Rethinking the “Golden Contact”

Prospectors in the middle of the 18th century were lured to California with enticing descriptions of gold nuggets as big as their fists lying open on the ground, ready to be picked up as easily as rocks or pine cones.  To their dismay, these prospectors learned that gold was much more difficult to come by, and had to be sifted carefully out of riverbeds or extracted from deep in the earth.  Simply put, there was a lot of dirt between them and the gold.

In the Church, we often hear stories of missionaries who run into “golden contacts.”  That phrase can mean several things, but often it is used synonymously with “dry Mormon.”  It refers to a person who already looks, talks, and acts like a member of the Church, but just hasn’t joined yet.  Missionaries pray for the opportunity to run into such contacts, as the path to baptism often is short and smooth.

But what really makes a contact “golden?”  My daughter, currently serving a full-time mission in Rome, Italy, recently described to me her efforts in teaching a homeless women who feels a strong attraction to the Church, but whose life is complicated by a number of personal issues.  Her life, as my daughter described it, is a “mess.”  Still, my daughter is thrilled by the opportunity to teach her and by the hope of what this woman might become.

I am grateful that my daughter is having this experience, because I think that it highlights what is wrong with our conception of the “golden contact.”  In terms of missionary work, should our success be measured by the number of baptisms, or by how far people are lifted as a result of their contact with the gospel of Jesus Christ?  I believe that the people in the deepest holes need the longest ladders, and the atonement of Christ is the longest ladder of all.

I suspect that the most golden of contacts are, like real gold, concealed from view until we have rolled up our sleeves and invested the time in digging, searching, and washing to separate them from the earth surrounding them.  When brought to the light, such people are seen for the treasures that they really are.  Sure, the “dry Mormons” need the gospel too, and when they join the Church it is cause for celebration.  But at the same time, such people might not appreciate fully what the gospel offers them, because they already are in pretty good shape.

Some of the best members of the Church that I know have been “unearthed” from the darker recesses of the ground.  I have been inspired by members who, when the gospel came into their lives, looked nothing like gold.  They stubbed out their marijuana joints as the missionaries came to the door.  The were addicted to alcohol or serious drugs.  They were working their way back into society following prison.  Their lives were upside-down because of a lapses in their moral judgment.

And then they were rescued.

A late patriarch of the stake in which I live used to say that the sweetest smell in a sacrament meeting was that of tobacco, because it meant that someone was there who needed to be.  I think there is a great deal of truth in that.  The ideal candidate for membership in the Church is anyone who needs the saving power of the atonement.  That only includes everyone.  The most golden of contacts might have sleeve tattoos or nose piercings or bear the distinctive odor of dope.  As disciples of Christ, we should appreciate the “easy” conversions, but treasure the opportunities to bring light to those sitting in the greatest darkness.

There is gold in everyone, if we are willing to dig enough to find it.

Is God for Real?

This short message was sent to me recently by a friend who is going though a temporary crisis of faith:  “God is real…right?”  While I’ve written before about why I believe in God, this question actually took me in a different direction:  God is for real…Right?

For quite some time now, I have scratched my head a bit trying to reconcile the Lord’s comforting assurance of “My burden is light,” with what appears to be a host of real and sometimes heavy burdens of discipleship.  More than once I have tried to implement the “checklist” approach to salvation.  I’ve written down all of the stuff I’m supposed to be doing on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis and then check them off as I go.  I can proudly present my completed list to Peter at the pearly gates (as a kid I thought they were the “Golden Gates” and I could never figure out what St. Peter was doing in San Francisco) and exchange it for my celestial hall pass.

Trouble is, the checklist is a bit long, even if you write small.  Just taking some of the more common things that we are encouraged to do in the church, we would have something like this as the starter list:

Pray personally three times a day; prayer twice a day with your family; pray twice a day with your spouse; read the scriptures for 30 minutes personally; read the scriptures with your family; read the scriptures with your spouse (honey, you’re going to have to just count once as “family,” because I’ve got to get to work); write in your journal daily; Church services Sunday and once during the week for youth night; get my kids (and myself, thanks to my newest calling) to seminary every morning; work on my genealogy; do my home teaching; watch the kids so that my wife can do her visiting teaching; visit my home teaching families a few extra times because the monthly visit is the bare minimum for slackers; go to the temple monthly; go again, because once is for slackers; date night with my wife every week; Family Home Evening once a week; talk to a nonmember about the gospel; rotate my food storage; prepare a family budget; and visit the sick and afflicted (oh, and the widows and orphans.  Can’t forget the orphans).

On top of that, I’m supposed to be active in my community, keep physically fit because my body is a temple, perform whatever calling I have with energy and devotion (devotion I’ll give you; energy is in short supply around here), develop my talents, and spend time with each of my kids individually.

Would you like fries with that?

Is God for real?  I mean, He’s got eternity to do all of this stuff, and the added advantage of being all-powerful.  As for me, I’ve got bills to pay, and I need to remember to pick up my blood pressure medication because all of this “abundant living” is about to put me in my grave.  I’m starting to see the upside in atheism.  After all, that TV isn’t going to watch itself.

Fortunately, I think God is for real, and I don’t believe that he expects or wants us to live a life of checklist discipleship.  After all, we are counseled in the Book of Mormon that it is not requisite that we run faster than we have strength.  The items on the checklist aren’t intended to be a “do this or bring your summer clothes to the afterlife” proposition.  Rather, they are tools to help us along the way to becoming more Christlike, and we don’t have to use all of them all of the time.  If we propose to drive a nail, we don’t unload the tool box and have at it with everything in sight (“Gimme that torque wrench and a power drill, Johnny!”).  Instead, we pick up tools necessary to do the job, and keep the rest in the toolbox for later.

All of us go through seasons in life.  Prayer will be more meaningful to us at some times than others.  The scriptures will play more important roles for us on some days than others.  We will have times when temple attendance is spotty because of family obligations, finances or illness.  We might never get in a great habit of journaling, or we might be our family’s historian.  My brother is a legendary genealogist; I’ve never figured it out.

I think the trick is to prayerfully consider which tools we need for the job at hand.  We cannot do everything, but we can do something, and the Lord will help us to know what that something is.  Sometimes, that “something” may be nothing, because it is okay to take a breather.  Whatever it is, I believe that the best policy is for us to worry less about the things undone, and more about discovering the divine in the thing we are doing right now.

That’s what the Savior did.  He gave undivided attention to what needed to be done right now, right in front of Him.  I think that a big part of His perfection was due to His ability to do exactly that.  Christ wasn’t just real; he was for real.  And that’s the kind of God I can understand.