TL;DR - We're all different in many ways, and God made us that way on purpose. We need to rejoice in our diversity, seek it out, learn from it, and certainly never reject, ostracize, denigrate or ignore others because of it. We also need to work toward unity by reaching out to each other, truly feeling love for each other, and then acting on that love in meaningful ways.
We have an amazing group of young women. Each is “a beloved spirit…daughter of Heavenly Parents.” As I’ve spend time with these girls over the past couple of days at camp and in various settings over the past couple of years I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the diversity of their personalities, talents, strengths, weaknesses, and opinions. Girls’ camp can be such a great bonding experience. By putting the young women and leaders together in a different setting from a standard church meeting or activity, we see a new side of each other – who has a limitless supply of hilarious jokes, who is the first every time to volunteer to do dishes or fetch water, who is ridiculously determined to cram that uncooperative tent back into the tent bag. Each of you young women contributes something precious and unique to our group. These differences make our lives richer and more interesting, they broaden our perspective and expand our hearts. Sr. Okazaki, a member of the general RS presidency years ago, said:
“…look around the room you are in. Do you see women of different ages, races, or different backgrounds in the Church? Of different educational, marital, and professional experiences? Women with children? Women without children? Women of vigorous health and those who are limited by chronic illness or handicaps? Rejoice in the diversity of our sisterhood! It is the diversity of colors in a spectrum that makes a rainbow. It is the diversity in our circumstances that gives us compassionate hearts. It is the diversity of our spiritual gifts that benefits the Church.” (Chieko N. Okazaki, “Rejoice in Every Good Thing,” October 1991 GC)
Particularly I think in our teenage years, but for those of us who are grown as well, it can feel like there’s safety in numbers. It’s more comfortable for most of us to not stand out from the crowd, to blend in, to conform. We can slip into the false mindset that if we’re like someone else, we’re safe, we’re ok. I love this analogy from Elder Wirthlin that reminds us that the diversity of God’s children is intentional, not accidental, and we need to be ourselves rather than try to be someone else:
“The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has [her] own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.
“This variety of creation itself is a testament of how the Lord values all His children…” (Joseph B. Wirthlin, "Concern for the One," April 2008 GC)
It also seems like the teenage years are the prime time for people to feel picked on for being different. One day I came home from middle school upset about someone teasing me for being different, my mom put a label on it, “Middle-school-itis.” She said something to the effect of “Mostly, when people give you a hard time for being different, they’re just scared. They feel threatened. You see, if what you believe or do is different from what they believe or do and you’re happy and confident, then sometimes people get worried that that means that they’re wrong or that what they’re doing is not ok, or not as good. They’re insecure and afraid, and they’re trying to make you feel as insecure and afraid as they are.” President Uchtdorf alluded to this mindset when he said:
“…while the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every [daughter] different from [her mother]. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Four Titles,” April 2013 GC)
And another analogy from Sr. Okazaki:
“[P]lease don't think that you must make footprints exactly the same way that everyone else does...I say this because some of you may feel as if you're permanently out of step. Some of you may be single in what seems like a married church. Some of you may be childless in a family-centered church. Some of you may be struggling in a ward where everyone else looks as if their toughest decision is which tie to wear to sacrament meeting. I'm here to tell you you can do it your own way...There are many ways of being righteous. There are many ways of being Mormon..." (Chieko Okazaki, "Following in Faith," Being Enough)
Unfortunately, sometimes we’re not comfortable enough even at church to show our differences – we’re human, scared of how others will react, scared of being hurt or rejected. Church should be a safe place for us to be ourselves, to be vulnerable and genuine. As President Uchtdorf recently said: "We come to church not to hide our problems but to heal them.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “On Being Genuine,” April 2015 General Conference)
We all need to contribute to making church a place where it’s safe to be different, where everyone feels welcomed and celebrated and wanted, not just those who fit a certain mold. The gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone and we need to act like it. Elder Holland had some strong words on this topic:
"Some members exclude from their circle of fellowship those who are different. When our actions or words discourage someone from taking full advantage of Church membership, we fail them--and the Lord. The Church is made stronger as we include every member and strengthen one another in service and love." (Jeffrey R. Holland, "Helping Those Who Struggle with Same-Gender Attraction," Liahona, October 2007)
And I love Sr. Okazaki’s counsel here:
“Let us value everyone’s contributions. Let us not exclude a sister, whatever her life choices and whatever her circumstances. Let us express trust that she used both study and prayer in making her decisions, and provide a supportive environment in which she can carry out those decisions, evaluate them for their success, and modify them if necessary. If change is necessary or desirable, it will be easier in a nurturing, supportive atmosphere…let us never judge another. We do not know her circumstances. We do not know what soul-searching went into her decisions…Let us be accepting and supportive as sisters. Let us trust the Lord, trust ourselves, and trust each other that we are trying to do the best we can.” (Chieko N. Okazaki, “Rowing Your Boat,” October 1994 GC)
In several places in the New Testament Paul uses a great analogy to describe the members of Christ’s church. He says:
“For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or fee; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
Then he sets up a couple of different scenarios, first:
“If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” (v 15-16).
Here we have a member comparing themselves to another member and concluding they themselves don’t belong because they are different. And here’s Paul’s response:
“If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him.” (v. 17-18)
The body couldn’t function if every member were the same, and God made it that way deliberately. And then here’s the second scenario, almost the opposite of the first:
“And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” (v. 21)
Here a member is rejecting another member because of their differences, demonstrating pride, claiming they don’t need the other members. Paul’s response is adamant:
“Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundance comeliness.” (v. 22-23)
Every part, every member is necessary for the body to function. The hand might be more glamorous than the elbow, but couldn’t do its job without it.
“That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member by honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” (v. 25-26)
All members are needed, and should care for, suffer and rejoice together. We lose something precious and irreplaceable when someone - anyone - leaves.
Don’t fall into either trap. Don’t look around at all the other people and decide that you’re just too different, so you don’t belong in this Church. And for heaven’s sake, don’t look at someone else and decide they are too different, you don’t need them in this Church.
Not only do the foot and hand and eye all need each other, they need their opposite as well. We have two eyes to provide depth perception, perspective. Hearing out of two ears allows us to pinpoint directions sounds are coming from. Having two hands and arms on opposite sides of our body expands our reach. Opening our minds and hearts to different views and opinions, varied life experiences of other members, all grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, provides us with a more complete understanding of each other and how we can work together for the benefit of all and the glory of God.
Quoting Paul's analogy, Pres. Packer said this last fall:
“We seek to strengthen the testimonies of the young and old, the married and single. We need to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ to men, women, and children, those of every race and nationality, the rich and the poor. We need the recent convert and those among our numbers descended from the pioneers. We need to seek out those who have strayed and assist them to return to the fold. We need everyone’s wisdom and insight and spiritual strength. Each member of this Church as an individual is a critical element of the body of the Church.” (Boyd K. Packer, “The Reason for Our Hope,” October 2014 GC)
We need our differences – “different” doesn’t mean “bad”. It might mean new or uncomfortable or misunderstood or I need to learn more, but different is good, it is vital, it is intentional.
“Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-day Saints, but that could be a blessing. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church…As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.
The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Four Titles,” April 2013 General Conference)
So we’ve heard from church leaders that our diversity and differences in talents, experiences, opinions, and applications of the gospel to our lives are a strength, are needed in this church. But we are also commanded several times in the scriptures to “be one,” and Christ must be serious about it because He warns “if ye are not one, ye are not mine”. How do we do that? How do we honor the differences while becoming one?
I noticed something about every scripture I read about unity while preparing for this talk. In every single case, unity was linked with love, and often specifically with charity, the pure love of Christ. First, we need to truly desire unity and then pray for the charity it requires “with all the energy of heart”. Then we reach out to each other in love, to get to know others who are different from us, to strike up conversations, to find ways to serve meaningfully, to open our homes and invite people over, to ask questions, to listen to their stories and learn from their experiences. This is easier for some than for others, but we can all do something to reach out to someone.
If we find ourselves drifting into a judging mindset, “hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm”, we need to take President Uchtdorf’s advice and simply “stop it!” We should assume the best of each other.
“The most important lesson [is] that we are truly all one in Christ Jesus. We are one in our love of the Savior. We are one in our testimonies of the gospel. We are one in faith, hope, and charity. We are one in our conviction that the Book of Mormon is the inspired word of God…We are one in loving each other.
“Are we perfect in any of these things? No. We all have much to learn. Are we exactly the same in any of these things? No. We are all at different points on our journey back to our Father in Heaven…God has given us many gifts, much diversity, and many differences, but the essential thing is what we know about each other—that we are all his children. Our challenge as members of the Church is for all of us to learn from each other, that we may all love each other and grow together.” (Chieko Okazaki, “Baskets and Bottles,” April 1996 GC)
It’s my hope that our Young Women organization and our ward can more fully appreciate, enjoy, and celebrate the God-given differences we have, that we can all help make church a safe place to be different, and come together more completely in love and unity, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.