Leaving the Old Ship Zion to Walk on Water

IMG_9053By Jenny

I noticed a theme of water analogies in the Sunday afternoon session of Conference.  These analogies made me think about perspective and how we perceive the world differently based on our different experiences.  First Elder Ballard shared a familiar narrative: The Old Ship Zion.  We are all in a boat representing the church and we must hold tightly to it and obey our trusty guides lest we fall overboard and drown.  Because of this narrative, I have spent my whole life fearing the unsure waters of the world, while I have had absolute faith in the boat, its captain, and my life jacket.  Little did I know that those would be the very things to cause doubt and cognitive dissonance for me.

I began to realize that my faith was slightly misplaced.  After all, faith has never been about staying safely on the shoreline or holding tightly to a boat.  Look at our great scriptural heroes.  They didn’t fear the water, they controlled it and conquered it with their faith.  Moses didn’t say, “Well it’s too dangerous to cross this sea so I guess we will stay on solid ground.”  No, with faith greater than his fear and uncertainty, he parted the waters.  Nephi and the Jaredites didn’t give up on discovering the promised land because the unknown waters were too scary for them.  No, they put their faith in God and conquered those waters.  Sure, they stayed in the boats, but in this case, the boats represent the unknown, not the safe, sure bet.

Peter didn’t stay in the boat.  He took those scary unsure steps out into the raging sea so that his faith could grow.  Like Peter, I also had to leave the boat in order for my faith to grow.  Sometimes it is necessary to plunge into the raging waters in order to build enough faith to walk on the water.  Isn’t that what life is for?  To discover our own divinity and power, not to obey mandates that take us all down one smooth safely charted course?  When I left the boat, all my ward members and leaders saw was me leaving the safety of the boat.  They didn’t see what I saw.  They didn’t see the Savior standing with outstretched arms, beckoning me, saying, “You can do it.  You were born to walk on the water, not to be afraid of it.”  So I can understand why their perspective is different from my own.

But just because I got out of the boat and learned to walk doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to come back to the Old Ship Zion and be with the people I love.  In fact, I wanted to jump back in the boat and tell them all about the amazing experience I had just had on the water.  Unfortunately my shipmates and trusty guides are all used to the familiar narrative that Elder Ballard shared.  From their perspective I had already drowned.  So they steered the ship away from me in hopes that no one else would fall over.  From my perspective, I was clinging to the boat when they pried my hands loose and sailed away, throwing my Mormon belongings overboard as they went.

Later in the conference session, Elder Larry S. Kacher talked about currents.  I enjoyed his perspective at first, because he was sharing from his personal experience.  He talked about a current he found when he joined the church that led him in a positive direction.  His family and friends couldn’t see it from his perspective.  I related to that because I have also found a current that is leading my life in a positive direction, but my friends think that I am trapped in the very negative current that Elder Kacher goes on to talk about.  He mentions two specific people he knows distantly and states that they have been swept up in negative currents that caused them to leave the church.  I hated these second-hand accounts of these two different men because he reduced their experiences to a formulaic statement that I doubt actually reflects or resonates with their true experience.  When we try to speak for another person and their experience which is different from our own, we are bound to get it wrong.  We need to stop doing this as a church.  Unfortunately I hear all too often these second-hand accounts from local and general leaders.  It’s sort of like an acceptable form of gossip.  But it’s not acceptable…not really.

I know that no one can share my story and get it exactly right.  Least of all, someone who won’t try to understand things from my perspective, but uses an old familiar narrative to prove a point.  My story has been shared publicly by my own leaders as a way to instill fear in others about the water.  After several meetings with my bishop and stake president in which they neither listened to nor tried to understand me, my bishop spoke in Relief Society and Sunday School about my situation.  I guarantee he did not get my story right, but it fulfilled his purpose of maintaining one narrative in the ward, that if you leave the boat you will drown, that if you aren’t careful about what you get into online, you will be swept away in the current.  When church leaders like Elder Kacher share other people’s stories in conference to promote this one-sided narrative, it gives local leaders the feeling that they can do it too.  The problem with maintaining this one narrative is that it doesn’t account for the fact that faith is an individual thing.  One narrative does not work for everyone.  That’s why it is important to listen to each other’s perspectives, and to understand that the church may be a good current for some, but it can also be a negative current for others.

A few years ago I tried to capture my perspective, conveniently enough, in a water analogy.  I had just broken through the mounting cognitive dissonance and realized that the raging sea is not what I had once believed it to be.  I felt a mix of exhilaration and sadness.  Exhilaration because I was learning to walk on water.  Sadness because I knew exactly how my experience would be perceived by my friends and family.  I knew that it would be almost impossible to help them see it from my perspective.  So, regardless of the narrative the church leaders are sharing about people like me who have experienced a faith transition, here is my narrative, based on my experience and perspective:

Oh to go back! Sweet sweet oblivion! My path is full of pain and anguish. I didn’t want to come head on with the construct of the world that I have always known. But once the cracks began to form, the water started seeping in. I tried to plug them up, but some cracks were just too deep. Soon my dam broke and the water came faster than I could handle. How much easier it might have been if I wasn’t surrounded by people whose dams are sure. They look at me and say, “You are only a ruined dam. You gave up everything because you let the cracks take over. You should have stayed on the safe side. Read your scriptures, pray, strengthen your testimony…” But I am NOT a broken dam! I am a river going beyond. I see a world that they will never know as long as they are a wall built to keep things in. I am not departing from the things I gained through religion. A dammed lake that becomes a river takes with it the essence of what it is. I take it all with me as I search other paths and seek for fertile ground. I keep the good and beautiful things and let go of the dirt that tries to follow. My paths are exciting and new. I change the world around me while my world shapes and directs me. I have a relationship with life and God that I never knew was possible during my time as a solid wall. Back then I was too busy keeping my lake stagnant and still, to notice the complexity of everything. Now the fear is gone and I am free. Free to roam, free to live, free to love, and free to learn. Yet still, it is hard to know that I am a river exploring new and beautiful places…because still, they call me a broken dam.
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(Not?) Watching Conference

Ten years ago, I was a freshman at BYU. One Saturday morning, I was sitting in my Deseret Towers dorm room doing my homework like a studious, dedicated undergrad. My roommate burst into the room, “Are you going to watch conference with us?”

“Conference?”

“Yeah, it starts in like 5 minutes.”

“It’s Saturday. I’m doing my homework. I’ll watch tomorrow’s conference.”

Clearly there was a clash of cultures.

I had grown up in Illinois in a family that didn’t have satellite television. We had to drive 45 minutes to the stake center to watch General Conference and my family was not going to do that for more than one session of conference. We always watched Sunday morning because that’s when we’d normally go to church and also the prophet always spoke in that session. To be honest, I thought the Saturday sessions were special for people on the other side of the international date line: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Indonesia, Asia, so that they could watch sessions on their “Sunday.” I thought it was really generous and internationally-aware of the Church to have conference sessions on Saturday. But they weren’t sessions for me. That’s what the Sunday morning session was for! Heck- even Sunday afternoon was obviously geared towards the saints in Hawaii because it was at a time so that they’d get to see it “Sunday morning,” too!

I remember continuing my homework, flabbergasted that there probably existed people that expected me to listen to 8 hours of conference in a weekend. It was Saturday! That day is for soccer games and piano recitals and math team conference matches!

Snoozefest

As an adult, I’ve tried to listen to more of the sessions, but now that my kids are getting a little older, I think I’m going to go back to just the Sunday morning session. I don’t have a lot of boundaries with Church activities: I go to as many ward potlucks and visiting teaching nights and ward park days that I can. I try to accept callings and bring meals to families that need them. But the General Conference weekends are my two weekends of “Nope!” I’ll do 1, maybe 2, but not 5 sessions of conference. This Saturday you’ll find me making Halloween costumes and hanging with my family.

How was General Conference weekend treated when you were a kid? Do you keep those same traditions? Do you watch more/less that you used to?

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Mormon Exceptionalism…Keeping Us From Being Exceptional

By Jenny

I can’t get through a Sunday at church without hearing it.  In fact, I have made a game for myself, counting how many times I hear it.  Testimony meeting is so pregnant with it that I struggle to know whether to go to church and win my game or to stay home and avoid the pit in my stomach.  It starts with a phrase like, “I am so grateful for the church because…”  Then it ends in a statement about why our church is so much better than the world, why our doctrine beats all other Christian doctrines, why we as God’s chosen people are far more enlightened and superior to all those people in the dark because they don’t have the gospel.

This is hard for me to write because it was hard for me to accept when I first started becoming aware of Mormon exceptionalism.  I don’t like speaking harshly and negatively about my culture.  I’ve lost a lot of friends for speaking boldly and I don’t want to lose more.  But I see a problem that is keeping us from progressing.  Mormon exceptionalism is keeping us from being truly exceptional.  This is especially the case in regards to women and equality in the church.

I find that when I am discussing women and the priesthood with people, the conversation doesn’t make it very far because of the big mountain of exceptionalism that is in our way.  I get it.  I’ve scaled that mountain.  It wasn’t easy.  At the bottom, all I could see was the looming mountain above me.  I thought that we as Mormons were the grandest thing around.  My mountain was my whole view, so I really thought it was everything.  But at the top, once you can see beyond the erroneous belief that Mormonism is better than every other religion, you can see all the other peaks for miles and miles.  Then you realize that your mountain is not everything, that it is only one mountain among many.

In regards to women and the priesthood, the mountain looks a little like these quotes from three women who have spoken out recently on the place for women in this church:

“So the LDS alone among all Christian religions assert that not only did Eve not sin, but she was rewarded for her courage and wisdom, and God was assuring her that, just as she fulfilled her role in the Great Plan of Happiness, Adam would step up to the plate, and he would perform his role in the Great Plan of Happiness, and that would entitle him to rule with her. This is absolutely revolutionary and astounding doctrine among all the Christianities!” [1]

This quote comes from an essay written by Valerie Hudson about why men and women have different roles.  I have to dissagree.  I don’t see anything revolutionary or astounding about our doctrine as opposed to other Christian doctrines.  In the temple narrative, Eve was not rewarded for her courage and wisdom, she was placed under Adam’s rule to hearken to his counsel as he hearkens to God’s.  Just because we tend to applaud Eve culturally despite our doctrinal language doesn’t mean that we have this phenomenal understanding of Eve and women’s roles compared to everyone else.

“…for years I’d searched the world over to find any organization—the largest governments and religions, multinational businesses, worldwide charities, major universities—where as many women had as much bonafide responsibility and authority as they do in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and that I hadn’t been able to find even one.”[2]

This is a pretty big mountain that Sheri Dew has created.  So big in fact, that she can’t even see beyond it to see that her statement is ludicrous.  How many businesses in the world have female CEOs?  When is the last time our church had a female CEO?  You don’t have to look very far at all to see that other governments, religions, businesses, charities, and universities are doing better for their women than we are.  But you can’t look very far when this mountain blocks your view.

“I find it a little bit ironic that the world is trying to instruct the “poor LDS women,” who are so oppressed, and in the backwater, and if they could only come out into “enlightenment.”… Because I just don’t see where that enlightenment is.”

“I recently spoke at the United Nations and it was interesting because we are faith-based, I represented a faith-based organization. Because we are conservative morally, a lot of people thought that our doctrine about women and men was conservative. Far from being restrictive and conservative, and we sometimes get labeled that way, my contention is that the Church’s doctrine about the roles of women in the family, and the church, and the community, and the nation, and the temple and how men and women relate to each other and interplay and support each other and work together is the most moderate, and powerful, and enlightening and energizing doctrines that I know about. And if people truly understood it, it would blow their mind.[3]”

This quote comes from a recent talk given by Sharon Eubank at the FAIR Mormon symposium.  While I actually enjoyed the talk, and felt that it was great for raising the level of the conversation about women in the church, this part gave me that same familiar pit in my stomach that I often feel during testimony meeting.  I agree that we have some pretty great doctrines in our church.  I also agree with a major point that she made during this speech, that one of our problems is that our doctrine and our practice don’t always mesh.  But I highly doubt our doctrines would blow the minds of those poor simple fools out in the world, if they only understood them.  She may not see enlightenment out in the world, but that doesn’t mean that it does not exist.  It’s just that we have this big mountain in our way, blocking our view.  I am grateful at least that she is attempting to help us scale the mountain, by admitting that maybe we do need to change our language, maybe we don’t have everything right, maybe our practice does not always match our doctrine, maybe we could be better.   I just think that we will be able to climb this mountain faster without comparing ourselves to others.

I understand that most members don’t even realize how much we do this as a church.  If you haven’t noticed it, I challenge you to a game.  Sit through testimony meeting or read Sherri Dew’s book, and count how many times the claim is made that we are fine because we are better than other religions.  Or we are exceptional because we believe this and this that someone else doesn’t believe.  Just see if you can get through church without hearing about how much better we are than the rest of the world.  Once you notice it, you can’t stop noticing it.

This type of comparison is not a good argument for truthfulness in our church.  Truth can stand on its own.  Truth is only diminished when we have to qualify it by saying that we have more of it than someone else.  Comparison is an ineffective argument for why women in our church are fine and don’t need the priesthood.  I don’t care if we are better than Muslims or Catholics or anyone else.  I want to be better than we are.  I don’t want us to just think we are exceptional, I want to be exceptional.  The question we should be asking is not, who are we better than, but how can we be better that what we are right now?  I do think we have something unique and beautiful to offer the world, but who wants a gift given out of pity or pride?  The world in it’s vast array of faiths, ideologies, cultural constructs, knowledge, and experience also has a beautiful gift to offer us.  It is a magnificent view of eternity and a better understanding of our surroundings that we can only see from the top of our mountain.

And just so you know that I am not trying to be disingenuous toward women like Sheri Dew who are talking about women and the priesthood, and are even doing a lot of good in keeping this discussion alive and healthy, I will end with a quote by Sheri Dew.   “God rarely moves the mountains in front of us, but He always helps us climb them.”—Sheri Dew.  I have faith that our Heavenly Parents are helping us as a church to climb this mountain so that we can see a better view of what the world truly is, and how we fit into that view.

[1] Valerie Hudson http://mormonscholarstestify.org/1718/valerie-hudson-cassler

[2] Sheri Dew “Women and the Priesthood: What One Mormon Woman Believes.”

[3] Sharon Eubank http://blog.fairmormon.org/2014/08/12/best-of-fair-14-sharon-eubank-this-is-a-womans-church/

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“There is Room for You” / “Il y a une place pour vous”

Click for French Translation/Traduction en français

This was the theme of the regional YSA conference here in the northeast. Hosted in New York City, it was a two-day conference, however I was only able to attend the Sunday session, which is just as well.

While the Sacrament meeting service was lackluster and disappointing, the evening fireside (presented by the always fabulous, Sistas in Zion) was spectacular and uplifting.  They talked extensively on the conference’s theme and reiterated how “there is room for you”.

Unsurprisingly, as a feminist young single black Mormon convert from New York, the number of times I felt that there hasn’t been room for me is too many to count. Even now, I recently made the decision to stop attending church services on a regular basis. However, my testimony of the Gospel is still strong. I read the Book of Mormon, I pray when I feel inspired or prompted, I believe in the Plan of Happiness, etc. I can even believe the idea that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri! It is my testimony of the Church that is weak and failing (that is a post for another time).

So… is there room for me? For us?

President Uchtdorf says there is. In his October General Conference address, he speaks, “If these are your desires, then regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us!”

I’d still like to think that when I am ready to return, there will be room for me. If not, I’ll make room. I know it’s there. I just have to find it and carve it out. There wasn’t room for Christ while he went about His ministry–– He was rejected and despised and considered a radical. But nonetheless, He went about His Father’s business and He made room. And his disciples  and friends followed and supported Him, while gaining new supporters and friends. Heck, there wasn’t even room for Mary at the inn, but that didn’t stop the Savior from being born! Mary made room for Him! Now, not only is there room for Christ, there are mansions dedicated to His name! And He tells us today there is room for us. And I believe it.

Now, I’m not trying to compare myself to Christ in any way shape or form. Nor am I about to start my own denomination in the name of making room. I’m simply noting the example He sets in creating a place for those who felt there was no place for them before. And His story proves that there are always friends to be found and be there for you. And that they will hold your place in the room for when you return.

IMG_3901

That’s what I’m hoping for. As I take this much needed step away from the institutional Church, I am counting on dear friends to save a seat for me. I am counting on friends to tell me they are there for me on my journey. If there is to be room, not only I, but others must make room as well. Unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone. For many, once they leave, others shut the door and claim the seat they once had is gone. Nothing is farther from the truth. I echo the theme of the regional conference and of President Uchtdorf: There is room for you.

Regardless of whether or not you return, there is room for you. Either in the church building or in the hearts of your fellow Saints. At the very least, there is room for you with me.

 

“Il y a une place pour vous”

Voilà le thème de la conférence régionale des JA du nord-est des Etats-Unis qui a eu lieu à New York City pendant deux jours. Je n’ai assisté qu’à la session du dimanche.

Même si le service de Sainte-Cène a été décevant, le coin de feu de la soirée (présenté par le groupe Sistas in Zion) était spectaculaire et édifiant. On a beaucoup parlé du thème en insistant qu’il y a bien « une place pour vous. »

En tant que convertie jeune, célibataire, féministe et noire, je ne peux pas compter le nombre de fois où j’ai senti qu’il n’y avait aucune place pour moi. Récemment, j’ai décidé d’arrêter de venir à l’Eglise régulièrement. J’ai pourtant un témoignage fort de l’Evangile. Je lis le Livre de Mormon, je prie quand je me sens inspirée, je crois au Plan de Salut. J’arrive même à croire que le Jardin d’Eden se trouvait en Missouri ! Mais j’ai aussi un témoignage que l’Eglise est faible et est en train d’échouer (ce qui est tout un billet pour un autre moment).

Alors…y a-t-il une place pour moi? Pour nous ?

Président Uchtdorf dit que oui. Dans son discours de la conférence générale d’octobre 2013, il dit, « Si c’est ce que vous désirez, alors, quelles que soient votre situation, votre histoire personnelle ou la force de votre témoignage, il y a de la place pour vous dans l’Église. Venez nous rejoindre ! »

J’aimerais croire que quand je serai prête à revenir, il y aura une place pour moi. Sinon j’en créerai une. Je sais qu’elle est là, je dois la trouver. Il n’y avait pas de place pour le Christ : on l’a rejeté et l’a haï et l’a traité de radical. Mais malgré tout il faisait l’œuvre de son Père et il faisait de la place pour lui. Et ses disciples et ses amis le suivaient, ce qui attirait d’autres disciples et amis. Il n’y avait même pas de place pour Marie à l’auberge, mais cela n’a pas empêché au Christ de venir au monde. Marie a fait une place pour lui. Maintenant, non seulement il y a de la place pour le Christ, il y a même des châteaux dédiés à son nom! Il nous dit qu’il y a une place pour nous, et je le crois.

Je ne me compare pas du tout au Christ. Je ne vais pas non plus créer ma propre réligion. Je note l’exemple qu’il nous donne de créer une place pour ceux qui n’en avaient pas une avant. Son histoire prouve qu’il y aura toujours des amis à trouver, et qu’il garderont votre place pour quand vous reviendrez.

Voilà ce que j’espère. Pendant cette pause de l’Eglise institutionnelle, je compte sur mes amis de garder une place pour moi. Malheureusement, ce n’est pas le cas pour tout le monde. Pour beaucoup d’entre nous, une fois partis, d’autres ferment la porte sur eux et prennent la place que nous avons quittée. Rien ne peut être plus loin de la vérité. Comme le dit Président Uchtdorf : il y a de la place pour vous, qu’elle soit dans l’Eglise ou dans les cœurs des saints. Au moins, il y a de la place pour vous avec moi.

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Rescuing Jesus From The United States: A New Zealand woman’s missive to America

Guest Post by  Gina Colvin

NZ postage stamp

It’s no secret that people’s lives have long been expunged in the name of Christianity. Pagans; Saxons; peasants; Turks; the Gaelic Irish; Hungarians; Jews; Muslims; heretics; ‘witches’; protestants; and Catholics, from Palestine to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to Tenochtitln, women, children and men have died in the name of the church that bears His name. Persecution; ethnocentrism; colonialism; patriarchy; capitalism; slavery; illicit invasions of sovereign states have all been underwritten in one way or another by an appeal to Jesus Christ.

 

Its called ‘bending the narrative’ – this habit of pulling Jesus into national politcs and shaping military and economic discourses around and through Christianity – like a branding strategy. I understand the motivation. If you make Jesus a citizen of your country, or the head of your political campaign He makes it easy to recruit followers. Christians love Jesus and if you can push him out in front, everything you associate him with ends up feeling divine.  Not that Jesus would have been complicit in the above atrocities – far from it. In any event the ‘Jesus’ card has been played continuously in the game of Western empire building, and Jesus’ effigy has been paraded relentlessly to justify all manner of evil. And this Jesus (by American reckoning in general, and Mormon calculations specifically) currently resides in the United States.

 

As a non-American member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints I grew up having to crane my neck to watch out for the American Jesus. We New Zealand Mormons are permanently calibrated in that direction, we face a North East direction toward the Pacific ocean and over the rocky mountains to Salt Lake City where the American Jesus is in charge of our eternal salvation. From somewhere on Temple Square, he stands at the head, guiding, directing and fully in charge of Mormon affairs.  This American Jesus has been continuously on the lips of the American Mormons who get to speak, instruct and direct the rest of the Mormon world from large podiums festooned with flowers or from the pages of glossy monthly magazines.  American words have been landing in the ears of the non-American Mormons throughout my entire lifetime – and it’s wearing thin.

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International Series: The Mormon Messiah Complex and the Worldwide Church

The American woman stood at the podium in my mid-sized Australia ward, yet paused before uttering a word. The Mountain by BalthusThe bishop had asked her to speak, because it was her last Sunday in this ward. She and her husband were finishing their mission and this ward fell in the boundaries of the mission office where they had driven admin desks for 18 months. They were not in the mission presidency, yet had held office jobs that removed them from everyday interaction with the locals. In a way that I can only describe as Marilyn-Monroe-ish, she swished her perfectly styled and coloured hair then breathlessly said, “What words can I leave the people of Australia with?”

I looked at my husband and snickered as he rolled his eyes. “She is in a solitary, expat-heavy ward in all of Australia! Who does she think she is talking to?…. and who does she think she is?” we both said.

She went on with her testimony (which sounded more like a brag-a-mony) about how great her influence was on us locals, how humbled she had been to “serve all of you,” and how she hoped she’d left Australia a better place. Right? Because of all her desk work at the air-conditioned office where she pushed the papers of “the American church,” to its predominantly American missionaries…that was her idea of feeding my spirit?  

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