Exceptions and Grace

When I was first started coming to terms with my sexuality and trying to find some possible way to reconcile it with my faith, I found myself largely disappointed with the counsel available from general authorities in past and current conferences. Many speak of how they went to conference with a question in their heart, and by some miracle there was a message either tailor-made for them, or they received a personal answer through the words of a talk. I’m not saying I didn’t receive similar inspiration. But without a single message saying explicitly that I too belong here, I felt lost. For someone raised on the song Keep the commandments, in this there is safety and peace there seemed to be no clear answer for someone in my circumstances.

The answer I heard multiple times from church members was that general authorities don’t teach to the exception: they teach the general rules. I believe the source of this statement is a passage from a talk give by Elder Dallin H. Oaks:

If you feel you are a special case, so that the strong counsel I have given doesn’t apply to you, please don’t write me a letter. Don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception… Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work out that individually between you and the Lord.

(Funny sidenote: the title of the talk is “Dating versus hanging out.”). Some have interpreted this as a roundabout way of saying: there are no exceptions. But that’s not what Elder Oaks said: he said that if you are an exception, that is between you and the Lord. I understand the danger in that. But if being an LGBT Latter-Day Saint isn’t an exception, I don’t know what it. There are no easy answers for LGBT Latter-Day Saints. If you attempt to follow the “generic” path set out by general authorities and choose to pursue a marriage in the temple, you run the risk of causing your spouse a lot of pain and a potentially nasty divorce in the end. On the other hand, if you choose to remain celibate, Latter-Day Saint theology, at least as taught by lay members, is harsh, or at least not very comforting. I have heard it in my time that I would be a ministering angel. Others say that you will have the chance to get married in the next life. Without a way of seeing yourself as an exception, you can only interpret yourself as broken.

In this way, I find Elder Oaks’ statement quite merciful in retrospect, even loving, for someone who is much more comfortable talking about the law rather than love. It still is hard, because Elder Oaks clearly puts it on your own shoulders to “work out your own salvation” with the Lord [1]. Luckily, there have been a few more recent talks where LGBT members have been mentioned. When Elder Holland said There is room [in the choir] for those with differing sexual orientations, I cried. It didn’t solve all my problems, but it was an acknowledgement. And that’s all I needed at the time.

But the longer I’m around and the more stories I hear of individuals, the more I realize that we are all exceptions. In one way or another, there will come a time in your life when you feel like an exception. Not in a I’m special kind of way; I want to be clear, this isn’t attention-seeking way, or trying to find a way to break the rules– and this shouldn’t be dismissed as such. But there are times are in our life when the gospel collides with our lived experience. Perhaps collision isn’t the right metaphor. A gap instead? [2] A gap between the ideal as taught by the gospel, and you where you currently are. In fact, I can guarantee it will happen, because the scriptures say so. Paul taught: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. I don’t only mean that we will sin; the Book of Mormon teaches that we also all have weaknesses too, in order to teach us to be humble. Both of these are universal. Each these make our story an exception, something unique. And these exceptions are the place where grace operates. In the words of Christ to his apostles about the man born blind: Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

Danger of exceptions: Justice

This idea of exceptions was brought to my mind after reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ Not in God’s Name. In the book, he tries to address the difficult question Why does God choose? Why a chosen people? Why Isaac over Ishmael? Or Jacob over Esau? In particular, Sacks points out the pain caused to the sons of Jacob when he clearly favored the younger Joseph over his older brothers. Playing favorites causes tensions. Rabbi Sacks draws this conclusion:

You cannot build a family, let alone a society, on love alone. For that you need justice also. Love is partial, justice is impartial. Love is particular, justice is universal. Love is for this person not that, but justice is for all. Much of the moral life is generated by this tension between love and justice. Justice without love is harsh. Love without justice is unfair, or so it will seem to the less loved. That is what the Bible is forcing us to understand when we read the words “And God saw that Leah was hated.”

I find this passage absolutely beautiful, but what does this have to do with gospel exceptions? I think this discussion of love [3] versus justice has a Latter-Day Saint doctrinal equivalent in the words of the prophet Alma: Mercy cannot rob justice. We are familiar with the tension between these two, as the phrase comes up so often in Sunday School. Mercy is what gives us the room necessary to work out our own salvation. In that gap between where we are now and the ideal, we are likely going to stumble, to even make some big mistakes, maybe even hurt some people that we love. I know I have. But while my story and experience is unique, it doesn’t invalidate the rule. If anything, the exception proves the rule. We as Latter-Day Saints though are so insistent on reminding individuals of this fact– rules exist–, that we can convince others this space provided by grace doesn’t exist.

This isn’t unique to Latter-Day Saints, of course. Christ taught this reaction oftentimes in his parables [4], one of which being the parable of the laborers. In the parable, a man hires a number of laborers to work in his vineyard for the day and agrees upon a wage. But throughout the day he invites others to come work in the field as well, giving them the same wage despite working less hours than those who were hired at the beginning of the day. These first laborers grumble. Elder Holland paraphrases beautifully the response of the householder:

It is with that reading of the story that I feel the grumbling of the first laborers must be seen. As the householder in the parable tells them (and I paraphrase only slightly): “My friends, I am not being unfair to you. You agreed on the wage for the day, a good wage. You were happy to get the work, and I am very happy with the way you served. You are paid in full. Take your pay and enjoy the blessing. As for the others, surely I am free to do what I like with my own money.” Then this piercing question to anyone then or now who needs to hear it: “Why should you be jealous because I choose to be kind?”

There are many ways in which we can be very much like those laborers in the field, comparing our own stories and experiences of the gospel with others. We grumble when we see what we perceive to be unfair. In the case of the laborers, it was a feeling of a feeling like proportionality had been violated. In our meritocratic system, it’s no wonder we have internalized that message into our interpretations of the gospel. I fear sometimes that the way we talk of the three kingdoms of glory can become similar e.g. the celestial kingdom is a super-VIP heaven. Instead, we should be joyous when we see grace working in the lives of others. Because whether we know it now or not, while we may be grumbling as an early-day laborer now, we will likely also be a late-day laborer tomorrow.

Notes

  1. I do think that there are times when Church leaders can address the exceptions, and that is at the local level. Bishops and stake presidents can extend a measure of grace, because they are the first responders. They exemplify the Savior. There is a reason why there are so stories of those who feel loved and accepted by their wards, but are surprised at the insensitivity with which these have been approached over the pulpit. This is known as pastoral care, and I’m so grateful for the bishops and stake presidents who have helped me feel the grace of the Savior in my own life.
  2. This idea of a gap between theory and practice is beautifully explained in Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam Miller:

It may look like things have been pretty well mapped out for you. Just stick to the plan. Memorize your Articles of Faith, get your merit badges signed off, complete your Personal Progress, get good grades, go on a mission, go to the temple, have a family, etc. There may be a few details here and there to handle, but nothing major. You’ve got a map, you just have to follow it.

But once you get to work, you’ll be unnerved by the distance between the neat map in your hand and the rough terrain at your feet. Fighting to coordinate the two, you’ll be tempted to throw the whole thing over or, by way of compromise, to sit down and gossip about how great the map is. This latter kind of admiration is often mistaken for a religious life. Perhaps it is religious, but it is no life. Even sound maps are just maps. They are no substitute for real roads.

The goal between theory and practice is often biggest with teh simplest things. You’ve promised to pray, but you’ll spend a lifetime learning how to pray. You’ve promised to study the scriptures, but you’ll spend a lifetime learning how to read them. And you’ve promised to give God everything– your, time, your talents, your money– but you’ll spend a lifetime how to consecrate even a part. You cannot forfeit responsibility for this how. You cannot wait for someone else to do them for you. If you do not work things out for yourself, they will never be done. You must learn how to body your religion out into the world with your own fingers and toes, eyes and ears, flesh and bones. This can only be done from the inside out.

You are a pioneer. Life has never before been lives in your body. Everything must be done again, as if for the first time. You are an aboriginal Adam, a primal Eve. You are a Mormon.

  1. Christianity has tried to universalize love. The King James Version of the Bible refers to it as charity. But unless you want to completely water down love to positive feelings for “humanity” and make charity an absolutely useless word, you are going to acknowledge in practice different forms of love. You will never treat your spouse or your children the same as a complete stranger. (As a sidenote, Rabbi Sacks actually sideways critiques Christianity for this extension of love in an interesting passage: The Sermon on the Mount tells us to love our enemies. That is a supremely beautiful idea, but it is not easy. Moses offers a more liveable solution. Help your enemy. You don’t have to love him but you do have to assist him.)
  2. The other parable is the Prodigal’s Son. The son also grumbles when grace is extended to his brother:

Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends:

But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.

Son, thou are ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

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