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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Roach

Making a Mess of Temple Prep

I got baptized almost 9 months ago, so it’s no surprise that preparing to go to the temple is on my agenda. Everyone else’s too, apparently. Friends ask me about it in the same tone of voice one asks a dating couple if they are getting serious. “So, are you getting excited about going to the temple?” There is expectation and hope in their question, but a little nervousness too that I can never quite understand. They want me to like my temple experience so that I can grow in my faith. But they also want me to like it because it affirms their faith. That’s no complaint. This is the water of faith all people of faith swim in.

So, temple prep class began 2 weeks ago. I was able to hold it together until exactly 23 minutes into Lesson 2.

We begin talking about the Law of Obedience. This shouldn’t be a big deal for me. Really. I’ve lived most of my life according to the Word of Wisdom long before I even knew what it was. I have no tattoos. I’ve been faithful in marriage for 25 years. I think of myself as honest and kind. Obedience? No problem.

So why was I freaking out?

Deep in my brain my amygdala is on high alert. The amygdala is the small almond-shaped part of the brain which is responsible for the fight-or-flight reflex. In theory, it’s a wonderful part of the brain. It keeps us humans alive. If you’ve ever been walking down the sidewalk and out of the corner of your eye you see a dangerous snake and you quickly jump out of the way only the realize it was not a snake, but a garden hose – you can thank your amygdala. It’s a quick little device. It takes in information and scans for danger much faster than the more rational parts of the brain. The speed is what makes you jump when you see a snake, only to realize a fraction of a second later that it’s an ordinary hose. Your amygdala doesn’t care about rationality, or pride. It doesn’t care that it makes you look like a fool for jumping over a common item like a hose. It only wants you to be safe. And if your pride is bruised, so be it. At least you’re alive.

The problem is that when someone goes through something traumatic, the amygdala can get stuck in high gear. Instead of scanning for danger, and then letting the issue go when the rest of the brain provides additional information (it’s a hose, not a snake), the amygdala sends the person into fight-or-flight and won’t let go. The little bugger is trying to be protective and helpful.

“I demand evidence that this so-called Law of Obedience isn’t going to trap you into being abused, used and discarded, utterly destroyed. They are going to make you do terrible things and call it obedience! This is a trap!” cries my amygdala. My sweet class companions and leaders offer what they have to offer. “Let me read to you about obedience from the scripture dictionary.” And “Here is a great talk about obedience and how it’s all okay.” All their contributions are intended to soothe me, but my amygdala was having none of it. Sometimes people call this, “being triggered.” Sometimes they call it PTSD. Sometimes they call it, “having a panic attack.”

What to do?

In the moment, all I could do was breathe and try to take in the kindness of my friends as much as I could. I spent the rest of the day feeling very dissociated so I took care of myself the best I could by doing simple things – run the dogs, make dinner, work on a quilting project. Forgive myself for having a human brain that freaks out sometimes. It was only a few days later that I could come to meaning about it all.

Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

Evidence of things not seen. My amygdala has ample evidence that things go wrong. I may be a convert to our church, but I have spent my entire life in one church or another. I’ve experienced sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse from leaders. And my amygdala remembers every bit of it and never misses an opportunity to warn me that there might be a snake nearby. And I jump out of the way and cause commotion, upsetting people around me. But the road toward spiritual maturity (and sounder mental health) asks me to remember that there is counter-evidence, even if it is “things not seen.”

And maybe you too? There are thousands, even tens of thousands, of people who have been hurt by church leaders. Some quite badly. No one would blame you for being less than eager to promise obedience to the very place where you have been hurt. You can disengage and walk away without any judgment from me. But there is also a way in which you can grow your faith – even when all the evidence seems to be to scream that you would be foolish to move forward in faith. When a victim chooses to not act like a victim, they take their power back. The terrible experiences of my spiritual past don’t get to ruin my spiritual future.

You want my advice? Do whatever you need to do to move past the abuse. Don’t let it define you. As for me, I’m headed back to Temple Prep class again next week.

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