We live in a world with billions of people and each one of us has ideas on how things should be. Whether it is how governments should operate to where the family should eat for dinner, we all have different ideas. When it comes to religion, things can get very contentious even to the point of violence.
If you have found your place within a religious tradition that claims to have been influenced or even initiated by deity you probably feel that you are in the right on many things. Where we have a reality that involves many people and groups claiming to be God’s people and doing his work, we also see the need for at least tolerating each other’s presence as a start.
Once we’ve done that, how do we then move forward? How do we interact with people who contend with us, or those that were once united with us and then depart? What about those that are among us that pursue agendas that they feel align with the group’s goals but that we personally disagree with? I don’t know that I have all the answers to these questions, but I would like to share a few experiences and explore some ideas.
Several years ago, I met alone with two preachers in my home town. They had originally stated that they only wanted to ask me questions about Mormonism, and although I knew they had other intentions, I obliged them anyway.
We started off pretty decent and respectful, but their questions got more accusatory and negative. Anyone who has been in a sour religious debate probably knows how this all went down. After about two hours of discussion, they had the audacity to threaten me. I was told that a massive effort was about ready to take place to destroy the LDS faith in the entire city. They seemed to believe very much in the reality of their threat and their success in achieving it.
I was interested to see how this particular thing would go down, but there wasn’t any point in discussing any further. I sighed and said, “Well, we’ll have to see how that goes.” That was probably about 14 years or so ago and to my knowledge nothing ever came of it.
A Bible study group
A few years later I met with a delightful group of young Christians at a Bible study in Las Vegas. My friend and I were invited to attend and these good people were not hostile, they knew they had Latter-day Saints among them and a mutual feeling of respect resulted in a decent meeting. Surprisingly, we were actually invited to get involved in something big they had planned for the city. They had a huge plan to help save souls and wanted to know how we could help.
I admired their faith and ambition. I really wanted to help out but the logistics of what they were trying to do were very unrealistic. I realize that this sounds very faithless of me, but I didn’t totally agree that their approach would be as effective as they thought it would be. I did take their request for help very seriously and pondered many ways on how I could assist and get other members to participate, but these grand designs didn’t ever unfold.
The ward mission
I’ve been witness to several plans proposed by ward missions, councils, and missionaries that involve these ‘brilliant’ even ‘inspired’ programs intended to bring about the conversion of many souls. I’ve seen the vast majority yield little fruit and the result is a feeling of failure among those heading the program and perhaps even a little bitterness toward the members who it seems are to blame for not being faithful enough to invite 10 of their friends to have the missionary discussions in their homes, or to pray for 31 days for a missionary experience, etc.
Many of these ‘programs’ feel like corporate marketing schemes that are distant, cold, and inconsiderate of individual people even though the may have some missionary-oriented scripture as their mission statement.
While well-intentioned, I find many of these programs to be ineffective, uninspired, and often the completely wrong approach to what the desired results are. I agree that even the most odd ideas can be inspired and actually ‘work;’ I’ve seen that happen. Personally, I have a problem with many these ‘schemes’ and it’s been a struggle for me as to what do when I’m called upon to participate.
In the post “September Six” era, we have seen some members of the LDS faith excommunicated for various reasons, such as John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, Denver Snuffer, Rock Waterman, and others. I’ve watched and followed each of their stories over the course of the last few years up until the present day. Recently I attended a lecture in St. George from a Navajo man who claims to have received new revelations and is the “one mighty and strong” prophesied of in scripture.
While each of these individuals have different views on matters they all share the experience of being separated from the main body of Saints. It may be easy or accurate to label any of these individuals as “apostates” but how do their experiences fit into the big picture? They are still God’s beloved children, and are on a path just as we are. Local leaders and even top leaders in some cases have been involved in the decision to revoke the membership of these individuals.
Those leaders have judgement in those situations, the Lord has judgement in overall, but I have no judgements other than my personal opinions. I can see some good in each of these individuals and whatever good I find (there is good in all people), I take value from it. On the particular areas I disagree (I won’t go into specifics), I just simply disagree and that is that.
I find all stories of human experience to be fascinating, no matter what they may be. I find it valuable personally to watch and be a witness to things as they unfold and to not turn a blind eye. Even if I disagree to a large extent with a person, their journey is real as is their struggle and sorrow. I want to see where their paths take them, these fellow brothers and sisters of mine. There is always something to learn by watching.
A faithful way forward
As for any and all groups or movements, I take a position inspired by Gamaliel who once stepped in to prevent the killing of Christ’s apostles. A quick judgement almost cost these apostles their lives, but Gamaliel wisely counseled:
“Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” (Acts 5:34-39 NASB)
I’ve always thought that this was wise counsel, and it has meant more and more to me over time. It can seem like a bit of a cop-out on the surface, like you are forgoing having an opinion or handling a matter, but I believe there are some valuable principles here for us to learn and apply.
I believe that God’s plan involves all of his children in some grand scheme that is much bigger than we comprehend. I also know that the adversary is cunningly deceptive in his efforts and I see his machinations among all people, sometimes even among the Saints.
My participation among the Latter-day Saints has led me through much sorrow, because of the weakness of men, but it has also shown me the best of human nature. I’ve seen crooks, blasphemers, angels, and true charity. I’ve seen many well-intentioned crusades come to naught, and many small acts move mountains. Among the Saints I’ve witnessed the struggle, I’ve seen healing, I’ve been healed. I have followed the path through mists of darkness, dark nights, and up steep climbs, but I have been blessed. I have been brought into association with God, I have tasted and received of his salvation.
I don’t know all the answers. I don’t always recognize if my prayers have been answered or not. Sometimes God presence is undetectable, as if he is on a journey, leaving my to manage the talent he gave me until he returns. Eagerness challenges my patience.
But other times, he is near and present. His passion for us is as beautiful as it is indescribable.
Here among the Saints, I have found depth and richness, paradoxes and pain, confusion and clarity, and a people willing to push through it all with me. For that, I return to them a faithful hand of fellowship for there is a great work to do here.
These are indeed difficult times that try our wisdom, our compassion, our knowledge, and our intent. Many find a way, while others fall away. The present situation reminds me of the words spoken by Heber C. Kimball:
“…there will be a great sifting time, and many will fall. For I say unto you there is a test, a test, a test coming. … This Church has before it many close places through which it will have to pass before the work of God is crowned with victory. To meet the difficulties that are coming, it will be necessary for you to have a knowledge of the truth of this work for yourselves.
The difficulties will be of such a character that the man or woman who does not possess this personal knowledge or witness will fall. If you have not got the testimony, live right and call upon the Lord and cease not till you obtain it. If you do not you will not stand.” (Life of Heber C. Kimball, pp. 446, 449-450.)
I think that this time is upon us. I think that the principles in Kimball’s words are accurate. Mere membership in the church, lack thereof, or excommunication from it doesn’t necessarily determine who will or will not be standing at that day. Furthermore, mere belief or the strongest opinion alone will simply not be sufficient.
I don’t think for a minute that all is well in Zion, but it is in my hands as well as yours. What will we do? What do we prioritize? What will we discover in this struggle and in our individual struggles? As we each move forward, these questions will be answered by our actions.
In the mean time, I think we can live peaceably with one another even though we may disagree. There are things that are important to each of us that we are unwilling to compromise whether in reality they are right or wrong. I’ve had to get used to the fact that satisfactory answers to really big questions may remain outside of my grasp for the duration of my life.
You can approach God on his terms and know of his existence, you can know how he feels about you (and simultaneously all people). This brings an immense source of peace, even salvation, but it doesn’t answer all questions. It does, however, give you a foundation or starting point to begin the journey of exploring any other questions you might have. It also helps us live peaceably with our fellow-man as we each struggle alongside one another as we explore life and its meaning together.