31 December 2013

Faith that Saves

A while back, someone asked me how I came to saving faith in Christ Jesus . . . and as I thought for a minute on how to answer, the Holy Spirit whispered that it's time for me to write. So, here we go . . .

It began, really, two and a half years ago, when God gave my husband and I the realization of a dream we had cherished for fifteen years: a place to live.  A place where we could build a home, plant a garden, a field where our children could run and play in the grass, and a few trees to shelter the house from the wind.

I stood looking out of my kitchen windows into the drizzly morning, scrambling eggs on the little hob set on a folding table. The first breakfast I cooked in our home. Our home. The eggs smelled amazing, the moist air outside reminded me of my most favorite vacations in Oregon, and I was ready to be happy for the rest of my life.  (No, really. It sounds cliché, but I was.) We had done it. We'd built a little place, were living in it, and were going to really and truly make a home in a place we chose and loved. What else was there, could there be, to happiness? This dream was fifteen years in the making, fifteen years of wandering, of hardship, and denial. We made it, and how on earth could life in the promised land be anything but fulfilling and lovely, after all we had sacrificed and worked for to get here?

It only took about 48 hours to realize that I was the only one in my family of eight that had gotten that memo.  And thus began the slide into a bona-fide midlife crisis.  I don't know what they call them, now . . . Google had some interesting ideas about that. But, being an overachiever most of my life, I figured 36 was close enough. And then, the deconstruction began.

It was as if, now that we had this safe place, nearly everything else was free game.  Vern and I both headed into midlife crises.  (I really, really don't recommend concurrent crises . . . Yeah.) Sometimes it feels as though God, in His infinite and perfect equity, expected us to give up a great number of things now that we had what we had pled for for so long. We had gone through so much to get here, to receive this blessing, I didn't expect (or think much about) what would come afterward. Early on, I consciously determined my marriage, family and faith would survive; everything else could go.  I know God heard me make that distinction, because everything else did.  Things I had always held as true, things and people I had always relied on (but hadn't realized how closely or heavily), things I cherished as precious. The approval and acceptance of people who I had trusted as friends. All stripped away.

But at the same time, I was gaining a friend. She was determined, that one. (Probably because it was God that told her to be my friend the day we met two years before . . . not anything that I did. I'm glad that she ended up liking me. lol) It takes me a good two years to really feel comfortable with a "new" friend, and I'm glad God made sure our paths crossed plenty ahead of time. When the rumor mill at my church would chew me up (it happened about once a year since moving here in 2009, until 2013, when it went into overdrive and I've learned a hell of a lot about what forgiveness actually means), I knew someone had my back. Someone both fierce and loyal. And fairly often, I would get glimpses into her relationship with God. And I was astounded at who He is to her.

He's a God with big shoulders, who could take my mortal emotions. I didn't have to choose between rigid stoicism or the culturally "acceptable" and carefully restrained weeping of my church. If I didn't like something, He wanted me to tell Him about it!

A Jesus who rejoices in my whole being--woman that I am, created in the image of God.

I saw her relationship with God that flowed with abundance and joy, not judgement and trembling. He wouldn't judge. Or condemn. And I, "successful and faithful" as I had always believed I was in the faith, began to see how hollow the fruits of my efforts really were.

See, I have a confession to make.  I had fallen prey to the unconscionably common and wholly unconscious pride that nearly all Mormons have. It's easy to see, studying LDS history, where it comes from . . . the desperate need to cling to something to make the horrors that my people have endured in the name of following God worth it. As far as being a Latter-day Saint goes, I had that down.  I could easily write something much like Paul did: Born into the covenant, raised by goodly parents, well-educated and righteous down to the last dotted i and crossed t. I knew my Book of Mormon, had read the Old and New Testaments, the Doctrine and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, memorized the Scripture Mastery passages from Seminary, and knew every "Sunday School answer". I had graduated from Seminary, said my prayers and lived the church standards. I had "done everything right" I possibly could, and for the last two decades had been utterly confused as to why my life was (quite honestly) a wreck. My efforts had yielded well enough before I left home for BYU, but once I hit the world, my strength wasn't strong enough. I had struggled with various levels of depression from early in my college days. I watched other people in their lives, and wondered what I was doing so wrong that I didn't have in my life the promised blessings of those who love and follow the Lord. I killed myself trying, but the promised joy and peace never materialized. 

Sure, I had plenty of beautiful, brief experiences with the Holy Ghost, was led and guided by my Lord whenever He could make Himself heard, and felt close to Him (as close as my paradigm would allow Him) on a regular basis.  But the vast majority of the time, I was deeply unhappy, lonely, or just numb.

In the three years leading up to moving into our place, I prayed so many times for friends. For joy. Or just for relief.

And God moved.

He worked in so many ways, arranging things in my heart and mind such that I could begin to hear Him. Sending me a friend, one outside of my religious tradition, began to open my understanding to the idea that God might be more than I had allowed Him to be. Getting those glimpses into my friend's relationship with Him, so substantially and fundamentally different from my own narrow experience, made me hungry for more. And so God put more people into my life, more testaments of His sheer joy in those who accept Him and don't put restraints on Who He Is, or what He might do in their lives.

Strip everything away, 'til all I have is You.
Undo the veils, 'til all I see is You.
I will pursue You, 
I will pursue Your presence.*

Some believe that Mormons anthropomorphize God.  And really, it's both too true and utterly false. Mormon culture makes God too familiar, calling Him "Heavenly Father", all while making Him far too removed and different from us in the way His perfection and omniscience and omnipotence are perceived. He is seen as the ultimate in self-control . . . as stoic deity. Always solemn and reserved, often stern. A God of incredible power from Whom we are of necessity kept distant, because no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God. 

So many of us utterly ignore His grace, the sheer beauty and mercy in His sacrifice, by standing back from Him, trying to save ourselves with "all we can do" so we can "qualify" for salvation. And then, when we fall short (as we always do) we figure we didn't make it, or that we'll just keep trying, and keep ourselves back from His presence, not wanting to bring upon ourselves the unbearable presence of a perfect God.

Mormons have missed the boat on what the Grace of God is . . . and it has defeated them. 

It had defeated me. 

I was limping through life, submitting to the depression, because it must've been God's will that I go through it. I had managed to (mostly) stop beating myself up daily for the point I had let my life get to . . . but I didn't see any way out of where I was. And so I lived mostly in despair. 

And then I began to see those flashes of love and joy and abundance from God in the life of my friend. Her home often looked like mine--she has a big family, and a lot on her plate. But it didn't get her down. She made mistakes and lived a life positively rife with violations of rules I long believed were vital to my righteousness and salvation. She kept the Sabbath differently than I did. She prayed in a way totally foreign to me, lacking all the forms and cues I held sacred--and yet, when she prayed, she became more herself than at any other time, and I could feel God drawing closer. She watched movies I didn't watch, had listened to music I didn't listen to, wore tank tops, had burgundy hair and a nose ring. So so so so NOT "righteous" by Mormon standards. 

But she knew Jesus.

And while a significant portion of my own LDS congregation was busy condemning, shunning or gossiping over the way my family eats, the way I educate my children, where we live, or the horror I commit by wearing my comfortable, warm dress slacks to church, she didn't bat an eyelash.

And I finally realized that God didn't, either. 

There's more to the story . . . much more. More people God brought into my life, to show me the world outside the Mormon curtain: that He lives and moves and saves there, too. In power. More that He taught me through the Bible, recorded at this blog. So many different ways and people through which He reached into my life and tore away my unbelief. 

But this isn't the time. Suffice it to say I finally found God. Finally got to the place where I was willing to trust Him completely. Finally brave enough to throw myself off of a metaphorical cliff into the unknown abyss of telling God I would only believe what He told me to believe.  For a Mormon girl, raised to prize all truth as part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that felt like taking my salvation into my own hands, and casting it, concrete-shod, into the sea. I didn't then understand that Truth is a Person . . . that Truth lives and breathes . . . and what I had deified in His place was merely fact. I have a little more understanding now for the Israelites' proclivity toward idolatry, toward their household gods. They're comfortable, and easily known. It took a tremendous act of trust for me to put myself fully in God's hands--to make that wholly unrestrained leap--and trust God would catch me. 

And He did.

He not only caught me, but filled me. And has kept filling me, as fast and as often as I can make more space for Him. I'm not who I was, I don't now live the idolatrous life I led, and I rejoice in it.

Praise God.

* From "Pursuit", Kim Walker-Smith & Jesus Culture

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I welcome questions and concerns--they are most often what spur us closer to the truth. I only ask that we all give everyone the most generous benefit of the doubt, assigning the best motives possible. A soft answer truly does turn away wrath, and an atmosphere of Jesus's love is the best for learning, no matter which side of a discussion you're on.

Thanks so much, and God bless you!