With permission, I relate the following about a friend of mine (who for purposes of this story I will call Brian). If told in his own voice, he fears the story might have unanticipated effects on relationships with fellow ward members.
On my way to dinner with our adult kids not long ago I got a call from my friend Brian. He sounded a little unsettled. Brian is an incredibly bright and accomplished young man with a kind and generous spirit. He has become a good friend.
Hey, Bill. I just got a call from our new Bishop, and he wants me to come talk to him at the church tonight.
Cool. A new calling?
Yeah, I don’t think so. Something tells me he wants to talk to me about something I posted online last week.
I had already read Brian’s post. It was a very faithful but honest attempt to grapple with if (or why) church leadership may have been wrong on a very sensitive issue—and how they seemed still to be wrestling with it. A bit of an uncomfortable subject for sure.
It couldn’t be that. There was a nothing wrong with what you wrote.
Well, what if it is? How should I handle it?
My response was a little flip.
Just breathe deep and let the experience teach you. But, I wouldn’t worry. I’ll bet it’s just a calling.
A couple of hours later as we were finishing our dinner, Brian called again. Bad news.
I was right. It was intense. He was pretty upset after reading my post and warned me that writing stuff like that could undermine people’s faith in our leaders. It felt pretty yucky. It just felt wrong. What should I do? My wife is really upset too. We’re not going to be sleeping well tonight.
Tell you what, try to get some sleep and let’s meet for lunch tomorrow and talk through it. We’ll figure it out.
It so happened that I was having lunch with my friend Terryl Givens the next day, and I thought Terryl might have some insights for Brian.
As we sat over sushi, Terryl and I listened attentively as Brian recounted his experience. He had been deeply disturbed by the experience and felt a distinct lack of belonging. We consoled him. Terryl offered some good insights.
OK, so leaders sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes they might act out of fear even when motivated by love. A cynical view would be that Brian had simply lost at the game of “leader roulette.” But being cynical never solved a real problem.
We sat in silence for a bit, trying to process the experience with Brian.
And then he opened up a little more. And here is where it got interesting, and for Brian genuinely puzzling.
For several months, Brian had been going through a tough stretch in his faith life. Although he had been through the faith wringer before, his recent exploration had led him, for the first time, to truly wonder if God was even there. The potential absurdity of that version of the universe hit him hard. Glimpsing that other side was frightening.
He’d recently read a remarkable story that seemed to reflect his own situation, one where a doubter was overwhelmed with a divine love he couldn’t deny. Brian had resolved to sincerely ask God if he could be blessed with that feeing, if just for a moment. He didn’t give God an ultimatum or ask for a vision. He just asked to feel God’s love. If he didn’t, it would be ok. He knew he’d still show up to Church the next Sunday, and the Sunday after that.
The next Sunday came — a couple of weeks before Brian’s Bishop would call him to “the woodshed.” Brian had been sitting at the organ playing prelude music before his ward’s sacrament meeting. His heart was unsettled, but prayerful, hoping God might reach down into his heart and manifest that love.
As he played, in his peripheral vision he saw a figure pass by. Seemingly out of nowhere, Brian felt an instantaneous wave of love for this person wash over him. As this figure passed in front of him, Brian recognized him. He was surprised. This was the person in the ward he probably liked least. He was the guy (every ward has one) who makes the authoritative and often judgmental comments in Sunday School or Elders Quorum the self-appointed gospel expert. Not the guy Brian would choose to hang out with; more likely the guy he would try to avoid when possible.
And yet, in that moment Brian felt somehow deeply connected to him. And somehow through that connection Brian’s heart was now opened.
It had been a while since Brian had felt spiritually energized in a church meeting. But on this day, things came alive. As he played and the congregation sang, it sounded and felt incredibly beautiful and alive to him. It brought him to tears. The sacrament was deeply moving. Even the speakers seemed especially inspired and relevant.
When the meeting ended, Brian was playing the postlude music as ward members made their way out of the chapel. As he was finishing, he felt a tap on the back of his shoulder. He turned to see a fellow ward member he didn’t know at all. He remembered trying to engage this fellow in conversation once at a ward camp, but the man was rather reserved and the conversation was awkward.
Hi Brian. I’m sorry, I don’t know you. In fact, I had to look your name up on LDS tools after the meeting ended. But I had a distinct impression come to me during the meeting. I’m supposed to tell you that God loves you deeply. I’m just supposed to tell you that.
Brian thanked him, he walked away, and Brian sat, stunned in awe and gratitude.
Terryl and I sat and nodded as he finished the story. Wow!
But it was not the end of the story. Brian had more.
Well, here’s the thing. That guy who tapped me on the shoulder. A week later he was called as my new bishop.
Wait, you mean that’s the guy who called you in to his office to read you the riot act?
Yup. . . How do I make sense of that?
We pondered a bit. But we were out of time and needed to get to other appointments.
Tell you what, I said. You give that some thought and let’s follow up in a day or two.
A couple of days later Brian called. The hurt and confusion from his experience in the bishop’s office was still there. He was still struggling to make sense of it. How could a person be so inspired in ministering to him in one moment and then seem so fearful and hostile the next? How could he trust this new bishop? He wanted my thoughts on this strange experience.
Ok. I shall be Daniel to your King Nebuchadnezzar, I said jokingly.
You were seeking clarity. You wanted to feel God’s love. You really wanted to connect directly, vertically with God. Instead, God decided to connect with you horizontally, through your ward members. And not just any ward members. The ones you probably least wanted to connect with.
We went on to explore the meaning of this together. Here’s some of what we concluded.
Maybe we’re not meant to simply approach God one-to-one. That would be too simple. We talked about the great Christian symbol—the cross. It is at the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal members of the cross that we find Christ. Christ calls us to approach God in community, in all our weakness. This is what building Zion is all about.
But community is messy. We don’t get to choose our ward members. It can be hard work. It can be painful. We make ourselves vulnerable to be hurt by people we are called to trust and love, and who are called to trust and love us. It’s like a family in that way. The same people who can be vessels of Christ’s grace to us in one moment can wound us (or at least our egos) in the next moment.
Brian had been on both sides of this equation with this Bishop. Now, he had to choose how to respond.
With grace? With enough humility to consider the possibility that there might be something to learn from this painful advice? With empathy and trust that as this good man serves this ward he will grow in his office and better learn the healer’s art?
Christ’s message to Brian seemed clear enough. This life is not a solitary journey. We are meant to grow together, in creative tension with each other. The work of love is messy by design, maybe messier than we’ll ever know. It must be painful at times if it is to be real.
If anyone knows the pain attached to love, it is Christ himself. And because of that, we trust in His grace. The kind of grace that touches us in unexpected but powerful ways.