Katie Langston has nearly completed her journey to becoming an ELCA pastor—but the path there was anything but linear. Her new book, Sealed: An Unexpected Journey Into the Heart of Grace (Thornbush Press, 2021), tells the story of her childhood and young adulthood in a devout Mormon family, and of her unexpected conversion to the Lutheran faith.
Living Lutheran spoke with Langston (who will graduate in December from Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.) about how her memoir deals with faith, mental health and ultimately—as so many Lutheran stories do—grace.
Living Lutheran: Could you tell us about Sealed?
Langston: I grew up in a conservative, almost quasi-fundamentalist Mormon home in Utah. This brought with it both gifts and pain: on the one hand, a sense of community and purpose; on the other, a lot of religious fear. As a child, I developed severe OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) with religious-related obsessions and compulsions—often called “scrupulosity”—though I didn’t have a diagnosis for it until much later.
By the time I was in my early 20s, I had accomplished all the major Mormon milestones—full-time, proselytizing mission; marriage in the Mormon temple; a baby on the way—but I was coming apart at the seams. Just when I reached a point so low that I wasn’t sure I wanted to live anymore, I had a profound experience with God’s grace that changed everything. I’m now finishing up my training to become a Lutheran pastor, a call that began with that first experience of grace. Sealed is about this journey and how God came and rescued me. It’s a meditation on faith, family, healing and belonging.
I had a profound experience with God’s grace that changed everything.
For many of our readers, the inner workings of Mormonism you describe will be new. What do you feel is most important for Lutherans to know about this religion?
Lutherans should know that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially known as Mormons, are kind, generous, good-hearted people who make good friends and amazing neighbors. Absolutely get to know any Mormons you have in your life! At the same time, keep in mind that many Mormon teachings and practices are distinct from orthodox Christianity in ways that are surprising.
If you end up talking with your Mormon friends about faith, understand that many words that sound familiar—“church,” “heavenly Father,” “Scripture,” etc.—have different meanings in Mormonism. Explore those differences with them. If you get a chance, talk with your Mormon friends about grace.
Mormonism is a high-demand religion that requires “worthiness” from its adherents in order to “qualify for” God’s blessings. From my experience, this makes many Mormons feel secretly anxious, ashamed and burned out. Show them the unconditional love of God. Share with them that we are free in Christ because of his worthiness, not ours. If you can talk deeply enough with a Mormon that they can hear you, that can feel like a cascade of cool relief for someone who has been trying to “be worthy” of God’s love.
What drew you to the Lutheran faith, and what is it that continues to compel you?
I found Lutheranism by accident. Several years ago, I was looking for a master’s degree program in theology and I stumbled upon Luther Seminary through a Google search. I was still a Mormon living in Utah, and I knew nothing about Lutheranism, but I applied anyway. Through my discernment process with Luther Seminary’s admissions department, I met some wonderful Lutheran people who encouraged me to explore the tradition further. Then, once I started taking classes, I couldn’t believe how much the theology resonated with me.
Martin Luther’s key insight, that we are justified by grace through faith, was so compelling to me. Plus, in Luther, I met a kindred spirit. He was also extremely scrupulous before he discovered the grace of Jesus. From then on, I was hooked.
I love so much about Lutheran theology: the emphasis on grace, the understanding that we are simultaneously sinners and saints, the embrace of paradox, the broadly ecumenical outlook, and on and on. After years of spiritual struggling, I am so deeply grateful to have found my theological home in this tradition.
What are your hopes for your readers?
Sealed is for wonderers, wanderers, skeptics and believers. It’s for anyone who’s had the feeling they don’t quite fit in. It’s for folks who have experienced the pain of leaving a religion or faith community, or who have experienced the excitement of joining a religion or faith community. It’s for people who are at odds with their family. It’s for survivors of spiritual abuse. It’s for mainstream Christians who want to understand Mormonism better, and for Mormons who want to understand mainstream Christianity better. It’s for readers who enjoy memoirs and spiritual writing.
Most of all, it’s for anyone who marvels at the miracle of grace and longs to see it whenever and however it shows up in the most unexpected of places.
It’s for anyone who marvels at the miracle of grace and longs to see it whenever and however it shows up in the most unexpected of places.
You received a mental health diagnosis that helped you move forward. What encouragement would you offer those facing their own struggles with mental health or religious trauma?
Many people struggle with mental health issues, whether it’s depression, anxiety, OCD [obsessive-compulsive behavior]—like me—or other concerns. I always try to keep in mind that my mental health challenges don’t have any bearing on my belovedness. I am loved perfectly by God, even when I’m feeling unlovable.
Seek professional help if you need it. I’m so grateful for my therapists and doctors who have helped me learn to manage my anxiety, work through my trauma and find the right medication to manage my condition well. One thing I’ve found that has really helped is to moderate my expectations. Even though my OCD is well managed, that doesn’t mean it never shows up. I still have hard days. I’ve learned to accept that as part of the process.
When my anxiety is bad, instead of resisting it or feeling as if I’ve failed somehow, I say to it, “Oh, hello, OCD, there you are again. I see you. You know, I’m busy working on some other things right now, but if you need to hang out for a while, that’s okay.” This lowers the stakes so that I don’t compound my anxiety with anxiety about my anxiety. Then I try to gently redirect my focus on more productive things. If that doesn’t work, I’ll do things that I know help: call my therapist, hang out with a friend, go for a walk. And sometimes I just have to call it a day. I don’t beat myself up. Managing a mental illness can be a long haul, and I know Jesus has given me all the grace I need and is with me in it.
Religious trauma can be so tricky, because spiritual abuse distorts not only our understanding of ourselves but of God, love, life and the entire universe. I always tell folks who are recovering from religious trauma to take it slow. Some are so hurt they don’t feel as if they can believe in God or join another community of faith; that’s okay. Faith itself is a gift of grace. Give yourself space to grieve, to heal. If you get to the point that you feel as if you can lament, tell God all about it. You’re allowed to yell at God, to voice your fears, frustrations and shame. Breathe deeply. Pay attention to your body. My experience is that God will come and find you at precisely the right time.