Falling Out or Being Pushed Out: A Test of Discipleship

 

Ruby1

Ruby is a big red dog. Not quite Clifford, but she’s getting close. When I bought her for my son, she was this adorable little wrinkled puppy who curled up in our arms and took a nap. She melted into us, a puddle of puppy. However, soon she blossomed into a gigantic expanse of doghood. Awkwardly, she still thinks she’s still a lapdog. She lumbers into laps, pounces onto bellies, sidles between arms and legs, and even climbs onto shoulders.Ruby2

Unfortunately, she occasionally sneaks into Zina and my bed after we’re asleep. Don’t knock it: a warm dog on a cold night can be quite pleasant. She’s consistently a few degrees warmer than the bed and her silky ears are luxuriously soft.

But Ruby does not typically take her third of the bed. She stretches her massive paws into my back and slowly pushes me toward the edge. Some mornings I wake up and wonder how I kept from falling off the centimeters of bed that remained. (She is an equal opportunity bed hog—she will do the same to Zina!)

I was reminded of sleeping with Ruby when I recently read a post from last November in Meridian Magazine entitled “8 Things That Can Pull You Away from the Church.” (Somehow I didn’t see this article until last week.) The authors, Gary and Joy Lundberg, state that their list is not exhaustive and that it is “not an attempt to disrespect” those who leave, but is simply a few of the things they “have observed that pull people away from the Church.”

The first problem I have with the essay is that it creates a perfect us-versus-them dichotomy with which to judge those who drift away. According to the Lundbergs, people who leave the Church 1. Stop reading the Book of Mormon, 2. Forget their covenants, 3. Listen to those who have left, 4. Cease praying, 5. Stop going to church, 6. Don’t listen to General Conference, 7. Listen to the philosophies of men, 8. Fail to acknowledge the Lord’s blessings. Now there’s nothing wrong with reminding Latter-day Saints to do all these things, but it’s another thing altogether to suggest that those who leave have stopped doing these things, that these are the things that lead to their leaving. Many of the people I’ve known who left were doing all of these things before before their faith crisis.

Unfortunately, the Lundbergs fail to grasp some of the most important reasons people are leaving the Church. They assume these people just aren’t trying enough.

When I was a teenager, someone once stated that “the reason people leave the Church is the same reason they fall out of bed: they just aren’t in far enough.” This analogy had a profound impact on me at the time. I was determined to stay in the middle of the Church “bed.” It also follows the Lundberg’s line of reasoning: If you fall out of the Church, you just weren’t in far enough.

But some people are feeling a bit like I feel when sleeping with Ruby: they want to stay in the bed—they are clinging on with all their might—but they feel like they are being pushed out.

Trust me: there are plenty of reasons people leave that have nothing to do with not trying hard enough. Here’s a short list of issues that I have seen most often driving people from the Church. Granted, I teach at a university and interact with professors and students, so the issues these people have are probably different from those in other demographics. But every year I have taught, I have spoken with people who have or are leaving for one or more of these reasons.

  • Some people leave after they discover Church history that doesn’t fit within the paradigm they learned in Sunday School or Institute classes. If you haven’t encountered anything disturbing in Church history yet, you just haven’t read enough. The history of this religion, like any other, has dark shadows and dust swept under the rug. It’s not as simple as the story told in Church manuals.
  • Some people, after learning this Church history, leave because they feel like Church leaders have misled or lied to them. They feel angry and hurt and betrayed. And while it is true that much of this history has been available for decades, the internet has made it more present. And there have been times when Church leaders purposefully downplayed or distorted the truth about our history.
  • Some people leave after discovering inconsistencies in Church teachings. We teach people that (a) doctrine is eternal and (b) General Authorities are God’s spokesmen on earth. But the fact is Church leaders have taught different things, both over time and at any one time. Even positions from the First Presidency have evolved. If what General Authorities say is doctrine and doctrine doesn’t change, then uncovering those divergent views can be faith shaking.
  • Some people leave because they feel women’s voices and concerns are ignored. Let’s face it, in a society where women are professors, CEOs, and senators, the roles women occupy in the Church are diminutive. It is extremely difficult for many women to navigate these two worlds without conflict.
  • Some people leave because they feel their political views are dismissed or even ridiculed by ward members and Church leaders. Let’s face it, Mormons in the United States are mostly Republican. That one-party dominance can feel pretty alienating for those of us who aren’t. Church members and leaders are usually not even aware of how their rhetoric often borrows from G.O.P. talking points.
  • Some people leave because they disagree with the way the Church has dealt with homosexuality. Their life experiences just don’t jibe with the way Church leaders talk about this subject. Those of us who have LGBT friends and family members have a hard time seeing those relationships as subversive or counterfeit.
  • Some people leave because they feel that the Church doesn’t adequately stress issues of social injustice, despite the fact that latter-day scriptures command equality (e.g., 4 Ne. 1:3 and D&C 38:26–27). They feel that the concept of “morality” has been reduced to sex, rather than also on caring for the poor and needy.

Let me stress that people who have concerns about the status of women and gays in the Church or about social justice issues do not see this as “worldliness” or “the philosophies of men” infecting their lives. For them, these are deeply-held, foundational, moral issues. In fact, many of us are concerned about these issues because of our religious sensitivities, because we believe in a God who calls us to unity, to love, and to care. We see these issues as central to the gospel message, not as appendages or distractions.

I confess that I too feel pushed at times. I’m not going anywhere because this is my Church and this is my people, and it’s within this Church that I choose to make my contribution. But I understand and sympathize with those who feel pushed out.

Patrick Mason has stated that the greatest test of discipleship for our generation is how we respond to those who doubt. I would only add that how we respond to those who leave is also a test of our discipleship. Are we going to love them, respect them, and accept them, or are we going to dismiss them and ostracize them? I believe we are called to love all people, not just those who believe the same things we do. I also believe we need to do our part to keep from pushing people out of the gospel bed. We need to be more kind and understanding, and less judgmental and damning. Let’s leave it to Ruby to push me out of bed, and to God to judge people’s hearts and actions.Ruby3

 

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