The requirements of gospel living are really very simple. Jesus taught us that it boils down to two things. The first is to love God with all our heart, mind, might and soul. God wants the affections of our hearts, the best of our mental energies, and the steadiness of our determined will. And then all he asks is that we extend this same love toward each other. He is not asking us to love selectively, like we do in romantic love or in our social circles. He is asking us to love everyone as he loves every one of us. So important are these two commandments that if we do not have love, true charity for God and for others, it will little matter what we have. We can be rich. We can be smart and wise and good to our family. We can be beautiful. We can have great power. But if we don’t have love, Paul tells us we are nothing. So it seems the real test of our spiritual health is how much love we have for God when things are not going well for us or how much love we have for others when they prove difficult to love. How well, in other words, do we love those who look, believe, act, speak, vote, dress, or spend money differently than we do.
My very first calling after my mission was to home teach seven people who were inactive and needed contact. One was a black woman who lived in East Palo Alto, a mostly African American community which at the time was the proverbial other side of the tracks from Palo Alto, a mostly white and very well-to-do and highly educated community. She was the only Mormon in her family and in her community. She wanted to come to church, and would when I would pick her up, but she struggled to feel like she had anything in common with a ward made up of mostly white Stanford students. I loved her. Others were certainly kind to her. She was sweet, humble, and brave. I admired her and wanted to be more like her. My point isn’t that this is a story of a home teaching triumph. My point is that we as a ward were better, more interesting, and a more circumspect and respectful group for having her with us.
A few years later, after I got married and had moved to Berkeley, I was an Elders Quorum President and had one of the most profound experiences of my life. I don’t remember how he found us, but I was summoned by a young man who was gay and was dying of AIDS in a hospital in San Francisco. He wanted a blessing. A fellow quorum member and I went to visit him. He was a sorry sight—emaciated, sick, and pale as a ghost, and filled with fear. At first he was deeply embarrassed and afraid to tell us about his life, because he thought we wouldn’t relate to him. I can still remember his tears of sorrow, his longing to regain the feeling of belonging and of God’s love he once felt in church, and his confusion about how a simple Utah childhood had led to a life of so much depression, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity. He didn’t excuse himself for poor decisions, but it was also clear that the choices of others, including his family who kicked him out of the house simply for telling them he was gay at a young age and a network of conspiring and evil people he then fell into had contributed to his problems.
We only managed two or three visits before he died. I was heartbroken not to have had more time to teach and love him. We confessed some of our own sins to him, to reassure him that we were not without blemish. I told him about my wayward youth and how hard it had been to overcome my past mistakes and my friend told him about his struggles. He seemed relieved that we could at least comprehend something of what he had been through. When we blessed him, we gave him the strength and the peace of mind to be ready to meet the Lord. I felt nothing in that blessing but a profound godly love for him. I remember thinking how grateful I was to have met him and to have had this chance to experience this love. I understood then in a way I never had before that the love I have for my family and friends and fellow members is not meant for them alone, but for every person.
You might have a head start in feeling that you belong in the church, especially in Provo, if you are male, or if you are white, or if you are middle class, or if you were born in the United States and speak English with native fluency, if you have pioneer ancestors, or if you are heterosexual, if you are married, if you have many kids and better yet if all of them have all been married in the temple, or if you are politically conservative. Those categories of gender, class, race, employment, and so on, are not fair to be judged by, of course, since they are not essential to our standing with God, but the reality is that we all depend on social clues to help us feel like we belong in a community. In his masterful call to make our church more welcoming of all people, Pres. Uchtdorf spoke to those who stay away: “If you could see into our hearts, you would probably find that you fit in better than you suppose. You might be surprised to find that we have yearnings and struggles and hopes similar to yours. Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-day Saints, but that could be a blessing. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.”
If diversity is a strength, sameness, though certainly not a sin, is a weakness. For example, it can make us a little lazy. I remember that after less than a year of living in Provo, I went to the airport for a business trip and found myself staring somewhat bewildered at the sight of a tattooed and cigarette smoking man. I was more startled and ashamed by my somewhat repulsed reaction than anything else. It takes work and some imagination to remember that all people have life stories, and that if you knew them, you would love them. I think we are not serving ourselves well, and we are certainly not in a position to hasten the work of the Lord, if we spend the vast majority of our time with family, friends, and active ward members, all of whom share our beliefs and values.
President Uchtdorf acknowledges that there are many reasons people might leave the church, but one thing is certain: each time someone leaves, we in the church lose. We all feel the difficulty of standing up for our beliefs in this world, and it is especially heartbreaking when those we have loved, taught, and fellowshipped—whether they be family members or students or friends—do not accept our beliefs. We should remember that Christ knows this disappointment. And that he also showed us the way of forgiveness and the power of unconditional and personal love for each person. This love doesn’t require that we agree with others’ beliefs, only that we extend a sincere hand of friendship. In those cases when we don’t know someone well, we can at least try to imagine a reason why they think and act as they do and why we might love them. Most importantly, we have to ask for the gift of love “with all energy of heart” as Mormon counsels us. We may not always feel love sincerely, but we will obtain genuine love if we sincerely want Christ to give it to us. This loves makes us stronger as a church and brings the gifts of others to us, even when they are absent.
President Uchtdorf acknowledges that the restored gospel asks a lot of us. So it is to be expected that some will feel they don’t belong if they cannot obey all the teachings of the church. One member of our ward recently told me that she has a brother who doesn’t attend church for the simple reason that he smokes. He still believes and yearns to be in church. I hope we would gladly welcome the smell of smoke trailing behind someone walking through these doors. After all, we are all on the path to greater obedience. For others, it might not be the commandments but some of the doctrines they find hard to understand or believe. Francine Bennion spoke at a stake conference recently and told of a brother who confessed in a gospel doctrine class that he was struggling with doubt. The reaction was an audible gasp and little show of support. She wondered where else, other than in the welcoming arms of a ward family, should a member feel comfortable and safe enough to admit doubts. I am happy to say that I have seen brothers in priesthood quorums in my ward feel comfortable enough to honestly express their doubts. I hope they have felt loved. Their endurance and faith in my ward are deeply moving to me. Maybe some of us here might feel doubt week in and week out. This can sometimes lead to a feeling of being hurt or betrayed by the church and worn out by service. Sunday meetings and General Conferences can cause stress rather than inspiration. Pres. Uchtdorf counsels to doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. This is wise counsel. Cynical doubt and radical surety are just two faces of the same coin. Faith is neither; it is trust that the Lord understands things better than we do. The word “religion” has one interesting meaning: it means to reread or rethink. It takes faith to come together for the express purpose of examining and questioning ourselves. Religion also means to be bound together. What brings us together isn’t perfect agreement but love. Besides, faith is a gift that does not appear to be doled out in equal doses to all of us. We read in section 46, for example, that
For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God. To some is given one, and to some is given another, that all may be profited thereby. To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.
Did you hear that? We are given different gifts so that all may be profited thereby. Those with weak faith can take strength from others. And what do those who are strong of faith need? Maybe they need to be more loving, like the sister who struggles with her faith but who judges no one. Maybe they could learn more patience and longsuffering, like the brother who has struggled with his faith due to severe trials but keeps coming, keeps obeying. The point is that we need each other. We each need the humility to recognize why we need the gifts of others and the self-confidence to see what are our gifts to give.
I am a big believer in the importance of obedience. Understanding and accepting true doctrine are vital to our chances for happiness. But love, the pure love of Christ, is essential. But again, let’s boil things down to simplicity: no matter the issue, there is always room for more love. We can get pretty worked up about being right, about correcting others, about what direction we are taking as a nation or as a church, and who are enemies are. And we might be right about a lot of things. But far more important than being right is being good, and being good means loving others freely, intensely, and sincerely. I find that my own doubts tend to diminish in significance to the degree that I feel love for God and for others. The reason is simple: love is an intense and lasting feeling of deep joy. When I experience greater love, things don’t necessarily make any more sense to me. I haven’t finally received answers to all of my questions about what I should do or be or think. But one answer is clear: real love puts me in the right place at the right time doing what the Lord most wants me to do.
I am proud. I am disobedient. I am selfish. I am vain. I am often a hypocrite. My spiritual journey has never been smooth or easy. I lean on so many for their valiant obedience, their selfless service, and their dedication to doing good. I also learn from my fellow church members and want to serve when I see that, for all our strengths, we are also weak. I cannot give account of just what I owe others, starting with my good parents and brothers, my own wife and children on whom I lean so much, and all the amazing people who have shaped my life. Nor can I give account of the debt I owe to history, to my ancestors, to the many civil servants who facilitate the comfort and freedoms of my life. No one can, really. The only decent thing to do when we realize just how much of a debt we have is to give all we can for as long as we can, to build community and belonging wherever we are with love of God and love of others burning brightly in our hearts.