I was sitting in church a few weeks ago and noticing how several of the scriptural texts were about God calling people: Samuel hearing a voice and wondering what it was, Psalm 139 (“Lord, you have searched me out and known me”), and the encounter of Jesus with Nathanael. As I was listening to the sermon, which also touched on these themes, and emphasized God’s call to each one of us, and the need for our community to make space for everyone to become what God is calling her or him to be, a question came to mind which I’ve often pondered: how do you discern between a call or a challenge that pushes you in healthy ways, make you grow, and brings you closer to God—and one that simply beats you down and leaves you broken?
Christian faith sometimes requires hard things. I do think that’s part of the package. Jesus in the New Testament calls his followers to do things that can feel nearly impossible—love your enemies? That’s an insanely optimistic ideal; I mean, I often struggle to act in loving ways to the people closest to me. Nonetheless, I appreciate the ways in which the religious life means regularly being called to do better—to be more honest, kinder, more generous, and so forth. In that sense, I don’t think church should just tell you that you’re okay where you are. I appreciate getting pushed to reflect on my life (this element feels particularly relevant right now as we’re approaching the season of Lent).
At the same time, I find myself getting uneasy when people start complaining about those who just want churches to accept them as they are, or the contemptuous tone I sometimes hear creep into the voices of Latter-day Saints when they talk about other churches which are—in their opinion—too concerned about inclusivity and catering to people, and insufficiently demanding. Because while I support church as a place where you’re called to do better, I think that ideally church should also be a refuge where you feel welcome as the person that you are. I’ve come to think that there’s an important difference between calling you to be the best version of you that you can be, and telling you that you have to be a different person altogether to be acceptable to God (and the community). It opened up a whole new world for me when I started to seriously contemplate the possibility that God didn’t want me to be someone else, but was more interested in what I could contribute as the person I actually am.
Because this was a serious issue for me, for a long long time. I felt like the message I got from church, again and again, was something along the lines of, you are not okay. The person you are is a problem. Part of this had to do with my being single, part of it had to do with my being gay, and part of it just had to do with feeling like I was just a bad fit in so many other ways—in my generally irreverent attitude toward life, in my desire to ask lots of questions and my frequent dissatisfaction with the answers in the manual, even in something like my introverted tendencies. I am not exaggerating when I say that for years, going to church regularly made me suicidal. Given my volatile mental health history, it wouldn’t be fair to put that all on the church, and I don’t want to do that. But the constant message of “you don’t belong here,” which was conveyed in institutional narratives and expectations even when the people in my ward were genuinely welcoming, just beat me down. I didn’t realize what a weight I was carrying until I stepped away. My therapist, who never even hinted at encouraging me in either one direction or the other as I wrestled with the question of whether to leave Mormonism, observed many months after I’d started to find a religious home elsewhere that letting go of the struggle to fit in a place where I didn’t feel like I belonged seemed to have freed up a lot of energy in my life.
So when I read things about how yeah, the LDS church is asking hard things of the LGBT community, for example, but we need to realize that everyone has to make sacrifices, that we all have to change and be born again, that religion isn’t supposed to be comfortable, etc., I flinch. Honestly, I think it’s a misuse of the born again narrative to frame things like that. I spent too many years believing that the Christian requirement that we be fundamentally changed in some way meant that God wanted me to be a different person. And I felt utterly crushed by the sense that I could never, ever live up to what God wanted. Not just because I kept sinning (though that was definitely true), but because I felt like I was in basic way fundamentally broken and wrong and deserving of nothing but rejection. I feel like I’m still in the beginning stages of challenging that story, and of connecting to a God who wants me as a disciple, who wants me to do better—not a God who wants me to become someone else before she or he has any interest in me. But that sense of acceptance is actually far more motivating in getting me to work on improving in places where I’m falling short than was the earlier message that I had to somehow earn a relationship with God, and that God couldn’t accept me as I was.
I was at a Zen meditation group last night, and during the Dharma talk afterward, the leader said he thought that really in the end our responsibility in life is just to figure out what gifts we have, appreciate them, and offer them freely to the universe. That felt quite congruent with my other thoughts on this subject. I am not overly optimistic about human nature; like Reinhold Niebuhr, I’m inclined to believe that the doctrine of original sin is the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. I think humans are pretty messed up, and I’m no exception to this. And yet I hope. I hope because I am coming to believe more and more in a God whose call to us to do better isn’t aimed at beating us down, but rather is an aspect of unfailing divine love and acceptance.