Years and years ago, when I was in Young Women, the catch phrase, “In the world, but not of the world,” was tossed about regularly. The saying is still used in the church as a means of identifying “wicked” behaviour in the world that we all live in, in opposition to the “non-wicked” behaviour we are taught to practice as members of the church.
The thing is… throughout my life, I have seen just as much as what I would deem as “wicked” within the church, as I see outside of the church, and I have wrestled with this for decades.
As a youth, I was taught that all other churches are false, and to stay away. Yet my piano recital was held at my Methodist piano teacher’s church because her pastor warmly allowed her 50 students to perform on the baby grand piano that they tuned just for our performance. The clothes on my back were sometimes donations from the Episcopalian church’s clothes drive, and my youth community theatre rehearsals were often in the recesses of the Catholic church building, because they aimed to build community. None of these soul-building experiences were allowed at my east-coast USA chapel; the only use outside of church services (or self-serving missionary efforts) was in case of a natural disaster. Even as a child, the “false” label seemed incongruent at best.
Moving to Utah, like all good Latter-day Saints do, I heard sniggering when, in my Institute class, the teacher asked what the “great and abominable church” was. A fellow student clearly responded with, “The Catholic church.” The teacher agreed and began a list of all the “false” things that were performed and taught by Catholics. But even then, all I could picture was the open arms of my Italian friends’ mothers, the warmth of their kitchens, and the passionate invitation to help yourself to anything in the fridge, plus seconds, and thirds. And just as quickly, I remembered the member of the bishopric who slapped me for taking a dessert, because he thought I already had one.
Though I was at a heavily Mormon-populated University, the majority of my friends were not LDS. I was left out of LDS Institute invitations. I was given a ride to, but never had anyone sit with me at church, and so on. One Sunday, I joined one of my friends his Lutheran church service. He later said to me, “Mormons invite me to church with them all the time, and I’ve gone to get to know them and their beliefs,” he explained. “But no one has ever been Christian enough to come to my church when I invite them. Except you.” He did not press me to “learn more,” or commit to baptism or anything. Rather, we had lovely talks about doctrine similarities, which were great and powerful, and very different to what I was taught “other” churches believe. We further discussed the differences, which were few and far between, and mostly seemed inconsequential. Neither of us joined the other’s church, and in many ways, my testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ was further strengthened. Yet… my fellow church members labeled me as weak for having participated in “competing” church attendance and discussion. One even gave me a book, written by an LDS church member, that claimed to detail the incorrectness of Lutheran philosophy.
Unmarried and into my late twenties, at every Thanksgiving, I heard a call over the LDS pulpit, “If anyone doesn’t have a place to go this Thanksgiving….” Followed by a heartfelt, yet blanket invitation to a group dinner someplace. Which was nice, and generous and… a bit impersonal. Because of my own fault in being prideful, I did not want to advertise my social isolation in attending. Instead, I preferred the personal invite from my lapsed-Anglican vegetarian friends, and later, the invitation of a Jewish friend to spend the day serving turkey and trimmings at the local NAACP community kitchen. For me, the opportunity to wear an elastic-fitted hairnet that marked my forehead well through the entire weekend was a vastly more personal experience than sitting at a table, and eating cold mashed potatoes smeared with a bitter gravy of unbelonging.
And yet, I am a member of the church. A testimony-swearing, wiccan-dabbling, temple-recommend holding member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My church suit does not fit me well, but it fits me well enough for me to stay.
To be clear, I do have a testimony of the gospel. But I do not have a testimony of all the church teachings, or practices, or culture. The culture especially does not fit me. It even scares me. This might be best symbolised in the deep disconnect I felt when listening to the words of the area Seventy who spoke at my recent Stake Conference. His talks were peppered with typical leadership “in the know” references that somehow felt prideful and were absent of the sustaining influence of the Holy Ghost. To be clear, he said nothing wrong in his talks. He spoke greatly about himself and his lifelong church employment, his church service, his church titles. He also spoke of church programs, the prophet, the men he served with now and previously, and how we should all be doing “Come Follow Me” with greater enthusiasm.
Sigh. Maybe it was just me. But I felt empty during those talks.
Perhaps oddly, or maybe in spite of church lectures like that, I believe the Book of Mormon is an ancient scripture. I know prayer works. I sin and I repent. And I sin again. I crave to learn more of the depths of the women in the scriptures and in church history. I suspire by and through the light of Christ, and long to connect with Him again. In fact, I ache to connect with Him I absolutely ache for this! The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is where I learned of my Elder, Atoning Brother; it is where I learned to pray with all my heart and where I came to know God.
For this I am eternally grateful. But I am not foolish enough to believe that this church is the superior in all ways. Or that it is independently “true.” So instead of accepting the invitation to re-invigorate another church program into my life, I quietly sit, thinking:
In the church, but not OF the church
In the church, but not OF the church
In the church, but not OF the church
This soft-shoe cadence calms me. I say it to myself as often as needed, which seems to be more often as of late. Yet it reminds me that God knows me best. That the church is not a one-size fits all glove, and that my testimony is real. After a few moments, the uninspiring church speeches begin to blur, and my heart softens. I can feel the spirit again.
“Lent is on,” I silently reminded myself at the end of the Stake Conference. Lent is a practice which can foster simplicity and self-control. It is intended to inspire increased prayer and a personal refocus on things that are spiritual. It is exactly what I need right now. In this midframe, I reminded myself that my Mormon “food storage” garden is overflowing with French Tarragon, and I begin to google recipes for its use with lent-friendly fish.
I also make a note that I have more than enough in my garden to donate to the fresh community food bank. With that, the spirit creeps back into my heart and I smile. “In the church, but not of the church,” I say aloud.
Do you practice lent?
What personal revelations do you seek or experience in lent?