Nine years ago today, I waded down into warm blue tiled font while my wiggly baby watched from his dad’s arms, and my husband’s uncle recited the simple yet beautiful prayer and submersed me in the waters of baptism. I have little recollection of right before other than warmth, and I cannot for the life of me tell you what we did as a family afterwards- I assume food was involved. But what I do recall vividly is the feeling of rising up out of that water. It was fleeting, like a hummingbird on a flower, but it was a moment of singular perfection. The perfection lay not in me, but around me- bathing me, for the briefest moment, in what I can only call the light of heaven. I knew there would be no perfection for me in this moral veil of flesh- not ever- but I was given the barest glimpse of the potential.
In the nearly decade since then, the seasons have passed over my fields, sowing and harvesting, adding babies, death, loss and taking what I thought was going to be one life and instead giving me a whole new one. The husband is gone, children are growing, and I haven’t yet figured out what kind of blossoms that new life will bear, but it’s sprouting and finding out will be fun. My faith has matured, and I understand full-well how fragile and human our hands are as we endeavor to do good in the world, to show mercy and tenderness to our sisters and brothers.
In a strange upside-down world, my own journey into the church has been mirrored by a dear and beloved friend’s journey out. My own family, at my baptism, had painfully told me I could not be a Mormon and still be claimed as family, while my friend, now at the nadir of what would be baptism, is facing disowning by family upon leaving. While we may stand at opposite poles, the churning pain and loss of family, community and acceptance is identical.
Why do we do this to each other? At either pole, I wonder- but I find it especially painful, baffling- and even anger-inducing- in my coreligionists. In his post in response to the media around Mormons earlier this week, bhodges wrote:
Being called a cult member reminds me how it feels to be excluded on the basis of my beliefs. I suggest we refrain from doing the same thing to family members and friends who leave the Church, or even to folks who have general theological disagreements with us. “You are weird, we are normal. Because we said so, and a lot of people agree.” This ought not to be.
And yet it keeps happening. And it has me thinking…
There are tremendous social, spiritual and cultural markers as Mormons that serve to keep us part of the flock. As is often pointed out (at least to new converts) Mormonism is not something you practice on Sundays and then go back to your real life the rest of the week. Despire this being uncomfortable shotgun snark at other churches, there is truth in the words. Being a Mormon does require a lot of its adherents. Along with those expectation and social markers come the cautionary tales of those who fail to listen and adhere to the cultural, social and spiritual demands of their faith- whether chosen or inherited.
We are told not to date outside our faith. Told to be in the world, but not of the world. We are cautioned to keep ourselves above the dangerous levels of society. At our baser level, it can become Us verses Them- and we’d better dig in our heels and retrench if we want our children safe. It’s fear. This breeds a lot of interesting ideas, and some strange bedfellows, but the idea I find most damning is that people who are not Mormon, not “us”, are somehow less. It’s never explicitly stated- we’d never do that- we love the people of (fill in the blank).
As I look around at the friends I have who lie outside the Mormon idealized situation of member parents, temple-sealed, returned missionary, stay-at-home mom, working dad, and undisclosed number of children, I do see the families who fall short of this mark falling away. But we’re putting the cart unfairly before the horse if we assume it’s simply because they have chosen to live outside the normative markers for what we blithely and narrowly define as “the ideal”.
What I’m seeing are families who are different becoming weary of always being reminded of where and how their family is somehow less than the family in the next pew. They tire of platitudes about teaching correct principles, which are easy to toss off, unless it’s your child that’s being hit. And when those families eventually become bruised and sore and stop coming to church, instead of looking honestly at our own narrow narrative of what is acceptable and taking responsibility for the bruises we may have caused, we trot out the cautionary tale about what happens when you marry a non-member. Or what happens when you get divorced. Or what happens when don’t marry in the temple. And on the crazy calliope music goes…
My friend who is leaving is being ostracised from family, home, community and church. The withdrawal of love and support is heartbreaking. In this situation, my friend’s parents are well-regarded and hold high callings- the loss of a child mars the entire family. The narrative must be maintained- if you leave, if you chose differently, if you fall short of the mark in a visible way- this is what happens to you.
When we treat our sisters and brothers with such heart-wrenching callousness, we are guilty of creating a self-fulfilling prophesy. We are guilty of hanging out with the ninety-nine and throwing rocks at the one. Our stories say this is what will happen to you, and come hell or high water, we’re going to make damn sure it stays true. It’s cold, false comfort, and we’ll eventually have to answer for our rock throwing and the bruises caused.
This is my church. I have had enough experiences that cannot be discounted that I will never leave- I found God here, and I can never forget it. I remember that brief glimpse of heaven as I rose form those warm waters and that sustains me as I stumble and trip through this rocky landscape. My prayer is that those rocks stay firmly under my feet where they belong, and never find their way to a fearful hand eager to toss.