These are interesting times to belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Untold thousands of faithful, believing members are now becoming disillusioned with Church leadership. This disconnect between the membership and those at the top is fueled by the growing observation that the teachings of Christ are not always reflected in the words and actions of some who purport to be His representatives.
Recently, on a Mormon-themed Facebook page, a frustrated member gave voice to her concerns, and the response was nothing short of phenomenal. If a cheering standing ovation could be translated to the printed word, that would be the best way to describe the reaction of those who read her remarkable words. Her essay has already been shared far and wide, because her concerns are the concerns of many other devoted latter-day Saints who see their Church being virtually stolen out from under them; transformed into something alarmingly different than it was in the beginning -indeed, different even than in recent memory. The author has graciously permitted me to share her words here, so I present them now as this month's Guest Post.
As I and others have discovered, some in leadership positions within the modern LDS Church have not reacted kindly to those lowly members who have drawn attention to the dichotomy between the Church today and the one founded through Joseph Smith. Since not everyone is in a position to endure the very real persecution that can result when reporting reality within this community, I am omitting the real name of the author and just calling her "Cate." I look forward to reading your reactions in the comment section below. -Rock Waterman
Last April 5th, I gathered around the television with my family to watch General Conference. As active, temple recommend holding members of the church, it’s what we do every April and October. It’s not just a weekend off for me. I’ve actually had a love affair with General Conference since I was a child sitting in a darkened chapel, taking copious notes in spiral bound notebooks I could barely see to write on. The outpouring of powerful emotions and positive messages filled me with a special kind of pride in belonging to the church. My church.
It’s been years since I had to drive across town and spend two solid days in “Sunday clothes” to enjoy conference weekend. With the decades have come the wisdom that every talk isn’t meant for me, that every speaker won’t speak to the particulars of my place along the path of life, and that some Church leaders will misspeak to the degree that talks have to be edited after delivery prior to being printed in Church magazines. Some talks have even been rerecorded, the modified audiovisual presentations supplanting the original. For the most part, I’m just fine with that. The general leadership of the Church, for all the adulation they receive from adoring church members, are fallible human beings. I don’t expect their talks to be perfect.
But I also don’t expect their talks to be dripping with sarcasm and condescension; nor do I expect, with all the very real issues plaguing humanity, for them to target men of straw. Sadly that’s what I heard this past April 5th.
To put it mildly, I was disappointed by Elder Holland's talk, "The Cost – and Blessings – of Discipleship". As I listened to Elder Holland, normally a conference favorite, I was taken by how angry and sarcastic his tone was. I was saddened by how targeted his words seemed at certain groups within the church who are grappling with tough issues. Loaded words like "advocacy," "patriarchal," "provincial," and "bigoted" sprinkled throughout the talk seemed to point squarely at families who lobby for civil rights for their gay children, women who struggle with the hierarchical inequity in Church structure, and people like me, who see love -known in the scriptures as charity- as a divine power which never faileth.
Elder Holland came across as angry and condescending. Part of my takeaway, I'm sure, results from the fact that I've dealt with an increasing number of church members recently who take my pleas for tolerance and compassion as "condoning sin" rather than an invitation to win through charity rather than compulsion.
As I listened to Elder Holland, I had the sinking feeling that his words would catalyze the most judgmental voices in the church, promoting a spirit of division and justifying intolerance. This intuition has been validated numerous times in the two months since the conference, both in church classes and online, as I’ve heard church members define faithfulness to God not in terms of what we stand for, but primarily in terms of what we stand against. President Uchtdorf’s big tent vision, which allows for imperfect members who grapple with complex issues, was instantly replaced with a dogmatic return to lockstep religiosity.
As I write this, I am aware that Elder Holland may not have meant his talk for me. He may have intended to condemn “the world” using the popular ‘us vs. them’ paradigm promulgated by religious leaders ad infinitum. The problem is that when you paint stark black and white lines like he did, those of us who have fought our way through life’s gray are going to feel the brush strokes.
Contrary to cultural mythos, it’s not because we are guilty and hate hard truths. It’s because, as was the case with Job, we’ve lived lives of hard truth and we’ve experienced the complexities of mortality firsthand. We’ve seen beneath the superficial skin of simple dichotomies and have felt the blood of our belief pour from us like water from a sword pierced side. In those forsaken moments, we found God, not a comfortable hand-drawn caricature designed to make us feel superior to others, but a fierce and loving God who demands every last shred of who we are until we are left with no alternative than to cry out “It is finished.”
There is a cost of discipleship. I know it. I’ve paid it. I pay it every single day. And having traversed my own wine press, however incomparable to that of my exemplar, I found a God who was radically more interested in my ability to love my neighbor in spite of his or her fallen state than to draw lines which exclude. I found a God whose love is transformative and whose love, when manifest through me, is a corrective force needing little, if any, accompanying condemnation. Precisely because I found that God, I found Elder Holland’s words a harsh and demoralizing oversimplification of what I and so many others have experienced:
"Sadly enough, my young friends, it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.
"Talk about man creating God in his own image! Sometimes—and this seems the greatest irony of all—these folks invoke the name of Jesus as one who was this kind of 'comfortable' God. Really? It was He who said not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them. And if we do think about breaking them, we have already broken them in our heart. Does that sound like 'comfortable' doctrine, easy on the ear and popular down at the village love-in?"As I heard these words, intoned with such condescension, I was left to wonder, "Who are these people Elder Holland is referring to?" I don't know them. I see people around me who are desperate to make this world a better place, myself included. People who refuse to hate others for their sins, often in contrast to the examples they have seen in the church.
I see people who want to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned with more than a plate of cookies and a warm casserole, all while their Church leaders pray over the opening of law offices, dedicate banks, build shopping malls, cater to wealthy elk hunters, and buy up the state of Florida. I see good people frustrated with being called to repentance by an institution which acts in ways that are sometimes baffling when compared to the words and life of Christ. I see a corporation that has built up a culture through correlated texts and copyrighted media which prioritizes unthinking conformity over true discipleship.
If Church leaders think we are dancing around Woodstock looking for flowers to put in our hair, they are precisely what Elder Holland denies - hopelessly out of touch. Contrary to the insinuation that we, who proclaim an answer in love, seek a comfortable god, I’m disgusted that my Church makes membership so damned comfortable.
Other churches in my town don't own malls. They run soup kitchens. They don't just sponsor BSA troops, they hold AA meetings. These churches help felons find jobs, sponsor immigrants and help their members adopt children from war torn nations. Churches in my city have homeless ministries, outreach programs for the elderly and impoverished, and their women gather to pour out their hearts in prayer for the suffering that goes on around the world. They actively fight against human trafficking, they consciously support ethical trade and are aware of the price paid by third world workers to support a first world lifestyle. They speak against injustice, proclaim peace, and create welcoming environments for people who "sin differently."
They do these things week after week, year after year.
At my church, 90% of what we do is incestuous service; we make dinners for each other, we visit the sick within our own congregations, we go to the temple for our own families. On occasion, we have a community service "project" or the Relief Society makes prescribed hygiene and newborn kits from downloadable patterns available on the Church website. We rarely see the faces of those who most need our service. As a congregation, we are so insulated. So aloof. So free to simply donate money as we plan our next family vacation, shop for a new "modest" dress, or call a plastic surgeon to schedule a mommy makeover.
Is the Church doing significant good in the world's poorest spots? Among inmates? With victims of domestic abuse? I'll have to take the Newsroom’s word for it. Even BYU T.V.’s between conference session media blitz on world affairs shows birthday celebrations and temple dedications, seemingly prioritizing those events over our emergency response project/PR endeavors. We need hands that help every day. Not just after a storm. But every single day because the world is broken every single day. Because even in our own church, LDS children, a sickening number of them, go to bed hungry every single day.
I assure you, my walk through the gray complexities of life has made me terribly uncomfortable.
And yet we spend so much time on "sin management" at church. We spend so much time instilling fear in the dangers of interacting with the world Christ was sent to save that we have created a religion that only plays defense, as if followers of Christ could live out their faith pointing fingers at their enemies from inside a bunker.
No wonder our people have such problems with porn, divorce, abuse, vanity, and personal sins. We are so busy measuring the borders of our own garments that we can’t see past our own cloaks. For that matter, we have set such a low bar for discipleship that our good people are hopelessly underwhelmed by the dogma of white shirts and multiple piercings and our mediocre members are celebrating the self-mastery of 75% home teaching and being able to efficiently regurgitate an assigned General Conference talk from the pulpit, when invited to speak in sacrament meeting every few years.
We are pitifully uninspired. So yes. Let’s talk about a comfortable God. One who looks on approvingly while we grow in wealth as God’s children in Sudan go hungry.
Maybe this is why Brigham Young warned of the dangers of affluence.
Further, that village love-in, it's pretty damn hard to organize. You know why? Because it's easier to whisper gossip about a "sinner" than to take her hand and sit down together at a meal as fellow mortal pilgrims. It's easier to kick out a gay child and denounce his "choice" than to relearn how to love him and subsequently acknowledge the worth of the people he brings into your life. It’s easier to exclude than it is to live with the humble recognition that God can and does work in the lives of all people, even when they don't live the standards found within For the Strength of Youth.
And those are the kinds of behaviors justified among our people when you sarcastically dis-empower central godly attributes like love, the power which effectuated the atonement and which never fails. It’s what happens when you relegate mercy, gentleness, and the faith that God knows what He's doing in each of our lives to a hippie mantra. It’s what happens when you speak as if life and the Spirit are less effective teachers than pulpit pounding brimstone. The love-in for that uncomfortable God is awfully hard to organize in a culture that says we prefer our children dead than defiled.
And you know something else? That village love-in isn't the orgy you're imagining.
It's a feast. And a lot of people who've been invited are too busy doing meaningless church work to fit it into their schedule.
Or maybe they are too 'ritually pure' to sit beside the unwashed and unwanted who are being called out of the pews by the loving, forgiving, merciful voice of Jesus the Christ. I'll tell you this – a lot of folks are missing out as they travel the dusty Jericho road on their trek back and forth to church meetings and temple worship while ignoring the bleeding and broken. They are ever hastening the work of recruitment and never coming face to face with Christ in the least of these. And yet they are wondering why the fonts are dry.
How will it be, I wonder, when we reach the great beyond ready to celebrate with ancestors whose saving ordinances we’ve performed only to find ourselves instead viewing, gathered to Abraham’s bosom, a long line of those who sat outside our gates, ignored, from whom we must first plead and obtain forgiveness? Are we so myopic that we believe God applauds our ritual performances while the world outside the temple walls groans in desperate need of our attention? Oh how my God makes me increasingly uncomfortable.
I have seen the Church move in fits and starts toward more engagement with the world outside. Toward healing the world instead of just trying to fill pews. Certainly, I have seen individual members follow Christ into the lives of social lepers and the rejects. I know I am not alone in feeling the disquieting discomfort of a God who tenderly invites, “Come follow me.”
But I also know that most of that divine work is done outside the structure of the very Church which requires all our time, talents, and energy. I wonder when the institution of the Church will stop filing legal briefs and follow her members into the dusty streets of this world to touch and be touched by the broken and unclean? Perhaps the surge of power from hem to hand would heal us all.
My God calls me out into the streets. He leaves me restless with the ache to heal and be healed. It is a throbbing, relentless discomfort that compels me to do His bidding. And when I heed His call, lives are changed. They are transformed without the need for formalized discussions or new member checklists. They are changed because the good news is just that good.
The gospel doesn't spread by force -certainly not by forced discussion. It spreads by fascination.
And most of our people, having been fed a steady diet of pre-digested milk, are pathetically nonchalant. Starved for a gospel rich in transformative unity with God, they are uninspired by the lackluster offering of platitudes and proscriptions. They are wandering toward agnosticism, atheism, and other churches, not because they are unable to believe, but because the anemic offerings of their church experience have convinced them that God is not present at our self-congratulatory "historic" meetings or in our proclamations drafted by legal teams, however well they poll.
The slow but steady pioneer trail leading out through the chapel doors ought to be noticeable. But if it isn't, just wait a generation.
Those of us who remain seated due to inertia or in the hopes that the vibrant church we've read about in the increasingly available unvarnished tales of our father's faith are talking about things that matter. Things more pertinent to God than promoting modesty to four-year-olds in a Church magazine, things more awe-inspiring than a God who can only conjure warm fuzzies as a witness, things more restorative than endless hours in the pews. And our children are listening. Our children will have no memory of an uncorrelated church. They will see only another religious institution, patting itself on the back in the tradition of Pharisee forebears. A religion proclaiming its chosenness from within its insulated walls.
But you know what? There is good news. In fact, there is great news. This feast, our village love-in, it isn't ending any time soon. Its attendance is growing as more and more frustrated church members across all Christendom relinquish the bondage of certainty and embrace the hope and mystery that is the incomprehensible love of God. It swells with every realization that all men are our brothers and that being chosen is a call to action not an award for merit or the election of a lucky birth. The seats at the feast fill steadily as God fills us with faith in our fellowmen and empathy born of the solidarity of mortal sojourn and we are unified in the Eucharist of abandoning the fear that God will stop loving us "if".
Yes, there is good news indeed. Good news about the feast. And I have it on the only authority that matters - He's saving you a seat.
Postscript: Even though I was disheartened by Elder Holland’s talk, I continue to love this man and recognize the challenging position he holds as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. I cannot not love him. My uncomfortable God does not allow it.
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