The talk so many have been waiting for: thank you President Wixom! #ldsconf

It has been a difficult few years for me, trying to sit and listen and just be with several friends in my ward and larger circles going through acute crises of faith. The causes are varied: feelings of having been hurt by the church’s policies or actions, social alienation for having the wrong kind of family, troubling historical facts, or just feeling like they needed a break from church activity. At times I felt overwhelmed by selfish personal sense of loss of not having these friends with me at church, overwhelmed by the emotional exertion they sometimes called on me to help them bear for a time, overwhelmed by my own complex feelings and faith in a time of tension between different parts of the flock. So often talks from our leaders seemed to ignore or belittle these struggles I saw all around me and within me. Even when it was addressed in conference, it often felt oblique or keeping the doubts (and by extension the doubters) at a safe arm’s length. Speakers usually seemed to misunderstand or mischaracterize the concerns, and there was a lack of feeling like voices of this struggle were even heard, much less having an impact. Then came today’s talk by President Wixom. Wixom, tenderly quoting a woman in her ward who faced doubts and left activity for a time:

“I did not separate myself from the Church because of bad behavior, spiritual apathy, looking for an excuse not to live the commandments, or searching for an easy out. I felt I needed the answer to the question ‘What do I really believe?’”

“My testimony had become like a pile of ashes. It had all burned down. All that remained was Jesus Christ.”


Finally, letting the voices speak for themselves in their own words.

Finally, directly confronting the cliche misconceptions about why people doubt or leave.

Finally, an authentic frankness is allowed to pierce the sugar coating.

Wixom then immediately summoned the ultimate “if even this person experienced doubts, then you don’t need to be ashamed of them” exemplar, no less a saint than Mother Theresa:

About this time she read a book of the writings of Mother Teresa who had shared similar feelings. In a 1953 letter, Mother Teresa wrote: “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself—for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started ‘the work.’ Ask Our Lord to give me courage.”

This is the talk that I and so many others with imperfect or unconventional faith have been waiting to hear. It wasn’t perfect (I’m not sure I like the idea that we are cleanly divided into those with doubts and without–don’t we all have things “on the shelf” or where we dissent?), but even in its imperfect ministry I find a valuable kind of grace: to love and empathize with another we need to do our best to hear and represent their voice authentically, and we don’t need to say just the perfect thing in response.

I am grateful to President Wixom for showing two important components of love: courage and frankness.

I am especially grateful to the courage of the woman in President Wixom’s ward, whose comments in Relief Society inspired Wixom’s talk. I am perhaps even more inspired by these circumstances that led to the talk than by the talk itself. This is an instructive example of how having the courage to live authentically and openly, to follow Uchtdorf’s counsel yesterday in Priesthood to not present a too-perfect Potemkin village facade to each other in our Sunday meetings, can create the kind of nurturing and healing space we all need to thrive in our church community. Uchtdorf said:

The Church is not an automobile showroom—a place to put ourselves on display so that others can admire our spirituality, capacity, or prosperity. It is more like a service center, where vehicles in need of repair come for maintenance and rehabilitation.

Wood_Duck_(3385646450)Wixom’s fellow ward member dared to bring her station wagon in for maintenance. I have no doubt her ward’s Relief Society is now a safer, stronger community, and now the whole church is blessed by her courage. What a valuable ripple to send out in the pond. My heartfelt thanks to her.

Comments

  1. I loved this talk. Not all who question or doubt or go through periods of darkness do so because they are making bad choices or desire to sin. Like the woman in this talk, sometimes we just need to be honest with ourselves and the Lord and figure out what we really believe and what path Heavenly Father wants us on, especially when the current one no longer works, for whatever reason. This can be an act of faith just as much as it is a response to doubts or questions. Respect for that search and love for the individual would be so much more helpful than judgements and assumptions. And I feel like that’s what Sister Wixom was advocating for. I really appreciate her giving this woman a voice and in turn, extending that voice to all who struggle in this way. Beautiful talk.

  2. Angela C says:

    Two things she said really resonated for me. First, “the Lord can only teach an inquiring mind.” As Pres. Uchtdorf talked about later in the session, sometimes at church we think we are obedient enough with our checklist approach, and we aren’t really engaging at church, just checking our phones or superficially paying attention. We feel entitled because we have earned our salvation (we think). And so when someone comes in and questions things and grapples with these underlying assumptions, it’s a threat to the illusion that we are saved by our obedience. We see that we are on shaky ground indeed. When we quit inquiring, we quit relying on grace.

    I also loved when Pres. Wixom talked about the continued support the woman received from her ward, particularly when they said “Come, we want you whatever stage you are at, and we will meet you there. Give us whatever you have to offer.” Oh that every ward could be so humble and welcoming. Maybe thanks to Pres. Wixom, they will be.

  3. I’ve never had a “this talk is for me” moment until today. Thanks for this excellent write-up, Cynthia.

  4. I too loved this talk. As one who has been trying to figure out exactly what I believe for more than twenty years, I felt acknowledged in a way I never had before. Thank you sister wixom.

  5. Oregon Mum says:

    Loved this talk! I do hope that more wards can be open and accommodating to those with doubts and questions.

  6. Yes! This talk struck me powerfully as well. Perhaps because it had less to do with telling us what is *ideal* and instead focused more on how to really love one another. A sort of reframing of the Good Samaritan story, this was a very helpful and Christ-centered talk.

  7. Jason K. says:

    A clear home run for President Wixom. Hurrah!

  8. Claire S says:

    What do I really believe has been the question on my mind for a while so to hear it acknowledged in conference is comforting. Too often in church expressed doubts are brushed aside so can’t be addressed openly and many members just aren’t comfortable discussing issues and doubts so I find myself alone in the quest to find out what I really believe…This post and others comments are good too.

  9. jasonlabau says:

    Two more reasons I was grateful for this talk:
    (1) That she didn’t feel compelled as the General Primary President to speak to/about the children, but instead chose to address a general (and crucial) subject.
    (2) That she cited an outside-the-church intervention as a key moment in strengthening faith.

  10. I really appreciated this talk, and I love your post on it, Cynthia. My favorite point (among many) was the first bit you quoted, where the woman in the story responds to all the typical rhetoric about doubters/exiters like “you just wanted an excuse to sin” etc. I loved that she responded to those and that President Wixom included her response in her telling of the story.

    Also, I love love love that President Wixom–a woman–gave this talk. I feel like so many women leaders give talks that sound like they’re auditioning to be more orthodox than thou, taking harder and harder line stances, and never saying much that’s even a new look at at old topic. And then bam! President Wixom busts in with this much-needed message where she just said what needed to be said. What a great signal to women in the Church in general!

  11. Rebecca says:

    Thank you for your summary of this wonderful talk. I really appreciated her perception and interpretation of that moment and her wisdom and kindness in sharing it on such a large scale; many do experience these same questions, feelings, and struggles yet feel alone because so rarely is it spoken. I also recently read “The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith” and found the thoughts shared in it by the authors also able to give me peace and comfort in my questions and desire to endure.

  12. It is funny to me that he would throw in Mother Teresa & act as if that letter in 1953 was the end of her doubts & an isolated incident. She actually carried that disbelief through to the end of her life–abandoning prayer & belief in god many, many years before she died. She continued in her work because she believed god (she also doubted his existence in her letters throughout her life) had abandoned the people of Calcutta & they needed her continued strength and compassion. Prime example of the common practice in the church of only telling part of the story.

  13. I missed this talk after what was a dreary Saturday. Thanks Cynthia. I look forward to reading it.

  14. Thokozile says:

    I also liked that it didn’t end “and then she became an ordinance worker and lived happily ever after” like these stories often do (including the one later in the session). I think endings like that give the unrealistic impression that a faith crisis is something people recover from like recovering from a broken arm that heals to be exactly like it was before. I thought this talk made a step towards acknowledging that she may believe in the Book of Mormon differently than she did before and left open the possibility that it would be okay for her to simply stick with being the primary pianist and holding onto the basic truths she’s comfortable with.

  15. Thank you, Cynthia. And thank you President Wixom.

  16. President Wixom for the win in every way. And she spoke with a more authoritative delivery style than she has in the past. Thanks for highlighting the talk.

  17. This talk was balm to my soul and an answer to prayers that I hadn’t dared to speak aloud.

  18. Wendy MacKinlay says:

    Like Angela C., I DID love the comment about “come, we want you whatever”, because it is foolish and cold to judge or close the door upon someone who is questioning their faith. And Angela C.’s other comment, “the Lord can ony teach an inquiring mind” really resonates for this topic. Leaving humility behind for a moment, I’ve always prided myself on being fairly inquisitive, intellectually-minded rather than emotionally-led in my approach to studying the Gospel. I think it is good to question; having doubts is very natural. I’ve come to realize that, more important than being intellectually-minded, it is important to be spiritually-minded, humble, not willful in our desire for answers, and try to show the Lord that we do trust in Him.
    I believe that pursuing answers through faithful study and prayer is a very different way of learning compared to relying upon our own intellect and the intellect of others. I always think of 2 Ne: 9. . “the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves.” I really wonder whether Internet chats and articles, essays, etc. that are doubt-filled can lead us to answers for our doubts, as we are considering the opinions of others rather than trying to see with our own spiritual eyes. But we aren’t alone. The Lord wants us to use our agency to choose faith in Him and His love for us.