Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Fellow citizens of the household of God.
Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with
the saints, and of the household of God. Ephesians 2:19
Years ago, when I was still teaching high school, one of the boys on the quiz bowl team that I coached lost his father to cancer. I went to the funeral, and I brought with me several members of the team, all of them teenagers, all of them somewhere on the social fringe of their high school peers1. I felt a kinship with these young men and women. I enjoyed their enthusiasm for obscure trivia, their out-of-the-mainstream interests, and their quirky brand of academic achievement.
Our best player was a kid I'll call Steven. He had a vast expanse of knowledge, and his buzzer finger was like lightning. But he was difficult to manage: Smarter than most people he knew, he was socially awkward and sometimes abrasive or even obnoxious. On more than one occasion, I had to apologize on his behalf to the other coaches at competitions.
Steven came from an evangelical Christian family who attended a mega-church just down the road from the high school. When we walked into the Presbyterian church where the funeral was held, he commented on how much he liked hearing the organ that was playing. In his church, he told me, they were accompanied by a worship band instead.
The funeral service was lovely, filled with sorrow, hope, and with the joy of Christ. I was pleased to be there with these teenagers, who were respectful and uncharacteristically solemn as they showed support for their friend.
Then came the moment when something barely perceptible happened, something that was almost nothing and yet left an indelible imprint on my mind. The congregation stood to sing "Amazing Grace," a song I love and usually sing with as much gusto as is appropriate for the given situation. The other members of the team sang inaudibly or not at all, but Steven knew the words, and he sang the melody in a clear, thin voice. This was my song, and this was his song too. We stood shoulder to shoulder, an Evangelical teenager and his Mormon quiz bowl coach, singing a song about Jesus, singing about sin, redemption, hope, grace. There was no trace of abrasiveness in the boy standing next to me. In that fleeting moment, I felt that we were spiritually linked as brother and sister.
Certainly, I have sung hymns of praise with non-Mormons many times before and since, and I don't quite know why this particular moment seemed so significant. But years later, the memory is still something of a reference point for me. In the intervening years, I made a conscious decision to interpret the Biblical phrase "body of Christ" as including all of Christ's followers, not just members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have tried to be open to further divine glimpses of spiritual unity. My efforts are modest. Once, when I had moved to a new neighborhood, my Baptist neighbor invited me to join a non-denominational prayer group held in her home. I was too shy to try it; Mormons don't really do that kind of thing. Only much later did I fully appreciate the kindness of that inclusive gesture, coming from someone who probably found my beliefs strange, at the very least.
But there have been small successes. Reading personal stories of faith from those outside my church have helped me appreciate the varied realities of lived religion. Reading Bible commentary from non-LDS sources has deepened my understanding of the scriptures. The last time I prepared a sacrament meeting talk, I sent a facebook message to an old college friend of my husband's, now an Episcopal priest, asking him if he had any thoughts that I might use in my Easter Sunday sermon. I was enriched by his insights, and I was touched by his readiness to help me contribute to my Mormon meeting. Another time, also around Easter, I made a silent and heartfelt effort to invite the Holy Spirit as the Jehovah's Witnesses testified on my doorstep of Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I thought that as we shook hands before they left, I sensed an extra measure of warmth in their hands and faces.
As I discover my Christian brothers and sisters, I feel almost as though I am being being reunited with family members separated from me at birth, family members I didn't know I had. We have different traditions, different vocabularies, and different ideas. Yet looking at their faces, I see that we are of the same family, the same parents.
I am occasionally taken aback by the barrage of criticism — sometimes false, sometimes devastatingly accurate — directed at my faith by other Christians. I am well-versed in the various theories on whether Mormons are saved2, and I have heard all the arguments for why we are not Christians. But they still sting. In fairness, I have also heard plenty of cringe-inducing remarks made by Mormons about other Christian churches. I hope that my church will continue to soften its rhetoric about other religious traditions.
A recent criticism of Mormonism from one segment of the Christian community has prompted me to reexamine that longing for unity that I recognized in myself years ago. Given the criticism from other Christians that will probably never go away and our substantive theological differences, what kind of unity am I really seeking? What sort of oneness can I hope to achieve?
I have come to see that I am not interested in solidarity for political causes. Nor do I want to smooth over doctrinal differences. And though it would be gratifying, what I want most is not validation from the religious community of my credentials as a genuine Christian. What do I want? I want to learn from followers of Christ of all denominations, from their devotion, their charity, and their scholarship. And I want to stand with them, mutually rejoicing in something that we share in the deepest recesses of our souls.
Surely, the household of God has room enough for that.
1In later years, things changed. At one point, we had the homecoming king on our team, along with a soccer player and an aspiring fashionista. Go figure.
2Once, I stumbled upon an internet treatise on whether Glenn Beck was "saved." The basic argument went as follows: Glenn Beck had a wonderful understanding of the atonement. Therefore, he is probably not a true-believing Mormon. Therefore, he might be saved. (Salvation is not possible for fully believing Mormons.)