Guest Post: The Sacrament Meeting Talk I Wish I Could Give
In November 2015, right after the church’s policy on baptizing children of LGBTQ people was made public, I wrote a post on Facebook about the controversy. The content of the post was essentially a call for kindness and acceptance for those who would leave the church over this, or any other issue, instead of arguing endlessly over right and wrong.
I am not one to do much on social media aside from occasionally posting a back to school picture or a request for a good plumber, so when the impulse to write this post came, I tried to shake it off, but for some reason I couldn’t stop myself from writing it. I wasn’t sure where the strong feelings were coming from. As a person who stridently avoids all possibility of confrontation or controversy, it seemed odd and out of character for me, but I hit publish anyway.
About six months after that, my husband told me he was leaving the church. The post on Facebook now seemed prophetic, not reactionary. I was blindsided. It’s hard for me to describe the turmoil that followed, as the two constants in my life (my husband and my God) seemed to be pitted against each other. It wrecked me, in so many ways. Everything that used to be simple and joyful became unbearably complicated and heartbreaking. It seemed an unsolvable problem. I wouldn’t leave my husband, certainly. My priority was to keep my family together, and to protect my sweet child from as much pain and confusion as possible. And regardless of what my personal conclusions about the church may have been (though I felt like I had no space to figure that out anyway), it didn’t matter, since I was employed through the church and needed to keep my job.
As an extremely private person, there was an added level of stress and difficulty, as there’s no way to go through something like this in a tight-knit ward in Utah without being the topic of discussions and rumors. My instinctive and overwhelming response was to shut down. Tell no one. Talk to no one. For over 5 years I talked to no one about any of it. My loneliness and dysfunction grew, and sometimes I found myself in pretend conversations with pretend therapists in my head. I could imagine what they would tell me, when I explained how it felt like someone close to me had died, like I was in mourning. Or how they would respond when I told them I wished often that I was dead. Not that I would ever kill myself, I had no suicidal ideation. Mostly my thoughts centered on the fact that it would just feel like such a relief to leave this all behind, these unsolvable problems. That if I just *happened* to die, would that really be the worst thing?
I was shocked at the level of pain I felt, especially since I was pretty religiously laid-back as far as members of the church go. Why was it such an enormous upheaval? Why did I feel like I could tell NO ONE? Certainly, some of that had to do with my own personality and need for privacy. But it also felt like something pervasive and damaging at the very core of our culture. Something in our culture made me feel like a shameful, embarrassing thing had happened, and that it should only be whispered about. My long history in the church had taught me that people who “leave” are other, somehow, and I felt keenly that I no longer truly belonged in the group that I had loved and been a part of for over 40 years. And I think what I’m trying to do here is to fight against that – to call it out for the utter nonsense it absolutely is. People who “leave” are not other. THERE IS NO OTHER. It is a lie, and a dangerous one. There is only all of us, as children of God, and any other distinction beyond that certainly isn’t from God.
I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps the only solution I have, the only power I have in my personal situation, is to stop being silent. My new goal, which makes me feel stronger just by saying it somehow, is to be brave and honest and speak out whenever possible, and to break down these taboos and judgments that are rooted in fear, not love. Because in the same way that my silence was a poison to me, I think our silence and secrecy as a group is a poison to our church. Can we all be a little more brave and honest? Can we say aloud the things that make us feel alone and different? Can we get up and say “I DON’T know the church is true”? Can we love and support each other in the uncomfortable feelings, as well as the ones that conform?
An acquaintance of mine posted something on Twitter the other day, the main idea of which was that we should strive to make space for people who aren’t “All in” with the gospel, that a person shouldn’t feel like their belief has to be all or nothing in order to fit into a congregation, that there should be room for all of us who are stumbling along in our doubt and our imperfection. It was a lovely thought, and something that didn’t seem to be remotely controversial…until I read the comments. It appears I was quite wrong. People seemed to be markedly offended by her idea of an inclusive church, one meant to help everyone. The comments were mostly about how the gospel actually IS black and white, and how God Himself has said that you absolutely do have to be all in, or all out. Commenters indicated that pandering to these lovely but naïve ideals is just lying to people, when it would be better to tell them the honest, harsh truth – that you must embrace all aspects of the church and gospel, unquestioningly, if you wish to have any part in it at all.
Ugh. It was disheartening, since, strictly speaking, those comments are probably true, based on scripture and modern-day teachings. I started thinking about the list of commandments we’re given, the long list of strict beliefs and actions we are taught and which we are somehow expected to be perfect in. And how futile and exhausting it all is, if there’s no room for people like me with a million doubts and struggles and ways I just don’t FIT. But then I thought about how all of those commandments, save one, are exclusively individual. There’s an enormous list of things I need to concern MYSELF with, but when it comes to my neighbor, there is simply one. When it comes to my neighbor, my family, my friends, there is simply one requirement, and that is to love them. If you see someone calling for acceptance, and inclusion, and kindness, please pay attention to your reaction. If your first instinct is defensiveness, ask yourself why. If your first impression is to think through the reasons those people should perhaps be excluded, or if you consider that the decisions they have made are what have separated “them” from “us”, please let that go. It is not your burden. The ONLY commandment that applies to other people is to love them.
There is a parable that used to be a painful one for me, but as my viewpoint has shifted, it has become my favorite one. It is almost magical in its ability to help me gauge where I’m at with God’s greatest commandment. It is the parable of the Prodigal Son, and I’m sure I’m not alone when I say it used to be problematic for me. I felt it was so unfair, that the eldest son who had always been obedient was seemingly overlooked when the disobedient son returned home. The nearly magical thing about this parable is its ability to teach two different lessons, depending on how we cast ourselves in the story. I had always found the story problematic, because I was identifying with the elder son. But the elder son says something that gives the answer away. He says “neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”. He says he has been perfect. The key to this parable is that none of us ever are, or ever can be, the elder son. Every single one of us is the prodigal son in the story. Every single one of us is the recipient of the grace and forgiveness and endless love of the father. If you identify as the elder son in the story, it becomes a story about pride and a false sense of “right” vs “wrong”, and of “us” vs “them”. But if you identify yourself as the prodigal son, as we all truly are, the story becomes something beautiful and humbling and redeeming.
My heart has broken over and over during the last five years. My formerly simple relationship with a church and a gospel and a culture that I have loved for my whole life has become complicated and painful and lonely. It will probably continue to be complicated. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the simplicity of “before”, or that I’m not jealous of what probably still is so simple and joyful for many of you. Some of you are probably thinking that I’m “doing it wrong” if church feels this painful and complicated. With that, I whole-heartedly agreed. I am almost certainly doing most of it wrong. Aren’t we all though?
There are, miraculously, some things that feel like they might actually be better than before. As my heart has broken, it has more space than it used to. It holds space for anyone who also has a complicated relationship with God, or the church, or our culture. There’s more room now for all of those people who feel like they don’t fit here (or who aren’t here are all), or who feel like they must be silent about whatever they’re struggling with. I have so much less assumption and judgment than I used to, and it feels like a good start, especially when I don’t know at all where the rest of my life is heading. If I’m being completely honest (which I’m trying so hard to do even when it seems impossible) most of the time I don’t know what I believe anymore. I hope we can all be brave enough to say those scary things. I’m becoming more okay with not knowing. I try to hold on to the things I DO know, as short as that list might be. I know that I HOPE there’s a God. And that if there is a God, He is big enough for this – for my disbelief and confusion and heartbreak. And because of that, His gospel must be big enough for it too, to hold all of us, His beautiful and broken people.