A personal essay by an anonymous reader
“I seek not for power, but to pull it down. I seek not for honor of the world, but for the glory of my God, and the freedom and welfare of my country.” – Alma 60:36
My mother had a difficult time with my decision to go on a mission. As a convert of four years, she told me that she’d started to hope that I would have given up on the mission by now. Certainly for some time I had given up the idea. As soon as I joined the church, I felt the intense pressure young males feel when they’re in that 18-25 range. It was enough to make me tell people that I was “preparing for a mission”, until that preparation became perpetual and people just stopped asking. I’ll admit my reasons for not wanting to go stemmed from issues ranging from clinical depression, substance abuse, and simple fear and ignorance. What WAS a mission, even? My freshperson roommates at BYU and I talked into the dark about The Mission at length. I heard family stories, personal experiences, folklore, regrets; basically all the requisite talk about The Mission between dudes who have either gone or will go which serves to mythologize it into the Night Journey of our Mormon lives. Through all of this I was terrified, and all the more so when conversation focused on my testimony and how much it would be “tested.” I was a closet alcoholic who almost failed out of school after two years of nearly straight F’s. Getting to church every Sunday was unthinkable. I was constantly “repenting,” and after years of this, the road to purity and THEN missionary service felt like a Sisyphean struggle.
I realized all of that was bullshit when someone loved me enough to tell me as much. One day while on the skywalk to the J. Reuben Clark Building, I divulged to this person that I’d had church my freshperson year in the courtroom of the JRCB. I shuddered and mentioned having to see the bishop about some repentance issues and made some half-hearted joke about how awkward that moment is with a bishop. She looked really confused and, being a person who hates to be confused, asked me to clarify. I described the awkwardness of feeling like you need to take your sins to the bishop and the confusion about WHAT sins you take to the bishop and WHY. At this point, several years after the experience, I was still asking myself WHY I’d taken those issues to the bishop because, truly, nothing had happened and I wasn’t anywhere closer to taking the sacrament without bawling. My partner stopped, turned to me, and said, “We’re not the fucking Catholic church.” And I was like, well the church says we should take some sins to our priesthood leaders. She told me she had never taken anything to any priesthood leader and that she’d never heard that particular doctrine of confession. I was dumbfounded and I think she was too. Here I was, three years into my life as a Mormon and I was, in addition to being chronically ill, completely spiritually dormant out of fear, shame, grief, and guilt. And there she was, preparing for a mission, with the strongest testimony I’d ever heard someone express. And she’d never seen her bishop about issues of repentance even once?
This disconnect subtly dislodged the lynchpin in a whole mess of spiritual issues and the gospel began to come into focus. I began to understand my spiritual experiences in a new light. Like the first time I’d ever seriously thought about serving a mission – a sad, drunken night of prayer in the Clyde building. I prayed in the midst of a desperate wash of emotions and experienced something akin to a vision of a door opening, of possibility stretching forward. I felt a rush of such lovely comfort and excitement that I probably cried for about an hour. Alone at 3 AM in the Clyde building with a thermos half-full of whiskey. The janitors told me to put the chair I was using away and to turn off the lights when I was done.
God does not save us in our sin, truly, but S/He does not leave us alone in it either. I began to understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ is, in no way, about wallowing in sin or attempting to perfect yourself, but about love and redemption. And so I tried to love myself and let the Lord redeem me.
I’m still grasping the concept of repentance, as I think we all are. But I attempted one afternoon, following a lecture by Randy Bott, to finally experience forgiveness. I spent the better part of the afternoon writing out a litany of my foibles and then systematically praying over each item, my eyes peeking open through teary eyelashes after each heartfelt confession to find the next source of guilt and frustration. And at the end of this laborious, really truly awful process of dragging myself back through every sin I’d ever lived and done and had done to me, I asked if I was forgiven.
I’ve been physically shaken by that answer. So strong, loud, soft, angry, happy, were the words which boomed in my head, out of the windows in my attic apartment, through the branches and leaves and against the mountains, it felt like a head rush, or a dam breaking, and I was caught up in this sort of relief, this immediate and curious relief which carried me down the Provo River and into the lake, launched me above this inversion-capped valley and stretched me like a vessel with my four corners sewn together. I believe that God told me, with the anguish of my suffering in Their throat, that S/He had forgiven me and it was enough to move even the mountains of doubt and fear in my frame. What God has cleansed, that call not thou uncommon or unclean.
I’ve been trying to go on a mission for over a year. I’ve been through medical examinations, ecclesiastic interviews, mental hospitals, LDS Family Services, a new state, a new home, new bishop, two new suits, thousands of dollars (my own money and, generously, the money of others), nightly prayer, daily prayer, journal writing, and Elders’ Quorum BBQs. After four months spent waiting on the church machinery, I got a call from my bishop about my mission. Thinking, of course, that this meant I wouldn’t be going at all, I was completely overwhelmed to find out that I was granted the opportunity to serve as a short-term, full-time missionary in the mission that covered my home stake. It was a tender and exciting moment, and I excitedly prepared. My mission lasted for 5 weeks and was, without a doubt, one of the best experiences of my life. It was a two-pronged test from the missionary department: one, was I mentally and physically capable of serving a mission? And two, was I spiritually prepared?
My mother had a spiritual experience which she wrote on the back of a torn-out page of Vogue. She wrote that, as she was sunbathing at a cheap resort in Mexico, she received a feeling that once I was out on my mission I would feel a great and unrelenting peace. This message came in the face of months of desperate pleading with me not to go. And it came true. In the Holy Honda Odyssey my first day in the field, riding with the assistants to meet the new missionaries at the airport, I looked out the windshield and realized that I was slipping out of the grips of everything I couldn’t control. That I was simply a disciple of Christ trying to be a disciple of Christ. I realized that all I had to do was love everybody and try and tell them about how much they are loved, and that would be enough. I no longer felt like a waste place of Jerusalem. I muttered Hosannas as the APs talked about miracles and the air-conditioning ticked.
This feeling lasted, in its still fullness, for about three days. Its remnants haunt the edges of my anxiety today, as though I can just step back into its expansive, field-filled windshield flavor. The first hit this peace took was the belabored explanation of power and authority given by my trainer during our first companion study. The next was his insistence that the Relief Society President shouldn’t be called “President” because she “doesn’t have Priesthood keys”. The successive, continuous fractures resulted from more strange doctrine about the priesthood and its impenetrable cloak of supremacy, exact obedience, and Mormon Exceptionalism that came from my companions, mission presidency, and the bishoprics of the wards I served in.
The biggest hit this feeling of divine calm took was when I woke up one morning, during the final two weeks of my transfer, with a dream still vividly playing in my mind. It went like this: I was wrestling the devil, literally, and was trying with all of my might to physically break his spine. In the end, I got tired and he bound me in chains. I, full of mission mysticism, took this as a sign that perhaps my repentance process wasn’t complete. Perhaps the great and resounding answer I’d had one year prior, which had quickened my spirit and allowed me to breathe freely the air of grace!, had somehow not been enough. I thought back to my conversation with my inspired but human partner and wondered whether or not there was something missing. So I took my questions to my stake president in a letter. I stated my dream, my fears, and some of the things that I’d formerly repented of. I asked for guidance and confirmation of my forgiveness. When my stake president received my letter, I got a call from my mission president. I was home the next day.
I didn’t get to talk with my stake president for about three days. In person, his response was one mixed with anger and pity. He let me know that, indeed, my repentance wasn’t complete because I’d never taken it to a priesthood leader. He also said it was a “bigger issue” that I lied to him, my priesthood leader, in my mission interview (because I had never taken the issues to a priesthood leader, and therefore hadn’t resolved the sin). He put me on informal disfellowship, meaning I would avoid the priesthood court of consequences (I don’t know what it is or the name of it, but I imagine it’s something like when the losing Maya juegos des pelotas get beheaded). I was flooded with questions: why had I felt so sure? How had I had such a touching spiritual experience about my forgiveness? How had I been able to teach with the Spirit and take it into the homes of those in my mission? How had I received revelation? How had I been in tune with the Lord? How was all of this possible? And did my uncleanliness somehow render my work and experiences ineffective or even evil? He answered, “Sometimes we can be in good standing with the Lord but not with the church. We need both.”
I think back to my righteous partner, who is now serving far away in a country with mewling cat-like tongues. We aren’t the fucking Catholic Church. We are the body of Christ. I have said over and over in my head of late, “No. No, no, no. No, we do not need both. Where in the scriptures does it say the keys to our redemption and forgiveness lie in the hands of a priesthood holder – in anyone other than Christ?” But at the time, I was so excited from the mission! And very, very confused! And sad! Oh God, the Eternal Parent, was I sad. So I smiled, I smiled, I shook hands, I wept, I smiled, confused I smiled, I told everybody that my time was up and that I was fully endorsed for missionary service! And this was true! But nobody knew why I was home so promptly, why I didn’t have a call for future service in hand, and why I was so damned upbeat and sanctimoniously quiet about the Mission and What Happened. I wanted so very badly to be back in the field as I sat on a couch, went back to work, prepared to come back to BYU. I had constant, simultaneous urges to bawl and to gird-up-my-loins, maybe hock a loogie, I don’t know. I stumbled back to BYU tightly-wound, without taking the Sacrament for a month, and with no date on when I’d even hear from the missionary department.
From time to time I get emails from my stake president asking me how I am, reminding me to keep reading Preach My Gospel and the scriptures, and we discuss his favorite LDS biographies. My stake president; a good, good man who always appears in my mind as he was the day I was released – in Dad Jeans, sitting behind the wheel of an SUV in a light summer rain. He who would block out hours of time on Sundays and Wednesdays following my return home to joke with me about Hugh Nibley and BYU, to discuss Michael Coe and FARMS, who lent me personal copies of books. Who told me that not being able to roll your sleeves on the mission is stupid because rolling your sleeves looks less tacky than short-sleeved white shirts. Who gave me advice on how to handle anybody who was curious about my return, how to soften any embarrassment I had. Who told me what a manly thing I had done in confessing to him. This is a person who cares, who is progressive and thoughtful; a far cry from a former bishop at BYU who, following my reverberating prayer for forgiveness, refused “indefinitely” to ordain me an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood because I didn’t wear white shirts to church and openly disagreed with him about the “church’s” treatment of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers. That experience carried on for months, and the sting was overwhelming. Couldn’t he hear the answer to my prayer? It was so loud it shook windows in my neighborhood! Alors, he lived in Payson. The experience with my current stake president has been suffused with a not-entirely depressing sense of longing but with true dissatisfaction. With instruction to prepare for a day that surely must come but without even a hint of when, I’ve been left to my own. Marooned with Preach My Gospel – a tome infamous for its hollowness outside of the field.
Where has my smiling, confused, obedient self gone? Those who know me were surprised to hear my rapturous endorsement of the blessings of exact obedience on the mission. Have I been disobedient in the three months since my release? Or is it possible that in lieu of an ever-present priesthood authority to report (prove myself) to, my mind and heart have sought exact obedience to a more Heavenly authority?
Since my return, I find myself reading the scriptures and seeing everywhere a new sense of righteousness; a new fullness of the gospel. I feel my heart yearn for female ordination, sealings for our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and a complete divestment in the “power of the priesthood” to govern our church in so-called righteous dominion. And with a spiritual confirmation of these points of personal doctrine, can I actually step back into that Holy Honda Odyssey, that consecrated apartment? May I sleep in that priestly bed with the noisy springs and air conditioning unit who spoke sparrows to me as I drifted to sleep?
If I have no faith in the organization as it stands, but in its necessary existence and its divine core, then may I humbly accept my call if and when it does come? I want to focus on humility. Even if I were to be “accepted” on the mission, were I not subject to punitive measures for honestly believing in and openly expressing my testimony in what has formerly been labeled heresy, could I in good faith accept that call to be humble and to do the work? Could I go an entire mission without mentioning “priesthood authority/power”? Or without refusing to be interviewed for worthiness by a priesthood leader? Could I spend two years focusing on that freedom I first felt, prophesied by a mother, and simply teach the doctrines of Christ? Could I escape anger? Contention? Could I even begin to approach that most precious of personal ideals: honesty? Could I go two years without somehow lying about my beliefs, especially when I’ve been silent, when I’ve lied, when I’ve ignored my own thoughts and beliefs in the past out of shame or fear?
Or are these things too much to ask for? Am I being prideful and hard-hearted in placing them above my desire to serve others? I mentioned exact obedience was a blessing for me while I was in the field; it eliminated the need for me to make decisions. It elided righteousness with efficiency and thus brought about easy successes and shallow failures. When you’ve got the opportunity to repent each day for not eating breakfast fast enough, or for using too many miles on the Holy Chevy Malibu, or for eating dinner for too long with members (an hour and a half is too long), then you don’t have psychic space or, perhaps, even cognizant recognition of the need to repent for esteeming yourself, or judging others, or lying to yourself, or trusting in the fleshy arm of the priesthood, or not valuing others, other faiths, and the goodness of God in all things. When your mind is focused on forgiveness for not getting 20 contacts for the day, you aren’t focused on forgiveness for being 20 years old and superbly self-involved.
Do I even want this again? Can I even escape it? And again, DOES it boil down to whether it’s idealistic or prideful to place my insistence on personal integrity above the potential to bring others to Christ? Or is this simply another variation on that old Satanic teleology, “But one path or none”?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, obviously. And I’m praying constantly for some guidance on the subject. What I do know is that our Heavenly Parents do not coerce their children. I know that I do not seek for power but to pull it down. I seek for the freedom and welfare of my community and family. I seek for the glory of God. Which is a worthier sacrifice on behalf of the Lord: my testimony of true agency or the beautiful opportunity of the mission field? Is this all truly mutually exclusive?