Thursday, June 26, 2014


     This is a piece I recently read at an event for a writer's group I'm a part of. It's about my visit a few years ago to Zion National Park.

     Tour buses and crowds waiting in line for the bathroom were finally nowhere to be seen as Ben and I approached the deserted trailhead by the side of the road. The sun fell bright and hot on our backs. We stepped awkwardly through the irregular piles of snow which remained only in the sharp shadows of trees, hills and rocks. As we discussed politics, our conversation was noisy at first in our mutual celebration of being opinionated, but we were abruptly quieted by the hard work of climbing a slushy hill.  After some time of watching the ground, trying not to trip, Ben tugged on my arm and pointed up at a hill to the right of our path. I lifted my head and looked around. 

     To our left, the land sloped gently and unevenly downward toward a few hills in the distance. The landscape was desert, with some tough and craggily shrubs and a few lonely trees. It wasn’t exactly a scene that would fit on a postcard, but there was something about it that sucked me in. Its wildness was disconcerting, yet seductive at the same time. To the right of us, where Ben had pointed, there was a steep hill that blocked our view of anything else in that direction. We decided to climb it to see what was on the other side.  The sun had been shining against this hill, so it was happily free of snow. I found myself feeling grateful for the pilgrims that went before as we followed a trail of deer tracks toward the top of the hill. After pausing to meditate on the bones of some small creature that had met its end here, I began to feel like an intruder. I tried to step more lightly, as if I should somehow apologize for leaving something so unnatural as a shoe print in this place. Still, my mind reeled and my heartbeat sped up as I was flooded with the question, “What is on the other side of this hill?”  We reached the top and stood and stared. 

     A sharp boundary lined the ridge, beyond which everything was covered with snow, forbidding us to trespass. We turned our backs to the blank white and sat down to look back in the direction from which we had come. We were quiet. Suddenly, I was confused by the sound of something enormous. My brain said, “Traffic!”, but no. It was the wind. It was so new to hear the wind unencumbered by trees and buildings that I didn’t even recognize it. I felt born again. And then another sound startled me. It was my blood pulsing through me, thumping in my ear. I looked again at the hills that had drawn me in without offering any clues as to how I should judge. Seductive and worrisome, I had found God. Not the prescribed and prescient God of my youth, but the unknowable, incomprehensible God who brilliantly lit the present moment and darkened the future from my view.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

"There Would Never Have Been an Infidel if There Had Never Been a Priest"

     When I was active in the LDS Church, I never felt compelled to ask why women didn't bear the priesthood. Most of the traditional answers regarding how the priesthood related to gender roles were ok with me at the time. When I first heard about the Ordain Women movement, I didn't particularly have feelings about it one way or the other. I had already stopped attending when the movement gained momentum, and I was surprised by the reach of its voice. When I decided to read the website for myself, I was amazed at how respectful and sensible it was and how much it resisted being angry or pushy. While some have claimed that it was the way Kate Kelly carried out the conversation that caused problems, I can't imagine anyone engaging the conversation in a more respectful, humble and honest way.
     Yesterday was a really bad day for a lot of people, myself included. I composed about five different blog posts in my mind and deleted them all. I had the strangest feeling all day, which I'm still struggling to pin down and articulate. I was frustrated that I had such strong feelings about Kate Kelly's excommunication. On the one hand, it has nothing to do with me. On the other hand, it hit too close to home to ignore. I didn't feel I had anything relevant to say because my feelings on the matter are inevitably marked by my belief that the Church is fundamentally false. Nothing I have to say has any bearing on those who see the Church as true; so what is there to say? All I could think of was what it is like to be judged by people who don't know your mind and heart. To be told that someone knows what's best for you better than you know yourself. It just burns.
     When I was younger, I remember being struck by a line in a Gordon Bok song. "She knows what's in her heart like she knows her name." I was so moved by this thought; the idea of knowing oneself so completely and intuitively. It describes a person being powerful in their core. There is a place inside each of us that is sacred and divine, a place that no one else can access, see, or measure. It's the place where we find that thing we have so many names for.  Our conscience, the still small voice, or a higher self. It is our only connection to the divine, and cannot be known or judged by anyone but ourselves.
     I suppose I can't have a whole lot to say on Kate Kelly's excommunication because as an organization, the Church has the legal right to include or exclude who and what they choose; they have the right to manage their boundaries. But having the right to do something doesn't make it right. I understand the Church's desire to keep their doctrine pure, but I think this need is a symptom of man's ego, not God's influence. It's the need for control. I see this pride and need for control more as the cultural backdrop of the Church; an unintentional peek into the flaws of a patriarchal culture that has become a system of power. Like any government or organization, it's simply an imperfect system that leads to imperfect outcomes; sometimes downright harmful outcomes. I don't necessarily blame the individuals who primarily see the good in the system and are working within it to try to do the right thing. (i.e. individuals within the Church, including those responsible for Kate Kelly's excommunication.) I don't care about blame, or whose fault it is. I just can't bring myself to support an institution who makes it its business to regulate conscience. Thomas Jefferson said it better than I could-

     Our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to Him, and not to the priests. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. But this does not satisfy the priesthood; they must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel if there had never been a priest.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

For Those Who Don't Know What It's Like to Be a Doubter

     With the recent news of Kate Kelly and John Dehlin facing possible excommunication from the Church, I have experienced a mix of emotions myself, and observed mixed reactions from believers and doubters alike on social media. I was heartbroken, especially because of the value I found in John Dehlin's Mormon Stories Podcast when I was struggling most with my doubts. I treasured having a source of information that was totally honest, without any ill-will toward the Church. As I have been weighed down by the sadness of the news, I've also been tempted to respond with anger towards those who don't understand my perspective. I've seen a lot of comments, especially in reference to Kate Kelly, along the lines of "She just wants attention!", "If she doesn't like how the Church is, why doesn't she just leave?" and, "So silly. Doesn't she know anything about the gospel?"

     I exercised a great deal of self-control and decided not to comment on such threads as I knew it wouldn't get anywhere. But I felt I should clarify a few things for those who find themselves more in line with those kinds of comments. I've probably said similar things myself at another time in my life. The main issue I want to address is why people don't "just leave the Church". Because that must be so easy, right? "Just leave." As someone who has stepped away from my activity in the Church, let me express a little of what that is like.

     Growing up in the Church is kind of like growing up in a small country with a rich history and culture. You grow up accustomed to a certain cuisine, language, music, an entire shared sense of spirituality with all the same stories to tie you together as a community. When you are young, you are nurtured with love not only by your family, but by your neighbors and even community leaders. You are flooded with love for your country and proudly wear its colors, and you are praised mightily for this, strengthening the bond. You are taught that your country is better than all other countries and that it is the only country that takes such good care of its people. But as you grow older, you find out that there are more kinds of people than one. You find out that things are not so simple. You find out that certain kinds of people aren't allowed in. And you find out that entire groups of citizens are quietly suffering, and that although the tight government control makes for a very unified and seemingly peaceful country, there is also little freedom.

     In time, you may discover enough uncomfortable information that you begin to feel deeply that the way things are run goes directly against all the core principles you were taught growing up as a citizen of this place. This conflict, and your love for your home, causes you to want to bring integrity back to your country. You need some way to reconcile the conflict between your government's principles and its behavior. You reach a point where you have to decide whether to leave it altogether, or to stay, and through your patriotism try to make it the country you always believed it was and know it could be. The idea of moving to a new country is terrifying and lonely. Everyone you have ever loved is in this place and all that you know is here. You are still loyal to the principles you thought it stood for. What should you do?

     It's not an easy position to be in. It's not as if doubters wake up one day and say, "You know, I really hate the Church. I should just get out of here." Those who leave must learn how to live in a whole new "country", which is disorienting and difficult at times. Those who stay must find a way to carve out enough space to be themselves and stand up for what they believe. Whether we stay or leave, the Church is still who we are; we can't just pluck it out of us, just as you can't snap your fingers and make your family's influence on your identity disappear (nor would you want to, even in times of conflict). We struggle between our loyalty to our principles and our loyalty to the Church. We want everyone to be able to stay with their integrity and dignity intact. We want the Church to be a place where people are actually free to listen to their minds and their hearts; where personal revelation isn't just a nice idea, but a functioning reality for every Saint.

     I'm fine with the Church saying, "This is our doctrine on the Priesthood, period." But to excommunicate those who express different beliefs is to say that you're not allowed a voice unless you conform, now. Whether you're a government or a Church, I don't believe exclusivity helps anyone or makes the world a better place. I don't expect those in the main stream of the Church to agree with Kate Kelly and John Dehlin. I just hoped people would respond with a little more compassion; to at least recognize that this isn't just an opportunity to put others down to make yourself feel right, or more righteous. It's an opportunity to mourn with those that mourn and recognize that this isn't easy for anybody.