Leaving the Old Ship Zion to Walk on Water

IMG_9053By Jenny

I noticed a theme of water analogies in the Sunday afternoon session of Conference.  These analogies made me think about perspective and how we perceive the world differently based on our different experiences.  First Elder Ballard shared a familiar narrative: The Old Ship Zion.  We are all in a boat representing the church and we must hold tightly to it and obey our trusty guides lest we fall overboard and drown.  Because of this narrative, I have spent my whole life fearing the unsure waters of the world, while I have had absolute faith in the boat, its captain, and my life jacket.  Little did I know that those would be the very things to cause doubt and cognitive dissonance for me.

I began to realize that my faith was slightly misplaced.  After all, faith has never been about staying safely on the shoreline or holding tightly to a boat.  Look at our great scriptural heroes.  They didn’t fear the water, they controlled it and conquered it with their faith.  Moses didn’t say, “Well it’s too dangerous to cross this sea so I guess we will stay on solid ground.”  No, with faith greater than his fear and uncertainty, he parted the waters.  Nephi and the Jaredites didn’t give up on discovering the promised land because the unknown waters were too scary for them.  No, they put their faith in God and conquered those waters.  Sure, they stayed in the boats, but in this case, the boats represent the unknown, not the safe, sure bet.

Peter didn’t stay in the boat.  He took those scary unsure steps out into the raging sea so that his faith could grow.  Like Peter, I also had to leave the boat in order for my faith to grow.  Sometimes it is necessary to plunge into the raging waters in order to build enough faith to walk on the water.  Isn’t that what life is for?  To discover our own divinity and power, not to obey mandates that take us all down one smooth safely charted course?  When I left the boat, all my ward members and leaders saw was me leaving the safety of the boat.  They didn’t see what I saw.  They didn’t see the Savior standing with outstretched arms, beckoning me, saying, “You can do it.  You were born to walk on the water, not to be afraid of it.”  So I can understand why their perspective is different from my own.

But just because I got out of the boat and learned to walk doesn’t mean that I didn’t want to come back to the Old Ship Zion and be with the people I love.  In fact, I wanted to jump back in the boat and tell them all about the amazing experience I had just had on the water.  Unfortunately my shipmates and trusty guides are all used to the familiar narrative that Elder Ballard shared.  From their perspective I had already drowned.  So they steered the ship away from me in hopes that no one else would fall over.  From my perspective, I was clinging to the boat when they pried my hands loose and sailed away, throwing my Mormon belongings overboard as they went.

Later in the conference session, Elder Larry S. Kacher talked about currents.  I enjoyed his perspective at first, because he was sharing from his personal experience.  He talked about a current he found when he joined the church that led him in a positive direction.  His family and friends couldn’t see it from his perspective.  I related to that because I have also found a current that is leading my life in a positive direction, but my friends think that I am trapped in the very negative current that Elder Kacher goes on to talk about.  He mentions two specific people he knows distantly and states that they have been swept up in negative currents that caused them to leave the church.  I hated these second-hand accounts of these two different men because he reduced their experiences to a formulaic statement that I doubt actually reflects or resonates with their true experience.  When we try to speak for another person and their experience which is different from our own, we are bound to get it wrong.  We need to stop doing this as a church.  Unfortunately I hear all too often these second-hand accounts from local and general leaders.  It’s sort of like an acceptable form of gossip.  But it’s not acceptable…not really.

I know that no one can share my story and get it exactly right.  Least of all, someone who won’t try to understand things from my perspective, but uses an old familiar narrative to prove a point.  My story has been shared publicly by my own leaders as a way to instill fear in others about the water.  After several meetings with my bishop and stake president in which they neither listened to nor tried to understand me, my bishop spoke in Relief Society and Sunday School about my situation.  I guarantee he did not get my story right, but it fulfilled his purpose of maintaining one narrative in the ward, that if you leave the boat you will drown, that if you aren’t careful about what you get into online, you will be swept away in the current.  When church leaders like Elder Kacher share other people’s stories in conference to promote this one-sided narrative, it gives local leaders the feeling that they can do it too.  The problem with maintaining this one narrative is that it doesn’t account for the fact that faith is an individual thing.  One narrative does not work for everyone.  That’s why it is important to listen to each other’s perspectives, and to understand that the church may be a good current for some, but it can also be a negative current for others.

A few years ago I tried to capture my perspective, conveniently enough, in a water analogy.  I had just broken through the mounting cognitive dissonance and realized that the raging sea is not what I had once believed it to be.  I felt a mix of exhilaration and sadness.  Exhilaration because I was learning to walk on water.  Sadness because I knew exactly how my experience would be perceived by my friends and family.  I knew that it would be almost impossible to help them see it from my perspective.  So, regardless of the narrative the church leaders are sharing about people like me who have experienced a faith transition, here is my narrative, based on my experience and perspective:

[box] Oh to go back! Sweet sweet oblivion! My path is full of pain and anguish. I didn’t want to come head on with the construct of the world that I have always known. But once the cracks began to form, the water started seeping in. I tried to plug them up, but some cracks were just too deep. Soon my dam broke and the water came faster than I could handle. How much easier it might have been if I wasn’t surrounded by people whose dams are sure. They look at me and say, “You are only a ruined dam. You gave up everything because you let the cracks take over. You should have stayed on the safe side. Read your scriptures, pray, strengthen your testimony…” But I am NOT a broken dam! I am a river going beyond. I see a world that they will never know as long as they are a wall built to keep things in. I am not departing from the things I gained through religion. A dammed lake that becomes a river takes with it the essence of what it is. I take it all with me as I search other paths and seek for fertile ground. I keep the good and beautiful things and let go of the dirt that tries to follow. My paths are exciting and new. I change the world around me while my world shapes and directs me. I have a relationship with life and God that I never knew was possible during my time as a solid wall. Back then I was too busy keeping my lake stagnant and still, to notice the complexity of everything. Now the fear is gone and I am free. Free to roam, free to live, free to love, and free to learn. Yet still, it is hard to know that I am a river exploring new and beautiful places…because still, they call me a broken dam. [/box]

Jenny graduated from BYU with a bachelor degree in humanities. she teaches yoga classes and spends her time hanging out with her four kids, reading, writing, and running.


  1. Thank you for sharing your experience, I both love and hate the water analogy. I love it because water is powerful and strong, fluid and beautiful. I hate it because people can only see it as dangerous, put one foot in it and you’re gone forever. My husband have been in the midst of a faith transition in the last year or two. We aren’t sure whether we will stay in the the Old Ship Zion at this point…but we aren’t sure yet how to jump ship. We are now at peace with what we believe and have never had greater faith and understanding as we do now, yet we don’t know how to explain this to our family, friends, and certainly our leaders. We know that they won’t understand, that they will think we have drowned in the deep and treacherous waters of apostasy. They don’t understand that people can and do walk on water, that they can find a peace and happiness they never had in the Ship. Thanks again for sharing the words I haven’t yet been able to speak myself.

  2. I think the difference in the story of Peter walking on water is that he specifically was told to do so by the savior. Had he decided to walk on water just for fun, he certainly would have fallen and drowned. It is following the savior and those that represent him on the earth today that gives us strength to accomplish miracles. Theresa difference when we are lead by the Lord and his anointed servants. Those who try to walk on water alone will not have the power of god and will invariably drown.

    • I think there is a difference between being led by the Lord or his anointed servants. Jesus reaches our reaching and speaks to us privately. His leadership is perfect. He meets us in our individual gardens of suffering and calls us to accept his atonement and like Peter walk on water. Accepting his grace is like walking on water. Miraculous and challenged by our own doubts. Peter calls to Jesus when he begins to sink. His faith in himself waivers, but not his faith in Jesus.
      The Lord’s anointed servants make mistakes. They are fallible, like Peter denying Christ, they are corruptible. The constant admonitions to follow the prophet remind me of Lehi wandering in the mist as he follows the man in white. He finds his way to the tree of life when he directs himself to the iron rod and stops following the man in white. I’m not saying we should ignore prophets, just that we should cling to the iron rod by putting our personal relationship to Jesus Christ first. Before we follow the property we should follow Jesus Christ. They are not always the same course. This post reminded me that Jesus sustains me even when it feels like I’m sinking as I respond to his personal call to walk on water.

    • It actually was Peter’s idea to walk on water. He felt some energy pushing him in that direction and he asked the Savior, “Lord if it be thou, let me come unto thee on the water.” At the time he asked that, he wasn’t even 100% sure that it was Christ. The apostles thought it might be a spirit. Jesus called to them, but Peter’s reply makes it sound like he still wasn’t sure. That’s faith for you, being willing to give up your safety even when you’re not sure it’s Christ beckoning to you or that you have the power inside yourself to stay afloat. That’s what a faith transition feels like. It’s not as you said, “just for fun.” There is actually nothing fun about it. It feels like Peter’s experience: “But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid and beginning to sink, he cried saying, Lord, save me.” Like Cruelest Month said, Peter’s faith in himself waivers and he begins to sink. But Jesus catches him. That’s what the atonement is for, to catch us when we doubt our own power to walk on water. Peter was alone, and he did have the power of God inside him to walk on the water. I think that’s what Jesus was trying to teach him when he said, “Oh thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” Jesus knew that Peter had the power to do it. It was Peter who needed to discover that power, and he needed to do it on his own. He didn’t have a prophet holding his hand and telling him how to do it, he didn’t even know if it was really Jesus out there walking on the water. He was alone to discover his own divinity, but Jesus was there to catch him when he lost faith in his own power.

      • Cruelest Month and Jenny, thank you for the post and your comments. What you have shared is true and transcendent. I felt the spirit while reading your words. Thank you for pointing me to Christ, and for helping me to lay aside my doubts and insecurities, even if they’re stemming from the church.

  3. I am so sorry that the cognitive dissonance you felt led you off the ship. I have a friend, bright and capable, whose current theory is that she needs to stay protected from all outside influences until she is (and I quote!) “safely dead.” I thought we were hear to get experience! And to take what we learn with us into the next life! I find things in Expo II that I love and just fall right into; I find things in the Ensign that I love and fall right into. And I also find things in both places that make me feel profoundly uncomfortable. I feel that I will never have perfect cognitive alignment since this is an imperfect world and I am pretty imperfect too. I am making my peace with less than perfection in the hope that in the eternities all things will fit into the perfect whole that we are promised.

  4. “When church leaders like Elder Kacher share other people’s stories in conference to promote this one-sided narrative, it gives local leaders the feeling that they can do it too. The problem with maintaining this one narrative is that it doesn’t account for the fact that faith is an individual thing.”

    Amen. Thanks for beautifully saying why it’s so important that we listen to each other.

  5. I’m sorry your story was used unfairly to scare other people into not leaving. That sounds extremely frustrating.

    This doesn’t work with all the extensions to the analogy you’ve made, but another possible way of thinking about it is that the Church is a boat surrounded by dry land. It’s only by keeping people believing that the Wicked World(TM) out there is a raging sea that leaders are able to keep people from leaving. I say this as someone who still attends and engages with the Church, but all the boundary drawing like this that we get in Conference makes me nuts.

    • Or, it is a boat in the ocean, but it turns out that we are marine mammals and have nothing to fear from the ocean. Sure, there are sharks out there, but there’s also a beautiful world to discover and engage with.

    • Yes, I think there are a lot of different was to take the analogy. I went with Peter and walking on water mostly because that is what it felt like for me at the time. It felt unnatural as scary. But I like the image of dry land or marine animals because that’s what it feels like from the other side when the world feels like a safer more beautiful place and the boat seems a little unnecessary. I also still attend church. I am working through my anger with my leaders and fellow ward members for what they have done, but I just can’t stop loving the people in the boat. They are my people. Thanks for your comments Ziff add Mossbloom!

  6. Finding this post was such a comfort! I believe our leaders are inspired, and teach us a lot of good things. Many of them live exemplary lives, but they do and have lead us astray sometimes. That is why it is so vital to honor our personal relationship with God and learn to listen to our wise woman inside, our inner voice.

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