You can’t say that in church!

It’s remarkable to me that I ever wrote a daily blog because this week has been a real challenge, so far as writing is concerned. Every time I sit down to type something, somebody starts tugging on my arm and demanding that I pour them some juice. I swear, if I had a nickel for every cup of juice I’ve poured in my caregiving career, I could afford to hire a full-time servant just to pour juice. And today, when it wasn’t the juice, it was my husband calling to say he’d forgotten his car keys and could I please bring them to him because he had an appointment. And then when I got there, he said he’d gotten a call from a friend of ours who was stranded in a parking lot with a dead battery and needed a ride home, so after I left the husband to his appointment-getting-to, I went and picked up the friend and dropped him home, and I’ve just now returned. It’s just one thing after another.

You know what this means, of course, all these obstacles standing between me and my blogging. It must be the work of the Adversary. Satan obviously does not want me to write this blog. Either that, or it’s the Spirit suggesting that I should spend less time on trivial pursuits and more on selfless service. Tough call, really. Golly, discernment is hard.

Which brings me to today’s topic. That last paragraph ended differently, originally. I wasn’t going to say, “Discernment is hard.” I was going to say something flippant and irreverent. Funny, though. That’s what I thought, when I typed it and chuckled inwardly. “Heh heh, that’s funny—but no, I can’t say that, that’s offensive.” But I only deemed it too offensive because this is a Mormon blog. If this were my personal blog, I would have just said it and not really cared that I was being offensive because heck, it’s my blog and I’ll say what I want, darn it. (That sentence was originally different, too.) But I’m a guest here, and while I’m not calling you all a bunch of squares, I know that many BCC readers expect a certain level of propriety and inoffensiveness, and I’d hate to be so gauche on only my third day.

But it’s a shame, because it would have been funny. Not laugh-so-hard-you-have-to-talk-to-your-bishop-afterward funny, but so-wrong-it’s-right laughter, maybe. I was about to say that I hate censoring myself, but that isn’t really true. I censor myself all the time, and I consider it one of my finer qualities. Not everything that I think is worth saying—meaning that it’s not worth the consequences of me saying it. Self-censorship is one of the skills my oldest child most sorely lacks, and I have to say, that lack is only charming so much of the time. Self-censorship is a skill we should all strive to develop. When you’re sitting there wondering, “Should I say this or not say this?” the correct answer is almost always, “Don’t say it.” I stand by that statement. Which is good, because it’s too late for me not to say it.

Self-censorship for the sake of peace or for the sake of avoiding giving offense has its downside, though. Mormons do a lot of self-censoring, but not necessarily at all the appropriate times. I sometimes think that Mormons are most prone to self-censor at those moments when self-expression is most needed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read on the Bloggernaccle about people having to rein themselves in during Sunday School or quorum or Relief Society lessons and not say what they’re really thinking because they don’t want to cause trouble or controversy or offense. The result is that the lessons and discussions go very smoothly, but the self-censoring person feels frustrated and alone, and who knows how many of the other people in the room—also self-censoring–are feeling the same way. Officially, everyone agrees and difficult issues always have resolutions. But in reality, an opportunity has been missed—an opportunity for people to seek support for their struggles, or to help those who are struggling; an opportunity to connect with one another and not feel alone.

One might argue that there’s a time and place for voicing one’s concerns or personal theories, which may be controversial and possibly distract people from the main thrust of the lesson, or even hinder the Spirit. Certainly we don’t want our Gospel Doctrine class to turn into a bad episode of Oprah. (If church must be an episode of Oprah, it should be one of those where everyone gets a new car, or at least a free makeover.) Maybe there are more appropriate venues for talking about controversial matters. Unfortunately, the opportunities for discussing certain topics don’t present themselves that often, and when they do, it seems a pity to sacrifice a potentially edifying conversation for propriety’s sake.

I know—the reason we avoid controversy is that such conversations are so often not edifying. You don’t need to explain that to me. When we were first married, my husband and I were in a ward with a woman who had converted from the RLDS church, and she had many controversial opinions, few of which could be justified by scripture or current counsel. In addition, she was extremely outspoken. Let’s call her Sister DP (Difficult Person). Sister DP would often dominate a testimony meeting or a Sunday School class, contending with people on a certain doctrinal point. It wasn’t pleasant to witness, really. Actually, it was tiresome. We had nothing but sympathy for the poor Gospel Doctrine teacher who had the unfortunate task of steering the discussion back on topic without offending Sister DP. One Sunday the class was talking about the principle of tithing, and this woman started going off about the widow’s mite and how it was wrong to expect people to pay a full tithe when they couldn’t afford it, and there was contention but also a whole lot of people just not engaging the subject because she was so fixed in her opinion and no one wanted to deal with her. At one point I got up and walked out because the whole thing was making me crazy. (And I like controversy.)

The following Sunday when we met for Gospel Doctrine, Sister DP wasn’t there, and our teacher took the opportunity to do something I’d never seen done in church before. This man–the most mild-mannered and inoffensive man you can imagine–rebuked us for our treatment of Sister DP the previous week. It wasn’t just the people who argued with her that he took to task, but also the people who just sat there and kept their heads down, maybe rolled their eyes, or yes, even walked out, because they didn’t want to deal with her. Maybe if we had listened more and been less concerned with the inappropriateness of her behavior or the incorrectness of her views, we could have helped her because obviously, there was genuine struggle and pain there. We wanted to banish that pain from our midst and not let it corrupt the spirit of our meeting. Was that what our Savior required? What would Jesus have done?

I’ve been leaving links to my BCC posts on my personal blog, and some of my regular readers, most of whom aren’t Mormons themselves, have read what I’ve written here and commented over there. One of them said, “I never realized that any Mormon ever had faith issues.” Certainly there are a lot of Mormons who are very confident in and comfortable with their faith, and God bless them—well, I guess He already has. But I’m rather dismayed that this image of us prevails, knowing that we cultivate it, grudgingly or not.

Maybe it’s a by-product of our American roots, this rugged spiritual individualism—the insistence on hashing out our problems privately, not sharing our experiences until they’ve been thoroughly processed and packaged for something Ensign-worthy. In any case, the same culprit is behind our failure to produce great literature: there must be a happy ending, and please, no lurid details. Don’t dwell on the darkness, but look for the light.

I realize this seems like preaching to the choir, as the Bloggernaccle has a reputation for letting it all hang out. But it’s easy to be candid and honest on the internet—just as it’s easy to be a jerk on the internet–due to our relative anonymity here. In real life, it’s harder—but not less important. Maybe it’s more important. Do you know how good it feels to walk into someone else’s house and see that it’s just as messy as yours? That’s a service I’m happy to provide for others: Come on over to my house, and you’re sure to feel better about yourself! I should be so generous with my soul.

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    “We wanted to banish that pain from our midst and not let it corrupt the spirit of our meeting. ”

    Gah. I read this and was struck with feelings of guilt over how, when teaching GD with my very own Sister DP in the class, I was mostly concerned with plowing over, through, around, etc., her comments and moving on.

    Great post, by the way.

  2. This is food for thought, Rebecca. Thanks for being candid and honest with us…

    Come on over to my house, and you’re sure to feel better about yourself! I should be so generous with my soul.

    I love this.

  3. I think I only feel comfortable showing my messy soul to people I feel confident won’t be adversely affected by it. OK, sorry, I’m just no good at running with your analogies. What I mean to say is, I’m careful not to express doubt with individuals who have serious doubt issues for fear of helping push them over the doubting edge. Not that I think my opinions carry that much (or any) weight with anyone, but I still worry about it.

  4. the insistence on hashing out our problems privately, not sharing our experiences until they’ve been thoroughly processed and packaged for something Ensign-worthy

    Maybe it comes from having a husband who was inactive for years, but I don’t think I do that. Not like my self-perception is remarkably accurate, though.

    And come on. You have to fill us in on what you originally wrote. At least send me an email. :)

  5. Great post, a lot to think about. I totally know what you mean about the messy house!

  6. Why is it that “great literature” must mean lurid details and a sad ending?

    screw that.

  7. I should have signed as “Brother DP”

    All in all, some excellent musings.

  8. Rebecca J says:

    I don’t think we have to bare our souls just for the sake of bearing them. Some things are private, and I don’t think we need to work out our salvation in a public forum, necessarily. To use the messy house analogy, there would be something wrong with you if you never tidied up, no matter who was coming over. I mean, if you’re the type who just naturally keeps an immaculate house, don’t dirty it up for my sake. But don’t stress out over it not being immaculate or feel like you have to apologize for it. It’s just that so many people don’t look at church as a safe place to share their struggles. Let’s face it, sometimes it isn’t. But it ought to be.

    And unfortunately, what I originally wrote is only funny when it’s not anticipated. :)

  9. Rebecca J says:

    Brother DP – It’s not the sad endings that make literature great but the refusal to engage human experience that makes literature bad.

    Seriously, I like happy endings as much as the next person. Just not phony endings. :)

  10. Rebecca J says:

    I am somewhat embarrassed by my gratuitous use of emoticons.

  11. “There’s more beauty in the truth, even if it is dreadful beauty. The storytellers at the city gate twist life so that it looks sweet to the lazy and the stupid and the weak, and this only strengthens their infirmities and teaches nothing, cures nothing, nor does it let the heart soar.”

    My sister shared that with me once when this very topic came up.

  12. “Do you know how good it feels to walk into someone else’s house and see that it’s just as messy as yours?”

    You’d feel like you’d died and gone to heaven at my house!

    This is a wonderful post, Rebecca. I am solidly in favor of compassion and thoughtfulness and proper restraint, but I also wish with all my heart that we could be more open with each other no matter the setting. I was struck deeply by the analogy in a post by Kristine last year of the different wards we attend (Three Kinds of Wards), and I wish the hospital ward was much closer to front and center.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    Come on, what was the original ending? Seriously!

  14. Dude, the moment has passed. It won’t return. Let it go.

  15. Ray, thanks for reminding me of that post. It’s a great one.

  16. Rebecca, on comment number 10, you needed to end it with a frowny face.

  17. mpb, that’s an amazing Steinbeck quote. Could you please give me the source, including a page or chapter or something? I want to make sure I have it underlined. Thanks!

  18. It never occurred to me until now, 3:29 am, unable to sleep reading on the net , that part of my testimony of this church is that I censor myself.

    I censor myself at church for a different reason than outside it though. At church I’m unsure what others may think of me.
    I definitely censor myself with unbelievers and most all doubters. Not because I HAVE to but because I am protective of it. In the right setting I have no problem going to town questioning left right and center, going on about doctrine vs culture just as you might go on about Aunt AFM (annoying family member)with mom and sis but to outsiders you’re only willing to admit “oh she is a little quirky isn’t she? I censor to doubter and non believers because my qualms are mine to work out but it does not mean that for a minute I do not believe in the church as a whole. Just like, bless her Aunt AFM whom is insane in the family but just a little quirky to outsiders.
    This also makes me decide to try to censor less at church, it is the very place I should express my struggles because as you said the opportunity to discuss certain subjects does not present itself very often. Isn’t the best exercise so very tiring yet so very fulfilling? Thanks for the right nudge.

  19. “brother and sister DP”, “Aunt AFM”

    It is all starting to sound very Scientology.

  20. One of the best Sunday School lessons I have taught was on doubt. We didn’t discuss people’s doubts specifically, instead we discussed the process of doubting and why we keep doubts to ourselves.

    The question that was most difficult for people to answer was “Why do we feel more comfortable sharing our sins than our doubts?”

  21. Huston, it is from East of Eden. Editions vary, and mine is at home right now, but I at least wanted to let you know where it came from.

  22. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 19

    That’s Brother and Sister SP.

  23. There is far less self censorship in Single’s Wards. Not surprising though, I found the majority of my singles wards were substancially less edifying as well.

    In one Gospel Doctrine class we got on the topic of homosexuality and one guy stated convienently as the Bishop walked into the room, “I told my friend if she wants to have Lesbian Sex that’s her business”

    The poor buy was from then on out known as as L.S.

  24. StillConfused says:

    I never contend with the Brother or Sister DPs. This may sound bad but I don’t view them as worth my effort. When they go on their rampages, I just read scriptures and self-learn.

  25. I just read scriptures and self-learn when there are no rampages. The self-sensored refrains I’ve heard and heard until they just put me fast asleep. It is often where the water runs deep and it swirls in an eddy that the big fish wait.

  26. I wonder if smaller classes would help. I live in a moderate sized ward and about fifty or so (I’ve never counted) attend Gospel doctrine each week. With that number it is just not really practical to expect a strong engagind conversations. During elder’s quorum, the number reduces quite a bit and I find that there is much more open discussion.

    consequently, I hate making comments in GD. It is just too difficult to make meaningful statements with that many people half of whom want to interject and all want to make different points. At the same time, I love elder’s quorum. The smaller number of people really encourages the oppurtunities to explore what is being said.

  27. Steve Graham says:

    The saddest I have been in Gospel Doctrine class was in my current ward when our Elders’ Quorum president started out his remarks by apologizing. He then went on to say something which had been taught by 1 or more Church presidents.

  28. When I taught in Elder’s quorum I liked to inject just enough devil’s advocacy into my lessons to make the class squirm in their seats and feel just uncomfortable enough to actually have to justify and assert their beliefs rather than just passively waiting for the hour to end. In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have done that so much, but I tried to follow the spirit in my teaching and not go overboard. It seems that in our lessons we ought to be getting something that will actually help us out there in reality instead of just hearing the same dry quotes on charity or the tentacles of divine providence. I would have been glad on many occasions to have a Brother DP in the class to at least save it from triviality.

    One lesson I enjoyed most of all was about the temple. The lesson material itself was standard fare: blessings of attendance, how the temple is the pinnacle of earthly worship, that sort of thing. Very fluffy and airy stuff. I had planned a twist on the lesson, but when I got to class, it turned out that we had some special guests: the stake president and one of his counselors, all three members of the bishopric, and a high councilman. I gave my lesson as planned anyway.

    “Let’s face it, Brethren,” I said, “The temple is boring.”

    Pragmatism ensued. It was awesome.

  29. We had some friends who joined the church and subsequently began to feel overwhelmed by all the expectations. I was talking to the husband, who very candidly told me all his doubts and concerns, and I knew that I didn’t have any answers for him. All I could do was sympathize because I shared a lot of those same doubts and concerns, and I told him so. I certainly didn’t want to help him leave the church. I wanted to help him stay. I thought it would be easier for him (and his wife) if they didn’t feel like it had to be all or nothing.

    Well, they eventually did leave the church–the “nothing” option–but that was their choice. I don’t regret the way I handled that conversation at all. Of course I’m sorry that they left, but I would be sorrier if I hadn’t dealt with him honestly as a friend. Because he probably still would have left, but he would have done so with an inaccurate picture of what a “real” Mormon is. Real Mormons are all kinds.

  30. Martin Willey says:

    Not everything that I think is worth saying—meaning that it’s not worth the consequences of me saying it. . . . Self-censorship is a skill we should all strive to develop. When you’re sitting there wondering, “Should I say this or not say this?” the correct answer is almost always, “Don’t say it.” I stand by that statement. .

    I whole-heartedly agree. I think one of the hardest issues with self censorship is what is motivating it. As with many things, I think purity of motive is a key consideration, but for some reason, the intersection between “an eye single to the glory” and self-expression/censorship is particularly hard for me. If I have something controversial to say, should I say it becuase it might help someone? Or should I not say it because I just want to appear smart/complicated/spohisticated? Or should I say it because the only reason not to is my fear that I will be perceived as the ward crackpot? Am I just a victim of the “true-but-not-useful” culture, or is this a really complicated issue in a faith community?

  31. Rebecca, I just wanted to say that I have so enjoyed your recent blogs. Definitely a breath of fresh air, all the way from the other side of the pond. =)

    >I was about to say that I hate censoring myself, but that
    > isn’t really true.

    And yet another instance of self-censoring. (Stupid censor!)

  32. I don’t do much self-censoring about doubts. I just don’t have a lot of doubts.
    I am pretty open at church and with ward members. I think it is important to not give off a “perfect” image, so I like to keep it real. My comments at church are about real life.

    I think that church is a place to come together to try to help each other live the gospel. There is an assumption that the people around you are anxiously engaged in trying to live the gospel, despite their struggles. I do not think it is appropriate for people to make comments that show an attitude of NOT wanting to live the gospel. I also think that the different meetings and different class sizes and different teachers make a variety of church experiences. Sometimes you just listen, sometimes you can make occasional comments, sometimes you can get in an involved discussion. Sometimes, of course, you are teaching the youth or primary.

  33. The same culprit is behind our failure to produce great literature: there must be a happy ending, and please, no lurid details. Don’t dwell on the darkness, but look for the light.

    I believe that a student of modern literature (or at least literary theory and criticism) would say that this statement about American literature is exactly the opposite of the truth. In fact, Mark Helprin recently had a bone to pick with America’s so-called literati on this very issue. They’re too interested in the darkness.

    Anyway, regarding church, I’d say that a certain degree of self-censorship (otherwise known as reflection, consideration, or thinking) is called for.

  34. I try, with varying degrees of success, not to rock the boat at inappropriate times, but sometimes it’s just plain necessary. Quite some years ago, something took place in the ward I was in that I have never seen before or since.

    A joint RS/Priesthood meeting was held to approve the Ward budget. Most of the time was devoted to the YM/YW organization. The meeting began with the reading of a statement from SL reminding all wards that the YM and YW organization were to receive equal funding. The bishop, a rude, arrogant (oh, did I say that?) man proceeded to present a budget that gave the YM approximately 3 times the finding as the YW.

    Now I’m not of a particularly feminist bent, but this was in direct contradiction to what the Bishop had read at the beginning of the meeting! Then he asked for a “vote” on the budget. I conscienciously determined that I could not raise my hand to support this travesty, but I intended to leave it at that. It was only as I heard a few gasps around me that I realised that my right hand had just levitated on its own accord when he asked whether anyone was against the budget as presented. I thought Bishop M was going to have a cow right there in the chapel.

    After considerable flustering and blustering and making all sorts of lame excuses for the disparity, he asked whether I could support the budget if it were made “fair”. His idea of fair was obviously different from mine. I replied that I would support the budget when the amounts were made equal. He changed the subject and soon dismissed the meeting.

    I remain completely convinced that the record of the meeting stated that there was unanimous support for the budget.

    I was just as astonished at myself as anyone else was, but I don’t regret what I did or said. Afterward, several people, both male and female, voiced VERY quiet and private support for me, but no one dared say it very loudly.

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