Time Deserts

You know those times in your life when you're basically free falling through your problems, and the only control you feel like you have is trying not to collide into too many passing objects? Sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn't? I've felt that way for a long time.

I'm trying to make my way towards wellness because I can feel the sum total of stress and mental illness robbing me of my precious time that I will never get back.

I'm unwell because it's so hard to take care of myself. But because I'm not taking care of myself, I can't get well. It's a cycle I've lived with it for so long. But it's different now because I now have even more people I take care of who depend on me.

I've gotten really good at positive self talk, which has been really helpful. I can find success in the most seemingly inconsequential moments of living. And it is making all the difference in feeling like I'm regaining some control.

Much of how I feel has come through the gradual erosion of my choices, until finally I felt powerless and overwhelmed by everything I couldn't change about my own life. Like all my choices were taken away from me. But I don't have to go on believing that. Throughout my day are moments I didn't choose and can't control. I can't do anything to change them. But surrounding those moments is always time that I can choose what to do with. That time still belongs to me, and I can decide how to use it.

I have enough appointments and daily/weekly tasks that every day feels overwhelming. I've been avoiding calendaring/scheduling it out because I am afraid of what seeing it all spelled out on paper is going to do to me. I'm realizing living that way is making it worse, not better.

I'm missing opportunities to accomplish what matters to me because I treat myself like an endless supply of time and resources that are available to anyone at any time. Nothing that matters to me is ever important enough to take my time away from someone else. The thing I've been avoiding is exactly what I need. If I'm not scheduling the things I wish I didn't have to do, I'm never going to make time for myself and my goals. It just won't happen.

If I want my life to be different, I need to see and treat myself differently. I can't change my circumstances. But I can change how I respond to them. And I need to believe I'm important enough to do that. Because nothing is ever going to get better in my head if I don't.

Esteemed as Dross: A Meditation on Injustice from Alma 32

Alma 32 is the reason I got baptized. It was part of my Come to Jesus, burning bush, ask and ye shall receive, if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God moment. It was my first meaningful experience with the Book of Mormon. An answer to prayer.

Relevant to this is how uncomfortable I've felt at church recently. I don't feel heard or recognized, and that bothers me. But I'm also aware that people of color and LGBTQ+ communities have had it so much worse. I'm at my wit's end with marginalization. And once again, this chapter has been an answer to my prayers. It provides so much clarity into behavior I can't accept anymore, the pressure to be sensitive to the insensitive. It gives language to what I find so abhorrent, which up until now I haven't been able to express.

The background to this chapter is Alma, the prophet, is approaching a multitude of men, women, and children who have been excluded from religious fellowship because of their poverty. The record makes clear in verse 5 that the priests, analogous for bishops today, were especially guilty of perpetuating this exclusion from the synagogues. It was both a failure of policy in the local leadership, as well as social exclusion by lay members of the church.

"They were not permitted to enter into their synagogues to worship God, being esteemed as filthiness; therefore they were poor; yea, they were esteemed by their brethren as dross." Alma 32:3

Here we see the dehumanization upon which these policies and practices of exclusion rest: the reduction of the divine nature of another human being as "filthiness," their standing in the church reduced to "dross," the waste product discarded during the purification of metals. In the vision of these church leaders of a "holy" and "clean" society, there was no room for the poor and disadvantaged. They were seen as expendable to that vision, collateral damage in the fight against all that was "unpure."

I'm not talking about the formal disciplinary processes of being disfellowshipped or excommunicated, although these are also relevant. Neither of those is a reason to ever remove someone from the Church. (See 3 Nephi 18:22-34 and 2 Nephi 26:23-33) I'm talking about making someone's presence at church so unbearable, through bullying and ostracizing, that it literally chases someone away from even attending church anymore. I'm talking about bishops and bishoprics "inviting" someone who is LGBTQ+ not to attend a congregation anymore because their presence there is making other people "uncomfortable."

I've spoken to people who've had these experiences. I believe them. It shouldn't happen. But it does.

Alma is speaking to people who have been dehumanized by church leaders, who benefit from their labor, subjugation, and systematic oppression. And he speaks to that experience directly in a sermon I've never fully appreciated until today.

It would be easy to confound Alma's language of "it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues" with praise for the oppressors who did this to them. That is not the message here. He is praising their faithfulness in God in the face of this injustice. He separates their divine worth from their mortal conditions, teaching them to view their present state with an eternal perspective. God is not responsible for what happened to them, but he will help them to overcome it. He is trying, with what language he has, to find meaning in what would otherwise be meaningless violence against them.

He also shows them how God honors suffering and sacrifice, in beatitudes and promises for them specifically:Verse 12 uses the word "necessary" for this experience they're having, "necessary that ye should learn wisdom." That wisdom encompasses a lot which he doesn't mention by name, but includes of course the recognition of hypocrisy in leadership.
He praises them for their humility repeatedly. There is no other group of people in scripture who are praised this much for being humble. It says something about the souls to whom Alma was sent.

And rather than minimizing the relevance of their poverty to their present circumstances to make the church look better, Alma speaks in honesty to how they've been treated. He doesn't try to manipulate their narrative in order to give glib responses to their struggles. Poverty is undesirable for many reasons. But it is defined by the erosion of choice. Their ability to shape their own lives has been taken from them by those who rely upon/benefit most from their systemic oppression.

Alma presents the gospel of Jesus Christ in its most fundamental terms: a choice to elevate themselves, regardless of their earthly circumstances. Distinct from the prosperity gospel, he doesn't promise them money. He promises salvation: the ability to transcend their mortal condition. He promises them freedom, esteem, and equality in the presence of God. It's a choice that costs nothing, and exists independent of the conditions imposed upon them by anyone else. For once, they got to feel the dignity of people who choose the outcomes of their own lives. That's what the gospel of Jesus Christ represented to these people. A choice no one could take away from them.

Without choice, there can be no Dignity

For that reason, Alma makes a necessary observation about compulsion. It is not the mode by which God operates. Faith, not compulsion, is what he desires from his children. And no amount of certainty can cover that compulsion, wherever it exists. Much of how we treat LGBTQ+ members depends upon compulsion: compulsion that they should be celibate before they can join with us. Compulsion to comply with the narratives straight Mormon leadership create for them. Compulsion to act exactly how the church wants them to act, or to risk being removed from their families eternally. Compulsion to choose between their identities as children of God and who they can be in their healthiest, happiest state.

I've heard many times that certainty is the opposite of faith. But I disagree. Faith and knowledge must coexist together as separate stages in the process of learning, as outlined in this chapter. What I learned this morning is the opposite of faith is compulsion, for these two states cannot coexist together. In every way the church or its people rely upon compulsion to dehumanize and ostracize anyone, God will hold us accountable.

Why? Because when we challenge and remove anyone's choice to be themselves, we erode at that person's dignity. That is not what God asked us to do. And he doesn't sanction us when we try to respond to any problem that way. 

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