What do we know about the covert life of our members? Take Irma.

She was around sixty when I, a young convert, got to know her. Each Sunday morning she shuffled from the front door to her chair in the living room we called our chapel. Always the same seat, third row on the right. She sat down, her chest heaving. It would take her a few minutes to ease down. The creases on her face exuded an elemental sadness. Her dress, outmoded, hung over her knees, but unable to hide the webs of varicose veins on her swollen lower legs. She had the portly contour of the worn-out female worker, tenacious but tired, fed for years on cheap fatty rations. She was from a submissive generation.

– Good morning. Good to see you, Irma.
She nodded slowly, a little dazed, pleased to be recognized.

We knew she had a problem. Coffee. It was obvious from her sporadic questions in Sunday School or Relief Society.
– Can coffee keep someone out of heaven?
– What if someone obeys all the commandments, except coffee?

Irma had been baptized quite a few years ago. She belonged to that group of early Antwerp pioneers, a leftover of immersions in the city’s swimming pool, by missionaries long gone. The details of her conversion were scant. Her husband did not join. Still, he had given permission for her baptism, but never attended Church. Irma had made clear that home or visiting teachers were out of the question.

Her faith was simple and straightforward. In any lesson, when questions were so clear-cut to be unanswerable for those who thought to be wise, she was the one to respond promptly, with the echoing orderliness of the Catholic catechism she remembered from her childhood years:
– Why is it important that we obey God’s commandments?
– It is important because they come from God.
– How do we know they come from God?
– We know because it’s said in the Bible.

But that coffee problem remained. More than once the teacher, spurred on to act upon the needs of the individual, prepared a special lesson on the Word of Wisdom. About the evil chemicals in coffee. The diseases it fostered. About David O. McKay politely but firmly refusing the cup of tea the Dutch Queen offered him. The touchstone of our commitment. Irma listened, hunching up on her chair, soaking in the words. We knew she got the message.

When I was called as branch president, I interviewed her. She looked down, avoiding eye contact, as if sitting in a confessional struggling with guilt, and evaded answers. I was too young, twenty-three, too innocent to be able to probe behind the weathered face.

One night, not long after the interview, I got a phone call. It was her daughter. As she introduced herself, I sensed the same limitations as Irma’s. She spoke in dialect, trying to sanitize vowels into proper Dutch. It sounded clumsy.
– You’re the Mormon priest, aren’t you?

Sad news, she said. Mother has been hit by a car while crossing the street. Killed instantly.

I scrambled for the right words.

– Don’t feel sorry, she said. It’s better for her. You know what I mean.
– I… I am not sure I knew her that well.
– You know my father is a beast. Mom must have told you.

It all came out. Irma had bargained her permission to be baptized at the expense of increased abuse. It was the first time in my life I heard the raw details of the evil hidden behind tidy doors.

– And then there was that thing with coffee.
– I know, I said naively.
– Yeah, he forced her. That was the deal: on Sundays, he wouldn’t let her go to your church, unless she first drank coffee with him. He knew how to get her. But she loved you people. You’ve been good to her.

Irma got a Catholic funeral. Her husband refused any other arrangement. A day after the burial a handful of us went to the cemetery to bid our own adieu. I dedicated the grave — that her body may rest undisturbed till the morning of the first resurrection. Next to the temporary black cross planted in the churned up soil we laid a modest wreath. On the ribbon it said: “From the Mormons, To a Saint.”

Irma, up there in glory, forgive us for not having understood, for not having searched for more inspiration. And, at least in your case, for the inept lessons on coffee.

72 comments for “Coffee

  1. Once again, Wilfried, a post that brings tears to the eyes. Thank you for the reminder, needed so often, that there is so much of others that we cannot know.

  2. I have marveled, Wilfried, at the richness and depth of your experiences with other people. I am forced to conclude that you have been given these in no small part because of your remarkable ability to use them to communicate truths with others. Thank you, as always.

  3. I’m sure that there are millions of Mormons who fit this category: there are underlying reasons that preclude them from following small or large commandments. If the Lord understands and will forgive anyway, why saddle well-meaning but short-falling members with angst and dismay for something as small as a cup of coffee? If these people will be saved anyway because they had good intentions but could not obey during this life, why make their lives more miserable by punishing, marganalizing or shunning them while alive?

  4. Wilfried:

    Will you please compile a book of these sorts of essays? I would love to read these and others over and over again (which I can obviously do here- but I would also like to share them with others).

  5. I like the moral of this story. Family always comes first, and religous practices or beliefs should not come between them, because things will work out in the end anyway. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks for the kind comments.

    Billy (7), first of all, I am afraid you did not read the story well. Members did not make Irma’s life “more miserable by punishing, marginalizing or shunning” her. Irma was, in her own way, very happy to be able to come to Church, the only place where she felt at home and had friends. But we could have shown more understanding for her plight had we known why coffee was a problem. She, however, kept her drama secret and bore it alone. And that drama was much larger than the coffee.

    On the other hand, outside this story, you raise a significant question for which I think there is both an easy and a complex answer. The easy answer is that commandments serve a clear purpose and are meant to help and protect us. I believe that even a small commandment like “no coffee” is a touchstone for obedience. Once you start to give in because it’s inconvenient or stressful or difficult, where does it end? In just a few decades, I saw how the Catholic church (in Belgium and I guess also in other places) let go of so many of its rules for the sake of convenience of the members. The result: empty churches.

    But I agree there are cases where it is complex and may seem unfair. When there is no reasonable balance between what you call “angst and dismay” and the importance of the commandment as such. When we alienate and lose people over trivial things. In my post Remain in your homeland, I pointed at this topic as “the viability of Mormon faithfulness and involvement” in particular in a non-American, non-Mormon environment. It has to do with reasonableness of exigencies, evaluation of the Gospel core versus (hallowed) trivialities, assessment of isolation versus acceptable linking with traditions, social obligations towards non-Mormon family, etc. I am sure this matter is on the mind of our authorities, and I trust in future developments. I also discussed this topic in my post They govern themselves. I hope this helps a little to show understanding for the challenges each of us faces on various levels and in various circumstances.

  7. Thanks for your reply, Wilfried. I agree that for the most part, and for some people, these and other commandments serve as a protection and a benefit. However, a cup of coffee every day is hardly something over which (in the real world) people should feel shame, guilt, anxiety, etc., not to mention that you can’t be sealed to your spouse in the temple if you have a cup a day. Yet whether it be a cup or coffee, a long-term live-in relationship (e.g. in South America where divorces are difficult or impossible to come by and many live common-law), or other rules, there are billions of people worldwide for whom these counsels would be crippling if not permanently damaging.

    Is the Church for everyone, or isn’t it? Is it fair that those who have no problems eschewing a cup of joe, life in the Church is far easier than their coffee-drinking counterparts? Especially when coffee is far less damaging than the fatty desserts that are always being blessed at ward functions?

  8. Very touching and a great lesson on being judgemental.

    However, it went another direction than where I thought it was going to go. And that direction is just how serious is the willful and unintimidated drinking of coffee? As context, I have never tasted coffee in my entire life, but I do enjoy the smell of it.

    I have a close relative who does drink coffee; a life long Mormon and should know better. It is not a matter of will power; he really doesn’t believe that it is a serious problem. His daughter wanted to get married in the temple and he wanted to attend. He asked the Bishop how long he had to give up his brew. The Bishop said 6 months. Lucky for him, they had a long engagement. He went to the wedding in the Salt Lake temple and then directly across the street to McDonalds and ordered a cup of coffee. I remember thinking to myself how could this man let a cup of coffee keep him out of the celestial kingdom? Then my mind was flooded with the thought: What kind of church would dare stand between this good man and his daughter who so obviously love one another on her wedding day?

    This relative has a complex interpretation of a chapter in church history that explains his position. He says that Heber J. Grant got really hacked off when the Mormons did not listen to him and followed the direction of the Relief Society and B. H. Roberts back in about 1936(?) when Utah voted to repeal prohibition. So Heber got even by really putting some teeth into the Word of Wisdom. He made it part of temple worthiness and he defined coffee and tea as hot drinks. J. Golden Kimball lamented when he heard the news; ” What the hell are you doing Heber? You know I can’t keep it.”

    Heber J. Grant had looked at the cash flow in and out of Utah and concluded that too much disgressionary money was flowing out to buy these items that could better be spent on items like ice cream and sugar which were locally produced to ease the economic pain of the Depression. It was never a part of a revelation from God that defined the coffee and tea as hot drinks.

    Apostle John Widstoe (sp?) who was a brilliant chemist studied what it was in coffee and tea that made it addicting and objectionable. He recognized that caffeine was what gave coffee its kick and that is how the hot drinks mentioned by Joseph Smith in 1830’s morphed into caffeine in the modern Mormon mind. He used to say that there was enough caffeine in one pound of good British tea to kill a man 12 times over if taken all at once. He even went so far as to realize that chocolate had similar stimulants that are mildly addicting and he suggested that the Word of Wisdom be interpreted even broader. David O. McKay didn’t think there was anything wrong with chocolate since he loved chocolate and ate more than his share of it. So the Word of Widstoe was never adopted by the church which would have been a terrible blow to chocolaholics across Mormonia. Something to think about, all you chocolate addicts as you look down your noses at the coffee drinkers among us.

    And good old Coca Cola was not a problem for the church leaders in the early 1900’s when it actually had cocaine in it; but today the caffeine is just too much for some members. One of my relatives in Idaho has a Bishop who will not issue a temple recommend to those who have not abstained from the pernicious evil of coke for 6 months. I have another relative who has a serioius addiction to coke and drinks a dozen cans a day and gets severe headaches when she goes off it. Common sense is needed in these matters more than strict and elaborate rules.

    So we keep coffee and coke in the house for our relatives who partake of these substances as part of the duty of a good host. But we have not taught our children to use these things, although the Coca Cola battle seems to have been lost for the time being. And the caffeine free coke clouds the issue further with the appearance of evil principle. (Don’t even mention Pepsi, that is what people soak their feet in here in the South).

  9. Agreed, Billy (12). It is not easy and you raise valid points. I would suggest that we let this topic rest a little now, as the problem has been clearly stated.

    I see Mike has posted meanwhile (13). Also thanks for this information. It ties in with similar concerns, but this thread is not really the place to make an evaluation of the history of the WoW, nor is our aim to undermine the validity of a clear, present-day commandment.

    I hope my post will rather help us reflect quietly on the fundamental problem: women’s abuse in the family, domestic violence.

  10. Wow. What an appalling tale of spiritual abuse–as well as physical abuse. This lady was truly a martyr for the faith, every day of her life.

    But indeed, ‘where else could she go?’

    Such things remind one of how truly small the typical struggles of the Sabbath really are.

  11. TMD, I’m not clear on what’s so appalling about the story or what is “spiritually abusive” about the situation except for the counsel itself (i.e. coffee’s bad). It may just have been impossible for the husband to fathom the seriousness of drinking six ounces of a healthy hot drink. It’s not like he was raping her before Church every Sunday.It was just a cup of coffee. Did he strap her down and force the coffee down her gullet? She chose to drink it, as do countless other active and inactive Mormons all over the world. I don’t see what the big deal is about this story.

    The only concept that seems sad here is that a benign habit–coffee drinking–could cause so much consternation for a well-meaning, nice little old lady like Irma. If the lessons her ward members gave were that damaging, perhaps the entire church curriculum should be changed because there are lessons that decry coffee frinking from Primary right on up to the HP level.

  12. Clarifying note–the spiritual abuser was her husband, who explicitly used her spiritual beliefs to intentionally harm her. This is barbarism.

    As I read it, her witness, then, is of the preciousness of the gospel, of the close relationship with heavenly father available only through living it as best we can. She was willing to bear much for the companionship of the Spirit. In her bearing of such costs, a reminder for those of us who have had relatively easy conversion experiences–I was fortunate there, only a changed but still fairly good relationship with my father–of just how valuable baptism, the sacrament, the temple are.

  13. Very touching.

    Its flat out inhuman to subject your wife, the mother of your children, to the type of abuse that Wilfried writes about.

    Kudos on a great post Wilfried.

  14. Jen–the last comment was typed before I read your response. From my reading of Wilfried’s account, there was not much free agency involved at all. If she wanted to go to church, she had to meet her husband’s demand. In every sense except for the physical act itself, her husband was raping her every Sunday.

    It is clearly not the same as the member who choses to have some coffee before heading off to Sacrament meeting (or not). It was plainly symbolic in meaning, an act of domination. Your pleading of ignorance on her husband’s behalf is disingenuous.

  15. The WoW has more weight than I think it ought to have. I have a brother who is currently battling a nicotine addiction, after having battled much more addictive illegal substances. A branch president on my mission drank beer every now and then. I had a companion from Munich who drank a ‘near beer’ every P-day. Guess what, they are all good people.

    As for my brother, I’ve heard numerous stories about church members being rather judgmental when discovering his past. He has a good sense of humor and takes this all in stride. For example, he was attending an Elder’s Quorum meeting (having recently been released from jail) and the instructor asked if anyone performed an act of service that week. After a long spell of silence (don’t we love those) my brother raised his hand and said that he performed service in the community. The instructor (unaware of the sinner within their midst) jokingly said, ‘I’m not talking about court ordered community service!’ The bishop happened to be attending the meeting (and was aware of the sinner) and informed the instructor afterwards of the situation. Later that day the instructor came by the house to apologize to my brother and spoke the infamous words, “I had no idea.”

    As with the above story, some times, many times, we have no idea what others are going through. Be nice.

  16. If this story occured before the early 1980s (which seems to be the case), Irma could not have gone to the temple to take out her own endowments anyway, since her husband was not a member and since she had not gone on a mission. I’m sure there were (and are) hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of members like Irma. Marriage is about give and take, and compromise, and is infinitely more important than the Church. It’s certainly more important than a daily cup of coffee.

  17. Indeed, TMD (19), you clarified well.

    I guess, to fully understand the context of this story, you must have lived in those tiny branches in the mission field and know what conversion entails and how members struggle. Also we talk about the sixties here (though or course, when it comes to abuse, cases are just as similar today). Moreover, I hope that was clear, we are dealing with people from a struggling working class, with little or no education. I also mentioned in the story Irma was “from a submissive generation”. Many converts of that time were poor people, often limited in abilities, but wonderfully receptive and incredibly faithful. Irma was typical of those older sisters, sometimes single, sometimes the only member in their family.

    I did not go into the description of what I clearly implied: “It was the first time in my life I heard the raw details of the evil hidden behind tidy doors.” We’re talking about harsh, physical domestic violence.

  18. Jen–I disagree. A marriage like this is not worth more than the church, or, more important, the gospel. And there does not seem to be any compromise going on here, but rather the mere whims of a despot.

    Moreover, based on the experiences of a number of people I know–people who, in the modern US, have been effectively cut off by their parents–the gospel is worth it. There may be flaws, but the church is indeed true–not in question of fact but in question of fidelity to the Word.

  19. In your opinion, should she have divorced him over this? Would this have been better? It’s true that even today, some couples divorce when one spouse leaves the Church or loses his/her testimony. I really don’t see the harm, and the term “abuse” is bandied about far too frequently. People do the best they can. I can’t see the whole evil, handwringing Mr. Burns-type husband forcing his wife to do something as evil as drink coffee (at least) once a week. I’m sure he didn’t hold her mouth open and force it down her throat. People have to make concessions and prioritze to get along. I certainly don’t hold an agreement of “you’ll have morning coffee with me once a week and you can attend your church” anywhere NEAR the realm of being raped. The poor husband probably thought IRMA was the apostate who left him alone in his Catholic religion. He was probably a really good guy; at least he let her go to church.

  20. Everything depends on the situation. There are cases where you may have to choose the Gospel above family (as Christ said in statements that do sound harsh). There are others where one must do everything, if possible and feasible, to save the family. And then are those, like in Irma’s case, where, apparently, the woman had no choice, or was not in a position to choose, because of age, social set-up, fear, whatever. We cannot judge which is best in which circumstances. Let us also be very careful and sensitive in discussing the topic of abuse. It is no doubt a very painful topic for some. Think of Irma, and what I and others should have said or done, had we known.

  21. Jen, I read your last comment (24) after I posted the above. I have the impression your objectives are simply disruptive and that you may even willfully twist what is obvious, i.e. serious abuse over many years. People who abuse have various vicious ways to do it. When you say: “I’m sure he didn’t hold her mouth open and force it down her throat”, actually the image you use is not very far from the truth. In a story like this, one cannot tell everything, but I hope there were enough hints to understand what Irma went through. When a daughter says it is better for her mother to be dead than to continue to endure her life at home, that requires no more explanation.

    But let us now rather concentrate on the kindness and faithfulness of a woman we remember with deep respect.

  22. If Irma’s husband had had a testimony of the Word of Wisdom, and THEN prevented her from fully keeping it, that’s one thing. If he made the arrangement and she agreed to it for whatever reason, that’s yet another. As for how she should have been treated: she should still have been taught the Word of Wisdom and been encouraged to keep it. However, since it was not a temple-recommend issue–since she couldn’t have gone to the temple anyway–for her, that commandment was no different than shopping on Sunday (which many active members do all the time). She may have suffered to know what to do, but she still made the choice to come to church; she wasn’t chained in the basement. The best part of this story is the fact that through the blessings of temple work, Irma and her husband are now (by proxy) eternally sealed. I’m sure they’ll work out their own issues in the next life.

  23. Bryce I
    I think that we all can see these things around us if we open our eyes. There are amazing life lessons to be learned if we take the time to notice people and situations, and think about them a little. Of course, even if we see, few can tell about it as eloquently as Wilfried.

    I am surprised that you didn’t seem to understand that the husband was abusive. The daughter clearly stated that her father had been cruel to his wife. Perhaps it is difficult for some to understand, but a woman who has been in an emotionally abusive marriage usually does not feel she has a choice but to stay and suffer through the abuse. She is powerless. If her husband “made” her drink coffee, it really may have been “made” not “requested.” It is not at all the same thing as a marriage of partners where each partner has choices, and there is give and take when there is a difference of opinion.

    Why does God have commandments at all? We are all sinners. None of us can be saved on our own merit. Perhaps sometimes people forget that. We concentrate on people being good, making good choices, etc. But to truly understand the Plan of Salvation is to understand that we are sinners, and that the atonement can save us, if we are willing to place our lives in our Savior’s hands. What actual commandments he gives us is less important than our willingness to obey them. This is what we learn in the Abraham and Isaac story. And anyone who says that it is easy to give up our will to the Lord is fooling themselves. It is hard. It is difficult. But it is what brings us peace. As church members we are all in the process of trying. No one should act like they have already acheived exaltation, and no one should be anxious or embarrassed that they are still working on it.

  24. Actually, I don’t think this story is about the Word of Wisdom.

    It’s about the “weightier matters of the the law”: compassion; humane service; and understanding.

    But in any case, attacks on the importance of the WoW are unwarranted. All God’s commandments are important.

    When Christ served his mortal ministry, you’ll notice he scrupulously kept the Law of Moses at all times. True, he rejected the Pharasiacal additions that came later. But the Law of Moses contained in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers? He kept it … always.

    The higher law of Christ does not replace the Law of Moses (except in certain ceremonies). It adds to the burden. Being led by the Spirit is far more difficult than keeping the letter of the law. This is because it requires that you keep BOTH the letter of the law and follow the Spirit.

    Obedience (pure and simple) is always the threshold matter. We don’t graduate to “being led by the Spirit” until we are obedient. You can’t talk seriously about living by the higher principles until you live by the lower ones.

    That said, Wilfried’s post doesn’t seem to be about the WoW. It’s about lost opportunities to touch the life of another human being.

    Dismissing the WoW as “trivial” or “of secondary importance” is not complimentary to the life of this poor woman who devoted her life to its observance and suffered greatly for it.

    Don’t cheapen her sacrifice by dismissing it as silly (not that anyone here has done so … yet).

  25. Jen–last post, I promise. The offensivenss and the personal damage associated with rape is largely due to its social construction–that is, in what it means. The proximity to rape, here, is in what it meant to have her drink coffee, rather than the time together. As an aside, my parents are of that particular faith mix (I grew up catholic and then converted, to my mind without animosity towards Rome), and they somehow manage to deal with each others’ differing faith practices and beliefs without forcing (emotional blackmailing, etc.) one another to violate their commitments. That is compromise…that is respect for one’s spouse, qua person, not merely qua spouse.

    What to say to her? Well, if the relationship was otherwise abusive, the only course of action I can imagine would be to encourage her to break the cycle of abuse, if that was possible for her. If not, the most important thing, I think–particularly if I’m understanding her mentality right–would be to say to her that if the choice was not hers, and particularly considering her desire to do otherwise, then she would not ever be held accountable for it. If it was indeed, as Jen seems to suggest, merely a matter of maintaining domestic peace of a normal tenor in a normal home, then surely a compromise less painful would be possible. It’s not as if there are no parralells in catholic practice…And if all else failed, she could make steak for dinner on ash wednesday, just to make the point.

  26. TMD, your last post helped me to see where you’re coming from. Thanks. I still don’t agree, though. I’ve used the analogy of forcing coffee down her throat to your hyperbolic example of rape. You mention that rape only has negative connotations because of “its social construction.” Nope. Rape is a violent act; therefore it’s similar to pouring hot coffee down someone’s throat.

    Anyhoo, Irma made her choices, however limited they were, and she should be lauded for sticking to her guns, even if that meant drinking coffee weekly so she could go to church. The fact that she didn’t divorce him means that if their proxy work is done (or even if it isn’t already) she will be sealed to him for eternity, and it’s her righteousness that effected that outcome.

  27. I think your assertions about templework and sealings are not well grounded in doctrine, although I admit that there are gray areas there..

  28. What a wonderful story, and so well told. To grossly paraphrase Spencer W. Kimball (and likely a host of others), the issue is not the coffee, but obedience. The sister in this story was as obedient as her circumstances allowed. That is all God requires of us (but, he does require it of us). Not surprising, I suppose, that some would twist the moral of the story into one about “one little cup of coffee.” Jesus Christ will judge who enters the Celestial Kingdom and who does not. It is incumbent upon us, however, to make sure we understand the commandments, and obey them as far as we can, not as far as is convenient, or as far is not too difficult.

  29. TMD said, “I think your assertions about templework and sealings are not well grounded in doctrine, although I admit that there are gray areas there.. ”

    I’m not sure why you say this. Could you please point to any doctrinal inconsistensies or grey areas? As far as I understand, we are sealed to whomever we were sealed to, and we have to be sealed in order to be exalted.

  30. Thanks all for the quick flurry of comments.

    Yes, the story is ultimately about understanding our fellow brothers and sisters, their circumstances, their limitations, and the place of obedience and charity in our daily dealings.

    As to temple work and Irma’s eternal future, Jen, it is nice to think about that, but it’s probably better to leave that out of the discussion here.

  31. Wilfried, thank you — but I’ve complained before about making me weep at work. Still, you persist in doing so!
    “When I was a young man, I served as counselor to a wise district president in the Church. He tried to teach me. One of the things I remember wondering about was this advice he gave: ‘When you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.’
    “I thought then that he was pessimistic. Now, more than 40 years later, I can see how well he understood the world and life.”
    –Henry B. Eyring, GenCon 4/2004

  32. Wilfried, this is a great story because it reminds us that things are not always as they seem — that we should be slow to judge from appearances. Thanks for sharing it.

  33. Jen (28): “The best part of this story is the fact that through the blessings of temple work, Irma and her husband are now (by proxy) eternally sealed. I’m sure they’ll work out their own issues in the next life.”

    Did we read the same story? Why would she want to spend eternity with a man like this?

  34. I don’t want to ruin it by belaboring the story, but is someone going to explain to Jen the details that Wilfried is too genteel to mention explicitly? I’m in suspense.

  35. You’re right, jjohnsen and GreenEggz. When a story is read superficially, or with different intent, the understanding of the story and the comments may go into strange directions, innocently or maliciously. I trust that any sincere reader of this thread has quickly understood that some persons have their own agenda and that there was no reason to feed such devious attempts. I appreciate all the more those who have given serene and thoughtful comments on what is a profound and difficult topic.

  36. I’m struck by the wisdom of “…treat them as if they were in serious trouble…” I have been struggling with the concepts of proclaiming the commandments as rules for all people yet dealing with the reality of exceptions (the issue of mothers in the home comes to mind). Yes, we need to keep (and teach) the Word of Wisdom, but there are always exceptions, as in Brother Decoo’s story. Irma’s story just re-emphasized to me the need to unconditionally love all those I come in contact with, without cruel and unnecessary judgment.

    I’m with Kayla (#9). I want to go back in time and give Irma a hug.

  37. You know, I felt like this so often on my mission.

    There was just an incredible sense of frustration. Here I was, a part of these people’s lives. I desperately wanted to help them. But we lacked the connection and the trust that would have allowed me to help (and them to be helped). Neither could I force that relationship. You just can’t force people to believe in your motives or your capacity for goodness.

    All those inactive members whom I met … who were carrying such burdens of shame, guilt, and resentment … I wish I could have taken it away. But I couldn’t.

    Sometimes they wouldn’t let me (I think we treasure our injuries as much as our joys). But other times I was just afraid to do what was necessary. Perhaps I had a lack of trust as well.

  38. This reminds me of a convert friend of mine. She was baptized after high school and the only member in her family. Her parents smoked and she lived at home. So she would come to church smelling of smoke. I sometimes wondered if people who did not know her well, made judgements about whether she was keeping the Word of Wisdom. Wilfried’s story was a wonderful reminder that we can never know enough about a person’s situation to pass absolute judgement on them.

  39. Thank you, manaen, Kaimi, Keryn, Katie… for your latest comments and thoughts.

    Seth (44), I understand your feelings in particular. We know the Gospel is meant to bring joy, and it does in many cases right away. But sometimes converts must pass through undue hardships that are often not of their own volition. It is troublesome when we are part of the source of those problems, wittingly or unwittingly as in Irma’s case. One thing we must do is try to show more understanding so we can timely discover what people are enduring and how we can help.

  40. Seductively well written Wilfried. This is what the church needs, no Word of Wisdom. no law of chastity, no law of consecration etc. Then we can be compassionate like all those European and mainline protestant churches that ask for nothing and get nothing.

  41. EdwardE, that is a strange comment. At no point does this story convey what you imply.

    [ed. note: EdwardE is known to us for taking on multiple persona’s with devious and derailing comments]

    As I said in comment 11 in response to that theme: “Once you start to give in because it’s inconvenient or stressful or difficult, where does it end? In just a few decades, I saw how the Catholic church (in Belgium and I guess also in other places) let go of so many of its rules for the sake of convenience of the members. The result: empty churches.”

    But at the same time we must better try to understand what some of our members go through, so that we can show compassion where needed and where warranted. And provide the proper help. That is the message of this story.

  42. There’s sweet seduction in the Gospel of Christ–where else do we hear words like these?

    Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.


    Come all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

    The good news of the gospel is that through the grace of Christ we can be made whole–that his grace can heal the broken hearts and wipe away all the tears and raise us from corruption to incorruption.

    The unspoken premise of Wilfried’s post is that the grace of Christ will heal Irma, and wipe away her tears, and fill those empty places in her soul that we, called to serve all the Irmas who are our sisters, cannot fill. But, remembering Irma, we can try harder to understand, to serve, and to love.

    Who am I to judge another
    When I walk imperfectly
    In the quiet heart is hidden
    Sorrow that the eye can’t see
    Who am I to judge another–
    Lord, I would follow thee.

    I would be my brother’s keeper,
    I would learn the healer’s art.
    To the wounded and the weary
    I would show a gentle heart.
    I would be my brother’s keeper–
    Lord, I would follow thee.

  43. Wilfried, or anyone else who has an answer,

    Here is something that puzzles me. The drinking of a cup of tea will keep you out of the temple, but there are other, far more serious sins (at least in my opinion) that do not disqualify us from temple service. Those sins include unkindness, sloth, holding a grudge, lack of charity, and selfishness, among many others. I wonder why that is? I’m asking, not in an attempt to say that I think the church should change anything, but rather because I assume there may be something I am not understanding.

    Here are the reasons I can think of:

    1. I am wrong. A violation of the WoW is, in the eyes of God, worse than being unkind.
    2. Tithing and cigarette smoking are things that we are able to measure. The virtues of a pure heart and Christlike love are harder to measure, therefore we do not attempt to.

    Are there any others?

  44. Mark IV, we sometimes think about the TR interview as a preview of the final judgement: the PSAT, say, where we see what subjects we need to bone up on for the real thing. But I’m not entirely convinced that the primary purpose of the TR is to demarcate the sheep from the goats; that is, we shouldn’t rely on the possession of the TR narrowly to distinguish between the Christlike and the un-. There’s preliminary sorting, yes, and one would hope that the most egregious sinners will be disqualified. But beyond that, the TR, more than anything, assesses the strength of one’s relationship to the church–which, of course, is a rather different matter from one’s relationship to Christ. The temple, particularly in the post-Deseret era, is the sanctuary of the church’s most sacred doctrines and rituals, an esoteric space for initiation into solemn covenants. It’s thus in the best interest of the church—to protect the set-apartness of those ordinances, which we highly prize—*and* in the best interest of the initiate–who, after all, is the one to make those covenants—to ensure that the temple-goer has a strong, enduring attachment to and investment in the church. Things like WoW and tithing, while perhaps not the best indicators of Christlike character, are excellent indicators of the strength of one’s loyalty to Mormonism.

  45. MarkIV

    It’s simple. The Law of Obedience preceeds the Law of Sacrifice and the Law of Consecration. Obedience is always a threshold matter. If you aren’t willing to show obedience, you simply aren’t ready to live the higher laws.

  46. MarkIV, your question is certainly valid, but contains also its own answer I think: If we have sins of “unkindness, sloth, holding a grudge, lack of charity, and selfishness, among many others”, do we deem ourselves worthy to go the temple? One of the questions of the TR-interview is general in that sense, as it asks about our own assessment of being worthy “in every way” to go to the temple. A TR-interview cannot probe into all detailed aspects of our life. There are a few specific questions on well measurable aspects, but that does not exclude all the aspects that are less measurable.

  47. Rosalynde, your answer is intelligent and soothing, and might be correct. But I think it begs the question: Why the premium on ‘loyalty to the Mormonism’ instead of ‘Christlike character’? Might not potential misalignment between these actually hamper the development of godly attributes?

    It’s not clear to me that the need to maintain an esoteric space justifies the current emphasis. The least that can be said is that it’s a pretty blunt instrument.

  48. Wilfried, this is a beautifully told story that resonates with those of us who have had the opportunity of discovering that, despite our vast intellectual knowledge of the Law, we lack the experience, or the inspiration, or the wisdom, to know how to help another, even when we sincerely want to.

    You seem to have struck a nerve with those who want to comment on nitpicky rules vs. higher law, but I don’t think that was your point. I think you were reflecting on our tendency to look at another and think their problem is one thing (in this story, a lack of faith to keep one specific commandment), when in reality their problem is much bigger and more heartbreaking ( in this case, being the victim of domestic abuse. Ironically, lack of faith was not a problem at all.) This is a story about our inadequacy, our tendency to misunderstand each other, and by doing so, fail to offer the needed remedy. It reminds us to not rely on our own smarts, but to seek inspiration always. Also, be kind and forgiving to each other, because you never know when you are completely misunderstanding someone. But it’s not a condemnation of the Word of Wisdom, it is a condemnation of our mis-diagnosing someone’s spiritual malady.

  49. Where were her home teachers? Visiting teachers? Friends? Family members? I think the issue was not so much whether she drank coffee and why, but why this abuse by her husband wasn’t diagnosed earlier. As lay members of a church led by lay clergy, of *course* we have to deem people worthy of one thing or another. Does it matter what the reason is for someone’s inability to keep the commandments? There are lots of members who are addicted to substances, or sleep with their boyfriends or else be thrown out on the steret, or are too poor to pay tithing. Of course, because of the way the church is set up, we judge them “unworthy” of attending the temple, holding certain callings, etc. It’s the church that teaches us to judge others. What else should the branch members’ reactions have been? I just don’t understand the account or the moral of the story. What is meant by “judging” in this case?

  50. Very well put, Kristy (56). It was indeed interesting to see how a few comments immediately reflected on other aspects than the fundamental issue. Perhaps the somewhat provocative title “Coffee” had its share in triggering this. But it is also obvious we sometimes get commenters who, perhaps even maliciously, try to lay blame on the Church or derail the discussion to controversial points. I’m glad that our sincere readers do not fall to that bait.

    Irma was a true, very committed believer, simple in her conclusions, but also a person who could and would not talk about her personal drama. If we had known what her real situation was, nobody would have thought she had a problem with the Word of Wisdom. And we could have reached out beyond and help her. The story also includes that message: confide in a priesthood leader, or in a professional (doctor, social worker…), if you are the victim of abuse. Also, in the U.S. you can call e.g. the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE / 1-800-787-3224.

  51. Isn’t there a parallel here with where we ended in Julie’s posting on Temple/non-Temple marriages? My understanding, to oversimplify, is that we more or less concurred that we :
    1) preach the ideal,
    2) love and help each other as we imperfectly are able to do so,
    3) leave to God and each person the judging of their standing, spirtuality, worthiness, etc.

  52. (57) “Where were her home teachers? Visiting teachers? Friends? Family members? I think the issue was not so much whether she drank coffee and why, but why this abuse by her husband wasn?t diagnosed earlier.”

    Having served a mission in Belgium and France, I can tell you. Members live far apart, see each other on Sundays, and she probably had no family members who belonged to the Church. Though I haven’t taken a poll, it was my observation that French/Belge people are much more tolerant of smacking around your children, and that may simply carry over into marital relationships. If it’s hard to get home teaching done in the US, it’s triply so in Europe, where gas costs $4 /gallon, you have to drive 30 minutes to get to someone’s house, and you probably have 10 inactives on your assignment, if you have an assignment. I apologize for sounding gloomy, but I spent a lot of my mission quite depressed when I became aware of the crushing weight of cultural and social baggage most members had to bear just to stay vaguely active.

  53. Re #57:

    Have you ever served in a branch outside of the US? You’ll note that Wilfried mentioned that this was a branch?

    One of the Japanese branches I served in had a grand total of 3 active Melkezedik Priesthood holders. One was the Branch President. Only one of the 3 actually managed to do his home teaching on a monthly basis and he had well over 30 people to visit. We would go on splits with him visiting members who he thought were good prospects to bring back into fellowship.

    Even so, the other 2 Melkezedik holders were also incredibly busy. Most of the sisters attending church had their own issues at home.

    Our weekly sacrament meeting attendance was about 15 and that was a fairly large number. I attended other branches with only 7 people in attendance each Sunday.

    The missionaries were heavily relied upon to pitch in just to keep the branch afloat.

    Yes, there are horrible problems all around us. But we are only human and sometimes we don’t have the needed resources to be of help.

  54. Manaen (59), yes, that is a nice conclusion.

    Ben S. (60) reminds us that indeed the bishop is to judge worthiness according to pretty precise guidelines (and thanks for those guidelines). Some may resent the “judging” part, but our system of interviews, if conducted in the right spirit and with true intent, is a unique and powerful way to help us remain conscious of our commitments and true to the faith. We are still free to accept that system or to reject it.

    Hometeaching in the mission field? Yes, not easy, but not impossible. In Irma’s case, as I said in the story: “Irma had made clear that home or visiting teachers were out of the question.” This is not rare in situations where only one is a member of the Church. Of course we respect the wish of the family member.

  55. Seth, I see you just posted meanwhile and I’ll confirm! In the Antwerp branch I was called to preside over, we had some 200 members on record by the time I was called, about 20 active, and 3 priesthood holders (including me). I was 23 and a student. We did what we could. And it was, despite all the challenges, wonderful as I have explained here. But sometimes we “failed” too, as in Irma’s case. No need to analyze the event in great detail, but the message I wanted to convey is simple to understand.

  56. Christian, I’ll confess that I’ve never mastered the technical meaning of “begging the question”—and it’s been explained to me very slowly by several very smart people, so I think I’m hopeless—but I’ll take your word for it.

    It seems to me that you’re asking why “being loyal to the church” and “being Christlike” aren’t one and the same, and suggesting that the disparity impairs the spiritual development of church members. Is this right? If we think of “Being Christlike” as a large set of attributes and actions, then “Loyalty to the Church” is a subset of Christlike behavior—and it happens to be the subset that best predicts readiness for temple initiation, for the reasons I suggested above.

    As for your suggestion that “temple-ready” is not a fully adequte substitute for “Christlike”, and that misunderstanding the relationship of the two can hamper spiritual growth, I think you make a good point. Holding a temple recommend, even if one has no opportunity for temple worship, has been fetishized a bit by church leaders in recent years—probably precisely as a way to build loyalty to the Church in areas where it is institutionally weak. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that the recommend is a non-refundable ticket into heaven, that we have no more spiritual growth to accomplish, or, worse, that those who do not hold recommends are necessarily less Christlike than we.

  57. Wilfried, your stories illustrate something taught to me by the Chief Engineer aboard an ocean-going tanker when I was a cadet. He counseled me that when I graduated from school to seek employment on an old rust-bucket of a ship where things are constantly breaking down in order to learn the quickest.

    There’s a parallel to church work there. One doesn’t grow very fast when everything is running smoothly in a ward. It is in the conflicts, tragedies, emergencies, shortcomings, failures, and struggles where the principles of the Gospel of Christ are illustrated where we can see them.

    Teen members who are preparing for missions should pray to be posted to small branches where the church is not well-established.

  58. Great comparison, GreenEggz. I concur.

    At the same time, to build on your comparison, we must probably recognize that on the old rust-bucket the risks of getting crushed by poorly lashed down cargo, or of falling off the ship through a rusted railing, are much greater than on the well-kept tanker with all the safety well in place. And thus, in a small struggling Church unit, the advantages of the learning process are partly offset by the higher ratio of people who become inactive. Refiner’s fire. Would they have remained active in a well-functioning ward and in a Mormon environment? Probably, but also probably not as strong. For those who survive the small unit, the net-result is precious. Tenacious, experienced, contemporary pioneers.

  59. Wilfried – Another beautiful and thought-provoking post. What touches me more than anything was the situation in which Irma was placed. Her anguished and concerned questions about coffee-drinking shows she knew what was doing was wrong, yet she was placed in such a position that she had to do it. Many would have become inactive, thinking that they would never make it to the Celestial Kingdom, yet she stayed as faithful as she could. I hope that she felt that Heavenly Father would judge her kindly, as I know He will.

  60. Home teachers, visiting teachers, extended family, even friends are not necessarily privy to abuse that occurs in others’ homes. Even regular contact does not necessarily “reveal” abuse.

  61. Thank you, UKAnn. Always good to see you around here.

    LisaB, absolutely true. The harsh statistics and inside information are there to proof it. Even in Utah: “In Utah, 144,000 children currently live in violent homes. Every 15 minutes four Utah children witness domestic violence.” See e.g. here and here. Though there are signs that Utah is doing “a good job” in the combat.

    Still, a recent report mentions that “domestic disputes claim one Utahn every 21 days“.

  62. Please pardon a stray question: How is Irma’s coffee like/not like Eve’s forbidden fruit?
    Eve rejoiced in the results of her decision (Mos 5:11). Should(n’t) Irma?

  63. That’s an interesting way to look at it, Manaen. In theory it could: Irma drank the coffee to be able to enjoy the blessings of Church attendance. The difference would be the level of understanding: we believe Eve fully understood the procedure and the consequences. Not so Irma, because of her limited but conscientious insight (“Can coffee keep someone out of heaven?”), and because she would not talk about her plight. So she was alone to bear the burden of her worry about coffee (I would not say feelings of “guilt”, as deep in herself she must have known she was compelled to do it — and therefore forgiven). What she wanted to hear from us, was some reassurance, but we failed to provide that because we did not know the source of her concerns.

  64. I will not disagree with the Word of Wisdom or the prophets who say we shouldn’t drink coffee. There is a drug in it, it is against the WOW, and money paying for it could be better spent. I honestly feel this is more about the abuse of this women from her husband. I think the point of the story is to understand that we must look past what we see in people and ask Heavenly Father what is really going on. Sometimes we judge the situation without really knowing or asking.

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