i didn’t watch the pbs special on mormonism last week. i was busy. papers to grade. novels and plays to read. seminars and lectures to attend. but i’ve seen some of the reactions on the blogs to margaret toscano’s account of the disciplinary council that resulted in her excommunication. the story itself (which i read on the pbs website) and some of the reactions to it have made me sad. because the story will reinforce mormon prejudices against feminism and intellectualism (is that a word?). because i can feel the pain behind her experience. because of unsympathetic responses to her story.
but those are not the only things that made me sad. i was also sad to see the church disciplinary process compared to the inquisition and burning at the stake. to see the church called a cult that brainwashes its members, using disciplinary councils as a means of threatening members into submission and conformity. to see half of a story (no one has heard the church’s half, after all) result in such outright condemnation of the church.
i love the church. i see and discuss some of its problems. i probably strike some mormons as un-mormon in some of my beliefs and opinions. but i love the church. part of that love comes from my own experience with church discipline. so i’m going to do what i’ve never done before and talk about that experience in a public forum.
caveat: please know that i do not equate my experience with toscano’s. they are different in many ways. but it is my experience and i believe it illustrates the ways in which church discipline can be a beautiful expression of love and compassion.
several years ago, i chose to sin. i knew my decisions were wrong based not only on church teachings, but also my own deeply held beliefs. but at the same time those decisions felt and were very right in some ways. i could—and occasionally did—justify those decisions in my own mind. but i knew that i had deliberately chosen to transgress god’s commandments and to violate my own standards.
i lived with that for a while—a couple of years. i had briefly discussed the situation with my bishop at the time, but i was essentially unrepentant—unwilling to fully identify as wrong what i had done. and at the end of those two years i made the same decisions to transgress again. for some reason my reaction that time was different—more immediate. more visceral. and more spiritually deadening. i didn’t want to talk to my bishop, who had always seemed distant and unengaged to me, in spite of the fact i had known him all my life. so i called my stake president, who i knew fairly well and who i trusted, and asked to come talk to him.
i was scared. but i wasn’t scared of talking about my situation; i was scared of the consequences. i knew what i had done was serious enough to potentially result in significant disciplinary action. and the idea that i could face such action and that my family would find out about my behavior; the idea that my ward and other people whose respect i valued would recognize i had been disciplined—these things frightened me and discouraged me. but my spirit hurt so badly that i knew i had to resolve this issue. so i went. and what i found was not judgment or threat or a violation of my privacy or any other negative response to church discipline i’ve heard people describe. i found incredible love and compassion and a great deal of understanding.
but i also found that i could not simply bypass my bishop and take care of matters with my friend the stake president. i met with the stake president several times and each time he encouraged me to go to my bishop and discuss the situation with him, as the proper chain of authority needed to be followed. and i finally found the willingness to do so.
my talks with the bishop were different. they were no less loving or compassionate. it was no less and not much more difficult to discuss the situation with him than it had been with my stake president. but my bishop did not understand the nuances of some of what i explained to him as well as my stake president had. i had been experiencing depression for some time (although i do not justify my actions because of that; i knew exactly what i was doing and that it was contrary to the teachings of god and my own beliefs and i still chose it) and some of the stimuli for that depression came up in our discussion. my bishop kept giving me advice that i found simplistic and which seemed on the face of it not to acknowledge realities. but i had committed to myself that i would do what i was asked—no matter what it was (so long as it didn’t truly contradict my conscience, but in my opinion this caveat should be a given)—in order to resolve my situation. so i took his advice. and it surprised me by helping in ways i had not anticipated.
i did not experience a disciplinary council, so i obviously cannot discuss that specific process. but i did experience the judgment of a bishop acting as a judge in israel. and it was part of the most beautiful spiritual experience of my life. i sat through many hours of counsel and discussion with both my stake president and my bishop. and i felt spiritual pain i didn’t even know was possible. throughout it all, i also felt love and respect—from the men who sat in judgment of my sin and from my heavenly parents.
the last time i met with my bishop, he told me that when his boys were young my father (who had over the course of a couple of decades been their bishop, their young men’s president, their scoutmaster, and their stake president) had helped them. and with tears in his eyes and love that i knew was genuine, he expressed how glad he was that he could help me—that in some way, he could do for me what my father had done for his sons. and in that moment i saw with incredible clarity the beauty of this church. of a community of imperfect, sinful, flawed human beings doing their best to muddle along and help each other by loving each other. of people laying aside their differences (and probably just as often not even registering differences as important) as they come together to celebrate and use and make possible christ’s atoning sacrifice.
in 2 corinthians 1:4-6, paul writes that God “comforteth us all in our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ. And whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation.”
this is my vision of the church, including its disciplinary process. this symbiosis of love and suffering and comfort. this intertwining of lives and pain and love.