August 31, 2017 by Ron Madson
Before I built a wall I’d ask
What I was walling in or walling out..”—Robert Frost
One of my many increasing with age eccentricities is the need to sit in the very back corner in any meeting I attend—particularly Sacrament Meeting. More and more I feel like an alien anthropologist visiting a foreign culture while adhering to the prime directive to keep interference to a minimum. My observations and mental notes this…
Sunday August 27th, 2017:
I began to muse about what it means as a faith community to eat and drink together. In the Balti tribe of Tibetan descent, they have a proverb called “Three Cups of Tea.” The first shared cup means you are still a stranger; the second cup now an honored guest, but if one progresses to a third cup then one is now family. Jesus literally invited all to His table. He went out of His way to show everyone one, no matter if despised, considered vile or rejected by the religious leaders/priesthood of His day, that he would eat and drink with them. In other words, they were family. He embraced and elevated sinners, tax collectors, women, children, even gentiles. There were no more strangers in His Kingdom
The Sacrament renews one’s baptismal covenant to believe in Jesus, promise to follow Him by emulating His teachings, and succor one another, and “whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil” and “is not of me, but is against me.” (3 Nephi 11: 40 and D.C. 10: 67,68).
“If You could Hie to Kolob”
The lyrics of this interlude song seized my heart’s core. I am now thinking of my deceased Sister, Father, Mother, and then my thoughts turn to my living wife, children, and grandchildren. Is there life eternal? And what is eternal life? I yearn that these relationships would endure. This interlude song brings to the surface all the Mormonism of my childhood—contemplating beautiful mysteries and a religion that was once more of an unending question/search than a catechism of answers.
“There is no end to glory; There is no end to love;
There is no end to being; There is no death above.”
Now memories of my father telling me that the only thing we as Mormons are required to believe is the truth—“the fairest gem.” And then sharing with me his belief that when and if we find greater light and truth anywhere else, then Mormonism requires us to follow it wherever it leads us—and that Mormonism can and should be no more or less. This constant search for light and truth is the most ennobling “traditions of our fathers/mothers.” It is the foundation of our eternal progression as we seek to become one with God whose glory is intelligence, light and truth.
PUTTING UP A FENCE
The assigned High Council speaker addressed concern about members who have or are losing their faith/beliefs. His thesis was that those who are losing their faith/belief in the church, due to challenges that come to all of us, do so because their foundation is not deep enough, or to use Jesus’ parable —they are planted in poor soil. To illustrate he told of his experience building a fence for his large backyard and upon finding a rock that appeared too big to take out, he took a short cut by putting in a shallow post only to later find that that shallow post could not stand up to the strong winds that would inevitably blow. Of course, the shallow post(s) were given as a metaphor for us as individual members. If we have doubts as to our church then, obviously, we do not have a strong enough spiritual foundation/depth to weather challenges to our faith in it.
This for me was the perfect metaphor but not for the reasons he gave it.
JESUS’ BIG FENCELESS BACKYARD
I am certain that the High Councilmen’s backyard compared to many others is, as he mentioned, pretty big. It is natural for all of us to think our backyards are special. It is our yard. How big was/is Jesus’ backyard? Jesus came of age when the church/priesthood had created multiple fences/barriers/walls sealing off the perceived unclean. He tore down one wall/fence after another and in so doing was constantly expanding His boundary free Kingdom. Following the pattern of the prophets, He overturned the tables that created heavy, if not impossible, burdens on those seeking access to His house, Jesus did not speak of “worthiness” or any form of payment to come unto Him. He spoke of a Kingdom and not a church.
The first Christians understood and practiced what they called “The Way”—a way of life that was no respecter of persons, bond or free, white or black, Jew or Gentile, and in the words of Isaiah those in His final kingdom “would come from North, South, East and West” and there “would be more children of the desolate than the married wife” in that ever exponentially expanding Kingdom in the last days. The identifying quality of those in His final kingdom would be their emulating the traits of Jesus. This was a Kingdom/Family and those seeking to be a part of that final Kingdom would come from all churches, creeds and cultures.
Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount was in an open field.
Jesus’ backyard had no fence.
(*Lehi inviting all to partake of God’s love. He and Jeremiah were contemporaries and both outcast from church, temple and priesthood. Consider his dream and who is pointing fingers at whom and from what spacious building after reading all of the book of Jeremiah rather than carefully selected/isolated passages.)
WHY PUT UP A FENCE?
I get the impulse to put up a fence. Fences exist to define territory and keep things and people out unless they have permission to enter your space. But what about churches? When I was serving a mission in France I was stunned to find out that I could enter any Catholic church anytime of the day for there were no locks on the door. Like the merciful priest in Les Miserable Novel whose faith required that he never lock his door, so too His church/kingdom should never lock anyone out.
So again, why do we build, metaphorically, fences around churches? Church fences exist to define who is in and who is out, or, in other words, who is worthy and who is not to be allowed into your backyard. They also exist to define borders through doctrine/dogma/policies as to what is acceptable and what is not. Teachings, counsel and encouragement to keep commandments to be more like Jesus is one thing—fencing out anyone “who does not keep pace with his companions” or “marches to the beat of a different drummer” is another.
THE PROBLEM WITH BUILDING A FENCE
Leaving aside the admonition of the Lord in our sacred texts to not add anything (“more”) to what it means to be a member, i.e, simply strive to follow Jesus’ example and help one another, what happens when we incrementally add all kinds of exclusionary rules as to who is or is not allowed the privilege to be in our “backyard” or even have access to His home? We inevitably discover, as the High Councilman did with his fence that when we try to build fences there exists natural boulders/impediments to our efforts.
In the actual address by the High Councilmen he spoke of having to cope with only one boulder that looked big but turned out to be small, but that is not the reality of what happens when one seeks to build spiritual walls/fences, nor the reality of our lived church experience from its inception to now. Mormonism perfectly exemplifies that reality of having to work around big and little historical and doctrinal boulders and the false hope that certain “truths” could or even should be expected to hold up by “working around them.” Here are just a few examples of the many boulders:
- The First Vision seminal account does not fit our narrative as to the purpose of that visit —so we hid it for generations and use a later modified account.
- Polygamy, polyandry and the abuses that it fostered not just in Nauvoo but for a few generations—we throw mounds of apologist dirt over it or better yet say “God told us.” We chose to blame God rather than accept that reality that leaders have erred, do err and will err in the future as to many great and small things–that is why the Lord instituted “voice and common consent” (which we have effectively nullified by “loyalty oaths” to mortals) as a check and balance. We have spent and continue to spend far too much energy/fan fiction on trying to justify this foundational error, i.e., leadership idolatry.
- Build another wall/fence excluding an entire race with posts that have no foundation in Jesus’ teachings nor even the revealed word plainly telling us to deny none “bond and free, black and white…”
- Ignore DC 89 admonition to NOT give by way of commandment health laws by creating another barrier to saving ordinances as did the Pharisees.
- It an effort to make us even more “righteous” build the fence even higher by requiring payment of fees, authority loyalty tests and doctrinal thought policing to have access to salvation and eternal families.
- When a member reveals that some foundational “truths” are not rooted in reality and/or obviously fabricated then attack the messenger —and suggest they are the ones who lack foundational strength and are planted in “weak soil.”
- If someone inside the fence says there are teachings, histories or even doctrine/policies that are not foundationally sound —or perhaps we do not really need fencing off anyone—we then invite them to leave (fence them out) based on their perceived act of disloyalty rather than address the substance/truth of their dissent.
The boulders/impediments are there for a reason. They exist to send us a message that maybe we do not need a fence or if we feel compelled to build a fence do not expect it to hold up when the winds blow if it is “the more that cometh of evil.”
(Note: Maybe the dissenting or only partially believing in “all that is required” member is correct or not —that is not the point of the above examples. Rather these are given to show that what we believe today is not what we believed 150 years ago nor will it be what we will “believe” a hundred years from now. A “true” church is, by necessity, organic and evolving—jettisoning falsehoods with further light and knowledge. So in the meantime there is no need to kick anyone out or marginalize them if they do not accept today’s orthodoxy or even suggest they are weak, easily offended, or “planted in weak soil”—maybe they are just ahead of their time and transitioning. Thought policing never works and excommunicating for non-belief is, as some have expressed, “a twelfth century solution to a 21st century problem”)
THE WIND IS BLOWING DOWN THE FENCES
The instincts/virtue of the members of our faith are more firmly planted, in my opinion, than the fences we have erected to keep them in or to keep others, particularly family and friends, out. Relationships run deeper and are more firmly secure than any doctrinal wall any church can even pretend to erect. And when in the age of transparency, the winds of unvarnished truth come knocking down the fences our churches have erected to keep others out and us in check, we see the unending open fields of possibilities that we had never considered.
We now see that is was never the transcendent gems of truths and pure revelations that brought us together that was the problem, but rather the fences we erected out of fear and a desire to control one another that limited our possibilities. We wanted a church more than His Kingdom.
Our church to its credit has recently allowed the publishing of twelve “essays” letting us know that many of the fences we created had no real foundation and that is why they are crumbling. These essays sanctioned by our church are still relatively obscured and, in my opinion, do not go far enough, but enough is enough for now. The fences are coming down and once down they will allow for a larger vision. For something must die before something new and better can live.
TEAR DOWN ALL FENCES
Maybe it was our pride or, to be more charitable to us/myself, it was fear that caused us to build increasingly taller fences/walls and shrinking perimeters. What I write is part of my personal penance for defending too long the walls/fences created by my church. I tried for nearly five decades the “conditional love” that Elder Nelson said was part of God’s nature and demanded of myself and, even worse, others, particularly family, ever increasing “righteousness” as if that was the only way to find God. I discovered that the Tree of Life is an open field with no fences/walls. There should only be a non-qualified offering of God’s unconditional love for all creation—-no “more or less.”
For too long the game has been to defend our “truth” and keep out all perceived impurities. In doing so we have created the same exclusionary purity cult that every prophet from Jeremiah to the ultimate prophet, Jesus, condemned.
With rare exceptions, the direction from those who sit in judgment over us are asking us to build the fences higher and dig the posts deeper: “Raise the bar, increase your personal righteousness, reject sin and make sure no pollution breaches our walls—sometimes even children (November 5th policy).”
We create and constantly reinforce the myth that if anyone questions the need for these fences/walls and/or searches beyond them, then we easily dismiss them by judging them as weak, deceived, easily offended. This is an approach based on a fear not faith. It is a siege mentality and not “The Way” as practiced by those first Christians that embraced the universality of Jesus’ message.
For too long the game has been “Defend the Church” as if “it” was the center of our worship. This has to change and it will— whether or not those in authority are the last to realize it or not. Real change is coming and those that have ears to hear and eyes to see at the grassroots know it.
The fences we erect make it harder than it should be to return—or in some cases nearly impossible. Policies cloaked in “doctrine” send a not so subtle message, so foreign to the grace demonstrated by Jesus’ ministry, that despite predictable platitudes and feigning concern, the real message is “Stay hidden.”
Like the game “Hide and Seek” all of us because of “sin” have out of fear or sense of rejection hid from the presence of God—some far better than others. Jesus is the designated “Finder.” If we are found, we then are asked to join the hunt. Jesus does not put up fences/barriers/walls to hide behind, we do. He, like us, should be calling out “Allee, Allee, All in come free.” Everyone come out of hiding and get found.
It is time we tear down all fences and realize the sectarian game of “we are true, pure and chosen and you are not” is over. It is not working and never will. The church, any church, only exists to help individuals desire and strive to be part of the Lord’s Kingdom. Our church, any church or faith, exists as the means to that end and only in that sense is it, at any given time, more or less “true.” To take it further, a non-believer might emulate all the virtues of Jesus, while someone believing all the required doctrine/tenets of our faith may have a hard heart—the former more ready to enter that final kingdom than the later. When allegiance and belief in a church is the criteria for our measuring one’s worthiness to be in God’s presence/Kingdom, then we have conflated a church with His Kingdom and, therefore, not surprising that we begin to build fences around “it” to protect “it” from those who do not conform to the current behavioral and doctrinal orthodoxy. Churches do not need protecting—people do. The former exists for the later and not the other way around.
The problem is not whether the fences of exclusion of others we build around our church/faith is strong enough to withstand challenges (it can’t), it is that we have fences at all.