Staying, Again.

Every so often, in this life, we are privy to miracles that are as ordinary as the little sparrows that build a nest every spring in a wide pipe that connects my kitchen wall to the outside. For a few blessed weeks every year, I hear them chirping, as I cook the pasta and chop the vegetables right along side them. Every so often my children put their ear to the wall and I see, not surprise, but re-affirmation that the world really is full of magic. It’s strange that we never see the nest because the pipe is covered in such a way, and we can never pinpoint the exact day the birds become strong enough to wriggle through the little hole and fly away, but we know it happens because by June the bird voices are gone.   We know then that the miracle is the flight, the willingness to venture beyond the pipe and into a different space.

In my own life, in the midst of sorrow and chaos surrounding the haven I’ve so long called my spiritual home, I was not only privy to quiet, almost imperceptible miracles that rippled across the landscape of my own heart, but I am, like those tiny birds, testing my wings cautiously, and then, with growing confidence, jumping into a new paradigm which is playing out differently than I had planned on Thursday.

I started my weekend with full intention to take a step away from the church for a time. I felt it was no longer difficult to walk away from something that had lost its familiarity. The decision did not come on a whim, as these decisions do not. For so many who have left, now, and in the past years, the walking away does not mean walking away from God, and my leaving would not have signaled that either.

Doves, 5x7Over the weekend though, I found myself in long conversations with friends from my ward, including a member of the bishopric, as we took a road trip to run in a half marathon. The content of our conversation hardly matters because while some of us in the car had great issue with the policy, some felt the impacts differently, and regardless we all felt sadness. I know we don’t all come from the same place in terms of the short wave issues, but the overwhelming feeling I felt throughout was that on the longer wave issue of love, we all cared deeply and in our own ways. We talked through possible solutions to make our ward a kinder place, a safer haven for those who feel lost or lonely, a more deliberate vessel of service, a place where more voices can be heard. By the end of the car ride I had committed myself, and eagerly so, to be in charge of the service aspect of our ward Christmas party, to give a five-minute talk on gratitude, and to be a part of the committee that makes sure new people are watched over.

I was fully aware of my equally as real commitment to leave this church as I said I would do these things, but something in me said, “It is not your time to go.” And so, the surprising sentiment that slowly over this past week for me will not be manifest in my stepping away, but rather, me stepping in.

I know that this is not the path for everyone, and I don’t expect it to be. I’m not a better person because I have chosen it. I am continually, and often maddeningly so, pulled back to Mormonsim.  I’ve often mistaken this coming back, or rather, not leaving in the first place for lack of courage, for fear, out of cowardice or even laziness and I am certainly not immune to staying for those reasons at times. But this week, I understood that call to stay came from a different place. Fear and cowardice are not brewed in the same pot as the invitation I felt.  I understood it was an invitation to bring my best self to the table and work harder and more authentically in a context that is familiar to me.

In one post, an ex-Mormon, gay friend, in an eloquent calling out of progressive Mormons, much of which is warranted and does speak truth, asks a question which is meant to be the final point on why we should leave, but has left me thinking for days. This friend says if you decide to stay, then ask yourself why, really ask yourself why stay in a church that is making policies like the one last week. It is a vital question and one that we are all in the business of asking ourselves. The answers vary.

My reasons for now are these:

-I feel a responsibility to the woman I work with in nursery who is pregnant and sick and new.

-I love the 85 year old woman we visit once a month so she can read my children stories.

-My selfish spirit needs that moment when I take the sacrament and truly ask myself if I am willing to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.

-The idea that I can organize a service project at a ward Christmas party to help do the work of teaching our children that service is not a side ship of Christ’s mission, but in fact the only one.

-I believe in the power of a divine feminine voice and presence within a community, and I believe that when we bring her here, many hearts will be healed—I believe I can be a small part of that.

-I stay because as a good friend said much better than I could in an email, “For myself, the principles I have learned at the feet of this faith tradition invite me to be transformed, and to develop the kind of true and abiding compassion (in the etymological sense of that word) that works transformations in the world around me.”

-I stay because I love Christ and I have found Him here often.

-I stay because my 4-year old recounted to me the good Samaritan story after church one day, and although many of our current policies do not shadow that story, I believe that we as individual members can daily.

-I stay because I was so moved when I took an institute class called Christ and the emancipation of women, and I find this community a place to connect with women in need of emancipation, whether from themselves, or false ideas, or oppressive traditions.

-I stay because of our friend who quit his job so he can get certified to teach high school science in underprivileged schools and with whom my husband spends time studying so that he can pass all the qualifying exams.

-I stay because of my friend who navigates the hollow halls of depression and I want to be someone in her life who cares.

-I stay because I, time and time again, have been recipient of unspeakable kindnesses within my church experience.

-I stay because I am so so imperfect and so many times the core principles of this gospel have reminded me what is important.

-I stay because I need correction, and humility, and a place to practice acceptance and kindness, and that is why the policy makes me sad.

Yes, there are many, many, who should also find peace in this fold, and it is more than a shame that they are not here, and now, may never be. I have no answer or justification for that. I hope we continue to talk and work as a community until nothing but love and acceptance is offered by our people. Not just on this issue, but so many others that make us different from one another. I also know that criticisms will come for my position and reasoning, and criticize if you need to. I will tell you this, I have two young children, I work a part time job, we are poor students in an affluent area and the odds that I will wield much influence in the communities around me right now are not so good, if only from a purely logistical standpoint. For me, right now, the decision is between leaving to work mostly alone, or stay and offer up what I can. That is not everyone’s scenario, I understand. For me, the fact is that if I leave this community, I do not have access to the intimate emotional needs of so many because I simply would not cross paths with them and they would not have access to mine. The simple bridge to so many people with the purpose of serving and being kind, coupled with a theology that can cause tectonic shifts within a heart so inexperienced as mine, means I will stay, and I will work hard to build a neighborhood of Zion in a wild and beautiful world that is also trying to do the same.

Like the sparrows in the wall in my kitchen, the territory of trying once more feels new. It feels scary and vulnerable and unknown, but like those birds, I also believe in miracles and I believe we are the ones that enact them.

Comments

  1. Yes. Thanks, Ashmae. This captures a lot of what I am feeling.

  2. anonforthis says:

    I’m struggling because, in combination with the policy change last week, I’m not needed in my current ward. I’m not wanted. I don’t have friends there.

    This in stark contrast two the last two wards I spent more than a year in, both of which I was well-respected in, had many friends, and served in ward council positions.

    I’ve already been struggling, mainly because of the ward. And now this policy change, and I’m trying to analyze why I bother showing up anymore. I’m not sure whether it’s because I’m afraid of denying the testimony I do have, or because I’m a coward and don’t want to deal with the fallout of going less active.

    I’m not one for making rash decisions. But something’s got to give.

  3. anonforthis, I am not trying to be cliche here, but maybe your job right now is to find someone who feels just like you do and seeing what can be done about it.

    Thanks for this post, ashmae.

  4. I’ve tried to leave three times. I haven’t followed through for many of the same reasons you listed here, and also because when I’m at a breaking point, an interaction at church or a talk or a hymn pulls me back. It’s not my time either. This was such a great post. Thank you.

  5. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    So much of my weekly worship/service at my non-Utah ward feels so independent from the centrist Utah policy making church. It focuses on the interactions I have between my own ward members and the pieces of the curriculum that are presented in our local members own way. It is actually a relief to go to my ward meeting and be healed locally from the trauma that comes from the centrist Utah policy making church. There is some disconnect from my Bishop, who will likely one day be one of those policy makers, but the connection with the other members is good. I can sit and smell the nicotine on the new struggling members behind me, look at the flushed cheeks of the alcohol consuming investigators who smile as they come in and think of the saying that encourages them to bring us their goodness as we all work on becoming better. There are still some talks and or testimonies that prompt me to go for a walk–but those moments on the grounds outside the church are also spiritually edifying.

  6. I’ve been expecting this kind of post. Some, perhaps many, will find a way to stay. And be honorable and brave in doing so. And this is beautiful and strong, Ashmae. A short-short version (to my ear) is the words of a friend, “I believe in the Ward.”
    It takes me a long way and I’m trying. But so far it doesn’t work for me. The reason–here I’m not claiming right or wrong or even deep thought, but simply observing–is that I keep seeing in my mind’s eye my bishop in my ward, right up close to home, excommunicating that woman I helped move, or refusing permission to baptize the son of a friend in the ward. And it all falls down.

  7. I must admit that the thought crossed my mind to not go to church on Sunday as a form of silent protest. I ended up going though, mostly because I needed to teach Sunday School to some terribly misbehaving teenagers.

    A poignant moment came during Sacrament meeting when our Bishop took some time to address the policy. I saw him after and told him I thought he did a good job. He had a way of making those of us who disagree with or question the policy feel welcome.

    He told me that he was heavily editing the statement and crossing lines out like crazy as he spoke. He said the original was much more harsh. (Apparently headquarters gave them a statement to read)

    Coming from a Bishop who works for the church in Salt Lake, this gave me a great deal of hope.

  8. Lee Bennion says:

    Amen, amen, and amen. Hugs too.

  9. Can I stay in my ward – messy as it is – and quit the larger church? That’s what I would like to do.

  10. anonforthis, I have felt your pain. Had this happened two years ago in a previous ward where I felt friendless and excluded I may have made the decision to leave and join one of the local Protestant denominations. Like Rigel I now live in a non-Christian country far from Salt Lake City where my Sunday worship focuses on my salvation through Jesus’ atonement. This experience has done more to heal my church soul and convince me that there is benefit in staying than anything else.

  11. Thank you for your sincere and inspiring words Ashmae. While I would certainly cross paths with you anyway, my church experience will still be better with you in it. I was never thinking of leaving, but your reasons for staying show that you are a far better person than me.

  12. As the argument unfolds following the LDS church’s new policies it occurs to me that here we might just have a reversal on the old “blind people groping an elephant” metaphor. For those not familiar with it, the concept is that a group of blind people each feeling a different part of an elephant will each describe the animal very differently based on where they grab. It is an apt metaphor for people arguing needlessly when they could just work together to get clarity.

    Now to reverse the idea. What if when the traditional Mormons say “the church” they are describing an entirely different animal than the more progressive members. It seems like ever since I returned to church in my late teens I have been arguing with other members about what was right, about the meanings and applications of various scriptures. I’ve spent years telling myself we were just at different ends of the same elephant but as this policy change came out and the Brethren seemed to be surprised by the response, I can’t help but think they are the guys who are supposed to really define the elephant for the rest of us, and they may not be touching the same beast as me at all. And maybe they never were.

    Time to put the metaphor to bed.

    The church in which I thought I maintained membership was not one of exclusion. It would not place women lower than men. It would not exclude the children of gay couples on the risk of normalizing sin (this if how I explain the new policy), and it would not try to mislead its followers about why it did hard things. These are prerequisites to be the church of the Christ I know. Initially it seemed like that church as the holy ghost confirmed for me the good parts, but more and more it did not stand up to the criteria for me.

    I have friends who are upset, but plan to change the church back. They say “It is my church too!” They discuss how they will teach change and will force the church to be better. There is just one problem. I don’t want a church made in my own image. I don’t want it to be my church. I want it to be God’s church. And I believe I will recognize it when I feel it. Maybe it hasn’t been restored yet, or it doesn’t need to be, but I don’t believe trying to fix the LDS one will do any good.

    Here is why: This isn’t the same as preaching repentance to the Nephites or even the Lamanites. This time it is Abinadi going to King Noah and his priests. And this time the Lamanites won’t be burning the leadership to ashes so a new better church led by Alma can save the day. This time the 15 know what you have to say, and they disagree after genuine thought and prayer (having sought more light and knowledge that same way we do). The best you can do is incrementally lead some people to agree with you. What is even the point? You are still implying support for guys who disagree with what you value most.

    For me the answer is to not hope for the church to improve. In my mind the church is mostly just a normal human organization with good intentions, but that is led by some old conservatives so it changes a few decades behind the times after a new generation has figured out that rock music is not evil and evolution is actually obvious.

    Instead of being and activist I will enjoy the good things about the church, the positive stories (maybe fables?) of the book of Mormon, the excellent scholarship, and generally good people and ignore its claims of divine authority and demands that I obey. I will live my life seeking to draw near to my savior without any middle man church regulating that relationship and I welcome any friend to join me, gay or straight, male or female, of any color or culture, in loving God and each other.

    Cheers.

  13. Karla, that’s the option I am trying to figure out too. I am having trouble having my name aligned with the institutional church and have little faith in the heirarchal organization, but I do have faith and trust in my ward and in my stake. I’ve asked my bishop what that might look like to resign from the church but remain active. I don’t know yet if that’s the course I will ultimately take, but it’s at the top of my list of unsatisfactory options right now.

  14. Yes, Ashmae, yes. I feel the same. I know exactly the Facebook comment you refer to – Ash’s comment burned into my soul too. I cannot stop thinking about it, and it made me feel ashamed. It made me feel ashamed for continuing to be a part of an organization that hurts people so badly. That can be so cruel and exclusionary. To my own friends! How could I do that? Of course my membership has been unorthodox – I split the time with my husband’s Catholic congregation, our son was baptized Catholic. But I still attend my wards every other Sunday – I still visit teach and serve and help plan activities. And it’s because of what you say – and what others say in these comments – that this is mostly because these wards are full of really great people from every walk of life. People I’d never encounter elsewhere. I love my wards, and I feel like they’re very much rooted in the core principles of Christlike charity. I can’t listen to General Conference without wincing, but I love going to church. Granted, I’ve also been in unorthodox wards – mostly outside the US – but that too is Mormonism.

    It’s all so hard. How could I justify this to Ash, or to others, when it’s so painful? Sending lots of love, dear.
    Julianne.

  15. Royal Scot says:

    I agree with Markie. I enjoy coming to Sacrament meeting and enjoy being with my brothers and sisters in the ward. There are many excellent people there. I have taken the step of informing my Bishop that I will not Home Teach nor will teach any classes. I feel very out of tune with the Brethren in that remote, foreign place of leadership called Salt Lake City, but I do feel kinship with the Ward. For now I will be active in my own way.

  16. Royal you should still home teach! Fellowship is about being Christlike. If you continue to visit and care for the people in your neighborhood you can be a great force for good.

  17. Eve of Destruction says:

    “Why I Stay” narratives break my heart. I know what the WhyIStayed hashtag is for.

    A domestic abuser may act kind and loving much of the time, and their spouse is the first to see that goodness in them and love them for it. The victim doesn’t want the relationship to end, but just wants the violence to stop. So the victim clings to every shred of hope that the abuser might stop the violence.

    Domestic abuse victims often convince themselves after an episode of abuse that if they just work harder and take on more responsibility, they can save the relationship (“I never once thought of myself as a battered wife. Instead I was a very strong woman in love with a deeply troubled man, and I was the only person on earth who could help [him] face his demons.” – Leslie Morgan Steiner)

    Domestic abuse victims often stay in abusive relationships to protect others from the abuser, such as children or pets.

    Domestic abuse victims often blame themselves for staying with an abuser or returning repeatedly to an abusive home. They need to know that the abuse is not their fault. And the difficulty in leaving is not their fault.

    I know you don’t want to see yourself as a battered spirit, or as a victim of religious abuse. But you are spelling it out so clearly, it is impossible not to mourn with you. I am so sorry that you are going through this. I know how hard it is.

  18. Ashmae, is the bird print available for purchase anywhere? I love it.