D. (my age) and her mother lived near enough each other that one dropped by the other’s house every few days. They shared a cup of coffee in the kitchen, caught each other up on family news, and generally enjoyed each other’s company for half an hour before going back to the business of the day. It wasn’t about the coffee, of course – they weren’t sampling different beans and writing reviews for anybody – but because they always drank that coffee, it was an important part of their mother-daughter ritual.
Then D. joined the Church; her mother did not. She wasn’t antagonistic, but was especially interested in discussing that part of her daughter’s new life. They still met in their kitchens every few days, with D. drinking something other than coffee, and they still discussed the growing grandchildren, but things were different, at least for D.’s mother. Their ritual had changed, and it seemed like Mormonism hung like an unexplored fog between them, no matter how much they loved each other and how much else they shared. D.’s mother recognized the change, and mourned it, even as she maintained the most loving of relationships with D.
I thought of that last week when Robert Kirby of the Salt Lake Tribune published a column, “How Much Pain Does Your Faith Cause?” which has been getting a moderate amount of love around Facebook over the weekend. I think the shares and comments of approval are probably based on the inference that Kirby is calling for love and tolerance and kum-ba-yah when a family member leaves the Church. That isn’t what he says, though – and I hate hate hate the wrongness of what he does say.
Like so many other believing Latter-day Saints, I have close family members who have formally left the Church, or whose behavior and life choices run counter to Church teachings. In my case, these are nieces/nephews, whom I haven’t seen much over the past 15 years, but whom I loved and played with and celebrated birthdays and Christmas with as they were growing up, for whom I sewed Halloween costumes and bought school supplies and whose crayon drawings I still have in my treasure box. That these are “only” nieces/nephews, and not children/grandchildren, doesn’t lessen the intensity of my feelings for them.
Kirby asks whether faith comforts in moments of genuine pain. Sometimes it does – I honestly believe in the power of the Atonement to make things right that once went wrong.
Then Kirby asks, “Is your religious faith ever a major factor in causing that pain?” To illustrate his question, he supposes that a loved one leaves the faith, whatever it is, does something that puts him “crossways to your core beliefs.” “Does your faith make you feel better about him, or is your belief in your theology a constant source of worry and sorrow for you now?”
Kirby assumes that faith causes the pain and is the source of worry and sorrow. Bulls– er, Baloney.
Faith is not the source of the pain I feel when a baby is born to unwed parents. The baby is beautiful, the baby is wanted, the baby is fully a member of the family. But the father isn’t going to be the one to bless her before a congregation. And marriages are difficult enough when they are sealed by a commitment to eternity; how stable is this new family, and what will that mean for the long-term stability of this child’s life, and my family’s continued relationship to her if the parents drift apart as they drifted together? It’s that that is the source of pain, not my religious faith. If anything, my religious faith tells me that there is a long future ahead in which to make right what began wrong. But for now that cloud of worry – we have you today, little one, but what about tomorrow? – hangs like that fog between D. and her mother. For now, something that could have been right has not yet been made right.
When a niece has her name removed from the rolls of the Church, the pain doesn’t come from my faith telling me that she has made a mistake. It comes from, among other things, knowing that something important is different now. The ties of love have not been severed, but a sealing has been broken. That matters to me. For me to say, “Oh, my faith in sealings is the cause of pain; therefore it is a bad thing” is ludicrous and a lie. The sealing is real. It means something. The more it means, the more its loss hurts. To decide that it shouldn’t hurt, that it shouldn’t matter, is to say that sealings have no value. You can’t have joy when things go right, then pretend that joy never existed after things go wrong. Faith isn’t the source of pain – it’s trespass against that faith that is the source of pain.
Kirby then says, “Maybe you’ve decided to grudgingly accept this ‘lesser’ [loved one] for who he is now out of the goodness of your heart; that if you can’t love him the way your faith mandates, you can at least tolerantly pity him in a Christ-like way.”
This is what I hate the worst of all in this mess of a column that some of my friends applaud so heartily. I love my nieces and nephews, and I don’t know of anything that could break that love. That I have little involvement in their lives now has to do with distance and the busy-ness of young families and the way that their parents have had no need for me in their lives, not to any lack of love on my part for those now-adult children. What contact I do have with them is as adults, in love.
My love for them is most emphatically not “out of the goodness of my heart” and is not the “tolerant pity” posited by Kirby, as if that were the only possible course a woman of faith has open to her. I love them because I’ve always loved them, because they’re family, because we have a shared history and – I pray – a shared future, because they’re wonderful people, because my parents loved them, because they’re doing great things with their children, because they’re smart and funny, and because they’re the only family I will ever have. There’s no self-righteousness and no pity in that love. It exists, and I cherish it, and them. Even pain when they choose paths that I would not choose for them does not lessen that love.
Faith is not the source of pain; it’s a real source of comfort when human behavior works against that faith. The benefits that come to loving relationships through shared faith are real – the pain at their loss is evidence of those benefits, and is proportionate to their reality. Love is real, too, and while it may be strengthened by shared interests, including shared faith, it needn’t disappear, or sour into “tolerant pity,” when interests change or faith is lost. Someone who feels pain when another leaves the faith is not “an idiot,” as Kirby calls us.
I hate Kirby’s column. It is not a call for maintaining loving relationships when a loved one leaves the faith. It is a condemnation of anyone who, for any reason, feels pain when a loved one leaves, no matter the quality of love that is sustained through those changes and choices.