Wednesday, August 6, 2014

My "Why" behind being a Mormon

There is something deeply personal I have been waiting to share with the world. Some might reject my words, or anything I write in the future because of it, and others might pay better attention. It will be received differently by everyone, but's not for everyone; it is for me, for this little guy inside of me and the legacy I want to leave for him.

 I've been waiting to share because of the fear of rejection, but there is no room for fear and faith to exist together. So I ask you to read with an open mind, and an open heart.

Please know also, that if your views differ from my own, that's OKAY.  We are here to learn and grow from one another, and if we were all the same, there wouldn't be much of a point. What I intend to share, is incredibly sacred to me, so I would also ask any visitors to this blog to refrain from negative comments. It may also be a little bit long, just an advance warning. If it seems wandering, it's from my heart. This is one post I didn't want to over-edit, because for me it's the truth. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this foreword.

This is about 8 years old :) Gotta love the permed bangs

When I was about 8 years old, I walked next door to invite one of my best friends to a church activity. I was so excited, and nervous as I knocked on their front door, the suspense nearly killing me. I was inviting her to a "Faith in God for Girls" activity. When the door opened, I asked her mom if she could come, and the answer I was given shocked me. 

"No. We do not accept or appreciate any invitations to your church.  You are welcome to come to ours, but we will never allow our children to attend yours." 

The rest of the conversation frays at the edges of my memory, but the feeling as I trudged down their front steps, and back to my home still haunts me.  I felt ashamed. For the first time in my young life, I realized that the world saw me as different, my neighbor, viewed me as different, and even wrong.  The weight of the world settled onto my 8-year old shoulders, as I thought to myself why
Because I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I am a Mormon. 

My mother lovingly helped me to remove those feelings of shame long ago and to try and understand the world's view on my faith, my life, my religion, and to never again feel ashamed.  This is what I want to share with you today- WHY I am a Mormon

I have been asked so many times in my life, why? I've heard the question phrased hundreds of ways, with everything from a friendly to an accusatory tone, and even angry or incredulous. I've asked myself, and I've pondered and pondered the answer. Today I am sharing. 

I wasn't "brainwashed" or even raised in an area with many other members.  I was always given a choice to believe, or not.  I was even challenged to find out for myself, and to question, to search, to ponder it in my own heart.  There is a common myth that persists in our world today that those raised as Mormons are never given a choice, that it's simply a way of life I regret to say I have met some members who have been raised this way, but I assure you, it was never that way for me, nor should it be for anyone.  I can understand that others struggle mightily with their own faith when they are never given a choice.  This is a fault of man, not of religion or of God.
Please know that the church I love never forces anyone to believe; it is our choice,
because we believe in agency, and that it is the
 greatest gift to man. 

I made the choice early on to believe, and to have faith despite what the world would tell me.  Call it youthful obstinance, call it a child's faith, call it whatever you like, but I know that it made a great deal of difference.  

I never questioned the existence of my Father in Heaven. How could I? I knew Him, and He knew me.

 But the next years of my life, would have me question everything else.  I fought for my testimony. I fought for my faith, when others would have me believe differently. 

This was taken my sophomore year of High School

I remember clearly being asked over and over in high school, why? Why don't you drink? Do you have three belly buttons?  Do you make your own clothes? Why are you a member?  Do you worship the devil in your temples? Why do you believe in the Book of Mormon? What is it anyways? 

Questions plagued me every single day. I tried my hardest answer to the best of my knowledge, and when I didn't know I would turn to my parents, my teachers at church, and the scriptures to provide answers. 

 I don't drink because it's in the word of wisdom, and it's horrible for you, no I don't have three belly buttons, Mormons are not the same as the Amish (they are truly wonderful people, and so incredibly close to God), but no we are not the same and I do not make my clothes, I belong to the church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints...I'm pretty sure we don't worship the devil, I believe in the Book because I've read it, and it's true, and it's a record of the ancient people of the Americas, and their belief in God, AND SO ON.

You get the drift. Every single day of middle school, high school, and even still to this day. I grew up in the bible belt, right in the heart of baptist country (another wonderful group of people, also so beautifully close to God). 
 You see- being Mormon was JUST different. 

I had to know, and I had to actually find out the answers to questions, so I was never brainwashed, and it wasn't just me going off of what others had said. I spent many days reading my scriptures and looking for the answers to tell my friends. When someone would give me an answer I wasn't satisfied with, I digged deeper, searching and studying it out, like you would a scientific explanation. To me- that's how you should understand your religion. You've got to KNOW it. 
I thought about adding a picture of my friend, but to respect his privacy,
this is just another picture of me about that age, and right BEFORE this all happened. 

At this point, age 15, I had a very dear friend begin to study my church doctrine.  He seemed interested in joining the church, and I was SO excited. I couldn't wait to attend missionary discussions, and help him understand something I knew and loved so well. Then, just when I thought everything was going to work out perfectly, and that he would be baptized, he decided it wasn't for him.  That's okay- that's the whole point right? 

But...I didn't understand that at then 16, 
and it shook my own faith to the core. 

If he didn't believe of my best friends...why should I? I never let on to those around me except for my very dearest friends and family that I was struggling.  As previously stated, I never questioned my Father in Heaven, nor His love for me, but all the sudden the knowledge I had of everything else, seemed to have lost the hold of truth, the grains of conviction I had felt so strongly before. Knowledge and truth are very different. Only with truth comes the heartfelt faith I was so desperately missing.

So what now? 

I began reading. Earnestly reading.  Honestly, I felt so lost, I could only read Enos (a single chapter in the Book of Mormon) for several weeks. Enos felt just as lost as I did, but he found his testimony, and his faith became unshaken. I wanted that so badly.  I wanted to know and Feel not have these negative doubts, and fears plaguing my mind. People I thought were friends began sending me anti-mormon literature, and telling me I was "Part of a cult", "going to burn in hell." What 16 year old girl needs to hear that?

That's's um...a bit marked up. 
 I felt so alone. If it wasn't true...what was? 

I clung to Enos' story, and then slowly but surely began to reread the familiar words on each page of the Book of Mormon.  I learned over time (it takes a great deal of time and patience to rebuild) that fear and faith are CHOICES, and action words.  

I chose faith. It's as simple as that. I CHOSE to have faith in what I had known for so long, and I grasped the tiny flickering remains of my testimony, and I began to help them grow again. As I said before- Knowledge and truth or testimony, are very different. I had a deep understanding and knowledge of the gospel for so long, but so little conviction behind it, and that was what I wanted back, I wanted to know more than words, I wanted truth. 

When a foundation gains a crack, it is an arduous journey to repairing it.  So I searched, I studied, and I put in the time and the effort, all the while still answering the questions of my friends, and learning myself what those answers truly were.

  My faith began to grow again,
 and my trust in God slowly started to return. 
I felt the life and reality return to my knowledge of the gospel, and the spirit return fully to my life. I was experiencing the truth and testimony returning to my heart. I was SEEKING actively for answers.  I learned then, that doubting is an opportunity for growth. SO many members of the church realize they don't have the testimony they want and they turn away, feeling lost, and feeling like doubt is a sin.  
It has never been a sin to question, 
and the Lord would have us UNDERSTAND our faith.
When you doubt, use that time to seek out answers, and find truth for yourself, not to hide away in anger and hopelessness. 

I worked and I fought for the testimony I had been missing. I found it, and I clung to it. 

Now this is not a perfect fairy tale, and it hasn't been just butterflies and roses ever since. If only it were so easy to grasp and retain something so important.

When you have knowledge so sacred and dear, along with the conviction, the belief behind the knowledge and the truth, given to you so beautifully, it IS wrong to turn away from them.  This is a personal belief of mine. It is very different from doubting. It is actively GOING against what you KNOW is true, like touching your hand to a hot stove when you KNOW it will burn you. And burn me it did. 

All three of these pictures were taken and used as part of my Senior photos. I probably didn't look as lost and confused as I felt, but believe you me, I don't see a very happy girl in these pictures now.

My Senior year of high school, and the summer before, I began making decisions that I knew were inconsistent with the beliefs and the faith I held so dearly. I need you to understand that these decisions were very personal, so this isn't a confession or story-telling time. Suffice it to say that no, I was not breaking major laws, or even making mistakes of a serious nature, but they FELT serious to me, because I knew better.

I was caught in a trap that so many face. Too many simple mistakes piling too high, and you get in over your head. Lying, and betraying the trust of my parents, walking along the edges of what's right and wrong, pretending that it's okay to toe that dangerous line. I was purposefully not doing the things I KNEW I should be doing, like praying, reading my scriptures and studying, because of my own guilty conscience. 

Your testimony is like walking up a down escalator. If you just stop moving, you will travel down, but if you are constantly working at it, you can continue upward. There is no stationary place. 

I knew that, and yet I ignored it. 

That was my greatest wrong...ignoring the voice of the spirit, the warnings, the whisperings saying, "You shouldn't be here, you shouldn't have lied," until I couldn't fully recognize them anymore.  It's like trying to read a map, but you've lost the light you were given, and it has become awfully...terrifyingly dark.The lines between right and wrong blurred into so many different colors, I couldn't pick out the black or the white, and I became lost again.

This time though, it was my choice- I allowed myself to get there. I know many people probably looked at my life at this point in time, and saw a smiling face, and listened to the KNOWLEDGE I had, but once again...where was the testimony, the conviction behind the words? Where was Shannon? I tread this dangerous path for far too long. 

My first sunday in my new Apartment at College. Ahhh the Riviera. :) 

It wasn't until college was starting, when I had all but lost my own testimony, because of my own choices, that I started to crawl my way back.  The choices I made created a personal environment where I was spiritually withdrawn from everything I had worked so hard for. Hell was once described to me as knowing you could have made a better decision, knowing you could have been happy, and KNOWING it is your fault that you are not, that it was your choice. That period of time was hell for me. 

You see during this time, I was dating a boy that ultimately broke my heart. But it was MY decisions while I was dating him that led me away from the spirit and my Father in Heaven.  I found out as I was traveling to Utah, that he had decided to go a different direction with his life, that no longer included me, and I was devastated. I had without fully realizing, sacrificed the things I held most dear, like my testimony to give myself a life with this young man.  Him changing his mind, turned out to be one of the greatest blessings I have ever been given, but it was still so painful and unbearable at that point in time. 

The days passed by in haze of regret and frustration. There was absolutely no one to blame but myself for the emptiness I now felt haunting my life. I had given up on things so important to me, and run away from responsibilities I had once cared so much about. The worst part was that I didn't even realize I was doing it until the damage was done. 

The apartment was empty when I opened the door.  It felt as though I was floating to my room, unaware of my surroundings, only my grief and pain.  Months of fighting for something not worth my time were crashing down on me.  Upon arrival in Utah, I tried in vain to lock the pain away.  Now finally alone for the first time in days, I let it all out. I'd been in college all of 2 weeks. I knelt on my bed, sobbing in anguish as I started to let go of the dreams I had built up, with no foundation, the lies I had told, and believed.  

I began, “Heavenly Father...I am so sorry.”  The agony of losing myself was overbearing.  I had been wrong.  The hardest part of that moment for me though was not the bitterness of my own naivety, my own mistakes, my choice to not listen to the spirit.  I begged for forgiveness.

I know that Heavenly Father does not look kindly on our decisions to turn our back on Him, especially not after He has made it so abundantly clear just how much He loves us.

 I felt so incredibly alone.  It has taken two more years of introspection and prayer to understand why I felt so much pain in those few months. 
 I thought for a long time that it was because of the lying to my parents, the fighting with friends and the lack of spirituality.  
Those contributed to it, but 
the real reason behind my suffering was my alienating of the Lord.  

The greatest gift we are given in this life is agency. It can be a double-edged sword, but it is also the freedom to choose for ourselves. Everything I have shared thus far, is to illustrate the decisions I MADE in defining and finding my testimony. I shared these moments because I wanted you to see that they were MY decision. I have used my agency in good ways, and negative ways, but in the end it has always been my choice whether or not to believe. It has been up to me to find my WHY. 

 Elder Neal A. Maxwell once gave an address to the church on agency, and finding the Altar of the Lord. He stated that the only thing we truly have to give to the Lord, is the agency He gave to us, the will and the direction of our lives.  That is all we have to truly give to Him, as He has given and can take away everything else. We came down to this earth with the ability to CHOOSE, and that was always part of the plan.
The Talk

I learned that day, as I poured my heart out that He is there waiting.  He never leaves us, even if we think He has.  Even if we do everything right, if our hearts are not turned to the Lord, it is ourselves that stand in the way. 

 I searched, and cried, and finally in that time on my bed, away from the world- I found that altar.  I laid my life on it, and though it was not perfect, nor ever will be in this life, I gave it to Him to direct. 

On my own, I was simply lost, but I knew and felt with Him, I would never be againHe is always aware of me.  He is protecting me, even when I do not see it, or feel it.  He will rescue me as many times as I let Him.  He will guide my life, and lead me along by the hand if I let Him. This is both knowledge and eternal truth.  

Since that point in time, I have let him guide my life. It has never been easy, nor I do expect it to ever be easy. Trials I have not expected have arisen to strike at me in ways I never thought I would be challenged. There trials I will be happy to address, and share at future points in time. But for now, I need you to know that this is why. I fought for it that day, I fought to have it back, and He was there, with welcoming arms to forgive me, and to help me recover from the destruction I had caused myself. 

This is why I am a member of the church. No where in any other gospel, (I have searched high and low) have I found the redeeming peace of the Atonement made so abundantly clear. This is my WHY. This is the reason that I believe, and it is the core of my testimony. For those of you unfamiliar with the word Atonement, I am speaking of the divine acts of the Savior, Jesus Christ, as He suffered in Gethsemane for my sins, for my pains, and my woes. He was nailed upon a cross, and allowed His life to end for MINE. 

This is a Liz Lemon Swindle Painting- all credit and rights are hers!

The Atonement is real, 
whether is it for comfort, 
or repentance, it is always there. 

No matter what I have done, or the choices I have made, there is always a chance to return to Him. He gave us His Son, as a great mediator so that we could return to Him, but  we have to choose this path with our own agency. He has already saved me, forgiven me, and loves me regardless of the stains of this life. That is my Why. This is the truth that I found, and each story, word, and principle found in the Book of Mormon testifies of that truth. That is why I am a Mormon, because there's nothing lacking. I have found the truth, the peace, the knowledge, and the testimony that my heart ached for, that I learned and lost, and fought to have again. And when I was lost, I was never rejected, nor will I ever be, because He LOVES us.

I am not ashamed of this gospel I love. I am NEVER ashamed of the truth that I know, and I will stand up as a witness before friends, family and even the world of this truth.  Since that day when I gave my life to Him to direct, my life has been filled with both blessings and trials, but something that has never ever been lacking again, is 
His guidance and His love, His direction. He is there, constantly leading me along by the hand, I just have to let Him.

I will never feel fully adequate to be a mouthpiece for Him, and I will never feel like my story is profound enough to help anyone else, but if you take ANYTHING else away from this post, if you read the beginning and only the end, what I hope you take away is this:

I am not ashamed. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I AM different because of it. I CHOSE this life, and I chose my faith.  I choose it every single day. 

 It is not easy on this earth for anyone, nor was it ever meant to be, but I know through the Atonement, and the gospel that it will be WORTH it. I may have hung my head at 8 years old, but I will never in my life again hide or shy away from proclaiming my faith. We are all different, and we are all loved by our Father in Heaven, no matter skin color, religion, belief, non-belief, sins, choices, mistakes, burdens.

We are all loved by Him.

I know without a doubt that this gospel is true, because I have searched, and I have fought, and I have sought it out, I have sought Him out, and He has seen my face, felt my pleas, and answered my prayers. I want the tiny son I have, soon to be a part of this world to know WHO his mother is, and what she stands for, and that she is so GRATEFUL for it.

I was made to bear witness of His existence, and the life of His Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 

I am a Mormon because I have felt the peace and the redemption
 that comes through the gospel of Christ.

 I am a Mormon because I have felt the happiness, and the direction,
 and the closeness to the spirit that I have found no where else. 

I am a Mormon because I know it is true, not because I have been brainwashed, or raised in it for so long I cannot see anything else, but because I have ASKED, and I have sought out answers, and I have found them.

 I am a Mormon because I have found truth, and I will champion that truth and share it with any who also wish to know. 

I am a Mormon because I believe in the words of the beautiful book that was given to me so long ago, the Book of Mormon. 

I am a Mormon because I believe in restored blessings of Heaven on Earth through temples and prophets.

I am a Mormon because I know that He is real, and He is with me always.

I am a Mormon because my Father in Heaven loves me, and He is there, and real, and the Atonement allows me to return to Him. 

I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I am never ashamed.  

This is the best picture of Russell
This was taken today right after writing this post.

If you would like to know more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please feel free to visit, or to find answers to questions.  It's non-confrontational and you can find plenty of free resources for learning on your own, or even members that can come meet with you. I'd also be happy to answer any questions you might have in regards to my beliefs and my faith. I love my religion, and am happy to share.