In Praise of Darkness

In the first weekend of October, Mormon leaders gathered in Salt Lake City to share roughly ten hours of religious discourse. Two talks yesterday got my attention especially as it comes on the first weekend of October and the upcoming Halloween season. The first, by Elder Stevenson used the recent solar eclipse as a metaphor. The sun’s warmth, light and energy can be diminished by something relatively small and insignificant. We need the light and the warmth, but sin and pride might dim that light for a time. Then later, in the priesthood session, Elder Uchtdorf describes darkness as something that “reduces our ability to see clearly.” And implores each of us to stand in a place where we can receive light. I don’t see anything wrong with these points. Of course the sun is beautiful, necessary and life-giving. Of course, we need light to see clearly. We all appreciate the sun rise after a spell of darkness. As Jimmy Hendrix sings from “Are You Experienced”:

If you can just get your mind together
then come across to me
We’ll hold hands an’ then we’ll watch the sun rise
from the bottom of the sea

And you can see that point in Hendrix’s song. In darkness, we aren’t totally ourselves. If we can just “get our mind together” then we can “hold hands an watch the sun rise”.

But I can’t help thinking as I listened to these talks that they are missing something beautiful and necessary about darkness. Mormon theology can be very binary. In the second chapter in the 2 Nephi of the Book of Mormon, Lehi describes an oppositional theology that drives modern Mormonism:

11 For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, my firstborn in the wilderness, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one; wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility.

That something is either filled with light, goodness and righteousness, or darkness, misery, and evil. We are implored to seek the light and oppose the darkness. This doesn’t ring completely true in my lived experience. At a minimum, it needs to be supplemented with a bit more complexity.

For one thing, the eclipse itself is an interesting metaphor here, because I don’t think people view the actual eclipse as something we need to endure. In fact just the opposite actually happened. During the recent eclipse, thousands of people traveled miles to be within the geographic band where the total eclipse could be experienced. Thousands of people sacrificed time, money and convenience to have a two minute experience in darkness during the middle of the day. They experienced a drastic temperature drop, the stars came out. Many were inspired by the experience. Some may say they found God in darkness. They felt God in the eclipse.

Some of my most sacred experiences have happened camping in the woods in the darkness. I can think of night hikes in the moonlight or nights deep in the woods away from light pollution, able to see the night sky clearly to witness what the sun obscures, a literal innumerable sea of stars. I felt a sense of awe and wonder realizing the scale of the universe and my tiny place within it. In this sense, I was only able to really see clearly in darkness. In this sense, the sun’s light made it difficult for me to actually see some things.

Recently, my son spent a week in Camp Geronimo. I went up for the last day and with him and the other boys, enjoyed the last night campfire. The pounding of the drums as we walked down quietly and reverently toward our seats, made more solemn and humble in the darkness.

I think there’s some things that are both beautiful and important that can only be experienced in darkness. And at times, light itself can be the problem.
Tucson, Arizona passed an ordinance in 1972 to limit artificial light pollution “in order to conserve energy and to preserve the crystal clarity of the dry desert air, which has drawn professional astronomers for more than a century. ”

And there’s something about night that affects the way a person thinks. The thoughts one thinks at night are not the same thoughts that occur in the daytime. Perhaps we’re a more unrealistically ambitious at night? A bit dreamy and visionary? I read “For Whom The Bell Tolls” several years ago, but the passage that stuck with me is the frantic thoughts of the hero of the novel as he compares one’s thinking in the daylight hours with those of the night.

But your plan stinks. It stinks, I tell you. It was a night plan and it’s morning now. Night plans aren’t any good in the morning. The way you think at night is no good in the morning. So now you know it is no good.

There is no question that night time is hard. I know I have a hard time sometimes just going to sleep. But there is something democratically egalitarian about sleep itself. The poor, those in prison, the rich, the single and the married all slumber in the same way. And there is something deeply tragic about those who aren’t physically able to find a good night sleep.

But darkness and night is at the core of the Christian experience. Richard Rohr’s book, “Falling Upward” is a deep dive on how one can only really find God in the darkness. It’s only when we fall are we truly saved.  In the introduction of the book:

In legends and literature, sacrifice of something to achieve something else is almost the only pattern. Dr. Faust has to sell his soul to the devil to achieve power and knowledge. Sleeping Beauty must sleep for a hundred years before she can receive the prince’s kiss. In Scripture, we see that the wrestling and wounding of Jacob are necessary for Jacob to become Israel (Genesis 32:26-32), and the death and resurrection of Jesus are necessary to create Christianity.  The loss and renew pattern is constant and ubiquitous that is should hardly be called a secret at all.

These dark nights of the soul experiences are necessary, essential. We can spend our lives resisting them. Or we can lean into them and experience the beauty and learn the lessons that can only be found in darkness.

The entire time writing this post this song kept playing in my head and so I think it’s the theme of the post. Enjoy.

Religions aren’t good with sex – But neither am I and neither are any of us (It’s Hard)

For one, I’m not sure we are good talking about this in a mature, compassionate way. Much of it is still taboo, or we’re too cavalier about it, or too scared, or too worried we’ll implicate ourselves, or whatever. Consider too, how many public figures are brought down by sexual scandal, and so many of our public scandals are sexual. But also, sex is such a core part of what it means to be human – it’s how we create life, it’s the ultimate expression of intimacy. We are sexual beings. Adam Miller, in a book I cannot recommend enough – please just buy it already – “Letters to a Young Mormon”, has a beautiful little chapter on sex. In particular, how difficult it can be to properly deal with sexual desire especially as one transitions through puberty into adulthood.

This hunger for intimacy is like an ocean. It will come like a flood and you will feel lost at sea. When you are a child, you walked on dry ground. In order to become an adult you’ll have to learn how to swim. You are no more responsible for being at sea than you are for needing to breathe. And, though some may say different, you are not guilty because the ocean is wet. You did not choose this hunger, you did not choose your gender, and you did not choose its orientation.

So, sex is difficult. It’s difficult to talk about properly. We’re cavalier or afraid or harsh. And in this milieu of sexual societal dysfunction, we expect our children to navigate their sexual maturation without scars or stumbles. Society swings on extremes often – sexuality is out in the open in our media and entertainment. Pornography has never been more accessible.  But we, especially the parts of us in religious communities, can be far too harsh. I grew up hearing and believing that sexual sin was a step below murder.

Which is why I think literature is so important. The best books take on the most taboo subjects with vulnerability and honesty. The best art shines light in our dark corners and forces us to confront our deepest secrets. “But even the president of the United States Sometimes must have have to stand naked.”  And if you read literature, you’ll find sex everywhere. I’ve already talked about sex in literature once. Here, I’ll do it again.

Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man

The reason sex is so hard is that it comes on each of us without warning like a flood. One day, we’re innocent (well relatively speaking) with no sexual desire but then puberty comes and now it’s invading our every thought. I exaggerate I’m sure, to an extent. There’s a range and individual circumstances, and differences between genders. This sexual maturation is one of the themes in the book, “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man”.

This book takes Stephen Dedalus from childhood through young adulthood. Along the way, he struggles to make sense of his growing desires and eventually, impulsively it seems, has sexual encounters with prostitutes. As he’s coming to terms with his actions, this is the type of sermon he hears:

-O, my dear little brethren in Christ Jesus, will we then offend that good Redeemer and provoke His anger? Will we trample again upon that torn and mangled corpse? Will we spit upon that face so full of sorrow and love? Will we too, like the cruel jews and the brutal soldiers, mock that gentle and compassionate Saviour Who trod alone for our sake the awful wine-press of sorrow? Every word of sin is a wound in His tender side. Every sinful act is a thorn piercing His head. Every impure thought, deliberately yielded to, is a keen lance transfixing that sacred and loving heart. No, no. It is impossible for any human being to do that which offends so deeply the diving majesty, that which is punished by an eternity of agony, that which crucifies again the Son of God and makes a mockery of Him.

The idea that each stray thought is as if we struck another blow into the nail piercing the hands of the dying Jesus is something familiar to me and something I internalized in my own religious upbringing, although not with this eloquence or fervor. I remember trying to memorize hymns, in particular, I Stand All Amazed, “That for me a sinner, he suffered, he bled and died”, to keep my head straight.

For Stephen Dedalus,

His fingers trembled as he undressed himself in the dormitory. He told his fingers to hurry up. He had to undress and then kneel and say his own prayers and be in bed before the gas was lowered so that he might not go to hell when he died.

Could it be that he, Stephen Dedalus, had done those things? His conscience sighed in answer. Yes, he had done them, secretly, filthily, time after time, and, hardened in sinful impenitence, he had dared to wear the mask of holiness before the tabernacle itself while his soul within was living mass corruption. How came it that God had not struck him dead? The leprous company of his sins closed about him, breathing upon him, bending over him from all sides. He strove to forget them in an act of prayer, huddling his limbs closer together and binding down his eyelids: but the senses of his soul would not be bound and, though his eyes were shut fast, he saw the places where he had sinned and, though his ears were tightly covered, he heard. He desired with all his will not to hear or see. He desired till his frame shook under the strain of his desire and until the senses of his soul closed. They closed for an instant and then opened. He saw.

I’m not saying that frequenting prostitutes is good and the protagonist’s relationship with women throughout the book is less than ideal. . But Stephen Dedalus is a sympathetic, sincere person struggling to make sense of his place in the world. In many ways, the adult figures in his life were not adequate and the Catholic presence, both preceding his sexual escapades and in response to them were damaging. His response to the fear and loathing reaction of this sermon temporarily inspires change and religious devotion, but only temporarily. He eventually leaves the church and embraces aesthetics on his own terms as an artist. I’m assuming this sort of over-reaction to sexual sin was part of the reasons.

Angela’s Ashes

This book is a memoir of Frank McCourt’s childhood in Irish poverty and neglect, but the over-arching presence in his community is the Catholic church. He discusses his own sexual awakening within the context of immense guilt and terrible misunderstanding. And this book echoes the same themes as Portrait. In this book McCourt talks about his indulgences in masturbation as he enters puberty.

One Redemptorist priest barks at us all the time about the Sixth Commandment. He says impurity is so grave a sin the Virgin Mary turns her face away and weeps.

And why does she weep, boys? She weeps because of you and what you are doing to her Beloved Son. She weeps when she looks down the long dreary vista of time and beholds in horror the spectacle of Limerick boys defiling themselves, polluting themselves, soiling their young bodies, which are the temples of the Holy Ghost. Our Lady weeps over these abominations knowing that every time you interfere with yourself you nail to the cross her Beloved Son, that once more you hammer into His dear head the crown of thorns, that you reopen those ghastly wounds….

but…

I can’t stop interfering with myself. I pray to the Virgin Mary and tell her I’m sorry I put her Son back on the cross and I’ll never do it again but I can’t help myself and swear I’ll go to confession and after that surely after that, I’ll never do it again. I don’t want to go to hell with devils chasing me for eternity jabbing me with hot pitchforks.

Later, Frank has a job that requires him to deliver telegrams to a certain young lady who is sick and dying. She entices him to sex which they continue on most of his weekly visits, until one day, she’s not there and eventually dies. Frank again:

On Monday I follow the funeral to the graveyard on my post office bicycle. I stand behind a tree a distance from the grave. Mrs. Carmody weeps and moans. Mr. Carmody snuffles and looks puzzled. The priest recites the Latin prayers and sprinkles coffin with holy water.

I want to go to the priest, to Mr. and Mrs. Carmody. I want to tell them how I’m the one who sent Theresa to hell. They can do whatever they like with me. Abuse me. Revile me. Throw grave dirt at me.

Again, there’s no way to condone weekly sex with a dying girl while on the job, but the boy was ill-equiped to really understand, manage and deal with the growing desires in his body. The resulting missteps were met with the shame and self-judgment, to the extent that death seemed like the better alternative.

Tess of D’Urbivelle

The previous two examples describe the sexual awakening of two boys as they struggle to come to terms with and manage puberty within a dysfunctional environment. I think the sexual stakes are higher for girls in many ways as society, often unfairly, places most of the burden for modesty on young women’s shoulders. But biology also is at play here. It’s the woman who bears the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. And that is the field Thomas Hardy mines in this book.

The main character in the book, Tess is both beautiful and desired by multiple suitors, one who rapes and impregnates her. She gives birth to a baby boy who early in life becomes deathly ill. The illness and the nature of the birth puts Tess in a state of late night panic. This is a long excerpt but worth the read:

The household went to bed, and distressed beyond measure, Tess retired also. She was continually waking as she lay, and in the middle of the night found that the baby was still worse. It was obviously dying – quietly and painlessly, but none the less surely.

In her misery she rocked herself upon the bed. The clock struck the solemn hour of one, that hour when fancy stalks outside reason, and malignant possibilities stand rock-firm as facts. She thought of the child consigned to the nethermost corner of hell, as its double doom for lack of baptism and lack of legitimacy; saw the arch-fiend tossing it with his three-pronged fork, like the one they used for heating the oven on baking days, to which picture she added many other quaint and curious details of torment sometimes taught the young in this Christian country. The lurid presentment so powerfully affected her imagination in the silence of the sleeping house that her nightgown became damp with perspiration, and the bedstead shook with each throb of her heart.

The infant’s breathing grew more difficult, and the mother’s mental tension increased. It was useless to devour the little thing with kisses; she could stay in bed no longer, and walked feverishly about the room.

‘O merciful God, have pity; have pity upon my poor baby!’ she cried. ‘Heap as much anger as you want upon me, and welcome; but pity the child!’

She leant against the chest of drawers, and murmured incoherent supplications for a long while, till she suddenly started up.

‘Ah! perhaps baby can be saved!  Perhaps it will be just the same!

She spoke so brightly it seemed as though her face might have shown in the gloom surrounding her. She lit a candle, and went to a second and a third bed under the wall, where she awoke her young sisters and brothers, all of whom occupied the same room. Pulling out the washing-stand so that she could get behind it, she poured some water from a jug, and made them kneel around, putting their hands together with fingers exactly vertical. While the children, scarcely awake, awe-stricken at her manner, their eyes growing larger and larger, remained in this position, she took the baby from her bed – a child’s child – so immature as scarce to seem a sufficient personality to endow its producer with the maternal title. Tess then stood erect with the infant on her arm beside the basin; the next sister held the Prayer-Book open before her, as the clerk at the church held it before the parson; and thus the girl set about baptizing her child.

Her figure looked singularly tall and imposing as she stood in her long white nightgown, a thick cable of twisted dark hair hanging straight down her back to her waist. The kindly dimness of the weak candle abstracted from her form and features the little blemishes which sunlight might have revealed – the stubble scratches upon her wrists, and the weariness of her eyes – her high enthusiasm having a transfiguring effect upon the face which had been her undoing, showing it as a thing of immaculate beauty, with a touch of dignity which was almost regal. The little ones kneeling round, their sleepy eyes blinking and red, awaited her preparations full of a suspended wonder which their physical heaviness at that hour would not allow to become active.

The most impressed of them said:
‘Be you really going to christen him, Tess?’

The girl-mother replied in a grave affirmative.

‘What’s his name going to be?’

She had not thought of that, but a name suggested by a phrase in the book of Genesis came into her head as she proceeded with the baptismal service, and now she pronounced it:

‘SORROW, I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’

She sprinkled the water, and there was silence.

‘Say ‘Amen,’ children.’

The tiny voices piped in obedient response, ‘Amen!’

Tess went on:
‘We receive this child’ – and so forth – ‘and do so sign him with the sign of the Cross.’

Here she dipped her hand into the basin and fervently drew an immense cross upon the baby with her forefinger, continuing with the customary sentences as to hsi manfully fighting against sin, the world, and the devil, and being a faithful soldier and servant unto his life’s end. She duly went on with the Lord’s Prayer, the children lisping it after her in a thin gnat-like wail, till, at the conclusion, raising their voices to clerk’s pitch, they again piped into silence, ‘Amen!’

Then their sister, with much augmented confidence in the efficacy of the sacrament, poured forth from the bottom of her heart the thanksgiving that follows, uttering it boldly and triumphantly in the stopt-diapason note which her voice acquired when her heart was in her speech, and which will never be forgotten by those who knew her. The ecstasy of faith almost apotheosized her; it set upon her a glowing irradiation, and brought a red spot into the middle of each cheek; while the miniature candle-flame inverted in her eye-pupils shone like a diamond. The children gazed up at her with more and more reverence, and no longer had a will for questioning. She did not look like Sissy to them now, but as a being large, towering, and awful – a divine personage with whom they had nothing in common.

Poor Sorrow’s campaign against in, the world, and the devil was doomed to be of limited brilliancy – luckily perhaps for himself, considering his beginnings. In the blue of the morning that fragile soldier and servant breathed his last, and when the other children awoke they cried bitterly, and begged Sissy to have another pretty baby.

The calmness which had possessed Tess since the christening remained with her in the infant’s loss. In the daylight, indeed, she felt her terrors about his soul to have been somewhat exaggerated; whether well founded or not, she had no uneasiness now, reasoning that if Providence would not ratify such an act of approximation she, for one, did not value the kind of heaven lost by the irregularity – either for herself or for her child.

So passed away Sorrow the Undesired – that intrusive creature, that bastard gift of shameless Nature, who respects not the social law; a waif to whom eternal Time had been a matter of days merely, who knew not that such things as years and centuries ever were; to whom the cottage interior was the universe, the week’s weather climate, new-born babyhood human existence, and the instinct to suck human knowledge.

Tess does have a religious, spiritual experience in yet another act of extreme dysfunction. Worried that her baby, born illegitimately, outside of the religious marriage sacrament, though of no fault of her own, was condemned to hell if not baptized before his passing, she performs a spontaneous late-night christening. But in the desperate love of a mother for a dying child, she achieved the sanctifying blessing of the spirit and calm assurance that everything would be ok.

Experiences Today

I already referenced some of the shameful messaging and the harsh sermonizing I absorbed as I made my way through puberty and beyond. But I wanted describe an experience of someone else close to me. She left home for Utah for the first time, inexperienced and not really prepared for this thrust into adulthood. There, she hooked up with a boyfriend and soon they were having sex. One way or another, the bishop of her ward found out and forced her into a church disciplinary court. In a room full of men older than her, none of whom she really knew, she was forced to discuss her sexual indiscretions. She was given probation which meant she could not serve in church callings or take the weekly sacrament. It didn’t matter, though, because she never returned to church largely because of this. Regardless of their intentions, she felt shamed and humiliated.

I find this entire thing horrifying. It was decades ago now as were my childhood sex-shaming sermons. I believe the church on the whole as softened its rhetoric and I don’t believe these sexual church courts are always quite as harsh now as they were then. But I believe they still occur and they still drive people out of the church. I believe we still, too often, use shame as a tool to try to control sexual behavior in our young people.

In broader society, however, I worry that the sexual pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. In any event, it’s a mixed bag of confusion. Pornography is easily accessible and has become mainstream and tolerated. Sexuality in general is used in mainstream media for marketing and for other purposes. However, there is a growing intolerance and activism around rape and rape culture, taken, in some cases, to extremes. And now we have a president who bragged about sexual assault and got elected anyway.

Another aspect of Mormonism sexuality, and this may seem trivia to some, but for me the use of a single word bothers me – worthiness. One has to be worthy to attend the temple, worthy to partake of the sacrament, worthy to serve in leadership callings. In this sense, being worthy is something we earn through good behavior. Can you sense the problem with this? How easy is it for someone to take a trivial mental leap from not being worthy because of a sexual mistake to having no worth. I’m not worthy to attend the temple because I have no worth. I’m not worthy to partake the sacrament, something everyone near me will witness, because I have no worth. I’m not worthy to be in my current calling because I have no worth.

It’s a damaging, damaging way of delivering religion.

Solutions?

This is a difficult issue and I don’t have good solutions. But I think there has to be a compassionate, responsible middle way. There has to be a recognition that we all are sexual beings, that sexual attraction is normal and good. That it takes work, effort, time and maturity to fully manage our sexuality correctly. Perhaps some sort of mix is appropriate – responsible sexual education, an open dialogue between parents, partners, and children, a focus on effort over total compliance unless the behavior is egregious or abusive.

I get it, Jesus set the sexual standard sky high:

27 ¶ Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

28 But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

That is ultimately the standard. Total purity, sexual devotion in thought, body and heart completely focused on one’s committed partner and for no one else. I think it’s unrealistic to expect a young child moving into and through puberty to achieve this standard immediately.

I’ll conclude with Adam Miller from Letters to a Young Mormon:

Chastity is not a kind of perfection. You may have arrived in this world innocent, but chastity is some-thing more. Chastity is not something you are born with and then break or lose, it is something that is made. It is something that must, with years of patient and compassionate effort, be cultivated and grown and gathered and sealed.

We All Want A Revolution

Last summer, my family took a cross country tour heading directly east from Phoenix, through San Antonio, New Orleans, up north through Alabama. We went specifically to Montgomery to visit some of the civl rights museums and sites, including Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and home and the freedom rider’s bus stop. The tour guide for Martin Luther King Jr.’s home was an unexpected highlight. She had a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion for the subject. She is old enough to have experienced the abject poverty that came from being black in the Jim Crow south and talented enough to leverage the gains of civil rights for personal success. She has seen both sides of the civil rights movement and met a number of historical people along the way.

When we made our way into  the kitchen of the home, she described the night when Martin Luther King came home late, lying in bed when the phone rang. Answering, Dr. King heard an anonymous person on the line threatening to kill his family unless they left Alabama in three days. After the call, he sat alone in the kitchen wondering how he could leave town without showing he was succumbing to pressure. Sitting there, pouring his heart to God, he received an overwhelming feeling to continue his work. The rest, of course, is history. The tour guide called that moment a prophetic call and declared that spot sacred. Just a bit later, she looked directly into my eyes and explained how as a young girl she was told to never look a white man directly in the eyes. It was a powerful experience.

The difference between then and now was that America, especially in the south, used identity politics as an oppressive tool to keep some in power and to suppress and terrorize others who wanted more of it. Martin Luther King Jr. was trying to transcend identity politics. In his most famous speech, he describes what most definitely was post-racial, in which we are judged “not by the color of our skin, but by the content of our character”.

Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting identity politics with compassion, energy and love, calling it out with force and energy. He opposed violence with peace and preached the Christian theology of unconditional love for one’s enemies. He did this with the nation watching and won the argument because he had the better position and eventually convinced the country of it. Laws were passed and eventually enforced and legal  segregation collapsed.

I must admit, standing in his kitchen that day and visiting the civil rights sites, I felt moved. I felt a deep desire to become part of something similar, something bigger then myself. I wanted to know what it felt like to stand up to an oppressive power, to dig deep within myself to stand up against evil.

Which brings the political struggle of 2017 into context. Sam Harris recently tweeted in response to the recent events at Charlottesville:

In 2017, all identity politics is detestable. But surely white identity politics is the most detestable of all.

What’s interesting is the triviality of the subject matter that instigated the violence. The marchers were protesting statues but undergirding it was something bigger and darker – white resentment spurred on ostensibly by an economy that’s become more global, less certain, and that’s been threatening to knock the white male worker off from the pedestal he (we) have enjoyed for all these years.

So, given the context of American history, white identity politics is horrifying. Sam Harris has also been critical of black identity politics as manifest in movements such as Black Lives Matter. I can’t begin to defend or explain Harris’ objection to black identity politics, but I think I can add my own explanation for why it’s perhaps not the right response to what ails us in 2017 and why the impulse to recreate the movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. is both understandable and wrong.

First of all, I believe racism necessarily persists. The systems and structures, the culture and the stereotypes that have been built up and driven into the American psyche since before it’s founding doesn’t just disappear without real work. One can’t look at our prison population, the political or business leadership, or the professional class and not notice the disparities of the black and brown representation in these important sectors. One cannot legitimately blame these population discrepancies on the black population themselves. Those in more elite positions have a responsibility here.

But both the cause and the response to black male imprisonment, crime and poverty are multi-faceted, disputed and complicated and will likely require money, resources, and sustained political commitment – a commitment to recruit black male and female teachers, a commitment to enact police reform, a commitment to find alternatives to incarceration that is both compassionate and effective. It’s hard, difficult, potentially expensive and not entirely satisfying work. Essentially, the response is largely political at all levels and will require bi-partisan support to make happen. I don’t think we get to that consensus through screaming matches or protest marches. We get there through painful, difficult conversations, intelligent voting and a deep commitment to the communities we live in.

Martin Luther King’s marches worked because the injustices were obvious and the solutions to it were obvious, though difficult. Stop lynching black people. Stop preventing blacks from enjoying the same resources as white people. Our racial past was shameful, obviously shameful. It took a charismatic preacher and television cameras to make this case and eventually the political will to do the most basic thing was achieved – enforce laws to protect black people from white violence.

What’s interesting here is that Martin Luther King was not evoking identity politics at least in my understanding of it. Rather, he was transcending it. He was arguing against it. It was George Wallace and the segregationists who were invoking identity politics. But identity politics continues, in both political parties in different ways. For the purpose of this essay, let me focus in on the identity politics of the left because it is a big reason why Donald Trump won. And I think that’s the key. If you want to end discrimination, we have to transcend identity politics and strive for a unified reform instead. A drive to reach for what we have in common rather than a constant obsession of what makes us different.

Let me shift to the identification of sexuality.  In my church, one of its leading members took a lot of heat when he said in response to the question “how can homosexual members of the church live and remain steadfast in the gospel” that there are no homosexual members of the church:

If that’s all you heard out of context, you would think he was trying to say gay Mormons simply don’t exist, which is an obvious absurdity. He wasn’t, keep listening.  Rather than classifying an individual along the single dimension of sexual attraction, he wanted to think about each of us as children of God, all connected and alike, though each with an innumerable collection of characteristics that make us unique.  Our sexual attraction is one physical characteristic among many. Really, we all have to walk a life filled with challenges. Our physical, emotional, and social gifts, quirks and limitations will open some doors, close others and provide both challenges and opportunities. The challenge through it all is to extend love and grace in all of the dizzying array of circumstances we encounter in our life.

Of course, there is more to this response that one can take issue with, but in terms of identity, I think Elder Bednar makes a good point.

And I think that’s generally right. Though it’s true that gay, lesbian, transgendered people are discriminated in horrifying ways, especially within the Mormon community. Carol Lynn Pearson writes movingly, story after story about gay Mormons rejected by family, depressed and isolated. It’s heartbreaking and unnecessary. How could a parent reject a child who comes out as gay unless they are somehow able to reduce them solely to their sexual preference and then dismiss them for that alone.  They are still their child. They are still a child of God. They are still worthy of love. Their identity is so much bigger than this one characteristic, no matter what your religious or ethical views of that characteristic might be.

I think one way to transcend identity abuse is to move beyond identity politics. I think there are ways to reach a broader consensus then to boil down a person to a single identifying label. I believe the reason why gay marriage became legal was not because an obsession of the LGBT community as a minority group distinct and different from the rest of us. Rather I think the marginalization of the gay population as an distinctly different class of people was what justified government neglect in the face of AIDS back in the 1980’s. Saying gay people deserved the AIDS virus was a practice in identity politics.

What worked, instead, was when people from all walks of life came out as gay. When we saw ourselves in each other and when we realized how much we have in common.  It wasn’t identity, it was unity that eventually pushed the country toward marriage equality.

Perhaps there is a lesson here.

Because I don’t believe God plays identity politics. I think He actively works against it. In The Vision of All, the Mormon scholar, Joseph Spencer, dives deep into the Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon. Basically, the Book of Mormon prophet, Nephi, spends a lot of scriptural real estate quoting and explaining Isaiah. The reason, Spencer argues, has a lot to do with God’s desire to transcend tribalism and to bring peace.

In Chapter VII:

And so God calls Abraham. He takes one man and through him launches a new nation – or really a non-nation, a nation that won’t work like a nation. Remember how the story begins, with God telling Abraham, ‘Get thee out of they country, and from they kindred, and from they father’s house’ (Gen. 12:1). He’s to strip himself of nationality, and then he’s to go wandering. Through him a new nation would come into existence, but from the outset it’s to be a rather different sort of thing from the other nations. They mark borders and claim lands, but his children are to do everything possible to establish peace among the nations. And they’re to do so by blessing ‘all families of the earth’. They’re to rework the very order of the world, replacing the national with the familial, war with peace. This is what the stories of Abraham in the Book of Genesis are all about, remember. Abraham is the figure of hospitality and peace. He’s the guy who makes peace with Egypt, with Lot, with the king of Sodom, with Melchizedek, with Abimelech, with Ephron the Hitite. He’s the guy who welcomes the strangers in and feeds them, the same strangers that nearby nations (Sodom, Gomorrah) treat with terrible violence (rape as a way of putting newcomers into their place). Abraham is the figure of faith and obedience, but also of hospitality, of peacemaking.

His children inherit this task. Israel is born, a whole nation that’s supposed to be ready to assume the Abrahamic project. But the rest of the Bible is the story of their failure to understand this. They want to be a nation like other nations. They want imperial power and they hope to extend their borders. They see their covenantal relationship with God to mean that they’re different from other nations only in that God backs them up. And so they find themselves in constant trouble. And God sends them prophets to get them out of trouble, or at least to call them back to their responsibilities. There’s an especially important prophet who comes along in the eight century when the covenantal status of Israel is under the most serious threat since Egypt. You can guess his name: Isaiah. He lays into Israel, trying to call them back into their covenantal task, to the work of redeeming all the Gentile nations by teaching them peace. At the outset of his remarkable book of prophecy, there’s an especially Abrahamic promise of what’s to come when Israel finally fulfills its task. The Gentile nations won’t be learning war anymore, because they’ll be beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Abandoning violence at least, they instead decide to join Israel in worshiping the Lord at his temple.

This is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant.

See what’s described here? The Abrahamic covenant was never meant to separate Israel from the world. It’s goal always was to bring the gentile population into the covenant with them, a covenant of peace and unity. A covenant to “beat swords into plowshares”.

But I get it. Marches are fun. We all want to hold up a sign and shout and scream. We all want a revolution.

But you know, we don’t need a revolution. The problems we’re facing right now doesn’t call for one, because “you know it’s going to be alright”.

But what we really need right now is love. Yes, all we need is love…

Does Religious Faith Have to be Literal?

Christianity at its core is a religion of historical narratives. It’s sacred text is a history of the world starting at its creation up through and past Christ’s life, ministry, death and resurrection. To be sure, there’s plenty of theology and doctrine in these stories, and not just stories, the book contains plenty from ancient prophets, their epistles, poetry, warnings and prophecies. This book and the people who produced it are at the root of three major religions – so there’s a power in these stories and in the history and traditions. But fundamentally Christian scripture is a historical narrative of God’s interaction with ancient people and prophets.

After the last Biblical narrator died, it was up to later believers to collect, interpret and translate the sacred text. It has made its way from its original form through the many translations and editions to its present form, not as a single book, but as a variety of alternative translations. The text is complicated, vague, multi-layered, and contradictory, opening itself up to different interpretations and variety of religious offshoots and doctrine that all claim authority from this book of scripture. The confusion and disagreements begin I believe, almost from the beginning, which is no surprise. We’re all stumbling through, we all “see through a glass, darkly”. A few hundred years after Christ, the council of Nicea was organized to bring together diverging thoughts into a single, unifying Christian belief.  The Nicean Creed drives much of Christianity’s core doctrine today. But even still, we have numerous Biblical interpretations, creeds and churches all claiming authority back to Christ.

So, Christianity is fundamentally rooted in ancient history. Modern day churches are tied very closely to ancient ideas. And as a believer this makes sense because God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The same religious beliefs and principles that applied then should apply the same today. God loved and guided His people then, He should do the same today.

And Mormons up the historical ante. Joseph Smith born in the early nineteenth century in upstate New York, translates a book of ancient American scripture about a people who originated in ancient Jerusalem, but migrated by ship to the Americas bringing a belief in Christianity and a portion of Old Testament scripture with them. As with the Bible, this book is historical, filled with stories of wars, preaching and migrations. The major portion of the book spans 1000 years, straddling in time the visit of the resurrected Christ to the ancient Americas, where Christ shared some of the same teachings that was recorded in the New Testament gospels.

But Joseph Smith did not stop with the Book of Mormon. He re-translated portions of the Bible, making inspired corrections, adding additional books including stories about Moses.  He also produced a new book of Abraham, produced from an inspired translation from found ancient Egyptian papyrus. He formed a church, gained converts, taught the sacred nature and destination of the American land, pronounced Missouri the historical destination of the garden of eden and predicted a New Jerusalem will be eventually be established there. I could go on, but fundamentally, Mormonism is at its core, Christian, but Christianity with an American twist, rooting Christianity not just in Jerusalem but in America as well.

But something happened on the way to modernity.  While God is the same then as now, humans evolved and advanced. We know much more now and we continue to learn. Scientific and secular thought has helped us understand the world as it is and as it once was and where it might be tomorrow. But as we evolve and learn and gather. As we understand more and more, we find a growing tension between religious truths and scientific discoveries. More often than not, religion, not science has had to make room to accommodate these new discoveries.

We all know the story of Galileo’s run in with Catholic church over the earth’s rotation around the sun. We also know the still on-going debate between evolution and an old earth and those who believe biblical creation story literally and those who believe the earth to be 6000 years old. More controversially is the debate among scholars, both believers and unbelievers, of the historical evidence surrounding Christ’s life. Mormons have to come to terms with the DNA evidence in indigenous American population that shows an ancestry from east Asia, contradicting the story of an ancient migration from Jerusalem, or the evidence that the papyri scrolls were nothing more than “standard funerary texts” with no evidence of Abraham’s actual writings.

So, a religious faith rooted in historical narratives and traditions passed down into modernity from ancient times can be vulnerable if literal belief is held too tightly. Faith that stands on literal interpretations is vulnerable to scientific or historical advancements that challenge those interpretations and then is a faith on shaky ground.

In Letter’s to a Young Mormon, Adam Miller has what I think is one key here in his letter on science:

I believe in a literal reading of this text. I believe the Hebrews literally thought the world was like that, and I believe that God literally ran with it and revealed his grace at work in their lives through it. More, I believe that God is just as literally showing himself to us in and through that continually rolling revelation that is science as we know it. The world given to us is not the same world given to them. We have two worlds here. But though our worlds diverge, it is the same God peeping through. Believing that the God of their world is just as surely the God of ours doesn’t commit us to believing in their version of the world. Rather, it commits us to believing in a God whose grace is full enough to fill them both.

Miller decides in this short passage to remove the tension between science and religion and instead unify them into a single revelationary stream. God talked to us through prophets 2000 years ago and does so still today. But the revelations look different today than they did back then. Back then, He came in burning bushes or expansive visions, today we are taught to be kind over an internet stream from Salt Lake City. But God is also talking to us in all sorts of ways, through each discovery in our laboratories or universities. Our scientists and historians are also prophets in their own way. But not just them, each of us as we receive bits of God’s grace in the simplest of ways as we muddle through the challenges of our every day lives.

But more than that, throughout my faith journey, I have never been asked to root my faith in scientific evidence or literal historical belief. I was baptized when I was eight and was asked then and since if I have and will continue to renew my baptismal covenant to “mourn with those who mourn”. I’ve been asked if I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, of Christ, of God, of His prophets, in the restoration. I was never shown the evidence. I was simply asked to read and pray and to do my best to commit myself to discipleship.

Miller in Rube Goldberg Machine says this of testimony:

It is in this context – in the context of the Atonement’s power to meaningfully impact the world by restoring to it the possibilities that our sins had foreclosed – that Ballard notes how a testimony depends on the humble, sincere clarity of an ‘I know’. A testimony must be purified of every sign precisely because a testimony expresses a kind of unconditional certainty that is foreign to every objective sign that belongs to our thoroughly conditioned world. A testimony can express this kind of certainty because it depends on a direct experience of the Atonement in which the world, in its strictly conditioned chains of cause and effect, is contradicted by the gracious restoration of lost or impossible possibilities

In other words, to try to place scripture in a role better suited for historical or scientific text is to try to force conditional signs onto a faith meant to transcend them.

My sins and mistakes may disqualify me in all kinds of ways, Christ’s grace restores the rich possibilities of infinity so abundantly felt as a child. As I walk in faith, I become as a little child, full of grace and hope. Testimony transforms the soul.

Importantly, we live in a different world today than Joseph Smith, Peter, Moses, Noah or Adam. We have biblical text and a rich religious tradition passed down to us from our ancestors as a “speech [that] whisper[s] [to us] out of the dust.” We can believe their offerings literally in that we can believe believe Joseph Smith literally believed he was writing the words of Lehi, Nephi, Abraham and Moses. We can believe ancient Hebrews literally believed the world was created in a week and that Adam and Eve literally walked out of the Garden of Eden.

We can read and pray over these historical texts and come to love these stories. Whether or not they are literal renditions of actual people and events is beside the point. The point is whether or not we experience grace through them. The point is whether or not our lives are transformed by knowing them.

If we can give up the need for these stories to be literal, something else can happen to us. We can make room for this world as well. Our hearts and minds can be open to all the revelations that are now pouring down on us as if as a flood. More on this point from “Letters to a Young Mormon”:

God has been rushing to show us more of this strange world. You name it: fossils, black holes, x-rays, DNA, set theory, one-dimensional strings, Neanderthals, dark matter, brain imaging, big data, evolution, retroviruses, interplanetary travel, the Higgs boson, non-euclidean geometries, Mars rovers, etc. God used to send us an occasional rain. Now the revelations come as a flood. We live in a postdiluvian world, and the rain falls harder every day.

What I’ve been trying to say is this: a faith rooted in the atonement, rather than literal stories, is a faith big enough to make room for both our ancient world, it’s traditions and truths, as well as this world, it’s secularism, academics and scientific discoveries. And that is the kind of faith I aspire to.

General Conference is This Weekend and What Does That Mean for This Mormon

Every six months, Mormons from around the world find ways to participate in General Conference, where possible, live, streaming over the internet or later reading the published words. For those of us in time-zone proximity of Utah, this means we have the chance to sit in front of a screen streaming video originating in Salt Lake City, for six sessions, beginning with the women’s session, four additional sessions for the general audience and a session for men and boys jammed in between.

It’s in these sessions that something prototypically Mormon takes place. Mostly men, but some women, nearly all white, nearly all from Utah, with some exceptions, speak for about twenty minutes or so each in these six two hour blocks. Mostly the talks are on very mainstream Christian subjects, mercy, repentance, and Christ. Occasionally they can get controversial, stepping into topics like feminism or LGBT issues. The speakers without exception are substantive people, all with a long pedigree within the church, many having or have had successful careers in business or academia in a variety of disciplines.

This is a church after all, so they have all been called into lives of discipleship. They approach these talks with prayer and study, tapping into the reservoirs of a life-long commitment toward service to God and man. They have strived for holiness and come to these talks prepared to offer some of themselves inspired as they are by God.

Mormons believe in prophets. We believe in modern day revelation. We believe in modern day scripture. We have a scriptural canon that extends beyond the Bible and includes religious texts composed in modern times. Most Mormons believe General Conference acts as a kind of scripture, though none of these talks have ever found their way into the official canon.

Mormons believe that ““whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation“, so in that sense, to the degree conference speakers are moved upon by the Holy Ghost, they do speak scripture. In that sense, so are the things I might say. But I’m not sure any one particular conference talk carries the same weight as our holy books.

Before we go any further, I want to make a point not often made but I think is important and perhaps obvious. Not all scripture is of equal importance. I would place the words of Christ above everything else. Joseph Spencer in his book The Vision of All: Twenty-five Lectures on Isaiah in Nephi’s Record, makes a really good case that Nephi considered the Isaiah’s portion of his record more precious than what he wrote before or after.  And certainly some of the drudge of the Old Testament doesn’t carry the same inspirational power as say the beatitudes.

To that end, I’m not sure individual General Conference talks rise to the level of importance of our sacred text. Most of the talks lean heavily on scripture, so in large part this is a distinction without a difference. But not everything that gets said over the pulpit at General Conference is inspired. Some of it is wrong, misguided, and even hurtful – at least to some.  We’re all human beings and we make mistakes. And General Conference is necessarily general, meant for the general population as a whole. It’s up to us to find resonance into the messiness and complexity of our individual lives.

Errant scripture is fundamentally part of Mormonism. The Book of Mormon’s title page admits, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.”  Joseph Smith, under periods of persecution, took the time to attempt to correct significant portions of the Bible. The Doctrine and Covenants makes a point often to chastise the early leaders of the church. And Joseph Smith readily recognized his own weaknesses and frailties.

Given all of this, General Conference is a special event, giving believers an opportunity to sit with these (mostly white, mostly male) church leaders and absorb the messages I know they’ve agonized over ahead of time. It’s to my benefit to prayerfully consider what they have to say.

The Doctrine Covenants describes how we should listen to a prophets words this way:, “5 For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.” I don’t think this means that every word uttered this weekend will be 100% prophetic or even inspired. I think very human opinions often get mixed in. But we should listen to their words as if God was uttering them, “in all patience and faith”. I think this is true each Sunday in Sacrament meeting. My 12 year old son spoke in sacrament meeting last Sunday. I think it is to my benefit to receive his words as if from God’s own mouth, in all patience and faith.

Patience because I may not agree. Patience because they may be delivered in a way that is not inspiring or is hurtful or in ways that contradict my own beliefs. In faith because even with and because of all this, I may need to hear what is being said. Mormon Matters has a good podcast about General Conference. Included here is a discussion with Carol Lynn Pearson, Patrick Mason and Mark Crego. I think they all give good advice some of which has inspired this post.

I love General Conference week. I believe that General Conference should challenge us. If we too readily agree with every word, we are probably not thinking hard enough. We are probably given up too much of our agency. We are probably placing these (mostly) men and a few women up too high on a pedestal meant only for God. If we are too cynical, then we risk dismissing the things of God and will lose out on the blessings that come in that.

Conference should challenge us and we should challenge conference. We need to own our own agency while be willing to sustain, listen to and be convicted by the good word of God, whether it comes through scripture or whether it comes from the words of an inspired speaker over an internet stream on an early April weekend.

Mormon Temples and the Worth Of a Soul

The central theme of Christianity and Mormonism is that the worth of every single soul is great. There’s not a person alive that is not of value. The sole point of religion is to help each of us recognize the worth of others, no matter who they are, where they are from, what they look like, or what they do. Christianity really emphasizes the message through the life of its central figure, Jesus, whose life was anticipated in Old Testament scripture as someone coming from a place of little consequence.

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

The story of Christ’s birth and life is obviously well known. A virgin birth in a manger, in poverty and obscurity to a people subjected to Roman rule who came not to bring political deliverance but rather living water with a promise that those who drink will never thirst again. Consistently, he hung out with the poor, the underclass, the sick, the afflicted and the sinner and saved his most severe condemnation not for those who are weak, but for those with power, authority and money.  His theology is both hyper-personal and revolutionary, proclaiming that the last shall be first and the first last. This is a challenging example to follow. To take it seriously means we need to take every single person on this planet as individuals with worth.

With that as a backdrop I recently finished the book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”. Here the author describes individual lives in an Indian slum situated near an airport in Mumbai. The author goes out of her way to bring to light the poignant, beautiful lives of the people struggling to survive under severe poverty. Thousands of people crammed between a sewage lake and an airport, neglected, ignored and dismissed by the broader society.

This quote from the book is typical, but also remarkable in how it echos the story of the Good Samaritan only without the Samaritan and with the miserable backstories of each person passing by the injured man:

“One dawn in July, Sunil found a fellow scavenger lying in the mud where Annawadi’s rut-road met the airport thoroughfare. Sunil knew the old man a little; he worked hard and slept outside the Marol fish market, half a mile a way. Now the man’s leg was mashed and bloody, and he was calling out to passersby for help. Sunil figured he’d been hit by a car. Some drivers weren’t overly concerned about avoiding the trash-pickers who scoured the roadsides.

Sunil was too scared to go to the police station and ask for an ambulance, especially after what was rumored to have happened to Abdul. Instead he ran toward the battleground of the Cargo Road dumpsters, hoping an adult would brave the police station. Thousands of people passed by this way every morning.

Two hours later, when Rahul left Annawadi for school, the injured man was crying for water. ‘This one is even drunker than your father,’ one of Rahul’s friends teased him. ‘Drunker than your father,’ Rahul retorted unimaginatively as they turned onto Airport road. Rahul wasn’t afraid of the police; he’d run to them for help when his neighbor dumped boiling lentils on Danush, his sickly baby. The man on the road was just a scavenger, though, and Rahul had to catch a bus to class.

When Zehrunisa Hussain passed an hour later, the scavenger was screaming in pain. She thought his leg looked like hell, but she was bringing food and medicine to her husband, who also looked like hell far across the city in the Arthur Road jail.

Mr. Kamble passed a little later, milky-eyed and aching, on his tour of business and charities, still seeking contributions for his heart valve. He had once been a pavement dweller like the injured man. Now Mr. Kamble saw nothing but his own bottomless grief, because he knew miracles were possible in the new India and that he couldn’t have one.

When Rahul and his brother returned from school in the early afternoon, the injured scavenger lay still, moaning faintly. At 2:30 P.M., a Shiv Sena man made a call to a friend in the Sahar Police Station about a corpse that was disturbing small children. At 4 P.M., constables enlisted other scavengers to load the body into a police van, so that the constables wouldn’t catch the disease that trash-pickers were known to carry.

Unidentified body, the Sahar Police decided without looking for the scavenger’s family. Died of tuberculosis, the Cooper Hospital morgue pathologist concluded without an autopsy. Thokale, the police officer handling the case, wanted to move fast, for he had business with B. M. Patil Medical College in Bijapur. Its anatomy department required twenty-five unclaimed cadavers for dissection, and this one rounded out the order.”

The nameless scavenger who lost his name and significance from birth. Shutoff from education off from an education and eventually even a home – his life is not told in this story. As an old man, he’s hit by a car and left to die on the side of the road. But then, even after death, he’s severed from all ties to whatever family he may have had, discarded and forgotten to history, forever.

And I get why this is so difficult. It’s easy to race on by a homeless man pushing a shopping cart slowly on the sidewalk. In India, more so. I spent three and a half weeks there, in 20001 and felt overwhelmed by the crowd of people and especially the masses of poverty. How do you consider the one individual when there were so many.

I’ve already described Christianity’s core mission. To offer hope, significance and worth to the poor, forgotten, diseased and sinful. That was Christ’s core message and mission. Mormonism  came along much later, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, an American Christian church. Among Mormonism’s innovations is its emphasis on familial relationships. Joseph Smith taught the eternal nature not just of our lives but of our relationships and built temples in which Mormons perform sacred ordinances and make sacred covenants to remember our dead – all of our dead. It’s one of the core missions of the church to bind and seal the entire global family to each other. Not one person forgotten, not one person lost.

But the only way for this to happen is if each one of us noticed just a few more people. And this is why Mormons are asked to do family history work. To bring out of obscurity those in our family tree who would be forgotten otherwise.

Big Tent Mormonism

It’s not news that more and more people are leaving organized religion. Mormonism is not immune, although I think the overall growth rate  trends upward, perhaps largely because of growth in Africa. Personally, I know people who have left Mormonism. And I get why some choose to leave the church, really I do, but I still believe religion matters. Nonetheless, here I’m not going to get into why people should stay, rather I want to dig into what type of person Mormonism is meant for. The answer is, and I hope this is obvious – that Mormonism is for every type of person, and we should want them exactly as they are.

Now this sounds obvious, but I think we are too often terrible at this. There are aspects of our religion that make this kind of openness challenging. For one thing, the first Sunday of every month, we have what basically is an open-mic meeting we call “Fast and Testimony”. For about 30 to 35 minutes of this meeting, random members of the audience, at their own discretion, get up to extemporaneously share something of themselves. Needless to say this can be interesting and beautiful and strange and everything in between. We also rely on lay leadership. Nobody except for, I suppose, the very top leadership, gets paid. In congregations throughout the world, men and women give up precious hours of their own time to pitch in to the church congregation to make it run. Additionally, you cannot choose your congregation, you attend based on where you live. And then every member is asked to visit and serve and befriend other members in that congregation. This all requires some number of highly-functioning, engaged, committed enough to spend hours of their own time individuals to make this all work.

But it’s challenging to accept everyone because everyone is difficult, some more than others. We naturally want to be with people just like us. And church is not a building, it’s made up of people and relationships, working and serving each other. Sometimes we simply do not fit in to the ward we’re assigned, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps we find that we’re politically liberal in a congregation filled with nothing but Glenn Beck listeners. Or we can’t quite accept polygamy was ever of God and wonder how a prophet could have introduced it over his wife’s objections. Or we’re upset that women don’t have more of an equal seat at the table. Or we have a gay brother who will have to fight and work and demand acceptance. Or we struggle with employment or poverty in a congregation filled with those with more success. Or when we’ve been down, we’ve looked at pornography and can’t stomach the shame and the guilt that can come attending church after having done so. Or we just can’t kick the cigarette habit and are afraid others may smell the smoke on us. I could go on and on and on.

But Mormonism needs every one of us and our messy lives and our imperfections and our crazy ideas and our diversity. We all need each other. A few quotes:

“Let me say that we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do. We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work. That is the essence of our missionary service” President Hinckley (meeting, Nairobi, Kenya, 17 Feb. 1998).

“If you experience the pain of exclusion at church from someone who is frightened at your difference, please don’t leave or become inactive. You may think you are voting with your feet, that you are making a statement by leaving. [Some may] see your diversity as a problem to be fixed, as a flaw to be corrected or erased. If you are gone, they don’t have to deal with you anymore. I want you to know that your diversity is a more valuable statement.”
-Chieko N. Okazaki

“Engaged in this work, theology has only one strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity. Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg Machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit – tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. This is their joy. Here, the impromptu body of Christ is a Rube Goldberg Machine. In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide. Charity is a willingness to have our lives made difficult by people we did not have to help, objects we did not have to save, thoughts we did not have to think. Theology is gratuitous because theology is grace, and grace, by definition, is unearned, unwarranted, unnecessary, unconditional, gratuitous. Theology is free. Theology isn’t gratuitous because it receives without giving but because it gives without thought of return.” – Adam Miller from Rube Goldberg Machines

And finally, the baptismal covenant:

8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
Mosiah 18:8-10

So, let me offer a caveat. I think the one general condition is a willingness to participate in good faith in a way that’s cooperative and faith-promoting. I get why the church would not tolerate those who are disruptive or dangerous. But beyond the most extreme examples, yes, we need each other…

3 Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;

D&C 4:3

And that’s it. Mormonism at its core requires desire, a desire to serve God and that’s basically it.  A desire to serve in our imperfections.