Thursday, May 7, 2015

Be Who You Are!

 “Whether it’s the fishes of the sea, the fowl of the air, God loves diversity. He created me as I am, you…as you are. Relish it. Take pride in it. Don’t be prideful about it, but take pride in it. Know that God positioned you where you were, and are, so that you might learn and share the positives of that experience with others. Diversity is good.” —Darius Gray1
       In my first post I saluted those who feel they didn't fit into of the LDS Church but kept trying anyway. But looking back I realize there's another side to that coin which must be addressed. There are also those out there who are tempted to change their whole identity so they can fit the imaginary mold. They're chasing perfection not only in the gospel but in the gospel culture. Unlike those who know their identities are not going to change and are therefore tempted to quit trying, there are those who want desperately to change because who they are is somehow not good enough. They feel they need to be an "ideal" Mormon in order to have something to offer. 


       What is an ideal Mormon? What do they look like? Do they eat Jell-O and casseroles? Do they live in the suburbs? Do they have a lot of children or a few? Do they squeeze the toothpaste from the top or the bottom of the tube? Obviously, the answer to all these questions is that there is no ideal type of Mormon. Just because there’s one true church doesn’t mean there’s only one true kind of member. (Except for the toothpaste thing. Squeezing from the bottom is the one true way. Anything else is false doctrine.) Sometimes it feels like we have to fit a tight mold in order to qualify as a "good" Mormon. But one beauty of the Church is that there is room for people of all backgrounds so long as they try to keep the commandments. We don't need to look like the people in a Homefront commercial (those are the ads that say "Family - Isn't it about...time?") in order to be good Mormons. In fact, the more diversity we have in the Church, the more gifts and ideas are brought to the table. 

       Around 600 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a dream where a great metal image was crushed by a stone cut out of a mountain without hands. The prophet Daniel interpreted the dream and said the image represented the kingdoms of the world and the stone represented the kingdom of God. The stone crushed the image and grew so large that it filled the whole earth, as the kingdom of God would do in the latter days (Daniel 2). It's easy to hear this analogy and think of the stone as a great monolith, a homogeneous rock that grows until it crushes everything different from itself. But Joseph Smith had a different perspective. He said:
"I will correct the idea in regard to the little stone rolling forth, as foretold in Daniel, chapter 2. This is not so. It is stationary, like a grind stone, and revolves. When the Elders go abroad to preach the gospel, and the people become believers in the Book of Mormon and are baptized, they are added to the little stone. Thus, they are gathered around it so that it grows larger and larger until it begins to pinch the toes of the image, and finally breaks it into pieces to be carried away like the chaff of a summer's threshing, while the stone will keep growing until it fills the whole earth."2 
       The correction is slight, but significant. As the stone revolves, it doesn't bulldoze everything around it. Rather, it takes all the surrounding good and unites it with the true stone. You don't have to change all your points-of-view and unique interests in order to be a good member of the Church. You keep them and use them for the benefit of the whole stone. It's good to be different. Different ideas help change paradigms and improve our culture. Of course we all have things we need to change and there's no doubt we need to keep ourselves in line with the Lord's standards. But the strait and narrow path applies to the principles we live, not every detail of our personalities. Brigham Young said, 
"The Lord has not established laws by which I am compelled to have my shoes made in a certain style. He has never given a law to determine whether I shall have a square-toed boot or a peaked-toe boot; whether I shall have a coat with the waist just under my arms, and the skirts down to my heels; or whether I shall have a coat like the one I have on. Intelligence, to a certain extent, was bestowed both upon Saint and sinner, to use independently." 
       So as you live the gospel, live it as yourself! Your home doesn't have to be a perfect "Mormon" house. You don't need a cross-stitched "Families are Forever" pillow on your sofa. You don't have to be a record-breaking genealogist and an expert bread-maker. There's nothing wrong with any of those things, but they don't make anyone a better Mormon. Be who you are! Live the gospel proudly, but live it authentically. Don't try to conform to a cultural picture that would distract your focus. Don't get focused on outward appearances or fitting in. Focus on purifying your heart. 

       Remember the "I'm a Mormon" videos the Church did? Isn't the whole point of that campaign to showcase the wonderful diversity among Church members? It showed that some members could be fashion designers, others could be bikers, and some could be stay-at-home mothers. It showed that no matter our background, we can all be a part of the Church and become like Christ. So don't misunderstand. I'm not sticking up for those who rebel against the Church and arrogantly demand that certain doctrines be changed. We don't want members pushing radical agendas in the name of diversity. What I am saying is the gospel is for everyone, and you can come as you are. There are many examples of people who have brought tremendous gifts and perspectives into the Church. Here are just a few:


       Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes are both active members of the Church. They also happen to be African-American. Feeling that they had something to contribute to the LDS dialogue, the two formed their own radio blog, going by the aliases of Sista Beehive and Sista Laurel as they discuss Mormon issues with faith and humor. "Lots of people come to this religion, and they feel like they have to leave their culture behind," Tamu Smith says. "Either you’re here with us or you’re over there with them. And for us that was such a big part of who we were, it was such a big part of who we are."4 Through their blog and their new book published by Shadow Mountain, they hope to show that's not the case. "There’s not just one way to worship," Smith says, "and there’s not just one way to praise, and there’s not one way to tell your story."5

       Marvin Goldstein was a lifelong Jew and believed Jesus Christ was just another rabbi. After his wife decided to explore religion, the family came in contact with the missionaries and Mrs. Goldstein was baptized. Three years later, Marvin received a witness of the Atonement and was baptized himself. He is a renowned concert pianist and shares his music with people in and out of the Church through firesides, concerts, and albums.6


       Al Fox, the "tattooed Mormon" was a stubborn New Yorker when she met the missionaries and reluctantly began taking lessons. After struggling with doubts, she received a witness of the gospel and joined the Church. Following a prompting, she moved to Utah, where she found out firsthand that a Mormon with tattoos up and down her arms can attract prejudice. Still, she lives her faith proudly, writing a popular blog and running her own YouTube channel. She has also become a wife and mother. She speaks to audiences far and wide about what it means to come closer to Christ.7


       Seth Adam Smith was raised in Utah and didn't seem any different from other LDS boys his age. But Seth suffered from depression that became so severe that he had to return home early from his mission. After returning home, his condition deteriorated. Seth attempted suicide and was narrowly rescued by his family. He has since learned not only to cope with his illness, but to thrive. After a blog post he wrote went viral, he went on to publish several books, speak at a TEDx conference, and was even featured in a Mormon message.8

       As you look at these examples, ask yourself: do any of these people fit the Mormon mold? Do they live perfect Mormon lives? Are they all the same? No. They are unique. They do things differently. They are themselves. They use their unique gifts and perspectives to bless their fellow members in incredible ways.

       "Well that's fine and dandy, Provo Mormon Dude. Maybe if I was an internet sensation or a famous performer then I would feel like I had something to offer, too!" Good point, rhetorical heckler. You don't need to be famous or popular to have something to give. What these examples show is that some of our most admired members are far from "ideal" Mormons. If not for these oddballs, the Church would be missing out on uplifting music, inspiring writing, and powerful testimonies. 

       This is true for you, too. You probably don't fit the Mormon mold (no one does, really). What unique gifts do you have? What message can you share that will help our culture change and improve? Could you offer those things if you had the "perfect" Mormon life? No. Whether you're a seasoned member born and raised in a Mormon city, or you're a newly-baptized convert coming from a background quite different from your brothers and sisters, you have something valuable to offer. So be yourself. Mormon culture needs people with fresh ideas and unique talents, not a bunch of people trying to match everyone else. If that were the case, God wouldn't have created a world full of such variety. As this great stone continues to accumulate good, the more it will smooth and polish, making the Mormon world better and better. The good ideas will stick and the bad ones will be ground away. So add your voice! Be who you are and live the gospel authentically. You can help the stone to grow and the culture improve. You ready to roll?

Notes:
 1. Diversity Is Good. Performed by Darius Gray. United States: LDS Church. Film.  
2. Smith, Joseph, and Larry E. Dahl. The Teachings of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1997. 54.
 3. Young, Brigham. "The Gospel Defined." In Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young., 14-20. Salt Lake City, Utah: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997.
 4. MSNBC Originals, “Devoted but ‘mad,’ two black Mormons challenge church culture,” MSNBC.com video, 5:52, October 22, 2014, http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/watch/hallelujah-holla-back-346328643638.
5.“Author interview with Zandra Vranes and Tamu Smith,” YouTube video, 3:57, posted by “ShadowMountainBook,” March 31, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFtYKtzAxeY.
6.  Goldstein, Marvin. "Marvin's Testimony." Meridian Magazine, October 25, 2002.
7. Remington, Dana. "Al Fox Carraway Fits in with Mormonism." Standard-Examiner. February 26, 2015. Accessed May 7, 2015.
8.  Madsen, Candice. "Man Who Attempted Suicide Shares Story of Hope." KSL.com. April 26, 2013. Accessed May 7, 2015.
           

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