Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Guest Post: A Crisis of Faith

-Meaning of Life-

This summary is a view from a convert of the church about what it means to be converted and really know what God's love can mean. My conversion took place about 19 years ago. I grew up ina very faithful protestant family well acquainted with sincere prayer and a strong sense that God was real and really loved us. On more than a few instances, I observed prayer and actual faith healing take place as a child and was very motivated to "get with the program" where God was concerned.

After a dozen or so churches growing-up, it became very obvious that many of them though sincere didn't really have a 'current' connection with heaven and were largely riding the coattails of those that had gone before.

After a move to a small town in Idaho, I became acquainted with a number of Mormon families and kids in school and was very taken with the glow and confidence the displayed, and took the discussions for about 2-years before being baptized. Though one of my parents (my mother) had been very spiritual, the other had been a very damaging influence with numerous incidence of abuse and my life had thus been a confusing mixture of realities and I looked-forward to finding a 'clean and simple' path to walk.

In spite of sincere efforts, my early years in the church were riddled with negative experiences from church members as soon as I had been garnered-in.

Those that had been my friends did many un-Christian things to me, and I saw a very large amount hypocrisy. It didn't make sense to judge the church itself do to this, because, life is truly not perfect, and at the time, I felt somewhat lucky to have had to go through this early to test my metal.

It seemed nearly impossible to save the money needed for a mission in the area I lived. Money was scarce and slow to accumulate, and coming from a very poor family, I had never really handled money and probably didn't save as effectively as I should have. over time though, with the help of the ward, I was able to leave for my mission to Brazil, and it seemed like my life might finally come into focus.

Strangely, though I simply wanted to follow the rules, and had complete faith that 'doing what I was told' would bring me peace and blessings, it was probably the worst time of my life. Fortune seemed to once again lead me to the poorest examples of church members in conduct and faith that the kingdom had to offer and my faith really sank to a low level. What did it mean? Friends at home told me to tough it out and that everything would work out and also that Satan would temp and try me. Did it have to be this hard though?

My mission president was really great and talked with me often about these feelings. At first, he did the pre-emptive chastising that is part of the job, but as I shared the rough experiences, he was very sensitive and supportive and acknowledged that my feelings were understandable. His advice was that this was preparation for a future work that was important.

The trouble however got worse and worse and before long, I began to feel somewhat suicidal. On a mental level, I know that it was probably unreasonable to expect that a group of humans would be perfect, but I simply wanted to get with the program and feel at peace. Instead, I felt strapped to a run-away train like a small dog getting my legs worn off. Eventually, headquarters told my mission president that I was to be sent home.

It was an honorable discharge, but the home crowd didn't understand the problem and had a really hard time knowing how to relate to me. This led to me having a hard time relating to them too, and my activity become strained. As college come into the picture, there were a lot of new ideas and educated people who had long-since given up on religion as a source of meaning or wisdom. My faith in God, and prayers and such didn't cease, but relating to the church and a single's ward full of judgmental and self-righteous wiper-snappers was tough, and my attendance fell further.

At a time when many of my member classmates were getting hitched, I wanted nothing to do with it. Church girls often fall into two distinct classes, much like their female colleagues in Jewish society - the spoiled elitist, or the desperate. Neither of these was very appealing. Also, most people beyond the usual ages at these hitching posts were there because of issues, or they would have been married already. I suppose that would include me too. The only girls at church I could relate to, who were not dyed-in-the wool B.O.M. thumpers where the ones on the edge, but sadly, a number of them were doing seriously bad moral things and getting racked-over the coals by life. This was not what I wanted either.

I simply wanted to feel that life was something more than waiting for the afterlife and 'pre-distancing' one's self from everything around them that wasn't likely to be saved into the celestial kingdom. A number of my friends in church were in the married-congregations (because they were a little older, like me) and a number of them thought I was a really pathetic figure. One of them was married to a law-student who openly considered me to be a 'jack Mormon' and bad influence on her husband. This "holier than thou" stance really seemed strange the day that she told her husband that she wanted a divorce and turned her back on her temple covenants.

At this point, the only two things that kept me feeling some hope for my sanity as a church, were my overwhelming feelings of peace and childlike bliss that had been experience in the temple and examples of older members who had a beautiful "live and let-live" glow about them. In these examples, I sometimes felt that life was not such a hectic and overwhelming thing, but was here to make us happy. These feelings didn't mean I had to shun my gay art teacher or friends that were not living the word of wisdom. Instead, it seemed that "perfect love" truly could cast out fear, and that I could find something beautiful in most ever person I met and didn't have to fear being friends with them because "they may not make it into my quorum in heaven someday."

This total lack of connection between my church surroundings and newly developing feelings of spirituality, caused me to dig into my career plans and schoolwork. When friends were enjoying a swim during the summer, I was taking summer school to get ahead of the game. Many of my instructors were atheists and otherwise very empirical thinkers that had an equally unsatisfying view of life compared to my young church comrades. Many felt that religion was a crutch that enabled people to lazily go through life without achieving anything because of a view of the hereafter, and that religion carried some very serious issues when it came to inspiring hatred and violence in others.

Surprisingly, it was these existentialist opinions that helped me to come to terms with the judgmental and erratic views of my church friends. As Paul said "for the ceremonial law was a schoolmaster to lead us unto Christ". Could it be that one cannot simply do the right thing because it is right? Could it be that maybe legalism was an early, critical stage in forming true spirituality? It all was starting to make sense, but my troubling experiences to date didn't make actually being around these people any easier.

Whenever I spoke in sunday school about living by the spirit and seeking personal inspiration from the Lord (the two things that had made life bearable to this point) the rest of the class would look at me like I had just spouted out of Teretz syndrome, and would proceed to talk about following the brethren and keeping the commandments. It seemed like maybe the 'Born Again' churches I had attended before my life as a Mormon might have well understood a few things better than we did about the nature of works and grace.

Professional life proved to be tough after graduation. Despite graduating with the best and most polished work of my class (if there is one thing that is good about a crisis of faith is that it inspires a need to be good professionally), the 911 event caused severe depressions in the industries I had been interested in and I lived off of a credit card for the better part of a year. Eventually opportunities came, but they were in things I had always enjoyed as hobbies and had never really thought possible for a living. Things like art, photography and such, had been a way of keeping my sanity amidst the trials, but a part of my original nature to get "in the groove" and stay there told me that I should seek a real job.

On one hand it seemed like I was being offered a chance to 'play for a living', and a few times, these hobbies actually made me enough money to take care of my bills and live off of. Still, it didn't seem real or possible to NOT 'work for the man' and I persisted in looking for a real job.

Depression became very much a daily topping in my life as bills mounted and opportunities shrunk. I started feeling sorry for myself and began to feel that my life was simply not meant to be. A very bitter time ensued afterward with hard questions. A very dear friend who had left the church when we were in college came to visit, and to-spite my own problems with faith, I earnestly urged him to see the good in the church and realize the the church was made of imperfect people. Why had I told him this? Was it to convince myself that I still believed it and that life actually did make sense? Later he committed suicide and this weighed very heavily on my mind.

What was life really about? Was I in some way defective? Was life trying to push me to either "shut-up and get with the program" or end my own existence, as my friend had done? After this point, I prayed less and less, for the first time in my life, because of a creeping distrust for the Lord's motives in my life.

In the midst of all of this, some amazing opportunities arose in my professional world that made thoughts of suicide seem like a "tomorrow thing". My mother had sold a very large parcel of land and decided to invest in me starting a business relating to my art and photography. For the first time, I was working for myself, making my own way and the quality of my creative abilities were steadily improving. That year was like a miracle. Though money was tight, there was fairly constant business and countless opportunities to devote to this notion to 'play for a living'.

Guilt and uncertainty were constant companions, however, since my prayers had declined and it became difficult to really grow in this new life without taking care of past issues.

Over the next year, a change in the wind began to happen in the business and all of the negativity of the past began to compound. I found myself in serious financial hardships, and even had to go back begging to a horrible former employer for work. At this point, I was bitter almost constantly about life and seemed to see irony everywhere. Like I would never have success, unless I was unable to actually take-advantage of it, and that life was some cosmic hustle. This dark, and rough period came to a drastic head as my art business began to boom again and I had quite my horrible day job for the second time to pursue it. Not two weeks had passed from quitting and then the art business dropped again. What did God want from me??!?!?

I remember getting on my knees and crying bitter tears asking him to please either kill me or help things to improve because I simply couldn't endure the stress any longer.

Two magical things happened immediately thereafter. First, on a routine trip to a business partner's establishment, I met one of the most intriguing women of my life. She was very much younger than me, and didn't even have remotely similar religious values and commitments, but suddenly, a very simple and unsophisticated joy of being infatuated took over. I had never committed fornication, and knew that it was something I would never do (my mother threatened to tie me to a tree and beating me to death if I did any of roughly 10 bad deeds - a very scary image, but it kept me out of trouble).

The innocent fun, however, of hanging out with this young, bright spirit was very refreshing. Secondly, almost as an omen from God like a "burning bush" as I was driving back home from the business trip, a brown-tailed hawk dropped a huge, dead rattlesnake right in front of my car on the road. I have not really ever been one to overly read into things, but there was something about this huge reptile lying on the road (sans its head) that seemed like a change in the winds for my life. The next couple of times that self-pity tried to enter the picture, I was keenly aware of the many blessings that my strange little life had afforded.

I was having the opportunity to pursue my dreams each day, while so many of my friends grinded away like slaves. Each time that I had taken the time to pray thereafter, immediate results where there to witness. Did I owe the Lord and apology? You bet. Rough events have continued in the ebb and flow of life, but on holding to the believe that the Lord really does love me and wanted something more for me than to be a mindless follower, each one has resolved and fortunes and opportunities have continued to improve. At age 33, I am feeling 18 again and see beautiful professional opportunities on the horizon, and feel the Lord's gentle hand helping me to improve old hurts and mistakes of the past.

In the realm of marriage and church attendance, I know that I will never feel the same as I did in the beginning, but this no-longer worries me.

Each walk is individual, but that does not have to keep us from finding common ground. I understand now, that life has many correcting factors to help us as individuals to find our way. The Lord loves us enough to carve a custom path for each of us to reach the end. My path is one that is designed to see past dogma to the simple, fundamental truths of life.

Others may walk their entire lives in the church and not have any major struggles. I see now that all of these are equally valid. Individual points require individual paths to reach the same destination. Today, though it is sometimes still difficult, I thank the Lord often for loving me enough to walk me through these fires. Because of them, I now know what I believe in my heart as well as in my head. I feel that family, and a long, successful life on on the horizon, and I am thankful every day for a God who has made it possible.

In Jesus name,


I'm glad he wrote me and that he is doing better. Even more, I'm glad he decided to share this essay.


annegb said...

Actually the older I get the more I realize that nobody gets out of here without some major trauma, some of us endure it sooner and harder, but everybody struggles.

Some of us struggle as you've shared, and I'm so grateful, I, too, have such emotional difficulties--thank you for sharing your story.

I think I recall Elder Packer saying that most of us are depressed a lot of the time, maybe he quoted that lives of quiet desperation thing. I live a life of LOUD desperation :).

Lisa M. said...

Beautifully written.

I agree Annegb.

I like that, a life of LOUD desperation :-)

I'm learning... slowly and surly..

Stephen said...

I'm glad you both liked my guest poster. He originally contacted me over an essay I have on-line at http://adrr.com/living/e01.htm and we corresponded.

Things got better for him and I asked if he would give me an essay for a guest post. This is it. I've liked having guest essays.

Anonymous said...

What a story. It saddens me about the hypocracy that is seen in the church. If we were better at being true believers and followers of Christ, we would be closer to rebuilding zion. I wonder *how* that is going to happen when we are so self-righteous and judgmental. I am trying to do something about this the only place that I can, and that is with me and my family.

Reading stories like this is a reminder to me that we all struggle. And how real that ray of hope can be when it does come.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that you shared this guest post. His deep reflections of what he has been through is inspiring. It is hard to have faith and trust at the darkest times, but that is when you need it the most. It is after the trial of our faith that blessings often come. I am humbled though knowing that others have endured so much and that I have often wanted to buckle under my trials.

annegb said...

About that issues thing with older unmarried women, I don't think that's true at all. I've been married three times and I am one of the most screwed up people I know.

I've wondered about that because look around and you'll see homely, unpleasant women married.

And many beautiful, sweet good women unmarried. I think it's just life, another cross some have to bear, not a reflection of their mental, physical, or spiritual state.

Sorry, but I must take issue with your conclusion there. After all, Cameron Diaz, Susan Sarandon, --Sheri Dew! have never married, all attractive and strong women.

Then you have Elizabeth Taylor. Or Britney Spears. And me :).

Anonymous said...

Annegb, sending you a virtual hug! I do have a lot of issues and at times I have been a little desperate to get married. It just hurts though to think of men thinking of me in such a way as that. However, I do not always have a charitable view of men either. I think that I would make a very patient man a good wife. But I am very independent and not very clingy so I am okay with being single. I do have a lot of single male friends. I would love to be friends with the young man who wrote the article. We actually have some uncanny parallels in our lives. Plus, he seems so analytical, intelligent, and spiritual. And I don't fault him for his issues comment. It just made me feel a little blue as the "shoe fit" me too well.