|Image from page 248 of "People's commentary on the Gospel according to Luke. Containing the common version, 1611, and the Revised version, 1881 American reading and renderings" (1889)|
I took some significant risks in my EQ lesson today. Thanks to my friends who helped by sharing their stories with me. I paraphrased some of them, but didn't use names or give too many specifics. The way I see it, I wasn't given this calling so I could do anything less than teach the lessons I feel inspired to teach, so that's what I've been trying to do. More importantly, I've been trying to foster a spirit of mutual ministering in Elders Quorum: to make it a place where we can come to be supported in our individual efforts to live the gospel. But it can be scary.
Today the lesson was on preparing to face spiritual challenges, and supporting each other in our trials of faith. The source material focused on pressures teens might face, like being invited to a movie they knew to be inappropriate or being offered drugs or alcohol by a friend. Things like that happen to adults, of course, but for many of us they have lower stakes than they do for youth. I'm not worried about losing my friends just because I don't drink or am not interested in a specific film. I don't have any addictions or other situations that might make refusing those offers especially hard or risky, and I think the majority of my quorum members are in the same boat. So I wanted to get past those things, to the quieter, less obvious trials of faith we face: allowing agency to a child who is making bad decisions, forgiving someone who has done us wrong, working through information or experiences that cause us to question our beliefs, not seeing promised blessings materialize in our lives, making difficult sacrifices, and other such things.
The kind of discussion I felt we needed required a high degree of honesty, which in turn requires a non-judgmental atmosphere. That's hard to create, perhaps especially in a church setting, so I started by talking about how difficult it was for me to relate to the material because of the way it was presented (sports metaphors!). Then I took a deep breath, and started taking risks. Here are some of the risks I took:
1) Sharing my spiritual prompting that President Hinckley's talk after the 9/11 attack (in which he said the perpetrators should be hunted down and destroyed) was not completely Christlike, but was nevertheless human and understandable, and expressing my belief that it emboldened some people in the church to mistreat our Muslim neighbors.
2) Saying that church history was messy, and learning the truth about it could shake testimonies, and we should be sensitive to that.
3) Respectfully explaining why I disagree with the idea (voiced by a class member) that "if the Book of Mormon is true, it's all true," and other claims that a single point of testimony should suffice for accepting everything about the church. This is actually a really dangerous idea, because it means that if that one point gets undermined, your whole spiritual life can be overturned.
4) Mentioning the falseness of the idea that hardship and prosperity are direct results of sin and righteousness, and giving examples. This doesn't seem like risky doctrine, since it's plainly in the New Testament, but "prosperity gospel" still gets preached a lot, and my examples had to do with that.
5) Advocating critical thinking about the gospel, explaining what that means, and supporting it with scripture and General Authority quotes.
6) Suggesting that we should empathize with people who have crises of faith. Again, not obviously risky, but these people are often written off as "unbelieving," and by implication antagonistic to the faithful.
7) Encouraging questioning, claiming that it can be undertaken faithfully, and that when it is it strengthens faith instead of destroying it. I've built the last eighteen years of my life on this principle, and found it to be true.
8) Asking the elders to be vulnerable with each other, teaching that friendship includes this vulnerability, and saying that such friendship is a fundamental part of our religion.
So, basically the entire lesson was full of risks. I got a number of sideways looks from some of the older brothers, but I ended up feeling like I'd done the right thing, and some people really opened up. There was about as much vulnerability as I've experienced in a Priesthood meeting, and by far the most people who wanted to talk to me about their own personal experiences afterwards. Several of the brothers expressed their appreciation for specific things that I said, and acknowledged the difficulty and importance of having these discussions in that environment.
I don't know if the response is an indicator of success, and I do know some of the men there disagreed with me on certain things. One made a point of telling me so after the lesson, though he did it with grace, without judgment, in the spirit of "it's amazing how two people can listen to the same words and hear two different things." Measuring success as a teacher is always tricky, and as a gospel teacher it's especially so. All I can do is follow the promptings I receive. Still, it felt like I enabled the Spirit to reach some people today, and that's the best I can hope for.
I guess I'll take more risks in the future.