Search This Blog


Sunday, January 4, 2015

Loving Your Neighbor

This talk was given by my friend Richard Keys in the Sacramento Hurley Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints late last fall. I met Rich a few years ago—as an LGBT Mormon, he was just beginning to come to terms with who he was and what that meant for how he fit inside the Church. Rich is a lifelong Mormon, formerly married with children, and I’m proud to have him walk this path with me and my LGBT Mormon fellows. 

Rich showed some remarkable courage in delivering this talk in a conservative area like Sacramento—and he’s joined many who work at the local level to help build bridges inside the LDS community one step at a time, beginning with this talk. In the note he sent me he also shared that he’d come out to both his bishop and stake president a few weeks earlier. 

For each of us as LGBT Mormons, I’ve long held the belief that our purpose isn’t to struggle under the weight of some imaginary affliction of unknown cause. Rather, our purpose is to be our authentic selves—and with that, fulfill our mission to help our Mormon fellows shrug off labels and begin to understand (and offer) Christlike love to all, including those who—for whatever reason—appear to be the least of these in this sphere. 



Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a Human Resources Manager for a major health insurance company at a large claims center here in Sacramento with over 200 employees.  One day I wanted to give the employees a pat on the back and have a little fun at the same time, and I noticed April 1 was coming up, so I wrote a memo To All Sacramento Employees, dated it April 1, and in it I announced that in order to recognize the loyalty of our long-term employees and to work more closely with the union, “all future building evacuation drills and actual emergency evacuations will be done in seniority order.”   

Then in the second paragraph, I went into detail about all the advantages of this plan and how it would work—the 25-year employee would exit first and so on until the person hired last week would be the last to leave the burning building.  Then in the final paragraph, I wrote, “Finally, please note the date of this memo, consider its true intent, and realize that we love and appreciate your hard work and effort, your desire to do your very best day after day, and your willingness to set aside your personal problems every day to help the customers with theirs.”  

 Then my secretary put a copy on every desk, but the employees were so busy that they didn’t take the time to read the entire memo—they only read the first half of it.  Then they went ballistic, swarmed over to the shop steward’s desk, and within 10 minutes, the shop steward was in my doorway with smoke coming out of her ears.  I looked up and said, “Holly, what’s up?”  “You know perfectly well what’s up,” and she waved the memo at me.  “Did you read the memo?”  “Of course I read it!  Everybody’s read it!”  “Did you read all of it?  Sit down, it’s only one page so it won’t take long, but read the whole thing from top to bottom.”  She begrudgingly sat down and read it, got to the final paragraph, got embarrassed, started to laugh, realized she had been April Fooled and that it was really a love letter to the employees, and said, “I was never here.  Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” and went back to her desk. 

Fast forward a year, another April 1 comes along, and I send out another memo.  This one said, “Due to the limited number of chairs and tables in the break room, we are instituting a reservation system for the busier times of each workday, including breaks and lunch periods.”  The second paragraph went into detail about how it would work—who’s eligible, how often, filling out the form in triplicate, and the third paragraph was, word for word, exactly the same as the last memo—“Finally, please note the date of this memo, consider its true intent, and realize that we love and appreciate…,” and so forth.  We put it on each desk, they were too busy again and only read the first half, everyone descended on the shop steward—but Holly remembered the lesson from last time, and she read the whole thing, so when people came to her, she told them, “Just go back to your desk and read the entire memo—I’ve got work to do!”

Two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca worried about information overload—even then—and asked “What’s the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in a whole lifetime?” (Time, 9-8-14, p. 37)  Today, a smartphone gives you easy access to billions of times the information of all the libraries on earth in Seneca’s day.  You can watch what’s happening anywhere from the other side of the world to the international space station—and watch it all live, do a complete, thorough background check on anyone before you decide whether to date him or not, check the arrival time of your connecting flight while you’re still 33,000 feet up, and get the exact directions on how to drive from anywhere to anywhere.  Goggle the word “Mormon” and you’ll get about 38,000,000 results in a fifth of a second.  In today’s hi-tech world, we’re swamped with so much information that we can’t possibly use it all, so we keep cutting corners and creating shortcuts trying to control the beast.  Part of this process involves the use of more and more labels for everything—and everyone.  Why take a full page or paragraph to describe someone if you can shrink it down to a single word or phrase?  Unfortunately, that comes with a heavy price in today’s world.

For example, a member of the church runs for President of the United States.  Everyone outside of the church says, “He’s a Mormon, huh?  Well, you know what that means!”—and everyone inside the church says, “He’s a Mormon, huh?  Well, you know what that means!”  Meanwhile, the guy doesn’t exactly fit any of those preconceived ideas of what it means to be a Mormon.  He’s like us.  None of us fits that Mormon Mold exactly.  We’re all a little bit different, with different histories, different struggles, different priorities and attitudes and opinions.  He’s just trying to explain his foreign policy and how the Chinese economy affects the US and his take on the Middle East, but he can’t because every time he tries, people keep saying, “He’s a Mormon, huh?  Well, you know what that means!”  We, as a church and as individuals, should understand more than anyone else the destructive power and hurt and pain that labels can cause—because 175 years ago this year, the government issued an official order for our extermination—just because of the label “Mormon.”    

Today, there seems to be a label for everyone:  Democrat, illegal alien, redneck, bleeding heart, Arab, Republican, Black, Jew, tree hugger, homeless, loser, activist, gay, nigger, faggot, retard, conservative, queer, liberal—and on and on.  Some of these may seem pretty tame while others may cut to the bone, but all of us have our own idea of what each of these labels means, and none of them means exactly the same to all of us.  There’s only one label I can think of that applies to every person on the earth, from Mother Theresa to the guy who cut me off in traffic yesterday:  I am a child of God, and so are you, and so is everyone else, and all of us, even the guy who cut me off yesterday, sustained our Father’s plan before coming to earth.  President Monson has stated “we are ALL spirit children of our Heavenly Father and, as such, are brothers and sisters.  As we keep this truth in mind, loving ALL of God’s children will become easier.” (Ensign, May 2014, p. 91, caps added)

Most of us are familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the reason for their destruction is not the label we often attach to it.  In Ezekiel (16:49-50), the Lord states, “Behold, this was the iniquity of the sister Sodom: Pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. And they were haughty and committed abomination before me: therefore I took them away as I saw good.”  Also in Ezekiel (34:16), the Lord speaks of his sheep in the last days and says:  “I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken….” 

So let’s change the story of Sodom and Gomorrah slightly to “liken the scriptures” a little more closely to our day.  The Lord tells Abraham He’s going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of their pride, idleness, haughtiness, not helping the poor and needy, and so forth.  Abraham asks, “If I can find 50 righteous people there, will you spare the cities?”  The Lord says, “Yeah, I’ll do that.”  “How about 45?  If I can find 45 righteous people, will you spare the cities?”  The Lord says, “Sure, I’ll go with 45.”  “Well, how about 40?  “Okay.” “If you’ll do it for 40, how about 30?”  “Fine.”  “20?”  “Okay.” He bargains the Lord down to 10 people.  “If I can find just 10 righteous people, will you spare the cities?”  The Lord says, “My grace is sufficient.  If you can find 10 righteous people, I’ll spare the cities.”   

He doesn’t ask for perfect people, or even people as righteous as Abraham, just 10 people who meet the minimum standard of righteousness from a loving, merciful God—and lo and behold, Abraham finds 10 people.  Now, none of them is exactly like Abraham—One smokes, another drinks, one has some tattoos and a few body piercings, another has a different sexual orientation, still another is from an enemy tribe, but they’re all good, honorable people, and they all meet the minimum requirements set by the Lord for Him to call them righteous…and the Lord spares Sodom and Gomorrah.   

Now, here’s the question:  Do you think Abraham could love those ten people in the middle of Sodom and Gomorrah, those people who are so different from him, but whom the Lord still spared?  And in today’s world, could we love them—not just tolerate them, not just keep our judgments about them to ourselves, but really think and show a genuine Christlike love towards those people who are so different from us?

We have more scriptures than any other church on the face of the earth, but nowhere does it say, “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye tolerate one another.  As I have tolerated you, so shall ye tolerate one another.”  Christlike love is not about tolerance, because tolerating someone is just a polite way of saying, “I put up with you.”  It’s not talking about someone behind their back but keeping it from them.  It’s not giving them a pat on the back and then washing your hands afterwards, and it’s not even separating the sin from the sinner, because “sinner” is just another destructive label.   

In a fireside here in Sacramento, Elder Hartman Rector once said, “Don’t judge others.  We don’t know where they aimed.  We only know where they hit, and people don’t usually hit where they aim.” (Hartman Rector, Fireside, 11-8-09, Sacramento, CA)  This kind of judging is not in our job description.  We leave that to the Lord, who knows where we aim, who knows what’s in our hearts, and who looks for reasons to save us, instead of condemning us.  The Lord asks us to get past all of this and to work on Christlike love for each other, because He knows how it will help ourselves and our fellow man, and He knows how anything less will make our journey here so much more difficult.  As one man put it, “Every human being needs someone to love them, whether they’re going to hell or not.”—David Samsel, “Utah, Mormons, and Gay Marriage,”  

The color of a person’s skin should not determine where he sits on the bus—neither should his politics, religion, worthiness, social or economic status, sexual orientation, IQ, or any other way they may be different.  For example, Elder Quinton L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve stated, Quote: “As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate.  Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach.  Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender,” Unquote (, and the same counsel applies for any other differences. 
Time to summarize with three short stories, all of them true:

Story #1:  “It’s a forward operating base near Tal Afar, Iraq, November 2003.  Nobody’s in a good mood.  A patrol was ambushed the night before.  A popular staff sergeant lost his leg to an RPG and may die.

“The next night, the battalion commander leads a raid against a suspected insurgent leader.  His soldiers swarm the house before daybreak.  Doors are kicked in.  The family is roused.  The soldiers force the head of the house to his stomach on the concrete.  One man puts a boot between his shoulder blades, another ties his wrists behind his back.  They point a machine gun at his chest.  His wife and children huddle under the blankets while the house is searched.

“Bad intel.  Nothing found.  A knife slices the cuffs, releasing the man as the sun begins to rise that morning.  This is the holy month of Ramadan, and neither the head of the house nor his entire family will eat or drink anything until sundown. 

“Apologies are made, and the soldiers load up to head back to the base.  Then the man who moments before had been held at gunpoint approaches the commander.  He places his hand on his own heart and asks the officer to bring his men back to his home so his family may prepare them breakfast before they go.” (Kevin Sites, “You’re Heartened by Humanity,” Men’s Health, May 2013, p. 151)

Story #2:  Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old teenager, turned to a popular social network site in July 2013 because she wanted some reassurance.  Like any typical teenager, she was stressed out from studying for exams, and she was worried about the return of a skin condition called eczema that made her feel ugly, so she opened up about her feelings on the site, which allows users to pose questions that others can respond to, all anonymously.  The responses came quickly.  One told Hannah to cut herself.  Another urged her to drink bleach.  One even said, “Do us all a favor n kill ur self”—and a month later, she did just that.  But what detectives found was even more tragic:  Hannah had sent the hateful messages to herself, hoping her friends would rally to her defense—and when no one did, she figured that everyone else agreed with the comments, and she took her own life.  (“Growing Up Digital,” Deseret News National Edition, 6-8-14, p. 3)  

Story #3 from the 6th chapter of 2 Kings (6:8-23):  The Syrians are at war with the Israelites and losing so many battles that the King calls his servants together and says, “So, who’s the traitor?  Who’s leaking our plans to the enemy?”   They assure him they’re not, but there’s a prophet named Elisha over in Israel who’s telling their King about our plans.  The Syrian King sends an army to capture Elisha and bring him back. 

Meanwhile, at the Israelite camp the next morning, the servant of Elisha wakes up, walks outside his tent to stretch his legs and get some fresh air, and he discovers they’re surrounded by the Syrian soldiers.  He begins to panic, but “Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see.  And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” (v. 17)

That was the spiritual thought a missionary shared at dinner many years ago, but it wasn’t until years later that I read “the rest of the memo,” that I read what came next that made it my favorite scripture of all, because instead of Elisha attacking the Syrian army, he prays for the Syrian army to be made blind, and then he greets the Syrian general, offers to help, and explains that they’ve accidentally come to the wrong city, but he’s willing to guide them the rest of the way.  He then leads them to the Israelite King, where the Israelite army is waiting for them.  Their eyes are then opened, and they realize they’ve walked into a trap.  The King wants to beat them, punish them, and torture them, but Elisha says, no, don’t beat them, but give them food and water because they’ve had a long trip and they’re tired and need their nourishment, and after they’ve had plenty of time to rest and get their strength back, give them even more food and water as provisions, and then set them free to go back.  You can imagine what the King thought of this.  This is not the typical way an army treats its POW’s during war time, but Elisha’s been right up to this point, so they do as he says. The Syrian soldiers return to their King, tell him what happened—and the Syrian King is so moved…that “the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel.” 

It’s easy to love people who are just like us and that we’re comfortable with.  That’s not the test.  The Lord asks us to cast our nets further, to love those who aren’t like us and that we’re uncomfortable with.  In that spirit, I pray that we’ll all work to build bridges instead of walls with our fellow man, to love them more and fear them less, to throw off the labels and get to know them on a first-name basis, to have the empathy to really see and appreciate things from their point of view, to go beyond mere tolerance to a Christlike love; and to have the faith that we won’t lose our birthright by loving these people; that our testimonies will be strengthened, not weakened, by doing this; and that we’ll  all come closer to being a Zion people for it.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.