Woman begging, by Tomas Castelazo
The man who sidled into the back of the rented Hungarian chapel was unprepossessing, at best. He was slightly built and dark-haired, wearing a cheap, white button-down shirt and nondescript pants. Certainly, there was nothing in his appearance to explain why the elders straightened to attention, why my companion and I exchanged knowing glances. The members had noticed his arrival, too. A slight rustle and murmuring swept through the small congregation.
The elders had brought an investigator with them that Sunday. I wondered what the young man would make of the newcomer’s inevitable testimony about the truth of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith’s calling—and the apostasy of every prophet since.
As the fast Sunday meeting progressed, the man at the back made several abortive moves, as if to rise and go to the front, but each time he was forestalled by a member or missionary rising to bear testimony. The power of those testimonies was real and undeniable. But at the end of the meeting, the man in the back left without having ever spoken a word. Or been spoken to.
I don’t know who dubbed this man Aposztázia Láci, but I remember we all thought ourselves clever for using the term. It was a kind of joke with us as missionaries, this man who only showed up on fast Sundays to bear such a peculiar “testimony.” That Sunday, our only thought was to keep him from bearing a testimony that might negatively affect the investigator.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t give him much thought, either as a missionary or a recently returned one. But in the last couple of years I have found myself thinking of him more often, mostly with regret.
While I am grateful for the ward members who bore such strong testimony that day, my own reaction saddens me. Did I really need to feel so excited that someone had been shut out, shut down? I didn’t see him as a brother, but as an obstacle to our goal as missionaries. And yet my actions demonstrated the opposite of the Christlike love demanded of a missionary.
I thought of this experience a week ago, in Sunday School, as we talked about Sampson and general apostasy among the children of Israel. The word apostasy is literally a turning away from one’s place or position. Though we use it to refer to a general loss of faith, I think of it also as a turning away from God. While the discussion about the general cycle of individual and community apostasy was interesting and useful, I found myself thinking back to this experience from my mission.
I worry that too often we think of apostates and apostasy as something other, people who are not us, people who do things we would not do. This kind of thinking is dangerous both because it drives wedges between us and people we should love, and because it hides the extent to which apostasy is a personal problem. (Michelle L. has a beautiful post from a few years ago that elaborates the problems with this kind of thinking).
The truth is, we are all apostates. We may not have walked away from our faith, but we all have days where our faith is not what it should be, or where we do not live our faith to the degree we could. Isaiah 53:6 reads, “All we like sheep have gone astray.”
And my favorite hymn—a hymn that makes me weep each time I hear it because I recognize my own weaknesses in it—reads:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;
Seal it for Thy courts above.
I am not saying that apostasy is not a serious concern. Anything that takes us away from God is and should be serious. I’m only suggesting that perhaps we (I!) should be more concerned with our individual risk of apostasy than with our neighbor’s. And we should be cautious about applying any sort of label to others that obscures our very real duty to love them.
Have you ever had experiences where a label or a personal judgment of someone else interfered with your ability to serve them? How have you been able to overlook labels and move beyond snap judgments of others?