Not long ago, I watched what people in the Latter-day Saint world call stake conference. Nine congregations came together to hear sermons from local faith leaders and church members — the same everyday folks with whom I share the aisles at the grocery store and the lines at the post office.
The more I live, the less I enjoy sitting through meetings, but this one was outstanding. It’s nice to go to the spiritual well and come away with thirst thoroughly quenched.
In addition to savoring the sermons, my mind also wandered, asking various questions of those who spoke: Can I trust this person? Do they practice what they preach? What would I see if I could see their heart?
These questions came not because these neighbors of mine looked sinister or seemed to be hiding something. Not at all. They came in part because of what I see in scripture (think of David, Judas and others), and read in the news. And — perhaps most importantly — these questions came because of what I know about my own heart.
Thirteen years ago, I heard then-Elder Russell M. Nelson, now President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, say to several hundred Latter-day Saints, “You are what makes the church work.”
The emphasis was on the word “you.”
He was right. Similar to many other faith communities, every assignment in the Church of Jesus Christ, from leadership to getting slobbered and sneezed on by 2-year-olds in the nursery, is filled by everyday people.
But the opposite of his statement is also true. If ordinary people are what makes the church work, we are also what makes it fail. We are torn apart over politics because our loves are out of order. We snub and insult each other in ways large and small. We commit terrible crimes and sin.
Every group has its issues. But it only takes a small amount of poison to compromise the well of faith that we offer the world.
Two years ago, many (myself included) were heartbroken to learn of the late Ravi Zacharias’ sexual misconduct. He was one of the world’s finest orators. His sermons lit fires of faith in so many hearts. He was one of Christ’s most eloquent public defenders.
But after that day, every word he had preached in his 50-year career was suspect.
On the same day the news about Zacharias broke, I encountered the following passage from Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett in my reading of “Pride and Prejudice”:
“The more I see of the world,” Bennett says, “the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.”
This is a natural feeling when people let us down. The longer we live, the higher the likelihood we will be sliced by the shards of shattered trust. Many apply Bennett’s cynicism toward religion generally when a story that of Zacharias breaks. Indeed, such sins cannot be winked at or ignored. Justice must be meted out. The standard of conduct is highest for those in positions of trust.
Repentance is always possible, of course; God is merciful. But, as Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “Such grace is costly.” That’s why zero-tolerance standard with regarding to sexual immorality — especially for those in a position of trust— is the only option.
Heaven is other people
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Hell is other people.” It’s a line from a play by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. If you take public transit or shop at big-box stores or are introverted like me, you know something of what he was meant.
I also connect Sarte’s words to religion. For me, doctrine and policy have never been obstacles to my Latter-day Saint faith life. The roots of my difficulties are often social. When I don’t want to be at church, it’s likely because I don’t have a deep connection or shared interest with others in the chapel.
But it’s the feeling of isolation that is the problem, not the other people. But the prophetic vision points us higher. Joseph Smith, for example, taught that heaven, in fact, is other people.
“That same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there,” he said in 1843.
It’s tragic when the smoke of cynicism blinds us to the beacons of ultimate hope. We need not abandon the ship of faith because of imperfect passengers. Imperfect passengers a bit like us. Rightly viewed, a fellow believer’s mistake or a lonely day at church is not an indication that faith is false. For Christians, such experiences are reminders to never invest faith solely in the fallible. There is, after all, no other kind of human.
Happily for me, my fellow believers at stake conference lifted my sights heavenward. Speaker after speaker taught me where to root ultimate faith: in one who has transcended all, and who possess everything needed to guide the rest of us to do the same.
Samuel B. Hislop is a writer in Utah. His views are his own.