It was spring. The lawn in the backyard was still brown, but the snow had melted. It was cool enough that you needed a jacket, but not if you were just running to the neighbor’s house, which is where I was.
It was 1989 or so. I had spent most of the morning at one of my friend’s house. Our backyards butted up against each other on hillside, my house above and hers below, separated by a short fence with a gazebo in one corner. My mom created a staircase out of flat sandstone slabs down the last part of our embankment so that we could have easy access to the small space between the gazebo and the fence – just enough for one person to sneak between the yards.
We’d been playing house. I was wearing an apron of some kind, and a silk robe, both things out of the dress-up box. She was wearing a dress of some sort. Those mundane kind of details are fuzzy. The rest is not.
We were eating something – lunch or a snack – and sitting at her kitchen bar, which looked out into the back yard and my house above. I don’t know how we got on the conversation, but she started talking about the rapture.
This friend — like all of my neighbors and most of my friends at the time in the small town just outside of Logan, Utah — was Mormon. Faith was, and still is, strong in those parts. It isn’t just something tasted inside church doors, it’s pervasive, the air that’s breathed. If you’re not careful, and most people in my home town aren’t, you don’t even realize you’re breathing it; you don’t even realize how the faith of the Mormon church seeps into the culture, conversation, actions and norms.
If you’re not careful, and if you don’t have enough difference to freshen the air, you don’t realize how others are harmed in the tight-fisted keeping of faith.
“Yeah, it’s in the year 2000!” she said, excitedly. She always was one for acting, and would later go on to star in school plays in middle and high school. “Since we’ll be graduating that year, we’re all going to be partying right when Jesus comes down and all the righteous people start to rising with Him up to heaven.”
I chewed on my snack. I think it was tuna without pickles. Gross.
“What happens to the others?” I asked. “The ones who aren’t righteous?”
I asked this because if I had learned one thing in my eight or nine years, it was that Mormons had specific rules around what it meant to be righteous, and I wasn’t it. My family wasn’t religious, for one thing. My mom drank alcohol and smoked, for another. My dad cussed like a banshee. We didn’t go to church. We swam or skied on Sundays. We didn’t even know how to pray properly.
I didn’t meet any of the qualifications for being saved, and that terrified me.
She answered my question, “They stay on the earth and burn.”
I stopped chewing and thought about my family.
My mom, who stayed home and created beautiful things, who was a member of the PTA, who volunteered to chaperone school field trips, and coached my softball team, and sat by my sister’s side while she battled leukemia.
My dad, who taught me about the wonders of the natural world, who got excited like a kid at Christmas every time he caught a fish or skied fresh snow, who had a reputation as a man of science who preserved fish and streams and rivers.
And of my sweet, sweet little sister, battling cancer, her fead fuzzy with regrowth, her skin puffy from steroids. And me, who knew I loved this thing others called “God” but felt completely unworthy of love back. After all, God only loved you if you followed the rules. And we didn’t.
We were all sinners, the lot of us.
I turned back to my friend. “What about me? I asked. “What about my family?”
She turned her eyes down while she took a bite of her sandwich. “Yeah, I asked my mom about you,” she said.
“And?” I asked.
She raised her eyebrows and shrugged her shoulders. “You’re not righteous.”
The room began to spin, or at least I thought it did. Really, it was a combination of the tears gathering in my eyes and my swift movement off of the bar stool, out the back door, and up the wooden stairs to the gazebo. Sobbing, I squeezed through the space between our yards, ran up the sandstone steps, across the lawn, up the deck stairs, into the french doors and straight into my mother’s arms.
As painful as it was, this wasn’t an isolated experience. Many times in my youth I would experience being ostracized, outcast, looked down upon, excluded and taken advantage of because of my lack of religion. Never mind that I was kind, sincere, earnest and caring. Never mind that I was a loyal friend, trustworthy, honest and responsible. Never mind that I was a child at the mercy of my surroundings.
I was a sinner.
My life was not sacred.
I learned that if only I followed the rules, and if my family followed the rules, we could be saved. That if we just became something we were not, we would be okay.
This is not a lesson that anyone should ever have to learn, especially so young.
Funny thing was, as time went on, I was forsaken, over and over again, not by some divine spirit or supreme being, but by people who claimed to be righteous, good, rule-following missionaries.
My best friend, a righteous follower, would leave me behind and not speak to me for months, later claiming to “get sick of me.”
A righteous boy in high school tskked at me for not having Mormon scriptures or being enrolled in seminary (an hour of “free time” where Mormon’s attend a church class just next door to school grounds).
Another righteous boy would humiliate me in high school by telling the swim team that he could take advantage of me because I “wasn’t Mormon and didn’t have morals.” He went on to date me, rather kindly and sweetly, for three months, feel me up one night (consensually, in a rather unsatisfying PG-13 way, if I might add) then stop speaking to me. I got strange looks from everyone on the swim team until a friend of mine told me what happened.
As time went on, I recognized these inconsistencies. I was told – by people who preached the rules but didn’t follow them, or followed them just enough to “pass” — that my life, or the way I was living it, wasn’t sacred. Sure, I was kind and courteous and punctual and thoughtful and caring and strong and sensitive and empathetic, but that wasn’t enough. Only if I lived up to their idea of who I should be would I be worthy of true love and friendship and divine connection.
This damning message was a damaging one, one that bound life-long friendships – based in this trauma – between myself and the others I know who survived this same upbringing. But it didn’t stop my search for the Sacred.
For Soul. The Divine. Supreme Being. The Universe. The Mystery. The Great Connection. Heart. Spirit. Love. Shadow.
We are all from the same place, and deserve to find a pathway home that feeds us in the way our soul craves to be fed. This may be religion, this may be science, this may be a unique form of spirituality – but all of it is sacred.
Your life is sacred.
And the harsh lessons I learned as a child?
They helped me to be more compassionate to those who are different than me. They helped me to look for the common ground in others. They taught me that I can disagree with friends and still love them (I still maintain some wonderful Mormon friends and family members). They taught me that I never want to be part of a group that dictates the rules of my soul, for as disorienting as it can be to find my own answers, it’s much – much – more satisfying to me to receive my answers this way.
Those childhood lessons are a big part of what led me to create The Sacred Rebellion.
The one good thing that came from growing up as a spiritual outcast is that I learned to ask the difficult questions and seek answers that weren’t supplied to me. I had to find my own way. It was excruciating, and it was liberating.
Ultimately, the path of doing this taught me one very important thing: I am sacred. Inherently sacred. Just as you are, and as my childhood friends are, and as those I disagree with are, and those I don’t know are, and those I love are. Sacredness doesn’t come from the rules we follow or the good deeds we commit (those just make us feel good); sacredness comes from the fact that we am here, alive in this body. I am — and you are, like all living creatures — sacred in and of myself.
So I better stand up and start acting like it.
The Sacred Rebellion is for the spiritual orphans, recovering religious followers, the religiously devoted but spiritually open, the agnostics and those searching for a place to ask the questions to find your own answers. There are no puritanical rules here.
Here, there is love. There is curiosity. There is connection, and safety, and zero tolerance for bigotry or shaming.
Here, there is a goal to understand not only how we, as a group, are similar – to build connections – but also to try and understand how our experiences are different. Empathy for difference expands our capacity to understand the world; it makes it brighter and bigger, and keeps the door to possibility open.
Here, there is a spotlight on the down under, the human, the darkness, just as much as there is the up above, the spiritual, the love and the light. A focus on one without the other is unbalanced. When we only focus on the light, we fail to recognize and address human disparity, oppression and our place in it. This is spiritual work, too.
Here, there is an understanding that we must rebel against the social, cultural and sometimes religious rules that ultimately cause us psychological, social or physical harm. This rebellion is sacred, because it is a mission of finding your own Truth – the Truth of your soul, the Truth of how Spirit dances with your unique consciousness.
Your sacred rebellion is your pathway home to yourself.
Come home to yourself, surrounded by friends on their own journeys home.
Learn more about The Refuge over here. Join us!
**A note to the reader: I am in no way condemning religion or religious practices that feed your soul. This article covers some of the most formative and negative experiences I had on the outside of the predominant religion of my region. I have also had and continue to have wonderful relationships with people of the Mormon faith. My goal here is to articulate what can and does happen when religion is used as a weapon of oppression toward those who believe differently than you.**