Friday, April 2, 2010

What the church does for people.

Since I left the church, the staunch and zealous opinions I held in my youth have given way to something I think is much more practical. Now I consider myself a humanist…with religious sympathies.

What does that mean? It means that I believe, in general, people are more important than the ideas that frame our existence on this planet. And that anything setup to govern people’s behavior in life should be centered on helping people live happier lives, rather than causing needless suffering in support of a principle. In short – pragmatism. Do what works. If it doesn’t work, do something that does. I understand it’s not a panacea, but it makes sense to me.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is just one of many, many religions in this world that are defined by its own set of principles and rules. I believe religions are here to help people in this life. That they are largely human creations made to respond to some very real human needs, and to give people answers to questions that nobody really has answers to. Whether or not each religion’s set of answers are true and factual is almost irrelevant. If people choose to believe and trust in a religion, it gives back to them a comfort and support that can be incredibly powerful.

Case in point:

Two weeks ago our family suffered an incredibly tragedy. My cousin’s son died at the age of 22 from a rare liver disorder that he suffered from birth. Before he was a year old he received a liver transplant. Eventually his health stabilized. He grew up living a normal life, though he always had to take medication and occasionally needed to spend time in a hospital when something went wrong. When he was rushed to the hospital for the last time three weeks ago he was living with cousins and planning to go to college. His younger brother was on a mission, something he could never do because of his health problems.

While his death wasn’t as unexpected as it would’ve been were he healthy, it was still absolutely devastating to those closest to him.

I went to the funeral with my brother and parents. His brother gave the life sketch. My mother sang. It was beautiful.

But what I remember most from the funeral was the talk given by the boy’s uncle, who happens to also be my cousin. He’s older (in his late 40’s now) and has almost definitely taken his tour through many church leadership positions. A man very close to the church.

Perhaps more than any other branch of the family, his was closest to the family of the boy who died. He related to the congregation that when the family asked him to speak, naturally, he felt inadequate. And of course! I mean, what do you say? How do you inspire comfort when what happened was so impossibly unfair?

After several minutes of recalling happy memories which everyone smiled and laughed at, his voice lowered and petered out, obviously heavy with emotion. He started again, and even though he was at the pulpit it was obvious he was speaking directly to the boy’s family. He spoke quietly and halting with tears saying something to the like of, “I went to the temple to ask for help with this talk…God help me say what I need to say… [speaking to the mother] I’m supposed to tell you that you are a wonderful mother and that your son is still being mothered, [to the father] you are a wonderful father, [to the brother who came home from his mission for the funeral] that you are a wonderful brother.”

My recollection of it isn’t doing the moment justice. It was much more personal and special than what I can recall.

If you’re familiar with LDS sacrament meetings there’s a magical moment that happens occasionally when something really singular, or personal is being said. The normal background hum of the congregation quiets down and a different atmosphere takes over as people pay closer attention. In the church they call it “the spirit”. At this very special moment of the funeral, probably the most important moment of the entire day, the spirit was very intense. I’m sure many would say - the veil was very thin at that moment.

I sat there listening to my cousin, in the middle of a room full of relatives and friends having a very special and spiritual experience. I was touched, but I forced myself to remain dispassionate and logical about what was happening; and given the importance of the temple amongst faithful, including the many accounts of spiritual experiences had by people there (some bordering on the supernatural), I listened very carefully for any explicit mention of some sort of ‘visitation’.

There was none. If he experienced anything like that, he left it out either because it was too sacred for him to relate, or because it didn’t happen. In either case, he left it open ended; probably for the best.

This is my point. The church did something very important for my family on that day - it comforted the living and made the loss a little more palatable. Whether or not the afterlife is as the LDS church says it is isn’t as important as helping the living cope with lost loved ones and to continue living their own lives without fear or misery.

In light of this I ask, what good is the truth if it’s as bleak and terminal as science has it? Boyd K. Packer has said, “There is much that is true that isn’t useful.” I’ve come to agree with him.

What does this mean in respect to me coming out of the closet and leaving the church? Am I going to run back to into church activity, out of the arms of my fiancĂ© and back into the closet again? No. A thousand times, no. What is does mean is I’ve gained a renewed respect and admiration for what the church can do to help people. And if people are the most important thing, then it gives me hope for the future of gays in the LDS church.

Let’s hope either a stroke of pragmatism strikes the church leadership, or a real stroke strikes down those who stand in its way.


Kiley said...

I agree with you. People are more important than a set of rules or principles. I have found that as I have left the church I don't look at things as being right and wrong as much anymore but rather focus more on weather something makes me a better person or helps someones else. The church does help many people and it does help people often be better.

Thank you for your post! It was beautiful. I am happy I stumbled upon your blog!

Chester said...

Thanks Reina. It's good to know someone's reading.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chester: I agree with much of what you say. I believe that there is no such thing as a "true church" here on earth. Man is not perfect, therefore logically anything that man creates can not be perfect. And for any one church to call itself the "true church" is in of itself a lie. Not that the church is purposefully lying, but rather it's not possible for a church to be the true church as created by a man. ie; Joseph Smith

When God Himself creates the true church, then and only then will it truly be the "true chuch"