The Gospel, the Church, and Conversion

Posted on June 17, 2012

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We’re trying something at Wheat & Tares – call it Sacred Sundays if you will. We want to regularly take a break from politics and social issues to discuss the foundations of our personal faith as Latter-day Saints or people interested in the Latter-day Saints.

In April Conference, Elder Donald L. Hallstrom (Converted to His Gospel through His Church) discoursed on the differences between the church and the gospel. He makes the point that the church serves the gospel as an institution to improve our conversion.

“Some have come to think of activity in the Church as the ultimate goal. Therein lies a danger. It is possible to be active in the Church and less active in the gospel. Let me stress: activity in the Church is a highly desirable goal; however, it is insufficient. Activity in the Church is an outward indication of our spiritual desire. If we attend our meetings, hold and fulfill Church responsibilities, and serve others, it is publicly observed.

By contrast, the things of the gospel are usually less visible and more difficult to measure, but they are of greater eternal importance. For example, how much faith do we really have? How repentant are we? How meaningful are the ordinances in our lives? How focused are we on our covenants?

I repeat: we need the gospel and the Church. In fact, the purpose of the Church is to help us live the gospel. We often wonder: How can someone be fully active in the Church as a youth and then not be when they are older? How can an adult who has regularly attended and served stop coming? How can a person who was disappointed by a leader or another member allow that to end their Church participation? Perhaps the reason is they were not sufficiently converted to the gospel—the things of eternity.”

I know a number of people, personally or by their story, who have left the faith because they weren’t converted – meaning not that they were insufficient as individuals but that they were not changed by their faith. I mean no accusation in that.

I also know people who have felt fundamentally changed by their faith, and I count myself as one of those.

We could have a lot of discussions about this issue, from the heartbreaking path of a writer at FMH who is now “less active,” to the less world-shattering but no less trying experiences of other ordinary people going through tedious, long tests of their endurance through any of a million permutations of the “tether and pang of the particular” (I love CS Lewis).

We could have those conversations, but I’d like to have another conversation.

I’m curious how we, a church (or perhaps a gospel) arguably more concerned than any other with forward movement and progress as individuals, measure the unmeasurable. We are loathe to measure one another (or know we should be even though evaluating someone else seems incredibly straightforward), but if we are truly interested in progress, we need some kind of metric. After all, SMART goals are specific, MEASURABLE, achievable, realistic, and timely/trackable.

Can we make our pursuit of conversion a measurable goal, and will that help us or derail us?

How does the church help you move toward a complete conversion, and how have you gotten over when it interfered?

I’ll share one personal experience, sort of my comment. My former mother-in-law served as a Stake Relief Society President when I married her son in my mid-twenties. We were also visiting teaching companions. I was incredibly young in my faith, naive, credulous, and almost worshipful of position as an outward indication of an inward worthiness. As is bound to happen when one behaves in such silly ways, most of the people I placed on those shaky pedestals – fell – with the help of my MIL (this included her cultivating and gathering experiences of several women who had been inappropriately approached by the stake president, discussing white witchcraft in small group settings, etc.) For quite some time I felt a certain degree of repulsion toward her and everyone in authority.

The people in the church got in the way, for a time, in my conversion process. During that time I had a dream. In this dream I was helping my bishop (whom I served in waking hours in a special calling – sort of an assistant clerk to help with several organizational issues) serve a dinner. At this dinner my MIL sat at the head of the table (she dominated our small ward) and others sat around the table, including my husband and his ex-wife. He was openly affectionate toward her, I commented that that was inappropriate, my MIL told me to butt out and go back to serving, and I was devastated as I realized I would have no support for the sanctity of my marriage. I turned blindly to leave the dinner, which was being served outside on the top of a hill in the middle of a field. My bishop turned to follow me to keep me from leaving, but I was moving far too fast for him to catch up. My car was parked at the bottom of the hill and I was doing everything I could to get to it, slogging through mud that caused me to sink past my ankles with every step.

About halfway down the hill I heard my father’s voice. He was calling to me, and he was a lot closer to me than my bishop, but I still felt I could stay out of his range. The last thing I wanted was for someone to try to make me feel better, and the last person I would have wanted to try was my father, who had been austere and distant all my life. I got to the bottom of the hill, out of the mud, and he called one more time, and in his voice was an acknowledgment that I could avoid him but that there was more of comfort in his reaching for me than I was assuming. I awoke with my heart beating a thousand miles an hour.

It was Sunday and I thought about the dream on the way to church. I was familiar with the principles of dream analysis, which isn’t really much different from literary analysis, and I knew it was important – it had the feel of a message. I can still remember when I rounded a particular turn in the road and realized that my father represented God, and that I needed to create a relationship with him that was trusting enough to support me through any difficulty – that I would be painfully alone if that was my choice, but that “his hands were stretched out still.” It was a vital point in my conversion, and the beginning of seeing God as someone much different from my father.

Interestingly enough, most of the nutty stuff in my dream happened within a few years, but I didn’t feel inclined to outrun God down that muddy hill when he came after me to comfort. I’ve never suffered from shakiness since when a leader demonstrates his or her imperfection. The church, represented by my bishop, would not reach me as quickly as God would in any given crisis (even though members would try), so I’ve not since felt inclined to expect it to. In profound ways, that has freed me to enjoy the church on a whole different level. I can feel a measurable difference between the me now and the tender ingenue, and that’s one of the ways I gauge my faith.

So, going back to Elder Hallstrom’s quote, what are your thoughts about our public and private observance and how that contributes to a real conversion?

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