Title: Mercy without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church, by: Lavina Fielding Anderson, Published by: Signature Books, Published in: 2020.
Genre: Faith, Personal Essays
Jana Riess begins her brief foreword to Mercy Without End by mentioning that she was baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Princeton the day after Lavina Fielding Anderson was excommunicated from the Church in Utah. Riess then briefly narrates the impact that this conjunction of events had on her life. I have my own “Lavina Fielding Anderson’s effect on my life” story. I was half-way through my mission in Oklahoma in September 1993. Like Riess, I had news reports of the “September 6” passed on to me, all of the missionaries did. We heard bits and pieces of what was going on through family letters and information that was passed to us from the news via church members and investigators. There was a lot of buzz about the “September 6”. In our October 1993 zone meetings, we were told to forget about the “September 6”, to not think or worry about them. We were told that they were “Apostates” who were being “led by Satan” in his efforts to “destroy the church.” Being young and not knowing better, for some time, I just assumed that what I had been told was right. BUT then, about 12 years later, I met Lavina at Sunstone. I had the opportunity to visit with her and hear her speak. I quickly realized that, far from being some Satan led destroyer of the Church, she was one of the most loyal Mormons, devoted Christians, and kind persons that I had ever met. While I wish that I could call Lavina friend, I can barely call her an acquaintance, so I was very glad to have had the chance to get to know her better and fully realize just how wonderful she is by reading Mercy without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church.
Mercy without End is a collection of eighteen sermons and talks by Anderson covering a period of roughly 30 years. When a book collects disparate talks from over a long period of time, it can it can suffer from a lack of focus. But the talks collected in Mercy are so consistent in their message of love, hope, and inclusiveness, Lavina’s love for Jesus and her fellow humans is so great and so apparent in each talk in the collection, that Mercy feels like it was written as one whole instead of eighteen loose parts. As I read, I found that in every chapter, on nearly every page, through Lavina’s words of hope and inspiration, through her abundantly indomitable spirit, I could better feel the love and hope of Jesus for all humankind. We are living in dark and rough times. We are living when it is easy to get down and feel overwhelmed, to wonder if there is any hope left. We are also living in a time when many Mormons are experiencing crises of faith and are wondering if there is a place for them in the body of Christ or perhaps are wondering if they can still feel or experience the divine if their relationship with the LDS Church changes or ends. If you are having any such feelings, if you are experiencing any such times, then Mercy without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church is the book to read renew your hope.
Over the course of the text’s 264 pages Anderson shares many, wonderful messages of inspiration. I will highlight a few of my favorite themes and passages. In 1993, Lavina experienced a very violent, public and extended excommunication process. During this trauma, among other things she experienced: her stake president treating her like a liar (p. 52), church authorities ignoring her (p. 52), her stake president being inconsistent on what charges were being brought against her, and she was told that her writings had embarrassed the church (p. 65, see also p. 176). In spite of this treatment and the various trials that she experienced, one thing that you see over and over in the pages of Mercy, is that Lavina always found ways to be loving, forgiving, and Christ like. She strived to discover ways to see the best in people, and in her trying circumstances and in the persecutions she experienced, she always found ways to learn and see “long term blessings…wrapped up as a package of short-term inconveniences and tribulation” (p. 166, see also p. 168 & p. 182-183). In chapter 3, which has the same title as the book she states her feelings about inclusiveness when she says:
there is a place in the church for all of us because there is room in the grace of Christ for every human being in the world. Mother Teresa says that Christ would have died for you if you were the only person in the world who needed his redemption. I want us to feel that grace, that redemption. (p 36, see p. 75 for a similar statement)
As pertaining to the feelings of grace and redemption that Lavina believes exist for all people, she relates that through her experiences she found that, “I no longer feel any need to evaluate my own righteousness or, more importantly, the righteousness of others” (p. 176). She states that despite the treatment that she experienced, she did not want to feel bitter against her stake president or other leaders involved in her excommunication. Of her stake president she compliments him and says that he “was a good soldier, a decent man, doing what he thought was right” (see pp. 55, 79-81, 147). She also relates the story of a visit that he made to her sacrament meeting shortly after her excommunication. As the sacrament was being passed during this visit Lavina had an epiphany of sorts. In the book she beautifully describes the experience this way:
For a moment, we are all suspended in holy timelessness. President Miller, Paul, Christian, the emblems of the sacrament and I. We are all together within dedicated walls, all beloved children of God, all mortal beings, imperfect and broken. For all of us, Christ suffered and died to bring healing and wholeness. Something hallows this moment. I feel at peace. (p. 64, for a similar statement see p. 84)
This feeling of mercy and inclusiveness for all is obviously at the center if the book. Speaking on this idea shortly after her excommunication Lavina said:
We are only now starting to understand how, throughout our history, we have demonized the gentiles who opposed Mormons in their communities. We have far to go before we understand how quickly and how easily we demonize and dehumanize those within our own community with labels of liberal, conservative, feminist, gay intellectual, John Bircher, zealot. It seems we can do almost anything to the label, never seeing the hurt person behind the label. (pp. 63-64).
I love this in part because it demonstrates what a great example of growth Lavina provides in her book. Earlier in the same chapter she had somewhat jokingly commented, “The John Birch zealots at BYU gave me a slithery feeling, (p. 48). Lavina encourages growth in her readers by showing how she learned and grew from her own trying experiences.
I could go on and on about why I loved this book so much. In chapter four, “A Testimony of Presence” Lavina discusses the idea that since she can no longer bear her testimony in LDS meetings, she will provide a testimony of presence. She shares beautiful examples of how people have blessed others lives just by being present. In the same essay she points out how easily Mormons can fall into the trap of developing a “Secret code” of judgement where we value men more than women, mothers more than single women, returned missionaries more than young men who did not serve, the orthodox more than the unorthodox, etc. Again, she does not leave herself out:
I’m ashamed to realize how carefully I maintained such lists, without even realizing it…I had to learn it backwards: ‘You have been judged. Have you learned to judge not?’ I hope I’m learning (p. 70).
Those words helped me to learn too. In chapter twelve, “Loving the Questions”, she reminds us that the first recorded action of Jesus was to ask questions and discusses how one of the most important things that we can learn to do is question things. This is just a small sampling, EVERY chapter is good, I encourage you to get a copy of Mercy and read it from cover to cover.
I did find one minor oopsie in the book. Chapter 16, “The Only Life You Save” is a talk Anderson gave at the Counterpoint Conference in 1999. In this talk she focuses a lot on Gordon B. Hinckley who was then president of the Church and how he sometime inadvertently left women out of his message, or sent them the wrong message by not including them. In this talk Anderson illustrates her points with a number of experiences from Hinckley’s life. One of the included incidents was that when Hinckley was called to be a counselor in the First Presidency, he knew about the call for a week before he told his wife Marjorie. Furthermore, he never even sought permission to tell her about the call. In the text it is twice stated that this call came from David O McKay, when in actuality, Hinckley’s call to the First Presidency came from Spencer W Kimball.
If you need some inspiration or a reminder of how good humankind can and was meant to be, read Mercy without End: Toward a More Inclusive Church, it is one of the most amazingly and deeply spiritual books that I have read. When I mentioned on Facebook that I was reading Mercy and encouraged others to check it out, Kristine Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought commented “Lavina is the best of us.” I fully agree, Lavina is “the best of us” and her best nature is abundantly clear when you read Mercy. I will close with this thought from chapter 12, “The Spiritual Power of Gratitude”:
May we have grateful hearts. May we look beyond the gifts to the Giver and thereby find the spiritual power to be among our associates a never-failing well of refreshment and comfort (p. 168).
Lavina is such a well of refreshment and comfort, and in Mercy without End she has made that refreshment and comfort available to all of us.
 Hinckley was called as an additional counselor to the First Presidency in July 1981 by Spencer W Kimball. David O. McKay, who passed away in 1970, was the LDS President who called Hinckley to be an apostle in September 1961.