June 21, 2017
Chiang Mai, Thailand
I said goodbye to my brother yesterday. Not in the morbidly permanent fashion that it sounds like, exactly. Nobody has died yet. But it was possibly the last time.
My youngest brother contacted me for the first time in over two years on a messaging app. I woke up to the missive asking if I was alive, how I was doing, did I need anything. After telling me that he would be going to Japan for several months after summer ended, he mentioned that he had just attended the annual convention held by the church in which we both grew up and that I left over three years ago. He then stated that “we are getting very close”, meaning that the end is near. Maybe it is. Looking around at the state of the world, who knows? But for over 40 years of my life, every little upheaval in world politics, turmoil of other religious institutions, or literal earthquake have indicated that the end was near. My parents thought that the end would come before I started attending school. But it didn’t. And we were sure it would end before I started puberty, began driving, graduated high school, became a card-carrying adult, got married, etc. But it didn’t. And it didn’t end before my own kids went to school and grew up. No matter how dire the predictions have been over the last century, no matter how certain the church leadership was, the end didn’t come.
As humans, our religious beliefs have a profound effect on our lives. They may influence what we select to wear, what we choose to eat, or what we decorate our homes with. Some religions dictate harsh rules, some very strongly encourage certain behaviors, and some pretty much let you do what you want but please toss some money into the coffers, won’t you? In my case, we were forbidden sex before marriage, smoking, use of drugs without a doctor’s prescription. We were “strongly encouraged” to dress in modest fashion, to not attend university, to refrain from seeing movies with certain ratings. There wasn’t a whole lot of “do as you please”. The leadership would find ways to use verses from the Bible to control us as to how much alcohol we could drink, what types of haircuts were acceptable, and even the language we would use to describe things. It really was all about control. Sometimes, the explanations they gave for their directives didn’t really make sense to me. Other times, their interpretations seemed contradictory, or even defied logic. Eventually, I began to question my beliefs. When basic questions about the teachings went unanswered to my satisfaction, I became disillusioned.
I remained pretty quiet about my misgivings, however. In the broader picture, life wasn’t bad for us. I could trust my fellow believers not to steal from me. I was fairly confident that my family would stay intact, as divorce is only allowed in extreme circumstances, one being adultery, which was relatively rare. My friends didn’t smoke or use illicit drugs. I didn’t know anyone in prison. And because research was encouraged, I was pretty confident that other Christian religions were not teaching or adhering to the Bible, which they claimed to follow. I know, for example, and can show proof that Christmas, Easter, and other important “holy days” are steeped in paganism and have zero to do with Christianity. As far as following Jesus’ teachings of being nice, honest, and generally decent to others, our religion was pretty good about it.
The organization behind the teachings was also pretty good about having us be judgmental about others. I was taught to see “worldly” people, or those outside of our church as “bad associations”. I was led to believe that those not of our religion really didn’t have true love for others. They only showed love when they felt they would get something in return. They didn’t love on principle. And that if I spent more time with them than I had to either at school or at work, then I would become infected with their way of thinking and acting. Those in our church who chose to have association with “worldly” people may not be called out on it officially, but we definitely looked down on them as “weak” Christians. I was definitely guilty of arrogance myself, as I stayed close to what I was told to do.
Even as a young person, I rose in the ranks of the organization, obtaining privileges (which were NOT glory, even if they really were) of service. I was recognized as a full-time minister at age sixteen, was selected to go work at the headquarters of the organization as a volunteer (a very prestigious honor) at twenty. Later, after I married, I was given other prominent positions in the church, eventually becoming one of the leaders in the local congregations. I regularly taught from the podium in front of dozens or even hundreds of people. I was responsible for helping to maintain the spirituality of smaller groups within the congregation. I sometimes even sat in judgment of wrongdoers, with the hope of helping to retain them in the church through repentance, but expelling them if necessary. That was definitely not my favorite part of the assignment.
Expulsion from the church is like death, and often considered worse. If you are no longer part of the congregation, you are treated as a leper. Your family (unless immediate family that you still lived with) and friends has no contact with you, if they keep to the faith. The idea is that the sudden loss of all communication with those you know and love will shock you into repentance. And it also serves to keep the congregation from being infected by your willful wrongdoing and attitude. It makes perfect sense. Or at least it did to me. I personally experienced having to stop communication with some of my friends, and even my own brother (yes, my youngest one) for a time while he was expelled. It was difficult for me, and I was very happy when he was returned to the flock. Later, because of a pretty serious wrong that I committed, I was expelled myself. It took a long 2 1/2 years for me to get back into the church. In the meantime, I didn’t speak with my parents or my brothers, or anyone else in the church. My wife and children who still lived with me continued our daily lives together, but it was a strain at times, as I no longer could attend gatherings with other friends with them, or entertain at our home. So, yes, there was definitely a reason for me to work hard to return.
However, I never really returned in spirit. I attempted to, yet I found the proper assistance by the leadership in the local congregation to be lacking, even though they promised it. I was in a different city and they were new to me, which should have been a good thing, as it was a fresh start for me. But I felt abandoned and ignored much of the time. I found myself simply going through the motions to keep the status quo. Making friends was always easy for me, though, and soon I was a pretty popular member of the group. I often set up gatherings at our house and entertained as much as possible. I looked for ways to help others when I could. But I never really felt at home anymore. I still couldn’t square the teachings with my own hidden personal beliefs. I had started to hone my critical thinking skills and my bullshit meter was constantly going off. It always had been, actually, but I chose to mute it in my head.
My marriage had never been a satisfying and happy one. I often felt trapped, but kept silent about it. The statement I made before about how I didn’t fear my parents divorcing now has the caveat of knowing that many of the marriages are unhappy and soul-sucking relationships, and that the outward bliss shown is many times a facade. When I returned to the congregation after my expulsion, I was honest with one of the local leaders. I told him that living forever in paradise (the Bible doesn’t really offer Heaven or Hell, but that’s a whole different topic) was not appealing to me if I had to stay with a woman that I despised. He didn’t know how to respond to that, so he just laughed it off like I was telling a joke. But I found myself living the same lie as before. And I started being more bold about stating my feelings.
The turning point for me came when I began to see a therapist. In the bad old days of the religion, seeing a professional psychologist was considered taboo. The church elders were supposed to be able to help with any problem you may have, because mental illnesses were simply spiritual failings. Eventually, the organization leadership recognized that they were woefully inept at helping people and it became okay to seek professional assistance. I know now why they were afraid of it. My therapist actually just listened to me. She never told me what I should do. She simply let me talk. After a while, I began to trust her enough to tell her about my true feelings and what I was going through. It was difficult to talk about the misery of my marriage or the misgivings I had about my beliefs. I felt like I was being unfaithful to my entire life. But eventually, I heard my own voice. And instead of her saying anything about how I should handle it, I knew for myself what I had to do. After steeling myself for the impact of the fallout, I finally left my wife.
I moved to the city and began to attend a different congregation of the church. I wasn’t ready to walk completely away from everything. I hoped that the change of scenery in my personal life would help me to be happy in the religion. The local elders actually did make a real attempt to welcome me and give me a home there, but I found my bullshit meter going off every time we discussed the teachings from the church literature. It became unbearable, so I stopped going. I eventually told my parents that I no longer was going to attend, because I no longer believed. After a year apart, I asked my wife for a divorce, and told her that she was free to remarry, because by that time I had already been sexually involved with someone else. This was the death-knell to my relationship with my family. I knew that it would be, and I accepted it. I could have been untruthful to my wife and said that I hadn’t slept with anyone else, but I was tired of living one lie, and didn’t want to live a different one. I have resolved to try to be honest about who I am. It makes me feel much better.
I have very little to no contact with my parents. Once in a while, I send them a message to let them know that I’m still okay and that I still love them. My mother sends a short reply of thanks and returns the love. My son follows the standard and is out of touch. My daughter has recently begun to ignore the rules and now has conversations with me online, but I know she feels guilty about it. I tread carefully, and know that at any time, she may stop communicating with me again. I lost contact with all of my friends from my previous life. Everyone I count as a friend currently is from 2013 onward, with only a couple of exceptions at this time. But I am happier now than I ever was when I lived a lie.
My brother reached out to me to try to get me to come back. It probably broke his heart when it was clear that I have no intentions of returning. He responded that his way of life was what was best for him, and that he wished me well. Then simply, “bye.”