Before the first session of the council, I told one friend about my situation. We’ll call him Al. (not his name, but he’ll find the moniker clever if he reads this.) It took me a long time to tell him. We code named the discussion so as to be able to talk about things openly without others being privy to the true nature of the conversation. We would talk about existentialism. When I started visiting with Jeff Robinson every other week, I would tell Al that I had an existential meeting. Al was someone I thought I could trust, and who would be a caring friend who supported me in what I was doing.
I won’t go into a lot of what Jeff and I discussed, since I already posted that earlier. One thing that did strike me was Jeff’s take on the purpose of church discipline. I thought of it in a traditional sense. I thought of it a punishment for a misdeed. I thought of it as a means by which to withhold certain privileges due to non-compliance with the commandments. Jeff helped me see it in a slightly different light. Jeff mentioned that there are a lot of ordinances in the church to bring us closer to God. Baptism is the doorway through which one enters the straight and narrow path. Sacrament (called communion in other churches) renews the covenant established with baptism. Ordination to the priesthood authorizes the bearer to do those things that God would do, were he personally present. Each of these brings the participant closer to the Lord.
Jeff pointed out that church discipline was another ordinance, but a different kind. He suggested that it was an ordinance of warning. Instead of directly bringing the participant closer to the Lord, it allows the participant to feel what a separation from the Lord would be like. The intent, as Jeff put it, is to warn. It’s to say, this is what things are going to be like if you continue to go down the path you’re currently on.
I know, some reading this are saying to themselves, “that’s just splitting hairs.” Maybe it is, but it made a difference to me. It took away the fear that I had. It made me understand how being disciplined by the church could be a positive thing for me. It made me willing to accept what ever the path was to get back to where I was living my life the way I needed to, instead of living a life of duplicity and deceit.
This new understanding, combined with some counsel given to me at the end of the first disciplinary council were helping immensely. The counsel that I was given was that I needed to re-establish habits that I had when I was serving as a missionary. Granted, those habits were not as securely planted as they should have been while I was on my mission, but I decided to follow the advice. I started reading the scriptures daily, and I started praying. In the year prior to that, my prayers had become incredibly infrequent, and my scripture study non-existent.
I was still nervous about what was going to happen to me, but I was feeling better that it was going to be ok, whatever the outcome was.
One day I was at lunch with Al and another co-worker, we’ll call him bjorn. (again, not his name.) we were eating at my house, and I decided that I was going to bring Bjorn in on the situation. He and I had been friends for a few years, and I trusted him. I had to tell Bjorn in a language other than English, as my roommate was in the next room, and I didn’t feel like telling him. Fortunately, Bjorn, Al and I all spoke the same non-English language. Al asked me why I was telling people about my situation. I told him that I wanted to let a couple people know so that I would have some sort of support system in place before the council reconvened. I didn’t want to have my best friends find out about my situation because I was explaining why I wasn’t in the church any more. I wanted it to be on my terms, and I wanted to have their support during the process.
The council reconvened in September. I was less nervous, but still apprehensive. Frankly, I don’t remember much of what happened in that meeting. I do remember the outpouring of support. I remember that the council thought my progress in the two months was impressive. I was told that I was very close to excommunication two months earlier, and that they now felt that such action would not be appropriate.
I was disfellowshipped. This form of discipline stops short of revocation of membership. It is a lesser form of discipline that is nonetheless rather serious. While disfellowshipped, I am not allowed to hold a church calling, take the sacrament, speak from the pulpit, pray publicly in meetings, perform ordinances or otherwise exercise the priesthood I bear or go to the Temple.
I was eventually given a letter from the stake president. (more on the eventually part in a later post…) In it he encouraged me to do a number of things. The following are excerpts from the letter:
“While there are limitations on Church service and the use of your priesthood, I strongly encourage you to be fully active in the Church exept for the limits just outlined. In particular, I urge you to pay a full tithe, that you fast often and make a generous offering for the poor at least monthly, attend Sacrament, Sunday School and Priesthood meetings and participate in ward activities.
“I am grateful for your willingness to acknowledge and take responsibility for actions that are a violation of commandments and sacred temple covenants. I’m also grateful for your willingness to work with your bishop and get professional assistance as well. However, restitution as an element in full repentance in these kinds of matters is difficult, but it is important that you apologize to those involved, including your mission president whose trust you violated when you accessed pornography during your mission, and that you take full responsibility for your actions. Because restitution is difficult, it is important that you become involved in community service and make a concerted and sustained effort to bless the lives of others.
“I have confidence that you can return to full fellowship with a deeper understanding of the Gospel, and that you will find strength and resolve that will benefit you throughout your life as you work toward the restoration of full Church and priesthood privileges. As you being the path back to full fellowship, I urge that you develop Gospel-oriented habits, including daily prayer, regular scripture study, consistent church attendance, regular exercise, and as noted, a program of ongoing service. You need to shun pornography and associations with those who do not support and encourage your adherence to eternal principles and commandments. I also urge you to meet with your bishop and account for your activities and progress. I also urge that you continue to meet as needed, with Dr. Robinson who can provide needed professional understanding and assistance at the same time your bishop provides needed spiritual understanding and assistance.
“I wish you the best, and look forward to a time in the Fall of next year when a council can be convened and full membership privileges restored.”
I’ve been disfellowhipped for significantly longer than a year. (more about that in another post. be patient) Its been several. It would have been one, had I taken the advice outlined in the letter, but I didn’t. I slipped back into old habits, and then I fell off a cliff. (metaphorical cliff, and yeah, there’ll be a post about that too.)
I need to make some things perfectly clear. The church at no time has expressed anything but loving concern for my well being. The Church leaders with whom I have worked have been loving and understanding, even as I continued to do the very things I was told to shun. Had the church been interested in the preservation of its image over my welfare, they would have severed ties long ago. They did not. I have found the my church leaders, on the whole, to be more understanding and caring than anyone else. They love me, and I them. I will always be grateful for the time they’ve dedicated to helping me become who I want to be.
Understanding that Church Discipline is a process designed to help turn one back to the straight and narrow path (pun not intended.) has allowed me to view it as a tool for my own growth, rather than as a sentence, condemning me. I can garauntee that the process will not be pleasant, but if there are any reading this that are considering whether they should initiate the process, I vote yes. Since I vote yes, I am also willing to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me. IF you don’t have your own Al or Bjorn to talk to, I will be that friend. I would be thrilled to help you if you are willing to let me.
The words of a song by Dierks Bentley come to mind.
“It’s a long trip alone over sand and stone
That lie along the road that we all must travel down
So maybe you could walk with me a while
And maybe I could rest beneath your smile
Everybody stumbles sometimes and needs a hand to hold
‘Cause it’s a long trip alone”