I think the world tends to look at Mormons in two fairly distinct ways: either we are completely crazy whack jobs or we are paragons of virtue and self-denial. In reality, we are a mix: some thoroughly devout, some struggling, some new to the church, some raised in it their entire lives. We are none of us all one thing, except for followers of Christ, and we all have our own stories. Our own paths through this spiritual terrain.
This is the story of my faith.
On paper, I am an ideal Mormon. I grew up and still live in Utah County, which is a bastion of Mormondom even in Utah. I am a descendant of pioneers who crossed the plains with the very first group of immigrants. I am a descendant of the infamous pioneers in the Martin Handcart Company who were caught in the early snows near Devil's Gate. Some of my ancestors knew Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; one is mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants. Both sides of my family have polygamous marriages. One of my ancestors helped to build the Meeting House in American Fork, the pulpit in the Provo Tabernacle, and the spiral staircase in the Manti Temple. Think of an archetypal Mormon story and I'm certain to have an ancestor who experienced it. Even my own life is an LDS cliché: Mormon girl from Utah marries Mormon boy from Idaho.
My ties to the LDS faith go back much farther than my life, so you'd think it would be a place I feel not just comfortable in, but natural. Alas, not so. Perhaps because there is the other side of the "my family were all Mormon superheroes" story. There is an apocryphal story in my family history that has something to do with one of my ancestors losing a dress during the westward migration, only to spot it later on, worn by one of Brigham Young's wives, and this dress (not the years-long trek or the years before spent building temples and witnessing miracles and suffering hunger and being persecuted) was the thing that made that branch of my family leave the church. Because how could a true prophet be married to a stealer of dresses?
Hand in hand with all of my devout Mormon ancestry are the doubters.
In the poem "Forgetting" by Robert Pinsky, there is this stanza:
Hardly anybody can name all eight of their great-grandparents.
Can you? Will your children’s grandchildren remember your name?”
I can actually name all of my eight great grandparents. But what I can't tell you is their testimony. I don’t know if any of them went to church. I know that both sets of my grandparents were not active in the LDS church; I don't know, exactly, why. They were all drinkers and both of my grandpas were alcoholics. I remember my Grandma telling me that no good God would keep her out of heaven just because she liked to drink iced tea, and if that was the worst thing she'd ever done, surely she'd be OK. My dad's mom, Elsie, was antagonistically agnostic, and I remember my mom telling me to just not bring up church with her at all.
Why I would bring up church as a kid is a mystery, because we hardly ever went. Primary a few times, sure. We went to the Christmas parties and I was in the roadshows. But my dad (agnostic mother) wasn't interested and my mom had come out of a rocky marriage and rough divorce with a bad taste in her mouth for the church. It wasn't really a thing for us until I was a teenager, when my mom’s dad died and she had her moment that caused her to go back to church. But by then it was too late for me. Why would I want to go sit in church meetings for three hours every Sunday with girls who had previously excluded me for not being Mormon enough?
As a kid, I found religion in the world. I don’t think I could’ve told you that was what I was feeling, but I felt it: the Spirit in a petunia, inspiration in the mountains and the desert, revelation while wandering the corn field behind my house. (Where, incidentally, they eventually built a church.) We went to church every once in a while, and I was baptized when I was eight. But it was only enough to give me a vague sense of guilt over not doing something I really maybe should be doing.
And then I hit my adolescent angsty period and my pagan little heart took a sudden turn. I still felt an (unnamed) sense of God-is-in-the-trees, but religion? Religion seemed anathema to me. Especially the LDS church. A major component of my teenage rebellion was antagonism towards and mockery of the church. Again, I never could have put this in words back then, but what I know now is that what pushed me to the edge was people’s hypocrisy: saying they were followers of Christ but then not acting like Christ.
Of course, every life has its “come to Jesus” moment, and I had mine at 18. (A long story for another day.) In a sense, I feel like I am a convert to the church, even though I was born into it and I was baptized. I didn’t really start to become a Mormon until that year I was 18. But since I looked like a Mormon, no one noticed, really, my conversion, so I figured out how to be a Mormon on my own. This is one of the lessons I had to learn, that no one else but me was going to help me understand the gospel. I was on my own.
Mostly, at first, I just copied what everyone else did. But slowly I started to understand the rhythms and the purposes behind our practices. I gained my fragile, delicate testimonies of different principles: going to the temple, fasting, understanding personal revelation. As I did it on my own, I began to understand the truths I needed, and to understand them in the context of my own life. I began to love parts of the gospel not because I was supposed to but because I did. I did.
I stumbled and I tried again. I am, I confess, still stumbling. But also still trying. I question everything I learn: is this true only because that man told me it is true? Or is it true because it is true? And how can I fit it into my life and my perspective? I often feel, sitting in church meetings, like a fish swimming upstream. Like the ugly duckling in a nest full of adorable fluffy ones. Like any other image you can think of that expresses not quite fitting in. I’m there, I’m working on believing and understanding, but my mind is always full of questions, objections, and ideas that no one else seems to have. Things that everyone else nods their heads in agreement with generally tend to make me shake mine in disbelief, annoyance, or surprise.
Sometimes I share my thoughts, but usually I don’t. I still have that fear, I guess, of not being Mormon enough. But that is also something I’m working on. Not on being more Mormon—on being less afraid of not looking the part.
I am slowly, so slowly it is a process that will take my entire life, coming to understand what it means to be a Mormon. What it means to me, as an individual. I am starting to know the features of my relationship with the church. For me, it hast to be, must always be, about me. Not about what my neighbor thinks, or my mom or my sister or my friend, but what I think, study out, come to know. It will, I think, always be troubling. I will never feel fully at peace, fully comfortable, in this faith. I still find God in the trees more easily than I do in a church. I will always have my questions, doubts, oppositions. I will not always believe everything I am told to believe. But what I do come to believe, come to understand and implement, I will not lose because I have gained it on my own.
I think often of my dad, who was much like his mom except without the aggression: mildly agnostic, I suppose. After my mom went back to church, they used to argue about it some. She wanted him to come to church with her, to be like the other priesthood holders she saw there, but he didn’t go. He had questions and he had his mom’s “church is silly” attitude and he liked to drink coffee. My mom told me once that she didn’t understand why he wouldn’t just stop drinking coffee. Why not give it up, when in exchange he would receive everything the gospel could give him? He also, eventually, had his moment that helped him turn towards the church, but he never told me what it was. He stopped drinking coffee and he went to the temple and to church.
Only now that I’m older do I think I understand about the coffee.
It isn’t the simple exchange of a beverage for all the truth the gospel can give you. It’s not even, really, about the coffee. It’s about the choice: why does something small prevent someone gaining knowledge? It is just like my Grandma with her tea. Coffee, tea, skirt lengths, the color of your shirt on Sunday. Facial hair and the bow tie/regular tie debate. The little things the church concerns itself with that aren’t really about the whole truth of the gospel: it is their very smallness in the face of that hugeness that makes them so hard to choose to let go. If the truth is good, shouldn’t it be available to anyone? Even if they drink coffee in short skirts?
This story isn’t my dad’s story, though, even if his story influences mine. Understanding his religious experiences (as much as I can without being able to ask him anymore) helps me understand mine. Thinking about all of those ancestors, examples of both living and not living the gospel, shapes me. In the end, the story of my faith is this: I come from a long line of believers and an equally long line of objectors, and in me they are combined. I both believe and object. But I am not passive. I’m not standing still. I am striding this religious landscape. I am finding my own trails. Sometimes I’m bushwhacking. But I’m finding my way, with a sweaty forehead and dirty shins. My story might not include all of the characteristics of the genre. But I take great peace in knowing it is my story, and I am writing it as I go.
NOTE: This post is part of a series started by Andi at Maybe I Will to go along with the release of a movie about us Mormons.
We belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints otherwise known as "The Mormons". We are proud of this part of who we are! We are excited to team up with over 65+ of us strong... to extend an invitation to see a film. A film entitled "Meet The Mormons". This film is not meant to be an "in your face" - you must join our church film. It is simply designed and produced to uplift and inspire you through six stories of those of our faith who have followed promptings to follow Christ more fully in their lives. We hope you take the opportunity to enjoy this film. We hope your hearts are made light as you feel the goodness that comes from following our Christ and Savior. All proceeds from the film will be donated to The American Red Cross. So not only will you be uplifted and inspired, your money will be going to an amazing charity!!
We also would like to take a moment and share our personal testimonies, stories of our own personal conversions, and our own stories of how following our Savior, Jesus Christ has changed our lives. The light of the gospel of Jesus Christ offers a joy and hope that only following him can provide. We hope as you click through and read our stories and testimonies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, you will feel uplifted and encouraged. We are by you! We love connecting with our readers, that is why many of us do what we do! Please be kind and considerate in your comments. It takes great bravery for us to open our hearts and our mouths to share with you such a tender and personal part of who we are. We share because we feel strongly the need to share the peace and the hope that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I hope that you will read a few, some, or all of the other stories. Thank you for reading mine!