Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Blast from the Past

I was recently reminded of a home teaching experience I had about ten years ago.  I'm not sure what made me think of it, but once I had, I became fixated on trying to recall the details.  While I struggled to pull even the tiniest strand of relevant information from my memory, I remembered that, while I was at BYU and maintaining a personal blog to keep in touch with my friends back home, I'd written about that memory.

So I dug through the annals of my hard drive and found a copy of that blog post.  Reading through it gave me a little insight (I think) into why I believed in the church and why it took me so long to leave it.  So here's my old blog post from 2006 about something that happened around 2003.  I've edited it only to remove the exposition that my non-member friends needed.  And I changed the word "churhc."  I can't know for sure because it was so long ago, but I'm pretty certain that I meant "church."

Something in church today sparked an interesting memory. One that I realized I need to write down before I forget any more of it. And although it is religious in nature, I think its an interesting anecdote anyway. It was honestly one of the worst--but most important--experiences of my life.
I'm not sure how long ago it was. I think this happened near the beginning of senior year, or possibly near the end of junior year. Or even the summer in between. But the point is it wasn't too long ago, and I was old enough to have my own beliefs and opinions and everything. I was legitimately my own person.
Which is an interesting way to start the story. Because, having been born into a very religious family, I often wondered if I actually believed what I'd been taught all my life, or I just kind of accepted it because I'd never really been presented with any alternate scenarios. But, having no reason to doubt, I did all--most--of the things I was supposed to do, because as far as I knew, the church was true. 
As many other young men my age, I was assigned to home teach with my father as a companion. My father is the Stake President for the [Oh yeah, this is the other thing I edited] Stake, so usually, because my dad was "a busy man" due to his calling, we were assigned to..."easy" families. These were families that were very strong in their faith, very happy and reasonably successful. So we hardly ever had to help them with anything. Which probably did make it easier on my dad. 
But then, we got a new assignment somewhere at the beginning of the vague time frame I sketched out earlier. It was a single, divorced woman who had been coming to church for many many years but had recently stopped showing up. Although this was a "difficult" person to home teach, my father and I were given this assignment because she was a friend of my parents. 
So my dad called her and made an appointment for our first monthly visit, although it seemed to take some serious coaxing to get her to agree to it. And we drove to her house on the scheduled night and knocked on her door. Like we were supposed to. Like we always had. No difference. 
She answered the door, and made it clear that she'd let us in to give our speech and nothing more. So we sat down in her living room and my dad tried to start a conversation. After a few minutes he expressed concern that she hadn't been to church lately. And then she gave us a speech that she had probably been planning to use on somebody for quite some time. 
She told my father to his face that he was only interested in getting a check mark next to her name for that month's home teaching. She called him a fake. She said he was just someone who wanted to look good but didn't care about anything or anyone beyond what was needed to further his image. She went on to say that the church was full of these people, that it was all a sham, that she didn't believe it anymore and she couldn't respect anyone who did. 
I watched the pain on my father's face as he listened to her. He tried to convince her that he was her friend, that he did care about her, that he did want to help, that she didn't really mean all the terrible things she was saying about the church and its members. But the more he said, the more irate she got, and the more his eyes welled with tears. I was watching quietly with horror. I watched as this woman tore down everything I had ever admired about my father. I couldn't believe what was happening. 
Still trying, my father mentioned how much this woman loved the temples. He reminded her how much she enjoyed being there, how much she would look forward to going, and how often she talked of the temple with reverence. She didn't respond. She got up from her couch, walked over to a desk, and retrieved a small card, and gave it to my dad. 
"Here," she said. "You can keep it. I don't want to see it again." It was her temple recommend. 
Then she asked us to leave so she could get back to what she was doing. My dad tried to suggest that we close with a prayer. Her response: "Sure, pray away, I don't care what you do." 
But it's the custom for the person being home taught to pick someone to give the prayer. I knew she'd pick me. She didn't want to hear anything else from my dad. And I was a wreck, spiritually and emotionally. 
But it still felt better to pray. I was sniffling and tearing up through the whole thing, and I found it difficult to pray in a way that wouldn't make the situation worse. But even though I knew she was just sitting there on the couch not participating, just watching us as we prayed, I wanted to pray anyway. I was under the gaze of someone who had no respect for what I was about to do, but I wanted to do it anyway. 
So I did. And it was hard. But I did it. And then we left. And no matter how hard I tried, I was crying before we left. It was such a miserable experience seeing such animosity toward what I'd always been taught was true. But I found a great amount of relief from the fact that I found myself vehemently disagreeing with what she said. Maybe it's because my dad was such a focal point of her attack, but I knew what she said wasn't true. What my dad taught me growing up was. And I could tell that I knew that without anyone else's help. I knew it for myself. 
And it had a similar effect on the way I saw my dad. I know he's not perfect. But I know he's not some self-aggrandizing egotist. I saw his face that night. He wasn't crying because she'd seen through his facade. He wasn't crying because she was making fun of him. There was genuine, sincere concern on his face. And pain. I could tell that he was crying because someone he cared about was rejecting the truth. Because someone he cared about was throwing away something that could make her happy. And as I saw her violent anger and his quiet agony, I knew that my dad is a good man. And nothing she said could change it. It made that truth stronger in my mind as I mentally compared her words to what I 'd seen my father do all my life. And I knew she was wrong. 
It was an acutely excruciating evening. But I think I wouldn't trade that experience for ten years of home teaching an "easy" family. Because it's nice to know that I know. 
A few months later, I was looking for a stapler so that I could finish a paper I'd written for school. My mom suggested I try my dad's office. So I went into the basement to his office and started searching for a stapler. I opened the top drawer of his desk. I didn't find the stapler in there. Instead, neatly placed in an easily accessible corner, I saw this woman's temple recommend. 
My dad hadn't given up on her. That kind of dedication can't come from the desire for a check mark and the praise of others. He really did care about her.
And the church really is true. 
Sorry if that was preachy. Okay, yeah, it definitely was. But it's important to me to remember this. And important that other people know that I wasn't just born Mormon. I do believe this. On purpose. And I take it seriously.
Boy, ex-Mormons (or soon-to-be-ex-Mormons) sure are scary to Born-In-the-Covenant Mormons.  But I think the important thing here is that, even though I somehow didn't realize it, I wasn't bearing my testimony about the church.  I was bearing my testimony about my dad.

It's true that my dad is a good guy.  He took his church responsibilities seriously without coming off as self-righteous.  As stake president, he genuinely cared for the members in his stewardship and he really wanted to do the right thing.  And I was opposed to this lady's assault on his character.  I know she said some stuff about the church--a lot of stuff about the church--that night, but I can't remember what it was.  What really bothered me and what really stuck with me was what she had to say about my dad.

I think part of growing up (at least for most people) is coming to the understanding that your parents aren't perfect.  I know this is not a new idea and I might have inadvertently plagiarized somebody by saying it.  But I think because my dad held some important leadership positions in the church when I was a kid he became a physical personification of the church.  I may have, somewhere in my subconscious, linked Mormonism with my dad so closely that they were almost the same thing to me.  And maybe once I grew up and began to let go of some of my less-justified admiration of my dad it became easier for me to let go of my completely unjustified  belief in the doctrines of the church.

I mean, I took half a semester of a psych class once, so I'm no expert.  But I think the theory has a decent amount of substance to it.

I only wish I could go back in time and whisper to my sixteen-year-old self silently sobbing on that spiteful sister's sofa:  hey, ignore the crap about your dad--she's making some valid points here.


  1. This reminds me of the inversion that John Larsen made in one of the episodes of Mormon Expression...he pointed out that while most members say, "The church is true but the members aren't," in his experience it's more the opposite, "The members are good, trying to do their best, but the church isn't all that great of an environment."