Leave the 99 and Reach the One
I became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when I was 14 years old. I was, and still am the only member of my family. I was raised in a loving, supportive, non-religious household. Let me explain 2 aspects that prompted my journey to faith in my youth.
My grandma Elaine was very dedicated to her role in the lives of her two grandchildren, my sister and I. She visited often, always shared her trademark “Big Red” cinnamon gum, made great effort to spend time reading, baking, swimming, playing play-doh and all the things kids love. We grew very close to this special lady, and all the while, she was losing her fierce battle against breast cancer. One year after I was born, her husband lost his fight with melanoma, at the young age of 51. So I watched my grandmother face her fight without the support of her husband, and she was brave. She endured the awful sickening effects of chemo with a smile on her face; a smile I know she mustered so her grandchildren would remember her as a strong and happy woman. She was taken from us when I was only 8 years old, and she was 54. I use the word “taken” because that is truly how it felt. I felt robbed. My parents did their best to comfort us and offered the explanation that she is now with Jesus in Heaven. Because I had no foundation to comprehend eternal life, I heartily rejected the idea. I actually remember thinking as a child that I did not know this Jesus, but already, I didn’t like him. He takes people’s grandparents away!
The second experience that led me to seek religion was sometime in 6th or 7th grade when I was studying the scientific theory of evolution. I remember being extremely interested in the topic and taking time to explore it more with my dad, going to museums, reading in encyclopedias. (yup, even before Wikipedia and google). I found so many fascinating and acceptable answers, but there remained one very gaping hole – how did it all begin? I searched, and searched but could not find any respectable scientific answer to account for the very beginning of life on Earth. So my heart and mind began to open to the possibility of a real and living God.
Fast forward 2-3 years to a Saturday in October, when the doorbell rang at 9am. As a typical 14 year old, I was still very much asleep, but on the second ring, I begrudgingly walked down the hallway, looked out the peep hole and decided I wasn’t up to conversing with the Johavah’s Witnesses that morning, and I started to tip-toe away pretending no one was home. At that point, my mom came down the hall and asked why I didn’t open the door. I repeated “They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’m not answering. Going back to bed.” She peeked through the hole and said “no they’re not, they’re Mormons!” and with that she warmly opened the door and greeted them. I was utterly confused. I should note, that my prejudice was extended equally to all religions; I wasn’t any more interested in conversing once my mother correctly identified the missionary tag and explained they were Mormons.
But there I was, stuck now while my mom is saying “sure, you can come back and teach us a lesson, my daughter Kristen and I would love to hear your message.” WHAT! How did I just get volunteered for this, I thought!
Well, I will fast-forward again, to say that after 2-3 discussions complete my stubborn teenage heart was humbled and began to listen. My mom made it clear to the missionaries every time we met that we were just interested in learning about Mormons and what they believed, but that she had no intention of joining. She actually stuck to this resolve until the very end, but meanwhile, I was beginning to see that these two guys really did have some answers I was looking for. First, they explained that I could be with my family and my grandmother again, and forever. This was a beautiful and comforting idea. And this plan, revealed a very loving Savior Jesus Christ, who is the Creator of our Earth. And so, I found the second answer I was searching for, which fit so nicely with all of the studying and truth I had previously found in understanding the evolutionary process. We have a Creator, and He lives, and I too can live with Him again.
I was baptized one month before my 15th birthday, with my parent’s slight skepticism, but with their permission and support.
So there I give to you the not-so-brief story of my introduction to faith in God. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that like many of us, my faith journey is full of hills and valleys along the way, but I would like to share with you 3 things that build my faith and inspire me today,
and those are:
First, human connection. In Matthew 18:12-13, Jesus teaches this famous parable which reads “12 How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? 13 And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.”
One of my favorite paintings by Minerva Teichert hangs in our home. In it, the Savior is surrounded by an endless flock of white sheep, but the central focus of the painting is the delicate black lamb cradled securely in the Savior’s arms. It is evident He sought out this black sheep and ministered so gently, and without reservation to this vulnerable lamb.
I find great strength and meaning in building and maintaining individual connections with people. I find I personally learn most of life’s most valuable lessons and strengthen my faith through my relationships with others. The most touching and example recently has been listening to and learning from the emotional experiences of fellow Mormons who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender as they bravely describe their journey full of faith, doubts, joys, heartaches, inspiration, humility, sacrifice, and many other beautiful qualities.
An author by the name of Jane Dougherty is credited for saying “People say I can’t imagine what you’re going through. But they need to imagine. That’s the point. They need to imagine.”
Sometimes the foreign and unknown feels intimidating and incredibly vulnerable. And we might even cringe with discomfort at the thought of facing the realities of their pain, as it overwhelms us with emotion – or we might even ignore them in favor of protecting our own emotions and feelings of safety.
But mortality and all its challenges and vulnerabilities gives us a common source to draw from – a way to understand and support one another. The Savior taught us how, and can give us the strength to follow his message, to leave the 99 and reach out to the one.
I want to share a touching story of such ministering to the one in the personal words of Dusty, a gay man, as he reflects on his loving interaction with his church leaders. After his ward executive secretary called him to schedule and unexpected meeting with his bishop, Dusy says “That’s when the fear started. Fear can be one of the most paralyzing emotions. The theory of Flight or fight doesn’t even apply to me. It’s more like “Freeze”…We spent the first few minutes chatting and after the ice had been broken, he wanted to know if I would renew my temple recommend and accept a calling. I gave a surface level response of “I’m happy where I’m at right now…” He prodded “Is there something I can do to help you or a specific thing that’s holding you back?” And so I said “Thank you, but there’s nothing you will be able to resolve for me. I’m gay.” He replied “So tell me what this means for you. Would you be comfortable telling me your story?” Immediately my fears were dissolved and we spoke for about 40 minutes. As I told him my story he frequently interjected with heartfelt and sincere questions in an attempt to understand. Then he looked me in the eyes and the words he spoke were so comforting I broke into tears. “Dusty, I’m sorry for all the pain you must have felt and at times must still feel. I know that I can never completely understand what you are going through. I want you to know I love you and I will support you. I want to ask you a question. I need to give you a calling – to teach me. To help me. To educate me. I want to understand as much as I can so I can help teach and educate others how we can better support and love you. Will you accept that calling? With tears rolling down my face, I managed to whisper a barely audible yes.”
What an incredible example of ministering to the one. As we stretch ourselves and grow to beyond our anxiety to stand beside one another in our turmoils or emotions, or fears, and put aside our desires to fix things, we find that sacred experience of just plain “sitting with” someone. Instead of emotionally draining, it can actually be quite empowering and faith-building to feel the love of God as we walk alongside a friend, or family member, or even a stranger deep in the midst of their life experience. I have found great joy in the trust these individuals have demonstrated as they have been willing to share with me their personal journey in accepting their sexuality while honoring their faith and relationship with God. As we learn to value, share, and honor these vulnerable experiences of others and especially of ourselves – we gain strength and begin to comprehend the worth of souls, especially our own, and in turn, together we grow closer to Christ.
This trust and sharing our vulnerabilities in life, leads me to another piece that strengthens my faith, which is: community. I know that I belong. There are times with my heart full of questions, that I have felt less confident and deeply examined my faith. I appreciated these words from former 1st counselor in the General Relief Society Presidency, Sister Chieko Okazaki:
“Think about how faith operates in our own lives. It’s not a vacuum cleaner that we can plug in and suck up doubts or confusion. It’s not a wind that blows away things we don’t understand. Faith is a process. It’s part of a living dynamic that takes our questions and works on them in the context of God’s patience.
[To really appreciate the rest of her words, you also should know that she was a dedicated elementary teacher and principle for over 20 years – she continues:]
Let me give you some examples from the kinds of questions children have. These come from a book I really enjoy about children’s prayers, where they got to say what was really on their mind. For instance, one little girl named Marnie wrote, “Dear God, On Halloween I am going to wear a Devil’s costume. Is that all right with you?” And another little girl named Martha wrote, “Dear God, can you marry food?” And Norma asked what I think is a really insightful question, “Dear God, did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?” And Barbara has a very practical question, “Dear God, Why don’t you leave the sun out at night when we need it the most?”
We find questions like these charming because we know the answers, even though it might be a little hard to explain to a second-grader how the solar system works or how a giraffe might have come to be. Our questions are just as real, just as searching, just as important. And God is just as patient with our questions as we are with the questions of these children.”
Her meaningful words inspire peace and encouragement to my questioning heart and serve as a positive reminder that my journey to faith as a young teenager was preceded by many questions and desire for knowledge, and that God is just as patient with me now, as He was then.
During one particular time that I felt less secure, I was strengthened by these words of Elder Uchtorf:“Regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us! “ Even now, I can just hear the enthusiasm in his voice and see his warm smile as he extends the invitation of our loving Savior. “Draw near unto me and I will draw near unto you; seek me diligently and ye shall find me; ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”1
I have felt this same welcome, that you all have readily shown to me and my family. To any who may be wondering if there is room enough – I promise there is space here for you here too.
3. God’s Love
The last thought I wanted to share with you today that builds my faith is that of God’s love.
Because of His love, we are given a gift of faith described in Alma 32:21-23 (Also the first scripture I ever memorized shortly after my baptism)
21 And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.
22 And now, behold, I say unto you, and I would that ye should remember, that God is merciful unto all who believe on his name; therefore he desireth, in the first place, that ye should believe, yea, even on his word.
[And then, in case you still fear that such a gift of faith might not apply to you, we are given this additional reassurance that I love in verse 23…]
23 And now, he imparteth his word by angels unto men, yea, not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them many times, which confound the wise and the learned.
Like the scripture suggests, I cannot claim I have a perfect knowledge of things, and thankfully, such is not required. Instead, my hope and incomplete knowledge is more than enough to cultivate faith.
And the ultimate blessing and gift of faith is to feel God’s love. In a different conference talk, given in 2009, Elder Uchtorf teaches: “God does not look on the outward appearance. 8 I believe that He doesn’t care one bit if we live in a castle or a cottage, if we are handsome or homely, if we are famous or forgotten. Though we are incomplete, God loves us completely. Though we are imperfect, He loves us perfectly. Though we may feel lost and without compass, God’s love encompasses us completely.
He loves us because He is filled with an infinite measure of holy, pure, and indescribable love. We are important to God not because of our résumé but because we are His children. He loves every one of us, even those who are flawed, rejected, awkward, sorrowful, or broken. God’s love is so great that He loves even the proud, the selfish, the arrogant, and the wicked.”
This is the love that I feel here. I know that God loves me, and I know that God loves us. He sent His son to atone for us, and to proclaim His message of redeeming love.
In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Her former Relief Society president paid her a visit the afternoon she gave the talk and said, “I have lived in this ward for 13 years, and at the age of 45, I just came out as gay last week. Today was the first day at church since I messaged and emailed all my family/friends and ward members. I was nervous to come to church today anticipating the interactions and questions. When I heard your talk, I felt like I had someone up there cheering directly for me! And I could not believe my ears that someone was up at the pulpit bravely saying the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender… I truly could not believe this was happening. So thank you thank you for being brave. There is no way you could have known that I just came out last week and wondered if I would receive support and I could not have been more excited and surprised. I felt Heavenly Father’s love and felt like the timing of my coming out and your talk was not a coincidence, but evidence that He is aware of me and my needs. I have already received outreach and love from some dear friends in the ward.”
Later that week she received a text from an elderly gentleman from her ward: “I so enjoyed your talk today. It was so well presented and your thoughts on the Savior and the black sheep. And your compassionate words for the GLBT MEMBERS and community was touching. Thank you!”