Softening Our Hearts: To Each Other, to the Prophet, to God

Even while hoping this note finds many of you anticipating a restorative and rejuvenating weekend, I know the reality. So many of us – including in our own faith community – are angry. And weary. And fearful. And suspicious.

I felt a prompting this last weekend to interview several neighbors who, like me, have harbored some serious questions about prevailing pandemic policies, and sincere wonderings at why the Church has been so willing to adopt and encourage them. Each of them went through an experience lately of feeling softened by their own communion with God over the matter. I was so touched by the conversations that I decided to write it up in a piece that ran Thursday in Public Square and Meridian Magazines: COVID-19 Vaccination as an Abrahamic Test.

As one woman, Jocelyn, said about her experience: “I felt layers upon layers of hardness on my heart peel off. I could just feel it come off my heart. I didn’t even know that hardness had been there.”

I’ve felt the same just in witnessing their experiences. I can’t deny that peace these brothers and sisters have felt from God in doing something that felt terrifying. They speak of arriving at the vaccination clinic, for instance, fully conscious of the possibility that their life could be harmed – but wanting more than any other consideration to trust the peace they had felt from God.

Who cannot be touched by such faith?

At the end of the essay, I brought attention to the experience of others who have exercised their own faith and felt different guidance in their own individual situation. Then I asked: “Do you have faith to take the vaccine, even if your bias is against it, if the Spirit gives you peace to proceed? And do you have faith to not take the vaccine if you feel so guided by the same Spirit, even if you are going to get some push-back from those around you?”

These have been good questions for me to ask. And I’m grateful for the greater peace that has come as I’ve allowed my heart to soften and trust a little more.

Perhaps this whole struggle can even soften us on other issues that we’re clenching our hearts against each other about. For instance, Mandi, a staunch conservative said, “This whole experience has given me a lot of compassion for people who have struggled with LGBT+ stuff.”

As I said at the end of the essay, I repeat here:

As a final note, if you find yourself fixated on this issue and grappling in your heart with frustration towards brothers and sisters, or even the prophets themselves, please take a moment to remember the full range of things Latter-day prophets have been sharing with the world  (here’s one summary we put together, Prophets on Pandemic). It’s a beautiful message—and I’m confident, the most hopeful message anywhere in the world. Don’t let that gloominess or hardness ruin this upcoming conference weekend! Heaven (literally) knows we all need some uplift and rejuvenation!  So, please don’t let yourself go into the weekend looking for more reasons to be frustrated. God wants more for you, and all of us. 

Happy conference, everyone. If God has something to place on your heart and mind this weekend – including peace, comfort, love or knowledge – my prayer is that NOTHING will stand in the way of that happening.

Hurrah for Israel!

COVID-19 Dreams, COVID-19 Nightmares

Imagine for a moment what it would have been like in early 2020 if the same virus hit us, with the same objective threats present – but one thing had been different:  Everyone’s views about what was going on, and what we should do in response, were allowed to be shared. The overriding message was: “Let’s hear all the best ideas of what steps to take – and the nature of the challenge we’re up against.” 

  • Rather than doctors like Scott Atlas and Anthony Fauci being ‘at war,’ they were in the same room, putting their heads together from the beginning. 
  • Rather than only allowing experts with some opinions to inform the public of their views – and punishing or sanctioning those in the minority, a wide variety of expert positions were heard. 
  • Rather than videos sharing minority positions being squelched, they were allowed to the full scrutiny of broad public consumption – with confidence in the capacity of our collective wisdom and deliberation together to ultimately sort through what was true. 
  • Rather than labeling anything outside the standard answers as “misinformation” and “disinformation,” we allowed competing arguments to emerge – with confidence in the best information rising to the top and being discerned in our collective wisdom.
  • And rather than assuming that the right path was clear and obvious, we also practiced humility – recognizing that with such a global crisis, we needed to stay open to new ideas and recognize that  none of us could see the whole picture on our own. 
  • In short, rather than managing an awkwardly controlled and narrow public health conversation, we embarked on a project of seeking the truth together – appreciating that everyone’s perspectives could inform a fuller picture and a wise response as a whole.

How would that one shift have changed our ensuing response to the pandemic? Where would we be now if we had pursued that kind of open conversation? Would we see the same levels of resistance, hesitance, and hostility (to each other, to public health dictates) that we do right now?

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The Urgency of Understanding

First, we misunderstand each other profoundly. Next, we stop caring when real harm befalls the people disagreeing with our view of the universe.

In America today, have you noticed there’s only One Right Way to think about a lot of things? Climate, race, sexuality – and now health. For years, dissenters to the One Right Way have been met with harsh rhetoric reflecting a growing severity of judgment against the other side – which continues to be all too effective in intimidating and silencing dissent:

Deniers. Racists. Bigots. Haters. 

And yes, those crazy “anti-vaxxers”….who are irrationally fearful, impervious to reasoning, hostile to science, pathologically self-absorbed and clearly possessing no respectable philosophy of their own when it comes to infectious disease management. Yes, these looney-toon folks are simultaneously “anti-science” and enthralled by “pseudoscience” and “quackery,” right?

Amidst the flurry of name-calling, proponents of the dominant narratives across each of these issues are sitting in almost unquestioned power – a place from which you would think they would speak with a greater degree of confidence and comfort. Instead, it seems as if many of them cannot stand when someone voices a minority position. They seethe and rage whenever someone dares proffer another view, in a way not dissimilar to the backlash following Elder Jeffrey Holland’s eloquent and tender talk expressing unorthodox views on sexuality.  

More and more, we see expressions of condemnation against heretics to the various orthodoxies SO intense that good people don’t think twice about agreeing to severe restrictions on the basic freedoms of those who disagree (cue the accelerated rush towards mandates punctuated by President Biden’s recent speech). In recent weeks, I’ve been struck to see two articles in respected national media outlets entitled, “We’re done with the vaccine refusers” and “Make the unvaccinated pay out for their deadly decisions.”

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Obedience…No Matter What?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a cult, precisely because it doesn’t ask obedience “no matter what.” From the beginning of people’s entrance into the waters of baptism, new members are encouraged by missionaries along the lines of “don’t just believe me – ask God!” That’s as true with vaccination encouragement as it is invitations to baptism, although this is a precious lesson easy to miss (and important to reinforce) in these days of do-whatever-it-takes to persuade people to get their shots. If we overlook that, we may well lean on someone so much that they do something just because they feel pressured, rather than because they feel right about it. Even if that increases the total vaccination numbers, do we really honestly think that’s a good thing?

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In graduate school, some of my classmates were weirded out that I willingly sought to obey individuals I sustained, yes, as true prophets. After sensing some reservations that I was participating in a cult that demanded obedience “no matter what,” I reassured them: “No, you see, the difference is we’re freely encouraged to confirm anything and everything we’re being taught (by prophets or missionaries or scriptures) in our own prayers and direct seeking with God.”

That second layer of personal assurance and accountability has always seemed, to me, part of the beauty of our message. It’s what we used to tell investigators we taught in Brazil: “Don’t just believe us. You can go find out for yourself!” I continue to see that as one of the most important (of many) differentiators between the high-demand Church of Christ and a high-demand (but controlling, and mindless) cult. Not incidentally, this is also what our detractors try to ignore when they pretend to capture the spirit of our trust in presiding leadership through demeaning sound bites like, “when the prophets speak, the thinking stops.” 

That’s neither fair nor true, of course. But some of the commentary from fellow brothers and sisters in the wake of continued vaccination encouragement by presiding leaders might well get people thinking otherwise. 

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Compassionate Coercion: Embrace It, or Fight It?

Happy Pioneer Day, everyone! These mighty spiritual forebears of all Latter-day Saints today came to Utah seeking freedom – a place to speak, worship, and assemble where and how they wanted.

I have to wonder this morning, in light of rapidly changing events around us: At what point would you be willing to stand up and fight against incursions on your own freedoms? That’s an interesting question for Christians of any age – but maybe especially in America with our tradition of righteous revolution.

On one hand, believers can look to the model of Jesus teaching His followers living amidst Roman oppression that the kingdom we’re working towards is “not of this world” – essentially encouraging them to side-step any confrontation with injustice and restrictions on freedom. On the other hand, believers in the United States can look to the model of the Founders rising up to say “not okay” against British limitations on their natural rights and liberties – even to the point of bloodshed. (And Latter-day Saints Christians can look to the model of Captain Moroni doing something similar against Amalikiah’s threat in the Book of Mormon).

So, when is it right to say “not okay” when it comes to incursions on our freedoms? We’ve been dealing with fairly minor issues like baking cakes and wearing masks – but the major issues are very much here, including: (1) Freedom to speak in our online public spaces openly our thoughts (NOT okay with serious resistance to public health orthodoxy and socio-political orthodoxy around race and sexuality) and (2) Freedom to assemble in public schools, spaces and venues – which is rapidly being restricted by fears around COVID-19 transmission, especially among the vilified unvaccinated.

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