I suspect few people in the United States with any kind of connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have not been exposed to the recent controversy surrounding two members of the Church being summoned to disciplinary councils for apostasy. It seems that everyone has an opinion on the issue. An awful lot has been said on the subject from a variety of sources. Comments have been emotionally charged; judgments from all along the spectrum of opinion and orthodoxy fly around social media and the comment boards of news articles like missiles in a war. The dynamics of this fiasco were on my mind as I went to church last week.
Last Sunday was Father’s Day. Our littlest one was sick, so it was just my oldest and I in Sacrament meeting. The primary kids excitedly rushed to the stand when it came time for them to sing for the congregation – well, maybe not the older ones. My precocious but shy 4-year-old stood in the front row next to her little 4-year-old friends. She leaned against the short front wall of the dais, nervous but beaming. The kids began to sing and I caught her look to me several times out of the corner of her eye as her subtly dimpled grin stole across her innocent face. The words and melody were familiar, but somehow felt new:
Our Father has a family. It’s Me!
It’s you, all others too: we are His children.
He sent each one of us to earth, through birth,
To live and learn here in our families.
God gave us families
To help us become what he wants us to be –
This is how He shares His love,
For the family is of God.
Perhaps the sense of newness came from the feeling of love and joy that rested upon me in that moment like warm sunshine on a cold morning. The warmth lingered as the kids continued through all of the verses of the song and a tear or two escaped my eyes. I love that stirring of the soul. It is an experience more felt than thought, yet there is illumination and wonder impressed on both the heart and mind. I felt such gratitude for the miracle of my own little family (and I promise it is not hyperbole to call it a miracle). I also felt gratitude for the church family that surrounded me in those pews. I felt gratitude for God’s perfect love, and I sensed that others felt it too.
Such moments of communion are precious, even if not frequent. It’s one of the reasons I love to attend church – the tender yet unpredictable moments of communion with fellow believers and with my Heavenly Father.
I was especially appreciative of the experience because it came in the midst of my concern and sadness about the current tensions in the Church. It was a reminder of my love for my faith and my church family. And, what would a family be without some drama, anyway? J I really believe and embrace the idea expressed in the primary song that it is in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, especially family and close community, that God most effectively “helps us become what He wants us to be”. So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about over the past week: As one who wants and tries to be a disciple of Jesus, how does God want me to respond to this situation in my own heart and life? I suspect the answer to such a question will be different for everyone, but I would like to share some of the insights I have had.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an opinion about Brother Dehlin and Sister Kelly. It would be a real stretch to say that I haven’t wanted to make a few posts and comments expressing thoughts about their methods and their conclusions. I would also be dishonest if I said I haven’t experienced emotional reactions or judgments about them and their works, which is testament to my own pride. However, they are also my brother and sister in Christ, for whom I am called to show genuine compassion. I’m certainly not in the wagon of folks who appear almost jubilant at the prospect of excommunication. I don’t know if these two individuals should be disciplined because I don’t know them and I don’t know their hearts; that matter is between them, the Lord, and their local priesthood leaders. I would not want to be walking in the shoes of their stake presidents and bishops right now, that’s for sure. What I do know is that whether or not they are deserving of excommunication, their souls are still of great worth in the sight of God. These circumstances do not call for celebration or gloating by any members of the church, but then neither do they call for self-inflicted socio-religious martyrdom by these two activists. Of course, we each must make choices (judgments) about ideas we embrace and affiliations we make, but we would do well to remember that final judgments are left to God.
With all of that said, I’ve come to this conclusion: Outside of my capacity to pray for all of those involved I have zero control over Brother Dehlin and Sister Kelly, and I have no influence over the leaders who will be participating in these decisions. Online and print arguments about whether or not they should be disciplined or whether their activities are appropriate will likely change very few opinions. There is some constructive dialogue happening, but the great majority of what is being said is serving no purpose outside of inflaming tensions. Which brings me to the question raised above. How does God want me to view these circumstances? What can I learn from them in my pathway of discipleship? What does He want me to do and to be?
Recently I read the Book of Helaman in the Book of Mormon. When I was contemplating the current controversy in the Church I recalled circumstances described in the third and fourth chapters of the Book of Helaman that bear striking resemblance to those occurring right now before our very eyes. In the broader societal context the people were setting aside the commandments of God. The civil laws that had been set up by King Mosiah had begun to be corrupted and altered as well (Hel 3:22-23; 4:21-22). Despite this there was general peace throughout the land except for the presence of some secret combinations by Gadianton robbers. I’ll let the reader draw the parallels to today. In the midst of these conditions, though, the church experienced a period of “exceedingly great prosperity”. Tens of thousands of people joined the church and the blessings poured out upon the people of God were so great that even the leaders of the church were “astonished beyond measure”. It was a time of great joy (Hel. 3:24-26, 31-32). Does that sound a lot like what the latter-day Church has experienced in the past couple of decades, and especially in the past few years with the so-called “Mormon moment”?
Unfortunately, it didn’t last for the folks in the Book of Mormon. Pride began to enter into the hearts of the “people who professed to belong to the church of God” (Hel 3:32). Members of the church began to persecute and afflict other members of the church! Their material wealth and prosperity compounded their pride, which continued to grow (Hel 3:33-34, 36). Before long there were “many dissensions” and contention within the church (Hel. 4:1). The situation deteriorated to the point that the people of God lost the capacity to have the Spirit dwell with them. Because they thought they were so great and strong, they were left to their own strength, they were not protected and preserved by God, and the church began to dwindle (Hel. 4:11-13, 23-26).
Mormon, the narrator of the Book of Mormon, describes the reason for their struggles thusly:
And it was because of the pride of their hearts, because of their exceeding riches, yea, it was because of their oppression to the poor, withholding their food from the hungry, withholding their clothing from the naked, and smiting their humble brethren upon the cheek, making a mock of that which was sacred, denying the spirit of prophecy and of revelation, murdering, plundering, lying, stealing, committing adultery, rising up in great contentions, and deserting away into the land of Nephi, among the Lamanites… (Hel 4:12).
If that is not a warning to us who profess to belong to the church of God, I don’t know what is. To me the parallels are remarkable. Let me be clear lest anyone interpret my thoughts here as pointing a finger at particular persons or groups: to do so would be prideful – the very thing this story is warning about. So again, this message from the Book of Mormon is an invitation for ALL of us to reflect on the state of our own mind, heart, and behavior. As President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “Pride is the universal sin” and “the great stumbling block of Zion.” In a General Conference address, President Uchtdorf said the following about pride:
Pride is sinful…because it breeds hatred or hostility and places us in opposition to God and our fellowmen. At its core, pride is a sin of comparison, for though it usually begins with “Look how wonderful I am and what great things I have done,” it always seems to end with “Therefore, I am better than you.”…
Pride is the great sin of self-elevation. It is for so many a personal Rameumptom, a holy stand that justifies envy, greed, and vanity. In a sense, pride is the original sin, for before the foundations of this earth, pride felled Lucifer, a son of the morning “who was in authority in the presence of God.” If pride can corrupt one as capable and promising as this, should we not examine our own souls as well?...
This sin has many faces. It leads some to revel in their own perceived self-worth, accomplishments, talents, wealth, or position. They count these blessings as evidence of being “chosen,” “superior,” or “more righteous” than others. This is the sin of “Thank God I am more special than you.” At its core is the desire to be admired or envied. It is the sin of self-glorification.
For others, pride turns to envy: they look bitterly at those who have better positions, more talents, or greater possessions than they do. They seek to hurt, diminish, and tear down others in a misguided and unworthy attempt at self-elevation. When those they envy stumble or suffer, they secretly cheer. (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Pride and the Priesthood, Ensign, Oct. 2010).
Fortunately, the story of dissension and contention in the church of Book of Mormon times is not left without direction for the readers of the book today. In fact, several beautiful truths are presented to help us avoid the eventual state that came about in the ancient church in the Americas.
First, consider with me the mindset of many of the people who had hardened their hearts against that which was good. It seems that they came to rely on reason alone to draw their conclusions, and were preoccupied with a fear of being stifled, oppressed, and “kept in ignorance” (Hel 16:15-23). They seem to have assigned questionable and selfish motives to leaders of the church. Their perspective is summed up in the statement, “thus they will keep us in ignorance if we will yield ourselves unto them, all the days of our lives.” (Hel 16:21 emphasis added).
Contrast that unwillingness to yield with the more humble part of the people, keeping in mind that humility is the antidote to pride.
Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God. (Hel 3:35).
To yield is to give or to render, it should not be confused here with merely letting something happen or stopping for someone else to pursue their path, as at a traffic intersection. No, yielding our hearts to God is to center our hope in Him, to believe in Him, and to act according to His counsel. Such yielding moves us to prayer and fasting, to practicing humility, and to cultivating faith. Is not faith a state of extraordinary surrender? The promise is clear that this surrender of our hearts to God opens them up to joy, consolation, and sanctification – or the process of becoming saintly. We are each invited to be saints, which means so much more than having a name on the records of the Church or participating in a cultural identity. The yielding of our hearts to God the Father that leads to joy and sanctification is active, intense, and prolonged. It is the doing and the being of discipleship. Will contention exist in the church if we are each yielding our hearts to God?
Second, repentance emerges as a clear theme in the text that discusses the contentious circumstances in Helaman. In the 16 chapters of the Book of Helaman, some form of the word repentance is used at least 57 times. Some have a negative, even cynical, view of the concept of repentance (which just might stem from pride). I know sometimes I do. But in reality, repentance is a merciful, hopeful doctrine.
…For this cause, that men might be saved, hath repentance been declared. Therefore, blessed are they who will repent and hearken unto the voice of the Lord their God; for these are they that shall be saved. And may God grant, in his great fullness, that men might be brought unto repentance and good works, that they might be restored unto grace for grace, according to their works. And I would that all men might be saved. (Hel 12:22-25).
The word repentance evidently comes from a Greek word that denotes “a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world” (LDS Bible Dictionary). We are commanded to constantly repent in our daily walk along the pathway of discipleship not because God is some kind of sadistic disciplinarian, but because He is a patient Father. He calls us to examine ourselves – our views and our ways – and to climb ever higher toward Him (Isaiah 55:9). Repentance attunes us to God’s grace, which is His help and strength to meet life’s challenges. Will contention exist in the Church if we each possess a penitent heart, especially in our recognition of the pull toward pride?
Finally, take a look at a description of many of those who professed to be saints at this time:
Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide. (Hel 12:6).
Contrast that sentiment with the feeling of others at the time who recognized that “except they should cleave unto the Lord their God they must unavoidably perish.” (Hel 4:25). To cleave in this context means to adhere or attach to strongly. The connotation is a deep spiritual and emotional connection – the ideal two-way parent-to-child relationship. Such relationships are forged only through intimate interaction and communion. To cleave is to trust with all of the vulnerability that trust requires, a risky but freeing experience indeed. It is perhaps the hardest doctrine in Christianity, and certainly paradoxical to the culture of independence and defiance in which we are socialized. For we are called not just to passively follow, but to willingly submit ourselves to Jesus Christ, even as a child submits himself to his father (Mosiah 3:19). We allow God to be our guide. In the pattern of the Savior, we voluntarily sacrifice our own will – whatever that will may be – in the interest of the will of the Father. We do not rupture the attachment or abandon the relationship when things get tough. We hold fast forever. Will there be contention in the church if we each try to truly cleave unto the Lord our God?
Perhaps for those of us not involved in these disciplinary actions the question of whether or not someone should be excommunicated is a misguided question to be debating. The more relevant questions in the midst of this contention, at least for me, are self-reflective: Am I yielding my heart to God? Am I striving to refine my understanding and behavior through repentance, especially when it comes to the sin of pride? Am I cleaving to my Father in Heaven? I know I have a long way to go, though I am committed to press forward on this thorny but incredible journey with my fellow striving saints and with the grace of God. After all, we are all in this together and it's the only way that we can "become what He wants us to be". I hope that we can avoid the tragedy and the suffering experienced by the people of the Book of Mormon. I sincerely pray for the best possible outcome for each of us, for my brothers and sisters involved in these controversies, and for the church that I love.