I was raised in a strictly orthodox conservative Mormon home. Dad’s family came from Scotland, Mom’s from England. I was taught and believed my church was the only “true” one approved by God. Everything was seen through the rosy-colored Mormon world view. Any other way of looking at the world was incomprehensible. We had the truth, nobody else did. We were special. That belief was the foundation of everything in my life.
So I dutifully served a Mormon mission in Korea, then went to BYU because good Mormon boys didn’t go anywhere else. Since my early teens there lurked in the back of my mind the realization that I liked boys more than girls, but I’d been taught such things were evil and good Mormon boys had to marry good Mormon girls and have lots of good Mormon kids. So I trusted my leaders, skillfully pretended to be like everybody else, and married a beautiful young woman who, like me, did not deserve what eventually happened. I graduated law school and embarked on my career. Kids came along. I rocketed up the Mormon leadership ladder pretty quickly. Life seemed perfect.
But it wasn’t. Things happen. The marriage broke apart very suddenly and I was ushered out of my own home with only what I could carry. A few months later, my company began to implode and my job evaporated. Within six months I lost family, home, all financial assets, and almost all access to my kids. For a while, I literally did not think I would survive. Thank God my parents lived not too far away.
The Mormon church is great if you are part of an intact traditional nuclear family in which everybody believes the same thing. It’s not great if you’re anything else, especially a divorced dad, because Mormons assume you’re the one who failed. I became an instant pariah. Suddenly the cornerstone felt a lot less secure. Then Proposition 8 came along, and for the first time ever I couldn’t reconcile what my church taught with what I was and believed. For years I’d fought furiously with myself and tried to pray away the gay since I’d been taught it would damn me forever. But eventually I couldn’t pretend anymore. I came out. It was liberating like I’d never imagined. The thing I’d feared more than anything actually felt like 100 Christmas mornings all together. My daughter later said it was like somebody had turned the gravity down around me.
This was NOT what I’d been taught to expect. The Mormon leaders I’d trusted all my life had been horribly, spectacularly wrong. So naturally I, the ever-inquisitive quarrelsome lawyer, began questioning everything else of the faith I’d been taught. And soon the cornerstone I’d built my life and faith on dissolved. I couldn’t trust or believe any of it anymore. I had to leave, on principle. That has cost me most of my family relationships, but I value honesty and integrity more.
It’s one thing to lose your house. That I’d done, and survived. It’s quite another to lose the faith you’d built your whole life on.
But when I was in college, I’d bumped into that T. S. Eliot guy again. Turns out he wasn’t deeply weird after all, he was deeply wise. I read his poems called The Four Quartets. One part resonated in particular:
We die with the dying:Maybe it’s my Anglo-Scots ancestry that made that image so powerful: the fading light of a pale winter sun in a secluded English chapel. I may never know completely why. But when I first read that in college, that image struck home far more powerfully than anything ever had in my Mormon upbringing. I imagined myself in that English chapel with fading winter light through stained glass windows, with a personal connection to the centuries of Christians who’d gone before me. As deeply as anything I’ve ever felt, in my heart, in my gut, that felt like home. This puzzled me at the time, but I never forgot it.
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
Fast forward to San Diego where I was now spiritually rudderless. Everything I’d been taught had proven untrustworthy. I still clung to the basics of Christian faith. Where could I go?
Actually, by then I’d been dragging the kids to the annual Christmas Service of Lessons and Carols at St. Paul’s for a few years. I’d made a few friends there. I’d always loved Anglican church music. Maybe this is where I was meant to be. Maybe this was my own connection to history, my own English chapel with the fading winter light and the stained glass. So I spent an hour with a kind and gentle and wise Dean Scott Richardson, who listened to my story and invited me to “try us out on your own terms and your own timetable.” I did. I was welcomed warmly, with none of the judgment, the demands, the guilt, the regimentation or the shunning that prevailed in the place I’d come from. Here I was free to rediscover faith and commitment and a path of Christian discipleship in a way that worked best for me, without feeling constantly judged or unworthy or having to hide who I am. I can’t tell you what a relief that is; I doubt I’ll ever lose the sense of wondrous gratitude. Plus, the cathedral smells a lot better than the old place, and there’s free wine on Sundays.
Someday in my interview with God I will ask if He had prepared things all along for me to find my way here. That poem by T.S. Eliot. The Christmas services. My discovery of Anglican liturgical music years ago. All converged together so that when I needed a new home, a new cornerstone for my faith, I found the perfect fit ready to walk into. And so this is where I was privileged to be baptized last Easter by Bishop Mathes, reaffirming as an adult my commitment to try to follow the Savior’s teachings.
During that journey I discovered that trusting in an external institution as the cornerstone of one’s life and faith is futile, because external cornerstones will crack and crumble away. The disasters of past years I once thought would be fatal I now see as some of the greatest blessings of my life, because they forced me to find my own real path. They forced me to learn real, tested faith in the Savior as my ultimate cornerstone. I’m still working out just what that means for me. But at least here I am safe to find it for myself. I still believe in one principle I was taught as a child, that the best way to serve God is to serve his children. And here at St. Paul’s I can contribute to a community where I’ve seen true Christianity in action, surrounded by so much talent, dedication, humble and committed and raucous and messy and wonderful, heart-warming, human discipleship, sharing this path together. Here I savor the beauty of stained glass and the lesson it teaches, of God’s light shining through the Christian heroes commemmorated in these windows. Here I marvel every week as I see a microcosm of humanity all walking forward together to be fed at God’s table. It is the perfect picture of the gospel.
When I was a kid, I thought I knew everything. Didn’t question what I was taught. I felt perfectly secure. Then I lost everything: home, family, job, faith. I had to start all over. I am grateful that home, family, job, faith and happiness have all been restored. But I’ve now learned that everything can be taken away in an instant. Yet, paradoxically, I now feel more secure than ever. Thanks to St. Paul’s and the Episcopal Church, I have found the spiritual path that really works for me. That’s something nobody can take away.
And now I wonder if that’s the reason that picture of T.S. Eliot, another Anglican convert, stuck in my mind in childhood, and why that image of the English chapel was so powerful years ago. Because Eliot foresaw and described my experience perfectly:
What we call the beginning is often the end--Rob Donaldson
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning; . . .
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.
EDITOR’S NOTE - In order to keep the witnesses as short as possible without loosing their power, they are heavily edited by the time they make it to the pulpit (not to mention to keep them under 10 minutes!). But you can imagine how hard it is to see important parts of your life fall to the cutting room floor so to speak. So as with last year, we thought it would be good to post the original, longer versions of each witness on the blog: the “extended cut” if you will. They tell a more complete story with more personal details. Thank you to all of our witnesses who so courageously share a part of their lives with us so that we might be opened up just a little more to how God is working in our lives and in the life of St. Paul’s.