“Have I left the church?”
This is a question I find myself asking myself a lot lately.
Maybe the fact that I haven’t been to church for over a year is the answer, but it really isn’t that simple.
“Have I left the church?” leads me to a different question: “What would it take for me to start going to church again?”
“But, Amy!” a few people have chided, “It is changing. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
Yes. I do want the church to change. I am glad for the changes. But they are all too late for me.
Women able to witness baptisms? Fantastic, except all of my kids are already baptized. I’m happy for all the women who get to have this experience with their children—but I never will.
The changes to the wording in the temple? Great, if you didn’t already experience the old wording. If you didn’t already say it out loud, in your own voice, even if inside your head you were screaming “NO! This isn’t right.” Changing it now doesn’t take away all the years I questioned my responses, wondered what was wrong with me, squelched my own questioning nature in an effort to be “good.” Even my own mother—when, after I went through the temple for the first time, a friend asked me what I thought, and I said “I think it was weird and surreal and I’m afraid to go back”—even my own mom was so conditioned that the temple is glorious and amazing and perfect that she said “Amy, you shouldn’t say things like that.”
No one has to wait for a year to be sealed in the temple if they have a civil ceremony. I am so glad they made this change—but it doesn’t let me go back in time so I can have a civil ceremony where my dad, sisters, best friend Chris, one surviving grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins can see my wedding. It doesn’t dissolve the ache I have for that one basic fact—my own dad wasn’t allowed to come to my wedding.
The subtle changes to the Exclusion Policy? They don’t change the fact that it never should’ve existed in the first place. Nor help me understand how people twisted into such verbal gymnastics to show that they agreed with it, and then when it was changed, agreed with the changes. Most importantly, it doesn’t unhurt any of the people it hurt, especially (for me) my daughter.
Then there is the “using the word Mormon is a victory for Satan” charge. And the time, effort, and shaming that went into trying to disassociate the church from the word “Mormon.” You know, when things like Australia burning and California burning and kids in cages at the U.S. border and animal extinction and earthquakes and poverty all sorts of disasters that affect human life (that I believe Christ wants us to help with) are happening—we’re using emotional energy (not to mention the cost of marketing and changing everything so that the word Mormon is less visible) on a word?
What if everything changed? What if women were given the priesthood and we could bless our own children with our own voices and anointed hands? (Or what if we could even just stand and hold the baby in the blessing circle?) What if the markers of acceptance didn’t matter—what if people could wear as many earrings as they wanted without shame, what if a tattoo was seen as art and personal choice rather than body defilement, what if everyone could be accepted, the beer drinkers and the women in flip flops? Teenage boys in blue plaid button ups? What if the church said “Joseph Smith was a man who made mistakes, especially about polygamy"? What if the sealing practices weren’t painful to all but those with perfect families not impacted by divorce or death? What if the church stopped covering up sexual abuse? What if, despite prophetic declarations, the prophets could say "we made a mistake and are sorry about the pain it caused"?
What if all of the changes I so desperately wish could be made were made?
Mostly, it would still be too late. I will never bless my own sick child. I will never get back the experience of really being sealed to my dad.
When I start asking my question—have I left the church?—I start thinking about a realization I had a couple of years ago. I went for a girls’ weekend away with my friends Jamie and Wendy. They are friends I met through church, but not church friends. (People who can still see you as a friend once you stop going to church are few; Wendy and Jamie are two of mine. The Mcallisters. My friend Julie. Everyone else I was friends with because of church is no longer are involved in my life, because our friendship—and this is mutual, I’m not placing blame—was based not on real, actual friendship but on going to church together.) That weekend at a cabin in southern Utah was lovely; we hiked and ate and relaxed and laughed together.
But it was my first time doing something with them that wasn’t a church activity (strange as that sounds), and it made me realize something. Wendy and Jamie are Mormons. They mormon all the time. Hiking, eating, laughing, relaxing: all of it was focused on the practices and beliefs of an LDS person. For me, this highlighted my own connection to my religion, because I don’t mormon all the time. (I didn't.)
That weekend was when I really started to understand how I was wearing the church, but it wasn’t my skin.
It was a performance, a thing I did because I thought I had to. To be loved, to be accepted, to be good enough.
I wrote once about the church being a dress I pulled over my naked—my true—self. And how it had chafed me.
Since that time, I have not changed. I mean—I have changed, in many ways. But what hasn't changed, what has propelled me to make the other changes, is the desire to be loved or accepted for who I am. To feel like I am enough. Not because I don't want to continue to work, to improve, to be a better person. I do. But, for me where I am, here in my late forties, an orphan, almost an empty nester: at this point in my life, I am done pretending. I am done acting. I am done with needless bloody wounds. If my true self isn't good enough, that's not going to change. So I am embracing (or, learning to embrace) who and what my true self is.
As I see it, not as an old white male church leader thinks I should be.
Not going to church for over a year, turning the mountains into my chapel, energy drinks and trail mix into my sacrament: these are some of the methods I’ve used to help myself take off the dress. The chafing has started to heal.
But there will always be scars, and what I mean by that wrought metaphor is that while I am not going to church right now, and I am deeply concerned, hurt, and bothered by many things in the church, it is also a part of who I am. It is long, deep scars on my true self, but there is also beauty in it, too. Memories of friendships and activities I did with my kids; even though they are complicated by doubt and frustration, the memories of their sacred days are valuable to me still.
Have I left the church?
In a sense, I can’t. I can’t because the church can’t leave me.
Will I ever go back to church? I am not sure, but maybe this is only because I am afraid to say “no.” Maybe because I am not ready to draw a line in the sand. Maybe because I don’t ever have to draw the line, because despite the chafing and the bloody dress and all that heartache, anger, doubt, despite it all there is still a hope in me.
A hope that I could take my authentic, scarred, naked, real self to church and be accepted.
If that could happen, I might go back.