Pressure Points along the Journey

Yesterday I was talking to a fellow ward member on the train coming home from the City. Our conversation got me to thinking about times in my life when it would have been easy for me to cease engagement with the Church. Most of my siblings and both of my children have gone that route, and it easily could have happened to me as well. But at critical junctures in my life certain things have come together in a way that has allowed me to remain a faithful, believing Saint. I thought I would try to catalog some of the circumstances that have conspired karma-like to keep me within the fold.

1. Friends. I grew up in DeKalb, IL, in a small branch that over time grew into a small ward. During my teen years, we for some reason had an odd demographic bubble around my age, and so I had a lot of good church friends, way more than our small overall numbers normally would have predicted. I wanted to go to seminary in those early morning hours, not because I gave a fig about learning anything, but because my friends would be there and I wanted to see my friends. Having good church friends has always been important to me, but it was especially vital in those early teenage years.

2. Attitude. My father was a great influence on me, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. He taught me not to approach the church with fundamentalist assumptions. Church leaders are human beings, and as such they are fallible and capable of error. And there are times in your church life when you’ve got to stand up and protect yourself or others from overzealous local leadership. But it’s your church as much as it is theirs, and just because someone makes a mistake or offends you is no reason to leave the fold. They can leave if they want, but it’s my church and I’m not going anywhere. My father’s willingness to stand up and do combat for what he believed in was tempered by my mother’s kindness and sense of empathy, an ability to see things from the other person’s point of view. It was a combination that has served me well in my church life.

3. Nibley. As a missionary actually learning things about the church in particular and religion in general began to take on more importance for me. And my mission discovery of Nibley was an important development for me personally. He showed me the importance of a commitment to scholarship, and modeled for me enthusiasm for learning. Under his influence I also began to trend in a more liberal engagement with the church and the world.

4. Classics. At BYU I ended up majoring in classics. And that was a great place for me there. Again, I had great friends, but my professors (and I include here S. Kent Brown, for whom I worked as a T.A.) were simply outstanding mentors. I felt that I got as good an undergraduate education as I could have anywhere in the country, and being in classics made BYU’s cultural weirdness tolerable.

5. Independent Journals. Also at BYU I discovered the independent journals, Dialogue and Sunstone, the fledgling FARMS, and later MHA. I’m the type of guy who needs to know where the bodies are buried. I want to know what all the skeletons in the closet are. I simply couldn’t be an engaged and faithful Saint if I were wondering what else was lingering out there that I didn’t know about. What many people perceive as a threat to faith for me was an essential element of developing faith.

6. Friends again. I’ve had a whole series of knowledgeable and engaging friends with whom I have been able to discuss anything about the Church freely, openly, without fear of harming a tender testimony. While still at BYU I was in the same married student ward with Blake Ostler, and his work was a significant early influence on me. I’m bright enough to see the problems, but I’m not a philosopher and would have difficulty working my own way through the kinds of issues Blake has tackled.

When I left BYU for the University of Illinois, my first EQP was Michael Hicks, now a professor of Music at BYU. What an outstanding role model for what it means to be a liberal but faithful Saint! And that Elders Quorum simply rocked.

Up here in the Chicago area my good friend Jonathan Thomas has given me someone I can discuss anything with. For a number of years we had a monthly gospel discussion group in Chicago, which was wonderful.

7. Blogs. The blogs for me are an extension of these kinds of personal friendships with bright, committed, engaging Latter-day Saints. To me being able to have wide ranging, open conversations about pretty much anything involving the Church is a wonderful release valve for when pressure begins to build and affect my relationship with the Church in a negative way.

So it kind of looks to me like a chiasm. Gaining a certain level of fundamental knowledge about the Church was really important to me in the middle of my life. But early on and again now that I’m older, having good, quality friends in the Church is really all-important. For me, continued engagement in the Church is as much about outstanding social relationships as it is about testimony.

Comments

  1. I have not been over to BCC much lately. Glad I am came by today. I needed this. “What the hell am I doing here?” seem to be something I ask myself a lot on Sundays. It is easier in some ways because I have never been much of a fundamentalist.

    I am very social, despite having certain anti-social traits. I think that is why I stay.

    Kevin, I needed this. When I struggle, I often think about people like you, John C, Aaron B, Mark Brown, and others at BCC. I want to belong to the same church as you guys. Maybe that will be my testimony tomorrow: “I know that Kristine Haglund is true.”

  2. I second that. It strengthens my testimony to know that a guy like you are in the Church, Kevin. Thanks.

  3. nat kelly says:

    It’s good that you can get so in touch with your reasons for staying. It’s interesting that friends play such an important role.

    I think I stay often for social reasons too, because the church is a “safe” social space – not safe insofar as people will say and do things that make me crazy, but safe insofar as I *know* this terrain. I know how to talk here. I know what I should and should not say. It’s familiar and comfy, even if it sometimes feels stagnant.

    I think there’s also an element of masochism in my continued attempts at attendance and having faith. :/

  4. Thanks for this Kevin. Though the internet certainly has exposed a lot more people to the skeletons in the closet, it’s also allowed more people to encounter you and Blake and others.

  5. Margaret Young says:

    Amen! I have been missing my BCC friends a lot today.

  6. Natalie B. says:

    I also think people is the number one factor. At times with I’ve been blessed with good friends in my ward, I’ve always enjoyed church.

  7. reed russell says:

    Beautifully written, Kevin. Thanks. This type of self-reflection is very valuable.

  8. Friends are a key reason to stay in the Church–and I mean real friends with common interests. My daughter who has stayed active had many church friends. My other kids moved into other places to find friends with common interests. And I have no problem with that. I think it’s counter-productive to participate in an organization which frustrates rather than fulfills.

  9. Thanks for this. I agree that for the youth, especially, friends can be a critical element in helping them come back from the “dark side of the moon” phase of adolescence. Our children had mixed results with friends, and have had mixed results in church activity.

    As much as church activity encourages interaction, establishing friendships continues to be challenging (and yet essential) for many.

  10. I stay in the church because I know it is where I am supposed to be. I would like to have good friends among the members, but I don’t and don’t expect I ever will. I am often frustrated with the way things are run and the dichotomy I sense between what people say they believe and what I see them do. Still, I stay, and most of the time I can’t imagine doing anything else.

  11. I stayed because of three experiences I had that preceded my testimony crisis. It wasn’t the content of those experiences so much as the context. One was in the temple, one was while reading the Book of Mormon, and one was while serving a mission. I realized that my best connection to God came in those uniquely Mormon settings.

  12. Kevin, I said this to you once as I shook your hand, and I repeat it here with great enthusiasm, _I think you are absolutely awesome_. Thank you for your candor and sensitivity and loving what I love. I am so grateful your thoughts and writing are part of my Bloggernacle experience. I would love to have deep gospel discussions about whatever is weighing on my mind with someone open minded but firmly rooted in a love of Christ and His gospel.

  13. James in Houston says:

    Thanks for the interesting post Kevin. I really enjoyed it.

    Could you tell us more about your monthly gospel discussion group in Chicago? Was this held in lieu of Sunday School?

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