42 A Mormon in the Cheap Seats: The Only Thing I Know

[Today's MCS post is by Carole Thayne Warburton.]

The only thing I know is that I don’t know.

I don’t know that the church is true. I don’t know that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I don’t know if the Book of Mormon is true. I don’t know that President Monson is a prophet. I don’t know for sure that God exists or that Jesus was his son.

But in Alma 32:21 we learn that,  “… faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.”

Doubt has been given a bad rap in our church which is ironic considering it was the doubt of a young man that began the founding or restoration of our religion. Doubt can lead to hope and faith. While I don’t know, I hope. I hope the church is true. I hope that Joseph Smith did see God the Father and his Son. I hope that President Monson leads our church with inspiration. I hope that eternal life is possible. I very much believe in God. I believe in the divinity of Jesus and love his stories, his teachings, his life. I hope in the Atonement.

Some time ago I began to feel devoid and desperate. The faith that had once seemed so unshakable in my youth had dissipated. Instead of warmth and hope, I felt hollow. Doubt replaced the faith that once filled my heart. I tried what I had always done. Since adulthood, like many do, I’d put my troubling issues on a shelf and tried not to worry about them. Out of sight—out of mind. But the problem with any high shelf is that you lose track of what’s up there. And every once in a while, you’ve got to take a look. When I examined the questions, I didn’t like what I saw. Cobwebs, dirt, grime. I couldn’t begin to keep up with it. With all the weight my metaphorical shelf had been holding, it has broken so many times it is no longer reparable. Now the rubble of my shelf is all around me. Instead of hiding the issues away, I try to live with all the stuff.  Is it possible to be happy in the church with all my questions and concerns?

Some months ago, weighed down by the struggle, I began to raise red flags hoping someone would notice. When that didn’t work, I lit some flares. Hey, I need help. Notice. I felt like I was wearing a neon sign, but I must not have been because many passed by. I reached out to those “called” to lead, but instead of receiving a hand I was left standing on the side of the road, wounded from the asking. Even though doubt has become a permanent friend, my prayers still reach the Heavens and I hear whisperings. You’re ok.  Just hang on. Things will get better. Finally, I stood at the precipice. I either fall in or fall out. I step in or a step out. Either way. Which way? I panicked. My very Mormon heart raced with fear and anxiety.

Sleep eluded me. Questions clouded my brain. Could I live with the consequences? Could I live with the judgment if I stopped attending church?  Could I live with the disappointment that my absence was bound to cause my loved ones? In my quest I realized I had been flagging the wrong people. People who I had hoped to make a connection with, but who didn’t really know me. Good people, sure. Loving people—yes, but how could I expect them to see my needs? I hadn’t seen theirs. I’d been selfish. My ward is filled with people with far more pressing needs than mine. Undoubtedly though, some did notice and maybe even wanted to help, but just like me when others have troubles—didn’t know what to do or say. Some may have tried. Still desperate, I stood on the wayside and waved down some trusted friends and family. The very people I had been trying to shield from the truth —the very ones who might be hurt or disappointed by what has felt like failure. They put aside their own concerns and stopped to help and bind my wounds. The message from these compassionate people is the same that I heard from the Heavens. “It’s ok. You are ok. Do whatever you need to do. It is enough. This too shall pass.” What I had failed to notice was that so many were willing, doubters and believers alike. I just needed to ask.

We attend church for a variety of reasons. Some of us attend out of guilt, sense of duty, or obligation. Some for fear of punishment. Some because their parents make them or to please a spouse. Some come to make friends and be in a community. Some attend church because they love it and it fills their souls. Or we come out of the hope that it’s the right thing to do.  Some for a combination of all these things. Most of us desire some kind of connection. For some, attending church is an act of bravery. One of the bravest people I know of is an openly gay man who attends church week after week, hoping for a place in the community, and hoping that his presence will help others face their own fears. Do we really reach out like Jesus would and make everyone welcome? Do we set aside the labels that divide us? Even though year after year our church declares political neutrality. A simple thing—you’d think. Yet even with that, sometimes in lessons or discussions it’s implied that conservative values are promoted over liberal values in the scriptures. Guess what? When I read the scriptures, I feel the opposite. When my values are derided I feel like I don’t belong. When the word liberal is used as a pejorative I feel sidelined. We have lots of ways of sidelining others and even though we say welcome, what happens when someone dares to come and are made to feel they really aren’t one of the fold after all? Are they left by the side of the road?

Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin said: “Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. He went on to say. “Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.”

I am a multi-generational Mormon descended from ancestors who joined the church at great sacrifice and crossed the plains to get to Utah. My own parents were faithful servants and yet sometimes I stand on the fringe of the church longing to find a place at the table. I am welcomed to take a seat, but the food being offered is sometimes not to my liking and the conversation can make me uncomfortable. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been invited to dinner only to find out that I’m being recruited to sell Amway. I have two children. One lives in NYC and is single. The other lives a very Mormon life in Salt Lake City with his wife and three children. When we all get together it’s a rare blessing. I want to do everything I can to make sure my children are welcome and respected in my home. They are adults now and should be treated as such. My daughter is lactose intolerant, gluten sensitive, and won’t eat any meat except fish. My son and his wife won’t eat any meat that isn’t organically farm-raised. Eggs make my son gag. My husband prefers not to eat pork, but will eat almost anything else. A host of foods are migraine triggers for me. As a family we research recipes we can all eat and enjoy together. The cooking process is as important to our bonding as the eating. We enjoyed a turkey-free Thanksgiving dinner that everyone agreed was the best they’d had. Because our daughter is no longer an active member of the church, we don’t let church language dominate the conversation. We just enjoy each other’s company. I want my children to not only have a place at the table, but to be active happy participants in the family. I don’t tell my daughter that the FDA says milk is an important part of the food pyramid or that whole wheat is something she should just try a little more of. She’s found what works so she can feel her best. I don’t tell my son that he should gag down scrambled eggs because eggs are high in protein. Sometimes we have to eliminate what doesn’t work for us, or help us be our best selves, even though those things may work very well for the majority.

I realize the church smorgasbord is much, much larger and includes an even more diverse population that our little brood. I realize that no matter how hard we try, not everyone will feel comfortable at the table. As Church members we are often told we don’t apologize for our doctrine. I don’t expect the church leaders to do that, but I do believe that the doctrines, beliefs, policies, and cultural practices have become so intertwined few members can even tell the difference. Sometimes it’s clear that policy is put before people. Sometimes with the focus on programs we lose sight of the bigger picture.  “What would Jesus do?” should be the ruling mantra.

My hope is that sometime the table will include people from all walks of life, races, and sexual orientation. When that happens, it is a table that I will want a place at. I hope that someday I can be the kind of person who reaches out and sees others’ needs too. I will continue to “hope for things which are not seen which are true.” I love the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have been and continue to be blessed by so many wonderful people: doubters, believers, truth seekers, friends, and dear family. People who see me.

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