Yesterday I got a surprising voice mail message from the organizer of the Flunking Sainthood retreat I am supposed to lead this coming Saturday. The retreat was canceled, the message said. “Oh, darn!” I thought. Not only was I looking forward to meeting the women I had prepared my material for – with sessions on lectio divina, Sabbath-keeping, and gratitude -- but I felt sorry for the organizer.
She had already had to reschedule the retreat from its original February date because of weather. I wondered if they were canceling because it had just proven too hard to reconfigure all of the various components that make for a successful retreat –- you have to renegotiate the availability of the venue, the musicians, even the PowerPoint tech dude. It’s kind of a nightmare to reschedule any long-planned event.
But when I returned her call this morning I found out it wasn’t a logistical problem at all. I was the problem. They were canceling this retreat because they found out that my religion is “drastically different” from their own.
They canceled the retreat because I am a Mormon.
My initial response was shock. After nearly a year of planning this retreat, they’re canceling now? For this?
(And how could they not know from a two-second Google search that I am Mormon? It’s not like I’ve tried to be stealthy about my faith. I co-wrote Mormonism for Dummies, for heaven’s sake.)
But any shock and anger I felt soon dissolved into pure sadness. What a thing. These people are willing to sacrifice all the effort and expense they’ve put in to planning this retreat (yes, I am still getting paid since I did all the prep work) because they’re just now noticing the Scarlet M emblazoned on my chest. The organizer told me that the church leaders had determined that I was not an “appropriate” person to be a leader at a Christian event. She sounded sad about it too.
I hope I managed to be polite on the phone. I was crying by the end and trying not to show it. I do remember saying that part of the ministry God has called me to is to help build bridges between Mormonism and other Christian denominations. I’m married to a Protestant. We are raising our daughter as a Protestant. I speak at Protestant churches and retreat centers all the time, and I’m grateful for the many blessings I enjoy there (like terrific preaching, which frankly we don’t get a lot of in Mormonism).
But in this case, somebody blew up the bridge before I even arrived. If I’m mad about anything, it’s that whoever made this decision did not have the courage to sit down and talk about it with me beforehand.
When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window, right? This sad impasse brings to mind another opportunity that came to me a couple of weeks ago. Last month I was asked to be part of the ongoing Mormon-evangelical dialogues that have been taking place over the course of many years at Fuller Theological Seminary and BYU. The group is made up of scholars from both traditions and has resulted in some of the best books available about the differences and similarities between Mormons and evangelicals, including How Wide the Divide? from InterVarsity Press and Richard Mouw’s Talking with Mormons: An Invitation to Evangelicals.
The dialogue group has been fruitful on both sides. An evangelical friend of mine who was in the conversation for more than a decade told me how much his view of Mormonism expanded and became more nuanced over time. He realized, for example, that evangelicals had mischaracterized Mormon ideas about grace; I can guess that the Mormons in the group confronted how LDS claims to exclusive truth can sound pretty hollow outside the faith.
More than any theological advances, I think the scholars who've been involved in the dialogues thus far would point to the lasting friendships that have developed over the years between members of two groups that have historically mistrusted one another. I'm looking forward to being part of that.
Don’t get me wrong. There are real theological differences between Mormons and evangelicals, but there’s far more that we share, resting on a mutual belief in the Savior, Jesus Christ. And the way that we suss out those differences and core similarities is not by fearfully calling off an opportunity for us to address them, or by labeling each other.
The way to do it is that we sit down together. We break bread together. And we talk it out.