Friday, August 23, 2013

Living in the Gray

Most people in my LDS faith are more comfortable with certainty. Testimonies are filled with repeated phrases that start with "I know." I know that God lives, that Jesus Christ is his son and my savior, that Joseph Smith was a prophet and so on. It's tidy and it's simple. We like that. But what if you don't know? It can be personally unsettling, but even more unsettling is some people don't know how to treat those of us who live in the gray. Should you call us to repentance? Should you tread lightly? Should you put our names in the temple? Should you show an extra measure of love and kindness?

I'm surrounded by black and white thinkers in the church, my family, my ward, and amongst my friends. I may at times strain their patience.  But lately I've had a few kindnesses from some of those black and white thinkers. My stake president is a rare man. Ideologically, politically, and in every other way I believe, a polar opposite of me. Yet when he asked me how I was doing and I told him I was still hanging on, he said. "Don't let go." A few kind words that warm my questioning heart. I've had other friends who have called on the phone to see how I'm doing, or who tell me they are sorry that I'm feeling sad after a troubling lesson at church, or I've received encouraging text messages, and some have let me cry when my heart breaks for the umpteenth time.

I'm a new fan of Terryl and Fiona Givens. First, I read a book by them and published by Deseret Book, which means even the black and white thinkers can't disapprove, right? It's called "The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life"  Then after I read it I listened to a podcast interview on Mormon Stories with the authors. The book is like reading a Mormon C.S. Lewis and I underlined many passages throughout. The Givens's give doubt elevated status. On page 4, they state "There must be grounds for doubt as well as belief, in order to render the choice more truly a choice, and therefore the more deliberate, and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. An overwhelming preponderance of evidence on either side would make our choice as meaningless as would a loaded gun pointed at our heads. The option to believe must appear on one's personal horizon..."And then on p. 8 "In our experience most believers, like doubters, are continually adjusting their paradigms to make better sense of the world as they experience it. Belief is fluid. So is doubt."

I loved that. When my Aunt Emma Lou Thayne came and spoke to my book club, she said "Doubt is the first step to belief." Hearing of these faithful doubters brought back to my memory something I have never believed, "faith and fear cannot exist at the same time." I'm living proof as I take one fearful step at a time while navigating my best on a journey of faith, that it can and does exist together. I remember those first, but thrilling words sitting on a medical table at a small doctor's office in Garland, Utah. "You're pregnant!"  I was a young married woman of twenty-two years. Excitement and fear flooded me. Can every pregnant woman remember that faith climbs right into the car with your fear when you head to the hospital to deliver a child? And then of course, every day there after I raised my kids in a troubling world, my faith and my fear hand in hand as partners in parenthood.

On my path I've come across other weary travelers who also have struggled with faith. Some have emerged with a new outlook and faith very different than the one on which they began. Some end up in the same place, rooted once again in Mormonism but with a nuanced understanding and compassion. And some still have the look in their eyes that I still recognize in my own. The pain is still on the surface. Many of my gospel friends can't understand what our problem is, "just believe," they may say. Another thing Terry Givens said in another interview I heard, was that "you can offer someone all the money in the world to believe in the Easter Bunny and they won't be able to do it." Belief can't be forced. In Gospel terms, it's "line upon line." But as the Givens's said, "Belief is fluid. So is doubt."

They end the book with this this hopeful passage. "The New Testament makes the point that those mortals who operate in the gray area between conviction and incredulity are in a position to choose most meaningfully, and with most meaningful consequences.

Peter's tentative steps across the water capture the rhythm familiar to most seekers. He walks in faith, he stumbles, he sinks, but is embraced by the Christ before the waves swallow him. Many of us will live our lives in doubt..."

I've heard others say Peter sank because he doubted, forgetting that he ever walked on water at all. If I laid out my spiritual experiences end to end, I would guess few of them would have happened within the walls of a church building; they are everywhere, hiking in mountains and witnessing a sunset, seeing a random kindness at the grocery store, at the bedside of a dying loved one, holding a newborn baby, and so on and so on. But having a community to share those experiences with in a common language can bring us closer as a people and to God. Can the doubters and the believers learn to not judge each other?

I'm learning to be comfortable living in the gray. And I'm still hanging on.