The news from Salt Lake City is not particularly comforting if you’re Mormon. One of the mighty has fallen, a saint from the inmost circle of the Latter-Day Saints. For the first time in thirty years, a man from the First Quorum of the Seventy was told to pack his bags. He was excommunicated.
When I was a boy, the word excommunication was used with fear and trembling. Only once did I sit through a reading of that form from the back of the Psalter; but I remember it well because the whole affair was difficult and vividly public and therefore dramatic.
Once upon a time, many churches would assess their determination to remain on the paths of righteousness on the basis of their commitment to “church discipline,” a function of the body of Christ recognized as one of the “keys of the kingdom” (Q and A 83 of the Heidelberg Catechism). People believed that if you didn’t exercise church discipline, you weren’t really the bride of Christ; and way out there at the far end of “church discipline” sat excommunication, a ritual no one joked about. That was a different time, a different age.
Except in Salt Lake City, where yesterday a man named James J. Hamula was excommunicated, even though he’d been a member the church’s most saintly circle since 2008 and had served as a missionary—full-time–and an elder and stake leader.
Following accepted tradition, no reason was given for the action, although church authorities did say it was not occasioned by apostasy or disillusionment. That leaves little but scandal. What size and shape scandal will eventually out, I’m sure, as those things do. Simply, the council of discipline reported Hamula was no longer an officer and no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Ladder-Day Saints. Nope. Out.
Seems brutal, doesn’t it? Seems medieval. To our eyes, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Because it is.
Four times in my life I’ve been passionately proselytized, a Book of the Mormon placed earnestly into my hands. Thrice in museum visits: once, years ago, in Salt Lake City, at the Tabernacle, where my children—just kids then—went slack-jawed when someone tried to save their parents’ souls; a second time at Palmyra, New York, where Joseph Smith discovered the golden plates that held the Book itself; a third time just recently at a place commemorating the Mormon Trail and the Winter Quarters, where hundreds of houses were built almost overnight for thousands on the trek to Salt Lake, thousands who would spend the winter of 1846 across the Missouri from a frontier burg named Omaha.
(By the way, it’s okay to sing “Come, Come Ye Saints” at my funeral, even though that anthem is decidedly Mormon. It was penned here in Iowa on the Great Trek; and to hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s rendition makes me weep. Listen yourself sometime.)
The Mormons do museums with the same earnest diligence with which they keep the church—okay, maybe a bit over-the-top by my estimation, but there’s no accounting for taste. Each time, each place, I was handed a Book of the Mormon and beckoned to read it to discover its eternal truth. Each time, I told those very decent docents that I already had the book, thank you. And I do, and it’s inscribed, a treasure really, a gift—read on.
It’s from two of my high school students—I liked them, they liked me. There were a lot of LDS kids at Greenway High School, Phoenix, Arizona, when I taught there. One of them, Carrie Smith, had conversion on her mind back in 1976, as most Mormons do (she was no relation that I know of to Joseph Smith, although the man had forty wives).
Sadly enough, her mission with me failed, even though I remember her darling personality, her thoughtful smarts, and her intense Mormon work ethic. A whole class of Carrie Smiths and I might never have left.
Via the wonders of social media, I stay in contact with Carrie Smith, who’s a grandmother these days and, for me surprisingly, an evangelical Christian–meaning, no longer Mormon. I didn’t ask why she left. Besides, she seems happy.
Yesterday, to her Facebook friends (which includes me), she sent out a note with a url linking to a Salt Lake City TV station, who had run a story titled thusly: “Losing their religion: Millennials, including Utahns, leaving church.” (The story’s in the title. No need for me to quote chapter and verse).
But that all that news came from her, from an actual “jack” Mormon (as the LDS fallen are often called) was somehow notable in my mind, in my soul. I bear no grudge, no enmity for her confidence that, way back then, I wasn’t among the elect. But that she was the one who sent out the url for that particular story–I’m sorry, it just made me smile.
Why? I suppose it’s just another reminder of two truths bigger than all of us: Good Lord, we all have sinned–that’s one–and we all stand in need of grace–that’s two.
Somewhere along the line, in one way or another, all of us have been poor James Hamula.