Resisting Conformity in Church

I had the chance to give another talk in church on Sunday (more on that later, when I have more time to post), and as is my habit, I’m presenting that talk to you here. It’s based on a talk by President Uchtdorf entitled “Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear.” Here’s my ten minutes on the subject:

This past April, President Uchtdorf gave a talk on fear. He speaks of the importance of avoiding using fear as a motivating factor in our lives, particularly within the Church. It’s a fantastic talk, as his so often are, but after I read it over in preparation for my talk today on the same topic, I realized I wasn’t quite sure what people in the Church are really afraid of.

Some things are clear. We’re afraid of getting callings we don’t want. Afraid of being assigned to speak in church. We’re obviously afraid of damnation and hellfire, or falling short of our potential. We’re afraid of disappointing ourselves or our leaders. Afraid of saying the wrong thing.

But as I looked at each of these fears in turn, they didn’t feel right as a topic to base my talk around. President Uchtdorf mentions much more serious fears. People who use unrighteous dominion to manipulate family, friends, and church members into doing things. Emotional and physical abuse both use fear as a common tool. Guilt is another flavor of fear often employed in life and the Church.

And while these are all topics I could speak on at length, they still didn’t click for today. And then I came across another idea.

Sometimes one of the biggest fears we may have in the church is the fear of being different. There is a strong pull in the church’s culture for all of us to dress the same, look the same, speak the same, believe the same, and act the same, and when someone shows up who doesn’t fit the norm, it can feel like the old Sesame Street game. One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.

If a man shows up to church without a tie on, or a woman attends in slacks, how long does it take before some well meaning member goes up to them to explain what they’re doing wrong? And yet what actual direction are we given for dress standards? We are told repeatedly to be well groomed and modest. That our appearance and clothing should show reverence and respect for the Lord. They should be tasteful and appropriate for the activity. The closest the handbook gets to dictating style and actual articles of clothing comes when it instructs priesthood holders on how to dress when preparing, blessing, and passing the sacrament.

Let’s play a quick game. Try to guess what exactly the handbook says about this. We know what young men typically look like. White shirts and ties. What if a young man were to wear a blue shirt? What if he were to wear no tie at all? Would that matter? The handbook suggests priesthood holders have ties and white shirts, because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. And yet it notes “they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate.”

Think about that. If even the sacred ordinance of the Sacrament only has suggestions for a dress code, how strictly do you think God really is when it comes to caring what you’re wearing? I would say He cares much more about what you’re feeling, believing, and doing. This isn’t to say we should all start showing up to church in our gardening clothes. The instruction to be well-groomed, modest, and reverent is still clear. But remember that the definition of well-groomed and reverent could well mean very different things to very different people. And they could both be right. It is not my job to inflict my definition on others.

The drive to conform extends to many areas of the Church. One of the times I felt its sway the most in my life was when I entered the Missionary Training Center. I think we all have an idea in our heads of how missionaries should behave, speak, and dress. I know I did. And for the first week or so, I tried very hard to conform to that picture in my head of the ideal missionary. It was difficult, and it didn’t feel natural to me. Those who know me know I enjoy a good joke and like to use a light mood to make work more pleasant. And I was struggling to maintain a facade. One where I was nothing more than a cog in the machinery of the missionary program.

One evening, I finally couldn’t take it. I knelt in my bed and prayed. Hard. I was praying for the strength to accept my new position and learn how to adapt to it. I wasn’t trying to get out of it or escape any duties or obligations. I was just looking forward at the next twenty four months and asking for assistance to make it through them. Suddenly, I felt an overwhelming feeling of peace and acceptance. And just like that, I realized something. I had been called on my mission because I was unique. God knew my personality. My strengths and weaknesses. To be the best missionary I could be didn’t involve changing myself to fit some ideal form or mold that all missionaries must conform to. It meant improving myself, yes, but in the end, I was called for my differences, not for my similarities to everyone else.

Still, even with those experiences, and even trying to always keep in mind that I should be accepting of others’ differences, there are times that I wonder what in the world other people are thinking or doing. Not just my friends outside the Gospel, but my friends within it. Their tastes, their activities, their politics–their entire way of life in some cases seems almost antithetical to the one I have chosen to lead. And I don’t just mean Red Sox fans. But at times like these, I think back to another experience: Timpanogos.

If you’ve been to Provo, you’ve seen Mount Timpanogos. It’s a huge monster of a mountain, just to the East as you pass the Point of the Mountain. Its peak reaches 11,752 feet into the sky, more than double Mount Katahdin’s 5,269. It’s a 7.5 mile hike one way to reach the summit, with an elevation gain of 4,580 feet. When I was about twelve years old, I hiked to its summit. I use the term “hike” rather loosely, because by the end, it basically consisted of me taking five or six steps and then sitting down to rest for a minute or two before repeating the process.

But the hike has stayed with me for a number of reasons. It’s one of the most challenging physical things I have done, but more importantly, it gave me a new view on life.

From the top of a mountain like that, you feel like you’re on top of the world. You can see for miles. The air was crisp, and the wind strong, and I could look down any direction and see the valleys below me. Up on top of a mountain, you stand at the center. The destination. If your goal is to reach the peak, any path up the side will get you there. Some of them might be much more challenging than others. Some of them might be easier on the knees. It all depends on your personal ability and where you started.

It’s the same way in life. We can all be heading to an identical goal, but we can and will all take very different paths to reach that goal. If my path is going right at the time when someone else’s is heading to the left, the solution isn’t for us to get together and decide on the exact same direction to turn at once. We’re both on different paths. We can counsel and advise, but the ultimate guide for each of us is the Holy Ghost, not popular opinion. We can and will receive detailed, tailored instruction direct from our Heavenly Father, and we should pay close attention.

So. Fear of conformity should not be something that dominates our lives. What can we do about it? For one thing, we can stop going around encouraging others to conform. The “kindness begins with me” principle. But beyond that, President Uchtdorf gives us a key:

“If we ever find ourselves living in fear or anxiety, or if we ever find that our own words, attitudes, or actions are causing fear in others, I pray with all the strength of my soul that we may become liberated from this fear by the divinely appointed antidote to fear: the pure love of Christ, for ‘perfect love casteth out fear.’”

I believe that when we feel that need to conform, it’s often just a symptom of our own uncertainty. Could God really love us for who we are, even with all of our mistakes? It’s easy to look around at everyone else and see how happy they all seem to be. How content. This is particularly true in this day of social media.

Academics at Yale and the University of California did a study earlier this year that found that greater than average use of Facebook decreases both happiness and mental health. One of the causes for this is that the things we read on Facebook are generally carefully curated. After all, who wants to go online and talk to the world about how their marriage is falling apart, their children joined the circus, and their job might be letting them go at any moment. So when we go to Facebook, all we see is confirmation that everyone else leads a perfect life while ours is in total shambles.

When faced with that, is it any wonder we start thinking we’re doing something wrong, and that we’d probably be better off if we just started shaving off our corners so we could fit into more round holes?

President Uchtdorf says, “Christ’s perfect love allows us to walk with humility, dignity, and a bold confidence as followers of our beloved Savior. Christ’s perfect love gives us the confidence to press through our fears and place our complete trust in the power and goodness of our Heavenly Father and of His Son, Jesus Christ.”

Doctrine and Covenants 121:45 states “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.”

Remember Moroni 7:47: “But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.”

The answer to the fear of non-conformity is charity. As we have charity, we will be able to look past the differences of others and see their desires of their hearts. As we have charity, we will accept our own differences and embrace them, confident that God does the same for us.

I didn’t set out to write a talk on charity. The word isn’t mentioned once in all of President Uchtdorf’s talk. But looking back on it, it’s so obvious to me I wonder how I didn’t see it right off.

May we all be charitable to each other and to ourselves. May we guide our lives with love and not fear is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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