Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Teach Sensitive Topics

In a not-so-recent blog post, Tracy M. discusses the pain she feels when marriage and family is taught in Church. As a single mother myself, I understand the pain, but I strongly disagree with the post.

One of the suggestions which is made is that we as a church should "teach only Christ." What is that supposed to mean, anyways? Teach about Christ and the events His life? Because while useful for grounding in the Gospel, it's not enough to teach about Christ, you have to teach how to become like Christ. That comes with navigating all the prickly non-ideals. And sometimes, discussing the ideals can hurt those of us who find ourselves unable to live up to them. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be taught.

I don't think that minimizing pain should be a significant goal when teaching gospel principles. Taken to the end of that logic, we would never teach any modes of behavior for fear of offending someone. The Gospel is a gospel of change. It is supposed to prick us a bit, goad us into changing our lives to be more like Christ.

In my mind, there is a way to teach the ideals that allows for those who cannot attain it. In a standard 30 minute lesson to those who have already heard the principle:
  • Teach the ideal. (5 min.)
  • Open up discussion on what constitutes ideal. (9 min.)
  • Acknowledge that almost none of us match up to the ideal. (1 min.)
  • Open discussion to how we as humans don't match the ideal and what we can do to reach or deal with not being the ideal, guiding the discussion to tie back into those Christlike attributes that apply. (14 min.)
  • Sum up the discussion. (1 min.)
This method of teaching helps us develop coping skills, and skills necessary to become more like God. But it also helps us develop compassion for those who are not perfect (which is all of us.)

The talk I gave in sacrament meeting yesterday addressed the fact that if we are truly dedicated disciples of Christ, we would welcome and seek out correction. Rather than wallowing in guilt for imperfection (because we would already know we are imperfect,) we would seek the Spirit's direction for us, personally.

With something like eternal marriage, I understand the pain. Marriage takes two, and sometimes (often, unfortunately,) things happen to snatch the blessings of a good marriage away. But my experiences in failed marriage have given me a greater appreciation of the doctrine of eternal marriage. Having tasted the bitterness of an unrighteous relationship, I hope I am better able to discern what makes a righteous marriage. And I know that I'll appreciate a good man when and if I find him, because I know how bad it could be.

True, I often feel the pangs of loss when eternal marriage is discussed. But please, please don't stop teaching it!


  1. This comment is from Michael

    I understand entirely where Tracy M. is coming from and I feel the same way. As a celibate gay man trying to find value in the Sunday meetings of the Church, I also feel the pain.

    In reading your post, I think you make the same assumption that many members make. When we come to Sacrament meeting on Sunday morning we are there to worship our Lord and Saviour. But Mormons have a very limited perspective of worship. If you ask a life-long member what it means to worship the Redeemer, they will most often use the word service - to become like Him in serving others. In other words, to emulate his attributes and personality.

    But we don't approach such emulation from an individual focus. Instead, we place the attributes within the context of the ideal perfect family. We emphasize our roles as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons & daughters, husbands & wives. We rarely focus on the individual as an individual. We have become SO focused on family that it crowds out the individual. I have always had a hard time with this because our progression and judgement will be based upon personal initiative and personal emulation of Christ, not on the family collectively.

    Additionally, there is another aspect to worship that is not embraced by Latter-day Saints, that is, adoration of our Lord. Worship can be defined as emulation AND adoration. Many other Christian denominations have a much more Christ-centered service which includes adoration and praise of the Lord from a communal standpoint. Latter-day Saints do not do this. If you have ever attended a Catholic mass or Evangelical service you would be able to see the difference quickly.

    If we focused more on adoration during our Sunday services we would end up talking much more about Christ and his life. We would offer greater praise and more discussion on His role as Redeemer, Saviour, and Comforter. We would dissect his life, his teachings, his miracles and his godliness. We would make Him much more involved in our thoughts, prayers and utterances.

    The emphasis we place solely on emulating personality attributes and on service create an impression of self-worship and make our services seem devoid of Christian adoration. This is why so many non-LDS have a hard time seeing Christ in the LDS Church. Instead, they see a focus on the role of prophet and on the ideal family instead. It is not easy to find discussion of the Atonement other than as an afterthought.

    When was the last time we celebrated Holy Week or Easter Sunday in our Church to the same extent we celebrate General Conference?

  2. Lets be serious. I'm as battered and bruised emotionally as about anyone you will meet. My first child died on my wedding anniversary, having taken sick on December 25. My third child died on December 26, eleven months to the day later. Our fourth child died the same day as Princess Diana (and a friend felt a need to attend a service for that rather than Robin's burial).

    My life is full of dates that are emotional land mines and topics that are so very hard.

    So, do I feel people should quit talking about baptizing their children or blessing them in Church? Or marriages or missions or feelings of separation?

    No. The world should not stop, others should not be denied the messages they need.

  3. Fwiw, I think Tracy, SilverRain, Michael and Stephen all are right - and I don't think saying that is wishy-washy or equivocal in any way.

    We do need to teach an ideal - but we don't need to preach it almost obsessively in every single meeting and lesson we attend.

    We do need to make our Sacrament Meetings MUCH more of a worship service and MUCH less of another Sunday School or third-hour meeting. We have multiple types of meetings for a reason, and when they all tend to blend into the same type of meeting that just lasts longer and has short intermission breaks . . . that's not a good thing at all.

    We do need to keep teaching a group of individuals what each individual needs to hear, to the best of our ability - and that will include messages that are hard for some individuals to accept because other individuals need to hear them. (The same is true of General Conference, where some message resonate with some members and are hard for others to hear.)

    My only "unique" input is to reiterate what I said initially - that we need to teach without obsessing. In the case of the "ideal family", there is NO doubt whatsoever how the LDS Church defines it. We can make sure that doesn't change without forcing children and adults who are in other types of families to hear how broken and substandard their own families are every, single, solitary week - week and after week after week.

    I read Tracy's post as saying exactly that - since she says all the time that she understands the need to teach the ideal and also believes in that ideal.

  4. Oh, and SilverRain, about the following:

    "One of the suggestions she makes is that we as a church should 'teach only Christ'."

    I looked through every comment Tracy made in the thread and couldn't find that suggestion coming from her. If I missed it, will you point out where she said it?

  5. Sorry for the disconnect between my brain and my fingers today.

    Kristine mentioned that scriptural phrase others like it and said "maybe they are onto something" - but Tracy never responded directly in any way to that comment from Kristine.

  6. Ray, you are right, that she doesn't make that suggestion as strongly as I indicated. I have adjusted the wording accordingly. She does, however, connote it in her last paragraph of the OP. The "only" in the suggestion came from subsequent comments playing off of what she said.

    That doesn't change my main objection to the premise of the post, which is that we should change what we teach in order to minister to the pain of those who do not match the ideal. The Church doctrine is not useful as a "soft place to land." The soft place to land is found in charity, which means because of the hardness of people's hearts, sometimes it just isn't there. That doesn't mean that softening the doctrine will create that love.

    There is a place where truth and love can live in harmony. If you sacrifice either one, you fail to live the gospel.

    I STRONGLY disagree that anything is taught obsessively in the Church, speaking in the general sense. Rather, I feel that the things which hurt us stand out from among the crowd of things that don't touch our particular baggage.

    When you sit down and really look at it, those few things that are taught with more frequency than others are in response to prolific opposite teachings from other sources. They are balancing in the entire block of heard messages, and only seem obsessive if you put blinders on to the bulk of the messages we hear from other sources.

    While I think you are right, that Tracy claims to understand and believe in the ideal often in her post, that is not the message that her post sends. She is not writing to an audience of those who don't get the pain which is caused when ideals are taught. If she were, she would have been writing that blog post to her local leadership. Instead, she wrote largely to a crowd of people who not only already agree with her, but who DO believe that the doctrine and teachings should be changed. Messages are not sent in a vacuum, and it is disingenuous to pretend that they are.

    We simply cannot look to others to give us a comfortable feeling at Church. We need to rely only upon our relationship with the Lord for that. Church is a place to minister, not to be ministered to. And I utterly reject the premise that it is appropriate to stoke the furor of discontent online. If we truly want to change the way things are taught in our wards, we should be going to the people in our wards. If our goal is to complain and create the virtual online illusion of a "soft place to land" for ourselves, than we should at least face the truth of what we are doing honestly.

    As a person who has also divorced and felt the full force of the difficulties of not being the ideal, I felt it was important to point out that the pain she describes can be dealt with more constructively.

  7. I'm way, way late on this, but I read the blog post in question a while back, and I was horrified. Had my poor mother been feeling like this? She's been through many of the things so often brought up as isolating people in the bloggernacle, infertility, divorce, untrue rumors spread in the community about her moral character, being widowed, cancer. I asked her about it.

    She said absolutely not, she had never felt that way in or by the Church. She said that after she remarried, she went to her stepmom to ask how she dealt with the difficulties of bringing two families together (especially as my aunts were extremely hostile). The advice that was given to her was don't take it personally.

    I'm not very good at this myself, but I can sure see how applicable this is. People can often be insensitive and dumb (or even we be oversensitive), but if you don't take it personally, it's a lot harder to feel marginalized.


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