Four and a half years ago, on a Sunday morning in mid-September, Elizabeth and I got our young family ready for the day. Our kids were ages nine, seven, and three. For the first time in their lives, we didn't get them ready for church. No frantic scramble to comb hair and pile in the car. No screaming parents or crying kids. Instead, we put on hiking shoes, packed sunscreen, water bottles and a lunch, and headed off for the mountains.
We went to Mt. Falcon park, an iconic Front Range foothill overlooking Denver, Red Rocks Amphitheater, and our own neighborhood in Littleton. A couple miles of trail stretches from the parking lot towards the peak. Halfway along this hike there are ruins of an old stone house, and then the trail continues to some other ruins once intended to be a summer residence for U.S. presidents. Both of these homes had been repeatedly struck by lightning until they were eventually abandoned to ruin. Now they make interesting hiking destinations for Colorado weekenders.
We sat the kids on the rocks looking out over the city, pulled out the lunches, let the littlest toddle around. We told them that this was the spot where Mommy and Daddy had our first kiss. We reenacted it, which they thought was both funny and gross. Eventually we asked, "Did you guys notice that we didn't go to church today?" "Yeah," they responded, "but this is way funner!"
Here's some context: the previous week we had decided, after a particularly painful testimony meeting, that we were finally done with being Mormon. This was a huge decision, not made quickly or easily. We had agonized over it for seven months. We had already come to the conclusion that it wasn't true, not in the way it had been presented to us, but we still hoped that we could find enough good there to salvage something useful. (And I acknowledge that there is still truth and value there for many.) But for us, the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual compromises required of us to stay became untenable. Mostly, we were scared and confused. We didn't have a relationship with another soul on planet earth who had ever left the church. There was no roadmap, nobody to talk to. We guessed--correctly--that there would be huge ramifications amongst our family and friends, that we would be ostracized, vilified, patronized, fasted-and-prayed for. That seemed a hefty price to pay, and for what? There was no clear direction for us to follow beyond the church. It seemed like all paths were shrouded in mists of darkness. Yet those twinkling lights of truth kept beckoning from beneath the mists.
One day, my daughter had come home from church with a coloring page of a polygamist-looking pioneer woman with the caption, "I Will Be A Mother In Zion." (This was not too long after the raid of the FLDS compound in Texas, and all of the polygamist women appearing brainwashed on TV asking for their children back.) Whoa. I suddenly saw something through my daughter's eyes that I had never seen before: the suffocating weight of social and doctrinal pressure on women to fulfill first and foremost their divine destiny to bear children. For sure, I wanted my daughter to someday experience the joy of motherhood and family. But not as her final, ultimate goal. This was my brilliant, beautiful, compassionate, witty, precocious, precious daughter! She could do anything she wanted in life. No limits! Yet here I was, allowing well-intended others to wrap these chains of "roles and duties of women" around her young, impressionable brain.
We realized that we were playing a dangerous game. In order to elude the imminent pains of us leaving, we were continuing to subject our children to a belief system and all of its ramifications that we no longer held to. We were not being authentic to ourselves, to fellow church members, and mostly to our children. The concern of "What will happen to our kids if we leave?" suddenly inverted to "What will happen to them if we stay?"
We decided that we owed it to them to lay it out on the table, and to let them know that our decision was not an act of weakness, but of strength, courage, intelligence and integrity. That there were going to be some hard feelings with relatives and friends. That nobody else in their world would understand our decision, but that we (the five of us) would stick together no matter what.
And that's how we arrived at that spot in the pines on Mt. Falcon on a Sunday morning in September. "Well, kiddos, the reason we're not at church is because Mom and I have decided that we are no longer going to be Mormon." This surprisingly didn't seem to carry the shock waves that we thought it would. My middle son asked, "So that means we don't have to go to church anymore? Yes!"
Thus began for the next hour a powerful, open, loving discussion with our young children that ranks in the top ten best moments of my life. We told them that we had believed so strongly in the church our entire lives, that we had built everything around it, believing that it was exactly what it said it was, the only true church and the only way to salvation. We went on missions, to BYU, married in the temple, paid tithing, served in callings. It was an honor to do all of this because we believed it was the most important thing in the world. But as we got older, we started to see things in a different light, and we learned that the church had not been truthful with us about some very important things.
|Joseph Smith's rampant polygamy and polyandry,|
represented in this chart, is now officially
acknowledged by the Mormon church.
Sorry, but as a father of a 13 year old girl,
that's just not something I would want
to defend as moral or divine.
Then I gave them an analogy that apparently stuck, because they still bring it up today and laugh about it. I said, "Imagine if the Pepsi Center (sports arena in Denver that seats 20,000 people) were filled with everybody who had ever lived. Everybody has lived a full life, filled with happiness, sadness, adventure, boredom, family, sickness, friends, faith, etc. Now they're dead and waiting in the Pepsi Center, like it was a prison for spirits. Most of them are confused, and don't know where they are or why they're there. Then with lights and trumpets, Jesus walks into the arena, and a few thousand people cheer, while everybody else wonders, 'Who is this guy?' Then Jesus takes a microphone at the center of the floor and says, 'Alright, all the good Mormons, stand up and follow me! You get to live in heaven and be gods. The rest of you wait here and I'll come back some time to visit you.' So he waves his hand, and six people stand up and follow him out the door. When the door closes, the arena goes dark again, and the other 19,994 all look around in confusion and say, 'What the heck just happened?' Now, would that be fair, kids?"
"No, that's not fair," they said, "Why wouldn't Jesus take them all with him?" They got it. They of course couldn't articulate the nuance, but they understood that a God who would save only a chosen few out of the innumerable human masses was not a God of justice, equality, or love, and to believe so devalues the actual lives of almost everyone who's ever lived.
We finished by telling the kids that we believed in love, honesty, equality, justice, science and truth, and that we could no longer trust the church to teach us or them those things. We said that we were a little scared ourselves, but that we were going to be brave and honest rather than continue to teach them things we had come to know were not true. We reassured them that we loved them and that they would always be safe and loved in our home.
Then we asked how they felt about it and if they had any questions. I specifically asked my daughter, since she had been baptized, if she felt comfortable leaving the church. She looked at me full of trust and said, "I'll do whatever you think is right, Dad."
Gulp. That's a lot of pressure on a Daddy. Was I certain of my decision? A few doubts still bubbled in the back of my mind. What if I'm wrong??? (This was before "doubt your doubts" became a thing.)
In a world of uncertainty, how could I be so certain of these conclusions? I couldn't go back to pretending again that I knew things "beyond a shadow of a doubt." Yet failure to act, or acceptance of an inherited status quo, is still a passive kind of action. Based on all the evidence before me, combined with my own intuition and countless hours of pondering, prayer, meditation, and listening for answers, I came to a seismic decision, jointly with my wife: our family was moving on. I felt certain of my earnest intentions and yearning for truth, and certain that even if I was wrong, a loving and just God would honor them. There was that compass again, an invisible magnetic field orienting me, pointing me towards something beyond. In a world where everything else seemed fluid, I still trusted it.
Our family got up, hugged, and headed back down the trail together, towards the parking lot, towards the unknown, towards hidden light, like seeds in the soil, straining toward the sun.