Public Dissent and Private Responsibility
My oldest daughter couldn’t find a building for her young mothers group to practice volleyball anywhere last night, even though we live in the land of LDS chapels within every 8-block grid. The reason: their elders quorum had the building scheduled every Thursday night until the Second Coming from 6PM-10PM. Yes, you read that right. Four Hours. Her group had talked to the building coordinator and scheduled it earlier, but the digital calendar didn’t sync or the stars didn’t align or someone didn’t have the proper permissions, so they were all dressed up and no place to spend pent-up mom energy. They were frustrated. They recognized the dispensation wasn’t grinding to a halt, but they felt something could be changed.
The Church is a large organization with a mission of ultimate egalitarian promise. It should be so in its particulars, in its very local iterations where the core of the Church is being experienced. Worldwide policy creates an environment where the details are worked out in order at the local level. It’s one of the functions of the Priesthood structure above the stake level to provide that coordination. Ultimately, however, most of our problems occur and are solved at the local level, so many questions sent to Church headquarters are referred back to local leaders. While my daughter’s issue seems more local (better communication and collaboration), the underlying policy (permissions and digital structure of ward scheduling) may be more Church-wide. The ideal would be communication up the Priesthood line. In practice, that seldom occurs.
So how does one comment on Church-wide policy? And should one?
Joseph Smith, deep in the real-life muck of persecution, apostasy, and discontent, in 1842 met intermittently with the newly-formed Relief Society. Eliza Snow records six addresses he gave, and in them he refers repeatedly to the difficulties created when people who think they know better voice their acerbic observations of leaders and policies. He also repeatedly comments on the importance of “not injur(ing) the character of any one” (March 17, 1842).
He reprov’d those that were dispos’d to find fault with the management of concerns – saying that if he undertook to lead the church he would lead it right – that he calculates to organize the church in proper order &c.
President Smith continued by speaking of the difficulties he had to surmount ever since the commencement of the work in consequence of aspiring men, “great big Elders” as he called them, who had caused him much trouble (April 28, 1842).
I’ve spent 30 years struggling with issues of Church policy and how contributing, intelligent, responsible members can provide constructive feedback in a faithful manner at whatever level. For the most part (with notable exceptions) I’ve done that silently, because the risk of becoming a great big hindrance outweighed the likelihood that I would contribute anything truly worthy of the kerfuffle. Interviewing with the Church to assist the VPs of one of its departments a few years ago solidified my understanding that the brethren are interested in constructive feedback, when a key question in my interview was whether I felt confident to speak my mind with General Authorities when they requested input. (I am not a big-wig; it’s a standard question in Church business-side interviews at all levels.)
How do we reconcile apparently conflicting counsels?
Julie M. Smith, at Times and Seasons, provides a wonderful, concise evaluation in her older but suddenly very current (and incredibly good) essay, How to Dissent Like a General Authority, recently sent to me by a friend. Julie shares the personal observations of Elder Holland regarding the priesthood ban, recorded in this PBS interview (read her essay – the quotes are so poignant), then comments:
Note that he, faithful Church employee and future apostle, had (1) prayed for the ban to end which means he (2) presumably did not like the ban or think it was sound doctrine/practice but (3) had not argued publically against the ban or let it affect his activity in the Church.
Then she quotes Gregory Prince, who wrote a biography of President McKay and after the eye-opening responses from Pres. McKay on the subject of the ban, comments:
You’ll note from this that President McKay who was the President of the Church at the time (1) prayed for the ban to end which means he (2) presumably did not like the ban or think it was sound doctrine/practice but (3) had not argued publically against the ban or let it affect his activity in the Church.
And she concludes:
At the risk of draining the lifeblood of the bloggernacle, may I suggest that one approach to doctrines/policies that we don’t like would be to pray for them to change and not air our grievances in public?
The ban caused untold harm to countless Saints and potential Saints. It seems to me that one way we can honor our heritage and reclaim this part of our history is to learn something from our experience with the ban that we can apply to other situations. I made a stab at that here and I think I can now add to my list a pattern for dissent learned from our leaders.
(And, you’ll note, their approach worked.)
Which brings me to what I believe is our first private responsibility.
We may think it is correction, but what if it is prayer?
The pattern is old old old. When someone has a question, he or she takes it to the Lord. I’m thinking of Adam/Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Nehemiah, Daniel, Lehi, Nephi, and Joseph Smith (I left out a whole line of people who kept springing to mind.) I’m thinking of millennia of women who prayed and waited for children whom God intended to send them all along. In fact, God seems to have a vested interest in withholding something he intends from the very beginning to give, while someone prays earnestly.
Why is that?
Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.
He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Years ago I painted this in gold carefully around the top perimeter of my kitchen, where, as a mother of young children I spent most of my day. It informed my frustrations and connected me with God in the same way that the final chapters of Job do. In those prayers, offered daily there as I searched for and eventually received great comfort and protection from the destroyer (who was sometimes not-enough-time or not-enough-money personified but was sometimes my husband), I changed. Praying for something that I didn’t immediately get changed me, refined me, and built trust in the Lord as my companion. That’s counter-intuitive in our instant-messaging-power-feedback-user-driven world.
The bigger issue, however, isn’t that the world is impatient.
It’s that we don’t have faith in prayer.
Even in our circles of faith, we titter at the suggestion that fasting and prayer really do anything. That’s alarming to me. Fasting and prayer have done more than anything else in my life to open the windows of heaven to both knowledge and miracles. If miracles cease in our time, Moroni points out, “it is because of unbelief, and all is vain.” That means that anything we gain without going to the Lord in faithful prayer – any concession, equality, or change – is vain (having no value, marked by futility or ineffectualness.) Why would we go to the Church or the world for something we hadn’t taken first and frequently to the Lord? Why would we expect anyone but the Lord to work it out?
Prayer with real intent was the means for bringing about the restoration. Prayer with real intent was the means of turning the Revolution (research Isaac Potts’ testimony of the prayer at Valley Forge). Perhaps it is the best means for bringing about our little restorations and revolutions still. Perhaps the most important change occurs in us, not in the policy. And perhaps, our imperfect existence is precisely what we need to refine the very thing that will make us like God: not our administrative efficiency, but our humble willingness to prayerfully wait upon the Lord.
In what spirit, then, do we offer suggestions for what we know are trivial administrative matters? Whether it’s pants or public prayers or the building schedule, it’s likely the answer to that will also come in that humble prayer, because the Lord promises wings as eagles and a renewal of our strength.
Do we believe Him enough to try it and wait?
Image credits: lds.org, Pitts Theological Library