Along with Steve Evans and J. Stapley, I was honored to present as part of the Pillars of My Faith at Sunstone Northwest this last Saturday. Most of this story will be familiar to anyone who’s followed my journey, but I agreed to post and share my thoughts. Thanks also to Molly Bennion and Mary Ellen Robertson for all the good work they devote to others.
The pillars of my faith are planted in soil that is still soft and freshly turned. The ground where they rest is still marred by the plow, loamy and verdant from only relatively recently having been broken and turned. This lose fresh soil makes my pillars more like stakes, sprouts… wisps of what they may someday be, but the seeds are planted nonetheless, and I have seen the seeds sprout that may someday have the breadth of pillars, the strength of cedars. Not yet, but the promise makes me gasp in awe, and make me willing to gamble on faith.
My search for faith and God started early. Growing up, my childhood home was built on old orchard land, in the California that used to be the fruit-basket of the state, but is now paved over, crowded and beats to the rhythm of silicon instead of seasons.
Being on old orchard land, my home had plum, apricot, pear, cherry, avocado, almond, walnut, tangerine, orange and grapefruit trees. We had chickens, rabbits, a goat and a dozen dogs. My brothers and I had a carefree, happy freedom on our land. My aunt and her family lived down the road and my grandmother only a few minutes beyond. Doors were always unlocked, and I spent at much time at friends and family as I did in my own home; it was a good upbringing.
And yet, even at a young age, I knew I was missing something. Keenly, I felt it- but didn’t have the words or frame of reference to give it voice- I only knew there was a void, and that something important belonged there. When I was scarcely older than my kindergartner, I recall studying the nativity set my mother would put out at Christmas. There were no scriptures in our house, and I had never seen anyone in my family utter so much as a prayer over a meal- and yet I was mesmerized by the little statues. It was a family heirloom, and my mother would set it out simply as a nod to tradition. But that little glass Jesus was the repository for the first prayers of my life. I knelt down, and began to cry, as I poured out my heart to the tiny glass Christ. I remember shaking with fear of being discovered doing something so oddly unfamiliar, but so compelling I could not stop myself. I knew someone was listening, and wanted to hear me.
When I was a young teen, tagging along with a friend and her mother, I purchased my first scriptures from a Christian book store. My babysitting money had been saved, and I chose a green leather bible with the words of Christ in red. My friend would go over passages from the New Testament with me, and I would highlight words I liked with my little yellow pencil. At home, I kept the bible hidden behind other books on my crammed shelves, and hoped my mom wouldn’t notice when she cleaned my room. Most kids hid comics or Judy Blume novels- I hid the bible.
As I grew into my teens, my boldness and my yearning for answers grew. I would go to church with anyone who would take me. I attended synagogue, the Kingdom Hall, Catholic mass in Latin, Hebrew school, charismatic Christian church, the old Lutheran A-frame down the street, the small chapel across form my elementary school, a Sikh rite with a classmate, a Native American pow-wow and even LDS services with another classmate. I was on a mission.
As my teens unwound into early adulthood, my family life began to unravel, and my parents divorced leaving me floating and on my own before I was quite ready. I headed off to college, boyfriend and roommate in tow, and continued my search. I searched in places I do not tell anyone about, and places that were regular and simple. There is not a church or school of thought I didn’t check delve into, or at least consider for a moment, but still I wandered, unsatisfied, and looking for… for something. Looking for that feeling I got at six from that little glass Jesus. Looking for someone listening for me.
Since I was stumbling around in the proverbial dark, I made some mistakes. It took fifteen years of getting mad at God- yelling and fighting and cursing and crying and trying not to care about a God I wasn’t sure was even real, before the answers came pouring down, raining on my parched soul.
The birth of my first child is where God finally spoke to me in a way that was impossible not to hear. When my son slid from my body with that final great push and they set his slippery body on my beating heart, I knew God was real. Years of searching fell away as I looked in awe and wonder at my first child, and I knew, I knew with all my heart and soul, that there was a God, and that he was right there with me.
That is the memory I have of my first son’s birth. Not the pain, not the sheer exhaustion of pushing and delivery- that all fell away, and I sobbed and wept, yes for my son, but really it was for God. In every picture of my son’s birth, my face is bathed in tears. I’m the only one who knew what those tears really meant.
After this awakening, I found renewed fervor to seek out a house of worship. I wanted my child, and future children, to have a foundation that I had lacked. I wanted them to know God as part of the weft and weave of their daily life, know Him as a cornerstone and never feel the void I had so long yearned to fill. I understand I cannot really provide this for my children, that their paths are their own to walk, yet I knew I needed to try.
I was church shopping. One Sunday, purely because I liked the building, I went to the local Mormon Church. Knowing nothing about wards, blocks of classes, dress or really anything- I just showed up. I had a squirmy baby, and sat alone in the back and left right after it was over. But something stuck with me. It was a fast and testimony meeting, and I was absolutely amazed by the parade of young people bearing their testimonies. At that meeting, the vocabulary and vernacular was unfamiliar, but the spirit present was what I had been seeking. What I left the meeting with was a feeling that “something is happening at this place, and I don’t know what it is, but its right”. What I hoped for for my children was happening in that building and I wanted to know more about it. I didn’t “know” much, but I knew I was coming back.
The next Sunday, with the slight, shy defensiveness of someone unsure, I announced to my husband that I was going to church. He raised a perplexed eye as he glanced up from the couch, but nodded and went back to watching the baseball game. I gathered my son, and off I went. Two months later, still incognito in the back, I approached the missionaries after Sacrament, introduced myself and asked what I had to do to be baptized.
I actually kept my membership a secret from my family for a long time, simply because I knew what would happen. When I finally told my mother, she gave me a choice between her or the Church. She believes I have been brainwashed, am brainwashing my children and am ruining my family. And yet, somehow, I knew I could not turn my back on what I had come to understand of my Savior. And while I know He is everywhere, I found my answers for Him here, and here is where I plant my stake.
So now, seven years later, I stand before you to talk about the pillars of my faith. I mull this idea over, turning it in my wind and worrying it smoother like an old river pebble. My pillars are still but saplings. And yet I have learned, I have walked a path both stunningly familiar and altogether my own.
I began my journey well-versed in the ways and things of the world, but rather naive in the machinations and ways of an organized church. It hasn’t been a perfect journey, but it has been perfect for me. There are many reasons why I landed here, those reasons are what feed the saplings of my pillars. One of those Pillars is the room for personal revelation and having an open cannon.
We are a living church. One of our greatest blessings is that we belong to a church with continuing, ongoing revelation. The heavens are open. We reject this notion of God being done communicating with us. Having this open canon means we have the limitless and hope-filled potential for more binding revelation to be given and received.
The exhilaration of finding long-yearned for answers here- answers that did not disallow my own personal revelations, was almost narcotic. When I joined, I joined with gusto. I dug into the history, and made learning all I could my pet project. Along the way, my mother began to toss out little tidbits she has googled for me about Church history, and I began to notice, with a little bit of a start, that things I learned in Sunday School didn’t always jive with the things she sent me to read. So I dove into that too. I made it my project to learn all I could about our history, and face it head-on, so that when something was lobbed at me, I was not only prepared for it, but ready to handle it with ease and grace. It became an interesting personal journey, running parallel to finding my legs as a member of my ward.
My first Visiting Teacher was the Temple matriarch. My first Home Teacher was the Stake Patriarch. Sensitivity on the part of my bishop led to these stellar examples being a regular part of my life, and I was showered with the best examples of being Mormon. Framed temple pictures, photos of the prophets, Greg Olsen prints, the Proclamation and a dozen other symbols of my new faith were bestowed on me by kind ward members. Overwhelmed, I felt I had to display all of these things in order to be a “good Mormon” girl. All the other homes I visited had similar decorations; I must need them, right?
I was grateful for the kindness of my new friends. And yet… Somehow, these things were a like a shoe too tight.
At first, I thought I was slipping in my new faith; what kind of woman would not be grateful for so much kindness? Along with the gifts of faith from my sweet ward members, I was reading Richard Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Arrington and Bitton. I wondered if I was cut out for this; maybe all the changes were just too much. I felt out of place and wondered if I could be a good Mormon and yet not embrace everything about the culture of Mormonism.
The Gospel is nothing if not personal. As members of the LDS church, we are inheritors of this rich tradition, being taught from the cradle that the Lord not only loves each of us, but that we are individuals, valued and known deeply and personally to our God.
One of my favorite scriptures, Mormon 9:27 says, in part, “…doubt not, but be believing, and begin as in times of old and come unto the Lord with all your heart and work out your own salvation with fear and trembling before him.”
These are not the words of a distant God. We are not commanded to simply rely on the grace of another, or the oil borrowed from the lamp of another. Indeed we are cautioned against doing so over and over. We are given intelligence, agency and pondering minds so that we might study the words of our scriptures, hear our prophets, listen to the called and inspired, figure out what they mean to us personally, and apply them to our lives.
Internalizing this possibility created a powerful confluence of faith and influence, and it molded the woman I am today. My faith is still an imperfect animal; it wavers, it surges, it crests, and it subsides like the tide. But I stay with it, because time has shown me that changes are the norm- change is the constant, and that is part of being here on Earth. The coolest thing is, the roots of my little mustard seed, since they have grown on a moving, tumultuous vessel, are flexible and very strong.
I have made peace with some of the hard things. God has blessed me with some experiences that are not to be put to words, but that are powerful enough that the light from them sustains me, even through dark patches on my journey.
I’ve come the point where it’s comfortable for me to acknowledge this Church is run by men, however inspired, currently or historically, they are still men, with feet of clay just like the rest of us. I am at peace with this. Because we are a church run by human beings, we make mistakes. No mistake, no matter what, changes the “rocks” this church was founded upon; Salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the forgiveness for our human foibles found therein.
The principles taught are good ones- be kind, share with others, give to the less fortunate, take care of your bodies, love your family, be faithful, strive to improve, be honest, treasure your children, live within your means, be prepared, and so on… does the perfection of those who teach these principles really matter?
I find that my testimony, though still not as vast and all-encompassing as some Saints, is indeed deep. The minutiae of Mormon life does not worry me or cause me pause- I don’t care if there are inconsistencies, glitches in history, imperfections or living rooms full of kitschy art. The open cannon and the ideal of continuing revelation leaves room for the strongest of my saplings, Hope. What I do know is this:
The Lord expects me to figure things out for myself. Studying, praying and listening for the whisperings of His spirit will never lead me wrong.
Had I subscribed to and confused the culture of Mormonism with the Faith of Mormonism, I would surely have fallen. It wouldn’t have taken long for the frosting to wear thin-I’d have found myself, like the Pharisees, praying on the street corner, and getting my just reward.
The church is not perfect, and if I had continued on in this faith believing it was, it would have undoubtedly led to a fall- disenchantment and disillusionment and eventually, dis-fellowship.
Taking off the shoe that was too tight- stripping down the cultural accouterments that felt contrived to me, relying on the promise of a God who speaks to me, actually forced me to find my own voice, my own faith, and grow into my own skin. My life, my whole life, had been retooled, redirected, and refocused, and not through machination of my own; there are directions, situations and people that cannot be explained away by any logic, coincidence or theory. An alchemy has been worked on my heart; the hand of the Lord can be seen as clearly as I see my own fingerprints.