A Halfway Sermon

Monday, June 28, 2021

Elise: Friends, today we have something a little different for you. Channing has prepared a short sermon about her experience reading the Doctrine and Covenants so far this year.

Channing: Friends, we know this podcast focuses largely on feminist interpretation of the scriptures, and we expected this week to be no different. 

I cannot be anything other than what I am, and I cannot show up to this space with anything more than what I have. Today, I do not have a feminist interpretation to offer you from my intellect. Today, I only have what my heart is holding. My heart holds grief. It holds the pain of erasure and the hurt of abandonment, but it is also holding so much humility. So from this space, I offer you not an interpretation of concepts, ideas, or definitions, but an interpretation through the lens of lived experience. 

After our Christmas break, we returned to the podcast to grapple with the Doctrine and Covenants. We have always been truthful and forthcoming about our trepidation toward this section of scripture. In the six months we have spent in the text, we have found some incredible pieces of history and theology that have allowed a loving experience of God to shine through. The focus on the law of consecration has been illuminating and empowering. We’ve learned challenging, real life perspectives from Lucy Harris and Ezra Booth. We’ve encountered the early saints and the early church as they struggle to grow and create a Zion-like community that provides comfort, safety, and rest for all, and not only that, but we get to see the vulnerability and the growing pains experienced during this time. This is a gift, and not one taken lightly.

But amid all of the wonderful things we read and learn from the Doctrine and Covenants, I have also become acutely aware of my absence  from the text. I mean this idea, the absence of myself, in two ways, both equal in weight and in ache.

The first explanation I have must be told clearly and truthfully before I can say anything else. It is a unique kind of challenge and a unique kind of pain to read the Doctrine and Covenants as a woman. I suspected this would be the case early on, knowing what is waiting for us later in the text regarding polygamy. I knew it would be difficult, like it was in the Book of Mormon, to find named women within the text. I knew it would require extra effort to track down women’s stories from historical texts. What I did not know was that this process would be so incredibly painful for me.

It has been my experience that the Doctrine and Covenants is a text that, more so than any other portion of scripture, was not meant for women. And by that I mean, it was not written by women, it does not give weight to women’s experiences, it does not use language that is relevant to me as a woman, it does not answer questions from women, but instead dictates to and talks at and down to them, and at times, objectifies them. It is a unique kind of challenge and a unique kind of pain for a woman to enter into a study of a text that by and large excludes her, that is absent of her presence, let alone attempt a feminist interpretation of it.

It should not be so difficult to find myself in the text. I am exhausted from the requirement to work so hard to find myself there. A man could open this book and find a portion of himself reflected back to him by the language, pronouns, and characters both mortal and divine contained in the sections. But a woman’s best chance at reading the text is, to borrow the words of Paul,  by looking through a glass darkly, a looking glass or mirror which is clouded by millenia of faulty, earth, body, and woman-denying philosophy and theology and its consequential erasure and oppression of women. What appears in the reflection is miscolored, overlaid, and fuzzy, with indiscriminate shapes that look more like an inkblot than the clear and perfect reflection one is promised when entering the text.

It is like looking into a void. It is staring into the mists of time, hoping to see something to tie myself to, a thread of hope that I have a place in this church, and waiting and waiting and waiting for a hint of validation or approval or acceptance or recognition to arrive. And when it does, it passes through me as if I am a ghost, invisible. I find myself lost here in the Doctrine and Covenants. What does one do when they are lost in sacred text - truly lost? What does one do when they cannot find God in holy writ? I am looking where I was told to look. I am doing what I was told to do. And yet I find myself spinning spinning, like a dervish without his delight, walking walking lost, like a brand new deacon passing the sacrament tray with no bread upon it. 

And it is in this loss of myself within these swirling words of Zion, of priesthood, of mission and calling and proclamation and judgement and vineyard and labor and Joseph and Sidney and Ezra and Newel and Orson and Lyman and Samuel and Simeon and Sylvester and Daniel and Micah and Gideon and Stephen, that I find myself stumbling through Doctrine and Covenants and trying to find diamonds to give you. But all I can offer you today is what I hoped to receive from the text and have yet to find: validation. Recognition. Acceptance. 

If you are struggling to find yourself in your identity as a woman in the Doctrine and Covenants, I am here to tell you, me too. If you feel inadequate at doing scripture or at doing faithful feminism because the Doctrine and Covenants hurts to read, I’m here to tell you, me too. If you’re feeling tired from having to do the mental gymnastics to create space for yourself in a text and in an institution that actively excludes you, you are not making up your exhaustion and you are not alone in it. 

The mere fact that a podcast that focuses on feminist interpretation of scripture even exists alludes to a huge problem, not with women, but with the text itself. There is no “masculinist” interpretation of the text because that would be both ridiculous and unnecessary.  The text is already written by men for men. 

The truth at the heart of the matter is that women are at the very core of what we understand to be holy and sacred, and to deny them access to this knowledge and experience by active or passive erasure is a sin. I often find that when I think of saving seat at church, I feel I have to make a place rather than arrive to one to rest in. I cannot believe this is what church is intended to be.

Finally, I want to talk about the second absence of myself, the absence not in my identity as a woman, but as me, Channing, detached from my own experience of the text. I have been thinking a lot about something I said on an episode earlier this month. In the episode we hosted At Last She Said It on, in a moment of frustration and exasperation at finding yet another voice of Angry God in DC, I said something along the lines of “Maybe God is hangry. Maybe God needs a popsicle or a granola bar.” And without allowing my intention and impact of those words to sink in, I laughed like it was a good joke. But in the time since, I have held those words again, this time as a mirror, reflecting back to me what I did not acknowledge at the time.

I have realized since that for a long time, I have been engaging with the text and with the church as an intellectual exercise and not practicing the embodiment and acceptance I preach so fluently here on the podcast. I have done this to the extent that now God has become an intellectual exercise for me as well. This realization comes to me with great horror and great humility, because it is accompanied by the acceptance of the fact that I feel it is easier to pretend that a God does not exist than it is to accept that a God is real and doesn’t care about me. And so I have, for the better part of a year, approached the text, faith, the church, and God with a sense of cynicism and contempt. It took an offhand comment about popsicles and granola bars for me to realize that I feel so alone and so abandoned in my spiritual experience as a woman in the LDS church that it is more tenable for me to provoke and disrespect Deity in such a way than it is for me to endure the erasure and disconnect I come up against at church. And however tied up in my own personal trauma that may be, it also overlaps in not so insignificant ways with the way women are viewed and not viewed, treated and not treated, in the church of my origin and heritage. I do not think myself a Godless woman; I think myself a woman without a god. I am in the spiritual space where I am longing, aching for a place to rest in the gentle hands of the Divine and am struggling to find it, especially when I am looking in the exact place I was told I’d find it.

I share this with you because I strongly feel that this too is part of the feminist experience of scripture. Erasure has real consequences, and it is a sign of hubris or ignorance to think that women can engage with sacred Christian text and not be left scarred by it. We like to pretend that scripture provides all the answers. But in my experience, I have more often walked away from the text with questions. And this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is not the rest, peace, and comfort that we preach it to be. And secondly, I think this illustrates well that scriptures and God and religion - whatever those things may be to you, or me - are not intellectual stimulation. They are meant to be experienced, carried out into the world with our hands and eyes and ears. They are meant to be embodied. And I think for me, this is a turning point. I am reaching a point in my spirituality where I am tired enough to try something new. And so, in the coming weeks and months, I hope to bring new eyes and ears and hands to the text with a renewed lens of embodied, present interpretation of the sacred - textual or otherwise.

And finally, this brings me to the next portion of embodiment: and that is sisterhood. It is being in the presence of other women that is a huge part of feminist interpretation. We are saving you a seat on the soft chairs. This is not a nice sentiment we begin the podcast with because it sounds pretty and welcoming. Saving you a seat is at the very heart of what we do. We save you a seat because we know what it is to have none. We sit beside you because we know what it is to feel alone. We reserve those seats, keep them, guard them, not because everyone knows the soft chairs are valuable real estate in any LDS chapel, but because the people that sit within them - you, me, us - we are sacred and holy and worthy of acceptance and belonging. We need each other because we are all we have. With so few canonized women’s voices within the church, within the text, within our cosmology, oftentimes the only validation we receive as women of the church comes from the sisters sitting next to us. Speak up. Reach out. Hold a hand. Be brave. Show yourself. Show up. There are women in your ward, your family, your circles who feel as alone as you do. Lets commit to finding each other.
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