Leaving the Old Ship Zion to Walk on Water
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:
[box] 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. [/box]