“Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” – Robert Frost
A man bought an exquisite pearl for a high price. He wanted to showcase his beautiful pearl, so he searched and searched until he found a sufficiently ornate and beautiful box to put it in, and he invited others to come admire the pearl. The box was itself so fascinating that many who came to see the pearl were so awe-struck by the box that they barely noticed the pearl. The pearl was overlooked because of how elaborate and ornate the box was.
Clearly, this story is about the difference between the gospel (the pearl) and the church (the box).
Sometimes people say that someone is a good Mormon, but not a good person. That’s a similar line of thought to the pearl and the box. You can be good at doing all the outward things a Mormon is supposed to do: paying tithing, not drinking coffee, tea, or alcohol, not swearing, you can attend church and accept callings, you can show up for service activities, you can serve a mission, you can feed the missionaries–all these things are the hallmarks of a “good Mormon.” You can do all these things, and still not be a good person. You can be a hypocrite or harbor resentments, you can judge others, you can be a passive-aggressive manipulator, you can lay a snare for your neighbor, you can use your institutional power to hurt or control others, you can be an indifferent parent or partner, you can let your fears cause you to harm the vulnerable out of a sense of self-protection.
“I looked in temples, churches & mosques. But I found the Divine within my Heart.” ~ Rumi
Every person lives with a mix of good and bad impulses. Sometimes a good action (like paying tithing or following the Word of Wisdom) is done for bad motives (to gain approval of others, to avoid embarrassment, to appear more righteous than others.) Being self-righteous (or being focused on being right and making others wrong) is incompatible with actually being righteous.
I’ve been really enjoying the posts by the other bloggers on what a middle way Mormon is, and whether it’s a sustainable approach. I’d like to take the radical position that it is the only sustainable approach. When you focus on fealty to church leaders (or their inability to lead the church astray), when you focus on scriptural authority or whether something literally happened historically rather than attempting to live the principles and precepts being taught with earnestness and humility, when you focus on the “truthfulness” of the church, or its authority, rather than focusing on the gospel, you value the box more than the pearl, and just like the public alms-giver, you have your reward. Your reward is the approval of the community or of the church’s authorities. That is certainly a very human failing common to communities of Christians, but it’s not what it means to be a disciple.
These are all human impulses–the desire to be right, to win an argument, to be better than someone else, to feel justified in our actions–and they are the very things Jesus’ teachings expose. Like the Potemkin Village Pres. Uchtdorf talked about, the facade of perfection we put up is the sin. Leader worship is another aspect of this facade of perfection. Making an icon of the church, its leaders, its scriptures, or anything like it is putting one’s trust in the arm of flesh. It’s a distraction to get us off the hook for the difficult thing: living the gospel. Following leaders is the easy (and sometimes wrong) thing. Learning to discern truth for ourselves is the valuable and harder thing. If someone’s key takeaway is how to obey human leaders in this life, what a waste of intellect and potential that will be! I wouldn’t want to live on their planet. I can’t imagine any God we worship would achieve godhood in that manner. That’s how we achieve success in temporal endeavors (sucking up to a boss, playing the game, going along to get along), not eternal ones which require a sacrifice of all that.
The point of our existence is to grow, to learn to become our best selves, to gain wisdom through experience. Going to church for me surrounds me with people who don’t think just like I do. I can learn from them, sometimes by learning what not to do, and sometimes by observing what is admirable. They don’t get to vote on whether I belong or not, and only I can say what I get out of my experience. At church, I am surrounded by all kinds of people, the bigots and the big-hearted, and they are often the same people at different times. I don’t know if any of them are going to the celestial kingdom any more than I know I am. None of us is good enough on our merits.
The box always competes with the pearl. I like a fancy box as much as the next person, but the pearl is what keeps me interested. Like an oyster with an irritating grain of sand in its flesh, the pearl keeps me in limbo, questioning my own actions, hoping to do better, afraid of my own hypocrisies and self-righteous impulses. I’m as prone to having a beam in my eye as the next person. Sometimes I’d like to chuck the box and just carry the pearl in my pocket. I don’t know why it has to be on display for others anyway. It’s for my edification. It’s supposed to refine me. I don’t need anyone else to appraise it or explain it to me.
That’s the middle way.