Temple Recommendless–Not Friendless

IMG_0164.JPGDear Active and Faithful Latter-day Saint,

A heads up.

I am talking to your adult children.  To your parents.  To your brothers.  To your sisters.  To your friends.  They are afraid to talk to you…their family.  They are afraid to talk to you…their friend.  They are afraid to talk to their church leaders.

This has been the oddest, most ironic discovery of my entire life.  The lack of emotional intimacy and trust among family and friends in the LDS Church.

Your children and friends have questions and doubts.  There are no safe places to discuss their issues.  Some members tell me there are.  There are not.  If there are…show me.  For 2 years, I’ve been lobbying stake and ward leaders to create safe spaces where your loved ones can discuss their concerns.  No action to date.

The questions and doubts of your family and friends are causing excruciating pain.  They are suffering a very lonely faith journey.  Knowing this, it’s unconscionable for me to sit back and do nothing.  It should also be unconscionable for friends and family to do nothing.  It certainly should be unconscionable for the church itself to do nothing.  Aren’t we the church of Jesus Christ?  The Jesus who taught the parable of the Good Samaritan?  In it, he portrayed priesthood holders as callous and unfeeling.  The lowly, apostate Samaritan was the hero of Christ’s great story of how to be a loving neighbor.  Why did Christ array his cast of characters in this ironic way?

Last week I decided that keeping my temple covenants are more important to me and to my Savior than…keeping my temple recommend.  As a result, I’ve given it up.  Below is the letter that accompanied ceding it to the bishop.

Dear Stake President and Bishop,

Enclosed your will find my temple recommend. I qualify to hold it.

However, it has become a big distraction in my attempts to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I’m working at ministering to those with questions and doubts. That message is being completely obliterated by church culture. Church friends are only concerned with the fact that I still hold a temple recommend. By giving it up, I hope to shift the focus to our brothers and sisters who are struggling in painful silence. Seated right next to us in the pews. Hiding in plain sight.  Until they finally make their totally unsuspected exit.

I no longer want to sugar coat my message. We are not following Jesus Christ’s gentle and beautiful teachings.  We are not following the message that was preached in last October’s conference by Elder Ballard. We say we do…we do not.

Leave the 99 and find the 1? Nope.  We tell the 1 to hide, to shut up, to cower in silence.

Be the Good Samaritan–cross the road to help the bloody and the beaten?  Nope. We hold the priesthood. We are the modern priests and Levites. Members are suffering “excruciating” pain in silence and loneliness. No way are we going to know of their pain…until they flee our midst in order to find healing Samaritans outside of the church.

Elder Ballard: “My heartfelt plea is that we will encourage, accept, understand, and love those who are struggling with their faith. We must never neglect any of our brothers and sisters. We are all at different places on the path, and we need to minister to one another accordingly. Just as we should open our arms in a spirit of welcoming new converts, so too should we embrace and support those who have questions and are faltering in their faith.”  Nope. We continue to force the majority of those with questions into hiding. They know our church culture is unsafe. There are no open arms, no support, no understanding, no acceptance. Just a vault of judgment awaiting a hint of doubt.

I love you, my brothers. But, I am very disappointed for 2 reasons.

  1. Zero action with regards to helping people with faltering faith. At least nothing out in the open. Nothing that would send a message that all are welcome. Certainly, as a group of saints we are better than this. Jesus Christ and his apostle have given us clear direction. Yet, we stand statuesquely still.
  2. I have the church’s back. I have your backs. NOBODY has mine. Bishop, you reached out to me after I walked out of priesthood. In 2 years, that is the only outreach that I’ve experienced. That’s my fault. It was me who has sought out meeting with both of you. I had an agenda to discuss…helping others…not helping me. I’m starting to regret that. Over the past year, I have spoken with hundreds of people. Several in our stake and my ward. I’ve defended the church and helped many find ways to stay. What do I get for that? Not one peep of support from either of you. Members gossiping behind my back. Gossip within earshot!!! Harsh criticism from fellow Saints. Tattling to my leaders. Not one word of encouragement from any friends…except one quorum member. He has said on a couple of occasions that I’m one of the most Christ like and compassionate people he knows. Well that’s nice to hear amid the bombs of criticism and name calling that continue to be hurled my way.

I no longer possess the distracting temple recommend. Now, I call on you to create a safe space for our questioning friends. It’s foolish that in the Church of Jesus Christ there would be any hesitation to discuss the history, doctrine or policy of the Church of Jesus Christ. We have the truth! We are acting like we don’t. That sends a terrible message.

It’s high time that we do something so that questions can be discussed on friendly territory at the start of a faith crisis. Otherwise, more and more of our children, parents, siblings and friends are going to bolt. And it will be gut-wrenching and heartrending when we discover their decision ONLY at their journey’s end.
At this point I plan to remain silent until I hear from you. But, my activity will not stop. I will continue to seek out the one. I will continue to minister to the bruised and broken. My next talkeria is this coming Thursday. The focus will be on a family in our stake who wants to stay. I’ve invited other members from our stake to participate. I know they will understand this family’s particular situation, support them in staying, and most of all that they will be safe and free from judgment.

All My Best for a Happy New Year,

Sam

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Conversations. Chapter 2: George Continued

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From George (For Context see Chapter 1 )

Dec 16, 2016

The Mormon Stories group is interesting. My friend has been watching it for almost five years now, and for all the claims that it is a “safe space,” it seems nothing of the sort. It seems to be mostly populated by people eager to help folks leave mormonism and a few individuals gullible enough to believe that it is a forum that is safe for questioning. The only safety there is in bashing the Church and your warm reception there is because they recognize you for what you are. To put it politely, you are someone trying to be an exit counselor, but you want to do it while simultaneously wearing the imprimatur of a member of the Church, ostensibly in good fellowship. Based on what you’ve written, you seem hopeful that your stake president will even give it his blessing. It seems clear to me, and I trust to anyone else who might read your extensive writing on the subject, that you have no interest in helping people regain their testimony and actually be productive members of the Kingdom. Instead, the impact of your efforts will only lead people to leave the Church or to hide in plain site as you are attempting to do.

Please inform me better if I am misreading you. Would you consider your efforts a success if someone you worked with returned to full fellowship and sustained the brethren? I doubt it. If one of your Talkeria crowd called you today and said, “you know what Sam? I was wrong. The Church is right on gay marriage. I’m not troubled by any of the historical stuff either. Thanks for talking with me, but I don’t find your advice useful any more.” Would that be a success in your book?

I wish I could wish you well in your work. I fear that you are accomplishing nothing of eternal value, and contributing great harm to the souls of those you influence. As your efforts seem only calculated to remove people from the Church and inspire insurrection among those that stay, I cannot wish you well with this. No good and honest member of the Church could in good conscience.

My Response

Dec 17, 2016

Dear George,

Thanks for responding in an attempt to understand where my heart is. That means a lot to me.

I really owe you a debt of gratitude. You have forced my hand. I’m going to lay cards on the table that I have hidden until now. I’m coming out of the closet to reveal my true intent.

This doesn’t have anything to do with coming out to the Stake President or the Bishop. I’ve been open with them. They know where I stand & how I believe. My Stake President has read my blog and watched the Mormon Stories interview with John Dehlin. They are both good men with good hearts.

This isn’t about coming out to my fellow members. Hiding in plain sight? Sometimes I wish I’d hidden. But, I didn’t. I’ve been naively open. Many members in my ward and stake have also read my blog and seen the John Dehlin podcast.

Nope. The people that I have not been transparent with are my friends who have left the church and those who are seriously considering it. I’m a little nervous about coming clean. But, I trust my friends who have made their exit from the church. I have found a safe place among them to sort out my journey. It was within the sheltered Facebook walls of the Mormon Stories Group that I made my decision to stay in the LDS church. Made my decision to embrace the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. Made my decision to go back to the temple. Made my decision to create a safe space for people to talk and stay in the church if possible.

George, during my faith journey, there were no safe spaces inside the church to discuss my questions and doubts. No one to empathize. Actually, no one I knew could empathize with my pain and loneliness, because they had not undergone this journey.

A year ago, if I had told my Mormon Stories friends what I’m going to tell you now, I likely would have been harshly judged. But, over that 12 months, we have built together, a relationship of trust, love and friendship that can endure the outing of what I have hidden from them.

Here goes.
1. When I talk to someone with doubts, my preference is that they stay in the church.
2. When someone decides to leave. My hope is that they can find a way to stay.
3. When someone has left, I hope there might be a way for them to come back.
4. Every time I hear someone’s journey out of the church, I tear up. Another empty chair at an empty table.

I don’t invite my friends to come back to church. I know why they left. I am acquainted with the damage the church has caused them. I honor, respect and understand their decision. These are good, intelligent & thoughtful people. They have made an excruciating decision to leave a place that has been an integral and vital part of their lives for years.  As rational adults, they have made the tough choice that walking away from the church is best for them and their family.

For those, who are in the process of leaving, I want to help alleviate the anguish and loneliness of their journey. Their dignity should remain intact. Not shred to pieces by judgmental pettiness. Hopefully, those who leave would remain friendly to the church. Instead, our current culture and methods are creating lots of enemies. You complained about the nature of the comments in Mormon Stories. They are actually mild compared to other social venues that are much larger and more vitriolic. The church created the unfriendly attitudes that are now on full display there. We blame it on them. The problem is us.

For 14 months, I have lived among what you consider the enemy. They are not our enemy….if only we would treat them with love, respect and understanding. When we throw condemnation. It’s hurled back at us. One of my favorite scriptures is John 3:17, “For God sent NOT his Son into the world to condemn the world.” I have chosen to embrace the teachings and example of Jesus. How can I possibly condemn anyone? Well, sometimes I do. It’s a slip up. Barring the slip ups, I’m not going to condemn anyone who has left the church, no matter the volume or the vitriol.

Nor do I condemn you, George. I see now what your motives are…and understand them. You are interested in people staying in the church. Well, you and I have that in common. We’re just coming at it from different directions. I’m at the back door. For that matter, I’m the lone man at the back door. That needs to change.

As you probably know, I voted opposed for the first time at April General Conference. I had a 3 hour conversation with my Bishop and Stake President. That gave us plenty of time to discuss my reasoning. They were good with it.  But, my wise bishop said this, “Sam, be prepared for people to misunderstand you.” Sure enough, most everybody has misunderstood and misjudged where my heart is. That’s one of the reasons that I really appreciate you seeking to understand.

As far as I know, not one person has left the church because of my writings. However, over the past 2 years, I have witnessed hundreds of people leave the church. Their journey was aided by joining the ‘safe spaces’ inhabited by the ‘enemy’ because there was no safe space of aid and understanding within the church. There are tons of support groups outside the church for doubting members and those who have left. There are exactly ZERO support groups for those struggling and attempting to stay. The closest thing to it is my Talkeria. But, it does not have any support from the church.

Although, I’ve seen scores leave, I have also assisted many in staying. I have now heard the following phrase several times, “I’m holding on by my fingernails.” Almost every week someone contacts me who’s struggling, but wants to stay. Here are some examples.

Last month a man in my stake invited me to lunch. He basically wanted to know how I manage to stay. His wife and he both have big questions but would prefer not to leave. They have several children. He had been extended a significant calling by the stake and was reluctant to accept. He has since taken the calling. His beliefs are non-traditional. I hope he can endure until a safe support group for struggling members can be established. Until then he is truly hiding in plain sight….and in silent loneliness. Fortunately, his wife is in the same place.

Last week another family contacted me. He sent a long letter. These were the final words, “Nobody in my ward knows. I don’t really know why I’m telling you all this. It’s just comforting to feel like I can talk about it. I think you are the first LDS member I have ever told. I go to church every Sunday. I want to keep going to church every Sunday. But, I don’t want to sit in during lessons.” He and I are going to lunch this coming week.

Today, this came in: “I’ve shared some of your thoughts with the bishop of the ward in which I used to reside. He now wears a rainbow pin on his suit coat and shuts down any discussion he hears about LGBT persons having less worth. This particular bishop also has a stepson who is gay. He has had to work hard to be accepting and not harsh where this young man is concerned. It has truly opened his eyes. If you get a friend request from _______ or ______, they are my daughter and son-in-law. They are trying to stay in the church despite a growing discomfort to the lack of respect shown to the LGBT community.”

George, I don’t really have a pathway all nicely laid out in front of me. My guide has been the gorgeous teachings of the Savior, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I am certainly open to suggestions, especially from someone as concerned for the welfare of the church as you.

Hopefully, this gives you a good idea of my direction and intent. There are several other topics that I’d be glad to address, like the Talkeria. But, this missive is already long enough.

All My Best, Sam

P.S. You are welcome to come to a Talkeria. I think you would be pleasantly amazed.