A painter, two poets, a scholar, and an Apostle: on community

Quick, what’s the scariest verse in all of scripture?  You might imagine some intense description of damnation, or an especially demanding requirement of sacrifice.  For me, though, this is the one that always sends shivers down my spine: “And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there…” (D&C 130:2).  I’m sure this is primarily an affirmation of the eternal nature of the sealed family unit, but can it be read more broadly?  Can this verse be interpreted to imply that, even in the Celestial Kingdom, I’ll frequently be surrounded by weird people who want to talk my ear off?

I know, I shouldn’t be such a sourpuss, but that’s my natural inclination…so it’s just as well that we’re all here to overcome our lower natures and become more like God. 

Truth be told, I’m grateful for all the people I’ve encountered in the Church (and I’m grateful for the insights that help me to be grateful for it!).  People that my introverted inner critic would be inclined to ignore after the most perfunctory howdy-do have, as we’ve worked together over time, become honestly dear to me, adding to my stockpile of varied experiences, and helping me grow in directions that I never could if my worship were limited to some kind of isolated navel-gazing.

This important point is perhaps best put in Eugene England’s seminal essay “Why The Church Is As True As The Gospel” (http://www.zionsbest.com/gospel.html).  Consider this excerpt:

The Church is as true as-perhaps truer than-the gospel because it is where all can find fruitful opposition, where its revealed nature and inspired direction maintains an opposition between liberal and conservative values, between faith and doubt, secure authority and frightening freedom, individual integrity and public responsibility and thus where there will be misery as well as holiness, bad as well as good. And if we cannot stand the misery and the struggle, if we would prefer that the Church be smooth and perfect and unchallenging rather than as it is, full of nagging human diversity and constant insistence that we perform ordinances and obey instructions and take seriously teachings that embody logically irresolvable paradoxes, if we refuse to lose ourselves wholeheartedly in such a school, then we will never know the redeeming truth of the Church. It is precisely in the struggle to be obedient while maintaining integrity, to have faith while being true to reason and evidence, to serve and love in the face of imperfections and even offenses, that we can gain the humility we need to allow divine power to enter our lives in transforming ways. Perhaps the most amazing paradox about the Church is that it literally brings together the divine and the human through priesthood service, the ordinances, the gifts of the spirit-in concrete ways that no abstract systems of ideas ever could.

I highly recommend reading this short essay, by the way.  Though I have some quibbles about England’s vaguely unorthodox wording at times, his view of the Church makes a pleasant complement to Elder Bednar’s great experiences with less active members, as related in his October 2006 General Conference address, “And Nothing Shall Offend Them” (http://lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,23-1-646-32,00.html):

Our visits were quite straightforward. We expressed love and appreciation for the opportunity to be in their home. We affirmed that we were servants of the Lord on His errand to their home. We indicated that we missed and needed them—and that they needed the blessings of the restored gospel. And at some point early in our conversation I often would ask a question like this: “Will you please help us understand why you are not actively participating in the blessings and programs of the Church?”

I made hundreds and hundreds of such visits. Each individual, each family, each home, and each answer was different. Over the years, however, I detected a common theme in many of the answers to my questions. Frequently responses like these were given:

“Several years ago a man said something in Sunday School that offended me, and I have not been back since.”

“No one in this branch greeted or reached out to me. I felt like an outsider. I was hurt by the unfriendliness of this branch.”

“I did not agree with the counsel the bishop gave me. I will not step foot in that building again as long as he is serving in that position.”

Many other causes of offense were cited—from doctrinal differences among adults to taunting, teasing, and excluding by youth. But the recurring theme was: “I was offended by . . . ”

The bishop and I would listen intently and sincerely. One of us might next ask about their conversion to and testimony of the restored gospel. As we talked, eyes often were moist with tears as these good people recalled the confirming witness of the Holy Ghost and described their prior spiritual experiences. Most of the “less-active” people I have ever visited had a discernible and tender testimony of the truthfulness of the restored gospel. However, they were not presently participating in Church activities and meetings.

And then I would say something like this. “Let me make sure I understand what has happened to you. Because someone at church offended you, you have not been blessed by the ordinance of the sacrament. You have withdrawn yourself from the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. Because someone at church offended you, you have cut yourself off from priesthood ordinances and the holy temple. You have discontinued your opportunity to serve others and to learn and grow. And you are leaving barriers that will impede the spiritual progress of your children, your children’s children, and the generations that will follow.” Many times people would think for a moment and then respond: “I have never thought about it that way.”

The bishop and I would then extend an invitation: “Dear friend, we are here today to counsel you that the time to stop being offended is now. Not only do we need you, but you need the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Please come back—now.”

The point being made by England and Bednar–that we need the Church, for its divinely-designed ordinances that we get to intimately administer to each other, and for its gloriously vibrant spectrum of real human life–is why my favorite painting is Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace At Night.” 



The outside world, though not necessarily hostile, is darker and colder than the warm , glowing, amicable cafe into which all in the painting are drawn.  Not only drawn, but invited, as are all of the “human family of Adam” into the Church.  It’s reassuring that such a place exists. 

Truly, as poet John Donne wrote in “Meditation XVII,”

No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind

Or, as Auden put it in “September 1, 1939,”

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

So the next time you see me, go ahead and say hello.  I’ll embrace the holier nature we’re encouraged by the Lord’s Church to internalize, and smile as I ask how you’re doing.