The Heart Cracked Open
The Heart of Christianity and The Church Cracked Open
I’ve always loved the idea of the heart being a conduit to something deeper in our soul. Growing up as a Latter-day Saint, I always felt a little out of place with my peers As a young deacon, I was called to be the Deacon’s Quorum Secretary. Part of me was so excited! At the time, I believed that perhaps God saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself. I had learned that God looked on the heart after all. Maybe God could see something in my heart, too!
Before attending my first Deacon’s Quorum meeting, I had been thinking of ideas that I wanted to share with the other young men in my quorum’s leadership. I discovered and borrowed video from the library about Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her Missionaries of Charity. I wanted to be like her. Other young men my age in the ward wanted to be like famous sports stars or rich businessmen. I didn’t want the fame or the fortune. I wanted the heart that Mother Teresa had used to care for the poor, the sick, and the hungry. I furiously took notes of ideas for the Deacon’s Quorum meeting, wondering how we could make a difference with the other men our age and the other members of our congregation.
That first meeting as a presidency was a wakeup call. We were focused on the logistics of the distribution of the sacrament to the congregation and the most efficient fast offering routes. I didn’t speak up because I was afraid, and often rightfully so, that my tendency for compassion would be mocked or ignored. Frankly, my time as a Latter-day Saint was the occasional service opportunity, but the ultimate service in Mormonism was considered the work of salvation: missionary work. But my heart called me to some other work my entire time as a Latter-day Saints. The cracks from moments of intense compassion started to form on my heart. With each crack, compassion would come flowing out, but sometimes I felt the urge to seal the cracks. The compassion I was experiencing wasn’t contingent on others becoming Latter-day Saints; my compassion often startled my heart. Another crack to repair. Another heretical idea to try to seal away.
I was a doubter for many years before I put in my mission papers and received a mission call to Thailand. Although the cracks in my heart had been forming ever since childhood, the deepest crack was learning about uncorrelated Mormon history. These doubts came from the most likely place in the early 2000s: the internet.
The internet in the early 2000s presented a unique challenge for a faith as young as Mormonism. Prior to the advent of the internet, word-of-mouth spread slowly. I knew a little bit about the Tanners and their ministry, but I never knew how I knew about it. The explosion of information readily available regardless of people’s abilities to buy books or read primary sources became a liability to the LDS Church. The internet blew the doors open to secret knowledge that had long only been known by those who had studied Mormonism in depth. Suddenly, Joseph Smith’s interest in magic, the fraught history of Mormon fundamentalism, and more details about polygamy and Joseph’s personal life were all on display for Mormons and “Gentiles” alike.
As a teenager, I started to realize that Mormonism had constructed a myth of Joseph and the founding of the LDS Church and then sold that myth as literal history. I fell into early exmormon spaces online, predominately frequented by Mormons turned Evangelical Christians and never Mormons who desired to “save” Mormons from their false religion. These spaces gave me something that I had long craved: an opportunity to experience a fresh perspective on Jesus.
But the perspective that I found on Jesus was often mingled with homophobia. Evangelical Christianity in the early 2000s was stuck in very homophobic ways. It led the charge in the war against same-sex marriage, along with other conservative segments of the Church such as the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist convention, a Protestant denomination that broke with their northern counterparts over the issue of slavery in 1845. These same Christians who were telling me that Mormonism was broken were also subtly telling the deeply closeted me that I was broken.
Upon first confronting my doubts, I was open and honest with church leaders, and I learned a valuable lesson: honesty is not always rewarded in Mormonism. At 14, I had expressed some doubts to my then-bishop about the veracity of the truth claims in the LDS Church. He opened his office whiteboard to scribble down my concerns, and we discussed these concerns briefly before he summarized my dilemma:
“So what you’re telling me is that your parents and the people who love you in the ward are all duped and that you know more than they do?” He asked me.
I was 14. He went on to become my stake president, the same one who would interview me before I put in my papers to go to Thailand. I respected this man for many years in my life. Looking back, my perspective is mixed. He was trying his best in a culture that valued obedience to authority more than nuance. But he also induced a lot of shame for having doubts and concerns about Mormonism. Why did I never come out to this bishop? He never made it safe for me to come out, and I didn’t feel safe enough to come out to myself even.
The next bishop after him tried to convince me of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon based on directions noted in Nephi’s journey to and from Jerusalem in 1st Nephi. He left our ward to become a mission president.
But the next bishop was different. He looked on my heart in a way that the other two hadn’t quite looked. He was a tall, skinny man who had served his mission to Japan in the 1980s. Crying wasn’t a weakness to him; he expressed his emotions more openly than other men I had known. He had an inherent tenderness about him. My family adored him and his wife. He was the first (and only) bishop that I ever came out to. He responded with the most compassion of any Mormon leader I had ever had. He expressed his love for me. I was never a problem to fix to him; I was a person who needed so much love and kindness. Finally! Someone had made it safe to come out. He was the exception, not the rule.
This bishop came to my mind frequently while I was on my mission. I reflected on his unique ability to see my heart, rather than my sexuality or my other supposed defects. These reflections were mingled with ideas about the heart and how my heart would ache for Thai people. I didn’t ache for them to be Mormon. I ached for their wholeness. I tried to see the hearts of Thais. Other missionaries simply saw numbers that they could use to impress their girlfriends, families, and ward members. I was satisfied to minister one-by-one, like my bishop did. He saw my heart.
When I was first learning Thai, I started to notice a pretty obvious pattern about the word for heart (ใจ or jai). A hot heart was the heart of someone who was hot-headed or quick to anger. A cool heart was the sign of a calm and peaceful person. Someone who can see another person’s heart was expressing sympathy. My last bishop definitely didn’t have a hot heart. He definitely aspired to have a cool heart and he saw my heart. I learned that seeing isn’t just about the eye. Seeing the heart is a radical act of compassion. Frankly, I didn’t see as much compassion from the other missionaries as I wished I would have. I saw a lot of hot hearts with the missionaries who demanded that I work harder to find investigators. These hot hearts made me try to seal the cracks in my own heart furiously. And it hurt every time I sealed a crack to appease these men.
Over the last two weeks, I have read two books that I highly recommend about the heart. The first is The Heart of Christianity by the late Marcus Borg. Borg examines how, for too many years, Christianity has been packaged and sold as a set of beliefs rather than a way of life. The Church is a building with four walls, a cross (not if you’re Mormon!), and a steeple. Borg challenges this paradigm by reframing Christianity as a way to personal transformation that must take place outside of the confines of the Church. Being born again isn’t about believing the right things; it’s about the practice of the way of Jesus, a radical Jewish mystic who taught an alternative path that upset the social order of his time. Jesus died for His beliefs. And his followers then tried to pick up the pieces after the Resurrection. But the Jesus message wasn’t about a church. In fact, Jesus’s early followers still worshipped in their synagogues alongside other Jews. They were entranced by the message of Jesus!
The Jesus message can be a way of life: love one another as I have loved you, no greater love hath no man known than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends, and if you love me, feed my sheep. The suffering in the world from broken hearts that need binding is too great for some of us to bear sometimes. But the Jesus message teaches us about the importance of bearing one another’s burdens and taking up the cross of Jesus to transform our heart. I know that the Jesus message has long been a part of my life. Borg has simply invited me to not seal the cracks in my heart from “heresy” or “apostasy” or whatever, but to let the cracks form to purify my heart.
The second book doesn’t sound like it’s about the heart on first blush, but follow my lead here. Stephanie Spellers, the Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation under Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, wrote an exquisite book on what the Church should look like post-pandemic (whatever post-pandemic means!). The Church Cracked Open: Disruption, Decline, and New Hope for a Beloved Community explores tough themes without venturing into apologetics. Spellers touches on the fallout of COVID-19, the murder of George Floyd, and the post-pandemic reality for Christianity. Sellers, however, isn’t nihilistic about the future. She believes that the Church has been granted a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Spellers conjures a beautiful metaphor about the Church (and Christianity on the whole) being an alabaster jar containing precious oil (see Mark 14 for this story, but it is contained in other books of the Bible as well). I don’t want to spoil the metaphor too much, but I do want to draw an important comparison. What matters more: the alabaster jar or the oil that she uses to anoint Jesus for His burial? In the end, the jar will crack. Will we repair the jar, patching cracks trying to preserve the alabaster or will we let the precious oil anoint and heal the world?
In this regard, Spellers and Borg spoke to my heart. There have always been people who have seen not just my heart, but perhaps something that was hidden inside my heart: empathy, compassion, hunger and thirst for justice and reconciliation. Sometimes our hearts must be totally broken before the beauty that is hidden in our hearts can come out. And in breaking the alabaster jar, perhaps we discover that the cracks of “heresy” or “apostasy” weren’t really defects at all but gifts from God.
For me, my heart contained so much that I had bottled up for years: gay pride, compassion, kindness, authenticity, love. I learned to seal the cracks in my heart as a deacon. I saw it in my bishop as he let the cracks open his heart to my experience. I watched in Thailand as the cracks in my heart grew deeper. I tried to patch and seal the alabaster jar with each passing year. Finally, the jar cracked. And the oil came out. I was so scared for so long because I was told that the oil was rancid on the inside of my alabaster jar. It wasn’t until I accepted the cracks and the ultimate breaking of the jar as gifts that I finally started to see the oil as what it really is: worthy.