This was my first time attending the Sunstone Symposium in person. I went up with my wife for Friday’s session. We plan to go to Friday’s session of FairMormon next week. Looking forward to that, as well.
We started out with Michael Marquardt’s presentation on Martin Harris. What a sweetheart. For someone I associated with anti-Mormon literature for many years, he sure is disarming. His presentation focused on Martin Harris’ later years, and I am more interested in the early years, but the presentation was very interesting.
Next, we went to Steven Fales on “Human Trafficking in Zion.” Steven shared his personal story of being a gay, young divorced father in New York City and getting caught up in the world of exchanging sexual favors for money. He shared a positive story of overcoming those demons and reconciliation with his family. I would have loved to hear that reconciliation coming within the church, but it seems breaking free from the church helped Steven on his journey. A good takeaway from the presentation is that if you want to help someone in that situation, help show them their dream. Everyone has a dream of what they want to do in life. Help remind them of their dream and that can provide the motivation to leave that dark world behind.
The next session we went to was by Stephen Carter and D. Jeff Burton “The Borderlands: Creating and LDS-compatible religious model for yourself.” I loved Stephen’s presentation. He shared how he maintains his intellectual integrity while attending and serving in the church despite having a different view on many doctrines and beliefs. In the Q&A, a sister asked how she could keep her temple recommend and answer the TR questions, especially sustaining the prophet. Stephen said in his answer, that to sustain doesn’t meant to always believe and do everything they say, it’s maintaining a creative relationship of tension with them (I didn’t say that exactly right—crap I should have taken better notes). He shared an example of when he was called as the Sunday School President. It took several weeks for it to happen, because he demanded having a female as one of the counselors, which the bishop kept rejecting. In the end, he refused to agree completely but acquiesced to go along with the bishop’s requirement. Our church is so much better for people like Stephen Carter.
After lunch was my favorite session, the “Why We Stay”. Sydnie Cazier Olsen told of the spiritual and practical benefits the church gives her as a mother and grandmother, despite crisis in faith she went through concerning some facts about Joseph Smith she learned. Bill Reel gave a tremendous speech, which was the highlight of my day. He eloquently expressed the benefits of Mormonism, despite coming from a belief system that fully understands all the “warts” of scriptural historicity and past and current prophets actions that are not easy to understand. Almost every sentence he spoke, I said YES, YES, YES. In the end, the church enables me to worship God and serve and be served by others in the Body of Christ, and strengthens family relationships. I hope there is video or audio of that talk we can get.
Jerri Harwell. Wow. I could listen to her all day. Hilarious and spiritual and insightful. She talked about how crushed she was as a young black convert and told by her bishop she couldn’t serve a mission, because she was black. But God gave her peace for it and made it up to her, and she has lived a fruitful and meaningful life within Mormonism. Eric Samuelsen acknowledged that the only reason he is Mormon is likely because he was born into it. But he stays because he is grateful for how the church has shaped him into who he is.
My wife really wanted to attend the session by Jennifer White and Natasha Helfer Parker on “Mormon Thinking Errors,” but it was too full and we were denied. The backup was Mark Thomas and Maxine Hanks on “The Throne Near Kolob: A Portrait of Power.” Mark Thomas is an accomplished scholar, but I have a hunch most people were there to hear Maxine, and her presentation was cut short due to time. Bummer. She shared some fascinating information and pictures about the ancient worship of the Divine Feminine, and how it crept into ancient Israel temple symbology and thus into the modern LDS church. Wife loved this part.
Next up was “The Transcendent Power of the Between” by Thomas McConkie and Gina Colvin. This was another highlight of the day. They both are very talented speakers, and from my situation of looking for resources to help me stay in the church, I appreciated their perspectives. My wife shares a family line with the McConkies, and I am a 6th generation Mormon, and we were both moved by a personal anecdote he shared when he finally was able to forgive the pain he had been angry at his parents and the church over. He saw this as generational pain that had swept across his parents and his grandparents before that. And he didn’t see his parents or even the modern church as the instigators but more as parts in a bigger play. And he saw himself and his generation as being able to heal this pain for future generations.
I snuck away during part of this to catch a glimpse of the modern “prophet” Denver Snuffer. He was making his case that Joseph Smith was the original prophet, but the true religion he created was not passed on to Brigham (or any other Mormon church) and thus didn’t exist today. (I guess until he started the Snufferite church?) For the 30 minutes I listened, there wasn’t anything he said where I disagreed. But the overall premise is something I’m very, very against. The fundamentalist concept the scriptures are perfect or that prior revelations were perfect, and in order to worship God correctly or restore religion correctly, we must adhere perfectly to that prior revelation. He says, Joseph did A and now we do B. I agree, and say, isn’t that great, we’re progressing forward. He says, let’s go back to A because it must be right, using scripture to prove his case. I don’t view scripture as God’s instructions to man, but as man’s story of he relates to God. We look for scripture for “truth” in the sense that we find spiritual value and a path to connect with God but not as “truth” in the sense that it is absolute truth giving us perfect and complete answers about the nature of God and his plan for us.
A brother at the end of Thomas and Gina’s presentation asked the question, how do we stay in the middle? How do we create communities in the middle? All I see is the polarization of both sides. McConkie gave some helpful advice, something like “if you need it and want it bad enough you will create those communities yourself. Good luck! I want to do it with you!” But some follow up comments, seemed to dismiss this brother’s intent a bit. Maybe I misunderstood it also, but this is what I heard. We have the LDS church experience, where doubters and middle grounders are afraid to speak up, for fear of becoming projects, losing their callings, being viewed as outcasts, or worse fear of church discipline. Then we have the Exmo community, which is thriving and welcoming and they understand all our concerns about the church, but they are out of the church. We’re not comfortable there.
It feels tough to be stuck in the middle. I hope some middle ground communities, FB groups, forums, conferences, meet ups, etc. I hope more of this can evolve. Based on the popularity of many of the “Why We Stay” type messages at Sunstone, I perceive there is a huge demand. I would love to see more of a movement this way. We’re edgy, we’re frustrated with some things, we may not believe like TBM’s, but we’re committed to the church. We love it. We’re not ashamed to admit it. We’re here for the duration.
In all, I loved my first Sunstone experience. I didn’t get any celebrity selfies with John Dehlin, Tyler Glenn, or Lindsay Hansen Park. But, I did meet a couple of my fb friends for the first time in person like Brian Whitney and Bill Reel, which was awesome. My wife loved it also. She is closer to a traditionally thinking LDS than I am, but she’s open minded enough after many years of us negotiating our faith journey together, that she is also interested in the topics and speakers. She was hoping to hear more of the “Why I Stay” kind of messages and the negative views towards Mormonism were difficult for her to hear, but she loved the day as much as I did.
I plan to take off next Friday again to attend a day of the FairMormon conference. The presentations will be a little different but should be just as fun. Stay tuned for that report.