A Lesson from my Letter to Mormons

Words Matter

After posting my blog, A Letter to Mormons, I received a comment from a woman who spoke to an issue I think many of us have struggled with on both sides of the fence. I want to bring attention to this quote because I have spent weeks sifting through its meaning and how it made me feel.

The woman wrote, “I live in Utah, where my husband and I have moved to dedicate our lives to sharing truth with Mormons and helping them out of their religious cult, which is exactly what it is.”

When I read this comment, my heart sank, blood rushed to my head, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I physically bristled. I immediately began imagining how hurtful this statement could be to the Mormons following the comments on my blog. The whole purpose of my letter was to connect with my Mormon neighbors and this divisive comment broke my heart. I will admit that I struggled with anger as I felt the need to defend all the open-hearted, courageous, loving Mormons who had poured their hearts out in their responses to me and trusted me enough to share their stories. After I processed my initial disappointment, I paused. I paused and considered all the times I had heard this term used in my circle of influence while growing up. It was not until this moment that I realized how damaging this 4-letter word could be. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never thought about the implications of this language until now. I had always assumed that Mormons knew what non-Mormons meant when they used the term “cult” and that any hurt feelings were due to a misunderstanding. Please forgive me for my short-sightedness. As I was reflecting I began to put myself in the shoes of my Mormon neighbors (and new friends, Praise God) and it brought me back to the many moments of name-calling, shaming, and embarrassment I’ve endured throughout my life when I didn’t fit someone’s mold. I began to realize how painful this must be to hear and how nasty it must sound even when the person using the word doesn’t have malicious intent.

First, I want to share (for better or worse) how this term was used in my world. I grew up in a non-denominational Christian household and I was taught that a cult was any faction of Christianity that adds to or changes the Holy Bible, or any religious group that dismisses or alters the main tenets of the Christian faith with unorthodox beliefs. If this is the theological definition and it’s taken at face value, then it explains why Mormonism (with its addition of The Book of Mormon) would be referred to as a cult by non-Mormons who practice the Christian faith and believe the Bible is the Word of God. So, I grew up believing that the term “cult” was a religious technicality that described why and how our faiths and belief systems are different, and although an important difference from my faith perspective, I had not considered all the inherent damage that could be caused from casually throwing this word around.

After some soul searching the last couple of months I’ve come to realize that even when non-Mormons believe this definition, refer to this definition, and use this definition to substantiate their desire to share their faith with Mormons, the issue is how this word makes people feel…what it does to a person’s heart. In our present day and age, the word “cult” goes beyond the theological definition and carries a much heavier and sinister connotation since the tragedies of the Jonestown massacre in 1978, the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, TX in 1993, the 1997 California Heaven’s Gate group suicide, and many others.

Words matter. Words can cut us to the bone and labels can destroy any chance of connection we may have with another person. Even if you are referring to the genuine theological definition please stop and consider how this word might make people feel. Consider what is heard when you use this label. When I hear the word “cult”, I picture darkness, fear, coercion, abduction, suicide, murder, death, loss, powerlessness, brain-washing, evil. If we are truly seeking to share the love of Jesus Christ with our Mormon neighbors, are these the words we want them hearing us use to describe them? Are these the words that open another’s heart to our faith story? Are these the words that build bridges and fuse connections? Are these the words that open the doors to vulnerability and whole-heartedness? Are these the words that ignite receptiveness and intrigue? Do these words break down walls and allow for authentic, loving, respectful dialogue?

If someone approaches me with a label that feels like name-calling, my defenses go up, my walls get higher, my heart closes shop and there is no longer room for relationship. I am not going to hear how you love me and care for me and want to share your heart with me after you’ve insinuated that I am dark, scary, and evil. Labeling is not helpful. Relationship is helpful. Breaking bread and fellowship are helpful. Lifting others up is helpful. Loving one another, sharing each other’s story, giving context to why we believe what we believe is helpful. Pointing fingers, calling names, using words that make others feel like they have to defend who they are and what they believe is not helpful…even when you have the best of intentions.

Regardless of technical definitions, the words we use to speak to one another or about one another often carry emotional meaning, which in turn causes emotional reactions. Regardless of why you choose to use a certain term, considering how your language affects a person’s heart is more important than driving home the point you are trying to make. The words you choose matter.

With all of this being said, I also had comments from readers that have experienced what they called a “kidnapping” of a loved one by the Mormon Church. I have not experienced this with the LDS community, but I want to share my story. There are churches of all faiths and denominations that have unfit representatives who use their church to abuse power and perpetuate sin. My great aunt was preyed upon by a “pastor” of an evangelical church in rural Oklahoma. She wasn’t able to have children, so he used the hole in her heart, the vulnerability, the pain to convince her to adopt him. He has parents, a wife and kids, a church and yet he is also an adopted son of my great aunt. She uses her life savings to pay for his expensive trips, his gorgeous house, and his kid’s college tuition. As soon as she began to show signs of forgetfulness, he moved her into a nursing home and wouldn’t let her leave. My family isn’t allowed to visit her because he is now her guardian and has requested that none of us be allowed into the nursing facility to see her. It has been a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, rage-inducing, grief-stricken process to watch and live. So, please let me say that if you’ve experienced something similar I can understand, truly understand, why you would look at the religion affiliated with that person or those people who tore your family apart and feel nothing but disgust, fear, and anger towards them. The challenges for me and for anyone who has experienced something comparable to this is to (1) refrain from judging the whole lot according to the actions of a few and (2) seek the heart of Jesus who is the only one with the grace to love and forgive all people under all circumstances.

If we do witness this sort of behavior in our faith communities, we must speak up. If there are people attending a church, any church, who begin to shun their family because they practice a different faith or if there are people being “ex-communicated” for their sin, their lack of faith, their decisions, their lifestyle, their humanness, then we are called by Jesus to call this out. Jesus was not exclusionary. Jesus did not say “love those who are like you” or “love those who live up to your moral standards” or “love those who attend the same church” or “love those who never show their sin.” Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength…Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31.

In summary, if we’re going to love like Jesus and proclaim a faith in a God who is Love then we must love our neighbors as ourselves. We must be cautious and caring with our words, bold in our response to injustice, forgiving of those who have hurt us, and inclusive of all of God’s image bearers! When we share our faith and our truth and our beliefs, may we do so with words of love void of judgement, words of connection void of shame, words that build bridges instead of walls and words that embrace the hearts of others in the warmth of agape love. May we always speak our truth with kindness. Words matter!

Fasting “Great Anger”

I woke up the other morning and read President Trump’s tweet, “The booing at the NFL football game last night, when the entire Dallas team dropped to its knees, was loudest I have ever heard. Great anger.”

“Great anger.”

In that moment I couldn’t help but wonder if my heart would be better off if I allowed my sadness to be replaced with great anger.  If I could blame others, avoid accountability, point fingers, apply apathy, scream at people and ideas I didn’t agree with, defend myself at all costs and offend others with no remorse, would this be a healthier place for my heart? Would “great anger” be better than waking up in the middle of the night with a heavy weight on my chest and a soul that weeps over the discord in our country and the pain in this world? If I could be ruthless rather than repentant, indifferent versus engaged, judgmental instead of merciful, maybe the sadness would turn to vigorous fist pumps and powerful chest beating. After some reflecting I realized that “great anger” is the easy way, the world’s way, and the way that is absent of God’s love. Some nights I can’t sleep and too many mornings than I care to count, I wake up, scroll through my Twitter notifications and cry before I even roll out of bed. I have been so burdened by the polarization in our country, the cruelty and name-calling from people I typically respect, and the hypocrisy (from all sides) that is now magnified due to social media. I’m taxed by the anger I’m constantly shoving down or trying to “pray away” and even when the anger subsides the sadness takes its toll.

Why do I remain plugged in? Why do I continue to scroll? Why am I tuning into CNN and Fox News every day?

I’ve convinced myself that I need to invest time on these media and social outlets so that I can stay well-informed, understand both sides, and have an educated opinion. Recently though, I’ve come to realize that what I’m consuming is so polarizing that regardless of what I’m watching, reading, and/or hearing it’s coming from a place of anger, fear, bias, bitterness, defensiveness, offensiveness, prejudice and so on. These undercurrents are affecting my spirit. Although I do believe it’s important to keep my head out of the sand and get involved when there’s injustice, stand up for the oppressed,  and carry the burdens for others when the weight is too much, I have to find a better way.

I believe God can use me in powerful ways regardless of the news I watch or the social media I scour. I believe The Lord will guide my decisions and purify my thoughts if I turn my gaze towards Him and away from the self-serving perspectives of the world. If I believe this to be true, then why do I feel anxious when I consider deleting Twitter from my phone or abstaining from National news?

Do I fear I’ll miss the immediate opportunity to protest a great injustice? Do I fear someone else will learn something before I do? Do I fear I won’t have the ammunition necessary to make my next political point? Am I searching for others to validate my feelings? Will I miss the anonymity I enjoy when sharing my knee-jerk reactions on Twitter? Do I think my responses, retweets, comments are actually making a difference? Do I believe purging my emotions on the social landscape changes minds? Do I imagine my ability to affect positive change in the world around me will be lost if I can’t express my opinions to the world at a moment’s notice? Do I presume that my thoughts, my opinions, my advice will actually change someone’s position?

Gross!

It’s embarrassing to admit my answers to most of these questions. When I get real with myself about my motivations behind “keeping up,” I’m ashamed. Who do I think I am? My opinion doesn’t matter, but what my heart projects does. Even after I spend time in prayer, asking for God’s heart…His grace, His love, His perspective, as soon as I click those tempting icons on my phone I’m immediately pulled into the chaos and lose sight of His desires for the world. I bombard myself with animosity spewed from people I don’t agree with AND people I do.

The truth is that I can stay informed without delving into bias and partisanship. The truth is even when I consume information on both sides I’m still exposing myself to fanatical responses and antagonistic commentary. The truth is that I can lean in to the Lord and His will and become involved in my community in healthy ways without fighting every fight or making every injustice my calling. The truth is that I can give of myself without thinking that I have to save everyone or anyone for that matter. The truth is that I can continue to use social media to share love and inclusion without absorbing the disgust and anger that seems to be spreading like wildfire straight into my heart and mind.

I’ve decided to protect my heart more carefully. I want to be able to love the way God does…without qualifiers, without conditions, without expectations.

With depression lurking behind every click, I’ve decided I must change how I’m consuming news. I’ve decided to delete Twitter from my phone, stop notifications from Facebook, and fast from ALL major news outlets (specifically CNN and Fox News) for the next 30 days. I’m curious to see how my thought-life will change after I remove myself from the toxicity that is seeping from most news reports and social media reactions I see these days. While I fast, I will pour myself into causes I believe in, such as The Welcome to America Project (https://www.wtap.org/), and I will continue to seek new opportunities for providing hope to those who are hurting. I will seek out non-partisan news sources such as Reuters (www.reuters.com), ProPublica (https://www.propublica.org), AllSides (https://www.allsides.com), PolitiFact (www.politifact.com), FactCheck ( www.factcheck.org), and PBS (www.pbs.org). If I observe opinions instead of facts in the reporting, I will stop engaging with those news sources as well. My goal is to remove myself from limited perspectives and I cannot do this while I’m constantly soaking in the world’s bathtub! I believe I can be well-informed, lovingly active, persistently merciful and proactively thoughtful without the anger, sadness, and fear that is being so loudly projected.

My hopeful prayer is that by severing my constant connection from biased news and hateful rhetoric running rampant on social media, I will be freed from the sadness that has adhered itself to my heart this year. My hopeful prayer is that I will be moved to reach out with love and grace to all people, regardless of politics or religion and give of myself without bias or prejudice. My hopeful prayer is that I will consume facts (free of hate) and determine how to proceed from a place of love in response to those facts. My hopeful prayer is that my emotional health will be protected while I continue to restoratively engage with communities near and far in ways that spread the hope and love of God.

For those interested, I will share any shifts in my spirit worth mentioning.

Here we go:

 

Discovering Perspective

I’ve been obsessively listening to Pantsuit Politics, a thought-provoking podcast with two bright young female lawyers with different worldviews who respectfully (yes, respectfully) discuss politics. Their tagline is, “keep it nuanced y’all.” I love this because it reminds me to consider how many distinct ways a situation can be interpreted as we all witness the world around us with an individual set of lenses. I used to be someone who lived in a world with very little room for grey, but as I’ve grown both personally and professionally I’ve come to realize that there are different shades, different meanings, different degrees of understanding with every story told and every story heard. I feel a freedom when I’m able to disengage from the idea that everyone who doesn’t see the world as I see it has been misguided. Until today, I thought I had made great progress in my ability to step back from my firmly held beliefs and step into another’s shoes in an effort to cross the divides of dissimilarity.

This morning I was surprised to have a conversation about a news headline that I had no idea could even be nuanced. The story of the doctor dragged from the United Airlines flight came up in conversation and I honestly and ignorantly assumed everyone would be as disturbed by the images as I was. Maybe my naivete was based on the fact that it was a non-political story, but regardless of the reason, I mistakenly assumed everyone had been affected in the same way. As we began to discuss the incident I made it abundantly clear how disgusted I was with the policeman’s force and inability to de-escalate the situation. I asked incredulously, “what is wrong with people? Where is common decency?” It was at this point that my dear friend responded, “he was resisting.” It took me a moment to recover from this comment as I can honestly admit that I did not expect anyone to have a deviating perspective. I realize now how arrogant it was of me to assume everyone would see this situation (or any situation for that matter) as I did. As we travelled deeper into the conversation, it was additionally pointed out that the “fine print on airline tickets explicitly states that you may not actually get a seat on the flight,” and that the passenger “resisted and was belligerent with police” saying, “you will have to drag me off. I would rather be arrested,” AND that “he ran back onto the plane even after he was dragged off by security.” The longer these different angles were discussed, the more insistent I became that my view of the police officer’s short-sighted behavior was the correct view and that there was no other way of examining this situation than the way I already had. I dug my heels in. I couldn’t for the life of me comprehend how anyone could determine what had happened as fair or appropriate. The passenger was the victim and I couldn’t wrap my head around anyone arguing the contrary. Then my friend said something that hurled me over the empathy wall, where I could undoubtedly witness her landscape.

She said, “I guess I give the benefit of the doubt to law enforcement officers because my dad is a retired police detective and my husband was an air Marshall.”

Boom! Perspective bomb!

Once we said our goodbyes, I began internally berating myself and questioning my ability to see both sides. I had failed miserably at my devoted practice of denying the need to “be right!” I spent the rest of the day considering how many stories my friend must’ve heard about simple law enforcement situations escalating to dangerous, scary, life-threatening moments. I spent the rest of the day acknowledging how many times she must have worried about her father as he faced unknown scenarios and unknown personalities while putting his life at risk every day to keep people safe…people he didn’t even know. I spent the rest of the day imagining the times her father and her husband thought a moment was safer than it actually was and how everything can change in the blink of an eye. I spent the rest of the day admitting that I wasn’t as skilled as I had hoped at recognizing the delicate shadings in our individual interpretations of every piece of news we absorb…every narrative we discover.

Recognizing that there was an alternative way to hear and see this story didn’t change my mind about it being handled poorly, but it did help me conclude that our past experiences, our history, our environment, our culture, our family, and all that we’re acquainted with casts a filter on the lenses we wear every day to perceive our world. Having this open and honest conversation with my friend helped me grasp that we may never see the colorful world that lies beyond our familiarity until someone illuminated by a different world shares their vision, their tone, their saturation, their space their hue with us.

That night I texted my friend and apologized for the lack of understanding and for my insistence that I was right. I’ve always thought that I was open to seeing the “other side” but now I realize that there are times I don’t even realize there IS another side. I consider myself blessed to have friends in my life that will help me see the hill ahead and then guide me up and over to the other side for a fresh frame of reference. I am thankful for friends who aren’t afraid to disagree with what I’ve deemed “right.” Friends who love me enough and respect themselves enough to be vulnerable and authentic. Thank you to my friend (you know who you are) for being you even when we’re not aligned. You make my life increasingly more colorful and you make me a better person who continues to grow in shades and hues!