MY FAITH JOURNEY:
Stephen Villanueva was one of my best high school friends. But there was one thing that seemed to cause a fair amount of friction between us and that was religion. You see, I was Mormon and he was Born Again Christian. I believed that I had the only truth and he believed I was going to hell. However, looking back, it was probably our religious beliefs that kept us friends because we were such a minority – religiously, in our high school. We lived inAlbuquerque,New Mexico where the religious culture was predominantly Catholic and Baptist. Our high school had nearly 5,000 students and there were about 50 of us that were Mormon and there were probably less than that as Born Again Christian.
Stephen was all about witnessing to me and getting me to declare that Jesus was my Savior and that if I would just confess, I would be saved. The problem was – I believed in Jesus, but felt that to be saved I had to live up to all of the conditions as outlined by my church. In other words, I really didn’t get it. Stephen was persistent however, and after school, we’d go over to my house and sit on my back wall. It felt kind of Biblical to sit on that wall, in a sense, as Stephen would go on and on about scriptural passages about Jesus and the importance of what Jesus could do for me in my life. I even went to church with him once. However, looking back, I think what was in my teen-age head was that believing and being saved were to me – two different things. And part of my belief system was that I could believe but in order to be saved, I had to meet a lot of conditions.
I became what one might call a true-believer, one who follows the letter of the law. I was actually a Pharisee in the scriptural sense – strict observance of following the laws of the church with a sense of almost spiritual pride. Looking back, I had it pretty bad. I mean, I have the type of personality that I would have been counting my steps on the Sabbath to make sure I didn’t take more steps than I was allowed for fear of having committed sin. Some of this I got in my head because by this time I had started Seminary- the religious education program for LDS teenagers. We didn’t have it as release time like it is here inUtah, but went to our local ward chapel at 6 am for an hour of religious instruction every morning before school started. We studied a different book of scripture for each year in HS. Old Testament one year, the next was New Testament, then the Book of Mormon and then Joseph Smith’s book called Doctrine & Covenants. Seminary gave me a foundation of knowledge of Mormonism and I somehow got it in my head that the letter of the law were the conditions that I would need to get into heaven. I had to memorize scriptures and pray 3 times daily and go to church and have family prayer and family home evening and do my genealogy and have my food storage and pay an exact amount on my tithing and the list really seems to go on forever. I expect that many of you have heard this story before living in the culture that we do.
And to make matters worse for my salvation, my parents weren’t helping. I perceived them to be very lacksadaisical about doing all of the things that were required of us to be a happy family and so that we could live in heaven together as a family forever and ever. They weren’t true believer Mormons because, as I saw it, they didn’t do all of the things true believing Mormons were supposed to be doing. Sure they didn’t smoke or drink or cuss or even drink tea, coffee or Coke. And they attended our LDS ward, held callings and were in church most every Sunday. My parents were very good to me and loved me unconditionally. But it was other things – one day my Dad, an archeologist by profession, came to speak to our youth group and he talked about how he believed in Evolution. I later learned that he had published articles in journals claiming that there was no archeological evidence for the Book of Mormon. I mean, Mormons don’t believe in those things! And worse yet, we didn’t have family prayer or family home evening.
Between my friend Stephen saying all I had to do was confess the name of Jesus to be saved and my parents unorthodox beliefs, I dug my feet in all the more to remain true and faithful to the LDS church. I was so blinded by my own attempts to be righteous so that I could get into heaven by living all the conditions that I thought were necessary to be saved that I really missed what Stephen and my parents were really trying to say.
Actually, I missed what Stephen and my parents were saying for a really long time. I went on an LDS mission, married in theMormonTemple, graduated from BYU-all in the name of what I thought I had to do to be saved. What Stephen and my parents were trying to tell me was that I could be saved by the unconditional love in Jesus Christ. There are no conditions. None. Whatsoever. Now I keep talking about my head and this was no different in trying to wrap my head around this idea of being saved unconditionally. I had heard it and thought about it but I guess I hadn’t really felt it because I was so focused on all the conditions. In other words, my heart hadn’t really experienced it.
Enter theFirstUnitedMethodistChurchin downtownSalt Lake Cityinto my life. It is here that I found grace in Jesus Christ. It is here that I found a renewed faith with theUnitedMethodistChurch. It is here that I found unconditional love with the family ofFirstUnitedMethodistChurch. It all came together for me on Holy Thursday of 2008 when I took Communion for the first time here in this Sanctuary. More about that in a moment.
I was pretty angry with God for quite awhile after I’d been excommunicated from theLDSChurchand I felt excommunicated from God, but with lots of hikes in the mountains ofUtah, I got better about God and myself. Being in nature sparked a sense of renewed life for me. And as I thought about life and the energy and peace in God’s paradise, my anger and hurt began to subside.
During this time, I had met a member of the Jehovah Witness’s that shared with me he had been excommunicated from his faith for being gay. It was devastating to hear his story but I asked how he had reconciled with God. He said that he had to put his faith on the shelf and every now and again he would take the book down, as it were, and work at it, a page at a time. It was good advice. Over time, God and I healed things a page at a time or rather a hike at a time. It was a time of worship on those hikes and they were wonderful and healing. But, I continued to struggle in how and what my relationship with Christ was to be like.
Over the course of the last ten years I have attended theChurchofChristand theUniversalistChurchand theAmericanBaptistChurch. Each time I attended – I was just really uncomfortable with how their worship services went. It was so very foreign to me because Mormons don’t worship in following the liturgy. There is all this standing and kneeling and giving the peace and passing the collection plate. It just seemed awkward and disjointed to me. So, I had pretty much resigned myself to doing without the ritual of any religion. That was until I started going to the Catholic Church regularly with Scott.
Prior to being hired as the Principal Organist here, Scott was the Organist and Music Director at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Parish next to Judge Memorial HS. I attended Church with Scott – initially more to support him – but as I attended the Catholic Church each week, I began to have these small stirrings that before long, I realized were spiritual experiences and I began to feel as if I could actually begin to worship again.
Now Scott will tell you that a prerequisite for being an organist, is that you have to like going to Church, especially with the Catholics because each weekend he was doing the music for a mass on Saturday and 2 services on Sunday. I started attending the Saturday evening Mass and page by page I realized that I could really start to worship again. Three things jumped out at me – 1) the best thing was that with the weekly sermon – there was so much emphasis on love. 2) there was so much awesome music throughout the service, and 3) I felt like I could actually participate without reprimand and truly worship.
I soon fell in love with the liturgical form of worship with the emphasis on scripture readings and loved how music was inserted throughout the service. And that the Easter season isn’t just celebrated on one Sunday but lasts for six weeks and how wonderful it is to celebrate Pentecost. I love how each part of the service leads up to the next with the final part of taking Communion and that we all go to the table together as a community and as a family. Here, I experienced a whole new way to worship and one that I could actively participate in. We pray out loud together and sing together and hold hands and go to the Communion table together. And that’s what I love about how we worship here.
After a few months of attending here, I began to realize that I could be okay with taking Communion again. Here, with an open table, it became breathtaking that I could actually fully worship without all the judgment. It felt strange in a way since it had been so long, but the spirit of love in this Sanctuary pushed me on. As I approached Pastor Brian to take the bread that day, he smiled and said – Good for you. He’d been waiting for me, patiently, lovingly and unconditionally. It was like Christ reaching out and embracing me-filling me with that sweet, sweet spirit we so often sing about.
Last fall, I stood here and shared with you that I had to change my childhood core beliefs to live and that I was able to forgive myself of my own self hatred. I shared with you that the Indiana Jones hero in my life, my Dad, reached down to help guide me out of my crevice of despair, having fallen to the place we Christians call the Point of Grace. You see, God is love. Unconditional love. No strings of any kind attached. And it is really all about how we treat each other and God becomes clear in us here, as our church family, as we reach out and hold hands and join in prayer often to forgive and to serve in love. My faith journey continues…and there will be more stories to share another time. Amen.