“This is my Church, too!”
I kept coming back to the same statement as I fumed in the Bishop’s office. The issue was facial hair, and something had been said in a Sacrament meeting that both my goatee and I found personally embarrassing. I was frustrated, not just because of that statement, but as a result of years of having people assume that I am equivocal in my testimony because my shirt isn’t white, my chin has hair, or because I don’t talk about or teach the gospel in the same way as a general authority. I felt that, once again, I was dealing with the assumption my lack of piety actually is an apostasy starter kit. And after four decades, it is beginning to make me nuts. Because I really do love the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, regardless of what people might think, and I have no desire to join the ranks of those who refuse to darken the chapel doorstep because of offenses received.
Seeing as the Savior Sees
I have written elsewhere about the dangers of the culture of the Church overwhelming or taking precedent over the doctrine of the Church. During my forty-plus years in the Church, I have seen the same scenarios play out again and again as foolish and hurtful comments are made to members or investigators about their dress, the length of their hair, their tattoos…anything that does not fit squarely into the traditional picture of a “Mormon.” Too often when someone is offended as a result of such comments, members shrug it off dismissively and make self-righteous comments about how the person didn’t have a strong enough testimony or needs to just “get over it.” Too little attention is paid to the problem of saying stupid and hurtful things. We would not have to counsel people about not getting offended if we did a better job of not being offensive.
We all need to do a better job of seeing past what we see with our eyes. Just as the prophet Samuel had to learn this lesson when he dismissed David out of hand because he did not have the look of a king, we need to set aside our assumptions and prejudices in order to see into other people’s hearts in the way the Lord would. The danger in creating cultural expectations for other people is that it gives us a quick, easy, and utterly unjustified way to pass judgment on other people. If I find ponytails on men to be sacrilegious, I don’t have to bother to know the long-haired person in front of me. The hair–or the beard, or the tattoo, or the pierced ears–tell me all that I need to know.
Hugh Nibley addressed this issue with typical directness: “The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism… the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.” Because Christ’s focus is on the eternal and internal, we are poor disciples indeed if our focus is on the transitory and external.
Hearing the Gospel in Our Own Language
A similar problem arises when we discount another person’s testimony because it is not expressed in the same way we would express it. In my case, I’ve always shared my testimony with a fair amount of humor and, admittedly, a much more casual approach than you will find in General Conference. I do that for several reasons. The two most important reasons are: (1) It is who I am; and (2) I honestly believe that different people respond to the gospel in different ways, and sometimes my approach has worked. I do my best not to teach any false doctrine or to belittle sacred things; however, I do try to keep as much starch out of my conversation as possible. Some people don’t respond well to my approach, and that’s fine by me. I’m not really talking to those people, and they have plenty of “traditional” voices they can listen to. There is no danger of me being asked to speak in General Conference.
In the 90th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord says that in the last days, “every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue, and in this own language.” (Doctrine and Covenants 90:11). I believe that promise is more than a matter of linguistics. I think that in order for the gospel to be effectively taken to the world, it needs to be offered to each person in a way that it is best understood by that person. The Spirit is always the same, and the doctrine should be the same, but the messengers are different, and sometimes one voice resonates with us very differently than another. All of us have had the experience of thinking that we just heard a fantastic talk, only to overhear someone else say that it was the worst thing they ever suffered through. I believe that is one of the reasons we do not have a paid clergy: Over the course of a month, we will hear from 10-12 difference speakers, with diverse perspectives, experiences, and ways of expression. With any luck, a couple of those speakers will touch something in our hearts and draw us closer to God.
Because of that, I think we need to be able to look past what we see with our eyes and listen to more than what we hear with our ears. We teach that the gospel of Jesus Christ is universal. It is meant to be a blessing to every man, woman and child who has, does, or will inhabit this earth. We say that, but do we believe it? Or have we convinced ourselves that our task is to fit people into a specific mold, and if the contours aren’t exact, to cast them out?
That girl with the tattoo?
That guy in the overalls?
The dude with the Easter pageant long hair?
The person who smells of tobacco?
The kid who just accidentally swore during his Sacrament talk?
The sinner, the leper, the publican?
Guess what? This is their Church, too.