17 May, 2010

Remember that story in the Bible when Jesus was like "Guys, guys, don't eat that corn. We don't want anyone to get the wrong idea."

Photo by Carl De Keyzer, copyright 1990, Magnum Photos, from Slate.com

On March 21st of this year, I wrote the following in my journal during a particularly unsettling Sacrament Meeting. The girl who spoke about obedience and prophets, bless her heart, almost certainly has no idea how close I came to leaving the Church because of my thought process that stemmed from her talk.

"The line between thinking for yourself and becoming your own prophet is a confusing one. 'We are false prophets to ourselves.' Wait, what? I wish I had no brain. I wish I didn't have to think about everything so much."

I can't blame this girl entirely, I don't even know her name. But ever since that day, my downward spiral into serious doubt and the personal crisis of faith I experienced in the foyer outside Multipurpose Room One, I have been struggling.

Sometimes I wish I had not served a mission for this very reason. Don't get me wrong, it was the greatest, most important experience of my life. But by the same token, I think I would be simpler, more credulous, and therefore happier if I had not gone. It would be easier for me to believe without questioning. Ignorance is bliss etc.

Before my mission, I was happy to obey rules for their own sake: not always, but more often than not. I recall one time when I wore a pair of athletic shorts to the grocery store because I didn't feel like getting dressed. Wearing shorts above the knee is against the stringent BYU Honor Code, of course, and it technically applies on campus or off--you know, all of the time. I was talking to a friend on the phone while I was walking home that night, and laughingly mentioned that I was "breaking the Honor Code" because of my outfit. Rather than laughing with me as I expected, she responded with horror. "How could you do something like that? You promised you wouldn't."

That sentence, "You promised you wouldn't," is a fairly apt summary of almost the entire Honor Code at BYU. We were asked to kick boys out after midnight and not dye our hair unusual colors not because those things were against the Commandments or even inherently wrong, but because we had been asked not to. Before I was a missionary, that actually worked for me. If someone said to me, "Hey! That's against the Honor Code," I would blanch with embarrassment. It was that easy. Even though I knew in my heart that most of the rules were arbitrary and silly, I still obeyed them.

Lots of people argue that BYU standards or standards like unto them are helpful because they keep you so far from sinning that it never even becomes an issue. Like, if breaking the Law of Chastity is a tree, the Honor Code is a fence around the said tree. I would argue that it's an electric fence and plenty of people who aren't even meaning to get near that tree are regularly and consistently burned by it. Anyway.

When I was a missionary, my distaste for rules took on horrifying new proportions. I was a good missionary, for the record. I worked hard and loved the people and helped my companions. But the idea of "Perfect Obedience" was never my priority. Lots of missionaries would run down the sidewalk in order to make it back to their apartments by 9PM. I walked. I sometimes wore t-shirts with my skirts instead of the requisite blouses. One time, I kissed a 90 year-old man on the cheek. So you see, I may have lived on the edge by mission standards, but I was still a good person. Obeying the rules to the point that I managed to, even, was exhausting. And don't worry, as a former Catholic, I beat myself up real bad about any indiscretions, real or imagined.

My last few transfers in the country I was fed up. I was exhausted and was starting to feel that maybe I (or rather, my lack of obedience) wasn't the real problem here. I started looking at the rules and listening to what other missionaries said about obedience and I couldn't help thinking to myself, "That can't be right." There was a woman in my last area who was only a few years older than me, and she had three young children that I am positive she neglected most of the time. Her youngest son was six months old. I should note here that one of the highly emphasized rules for missionaries is that we are not supposed to hold babies or children. Anyway, one Sunday in my last transfer, I went out into the hallway during Sunday School and heard what sounded like a baby crying. Upon further investigation, I saw that this idiot woman had left her son in his stroller outside the building. In the snow. The baby was screaming his head off, and the other missionaries and I were the only ones in the hallway.

I said to one of the Elders, "Eff this" (or something to that effect) and brought the baby inside. I held him for the rest of the hour. And I'd do it again. So would Jesus, I can assure you.

Probably someone I don't know will comment on this entry and argue, "Well, WHAT IF something horrible had happened because you held that baby? The purpose of these rules is to keep bad things from happening, ever." My response to that is, just like with good things, if God wants a bad thing to happen or not happen, it is going to happen either way. I have spent many years trying to avoid becoming a sign-seeker, trying not to see God as a hallway monitor with a big sheet of paper on which he marks my pluses and minuses. I stubbed my toe? Must be because my prayers this morning were insufficient. That light turned green really fast! That is because I pay my tithing. God doesn't work that way. He is much cooler than that.

Part of me still wonders if maybe I have insufficient faith and that's why I have such a hard time being perfectly obedient. But I don't think so. Rather, I think the real problem here is that sometimes God says, "Thou Shalt Not Kill," and sometimes He says, "Take That Guy By The Hair And With His Own Sword Cut Off His Head." Sometimes the right thing to do is to tell the absolute truth and obey all orders without questioning, and sometimes the right thing to do is disobey the direct orders of a king and then lie to him about it (Thanks, James). I'm not saying that God is the problem here, for the record. But I am saying that trying to apply the same rule to every different situation in existence is oversimplifying. It doesn't work.

Here is my real problem. I can get away with holding the occasional baby or wearing a tank top to the beach (before I was endowed, obviously) but what about the big stuff? I'm still, for all intents and purposes, in favor of Gay Marriage, despite what has been said about it. I've prayed and studied and all that jazz but I still don't have a testimony of Thomas S. Monson, mostly because of Prop. 8, unfortunately. I don't think he's NOT a prophet, but I wouldn't follow him into the wilderness for 40 years, either.

I worry about talking about this with anyone because I feel the reaction would go one of two ways:

1. Horror that I have let my salvation be jeopardized so badly/concern that I am beset by sin so badly as to be beyond repair.

2. Shock that I have stayed in the Church this long and that maybe I should just abandon ship.

Fact: I am not leaving the Church anytime soon. I like it. I believe in God and I enjoy being religious. Also, I really really love going to the Temple and my understanding is that once you leave the Church you can't go to the Temple anymore. Also fact: I am unsure as to what to do next. People are going to tell me to pray. I do that. Study. I do that too. No, no, STUDY SOME MORE. Which seems to be the only thing left.

In that journal entry I mentioned earlier, I started very reasonably and methodically laying out what my life would be like if I did leave the Church. I would get my nose pierced, for one. And ... that was pretty much it. Even if I didn't belong to any organized religion, I would still believe in God. I believed in God before I was Mormon so it makes no sense to stop now. Additionally, I am pretty solid about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon being true, so even if I weren't participating actively in the Mormon Church, I would still believe in everything. It's the details of the doctrine that leave me floundering, not the doctrine itself. Ergo, it makes no sense whatsoever for me to stop being Mormon just because I have a few hang-ups about some very specific issues.

Even though I am solid about not leaving the Church now or ever, I am completely baffled re: what to do next. Luckily for me, I went to a Fireside last night and one of the speakers struck me as someone who might be a kindred spirit. She was a feminist doula who talked about sexuality and the Priesthood and all these cool things, and I decided I wanted her to be my friend. I talked to her very briefly and got her email address, so hopefully our conversations can shed some light on how one manages to be a thinking member of the Church without losing one's mind.

If that doesn't work, I suppose I will try something else.



10 comments:

Rachel S said...

First, thanks for your post. Second, if you had left the baby in the cold chances of something bad happening are a lot greater than if you picked him up. Screw the rules!

Last, it must be so frustrating for you to struggle with these things and be judged by those who know so little about who you are. I believe God takes the best we can give. Keep doing what you're doing and your Father will do what he can for you. I believe many things are just between you and Him. All the best!

theFinn said...

Elisa,

I wish I had some easy answers for you, but I don't. But one thing that has helped me is something that Dieter F. Uchtdorf said at a fireside not too long ago: "Fear not; ask questions. Be curious, but doubt not! Always hold fast to faith and to the light you have already received. Because we see imperfectly in mortality, not everything is going to make sense right now. In fact, I should think that if everything did make sense to us, it would be evidence that it had all been made up by a mortal mind."

We aren't supposed to understand everything right now. We just do the best we can and remember that the gospel extends way beyond the tiny historical moment we can currently see.

And, for the record, I totally would have held that baby.

Austin said...

a thinking member of the church. I want to be a thinking member of the church too. Let's do it!

Tessa said...

I think that everyone who thinks a lot has occasional doubts or even crises of faith. My husband and I have talked a lot about this. It happened to me because of some things said in a D&C class at BYU. The reason why we both have stuck to our guns (to our faith in the church) is because of remembering all of the miracles and spiritual experiences in our lives. You can't honestly deny them to yourself, so you go forward and every time you do the right thing you can feel that it is right and that there is a great plan organizing all of our lives. Even if it doesn't all make sense, you can still believe in the gospel. Hope this helps. You are definately not alone. And think of Joseph Smith, he asked questions and that was a good thing.

eden said...

dear elisa,

i don't really have any wise words to say to you. i don't know that you're really looking for wise words either. i think it's fine to have questions. i think it's good to think about things. good luck with thinking through this. like you said, you already know what to do, so good luck with all of that too.

~eden

ps - a really good book to read that might help somehow... is - http://deseretbook.com/store/search?x=0&y=0&query=choosing+glory

also here - http://www.amazon.com/Choosing-Glory-Lili-D-Anderson/dp/0615299792/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274147179&sr=1-1

and lastly here - http://lilianderson.com/store/

(yes, it's by my mom, but it really is a great book)

Cammie said...

Elisa,

You're awesome. I'm glad you held the baby. Of course there are exceptions to the rules sometimes. Rigid, "black and white" thinking often characterizes certain mental disorders. Being able to think critically and recognize the "gray" areas is a skill, and shows depth of thought. You are intelligent, and just the kind of person the Church needs. Stick with it. Keep asking questions. And when you don't know the answer right away, you might just put your question/doubt on the shelf for a bit as you keep living life, and re-evaluate again later once you've got some new information. We can't possibly understand everything right now, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying.

Cammie

jackie said...

can i just say that i love this post. you said so many things that have been troubling me as well. thank you. i really think it is important that we have questions and that we don't always find answers to those questions. this, to me, means we have to have faith, and we know that faith is a huge part of the gospel.

all those things you mentioned that were breaking mission rules were things that i did as well ... but i never even thought i was breaking mission rules because of the context. it makes me think of that line in pirates of the caribbean: "[the rules are] more like guidelines really."

Leah said...

Dearest Elisa,

You better believe I would have held that baby, too!! I think everyone struggles with different things in the church. I never could have gone to BYU because of all the crazy rules! That's not to say that I would have broken any; I just don't like many of the arbitrary rules. I understand that some people need rules for everything, but I think I'm a pretty good person even if I occasionally wear athletic shorts to the store.

You're definitely not the only person who struggles with this kind of stuff! My own personal issue: hypocrites and all the holier than thou behavior. But I think you already knew that...

I love you!!

Love,

me

Kelsy said...

How have we not had a serious liberal Mormon discussion yet? Let's do that sometime.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Elisa; they are always very refreshing. I don't think anyone should be worried about your standing in the kingdom of God. Let me explain why.

The Holy Ghost and the ability to receive personal revelation is one the most defining aspects of The Gospel of Jesus Christ.

GOD trumps everything.

If God tells you to jump, you jump--be it holding a baby or NOT going on a mission or many times it's following the rules exactly and as boring as you would expect.

Being a thinking member of the church is crucial to mine and your salvation (this is what prayer is for too--thinking enough thoughts and sharing them with God so you can eventually align your thoughts with His).

It is all about putting your own pride aside and finding the unbiased truth. Prophets make regular mistakes. (The D&C is riddled with the mistakes of Joseph Smith and I firmly believe in his prophetic calling.) We as members of the church, as faithful or well-intentioned as we may be, will make mistakes interpreting the will of God--especially when it comes to the words spoken by the prophet or church policy where it is so difficult to find the right rules that can apply and be understood across all of God's children. Oh how important is our individual relationship with God!

I love your blog because I feel that you are much closer to God and the Spirit with your honest reservations than many people, including yourself, would think to give you credit for. This comment is not made with a hope to steer you in the right direction, but rather I hope to be a support to your faith in GOD and JESUS and the truth and light that emanates from them. Whether it be the Book of Mormon, a strange testimony meeting, or a talk by President Thomas S. Monson, we can find strong rays of the light of Christ in them. Here's the point though: We must always remember that they are not the source of the light, merely the vessel.

You and I both know that God is the source or truth, light, and happiness.

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