An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘spiritual growth’

Moving On

“You’re really a nice person,” my visiting teacher for the past three years told me last month. “Of course I am,” I agreed. “No, I really mean it. You bring out toys and books for Jenny’s (her partner) kids while we visit. You do volunteer work. You’re a good person.”

I found Ella’s comment rather strange since making guests comfortable and volunteering in the community are not unusual things for anyone to do. It occurred to me later that Ella finds my degree of humanity puzzling because I no longer attend Mormon services. Devout Mormons know that people leave the church because they have been lured into the paths of sin. Good people occupy the chapel seats every Sunday.

The idea that people attend church because it meets their needs and stop attending when it does not fails to play into Mormon beliefs—and probably those of some other denominations.

My Mormon ward met my needs when, as newlyweds, George and I moved from Utah to Casper, Wyoming—a tremendous step for someone who had barely been outside Utah. Besides the comforting familiarity of the meetinghouse and rituals, the warm welcome by members in our small ward provided instant friends. One Sunday morning I was surprised to realize I was looking forward to attending church rather than going because I “should.”

For several years church met my social and spiritual needs as we moved to other states and started our family. Studying church doctrine expanded my knowledge; fulfilling callings expanded talents and abilities. My life centered on family and church.

When our older kids reached their teens, I returned to teaching. Church callings became challenging, even burdensome, with my family and work responsibilities, but I felt a need to give back some of what I had received from the institutional church. About 25 years ago, church lessons became simplified with the “milk before meat” philosophy and were limited to a few dozen topics recycled year after year. “So-called intellectuals” were condemned from the pulpit and in classes in our ward.  

I began leaving the three-hour block after two hours, then after one. George caught me sneaking home and joined me. I started using my church time for reading on my own, then began visiting other churches—looking for a place where I could achieve spiritual growth. Liberating ourselves from meeting attendance freed George and me from the frustration and hostility engendered when we forced ourselves to sit through what we found tedious and trite.

The current Church meets the needs of many members, but those who have outgrown the organization do not deserve censure from believing family and friends.  Moving on should not be painful. We keep the good from our previous faith and add to it from new sources. Even my devout visiting teacher recognizes that I’m a still nice person.

Easing Mormonism

My LDS faith and associations have supplied some of the polish my mother would have given me had she lived longer. Church has introduced me to uplifting women who mentored me in faith, service, and social graces.  LDS teachings and programs have lifted me to a higher level of commitment, service and devotion. I have even gained a modicum of competency at tasks I dislike—speaking in front of a group—badgering people to do things they’d rather not.

For years I enjoyed Sacrament Meeting and Gospel Doctrine and Relief Society classes—the camaraderie with ward members and the thoughtful, spiritual lessons. I lapped up gems of wisdom from Stake and General Conferences. As I read each General Conference address, I copied choice passages into a notebook. I saved each month’s wrinkled, dog-eared, underlined Ensign and devoured the scriptures assigned for Gospel Doctrine class. The peace of temple attendance drew me back twice a month. I fasted and prayed for my brothers who were not active church members. I wanted them to enjoy the blessings I received from church activity.

After about 25 years of dedicated gospel living, my enthusiasm for church meetings waned—beginning with Relief Society. Reading the lesson before class became pointless. I could recite the whole lesson including comments from the audience as soon as I knew the topic. I began sitting near the door for opening exercises then slipping out to avoid the tedium of the lessons. At about the same time, the Gospel Doctrine curriculum telescoped the study of both the Old and New Testaments into one year each and assigned selected verses rather than complete chapters for study. Not learning anything there, I also gave up the second hour of the block. General Conference talks developed a ring of familiarity. I found fewer and fewer passages to underline and copy. Sacrament Meeting talks deadened the senses as speakers reiterated General Conference addresses for our enlightenment.

At the time, I believed the loss of meaningful experience with church meetings was the “milk before meat” approach to instruction. I wanted the church to change, to meet my needs. I tried correcting historical misinformation and sharing new ideas in church classes, but found my efforts unappreciated, even annoying to ward members. Oddly enough, the status quo satisfied most of my church associates.

It’s true the church changed somewhat, but I had changed more. I had gleaned most of what my birth faith offered and needed further spiritual food. My brother had married a Zen Buddhist. My dad sent the missionaries to teach her and I wondered what benefit the LDS Church could give Kato or my brother? Kato’s peace and compassion exceeds that of most LDS women I know. My brother has gained much peace from joining her meditation and yoga practice. What would the LDS Church add to their lives besides increased time and money commitments?

Inspired by my sister-in-law’s example, I began yoga practice and joined a meditation group. I find  answers to my current needs in Buddhist philosophy. For me the concepts of nonattachment and mindfulness work better than trying to keep everybody on board for an eternal Family Home Evening. I value the contribution Mormonism has made to my life, but have eased my relationship with the institutional church. Just as easing myself into a yoga pose allows my muscles to stretch, easing my commitments to Mormonism allows me time and energy to exercise my agency, seeking further light and knowledge.    Spiritual development is a process. A particular religion or organization can facilitate growth only to a certain level. When that level has been reached, wisdom says, “Move on.”

Spiritual Experiences

I grew up believing the LDS Church was the only true church. Everybody I knew told me so, but I had no spiritual experiences on which to base my faith until I married and moved from Utah. We moved into a small ward in Wyoming that needed and cherished every warm body, no matter how eccentric or unorthodox. Third Ward needed Primary teachers and a Scoutmaster. Neither our civil marriage nor George’s smoking counted against us.  Church provided instant friends who shared their testimonies. I no longer attended church to avoid guilt. I attended to participate in the social and spiritual experiences available there.

We moved on to Washington State and I became a stay-at-home mom and attended Relief Society for the first time, back in the days of weekday morning meetings. Again, the sisters in the ward substituted for my deceased mother and the sisters I never had. Attending meetings and fulfilling callings enveloped me in warm, loving spirituality.

Eventually George overcame cigarette addiction and we were sealed as an eternal family—the most spiritual experience of my life to that point. I loved the peace of temple worship, but was disappointed that it made so little difference in my everyday life.

Eventually, the silent, subservient portrayal of women in the temple nagged at me. For a while I substituted initiatory sessions for the endowment, so I could partake of the temple spirit without the distracting message. At the same time the Curriculum Committee began recycling Sunday School and Relief Society lessons. Regardless of which prophet or which scripture was studied, the lessons varied not. I could predict to the moment when Sister Virtue would share her experience of returning to the supermarket to hand over a nickel of extra change the checker had mistakenly handed her. The three-hour block became a burden rather than a blessing. Each Sunday I left church feeling less spiritual than when I’d arrived. Once the kids grew up and left home, I couldn’t find a reason to attend meetings.

Personal scripture study had a perverse effect. The more I read the Book of Mormon, the less convincing and spiritual I found it. Only personal prayer satisfied spiritual longing. Fortunately, I found yoga, meditation and Buddhism at this time.  They have been my “growth religion.”   From them I have found the peace that comes from focusing on the present and accepting life as it is.

I know devout Mormons gain spiritually from LDS meetings, and I have no wish to undermine their testimonies. I value the spiritual growth the Church gave me earlier in my life. I maintain my membership because I value my family, friends, and neighbors who are active members. I value the social contacts and opportunities to help needy neighbors which my membership gives me.

My spiritual growth comes from new insights and ideas rather than from repetition of previously learned doctrine. On Fast Sunday I usually attend Testimony Meeting to hear unrehearsed spiritual experiences shared by members. Other Sundays I visit the Zen Center to meditate, attend the Unitarian Church for uplifting thoughts and music, and commune with the Spirit at home or on a walk alone. My spiritual growth is my personal responsibility. I cannot delegate it to an organization.

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