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The Atonement—It’s Not Your Gift to Give

Before I joined the church 20 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 tried various other faiths, and I still couldn’t see my way clear. Finding the restored 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.

After what felt like forever, 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. 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 at night. Out of nowhere, the darkness opened up and I saw the entire Salt Lake Valley as is glistened through the night. I 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,” things started to feel 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 in being welcome in the lives of “my people.” I chalked it up to me being new and that it was going to 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 so to speak. 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 something out loud, a sin epidemic would break out. As if to say “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.”

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 two attitudes.

“Awww… you poor thing, you’ve ruined your life,” they'd say, or “You know you aren’t living right, don’t you?”

I didn’t need pity or judgment. 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 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 13 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. Three...Two…One. “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. Our soul weeps. Outside the bonds of marriage, we aren’t emotionally ready for the emotional 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, who 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 four of my teenage years. I have been abused. I have been neglected. Yes, there are 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 I 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 the Atonement, and we deal out spiritual death and judgment. We 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 about how someone might look or fit the part. That’s a dangerous attitude. When 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 Meet the Mormons was to finally say out loud that LIFE IS MESSY! 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 is that you find so many struggling 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.

Well, 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 along, 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.

A few weeks ago I started a blog called lovedawn.com 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.

Love,

Dawn

Image from Getty Images