When I am fearful or lonely or out of place, when I feel different or uncertain, I practice a simple trick to get outside of myself. I look around me for someone standing alone or looking for a place to belong and I invite them to sit next to me. In that moment, I stop looking inward and direct my energy outside of my insecurities. More often than not, my needs are met in companionship, diminished as I converse with someone new.
I’ve maintained this practice relatively well for the past 10 years, but I’ve let is slide some over the last year and a half. I think readers still find an invitation to sit for a chat in my blog and you’ll definitely find me opening up a conversation with a new mom at the park. But I’ve put up my guard, reverting to the invitee, in the one place I started this practice to begin with: my church community.
Many suspect that questions of faith begin by associating with “anti” voices outside of your denomination. The opposite happened for me. I sat through rehashed Sunday School lessons and listened to people participate in a “discussion” generally formulated to reach a predetermined conclusion. Gender inequalities that always troubled me rose to the surface, refusing to recede. I questioned and I sometimes rocked the boat with comments in church, but I generally kept my questions quietly to myself or tested them out with “safe” friends.
I watched people I love grapple with difficult questions and leave the church of their youth behind. I stopped simply feeling sorry for them and started asking why they left and what (if anything) might have encouraged them to stay. My desire transformed from “return them to the fold,” to understanding what brings them hope and joy now. I wondered if they might have stayed despite their concerns if they’d known how many saw gray in the seemingly black and white; if their ideas and questions had been explored and welcomed, rather than feared and stifled.
My parents raised me on the story of a young, unlearned, questioning boy who dared to ask God an impertinent question. I was fed on personal and prophetic continued revelation. As the youngest of four daughters, I viewed myself distinctly as a daughter of Heavenly Parents, equally loved as any man. I felt this in my soul, but I didn’t always feel it in my congregation or in the church organization itself. And I wondered at the inconsistency, but ignored my questions. Until a couple of years ago, when they refused to be subdued.
I continued to sing the sweet songs I learned as a child in primary as lullabies to my children, I attended weekly meetings, served faithfully, and sought Jesus Christ in sermons and lessons. But frustration and sometimes anger overtook me as my questions received mixed messages of “You can receive revelation for yourself” and, more often, “Follow the Prophet and set your questions and doubts aside.” The same cautionary tales of wayward pioneers made their way into conversation, along with pity, sometimes mingled with a smug certainty in the speaker’s own knowledge.
Last summer, I discovered a world of faithful questioners. People who asked questions similar to mine and others I’d yet to consider. Individuals who knew difficult history and grappled with it. People who felt alone at local meetings, but not in a greater church community. Participating brought me hope. The “gospel” and the “church” stopped being synonymous and I felt free to ask and explore difficult questions in safe places.
Among these individuals, I discovered John Dehlin and Kate Kelly. Dehlin came on my radar through his well-known TED talk, The Ally Within. After watching his TED Talk, I decided to explore John’s Mormon Stories Podcasts and discovered his Why I Stay and his Top 5 Myths About Why Committed Mormons Leave the Church. John Dehlin was pushing the dialogue past the comfortable, exploring different sides of the Mormon story, having the conversation I craved in my local meetings. He also helped me to see outside of myself and consider my loved one’s experiences in a new light.
Some accuse John of creating a “following,” of leading people away from truth, and he is now facing potential discipline for his openness and honesty about his doubts and questions. I personally see John as the ultimate example of the person who recognized his own struggles and, rather than dwelling in them, looked for others who might be experiencing the pain of doubt, shame, fear, or anger. Rather than hurt his faith community, John is seeking to strengthen it by reaching out through mass communication to say “There is Room Next to Me.” John isn’t saying, “Think like me” or “Join Me,” but “Come talk with me. Know that you are not alone.” He has created a global “safe” Mormon community of diverse individuals and I thank him for it.
I was undecided on the issue of women’s ordination, but I felt strongly that God had much more to reveal to us about the roles of men and women. I researched Ordain Women out of curiosity and felt a kinship to their mission. My profile didn’t go up on the Ordain Women site until after much soul searching. Posting that profile proved an incredibly uplifting, freeing experience and I felt nearer to God than I’d felt in months.
In Ordain Women’s founder, Kate Kelly, I discovered an unexpected surprise: She’s never experienced a crisis of faith. Her questions come because of her faith, not in spite of it. Kate grew up with a passion for the gospel and believes deeply in the restoration, a central tenant of the LDS (Mormon) faith. She is a woman who recognized a faith community much larger than her local congregation. She acted in faith and then looked around her , recognizing that many silently asked the same questions, seeking a place to sit. Kate decided to voice her convictions and, in doing so, said to her greater spiritual community, “There is room next to me.”
Last October, President Dieter Uchtdorf extended his love to those feeling like outsiders in the LDS church. His now popular talk, Come, Join with Us inspired many and offered hope and fellowship to those seeking a place in the church. He explained, “It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.”
In contrast to these hope-filled words, both Dehlin and Kelly recently received letters notifying them of possible disfellowship or excommunication in the church for publicly voicing their questions. Each is accused of apostasy and of leading others away from the truth. I found this news devastating and my heart broke for these two people who have touched my life and for the church I’ve loved for so long.
I have never once felt an invitation to “follow” John or Kate. Instead, I’ve felt a renewed hope in faithful reflection, listening to my inner voice, and following my own convictions. When I have felt alone in my own congregation and uncertain of my place, people like Kate and John have inspired me by embodying President Uchtdorf’s message of, “Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.”
There is no way to predict what will happen for Kelly and Dehlin in the coming weeks. But I can say what this means for me. I will no longer be ruled by anger, frustration, or fear. I will not let concerns over losing my legitimacy or feeling accepted make me mute. I won’t fold my arms, dig in my heels, and wonder at my place. Instead, I will continue to seek faithfully and to look outside of myself. On my lips will be the continual invitation, “There is room next to me.”
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