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.

Liz

Liz is a reader, writer, wife, mother, gardener, social worker, story collector, cookie-maker, and hug-giver.

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25 Responses

  1. floydthewonderdog says:

    I remember our dinner discussions when my children attended Early Morning Seminary. The teacher had her own spin on doctrine. We would spend the time correcting errors and outright false doctrine taught by this teacher. When this teacher later taught Gospel Doctrine, when something questionable was taught, I would ask exactly where that could be found in the scriptures.

  2. Emily says:

    Thank you for this guidance. I’ve been wrestling with my own feelings of the church and how to share that with my children. You have found an elegant balance that I feel will help me.

  3. Spunky says:

    So true! What sage advice from your dad and balanced recommendations from you. Thank you!

  4. Tim Rollins says:

    I LOVE this! When I was spiritually incarcerated among corrupt religionists and other letter-of-the-law harpies of the Milwaukee Wisconsin South Stake (7/15/2003/1/1/2009), they gave me a hellfire sneer when I made it a POINT to tell them I was catching the Packers game either after church, or even if an evening game.

    I had enough of their phony crap and fled their delusional self-absorbed self-righteousness and fled to spiritual freedom in Oklahoma, where on one occasion in my calling there, I needed the stake president’s signature on some paperwork we were finishing up before sending it in.

    He had me swing by his home, and all his adult children (save one out of state) and the grandchildren were over for a special home evening, namely, Packers v. Cowboys on Sunday Night Football on NBC.

    He signed off on the paperwork, and asked if I was catching the game, to which I said I was as soon as I got home.

    Such a refreshing change. It’s all in the mind of the individual. While we’re counseled to take all matters to the Lord in prayer (Alma 37:37), I believe that we are endowed with more than enough common sense to figure out the everyday things out for ourselves. ***

  5. Andrew R. says:

    Before I post my comment RE the actual post, please can someone let me in on what all of LGBTQIA+ means.

    I know LGBT – it was that for quite a while. I believe Q is queer. However, I grew up calling gay people (back when gay meant something else entirely) queer – and then we changed to gay and queer became derogatory. So who is queer, and when can we use it?

    I and A and + I have no knowledge of, sorry. I know I could look them up, but if they are here I can, if needed, ask a question, or comment – specifically about the Church and attitudes to LGBTQIA+ people, per the post.

    • Liz says:

      I use it as an umbrella term – I first learned about it in our Queer Mormon Women Series. This post has some useful info:

      http://www.the-exponent.com/queer-mormon-women/

      You can find all of the posts from that series through this link:

      http://www.the-exponent.com/tag/queer-mormon-women/

    • Jewelfox says:

      Some people self-identify as queer, or as genderqueer specifically, as a way of reclaiming the term. They might talk about “queering relationships,” i.e. making them cuter and more affirming and less hierarchical. Calling a person queer is still a slur, and talking about “queers” as a group can be taken as a slur if you aren’t unambiguously part of that group.

      IA+ stands for Intersex, asexual, and etcetera. Intersex people were born with ambiguous or gender non-conforming anatomy, a surprisingly frequent occurrence for those who don’t already know about them. They are often surgically “corrected” as infants, and/or made to feel ashamed about what they have in their pants.

      Asexual people have a sexual orientation of “no thanks.” They might like cuddling but not sex, or they might have sex just because they like snuggling. It varies from person to person. Most people don’t know they exist, and when people do find out they’re usually judgmental; “how can you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it?” “You aren’t old enough yet to know what you want.”

      I dated someone who was “ace” but not “aro” (aromantic) for several years, and got to hear a lot of this stuff said about them. Including by the kinds of gays and lesbians who think bisexuals are lying and trans folk are icky. Let’s all be “sex-positive” by pretending that everyone wants to have it! >_<

      It's actually really easy to understand if you just believe people when they tell you about their feelings and experiences. But if you're trying to figure out just how they could be lying or misguided the whole time, everyone who's not straight and cisgender is suddenly really confusing.

  6. Steph Western says:

    This is wonderful, thank you! I love the idea of teaching your kids to ask the “does this align?” question. I remember having a substitute Sunday School teacher as a teenager who had some very specific assertions about what the Jaredite barges looked like and exactly where they landed, etc. When I mentioned it to my parents at dinner they rolled their eyes and were like, “Yeah . . . that guy has lots of ideas. You don’t have to take them literally.” And now I wonder if the weekly “So, tell us all what you learned at church today” discussion was partly to see if any damage control or correction needed to be done.

  7. Violadiva says:

    I love this whole post. My kids are starting to ask super deep doctrinal questions (my 6-yo “Where did God come from?” and my 4-yo on Easter sunday, ‘Is Jesus STILL dying?”)
    My first response is always, “What do YOU think?” (and then hear their totally creative idea about how to reconcile things which humans have been discussion for centuries) and then to say: “Some people believe ____” and give an example of what another faith believes. “Some people believe _____”
    then “Our church teaches _____” (and include any caveats if that particular thing is based in scripture, or if it’s misinterpreted in the church generally) and then I finish with, “I choose to believe _____. Everyone can decide what they want to believe, and what makes sense to them.”
    I’m super careful to include beliefs of other world religions, and to point out that anyone with a view or belief different than what the kids are hearing at church should always be treated with respect for their idea. I love the quick phrase about helping kids see that not everything in church can be taken as 100% true, but that it’s more important to trust their own feelings about it!

    • Ziff says:

      I *love* your “Some people believe X” and “Some people believe Y” approach, Violadiva. It seems like such a natural way to introduce your kids to the fact that not everyone believes the same way, and that’s okay!

  8. marcella says:

    Thank you. Church has been hard for me for quite a while and I’m hoping the outlook you’ve shared will help. Sometimes it just wears me out ignoring all the wrong I hear at church regularly.

  9. Marilynn says:

    Parents are ultimately responsible for teaching their children, don’t fob it off on the church. Don’t say ” the church” has the policy on LBGTQIA+ …. it’s the Lords mandate!!

    • Liz says:

      I definitely wasn’t suggesting that the church is primarily responsible for teaching – quite the opposite, actually. And we’re going to have to agree to disagree on the LGBTQIA+ policy – I don’t see the Lord’s hand anywhere near it.

    • Emily says:

      The “Lord’s mandate” was also that. black people are cursed. Mandates can change because our understanding changes.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I agree. It’s one thing to say, “eh, I’m not so sure about what Brother So-and-so taught in Sunday School” and another to disagree with official statements by the prophet and apostles. Your local leaders and teachers are only human and sometimes they have mistaken ideas. The prophet, on the other hand, while still human and prone to mistakes, will never be allowed to lead us astray. God has promised us that. So I think that when things come up at church or seminary or institute, the best place to go is to General Conference talks to see what the general authorities have said on the subject

      • Olea says:

        Perhaps an aside, but I’m not sure where you think God promised us that the prophet will never be allowed to lead us astray. It’s my understanding that prophets are not less human than our local leaders and teachers.

  10. Dani Addante says:

    “You cannot believe everything you hear at church.” I wish I had heard this phrase back when I was a teenager. It would definitely have helped me a lot. Thanks for this amazing post!

  11. MJ says:

    Thank you for this, Liz! It resonates with me so much! I remember a similar experience with a lesson in young women at 15-16 yo about “supporting the priesthood”. According to the teacher that meant making your husband a sandwich to take along if he was asked to go give a blessing in the middle of the night. The whole lessson just felt icky and when I decided it was just flat out wrong, it was completely liberating.
    I also wonder if I’m approaching church with my kids in the right way–i love your approach! I like the idea of the church as a place to learn to think for yourself! Recently my 7 yo said something to the effect of, “but we know better”, with a whole lot of superiority, about something he’d heard at school. (I can’t remember what) we had a long discussion about how lots of people “know” the things they believe are true and real and that we need to have respect for those beliefs. We also talked about how great it is that we get to decide what we believe and what feels true to us. Parenting is hard!

  12. Caroline says:

    I love everything about this, Liz. One of my wakeup moments as a teen was when I was asking my mom about why Paul in the Bible had such a negative take on women, and her answer was to not pay attention to what he said about women because he was probably short and ugly and women wouldn’t give him the time of day, ergo his negative attitude. That was shocking at the time, but I love the direction she was going. Paul was a product of his time and place and of course personal opinions were infused into his writings. This overall attitude toward anything emerging from humans, in all their fallibility, has been helpful to me.

  13. Laura says:

    Love this! Thank you!

  14. Ziff says:

    This is excellent, Liz. You said, “My hope is that I’m doing my children a service by showing them that there are many ways to be a Mormon.” This seems like such a good approach to me, to show them the different ways. I feel like the more conventional approach of teaching them that there’s only one way is so much more likely to drive them away eventually, when they find that there are things they disagree with. If you’ve already given them license to ignore that stuff, they will also have permission to continue to engage with the Church even while not liking all its parts, which seems like a hopeful outcome to me.

  15. Andrew R. says:

    To what extent should we allow our children to decide that what is being taught can be ignored?

    “Come back and discuss it with your mother and me”, is fine. But “don’t believe anything you feel is odd” seems quite dangerous. There are lots of “odd” things that are indeed doctrinal principles.

    Physical resurrection – many other Christians see this as symbolic of another life, and some CofE Bishops reject even Christ’s physical resurrection.
    Children under eight not needing any ordinances – “how do they get sealed to become gods?”
    Creation/Evolution – where do you draw the line? Was Adam made of clay, physically born to Heavenly Mother, born to parents on another earth or born to an Ape like ancestor? I know different members who believe all of these, and others.

    Some things we just do not know, and some we have to believe in Faith. As to specifics, the Church (Q15) leaders are moving away from prescriptive living requirements.

    Using personal revelation:-
    Full tithe is what you think it should be. (I know those who try to prescribe – wrongly)
    Regular temple attendance is what you feel it should be. (In a recent Stake Council one of our High Council said they thought people should be going monthly – this is wrong)
    Sabbath Day observance is up to you, No Lists . (Yet in our ward (I wasn’t there ) this Sunday the teacher had lists of Do’s and Don’t on the board – this is wrong)

    So it takes Family Home Evenings, and talking about what is being learned, to ensure that the revelation parents have received for their families is being taught, and lived. Come, Follow Me is all about our youth learning and gaining a testimony of their own. Sadly it is not being done correctly – yet – in so many places.

  16. Amy says:

    Andrew R., I think ultimately it’s all dangerous, isn’t it? Teaching people that there is *anything* that can’t be questioned is dangerous as well. When we presume to teach other people truth, I think we’re always on super-vulnerable ground, which is maybe why we are told that if we haven’t received the Spirit on a certain thing, we shouldn’t preach it. I think the approach outlined in this post is a lot more nuanced than “don’t believe anything you feel is odd.” It is about an approach to conversation with our children – conversation which is meant to be or to inspire an on-going process of seeking understanding. Incidentally, I think that’s what our relationships with God are about, too.

    There are very few things that hang in my closet of certainty. My closet of questions and want-to-learn-mores is packed to overflowing, though. I don’t feel an obligation to just accept *anything* that a person – with limited faculties of communication backed by limited capacities for understanding – says. But I’ll look for the parts that shimmer with truth and pursue them further. (Sorry for the metaphor salad. But I guess when we’re trying to approach and describe Truth we are dealing with metaphor always anyway.)

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