First, do no harm
I see nothing but good coming from praying, reading the scriptures, and keeping the commandments. But it seems to me that these things give us an inner focus, while a main thrust of Jesus’ message as Messiah was how we treat others. Since our primary concentration during Church instructional periods often centers around improvement of the self, we groom our members to become paragons of personal righteousness who may be lacking in their living of the social gospel.
I first realized this when driving to Salt Lake City from Provo to pick up my parents from the airport. They were arriving to attend my temple marriage, or rather, the reception and ceremonies surrounding my temple marriage, since they were nonmembers. Our car broke down on the way there. It was a Sunday, and the highway was crowded with Mormons in suits and dresses, presumably on their way to Church related activities. None stopped for a young couple in distress. Back in 1981 no one carried cell phones, and we waited for about an hour and a half before a man in blue jeans and smoking a cigarette stopped his truck to assist us. The young convert BiV, just off her mission, was disillusioned that all of the fine Latter-day Saints of Utah would pass by while the “Samaritan” was the only one to stop.
I particularly feel a lack of empathy when members justify not giving to the less fortunate in their own circle of influence because they already pay their fast offering; or because they’ve decided that the bums don’t deserve it, are too lazy to get a job, or will spend it inappropriately anyway!
I know there are many things we do as Latter-day Saints that come under the category of “service.” In the past few years I’ve seen service projects under the auspices of the Relief Society increase. A popular service lately has been putting together humanitarian kits to go to schools, or to people in different parts of the world who have been devastated by natural disasters. I don’t want to say these aren’t good things! I absolutely don’t want to denigrate this type of service. It’s hard to put together a service activity for a large number of people to do in this kind of context. I guess I just want to point out that this is a service that is removed from personal contact. It’s just right for an internet generation who is one step removed from real face-to-face contact with other human beings. I see too many sisters who put together humanitarian kits, all the while gossiping about others in the ward.
Some things I’ve seen in the Church that I think foster other-focused living of the gospel: We were living in Texas in 2001 during Hurricane Allison. Our home came through OK, but there were homes in our ward and stake which were completely destroyed. On Sunday we showed up for sacrament meeting and the members of the Bishopric were dressed in jeans. They dismissed the meetings and sent the members out to shovel out homes, rip up carpet, collect belongings and prepare food. We started at the homes of members and spread out to the entire neighborhood. I have never seen the youth work harder or feel more fulfilled. Their faces were absolutely glowing with health, exertion, and pure joy in service. These same members were so touched by this experience that a few years later when New Orleans was flooded they organized parties to drive down and spend their weekends assisting with the efforts there. They brought with them food, shovels, and everything they needed to be completely self-sufficient while they were there plus contribute in a major way.
Mormons are actually quite good at this. But huge disasters don’t happen every day. What can we do to symbolically dismiss our members from Sacrament Meeting to go out and make a difference in the small disasters of people’s lives? How can we send our members home from Sunday School not only to pray and read their scriptures, but to see the people around us and be kind to them?
The chief cultural difficulty might be that those three suggestions are less quantifiable than the standard answers. Am I reading my scriptures? Check. Going to church? Check. Doing no harm? Umm… check? They introduce a (healthy) level of ambiguity to our perspective and force us into self-reflection more explicitly.
I think that, generally speaking, the membership of the church, at least where I live, is very good about reaching out and engaging in service to the community on a personal level. I admire their involvement in soup kitchen and other service projects, and our ward is contributing to a major effort for Haiti on Saturday. But the distinction is that if you want to see personal service, then generally it has to be done by a person, not arranged by an institution. We send the members home from sacrament meeting to go out and serve and be kind by living the gospel and having strong examples of people who do that. I’m grateful to have had that in my life, and it’s inspired me to be more involved and try to understand Jesus a little better, who did nothing (or extremely little) that was not engaged with the people.
BiV… excellent post. It seems to me that the teaching approach within the church is from the outside in, rather than the inside out. Real transformation happens from the inside out.
Some faiths are good at causing us to look outward and feel integrated into the interconnected world. I would include Buddhism in this type of faith.
Out faith is a more inward looking faith. Am I reading my scriptures each day? Check. Am I avoiding coffee? Check? Am I doing my home teaching? Check. Etc. Even our expressions of “help” towards others are often “inwardly” driven. Do we home teach out of a sense of oneness or to check the box? Do we support the ward service project out of a sense of obligation?
It’s even on an institutional level. The Church spends around 0.1% of its annual income on “humanitarian” things. It spends the rest on itself – buildings, temples, schools, administrative costs, etc. – all good things, but primarily designed to keep it’s own house in order and not really focused on the world outside. As members, we are a microcosm of this.
Hmmm. I wonder if we just don’t see when individuals practice these three questions. After all, personal service is just that — it’s personal, individual, not easily measured.
I have a number of great LDS friends who are just as likely to deliver a casserole to a non-member neighbor in need (because of illness or a family emergency, or even just because of a difficult day) as they are to respond to a Relief Society assignment to do so in the ward.
Are there people who home teach just to hit a number? I’m sure there are, but hopefully as home teaching relationships grow over time, the motivation also changes. That is certainly the goal that’s taught in the quorums I attend.
Still you raise great questions. And I suppose if we really did study our scriptures and pray well, we’d come to the same ones.
“But the distinction is that if you want to see personal service, then generally it has to be done by a person, not arranged by an institution.”
Excellent post. You articulated the problem very well. It’s interesting that the so-called Sunday School answers are by no means the main thrust of the gospel. The scriptures clearly teach “Do no harm…” and active service as their main message. Perhaps we need to “ditch” the Sunday school answers so more time is taken up discussing things that are actually important.
I think you are being a bit harsh to the members. I know many who regularly give service without being asked and on their own. Besides, I see nothing wrong with organized service. A service opportunity is just that no matter how it comes about.
“we groom our members to become paragons of personal righteousness who may be lacking in their living of the social gospel.”
I find this a bit snarky.
As members of the church we all generally hear the same things over and over at church, conference, etc. yet some people choose to become much more compassionate,kind and loving people than others. I don’t think it is as much about grooming people as it is about what we CHOOSE TO BECOME after learning the difference between good and evil. A person who puts humanitarian kits together yet gossips about others is not a Christ like person in my opinion. Service to me is so much more than projects, it is shutting your mouth, minding your own business and giving others the benefit of the doubt. If all the people who start rumors in wards would just close their mouths, what a service that would be! I think the best way to serve is to begin by loving our neighbors as ourselves and any service beyond that will just come naturally.
Good post, I lament two things about church “service” first being that as you say as performed in the church we almost never come in contact with the Other we are supposed to be serving. This contact is essential to the nature of serving and removing it is a great loss. Second, in Mormon culture service is really just good deeds. As you point out we should not discourage good deeds at all, but good deeds don’t accomplish all that much, and they don’t ask all that much from us. True service looks more like what other Christians call ministry, a sustained long term commitment to work in a specific area.
Regarding service, I think in many ways we would be doing more good in the world if we sent our youth out on service missions as opposed to proselytizing missions. Let them spend 2 years in Africa or some other area of the world helping the people. They should have a background that they can also obviously share our message with the topic inevitably comes up, but I think we would do the world more good.
I think you make some good points, but I would also argue you are being to harsh.
First of all, the greatest commandment is to Love God, then to love others as you love yourself. Loving God comes first. Secondly, I consider that much of what we do in sacrament meeting or other church meetings and callings IS service. You don’t have to only serve people who are poorer than you. Everyone needs love. Everyone who has a calling in the church has the opportunity to love a nursery child, or a young woman, or teach a class. I hope that the service give at church brings some joy to others.
Secondly, we are all home teachers and visiting teachers. This gives us the opportunity to serve others around us one on one. Of course sometimes it is just rote visits. However, there are many beautiful experiences. I appreciate the VT program because it helps me go to church and find a couple of people to specifically notice and care about and love and serve. Church members are not perfect but I know they are out there serving each other every day.
Church members believe families are important. They are taught to work hard on their family relationships. They care for their parents. They try to do their best for their children.
There are many non LDS who do all these kinds of things. I’m just saying that the church does try to encourage members to love their neighbor.
I think we are encouraged to go out and do good in the world. Of course LDS people (like others) are subject to shyness, to laziness, to being less comfortable outside their circle of friends or acquaintances.
I just know that I can occasionally be “judgy” but nowadays I am less so because I see that others around me DO take the time to bring an old lady to church every week. Service can be little things like speaking kindly to your child’s discouraged teacher.
I try to live the gospel and (with the exception of pregnancy) I feel it makes me change and be kinder and look for ways to serve others. Thank you for your post that reminds us to love the people around us, and look for ways to serve others and not to be afraid when the Lord put’s those opportunities in our path. It reminds me that I should be praying for those opportunities. The more we are in tune with the spirit, the more he can guide us to do his will and know who to help.