Jeff Burton, author of, For Those Who Wonder, chaired the session. You can read his Sunstone columns here. Our panel discussion was titled Coming Out and Staying Alive: How Successful Borderlanders Stay Active and Involved. Each panelist had suffered the pain associated with doubt and spiritual crisis. Some were still suffering. Some of us had come through on the other side and each has found ways to remain true to the faith that nourished us as children, yet open to questions we have as adults. We talked about how we disclosed our doubts and to whom; what responses we recieved; how we’ve been helped in the process.
Among the Sunstone sessions I attended, this session really stood out for me. Not necessarily because I was a panelist, but because it felt like an on-the-ground discussion of what was happening right now in the lives of those in attendance. I wish I could communicate the stories the panelists shared and the questions brought by the audience. I wish everyone who questions or doubts or wants to run away from the pain of a faith crisis could have been there. There was something for everyone. A lot of honesty and hope and love.
What I can share today is part of my own story and a few points about how I have weathered the storm and found peace in the church I love. This is a poor substitute for the rich and textured conversation of the evening. But it’s what I have to offer. I hope it helps someone.
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I moved into borderlands as I began to face the truth of an abusive childhood. At that time I made a commitment to be open to all truth, no matter how painful it was, (this includes truth about Mormonism) because it was essential to my healing, health and wellness. I was part of a support group with several other individuals – women and men – who had similar backgrounds. Each of us was LDS. Among the perpetrators of child abuse (parents, relatives, friends of the men and women in the group) were bishops, stake presidents and so forth. This is when I had to come to terms with the realities of a religious organization which protects itself from messy truths. Past and present.
Later, as a divorced, single woman in the church, I felt the profound marginalization that happens among unmarried adults in the church. The perception that I was somehow “less than” – something I had never considered myself to be in context of the church – seemed to be everywhere. I have so many stories to tell about this. But that will have to wait for another time.
Between these two experiences I became familiar with (and relatively comfortable) living in a marginalized state within the LDS community. Although, I must say, I never behaved in a way to affirm these marginalizing messages. I behaved as any good Latter-day Saint would. I went to the “Sweethearts” fireside around Valentines Day as a single woman. I accepted every calling – in primary presidency, young women’s leadership, Sunday school teacher, etc. I have always been an active, contributing member of my ward. I am well-respected and well-liked, partly because I “show up” physically and soulfully week after week, day in and day out.
I’ve spent more time researching the chambers of my own proverbial heart than the historical records of Mormonism, although I am currently reading the memoirs of Joseph Smith III. And I can engage in lively conversation with those who have found themselves in the borderlands due to intellectual roadblocks and cognitive dissonance around issues of church history.
I’ve moved past the anger and angst of living in the borderlands and I’m very much at peace with where I am. This is a direct result of an ongoing, tenacious commitment to seeking Christ. That connection saved me, as it is intended to do. I believe it eventually saves everyone.
I still tend to ask hard questions in Gospel Doctrine class, to address whatever elephant happens to be in the room during relief society lessons and I talk about Heavenly Mother from time-to-time with my 12-year-old Sunday School class. Living in the borderlands isn’t necessarily always comfortable, especially in Utah County, but it’s where I am and I’m okay with that.
What has helped me:
- Showing up. And taking the “water off a duck’s back” approach. I don’t waste time dealing with people who want to marginalize me or peg me as anything other than a good LDS woman who loves God and serves her brothers and sisters within the ward and community. Mormonism is my chosen faith practice – just as it is for many individuals who are happy to drink the Kool-Aid. One thing I dislike about labels like “borderlander” is that labels in general tend to divided us. Although this serves purpose in helping name what ails us, it also sets us apart in a way that can make us feel isolated or vulnerable. When we respond to this marginalization negatively, we further marginalize ourselves. Please, just call me Melody, and save the labels for your food storage containers.
- Allowing others to be where they are. Allowing myself to be where I am. Vive la difference! We each get to choose how we approach the gospel. We are all in different places. I feel it is vital to respect and accept this within ourselves and others. This principle comes from the little-known scriptural text: Don’t Worry. Be Happy; found in the third chapter of the Book of Common Sense.
- Looking for and using inclusive language. I look for and focus on common ground with my fellow ward members. This is part of the value of being a member of any religious community or church. Sometimes it takes a concerted effort. But it’s worth it. Even those with whom I feel I have the least in common have shown me kindness, compassion and support in ways that bond us as fellow disciples. This is where we are similar: in our discipleship. I accept and cherish this bond.
- Looking for the face of God in everyone. EVERY DAY.
- Seeking peace where I am. My identity as a follower of Christ over-arches every other label I give myself or that others choose to give me. Connecting with Christ and with this part of my identity first and foremost, allows me to navigate the world of the borderlands with a sort of peaceful contentment. Jesus doesn’t recognize boundaries where his children are concerned. He goes where we go, so it really doesn’t matter where we dwell.
- The beautiful irony that the thing which wounds us, can also heal us. One of my favorite lines in musical literature are the lyrics “T’was grace that taught my heart to fear and grace, my fears relieved.” I feel that the religion of our youth – the religion that wounds us – also holds the keys to healing us. At the center of our doctrine is the doctrine of Christ. And my most meaningful piece of advice for anyone suffering a faith crisis is to seek Jesus.
Don’t throw the baby Jesus out with the bath water! However, if you do find yourself feeling isolated from Him or from His presence, then go looking for whatever God you can find in your hour of need. There was a point in my life when I felt my prayers bumping up against clouds and falling right back to the ground at my feet. I felt God wasn’t listening and I doubted anyone on earth really understood me the way I needed to be understood. So, I took down my picture of Jesus and hung a gardening hat in its place. And you know what? I found solace in soil and wisdom in wind. Answers to my questions blossomed in flowers I planted. And the sweat and tears I shed while digging my way through my crisis became holy offerings. Eventually, I heard the voice of the Lord in my garden. I couldn’t pray in the usual fashion. But, when I allowed myself the freedom to seek God in ways that suited me in any given moment, I eventually came back to Him and He to me. [I found Heavenly Mother along the way, but that’s a different story.] If you have but a desire to believe, I encourage you to begin there and don’t give up until that desire pulls you closer to your Savior.
It is impossible for me or anyone else to provide all the answers for another person’s crisis. But I can truly say that I’ve been to the bottom of the pit. And Jesus was there waiting for me. Whatever the nature of your own doubts, I believe He is waiting for you too.