missing it and loving it but finding myself unable to reconcile my own beliefs with it, this really spoke to me. Who else in all the world am I supposed to be but a Mormon girl? For orthodox Mormons, this sounds bad, but most of me wants Mormonism simply because it is MY tradition. It's what I was born into. It's the culture I know. It's not something I necessarily believe is "true". But I don't care about that. It makes me happy. Belonging to it makes me happy.

The first part of the book was a fun read for both myself and my jack Mormon husband. We had a great time reliving the Mormon quirkiness that defined our upbringing. The second half is just heart breaking. But I love that Brooks has found a way to make this thing work for her. It's a process I have been through myself (though my own issues with the church may not be exactly the same as hers).

Oh, the last chapter. So lovely. "What do we do with ourselves when we find we have failed to become the adults we dreamed as pious children?....How do we react when we discover at the core of faith a knot of contradictions? Do we throw it all out?....Do we blame our parents?....I don't want to blame anyone. I want to do what my ancestors did: look west and dream up a new country for my children. I don't want to blame anyone. I just want to tell my story. Because the tradition is young, and the next chapter is yet to be written. And ours may yet be a faith that is big enough for all of our stories."

I think all of us unorthodox Mormons NEED to tell our stories. We need to have the courage to be honest about our testimonies (or lack thereof), so that everyone out there who has similar concerns or reservations or the same lack of testimony will feel like there is room for them in this tradition, instead of walking away because they can't give everything to it. We can embrace the church even if we can't embrace it all at once.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Agnostic Prayer

Ah, prayer. Communication with God. The cornerstone of religiosity. "Agnostic prayer" seems like a bit of an oxymoron, but I'm Agnostic Mormon Mom--my very existence is an oxymoron. So I'm here to show you how agnostic prayer can work.

I mentioned in this post that I consider prayer to be a healthy meditative practice. I do. I think we can all benefit from taking time every day to really center ourselves, contemplate where we are and what we would like to accomplish, etc. But that post was kind of vague, so I'd like to use this post to get more detailed about my prayer style.

Personal prayer is about that meditative, centering idea. It's a time for me to be really honest with myself about my weaknesses and what I need to work on. It's a time for me to think about, and actually specify with words, what it is I really want out of my day and my life and my relationships. It helps me be grateful, focus on the things I have, cultivate a positive attitude.

Here's an example of a prayer I might utter.

Heavenly Father, thank you for this day. Thank you for my little family and for my husband who works so hard to support us. I'm grateful for our home and all of our material comforts. I'm grateful that we live in this country. I'm grateful for our opportunities, freedoms, and safety here. I'm grateful for my friends and family, who support me and inspire me. Please help me to always remember why I do what I do by staying at home with my kids. Please help me to find patience, energy, and inspiration when I need it, so I can be the best mom and wife I can be. I love these little people and I want nothing more than to set them on a healthy, successful path for life. Please help me to accomplish that just a little bit more each day. Please bless my husband in his job, that he will continue to excel and be happy at it. Please help me know how best to be supportive of him.

What I'm really saying there is:

I'm grateful for what I have. I have a pretty damn good life. I have a great little family and a wonderful husband who works his tail off so we can have everything we have. I'm fortunate to live where I live. I have amazing friends and family. (Maybe I should communicate that to them.) I do what I do because I believe in it. It's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day drudgery of my job, but I have a plan here, and I'm defining it with actual words, and I'm going to stay focused on that today, through all of the tantrums and whining and laundry and diapers. I love my husband. He deserves my appreciation. Hmm...How can I show him that? How can I be supportive of him? Maybe I'll make him his favorite meal tonight, or write him a little note, or iron his shirts instead of letting them sit in the dryer and get extra wrinkled (he hates that). Or maybe I'll call him and say some cryptically naughty things to him on the phone because...well, you know.

[Okay, Adrienne, keep it clean. This is a post about prayer!]

Family prayer is my favorite kind of prayer, because it's a super effective way to communicate with family members about things they don't really listen to when I say them at other times of the day.  Oh, and it's also a good time to find out what is on other people's minds.

An example of my kind of family prayer:

Heavenly Father, we're so thankful for each other. We're thankful for our home and our daddy and our food and our toys. We're thankful for our friends and that we got to have so much fun playing with them today. Please help us to always be nice to each other and to be obedient to mommy. Please help us to have good attitudes tomorrow and to do our jobs happily.

I don't think I really need to go into what I did there. :)  The important thing is, everyone is focused on this one thing, and we're all thinking it together. We're reminding each other of how fortunate we are. We're aspiring to be good people and to be a strong family. We're aspiring. Together. That's awesome.

Recently one of my friends asked me if I pray at church. I do not pray at church, but nobody has ever asked me to since I came back. Rude, huh? In the past, if I had been asked to pray, I would have politely said, "You know what? I'd rather not. Sorry." No big deal.

Now days, I would probably pray, and here's why: I view an invocation as an opportunity to focus the meeting and everyone in attendance, to thank the teacher for their preparation, and to express my hope that we will all be edified. "God" is simply an object on which to focus my invocation.

Watch this:

Dear Heavenly Father, We're so thankful to be together at church today. We're thankful for our ward family and for the support and encouragement that we give to each other. We're thankful for the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets. We're thankful for the time and effort our teacher put into preparing this lesson for us. Please help us to find inspiration and guidance in this lesson. Please bless us to take what we feel here and use it to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

What I'm really saying there is:

Hey, all you people in this room, I'm really thankful for you. I'm thankful that we can come here and use these writings and teachings to learn and grow together. Hey, teacher, thank you for your time and dedication to helping us grow. Let's all try to find something that will inspire us so that we can grow and become better, or so that we can find whatever peace and comfort we may be seeking.

So there ya have it. Agnostic prayer. It's legit.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

On spiritual flabbiness

I am not currently in my best physical form, but I have been an athlete for most of my life, and being fit has normally come fairly easily to me when I pursue it.  If I follow "the program"--eat reasonably well and exercise--my results are generally what you might expect them to be. I get what I was promised: my body is relatively thin and toned. (I see you looking over at my picture. Not fair! Look how new my baby was!)

I used to assume that people whose bodies didn't look "fit" were probably not really trying hard enough. Maybe they were cutting corners, sneaking too many treats, exercising too casually. Ultimately, they just didn't want fitness as much as I did. Right?

Well, then I opened up my tiny little mind and realized that not everyone is just like me.  Some people came into this world with different physical dispositions and challenges. I realized that there are a lot of people who follow "the program" even more closely than I do and they just won't ever be thin and toned. It's just not in their physical make-up. They could pay a personal trainer all the money in the world, but they will always be subject to the limits of the body they were born with.

Someone like Gillian Michaels is clearly very disciplined. She works her tail off and follows "the program". But she also has the optimal genetic make-up to participate in a fitness program and sculpt a beautifully fit body. Other people can follow the same fitness program, with the same devotion, and their shape will always be lumpy and awkward.

Well, friends, I'm kind of eternally lumpy in the faith department. Some people follow the program and it works just as it says it will. They read their scriptures, pray, obey the commandments, attend their meetings, choose to believe...and they develop sure testimonies. It. Just. Works. But me? I could pay a personal spiritual trainer all the money in the world and I will still be a doubter. I could have Elder Holland himself as my personal buddy and I will never catch his conviction.

And sometimes I think it gets harder--not easier--as time goes on. The more babies I have and the older I get, the harder it becomes to achieve the physical results that used to come so easily. The burdens of age and real physical strain (like pregnancy!) accumulate and start to feel very heavy. Time and experience take a toll. Physical and spiritual challenges add up. Simply put, being on this earth longer just makes things complicated.

So why bother?

Why should Lumpy McFlabbyArms go to the trouble of following a program that will simply never deliver its promised results? Why work as hard as, or even harder than, Sexy von SixPack if she's going to remain forever flabby? And why should Doubty von Faithless go to the trouble of following the gospel program when she will likely never develop the kind of testimony it promises? After all, following these programs requires some serious time and effort.

I think both things are worth it. Because even though Lumpy McFlabbyArms will never look like Gillian Michaels, she will certainly be much better off, inside and out, for having followed the program than she ever would have been without it. In the same way, following the gospel program will benefit people like me, even if we are never able to develop "real" testimonies of it. It will still make us better people, strengthen our families, and enrich our lives.

*This post was inspired by a conversation with my wise and beautiful cousin Rebekah.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bringing Up Agnostic Mormon Baby

The trickiest (and to many people, the most hypocrital) part of my Agnostic Mormonism is the question of where exactly I'm leading my children. My participation in the church and how I reconcile that with my actual beliefs are very complex things. I can't really discuss them with a 6-year-old. And yet, I'm bringing these kids to church and I'm reading the scriptures to them and we're listening to and singing Primary songs. They're slowly picking up on gospel principles. And I'm sort of encouraging it!

In this post, I talked a little bit about how I answer gospel questions and how and why I teach my children the gospel. Today I want to talk about what outcome I'm hoping for.

One of my brothers (who has been inactive his entire adult life) has always let my mom bring his kids to church with her. They've even been baptized! My husband and I were baffled by that for the longest time, because we couldn't imagine sending our kids into a place to learn things that we definitely do not believe.

But you know what? That attitude was actually born of my Mormon upbringing.

It's my Mormon upbringing that makes me terrified (or even just uncomfortable) that my kids will believe something different from what I believe. It's my Mormon upbringing that makes me terrified that my kids might subscribe to something that isn't "true". Mormons are scared of that. They're scared of "losing" their children to other belief systems. But the only reason to be scared of losing your children to another belief system is if you actually believe the thing you have is absolutely and exclusively true. And since I'm agnostic, and agnosticism is all about NOT claiming truth, the reality is that it just isn't that big of a deal if my kids believe something different from me or something that I feel is untrue or just plain long as it isn't making them do crazy things or treat other people badly. What's the worst that could happen? My kids might become faith-filled, believing Mormons. There are worse things. (Although there are few things worse than the idea of my kids becoming the judgmental, a-hole kind of Mormons. You know what I'm talking about, right?)

What I don't want for my kids is for them to experience a traumatic, life-changing faith crisis like mine. That's why I teach them the gospel from an agnostic perspective.

I teach them the stories from the scriptures, but I teach them as just that--stories. Even better if those stories illustrate courage or kindness or some other awesome character trait that I want my kids to develop. The biggest reason I teach them the scripture stories is because I plan to raise them in this church community and I want them to be culturally literate. I want them to know the stories and understand the references people make to them, because I don't want them to feel like outsiders. This is their church and their community. They shouldn't feel like outsiders.

When it comes to the hard theological questions, I try to answer in agnostic terms: "Some people believe X, some people believe Y, but nobody really knows for sure." I want them to be comfortable with not knowing the answers. I'm okay if they grow up to have "real" testimonies, but I kind of hope that they'll grow up to be agnostic Mormons like me. I want them to believe that we can't really know the church is true, but that the principles of the gospel can enrich your life and strengthen your family and make you a better person. I want them to believe that they can benefit from it without it necessarily being true.

I tend to look at the gospel narrative very figuratively, and I try to teach my children in the same way. Tons of religious people interpret their religion figuratively. They don't believe that some guy named Noah actually built a gigantic boat and then rounded up two of every.single.animal in the world and stuck them on said boat for 40 days. They view it all as an allegory, a vehicle for communicating worthy principles. Mormons don't do that. Not only do they interpret it all literally, but they also have a weirdly detailed answer for everything (Kolob, anyone?). I just try to benefit from the principles, and if that means imbibing the stories--and letting some weird details go in one ear and out the other--then that's okay.

My husband works with a lot of cultural Jews who maintain their traditions because it's what they grew up doing, it's a community they value, it gives their lives some kind of structure and meaning, etc. They don't have life-changing faith crises, because they never believed that their faith was the absolute story of existence. They never based their lives on whether or not it was true. They didn't allow the stakes to be so high.

I try to approach Mormonism that way. I don't take it too seriously. It's more my culture than it is my religion. I'm hoping that my kids will sort of catch that. Right now, I can't have deep theological conversations with them, but I can answer questions in a way that tells them we don't really know and that's okay.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

WWBD--What would Batman do?

The other day, my 6-year-old was faced with a very important decision. Her little brother asked her for some help and she hesitated, because she was in the middle of something and didn't want to help him. I encouraged her to do it, giving the usual reasons. You know, when someone needs help, you should give it to them. In our family, we love each other, and that means helping each other. If you needed help from him, what would you want him to do? You get the picture. She chose to whine and complain that it wasn't fair and she was busy, blah, blah, blah.

And then, in my failure to convince her, for the first time ever, I employed the old, "What would Jesus do?" It was terribly effective. She knew immediately what she should do and she did it without further complaint.

For shame, huh? Manipulative? Disingenuous, given my agnostic leanings?

I don't think so, and here's why.

If my kid has to go the doctor and get a shot and he is terrified, is it manipulative of me to ask him, "What would Batman do if he had to get a shot?" Is it disingenuous, because I technically don't believe that Batman is a real person? I don't think so. But it IS effective. Batman has some good qualities, bravery and fearlessness among them. If my kid admires Batman, and Batman is a character worthy of emulation, why wouldn't I use that to help my kid make good choices?

Regardless of my opinions on the divine status of Jesus, I do find him to be a very admirable character. He is, at the very least, a symbol of everything good. After all, he IS perfect, at least according to the narrative. He is honest, kind, loving, gentle, charitable, generous, patient, forgiving, just, merciful, etc. He is everything we want our children to be. Even if he is only a literary character, the idea of him is something worth emulating.

My daughter gets tired of hearing me lecture about how she "should" behave. But this question, What would Jesus do? It kind of wraps up a lot of preachy teaching in one question. It's like asking, "What is the honest/kind/generous/merciful thing to do?" She knows what it means. She learns about this Jesus guy and she looks up to him. It's a simple, non-preachy way to get my message across without her turning her ears off.

On a similar note, I was recently at a park day gathering of Mormon homeschoolers (that's right, y'all, I homeschool!), and they were discussing an idea that I think is pretty smart. They were talking about noticing certain qualities in your children and relating them to scripture characters. For example, "Wow, you were really obedient, just like Nephi!" I think it's awesome. And it takes a little of the preachy preachy, yappy Mommy out of the picture. These good qualities are summed up in upstanding characters that our children admire. I say use them!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Gospel discussions that actually help and inspire

Does this class discussion sound familar to any of you?

Teacher: What can we do to strengthen our ability to keep the commandments? [Or something like that.]
Respondent: Make decisions before you're in the situation. Like, if you know you never want to drink alcohol, decide today that you're never going to drink alcohol. And then when the situation presents itself, you won't have to make a difficult decision, because you already made it.
Another respondent: Yeah, and don't put yourself in situations where you'll be tempted. Like, if you don't want to drink alcohol, don't go to a bar with your friends.


Can someone please tell me, what is the point of talking about alcohol and how to avoid it in a Mormon Relief Society class? Really. Are the ladies in your Relief Society honestly struggling with this? Maybe I've been away from church for too long, but last time I was really involved in this thing, alcohol just wasn't that big of a temptation for most of the ladies who showed up on Sundays.

Here's another one. Have you ever heard the comment that goes a little something like this: "I have a friend (she's not a member of the church) who [insert random "sin" here--it's probably also related to the Word of Wisdom], and it just makes me so sad that she doesn't have the same light and knowledge that we have."

It just seems like we discuss certain topics in the exact same way every time they come up, and that way is usually not terribly helpful or inspiring.  Why are we so afraid to talk about our own weakness and how to avoid our own actual triggers? Because I have a lot of my own weaknesses. For example, I yell at my kids. It would be much more helpful for me to have a discussion about that, how I can arrange my life to minimize yelling triggers and how I might cope in ways other than yelling. Because you know what? I consider yelling at my kids to be a "sin".  I do. And it's one that I struggle with much more than I do with avoiding cigarettes.

But that kind of thing rarely pops up in a church class discussion. I almost never hear people talking about their own temptations and weaknesses at all. It's always about someone else or a theoretical, textbook example of a temptation. How is that helpful?

Also, notice how a lot of our discussions seem to center on the Word of Wisdom. What is that? The gospel is not the Word of Wisdom. The definition of our character does not lie in the Word of Wisdom. Could it be that the black-and-white part of the Word of Wisdom, the part that dictates temple worthiness (alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee), is super easy for Mormons to live and it makes them feel easy righteousness? This hardly seems like the way to improve ourselves. Becoming better is HARD. Focusing on things that are not hard for us will not make us better. Rattling off formulaic answers to formulaic gospel discussion questions will not help us grow.

Look, I'm Agnostic Mormon Mom. Part of my mission is promote raw honesty among Mormons, in their communities and in their classrooms and in their families. Honesty about our weaknesses helps us learn how to cope with them. And I don't know about you, but sometimes I feel really alone in my weaknesses. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only mom who yells at her kids like this. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only wife who is this defensive, the only stay-at-home mom who spends perhaps a little too much time on Facebook. What if there are other people who have the same struggles? Wouldn't it be nice to have some company in your imperfection?

If we could do this, maybe we could offer real solutions for each other, things that have worked for us when we faced similar struggles. And then we might grow individually and as a community. And THAT is what I believe the gospel to be about. THAT is why I am coping as an active Mormon when, technically, I'm agnostic.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Faith Crisis Stories

Have you all seen this?

It's a project where some researchers are studying the Mormon faith crisis phenomenon. Very, very interesting.
They said this: "While we encourage you to express yourself in whatever manner you see fit, please consider addressing: 1) The type of faith you had prior to your loss-of-faith (e.g., fully active, semi-active, non-active). 2) The reason or reasons for your loss-of-faith. 3) How you felt and what you experienced as a result of your loss-of-faith. 4) How others (family, friends, ecclesiastical leaders) have responded to your faith crisis. 5) How you would describe your current belief/relationship with the LDS Church. 6) What might have prevented your faith crisis in the first place, and 7) what, if anything, might help rebuild your faith? "
So here's my submission (before editing! 700 words is really not a lot of words when you're trying to answer all of those questions about such a complex experience and its attendant emotions.) I am not including here the part about the type of faith I had prior to my faith crisis, or the reasons for my loss of faith, as I have covered that in My Story.
Losing my faith was traumatic. For a fully active Mormon, especially a lifelong one, the gospel and its programs provide a certain structural framework that you don’t really recognize until it just kind of vanishes into thin air.  When that happened, I didn’t have any beliefs about anything, really. I had to rebuild my worldview from scratch. It was overwhelming.

On top of the faith/belief/worldview thing, it was socially very confusing. My sister-in-law happens to be my best friend from childhood. We shared a lot of “spiritual experiences” as teenagers. The gospel certainly wasn’t the bulk of our relationship, but it was a big part. And even though we obviously remained close, a part of our closeness was missing. I felt that, and so did she.

Once I realized that I wasn’t going back to church and that my beliefs had changed, I felt like I should explain myself to my mom. I felt like she deserved to know the details of my feelings.  I wrote a three-page letter.

She never acknowledged it.

I remember my mother-in-law sending us an email once where she said that she had had an “impression” that if we weren’t worthy to raise our little son in the Millennium, then she and my father-in-law would have that opportunity. My husband was pretty angry. I actually wasn’t. I knew that it was her last, desperate attempt to get us to “come back”. I knew she was devastated. We didn’t say anything to her about it, but she did apologize later.

My current relationship with the church is that I’m an openly agnostic Mormon. I was inactive for six years, but I missed the community of the church and the “program” of the gospel. I decided to find a way to make it work for me. I couldn’t “fake it”, I couldn’t just force myself to believe again, so I discovered my “hope testimony”.  For the last year, I’ve been trying to be active. I would say I’m semi-active. (My husband isn’t interested in involvement with the church, and it’s HARD doing it by myself with three little kids!) I get to church at least half the time, I read the scriptures with my kids, I pray with them, we listen to hymns and primary songs. We are trying to implement family home evening (a practice my husband actually loves).

What would have prevented my faith crisis? Mormon culture is very rigid. My hope testimony is all about avoiding absolutist thinking. It’s about flexibility and pragmatism— I do this because it makes me happier, it strengthens my family, and it enriches my life, not because I KNOW it’s true. I guess I would say that my faith crisis may have been averted if I had grown up with less rigidity and more room for doubt. As I’ve “come out” as an agnostic in my ward and on my blog, I’ve been floored by the response from people who have felt this way for years. I wish the church were a place where people could openly acknowledge their doubts and find support from others who can’t say they know. The social pressure to “know” is just too strong. And when people admit to themselves that they DON’T know, that’s when the faith crisis happens, because the gospel flow chart ends there.  There’s nowhere to go but out.

I don’t really expect to rebuild my faith. I’m satisfied with where I am.
Have you submitted your story yet?

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Dark Side of Agnostic Mormon Mom--Part 2

In my last post, I admitted that my hope testimony doesn't necessarily include a hope for everything the LDS gospel encompasses. As I discussed there, I don't hope this is the "one and only true church". Well, guess what, guys? There's more I don't hope for. There's more to my dark side.

This is where I got married. Isn't it gorgeous? And look at that handsome guy!

Mormons believe that if they are "sealed" to their families in the temple, then they will be "together forever", meaning they will not be separated after death. This is one of the very best doctrines of the church. Who doesn't want to be with their loved ones for eternity?

So we're taught that we can have this wonderful blessing IF we're worthy, and that means a few things. First of all, we have to get to the temple and be sealed to each other to begin with. After that, we have to keep all the commandments, AND we have to hope that all of our loved ones do the same thing, because guess what? If they aren't worthy to go to the celestial kingdom, they won't be there, regardless of how righteous you are. If your dad or husband or child decides that he doesn't want to pay tithing, or he likes a cup of coffee in the morning, or maybe he just straight up doesn't believe this stuff, you're kind of out of luck. It doesn't matter if he is an honest, loving, hard working, giving, wonderful person. You will not be with him after you die. That's according to the doctrine the way it is strictly laid out.

Now, I understand that there have been a lot of statements from church leaders that soften this doctrine. There's a popular one from Joseph Smith. I particularly like this one from Brigham Young:

“Let the father and mother, who are members of this Church and Kingdom, take a righteous course, and strive with all their might never to do a wrong, but to do good all their lives; if they have one child or one hundred children, if they conduct themselves towards them as they should, binding them to the Lord by their faith and prayers, I care not where those children go, they are bound up to their parents by an everlasting tie, and no power of earth or hell can separate them from their parents in eternity; they will return again to the fountain from whence they sprang." (quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 2:90–91).

What I do hope is that Brigham Young's idea applies not only to children, but to spouses and parents and the whole human race. And pets! Because what I really hope is that there is a life after this one and families will be together there. I hope this is true regardless of what they believed here, or what building they were or were not in on Sunday (or Saturday) mornings. The loving Father I hope exists as our God would never separate people from their families based on choices they had little to no control over. He wouldn't separate families based on what belief system they happened to be born into or randomly encountered in this enormous world and throughout our very long history.

He wouldn't separate families. Period.

Being agnostic, I believe that we can't really know any of this one way or the other (at least not in this life). And since I believe that hope/belief is a choice, this is what I choose to hope:

Families are forever. No conditions.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Dark Side of Agnostic Mormon Mom--Part 1

Up to this point, my Mormon friends and family--and a lot of strangers, too--have been really supportive of my blog and my faith efforts. That makes sense. Mormons are inspired by the idea of a person trying to believe. (Thank you, Alma, for that.) But there's a dark side to Agnostic Mormon Mom, and this might be the point where I lose some of you (sorry, Mom).

My hope testimony is the view I have cultivated that allows me to participate in the Church and teach my children the gospel without feeling like a liar. But if I'm going to be completely honest, I have to admit that there are some things that I don't hope are true. Here's one of them.

One true church
Mormons believe that theirs is the one and only true church. This is, of course, based on their claim to exclusive priesthood authority. For any non-Mormons who may be reading, Mormons believe that there was a Great Apostasy after Jesus's apostles died. Basically, priesthood authority died with them and the earth was without that authority until Joseph Smith received it from angels. We call that the Restoration of the gospel. So, according to that kind of thinking, it makes sense that there can only be "one true church".

But I hope that's not true. For one thing, it's really divisive. Also, it's a bit too big of a claim for an agnostic like me to even hope for. But mostly, I just don't care. (See my post on truth.) It just doesn't matter enough to me whether we're "right" or not, and especially whether or not we're the ONLY ones who are "right". I don't care about "truth" in terms of where we came from or what God wants us to do here or what happens after we die, but I do care about "truths" that I think most of us probably do accept, such as:
  • We should love each other.
  • We should take care of each other.
  • We should be honest with each other.
  • We should work hard.
  • We should be kind.
  • We should think and speak the best of each other.
  • We should always be improving our minds, bodies, and characters.
  • We should be grateful for what we have.
I consider these things to be indisputable "truths", and many, many systems of belief--as well as people with no religious beliefs at all--possess these truths. So I just don't like the obsession with the "one true church" thing.

I don't hope that claim is true.

How do I cope with it? I just don't subscribe to it. Simple as that. I believe that religion is (or at least it should be) a personal, private experience, and this is MY religion. This is MY Mormon experience. A typical Mormon worldview doesn't support the idea of picking and choosing among the body of Mormon beliefs, but I'm not a typical Mormon. This is how I'm both involved and honest, so...there ya go.

Stay tuned for more things I don't hope are true.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Flexibility--The key to faith?

I live in Northern Virginia, so I am surrounded by lots and lots of trees. My house is in some woods that are quite dense, which means the trees are tall and the trunks are thin. We get some pretty exciting thunderstorms around here, and even the occasional hurricane, so I have seen these trees swaaaaaaay. Oh boy, have I seen them sway! Sometimes I fully expect their very tops to touch the ground and then slowly lift back up into the sky.

Can you imagine if these trees weren't flexible?  With their height, the slightest breeze would snap them all in half, halting their growth for good as they crashed to the ground. Indeed, they wouldn't even have survived long enough to grow to their current heights.

My natural tendencies are dangerously rigid, so it makes sense that my faith would be as well. You can see it in my teenage righteousness.  Some people look at my story (super Mormon girl turns agnostic after a run-of-the-mill life tragedy) and conclude that I must not have had a "real testimony" in the first place. After all, when my faith was tested, it couldn't stand up against the heartbreak, confusion, and questions.

I maintain that my faith was quite strong before tragedy crumbled it into a heap of hopelessness. My faith was very strong...but rigid. So when the winds of devastation and doubt came, my tree just snapped. It's roots were deep and well-nourished--it was a strong tree. But none of that mattered, because it couldn't sway with those winds.

I propose that the key to keeping your faith at all is keeping it flexible.

So what does flexible faith look like? 

Well, when something hurts, or doesn't make sense, or doesn't fit with new information or experiences, blind/simple/unthinking faith shrugs its shoulders and recites platitudes. "Everything happens for a reason." "He's in a better place." "Maybe God is just testing my faith." Unthinking faith doesn't like to feel too much. It's easier to just accept what he's been taught until his questions don't bother him anymore. Unthinking faith is like a perpetual sapling in the woods--wind can't possibly damage it, but it never grows or matures.

Rigid faith, when it can't answer the tough questions honestly, starts to believe that maybe faith doesn't have the answers. Maybe he was wrong all along.

But flexible faith shelves its unanswerable questions, or maybe even tweaks itself a little so that its possessor can keep a handle on it. He doesn't shrug off his confusion, but he doesn't toss his faith out the window. Not yet. It's just..."on hold" for the time being. Or perhaps the hoper learns to look at the question in a different way. Maybe this new information or experience can actually illuminate the gospel principle in question, rather than obliterating it altogether. Or maybe not.

Flexible faith doesn't take everything quite so literally, or even in the way things have always been taught. It considers other interpretations.

Flexible faith loves a good bargain. "Well, this principle makes little to no sense to me, but I'm going to keep practicing it because I value what I receive in exchange." Flexible faith chooses to obey the Word of Wisdom, even if it makes no sense to him and kinda cramps his style, because he values the opportunity to attend the temple with his wife. Flexible faith attends his meetings, even if he feels bored sometimes, because he values the sense of community he achieves by being consistent. Flexible faith teaches his children the principles of the gospel, even if he's not completely sure of them, because he believes that such teaching will make his children better people. Flexible faith hopes for unbelievable doctrines (like that of the atonement or eternal families) to be true, because he likes the idea of having a plan that will right his wrongs and fill in the gaps of his imperfection. He likes the idea of his family relationships continuing in another life--it's much better than the idea of being cut off from his loved ones at death. It doesn't make much sense in light of what he knows intellectually, but he hopes for it anyway, rather than rejecting it altogether.

Flexible faith remembers that, even though religion often makes no sense, science is wrong a lot, too. Science recants. Often. Flexible faith realizes that there is no way to definitively answer these big questions in the affirmative, but neither is there any way to definitively disprove them. So it keeps hoping. It shelves its questions and revisits them regularly, but it hopes. And it hangs on. It bends with the wind instead of rigidly resisting it.

And in so doing, it continues to grow.

Monday, April 29, 2013


The response of my friends (and so many gracious others) to this blog has been so incredible. I hate to use a Mormony phrase that has become perhaps a little trite...but "I'm truly humbled."


One of my friends, after her very supportive comments, asked me an interesting question. She said, "Let's say you hadn't been raised a Mormon but were currently at the 'hope' point you're at right now...would you go ahead and get baptized?"

I didn't have to think too long about that, because I, along with my dear husband, have already thought long and hard about the question of baptism for our children.

My answer is yes. Definitely.

Do I believe that the act of being baptized cleanses me of my sins? Not necessarily (although that would be pretty awesome. Aha! Apparently I hope it.) So the ugly rationalization is that, fundamentally, with my views and beliefs the way they are, I see baptism as a rite--an entree into a community. It's part of belonging. It's how you "sign up". And it's how you officially make your commitment to be a part of the church, to follow the rules, to fulfill your responsibilities.

Despite my crass labelling of baptism as "just" a rite, I still think it merits dedicated preparation and thought, and even a special event to celebrate a person's decision. All baptisms should definitely be followed by delicious treats. I probably won't send out fancy invitations with professional baptism pictures of my daughter in a field, wearing a white dress. (Seriously! That's a "thing"! As if we all didn't have enough to make ourselves feel inadequate.) But committing to something this big is a pretty major event. I have every intention of preparing my children for their baptisms by teaching them the basic principles of the gospel and explaining what a commitment like this means. Heck, I'm already doing those things.

The less ugly rationalization of baptism is what I just discovered as I was writing this post: I do hope that baptism cleanses us of our sins. And I hope that the gift of the Holy Ghost is our constant companion, helps comfort us when we need it, helps direct us when we ask--and even when we don't. I suppose hoping for the doctrine of the atonement to be legit would automatically include a hope for the legitimacy of baptism, right?

Either way, the answer is yes. I would be baptized.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

"How can you belong to a church that...?"

Ah, yes. The ugly parts of church history.

"How can you belong to a church that used to practice polygamy?"

"How can you belong to a church that didn't extend full membership to black members until 1978?"

How can you???

People get really hung up on this. There are things in Mormon history that modern Mormons (and others) aren't thrilled about. By modern standards, these things were insane. Some weird stuff happened 200 years ago, especially among our fledgling faithful. If you read certain accounts, it's even crazier. And unfortunately, some pretty weird stuff has happened recently as well.

So, how do I deal with that? I don't know, how can you be a citizen of a country that exists because of complete brutality toward the people who initially inhabited its land? How can you be a citizen of a country that used to allow slavery? How can you be a citizen of a country that didn't allow women to vote until well over 100 years after it was founded? How can you be a citizen of a country that currently employs "enhanced interrogation techniques"? How can you be a citizen of a country that elected George W. Bush as President--twice? (I kid, I kid.)

Every organization that has been around for any length of time has some black marks on its history. I'm not going to judge the United States as a terrible place to live and pay taxes today based on how it treated black people 200, or even 50, years ago. That's not the country I live in right now. That country no longer exists.

In much the same way, the LDS church that practiced polygamy and excluded blacks from holding the priesthood no longer exists. I, personally, have never been a member of that church.

To be sure, there are still things about the Church that I'm not thrilled about--its position on gay marriage, the inequality of women, and a gazillion cultural issues. And there are things about America that I'm not thrilled about--No Child Left Behind, our obsession with war, uh...the debt crisis. But I'm not just going to up and leave America to find some perfect country that has always lived by 21st century standards and agrees with every single one of my political positions. Obviously such a country doesn't exist. I could spend my entire life searching for that country and where would that get me?

So I accept the LDS Church with all of its historical--and current--flaws. I don't have to agree with its history in order to benefit from what it is today. And I don't have to agree with everything that it is today. Those things I mentioned that I'm not thrilled about? I see those things as areas in which we can make progress. And we have! Women prayed at General Conference! If we never make the progress I hope for, well, I'll deal with it, just like I dealt with W's re-election in 2004. ;)

The key to my acceptance of the Church's flaws is the way I view the Church leadership. Given my agnostic leanings, I don't necessarily consider these guys to be acting for God in everything they do. In order to accept an organization's flaws, you have to be comfortable acknowledging that the organization is run by flawed individuals. And I am. It doesn't bother me one bit. I'm still happy to live in America, even though I don't like President Obama's positions on certain issues.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Scriptures are kind of a tough issue. Some people believe them to be the word of God, others believe them to be only a historical record, still others may not even go that far.

Primary children sing that if I prayerfully read the scriptures every day, "I'll know the scriptures are true."

As an agnostic, my opinion of "scriptures", regardless of which religion's scriptures we are referring to, is that they definitely have value as a tool of instruction and inspiration. Do I believe that any of them are God's words? Probably not. Do I believe that Joseph Smith translated gold plates? Probably not. Do I believe that Book of Mormon characters were actual historical figures? Probably not. But honestly, who cares?

Whether King Benjamin actually existed and delivered his address, or Joseph Smith made those words up in his own head, I just don't care. Because the thing is, there's some good stuff in that address! And elsewhere in the Book of Mormon (and all other books of scripture).

Last year, when I was first trying to make this church thing work for me, I was going through a pretty tough time. I had a brand new baby and was adjusting to life as a mom of three. We live a continent away from our families, my husband works long hours and is working on a graduate degree. Oh, and I homeschool. It was HARD! (It's still hard!) I was just in kind of a bad place.

One week in Sunday School, we were discussing King Benjamin's address in Mosiah. Fortunately, I decided to pay attention that day. We read good old Mosiah 4:27, a classic, oft-quoted verse. "And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore, all things must be done in order."

Now, I can see you rolling your eyes and being unimpressed. Isn't this the classic verse that women love to quote because we are all just so overwhelmed with our various responsibilities? Yes. Yes, it is. But the thing is, the last time I had personally read that verse, I didn't have any children. The plight of the mom with multiple young children was basically just a tale I heard in Relief Society (a lot). But this time, in my current station in life, and with my current struggles, it really spoke to me. Not only should I not run faster than I have strength (which could just be a nice pat on the head to make me feel okay about not being Super Mom), but it is wisdom not to do that. And the word "order" made me feel like maybe there's time to accomplish the things I want to accomplish but just can't even think about now. Then "King Benjamin" (or Joseph Smith or whoever the heck said/wrote this) goes on to remind us that, even though we shouldn't run faster than we have strength, we still need to be diligent in order to win the prize. A good reminder for a mom who just found relief from the overwhelming stress of her self-imposed expectations. I still have to be diligent. I still have to try. I still have to work hard.

"I know the scriptures are true." In a sense, I guess I do. I believe many principles in the scriptures are true principles. Do I believe the stories of their origins to be true? Not necessarily. But those stories don't need to be true in order for me to profit from the principles and inspiration they deliver.

So I think I will follow King Benjamin's admonition in Mosiah 1:7--"And now, my sons,  I would that ye should remember to search them diligently, that ye may profit thereby." 

They're here for us to profit from them. And who doesn't like to profit?

Monday, April 15, 2013

I bore my testimony???

So, yesterday I bore my testimony at church for the first time in well over seven years. What compelled me to do such a thing? I don't really know. I do know that Elder Holland's conference talk really spoke to me (more on that later), which isn't shocking because I'm pretty sure he peers into the soul of every single person who hears him speak. It kind of inspired me. And I like to share my experiences and tell people what I think, so...what better platform, right? (Oh, right. A blog. A blog is a pretty good platform, too.)

The testimony I shared is exactly what I have written on this blog as my "hope testimony".

And then a strange thing happened. People stood up and said that their testimonies were basically the same thing, a hope that this stuff is true, not a knowledge of it. At least ten people approached me throughout the day and told me that my "testimony" was the most inspiring testimony they had heard in a long time.

Say what???

They said that the honesty was refreshing. A few people told me that they or their husband or their son really needed to hear it. What is happening here???

Anyway, this morning I read Alma 32 (obviously). "Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true." Alma 32:21

Oh my gosh, I have faith? I think I do. That is exactly what my testimony is--hoping for things I don't see (with my eyes or my reason).

So then I started reading lots of hope scriptures.

Jacob 2:19--"And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them." Not after you obtain knowledge, but after you obtain hope.

Ether 12:4--"Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God." Hope seems to be sufficient to anchor the soul, which then leads to all this other stuff.

Moroni 8:26--"and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God." I like this one because we tend to view the Holy Ghost as a means to obtaining knowledge, but this is saying that his job is to fill us with hope and love, which appears to be sufficient.

13th Article of Faith: "We believe all things, we hope all things..." There is no claim that we know all things. We admit here, and indeed in all the other Articles of Faith as well, that we believe this stuff--we hope it.

I think it's interesting that our church--or at least the culture of it--places such a premium on knowing. We see kids being trained to say it from the very beginning. ("I'd like to bear my testimony. I know this church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet." Yadah, yadah, yadah.) Why do we do this? The scriptures don't seem to indicate that knowledge is the stuff of righteousness or salvation. Faith is. Hope is. I mean, as Alma does go on to say, hope should compel us to "experiment upon the word", which means living the principles of the gospel, testing them to see if they do indeed bring us the happiness they promise. But I'm just not getting the message here that knowledge is the requirement, or even the goal.

I know you're probably thinking all of this is obvious, and wondering how I could have missed it all my life. Well, I did hear/read these scriptures over and over, and I did have a million lessons on Alma 32. Indeed, I delivered many of them myself. But they always seemed to end in the possibility of obtaining knowledge. You know, if you're righteous enough you might obtain that. And I'm sure that a lot of my faith problems have to do with my personality, with the way I processed this stuff. But I'm clearly not alone. For goodness' sake, in ONE ward, at least TEN people APPROACHED me! Who knows how many people feel the same way but didn't approach me? And who knows how many people there are in all the other wards? And how many other people weren't attending any ward at all yesterday BECAUSE they have these issues?

I blame "Moroni's promise" (Moroni 10:4-5). "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere hear, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things."

Or rather, I blame our emphasis on Moroni's promise. We teach kids to seek this. As missionaries, our entire purpose is teaching investigators to seek this. We largely define a "testimony" as having received this witness. But what about all the people who never get this? Or what about those of us who think we have, but later realize maybe we haven't? This emphasis on knowledge and bearing "testimony" of knowledge makes the church a really hard place to be for people whose minds just don't work like this.

How about teaching people to hope for these things? Maybe for their entire lives. Maybe it's okay to just hope and experiment until you die. That's probably what I'll be doing. But I think Alma says it's enough in Alma 32:43--"Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffereing, wating for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you."

We are rewarded for faith and diligence, not for knowledge.

I have a dream--a hope, if you will--that one day, in LDS congregations all over the world, people will honestly acknowledge their doubts. They will feel safe to say that they don't know. The church will be a place where people come because they're experimenting upon the word, they're hoping for something, together. They're helping each other sustain that hope and test the principles of the gospel in their lives. THAT is what I believe the church should be for. It shouldn't be a club for knowers. It should be a support group for hopers.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Prayer is probably one of the hardest concepts for an agnostic such as myself to embrace. Who do I pray to if I don't really believe in God?

First of all, I have to acknowledge that "prayer", however one wishes to define or practice it, is a healthy meditative practice, if nothing else. It's a time to reflect on your day, your goals, your weaknesses, your hopes, your relationships, etc. I can't see that ever being a bad thing. I think family prayer is pretty incredible, too. My husband and I don't currently pray together, but I remember when we did back in the early years of our marriage. It was such an interesting thing to hear his concerns and goals through his prayers when he hadn't necessarily voiced them the same way in direct conversation. I think prayer bonds couples and families by revealing concerns and hopes while having everyone's attention focused on one thing (ideally--I have little kids, so...attention is never really focused on any one thing).

Secondly, for a heathen like me, my prayer practice actually depends on the day. Sometimes my hope is a little stronger and I can imagine myself praying to God. Other times, the idea of God serves as more of just a focal point for my meditations. But that works for me.

Either way, prayer centers individuals and families. That's valuable to me.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Teaching my children the gospel

Coping as an agnostic Mormon is complicated, no matter how you shake it. But it becomes infinitely more so when you are leading (if you can actually call it that) little minds and souls through the haziness behind you.

How do I teach my children a gospel that I don't necessarily believe? This was one of my biggest issues with coming back to church for social reasons. I would be meeting my social needs for sure (my ward is fantastic!), but in the meantime, my children would be indoctrinated. That was a problem for me.

First, I and my husband had to acknowledge the possibility of these children growing up and becoming real, believing Mormons. And you know what we decided? There are much worse things for your children to become than good Mormons. So that was settled. Not only are we okay with that, we actually think it doesn't sound half bad. In fact, one of the things that keeps me going when I feel confused and otherwise unmotivated is that we actually want our kids to go to BYU! Even my husband, the dirty, dirty Ute. We have heard what goes on at other universities, and oh my gosh. Please, no. Plus, BYU is a steal! But if I want them to go there, or grow up in this church at all, I do feel like I should teach them the basics.

My hope testimony helps a lot. See, if I'm hoping that something is true, then I don't have a problem teaching it to my children. Unfortunately, when you get down to the nitty gritty details, it does become slightly more complicated.

Reactive teaching opportunities (or more accurately, obligations):

"Mom, where does Jesus live?"

"Mom, how did Heavenly Father make the first people?"

And so on.

There are a few ways I handle this. My beautiful and brilliant cousin, who has struggled with a lot of the same issues I have, clued me into the first two.

1) "When I was little, I was taught that..." This works for things related to faith, like encouraging your child to say a prayer about something. "When I was little, I was taught that if I prayed to Heavenly Father, He could help me feel better if I was scared." So I'm imparting the information I want to impart (because I really don't mind if my kid learns to believe these things), but I'm also not saying anything I don't technically believe.

2) "You know what? I bet Grandma could explain that to you." This is a great one when you have a mom and a mother-in-law like mine. They can impart the knowledge and faith, so my kid is getting it, but again, I'm not saying anything I don't technically believe.

3) "Some people believe that..." I can also say "we believe" if I feel comfortable with it. Some people believe that Heavenly Father created Adam and Eve, and they were the first people. Other people believe blah, blah, blah. The point is, I never answer questions like this with absolute certainty. I don't possess that certainty. Plus, I think it's fine for my kids to know the various answers people have to fundamental human questions, so I deliver those answers without judgment or condescension.

Then there's the issue of proactive teaching. If I want to be a good Mormon mommy, I should teach my kids about the scriptures and other good Mormony stuff, right?

With scriptures, heck, I just teach them as the stories that I view them to be. (See my thoughts on scriptures.) These are stories with good morals...usually. They're also a part of our cultural lore, and if I'm going to raise my children in this culture, I owe it to them to clue them into the culture's lore as well as its founding stories--some of which are pretty dang inspiring, whether you believe the doctrine of the church or not.

With other gospel principles, it just sort of depends on the topic. Who doesn't want to teach their children about kindness, honesty, service, etc? If there are scripture stories that help illustrate them, great. When it comes to things like baptism and the Word of Wisdom, I teach them in the way I personally believe them (hang tight for my thoughts on those topics). If my kids decide at some point to believe them another way, that's their choice. My main goal with those things is to make sure I'm not raising Judgy McHolier-than-thou.

So there ya go. I'm not lying to my children. I could obviously never do that in good conscience. But I am imparting the information and values that I want to impart. It's like walking on a tight rope--tricky, and I can't become complacent--but it's getting me where I want to go.

Saturday, April 6, 2013


Warning: The following may be offensive to Mormon eyes.

Truth. Mormons love truth. They claim to be the only church that has all of it. They encourage the pursuit of it.

Fundamentally, I don't care about religious "truth" (and I apologize, but let's just pretend that all of my references to truth are in parenthese because I consider it to be a concept that is debatable, especially in areas like religion, philosophy, politics, etc.). I don't intend to pursue "truth" or a testimony of it, because I don't think it matters. Who cares what is "true"? I just care about what works for my life. This makes me a pretty bad Mormon. Given the Mormon obsession with truth, this kind of attitude is verging on wicked.

There are a few reasons that I don't care to pursue truth.

First, if there is a God and if there is a life after this one and if our status in that life is based on a judgment by said God, I just can't bring myself to believe that that judgment is going to be based on whether or not we knew what was true about the foundations of the earth or what comes after this life or whatever else this elusive "truth" encapsulates. I hope that judment has to do with how we treated each other and what kind of people we were . And since lots of different beliefs about what is true can lead to that good behavior and can nurture good hearts, I just don't think it matters.

Secondly, I think that the pursuit of truth can be a major barrier to action. Insisting that truth exists compels some people (usually the most honest and sincere ones) to search for it and search for it and ultimately require themselves to find it before they can commit to a set of principles. The pursuit of truth can also drive otherwise happy and satisfied people away from good principles. It makes me sad (and okay, sometimes it makes me laugh) to hear of Mormons talking themselves out of church activity because of some random historical inconsistency in the Book of Mormon, or because of some artifact found or not found in Central America. Those people obviously feel that a church needs to be "true", through and through, in order for them to participate in and benefit from it. And that's too bad.

Third, insisting on the existence of truth is divisive. It builds barriers and makes people think they have special authority or rights or whatever, just because they "possess" it. Mormons are obviously a peaceful people, but look at the potential for harm that comes with some versions of truth and the people who consider themselves privileged enough to possess it. On a less dramataic scale, it can make people exclusive. Why do they exclude? Because they possess truth and the "others" do not. They feel superior because they have apparently found the truth. Then there's the opposite of exclusion--the compulsion to convince everyone else that you have found the truth. You're so fortunate to possess it that you have to go tell everyone else and get them to accept the same thing. Again, a divisive practice.

Fourth, I don't care about the pursuit of truth because at my core, I am agnostic. I don't believe that anyone can really know any of these things. And I just don't accept what are fundamentally emotional experiences as evidence of anything but the fact that someone loves and cares about what they are reading or thinking about or doing. I'm happy that they love it! But, for me, it doesn't mean anything beyond that. Since I don't believe that anyone can really know "truth", particularly as it pertains to religious questions, why would I spend my time looking for it or trying to verify or disprove various claims to it? Doesn't seem like a good use of time.

Ultimately, I'm a pragmatist. I don't care what is true, I care about what works. Mormonism makes me happy, it has the potential to make me a better person and to strengthen my family, so I intend to participate in it. But I do so as a choice, because I believe that religion is just that: a choice. You can't prove (or disprove) it with history, science, your feelings, or the Holy Ghost. You just choose to believe it or you choose not to. Period.

I can no longer require myself to believe the Church's doctrine in order to to participate in and benefit from its organization and programs. On a practical level, this approach is tricky. How do you sing hymns, or pray, or read scriptures if you fundamentally don't believe the content? That's where my hope testimony comes in.