Part 2: Suffering a Crisis of Faith? Grow Your Own "Sacred Grove"


A short time ago, I walked through the majestic redwoods in California's Big Basin State Park located in the Santa Cruz mountains. Just a short drive north from San Jose (or south from San Francisco), I grew up camping and hiking amongst these stately redwoods.





Redwoods are some of the oldest and tallest trees in the world. They average 80 feet and can be up to 20 feet in diameter. Some grow as tall as 375 feet. These coastal redwoods live an average of 500 - 700 years and some are approximately 2,000 years old. (Sequoia redwoods can live up to 3,500 years.) The rings in the tree trunks tell their history. The photo below shows the remains of a middle-aged redwood. The labels on the trunk represent a time line according to the tree's rings.




My husband and I at Big Basin

At Big Basin, circa 1972. I'm the one holding the white towel.


The Bay Area's Big Basin redwoods are closely related to the giant sequoias located in central California's Yosemite National Park. I've hiked in Yosemite several times and witnessed its wonders.






So, what do these redwoods have to do with a crisis of faith? Take a walk with me, dear readers, through the coastline forest of Big Basin and Yosemite's Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Like Alma in the Book of Mormon, I will talk about seeds and compare them to our faith while we stroll amongst the stately trees and their seedling pine cones (see Alma Chapter 32).


The Seeds of Great Trees and Great Faith Start Small

Ironically, the world's largest trees produce some of the smallest cones. (The photo below shows the redwood cone in the woman's hand. The larger cones are produced by much smaller types of trees.) The small green redwood cones grow near the crown of the trees and are full of seeds awaiting germination. Green cones can lay dormant on the ground for up to 20 years holding the trapped seeds inside. Here's another irony: In order to release their seeds, the cones need fire and/or insects. Forest fires heat the cones and dry them out. This allows the cones to crack open and deposit the seeds on the ground. Insects can also burrow inside the cones and force the seeds out. Fire serves another purpose for fledgling seeds. It loosens the soil and makes it rich in minerals so that seeds can thrive. Fire also destroys competing small plants that use up water and shade the sun.




I'm reminded of Christ's parable of the mustard seed when He said:


The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds, But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches" (Matthew 13: 31-32).


We are so blessed to have Alma's detailed analogical exposition of faith and seeds. BYU Professor Elaine Shaw Sorenson describes its significance:


Alma's analogy of the seed is particularly valuable because it (a) provides a poetic and meaningful definition of faith, (b) focuses on the process as much as on the outcome of the development of faith, and (c) affirms the universal applicability of the principles described. Alma poignantly notes that God often imparts his word by angels: 'To men, yea not only men but women also. Now this is not all; little children do have words given unto them' (Alma 32:23). Anyone can sow the seed of the word of God, regardless of spiritual maturity, from prophet to lowliest struggling disciple. Alma clarifies what faith is and what it is not, and identifies the necessary elements for the existence and growth of faith" ("Seeds of Faith," BYU Religious Studies Center).


I love the imagery of the smallest of seeds evolving into huge thriving entities. Alma also describes the genesis of faith as "a particle"---with infinite possibilities. We, too, have infinite potential depending on how we nurture and sustain our faith.





Artist: J. Norton


So how do germinating pine cone seeds parallel our individual faith?


Small redwood cones, mustard seeds, and particles show us that the size of our faith is irrelevant--in the beginning. God is willing to meet us where we're at--and then, along with our efforts--take our potential to infinite possibilities. And like the pine cone seeds, our faith will lie dormant until we take action. The scriptures teach of a direct correlation between our faith and our actions.

I admire Pastor Rick Warren and read his book The Purpose Driven Life. He offers helpful imagery of this germinating process:


What does a farmer do when he's got a barren field that's producing no income? He doesn't complain about it. He doesn't even pray about it! He just goes out and starts planting some seed, because nothing is going to happen until he plants the seed. He can pray all he wants, but it's not going to produce fruit. He's got to plant some seed. Some of you think you're waiting on God. You think you're waiting on God for that job. You think you're waiting on God for a husband. You think you're waiting on God for the windfall. God says, 'You think you're waiting on me? I'm waiting on you! I'm waiting for you to plant a seed.' Everything in life starts as a seed - a relationship, a marriage, a business, a church. And nothing happens until the seed is planted. Why does God require us to plant a seed? Because planting is an act of faith. You take what you've got, and you give it away. That takes an act of faith! And it brings glory to God.


Indeed, that's where we start: Believing we have a seed or particle--no matter how small--and then planting it. "Planting" is an action verb. "Plant" is also an action verb but can also be used as a noun. Thus, as a noun, "plant" becomes the end product of the action verb of planting. Pastor Warren continues:


Here's the principle of sowing and reaping: Whenever you have a need, you plant a seed. Whatever it is you need - more time, more energy, more money, more support, more relationships, more wisdom - just plant a seed. If you need more time, give more time to your kids. If you need more money, give it away to someone who needs it. If you need more wisdom, share what wisdom you have with others. Give yourself away! ("God is Waiting For You to Plant a Seed," Pastor Rick's Daily Hope, February 2015).



Artist: Vincent Van Gogh


I will forever remember a significant "seed" I planted when I was 32-years-old. Studying the New Testament, I was particularly interested in the spiritual gifts listed in Paul's letters to the Corinthians. My desire for a particular gift, the "gift of discernment," swelled within my heart. (I've written about discernment in a previous post. See http://www.ldswomenconverse.com/2014/04/enemies-part-2-praying-for-and-about.html ) Surely, this gift would enhance my faith and my abilities in every facet of my life. I risked nothing by simply "asking in faith" as the scriptures direct. Thus, with a prayerful heart, I attended the temple that weekend. After an especially wonderfully affirming and spiritual session, I sat basking in the glow of the Celestial Room. Feeling prompted to pick up the nearby scriptures, they literally fell open to Alma, Chapter 32. Alma's words on the pages illuminated like neon lights and burned within me:


And now, behold ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good. O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect? Behold I say unto you, Nay, neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good. As the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit. But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hat no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out. This is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof. Thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life. But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life. And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.





With gratitude and great excitement over my newly germinated seed, I followed Alma's directions carefully and consistently. During the process, my faith, while developing this particular spiritual gift, was and continues to be tested and tried. Nevertheless, since that night in the temple, I can testify that once I planted that seed, it began to bear fruit from the very beginning. And each year the harvest becomes increasingly abundant. These spiritual fruits have enriched my life--and the lives of my family. Like the mustard tree, the spiritual branches of this ever growing tree have provided spiritual empowerment, cooling shading relief for me, my husband, children, and extended family. Just as important: I have never stopped honing and refining my spiritual gifts (I have asked for and acquired some additional spiritual gifts over the years). Like any plant, if we stop the watering process, the plant or tree will eventually die. Thus, I don't allow my spiritual gifts to lie dormant; I have come to rely so heavily upon them. Spiritual gifts are truly the gifts that keep on giving.


Redwoods Surviving and Thriving For Thousands of Years

The necessity of opposition: fire, insects, and other painful stuff.

It's not easy for living things (including humans) to be born into this world. Even more, opposition is a fact of everyday life for each and every creature. And, as we know, opposition takes on an infinite number of forms. For redwood pine cones, opposition takes the form of fire and insects to germinate the seeds. Fire also becomes a necessary component to sustain the life of redwoods. A California Parks and Recreation website elaborates:


Sequoia seeds need three things in order to become a viable tree, all of which are provide in some way by fire. Seeds need bare mineral soil, water, and sunlight. Bare mineral soil is provided by fire which burns off the build-up of needles, twigs, and bark pieces that would block the seed's access to soil. Fire also opens up the forest's canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the seed. Finally, sequoias usually get the water they need from groundwater just below the surface of the grove. Fire thins out the established trees, ensuring that there is more groundwater to go around for the remaining trees and more water available to new seedlings.



My husband and I with our daughter and her husband in the coastal redwood forests of Big Basin State Park.


Fire: Friend and Foe

Amazingly, redwoods thrive despite forest fires. Many healthy living redwoods have been burned within and without their trunks leaving them hollow. Similarly, fiery opposition and suffering can make us stronger through the sanctification process.




In fact, the scriptures use fire as a metaphor for many doctrinal applications. Fire is used as a symbol for cleansing, purifying, or sanctifying. Fire can also serve as a symbol of God's presence:


  • Thy God is a consuming fire.
  • The Lord makes his ministers a flaming fire.
  • The Lord of hosts will visit them with the flame of devouring fire.
  • The Lord will come with fire.
  • He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.
  • The righteous will be preserved by fire.
  • The wicked will be destroyed by fire.
  • Nephi explained how we receive the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost.
  • Thou shalt declare remission of sins by baptism, and by fire.
  • The great and abominable church shall be cast down by devouring fire.
  • The earth shall pass away so as by fire.
  • The presence of the Lord shall be as the melting fire.
  • Adam was baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost. (https://www.lds.org/scriptures/gs/fire?lang=eng)


Joshua of the Old Testament exhorted the Israelites to "Sanctify yourselves; for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you" (Josh. 3:5). We, too, can do wonders if we are willing to endure--no thrive--amidst the sanctifying heat, pains, and stings of opposition. But here's the clincher: We must endure and thrive without letting the fire completely destroy us. This is where our faith coupled with the Savior's atoning intervention can transform our burns and pains into a sanctifying process rather than a destructive process. 

The process isn't pretty or fun. One website said the following about fire:


Sometimes visitors are put off by the appearance of a recently burned landscape; many people think charred trees are the opposite of scenic. In reality, a recently burned grove is a healthy grove (View From the Pier, June 24, 2011).


And, I would add, the charred and scarred trees bring their own brand of beauty. Thus, it is with our burns and wounds. Through the Atonement, they become beautiful....and holy. The Atonement, coupled with the Holy Spirit, brings additional hope, renewal, and peace.








Again, I refer to Dr. Elaine Sorenson. Her painful experience reflects these principles:


I knew by my own experience and observation that obedience led to blessings, that God answered all my prayers. Without a trial of doubt, I was secure in a near perfect knowledge of the word of God in my life, at least for my level of development. Since then, life has brought crises of doubt. Following the sudden death of my son, I struggled with not knowing whether or where he existed. I knew where the scriptures told me he was, I knew where family, friends, and Church leaders told me he was, but I resented their assumption I could at least find comfort because I knew where he was. The truth was I did not know. I was convinced that my loss was no less than that of a non-believing mother. I did not know with any assurance that could nourish the seed of God's word in my heart. However, what I did know was God. Only by acknowledging my doubt in a humility acquired from loss, and taking that unknowing 'desire to believe' to God, was I able to find a sprouting, growing faith ("Seeds of Faith," BYU Religious Studies Center).


The Role of Weather in Redwood Growth and Range

The redwoods seem imposing and invincible, but these trees only thrive in certain conditions. The Sequoia Redwoods only grow on California's western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains with its unpredictable heat of fire to reproduce. As for California's Coastal Redwoods:


The Coastal Redwoods thrive on, and indeed require, the heavy fogs that are normal daily occurrences along the coast. These tall giants actually pull moisture into their needles at the tops of the tree where the circulation system of the tree can't pump to. The 50-60 degree average temperature of the area are also import to the life cycle of these trees. They will grow about anywhere, as evidenced by trees growing in Georgia, Florida, and even one hardy voyager in Arizona. But the will never attain their true size and stature without the California coastal fogs and temperatures that nurture them and at the same time keep other competing species such as pines, stunted and sodden (Trees of Mystery.com).




If you're still with me on this long walk, dear readers, you know where I'm going with this idea. Like Alma said, we too, need a certain climate to nurture our faith. First and foremost: desire, humility, and submission. I again defer to Dr. Sorenson:


Among the apostate Zoramites, only the humbled poor, those cast out of the synagogues they had helped build, listened to Alma. He rejoiced that their poverty and afflictions had humbled them, even though he recognized that their humility, was constrained. He knew being humble is prerequisite to building faith (Alma 32: 6-8). However, he affirmed the greater blessing of those who humble themselves of their own will when they hear the word of God, regardless of their circumstances (Alma 32: 15-16). Shown by how it prepared the Zoramites 'to hear the word' (Alma 32: 6), such humility is an integral part of the nature of one who submits to the wisdom of God and provides fertility to the soil for planting the seeds of the word of God, for those seeds only can be nurtured by faith. Alma noted that faith comes from submission to the word, an abiding characteristic of the faithful, rather than from performance of external acts. Though important, such outward acts are transcended by the change of the inner nature of the individual, as observed in Alma's words, 'I behold that ye are lowly in hearts' and if so, blessed are ye... Do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?' Alma is implying by these rhetorical questions that worship is a spiritual, perpetual act of faith, not merely a weekly ritual.


I've learned that living in faith means living in perpetual fog. That wonderful terrible fog of uncertainty! Sometimes, uncertainty is agony. Sometimes, the truth is agony. Thankfully, the light of Christ illuminates the path, the road, or the runway--but only a few steps at a time. Ironically, if we rail against the fog (and its accompanying rain), our grumbling further fogs up our path. Eventually, we become mired in mud. Indeed, too much fog gets us stuck in a bog!





Clarity and certainty often come at a cost. The fog of ignorance can be bliss.

Years ago, a friend of mine (I'll call her Jane) was in an abusive marriage. Repeatedly, she reconciled with her husband, just to separate once more. Over the years, my husband, Rick, gave Jane several priesthood blessings in terms of whether or not to stay in the marriage. Even after Jane moved out and away from her husband, she still hoped for a reconciliation. During the years after her separation (but not yet divorced), she still desired divine revelation to know whether or not her husband would change. She still loved him and wanted their marriage to work. Once again, Rick gave her a priesthood blessing. Under inspiration, Rick told Jane that this knowledge would not be given to her. Instead, Jane was counseled to focus on her own behavior and spiritual growth. Truthfully, Jane and I were disappointed in Rick's blessing. (We wanted to know if her marriage would last!) Humbly, Jane submitted to the Lord's will by working on herself. She went back to school and earned her Bachelor's and Master's degrees. I watched her bloom spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. Later, Jane revealed to me her own insight regarding uncertainty. She observed, "If God had told me that my husband would change, and that we would stay married, I would have passively waited around for him to change. I would have had no motivation to change, to grow, to improve. I would have put the onus for change on my husband. But I've learned that in order for him to change, I needed to change. And in my changing, I've learned that I deserve better than how he had treated me." Jane and her husband never reunited and eventually divorced. Yet, Jane's years spent living in that particular "fog" had given her the strength to endure a painful separation. Even more, this divine fog had prepared her for an eventual divorce.

I, too, have learned to enjoy the misty mysterious beauty of walking through the fog. But only if the Savior walks with me!


How do individual redwoods survive for thousands of years? With the help of their families.

Like Sequoia Redwoods, Coastal Redwoods have large shallow root systems. They often extend 100 miles and intertwine with the roots of other redwoods. Baby redwoods often sprout at the base of their parents while latching onto their roots for nutrients. Consequently, redwoods often grow in circular clusters called "fairy rings." When surrounded by other redwood trees, fierce winds cannot topple them. Their intertwined roots strengthen each other; the trees actually hold each other steady during storms.

Oh the power of family!




I love Sister Pinegar's imagery of redwoods in her October, 1994 General Conference talk. In part, she says:

May I thank those people who have been as the giant redwoods in my life, those who have been an example of caring and teaching, those who have intertwined their roots in mine and helped me stand firm as they taught me through their words and their lives" ("Teach the Children"). Here's the link to the entire talk: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1994/10/teach-the-children?lang=eng


At Big Basin State Park: A family cluster of old and young trees. Notice their burned and hollowed trunks. I tried to include my son-in-law in the photo but missed!


Some of the redwood trees have been given names denoting families. Redwood families remind me of eternal families. Below are some examples:


These trees grew so close together that their trunks eventually infused---much like a marriage. Aptly, this tree is named "The Faithful Couple."





A group of four trees, three of them growing very close together, with a fourth a little more distant. Their roots are so intertwined that if one of them were to fall, it would likely bring the others along with it.


This Big Basin redwood even promotes the institution of marriage. It's called "The Cathedral Tree."


Individual tree survival: It takes some tough bark. And it's all in the tannin.

The lumber of the Coastal Redwood has historically been highly valued because it's durable, resistant to rot and termites, non-warping, and relatively soft for cutting and carving. The bark of both Coast and Sequoia redwoods is another reason for the trees' longevity. California's National Park website gives us details.


In general, there are three important enemies of dead or living mature trees; namely, insects, fungi, and fire. The unusual resistance of redwoods to the attacks of both insects and fungi is a result from the presence of a chemical known as tannin. This is a substance occurring in hemlocks, oaks, and many other trees, from which it is extracted and used in tanning leather. It has also been used recently as a remedy for burns on the human body. The redwoods have a high percentage of tannin, and this gives both the bark and the heartwood a reddish color during the life of the tree. Tannin is also abundant in the cone, where it forms about seven-tenths of the substance known as cone pigment. If a tree falls and breaks, the tannin soon cover the broken ends of the tree, giving it the appearance of having been burned or creosoted, and this natural treatment protects the wood from decay.

Then...there's always fire:


Fire is the great destroyer of forests. The pine and the fir trees are highly inflammable because of the pitch they contain. Redwoods, however, contain neither pitch nor resin; furthermore, since the asbestos-like bark grows to at least one foot in thickness in the Coastal Redwood, and often as much as two feet in thickness in the Sequoia Redwood, fire seldom is able to kill these trees. Once in a great while, fire will go up the trunk of a redwood, burn the crown, and thus kill the tree. Both kinds of redwoods are thus exceedingly resistant to fire and its effects. Of course, hot fires will kill the young redwoods, but once the trees have reached maturity they are not easily killed" (The Redwoods of Coast and Sierra)


This redwood, called "The Fallen Monarch" is a thousand years old. No one knows when it fell, but its bark has not decayed. The photo below was taken in 1899.




Today, "The Fallen Monarch" still looks the same. The tannin bark reminds me of sacred and eternal priesthood covenants which empower us individually and collectively as families in this life and in the next. Our sacred covenants also strengthen and bind us to our Father in Heaven. What I like most about the tannin is how it protectively coats the tree with a resistant veneer. Furthermore, the tannin thickens in proportion to the growth of the tree. Similarly to tannin, the Spirit can protect our faith from the fiery attacks and gnawing burrows of the opposition. As we increasingly and consistently draw closer to the Spirit, our faith will not succumb to contemporary social and political issues nor bow to those who seek to undermine or destroy.




Looking toward the future and into the eternities

Thank you, dear readers, for accompanying me on this very long walk. I am so thankful for eternal truths and priesthood covenants. Most of all, I am infinitely grateful for my Savior, Jesus Christ. I will end this post with the eloquent observations of Dr. Sorenson:


Agency: A theme of agency pervades the entire analogy of the seed. The gift of faith is tempered by our choices in methods and consequences in preparing the soil, planting, nourishing and harvesting seeds of faith. The growth of the seed depends not only on the nature of the seed, but also on the willingness to try the experiment. While faith is offered as a gift, it must be received by the exercise of agency in acceptance and cultivation. The Fruits of the Seed: Alma closed his words with a promise of the rewards of the fruits of faith. His desire and promise were that all might continue and endure in the experiment, nourish the word of God by faith, and behold the resulting tree 'springing up...unto everlasting life.' The analogy of the planting experiment is particularly powerful. The images of nurturance of the seed and the symbols of the tree and fruit endure universally through time and culture. The messages to endure in the nurturing of the seed, to actively await the maturity of the tree and the transcending beauty of the fruit of eternal life, 'the greatest of all the gifts of God.' Just as the ancients escaped death by fire and found safety from the sword of war by their faith, Latter-day Saints may also know the fruits of faith. Those fruits may not be realized in times of doubt and testing. Indeed, we are promised no witness until after the trial of our faith. But just as Elijah did not find the Lord in the winds or the earthquakes or the fire; and just as the long spring of rains on the sprouting and growing seed offer yet no fruit to one who is hungry, we must wait with hope until the tumult subsides. Then, on a quiet unsuspecting summer morning, the bud bursts with fruit. True to the longing, hopeful expectation 'of things not seen,' angels whisper with confirming miracles. To each who dares the experiment, the fruit is unique and delicious, 'most precious, ....sweet above all that is sweet, .... white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst" (https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/book-mormon-alma-testimony-word/8-seeds-faith-followers-view-alma-32 )






Why lean on another's faith when you can grow your own "Sacred Grove?"

Julie  

Part 1: Suffering a Crisis of Faith? Grow Your Own "Sacred Grove"


The 1980's were challenging years for me. I began 1980 as a newlywed and began the 1990's as a mom to four kids. One of my difficulties involved questions of faith. Born and raised in Mormonism, I had always had a rock solid testimony of the gospel and of the Church. Still, like many young adults, I had questions regarding Church doctrine and LDS culture. My older sister, Janet, was asking similar questions. Janet and I especially struggled with the following issues:

  • The doctrine of plural marriage and its practice in 19th century Mormonism
  • Women and priesthood authority 
  • Church administration and priesthood correlation where women's auxiliaries no longer had autonomy but reported directly to priesthood authorities (Correlation had been instituted 20 years earlier.) 
  • The proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution (ERA) for gender equality (It ultimately failed to pass, but like Propostion 8 regarding same sex marriage in California, the proposed amendment divided Church members.) 






  • Mormon activist Sonja Johnson's efforts to pass the ERA (she was founder of "Mormons for ERA"), her subsequent Church excommunication for apostasy (which made national news and interviews around the talk show circuit), along with her book From Housewife to Heretic. She also spoke at the 1980 Democratic Convention.






  • The book Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, Prophet's Wife, Elect Lady, Polygamy's Foe written by Mormon historians Linda K. Newell and Valeen Avery. This account gave a troubling and unflattering narrative regarding Joseph Smith, Emma, their marriage, and plural marriage. Back then, this type of information was rare---especially coming from and written by active Church members. Janet and I knew of several women who had read the book, and it had rattled their faith. At that time, I decided not to read the book because it seemed too contentious. Besides, I didn't want to further undermine my faith. (Years later, I read it and thought, "So what...what's the big deal?" Early Church leaders and members had human frailties just like the rest of us.)




  • The internet would not be invented for nearly 20 years, thus information regarding Church history was very limited and opaque at the time.

My sister and I had grown up on the swells of second wave feminism. Within LDS culture, many women of our generation had not yet come to value a college education---let alone a career. And there wasn't much encouragement to attain them. Young LDS women (including my sister and I) married young and were expected to have children soon after. Lots of children. To our eternal gratitude, our dad was a college instructor, so he taught us the value of higher education. My mother also exemplified this principle by earning her college degree when Janet and I were teenagers. Consequently, my sister and I followed in our parents' footsteps and worked hard to obtain our college degrees (and later graduate degrees) after becoming wives and mothers. 



Janet and I in front of the Joseph and Hyrum Smith statue at Carthage Jail in 2001.


As young mothers, Janet and I were pretty much anomalies in our aspirations. For years we struggled under the pressure to fit into the mainstream "Mormon woman mold." And 30 years ago, traditional LDS cultural expectations and gender roles were much more defined and embedded than they are now. (Please note: I'm not criticizing these roles or cultural norms as inherently bad or wrong.) The LDS cultural norms of the 1970's and 80's (though evolving) basically looked like this:

  • Women were expected to stay home and cultivate joy in homemaking. Women who worked outside the home were often judged by others in their failure "to follow the Prophet." (When I had one child and worked part time, a couple of my friends openly criticized me by admonishing me to follow Church counsel. Later, as a mother of four children, I studied longs hours to attain a Master's degree. Again, some of my friends criticized me for "neglecting" my children while pursuing "selfish desires." Obviously, not all LDS women cast such harsh judgment toward me and toward each other. Still, cultural expectations to be a stay-at-home mom were exceedingly strong at that time, and many LDS women put tremendous pressure on each other.)


My first child in 1981


  • Postponing children and family was not encouraged. (I waited nearly a year after marriage before getting pregnant. People often asked me when I would "start a family"---again, I felt a lot of pressure.) 

  • Artificial birth control was also discouraged. Many times discussions in church and among friends centered around quotes from early prophets---especially one from President David O. McKay: "Where husband and wife enjoy health and vigor....it is contrary to the teachings of the Church to artificially curtail or prevent the birth of children. We believe that those who practice birth control will reap disappointment by and by" (Ensign, May 1971). Time and again, I struggled and prayed because of this! 

  • Gender roles were much more pronounced. Below is an Ensign article published six years before I was married. The article contains advice for husbands and wives. Some specifics for husbands: "Be man enough to change the baby's diapers...and occasionally bathe the children." Some specifics for wives: "Prepare good meals for him, especially when he is late for dinner. Take telephone messages for him carefully and see that he gets them. Free the telephone when he needs it." The rest of the article can be accessed at: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1973/06/for-husbands-and-helpmeets?lang=eng  Again, I'm not suggesting that this advice is inherently wrong. My point is to illustrate mainstream LDS cultural expectations during that time. 

As previously mentioned, Janet and I struggled to fit ourselves into the "ultimate Mormon woman mold." Neither of us wanted to give birth to congregations of children. (I eventually had four children and Janet had three.) Unlike me, Janet enjoyed (and was more proficient) in baking. We both made sure our homes were clean and orderly, and we were both good cooks. (Although I never enjoyed cooking, I was always in the kitchen because I understood the importance of nutritious meals and family dinnertime.) Neither Janet nor I enjoyed sewing (Janet enjoys needlework), but we had sewn a lot of our own clothes in high school. During my early years of marriage, I often sewed until it was no longer cost effective. Still, I felt little joy in sewing. Or baking. Or crafting. 




My third child's Blessing Day in 1987


As Janet and I grew older, we became more confident in our own judgment and decision making. And, we learned to rely more on the Spirit for guidance and affirmation---and less on the judgment or advice from others. In other words, we eventually learned to separate Church culture from Church doctrine. We learned to care more about the Lord's opinion of us over the opinion of others. We have lived our lives as devoted and active members of the Church despite our doubts or fears. One fear, however, plagued us the most: the doctrine of plural marriage. No matter how much Janet and I talked and tried to console each other and ourselves, we couldn't reconcile what we called "the crazy aunt in the basement" doctrine. (I will revisit this topic later in this post.)

Do you, dear readers, have similar feelings? Do you struggle with your faith? Do you struggle to "fit in?" Do you feel insecure or fearful regarding various aspects of LDS culture, Church policy, or doctrine? Are you rattled by competing voices within and without the Church? Are you troubled by Church history? Do you feel guilty for questioning your faith? Be assured, you are not alone. Even better: our faith in Jesus Christ can supersede any doubt. He is a soft place to fall when we take our doubts and fears to Him.

Living in Faith and Peace

So, how do we get from doubt to faith to peace? And how do we sustain our faith and peace? I humbly offer some of my own thoughts and life experiences:

Pride and Reasoning

The saying, "Pride goeth before the fall," is so true. Our pride kills our faith. Our society casts aside faith in God while encouraging complete faith in ourselves and our own ability. Our social and political discourse has become increasingly cynical, sneering, and hyper-sensitive in finding and taking offense. Truly, we live in a culture of outrage. Believing themselves to be "sophisticated," many newspapers, editorialists, political pundits, commentators, professors, and politicians often speak and write with an attitude of arrogance, suspicion, accusation, and negativity. Furthermore, our society embraces reasoning and science while belittling faith and those who live by faith. (Surely, reasoning and science can be compatible with faith and religion.) Indeed, our society personifies Nephi's ancient prophesy: 


Their land is full of idols; they worship the work of their own hands, that which their own fingers have made. And the mean man boweth not down, and the great man humbleth himself not" (2 Nephi 12: 8-9).





Not surprisingly, this mindset insidiously affects Church members. Offense toward Church leaders and Church doctrine tends to stem from (and further feed) pride and arrogance. Thus, it becomes easy to negatively judge Church leaders and doctrine using society's toxic lens while undermining our faith. The Apostle Paul described the use of distorted lenses as "looking through a glass darkly." Surely, there's no sin in having fears, doubts, and anxiety. However, society's dark lens need not be our lens. 

A couple of years ago, a young, very intelligent, and very educated friend of mine asked incredulously, "I can't believe that you, Julie, would put your trust in the Prophet and Apostles before your own judgment." I responded, "That's not what I said. I put my full faith in Jesus Christ. When I follow Christ in humility, He leads me to righteous conclusions and increases my faith in the Church, its leaders, and its teachings." As the years pass, I watch as my friend's faith falters. I fear my friend's intellectual reasoning will reason herself right out of her faith---and out of the Church. Furthermore, as a college educator, I believe arrogance and pride are the twin blights in and of academia. I've encountered many brilliant professors and academics who, because they have acquired a great amount of secular knowledge, have also acquired a great amount of pride and arrogance along with it.





Again, please don't get me wrong. I don't fault educated people. I don't fault people who question their faith, Church leaders, and doctrine. Asking questions is healthy and part of our spiritual growth. However, contention and loss of faith happens when questioning becomes agitating. When agitators use contention, perpetual "sadness," and anger to persuade and/or to bring about change in Church doctrine and policy or to criticize Church leaders, we should not allow them to chip away at our faith (as they often chip away their own faith). Christ clearly teaches that negative energy and contention drive away the Spirit and "are not of me." The fruits of the Spirit are not sadness and anger but peace, love, and joy. When we draw close to God and use the Savior as our personal lens, our vision is clarified and purified. 

In studying the Book of Mormon, I've decided that Laman and Lemuel (from an intellectual standpoint) were often the reasonable ones in Lehi's family. They had ample reasons to murmur and complain about their circumstances. After all, they had left all of their wealth and position in Jerusalem only to wander for eight years in the desert. Even "worse," the cause of their circumstances and suffering was based on a dream their father, Lehi, had had one afternoon. From time to time, Laman and Lemuel were forcibly humbled. But as we know, their humility quickly evaporated every single time; their reasoning always obliterated their faith. Conversely, Nephi suffered the same hardship and uncertainty but still had the ability to bear it with grace and patience. Why?  Because Nephi exercised faith and humility thereby receiving his own witness from the Spirit. As a reward, the Lord allowed Nephi to see the same vision Lehi had seen. Consequently, the Spirit continually sustained Nephi's faith and softened his heart. Nephi's words reflect humility and faith:


We must lay aside our sins, and not hang down our heads, for we are not cast off. Nevertheless, we have been driven out of the land of our inheritance, but we have been led to a better land, for the Lord...  Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that it is only in and through his grace that ye are saved (2nd Nephi 10: 20-22).






Like Nephi, we too, can attain a better land...not just a temporal land....but a spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually better land. This journey of faith requires the following:

Humility

Alma taught that faith comes from submission to the word of God. In the Book of Mormon Alma observed the Zoramites and how "they were cast out of the synagogues because of the courseness of their apparel..."  (Alma: 32). Alma was hopeful that the Zoramites' subsequent humility had caused a change of heart in allowing the seeds of faith to grow within them. Elaine Shaw Sorenson in her article, "The Seeds of Faith," gives us significant insight:


Alma's lesson has meaning today. Latter-day Saints seem naturally inclined to focus upon their works. This propensity to rely so heavily on works that document obedience seems to be an outgrowth of our present technological, behavioristic society, which places so much emphasis on observable achievement. Increasingly encumbering and complex, family, career, and even Church activities can disperse attentions toward multiple distractions among tasks and programs. Illusionary time and goal management techniques, if not grounded in a basic Christian nature, can further contribute to task-based rituals and repetitions in life. By extending ourselves laterally outward in noisy worldly ways, we risk becoming swallowed up in the proud illusion of progress (Alma  31: 27), when what we need is to extend quietly inward toward humility and upward toward God. As with the apostate Zoramites who lacked the essential humility that leads to faith, the achievements and prosperity that embellish our lives become meaningless trappings of mortality with no eternal significance without faith. Doing home teaching, earning a scout merit badge, or doing other assigned acts of service can become little more than offerings on the Rameumpton (Alma 31: 21), if our hearts are not earnest and our daily nature not Christian (BYU Religious Studies Center).


Genuine humility rather than compelled humility acts as a forcefield against the fiery darts of contentious agitators and self-doubt. Arrogance is the antithesis of humility because it claims a little to no need of Christ, claims to know all the answers, and to know what is best for everyone---the Quorum of the Twelves and the Prophet included. Personally, I would much rather put my faith in Christ and the Brethren than in fellow members who claim to know what's best.

Now, let me return to my experience regarding the doctrine of plural marriage. As I mentioned previously, this doctrine fueled my feelings of resentment, dread, and indignation. For years, I pushed away these feelings and refused to think about polygamy. As my relationship with God grew more personal, I decided to "confront" God about this "reprehensible" doctrine. His response to me was swift and sure. I received a very clear and very strong impression that my questions and concerns would not be answered until I sincerely humbled myself. That meant clearing my mind and heart (at least temporarily) of prideful negativity toward this doctrine. I will admit; it took some mental exertion and sustained effort on my part to get there. General Conference was scheduled that weekend, so I waited until the conclusion of the Sunday session to pray for some answers. Feeling inspired and humbled, I walked back to the car, opened the car door and sat there in the empty church parking lot. I poured out my heart to God. I did not receive detailed answers. If anything, I came away with more questions than answers after an hour of prayer. Nevertheless, I felt heard and validated from my Heavenly Father. Even more, I felt respected. I felt His love. I felt peace and joy. And that's all that mattered to me. I drove home with a satisfied and thankful heart.






Whenever doubts or questions inflict my soul, I once again humble myself and take my concerns to God. His counsel, His grace, and His love are infinitely more cathartic and therapeutic than anything or anyone else on Earth. The peace that comes from God and our Savior is able to transcend any doubt, anxiety, fear, or even anger we may have in regard to our Church leaders, fellow members, doctrine, and/or Church culture. 

Becoming Comfortable with Uncertainty

Faith is the antithesis of certainty. I had to learn to feel comfortable with unanswered questions. I have learned to suspend my judgment of anyone or anything before earnestly seeking answers and insight through the Spirit. 

Additionally, the best way (for me) to overcome doubt is to water the righteous seeds of faith, and nourish them through utilizing the spiritual gifts enumerated in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. Intellectual study of the gospel surely has its own advantages. I spend significant amounts of time in intellectual study. Yet, ultimately, we won't find lasting answers or peace to our questions using this method. We only find answers and peace by seeking the Savior. While seeking Him, we can ask for ever increasing faith. Having faith in Christ is specifically listed as a spiritual gift in the scriptures. We can pray for this specific gift to increase our faith and, in turn, increase our peace.

Rabbi Evan Moffic believes uncertainty possesses its own kind of beauty:


Faith is not about answers. We err if we think faith solves our uncertainty. Authentic faith is not about easy answers. Rather, it is about finding the courage and wisdom to live with uncertainty. Faith can help turn uncertainties into blessings. In fact, uncertainty can ultimately sustain and make our faith even stronger. I first recognized this truth during a visit to Venice. The city has magnificent churches. Yet, these churches are built on lagoons. The soil is watery and muddy. How can such shaky ground hold up such extraordinary structures? The tour guide explained the way it works. The churches are built on thousands of wooden poles that move with the tide. Those movements counter-balance one another, keeping the structure high and intact. The very shakiness of the structure keeps it standing. The same is true with faith. The uncertainties we face sustain us. They bring us closer to one another. They bring us closer to God. It is through the uncertainties, the challenges, the crises---what the Psalmist calls the "valley of the shadow"---that we see God is truly with us. Uncertainties also sharpen our vision. They help us refine and grow in faith, separating the wheat from the chaff, the sacred from the mundane. It is not certainty that leads to faith. It is the courage to live with uncertainty. An 18th century rabbi named Nachman of Breslov said, 'the whole world is a narrow bridge, and the most important part is not to be afraid.' In other words, life is uncertain. It resembles a rickety bridge. We walk across it in faith: Faith in our ability to do so, faith that the bridge will hold, and faith that God beckons us from the other side (The Secret of Living With Uncertainty, OnFaith Voices, July 17, 2015).



I would add that the Church and its leaders may, at times, resemble (in our own minds) a shaky or rickety bridge. As Church members, we too, must walk across it in faith.





Our Faith Will Be Tried

Plan on it. Author Grant Von Harrison's observations echo my own personal experiences: 


From the very beginning the pattern followed by the Lord in granting blessings has been: 1) the Lord allows the person seeking the blessing to be tested and tried and 2) once the person humbles him/herself and proves his/her faith by perseverance and sustained faithfulness, the righteous desires are granted. A period of proving, or a trial of faith, is necessary to see if someone who is seeking a special blessing from the Lord will remain faithful in the face of opposition. If a person understands that his/her faith is going to be tried, it gives him/her a greater resolve to be persistent in times of opposition. It is extremely important that you realize that trials of faith are a necessary part of the sanctification process by which we are purified by the Spirit of God. Opposition plays a very important part in this process, for by overcoming opposition and enduring affliction we are, in a very literal sense, purged and made clean. When you endure opposition by serving the Lord to the utmost of your ability---no matter how limited your ability is---the grace of God is sufficient to intervene in your behalf (Drawing From the Powers of Heaven, p. 49-50).



I will end on this final thought. Surely, Nephi had it all figured out when he said:



For behold, the promises which we have obtained are promises unto us according to the flesh' wherefore, as it has been shown unto me that many of our children shall perish in the flesh because of unbelief, nevertheless, God will be merciful unto many; and our children shall be restored, that they may come to that which will give them the true knowledge of their Redeemer (2 Nephi 10:2).


With the Savior's help I am ever learning "not to judge after the sight of  [my own] eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of [my own] ears (2 Nephi 21: 2).



Christmas 2016 with all of our grandchildren (and another one is on the way)


I can testify that many seeds of my faith have blossomed into a strong belief. And my belief has eventually given way to knowledge. And though my knowledge may not be perfect, it is still knowledge and no longer faith. Faith precedes and sustains!

I will publish Part Two of this post in the next few days.

Happy planting,

Julie