Thursday, October 15, 2009

Preaching Christ Crucified

Several months ago, as I walked into a meeting, my boss, who is also LDS, looked at me with a puzzled expression, and then, pointing to my necklace, asked, "Uh...are you wearing...a cross?"
"Yes," I replied, simply.
With a bemusedly quizzical tone he asked, "WHY are you wearing a cross??"
My reply was again simple. "Because I am a Christian."

You see, friends, I wear a cross. Outside the Mormon world, that's not an uncommon thing for Christians to do, but inside the Mormon world, it just doesn't happen. We have no crosses on our buildings, in our chapels, on our temples, on our priest's clothing, in our homes, in our artwork, or around our necks. If you ask a Mormon why that is, he'll probably say something about how "we worship the living Christ, not the dying Christ," or, "if your best friend died from a gunshot wound, would you wear an image of a gun on your necklace and mount another on your wall?" You see, we're great at coming up with after-the-fact explanations for why we do what we do, when the real reason is "uh...it's Tradition."

Most early Mormon converts came from Quaker and Campebellite backgrounds, and from other churches of their ilk They were anti-papist and iconoclastic, accustomed to un-ornamented meeting halls and services that lacked the pomp and ceremony of other high-mass churches. When they changed denominations, they didn't change worship styles, and thus our worship styles--and attitudes toward the cross--were born. Had the early Church drawn mostly Catholic converts, our worship would be very different, though the Church would still be just as true.

So why do I break from tradition? For one, because I don't think there's anything very holy about this custom. For another, I like the cross. It identifies me with Christians the world over. It's a public way of saying, "remember Jesus, who died on the cross? I believe in Him. I accept Him as my Savior. You should too." I think if Mormons used more crosses in their worship, they would face fewer accusations of "not really being Christians" from other denominations. And I think that sometimes we overlook the cross, eternally to our detriment.

I also wear a cross because it reminds me of the duties of a Christian. It reminds me that I ought to be kinder, slower to anger and judgment, quicker to extend mercy and understanding. I ought to be cheerful, inclined to serve, in tune with the pain in the eyes of my brothers and sisters, and desirous to heal it. I ought to have more faith, more hope, more charity. I ought to forgive more and judge less. I ought to be a better example of the believers (1 Timothy 4:12).

I wear a cross to remind me of the triumph and resurrection of Christ. You see, the cross is a gloriously triumphant symbol, for the cross is empty, just as the tomb was. Christ no longer suffers there, for He is victorious. The cross is what the early apostles preached, even though, to the enlightened minds of their day, it was utter foolishness to worship a God who had died in agony. Said Paul, "The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Corinthians 1:22-25).

In Paul's day, the cross was the symbol of ultimate mortal humiliation and defeat, and so it became a fitting throne for Him who had "ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth" (Doc. & Cov. 88:6).

My cross reminds me of my duty to my Savior far more explicitly than a CTR ring ever could. It reminds me that one day I will stand before my God and give an accounting of how I lived, and who I loved. As Jesus reminded His Nephite disciples, "My Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be judged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil" (3 Nephi 27:14). It reminds me that because of Christ's sufferings in Gethsemane, His death on the cross, and His glorious resurrection, I can be drawn to Him, lifted up in my greatest agonies, that the same power that transformed the Lord's cross into His throne can convert my despair and my heartaches to transcendent, joyful song.

I, like Nephi, "glory in my Jesus, for he hath redeemed my soul from hell" (2 Nephi 33:6). And, in the words of Paul, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world" (Galatians 6:14).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dwelling in Love, Dwelling in God

Disclaimer: While I do not typically use this blog to discuss political issues or to fight the culture wars, I have made exceptions on a few occasions to weigh in on issues I felt strongly about. I ask for your understanding as I do so again. This is a post I have agonized over, and, in the end, have felt to express my devotion to my Savior by expressing my love for His children, especially for the downtrodden, reviled, and misunderstood among them. I do not mean to be overbearing or preachy, but I believe very strongly in the importance of the principles I discuss here.

In writing this, I have tried to soften my words, to find
balance between the absolute truths of the gospel and the very real heartaches of those I love who struggle to find answers in the church I have come to love. Perhaps my greatest realization has been that I do not have all the answers. Many of my feelings are only partially-formed and even more partially-expressed. I pray for your patience as I share with you a piece of my journey. I hope that you will feel my sincerity as you read, and that perhaps as you do so, you will overlook with kindness my slowness of speech and my clumsiness in writing.

I used to be the sort of person who would debate anyone who disagreed with me. I would summon facts, arguments, philosophers, and studies that supported my view. I was always so sure that I was right that I closed my mind--and my ears. I listened to my opponent only long enough to find a point I could refute--and then I would refute it with a vengeance.

I am still a passionate woman. But I've softened a lot. And as I've softened, I've heard others espouse views I used to hold, muster arguments I used to trumpet, and I've cringed. I've cringed to think I could have been so insensitive, so clueless, so heartless. It pains me to hear opinions of which I used to be totally convinced, and to know the pain being caused by well-meaning people, spouting off about things they know nothing about, framing the world in black-and-white, drawing a circle around them and their rightness, unaware how many they had excluded from their circle. I have grown tired of "family values" constantly trumping true Christian charity.

I.

I had heard dozens of talks on the evils of pornography and masturbation. I had the audacity to condemn all people who committed such sexual sins. I imagined that they were all dirty old men, craven sinners, with no redeeming virtues.

And then I discovered that one of my close friends was a long-term porn addict. Another friend confessed the same weakness, and then another, and another. These were men I loved whole-heartedly. My paradigm was shattered. I saw the secret heartache that these men shared, and my heart broke under the weight of their pain, and of my own unkind judgment.

Pornography use is indeed a great sin. But, like all sins, it springs from the devil, and not from its victims. The pain it causes them is real. And though they are not blameless, they need our love, not our scorn. If we are to rescue our brothers and sisters from its deadly grasp, we have to work to destroy the atmosphere of shame that surrounds it, which stops those caught in its web from getting help for years. We have to let them know that they will not be shunned, no matter what they've done. We have to let our love for the sinner be greater than our disgust for their sin.

I no longer have the desire to march with a picket sign, protesting obscenity. I only have the desire to wrap those I love in my arms and hold them. I want to turn them toward the Savior--because ultimately He is the only one who can heal a broken world. He is the "light that shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5 NIV). He who would not condemn the woman taken in adultery will surely enfold His wandering children in the arms of His love. Let us take them by the hand, turn to the Master, and ask for His love. He will teach us the way out of any darkness, even the seemingly unconquerable darkness of sexual sin.

II.

I had homosexuality practically thrown in my face in high school. One school club seemed designed to foist its "gay pride" agenda on the student body. I cared little for political correctness in those days. I had been taught that homosexual "orientation" was a choice, and I believed that. I wrote vicious polemics attacking gay marriage. I scoffed to think that anyone could argue their "abominations" were somehow inborn.

And then I discovered that a childhood friend was gay. And then another, and another. I read about two Mormon guys, returned missionaries determined to keep the commandments, who nevertheless struggled with feelings of attraction that they did not choose. I went to firesides where other such men told their stories. I saw the pain in their eyes. These were all good men. Once again, my paradigm was shattered.

I'm still no proponent of same-sex marriage, or of any sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage. I still believe that, whatever our feelings or inclinations, we all have the power to decide what we will do, whether or not we will act on our feelings. But, having known and loved these good people, I cannot find it in my heart to condemn them. Having read evidence from many different sources, I have found no scientific or social consensus regarding the cause of these inclinations. I do not know if same-sex attraction is inborn or learned, whether it is fixed or can be changed, whether it is the result of genetics, defensive detachment, abuse, hormones, or defective family relationships. I simply do not know. But I know they did not actively choose their feelings. And I know that many homosexuals suffer in silence, hating themselves and afraid of the condemnation of their peers and their families. Many of them have done nothing wrong, but their pain and loneliness haunts me. They desperately need our love, not our scorn.

I no longer have any desire to loudly condemn those with homosexual orientations, for I believe they have nothing to be ashamed of. I do not even have the desire to condemn those who act out those inclinations, because their pain demands my love. As President Kimball said, "Jesus saw sin as wrong but also was able to see sin as springing from deep and unmet needs on the part of the sinner" (Ensign, Aug. 1979, 5). I only want to hold them tightly and whisper, "I'm sorry. I love you. And though I do not have all the answers, I know Someone who does." Let us take them in our arms, turn them toward the Master, and plead for His love. Let us plead for understanding, for the answers only He has, for the strength to love our brothers and sisters as He does.

III.

I was brought up to be physically and mentally self-reliant. I didn't have a lot of confidants, and I learned not to need them. I have generally had a great degree of control over my emotions, especially around other people. And I've usually been too practical to dwell too much on negative feelings, preferring to avoid thinking about things that cause me pain, and instead to channel my energy into coming up with practical solutions to difficult challenges. In that respect, I fit in well among other engineers, who are far more disposed to left-brain analysis and problem-solving than to group hugs or talking about their feelings. (Whether such an approach is emotionally healthy is a topic for another day.)

So I had trouble understanding depression and other emotional and mental illnesses. "So you're depressed," I thought. "Well, suck it up. Deal with it. Your life is not that bad. Quit whining." And then--you guessed it--I had a friend who was depressed. She was more than just sad--she needed anti-depressant medication to function. Then I found another friend, and then another, and another. It seems like half of my girl-friends and roommates have suffered from one emotional illness or another--Clinical depression, anorexia, bipolar disorder, insomnia, compulsive self-harm, anxiety disorders, and the list goes on. Their illnesses have not been their own fault, though they often blamed themselves.

In many ways, it's easier to have a physical illness than an emotional one. If you're fighting leukemia, no one tells you that you "just need to have more faith." If you were born with cerebral palsy, no one lectures you that you "just need to pray more." If your leg is broken, no one questions your worthiness or asks if you've been reading your scriptures. No one makes insensitive comments in Sunday School about how people with your condition are those described in the scriptures as being "possessed with devils."

Don't get me wrong--both physical and emotional illnesses are difficult trials to endure. But if we treated those with emotional illnesses the way we treat those who are sick in ways we can easily see, I think we would be fulfilling more fully our covenants to "bear one another's burdens, that they may be light" (Mosiah 18:8). Let us be careful not to smugly discuss things we do not remotely understand. Instead, let us hold our brothers and sisters close to our hearts, and with them turn toward the Lord, and pray earnestly for understanding and love.

IV.

The Lord said that when He came again, those whom He would greet with pleasure would be those who visited and cared for those who were sick and in prison (Matthew 25:31-40). There is so much of sickness and imprisonment all around us--so much pain, so much sorrow, so many wounds that need the healing balm that only the Savior can bring. There are so many hurting hearts that are wounded more deeply by our unthinkingly unkind rhetoric, our ignorant judgment, and our shame. So many of those we were sent here to love are leading lonely lives of quiet desperation, because we have not seen them as our brothers and sisters, so busy were we in vilifying those who most needed our succor.

Can we not do better? Can we accept the radically transformative call of Christianity to love one another, to embrace one another in bonds of unity and brotherhood, to offer an understanding and broken heart rather than a certain and stubborn mind?

I am convinced we can. And we must, if we intend this earth to be ready to receive her King when He comes in glory. It is only by being united as a people that we can be the Lord's people. For "if ye are not one," He tells us, "ye are not mine" (Doc. & Cov. 38:27).

This is not easy. It goes against our natural inclinations. But that is the call of Christianity--to put off the natural man and become saints through the Atonement of Christ (Mosiah 3:19). Through it, we become at-one with the Father, but we also become at-one with each other. As we are united with and show love for His children, we draw closer to and manifest our love for the Father.

If we wish to stand in holy places, we must stand together. We must draw circles around ourselves that take others in rather than shutting them out. We must hold each other close, and together turn toward the Savior, and plead for His love, for His strength, for His peace. He who commanded His disciples to "love one another; as I have loved you," (John 13:34) will surely help us as we answer His great prayer, "that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us" (John 17:21).

"Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God...Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another...God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him...And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also"(1 John 4:7-21).

Picture from http://www3.newport.ac.uk/