Mistaking Scaffolding for the Soul
I ran into a friend recently whom I hadn’t seen in months. She told me she was stepping back from the Church for a while. There were a number of factors, but the biggest was her commitment to care for her mentally ill son in a way that best served his needs. It had become difficult when our ward switched to a Sunday afternoon start time. She was frustrated that her leaders didn’t seem to believe her when she tried to explain how difficult this task was. She was frustrated when her son told her after a ward member had visited him, “Mom, I don’t want to be the reason you don’t go to church.” She was angry that her son would ever get the idea he wasn’t her number one priority.
Elder Ballard once said, “Sometimes we get so focused on bringing people to the meetinghouse that we forget we are supposed to be bringing them to Christ.” If the role of the Church is to bring people to Christ, how can we assure that we are serving the needs of the people and not the needs of the Church? Is it possible that for some people, in some situations, being on the “old ship Zion” is not the best place to nurture their relationship with Divinity? For many people the Church is a place of refuge and respite. It is a place of community and of communion. But what if it isn’t? Can we engage in the difficult work of examining how policies, practices and attitudes might need to shift? Can we allow people space and freedom from guilt trips and shame if their spirituality resides outside of organized religion?
Like many people, my dad liked to create a mental picture of a gospel concept. One of his lessons I remember best is when he taught us about the Kingdom of God and the role of the Church. He likened the Church to scaffolding. Scaffolding can be really useful, but isn’t meant to be permanent and definitely isn’t pretty. It also evolves as work on the true building progresses. More scaffolding is added and parts are taken away when they are no longer needed. Harold B. Lee said, “Much of what we do organizationally… is scaffolding, as we seek to build the individual, and we must not mistake the scaffolding for the soul.”
As I reflect on my own journey within the Church, I’m grateful for overwhelmingly positive experiences with members and leaders. I’m grateful for my mom who stuck by me when I decided to attend a different ward after being bullied in my Mia Maid class, despite a lot of push back from our bishop (he reminded my mom I wouldn’t be able to hold a calling if I went to another ward). I eventually returned to my home ward after graduating high school at age 16 and had to endure comments from a few young adults who made fun of me for wanting to go to Relief Society with a bunch of “old ladies.” (Fortunately the “old ladies” were very welcoming.)
And yet it is difficult to reconcile my feelings when I hear stories where the well being of the support system seems to take precedence to the well being of individuals. It is hard to think about how women are treated in the Church, and gays and minorities and sexual assault victims and “doubters” and divorcees and on and on. It is hard for me to reconcile my frustration when people are silenced, ignored or devalued while also reflecting on my own blind spots, privileges and times when I just feel too tired to engage in the difficult work of understanding and loving another human being. I am grateful to be part of a congregation of people working to be more Christlike and also grateful to be part of communities that challenge how religion is implementing Christ’s teachings.
I like how Reverend Deborah L. Johnson articulates the role of religion. “The purpose of religion should simply be to help people integrate the truth of their spiritual nature within the context of the cultures in which they live. Religion should always turn people back to the truth of themselves.” She goes on to describe a growing awareness among people of who they are in Spirit and with that growing understanding, a sense that some of the religious practices and institutional policies that have been around for centuries are based upon false notions and false ideas. In effect, she is saying that as people have come to see and focus on the beauty of the soul, they also see how some of the institutional scaffolding is not helpful. I love her positive outlook on the evolving consciousness of humanity, which is in contrast to many of the doomsday reports on the wickedness of the world and hemorrhaging churches. Yes, there is still so much to improve in the world and within churches, but those gloomy reports don’t reflect the kindness and love I see everyday as people work together to build each other up.
My dad left the Church when I was 15. For a long time I missed the beauty of his soul because I was looking for all that scaffolding which was no longer there. He wasn’t attending church, giving me father’s blessings or going to service activities. It took me a long time to see him for who he was and see the ways in which his kindness and love brightened the world. It took me a long time to see the crooked walls and misplaced windows as part of the beauty of his building.