Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What I Want People to Know about My Faith Transition

If you’ve been reading my blog or conversing with me in person at all over these last few months, you know that I’ve been going through a faith transition. Really, that’s a problematically vague description. Any time a person changes or grows in regard to spirituality, that is a kind of faith transition. But some faith transitions are more drastic and condensed than others. For me, the last few years have been particularly significant. And, even within that timeframe, these last few months have been especially important. The long and the short of it is that I have converted (all but formally, at least for now) from the LDS Church to Community of Christ. But even that is an oversimplification of the journey that I’ve been on. Unfortunately, such an oversimplification is likely to drive the opinions of those in my life who will see this as a tragedy. It is unlikely that I can sway the opinion of these people, but perhaps I can disabuse them of some misconceptions that might exist surrounding such a monumental change in my life. For that purpose, I’d now like to present a list of things I hope those who know me can understand and accept about my faith transition. Here we go:

This has been a long time coming. Some people cannot help but be taken off-guard when someone they care about announces a change as significant as the one I have announced. The shock can make people feel as though the change is coming from out of nowhere. There may be some panic involved, and in turn, they may suppose the person making the change is acting hastily or having a knee-jerk reaction either to a very positive experience (associated with a new religion, for example) or a very negative experience (associated with one’s former religion, for example). They may even plead with the person making the change to “slow down” and “think things through,” as if that person is acting on a whim that has only recently appeared. This is not the case for me. Obviously, nobody can know what my thoughts and experiences have been over the last several years, but it is evident to me that joining with Community of Christ is a step that follows naturally from the thousands of steps I have already taken on a journey long since underway. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, it is readily apparent to me that this is all part of one continuous, spiritual progression. Though I wouldn’t have predicted this outcome, I can now see my spiritual journey of the last few years as one fluid arc.

My family and I truly are happy. It is not uncommon for Mormons to say how much joy being a member of the LDS Church brings them. Often, these same Mormons express sincere bafflement as to how those who belong to other religions can possibly be happy. When it comes to people leaving the LDS Church, many a devout Mormon will testify that such persons cannot truly be as happy as they once were. If they think they’re as happy as they once were, they must be deluded. There is no other way. It is simply beyond the realm of possibility, according to traditional Mormons. Well, I guess if anyone holds that view, I’m wasting my proverbial breath here, but I assure you: I am happier than I have been in a long, long time. So is my wife. So are my kids. In our early days of visiting Community of Christ, we intended to trade off between Community of Christ and attending our normal LDS church services. We ended up visiting Community of Christ a few times in a row before returning to LDS church. When we told our kids on Sunday morning that we were going to LDS church, my six-year-old was sorely disappointed. “We’re not going to Community of Christ?” he said with heartbreak in his voice. Our entire family has loved it there and has felt a tremendous difference in our day-to-day lives as a result. Our kids are eager to participate in ways they never did at LDS church. We aren’t pressuring them or brainwashing them to behave differently. They just feel differently. As does Melanie. As do I. Community of Christ is one of the best things that has ever happened to us.

Nobody pressured me into making this decision. The people at Community of Christ are among the most laidback people I have ever met. There were no high-pressure sales techniques used on us when we first visited. Nobody challenged us to read Community of Christ materials or asked us to commit to attending church services or getting baptized. Nobody stood at the pulpit and declared Community of Christ the one and only true church on the face of the earth, the one to which everyone must belong or forfeit blessings in the afterlife. I could not possibly have been less pressured—whether explicitly or implicitly, directly or indirectly—to join with or conform to Community of Christ. I also want to make it clear that Melanie has not pressured me to join Community of Christ, even though she has been ahead of me in this whole conversion process. This is worth mentioning, because I know I used to be somewhat suspicious of spouses whose faith transitions happened to align so perfectly. “How could it be that they both felt converted to a new religion, at the same time? What are the odds? One of them must be influencing the other! One of them must just be going along with it! They must never have had solid testimonies of the LDS Church in the first place! Two people don’t just change their minds about the exact same thing at the exact same time!” Such were my thoughts. I’m embarrassed by them now; they strike me as horribly naïve. Clearly, Melanie and I have talked a lot about our experiences. But Melanie fully supported me when I initially said that I would attend Community of Christ with her only once per month because I intended to—and fully presumed that I would—remain LDS for the rest of my life. As my feelings shifted, it had nothing to do with my desire to attend the same church as Melanie, although that is obviously a huge bonus. I committed to Community of Christ only after the Spirit continually witnessed to me that I was being called there.

My beliefs haven’t changed as much as you might suppose. This is something I think few people will understand. But it’s true: my theological beliefs haven’t really changed all that much. And I really don’t think they’ve changed at all since discovering Community of Christ, except on perhaps a couple of minor points. I still believe in the power of the priesthood. I’ve had profound experiences with the priesthood that I will never deny. I still embrace the Book of Mormon as a miraculous and prophetic volume of scripture. I cherish the eternal truths that I find therein, and I draw nearer to Christ when I read its pages. I still find beauty, value, and significance in LDS ordinances, including those performed in LDS temples. God has spoken to me in profound ways at the temple, and the role it has played in my faith journey—even during this latest transitional phase—cannot be overstated. For these reasons, plenty of my LDS friends and family will wonder how I can possibly leave the LDS Church. There is no way I can adequately speak to that concern within a simple blog post. It would likely require me to write my autobiography, which I have no immediate plans to do. Suffice it to say, nothing about my converting to Community of Christ requires me to give up the beliefs I have just expressed. It is true that I will no longer be allowed to enter an LDS temple, which I will miss. It is true that many LDS folk will now deny that I have access to legitimate priesthood authority. I reject this, for reasons too complex to address here. All I can say is that I have taken these concerns to God, and God has resolved them in my heart. I do not feel I am giving anything up. I am merely making a change that, in my case, is for the better.

Where my beliefs have changed, they changed long before I found a church that welcomed them. I was a non-traditional Mormon for a very long time prior to learning about Community of Christ. My nuanced beliefs were developed over years and years and years of searching, pondering, and praying. When I learned about Community of Christ, I was stunned to discover a religious denomination whose values, doctrines, and practices more perfectly matched my beliefs than did those of the church to which I then belonged—the LDS Church. This was a confusing time for me. Imagine feeling as though God reveals truths to you that conflict with certain aspects of your own religion’s narrative and then finding a “rival” church that embraces and celebrates those truths. Mormons celebrate this sort of thing when the result is a person leaving some other religion and coming into the LDS Church. But if it results in a Mormon leaving the LDS Church, it is typically regarded as a bad, ill-informed, spiritually disastrous move to make. The person is considered duped, either by the members of the rival church or, worse, by Satan. Regrettably, I used to view things this way myself, so I know full well what certain LDS folk are thinking about me. All I can say is, I didn’t discover Community of Christ, learn about them, and become convinced that they are correct. I became convinced of certain views, discovered Community of Christ, and learned that they held those views. If someone wants to accuse me of being deceived, the blame cannot be placed on Community of Christ. The deceit, if there is any, is the result of reading, studying, and praying about LDS scripture, doctrine, and history.

Leaving the LDS Church is a necessary part of my spiritual journey, not the point of it. Another thing I really want people to understand is that I do not harbor ill feelings toward the LDS Church. Not in terms of my experiences with it, anyway. I am not leaving because I have been offended. I am not leaving to escape what I regard as flaws in the system. There is a widely-held assumption that when a person leaves the LDS Church, it is because that person is angry at or disappointed by the church. That’s not my motive. I feel it would be misleading and disingenuous to answer the question “Why did you leave the LDS Church?” by citing the problems or deficiencies I see in the LDS Church. When it comes right down to it, I feel called by God to Community of Christ. That’s the only reason I’ve left the LDS Church. I wouldn’t have left it otherwise. I was committed to it, warts and all. Nothing short of personal revelation from God and the witness of the Holy Ghost would’ve changed that for me. It’s also important for me to emphasize the personal nature of this call. I do not think the LDS Church is false and that Community of Christ is true. I simply believe that I have been called to serve God in the latter. I reject the idea that this means God wants everyone to convert to Community of Christ, just as I’ve long rejected the idea that God wants everyone to convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Even LDS Church leaders have rejected that idea, believe it or not.) I wholeheartedly believe God works with people in the LDS Church and calls people to it. I believe it is the right place for many people to be. I believe it is not the right place for me anymore.

God has been very, very involved in this entire process. This should be clear based on everything I’ve said above, but it’s worth reiterating. I can’t convince anyone of the sincerity and humility that went into my search for truth, but I stand with a clear conscience before God as to the integrity of my faith journey. From my own perspective, I have been very slow to accept and embrace some of these changes in my life precisely because I’ve wanted to be absolutely sure that God is speaking to me and that I’m not merely following after the desires or thoughts of my own imperfect heart and mind. I have fasted. I have prayed. I have meditated. I have visited the temple. I have done all of these things, at the same time, seeking guidance and counsel from God on this very issue. In short, I have done everything that Mormons would normally say a person should do in order to gain insight, clarity, understanding, and direction from Heavenly Father. Naturally, many LDS folk will not accept that God would lead me to a different church. And as God is not to be blamed for my “mistake,” these same LDS folk will be forced to conclude that somewhere along the way, I mucked things up. Somehow, despite my following all of the prescribed methods for seeking and ascertaining truth by the Spirit, I must have done something for which I can be blamed and that corrupted my way of thinking. If that’s what you think, there’s little I can do to sway you. I would only ask if God is really so unforgiving and/or powerless, if Satan is really so powerful, if prayer is really so unreliable, if testimonies are really so fragile, and if our access to the Spirit is really so tenuous, that we can be led astray at the first sign of human weakness or misunderstanding, no matter how sincere and earnest our seeking otherwise is. As you answer that question for yourself, please bear in mind the implications it has on your own religious convictions—assuming, of course, that you don’t fancy yourself free of human fallibility. Very few Mormons realize how much they undermine their own testimonies when they condemn others as spiritually blinded. Further, if the methods for discerning truth that are taught by LDS missionaries, over the pulpit at LDS general conference, and in official LDS church manuals can lead a person out of the LDS Church as well as into it, surely the blame cannot be placed on the shoulders of those heading toward the exit.

I’d like to conclude by sharing the words of Joseph Smith, Jr., whom I continue to regard as a prophet of God, followed by a scripture. I believe these words are true, and I leave them as my final plea to all of my LDS family and friends:

“If you do not accuse each other, God will not accuse you. If you have no accuser you will enter heaven…. If you will not accuse me, I will not accuse you. If you will throw a cloak of charity over my sins, I will over yours—for charity covereth a multitude of sins.” (History of the Church, 4:445)

“Charity never faileth.” (1 Cor. 13:8)

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