One of the sentences I’ve heard come out of the mouth of many a Mormon throughout my life is: “The Gospel is perfect, but the people aren’t.”
It’s a sentence I’ve personally said many times. My parents have said it. My friends have said it. But it wasn’t until one of my newest dear friends, Celeste Davis, shared her thoughts on this sentence in an essay she wrote recently, that I’ve found myself unable to stop thinking about these words that seem to flow so freely for so many in the LDS church (Celeste is an amazing writer, the Mormon equivalent of the late and dear Rachel Held Evans for sure).
One idea I’ve been ruminating about are the imperfections of people. Specifically, people who hold leadership positions. Even more specifically: people who hold leadership positions in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS/Mormons). I have been noticing how easy it is to withhold grace and patience from these people who have a title (or calling) of leadership (this goes for all aspects of life, not just religious, but in this essay I’m speaking specifically towards the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aka LDS aka Mormons). We assume, since someone is given a certain title or leadership position, they should “know better” or they should know more than the rest of us…because that leadership title means they were “called of God,” right? So of course they should only be teaching perfect Gospel truths. Right? Not right…according to Jeffrey R. Holland, “Imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with, that must be terribly frustrating to Him…but He deals with it.” (“Lord I Believe” Ensign May 2013)
But here’s the real question: How do you discern the difference between “Gospel” and “imperfect people”?
How do I know if the lesson taught in Sunday school…which included teachings around the current political climate and how it related to the lesson…was a “Gospel” lesson or a lesson taught by an “imperfect person”?
How do I know if the Bishop preaching from the pulpit on Sunday, about how we need to stand behind the political efforts to keep marriage between a man and a woman, is a teaching of the “Gospel” or if it’s something strongly believed by an “imperfect person”?
I always assumed the church was the only place I DIDN’T have to question what I was taught. It was always my safe place. A place where I knew everyone had my best interests in mind. A place where I knew I was loved and accepted for who I was, a daughter of Heavenly Parents. A place where I would be surrounded by like-minded people.
But then…at some point in the past few years I recognized I felt like I had to act or look a certain way whenever I was at church or around anyone from church. At some point I started censoring my thoughts and found myself being hyper-aware of the words I said in order to make sure my thoughts didn’t actually come out of my mouth (why I felt the need to do this when the old men in the back of the chapel never kept their random opinions to themselves? Is beyond me).
It wasn’t until recently I realized I was feeling like a square peg in a round hole.
I began to recognize how different I was than many of the men and women sitting in the congregation with me and how I easily identified with the teachings of “love one another as Jesus loves you” yet there were other things I didn’t identify with. Things like: a mother’s most important job is to be a homemaker (see Julie B Beck’s talk entitled “Mothers Who Know”), or the harmful modesty lessons that included teachings like: “The dress of a woman has a powerful impact upon the minds and passions of men. If it is too low or too high or too tight, it may prompt improper thoughts, even in the mind of a young man who is striving to be pure” (Tad R Callister, “The Lord’s Standard of Morality” 2004).
I began to realize why people who weren’t members of the LDS church would attend multiple different church services, in search of a congregation that felt good to them. Something, as a Mormon, you never do because you’re assigned to a specific congregation depending on where you live. I found myself wishing the people I was surrounded by felt the same way I did about things like modesty, motherhood, womanhood, racism, our gay brothers and sisters and our Heavenly Parents.
I began to realize I didn’t enjoy a lot of the things I was taught I was supposed to enjoy. I didn’t enjoy service projects, because they made me feel sick or sore for days afterward. I didn’t enjoy home teaching or visiting teaching (which is now called ministering) because it felt like forced friendships and it really kicked up my social anxiety (also, small talk is the bane of my existence). I didn’t enjoy forcing my children to go and sit in classes they were not engaged in, with kids they didn’t know, and watching how uncomfortable they were. I didn’t enjoy so many things about church.
And because I didn’t enjoy them…I felt guilty and ultimately thought I was sinning against God. I thought I should repent for having these negative feelings about church. I thought I needed to fix something about myself. I thought I was doing something wrong and I needed to change my personality, that my Heavenly Parents wanted me to be outgoing, hardworking and selfless. Yet I have become pretty protective of my time and energy…and if I had to choose between going to a Friday night activity at church with my family or staying home and relaxing watching a movie and eating pizza with my family because we’ve had a busy week? I’d choose to stay home…and I would feel guilty for that
(Before I go any further, I think it’s important to point out, no one made me feel guilty for the things I just mentioned. That was all me. I have a propensity towards guilt about many things in my life, not just church related things. My hubs thinks this is related to my religious upbringing. I think that’s a subject for another time.)
These are all things I’ve only recently begun to think about. I never truly began to question and seek further information about anything I had learned growing up in the church until I married a man who grew up atheist. Ian was “a better mormon than most mormons” as we would fondly joke. He has always had the patience of a saint and a heart of gold. He is service oriented and selfless. I truly lucked out when I found him. But I’ll never forget when I came home from church one Sunday and told him about how I was asked to assist in the ward’s efforts to canvas the neighborhoods seeking support for the political position of anti-gay marriage.
I asked Ian if he would help me, since we did everything together, all the time….he said no. No he wouldn’t help me, that it didn’t feel right to him.
And that was the first time I remember actually thinking “well wait a minute, maybe this ISN’T right. And maybe just because a very kind man who happens to be the leader of the congregation I attend asked me to, it doesn’t mean my Heavenly Parents are asking me to.”
And then, slowly over the years, I began to ask myself that question a lot more: is this being taught because our Heavenly Father and Mother would have this be taught in this way? Or is this a personal insight and opinion and not actual “Gospel”?
That brings me back to the million dollar question: how the heck am I supposed to discern someone’s opinion versus the teachings of my Heavenly Parents?
Terryl and Fiona Givens address the imperfections of man, specifically the imperfections of church leaders, in their book “The Crucible of Doubt.” One of the things they wrote that stuck out to me was: “God really does endow mortals with the authority to act in His place and with His authority, even while He knows they will not act with infallible judgement – then it becomes clearer why God is asking us to receive the words of the prophet “as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith. (D&C 21:8)”
In other words, God only calls imperfect people to teach his Gospel which means the Gospel will not always be taught or understood perfectly while on this earth. As Austin Farrer wrote: “Doubtless, the divine will always anticipate us” (Austin Farrer, “Infallibility and Historical Traditions” 2006). In other words, our Heavenly Parents not only knew imperfect leaders would be called and they would say and do things that would raise questions for years to come, but they knew ahead of time I would feel like a square peg in a round hole, that I would feel like I had to look and act a certain way at church, that I would have questions and seek deeper understanding and answers. They knew…and they still love me.
If I think further about the fact that God only calls imperfect people to teach his Gospel and lead his children here on earth, it leads me to think the priesthood ban, which was lifted in 1978, may not have actually been part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…which feels right to me, because believing this was the desire of our Heavenly Parents is something I’ve struggled with. Or that certain historical elements, such as Joseph Smith’s plural marriages or the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which are just now coming to light, weren’t meant to be hidden, it’s just that the church leadership didn’t put any resources into writing out an accurate history until now (I’ve recently learned “church resources are now being employed to explore and disseminate, rather than elide or suppress, a comprehensive history…transparency and completeness have become the new norm.”) (“The Crucible of Doubt,” p. 81)
And this brings me to the end of this essay, but the beginning of something much MUCH bigger: my faith journey. Notice I didn’t say “faith crisis.” I’m not a fan of that term. I don’t see this seeking and desire to grow a more iron-bound faith as a crisis at all. I think the term “faith crisis” is a bit negative, and anyone who has asked questions and sought answers I would think would agree with me. Yes there is definitely a sense of loss, a fear of further loss, pain associated with the ways people treat you when the way you worship looks different than the way they worship…but it’s not a crisis. I’m not in crisis. If anything, my spirituality and faith have only grown as I’ve immersed myself in prayer and study.
As Ashmae Hoiland says in her book “100 Birds Taught Me to Fly”–
“Mormonism is my native spiritual language and many of the threads with which my life’s tapestry is woven.”
This tapestry is beautiful and I am so grateful I have it. And now I am seeking further clarity, which means I need to relinquish many paradigms I’ve long held on to. I was expecting religion to be a road map, but instead, I have found it to be a compass.
And I am so excited to see where my journey takes me.