Wednesday, March 4, 2009

When the Shelf Comes Crashing Down

Sister Camilla Kimball once said “I’ve always had an inquiring mind. I’m not satisfied just to accept things. I like to follow through and study things out. I learned early to put aside those gospel questions that I couldn’t answer. I had a shelf of things I didn’t understand, but as I’ve grown older and studied and prayed and thought about each problem, one by one I’ve been able to better understand them. I still have some questions on that shelf, but I’ve come to understand so many other things in my life that I’m willing to bide my time for the rest of the answers.” (Ensign October 1975 “Camilla Kimball: Lady of Constant Learning”
I too can’t just accept things. I liked the idea of a shelf where I could put my problems and questions about the Church. I envisioned a shelf full of food storage and canned goods, and I started piling up my issues–stuff that I didn’t understand. Polygamy—that’s a big one—about a fifty-pound bag of flour. Next, the priesthood ban for black men—another big bag of flour. Already my shelf was starting to sag pretty heavily in the middle, but I was doing okay. I could move forward. I had a testimony. In spite of what people say about a never-changing church, I was more than okay with the church changing. Nothing is perfect in the early fledgling years—so I told myself. We are better now. Polygamy has publicly been labeled a “blip.” That “blip” has caused considerable heartbreak, abuse, and misunderstanding—many are still being victimized. Look at Texas. But I could keep that on the shelf. I was okay.
As far as the priesthood barrier being lifted in 1978, well I witnessed that one first hand. If I’d been home in Utah at the time—I would’ve seen very little change in my overly white community. However, in June of that year, I was traveling through Europe. I was scrubbing my jeans in the sink of a cheap hotel in Germany while my friend, Rosanna fiddled with a radio and picked up an American station. “Carole,” she shouted. “Come quick.” She told me what the announcer said, but I couldn’t believe she’d heard correctly until the announcer repeated the news, quoting an official spokesperson for the LDS Church. We cried and ran down the stairs to rejoice with other less-enthused members of our Utah group. The next week we went to church in Hyde Park, London, where black men blessed and passed the sacrament for the first time in their lives. I heard numerous members, both black and white, bear testimonies with tears streaming down their faces, that the day had finally arrived, the day they knew would come. It was a wonderful day. Where was my faith? Is the question still on the shelf?—Yes, but the bag became a lighter.
In the thirty years since then, I’ve added lots of cans to my shelf, some little cans, tomato sauce size and others much bigger. I’ve rearranged the shelf a few times, checked expiration dates--moved stuff to the back—out of the way so I wouldn’t have to face it. No matter what though, eventually I dig through the cans and pull them out to examine them one at a time. Sometimes my understanding allows me to discard a can, and other times I can change the label, but usually I just rearrange the shelf and move forward.
About ten years ago the shelf broke. The cans rolled to the floor in a heap and I couldn’t put them back on. It was a sad day for me. I wanted to leave the church. I no longer believed that it was true. Which can broke the shelf? It might have been the historical issues. It might have been the lack of equal rights for women. It might have been all the cultural stuff that gets mixed into doctrine and distorts the teachings of Jesus and His simple gospel. It might have been overwhelming depression and a mid-life crisis. The cloud became too fuzzy and I couldn’t see a clear way to worship God. No matter what all I wanted to do when that moment came was to run. So what did I do?
I didn’t run. I asked to be released from my calling from the Primary presidency. When I told the bishop what I was feeling, he offered a priesthood blessing. I gratefully accepted. It’s ironical to me now. I allowed a blessing from a man whom I’d just confessed a lack of testimony, to lay his hands on my head, using a power that I had questioned. But for some reason it felt right. Now I know that even then I held fast to some very basic things about the gospel. I knew I believed in God. I knew I believed in Jesus. I knew I believed in prayer. I’d seen the priesthood work miracles both large and small. Those parts were a good fit.
When I left the office, I felt clear in my mind and much of the anger I’d been carrying around dissipated; my shelf was reinforced. I went back to school. I got the help I needed for depression. I still went to Church.
I’ve been blessed with two wonderful children, and a kind and thoughtful husband. For a while, my family was the only reason I attended Church. My responsibility as a mother and wife overcame my own anxiety. When I was able to feel spiritual strength again, I accepted callings. Eventually a little at a time, I have come to a reality. Faith is a choice. And I choose the Mormon faith. I need the Church. It’s a big part of who I am. The values I was taught as a child are the values I keep and the values I’ve passed onto our children. I see the world through a prism of lenses, the biggest of those lenses being Mormonism. These are my people. This is my faith. Sometimes in choosing the good part, you lug along some baggage to carry with you too.
I want to point out that I do not judge people who for whatever reason decide to leave the church. For me it wouldn’t work. I choose to stay. What I did was to stop expecting the Church in this imperfect world to be perfect, to have all the answers and to fix me. While some would criticize this approach, I’ve learned to pick and choose what I’ll cling to. Most of what I choose to discard is cultural stuff, but there are still the historical issues I deal with. I find that nearly every week after church, I find it necessary to ignore a few things: like the strong encouragement for clean-shaven men, white shirts and ties, and even lately telling women to wear nylons to church and which type of sandal God apparently prefers that we wear. I choose to ignore insinuations that we should be Republican—I am not. One of my biggest disappointments is when other churches are bad-mouthed by teachers and members who should know better. That isn’t what we’re about, is it?
At church when I hear something that ruffles my feathers, I can usually recognize that it’s not the gospel, but rather a misapplication. If I chose not to attend because of these things, I would miss out on the gems that give me something to smile about or bring tears to my eyes and makes me feel joy. Not long ago, a beautiful eleven-year-old girl bore her sweet and sincere testimony, “I’m grateful that my mom got to come home.” I watched the girl go back and sit with her mother near the front of the chapel. Her mother put her arm around her, pulled her close, and gave her a squeeze. Where’s her mother been? Prison. And now she’s back, and coming to church. Isn’t this what the gospel of Jesus Christ should be about? Acceptance, love, and taking steps toward God. I loved Elder Wirthlin’s words. “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.” (Joseph B. Wirthlen April Conference 2008) If only we could believe it, and embrace all who choose to enter. I’ve found that lots of Church members have shelves. Some only have an item or two on them, and others, like mine, are pretty full, but I like to believe that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has room for someone like me.