Guest Post: The Sacrament Meeting Talk I Wish I Could Give

by Nicole

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.

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17 Responses

  1. SB says:

    I am so grateful to you for posting this. You have somehow managed to beautifully and eloquently express what I feel in my own heart. I have been through my own heartbreak as well, and it continues to break multiple times over and over as I try to find a balance between staying in a church I love and doing what I feel is right.

  2. Elisa says:

    Nicole, I’m so sorry for your experience.

    I think feeling trapped (whether by employment with the church, or an inflexible TBM spouse, or whatever) makes a faith crisis so much harder. Add to that not being able to talk to anyone about what you’re going through or a ward where you feel like doubts can’t be admitted and that is a recipe for extreme distress. I think about what Brene Brown says about the difference between “belonging” (bringing your whole self to something and being accepted that way) and “fitting in” (contorting yourself to gain acceptance). Belonging is the only way we will ever feel actual love and connection and community. Fitting in keeps us isolated and disconnected and miserable. There is so much “fitting in” at church, for everyone but especially those in faith crisis, and so little belonging.

    The other thing this hits on is fear—sort of a subset of “fitting in” but when we make decisions based on fear (whether it’s fear we’ll go to the telestial kingdom or fear we’ll be judged and lose our community) I think we make suboptimal decisions. We either stay and are miserable because we are staying out of fear, or we leave prematurely because we just can’t take the dissonance and want to get rid of the fear. (For some people leaving may ultimately be right but I think some could thrive staying if we could make enough space for them to get over the fear and choose what they really want rather than escape the fear and discomfort.)

    When I let go of fear (of course this is always a struggle but I have made a lot of progress) and gave myself permission to leave if I chose to, and permission to reconstruct my worship in a way that felt authentic to my inner voice, and permission to be myself, I was actually a lot happier *staying* in church (for now at least!).

    If you were in my ward/area you could have talked to me!

  3. Chiaroscuro says:

    I would come back to church to hear a talk like this. Thank you for the focus on Love and connection

    • Wendy says:

      What Chiaroscuro said! Absolutely beautiful and full of vulnerable strength. We are all truly, as you say, “beautiful and broken people.”

  4. Miriam says:

    Wow, Nicole. Thank you for sharing the beautiful and raw parts of your soul. I love everything you said, and it resonates so profoundly. It is hard for me to navigate being authentic and being kind and not taking things personal. But, I think the journey of “doing it wrong” sometimes, and going through the pain, helps me figure out what the light looks like for me. It is a fallacy that we should stay on this church produced “covenant path” [what is that exactly, anyway? So many commandments of men mingled with scripture in that whole thing], and if we ever get off to any degree, disgrace to you! I wish we could all understand life is a personal and customized journey, and God holds space for all of us, wherever we are, inside or outside of this church. It helps me be so much more compassionate towards everyone.

    Eliza, thank you too, for your comments. I love this: [Brene Brown says about the difference between “belonging” (bringing your whole self to something and being accepted that way) and “fitting in” (contorting yourself to gain acceptance). Belonging is the only way we will ever feel actual love and connection and community. Fitting in keeps us isolated and disconnected and miserable. There is so much “fitting in” at church, for everyone but especially those in faith crisis, and so little belonging.]

  5. Karen Rosenbaum says:

    Brava, Nicole.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. From someone who too often recently feels like being in my community is painful.

  7. SisterStacey says:

    You’re not alone, Nicole! There are many of us. Thank you for sharing your story! <3

  8. Melinda says:

    Nicole, I especially connected with your comments about how, as a private person, you felt you simply couldn’t speak about any of this. That pressure to be silent about the hard things creates such a sense of isolation. I’ve felt it too. It seems to me that the Church encourages this silence. We are to speak faith-affirming joy, but only talk about the struggles when they have a happy ending already.

    You speak of loving everyone. I would add to that word: acceptance. I was ‘loved’ but it felt alienating because it was actually pity. “Oh, that’s so sad you aren’t strong enough to be over this already. I feel so sorry for you. But I love you lots and you can ask me for anything!” I didn’t want to be pitied. I had visiting teachers (what do we call them now? ministering teachers?) come last week, for the first time in a long time. And when I said I was deliberately taking a break from Church, I was met with acceptance. The one talked about her 14 years of inactivity, and the other one just agreed that sometimes Church was hard. It was awesome. I felt accepted. I didn’t talk out the reasons, but it was so fabulous to have active Church members just nod and accept that sometimes it’s okay to take a break. They didn’t lecture me, or bear their testimonies, or admonish me to greater faithfulness. They just talked like this was a normal and acceptable life experience. Just awesome.

  9. Nathan says:

    Thank you. I have felt similar pain. Some friends have left our ward because it got too painful. I hope we can follow your encouragement to be more vulnerable at church and make comforting places for those who are silent in pain. As I read your words Elder Uchtdorf’s quote came to mind: “The Church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony. I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, “Your testimony must be this tall to enter.””

  10. Anna says:

    I really like this statement. “But it also felt like something pervasive and damaging at the very core of our culture.” I agree that this is cultural that we are not allowed to share anything we are struggling with. I was even chewed out by a bishop for sharing something I was struggling with. I was reaching the point where I could no longer pretend in public that my life was perfect. I angrily responded to this jerk, that when people can see that something is wrong and they ask, so, I am supposed to lie to them? He sputtered a while about how I was burdening people. So, we are supposed to bare one another’s burdens if they are light and fluffy, but any serious burden should be dealt with alone and in isolation.

    You know, we all covenant at baptism to bare one another’s burdens and mourn with those who mourn. Unless they are really mourning or that the burdens are really heavy, then, you know, we should abandon them. [end sarcasm]

    I think this cultural taboo on sharing our problems is part of the Mormon culture of perfectionism. We seem to apply the prosperity gospel ideas to having a struggle free life. Those who look the closest to perfection must be the most righteous. Those with obvious problems must not be righteous. And this helps us turn our backs on those who struggle because if their life doesn’t look perfect, then they are not righteous and don’t deserve our help.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Your comments bring me hope and also at the same time sadness. People in the church have been lead by leaders to think this way about the “others”. This is not Christ in Christianity. After reading your post, I question if you are not being brave enough to become one of the others?

  12. Jenny says:

    I love this! Thank you for sharing this. I have so many close people I love that have left that I just can’t view them as other, and I think there is a HUGE need for this message to be spread more at church (everywhere, really, but especially at church). There are too many black and white narratives, and we need more stories that allow for the complicated circumstances of belief that so many of us are enduring. I think the loneliness in a situation like this is the hardest thing. Thank you for sharing, it helps me feel less alone.

  13. Christine Balderas says:

    You talked about commandment keeping. As I studied Christ’s life this past year (including more understandable translations), I came to realize that the only commandments that we will really be judged on are the first two. If you love all of God’s children, you will fulfill all of God’s commandments.
    Romans 13:8 (NLT – New Language Translation). “For the commandment against adultery and murder and stealing and converting – and all the other commandment – are all summed up in this one commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to anyone, so love satisfies all of God’s requirements.”
    From “Whom Say Ye That I Am? Lessons from the Jesus of Nazareth”. By James and Judy McConkie.
    The community that Joseph Smith foresaw and helped create should be welcoming. It may be more then we assume.

    • Christine Balderas says:

      I forgot to mention in my comment above, that I did give a talk somewhat along the lines that you mentioned and no one complained and many people came up to me to express their thanks.

  14. Heather says:

    Amen sister. Thank you for stating your truth so eloquently.

  15. Mary says:

    I’m torn. On one hand, I love, love, love what you’ve expressed here. On the other, I am someone who no longer believes the church is true. When I went to church to try to be a member of my community, I would hear things being taught and expressed that were truly reprehensible to me. It got so I could not reconcile sitting in the pews week after week for the sake of community with who I am at my core.

    I do believe there is room for everyone and I do believe it is important the voices that don’t agree with what is being taught feel free to express the truth of their experiences, but at the end of the day–like someone expressed in response to your Facebook post–the gospel is black and white. I do believe that in the long run, it is doing people a favor to let them go and find a space and a group where they can more truly belong. As an increasing number of people are realizing, that isn’t within the walls of the church.

    I think what it comes down to is respecting each person’s path.

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