Atonement

The Atonement – It’s not your gift to give.

Before I joined the church twenty years ago, I would compare my life to a room with no windows. It lacked warmth and light. It was cold and hard, with very little room to breathe. Every once in a while, I could hear that there was more beyond the walls that trapped me, but I didn’t know how to find my way out.

I spent a lot of time in various other faiths, but I still couldn’t see my way clear.  Finding the gospel of Jesus Christ was like breathing air for the first time. The dark cloud that had loomed over me for the first 18 years of my life had suddenly lifted and I finally got to see the sun. I felt its warmth and light. Although I had found many faiths that had brought me much joy, this one was the game changer. Faith is something that looks and feels different to everyone, but for me…I had finally found the God that I wanted to believe in. The God that would let me love my family in this life and in the next one. The God that would give me a million chances to come back to him, even in death. The God that would want me to be with him forever, to whatever degree that I decided. The God that would send his son to save me, even from myself.

I was smitten. I fell so hard and so fast for this gospel. I couldn’t get enough of it. The bar had been set in my mind. I spent time with the missionaries as much as I could. I wanted to do everything they were doing. I read my scriptures several times a day, I was praying morning and night. I was serving and loving those around me. I loved everything about this gospel, and I craved more.

I had been a member of the church for less than two months when I decided with my bishop that I would move to Utah. I wanted to be with my people. I wanted to marry in my faith. I wanted the fairytale, and Christ’s atonement assured me that it was possible. I was changing every single thing about myself. I wanted to be the best for God that I could be. Now that I knew the plan, I wanted to LIVE the plan. Nothing was going to stop me.

I worked, saved and slaved for the money that I needed to move. I left everything I knew and loved to start a new life. I knew it would be hard, but I didn’t care. I had done hard my whole life. This time hard came with a new equation–it would eventually bear the fruit of a beautiful life.

When I drove through Parley’s canyon in May of 1995, it was late.  Out of nowhere, the darkness opened up, and I saw the entire Salt Lake Valley as is glistened through the night.  It was in awe of this beautiful place. I felt the Spirit so strong, like I had finally found my place in the world.  I was scared and excited about the life the I had chosen. I knew that if I was willing to do the work, the good Lord would bless me.

I couldn’t wait to go to church. I was on cloud nine, with a spring in my step. These are my people!! After living my whole life without any people, I was pretty excited that “my people” were everywhere I looked. This was AWESOME. I loved this church so much! Watching a small group of missionaries change the world one person at a time was so inspiring. Now I was in the Mormon Mecca!!! I couldn’t wait to see all good that could be done by a whole valley full of people. To get to be a part of that meant everything to me. After several months of church attendance and participation in all things “Mormon”, it started to feel a bit off.  It all looked the same, and sounded the same, but somehow, it didn’t feel the same. I wasn’t making the progress that I wanted to in being welcome in the lives of “my people”.   I chalked it up to me being new, and that it was going take some time to form new bonds. I could be patient, because these were the best people ever and they were worth the wait. So I waited. And waited. And waited.

Twenty years ago, this church was a lot different. The gospel was exactly the same, but the church culture could be a very unforgiving place. It still can be. People weren’t as open about sin and transgression. No one knew how to navigate that space successfully. There were a kind of unwritten rules back then. Part of those rules were that if you did sin, please keep it to yourself. Do the best you can to blend in and do what we do. There seemed to be a kind of undercurrent that if someone admitted anything out loud, a sin epidemic would break out. It was if to say that…..“we” don’t want to catch what “you” have.

This hasn’t proved to be a successful model. Not talking about sin doesn’t make it go away. It just makes the recovery lonely, sad and extremely difficult.

So picture me, two decades ago. A recent convert, yet still a young single mother in the church. Surrounded by a culture that was in love with the appearance of “all that was good” in the world. The optics for my own situation weren’t great to say the least. As the months and then years went on one thing became very clear, and it was that “I” wasn’t really one of “them”. This was typical in every religion I had been in. Where the “sinners” and the “saints” were constantly at odds with one another. It’s funny how you can go to any given religion and find the humans there screwing it up. The human factor is always the common denominator and great equalizer.  I am sure there are so many times that God looks down at all the things that are done in His name, shakes His head and says, “How could they get this so wrong?! Don’t you dare put my name on that!” Poor guy. I’m glad he sent His son to die for us before he watched what we would do with his work. He may have changed his mind.

I would liken my experience as a convert in the church to being a poor person looking into the Macy’s store window at Christmas time.  Sure I can go in, but there’s nothing in there that I can afford, and I’m too poor for anyone to be willing to wait on me. I constantly felt like I was the hired help at the country club. I could see all of these beautiful people with amazing lives, but I was never going to be offered a full membership. I was never going to be seen as worthy of this gift that I had been given. It was a very quick education after I took my blinders off. No matter how much I demanded of myself to see only the good in “my people”, so many of them refused to see the good in me.

People saw my “visible sin” and either treated me with pity or judgment. On the surface people were nice, but I it was rough breaking through the 2 attitudes.

Either “Awww… you poor thing, you’ve ruined your life.”  or

“You know you aren’t living right, don’t you?”

I didn’t need pity or judgement. I needed a friend. I was doing all of the things I was taught by the missionaries to do, but it wasn’t enough. It got to a point that with every introduction with church folks, I was name dropping the word “convert”, hoping that people would see that my mistakes had happened before I joined the church. That somehow knowing this fact would make my past transgressions acceptable in their eyes.

What hurt me the most, was that what some deemed as a “mistake” was actually a child. People confused the two all of the time, and it offended my heart.  My doing things in the wrong order, that was the sin.

My child is NOT nor has ever been, a mistake. He was NOT my badge of shame. He was the beauty that had come from the darkness. A tiny person, who gave me the motivation to do for him what I hadn’t been able to do for myself. I loved Anthony, even when I didn’t love me, and that love got me through a lot of rock bottoms. My love for him, kept me in the gospel. I didn’t stay in the church because of the members, I stayed in spite of them. I stayed because that’s where God was. I stayed because that’s where Jesus saved me every week. I stayed for Anthony. I wanted him to have the gift of the gospel, no matter how hard it was for me to be there sometimes. I cried a lot of Sundays.

So, I spent the first 17 years of my life in the church learning to love and accept people that wouldn’t love and accept me. It was rough. It was lonely. Any time I tried to bring my perspective or experience into a lesson, let’s just say it was frowned upon. It was about thirteen years ago, that I stopped sharing completely.

I will never forget it. It is burned in my mind forever. I was serving in the Young Women’s program. I was so thrilled to work with the youth, and I wanted them to know that I would be there for them. One of the leaders took the liberty of making sure they knew about my past.

She asked me, “So, how old is Anthony?” Familiar with this series of questions, I responded with his age. She then asked how long I had been married. I watched her do the math in her head, as I have so many others. 3..2…1. “AH HA! I knew you weren’t married when you had Anthony!” The girls looked at me, I looked at them. I gave the “I’m a convert” speech.
Walk of shame, again.

A few months into my calling, the lesson for that particular Sunday was a lesson about chastity. I was sitting with the Laurels. I listened for a good portion of the lesson. My heart was beating so fast, like God wanted me to say something. I kept dismissing the feeling, but I couldn’t any longer. I was scared, but I got brave enough to raise my hand and participate in the lesson. This was too important. There was too much at risk.

I started to speak, “Your chastity is like a rose, and that rose is a beautiful gift meant for one person. If you give that gift away prematurely…petals are lost. With that loss, our soul weeps. Outside the bonds of marriage, we aren’t emotionally ready for the connection that is meant to bring. Yes, we can be made whole through the atonement, it allows for healing and repentance to take place. However, I promise that you don’t want the regret that comes when the person that gift was meant for shows up in your life. Protect your rose. It’s sacred.”

Tears went down my face, wanting them to understand how important this lesson really was. These girls were smart. They knew I spoke from experience. Was it better to let them think, “What’s the big deal, she turned out just fine!” or for me to testify of the truthfulness of God’s order? That the plan is there to prevent pain and suffering. After the lesson, word spread quickly that I had broken the “code.” Flocks of women went to my bishop, asking for my release. I was pulled aside by the Young Women’s President, whom was one of the first people in the church I felt like was kind of a friend to me. She very bluntly told me, “Be careful what you say to the girls. We want them to be able to look up to you.”  Those words shot through my heart like an arrow. I felt so ashamed. I went home, sobbed and vowed to never open my mouth again.

Shortly after this happened, I wrote this in my journal on a day that was particularly hard –

January 10th, 2002

Sometimes, on Fast Sundays,  I picture myself walking up to the podium and just flat out saying, “Hey, brothers and sisters. My life’s been hell. I had no parents. The ones that were supposed to love me didn’t. I was homeless for almost 4 of my teenage years. I have been abused. I have been neglected. Yes, there a couple of things I did in the wrong order before I found the gospel.

I was desperately looking for love, and I hadn’t ever really felt it before. At 15, after being tossed aside by my family for my whole life, I just wanted to be wanted. What I experienced, wasn’t the love that God intended me to have. I know that now. Sometimes we aren’t born into families that give us a solid foundation, and we must seek it out on our own. I did. I’m here.

When I investigated this church all those years ago, I was taught about the Plan of Salvation. I was taught that I could be forgiven. I was taught that Christ could make me pure through the waters of baptism. I wanted that unspeakable gift. So I chose to be baptized.  As I exited that water on my baptism day, I remember the first words that were said to me by Elder Jensen. He said, “You are as pure as the day you were born.” I have cherished those words. It was the happiest day of my life. I was square with God. I could move on and do beautiful things. Everyone was so happy for me. I was happy for me. I was made anew.

What I wasn’t taught that day, but what I have painstakingly come to learn, is that there was a second forgiveness process that no one told me about. It’s been way more brutal. It’s the one where YOU forgive ME. Where you all finally stop making me feel those words spoken to me on my baptism day were a lie. I don’t feel pure. I feel stained with sin, because it’s all you see when you look at me. It seems no matter how cleanly I live my life, I will never be one of you. 

Each week, we sit in the same lessons. We pray to the same God. We are saved by the same Jesus. We eat the same living bread and water, but how are you cleansed and not I? The Atonement is not your gift to give, yet so often you hold it hostage from me.  Why? Why do you withhold my forgiveness from me? So long I have prayed for a forgiveness that shouldn’t be yours to own, yet I don’t know how to survive without it. Please… help me find my place with my people.”


Love,

Me”

During different seasons of my life, I come back to this one page. This one journal entry has been read time and time again. One day the words hit me like a ton of bricks.
The Atonement is not your gift to give.”  That is the day that I started to free myself from the shackles of this debt. That is when started to train myself to Believe Christ.

It was never their gift. It was HIS and HIS alone.

How could I have read this so many times and missed the most important words? I was suffering needlessly, feeling so unworthy of God’s love not because the atonement wasn’t real, it’s because so many people fail to recognize its power. They fail to believe what they preach. They fail to look at their brothers and sisters with charity and love. They fail to understand that the church is a school, and none of us are graduates. It’s a perpetual lesson. No calling or years of service puts you above the need for God or the need for the atonement. We are equals. Church culture can suffocate the purifying power of Christ’s sacrifice.

Sometimes, we conduct ourselves as if we are the guardians of atonement, and we deal out spiritual death and judgement. We just can’t go around saying… “Well, you made THIS mistake or you have THIS weakness, therefore, you are just not inner circle material.”  I have witnessed some withhold a calling because of worry how someone might look or fit the part. That’s a dangerous attitude. We let that way of thinking flourish, we are stunting the growth of our members, and by proxy stunting the growth of the gospel itself.

My friends, the Atonement is not your gift to give. It’s not my gift to give. We can not take the weaknesses of another and hold the atonement ransom. The only person that can give that gift is the man that died for it, Jesus Christ. We have no business judging our brothers and sisters as fit or unfit, for the atonement.

My key motivating factor for sharing part of my story in the movie, was to finally say out loud that LIFE IS MESSY! That we all fall short and that is ok. God doesn’t expect us to hide from him. Hiding sin is never going to be how we overcome it. When we show up to church, we must be able to take our sins with us and talk about them.  It is there we access help and forgiveness. One very beautiful thing about opening up and sharing, it is that you find so many struggle in the same way you do. I have found through literally thousands of conversations, so many feel the exact same way I describe above….unforgiven. I think of how many of us could be talking each Sunday, benefiting from the fellowship we have missed out on because we are afraid to be seen. As much as we can be hard on each other, I know God sees our potential.  He watches as each of us choose to get it right. So many of us do beautiful things to help our brother. I have witnessed those hearts open…and it such an incredible view.

I still go back to that journal entry I wrote so many years ago. It serves as my own reminder to FORGIVE and to LOVE. To stop being critical of my brothers and sisters, when I have so much work to do myself. To remind myself of how hard it is to show up to that building sometimes, longing for the acceptance and love we all so desperately need. I am NOT perfect at it, which is why I go back to those words so often. I never want to be the one that withholds that need to feel forgiven.

I know it’s not an easy process to become more open at church, but if we all get a little more brave as we go a long, it could be such a beautiful thing. May I gently suggest as you struggle to find your own voice, start with writing it down. You have no idea how much healing you can find when you put your words to paper. I figured out most my weakness and my power to overcome it, in the walls of my journal. I go back to it every time I need to find strength in a weak moment. I go back to it when I need to feel understood. Those words continue to strengthen and heal me.

I started this blog so I could tackle some of the deep rooted questions people write me routinely and answer them through what I like to call “love letters.” Through these letters, I share what I have learned about life. I share my experiences and how I got through things. I have always loved journaling. Mostly, I love having it there for my children, so that they can reflect on my words and stories when I am no longer hear to speak them. Just begin. My family enjoys apps like jrnl.com where they do all the work for you. There you can print book after book of your cherished word. Your words are a gift. Share them. It’s how you live on forever in the hearts of the people you love the most. Until next time friends…<3

Love,

Dawn

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10 comments

  1. Wonderful perspective, Dawn. Thank you so much. I found healing in your words.

  2. I appreciate the way you share your knowledge. Forgiveness can be unforgiving in this world. But with God, it’s complete. Thank you for teaching through your trials and getting past the shame society tries to tag on you. There is nothing shameful about you. You are a cherished light to many. Love ya dawn!

  3. As I read your post, I was overwhelmed with the spirit that flows through you. You are right. The Atonement is a gift that was given by Jesus Christ. It was given with but one condition, believe in Him and follow his teachings. It can never be given to anyone else or given back. It can only be rejected. Yet it will always be there for us. As you said, when we come out the waters of baptism all our sins are washed away. Moreover, when we are confirmed as members of the church and receive the Holy Ghost into our lives we are purified by His power. All that has happened before does not matter. To set conditions is wrong. If we keep holding what we did before we joined the Church as conditions for membership then none of us are qualified to be members. After all, there was only one perfect person that lived in this world, Jesus Christ. I thank you for your post.

  4. I read this, and I think, “Wow. I am so glad that my ward isn’t like that.” I, too, am a convert to this Gospel, but my conversion experience was much different. I was first introduced to the Church at eight, and I started regularly attending at nine. My fellow ward members were welcoming, and understanding that I just didn’t know. But occasionally, a few of my teachers would say something about “you’ve all made baptismal covenants,” and I would cringe. Because I wasn’t baptized. Sometimes I felt like the other kids would think of me, even if they weren’t looking at me. I was baptized at the age of fourteen, and I have become more converted than ever. Your experience has helped me to realize that I DON’T have to play the “convert card.” My sins have been forgiven. We all mess up, but that’s just part of being human. As soon as I read “if you did sin, please keep it to yourself” I thought: “That’s not right, we are taught that we must openly confess our sins.” This is sort of a rambling, but I don’t really care. What I mean to say is that people can learn a lot from this.

  5. My eyes are wet — I need to think before I write anymore.
    Okay — about 8 hours has passed since I wrote the above sentence.
    I too am a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints. My mother-in-law expressed concern more than once that her convert daughter-in-laws were at a disadvantage in being able to be appropriate wives to her sons and mothers to her grandchildren.
    I always felt “less” becasue of this attitude. Early in our marriage, we once played a game where you spun a spinner and then answered gospel related questions. I had the lowest score. It was pointed out that my score reflected my lack of knowledge. I then pointed out that I hadn’t missed a question while everyone else had…the spinner just wasn’t falling on higher point numbers for me. At that point, I decided doing the dishes was more fun than playing a game.
    But I know that my Heavenly Father was and is please with my decision to join the Church.
    The Gospel tells me that the Atonement covers our sins — at baptism we are washed clean and through repentance afterwards, we can remain right with the Lord. Not attending Primary and Young Women in my youth soon was quickly no disadvantage to me in my personal life or in teaching my children as I read the scriptures and studied the gospel for myself.
    It has been confirmed to me that I am a bridge to my living relatives and my ancestors. Many have chosen to be baptized since my own baptism.
    I am not less becasue I am a convert.
    In reality everyone of us should be a convert. We must study, gain a testimony and then choose for ourselves if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true. If we endure to the end, we are permitted to return to our Heavenly Home.
    To look down on someone for what they did before their baptism, is a form of pride. The Lord values and has use for all his faithful children.

  6. I came here by way of your post about homelessness. It took me a while to recognize you from the ‘Meet the Mormons’ movie, but I knew there was something familiar about you. Thank you so much for sharing your perspective. I have been so disheartened about the whole Draper Shelter thing… And reading the comments on your article in the Deseret News just made me even more upset… Then reading this – I had to read and reread several times what you had said to the YW – and I could not for the life of me understand the reactions of the members in your ward. I admire you you for staying put… I’m afraid my prejudice towards Utah and Utah Mormons has grown even stronger, and it makes me so sad… You see, I am a European member. Here in Norway, the church is a tiny minority – and we sometimes feel like ‘lesser members’ compared to Utah members. It can become tiring sometimes to always be defending a church culture that seems so dismissive, excluding and judgmental… However, I am becoming increasingly aware of the fact that I don’t need to! I don’t need to defend the church culture! I only need to defend the Gospel! I am the daughter of a single mother convert, I have a brother who is gay, and young adult children with tattoos. But I am happy to say that here in Norway, that is not an issue when it comes to being valued or appreciated in our church community. In our ward, the YW president is married to a non-member, in our stake, the YW presidency first councilor is a convert of 8 years, who was a single mother of two when she joined the church. And I could go on and on… Maybe it’s because there are so few of us, that we need to put every able-bodied member to good use? But mostly I believe that because so many of us are converts or just second generation members, there is less of a gap between church culture and the Gospel. I like to believe that the European saints simply ‘get’ the Atonement and the clean slate analogy to a larger degree… I may be completely off here, but still…I’m rambling. anyway… Thank you so much for sharing. This was wonderful.

  7. Thank you for who you are. I’m sad to hear about your childhood, but I am so grateful for the lessons you’ve learned and what you are teaching us. Thank you for doing so much to create a culture of love and welcoming. I am grateful for you and I am encouraged to open my mouth. I’ve always thought there are unwritten rules at church. Like, “Thou shalt not bear testimony or make comments when moving into a new ward for at least one month.” or “Thou shalt not bear testimony on the same week thou art teaching a lesson.” or “Thou shalt not comment more than twice in one lesson.” Maybe I’ve made those up in my head, but it’s what I feel. Thanks for your blog and your eloquence. You spirit shines so brightly!

    1. It sure feels that way sometimes doesn’t. Don’t ever shrink, love! You were born to RISE! It’s not up to you to halt your progress because of what others may think. So many times we say what others really need, and if we mute ourselves- we can’t help each other. I’m excited you found me – I love new friends!

  8. I love your words and your love for our Savior. I serve as an addiction recovery missionary under LDS family services and as a temple worker. I see miracles every day. Specifically I assist younger men struggling with pornography. Words cannot express the love I have for these men who come full of a Spirit of humility, often with head down and sometimes with tears. I see only greatness of Spirit in their hearts, which is what I felt as I read your words. I have a dear friend that returned from a mission early because of an unconfessed sin. He went through a painful process where he fully repented at great cost. I wrote to him for 6-months in prison. Oh, how slow the world is to forgive, when the Savior forgave him a long time ago. I am so grateful you shared your life. These men don’t need judgement either. They need to be encouraged in every good thing. Bless you!

    1. Oh my friend, you are doing the work of the Lord. Bless those beautiful and brilliant men, who loved God so much they long for change. Isn’t that the most beautiful thing ever?! If you ever want me to come and speak to these young men…let me know. Tell them that I love them, and that I am cheering for them. That they can do this. I believe in them with every fiber of my being. And bless you my brother…for your eyes that see the best in those that deserve it. They need your gentle heart!
      Love, Dawn

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