Monday, February 21, 2011

The Fun Thing About Being Mormon

The fun thing about being Mormon is being told what you believe. I don't mean being told what to believe by church leaders – although I've been told that has been my experience. I mean that often I meet someone and if I mention that I'm Mormon then this someone says “Oh yeah, you believe X”.

And I say “No, actually, I don't believe that. Mormons don't believe that.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don't.”

“Yes. You do."

That back and forth is one of my favorite parts. The next part is also fun. It's the part where the someone explains how they know what I believe better than I do. There are three variations on this theme. Sometimes the person will say they know what Mormons believe because they had lessons and watched a movie about the Mormon church at their church.

This is very interesting to me. I was in high school when I first learned that other churches “studied” mine – that they had lessons as part of their regular Sunday School classes about our beliefs. Where I grew up, the church that studied mine did so every spring. So every spring there were a few kids at school who got very worried about me, tried to save me, shunned me even harder than they already were or openly mocked me – depending, I suppose, on what their teenage understanding of being followers of Christ meant.

I thought the one who just expressed concern was the nicest.

This was all a surprise to me because I've never had a lesson on any other church or religion at my church. Sometimes a convert to the church will share some beliefs they held or were taught as a member of some other faith. Or you might hear, “In Joseph Smith's time many Christian churches taught...”. But what other churches taught or still teach is an aside, not the lesson. In fact if you are asked to teach Sunday School you are specifically directed not to discuss other people's beliefs – especially in a negative way. Mormon's have more scriptures and prophets than most other Christian faiths so I imagine that keeps us busy and uses up all the time we might otherwise have to study everybody else.

I've found that if someone tells me they know I believe a certain thing because their pastor told them so – that ends the conversation. It doesn't matter what I say to the contrary. They just won't believe me. Their beliefs about my beliefs have become part of their belief system.

Some people tell me they know what I believe because they have studied Mormonism on their own. It's interesting to me that they are reluctant to believe I have as well. They tell me they have read a lot of books about Mormon history. I explain that I, too, have read books about Mormon history. It is of interest to me seeing as I am ...Mormon.

“You probably haven't read the books I have” they say, “You might not be allowed to read the books I've read.”

Aha! So that's what's in that locked room of the library I'm not allowed into with my special library card marked “Mormon”. And that must be why I set off the alarms in the Barnes & Noble when I try to visit the “Cults and Completely Phony Religions” section. And why the nice bookstore lady hurriedly redirects me to a small shelf labeled “Glen Beck/ Mitt Romney/Vampire Romance”.

Last and most common is the person who tells me they know what I believe because they have a former friend/co-worker/girlfriend/brother-in-law who was a member/grew up in Utah/once talked to some missionaries and that person told them all about what Mormons believe and so.... there you go.

So I ask if their source of information is still Mormon. I am quickly assured, usually with a laugh, that no, the friend/co-worker/girlfriend/brother-in law stopped attending the Mormon church years ago – usually in their teens or after going away to college. “No,” the person tells me with a grin, “Charlie/Bill/Sarah/Chuck wasn't exactly living the Mormon lifestyle when I knew them.” Wink. Wink.

At this point I like to point out that the person sitting in front of them – me, myself, I - happen to currently be an official card-carrying member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. A Mormon. And that I have been my entire life. And that their friend may have had very good reasons for leaving the church. Maybe this friend just didn't believe the doctrines being taught, or maybe the members of the church treated him badly or maybe his family tried to force their beliefs on him. I assure the person that the Mormon church does indeed have many odd and controversial beliefs – but the thing this friend told them we believe? We just don't.

They narrow their eyes at me – thinking.

“Did you grow up in Utah?” they ask.



“No. I grew up in Missouri.”

“Missouri? You're Mormon, but you're not from Utah?”

I explain that there are Mormons everywhere and that, at one point, the church was head-quartered in Missouri, before they were driven from the state and settled in Illinois for a while. Joseph Smith was killed there and most of the membership then moved to Utah.

The person absorbs this – sometimes with interest – sometimes looking like they intend to fact-check my story later.

“Well, my friend/co-worker/girlfriend/brother-in-law was from Utah so... the church is probably different there.”

“Well, Mormon culture in Utah is very different from other places, but the doctrines of the church are the same everywhere. Every Sunday, everyone in the church worldwide studies the same lessons from the same manuals. I lived in Utah and Idaho and the church was the same.”

Sometimes the conversation will shift at this point, whether the person believes me or not. “I'll have to ask my friend about that,” they say and really – I'm fine with that.

I'm also fine if someone wants to tell me why they think something I actually believe is crazy. Or if they just want to know why I believe what I do. Or if they just want to talk religion in general. Or if they want to tell me what they believe. It's only when someone tells me I believe something I don't, that I feel the need to mention - I don't.

But sometimes the person will smile knowingly and say “Well, they might not be teaching it on Sunday – I mean they want to keep collecting that 10% tithing right? But you might be surprised to find out what the real doctrines of the Mormon church are.”

I think of this as the “Secret Door” theory. Though I was raised in the church, though my parents are members, and - on my mom's side - my grandparents and great-grandparents were Mormon and though I've read all the scriptures and the manuals of the church and listened to the prophets and though I served as a missionary and was trained in the church's Missionary Training Center and have held various positions in the church from supervising three-year olds in nursery to teaching adults in Sunday School, and have been asked to speak on church doctrine in front of whole congregations and have attended the church's temples participating in every activity and ordinance that goes on there - and even though I also have access to high-speed internet – still, I don't know my own religion.

Still, there is a secret door that leads to a big roomful of secrety church secrets. Somewhere, behind a secret curtain is the secret door- probably there is one in the very building I attend church in each week. Someday I might be permitted a glimpse inside this secrety room and then I'll know! Then I will be shocked to find out what I actually believe. Do my parents know yet? Did my grandparents die without warning me? Were they completely brain-washed by that point? Sworn to secrecy?

What would be the point? Our church leaders don't even get paid. They don't even get special robes or hats. Sometimes, a local leader - who volunteers entire days at a time to church service - will wake to find that during the night, a group of Mormon youth has taped dozens of construction paper hearts - with messages like “Thanks for all you do!” and “You're the best!” scrawled in glitter-pen - all over his or her front door. Sometimes there are cookies.

And if the church is so good at hiding these horrible secrety secrets from their life-time members, why are there so many friends/co-workers/girlfriends/brothers-in-law that manage to stumble onto them, usually as teenagers? And why would the church want to hide the fact that dancing is a sin?

That's right folks – the number one thing I get told I believe that I don't is that dancing is a sin. People are certain Mormons believe this. People say “You're a Mormon? You can't dance.”

I think that's more than a little hurtful.

Or I hear, “You're dancing? I thought you were Mormon.”

I'm tempted to let them think I am being naughty.

You'd think the big secret would be that we still secretly practice polygamy. Or that we're planning to take over the world. But if it's not the dancing thing, it's that we believe we can pray people into heaven. Or that we can't eat meat. That if guys don't serve missions they are ex-communicated or are shunned. That we worship Joseph Smith. That we worship the current prophet and must do everything he says. That we don't believe in or use the Bible. That wives must do everything their husbands say. That the more kids we have - the higher up in heaven we go. That we can never be naked. That women can't wear make-up, cut their hair, or wear pants. That we will be the only ones in heaven.

That last one isn't true, but most people believe most every religion but their own believes it and even people who say they don't believe it sometimes secretly do - so at least it feels like we are being misunderstood along with every other faith. And I can see where some of these misconceptions stem from. I just don't understand why – when someone has an actual member of the church sitting across from them, telling them what our beliefs are – they are so skeptical. What would be my motivation to lie? To trick you into joining the church, waiting until I've got you good and baptized to jump out and yell “Ha! We've got you now. You can never dance again!”?

We're not one of those gym memberships you can never get out of. It is true that if you get baptized and then decide being Mormon is no longer for you - we might still call or try to bring you banana bread on occasion. You know why? Because of that whole lost sheep story Jesus told – in the Bible we “don't believe in”. You know the one, about the 100th sheep that goes missing and the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep that made it home and goes looking for the lost sheep. Every time we read that story we are going to think of you and feel like dirt until we work up the courage to risk you yelling at us, drive over to your house and give you some banana bread. So eat it and be happy. Yes, we left out the nuts- you know why – because we did our homework and found out you had a nut allergy. Maybe if you'd done your homework and found out Joseph Smith wasn't perfect before you joined the church, neither of us would be in this position.

Sorry.... where was I... so there's this kid's song that goes “I'm a Mormon, yes I am. And if you want to see a Mormon I'm a living specimen!”, but I find that unlike studies of other species – people studying members of my church don't want to see a living specimen. They will slam the door in the faces of living specimens. That's why I think the church should adopt a new missionary program. Instead of sending out clean-cut young guys in suits with name tags, they should have them grow their hair out, wear jeans and band t-shirts, and sit around in bars. Then instead of immediately introducing themselves as members , they should strike up conversations that cleverly lead to them mentioning- “Yeah, I grew up Mormon. You should hear some of the stuff they believe.”

Then they could just tell the truth, which as I mentioned earlier, is plenty odd and controversial enough without embellishment. And most importantly, they could stress that Mormons can dance. Some of them can even dance well. Not me, but thankfully, in the Mormon church – not even poor dancing is considered a sin.