By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know

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There is another sex abuse scandal in the LDS church right now. (Who am I kidding? I know of several, but this one is national news/a Big Deal.) You would think, with my background, hearing about this kind of thing would sting, or hit home, or something. Sadly, it doesn’t really. I have thoughts and feelings about the principles of it, but I don’t have super intense emotional responses to this kind of thing because it’s just so damn common and so damn familiar. Thinking that – writing it – does elicit sadness in me, and I guess that is where my heart sits in it. It’s sad. It’s unfortunate. It’s broken and selfish and wrong.

And, so familiar.

My semi-public abuse confrontation was just wrapping up about a year ago, and I was in the middle of it when McKenna Denson released her audio of the confrontation with her perpetrator, former MTC president Joseph Bishop. I sat in bed with my husband one night and we listened to the entire thing. We had already walked through a good part of the process we engaged in at that point. I had (still do – maybe one day I’ll feel free to make those available, but I have concerns that make that not possible at this time) my own recordings from various meetings we had been in with different people, including my perpetrator and my mother (not the same individual, just to be entirely clear.) The thing that really struck me the most as we were in the middle of all this trauma is how familiar this all sounded. The professed regret coupled with quite half-hearted remorse and excuse making. I heard that again today when listening to the audio confession of Sterling Van Wagenen. (Seriously, at one point in this interview, Sean is talking to Van Wagenen about his motivations, with him saying how sorry he was for what he had done. This dude calmly talks about his sex addiction, business struggles and marital problems, discussing how it was all falling apart the night of the abuse and his wife wanted a divorce. He says how he was so distraught and so depressed and he knelt down and said this heartfelt prayer. And, then the story hangs there in mid-air with this pregnant pause. Because what he isn’t saying is the rest of it. “I knelt down and said a heartfelt prayer…………………………………. and then I got up and decided to abuse a child as a way to cope.” Guys, this what religious trauma looks like. This, right here, is where it’s born.) It is disconcerting, but it is not even close to surprising.

I felt very positive when I left the first meeting I had with my ecclesiastical leader. I felt (and still do) that he was genuinely alarmed and intended to do the right thing. I wasn’t completely bulldozed in the meeting with my perpetrator. There was some acknowledgement, and to this day he is very deferent to me, my husband, my sister, anyone he thinks may have the “upper hand”… However, I also experienced his absolute inability to be completely honest with himself let alone me or anyone else. He would tell different stories and different parts of the story to different people depending on what they already knew. When his wife found out and separated from him, he very bitterly exclaimed to her how I had ruined his life. (A bit ironic there, yea, but I have a pretty thick skin at this point. Being consciously healthy under pressure will do that.)

You know, you can say what you want, I guess, about what is and isn’t the case, what did or didn’t happen, or what anyone’s motivations may be, but let’s just go right back to the Mormon constructs we know so well : by their fruits shall you know them. I continue to be honest and open and as frank as I know how with anyone I communicate with about it, and I sleep very well at night knowing what my motivations were and are. It’s up to them and God, I suppose, to decide if they can say the same. I did everything I could, and I feel free from any further responsibility in that.

One of the most eye-opening experiences when confronting abuse in a religious construct is the discernible inability of the religious institutions involved to really have any concept of justice and morality in facing these issues. It is so apparent to me that both myself, McKenna and now Sean Escobar are also intimately acquainted with this. It’s not a fun club, but there is a certain comradery of knowing in it that I think is what drives us all to use our voice to educate, inform and advocate for healthier communities, families and churches, if possible. It’s a hard fight. It feels very up hill. However, something that Sean said in his podcast really struck me, enough so that I posted it on my Facebook page. “You are as sick as your secrets.” (If it’s not this episode, it’s the next.)

I honestly don’t feel that most of the people involved in these situations want to do wrong or cover up or sweep things under the rug. I may have said this on the blog before, and I know I’ve said it in conversations with probably a dozen people. Good people want to do good, but when institutional priorities (traditions, dogmatic structures, reputation) are at odds with priorities and needs of individual people, the priorities of the institution win every. single. time. It’s not even close to a competition. If we want to improve these statistics and protect children, we have to have institutional priorities that people can embrace and feel safe with. If that’s not possible, we collectively have to vote with our feet and walk away until they get enough of a message to be compelled to change. At least that’s how I see it.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Truth and openness and honesty and frank conversations slowly move the needle. I feel like what I did in my community was a pretty small thing. What Sean Escobar and McKenna Denson have done is most assuredly much bigger. (I almost feel embarrassed to speak about this like my platform is equivalent to these two rockstars of abuse advocacy.) But, I think what we would all likely agree on is the value that we find in taking pain and doing something good with it. One voice is very small, but adding each voice can eventually make enough noise to make a difference. We’ve all been given a different burden to carry. Take those bruised pieces, plant them in beautiful ground and go do good in the world with the power your knowledge gives you. By their fruits.

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Faith, Fear and Fundamentalism

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I spent a good deal of my adult life being motivated by fear. I have always been a thoughtful person, someone who questioned and looked for context and nuance and meaning. However, I was raised in a social structure that had very prescribed ways to do, think and be. This was a conundrum for me for many, many years, and it created a dichotomy that I found very difficult to reconcile. In fact, I never have.

Polygamy has been a real spectre in my life. It’s not something I discuss an awful lot because it’s a real part of the real lives of people I really know and deeply care about, and, in reality, it is a very complex issue. However, I have strong opinions about it, and, while I do try to be fair in my assessment, I wouldn’t call them particularly positive. I still look at the influence that this belief has in my everyday life as the “other woman” in my marriage, even though there is really no one else. It is the thing that to this day makes me feel never quite worthy, never quite good enough. I guess that the easiest and kindest way to communicate this is that I fought very hard for several decades to find a way to fit into this box that was so necessary to my religious tradition. One of the scariest steps I ever took was to let myself admit that it wasn’t healthy for me, and I had to just say no to living that lifestyle. I vividly remember that day and the fear that accompanied it.

“What if I’m wrong?”
“What if I really will lose everything?”
“What if I have completely missed the boat here, and I will be alone forever?”

And, that’s the day that fear stopped holding the rudder of my life. Because once I faced those questions and contrasted them with the price I would pay for continuing to ignore my own heart in favor of messages whose sources I wasn’t confident in – because, hey, what if? – it became abundantly clear that I must take the risk. I would rather live in a way that felt true to my spirit and be potentially alone than to follow someone else’s agenda out of fear. I ugly cried for an entire day and half the next, afraid that my husband would leave me, but I have had peace in that decision from that day forward. (I wish that I could say that I haven’t succumbed to the fear again, but I have. The difficulty this causes in my marriage can overwhelm me on bad days.)

I’ve heard people talk about the Mormon traditions surrounding the afterlife as “sad heaven” because the fear message of separation from friends and loved ones if you go off-script is so prevalent. (In fact, it was strongly reiterated from the pulpit of LDS General Conference just this last weekend.) Mormonism is built upon the principles of agency and personal responsibility as well as a strong emphasis on knowing the truth for yourself. Yet, if you don’t follow the herd in lock step or your revelations aren’t the right ones, we’re told that you will be not only damaging yourself but damning your family unit. I find these messages difficult to reconcile. I think, in fact, that they are quite contradictory and it’s not really possible for religious people to have it both ways. Is God’s priority our heart even if he has to wander the wilderness to find it? Or, is God’s priority following the rules even if our heart isn’t really in it?

I talked last week about how we teach each other how to be better and how grace and connection are the currency of persuasion. I am really not sure why this approach often seems to not translate in religious structures because human nature doesn’t change based upon our environments – it’s quite universal and consistent. I get that motivating with fear works, at least for some people and for a time – it did for me. But, it was temporary. It was an empty faith that owned me more than me embracing it. It wasn’t authentic let alone powerful.

I don’t know what it takes to bring people back to religion because I’m not there. I would imagine that it is unique to each individual and that, for some, a different path will always be more healthy for them. I can say that it isn’t fear and judgment and shame. Those things brought me to my faith crisis, and when I put them down by the roadside, it was a blessed and blissful relief. When I recognize them around me, I shy away in concern that they will overwhelm my life again. What I can say is that, if I ever do change my perspective and decide to participate in religion again, it will not be motivated by fear. You cannot be bludgeoned back into the fold, but I think you can be loved back into the fold.

I am under no illusion about the certainty of my position – I know I could be wrong. However, I believe in a God that knows my heart and knows that my life choices continue to be made in integrity. I am doing the best I can with the knowledge, information and resources that I have. I believe that God wants my heart above all else and that the wilderness is likely the only place we can meet. I no longer fear that.

By That Same Spirit

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I don’t read near as much as I did when I was actively navigating my faith crisis, but I do occasionally pick up books that catch my eye when I see them mentioned. Recently, I read Truth Seeking by Hans Mattsson. I think one of the reasons these types of stories still appeal is that faith crises follow a very similar track, and anyone who has experienced one can relate to the journey of fellow travelers.

If you aren’t familiar with Hans Mattsson, he was the high-ranking area authority that was at the center of the Swedish rescue. The church sent their historians right from the top to meet with a core group of Swedish members who were deeply troubled by historical issues in the church. Instead of the questions being resolved, this meeting led to the defection of dozens of very faithful families. Frankly, it was a bit of a disaster for church headquarters though that isn’t really the point of this commentary. What really struck me when reading this book was a very brief few paragraphs that are close to the end. Mattsson’s connections meant that he was good friends with general authorities in the church. When it became clear that he wouldn’t be able to reconcile the historical issues and would leave, one of these people sent him a last-ditch letter in an attempt to persuade him to stay. This is a brief excerpt of what really stood out to me:

You are too good of a man to come to the other side unrepentant. You will quickly remember…that you allowed something to happen to your spirit, and you changed. You will also recognize that you can no longer do anything to change that because the same spirit that you had here in this life will be with you on the other side, and you will feel miserable when you realize that you have been bound to Satan.

I have no idea if other religious traditions use this paradigm, but the idea that you will possess the same spirit you leave this world with is something that I have always been familiar with. It is often used in this context, where it comes across as a bit of a warning which, from a black and white way of thinking, makes sense.

I genuinely appreciate people who care about me enough to be concerned about the changes in my life. The truth, however, is that I haven’t changed that much at all through this process. My conclusions are different than they were before. My relationships with people and things have shifted. But, my character is exactly what led me here, and I find a lot of confidence in that fact. The ability to look at an issue objectively is a positive in my life. The desire to know where the facts lead at all costs isn’t a scary thing for me. I am extremely comfortable anymore with uncertainty and don’t stress near as much as I used to about it.

I could be wrong in my conclusions. I am not infallible or incapable of misreading the facts. However, my ultimate desire to genuinely sort things out, should that be the case, will right me quite quickly when I reach my judgement day, I have no doubt. Because, if missing information changes the overall picture of how I see religion, it will be my nature to reassess that and move on in the direction of greater clarity. I trust that process a lot at this point and don’t fear it. I trust God and my ability to discern much more than I trust men and the messes they make in the midst of dogma.

I have a few favorite quotes that guide how I interact with issues like these. I’ve liked them for a long time, though it’s probably only been a few years that I’ve felt brave enough to live by them.

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson
“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” – J. Rueben Clark
I have never felt more honest and at peace with my relationship with God. The concept addressed here, that you don’t just magically morph into a different person when you die, rings true to me. Still, rather than being a warning, it has become quite a comfort. I am doing the best I can with the information I have and will continue to live my life by that standard. Rather than a dance with the devil, integrity leads one to truth, even if the journey is more windy than one would expect. Because of that, my spirit is strong, and my conscience is clear.

I Finished Watching The Keepers

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I finished watching The Keepers this week. I started it last summer when we were still really wading through our rough patch trying to navigate all the changes in our life. I had a bit of a meltdown at my husband after episode three which subsequently triggered a much-needed hard conversation. It was good, and we got through it pretty well, I think, but I had to stop watching the show. It was just too much at that time. Six months later, I was able to finish it without getting stuck in the rough emotions it brings up. (For those that are completely in the dark, The Keepers is a documentary about the murder of a nun that ended up being wrapped up in some pretty severe abuse in the Baltimore Catholic church.)

I had a thought when I first started watching this, and it’s something that I’m not sure that a lot of people understand. I don’t even know if I can communicate in a way that will be clear enough to shift perspectives, but I’ll try. This story follows several women who tried to prosecute their abuser who happened to be a priest. One of the women, Jean, begins telling her story by outlining her family history and how she had these amazing, devout parents who were truly good and god-fearing people. She then goes on to chronicle her absolutely unbelievably horrific abuses within that Catholic faith. These were experiences where the power invested in the church had been used as the most evil and vicious weapon against this then child. I vividly remember watching this last year and having this crystal clear realization that Jean’s church was not her mother’s church and that she could never have the pure and positive experience with Catholicism that her mother experienced – it had become a poisoned well for her.

I talk to a LOT of people. People share their abuse stories with me. People share their struggles with faith with me. I think that many people do not understand what it is to navigate these experiences, and there are narratives built up around them that, while they serve to shield the teller, are really hurtful and untrue. Jean’s story is quite extreme – it goes way beyond anything I have to deal with in my daily life. Still, it illustrates so clearly that not every environment is good for every person. Jean struggles and works her entire life to connect with divinity in a way that feels safe and supportive, but it absolutely, unequivocally cannot be in the Catholic church. There are too many devils there for it to be God’s house for her – ever.

Life is NOT one-size-fits-all. More than anything else, I think most people want to share their stories with others. They want to be heard. They want to have the freedom to choose paths that are healthy and productive and whole for them. They want to do this and still have family and friends see the bigger picture with compassion and understanding and love.

I think so many people look at other people’s lives from the outside in and think, “Gosh, I feel so sad for them because they are giving up something that is so important/fulfilling/helpful to me, and I want them to have that, too.” I understand that sentiment and where it comes from. But, please understand that you are interpreting their choices through your lenses. Another approach I hear a lot is the idea that, yes, these things are hard/wrong, but XYZ Belief System is the only way and so you just have to suck it up and push through and keep dancing with the devils until God sorts it out. The simple fact is that being healthy when your background includes significant trauma is incredibly difficult in the most supportive environments, and each person’s individualized experience requires unique and creative solutions that often include thinking outside the box. Going against your entire culture to achieve that isn’t the easy way – it’s actually quite traumatizing itself, and you have to be pretty over paying a high price to maintain that status quo to be brave enough to do it anyway.

I do not inherently have an issue with religion. I don’t think Catholicism is bad any more than I think Mormonism is bad. They are very positive parts of many people’s lives. Still, that is not the case for everyone. You don’t have to wear someone else’s shoes to acknowledge that as understandable and valid. You don’t have to get comfy on their bench to concede that is seems truly healthy for them. You don’t have to give up your belief to love someone who has had to let that go. You don’t even have to be sad that they choose different priorities than you do. I believe God is big enough for all that. Are we?

Wait – Are You a Mormon? Or What?

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I’m sorry I missed posting last week! That’s a first since I started the blog, but I was really sick with a bad cold/sinus thing, and something had to give. We’re all on the upswing now!

This blog is a sometimes awkward space for me. I originally started it completely on a whim as a way to speak to people who I actually know in real life, and I have sometimes written in a way that assumes the reader has at least some basic context. However, a good part of the readership growth does not fit into this category, and I find that the missing details sometimes cause confusion. Hopefully, I can do a better job of providing context, starting with today’s question. Am I Mormon?

While this seems to be a simple question, it’s kind of not. The answer is both yes and no. I was raised as a member of the AUB or Apostolic United Brethren which is a fairly liberal-leaning Mormon fundamentalist church, so I have never been on the rolls of the mainstream Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I was, however, baptized as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints because that’s how fundamentalists do that – there’s no “AUB baptism” or “FLDS baptism.” I also attended the modern LDS church for portions of my teen years and was probably more active as a non-member than a lot of my officially-baptized peers. I heard John Bytheway speak live at a stake youth conference in my father’s California ward when I was an older teen, played ward basketball and had plenty of bishop’s interviews. (Non-members have to have a new interview for every activity because guest recommends are one-time use.) In addition, my own church culture was pretty much identical to the mainstream church down to the manuals we used, except there was also polygamy. So, yes, I’m very Mormon while no, I’m not considered a member by many in the LDS church.

For many years, I hated this question, dodging and avoiding it. I felt embarrassed by my background and, frankly, found it very complex to answer. If I said “no,” it was completely overlooking the fact that I have deep-rooted cultural context in Mormonism. I have maternal family that goes all the way back to the first Mormon converts in England. My family was born, married and died in Nauvoo and on the trek west. (Not the same ones at the same time – ha ha!) I was raised on LDS primary and Sunday school, learning the same things from the same resources as my member schoolmates in Utah. On the other hand, answering “yes” in my circumstances felt dishonest and like I was pulling one over on people. While my husband thoroughly enjoyed engaging with missionaries that came to our door, I hated it and avoided it at all costs. Because, really, what do I say? Having any kind of open conversation required a level of transparency that I was just not comfortable with among strangers.

Taking my place as someone who has a rightful place at the table of Mormonism with something to add to the dialogue has been an interesting journey. Some of my first deep research I ever did into the history of Mormonism related to polygamy because it was a pretty huge catalyst for me (for some strange reason – ha!) In the process, I discovered the Year of Polygamy podcast and Lindsay Hansen Park who is now one of the top researchers on the history of polygamy and fundamentalist culture. I remember the first time I heard her interviewed (and I really hope this is the right one!) One of the things that struck me the most was her assertion that the entire spectrum of Mormon thought belonged at the table, and the mainstream church had neither the power nor the right nor the ability to insist that the conversation be a vacuum that they determined. This honestly blew my mind. It was the first time that I had heard someone who came from a mainstream LDS background say that my story was part of the picture and valuable and worthy of seeing light. As someone who was pretty traumatized as a child by LDS friends that were forbidden to associate with me when their parents heard about my background, this was a Big Deal and changed my perspective significantly. It continues to shape my approach to my engagement with Mormonism today.

So, I am a Mormon, culturally. I do have a Mormon Story, you could say. When I talk about things that are pretty consistent across all Mormon society, I don’t always even discuss the fact that I have a more complicated history. However, I do bring up the complexity when it’s pertinent to what I’m discussing, so you’ll also hear me talk about my fundamentalist background and the things that are unique about it. I apologize if that’s sometimes confusing for people – especially those of you who are not versed in the complexities of Mormon culture as a whole. Hopefully, this will clear that up and provide some context.

 

 

Belief and the Color Blue

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Untangling the webs that weave together through your life is an interesting process. What do you believe? Why do you believe it? But, one of the most interesting questions that I have chewed on over the last few years is this one – “Is belief a choice?” There are dozens of talks and articles in Mormon vernacular that suggest that choosing to believe is synonymous with looking for the good in things. Doubters are painted as Negative Nellies. I have come to believe, however, that belief isn’t a choice at all.

Let me explain using an analogy (because we all know that I love them.) If you were to look at the photo that I chose today, what color would you say it is? Blue? What if I were to tell you that, historically, there is no word for blue in any ancient language? I’m not suggesting that blue did not exist. I think one would be hard pressed to prove that the sky has changed as history has progressed – it’s most likely exactly the same as it’s always been. Still, for hundreds of thousands of years, people did not distinguish blue. This is incredibly bizarre, I know. I have no idea what color people called the sky or ocean or blueberries. But, it wasn’t blue.

Imagine living in a world where blue wasn’t recognized. (For the sake of our analogy, let’s make the assertion that all other colors were known.) I suspect that some blues would get lumped in with green or purple while others might even lean grey or black. This would be the norm – the paradigm held by everyone in society. If you were to pick yourself and plop yourself down in 800-something in a community that didn’t know blue, could you cease to see it yourself? If you were persecuted for being someone who saw blue, could you make yourself fit into a paradigm that no longer saw it for the sake of conformity? (If you could, I don’t think it would be good for your mental health to be that disconnected from your actual reality.)

In my experience, belief is like the color blue. Either you do or you don’t. Either you interpret available information based upon what you know and see it one way, or you pull from other information that makes you distinguish it differently. Belief is based upon your background, the way you think, the way you see and interpret evidence and your life experience. If you don’t see blue, you don’t. If you see it, no amount of mental gymnastics can make it disappear.

I believe lots of things about lots of different subjects. Many of my beliefs have changed over time as I have learned new things or understood things differently. Some of my beliefs have not shifted much at all as my life has progressed. While I can certainly choose to not explore any new information on any particular subject and be more likely to keep my beliefs from altering, I can’t actually choose how I believe about something. My brain either sees it one way or sees it the other based upon what information I have available to me.

I’d like to take credit for this light-bulb moment like it was my own little glimmer of genius, but it turns out that this is a long-discussed question, and I’m not even particularly original in my conclusion that you can’t choose what you believe. When I did a quick search of “Is Belief a Choice” for this blog, there was a variety of perspectives that ranged from religious discussions to psychological approaches all of which are quite interesting and worth consideration.

I understand that the way we feel about belief is, well, a belief. I understand that it can be incredibly frustrating to have a loved one or friend believe differently than you about something fundamental (boy, do I ever!) In my experience, people don’t upset the apple cart on purpose, especially when they’re riding in it. If you find yourself in a situation where you just want to blow a fuse in frustration because you can’t get through to someone, I invite you to take a deep breath, look up at the sky and squint your eyes until it becomes green. Just kidding – do it until you remember that we’re all unique and understand the world differently based upon our own unique experiences, and then rejoin the conversation with fresh eyes (maybe even blue ones?)