Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Great Unknown

I was called and served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints almost exactly two years ago. I am posting this on the day that I was originally called to end my service. This date was determined from the day I received my call. But circumstances, of which I will be explaining, caused me to return January 10th, 2015 instead of today. I have taken my time writing this first blog entry because I feel my emotions have been all over the place the past few weeks and writing my thoughts then would have likely led me to say something I would later regret. I have read and reread what I have posted here and feel that it is accurate to how I currently feel about this situation and my relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which I will refer to, here on out, as the Church). I hereby give a disclaimer stating that I will be sharing opinions and beliefs of mine that are considered contrary to the core-doctrines of the Church and that I do not do any of this out of spite or anger to the people in the Church nor to those who have been in direct affiliation with my journey. Please, read with an open heart and an open mind.

Many people I know have shared with me that a mission was the greatest thing for their life to date. I would fall into that category. So what makes me different? 

I was called to serve in the Roseville, California Mission and reported to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) February 3rd, 2013. I was incredibly nervous to go and had many doubts in myself and my abilities. What kept me going from the beginning was my desire to make my family proud, to become a man, and to serve someone besides myself. I was certainly ill-prepared for the service, but I pressed on. I had no study habits beforehand and I had never lived away from home. A scripture that served me well was Doctrine and Covenants 58:27-28, "Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward." I was unsure what the Spirit feels like (still) but I have a strong feeling that the drive to good, to serve others without reward, is guidance from the Holy Ghost. I stuck by that. Throughout my stay my desire to love, serve and teach the people I was to meet grew every day.

After a week and a half went by in the MTC approximately 35 missionaries arrived at the Sacramento airport where we met our Mission President and his lovely wife. We were quickly orientated and quickly sent to our separate proselyting areas with our trainers. I was excited to get to work even before I finished unpacking. I begged my trainer to let us go tracting (door to door proselyting), because that's what missionaries do, right? He was somewhat reluctant, but we did it. I remember the exact street where we knocked. Up one side and down the other. We met nothing but empty doors and "busy" residents. I remember being disappointed, yet the flame to share the message was still there. This flame burned within me to share of God's love, though it was hard to do so. Mainly because I was told how amazing a mission was and I felt as if my experiences were sub-par at times, causing frustration with myself and often my companion - though I felt greatly blessed by the Lord for the opportunities I had, seeing myself and others change for the better.

After I left my first area I spent my time with a missionary who was set (and ready) to go home. After that I trained, was transferred again, became District Leader. In that ward my companion and I brought one family and two individuals into the church (five total). That is when I would say the work was most successful for me. My next area I was called as Zone Leader and over a Young Single Adult Ward and I had a blast. I loved seeing the testimonies of people in the same age group as myself and making lasting friendships there. Afterwards I was sent up north. By this time I had been about 18 months out. Things were different there than any other area I had served.

One day my companion and I were discussing the things most companionships do, like Mother in Heaven, Ezekiel 37:16-17, and a question I felt was pretty interesting: Why did Peter, James and John give Joseph Smith the Melchezidek Priesthood when the Three Nephites had the same authority and were already walking around? I posted this question on a Facebook group called Discussion on LDS Doctrine run by faithful, True Believing Mormons (TBMs). I was shut down and condemned by a few for asking such ridiculous questions that should not be asked. This turned me off to these types of thinkers and caused me to search out someone who would be willing to address this, or any question. I hit a group called Uncensored Discussion on Mormon Doctrine. This felt appropriate because it was the censorship in the other group that turned me off. I scanned and found that it was mostly "anti" and not faith-promoting. I searched to find a better one. It was then I realized that there is a lot of people out there that wish to damage the church. I wondered why.

I did what I felt I should do and sought to proselytize in a Mormon/Evangelical Discussion Group. This turned out to be as a pack of wolves attacking myself and my companion. We tried to make theological conversation and share our beliefs, but we were shut down on every corner, which was disheartening, not only because we were made as fools, but because what they were saying often made sense. Eventually I received a copy of the CES Letter and read through most of it in one night. The "letter" is a document compiled by a once faithful member who had some questions about the validity of the church and presented it to a CES Director. Unfortunately the unnamed director did not even reply to his inquiry, so the author, Jeremy Runnells, published the document online. I have read the letter all the way through once and referenced it many times. His points are good. Too good. The first time I read through it, I cried myself to sleep, knowing I had acquired a major wound in what I thought was a solid testimony. That is when my crisis if faith began.

I did not have much of a desire to really do any work. I began to question everything I was taught. I was angry at church leaders, myself, even God. I questioned his existence on multiple occasions. I did not share my thoughts or feelings with my companion. Soon after my first exposure I stumbled upon a presentation online given by John Dehlin about Why Mormons Question. I loved the angle that he took at the presentation. It was not to shut down people's belief in the church, but to give faithful members the opportunity to understand the less understood. I felt as if he was describing me. It was then I joined the group and was received by many people willing to support me in my search for truth and understanding. That is when I joined the Mormon Stories Podcast Community.

Eventually my first companion in the area left and my new companion joined me. Near the beginning of our adventures together I opened up to him, telling him I was unsure of the core doctrines of the Church. He reacted, I felt, somewhat poorly at the time, yet understandably so. He told me he had gone down the road I had and that he did not want to be there. He told me to stop thinking about those things that contradict the Church and put it away. His reaction caused me to talk about the hard things with only those who were online.

Our companionship was a great one. We had tons of fun and had one baptism along the way. During conference time something changed. My companion noticed that I was in MSPC and decided he wished to join as well. Straight off he posts on the page that he has had doubts about the church and wants to know the best way to tell his family. The group blew up! Our presence was made known. Many members of the group commented on the post, reaching over one hundred comments in about an hour. We conversed with many group members, gaining support. That night we were called by our Mission President and told that someone from Kaysville, Utah, a member of the Church, reported that we were participating in "an apostate group". We were reprimanded and told that he was going to be talking to us soon. This caused great panic and John Dehlin himself contacted us and we talked to him on the phone the next morning, apologizing for the breach in privacy and counseled with us about how we should proceed. I got a little fired up when he shut down my idea to be straight up with President about my concerns, but he advised me not to because "authenticity is not well received". We ended up having our talk with President a few days later for our regularly scheduled bi-transfer interview. The whole situation was not even brought up with my companion, but President was not happy with me. (In part because I posted a pic of me and my comp in nonproselyting clothes watching General Conference with the caption "I love Pajama Church!") I was asked to leave MSPC and that was about it.

Later in the transfer we received a call from President telling us he wanted to talk to us again. He showed up and told us that he had received many complaints, most about us playing basketball after curfew with other Elders. Also, he was notified that my companion had downloaded YouTube on his iPad. Ha! He didn't like that and thought it'd be best to take away our iPads. He told us that if we did not want to serve our missions any more that we could just go home. He told us to think about what we had done and get back to him that night about what we wanted to do. I was tempted to accept the offer to go home, but I knew I wouldn't do it. We decided to finish out the transfer together and shape up. I ended up writing a letter to President that night explaining that my poor behavior came not only from my need to be a little rebellious, but that I have had doubts about the validity of the Church. I told him I was going to follow up with him December 12th, 2014 and let him know if I feel that God still wants me to serve. He mentioned nothing of the letter, except that he received it.

After my companion went home when he was assigned I was sent down south again, into the same zone as the Mission Office, probably so President could keep an eye on me (that is what is advised for one to do in the Mission President's Handbook for insubordinate missionaries). I was in a stellar ward with a fantastic companion. We got along very well and had many great experiences. But I was torn inside. Every time my relatives would tell me how proud they were of me I would wince, because I knew I wasn't giving my all like I had in past areas, and that they saw me as something that I was not. My faith in the truthfulness of the Church did not grow, but I saw many great things come from the members. I realized that I love the people in the Church and wish to be with them, even though it is hard for me to trust the institution itself at this time.

December 12th came around and I told President that I was going to stay. I was happy where I was and the words of my mother reminded me that this is a one in a lifetime opportunity. He did not ask how I was doing with my faith, so I did not elaborate. Eventually it was about halfway through my last transfer when I asked President if I could have my temple recommend renewed. I was wanting to go to the temple trip and the end of my mission with the missionaries I came out with, and thought I best be prepared with a recommend. The interview was hard for me. I lied, straight up, when he asked if I had a "firm testimony of the restoration of the gospel". Most of the other questions revolve around that, so I was dishonest with the rest of them as well. Though I do not believe that the covenants made in the temple, nor the ceremony thereof, is necessary to live with God, I enjoy the spirit I feel there. I received a recommend. The guilt I felt from my lying is what pushed me to do what would get me sent home early.

The next week, on January 7th, we had out bi-transfer interviews with President. Mine happened to be special because it was going to be my last one; a little bit longer and certain papers were to be filled out prior to the interview and presented then. There were four things asked of us to fill-out. An outline of growth I have seen throughout my mission, my goals for the future, my most cherished moment while on my mission, and my sacred testimony. The latter two were hard for me, and would be what gets me in trouble.

President had the habit of taking too long in interviews and as a consequence of this, my interview that was originally at 3 o'clock happened instead at about 6:30. We started the interview with prayer and he praised me for being such a great missionary. Then he referred to the papers I had filled out, saying they were like a personal Patriarchal Blessing to me. Then he read my most cherished moment where I explained an epiphany (or, revelation, if you will) while I was contemplating the validity of the church and its truth claims that whether I came to the conclusion whether the church were true or not, that it would not be fair for me to give up on God. I noticed right as he realized what I had written because he became very uncomfortable, and appeared so. "Have you been questioning the validity of the church, Elder Tesch?" I told him I had. "Why?" I told him a few reasons. He asked for my temple recommend, then asked the interview questions again. When he asked if I had been honest in my dealings with my fellow men, I confessed that I had obviously lied in my last recommend interview. After horribly failing to answer the questions correctly President informed me that I am on the road to Hell. He also told me how sad and worried he is about me. I mostly sat and listened and only spoke when asked a question. He told me many times that he loves me, but that the things I had said would likely get me sent home. I understood, and understand still, that he does love me, and that he was only doing what he was told to do. We ended with a prayer in which he was very emotional, asking for my protection and guidance through this "hardship" I was experiencing. He embraced me for a long time, telling me how much he loved me, over and over. Before we left the room he told me not to "sow seeds of doubt" to my companion or any other missionary. On the bike ride home I told my companion that I was likely being sent home. I contacted President that night telling him I would like to represent myself when he spoke with the higher ups about my early release,  in hopes that I could persuade them to let me stay my last three weeks in the mission. I didn't want to go home. Not like this. John was right, they do not take well to authenticity.

The next day was killer. I felt sick, confused, afraid. The day was long. Honestly, I cannot recall much of anything that happened that Thursday. Though I did write a note that day that I will quote right now (I have changed the names to maintain confidentiality):
While at Johnson's for a lesson with Mark, Brother Johnson read a portion of a book called The Middle of Eternity: A Doctor's Journey Through Illness, by an LDS man named Kevin R. Anderson, and there were two paragraphs that hit me hard, for obvious reasons:

"I believe that God has a path, specifically for us, which if followed, will lead us to places that we never thought possible. These are often deviations from the path in life that we had planned for ourselves. Often, there is a sense of risk in these unknown uncharted waters. However, God often will provide two things to help us in choosing to follow His path rather than our own. First, he may send a person to suggest or offer an opportunity that we may not have considered or had had hoped for, but did not know how to achieve. This person could be a friend, parent, sibling or mentor. However, occasionally the person is a complete stranger: someone, recently met, whose kindness it would be to open a door, hold up a lantern and backing us on. I have come to see these individuals who have helped shape my life as compassionate strangers. That have no particular reason to help me, but somehow our paths cross at critical junctures in my life. The signal and sometimes facilitate necessary course correction, and then we part. Only later do I realize the full import of their momentary influence.
The second guide that God provides is the still, small voice that confirms to our souls that "this is right." It just feels right. Many individuals choose not to follow that feeling because of fear. Sometimes it is fear moving from their position of comfort and safety.
They fail to see beyond next Thursday and never lift their gazes up to the horizon to imagine themselves beyond it. These small momentary alterations of course ultimately result in magnificent effects upon our lives. Yet we only truly see them in retrospect."
This quote was a sign to me that the path I had chosen to take was one paved by God - that He has not given up on me.

Friday morning, the 9th, President called and asked for my father's cellphone number. He then confirmed that I was to be sent home and he wanted to contact my dad and see if he could arrange for someone to pick me up at the airport in Salt Lake City the next day. He then told me that we needed to meet at a nearby church building so that I could call my dad and tell him why I was being sent home.  I started packing and doing laundry right then. I told the Elders whom we had gotten very close to to come over before we left to the church so I could explain the situation. When they showed up I told them I was being sent home "in a state of apostasy" the next day because I have doubts and questions about the church, though I was careful not to be specific as to what those concerns were. They were not happy and also saw the cruelty I did in forcing me to call my parents, telling them that I had lost my faith in the Church. They stayed with us as I packed and when the time came for me to leave, we knelt in prayer and I broke down and cried as I said the prayer, thanking Father for the bounteous blessing it had been for me to serve my mission. That I was able to serve and love many people. I felt joy for the experiences and sorrow for the quick, unexpected ending.

After drying my tears, my companion and rode our bike to the nearest meetinghouse and waited for President to arrive. When he did he took me into a private room, and he explained that he had contacted my dad and said that I was coming home and that I was to then explain to my father why I was being sent home. This was, and is, the hardest part of the whole ordeal. Disappointing my parents. I called my dad on President's phone and told him that I was safe and healthy, but that I was being sent home 'in a state of apostasy'. "When did this happen, Josh?" I told him it has been happening for some time and that I told my Mission President about it which led me to where I was. I could tell how hurt he was over the phone and I apologized many times, telling him that I wish I didn't have to tell him like that. After I was done talking to him President told him what had happened and what was going to happen to me. He informed my father that I had rejected many of the truth claims of the church and is now considered in a state of apostasy. He grabbed my dad's email address so he could get him the flight information and ended the call.

Afterwards we went directly to my favorite family in the ward, whose daughter we had baptized, to tell them I was going home a little earlier than anticipated. After that we had a lesson, that I was hardly present at, and told the Brother who drove us that I was going home early, that there was a 'family crisis'. I packed. Said more goodbyes. I called a good friend, my "Mission Mom", over to talk to about the whole thing, and explain to her how I felt. She was kind enough to let me use her phone and talk to my mom, which I did. The first thing she asked is if I was safe. She did not seem angry or upset, but told me that she was excited for me to come home and that everything was going to be alright. That made the day so much better. We stayed out past curfew (sue me) to play with another great family in the ward. I had a restless sleep.

The next morning I was elated. I felt so good! I did not understand it. But I felt peace and comfort - and excitement! I was going to see my family that I miss so much! I saw this change, not as a setback, but a grand adventure. I sang as I packed the remainder of my things. The other Elders came over to say their last goodbyes. I gave them ties and other things normal people don't use often. We took pictures and said our goodbyes. I thanked my companion for everything. When President showed up we loaded up his car and made our way to the airport. At the security checkpoint he gave me $20 for food, a hug, shared his love, and told me to wave to him when I got to the other side of security. I did that and then I was on my own for the first time in almost two years.

The plane ride was long. I remember tears coming to my eyes when I saw the snow-capped mountains. I missed those mountains. Now I was home. 

After landing I made my way to the gate, took a picture of Cafe Rio (which I also sorely missed), and ran to my family when I saw 4/5 siblings, my parents, some cousins and 3/4 grandparents waiting for me at the bottom, "Welcome Home Elder Tesch" signs and all. I embraced my mother first, both of us sobbing. Afterwards I hugged my dad. It was very emotional. It felt good to cry.

I made it home. I never thought it would happen - especially like this. Since then my parents and I have had a few good conversations about how I am feeling and where I am at. I talked to my Stake President as well as my Bishop. I will not be having a homecoming talk because of the circumstances of which I was released. I am unsure if I am allowed to have a calling. I certainly do not have a temple recommend.

I am excited for the future. I have noticed God's hand in my life still and continue to search for it. I had a job handed to me, strangers have helped me when I was in need (locked my keys in the car...long story), and I do not feel as if I am alone. I know He is with me, and as I choose to listen I will be guided to truth and light.

Keep up your head up
Don't take your eyes off the road
Oh, you're never gonna change
By doing what you're told
You don't want let yourself down
So don't be scared to stand out
There's a thousand voices saying
The time is now
So let go
You're on your own
There's something waiting for you
There's something waiting for you
So let go
Of the world
You know
There's something waiting for you
In the great unknown
The great unknown

- Jukebox The Ghost

Please, I would ask for any and all to message me here or over Facebook about any questions you have. Thank you for reading. This is the first of many posts in which I explain what I call the Mormon Condition during my own journey through it.

Note: I feel the need to clarify that I have not chosen to leave the church. I do not feel the need to do so, yet. I wish to participate in activities and go to services like others do. like I mentioned, I love the people of the church, I see light in their eyes. I love being around successful people. I would like to branch out and seek light elsewhere at the same time, though. I hope that I am well received, even after I have chosen to speak out.