Question: If you’re a Latter-day Saint, do you have to be just like other Latter-day Saints?
Answer: Not just no, but … hell no.
Whoever said variety is the spice of life — actually, it was English poet William Cowper more than 200 years ago — got it right. He added “that gives it all its flavor.”
Amen, brother. Shout it with me, then, shout it to the world, shout it to your ward.
You don’t have to fit into a box to be a Latter-day Saint. You don’t have to be anybody’s cliche. You don’t have to be the same as everyone else. You don’t have to be a ball bearing to belong.
You don’t have to look the same, talk the same, walk the same, act the same, dress the same. You don’t even have to believe the same or be as obedient or righteous as others, at least as others perceive or present themselves to be.
You can be … you, in all your unique glory and imperfection. That’s enough.
I remember a story I heard in a Latter-day Saint Sunday school class many years ago, a story not unlike stories told now.
A brother stood and referred to a relative of his who was a regular attender of Sunday services, a so-called active member, who also drank coffee, a no-no under the Word of Wisdom, the church’s health code.
“You drink coffee?” the brother asked.
“Yes, I do, but it’s 97% caffeine-free,” the relative responded.
“So,” the brother said, “you’re 97% Mormon?”
If I had been there, I would have punched that brother in the lips for saying such a stupid thing. Well, I would have had he not been a black belt in karate. (To say nothing about the fact that the coffee prohibition — despite what even many members think — has nothing to do with caffeine.)
This is the kind of thing that Latter-day Saints sometimes face, a misguided line of thinking that you’re either in or out — that there is no suitable in between.
Problem is, almost all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fall somewhere in between. What’s the old saying? “Don’t judge me because I sin differently than you.” I read that once on a bumper sticker on the back of a Ford F-150 pickup.
Wise words that could have come down from the top of Mount Sinai. Everybody’s different, and that’s all right.
‘You look like a Mormon’
It seems, though, within the LDS Church and even outside of it, some people expect Latter-day Saints to embrace sameness.
When I first took a job with the Los Angeles Times 40 years ago, a reporter whom I had not yet gotten to know, came up to me and said, “You look like a Mormon.”
“What the hell does that mean?” I said.
He fired back something clever, like: “Uhh … I dunno.”
Was I supposed to have said to him, “Yessiree, dyed in the wool, true blue, through and through,” or however the story goes that Joseph F. Smith told about his younger years?
I never wanted to “look like a Mormon,” true blue or otherwise. I wanted to look like and be me.
If I’m honest, and known for it, fine. If I have some level of integrity, I’ll take that, too. If I try to follow the teachings of Christ, all good. If, on any specific occasion, I fail to be or have or do any of those things, I’m usually sorry for it. And I don’t mind being somewhat like others who make the same efforts, who generally worship in similar ways.
But, still, we’re different.
Some Latter-day Saints accept whatever they’re spoon-fed from church leaders, never doubting, never objecting. Some do doubt and object. Some ask questions, pertinent ones that deserve answers. Some test out doctrines as a means of finding faith. Some are all-in. Some are partially in. Some are hanging on — barely. Some are walking away.
Some members are married and have children. Some look like they just fell out of an old “Man’s Search for Happiness” film. Some are gay. Some are trans. Some are single. Some will never marry. Some will never have kids.
Some church members forget all of the above.
I sat in a sacrament meeting recently in which a mother stood in front of the congregation and said, “I never knew what love was until I had children.”
Slapping my forehead, I let out a grunt, looking around at all the people in the chapel who had no children, who never would have children, and thought, “This sister doesn’t even know what she just said.” Maybe that was simply her own experience.
Yes, even members sometimes get confused on this sameness issue. It’s not just because so much preaching comes from the podium espousing that sameness, although that’s a part of it. There’s also the way the word is delivered from ecclesiastical leaders, local and general. The way they dress, in conservative suits, white shirts and ties, the tone and cadence of talks at General Conference, the overused phrases like “beyond a shadow of a doubt” and “I know this is true” and “line upon line” and “covenant path” and “contention is of the devil.”
Appearance is a thing because it’s stressed via example by top church leaders and by some underlings who zealously follow that example, with the clean-shaved faces, the short hair, and the fresh-scrubbed look required of those who represent the church in some official capacities.
Male missionaries, for instance, dress the way they do because they’re directed to do so, same with students and professors following the dress-and-grooming standards at church-owned Brigham Young University. There are occasions when students have been reported to school officials for looking too scruffy, when BYU football players have been told in the locker room at halftime to shave. It’s as though this is some leftover reaction to the beatnik and hippie movements of the 1950s and ‘60s. BYU-Idaho students are not even allowed to wear capris.
Those standards, praise God, are not required or enforced churchwide. But they send a misguided message, as though that is a better way, the Latter-day Saint way.
What any of that has to do with following Christ, depicted even in church-approved art as a long-haired, bearded revolutionary who wore robes and sandals, I do not know. Last I checked, he invites everyone, however they appear, to come to him. He looketh on the heart, not on hairstyles and dress dimensions.
I knew a 16-year-old girl who had been struggling with her dysfunctional family, as well as finding good friends, who went to a Latter-day Saint youth dance in a skirt that was an inch or two above her knees. A zealous Young Women leader rejected her at the door, saying the dress was too short. Another leader, who knew the girl and her circumstances, draped her arm around that teen and escorted her directly into the dance.
That’s what I’m talking about.
Point is, you can wear whatever you wear, from tattoos to beards to piercings, you can be whatever you are, you can fall wherever you fall on the belief spectrum and still be a Latter-day Saint.
Popular apostle Dieter Uchtdorf said diversity is “a strength of this church.” It’s well past time for Latter-day Saints themselves to believe that — and live it.
He also said: “The church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony. I know of no sign on the doors of our meetinghouses that says, ‘Your testimony must be this tall to enter.’”
In God’s eyes, we’re the same even as we’re different. We’re the same because we’re humans. We’re different because we’re humans, all God’s children, if you believe in such a divine connection.
Latter-day Saints, who supposedly do, should make room for one and all.
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