Coming to Ourselves

TW: Steve continues to wallow in sentimentality.

Lately I’ve been feeling some nostalgia for the Steve of yesteryear, an irritatingly earnest missionary who was was unquestionably vested in spiritual matters. What happens to us as we grow older, more distant from those innocent testimonies we used to feel? There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Mormon where the prophet Alma (Junior) is performing a reform throughout the church, a sort of revival where he calls each congregation to repentance. Speaking to the congregation in Zarahemla, he asks:

And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?

Many times I have found myself asking myself these same questions. Can I feel that same song of redemption inside of me that I used to feel? Where is the spiritual strength I used to have?

  • A cynical answer is that I’ve grown out of the naivete I once had. That I’ve grown up and no longer need to have the juvenile approach to religion that I once adopted. After all, I’ve lived a lot since then, read a lot of books. Heck, I’ve even had kids. I know more now.
  • A self-comforting answer would be to say that my spirituality has simply evolved, become more rooted in lived Mormonism. That I no longer rely on scriptural intricacies to find a sense of meaning, but rather I can spend time with my family or with my ward members and feel a far deeper connection to God.
  • Finally, I guess I could say that I squandered that testimony, neglected it with shallow prayer, with decreasing church activity and less temple attendance. If I can no longer feel that same song of redeeming love, it’s because I stopped listening.

I have to say, participating in internet Mormonism and the Bloggernacle have at times steered me towards the first answer, the cynical one. It’s popular among post-Mormons and ‘progressive Mormons’ to look back with embarrassment on the earnestness of missionary testimony, to rationalize away the burnings of the heart that you feel when you’re young and deeply immersed in a semi-monastic LDS existence. I feel embarrassed by lots of things I did when I was that age, but I can’t feel embarrassed about having such a firm testimony of the Church. I remember with vivid clarity the wave of warmth that came in answer to prayers as I knelt by my bed at the end of a long, fruitless day in France. I look at my old highlighted scriptures and smile at the notations, at times completely missing the point of a passage but seeing divine connections throughout the standard works. I refuse to betray that memory by explaining away the power of those spiritual experiences.

It’s true that I know more about Church history now. I know more now about how the Church organization functions, and how wards operate. I see now how the sausage gets made, so to speak. I don’t harbor the illusions I once had about the interplay between Christ and His church. For some, that disillusionment results in disaffection and distance from the body of Saints. I can understand how that happens. I’d be lying if I said I never felt some of that distance. But like the Tripledent Gum jingle, that song of redeeming love comes back to my head once in a while.

No, it’s obvious that in some (many) respects I am definitely less spiritually powerful. I have fallen off the wagon in terms of my scripture study and prayer. If missionary Steve could see me now, I don’t think he’d approve of how lightly I take these important things. I’m not a complete train wreck but I could be much more than I am. I suppose that is the sort of haunting specter that follows most adults their entire lives, but does everybody really feel this way? I ask myself. What your past self would think of you now — is that a proper means to evaluate your life? Sometimes, I hope not.

I’ve said before that I’ve felt that God hasn’t let go of me, despite my best efforts. Let’s be clear: I’m a sinner, and I’m not offering that up in some self-effacing jokey sense. I’ve talked lightly of Him, ignored Him, used spirituality as a means of manipulation, worn religion as a mask while treating women and minorities poorly. I’ve hidden behind my faith to avoid the discomfort of seeing those who think differently. I use the past tense here, but my hands are still unclean. I’m still a sinner and I still do some of that crap. But despite this, I have been blessed with abundance and with love. I know I don’t deserve it. God has chased me down. Like Sufjan says:

He will take you
If you run
He will chase you
He will take you
If you run
He will chase you
Because he is the Lᴏʀᴅ

Why this weak sauce confessional? Because echoes of that song of redeeming love keep playing in my head. It won’t let go. To Steve of yesteryear, I say: sorry man. You did what you could. Life got hard and complicated, and I know those are just excuses, but I haven’t forgotten what you’re feeling. I can still get it back.

Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    Beautiful and honest. Thanks, Steve.

  2. love this. i feel like this, too. the world is full of distractions. whenever i take the time to listen to a general conference talk, (really) study the scriptures, offer sincere prayer etc i think, “this is amazing…i should do this more!”. but i am all-too-quick to return to the distractions of social media, netflix etc.
    the simplicity of yesteryear has been replaced by the complexity and distractions that are today.
    i need to do better. be better

  3. crazywomancreek says:

    Well quite. What’s that great Flannery O’Connor quote about being harkened? “Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.” I know we’ve disagreed on this in the past but I believe that grace is still offered to you freely but the answer isn’t flagellation; it’s self- forgiveness. Which isn’t the easy answer of the libertine, on the contrary it’s an invitation to let the suffering of others into your heart. It’s weird and paradoxical. And effective.
    This was a good post And I look forward to you filling in the spaces.

  4. I believe you! Help my unbelief.

  5. trevorprice924 says:

    A metaphor that suits me well is Christmas. As a kid, mom and dad (and the unknown) make it such a magical time full of wonder. But when you’re an adult, it’s not the same. Now *you* are the one responsible for making it magical. But how do you do that when you know who’s behind the curtain? You try doing it mom and dad’s way, but realize you really need to find your own way. Even if you do, it’s still fundamentally different. But as you suggest, maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing :)

  6. crazywomancreek, you connected a couple of dots for me in that comment. Thank you!

    And much love to you, Steve.

  7. I don’t always agree with your sentiments, but this is great. Subjecting myself to the discipline of the gospel has been my only cure. My missionary me would be aghast to see how lightly I too treat the essentials of scripture study, prayer, service and how pathetically I waste time in meaningless pursuits. Keep going my friend.

  8. You’re making me think of Paul Ricoeur here, Steve:

    Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again….In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost: immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men, aim at a second naivete in and through criticism. In short, it is by interpreting that we can hear again. (The Symbolism of Evil, pp. 349, 352)

    I don’t want to get back what I once had, because I’m not the person I once was. As you say, life gets “hard and complicated”; we have to do some thinking–and that’s all that “criticism” or “interpreting” mean here: thinking–to make sense of what lays before us, and what we hope for. That thinking changes us. Changes us for good or for evil? Probably both. Either way, just because our belief in God’s outstretched hand is different in character and form than it once was doesn’t mean, I think, that it isn’t still genuine, saving belief. Or such is my hope, anyway.

  9. Thanks, Steve. Timely for me.

  10. Steve, I recognize your complaint, which I too have uttered about myself. Yet then there is my wife just pointing out the spiritual growth I have apparently gone through in the past 9 years.

    Also, we cannot change ourselves. We can make right choices, we can persevere in faith, and we must, in difficult times. But only He can change our hearts, and make us less like the natural man.

    What I’ve learned about praying, is that I needed to incorporate it into my process of going to bed. I have yet to master this though for the morning.
    So I tried incorporating scripture study into my evening ritual as well, but it still eludes me. But starting with a small step in the mornings:
    Recently our EQP has created a WhatsApp group for the whole EQ. Since then I’ve started looking up single scripture or a couple verses (usually start with the same topic as the next Sunday School lesson, but not using the exact same scriptures as listed, to give myself a challenge of finding other scriptures), and share those every workday morning, really bite-size.

    So, Social Media doesn’t always have to be a vice. Today was D&C 27:1-2 & 5-14 and a rare comment: “Verses 3 and 4 have been used more in discussions about the Sacrament, but just imagine being there in some future day.”

  11. Russell, somewhere out there, someone’s telling Paul Ricoeur that his writing reminds them of Steve Evans.

  12. My old friend Bob told me years ago that the pinnacle of Mormonisms rites and ordinances is achieved in your 20’s, then the hard part begins. Enduring. For the rest of your life there is nothing left but charity. This is where the metal is tested

  13. DeepThink says:

    For me, when I was younger, though it never claimed to be, the Church was god. It offered the divine sense of being and belonging and becoming that I received through the passages and rites and openings and discoverings. It lit me up and fired in me Purpose. As I grew, I became aware that the Church was not god, but that, for me, the Church was my path to God. And then the openings widened and the joy went deep. The covenant was my claim, my sacrifice, my offering. The covenant ran deep. And then, still later, while the Church still offers path, my way today is lit more by Longing, by looking beyond the Church, and responding to the longing for that Home, for that Divine Connection that I know is possible in the quiet and infrequent connection to the Divine that is what fills me up, resonates Truth, is my true Home, my Being. And the covenant still runs deep. Having known the divine connection, I can become impatient with the Church, with its rites and simplicity. The Church was never meant to bring us self-actualization or callings and elections. It is meant to keep us safe enough to get Home. But the longing for God runs deeper than that in me and so I get impatient. And yet, the Church is still my path. When I get caught in the natural man, when I let my doubt overcome my faith, I lose myself, and the longing quiets and I can’t quite remember or find my way. Then it brings me back to Him when I cannot get there on my own.

  14. I understand your sentiments. I’ve often asked – how do GA’s lead for 30, 40, even 50 years? How do they constantly meet, teach, train, etc? What is the difference between the way they approach their church life than the way I approach mine? i don’t know the answer, but something in their approach to the gospel, to church, to Christ and God, is different than the average active member, yet the same. Maybe it all about endurance.

  15. Mark Brown says:

    I judge my missionary self A bit more harshly than you do, I think.At 20 years old, I believed almost entirely In works-based salvation, and I might have been one of the most insufferable missionaries the Church ever called.

    The “doing” part of my faith now doesn’t neglect prayer And gospel study, but it does prioritize contact with others over both of those things.

    The past several decades have taught me important things that I was unable to learn At age 20. The most important ones are a)I, along with every other person on earth, am a complete mess, and b)Christ’s grace is sufficient.

  16. Mark, those are two things I didn’t really understand at age 20 either. But that doesn’t mean that I have evolved, keeping only the best traits of Young Steve. I have let a lot of good habits die out.

  17. Thanks for keeping it real Steve. Who hasn’t let things slip from their 20s? I would have labeled myself back then as earnest in the gospel. Now I am lazy in the gospel. In my early 20s I was responsible for 1 person. Today I have more people who rely on me than I have time for. Give yourself the forgiveness God already has.

  18. I think my enthusiasm for everything wanes as I get older.

  19. In my opinion, this is a top-10 post in Bloggernacle history. I mean ever.

  20. C’mon Ben. Flattery will get you everywhere.

  21. <>>

    Indeed! Scrambling in the backfield, shaking off tacklers as he looks for his receiver, knowing when to tuck and run. Wait, never mind. I read this too fast.

    Awesome post, awesome comments. This one particularly resonated:

    ” it’s self- forgiveness. Which isn’t the easy answer of the libertine, on the contrary it’s an invitation to let the suffering of others into your heart.” This is the unnamed granite wall I’ve been trying to climb lately. Now it has a useful explanation to it.

  22. Darn HTML. Here’s the quote I was referencing:

    “I have evolved, keeping only the best traits of Young Steve.”

  23. Thank you SuHwak, DeepThink and Mark Brown – parts of your comments all reminded me of Step 1 -and it sounds like Steve is ready to take it!
    http://addictionrecovery.lds.org/steps/1?lang=eng
    We all too often assume addiction to be something more than what it is – the absence of (true) connection – so this step and all the rest are for everyone! IDIAT, this (the gospel in the steps) IS how the GA’s lead and do ‘it’ for years – day by day and WITH the Lord’s way and help, not on their ‘own’ (I can do it, I need to be better, why can’t I be like I used to be . . . it was all a facade – He was doing it, does do it, and will do it – all we have is our will . . . )

  24. Eric, that manual is top-notch.

  25. john f. says:

    Thanks for this reflection, Steve. It is very moving.

  26. I’m not LDS (not on the outside, at least), but your words and those of others in the “bloggernacle” speak deeply to my heart as I continue to wait for the day baptism becomes an option for me. I am not free to attend Sacrament nor make my investigation overly public; the testimonies I hear from you and others keep my own growing. Blessings to you!

  27. J. Stapley says:

    I just read RJH’s, and now this. I feel the need to repent, and that is a good thing. Thanks Steve.

  28. Hannah, thanks very much.

  29. “It’s popular among post-Mormons and ‘progressive Mormons’ to look back with embarrassment on the earnestness of missionary testimony, to rationalize away the burnings of the heart that you feel when you’re young and deeply immersed in a semi-monastic LDS existence. I feel embarrassed by lots of things I did when I was that age, but I can’t feel embarrassed about having such a firm testimony of the Church. I remember with vivid clarity the wave of warmth that came in answer to prayers as I knelt by my bed at the end of a long, fruitless day in France. I look at my old highlighted scriptures and smile at the notations, at times completely missing the point of a passage but seeing divine connections throughout the standard works. I refuse to betray that memory by explaining away the power of those spiritual experiences.”

    There are a lot of very fine things in this post, but this bit particularly resonates with me.

    I recall a conversation with a fellow post-Mormon friend who seemed fairly desperate to rationalize away a particular experience that was important in his development of a testimony of Mormonism which he no longer had. He wanted me to explain to him how this experience wasn’t what he thought it was, and to rationalize it away, like he had much of his belief in Mormonism. My view was that he oughtn’t deny that experience. Wherever he was with the church, or where he was going, just leave that experience there. It was obviously still important to him, but whereas earlier it gave him comfort, now it was troubling him. Don’t feel the need to sort everything out–come back to it again in time. Maybe his new life will give it new meaning. Maybe it will take him back to something he thought he was done with. Maybe it will just recede in importance over time. But being true to yourself (something a lot of ex-Mormons seems to give out-sized importance) surely requires not betraying the memory of something that was important to your earlier self.

  30. Natalie says:

    Steve, I am a follower of bcc and your Twitter, but this is my first time commenting. I just wanted to say how much this post resonated with me. It has been 10 yrs plus since my own missionary service and through the ups and downs of life, the changing responsibilities in family life and even the wanderings of my own faith; I come back to the strong yet almost silent whisper of the spirit within my heart that reminds me of the fire of testimony within. Thank you for the honest words you shared.

  31. Natalie, cheers.

    GST, you’re right. If life takes you out of the Church, throw out the bathwater if you must, but don’t forget the baby in there.

  32. Where is the spiritual strength I used to have?

    Some days I’m too afraid to even ask the question… :/

  33. Re babies and bathwater:

    Throw in an onion, some celery stalks, a bit of salt, simmer uncovered for 4-6 hours, strain, and you’ve got yourself a very savory baby stock.

  34. Ya know what’s amazing is that, despite the spiritual apathy that sets in as we wander in our own little wilderness, the mysteries actually start to make sense. Our understanding deepens, our views broaden, and God is present in truer form.

  35. Angela C says:

    Great post. But when did you treat women poorly? When?

  36. Uh, like every day.

  37. Geoff - Aus says:

    I have come to the conclusion that the church is the Gospel, programmes designed to help us live the Gospel, and the culture of the leaders being taught as if it is Gospel. I feel that the culture of the church leaders has let me down and driven me away.

    I proposed to my wife by phone,a couple of months before my mission ended, in 1970, because there was a conference talk saying missionaries should get married ASAP and then start a family. So first child born about 12 months after mission. 3 years and 2 more children, and a miscarriage, the church was saying birth control was not acceptable but the doctor was saying your wife will die. First time we really questioned the authority of the church.

    Been on missions for 10 years, served in Bishoprics etc. All the problems I have had with the church have been with the conservative culture that comes packaged with the Gospel. Have been accuse of Apostasy because I questioned the lies in a stake newsletter about euthanasia.
    Have been refused a recommend because I questioned “obedience is the first law of heaven”.
    And although I am pleased to see the Letters on history on LDS.org, I also felt that while I was giving my all to the church, it was lying to me, and still is, by hiding and not discussing these letters.
    So yes I feel less unquestioningly faithful to the church than I did, but I feel that the church is as much to blame for this as I am.
    I believe I am closer to the Gospel and Christ, but less trusting of the church.

  38. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    These are all good questions, Steve. There is no harm in asking them. In fact, we only run into problems when we stop asking these types of questions of ourselves. Thanks for reminding me to revisit these important areas.

  39. Thanks for sharing, Steve. I can relate to some of your feelings, but my situation may be a bit different. When you get too close to the fire, you inevitably get burned. Working for the Church was undoubtedly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is impossible to harbor any illusions now, especially since I have also read a ton of Church history, trying to make all the pieces fit together in some way that makes sense in the context of spiritual feelings I’ve had in the past as well as the glaring flaws of modern Mormonism. It’s hard when the idealism of youth runs headlong into the imperfections of reality, past and present.

    The big difference between me and my missionary self of long ago is that I have chosen truth over loyalty. I just want the truth, and truth has to make sense, has to be consistent, has to stand up to all the evidence. Mormonism is one complex religion. It is certainly far from perfect. I’m hoping that at the distant end of my journey I can be at peace with both the imperfect organization and my imperfect experiences with it. God doesn’t seem all that eager to give me simplistic assurances about complex issues, so I stumble on, sorting through all the evidence and trying to assemble a better foundation for faith than the one my missionary self imagined was sufficient.

  40. TA, I would never recommend working for the Church. Your experience is one I’ve heard several times. Being a paid employee of the Church strikes me as possibly the worst work situation I can imagine.

    Yes, there are glaring flaws. There always have been (Safety Society!). Stumbing on, though, is the key. I’m with you.

  41. eponymous says:

    Who am I now, what was I then, who will I be tomorrow? Why do I feel like there’s a Jonathan Livingston Seagull story just waiting to burst out?

    So often I pose this question to myself and some days I’m happy with the answer while others cause me to shrink from the mirror. I believe I’m moving up the jagged line we like to talk about but it can be easy to disconnect from that reality if I am not careful. Living a Christlike life can be a very real challenge. It was easier as a missionary because that was the entire focus of your life. The lived Gospel is where the real experiences start to develop and the real growth happens. Sometimes painfully. Often with intermittent moments of terror and joy intermixed.

  42. great post steve, and crazywomencreek, I loved your comment. Steve I loved the “is it I?” approach to self improvement that speaks to our strengths from the past. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater; there are certainly parts of the old me that I’d never want to return, but those weren’t the best parts.

  43. Thanks for this, Steve.

  44. it's a series of tubes says:

    This is great stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  45. I’ve always enjoyed this quote by Spencer W. Kimball:

    “I find that when I get casual in my relationships with divinity and when it seems that no divine ear is listening and no divine voice is speaking, that I am far, far away. If I immerse myself in the scriptures the distance narrows and the spirituality returns” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball [1982], 135).

    Speaking only for myself, I have found that my spiritual strength tends to wane when I become casual in my relationship with God. Approaching my personal and family worship practices with more diligence helps to close that gap.

  46. My good friend Bob told me all the important “stuff” happens when your young. The marriage, endowment, everything. The hard part is enduring and the only thing left is charity. He was right

  47. The collective knowledge and growth of Mormonism presents a perspective and understanding the rest of Christiandom does not have, as well as most Mormons. Break offs and apostates have nothing to offer to improve anything. The fact is that the church is not for everyone. It never has been anciently and the same is true today. But salvation is for everyone. It is based on every person in this earth living according to the knowledge he truly believes. See, even the very elect will be deceived. How do I know that is not me? I don’t. But what the gospel shows is that God can judge our integrity no matter what our beliefs are. “Where there there is no punishment”. If we we are true to what we really believe, all is truly well with us. This is the final chapter and accumulation of knowledge, perspective, and peace that Mormonism offers.

  48. I have no idea what you’re talking about, man.

  49. We are constantly talking about everything. Put into practice what we believe and there are no concerns. I loved your post BTW, and it is a nice look. I have found living 80 miles from the nearest church that living the gospel the best I know how is good enough. I stick out like a sore thumb here in the jungle. The old Steve, the current Steve. Just DO your best and there are no worries about disappointing anyone. Including Steve. Regards

  50. One more thing. Put two and two together so you know what the hell you religion has taught you all these years. I’m guessing Utah but I m not a psychic. Sorry to be blunt but if someone who can write so well is so clueless I can’t help that. Sorry. Still brothers.

  51. You’re definitely not a psychic.

  52. The point is.. On our missions or other times in our lives we set a foundation that few can live up to. Our best changes with the years and there is no doubting that jobs and distractions get in the way. Keep on keepin on and the gospel reassures us that gods grace will fl the gaps. Sorry I’m a bit of an ass sometimes, so forgive me. I have struggles too and the perspective of the church keeps me sane. Regards

  53. Steve, to echo everyone else here except one, this is a remarkable post and thanks for sharing it.

  54. BHodges says:

    Nice, Steve. Very nice. Resonates.