I want to take a brief break from the present focus on critical evidences of the restoration, and turn momentarily to another topic.
I recently attended a conference for religion news writers in Bethesda, Maryland, and it left me with some pointed thoughts. For 3 days at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference, religion and politics were discussed amongst strangers (sshhh! some of us became friends). Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Buddists, Islamists and secularists met and discussed a variety of topics in the news – all relating to religion. Except for a single panelist who singled out a solitary religion for criticism (guess which?), all religions were treated with respect and deference.
During the conference, we were told we live in the “Mormon Moment” – a time when there is an extraordinary amount of attention being placed on the Church. Culturally, we are highlighted in popular programs, stage plays, and political arenas. Our sacred beliefs are introduced to others through secular channels, and the world around us is beginning to notice us and, in some ways, to accept us.
Some of this attention is welcome. More people who are familiar with us are recognizing the positive traits developed from faithful living within a gospel context. They highlight these in articles, blogs, commentaries, documentaries and editorials. Some of the attention is less welcome. We are harpooned and satirized on stage, stereotyped on film, and misrepresented on the internet. We are sometimes mocked by comedians, patronized by secularists, and put down by critics. Such less-welcome attention is not new to us, and in fact may have felt like the norm since the days of Joseph Smith when he said:
D&C 127:2 And as for the aperils which I am called to pass through, they seem but a small thing to me, as the benvy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; . . . nevertheless, deep water is what I am wont to swim in. It all has become a second nature to me;
Like Joseph, we may feel that dealing with the secular mocking of sacred things, or that polemic preaching against us, is the deep water we are wont to swim in. We accustom ourselves to a constant expectation of clarifying, educating, explaining, correcting, and testifying. For some of us, I am sure there is a hope that the “Mormon Moment” will prove to be a tidal wave of positive pressure within society to accept us on our own terms; to recognize our good, to overlook our shortcomings, and to accept us as one of their own.
The Challenges of a Public Church
It may be true that we are turning a corner of sorts. We may be finding that, at least in certain circles, we are finding less resistance and more acceptance. Some of it may be because we are feeling more comfortable in our own societal skin, as is evidenced by the very deft treatment by the Church of the popularity of the Broadway play “The Book of Mormon.” Rather than criticize or complain about the crass content of the musical, the Church took advantage of the attention the Tony award-winning presentation placed on the Church. They put up posters in New York and in the playbills in Denver, inviting those who have seen the play to now “read the book.” In fact, the Church’s only comment regarding the play was a single sentence reply that read:
“The production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but the Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ.”
Of course, if acceptance comes about because the world is indeed receiving us on our terms, then we should feel grateful for the change in sentiment. If it is because we are turning more to be like the world, then a caution is perhaps in order.
There are efforts afoot in some circles to reshape the Church more into an identity than a faith. Individuals who welcome what they feel are the positive aspects of participation and identity want to separate these elements from what they perceive as negative aspects. Many of these individuals want freedom to criticize and even decry the Church while maintaining their cultural identities as Mormons. They want to be able to maintain their friendly associations even while disassociating themselves from that which makes us unique. Indeed, rather than be “in the world, but not of the world” they want to be “of the Church but not in the Church”. Perhaps they desire to simultaneously be accepted by the world and their LDS friends and family while they side with the world against much of what the Church holds sacred.
This is a dichotomy that is not easy to maintain. It places tremendous pressure on the individual and their associations. Too often they are unable to restrain their critical views, and they find that Church members whom they associate with become uncomfortable having one close to them trying to draw them away from the Church. The result, not surprisingly, is that once close associations sometimes become weak or even broken.
For the believing member, this is a great challenge! On one level, they love the person who is critical, and want desperately to help them maintain whatever association they can with the Church. They are their friend, and want to continue to associate with them, and enjoy their company.
Keeping the Faith
On another level, they are appropriately cautious of the need to safeguard the witness they have personally obtained of the truthfulness of the gospel. They are mindful that constant criticism and negative influences can debilitate their own efforts to maintain the spirit and to live a gospel centered life.
Some of these people often reach out to FAIR, desperately seeking help and assistance as they struggle through their crisis. They ask for information, help, and perspectives to enable them to manage such situations. It is deeply unsettling for me to witness their hearts torn by the inability of someone they love to “keep the faith.” I recognize in their written “voices” a hopeful longing that the Lord would give their loved one a “light and voice” on their personal road to Damascus, which would turn them in a single experience away from their meandered path to the straight and narrow one we all try to maintain.
In my own efforts to counsel such individuals, I have sought to emphasize three critical points. First, our primary concern must be towards building upon the things we know to be true as we work through the questions that we have not answered, such as might be raised by our close acquaintance critics. Second, if we are to ever help our loved ones return to faith, we simply must maintain our relationship, which might mean an armistice on religion where we both agree to leave the subject alone. Third, we must be faithful in our own lives!
I could write a lengthy treatise on the first two points, but what do I mean by this last one? What does it mean to be faithful? Is it possible that we might prove ourselves worthy to convey a single spiritual experience that would turn back the progressive hands of degenerated faith and restore in an instant that which has likely been lost over a lengthy period of time? Perhaps, but in my experience, it is seldom that easy.
I would argue that the faith we need to develop or maintain is not some singular powerful influence with an undeniable force to change others, but a quiet constancy of behavior that exemplifies the inner assurance that we have that our path and purpose is correct.
Many years ago, I was thinking about the term “faithful,” as in the dog that proverbially retrieves slippers or newspapers, or the geyser that spouts an impressive display on a regular interval. As I thought about the constant, unwavering nature of the behavior associated with the term, I realized that such constancy of the “faithful” is what makes the same reflective of one who is “full of faith.” I realized that great faith is not so much manifest in singular events that move mountains, but in the constant, unwavering loyalty to a pattern of behavior borne of deeply held beliefs. I was so impressed with such a realization that I wrote the following.
Faith as a Seed
Two on a journey were stopped at a hill.
The Lord said “remove it”. They each said “I will!”.
Then one set to praying, whose faith he thought strong -
Who said in himself “This shouldn’t take long!
I know in my heart, if I merely have faith
That I can move mountains like this from their place.”
Thus all the day long and into the night
This man knelt in prayer, and prayed with all might.
But begging with fervor the mound remained still,
‘Till slowly it weakened, then broke the man’s will.
So, soon discontented and fearing the task
This man left the mountain – returned on his path.
The other man humble, with faith no less strong –
Who heard the Lord’s will but thought the task long –
Delayed not a moment but did as God asked.
Thus grabbing a handful he set to the task.
So, trusting in God, though hard it might be,
He carried by handfuls the earth to the sea.
Yes, daily he labored, though weak in his skill
To move the great mountain and do the Lord’s will.
‘Till days turned to weeks, and weeks became years.
But still the man labored despite all his fears.
So slowly the mountain by handfuls did flee
From one of great faith ‘till it entered the sea.
And thus came the saying, of faith and the seed –
That man can move mountains, if he but believes!
John Lynch, 1995
This is perhaps a bit too lyrical for some, but for me at least it illustrates what I believe a profound truth. Greatness lies not so much in the singular events that rise above all others, such as a mountain moving en masse to the open ocean, but in the constant, often unnoticed daily decisions that form our character and reinforces our personal faithfulness to gospel truths.
In this poem the daily simple efforts of small progress, persisting over a lifetime, resulted in the remarkable accomplishment of a mighty mountain being subdued by a humble, obedient servant. In the monumental efforts some of us might face in helping those we love struggle through the seemingly insurmountable task of helping them regain a lost testimony, we would do well to take such an example to heart. We should not expect that some singular event will turn the tide of disbelief and convert the Sauls in our lives into Pauls, although this might happen. Rather, we should expect that our own constancy in behavior and dedication to gospel teachings and our own fidelity in seeking and obeying prophetic counsel, will serve as a template of example that will work by “handfuls” to remove the mountain of disbelief from the hearts of those we love.
We should remember that the “Mormon Moment” that seems to be upon us in an instant has been over 182 years in the making! The prejudice and criticism we have experienced in the past is not likely to disappear any time soon despite improvements we see in some quarters. Progress we make in one arena is likely to be offset by a rise in opposition in another. Like the man moving the mountain, we need to constantly and consistently deliver handfuls of positive examples from the mountain of opposition and place it into the sea of understanding and acceptance.
In our personal relationships, and in our Church-wide relationship with society, we need to maintain our own fidelity to gospel principles. Constant in our conduct, bold in our beliefs and humble in our service, we can move mountains! Those we love personally, but who struggle, may yet be moved by a handful of doubt we cast into the ocean some many days hence by some small faithful act we perform. Some group in society who looks critically upon us today may yet convert criticism to acceptance if we but remain unwavering in our collective personal lives and public comportment.
In the end, however, how much faith we personally have is not reflected in how big of a mountain we can move in a single prayer, but in the daily devotion we give in simple tasks given us by God. Indeed, through simple and small means, great things can be brought to pass by the “faith-full”!
This article also appeared in Meridian Magazine.