Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Reason for the Season

Of course, the title and the timing probably make you think this is a Christmas post. But it isn't really your typical post about a newborn babe, mangers, donkeys, and a virgin mother. The Church's video A Savior is Born covers that with far better artistry than I could.

But I feel the urge to write something very different. When I was searching for a title, this is the one that came to me. And maybe, in some ways, it's more Christmas-appropriate than I intended. It is certainly exposing a huge part of myself, which is a frightening thing, especially given everything. I'm going to talk about sin, and its consequences. I'm going to talk about imperfection, and the desperate hunger to be perfect in order to be loved. I'm going to talk about learning to accept the Atonement in the midst of sin and imperfection. And I'm going to talk about forgiveness.

Many years ago—I can't remember if it was before or after my life took a drastic turn—I prayed for charity. It's kind of a joke that if you pray for an increase in faith, patience, charity, or some other Godly virtue, you are setting yourself up for disaster. But when I finally knelt down and prayed for charity, I knew exactly what I was doing. I had been prompted by the Spirit to learn charity for some time. Even my patriarchal blessing commanded me to overcome selfishness. I had studied, read about Abinadi, Nephi, Abraham, Noah. I had pored over the words of Paul. It had struck deeply into my heart: "[if I] have not charity, I am nothing."

I didn't want to be nothing.

Several months ago, I participated a few times in a program to make peanut butter sandwiches and distribute them and water to the poor of my city. I wanted to give, perform charity work, be a part of ministering to the poor. So I donated peanut butter. I made sandwiches in this huge assembly line. We all held hands and prayed before going downtown and distributing sandwiches. I took my daughters with me.

And I noticed something about the whole endeavor. The sandwiches were sometimes appreciated, and sometimes not. But as I was wandering among the homeless, handing out food, I felt something...or a lack of something. The efforts were wonderful. People need to be fed. This is in no way to take away from that very vital need. But I also noticed that we were handing out sandwiches...and yet the people were unfed. Many of their eyes were still dead. I think they knew that we did what we did for ourselves, more than for them.

It wasn't until we were heading out, and I had a real-but-short conversation with a quasi-toothed old woman who smiled at me and complimented me on my beautiful daughters that I realized I could hand out all the sandwiches in the world, and still not attain charity. "And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor...and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing."

And now I'm going to talk in depth about something that I don't often talk about any more. There is a person who was once in my life who, like apostates of the Church, has left me, but can't seem leave me alone. We share children, and his efforts to hurt me through them are sporadic, but unabated. Even though he is supposedly happily married and moved on with his life, he still stalks me online, telling my kids his own version of history over and over again, hoping that repetition will grant veracity. I have always known he reads my posts, yet I have chosen to write anyways, to refuse to allow that to change what I write. I have chosen to expose the struggles and darkness in my heart even though he uses that exposure for his own ends. I have chosen that in the hopes that others may be inspired to turn to God. I will not be silenced.

It has been nearly six years since I was legally free of him, seven since he stalked out of my home for the last time. Though I lived with terror for years, I can now happily claim that I am free of fear of him. I have moved on. I have dated, seen how good men treat the women in their lives, learned that what happened to me was nothing I could have changed. Yes, there is still damage from what I lived through. But my experiences were very mild compared to many.

He is not a part of my life, though he is a part of my children's. I can free myself of him, but they can't. No matter his obsession with justifying himself to them, he is their father, and they are strong and wise enough to rise above the manipulation, I think. It would be better for him and for them if he could leave it alone, but I doubt he ever will. He hurts them, and they become stronger for it.

Despite everything he did and does, I have never hated him. There was a time, right at the beginning, when I found the courage to call him on his lies and manipulation. For several emails, I stood up for myself until I realized that it only played into his game. At that point, I stopped caring what he thought or what he said. He lost all power over me. I knew I could fight him, but it wasn't worth it. And while his actions that hurt our children sometimes anger me on their behalf, I still don't hate him. He is what he has chosen to be, and that is far more deserving of pity. I think about him rarely, and his aggression towards me no longer bothers me. My story is mine. It has nothing to do with him any longer.

Learning to forgive so thoroughly even while being attacked has taught me a valuable lesson about the power of God. When Christ hung on the cross, in more agony of body than I can imagine, He declared, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" I sometimes wonder if that wasn't also meant for me. Because I know in my fear, anger, and stubbornness, I have often offended my Savior. I look back at my marriage and my life since, and I wish I had understood more, known more about what it meant to be a disciple. But for some reason, I needed the experience to learn how to open my heart...not only to the imperfection of others, but to my own.

I have always been a perfectionist. I believe, deep down, that in order to be loved I must be perfect. Perfectly long-suffering, perfectly compliant, perfectly matching the image of what others have of me. This is what set me up to be a victim to a weak man. I thought that if I could do what he wanted, be what he needed, I would be a good wife and be loved and appreciated. I had no idea that he never loved me, only his image of what I was. I was irrelevant and easily replaced in his mind.

But having children, for one, has taught me that I don't have to be perfect. They have been regaled with tales of my evil their whole lives. They have witnessed me losing patience, my frustration and stress, and if anything they love me more. Their love is unconditional, and so very precious. In their own small way, they have shown me what God's love is truly like. Not only for me, but also for the man who was once my abuser. No matter our choices in life, we are priceless. Children of God, and made in His image, with infinite potential to be like Him.

There is much chatter in the wake of the Church's policies on same-sex marriages. Where is the line between obedience to authority and obedience to morality? How can we know when to follow the prophet and when not to? When leaders are fallible (as they all are) and when they make mistakes, what do we do? How can we follow an imperfect prophet?

I can tell you how I do it: I can follow imperfect prophets because I am also imperfect. I am not a perfect mother. I make mistakes. I try to keep all the balls in the air, and often I drop some. But when my children wrap their arms around me and tell me, "mommy, it's okay," I know that I can keep trying to be better. That is what it means to me to sustain the Lord's servants. I know who their Master is, because He is mine, as well. I wonder if President Monson lies awake at night, wondering if his sacrifice is acceptable, the way I do. I wonder if he feels the burden of being a special witness of Christ in a world who has rejected Him.

My bishops and mission presidents over the years have not always been careful to wield the authority of God in righteousness. I remember one bishop who didn't believe me or my story when I requested a cancellation of sealing. It was hard, and it hurt. But given time, he saw for himself that I was telling the truth. I'd like to think it taught him something, and that my patience in that difficulty gave him a chance to understand what it means to be a victim.

Sustaining imperfect men requires a huge dollop of humility and trust in God. God never has one reason for anything He does, I think. Men who are abusers, who are philanderers, or even who are apostates are sometimes called to be leaders in the Church. This is not a software bug in the Great Plan of God, it is a feature. Because if each and every one of us does our best to live up to the baptismal covenants we made, the imperfections and sins of our leaders can teach us to rely on the only real Leader this Church has. Not one man on this earth has true authority in himself, they only have authority borrowed from Christ. It is temporary, and they will be permanently accountable for how they choose to use it.

Some day, those who use their borrowed authority will have to stand before God with Christ as their advocate and explain their stewardship. For those of us who are hurt by the misuse of priesthood authority or by the sins and actions of others, Christ is the ONLY way out. There is no other way to find healing but to increase in understanding of Him and who He is. We must gain His love, which suffers long, is kind in the midst of suffering, is patient in affliction, is humble in the face of injustice, is calm when provoked, and knows the efficacy of His sacrifice. He is our lifeline, He is the bridge between unquestioning obedience and being right. He is, ultimately, the only Authority, the only Light, the only Salvation.

To the father of my children who will probably read this, I would plead: let go. Move on with your life. Leave me alone. Find peace. Love your wife in a way you could never manage to love me. She deserves more than to be used by you. Truly love your children who adore you, not just as accessories but as the amazing young women they are growing into. You will never again be a part of my life, but you can still be a blessing in theirs. Accept the love of God and be healed. You no longer owe me anything. You owe only Christ, who is healing the effects of your choices just as He can heal mine.

I plead the same for all who are hurt by the sins, mistakes, and actions of others. "Come unto [Christ], all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and [He] will give you rest. Take [His] yoke upon you, and learn of [Him]; for [He is] meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For [His] yoke is easy, and [His] burden is light."

What is that "light" burden? To forgive while still hanging on the cross. To be abandoned by your best friends while you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. To be received unto God as His faithful disciple. To be born into a world full of doubt, hatred, sin, and anguish. It is not a painless burden. But amidst the pain, it is a happy one. It is a burden which frees.

The reason for the season isn't just that a baby was born to die, but that by the very nature of His birth, life, and death, He has given us space to forgive, to learn, to be imperfect even when leading His children, to follow imperfect leaders even when it hurts. Space to hurt other people by our own ineptitude and ignorance, to be hurt by those who are just as inept and ignorant, and to still choose love over anger, humility over rights, and faith over fear.

Everything comes back to the Lamb of God. The one who lived for us, who died for us, and who pleads with us to lay down our own lives in His service. I am imperfect, but I know in whom I have trusted.


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