When I was attending the University of Utah one of my then favorite movies, The Big Chill, was released. Starring a very young William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close and Jeff Goldblum, it was about a group of friends who come together when one of their own commits suicide. One of the more powerful moments for me was when the minister gave the eulogy. In conclusion he said:
“It makes me angry, and I don’t know what to do with my anger! Are not the satisfactions of being a good man among our common men great enough to sustain us anymore? Where did Alex’s hope go? Maybe this is the small resolution we can take from here today. To try to regain that hope that must have eluded Alex.”
Towards the end of my mission, Elder G. and I were ZL companions, and as close as they come. We had a great time together, traveling the zone for exchanges and baptismal interviews. We laughed a lot, prayed a lot, took a lot of silly pictures. In one we’re straight-faced, wearing boxers over our Swedish knit pants, and another holding up the Durham Herald-Sun, the two-inch high headline reading: “Reagan 40th President”; big, cheesy grins on our mugs. He was from Kearns and I was from Sandy, so when I came home three weeks after he did we went on a double date (saw The Jazz Singer; drove the girls nuts with our over-the-top Neil Diamond impressions). We both started attending the U. and ended up in a number of the same classes.
It was around this time I started seeing the cracks in the veneer. Ken would pose questions like, didn’t I think it was ridiculous how the Church turned Sonia Johnson into a martyr, or “Why couldn’t Kimball see the Salamander Letter was a forgery? I mean, he’s supposed to be a prophet, right?” I thought he was just assuming the smug collegiate mindset, always questioning and framing arguments. Apparently it ran a lot deeper than that. He had a new girlfriend at the time, a sweet non-member girl, and they soon moved in together. Finally, Ken admitted he left the Church and tried for months afterward to get me to see the absurdity of it, and all religion in general. And then we just sort of faded apart.
I know people leave the Church all the time for a bunch of reasons. I hear about it every week. Something– or things– happens that brings about disillusionment, disenfranchisement and finally divorce. Their testimonies (I would reason) just weren’t strong enough to take the challenges they faced, or they chose to yield rather than endure. Questions that occured to them took prominent placement in their minds, to be fed and nurtured. Excuses such as not agreeing with the Church’s position on an issue or getting mad because their bishop made an observation that offended them became smoke screens obscuring truer reasons– either that or they just never got the gospel in the first place. Their testimonies were malnourished seedlings or just plain figments. Why else could they make wholesale dismissals of everything else the religion consists of: All the collective scriptural and spiritual evidence, the perfect package of the Plan of Salvation, the cause and effect– and lessons– of living the Gospel? To be so hung up on things so insignificant in the eternal perspective.
It reminds me of another scene in The Big Chill:
“I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They’re more important than sex.”
“Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.”
“Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?”
On the other hand, I know there are expatriates in pain over their decisions. They genuinely feel betrayed, broken-hearted. My heart goes out to them. But again, I feel that so many good and precious things the Gospel offers are being needlessly sacrificed for the sake of small satisfaction. The Gospel they had once embraced came from God. The testimonies they once bore came from Him. Not liking feeling judged in your ward or the Church’s stand on a particular issue shouldn’t erase all that– it’s not worth spiritual amputation.
But this was Elder G.! We wept together in the field, we baptized and marveled at the disinterested, we fought the good fight! He came from a strong, active home. Where did Ken’s hope go?
Another friend, this one in my current ward, was recently ex’ed. Before that happened he was stalwart to the point of nauseating, a real boy scout. He’d preach missionary work with the zeal of a Kool-Aid drinker and was the go-to guy in Gospel Essentials. Ours was a quirky friendship because I tended to be more the contrarian and weisenheimer to his wide-eyed “whoops there goes another rubber tree plant.” But we admired each other’s minds and passion for film, and enjoyed each other’s company while going to movies and running marathons. Then he strayed from his marriage, dyed his hair and disappeared, only to show up a few months later with a new wife (I call her “Yoko”). I used to comfort myself for being cynical by saying it’s the zealots you have to watch out for– THEY’RE the ones most apt to crack. At the same time I suspected that that kind of thinking was just pathetic justification for my own sins. Now I’m not so sure I was so far from the mark.
People leave the Church every day. It’s virtually a law of nature– a necessary evolution of the purification of Zion. In my heart of hearts I truly believe that those who are converted– and who cultivate the spiritual maturity to actually “get” the Gospel– will not leave the Church, not permanently. Those who aren’t and don’t I feel will vacillate into a spiritual passivity or will persistently be bugged by things in the Church until they finally step off, either with crashing cymbals or a mouse fart.
But that’s me.
It just surprises me sometimes, you know, who leaves and who stays.