Authenticity, An Eternity of Cats, and Big Tents

We’re gonna start off in an intentionally weird, bizarre place courtesy of Brother Brigham:

“…he thought that all the cats and kittens were let out of the bag when brother Pratt went back last fall, and published the Revelation concerning the plurality of wives: it was thought there was no other cat to let out. But allow me to tell you, Elders of Israel… you may expect an eternity of cats, that have not yet escaped from the bag. Bless your souls, there is no end to them, for if there is not one thing, there will always be another.”

Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:188 (June 19, 1853)

You can’t make that stuff up. Isn’t that just an absolutely fantastic quote? I mean, can you imagine Elder Bednar standing up in GenConf and informing us that there’s an eternity of cats waiting to escape from the bag? That would be something. I would love that. Anyway, I’m not really concerned with the doctrinal significance here, but think this is a great example of authenticity. This is Brigham Young owning his Brigham-ness and that is worth celebrating. Also, having found such a fantastic quote, how could I not share it? I had to figure out a way to use it somehow, it’s just too good.

I think authenticity in most aspects of our lives would help solve a lot of problems (and help us better follow, what I think is a great pattern for civil dialogue, which I laid out previously). Particularly in religious spheres. Like always, I’m going to speak primarily from my own lived experience, which won’t be the same as everyone else (leadership roulette, means of expression, personal definitions of authenticity, and a number of other factors contributing to varied outcomes).

Let’s start off with a quote from the afore-mentioned Elder Bednar that lacks the beautifully hilarious WTF imagery of Brigham.

“We are disciples, and our messages should be authentic. A person or product that is not authentic is false, fake, and fraudulent. Our messages should be truthful, honest, and accurate. We should not exaggerate, embellish, or pretend to be someone or something we are not.”

Elder David A. Bednar, “To Sweep the Earth.”

Elder Bednar was talking specifically about missionary efforts and sharing the Gospel with those outside of the Church, but I think the need for authenticity is just as strong within the Church (although, as my good Christian Science friend Bobby thinks, living religion authentically and sharing it like you would a favorite book or film is a much more effective method of proselytizing than most others). Striving for perfection I think can have the unwanted and unnecessary effect of causing people to only share perfect or wonderful experiences. We frequently hear of the investigator who quit their Sabbath-breaking job with nothing but faith in God and was blessed with a better job that didn’t require them to work on Sundays or all the stories that end in baptism and faithful devotion to Christ or any number of similar stories. We share experiences of receiving answers to prayers, of being given knowledge to ace stats tests we had no prayer of passing, of recovering from impossible odds due to a priesthood blessing. And these are all good, powerful experiences. But they aren’t the whole story.

I think this is what Scott Swofford was referring to in a shockingly good devotional he gave at BYU last year:

“Since the reality of our own weaknesses and continual striving to overcome our failings is obvious to all who observe us—trust me—others find us most authentic when we acknowledge that trailing foot as well and don’t just champion the best foot forward, pretending we have two “right” feet.”

Scott Swofford, “Both Feet Forward.”

For me, prayers, fasting, faith, diligence, and sincere heartfelt desires as a missionary never resulted in investigators being baptized. Never. That wasn’t my miracle. It might be yours, but when that’s the only story we share, we marginalize those that found different miracles. I wrote down miracles every day for the last half or longer of my mission. These were small, daily arguably coincidental traces of the divine. Things like getting some delicious food from a crazy old lady or having non-violent interactions with drunks on the street.

Nor has my search for answers to my countless questions resulted in clean, clear-cut answers. I have more questions than when I started. Answers are not my miracle. A sense of peace and comfort with the resulting ambiguity is. Sure, I don’t know everything and won’t for quite some time (I plan on getting there, I mean, eternity is a long time…), but I have come to be comfortable with holding onto God’s love and believing (or not) the rest.

I am comforted by the idea expressed in Doctrine and Covenants about each individual’s gifts:

“For all have not every gift given unto them; for there are many gifts, and to every man is given a gift by the Spirit of God.” Doctrine and Covenants 46:11

This thought seems to be echoed in recent years by ye olde Silver Fox himself, Pres. Uchtdorf:

“Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.”

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come Join With Us.”

I’ve written before about how Church and super Mormon-y people (Shiny Happy People) can be a struggle for me. Growing up Church was less a struggle and more just kinda blah. After my mission it resembled seminary in the struggle department. Part of this was embracing a faith remodel that had been bubbling inside of me for a long time. Some of it was the unique challenges presented by BYU YSA wards. Anyway, I was frustrated by attending Church and felt like I couldn’t say what I was really thinking without repercussions. I eventually decided to start being open about my opinions and struggles and have had a marvelous experience. Mostly.

Maybe I have a luxury that others don’t in that my authenticity is still close enough to the norm that I don’t raise red flags or I express things in a way that allows enough ambiguity that doubters and staunch knowers alike feel like they have a place. I cannot say for sure. What I do know is that as I comment and share my testimony I am more often than not thanked by at least one other member of the congregation, who feels less alone because of what I have shared. Sometimes I can predict who these allies in the fringy trenches of guerrilla Mormon life are, but I am frequently surprised by those that reach out. Sure, I haven’t seen drastic Church-wide changes in culture and approach to the unorthodox, but I have seen and felt my wards and branches become ever so slightly more open. The more I comment, the more at home I feel and the more authentic I feel those around me become. It can be super awkward, like the lesson where I said I had favorites among the twelve apostles or when I testified about being bored and frustrated with GenConf and feeling the spirit by snarkily tweeting. There’s usually nervous laughter or just uncomfortable silence with lots of shifty eyes, but it gets better.

Let’s embrace authenticity in ourselves and others, however awkward it may be. I’ve felt acceptance increase and believe that we can make Mormonism as expansive and open culturally as the doctrine seems to be.

PS I found this quote today and think it deserves more thought: “Besides, there is more individuality in those who are more holy.” Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Repentance.”

 

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