Tuesday, June 21, 2016

It must begin with you personally

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey. This week covers the Friday Morning Session from the April 1973 Conference.
Recently my husband and I were in Berlin, where we visited the Berlin Wall Memorial. Before and after our visit, as I studied and immersed myself in that time period, I felt almost oppressed by an awareness of evil. It seemed clear to me that that's what the Berlin Wall was: Great Evil, done in the name of progress and equality and need.

And yet hardly any of the individuals involved seemed greatly evil; that was clear as well. They were weak, perhaps, or scared or ignorant or prideful. Certainly none of them thought themselves evil. Were they ordinary people, people like me? They seemed to be, for the most part. But—and this seems key—they WERE bringing about evil, nonetheless. They were furthering Satan's purposes—though unknowingly, most of the time. I felt angry with them. And yet also, sorry for them. And I wondered, if I had been in their place, which side would have won out in me. "How can we ever do Great Good in the world?" I kept thinking. "How can we fight and overcome Great Evil, when we ourselves all have such evil right within our natures, just waiting for the best chance to come out?" Obviously, we must have our natures changed. But how?

Ever since then I've been thinking about it a lot, especially the idea of "a change of heart," as I've pondered just why and how that miracle occurs. And then just this week I came across this amazing story, from a long article about how it came about that an LDS temple was built in East Germany during the time of the Berlin Wall. President Henry J. Burkhardt was the leader of the LDS Church in the German Democratic Republic, and he was always facing bureaucratic obstacles, suspicion, and outright danger from the leaders of the Communist government, who were openly hostile to anyone religious. After much delay and frustration, he managed to get approved on a temporary travel visa to visit Salt Lake City for General Conference, and to his surprise, was even allowed to return for multiple conferences over the years:
During a visit with President Spencer W. Kimball in April 1973, President Burkhardt was surprised when he was told to "develop a good relationship with the government." He received similar advice at each subsequent visit. President Burkhardt found it difficult at first to accept Kimball's advice. He responded inwardly, "You don't know the Communists. You can't have a good relationship with those people. They are anti-religious, they have threatened to throw me in jail several times, and they constantly make trouble for me." During one such visit, President Kimball expressed his personal philosophy that political solutions were generally ineffective—that the world changed when individuals changed. He gave President Burkhardt the following challenge: "Brother Burkhardt, if you want to see a change of things in East Germany, it must begin with you personally. It must begin with you because you are the leader of the Saints there, and you must have a change of heart, which means you must force yourself to befriend the Communists. You cannot hold any grudges against them. You must change your whole outlook and attitude." Eventually, Burkhardt accepted the advice. "It took a long time, from 1973 until 1976, before I came to realize that Communists were also children of our Heavenly Father, and that I should deal with them accordingly, in a friendly manner. . . . And from that time forth, miracle after miracle occurred in the history of the Church in this country. They became friendlier and more receptive to me, as a representative of the Church." (Quoted on page 101 here; all emphasis is mine.)
It's an amazing story. It sounds incredible. It sounds simplistic and Pollyanna-ish and naive. But now read what Elder Robert L. Simpson says in his April 1973 Conference talk:
During the past 12 months it has been my privilege to work closely with many emotionally disturbed people; others who have transgressed; some who have found themselves out of harmony with society; still others who were lonely and afraid. It has not been a year of discouragement and despair, however, because the vast majority of these people have made an important decision, and they have said: “I want to change my life. I am ready to take direction from someone who really cares.”
Elder Simpson saw the great evil in these people's situations—whether it was engaged in by an individual or inflicted upon another individual—and the resulting sorrow it brought. But what stopped that great evil in its tracks? A small good. A small, faith-filled, hopeful good: "I want to change my life."

He continues with some examples:
How touching it was to hear a hardened prisoner say: “That is the first time anybody ever told me they loved me.” This was after a six-year-old girl kissed him on the cheek during a Church-sponsored family home evening visit in the prison. 
Consider with me an unwed mother who came to her bishop with some reluctance. Her heart was belligerent, and she also had a drug problem; but months later, following compassionate service by many, she was heard to say: “Life was over for me. I didn’t want to live anymore, but things are different now, and I know the true meaning of God’s love.”
He tells a few more stories, but they have a common thread. In each case, the small good of a desire to change (in one person's heart) was followed up by another small good—that of connection with another person's heart which had already, perhaps, been changed, and was open to being changed some more:
Every success story of the past year has been the result of special effort on the part of people who cared. They cared enough to give some time and to be sincere and compassionate; in other words, to follow the great example set by the Savior.
It's really still too big of a subject for me to tackle: "How do we love others when we so fundamentally disagree? How do we fight evil when it's everywhere?" I don't have all the answers. But I am trying to translate what I sense from these stories, which is this: small evils do not just lead to Great Evil, they ARE, fundamentally, the same thing. "He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad." The Great Evil done by the Berlin Wall (or abortion…or divorce…or any other difficult matter) does not vanish even to the extent it was done incrementally, unknowingly, or with good intentions! Nothing is gained by pretending otherwise. It is painful to acknowledge this, when our instinct is to defend ourselves and, maybe even more vehemently, those we love; the individual cases we know of. "Surely there was no evil in this case! This person was trying to do the right thing! Think of the unfairness if individual situations were not considered!" Yet, still, it seems to me, there is no truly small evil. 

But if that reality seems too stark (for we are all of us evildoers in small ways, and none can escape that verdict), the corresponding truth is this: that there is no truly small good. For the small goods are where we will save others, and be saved. No sense trying to excuse or paper over the Great Evil, nor our contributions to it. That is why we need a Savior. But for our part, to become like Him, we must love in our small spheres. Make friends with those we can; be polite and meek toward those who refuse our friendship. Be humble and willing to admit our own weakness. These things will, literally, change everything.

I have heard people scoff at the idea of "love the sinner and hate the sin." Impossible, they say, to separate the two things so neatly; impossible for one whose sin is hated to still feel love and acceptance in his self and soul. I don't know. There are things I hate in myself, though I don't hate myself, so I think it is possible to separate sin from self. I think the evils in the world—big and small, external and internal, institutional and personal—must be faced for what they are, and fought against. But I also think that as an individual, I must spend my life chiefly on the small goods. Just as the church's refugee initiative encourages us to find the individual, to leave politics aside and simply love those who are here, right now, needing our love—I feel like Elder Simpson's message is that EVERY Great Good is made up of these small goods. That we quietly light the world, face by face. Maybe there is a place for people who have grand visions and schemes to "change the world"—and maybe my hesitancy in that direction is simply because that's not MY intended role—but it seems like the success of those grand plans is spotty at best, so for me, this talk made me resolve to do more of the personal:

To ask myself, when frustrated with the Great Evils I can't help seeing around me, "Is there anything I can do with this, on a personal level? No? Then who, in my own circles, CAN I reach out to and serve?"

To also remind myself, when I see those evils, "They are likely being perpetuated by people who, like you, have some desire to do good. Perhaps they simply need a true friend, more knowledge, more time, to allow that desire to work in them and grow large enough to bear fruit."

And so I think I can see now that it all fits together: the Great Evil of the Berlin Wall, the Concentration Camps, wars and terror. The small evil of each individual succumbing to the natural man, excusing his actions, refusing to follow the light of Christ. They are the same.

But on the other side: the small good of a friendly conversation. A gentle response, a personal humility that extends outward, allowing even avowed enemies to be treated with individual kindness. And the Great Good of a Zion society, a people ready for the Savior to come. They, too, are the same. And so, shall we begin?

Other posts in this series:

4 comments:

  1. Such powerful and hopeful stuff here! I wish I could form my own thoughts into nice words after reading it, but I can't. I have thought and felt often -- especially lately -- that our small interactions and influences and kindnesses and the like really truly are weaving our "mission" and whatever our life's work is into something grander than we would possibly imagine a pile of tiny goods could ever become -- the tentacles and dominoes and sparks that might stretch out from them.

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    1. Yes, I totally was thinking about what you said about your mom, and her life's work unfolding in so many small ways. I loved that idea. So hopeful!

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  2. Slightly off topic, but I recently had a conversation with my SIL who asked me if I ever planned on "working." I said, no--I want to keep as much time open as possible to do the "errand of angels" that will be given me, if I want to do it (love the scripture in D&C that says we can do much good in this generation if we desire to do so) and I DO want to do it. Anyway, there was more to the conversation and I'd love to chat with you about it, but my point (do I ever have a point???) is that I think that is what we are here on earth to do--use our time to do many small good things. Right now pretty much all my good things are wrapped up in my kids--which is as it should be--but I am trying to practice noticing other people and their needs so that I can get really good at it for when I have more time. I'm clearly tired and not making any sense. I loved what you had to say. Good night.

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    1. I love your answer! So inspired. Yes. I want to be open to that too! And I hope that I won't get SO caught up in the day-to-day of kids (although, as you say, that is necessary too) that I forget to keep looking for those chances! We really do need to talk soon.

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