Keep the flock safe, starve out the sinners

And now, when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

Luke 15:17-20

But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.

1 Corinthians 11:28-29

A friend came up to me and expressed great sorrow. He had sinned, confessed to the bishop, and, expecting healing and mercy, was barred from taking the Sacrament – our version of communion – for six months. This stung him greatly. While some berated him for his pride, this young friend of mine felt that in his greatest time of need, he felt abandoned by the God who promised to be with him, especially through the hard times. For him, God left because he wasn’t good enough. Why would a supposedly merciful God deny him the opportunity to participate in one of the very few simplistically beautiful rituals of forgiveness and mercy in our Church?

He had at first kept his sin to himself and felt himself recovering from his addictions as he strove to live worthy each week for the Sacrament. Some weeks he fell short, but the weeks he stayed clean began to come more and more frequently. The constant weekly goal of the Sacrament seemed approachable and real. When he felt like he had made considerable progress, he confessed to the bishop. There, he received the moritorium of six months, shattering his weekly goal of staying worthy for the Sacrament. Weekly goals he could do; six months seemed impossibly far away. His personal worthiness check-ins with his Father every Sabbath was replaced with what he saw as humiliating check-ins with a bishop who couldn’t understand him the way Jesus did. My heart dropped. I prayed this experience would not drive him from the Church.

A couple of years later, I ran into a young couple on my mission. The woman was pregnant and frightened. They had left their home to escape a rough past, and now she was eight months pregnant in a foreign city with no friends and family. Her Army husband recently received word that he might be deployed for Iraq. He was not a member; this sister was but had not attended church for years. And yet, here we were, the missionaries randomly tracting in her neighborhood. She broke down, and asked, even though she had not been faithful for years, if she could have a blessing of comfort.

My heart softened, and I told her that no matter what her state in life, even if she felt like everything was falling apart, God would still listen to her, God would still bless her if all she would do is turn to him. I asked her if she believed the blessing would help. She nodded as tears streamed down her cheeks. I told her that it would honor me to give her a blessing. As we gathered in the room around her, and as my companion and I placed our hands on her head, I experienced one of the few, unforgettable times I have truly felt the Spirit. Pure intelligence flowed down my head through my hands. I knew that night that the Priesthood was real.

These two experiences colored my view on sin and forgiveness greatly. I have only felt the Spirit definitively in my life several times, and each time, forgiveness occurred. I am beginning to think that truly, one cannot feel the Spirit unless some kind of reconciliation happens. The Holy Ghost testifies of Jesus Christ and His mission, and our Savior’s mission first and foremost was the reconciliation of fallen man and his creator, God. One cannot testify of Christ without testifying of His healing power.

Which is why it pains me sometimes to hear of people denied the Sacrament because of sin. It pains me when people fail the baptismal interview not because of desire, but because of old habits. I understand the great importance of the ordinance; I understand the sacredness and the need for preparation. But it seems circular to me when we say, “Before you can experience the healing power of Christ, are you living your life right?” Physicians should tend to the sick, not the healthy. It bugged me when missionaries would describe how “perfect” a family was – how they practically lived all the commandments already. Baptize them, yes! But when we passed by the drunks, the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the downtrodden, the poor, the struggling, because they “aren’t ready” or “they’ll never change”, it breaks my heart.

What does it mean to be “ready” to take the Sacrament? What does it mean to be “ready” to be baptized? A friend of mine confided in me that he struggled with his faith. He struggled with his testimony immensely. Because of this, he struggled in keeping some of the minor commandments. But he never confessed because he loved to attend the temple. For him, the temple was the only place where he knew for sure, where he experienced God’s presence so strongly he couldn’t deny it. It sustained him, it uplifted him. And he was afraid to lose it.

Driven by a guilty conscience, he finally confessed to his bishop. His temple recommend was taken away until he was “ready and worthy.” The one good spiritual anchor in his life disappeared, and he floundered. He struggled to stay, but ultimately, without those nourishing, faith-building experiences, he left. I wondered if he should have just kept his troubles to himself and continued to go, continued to feel God’s presence, continued to confide in friends and family instead of ecclesiastical authorities. I can’t help but wonder. Did taking his temple recommend really help him? Did it really save him from anything?

I don’t mean to say that we should re-write the rules or abolish the baptismal interview. But at the same time, I wonder – are we doing the right thing? When we deny people of the forgiving power of God, are we protecting the flock from blemish and the ordinances from stain, or are we cruelly turning our backs on the prodigal children of the world when our Father wants us to run towards them when they are still yet afar? I cannot help but wonder – what could possibly help more than the Holy Ghost in quitting smoking or recovering from alcoholism? What more than the purifying fire of the Sacrament (and the promise of forgiveness if taken worthy that week) could motivate one who commits sexual sin to strive for cleanliness?

Do our legalistic moral code of standards prevent us from making inspired insights about our brothers and sisters around us? Or do we take our “minimum standards” and use them as a measuring stick, expecting new converts and hopeful students to follow all the rules of the Church from day one when we as members struggle for our perfection still, despite our years of membership in the Church? Blessed with the gospel, do we strive to take it to all, or just those who already act like us?

I wonder how different my life would be had I told that broken-hearted, contrite sister in Lawton, Oklahoma that I would perform the priesthood ordinance only if she came to Church for three weeks in a row first. I wonder how I would feel now if I had instead told her that I would need some kind of proof over the next few days to make sure she had truly repented before I laid my hands on her head and blessed her. I wonder if my ultimatum would have hurt her. I wonder if I could have experienced such a powerful manifestation of the Holy Ghost. I wonder if I should have been more strict.

But something tells me that the guilt from such an experience would torture me for the rest of my life.

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