Reaching out to those off the path.
I'm a pretty low-key guy when it comes to bringing up religious topics, and by low-key I mean I don't really do it. Sure, it'll pop up with close friends and family, but never really with acquaintances. Maybe that's the byproduct of not having had the "mission experience", something almost requisite for a Mormon guy.
Now, this isn't to say I totally clam up when an acquaintance or not-so-close friend asks some questions. I really want to answer in a way that satisfies their need to know, so I'll usually try to come up with as much as I can. I've had times where I have to go out and do research and reading myself because I may not have a good answer. I have a Jewish friend in Philly that I answer questions for all the time concerning Christianity in general and Mormonism specifically. My mom comes to me with the really tough questions.
Today was one of those days. I had a co-worker ask me kind of out of the blue if I was LDS. And then I found out something I never would have guessed: he had been a member of the church and had left about 10 years ago over some things that bugged him. The thing that really got him is that he was struggling to try and understand the whole "no coffee, no tea" thing. While any half-decent nutritionist can tell you that quaffing a carafe a day of the black stuff isn't doing your body any favors (I don't care if you are drinking decaf), where's the harm in the occasional cup of joe or that once-a-month splurge on a chai tea?
You know, he makes a good point there. From the perspective of modern science, drinking a cup of coffee every now and then may not do you a lot of physical harm. Some schools of thought may even talk up the benefits of having that green tea with your lo mein platter. To really dig into it means delving into the Old Testament and Jewish traditions.
I don't think I need to tell you that Jews tend to stay away from animals that go "oink, oink". (If you didn't know that, please leave you Internet-connected cave and go meet some people. Please.) The Old Testament specifically addresses animals like pigs and shellfish as being "unclean" when proscribing them from being eaten. So what if you raised the pig in a sterile environment, killed it using kosher methods, and cooked it in such a way as to guarantee that it won't be "unclean" by modern standards?
That doesn't matter. Even if you can meet all of those conditions, it doesn't change the fact that you've been told not to do it by deity. The commandment isn't a conditional "pigs are unclean UNLESS…" type of deal. It's a "don't do this" kind of deal. There's not much to expound upon what "unclean" means or even explain any sort of deeper rationale. (I've got some opinions, but I'll keep my hippie diet knowledge to myself.) While it's certainly an interesting academic question as to why, it doesn't have any bearing on if you did or did not do as requested.
Now this isn't to say that we should just shut up and do what we're told. Blindly following without seeking a deeper understanding of what you are following and where you are following it to is folly. Part of receiving a commandment is to attempt to understand it. If you can't understand it, try following it and see what happens. Unless it's something like "go jump off a bridge into rush-hour traffic", it probably won't do you much harm. There are times when you may be asked to take that leap of faith in following before you understand with a promise that as you follow, the understanding will come. It's sometimes difficult to grasp and can take a while. The Lord knows I've had my own struggles with following, and there are many others out there having a hard time wrapping their minds around some of the things we're asked to do.
While I haven't always been the best at this, I say try to have some patience for where people might be in their lives. There are very few truly bad people out in the world. Most people we'd call "bad" are just struggling so hard against upbringing, genetics, and their own experiences that they'll try anything to soothe that hurt including substance abuse, lashing out at others, and engaging in selfish behavior. Someone who isn't there can easily say "hey, snap out of it because you're just making it worse", but a wounded and frightened animal isn't going to be too likely to give you the time of day.
This brings me back to the story of my coworker. As I said, he'd have the occasional cup of coffee now and again. This naturally made for some tension with people in his ward who would look down at him. At the same time, he noted that the bishop's son had a "8 bottles of Coke a day" habit (the big 20oz ones). This didn't sit so well with him; yes, he knew coffee wasn't really in line, but how could it be that downing a 10-fold amount of Coke daily wasn't worthy of riddicule but 2 cups of coffee a month was? Where was the patience and understanding to be given to him so that he would feel welcome instead of driven away by "letter of the law" types?
One of the teachers of our temple prep class related a story from his own life. As a young man, he enjoyed stopping off at a restaurant periodically for a glass of iced tea on a hot summer's day. (Being from the South and a convert to the faith, let me tell you that a glass of good iced tea is hard to beat. Down there, it's a religion about on par with college football.) Unknown to him, his bishop had taken note of his visits, but had decided to not say anything. That is, he didn't say anything until this young man was in his office to interview to go on a mission. Not thirty seconds into the interview, his bishop asks him "so what are we going to do about this iced tea habit of yours?" There was no riddicule or damnation. There was no lecture. It was a straight "you know what's okay and what's not okay, so how do we fix this?"
Thankfully, I've heard these stories frequently, where good representatives of the church reach out to others who may know what the right thing is but for whatever reason can't seem to do it. This gives me some hope for my coworker. He doesn't need to be lectured, shunned, or endlessly reminded of what we believe. He just needs us to be good examples, good neighbors, and good friends.