My experience growing up in Mormon culture has a lot to do with the facades and defensive mechanisms I've constructed. The scripture says that God doesn't look on the outward appearance. Mormon culture tells us that appearance is vital to acceptance into the "true" community of Mormons. The "unwritten order of things" in the church directs that we dress a certain way, to have that “Mormon” appearance. We must say the magic words in testimony meetings and give proper responses in classes and other church-related social situations. The list could go on. It's true that new members of the church or people who haven't been active in the church for a while might be given a bit of slack for a time. But the expectation is that we all conform to a very narrow standard of appearance and speech. This is not what the gospel requires. It is what Mormon culture and the church require. And it's one of the most corrosive, emotionally and psychologically destructive things in all of Mormondom. It stifles spirituality and pushes good people away from the community of professed saints. There’s more to being good than merely “avoiding the appearance of evil” (which isn’t what the scripture passage this refers to actually states).
The essence of Christianity is to love God and to love our neighbor. That same message spoken by Jesus includes the love of self, which completes a kind of holy trifecta: Neighbor, Self and God. Whether your understanding or concept of God is an all-powerful father, a non-corporeal divine entity or a sense of our common humanity and the search for the divine in each of us, it doesn’t matter. If you accept Mormonism, some other form of Christianity or some other faith, great. If you see the basic tenets of the religions of the world (not necessarily the institutions) as providing guiding principles to live a life of moral goodness, great. This life is the focus. I suspect that God won’t care much what we believed, or even whether we believed in Him or not. I think the question we’ll be asked--individually and collectively--is, “What did you do to love each other?” The most enlightening and ennobling notion of God has to do with love. That love unites us, helps us to reconcile, heals what has been broken in each of us. It helps us support each other and moves us to become more aware of our true selves--good and evil, virtue and vice, light and darkness--to fill the measure of our existence.
I have struggled my whole life trying to feel like I have a place at the table in the church and in Mormon culture. I learned how to look and speak exactly the way I needed to look and speak to fit in and be accepted. I was quite successful. I was deacons quorum president, teachers quorum president, first assistant to the bishop in the priests quorum, seminary president, model cub scout, star student in church and school, eagle scout, faithful missionary. Eventually, I was called and ordained a bishop--at a far too young age. But that outward success was a failure when it came to my sense of self and my spirituality. For a time, I believed it was worth it. But repression isn't viable long term. Sure, I could still choose to fake it. But the cost is too high. The falling-apart of what I'd built is for another post. Yet another post and more are for the rebuilding that has happened and will continue.
So, with all that in mind, you can imagine the lift I felt when I heard Dieter Uchtdorf's talk on April 4, 2010 in General Conference. It was the kind of talk I haven't heard in a long time. I don't remember hearing any like it in conference. It rivals Ronald E. Poelman's 1984 “The Gospel and the Church” talk (the first version, not the one rewritten and re-filmed), and Stephen L. Richards 1932 “Bringing Humanity to the Gospel” talk in its importance and honesty. I hope it will have ripple effects throughout the church.
Here are some highlights, because I think we need to repeat these words as often and as far as we can so they can take hold.
"When I think of the Savior, I often picture Him with hands outstretched; reaching out to comfort, heal, bless, and love. And He always talked with — never down to — people. He loved the humble and the meek and walked among them, ministering to them and offering hope and salvation. This is what He did during His mortal life; it is what He would be doing if He were living among us today.”
"[L]et our hearts and hands be stretched out in compassion toward others, for everyone is walking his or her own difficult path. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our Master, we are called to support and heal rather than condemn.”
"I hope we welcome and love all of God's children, including those who might dress, look, speak, or just do things differently. It is not good to make others feel as though they are deficient. Let us lift those around us. Let us extend a welcoming hand. Let us bestow upon our brothers and sisters in the Church a special measure of humanity, compassion and charity so that they feel, at long last, they have finally found home."
Of course, no one person and no single talk can change entrenched institutions, cultures or minds. However, this talk was a start. While it doesn’t undo the frustration and pain I and many others have experienced, Brother Uchtdorf’s talk gave me hope. It resonated with me. I don’t know whether I’ll feel truly at home in the church again. But because of the genuine love of a brother speaking words of inclusion and fellowship, I feel more connected. I also feel hopeful that there are many more Mormons like Dieter Uchtdorf. He showed what is best in our heritage and the generous love we can each leave as a legacy.