A week ago tonight I was lying in bed at 11:30 pm, jotting a note to a friend before turning out the light when suddenly our newly installed pocket doors began rattling. A strange, simultaneous rumble went up from somewhere outside. I wasn't sure what it was, although it didn't really sound like thunder. As quickly as I could wonder what was going on in the other side of the house where everyone was asleep, the mattress began to hop and roll, and I realized with an Aha! that this is what an earthquake feels like. It wasn't a big earthquake, just enough to make the pictures hang crooked and cause me to sit up in my pajamas and say out loud, "What on earth...?!"
When the next one rumbled through twenty minutes later, I knew from the telltale rattling of those doors precisely what it was. I didn't even pause in my typing.
It's been a tough few days in Mormonland, as we've experienced a bit of a collective What on Earth in the form of policy changes to the handbook regarding the children of same-sex marriages, and an accompanying shift in our official definition of apostasy. But you know all of that. It's no surprise that there's been a flood of members' reactions running the gamut from defensiveness to bewilderment to heartache to resignation of church memberships.
But curiously, I haven't noticed a lot of what I would describe as outrage. What I have noticed instead is sadness. Many of our members are expressing feelings of real pain as a result of these changes.
I've felt sad about it myself, also hopeless, and I've thought a lot about why that is. I don't have a horse in this race, so to speak, by which I mean merely that no one at my own dinner table is personally affected by these changes. My larger, metaphorical dinner table is a different story, however, as I do have close friends for whom this constitutes a direct hit. So that hurts.
But even more than that, I think my sadness, hopelessness and accompanying frustration stem from the fact that no matter how many times I turn this new policy over in my mind, it still causes me to sit up in bed in my pajamas and say out loud, "What. On. Earth."
I just can't square it with anything I know or understand about Jesus Christ, whose name is on the door. It doesn't make sense, and I like things to make sense.
I've listened to Elder Christofferson more than once, hoping I'll catch a glimpse of something, but it eludes me. The analogy to polygamy doesn't hold water for a lot of reasons, just one being that polygamists aren't members of the Church. It's pretty unlikely that a polygamous couple is going to show up asking to have their baby blessed or their children baptized. That's not at all outside the realm of what I'd expect from the parents or grandparents of a child living with same-sex parents, however. I'm pretty sure that happens all the time, because these families live in our wards and around our dinner tables.
The idea of the policy being designed to protect these children from the challenges inherent in hearing teachings at church that continually contradict the reality of their home life also makes no sense to me. In fact, I reject that idea completely. For one thing, I'm guessing a pretty good percentage of the children in most Primaries are regularly subjected to teachings that they can't quite square with what they see going on at home.
Just today I attended a regional broadcast in which there were numerous conflicting ideas presented, within single talks! Anyone in the habit of paying attention to our church speakers and thinking at all about what they're hearing is bound to encounter those things just about every Sunday. My lifetime of Mormonism has subjected me to 52 years of cognitive dissonance that has at times been deafening. Suffice it to say, I have a big shelf and I keep a lot of things on it. And I happen to know I'm not alone.
But I'm not sure I can find a way to quietly shelve this particular item.
There. I said it.
I saw a gorgeous movie from Finland this week called The Fencer, set in early 1950's Estonia during the Stalin years. It depicted a predictably grim place, but the reason I bring it up here is that the social construct of the time was one of extreme and generalized distrust. Before the screening the filmmaker spoke to us, prefacing his movie by describing to the audience the way the people of that time and place interacted with each other—they were completely guarded, every meeting an uneasy dance in which each person tried to get a feel for whether or not the other was on the right side and should be trusted. In the film, our hero eventually ended up being turned over to the secret police, to be carted off to Siberia. But the scene in which the betrayal occurs is curiously devoid of emotion. The man who betrays his coworker says something to the effect that, "I'm just playing my part. I'm just doing what's expected. This is what I'm meant to do." And not only does the protagonist not blame him, the audience can't really blame him either. You don't expect him to question a society in which he must be wholly focused on his own survival, no matter how twisted right and wrong have become. And he doesn't.
A Hollywood version might have had the man experience a change of heart and decide to do the right thing. Perhaps the two of them would even have escaped the police together. But in this film, I didn't really expect that kind of ending, and I didn't get it.
I bring this up because in this current Mormon episode, people have behaved pretty much the way I thought they'd behave too. The Church has handled it in the way I've come to expect—I saw a carefully choreographed video "interview" between a PR person and an apostle who was chosen, I believe, specifically because he is seen as friendly to the "cause," having a gay brother to whom he has remained close. I'm uncomfortable at what feels like that attempted manipulation. With the kind of potential hurt and sadness in such a change, I'd have felt better if I'd seen the Prophet himself just step up to a mic and explain What On Earth They Were All Thinking. I know, the Prophet is in failing health. But it's also become plain we don't operate that way. In fact, we increasingly seem to operate more like a slick corporate entity than anything else. And that's about all that was clear in the brief video we were given as an official response.
It was around 4th grade that I specifically remember beginning to awaken to what I can best describe as Big Ideas for Grownups...things that I'd catch glimpses of that would make me feel like I was on the brink of understanding the universe in new and important ways. Ideas that seemed to me like secret passages to the next level. They were mainly silly things, looking back, but I consumed them greedily. It was as if I was on a treasure hunt, delighted by any clues that could help me better understand where I should be headed next.
One of those I remember most distinctly came in the form of this well-known verse by Edwin Markham:
He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
I don't remember where I came across it, but how I loved this little verse! I jotted it in margins of papers, I rehearsed it in my mind as I walked home from school. Something about it seemed so simple but profound. As if possessing this one secret might give me a leg up on all the competition as I struggled to navigate the social structures I found increasingly baffling and intimidating.
Here was a strategy I could actually use.
It still seems simple to me. But I don't see this most simple of Christ-like strategies anywhere in the blueprint of the Church's new policy changes. Yes, there are definitely lines being drawn, but they are the first kind rather than the second.
I'm trying to think of a time in the scriptures when we see Christ draw that kind of line around himself. He seems to be the one in the situation who is forever grabbing the stick and patiently enlarging the circle in the dirt to include whomever is standing nearby. He doesn't ask a lot of questions or lay down a lot of conditions first. He doesn't do an uneasy dance in which he tries to figure out which side the other person is on. He just invites everyone. And then he invites us again.
There is, of course, not a thing I can do about it all. I know, many of my Mormon friends would tell me to pray about it and I can receive a confirmation of the Spirit that these changes are indeed Christ's intended direction for His church. Many would suggest that I fall in line and do what I'm expected to do. That's becoming the climate, as near as I can tell—I find myself increasingly in situations where Mormons tell other Mormons that sustaining the Brethren means trusting that they always speak on God's behalf, accepting what they say without question, or praying ourselves into agreement.
But I don't believe that's what God intends for us. In fact to me, that idea has more in common with a different plan.
So in the interest of silencing some of my own cognitive dissonance, I've decided to change my personal approach. Rather than sitting in the discomfort of implied agreement by fearing to express the ways in which I struggle or even disagree with some of the things I hear, I can question those things, including the ones from Church leaders, and even openly disagree while continuing to sustain them. After all, I sustain them by showing up on Sunday, and by trying to follow Christ. By trying to ensure that my neighbors' lives are better as a result of their association with me, a Mormon, and by contributing to my congregation and looking after those over whom I have direct stewardship in my family and my callings. Those things are my responsibility as a member of the Church.
I do not have a responsibility to agree.
And what I would hope for in other Mormons is an increase in empathy, and an enlarging of our collective hearts and circles. Not silent acceptance of policies (these are policies after all, not gospel principles) that we feel may have the potential to alienate and cause pain or spiritual harm.
What's the anti-terrorism saying? If you see something, say something. It's a good policy for safeguarding spiritual health and well-being, too. God already knows our hearts. Our silence isn't protecting us in ways that actually benefit us at all.
I'm perfectly capable of drawing my own lines. I don't need anyone to draw them for me. And more importantly, I'm beginning to understand that it's vital to my continued spiritual health and growth to express that out loud when I need to. So I just did. Talk about seismic shifts.
Please don't feel like you need to come in and straighten my crooked pictures. I'm still standing, and in exactly the same place. But growth and progress require movement, and to that end I think it's time I finally, finally got comfortable with the sound of my own rattling doors.