|Print | Back||December 6, 2012|
In The VillageWhy We Need a Church
by Orson Scott Card
It’s organized religion that causes all the problems — that’s what militant atheists claim, along with lots of non-church-going believers.
Why can’t Christians (or Muslims, or Jews, or any other religion) be content to keep their opinions to themselves and stop trying to get other people to believe just like them? “Why do you religious people insist on conformity?”
Let me tell you a story. It’s true. It happened this past Sunday.
I was singing with the stake choir at conference. We had already sung one number. There had been an intermediate hymn, for which everyone stood up to rest ourselves by standing.
Then the stake president called a couple of people out of the congregation to bear their testimony, after which we would all sing “How Firm a Foundation” as a second intermediate hymn before the stake president gave the concluding talk.
The testimonies were borne. The conductor came forward to lead us in “How Firm a Foundation.”
But she forgot to give the signal for everyone to stand up.
We stand up for intermediate hymns at conference. The only reason we weren’t standing was because everyone was shy about doing it without a signal.
So, because I was right in the middle of the choir seats, I stood up, urging other choir members to join me. Surely the congregation would follow.
Uh-oh. Not even the choir followed my lead. Apparently I had less influence than I thought.
Only Dan Zeller, who was sitting beside me, joined me in standing.
For half a verse, we were the only two.
Conversation with self: You look like an idiot. Who appointed you the monitor in charge of sitting or standing during hymns? Doesn’t anybody else want to stretch their legs and back by standing as we sing? Maybe nobody said to stand because they didn’t want anybody to stand, did you think of that? What have you done to poor Dan Zeller, by getting him to share your humiliation? The sooner you sit down, the sooner you stop looking stupid.
It was excruciating. Standing for the hymn was a good idea — but it wasn’t a moral decision. It was more about physical comfort and custom. So nobody was making a choice between good and evil. And certainly seeing how isolated and embarrassed as Dan and I were was not an incentive for anyone else to join us. Not even out of compassion.
I’m stubborn. Even if nobody else besides Dan and me was going to stand, I wasn’t going to sit down. For the duration of the hymn.
In fact, as long as I was on my feet, why not turn it into a solo? So I sang with increasing gusto and visibly stood taller.
If Dan Zeller had sat down, would I have had so much courage? Would I have continued to stand alone? I’m so very glad that we’ll never know the answer — Dan continued to stand with me.
Then a teenage girl from another ward, sitting on the edge of the alto section nearest the piano, stood up too. And, having even more courage than I had, she waved to the congregation to stand up. Waved twice.
Heeding her, a few people started to stand up out in the congregation. Some in the back whose faces I couldn’t see; then Chuck and Marcia Gladden, against the wall but much nearer the front. A few more, here and there.
A few words into the second verse, the stake presidency looked at each other; one started to get up, then another, hesitating. Finally they committed and stood up together.
Then the whole congregation arose.
We’re a pretty good singing stake, but when you’re sitting down, it’s hard to get much volume. People sing down into their hymnbooks, down into the space between the benches.
But once everybody was standing, the volume of the singing doubled. No, it tripled. And the choir sang out even more boldly in harmony.
The choir leader held up her fingers to show the number 7 — we were going to add the seventh verse to conclude the hymn. Everybody got that signal, and the chapel filled with joyful noise.
Then the song ended and we sat down.
I stood, but I needed someone else to stand with me. If Dan Zeller hadn’t joined me, would I have stayed on my feet? It would have been a long, long hymn.
If that girl hadn’t signaled others to rise, would anybody have arisen? Why hadn’t I thought to signal others?
She didn’t just signal. She insisted that others join us. But a few followed.
The stake presidency hadn’t been in a position to see me and Dan standing, or the girl when she rose to her feet. Only when a few in the congregation followed her did they even realize that whether to stand or not was an issue.
When the authority figures finally stood, then all joined in. We became one again. A community.
That’s why we need the Church. Human beings, following the laws of nature, crave a sense of belonging. Nothing makes us more uncomfortable than standing alone, against the silent resistance of the whole community.
That’s peer pressure. That’s why even people who are nonconformists tend to nonconform in exactly the same way, and join together with their nonconformist friends, so that when they’re together, they get that comfort from belonging to a community.
We Latter-day Saints don’t cease to partake of human nature just because we’re converted. It’s hard to be visibly alone.
We function in the outside world mostly by looking exactly like everybody else. We don’t go off and gather in some lonely spot, the way we did in the early days of the Church. We live among our neighbors and conform to the norms of society in most ways.
Only a few things make us stand out — our rejection of social rituals connected with coffee, tea, alcohol, drugs, and, though it’s fading in the outside world, tobacco. Our lack of free time because of church responsibilities. Our Sabbath-keeping, our modest dress, our clean language.
But most of those things don’t call attention to themselves. We can mostly fly under the radar. We don’t have to stand in splendid isolation.
Even so, it can be very lonely, knowing that you’re different from everybody else at work, at school.
But then we get to church and suddenly we’re surrounded by people who live as we do, who share our odd (but true!) beliefs.
The Church allows us to act together in order to carry out the Lord’s work. But it also allows us each, as individuals, to satisfy that hunger of the natural man to belong to a community.
From the world, where we stand alone, we come together to form a congregation where all rise and sing together with one loud, strong voice.
A religion without a church soon ceases to exist. Only when fellow believers band together to satisfy that hunger to be part of a community does it become possible to sustain unusual beliefs and practices in the face of resistance — even passive resistance — from the rest of the world.
There are times when we have no choice but to stand alone. Even at those times, it’s a lot easier knowing that there is a whole community of people we know and trust who believe and act as we do, even if they happen not to be present at this moment.
That’s why we weak human beings need to strengthen ourselves by taking part in an organized religion, and why the rejection of organization would be the death of the faith.
We bring less-active Saints into activity for their sake, yes — but also for ours. And every new convert strengthens all the rest of us.
And together we work toward the day when everyone rises to their feet and, all together, we sing the song of redeeming love.
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