I’m Still Here

December 29, 2009

I am just taking a break, in case anyone is worried. Last night I was at Deseret Book in Provo, and I realized I hadn’t been inside a Deseret Book in a long time. I seem to recall that they used to sell non-LDS-related books at DB, but apparently no more. But I digress.

It really struck me last night that there is an entire subculture with its own economy that revolves around Mormonism. The sheer number of books, CDs, DVDs, posters, statues, journals, plaques, and even candy all tied to some degree to Mormonism is kind of overwhelming. On the one hand, I felt a bit of revulsion at the idea of making money from one’s faith, but then I suspect that’s how Mormonism started in the first place, so it’s certainly following in the original spirit of Joseph Smith’s little enterprise.

But what really hit me was how detached I seemed from what was once a familiar part of my life. At the front of the store were pristine new copies of the first two volumes of the Joseph Smith Papers (the second volume costs $100), and on the right side were the bound sermons and stories of many a General Authority, including Boyd Packer’s “Mine Errand from the Lord.”

Once upon a time, these books might have tempted me. Back when I was commuting to Salt Lake every day, I read from the teachings of the modern prophets at least an hour a day, and now I felt no interest, nothing tugging at me to revisit their collective wisdom. I wasn’t even interested in the Joseph Smith papers, which earlier in my apostasy might have at least moved me to open the book. Nope, I couldn’t even do that.

I seemed a visitor in that place, someone just passing through, and I thought of that old missionary scripture, wherein we were told that those who by faith are baptized are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19). I once was of the household of God, it seems, but no longer.

Standing in that bookstore waiting for my wife to pay for her new journal, I felt powerful sadness, but also I felt reassurance that, in making myself a stranger to that past life, I was coming home.

I felt much better when I walked out into the falling snow, hand in hand with my wife. She and I may not both be of the household of God, but we are not strangers.

Taking a Break

December 10, 2009

I’ve been too busy and too stressed lately to spend much time thinking about writing, so I’m going to take a break for a bit to catch my breath.

A couple of things:

First, I’m seriously considering self-publishing my book (my missionary memoir). I hadn’t wanted to do that, but I’ve changed my mind. So, if you would be interested in purchasing my book, let me know, so I can decide whether there’s enough interest to justify publishing it.

Second, I have to applaud the LDS church’s decision to update its mission statement to include caring for the needy and poor. I’ve been cynical in the past about the purpose of the church, but it really is good that they are increasing the focus on doing good to others. Mormons are wonderful, giving people, for the most part, and adding this emphasis can only make things better.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to everyone. I’ll write again when I have some time.

A Christmas Trip

December 8, 2009

Christmas of 1987 was my first as a married man. I had found the love of my life when we were both missionaries in Bolivia, and we had been married for nearly six months. We lived in perhaps Provo’s tiniest apartment, where you could sit on the couch, put your feet out straight, and touch the wall with them. The bedroom was so small that we couldn’t kneel in prayer at the side of the bed.

I was going to BYU full time and working nights waxing floors at the Wilkinson Center on campus. My wife was working on an assembly line making lasagna at the Stouffer’s plant in Springville. We drove an old red Chevette with “Famous Potatoes” license plates, and we were dirt poor.

I didn’t mind. We were happy.

Sometime in November, my brother Danny had come to see me. I had never seen him so distraught. He told me he had gone to see his bishop to “confess everything I’ve ever done.” He was terrified that he’d be kicked out of school or at least lose his scholarship. But he felt like he needed to go.

A few weeks later, he attended what is charitably called a “disciplinary council” with his bishop. That afternoon he came over for dinner. His face was tired and swollen, his eyes almost slits they were so puffy. He hadn’t slept at all in two days, and he was exhausted. But he was relieved. His bishop had given him a list of assignments that he wanted him to do over the following six months. They weren’t anything difficult, just attending meetings, keeping the commandments, and so on. He said if he did those things, at the end of six months he would not take any church action. If my brother failed to do them, he would be disfellowshipped. I didn’t ask my brother what had happened, as I thought he would tell me if he wanted me to know. It was enough to know he was feeling better about things.

My mother called me a few weeks before Christmas and told me that she really wanted us to come home to California for Christmas so that our family could all be together. I was noncommittal, as I wasn’t sure about my work schedule or my wife’s, and I wasn’t sure we could afford the trip, anyway. As Christmas got closer, my mom became more insistent. Finally, we learned that we had three days at Christmas when we wouldn’t have to work, so I told my mom we would be coming.

A few days before Christmas, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t done any Christmas shopping, so I made plans to go out that evening and buy something small for my siblings and parents. Shortly after I got home, my wife called and said she had been in an accident. She wasn’t hurt, but the car was pretty badly damaged and would need to be towed. We had the car towed to a repair shop, and they told us it would take several days to get the right parts and repair it. We wouldn’t be going anywhere for Christmas.

That night, I called my mom and reluctantly told her we would not be able to get home for Christmas. She was almost in tears she was so disappointed. “But you have to come!” she said. “I was going to surprise everyone, but I’ve arranged for us to take a family portrait together on Christmas Day. Please find a way to come home.”

We hadn’t done a family portrait since I was nine or ten, so I knew this was important to my mom. But we didn’t have any money, especially now that we would have to pay to repair the car. I couldn’t see any way to get home, so I told her I just didn’t think it was possible.

An hour later my father called and said they had arranged for us to rent a car to drive to California. Because it was so close to Christmas, there were no cars available in Provo, but a place in Salt Lake said they would hold a car for us. I felt a little guilty that they were bailing us out, but then I knew how important this was to my mother. My grandfather drove to Provo and picked me up to take me to the rental agency. It had already snowed about six inches, but the snow fell heavily as we inched our way up the freeway to Salt Lake.

The car was buried under a deep snowbank, but it started once we dug it out, and I headed back to Provo in the same blinding snowstorm. After I picked up my wife at work, we went to the BYU Bookstore and bought some inexpensive books, and then we had an early dinner at the Cougareat before leaving town. The snow was still coming down hard when we left. Traffic was moving about twenty miles an hour, and the roads were slick with packed snow. I settled in behind a semi and crept along carefully but steadily. My wife wrapped the few gifts we had in the back seat as we drove.

We kept on at a slow speed until just past Cedar City, when the snow finally cleared and we were able speed up to a more normal rate. We arrived at my parents’ home not too long before daybreak, both of us exhausted. My family was happy to see us, but they understood when we went directly to the bedroom and went to sleep.

I don’t really remember anything about Christmas morning, really. I have no memory of what we did that morning, who got which presents, what we had for dinner. All I remember is driving over the hill to Malibu Canyon to take our photo at the house of my mother’s friend. We stood in front of a teal curtain, our family having grown by four spouses and one grandchild. My brother Ross borrowed a sweater from me because he didn’t have a jacket or anything nice to wear. Of course, Ross was six inches taller than I am, so if you look closely at the photo, you see that the sweater was stretched to the breaking point.

Danny wasn’t feeling well at all that day, but he smiled through the photo shoot, cracking his usual jokes. He had on the blue sharkskin suit he had bought at the Salvation Army store.

We left the next morning. I went back to the Wilkinson Center, where I spent the next week working long hours resealing the floors. The car came back, battered but functioning. We had been able to afford the mechanical repairs, but it would forever bear the deep wounds of its misfortune on its left side.

The six months came and went quickly, and I really hadn’t given it much though. Just before Easter, Danny and Ross and I went to the Richards Building to swim, and Danny told me he had an appointment the Tuesday after Easter to report to his bishop how things had gone. Danny and Ross made another trip home, this time for Easter and my mother’s birthday. On Monday evening, my father called me and said simply, “The sheriff was just here. There was an accident, and Danny and Ross were killed.”

I saw them one last time in their caskets at the mortuary, Ross in a brown suit and Danny in the sharkskin. I’ve often thought I’m glad I have that one last picture to remind me of my family. I thought of how easy it would have been not to go home that Christmas, and I know I would have regretted it always.

So I choose to think of my family as it was that day. Yes, we have added a lot of grandchildren, but that day we were together and complete.

Pop Goes the Runtu

December 4, 2009

Since the decade is almost over, I thought I’d devote some space to what I think are the best things produced since 2000. I’ll start with music.

My favorite CDs of the decade by year. I’m rating them by how much I listened to them rather than some specific aesthetic reasons:

2000: Juanes, Fijate Bien. Juanes’s later stuff is good, but nothing he’s done quite matches the amazing fusion of themes and genres of this one.
2001: Bjork, Vespertine. Weird and breathtakingly beautiful at the same time.
2002: Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. No popular music has ever moved me like this CD.
2003: Damien Rice, O. Maybe it’s just the simple arrangements or the ragged vocals, but it’s just lovely.
2004: Brian Wilson, Smile. Imagine what people would have been saying had he actually finished this in 1967. Even for 2004, it’s still astonishingly good.
2005: Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Who doesn’t like Conor Oberst?
2006: Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. Snarky punk-pop with brilliant lyrics.
2007: Radiohead, In Rainbows. It’s Radiohead, OK?
2008: Vampire Weekend. Yeah, I know, it’s silly trust-fund fake Third World pop, but it’s damn catchy.
2009: Neil Young Archive (though it really doesn’t count because it’s a box of old stuff).

CD of the Decade: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

I Am a Child of God

December 3, 2009

From the time we were very small, we Mormon children sang

I am a child of God,
And he has sent me here,
Has given me an earthly home
With parents kind and dear.

Lead me, guide me, walk beside me,
Help me find the way.
Teach me all that I must do
To live with him someday.

I always thought that believing that we are one of God’s children is a positive thing, that it gives people an innate sense of self-worth, as opposed to those poor Protestants who believe that everyone is a “depraved” sinner. But as I’ve sorted through a lot of things in the recent past, I’ve come to a new awareness of what being a child of God has meant in my life.

As the verses above tell us, we are God’s children, but He sent us to earth to teach us the things we “must do to live with Him someday.” Everything about this life was, in essence, a test to see if we were worthy of coming back to Him. And passing the test meant doing what we were taught to do; anything less wasn’t enough for our Father.

The second verse of the song speaks of our needs:

I am a child of God,
And so my needs are great;
Help me to understand his words
Before it grows too late.

But the “needs” spoken of aren’t love, safety, happiness. No, our “great” need is to understand God’s words “before it grows too late.” In other words, we need to understand what God wants us to do so that, again, we can be found worthy of His presence. And we’d better hurry up, “before it grows too late.”

The final verse is a little more hopeful:

I am a child of God.
Rich blessings are in store;
If I but learn to do his will
I’ll live with him once more.

If we’ve understood God’s word and done what we must do, then “rich blessings are in store.” But notice that the blessings are always conditional. Russell Nelson explained that

“While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us-and certain divine blessings stemming from that love-are conditional.

“Understanding that divine love and blessings are not truly ‘unconditional’ can defend us against common fallacies such as these: ‘Since God’s love is unconditional, He will love me regardless …’; or ‘Since ‘God is love,’ He will love me unconditionally, regardless …’ These arguments are used by anti-Christs to woo people with deception.

“The full flower of divine love and our greatest blessings from that love are conditional-predicated upon our obedience to eternal law. I pray that we may qualify for those blessings and rejoice forever” (“Divine Love,” Ensign, Feb. 2003, page 20).

Thus, God is a parent who will love His children only if they understand His words and do what they are taught to do. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I realized just how much of this kind of teaching I had absorbed in my own life.

My mother was talking to me about my struggles with depression (I was telling her how I’m doing really great these days and that the depression seems like a distant memory). I mentioned that one thing I had to overcome was the belief that my self-worth was conditioned on what I did for others. I always put others first, but I never felt good about myself.

My mom asked me where I had gotten that belief, and I told her that all of my siblings and I had been taught in church and at home that we were to put others first, that self-sacrifice was the ultimate act of love and only true way to happiness. That said, no one had ever told us we should take care of our own needs, that we should feel good about ourselves, even if we couldn’t do everything we thought we should.

“I always thought it was a given that you feel good about yourself,” my mom said. “Yes, you serve others and try to meet their needs, but you have to feel good about yourself first.”

“I never felt good about myself,” I said.

“Then you were listening to the wrong people,” she said. “I’ve always thought you were a wonderful person with great potential.”

I wondered who I was supposed to be listening to, because no one had ever said anything like that to me. In my family, praise was served up in tiny slivers, if at all. I don’t remember my mother or father saying “I’m proud of you” until I left for my mission. But it made sense: if self-worth is a “given,” you don’t need any praise. You just feel good about yourself.

I thought about the praise I got growing up. I remembered that, in fifth grade, I won a short story contest at school. I have no recollection of my parents’ reaction, but my uncle, who looking back must have sensed my needs, read my story and then said it was so good that he wanted to buy a copy. So, I wrote out a copy, and he gave me a silver dollar for it. It seems silly, but 35 years later, that moment stands out because it was one when I felt good.

My senior year in high school, I won the district Lincoln-Douglas debate competition. My parents weren’t there, but my teacher, Mrs. Dix, who had encouraged me from the beginning, gave me the trophy and a big hug and told me how proud she was of me for working so hard and becoming a skilled debater.

But that’s all I can remember. When I was a newlywed, my wife said, “I can’t believe I got to marry such a handsome man.” She didn’t believe me when I told her that no one else had ever told me I was good looking.

I suppose on some level I recognized my strengths and weaknesses. I always thought I was rather unattractive, but at least I was pretty smart, at least enough to do fairly well in school. Even when I won an award for being the top first-year grad student in my program, I was convinced that I got it because the board had felt pity for the poverty of my young family.

These days I feel good about myself, which is a major accomplishment for me. I don’t have to kill myself looking for other people’s approval, and I don’t have to spend my life serving everyone’s needs but mine. And I do not feel responsible for the success and happiness of others.

If there is a God out there (and most of the time I believe there is), surely He loves us “regardless” of our personal failings. I’m not perfect, but I’m good enough. And knowing that has made all the difference.

Top Ten Ways to Get Members to Take Church Less Seriously

December 3, 2009

Once again I’ve been told that the reason I left Mormonism is that I took it too seriously. Rather than comment directly on the absurdity of such a statement, I’ll just provide some suggestions for getting Mormons to be more relaxed about the restored gospel. After all, I’m just doing my part to help people maintain faith:

1. New Primary song: “Follow the Prophet (unless it’s his personal opinion and/or he’s dead).”
2. Temple Change for Satan: “If they do not walk up to every covenant they make at these altars in this temple this day, they will show themselves to be true disciples, and I’m screwed!
3. Disclaimer before every conference: “The opinions expressed here do not reflect those of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or its officers.”
4. Goodbye “Doctrine and Covenants”; hello “Suggestions and Possibilities.”
5. New missionary program: “Preach My Gospel (but don’t be, you know, too pushy about it).”
6. Add a tenth Young Women Value: “Uncommitted.”
7. New hymn: “Do What Feels Good; Don’t Worry about the Consequences.”
8. David Bednar’s new talk: Not everyone has to be a pickle if they don’t feel like it.
9. Revised Teachings of Joseph Smith: “Let us here observe, that a religion that does not allow its members to come up for air and take a well-needed rest once in a while, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”
10. New Option in church voting: “Sustain. Opposed. Whatever.