Christian vs. Christ-like: Why I Struggle and Why I Stay in the Church

I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for thirteen years. Lucky thirteen. Ten years... now add three. And I've had a lot of occasion lately to take stock of where I am, and where I'm going. How I got here, and where I want to be. And since these thoughts proven useful to people in the various places I've scattered them on the internet over the years, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share them here.

Why I Joined the Church

When I discovered the Church, I was already actively attending services at another congregation. I was about fifteen years old. A friend of mine had invited me to start attending services at the church where her father was a pastor, and I agreed to go. My mother's family was Catholic, but I wasn't raised in any particular religion. I had made a habit of always accepting these invitations when they were offered to me. As a result, I'd been to congregations that represent many corners of Christendom. Baptist, Wesleyan, Seventh-day Adventist, even an AME church a couple of times. I don't claim to be an expert on any of them, but I've seen the various kinds of welcome wagons that can be led out for a visitor, at least.

My friend's church was "non-denominational." This is a bit of a misnomer. Some might take this to mean a church that is doctrinally neutral and has no allegiance. What this actually means is it will be aligned to whatever the pastor's beliefs are, and that person is choosing not to make it obvious what they are. In this case, it was some flavor of Baptist.

To make a long story short, I wasn't being fed there. I wasn't satisfied with the answers I was getting to my questions. The people were nice, but were all too willing to throw civility and common sense out the window if the Bible (i.e. their interpretation of the Bible) gave them license to do so.

You're divorced? Bless your heart. You had a baby out of wedlock. We'll pray for you. That baby isn't baptized? Well, then it burns in the fiery depths of hell for all eternity.

Now, I've been told by many Baptists this isn't what they all believe. I am certainly willing to acknowledge that. There's diversity in all denominations, and Baptists are no different. But that doesn't change the fact that I was taught this and it was harmful. And it took me a long time to wrap my mind around it and say, "I just don't believe that." It was a skill I had to develop early in my life.

I was deeply unhappy in that church. I had questions they couldn't answer. I didn't feel like I was getting answers to my prayers. For all the services I attended, I didn't feel like I was getting any closer to God. Just spending a lot of time sticking my hands into the air for no reason. I was spiritually hungry and thirsty, and I realized they just didn't have what would fill me.

I met my first Latter-day Saints at that same time. I made some friends my age who were Mormon (yes, I still say Mormon; I earned that label by being bullied for it all through high school and I see no point in giving it up now). These kids were different. I didn't have to go to adults to get my questions answered. My new friends were literate enough in the scriptures to answer my questions for me. And the more they shared with me, the more it resonated with me. Every time I spoke to them, I left with more questions, but it felt like God wasn't just there listening. He was actually going to answer me. And that was all I ever wanted.

The first time I ever attended Sunday services at my friends' branch, I knew my search was over. I was home. I finally had my "burning bush," come to Jesus, personal experience with God. When I had my first sacred experience with the Book of Mormon, I knew I needed to be baptized. No missionaries, because we didn't have any. No pressure from other people to believe what they believedjust to explore it and know it for myself.

That's why I joined the Church. I had my own divine, personal experiencesindependent of anyone else's influencethat assured me it was the right decision.

Why I Struggle

When I was finally baptized (finally being the operative word because it's actually a struggle to get baptized when you don't have access to missionaries), I had another one of those sacred experiences that I didn't fully appreciate at the time. I had been fighting with everyone for so long to let me be baptized and to "just figure it out," I saw the preparation process as a formality. "Whatever, teach me your little lessons. I know I'm supposed to get baptized, so that's what I'm gonna do," was my attitude. The reality of the permanence, the absolute nature of what I was doing didn't hit me until I was standing at the font.

I was making a binding covenant with God not just to join the Church, but to stay in it. Even if people disappoint me. Even if they do something terrible that will hurt my feelings. No matter what. It isn't about them. I'm making this promise between me and God, and it's my choice whether or not to keep that promise.

That knowledge, that interaction with God, lasted less than a second. But time felt like it slowed down, and I thought about it. Was I willing to make that kind of commitment, especially since I had no idea what was ahead of me? It felt like signing a blank check to God, handing it over to him and saying, "Do whatever you want with this." It scared me, but I understood. I understood the nature of the transaction I was about to make.

It has been thirteen years. And God is still collecting off of that blank check. How? Because the amount he filled it in for was "Everything you've got." And I cannot possibly distill thirteen years of struggle into one blog post. I've been hurt and disappointed by members of my church. I've been insulted and ignored. I've been disrespected and disillusioned. I've been lied to. I've been cheated. I've had experiences that are so hurtful and traumatic, they are worth leaving the Church over. I could tell them to you in full, right now, and there is not a single person who would blame me for walking away and never looking back.

If I had to distill all of those experiences into one criticism, it would be this: we set ourselves apart in this church as being distinct and different from other Christian churches. And we do have our differences in beliefs, doctrine, and policy. But for as long as we are human, we have no right to believe we are, or to present ourselves as, perfect fulfillments of who God commands us to be. We are not finished. And in that human condition, we treat each other as poorly and with much carelessness as any other group. We believe we're special, but in many ways that matter we are no different than anyone else.

We can claim to be Christian, but we are not always Christ-like. Too often, members of the Church fail to understand the difference. We become experts at identifying the harmful behavior in others that we can't see in ourselves.

Because I refuse to conform to a culture that claims to be Christian, but is not always Christ-like, I don't always fit in. My honesty is not always welcome or well-received. And it leads to experiences I don't deserve to have. And based on the conversations I've had with many people on the outskirts of my faith, I know I'm not alone in that experience.

Why I Stay

So if I've had such a bad time of it over my thirteen years of church membership, why on earth would I stay? Why do I tolerate bad behavior when it's directed at me, at members of my family, and people I love? Who in their right mind would do that?

My answer is an ongoing discovery I'm still making. What I'm realizing is staying in the Church doesn't have to mean tolerating bad behavior. That doesn't mean I buy into the foolhardy assertion that "I can fix things." The Church is a big place, and I don't have the kind of institutional influence I would need to "fix things." Thankfully, I don't think anyone does because I certainly wouldn't want them using it on me. In the words of someone I don't like very much at the moment, I can "push back" against the world. I can recognize all the ways and moments the Church is part of the world, and never stop letting them forget it. I can't affect change without the consent of others. But I can draw strength from the importuning widow who never stopped knocking until she received what she knew she deserved, for as long as it was still owed to her.

I am grateful for every person to cross my path who was undeserving of my time, energy, and trust. They've made me wiser in all my relationships. I find it telling the first lesson Eve learns by her own experience in scripture is to be careful with her trust, because not every person has her best interests at heart.

It's one thing to say these things. It's another to live on them. And for a long time, I stopped actively going to church because I couldn't take in any more disappointment. I needed time to heal, to regroup. Like Christ, I had to go up on the mountain to pray. It has taken more than a year for me to come down, and I do so with an answer (emphasis my answer) that is every bit as real as the one I got when I was baptized.

Why do I stay? Because this is where Jesus Christ is. This is the foundation on which all of my knowledge of him rests. I'm still fed here, even if my fellow Saints in the buffet line need to (in the words of my mother) "straighten up and remember how to act right in public."

My testimony isn't based on the infallibility of prophets and apostles, or adherence to cultural homogeneity in the Church, or political stances based in hate and fear. That may pass for Christian among many, but it is not Christ-like to me. And like everything else that isn't Christ-like from the parable of the wise man who built his house upon the rock, it will eventually be blown away.

Sometimes, you find yourself in places that change your life, without fully understanding how you got there. That was my experience when I took a trip with my mom to the Florida panhandle, an area still largely in ruins from Hurricane Michael last year. I went to church while I was there, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The pews, the carpet, the ceiling tiles were gone. Panels of drywall were missing. The steeple was on the ground outside. For the first time, I was in a church building that was as battered by life as I felt inside. That sacrament meeting was the best one I had attended in so long. With every other distraction stripped away, their meeting was focused entirely on Jesus Christ and his power to rebuild our lives after devastation. They taught me, in the most literal way, what it means to build your house upon a rock. (Matt. 7:24-27) I left that meeting remembering why I had joined the Church, why it was worth it to me to stay. My foundation is in Christ, and it is strong enough to withstand the storms of life. I saw it in the faith and hearts those people, who helped me to see it again in myself. I was a stranger and a visitor to them, but they were the ward family I needed in that moment. I will always remember them for that. #lds #mormon #850strong #HurricaneMichael #JesusChrist #faith #hope #fixitjesus
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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is my home. My messy, imperfect home where stuff isn't clean and I swear sometimes. I am not the be all and end all of Christianity, and neither is anyone else. And that's okay. Letting go of all the pressure to live up to a comfortable lie is probably the most Christ-like thing we can all do for each other right now. And it's a gift I'm going to start extending much more widely than I'm accustomed to doing.

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