In a recent Fast and Testimony meeting, Karen came up from the back of the chapel to share her testimony. I’d never seen her at the pulpit before. I’d only seen her herding her rather ragged brood of seven down the church halls — quietly, faithfully. From the pulpit, she told a story of her cousin, who had called her recently for some compassionate counsel, as he dealt with serious depression. She related that she had counseled him to be selective about the music he listened to, to quit using drugs and alcohol, plus a number of other wise and useful suggestions. Then she said, “But I did not tell him the thing I wanted to tell him. I wanted to tell him he needed to come to church, that it would help him a lot. But I couldn’t bring myself to say it. See, my cousin is openly gay, and I could not be sure he would be welcomed and loved and accepted here at church. And I knew that the last thing he needed right now was to feel judged and rejected, even subtly.”
Then a woman I’d never seen before stood up. I had figured out already that she was Brother Kennedy’s wife, since she sat with her arm around him in the pew. In the year that I’ve been in this ward, I’ve seen Brother Kennedy come to church with his children every week, but I did not know there was a Mrs. Kennedy. She said she grew up an active Utah Mormon, but that she’s been “inactive” (air quotes included) for the past five years. She then proceeded to eloquently instruct us as to what that means. “I just couldn’t be here at church. It was too hurtful. You need to know that many inactive members love God as much as you people do. I have been very happy and very close to God during these past five years. I have felt His love better than I ever did here at church.”
Tellingly, the same day in Relief Society, we had a lesson about Charity. We quoted all the right scriptures, recounted all the right stories, said all the right things about how we should love everyone, like Jesus did. There was one allusion to Sister Kennedy’s earlier comments, but the discussion never got real. We never questioned our judgmental biases and how those might conflict with pure love. As a group, we assumed our good-heartedness was enough — enough to justify ignoring such stories as we’d heard that very day, about people in our midst feeling decidedly unloved, or people scared to bring the ones they love into our guarded fold.
About a month ago, in another Sacrament meeting, with Kindness as the theme, a young elder reported on his recent full-time mission to Salt Lake City. He had only been a church member for a year before he left to serve a mission, and his experience as a young convert in Utah was disturbing. He reported, “I was so excited to be among so many other Latter-Day Saints. But I quickly learned that many church members are NOT kind. They talk about Love on Sunday, but they don’t practice it during the week.”
It would be easy to dismiss such accounts. In my experience, there is much love and compassion, sacrifice and kindness amongst the saints. But the chastisement couched in these accounts is warranted. The missionaries told me just last week that when they invite an investigator to church, they pray (through gritted teeth) that nobody will say something ignorant or unkind. Like the time my daughter invited a family to church and when they arrived, asked someone to direct them to the sanctuary and were met with derisive laughter: “You mean the chapel?” As if the jargon we use is what makes the Church true.
What makes any Christian church true is Love. As Karen pointed out about her cousin, “There may come a time when we can talk about commandments and chastity, but that time will never come if he doesn’t first experience genuine, unconditional Love.”
We are an earnest bunch, we Mormons. We want to save the world. But we too often forget that what saved (and still saves) the world is nothing more nor less than Love. God is Love. That doesn’t mean They don’t hold us accountable for our behaviors and thoughts. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a Best Route Home. But our choices, our thoughts, our behaviors, our righteousness does not and cannot ever save us. Only Love saves.
It’s hard to figure out, though. Hard to gauge the purity of our love, or the effect of our meant-to-be-loving gestures. Is it more loving to make a fuss over someone’s seeming prodigal return, or more loving to act as if they’ve never wandered? Destiny, my large, African American friend, used to hate going to the temple because some would treat her like some sort of celebrity just because of her skin color, while ignoring her white companions. So do we acknowledge difference or ignore it? Does it just depend on the person? What’s a well-meaning Mormon to do?
I don’t have definitive answers or a list of seven ways to effectively love. I’m sure of one thing, and I have an inkling about another. What I know is that charity is an inside-out job. It’s not a skill to develop, but a gift to seek. It’s a heart and soul thing, not something gained by a step-by-step plan of mastery. And in my experience, it’s a divine gift given gradually, one loving piece at a time. I suppose if we were to suddenly and fully comprehend the pure love of Christ — both how He loves us and how we should love others — the intensity of it would burn us up. Thank God for gradual glory.
And I have an inkling about this: we are all one. Science is just now beginning to pay attention to this ancient secret, harbored best by Eastern philosophies over the centuries, but present, too, in the words of Christ: “. . .that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us . . . And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” (John 17: 21-23)
Somehow, we are all one, not just with each other, but with everything. We are made of the same stuff as the stars. So Christ’s commandment to love each other as we love ourselves makes perfect sense. When I love you, I love myself. As soon as I begin to think of you and me as differentiated, I fall out of Love.
I don’t think our Sunday talk of Love is cutting it. Our results are less than impressive, as noted above. I know I could balance these with other stories of real love within the church, but the point is, we should never hear stories like these. Everyone who walks into our chapels or our homes or our lives should immediately feel the Love. It’s up to each of us to make that happen.
How do we bring the Love?