Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top 10 Reasons Why I Came Back to the Church

I started attending the LDS church again on November 20, 2011 after a 30-year absence. I am doing this knowing that I will not be able to be rebaptized in the church. I am also doing this knowing that I do not believe in many of the doctrines of the LDS church. I'm still pretty much the same apostate gay atheist excommunicated person that I was on November 19. I did not go back to church without a lot of thought and prayer(!) (yes, this atheist prays regularly). It's an uncomfortable fit right now, but you will see me on Sundays in the Kensington Ward of the Washington, DC Stake. Here's ten reasons why I'm back in the pew.

10. I need the love and support of my faith community.

Shortly after I was excommunicated by the LDS church, I started attending the Episcopal church. When I moved from Kennewick, Washington back here to Washington, DC, I quickly found St. Margaret's Parish, and attended it for many years. I love the Episcopal church, and I love its liturgy. It spoke to my heart and I felt the Holy Mystery of the eucharist every Sunday.

But belief eluded me. I felt like an interloper, like I was outside looking in – seeing the miracle wrought in the lives of other parishioners, but not feeling it in my own spiritual life. I wanted to believe in God and Jesus; certainly in my heart I wanted to believe. But my head just couldn't lead me there, and I couldn't bring myself to stay in the in the heart of St. Margaret's. So after more than five years, I quit going.

Even though I am skeptical about God, a Higher Being, a Universal Force, I have a spiritual life, and I missed not being in a faith community. Twenty-five years was a long desert to cross. So I'm returning to the faith community that touched me and made me its own. Because of who you are and what you call yourselves, I expect you to love me. I'm here. I'm yours.

9. I want to reconnect with my family.

When the LDS church and I parted ways, my already strained marriage pretty much fell apart. I lost my family, and I left it. I saw my children twice when they were growing up. All of my children have married in the temple, and all have remained in the church.

Coming back to church is a small way of coming back to my family. They may not be with me in the pew, but I'm sharing with them every Sunday in thought and deed the motions, habits, and reflections of their Sabbath. I remember them. My sitting in the pew is a token of my faith that the God in whom I do not believe can work on the messy details of my family. I do not believe that I'm an accident or a victim diverted from exaltation by a mistake in the Plan of Salvation. The God that I imagine in my heart is bigger than that. So I sit in the pew and wait (and pray).

8. I want to grow in an unconditional love for my faith community.

Just because I'm a skeptic doesn't mean that I don't believe in something. I believe in the all-encompassing love of Jesus. I believe in his example and devotion. While I may doubt the miracles and the stories, I don't doubt the teachings about love and sacrifice.

Being Mormon is part of my DNA. Just as I expect my community to take me in, I want to take it in as well. I want to love these people, and love them in their shoes, and not offer them up a version of my shoes. I want to listen, to share burdens, to walk beside them, to comfort them, to love them because that's what people who are in love do. I seriously wonder if I can do it. But that's a big part of why I came back. I want my heart to grow again.

7. I need to examine seriously my (lack of) Mormon faith.

I am examining in my life what I mean when I call myself “Mormon.” Some members may make the claim that I'm not even that, because I'm not a member of the LDS church, and I live a life that precludes me from ever returning to full fellowship in the LDS church. Some of my non-LDS friends think that I have a weird case of Stockholm Syndrome, that after I escaped from church thirty years ago, I have a need to go back.

The Mormon Myth is astonishing. The Restoration is astonishing. Set inside the ancient Christian narrative, our Restored collective notion of God has a much larger story. In my saner moments, I ask myself how can Christianity possibly be true. Mormonism confronts my skepticism with a much more problematic improbability. How can I reconcile the mythic restoration with the historic facts? Why did God restore The Church in historic time? Is this another cosmic joke? If I am to walk in faith within the LDS church, it will have to be a walk in spite of the facts, but I do need to know and understand the history of the Myth.

And my identity: why do I still call myself Mormon? Why is it in my bones? I cannot examine that outside the church doors. So I'm going to church. It doesn't fit very well. I'm not comfortable in my Mormon identity. I want to know what that discomfort is all about. I want to experience the discomfort, because I think it's in my distress and distrust that I shall truly discover my Mormon identity.

6. Someday, I'll be reconciled within the LDS church.

My relationship with the LDS church is quite simple: I'm not a member. But the truth goes deeper than that. My kids and grandkids are in the LDS church. I've gone around the last thirty years telling people that I'm a former Mormon. I've dropped the former. I was wistful in my former days. Now, I just bite my tongue a lot in Sunday School. Every Sunday I am confronted by ten dozen Mormon Stories, most of which aren't told, and I want to know them. What makes these people tick? Why is it such an itch under my skin?

I have another relationship with the LDS church. It has an expansive theology that has the capacity to embrace me and the realities of my life, if only it will. If I am not in the pew, I will never experience that. Someday, the Mormons will reconcile their families and embrace their same-gender loving daughters and sons. I'm not holding my breath for it to happen, but it will, and maybe I'll be sitting in the pew to see it. What a glory day for Zion it will be, don't you think?

5. I claim my Mormon® identity within the LDS church.

It may be an urban legend, but I heard once that the LDS church tried to trademark the term Mormon®.

My church, my faith community kicked me out, tried to rob me of my spiritual integrity (and my sexual orientation), then blamed me for it. My pitfall was thinking and asking questions. Somehow the Mormon didn't get kicked out of me. I really am a Mormon, and I go to the LDS church on Sundays.

4. I felt strongly moved to get back in the pew.

After I discovered Mormon Stories on Facebook, I attended two of their conferences, the DC Regional conference and the “Circling the Wagons” (LGBTQ) conference. At both gatherings, speakers challenged their listeners to remain in the pews. I felt strongly after each conference that I needed to go back to church. I did not go back without praying about it. I consulted with church members, with family, and with members of Mormon Stories. People offered encouragement, love, and support, which confirmed my feelings and my resolve.

The trip back has been good. The members of the Kensington Ward are gracious and warm. I talked with the bishop, and he was very welcoming. So the possibility confirms my feelings, too. So far, I've avoided all public introductions. I think by now that most people in the ward recognize that I belong there, even if they don't know my name. When people privately ask me questions, I answer them truthfully. No one has been unfriendly or put off by my presence.

All that being said, being excommunicated carries a stigma, so I've not mentioned it except when asked. Being excommunicated also carries restrictions, such as not speaking publicly in meetings, not receiving the sacrament, and not praying in meetings or classes. Those restrictions impede my path to being fully integrated in the ward life. At some point, I'm going to have to talk with the bishop, or the high priest group leader and ask for some clarification about how I fit in.

3. Members in the LDS church need love and succor from those of us beyond the reach of the LDS church.

I have a unique vantage point in my ward. I'm very much on the outside looking in, and I'll always be on the outside. Some of our ward members are in great pain whether it be grief, illness, or crisis of faith. I can share that burden with them. I don't have to believe what they believe, I only have to love them. That's all I'm called to do, and that may be the only calling I'll ever have. I think that's a pretty good calling.

2. My faith community needs to see my witness.

The LDS church needs my witness. It needs to know the truth about my life, and the truth about my life needs to be seen in my ward. The truth is this: my life has worth. Just because I'm gay or I struggle with my own unbelief doesn't mean I don't belong here. Because the LDS church cannot find an institutional means to have me back, I'll sit in the pew, waiting, bearing witness to the truth I know about my life, and the lives of other LGBT-SGL people. I'm not going away anytime soon.

1. My brokeness, openess, and presence can work for change in the body of Christ.

So I'm back in the church building sitting in the pew. It's not an easy place for me to be. I'm not sure what kind of a Mormon I am. I have a lot of anxiety.

When I left the LDS church thirty years ago, I felt beaten up. I felt robbed. I was angry and bitter. I was shunned. I lost my family. I had a big empty hole in my soul. Thirty years heals a lot. Sometimes, I still feel the pain of leaving, but the bitterness is gone. I used to believe that I was broken because I was homosexual. Now I realize I'm broken because I'm human. We're all broken. We all fall short of God's glory. Every single one of us falls short.

Sometimes we're shepherds. Sometimes we're sheep. The wisdom is in knowing the difference. When I'm a sheep in the Kensington Ward, I trust that a wise shepherd will set me right. When I see a sheep in distress, I hope I will have the shepherd's instinct and love for his sheep.


Sulli said...

After attending the Salt Lake Mormon Stories Conference I felt that pull to return too. Though gay, atheist and resigned former member I really agree with your reasons for going back.

I haven't taken any steps to go back.

Jess T said...

I love you John! When I first saw you at the Mormon Stories convention something about you just drew me to you.....I watched you the whole weekend, wondering, like you said, what makes you tick. I was so glad I got the opportunity to chat with you after the worship service. And now I have read your amazing blog post! You are truly a wise, courageous person, and I am honored to be called your friend!

I'm kinda on the opposite end of your experience, just beginning to feel at odds with what has always been my church family, and newly TRULY beginning to understand the LGBT experience (as much as a straight person can). Thank you for forging the path for me....your willingness to share means a lot. It is wonderful to see our congregations becoming a safer place for my loved ones (including you), even though it isn't happening fast enough. I look forward to hearing how this chapter of your spiritual journey unfolds! LOVE & HUGS!

bradcarmack said...

Rock on! Don Bradley came back after having his records removed. John Gustav-Wrathall, a same-sex married man, actively participates. Let me know if you're interested in a formal return, as I have some insight there. In any case, thanks for your choice and for sharing!

Stephen said...

That is powerful. Don't tell my co-blogger I voted for your post instead.