Hard Sayings and Safe Spaces: Making Room for Struggles as Well as Faith | Eric D. Huntsman
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Hard Sayings and Safe Spaces: Making Room for Struggles as Well as Faith | Eric D. Huntsman


Jesus ended His pivotal and heavily symbolic
discourse on the Bread of Life by declaring: Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,
and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood,
dwelleth in me, and I in him. The crowds who had followed Jesus since His
miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and the Jewish religious authorities who opposed Him were
not the only ones who failed to understand His meaning. Even many of His own disciples exclaimed: This is an hard saying; who can hear it? From that time many of his disciples went
back, and walked no more with him. Somewhat plaintively, Jesus turned to the
Twelve and asked, “Will ye also go away?” In response, Peter asked: Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words
of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art
that Christ, the Son of the living God. The expression a “hard saying” has become
a trope for any doctrine or practice that is difficult to understand, accept, or follow.2
Over the past few years, when I have asked my students what are hard sayings for them,
although they have mentioned faith issues and apparent historical problems, they have
increasingly spoken about life’s challenges—challenges that seem to call into question God’s love
for them or struggles that they often feel they must endure alone, without the love and
understanding of their fellow Saints. Such hard sayings include gender disparities,
sexual and other identities, and racial and ethnic discrimination. In addition, they include a challenge that
is common to almost all of us—the pain of loss and disappointment, whether that comes
from the death of a loved one; poor physical, mental, or emotional health; or lost dreams. These are challenges that do not go away easily. Rather, often they are struggles that we must
deal with throughout our lives. While ideally we would all, with Peter, simply
respond with seemingly immediate faith, the reality is as Moroni taught: “[We] receive
no witness until after the trial of [our] faith.” Just as Jacob wrestled with an angel till
dawn and Enos wrestled all night before the Lord, for many of us the trial of our faith
often includes long—sometimes lifelong—struggles. I submit that these struggles are necessary
to our progression, but they are not struggles that we should ever face alone. While it is true that Jesus Christ and His
Atonement provide us strength, healing, and salvation, in this life He often succors and
blesses us through others. Employing the image of the Church as “the
body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 12:27, Quaker missionary Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree
wrote: Remember Christ has no human body now upon
the earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours, my brothers and sisters, are the eyes
through which Christ’s compassion has to look upon the world, and yours are the lips
with which His love has to speak. This sentiment strongly supports the Church’s
renewed emphasis on ministering, which Elder Jeffrey R. Holland helped introduce by directly
connecting it with Jesus’s injunction to “love one another; as I have loved you.” The Book of Mormon teaches that the obligation
to love and serve one another is implicit in the covenants we make at baptism: we promise
“to bear one another’s burdens, . . . mourn with those that mourn; . . . and comfort those
that stand in need of comfort.” As part of her instruction regarding ministering,
President Jean B. Bingham of the general Relief Society noted that Jesus is the model for
ministering to the one: He . . . smiled at, talked with, walked with,
listened to, made time for, encouraged, taught, fed, and forgave. He served family and friends, neighbors and
strangers alike. . . . True ministering is accomplished one
by one with love as the motivation. As illustrated by His dialogue with the Samaritan
woman, Jesus’s love had no gender or ethnic bounds. The result of that encounter—one that flouted
so many of the time’s cultural expectations and constraints—was that an entire village
of Samaritans came to Christ, leading the villagers to declare that Jesus was not just
the Redeemer of Israel but “the Saviour of the world.” Jesus’s interactions were always tailored
to the understanding and needs of the individual. When Martha, grieving at the death of her
brother, expressed faith in the Resurrection, Jesus responded with testimony, declaring: I am the resurrection, and the life: he that
believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall
never die. Believest thou this? Martha responded, “Yea, Lord: I believe
that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world.” Conversely, when her sister Mary expressed
her grief through uncontrolled tears, Jesus simply wept with her, providing the perfect
example of mourning with those who mourn. Significantly, in Mark’s version of the
story of the rich young man, Jesus showed that His love was not curtailed when one was
unwilling or felt unable to follow Him. After the young man had expressed his prior
obedience to the commandments, the Marcan narrator simply noted, “Then Jesus beholding
him loved him.” While we have no idea what the young man’s
later choices—in this life or in the spirit world—might have been, we can be certain
that Jesus continued to love him. Only by learning to follow the Lord’s example
of testifying to, compassionately mourning with, and persistently loving people in a
variety of circumstances can we effectively minister to the one. As aspiring Christians but still imperfect
Saints, we may not always understand the struggles of others or know how to help. But we can always love them, creating safe
spaces where others—and often we ourselves—can struggle with the hard sayings in life. When I use the expression “safe spaces,”
I do not necessarily use it in the same sense as some in our broader society use it. Rather than alluding to trigger warnings,
the effects of micro­aggressions, or the need to shield ourselves from difficult language
and ideas, I am using it to refer to the creation of environments that are, on the one hand,
places of faith where we can seek and nurture testimony but that are also, on the other
hand, places where our sisters and brothers can safely question, seek understanding, and
share their pain. This requires flexibility and sensitivity
on our part; it requires that we listen as much as—or more than—we speak. Sociologist Charles Derber, for instance,
has warned of the danger of “conversational narcissism.” Sometimes we default to platitudes to avoid
uncomfortable situations when we do not know what to say. Or, in an attempt to find common ground, we
shift the conversation to our own experiences, rather than just listening or giving supportive
responses. Jesus’s example with Mary suggests just
the opposite. Even harder is overcoming our own implicit—and
often explicit—biases and prejudices. None­the­less, there is ample scriptural
precedent that God loves all of His children, and we need to have that same openness. Paul wrote: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither
bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. Likewise, Nephi declared: He inviteth them all to come unto him and
partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond
and free, male and female . . . ; and all are alike unto God. President M. Russell Ballard has taught: We need to embrace God’s children compassionately
and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, and nationalism. Let it be said that we truly believe the blessings
of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ are for every child of God. Without diluting the doctrine or compromising
the standards of the gospel, we must open our hearts wider, reach out farther, and love
more fully. By so doing, we can create more space for
love, testimony, mourning, and agency. We can then find not only peace but even joy
in the midst of the struggle. Tom Christofferson provided a powerful example
of how love created space for him in his lifelong wrestle with one of his own hard sayings. In his 2017 memoir “That We May Be One”:
A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family, he recounted his own journey with
homosexuality and the gospel. Although Brother Christofferson was careful
to underscore that his experience was his alone and might not apply to all LGBTQ+ Latter-day
Saints, his journey illustrated what a decisive role love can have as one makes hard decisions
about his or her life. A few years after he came out to his family
and after he had asked to be excommunicated, his mother explained to his brothers and their
wives: The only thing we can really be perfect at
is loving each other. . . . The most important lesson your children
will learn from how our family treats their Uncle Tom is that nothing they can ever do
will take them outside the circle of our family’s love. His family did not wait for him to return
to church before they could fully love him, and at a much later point in his life, an
inspired bishop and the Saints of New Canaan in Connecticut warmly accepted and supported
him, not imposing any prequalifications. While this love eventually helped Brother
Christofferson come back to full membership in the Church, it is clear that both his birth
and ward families would have continued to love and fellowship him regardless of what
choice he had made. We should never fear that we are compromising
when we make the choice to love. As Brother Christofferson noted: Accepting others does not mean that we condone,
agree with, or conform to their beliefs or choices, but simply that we allow the realities
of their lives to be ­different from our own. Whether those different realities mean that
they look, act, feel, or experience life differently than we do, the unchanging fact is that they
are children of loving Heavenly Parents and that the same Jesus suffered and died for
them and for us. For not just our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers
but for many people, the choice to love can literally make the difference between life
and death. Creating spaces in which testimony can give
strength and encouragement is another powerful way of ministering to the one. An example of such strength-inspiring testimony
is Mormon pioneer Jane Manning James, a sister of African descent. Not long after she heard Mormon elders preach
in 1842, she joined the Church. Like the Samaritan woman, she shared her witness
with her family. That same year she led eight of them on a
journey of more than 800 miles from Wilton, Connecticut, to Nauvoo, Illinois—much of
it by foot—in order to gather with the Latter-day Saints. She was in one of the first companies of pioneers
to enter the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and remained faithful throughout her life, even
though her husband later left her and she was denied the temple blessings she sought
during her mortal life, only being endowed by proxy in 1978. Along with Amanda and Samuel D. Chambers,
Elijah Abel, and Green Flake, Sister James—or “Aunt Jane”—was one of the early LDS
pioneers remembered at the Be One celebration on June 1, 2018, that commemorated the 1978
revelation on the priesthood. While the examples of these pioneers are inspiring
to all of us, their faithfulness has special meaning to our brothers and sisters of African
descent. Among this number are those who were members
of the event’s organizing committee—such as Darius Gray—who are pioneers themselves
and examples of faith and testimony. All of us need to cultivate testimonies of
our own, and when we struggle, sometimes we need to know that we are not alone. This is certainly true for the women of the
Church, many of whom desire female role models in addition to the often more talked about
male figures of scripture and history. Although I grew up in a family of strong,
talented, capable, and faithful women, I did not realize this was a need until I had a
heartrending experience with my only daughter, Rachel, when she was eleven or twelve. She was our only child for six years; she
was our baby girl and my princess. When she was in middle school, I used to drive
her to the bus stop each morning. Often, as we waited, we would do our scripture
reading together. One day we were reading one of those “problem”
passages written by Paul—either 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 or maybe 1 Timothy 2:11–12—when
she looked at me and asked, “Daddy, why doesn’t Heavenly Father like girls as much
as boys?” I do not even know why I was reading Paul
with a seventh grader—perhaps it is an occupational hazard of having a religion professor as a
dad! I could have tried a complicated exegesis,
speaking of textual history or dislocation or trying to explain the time-and-culture
specific problem of elite women in Corinth or Ephesus. But at that time all I could do was tearfully
testify to my daughter that I knew that Heavenly Father and Jesus loved her as much as they
loved me. In the years since, I have striven to give
my daughter and my students—male and female—models of powerful women of faith and ­testimony:
Old Testament prophetesses such as Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Huldah; New Testament
disciples such as Mary, the mother of our Lord, the other Marys, and Martha; and latter-day
women of Christ such as Emma Smith, Eliza R. Snow, and my own mother. In such an environment of testimony, Rachel
has grown into a woman of Christ. She is a senior at BYU, a student of the scriptures,
an ordinance worker in the Provo Temple, and one who is important as an individual—not
just as our daughter, a sister, or a future wife and mother. I am still learning that in addition to my
own testimony, I must find and share faithful witnesses of all sexes, tongues, peoples,
and life experiences. When Jesus wept with Mary, He gave her space
to share her pain and then extended true understanding. When people struggle with a hard saying, such
as our racial history, healing comes only when we listen and acknowledge what they feel. At the Be One celebration, President Dallin
H. Oaks acknowledged such past and current pain. He noted: Institutionally, the Church reacted swiftly
to the revelation on the priesthood. Ordinations and temple recommends came immediately. . . . In contrast, changes in the hearts and practices
of individual members did not come suddenly and universally. . . . Some, in their personal lives, continued
the attitudes of racism that have been painful to so many throughout the world, including
the past 40 years. Several years ago I became good friends with
two wonderful, energetic, and spirited women, Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes. Known as the “Sistas in Zion,” they are
African American LDS bloggers, whom I have often heard describe their experiences—good
and bad—as we have spoken together at events. I thought I understood and was sensitive to
those experiences, but in the weeks leading up to the Be One celebration, I was party
to discussions, online and in person, in which I saw their pain and the pain of their sisters
and brothers. There were discussions about the difference
between celebrating or commemorating the priesthood revelation. A terrible, fraudulent letter purporting to
be an apology for past racism reopened old wounds. There were even debates about cultural appropriation,
such as whether a white ally such as myself should even sing a traditional song of Negro
liberation. There were things I had not understood and
pain I had not felt, and I needed to resist the temptation to come up with answers or
defenses. Instead I just needed to sit with them, listen,
and try to understand. Similarly, this last year I had a student
who once tried to express herself in class. She did so awkwardly, trying to convey an
idea that another student quickly countered. Rather ineptly I tried to bridge the gap. Eager to move the lecture on, I fumbled to
close the conversation, which was, ironically, a discussion about hard sayings at the end
of John 6. Later that day I received an email from the
student, who explained her ongoing struggle with a mental illness. She shared a poem with me, some of the lines
of which speak tellingly of our need to listen and to try to understand the experiences of
someone who struggles: You say
I don’t love enough I don’t care enough
I’m not kind enough I’m not good enough But you don’t see
I’m frightened I’m scared
I’m broken I’m alone. When we are called upon to mourn with those
who mourn—even when they may not be struggling with an obvious hard saying such as race,
mental illness, gender, or sexuality—sometimes we simply need to sit with them to listen
and to love. Just as Jesus did not compel the rich young
man to follow Him and allowed those disciples who could not bear His teachings to depart,
we must make space for agency. Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, then a member of
the First Presidency, noted that today when people leave the Church, “sometimes we assume
it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple.” He continued: It may break our hearts when their journey
takes them away from the Church . . . , but we honor their right to worship Almighty God
according to the dictates of their own conscience, just as we claim that privilege for ourselves. We have been commanded to love our neighbors
as ourselves, and when it comes to neighbors, there are no outsiders. Perhaps even more important, even when our
fellow Saints find themselves outside of formal church fellowship or membership, they should
never find themselves outside of the fellowship of our friendship and the circle of our love. This point was underscored to me in late June
when I was on tour with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. On tour we regularly have singers from local
groups join us for our sound check the afternoon before a concert. In Mountainview, California, the local singers
were members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, who came in their purple T-shirts
and were received kindly and without judgment into the choir stands. Their director, Dr. Tim Seelig, was warmly
welcomed by Elder Donald L. Hallstrom, a General Authority Seventy, and by our choir leadership,
and that evening he conducted the encore at the end of our concert. Our guests included people who may never become
members of the Church—and a few who used to be members—but together we enjoyed our
common humanity and a shared love of music. As positive as that experience was, for one
of my friends it was difficult. With his permission, I share part of his story. Alex is a member of the Church, a singer in
the choir, someone committed to keeping his covenants, and gay. But as we were building bridges, he felt,
in his terms, “like he was still under a rock.” His continued choice to stay in the Church
comes at the cost of constant struggle, frequent pain, and considerable loneliness. We sat together for the better part of an
hour, during which time he, like Martha, expressed testimony but, like Mary, mourned. President Ballard has taught: We need to listen to and understand what our
LGBT brothers and sisters are feeling and experiencing. Certainly we must do better than we have done
in the past so that all members feel they have a spiritual home where their brothers
and sisters love them and where they have a place to worship and serve the Lord. The Psalmist proclaimed, “Weeping may endure
for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Each of us has nights—and days—of weeping
in this life. We all experience loss and pain in its various
forms. Almost all of us have lost a loved one; many
of us have lost dreams and hopes. All of us are at risk of losing health or
ability. Yet even in our loss we can experience peace
and joy. We are promised “peace in this world”
as well as “eternal life in the world to come.” Christ came that we may “have life”—and
“have it more abundantly.” I have written and spoken elsewhere about
the greatest loss and heartache of my life, the autism diagnosis of our only son, Samuel. Although he was not formally diagnosed until
he was four, he had clear developmental delays and challenges with emotional self-regulation
from the time he was a baby. Still we were frantic when he soon began to
regress: he stopped smiling, would not let us hold him, and began to lose some of the
little language that he had had. On the day he was finally diagnosed, the child
we thought we would have and the dreams we had for him died. Still, with early intervention, the help of
trained specialists, and lots of prayer and inspiration, we have seen miracles small and
great. We taught him to smile again, and he learned
how to receive our love and better express his own. In March 2015 I ordained him as a deacon,
and he now faithfully passes the sacrament each week. This last year, with the help of his dedicated
aide, Kelly Snelson, he successfully completed his freshman year of high school. While our worries for the future remain, with
love, testimony, and support in our heartache, we have much room for joy. The Psalmist also wrote, “This is the day
which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” I witnessed and experienced this kind of joy
at the Be One celebration. After chronicling so much struggle and faith,
that event featured joyful songs by a multicultural choir led by Sister Gladys Knight. Over the last fifteen years, as a member of
the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, I have had many opportunities to sing at Church events in
the Salt Lake Tabernacle and the LDS Conference Center. But I have never felt so much a part of a
worldwide church as I did that night as Saints—black, Hispanic, white, Polynesian, and Asian—joined
their voices together in praise of God. I hope you feel this same joy as we watch
that choir worshipping God through song. This is the day that the Lord has made;
We will rejoice and be glad in it. We lift our voices in higher praise;
We sing glory, sing glory to God. We sing glory, sing glory to God. Hallelujah, we sing the highest praise;
Lord, you’re worthy and we praise your name; From the rising of your Son,
He’s the only one That can save us all from sin,
If we let him in. We sing glory, sing glory to God. We sing glory, we sing glory,
We sing glory, glory unto God! Before we reach such mornings of rejoicing,
we must help each other through nights of struggle. We need to love one another as Jesus loves
us! Without diluting the doctrine or compromising
our standards, we must open our hearts wider, reach out farther, and love more loudly. We must make space for struggle and faith
as we await the final victory, which is assured if we come to Jesus Christ. To every thing there is a season, and a time
to every purpose under the heaven: A time to talk, a time to listen
A time to act, a time to sit A time to testify, a time to weep
A time to embrace, and a time to let go A time to encourage, and a time to accept. This is the Church of Jesus Christ. I love the wonderful diversity of the mosaic
that is the body of Christ, each beautiful piece reflecting the glorious light of God’s
love. As we all wrestle together, may we truly make
our families and friendships, our neighborhoods and wards, and our classrooms and offices
spaces for love, spaces for testimony, spaces for mourning and understanding, spaces for
agency, and spaces for joy. Thanks be to God, who has given us this victory
in Jesus Christ, our Lord. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

About James Carlton

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2 thoughts on “Hard Sayings and Safe Spaces: Making Room for Struggles as Well as Faith | Eric D. Huntsman

  1. I hear his words, but more importantly, I feel the sincere and genuine care and concern in his voice. What a great speech!

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