Monday, December 28, 2015

I Was A Mormon

There were prisoners living in a cave. They have lived there since the days they were born. Each prisoner was tied to a rock so that they could only see the wall in front of them. Behind them were roaring fires and torches where their captors would pass by carrying different objects, statues of animals and so on. Some spoke, most were silent while their shadows were seen by the prisoners. One day, one prisoner was able to untie himself. Once he was free, he looked behind himself and was blinded by the fires. When his eyes adjusted, he could see the captors still carrying their objects, still passing by. He looked to his left and to his right to see that there were other men like him, tied up and their eyes glued to the wall showing the shadows. He then noticed there was an opening on the other side of the den of the cave that too held a light. He carefully made his way to that light until he was blinded by the world above. The sun’s rays were painful to his eyes that had only seen dim light and darkness. Once his eyes adjusted he could see everything. Water, grass, trees, animals, and the sky. When the day turned to night, the beauty of the moon and stores took his breath away. As he stood there transfixed by what he saw, he thought of his life in the cave. No, after all, that he has seen and learned, he cannot go back to that existence. He then thought of his other prisoners and pitied them. He decides that he needs to go back and free them. When the captors see him return and attempt to free the other prisoners, they kill him to prevent him from educating them and letting them escape the cave[1]

I am that prisoner. I was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints for 8 years and 10 months. I first heard of Mormonism when I was 14 years old and two young men wearing nametags knocked on my door and gave me my first discussion on my front porch. They invited me to church, left their card and a Book of Mormon with me and moved on to the next house. My mother took the book from me and called the missionaries to tell them to never contact me again. A few weeks later I started High School and after school, I ran into those missionaries and apologized for what had happened. One put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Someday you will know the truth for yourself”.

A few months later, I met a man named Andrew when I co-founded a Venturing Crew in Prineville.  Andrew had just turned 18 and was preparing to apply to be a missionary for the church as well as applying for his Eagle Scout rank. At first, we didn’t get along one bit. Then we were able to see that we had a few things in common. We made a truce and eventually, we even became friends. In August 2005, I proposed a relationship on the same day he received his mission call to the Peru Lima South mission. After a long discussion of what the mission would entail and what kind of relationship he felt I would be signing up for, we began dating. Before he left, he gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon that looked just like the one the missionaries gave me and he had me promise him two things: that I would consider reading the book and that I’ll be prayerful in all things. While he was in Peru, I read the book and took the missionary discussions. I was baptized as a member on February 26, 2006. Eventually, my relationship with Andrew ended, but I had gained my own testimony so it didn’t have an effect on my newly-founded faith.

I threw myself completely into the world of Mormonism. I went to early morning seminary on a daily basis, went on Temple trips, watched General Conference, and served part-time as a missionary. I tried to proselytize my friends and family. I was in love with Mormonism and everything about it. I planned to live and even die if necessary for the church and its good name.

In 2010, I met JB, an Evangelical studying in seminary in hopes of becoming a pastor. He was interested in Mormonism and wanted to speak to Mormons to get a better idea on what we believe. He introduced me to the world of Apologetics where I had fun defending my faith and speaking to Born Again Christians about theirs. From time to time, I was asked about certain doctrines of the church that I wasn’t familiar with. I started writing them down so that I could look into them. I began rereading the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price to find answers to my growing questions. I also read old Ensign Articles and sermons given by Prophets and Apostles. The more I read on subjects such as the nature of God, the Godhead, and the Plan of Salvation the more questions I had. It got to the point that I became troubled by what I had learned. Eventually, I decided to go to trusted friends within my ward with these questions. Some were willing to work me but most rebuked me. I was accused of reading anti-Mormon literature, being influenced by Satan and betraying my baptismal covenants.I was also accused of not wanting the church to be true and of being an Apostate. I was taken aback by the vitriol that I received from people I esteemed as close friends and people I looked up to. My Facebook page became  a war zone as my Evangelical friends collided with the Mormon ones. I was accused of seeking attention and intentionally hurting people in order to achieve it. I eventually with the help of JB, placed my questions on my blog. These questions came from several months of study, discussion and church sermons from the Journal of Discourse.

I eventually sat down with my Bishop and my Stake President with these questions. But I received little answers and, even more questions as well as frustration. When I continued my pursuit, friends began writing me off. My inbox filled with more messages of condemnation. Eventually, my depression worsened until I tried to end my life October 2013. My best friends saved me and were kind enough to start reading my inbox and getting rid of the hurtful messages. They also took the liberty of removing those friends.

During this very dark time in my life, God was working me into something for His use. My aunt had me go to Women’s Bible Study with her and my cousin. She set up an appointment with the church’s Care Pastor so that I could talk to him. He listened to my concerns that had developed from my years in Mormonism and used biblical passages to assure me that my concerns were unfounded. When I told him about the covenants I made, he helped me to see that I made promises that I had no business making. He helped me to repent and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior that day. I continued going to Bible Study and made friends with some very lovely and kind ladies who were aware of my situation. Both in the group and out they made it clear that they were thinking about me, praying for me and loved me. When I was baptized on the 6th of November, some of them were able to attend to support me.

As the months went on, I studied the Bible more and more. The Gospels gave me new hope in the relationship with God and my Savior. I began forming relationships with other Mormons who were just like me. With mentorship, I was able to find the support I needed which helped me to get through the pain of my experience and inspired me to become a mentor. A few months later, I was awarded acceptance into Northwest Christian University, a Bible College in Eugene. I entered campus August 23, 2014 and enrolled in the Christian Ministry program. Due to a promise I made, I tried going to the Young Single Adult ward a few blocks away from campus. It ended in heartbreak and even ended for a time a friendship I treasured. On November 24, 2014 I resigned my membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. On December 04, 2014, I received a letter from the Bishop of the YSA Ward telling me that my resignation not only ended my membership, it also ended my salvation. More to the point he said, “We are directed by the handbook of instructions to inform you that by having your name removed from the records of the church that your records are also being removed from the Book of Life.”

I took this to mean that I am now considered a Daughter of Perdition, that Salvation is now closed to me. My friends at NCU gave me love, reassurance that I am not damned and even got me to laugh about it. As Romans 8:1 reminds us, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”. When I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, the etching of my name in the Lamb’s Book of Life was filled with the ink of His blood and will never be erased. With this confirmation, I turned my back on my former faith.

Since then, I have been spending a great deal of time in prayer with God and diving into His word. I have added History to my dual major and try to take as many Bible classes as I can. Reading the Church Fathers and other theologians has given me a greater understanding of theology and the Bible. I joined the Episcopal Church in May and am training to be a pastor in hopes that I will run a church in the future. I also minister to Mormons who question church doctrine or wants to leave. I listen to them, pray with them, cry with them and teach them. I also help them find other churches to attend with a church family that will help them with their walk with the Lord.

While the LDS church has caused me a great amount of pain, I am grateful for my years there. Because of my experiences, I have a greater love for the true God because the pain brought me closer to Him. I am also grateful for my remaining friends in the church that continually show me kindness. Their support has meant a lot and I truly hope that this story doesn’t make them feel attacked. They have no need to be ashamed. I would also like to thank Bishop Todd Sheldon of the Centennial Park Ward of the Redmond Oregon Stake for always being available for my questions and trying his best at helping me find answers. I value his friendship and would feel remiss in not mentioning that he has always been supportive of me. For those who are faithful members that read this, I want to make it clear that this isn’t an attack on them or their faith. It is my story and mine alone. I want to share it so others know that they are not alone and to explain why I made the decisions I have made.

It took pain and self-doubt for me to leave my cave. Once I got outside, I felt the sun of the Good News, I marveled at the stars of the friends I have made. All of these experiences were assigned to me for a reason. I believe that reason is so I can help others in their pain. There are some who are still in their caves and if I can help them, then I want to. I was a Mormon who found Jesus Christ in a way I hadn’t expected. I found God in His words that are the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. I am not ashamed to be the Christian I am today because Jesus isn’t ashamed of me.  

[1] The Allegory of the Cave, Plato’s Republic, Book VII

Thursday, September 17, 2015

My Struggle with the Invisible Disease

I slowly make my way to my classes. It’s a day of the flare up so I have to use my cane to keep me from becoming a quivering heap on the ground that has been touched by only God know what. As I pass you, you avert your eyes. Yeah, I noticed. And it’s okay. A teacher once told my class that noticeable infirmities make people uncomfortable and they don’t know how to act or react when they come across a person in that situation. Even worse, you wouldn’t be able to guess the excruciating pain that I struggle with every day because it can’t be seen. I wear a mask to cover my ailment and I smile even when it hurts to do so. This is called Fibromyalgia.

I want you to know that I wasn’t always like this. There was a time when I was hiking, running, swimming and walking great lengths. My stride used to be fast and my muscles toned. Now, my stride is little more than a shuffle and my muscles deteriorate as I speak. I lift my backpack and instantly feel my muscles quiver from the weight of all the textbooks and my laptop. My back protests the pressure but settles as I adjust to the weight I put on it. I then check the time and begin my day knowing it’s going to be a long one.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I really don’t know. I do know I don’t do it for sympathy or pity. I don’t expect anything from you. Perhaps, it’s because I want to be understood. Someone once said that the truth will set you free. I hope it’s true. While I know there is no freedom from this daemon, I can at least hope that some aid will come.

When you look at me, I feel like you don’t really see me. What do you see? Some overweight short ugly woman with dark eyes and lines etched in her face? Do you see a pathetic creature that has to use a cane but there appears to be nothing wrong with her? No broken bones, no physical manifestations? I’m sorry if I put you off, I really don’t mean to. While I look like everything is fine, I can assure you that the agony is very much real.

I have good days and bad days. On my good days, the pain is a dull throb. It’s still there and I may twinge a time or two, but I can bear it. I laugh and smile and my spirits are okay. I enjoy sitting with you and learning with you. I listen to the lectures and laugh with you when the professor says or does something amusing. I go home and make supper and delight when I have guests to eat with me. For a time, the daemon sleeps.

Then the daemon wakes. I can be in a deep sleep, be in class, or getting out of bed to turn off the alarm clock that goes off at 5 AM every morning. The daemon roars and pain shoots through my back. My breath leaves me in a sharp gasp and sometimes it drives me to my knees. My body trembles and my muscles contract. If I’m lucky, I’m able to drag myself back onto my bed. If I’m not, I’m stuck on the hard floor. I’m all alone. I curl up into a ball and wait for the waves of sharp stabbing pain with aching throbs to cease. Tears fall from my face soaking my pillow or carpet while I ask God “why?” I wonder if I did something to anger him to where this condition was given me as punishment. I wonder if there will be any salvation from it. It feels like someone is beating me with a club and sometimes I check myself to see if there are bruises because the sensation is so real. Minutes turn into hours and I’m trapped. I can’t call for help because there’s nothing anyone can do. I can’t breathe out a cry because all of my energy is draining from the daemon torturing me. It hurts to breathe, it hurts to speak, and it even hurts to smile. I am alone through the entire process.

Eventually, the pain begins to lift a bit. I check the time and see that if I hurry, I’ll make it to Greek class and be on time. I force myself to my knees and then to my feet. I look into my mirror and see the lines and the trail of marks that my tears left behind. I see the storm in my eyes that dulled the green fluorescents with hopelessness and despair. I quickly shower and endure the sharp needles that assault my exhausted and aching body. I wash my face and brush my hair and teeth and stare in the mirror again. I look tired and pained, but I fix my features to look serene. I leave my apartment and solitude, knowing that I must hide my pain. You ask me how I am and I’m sorry to say, I do lie. I tell you I’m good and then ask you how you are, hoping that you’re having a better day than I am. I’m grateful for your smile. I feel guilty for my deception, but I fear your discomfort and that you’ll be put off if my mask falls and my agony reveals itself.

I live in a world of absolute twilight. It may be high noon but in my world, I live in darkness and
light. I feel like I’m constantly alone. I’m isolated in my pain as another daemon assaults me. The daemon carries depression, self-loathing and even hopelessness. Do you know what it’s like to crave the touch of another but fearing it at the same time? I love your embrace that is warm and full of friendship. I live on those tokens, but I can also feel your hesitation and fear of hurting me. One wrong move, one hug that is too tight on the wrong part of my body can call the daemon. I appreciate your care to not hurt me. I also appreciate your courage to risk it by showing me that you appreciate my existence. It’s a little ray of your sunshine that briefly holds back the twilight of my life. You walk away to your classes and your life and I walk to mine. The depression comes back, reminding me of my loneliness. This road is hard to walk on and it drains me all the time. I walk this road every day and sometimes I find someone else walking on a similar road. Both of us acknowledge each other and move on with the brief comfort of having an idea of how the other feels.

At the end of the day, after hours of lectures, homework, grading and interacting with people, I may finally go to bed. I lay down and I hear the daemon growl, preparing to strike. I curl up with a heating pad and look to heaven with a simple prayer. Sometimes an angel intercedes and the daemon sleep, other times, he ravages me with this disease. I close my eyes as the hot tears form against my eyelids. I tell myself that dawn will eventually come. I finally drop my mask and façade and for a brief time, I allow myself to be honest, to feel the emotions and pain that I push aside every day.

To you I may look normal and healthy. But, I promise you that what I feel is very much real. When you comment that there can’t be anything wrong with me, it pierces my heart and soul. I wish I can show you how wrong you are. But I just stand there as shame fills me and my eyes cast down to the ground. After that, my eyes never leave the ground. I can’t bear to look at you and the others because I know that the cane and my general appearance can be intimidating and off-putting. I don’t expect you to understand, but please, remember that I am still human. I love you and love being around you. I do my very best to give the impression that I’m okay, even if I’m not. If my deception hurts you, I’m very sorry. Just know that I try to be strong and that I do what I can to defeat the daemon. This is what it is like to deal with an invisible illness. It can be very lonely and the effects are permanent and lingering. Under my shell shows a personal hell to which I am damned until the day I die. But I try to be above it. I want my life to be more than Fibromyalgia. All my schooling and my future career makes me feel alive and I use it to show the daemon that I am stronger. The struggle is real, but I try to overcome. Fibromyalgia is real, but I rise above it. This is what it is like to have an invisible disease. This is Fibromyalgia.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Cost of Discipleship

In Christianity, the many Protestant sects have been debating, studying and contemplating what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ since Martin Luther was a monk in Erfurt. The questions of Grace, Discipleship, Forgiveness, Good Works, and what it means to be a Christian have been topics of deep meditation for many of those who profess faith in Christ. These questions were reflected by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, a book he wrote during the rise of Nazi regime in 1937 Germany. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran Theologian with the Confessing Church that opposed Hitler during World War II. Bonhoeffer stuck by his faith until he faced the gallows on April 9, 1945 for conspiracy and treason against Hitler. In Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer walks the reader through the Sermon on the Mount[1], which describes the meaning of being a follower of Jesus Christ. He spelled out his description in different categories: Grace and Discipleship; the Call to Discipleship; the Beatitudes; the Enemy; and the Body of Christ.

When it comes to Grace and Discipleship, Bonhoeffer talks about cheap grace and costly grace. He starts off by bluntly describing cheap grace as “the deadly enemy of [the] Church” (Bonhoeffer). He defined cheap grace as the justification of the sin, but not the sinner. He goes even further by arguing that it is the grace one bestows on oneself by preaching forgiveness without repentance. Today’s Christians would recognize this as the charge that Christians believe that because they are saved through the blood of Christ, they have a free pass to sin. Bonhoeffer harshly condemns this belief because of the practitioners modeling themselves after the world’s standards.

Costly grace, on the other hand, Bonhoeffer describes as the “pearl of great price” (Bonhoeffer). “Such grace is costly” Bonhoeffer contends “because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives man the only true life” (Bonhoeffer). In other words, man’s salvation and grace came at the great expense; the life of the Son of Man. When Jesus commands for believers to follow Him, He is offering them grace. Bonhoeffer points out that in order to follow Christ, the believer has to be willing to not only act like a faithful member of Christianity, but be willing to lay everything down for Him.

When Jesus said to Simon Peter and his brother Andrew “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:18-19). He was extending the invitation to discipleship. Bonhoeffer termed “discipleship” as “adherence to Christ because Christ is the object of that adherence (Bonhoeffer). Not only does the believer follow Christ, he or she must also surrender themselves to the disposal of their Master. If they try to follow according to their own term, Bonhoeffer argues that it is no longer a discipleship because costly grace does not work that way. Simon and Andrew literally dropped everything, including their futures when they answered the call of discipleship from Jesus, they didn’t give condition to their being disciples, they submitted to their Master’s will.

The call of discipleship means life and death, according to Bonhoeffer. Through self-denial and suffering, the believer takes upon them the cross of Jesus as well as having to face temptation and shame. The believer is not above Christ, the believer must suffer because it is the badge of true discipleship. Bonhoeffer acknowledged that this also includes suffering torture and death for faith in Jesus Christ.

In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the reader is introduced to what is called The Beatitudes. Bonhoeffer speaks of the plight of the twelve disciples as being “the poorest of the poor, the sorest afflicted and the hungriest of the hungry” (Bonhoeffer). These are the men that gave up everything for Jesus and Jesus publically calls them “blessed” as He describes what it means to be a disciple. As the reader reads each section, they will see things like “blessed are the poor in the spirit…”; “blessed are they that hunger…”; “blessed are the pure in heart…”;“blessed are the Peacemakers…”; and even “blessed are they that have been persecuted…” These are the virtues of being a disciple. A follower must walk the walk if they’re going to talk the talk. Bonhoeffer mentions that while these virtues distinguish a disciple, the world will hate them for it. “Not recognition, but rejection, is the reward they get from the world for their message and works” (Bonhoeffer). This isn’t the promise of peace and plenty, but of trial and tribulation. Given what Bonhoeffer was about to suffer, the Beatitudes would have reminded him down the road what being a disciple is.

In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer also speaks of how a disciple of Jesus should treat their enemies. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). According to Bonhoeffer, “Love is defined in uncompromising terms as the love of our enemies” (Bonhoeffer). Bonhoeffer would later demonstrate this while being incarcerated at Flossenbürg. He ministered to the other inmates and the guards with love and compassion to where his execution affected even those who were part of the execution. The reader would agree that praying for those who persecute this is far from being easy, in fact it’s one of the hardest things imaginable, but Jesus commanded it and Bonhoeffer reminds the reader that it is part of being a Disciple of Christ.

Bonhoeffer also spoke about the Body of Christ, both in faith and His corporeal form. He points out that the first disciples lived in communion and fellowship with Jesus. They witnessed His miracles, broke bread with him, learned from him and in the case of the most beloved disciple, possibly John, watched him die on the cross. While modern day Christians, will not have that same kind of fellowship, they are still part of the general body of Christ and are still required to live as a disciple. When Bonhoeffer was watching Nazi Germany rise into power, many of his colleagues and lukewarm pastors waffled in fundamental doctrines in order to appease Hitler. This didn’t sit well with Bonhoeffer because it was cheap grace that those individuals were after. He condemned such a practice when he declared, “A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities. They are heard, learnt and apprehended, and that is all. But the incarnate Son of God needs not only ears, or heart, but living men who will follow him” (Bonhoeffer). To Bonhoeffer, the fact that these individuals were bending their values and beliefs to mollify the Fuhrer showed that while they talked the talk, they were unwilling to walk the walk.

When the reader wonders what it means for he or she to be a Christian, Bonhoeffer tells them through The Cost of Discipleship that they have to be willing to lay down everything, including their very lives for Jesus Christ. Because God showed humanity mercy by sending His Son, Christians have to show mercy to others, including their enemies. Costly grace was given because Jesus did just that. According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it is little to ask for the same in professing believers to do the same in return.

[1] Matthew 5-7, ESV Holy Bible