You Cannot Believe Everything You Hear At Church
I think I was around 15 years old. I was sitting in my small Young Women’s class, and the Bishop was teaching the lesson. I don’t remember the details, but it was some awkward lesson about chastity. He didn’t talk about licked cupcakes or hammered boards, but the overall takeaway was this: the Atonement covers most sins, but it doesn’t fully cover sexual sin. You can repent, and God will maybe forgive you (it’s a sin next to murder, after all), but you’ll still be tainted no matter what. You’ll probably get diseases, maybe even pregnant, and God won’t save you from the shame of that. Men won’t want you. If you do get married, it won’t be in the temple, and so your exaltation will be in jeopardy and you won’t be able to be saved. I sat in my chair, my blood boiling. I couldn’t put my finger on what, exactly, I disagreed with, but I was hopping mad at something. It just didn’t feel right. I had been bored at church before, or indifferent, but I had never felt such a visceral reaction to something and I didn’t know how to react to it. Was I simply a lustful teenage girl, and “the wicked take the truth to be hard?” Was I reacting out of disdain for my bishop, and thus needed to repent for not sustaining my leaders? Why couldn’t I just accept what the Bishop had taught me?
That afternoon, I approached my dad and vented some of my frustration. I was hoping he could maybe clarify what the Bishop was teaching, or help me understand it better. Instead, he responded with a roll of the eyes and a casual, “Geez, Liz, you can’t believe everything you hear at church.”
WHAT. This was something I had not considered. I mean, I suppose that makes sense, because I had brushed off plenty of cuckoo-bananas stuff said in Fast & Testimony meeting, but disregarding the teachings of my Bishop?? This was a whole new level!
Something shifted in me after that. Rather than accepting everything I heard at face value, I started asking myself, “Does this align with the God I know?” “Does this align with the God I read about in the scriptures?” “Does this align with the God that feels right to me?” Unwittingly, I jumped into the great paradox of having a priesthood line of authority (or teachings from church leaders, prophets, and apostles), and a personal line of authority (teachings from personal revelation, my own experiences, and the Holy Ghost). Most of the time, these two sources agreed with each other (don’t kill people, work hard, be grateful, God loves you). But some of the time, they didn’t (marriage should only be between a man and a woman, patriarchy is God’s way, blood atonement is a thing). I try to be wary of constructing God in my own image – a God that’s comfortable, that doesn’t require hard things, but while also reconciling it with the God I know, which is merciful, kind, and loving. It’s a wrestle, but the friction has brought about a deeper relationship with God, and a firmer bedrock of things that I have examined and absolutely believe to be true.
Lately, one of my greatest quandaries is whether I’m doing my children a service or a disservice by raising them in the Mormon church. There are wonderful things about it, to be sure – the ingrained sense of identity as a child of God, the teachings about loving one another, the social structure that feels like family, lessons that teach them good morals and the importance of making good choices. But I worry about the negative aspects, too. I’ve seen men wield the patriarchal order like a hammer and use conference talks to justify it. I’ve seen girls raised to believe themselves to be eternal appendages, and to only identify as accessories to those around them instead of fully-actualized human beings with their own intrinsic worth. Will the church’s teachings on same-sex marriage and homosexuality cause my kids to be judgmental of LGBTQIA+ people, or perhaps worse, full of self-loathing because they are LGBTQIA+?
On Easter, my two older sons came home and told us that they had learned that Easter is supposed to be a religious holiday, but that bad people had ruined the true meaning of Easter and replaced it with bunnies and egg hunts (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it). We proceeded to have a discussion about how religious holidays melded with Pagan holidays (also: what is Paganism), and how we can find meaning and joy in both the religious symbolism and the the earthly symbolism. It doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be and/both! We can rejoice in Christ, and rejoice in the spring equinox, and rejoice in the overall symbolism of birth/rebirth that many traditions celebrate at this time of year. Last fall, one of my kids came home from church to tell me that watching football on Sunday wasn’t keeping the Sabbath Day holy (he told me this as I was curled up on the couch with a football game on). We had a discussion of different ways to keep the Sabbath Day holy, how I grew up watching football with my dad on Sundays and really treasure it as a tradition of family time and bonding, and how other people do it differently. Another Sunday, one of my kids came over to me and told me that the tea I was drinking was against the Word of Wisdom. We then had a discussion about the roots of the Word of Wisdom, what “hot drinks” could mean, and how the Word of Wisdom has evolved over time. And after every discussion, I tried to end with two things. One, “but that’s just my take on things – what do you think?” And two, “just remember – you can’t believe everything you hear at church.”
Now, I have no idea if I’m doing this right. Parenting feels like such a gamble on so many different levels – we’re all just trying to do our best and hope that our kids don’t end up as serial killers. But my current thinking as I raise my kids in the Mormon church is this: what better place to teach my kids to question authority and develop their own sense of morality than at a place where good principles are taught, but people are still wrong all the time? My hope is that I’m doing my children a service by showing them that there are many ways to be a Mormon. I hope that they can see both my frustrations and my joy in my participation in the church, and I probably need to be better about openly and vocally celebrating the things I find beautiful within the church. I want my kids to see that there is good, and that there is bad, but that the restoration is ongoing and that they can be a part of it.
So I drive my boys to Cub Scouts, while occasionally remarking about how unfair it is that the boys get to do cool archery activities and meet every week while the girls are doing paper crafts with less of a budget, and only every other week. I play my favorite hymns on the piano and talk about times that they have helped me through trials or sorrows. I sob at the kitchen counter after certain policies in November 2015 and explain to my bewildered kids that the church believes certain things about LGBTQIA+ people, but that I vehemently disagree with it and it makes me sad, because I want the church to be better and do better. I try to navigate these choppy waters, and while I have no idea if I’m doing it right, I’m hoping that my kids will at least know one thing that my dad taught me: you simply cannot believe everything you hear at church.