When I lived in Brazil there was an older woman in our ward who came every Sunday but never got baptized. I was in the bishopric, and one day I was talking to her and I asked her why. Tears came to her eyes, and she gave two reasons: she could not give up smoking, and her deceased father was a Jewish rabbi, and she felt she could not go against his wishes and abandon her Jewish faith.
This woman had a firm testimony that the Jehovah of the Old Testament was Jesus Christ. She had a firm testimony of the Book of Mormon and of modern-day prophets. She loved everything about the Church but for her own personal reasons could not become an official member.
I felt very strongly at that time that this woman was accepted in the eyes of our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. They understood her pain and the reasons for her weakness, and they still loved her. So, I was inspired not to pressure her, to just let her continue on her own journey. I also felt pretty strongly that when she dies somebody will be baptized for her, and she will thankfully accept and continue to move forward.
I see the journey towards getting closer to our Heavenly Father as a climb toward the summit of a mountain.
This mountain is huge with a summit we cannot see, but we know it is there. Each of us takes his or her own path up the mountain. Some move forward quickly, others fall back temporarily. Some, unfortunately, give up the trek and go back to the bottom. Others stay on the sides of the mountain for decades, not advancing.
The Church is the vehicle that helps us get up the mountain most quickly and steadily. I see the example of the Prophet Joseph Smith as great evidence of this. Studying his life, you see that he advanced from ignorant farm boy to knowledgeable, insightful prophet very quickly. I see Brother Joseph bounding along the steep trails of the mountain, heading toward the summit at amazing speed. How else do you explain Brother Joseph learning Hebrew and German and imparting the incredible knowledge he attained during his relatively short life?
So, Joseph Smith took one path. I took another. I was baptized when I was 35 after making a huge number of mistakes in my life. Since I was baptized I have not repeated the big mistakes, but I continue to sin in relatively small ways. I am very aware of my shortcomings. But still, I also feel that I am taking my own path up the summit in my own way.
The woman from my ward in Brazil is taking another path. Any of you reading this are also taking your own paths. I simply don’t feel like I have a right to judge your paths — mine was filled with horrible errors and setbacks — how can I claim I know the only way?
I am reading the Book of Mormon with my young children every morning. I am struck at how many times we see the image of the Lord holding out his hands to accept us. He wants us to grab his hand, and He will help us up the summit. In every ward that I have been in, this is the attitude of the bishop — he welcomes all into the big tent that is the Lord’s church. He wants them to come and join the hike up the mountain. He doesn’t judge or call you unworthy — he wants to help you make it up the hillside.
Yes, some people fall short. A few people get excommunicated from the Church. Having served on the High Council, I can tell you that most of them seek out disciplinary action as part of their repentence process. I can also tell you should be very glad that the disciplinary process is dealing with others — there are child molestors and unrepentant adulterers, and frankly you should be very happy that the Church is choosing to disassociate itself from these people, for their own good and the good of the people around them.
But even these people are not “written off” in the eyes of the Lord. Their spirits have existed forever, and they will continue to exist forever. The Lord wants them to learn from their errors and He continues to hold out his arms to them, hoping they will decide to make the climb back up the summit again.
Efforts to look at the importance of Mormon doctrine are useful. I hold a current temple recommend, and go to the temple every month. I hand out a Book of Mormon every month. I firmly believe in the reality and goodness of modern-day prophets. I love General Conference. I believe in the inspiration of my local Church leadership, and I try to follow them the best I can.
But I am also aware that there are others who are making their journey in a different way. I didn’t take the traditional way: when I should have been going on a mission, I was doing a lot of things I shouldn’t have been doing, but yet I firmly believe I am making my way up the summit of the mountain now.
So, my message to you is this: the Lord is holding his arms open to you. He accepts you and loves you. There is room for you in His church, no matter your shortcomings and failures. He wants you to continue to hike up that mountain. The view from the top will be glorious!