This is the text from a recent talk I gave in sacrament meeting. Try not to get too excited.
When I was 16 years old, my Utah ward put on a road show. I don’t remember much about the plot, but I do remember that it had a comedy dream sequence that included some dancing circus ballerinas. For some reason none of the young women wanted to be the ballerinas, so my buddy Rich and I volunteered. My mom and other ladies in the ward sewed us full-body ballerina suits, complete with tutus and ballet slippers. As cross-dressing ballerinas, we were the stars of the show.
The following weekend there was a Halloween dance at our high school, costumes optional. Rich and I thought it would be fun to go to the dance in our elaborate ballerina costumes. Arriving at the high school, we wandered onto the dance floor only to realize that almost no one else came in costume. There must have been a football game right before the dance, or something like that, but in our tutus and ballet slippers we stuck out like sore thumbs. Other kids pointed and laughed, and I felt like crawling under a rock.
My topic today is: I am blessed when I go to church because love is spoken here. I would like to spend a few minutes thinking with you about how we can make church a place where people feel loved—especially those who may feel out of place, like I felt at that Halloween dance.
President Hinckley taught that to be converted every member needs a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with the good word of God. It is much easier to come to church when we feel loved and nurtured by our fellow members.
In the book of Ephesians, Paul taught us how we should make one another feel at church: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19)
Many years ago we moved to Seattle, Washington. We went to church that first Sunday, a bit apprehensive about joining a new ward where we did not know anyone. Arriving at the door we were greeted by Brother Duffy. He enthusiastically shook our hands and pulled us along to sit on the pew with his family. Arriving in a new place, Brother Duffy made us feel that we were not strangers.
Since then I’ve often asked myself, how can I ensure that there are no more strangers in our midst? How can I help the awkward teenaged boy in the tutu and ballet slippers know that he has a place? How can I make it so that my fellow members feel blessed when they come to church because love is spoken here?
As a Mormon who is performing on the stage of life, I have learned that at church the script is written primarily for people like me. If I am white and middle class, heterosexual and employed, a returned missionary with a stay-at-home wife, three and a half kids, and a minivan in the driveway with a CTR sticker on the bumper, the words of the Mormon part I am given to read can flow easily, as natural and unnoticeable as the air I breathe.
For many years I was reading from a religious script that was tailored to my life situation. There were action parts where I wanted action, there was comedy in just the right places, and my role was that of the leading man.
Then 10 years ago everything changed. I went through a painful divorce and found that I no longer fit in as I did before, the script didn’t speak to me in the same way.
I discovered that the lessons at church weren’t written primarily for divorced guys. I had a temple recommend but as a divorced man I was not allowed to be a temple worker. The words of President Mackay—“No other success can compensate for failure in the home”—which long had brought me comfort and direction, now made me feel inadequate. When I read the Proclamation on the Family, I could no longer see myself within it.
In almost no time at all I felt like a stranger at church.
A few years ago in General Conference Elder David S. Baxter reached out to single parents like me:
“Day to day you face the struggles of life, doing the work that was always meant for two but doing it largely alone…You run your household, watch over your family, sometimes struggle to make ends meet…
You nurture your children. You cry and pray with them and for them. You want the very best for them but fret every night that your best may never be good enough…
This is not exactly what you hoped or planned, prayed for or expected, when you started out years ago…
Please never feel that you are in some kind of second-tier subcategory of Church membership, somehow less entitled to the Lord’s blessings than others. In the kingdom of God there are no second-class citizens.”
Elder Baxter then asked this important question:
“Members and leaders, is there more that you could do to support single-parent families without passing judgment or casting aspersions?”
Elder Baxter’s talk helped me feel less like that out-of-place boy in the tutu at the Halloween dance. And, I am happy to report, so did my fellow ward members.
During that difficult time in my life, I cannot recall any criticism of me or of my ex-wife from my fellow ward members. We were not treated as damaged goods. One priesthood leader confided in me that he understood how difficult it could be, having been through a divorce himself, something I had not been aware of. Some married couples invited me—a single guy—over for game night. My fellow ward members treated me as a fellowcitizen in the household of God.
They truly lived Alma’s teaching of charity, having “their hearts knit together in unity and in love one towards another.” (Mosiah 18:21)
In Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miserables, we see yet another example of acceptance and love for the one who felt like a stranger. The protoganist Jean-Valjean has been paroled after nearly 20 years of hard labor, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. Desperate on a cold, winter night, he is looking for a place to stay. But because of his yellow parolee card and wild looks, Jean-Valjean is rejected at every door in the village until finally he is let in by the humble Bishop Myriel, who kindly provides a meal and a warm bed. However, in ungrateful response the paroled criminal steals away in the night with the bishop’s valuable silverware.
The next day Jean-Valjean is caught by the gendarmes, who bring him back to the bishop, skeptically repeating Jean-Valjean’s story that the silverware is a gift. To everyone’s surprise, however, the bishop agrees with the story and reminds Jean-Valjean that in his hurry to leave, he forgot to take the candlesticks that the bishop had also given him.
The gendarmes release Jean-Valjean and depart. Bishop Myriel then turns to the former criminal and speaks these merciful words:
“…Never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”
To Bishop Myriel, there were no strangers. Even the most down-trodden, unbelieving, undeserving soul was welcome.
For several years now I have had a different reason to sometimes feel like a stranger among the Saints. As some of you know, my faith journey has not been conventional. I am a restless seeker who resonates less with the concept of a true church and more with the concept of a living church, open to great and important revelations. I cannot always find a way to fit my soul within the correlated gospel that we sometimes find in Church manuals and General Conference talks. I realize that this makes me different from many members, and as I sit at church, sometimes my sense of being a stranger is profound.
And yet you have not treated me as a stranger. As I have journeyed, you all have treated me with kindness and love, and I have been deeply moved by it.
I am reminded of the Savior’s story from Matthew 25:
“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I believe that the true measure of our lives as followers of Jesus is how we treat those who are vulnerable or different from us. I believe that the fundamental question we must ask ourselves as members of the church of Jesus Christ is: how do we behave towards the strangers in our midst?
Can we identify among us the metaphorical teenaged boy in tutu and ballet slippers, the person in our midst who is different and who is aching to feel loved and accepted? Can we help him feel blessed to come to church because love is spoken here?
I believe that we can. Jesus has shown us the way and you have shown me the way.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.