As a single woman in the church, it is moments like these that lead me to reassert (again) that I do fit in and that I am essential – just as all Saints are essential: queer saints, childless saints, single parent saints, etc.
In recent years there has been more and more talk from church leaders of “the family”; talk that leaves little doubt as to what sort of family our church leaders see as “ideal”. I love families and the idea of families, but I see the Mormon ideal of families as too tidy to be useful. (I’m quoting Kristine Haglund here.)
The reality is that we live in a world and in a church where we have a range of families. Families that cannot be changed into the ideal simply for the wishing or the wanting: single families, single parent families, queer families, childless families. These are the people and the families in the margins.
So, I propose to my reader four lessons that we can learn from those who live in these margins – and why, in fact, we are essential to the Mormon Body of Christ.
(I borrow the framework and some ideas from remarks given by Kristine Haglund at two singles’ conferences: “Singles in the Borderlands”.)
We all belong – even if we don’t feel like we fit
Those in the margins constantly shake off the labels of “not enough,” “broken,” “cursed,” “unworthy,” “defective,” and “incomplete.” We fit ourselves in to Relief Society lessons on eternal marriage, the ward Valentine dance, the nursery, the temple, and a variety of testimony meetings. We say to our community: I belong here, today, right now, just as I am.
Perhaps in the hearts of all Saints, there are moments when we feel these labels do apply to us. It may not show in outward life situations, but is felt on the inside.
If you are one feeling labeled and un-fit, take some courage from those who shake off these labels often (even when our outward life situation shouts that the labels should stick). We can embrace those who are different and learn from each other’s experiences. The relationship may allow us all to know more confidently that we all belong.
Rich relationships can be found in many places
There are many bright and beautiful relationships that do not fit into the ideal familial template. Those in the margins form these relationships on a regular basis. We grow friendships and alliances with saints who are different from ourselves. We create our own kind of families out of necessity. Because of these relationships, we come to appreciate a variety of spiritual gifts – and see divinity in all God’s children. When we choose to love individuals that are not bound by familial ties, this choice deepens the relationship and the understanding. We open, we broaden, and we stretch. We see great value in God’s gifts and God’s people. Ultimately we find a deep, rich understanding of God.
Christ himself lived in this way – with open arms and an open heart. He reached out to the most marginalized and pulled them in. In His wake, “the blind did see, the lame did walk, the lepers were cleansed, the deaf did hear, the dead were raised, and to the poor, the gospel was preached.” (Luke 7:22)
Patience and Endurance
We all want to grow our Christ-like attributes. Some life situations lend themselves to growing certain attributes better than others. Those in the margins are uniquely positioned to practice patience and endurance.
“And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;” (2 Peter 1:6)
“I am mindful of you always in my prayers, … that He, through His infinite goodness and grace, will keep you through the endurance of faith on His name to the end.” (Moroni 8:3)
Patience and endurance are difficult virtues to learn in any circumstance, but Mormons, who love to “get things done” and work toward resolution, may find these virtues particularly exasperating.
Resolution is comfortable, but in seeking it, some may be tempted to force untidy situations into order. For example: telling a single woman like myself that “I’ll get married in the next life and it will all work out” may ease your discomfort in my untied ends, but does little to create a life for me here that is rich and enduring.
Marginalized lives do not always fit into easy patterns. This can be frustrating for us and for those around us, but through our experiences we grow proficient in patient listening for the voice of God – to guide and direct. We continue on, often for years and lifetimes, in situations that may be less than ideal – or viewed as less than ideal (or both). We learn to tolerate the discomfort that comes with uncertainty.
We bring these skills and insights to the table as we serve on church counsels, bear testimony, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.
Those who live in the margins are familiar with aloneness and loneliness. Alone often means – exposed, vulnerable, and naked. The prospect of being alone can be terrifying – for anyone – so we often flee. We hide behind words like “couple”, “spouse”, “children”, “grandparent”. Those in the margins have fewer places to hide.
So, we do what we must: we find courage and we learn to still our souls. We reach out to the Savior just as Alma did when he was confronted with his own nakedness. We don’t always do it well, but we practice and slowly learn, with the Savior’s help, to abide lonely, vulnerable spaces.
We come to know the Savior better – and allow His grace to work its way into our brokenness and sooth our fear. We learn that Jesus felt his own abundant loneliness, so He can respond to us with healing and omnipotent love. As we become sanctified, our loneliness becomes holy. And as we are healed, our soul becomes whole.
The temple endowment is a reflection of this process. We are alone as we make individual covenants with God (even if we are in a room full of people). Throughout the covenant process we are reconciling our vulnerability, our nakedness, and our dual nature – until we are finally made whole through Christ’s atonement. Only then do we enter the presence of God.
The Mormon Body of Christ needs holy, whole people – refined with loneliness – to teach by example that we all belong to God. We belong to God through our covenants and through Christ’s atoning claim on us. We also belong to each other.
“I exhort you … that ye deny not the gifts of God, for they are many. … And there are different ways that these gifts are administered; but it is the same God who worketh all in all.” (Moroni 10:8)
“There are a diversity of gifts, but the same Spirit. … The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every woman to profit withal. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-12)
We are all needed. Those who live in the margin do not fit the picture of an ideal family, but have valuable (even essential) lessons to teach the body of Christ.