When I first began to loosen my death-grip on the beliefs I had always believed were correct, I found myself slipping further and further to the very edges of the “in” groups I used to be a part of. I wasn’t staging a grand exit from the church, I had no intention on leaving my community, but suddenly, I was aware that some of the feelings and thoughts I had in leadership groups needed to be censored a little for the sake of others so I wouldn’t shock them with my more inclusive and radical ideas. I stopped making as many comments in Sunday School class. And I felt a little more like the black sheep each and every time someone said something over the pulpit that didn’t feel true to me anymore.
I tried to make sense of this new position, which often felt painful but couldn’t be avoided. I wasn’t rejecting the beliefs, I had no bone to pick with those who still believed in them, and I wasn’t angry. But I was starting to embrace uncertainty as a path, even a covenant path, of faith and humility. I wasn’t going to stand on a street corner and declare all of their beliefs to be lies, but I also couldn’t honestly stand behind a pulpit and recite those beliefs as eternal unchangeable truths.
Being certain had kept me safe, until it didn’t. We live in a world of change and growth. Certainty could not keep me safe from real and raw experience. Humanity learns new things about itself, and relearns old things about itself, all the time. The firm foundation on the shore of absolute beliefs meets with this ebb and flow of the vast ocean of human experience, and while it seems like the shore is always the safest place, it can keep us from some of the more miraculous experiences that only trusting God to be the wind in our sails can provide. No matter how hard I tried to back away from the water, God called me to it. And as I walked out into it with only faith to guide me, I found that the waters weren’t my enemy.
Sometimes, when I’m tired or when I start to feel confused because I’m trying to turn the water into dry land to stand on, God brings me back to shore for a little while. God’s there too, and invites me to hold my beliefs gently in my hands, so when it’s time to let go and move on I will be willing to do so, so I’ll be willing to choose faith over belief if ever the paths diverge. Harold B. Lee once said,
The trouble with you is you want to see the end from the beginning. You must learn to walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness; then the light will appear and show the way before you. ‘Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith’ (Ether 12:6).
But this presents a little bit of a quandary when you’re part of a community whose badge of belonging depends on your testimony of certain correct beliefs. There is a wall built around this community, and you are either in or out. If you choose to stay in, you need to find a way to speak the language of the community while also being true to your heart and experience. This can be difficult, and those in the very center of the community can do and say many things to encourage you to take your place on the edge, by the wall, almost as if they want to make sure that if you choose to “out” yourself you won’t do too much damage on your way out.
Many theologians have tried to describe this place. Some, like Richard Rohr and Walter Brueggemann, have said that if you’re going to do anything to help shift the tightly held beliefs of the community you love then you have to stay on the inside, even if it’s at the edge. I liked that idea, and I knew it would come with a particular type of persecution. I knew I could be censured for speaking my heart, and have critical community privileges taken away, but I was up for it.
At least I thought I was. I wasn’t prepared for what it would feel like to be misunderstood and have many in my community immediately assume I had made myself an outsider and treat me that way. I arrogantly thought I could hold my ground at the edge of the inside and be both authentic and accepted. No one told me that the community could choose to move the wall, to push what was once the edge of the inside to the other side of the gate, so quickly, and for any reason the community sees fit.
Thankfully, I was given a chance by a loving gatekeeper to prove myself an insider once again, the gate was opened, and I stepped back inside. I took my seat on the edge of the inside, but now experience wouldn’t let me forget that holding the edge of the inside is not a position I get to choose. It is the advantage of the community to be able to move the wall in and out depending on the perceived needs of that community. I had made an assumption, and a critical error, in assuming I had anything to say about it.
It’s not completely my fault. The community itself seemed to be embracing this idea of the edge of the inside being a valuable and reasonable position. Faith Matters, a group dedicated to the community’s orthodoxy while also trying to shift it into a more inclusive position, produced an interview on the topic where they tried to describe this edge and help those who find themselves there to still experience belonging. I’ve got to give them credit for trying to make those distinctions, but there was no discussion about the level to which one can participate when on that edge, or how the boundaries of the edge are more fluid than any one person could predict. It was theoretical, and important, and incomplete.
It takes courage and you’ll feel criticism, but if the point is that you’re insisting on this organization living up to its true self, then that’s something that you can feel peaceful about, and feel like you still belong (Aubrey Chaves, Faith Matters).
Yes, you can feel peace, and you can probably even convince yourself to feel like you belong, but you do not get to choose whether or not others will say you still belong or treat you like you belong. Sometimes, it can feel like more than “you’ll feel criticism”. Perhaps the interview was only addressing a certain type of edginess, one not quite so on the edge as I felt I was, and perhaps I should have read that between the lines. But I didn’t. I had hope that I could allow myself to embrace the ocean I felt called to without being pushed out, and I was wrong. I wasn’t the one who built the wall, and it was presumptuous of me to think I had control over it.
Anyway, I’m back on the inside now. Kind of. I feel a little bit like I’m on probation. But I don’t mind. I truly do love the people in my community, and I have no desire to hurt them or make life difficult for them. I just have a new reality to try to navigate. I don’t want to sit on the shorelines all the time, nor do I want to set sail for a new island. For months I’ve been trying to figure out what I’m going to do. Am I going to stay inside and try to make sure I’m careful with the moving wall? Will they judge my good days as a blessing for staying? Or am I going to stop working so hard at it and sit just far enough outside of the wall that they’ll eventually forget about me? Will they judge my bad days as a curse for leaving?
Due to the pandemic, church has been cancelled. The lines of in and out have been blurred a little. I don’t have to choose right now. But the choice is coming, and honestly, it has tormented me a little. What will I choose when the time comes? In, or out? I’ve spent many hours trying to balance the love I have for this community with my desire to not spend my life dancing around a wall I didn’t build. And that was the key to freedom. That thought. “I didn’t build the wall.”
It’s not my wall. Of all the beliefs I now hold very loosely, one of the ones that I’ve completely let go of is the belief that there needs to be walls. I don’t believe that religious communities need to create walls in order to preach the gospel or keep its members safe. So, why am I so worried about this wall that I didn’t build? Why am I giving it so much power over me? It’s not my bloody wall.
Without the wall, the only choice left laying before me is love. This is one of the reasons I let go of walls to begin with, because no one should have to choose between love and anything else, not a group, not a belief, not a membership, and certainly not a sense of belonging. If some human construct demands a choice be made, love wins. Every time.
Of course, letting go of the wall is much easier than letting go of the feelings that come with being misunderstood, marginalized, and outcast. We’re human, and belonging matters to us. It’s our attachment to belonging that makes us recognize the walls to begin with. The irony is that if we can bring ourselves to let go of the walls all together, a new sense of belonging arises and embraces us. When we let go of “belonging to” we are given the gift of “belonging with”.
We belong with this earth, in unity with her. We belong with God. And we belong, in love, with all of our fellow brothers and sisters on this planet, inseparably connected to all who have come before and all who have yet to come. This infinite belonging cannot be affected by any wall that any one group decides it wants or needs.
No matter who tries to define me or my position, my belonging with God and in love with others means that I’m going to be a bit of a moving target, because I’ll be doing my best to move with love in and through all things as I learn and grow on my path of earthly experiences, covenanted to the God of Love. This path of faith will sometimes lead us right up to the edge of the darkness and call us out into it. When we trust that we belong with God, we can hearken to this call of love, and, as Lee promised, the light will appear. The fruit will flower. The peace will come.