Mike and Florence Cannon teach the “Strengthening Marriage” Sunday School class in my ward here in Atlanta. It’s a 12-ish week course and they rotate through couples each session.
Trent and I refuse to leave.
No, really. We refuse. We’re permanently on the roster. We can’t get enough of it. We’ve have gained so much insight about our relationship from the Cannon’s class, partially because the church curriculum for the course is as much about practical, tried-and-true strategies as it is about abstract gospel truths, and partially because Mike and Florence are awesome. They are honest, open, genuine people, so willing to be vulnerable, so full of understanding. I love them. I really do.
Today, I give you an excerpt from a talk Mike gave in sacrament meeting a few months back. He was asked to speak on what he loves about being Mormon. This is the last of the five points he discussed. By the end of it, you’ll love the Cannons too.
Mike, the floor is yours …
The last of the five teachings that I will talk about is explained in an essay called, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel.” In it, Eugene England writes that the LDS church is a school of love, perhaps the best one. We go to church based on geography, not based on our interests, sympathies, or favorite preacher. We don’t get to choose our congregation. Sometimes members of our wards can be difficult. “Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you…For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye?” (Matthew 5:43) It is easy to love our friends. It can be harder to love those we must face in church basketball.
So, by attending our wards we are forced to deal with and get to know people of a different race or ethnicity, rich and poor, old and young, Democrats and Republicans, Utah Mormons and mission-field Mormons. We used to pick up our friend Sean for church, who dazzled with his brilliant smile and bright metallic blue suit with tails, a look I could never pull off. For seven years I home taught a man who was gay. He prayed for my family, spoiled my kids, and took me to his favorite Mexican restaurant. I had a deacon’s quorum advisor who discovered a molecule that led to the development of a blockbuster drug. Another deacon’s quorum advisor had a brother, Jack Morris, who tormented the Braves in the World Series. I’ve shared a hymnbook with Gladys Knight and with Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (although not at the same time). Sister Ulrich is best known for her words that have been plastered on bumper stickers and t-shirts: well-behaved women seldom make history.
In church we interact with people who have important lessons to teach us, and we teach them what we know. I’ve taught Portuguese lessons to two apostles, and learned about faithful belief from recent converts like Frank Gomez and from little children like Ava Hansen.
At church we can observe Christ-like charity in action. When we moved to Tucker, 20 members showed up to help us move. When I became a single parent I had a pit in my stomach for weeks, wondering how we were going to make things work. People brought us meals and gave rides to the kids. They helped me raise them. When our daughter Jessica was a senior, Ralph Cordell noticed that she was recognized for her school achievements on a banner in the Publix grocery store. He told us, “I couldn’t have been prouder if she was my own daughter.” Another time, our former home teacher Louis Chemin spent 4 hours teaching our boys to wash and wax his BMW, and paid them handsomely to do it. When Florence and I were married, the Hardy’s offered to host an open house for us, and then paid for the catering.
Through church we interact with people whose lives we could hardly imagine if we didn’t experience them first hand. I once home taught someone who kept a pig in their house and a sign on the fence that said, “Beware of pig”. I home taught a large young man who got stuck in the slide at the Tucker McDonald’s and had to be pulled out by fire fighters. When I was 13, I home taught a young woman with Down syndrome who pulled me close and asked me to be her boyfriend.
We also attend church with people who believe differently. When I taught Gospel Doctrine I lost track of the number of times my friend Brian Croxall raised his hand to tell me he totally disagreed with what I had just said. Several years ago I had a political bumper sticker on our car. One Sunday after church I went out to the parking lot to find that my bumper sticker had been covered over with a bumper sticker of a different political affiliation. Bumping up against these different members can knock off our rough edges, giving us a great opportunity to be transformed into better people. In other words, the differences and frustrations of dealing with other deeply flawed Mormons is not a bug, but a feature of the Church.
Although I may look like a typical Mormon, on the inside I don’t feel that I fit the typical Mormon mold— I love the members but don’t like most meetings; I attend PEC when I need to, but when I don’t I sometimes like to go on a bike ride before church; I love how the Church places an emphasis on families, but I’ve been divorced; I love the scriptures, but have difficulty making it past the 1st presidency message of the Ensign; I’m an Eagle scout, but am not into scouting; my politics don’t match up with most Mormons; and I feel like my relationship to my leaders is complicated—for example, a stake president once taught something that transformed my life and yet on another occasion made a comment in Sunday school that I thought couldn’t have been more wrong. For me, the Gospel answers many questions but raises many more.
But even though I sometimes don’t feel that I fit the mold, I have been loved by you. I have felt accepted. I have felt cared for. I have watched you show love towards my wife, I’ve watched you love and care for our children. I believe that faithful practicing of the Gospel has created this community that has truly loved me and my family. That is what I want to share with non-members. And yet I feel sad when, as members, we have a hard time welcoming, accepting, and loving those who don’t believe like us, look like us, dress like us, have a different sexual orientation, or who are having trouble with their belief or with some of the commandments. The part of the Church that I long to share is the part that overcomes such differences and loves and accepts anyway.
Ten years ago my sister and her husband decided to leave the Church. This, I’m sure, was a difficult decision. My brother-in-law was in the bishopric at the time. I know they felt worried that they would lose their network of support and friendship. About that time some friends from the ward, the Bradfords, started having dinner with them on Tuesday nights. I doubt my sister will ever return to the Church, but 10 years later the Bradfords are still having dinner with her and her family every Tuesday night.
Jesus taught that, “…the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. (Matthew 13:47) The Lord has shown by example how to deal with our fellow fish: “…for he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God.” (2nd Nephi 26:33)
In closing, I would invite you to reach out, find someone who is different from you, befriend them, have them over, try to understand what their life is like. Love them. I have a testimony that such love is a part of our Gospel that is worth sharing. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
And to that, I had my own hearty “Amen.” Thank you, Mike, for sharing your beautiful thoughts.