It’s a time honored Mormon tradition (well, it’s been a thing the last 20 years or so) to share a bad analogy from the pulpit that somehow, sometimes inexplicably, gave the speaker some sort of personal insight or wisdom they simply have to pass on.  You know what I’m talking about, right?  You want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but you struggle to understand what they’re talking about and when you do, you kind of wonder why they thought it was such special insight?  Well, this post is in that tradition.

The other day I clicked on one of those feel-good stories that sometimes pop up in Facebook.

The story was about a sad woman whose husband had died, and when she and her 9-year-old son emerged grieving from the funeral, they’d found she’d gotten a parking ticket.  Furious that someone could be so insensitive as to ticket people attending a funeral, she decided to argue it in court.  She made an appearance, made her plea, and scheduled a date for the hearing.  Coming out of the courthouse, she arrived at her car just in time to find a cop ticketing her yet again.  This time, she got to express her outrage a little, but to no avail.  She went home, a second ticket in hand.  She returned on her hearing date and argued against her first ticket passionately, but eventually just threw up her hands and paid the fine.  Without her husband’s income and with the costs of the funeral, she didn’t have much money and didn’t know what she was going to do.  After paying the fine, she only had $15 left.  She was very frustrated, and to make matters worse, when she came out of the courthouse, what did she discover?  Yep, you guessed it!  She’d been ticketed yet again.  Helpless and in despair, she decided to console herself and her son by taking him to Denny’s for breakfast with her last $15.

As they were waiting for their order, they noticed a police officer eating breakfast a couple tables over — the same one who’d written the tickets.  How would they react?  The boy, who’d always wanted to be a policeman when he grew up but was also very shy, consulted his mom who then asked the wait staff for a pencil and paper.  The boy wrote a note, handed it to the cop, and hastily returned to his seat.  He’d written “I want to be you when I grow up — thank you for your service”  The wait staff had given him the policeman’s tab, and he’d spent his birthday money buying the cop breakfast.  The cop was so touched that he not only came over to have his picture taken with the boy, but he even discretely called his supervisor and arranged to have the remaining two parking tickets “taken care of”.

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Isn’t that the most wonderful story?  The woman transcended her anger and allowed for a greater good, and everybody was blessed for it!

Oh, how I hated that story.  It was wrong on so many levels.  To start with, what the heck is wrong with that woman that she cannot park her car legally?  I mean, I can kinda sorta see it at the funeral, and then maybe the signs at the courthouse were confusing, but the third time?  Come on, woman.  And why in the world if you only have $15 left for the week would you blow it all in one sitting at Denny’s?  Furthermore, I understand that police officers have and need discretion in enforcing laws, but retroactively pulling issued and recorded tickets?  That’s got to be illegal.  The whole story struck me as the most white trash thing I’d seen on Facebook since the video of that woman jumping out of her wheelchair and throwing punches at another woman in the shampoo aisle of Walmart [1].

But I’m kind of a negative guy by nature.  I know that, and I’ve been training myself my whole life to question my initial negative reactions.  First, I reminded myself the story was pretty incomplete so my judgments might not be justly based.  Second, the story was told by a third party of unknown relationship to the protagonists, so even if the idea was to tell a heartwarming story, it’s hard to know what was omitted or added to the story.  For example, maybe that cop really was out to get her and she wasn’t just being an idiot [2].  Third, I’d read the story through that annoying format where you have to keep clicking NEXT to get the next two lines of text, along with a picture and  a kazillion ads (it’s amazing how drawn out and irritating the process becomes just from the momentary lag of loading all those ads), and that must have affected my mood.  Fourth, I reminded myself that you can still have inspiring messages and examples even from imperfect people.  The very fact that they are so imperfect can actually magnify the significance of their good choices.  I mean, as dysfunctional as I found that woman, the fact that she didn’t poison her son against the cop she’d felt had wronged her is really rather big of her, right?

Well, maybe… but I still wasn’t all that impressed with her.  And that cop wasn’t worth admiring, because either he shouldn’t have written the tickets in the first place, or he was breaking the law getting them revoked, and either way wasn’t somebody to look up to.

In that state of mind, I decided to move on to other things and found myself on a Mormon-themed blog, reading yet another post complaining over aspect of the church I love or picking at the words of one of the leaders I respect.  And I had a bit of an “ah-ha” moment.  Normally in that state of mind, I just become irritable and quit reading.  It isn’t that I necessarily disagree with the authors’ points entirely, it’s just that I feel frustrated they can’t see the forest for the trees.  They’re so focussed on what seems imperfect to them around the edges that they can’t be inspired by the core [3].

But that wasn’t my reaction.  It was actually kind of the opposite:  I had a little more sympathy than usual.  Hadn’t I just been presented with a story that was supposed to be uplifting, but because there was so much in it that rankled, I just couldn’t get much good out of it?  Suddenly, I had a little more sympathy for the raging [4] liberal feminist in my ward who pointedly criticizes the church on Facebook but still allows her husband to take their kids to church.  She obviously finds some good in the church, just as I managed to find some in that story, but maybe she feels like there’s too much ridiculously wrong to make it worthwhile trying to appreciate what’s right.

It’s a bad analogy, and when I say it gave me an “ah-ha” moment, I don’t want to overstate it.  It’s not like it taught me anything I didn’t already know — I’ve heard it from disaffected/non-attending Mormons before.  It’s just that for whatever reason, I…related…more than usual.  It gave me a little bit more empathy and made me a little less likely to simply dismiss her as having her political or social agenda as her real religion.

The bad analogy goes both ways, though.  I can read two articles or blog posts criticizing the church for the exact same fault, and after reading one I’ll feel “yeah, that just isn’t right — we should be able to do something about that”, and after reading the other, I feel like saying “if that’s all you can see, then maybe you should find another church.” [5]  The difference is usually that one is contemplative, gentle, balanced, and sometimes even loving in its criticism, whereas the other is full of frustration, cynicism, accusation, and even contempt.  The frustration, cynicism, accusation, and contempt matter not one iota to whether the criticism is valid, but when those are directed at me (which is how it feels since a big part of my identity is my membership in the church), it rankles enough that I have no desire to work to find the enlightenment in it.

So there you have it, the bad analogy with the somewhat amorphous moral, in true Mormon form.  But wait!  There’s more!  You see, it turns out that that story I read on Facebook was not true.  (I know!  I’m even more shocked than you are!)  In trying to find it again, I found another story using the same photographs of the smiling boy and smiling cop, and of the receipt for the cop’s meal with the boy’s note written on it.  In fact, I found it again.  The new versions are both virtually identical with the first, except there’s no father’s death, no funeral, no parking tickets, no broken and discouraged mother, and no corrupt cop.  Just a shy kid with a supportive mother who wants to be a police officer someday and appreciates them so much, he uses his birthday money to pay for one’s meal at a restaurant.  So really, it’s not identical at all.  It’s still a sweet story, but all the parts I didn’t like are gone.  I like this version (the real one) much better.  Of course, the remarkable story of a mother giving up all her negative emotions to allow her son to do good to the very man who hurt her is missing as well.  Gone is the drama, gone is the stark contrast between love and contempt, gone is the pathos that opens our eyes to a greater goodness.  All that’s left is just a sweet story.  That’s it.  Nothing more.  Maybe it’ll make you want to do something nice for someone.

To me, this extends the analogy in a completely different direction — to cover those who’ve decided a great deal about the church is simply not true as claimed.  It’s not just that there’s things about the church that rankle, there’s sufficient evidence in their minds that they’ve decided the majority of “truth claims” are false.  They still see good in the church (service, good values, community ethos, etc.), but there’s no need to believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the exclusivity of the priesthood restoration, or anything miraculous or truly revelatory in the church’s foundation.  It’s a great perspective in a way, because then the church isn’t a whole lot different from a giant PTA or some other civic service organization, and it’s guiding policies can simply be re-arranged by popular opinion.  There’s no need to abandon it — just disavow the roots and change the antiquated practices.  But from my perspective, viewing the church that way reduces it to the equivalent of a feel-good story —maybe it’ll make you want to be a better person.  The truly great has been reduced to the simply good, and the loss is profound.  The tie to Divinity is broken, and its real power to place the souls of mankind in the perspectives of the eternities is gone.

So there you have it — my not-particularly-remarkable insight as explained by a bad analogy [6].  What say ye?

 

Photos from Lakeland PD Facebook page

 

 

[1]  Nope.  No link.  We have standards, people.

[2]  I got towed from a nearly empty “guest lot” at an apartment complex once while visiting a new member of the ward.  There was a sign that said I needed to display a guest pass from the person I was visiting, so you might say I got what I deserved.   But the light over the sign had burned out and I didn’t see it in the dark.  $370 ransom to get my car back.  You can bet I felt unjustly done by.

[3]  At least, from my point of view.  And I realize that some feel the core is corrupt, but l don’t relate.

[4]  To be fair, her passion’s also got her involved in a host of good causes in the community, and there aren’t many kids who’ve been exposed to more service opportunities than hers.

[5]  Feel it.  Never say it.  Good Mormons would never say such a thing…

[6]  And just to make it explicit, I consider the analogy bad at least partly because, unlike the Facebook story, I don’t believe the church’s truth claims are demonstrably false.  Also unlike the the Facebook story, I do not believe the motivation behind the church’s creation was to make money, such as by driving ad revenue.