Tuesday, February 25, 2014

# 31: The LDS Church Doesn't Have To Be Insular

You should stay LDS because our traditions and scriptures allow for spirituality and revelation outside of the Church.  

The thirteenth Article of Faith states, "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”  It does not say, "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, that is officially approved by the LDS Church, we seek after these things.”

People outside the LDS Church can and do receive revelation from God. Missionaries present the Book of Mormon to people and ask them to take the challenge in Moroni 10: 3- 5. They're asking non-members to receive personal revelation from God. This fits in with LDS doctrine that the Heavens are not closed, and that God is personally involved with people's lives.

God answers the sincere prayer of any of His children, regardless of their religious affiliation. When I hear people of other faiths say something like, "I prayed about it, and I felt like God was telling me to __________ [ fill in the blank]" I usually believe them.

And when Michelle Bachmann talks about how God told her to marry her husband, become a tax attorney, become a Congresswoman, and take care of a whole bunch of foster children, I believe her. Michelle Bachmann is a great Christian woman with a heart of gold. We need more people like her in Congress. And I think that God really told Michelle Bachmann, through the influence of the Holy Ghost, to make certain decisions in her life.

Consider William Wilberforce. Consider Mother Theresa. These were people were not members of the LDS Church, but I think most Latter-day Saints would agree that these champions of human dignity felt and acted on promptings of the Holy Spirit.

I read this interesting account in God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life, by Paul Kengor:

George Otis, a Christian pastor, prayed with Governor Ronald Reagan and prophesied that Reagan would be the President. Later, Otis recalls the prayer: "I was just sort of praying from the head... I was saying those things you'd expect- you know, thanking the Lord for the Reagans, their hospitality, and that sort of thing. [Then] everything shifted from my head to the Spirit - the Spirit... the Holy Spirit came upon me and I knew it." Otis started shaking, and he kept praying vocally, and started speaking for God, referring to Reagan as, "my son." The prayer concluded, "If you walk uprightly before Me, you will reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

Do you believe it? Do you believe that a Protestant minister can speak for God, and prophesy that Ronald Reagan would become the President? It's clear from reading God and Ronald Reagan that Ronald Reagan believed that he was an instrument in God's hands.

Ronald Reagan did so much good in his life. He turned the country's economy around, and he was instrumental in winning the Cold War. Because the Iron Curtain fell, Christianity has begun to go into Russia. Missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are being sent there, and the Lord's work is progressing. I think God had his eye on Ronald Reagan, and put inspired people in his life, including the pastor George Otis.

I used to be egocentric about my religion. I used to think that since my church was the only true church, that all human spiritual progression leads to initiation into LDS temple ceremonies. I used to think, "Well, Mother Theresa was a great lady, but she must have gotten to a certain point in her spiritual progression, and then stopped. If she would have kept progressing, she would have abandoned her apostate church and joined the true church."

Now I think that God probably wanted Mother Theresa to stay in the Catholic Church.  She was probably accomplishing more of God's will as a Catholic than she could have as a Mormon.

There are two scriptures that illustrate the attitude that Latter-Day Saints ought to have about revelation outside of the Church, one in the Book of Numbers and one in the Gospel According to Saint Mark.

In Numbers 11:24 - 29, Moses is with the Seventy in the tabernacle, and the Lord came down in a cloud, and spoke with Moses. The Seventy did not see the Lord, but they felt of his spirit. But there were two men far away from the tabernacle, not invited to the religious ceremony, Eldad and Medad, and they started prophesying. What did they prophesy about? The text doesn't say. Alas. Two well-intentioned members of the Seventy found out about Eldad and Medad, and they ran and tattle-tailed. They told Moses that there were these two guys prophesying, and Moses better put a stop to that. "Eldad and Medad are out of order," the two members of the Seventy probably said. I can imagine them saying, "They haven't been anointed, like we have. They're steadying the ark. They're not working through the proper channels."

But what does Moses say? Moses says, "Other people are prophesying? That's great! I wish every one were a prophet!"

The Old Testament Student Manual (prepared by CES, the Church Educational System, published by the LDS Church) says, "In this material [Numbers 11: 24 - 29] is another evidence of Moses' greatness. Some leaders would be threatened if subordinates evidenced gifts and abilities similar to their own because then their own statues and position would be jeopardized. Nos so with Moses... Not only was [Moses] not threatened by this remarkable sharing of spiritual power, but he expressed the desire to have every single Israelite share the same power with him."

OK, the next passage of scripture that I've been thinking about is Mark 9: 38 - 40. The Apostle John told Jesus that earlier he had seen people who were not disciples of Christ casting out devils. John said that he told those "non-members" to stop exercising demons, presumably because they didn't have the right authority, they didn't belong to the right church, and etc. All the text says is that the people casting out devils "followeth not us."

But what does Jesus say? "Other people are casting out devils? That's great! Don't stop them. We're all kind of one big demon-busting family, you know?" This passage could be taken as a kind of a prototype for inter-faith efforts. It leads me to believe that there is a lot of truth in a lot of religions, and there are a lot of good people in a lot of religions, and there is even some level of priesthood- meaning the power of God- in a lot of religions.

I think that Christ was interested in establishing a religion only insofar as the religion would be a vehicle to individual salvation. Christ was more interested in people than he was in programs. He spent more time preaching eternal truths than he did establishing an ecclesiastical hierarchy. I'm not saying that Christ, or anyone, has to choose between saving souls and establishing church programs. He can do both. We can do both. Most of the time, those two things go hand in hand.

But if somehow the church organization became an impediment to saving souls, then the church organization would need some inspired altering or abolishing. For example, if members of the Seventy are using their precious time to sort stacks of tithing money, alphabetize church rosters, correlate church activity calendars, and suck up to the Twelve Apostles, then things need to change. 

I'm not bashing organized religion. I love organized religion. But sometimes people can worship the religion, and not the Being who inspired the religion in the first place. Organizations come and organizations go, but Christ's true doctrine stays constant.

Most Christians agree that the Sermon on the Mount was Christ's masterpiece.  There really isn't anything about organized religion in that Sermon. In fact, The Sermon emphasizes the individual over the organization. He says, "Don't pray in front of people to show off. Do it in secret. Don't give charity in front of people to show off. Do it in secret. Don't fast in front of people to show off. Do it in secret. (Where do people commonly go to pray, give charity, and fast in front of other people? Church.) Don't judge people unrighteously (A lot of unrighteous judgement goes on in organized religions). Beware of false prophets (false prophets are usually found in organized religions).

And then Christ gives a chilling verse, in Matthew 7: 22 - 23, "Many will say to me in that day [Judgement Day] Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you. Depart from me, ye that work iniquity." This verse should make all church-goers reassess their status before God.

Christ's emphasis on people over organizations is evident over and over again. He said to the woman caught in adultery, "Go thy way, and sin no more." He did not say, "Listen, I know you're going through some struggles right now, but I have this religious organization that can really help you. On the third Thursday of every month we have this meeting called, Personal Family Enrichment for Adulterers, or PFEA, for short.  I hear this week there's going to be cheesecake! Oh and you know what? They need a Secretary! Are you good at taking notes?"

True prophets have a more inclusive attitude than a lot of their followers do. Moses had a more inclusive attitude than the guys who tattled on Eldad and Medad. Jesus had a more inclusive attitude than his Apostle John.  If you stay LDS, your view of spirituality and revelation can be just as inclusive.

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# 30: Welfare Square

In the summer of 2007, my wife and I took a week-long pilgrimage to Salt Lake City, the Mecca of Mormonism. Sometimes we refer that trip as our honeymoon, even though it was a year after our wedding. But we never had a honeymoon honeymoon, so we like to refer to it is as our belated honeymoon. 

On our honeymoon, my wife and I did all the Mormon touristy things. We loved it. We went to a handful of temples in the area, Brigham Young's House, Temple Square, the Relief Society building, Joseph Smith Memorial Building (where my Dad proposed marriage to my Mom a long time ago when it was the Hotel Utah), the Tabernacle, the new Conference Center (where we saw Music and the Spoken Word, and by chance we sat by Senator Orrin Hatch, and we also saw an organ recital there) the Church Office Building, we watched a church-produced movie called Legacy about the Mormon pioneers in a theater at the Visitor's Center, and we attended a sacrament meeting with President Gordon B. Hinckley!

One day on our trip we drove to the Ogden Temple, but it was closed for renovation or something, but there was a pioneer museum across the street, so we spent some time there, looking at interesting artifacts of the Mormon pioneers. I remember they had a ton of early church publications, and I spent an hour or so reading early Mormon newspapers.

We also went into the most iconic Mormon Temple there is, the Salt Lake City Temple. I really enjoyed going into the Salt Lake City Temple. They do live endowment sessions there.

I really enjoyed it, and so did my wife, but she did say that the live session felt a little weird. Also, she said that there were some ladies in the temple who frustrated her. One temple worker lady told my wife that she needed to take off her necklace. My wife's necklace was all white and pretty small, and actually she had made it herself with white beads for the purpose of going to temples. But still, one lady working in the temple told her she needed to take it off, and through her body language and facial expressions suggested that my wife was less spiritual or less righteous for even trying to go through the temple with that necklace on. Then another lady told my wife to adjust some of her clothing in another way.

Now, I love the temple. The temple is wonderful. The Salt Lake City Temple is a monument to the faith of the pioneer Saints in the Great Salt Lake Valley. It's a great place to be taught about the things of God, to ponder, to make personal covenants with God. Little things like being asked to adjust clothing shouldn't bug me or my wife. Or should they? I don't know.

My wife and I also took the Welfare Square tour. It was amazing. It turned out to be our favorite part of the trip. It had a extremely spiritual effect on our souls. We both cried. We both felt the Spirit. It's amazing to see what the church is doing to alleviate suffering throughout the world. When a disaster strikes, the Church is there. When people are hungry and thirsty, the Church often offers free bread, meat, and water. The Church also offers free job training for folks who have fallen on hard times. 

And the size of Welfare Square! It's huge! They produce tons of bread, they have these giant grain silos, and every day they produce food and supplies to give away to those in need. It's staggering to walk around the warehouse and the factories at Welfare Square and hear the senior missionary tour guide talk about the Welfare mission of the Church. And to think of all those needy people who receive help from the Church- it pulls at my heartstrings, and it makes me feel the Spirit. Taking the tour made me want to do without a little more so that I could give a little more to those who really need it. The tour also made my wife and I decide that we wanted to serve as senior missionaries, later in life, at the Welfare Square, or maybe at a cannery somewhere.

Members of the LDS Church sing and believe the hymn "Because I Have Been Given Much." They preach and believe the parable of the Good Samaritan. They try to fulfill the Christian principle to help the poor and downtrodden found in Matthew 25: 31 - 46.

Lately I've been thinking about how our experience at the Salt Lake City Temple differed from our experience at Welfare Square.

If you’re thinking about leaving the Church because you don’t believe in it anymore, and you live in the Salt Lake City area, do me a favor.  Go on the Welfare Square tour.  See what you think.  See how you feel.

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Monday, February 24, 2014

# 29: Free Food at the Bishop's Storehouse

If you stay LDS, even though you no longer believe some or most of what the Church teaches, you'll have access to free food at the Bishop's Storehouse.  What's the Bishop's Storehouse?  It's a like a grocery store, but everything there is free.

Can anyone go there?  No.  To go there, you have to be poor, and then you have to talk to your Bishop, and then he might give you a permission slip to go there.  I think that's how it works.

Why can't anybody walk in and take all they want?  Uh... because there wouldn't be much food left if they advertised that there was free food for everybody.  I have no insider information, but from what I can tell, the Church is doing a good job at running this charitable system of bishop's storehouses.

And I think the Church does not only give free food to members of the Church.  They give free food to non-members too.  So I suppose you could leave the Church and then meet with a Bishop just to ask for free food someday.  But I would feel better about receiving help from the Church if I had been paying into the system through tithing and fast offerings.  I would feel better receiving help from Zion if I weren't ignoring Zion or trying to tear Zion down.

The LDS Church helps a lot of needy people.  One day you might be a needy person yourself, and you might approach charitable organizations to help you.  If that day ever comes, you can go to the Church, and they'll probably give you free food.  Yes, the Church just gives away free food to lots of people.  Why?  Because they have Christlike love for people, that's why.  Generally speaking, Mormons want to feed the hungry.

Who was it that said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" and, "For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink"?  That was our Savior, Jesus Christ, in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel According to Saint Matthew.

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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

# 28: Free Food at the Church Potlucks

If you stay LDS, you can get about five free meals a year.  One at the Trunk-or-Treat at Halloween, one at the ward Christmas party, and then a few others at various break-the-fasts and camp-outs and such.  If you play your cards right, you can get away with not bringing anything to the ward potlucks, but you can still consume a lot of free food.  If you stay late to help clean up, there might be some leftovers you can bring home.   

From my experience, a lot of the food at these church get-togethers is really good.  Some of the best chili I’ve ever had in my life was at a chili cook-off my ward did last year.  Ward potlucks are also a good time for exchanging recipes.  If you find a dish you really enjoy, you can ask around, find out who made it, and then ask nicely for the recipe.  You know the members of the Church.  They’re really nice, and they’ll most likely give you their recipes, as long as they’re not secret family recipes.  

Of course, if you’re like me, you won’t feel right mooching off of everybody else bringing food.  You’ll want to sign up and bring something.  But if you’re not much of a cook, or don’t feel like putting in much effort, you can volunteer to bring a big jug of lemonade or simply a few bags of chips.

But don’t feel obligated to bring anything.  Don’t hesitate to just show up and be a free-loader.  Remember, you don’t have a testimony, at least not an orthodox one, anyway.  Your ward members should be happy you showed up at all!  

Joseph Smith once said, “If you can’t accept our religion, at lease accept our hospitality.”  So, go ahead and accept the hospitality of the Mormons, even if you don’t accept their doctrine!  Nobody’s checking temple recommends at the line for the mashed potatoes, ham and gravy.  

(Funny story.  I could have sworn that I heard that Joseph Smith said that quote I just mentioned sometime.  I thought I heard it in Church.  But I just did an Internet search for it and couldn’t find it.  Maybe I misheard the quote.  Or maybe I didn’t search well enough.  But it’s such a good quote.  Let’s just say he said it, OK?)

Some of the reasons to stay LDS on this blog are trivial.  I know.  I realize that when someone is weighing their options, and trying to decide if they should leave the Church or try to make things work, free food at the church potlucks is virtually a non-factor.  When you’re going through the dark night of the soul, reasons like “Free Food at the Church Potlucks” seem like the stupidest of reasons to keep acting like a good Mormon.  

But after a while, these trivial reasons start to add up.    After a while, little things like good free meals at church gatherings and friendly people in church hallways who shake your hand motivate me into staying LDS.  

Oh, and another thing. I’ve been told a few times that my writing style sometimes makes it seem like I’m being sarcastic.  If you only read the first paragraph to today’s blog post, you might assume that this entire blog is an ironic joke.  Well, I’m not being sarcastic.  I’m being serious.  Occasionally I’ll use humor and light-heartedness, but, overall, this is a serious blog that discusses serious matters.  

The serious thesis statement of this blog is that the vast majority of people who lose their traditional testimonies of the Restoration should stay LDS.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

# 27: The Church Wants You

The Church won't admit it, but... they want you.  They want you to stay LDS, even though you don't believe in the Church anymore.  They want you to continue participating in Church, taking the sacrament, singing the hymns, and holding Family Home Evenings.  They just want you to keep quiet about sensitive Church issues.  That's understandable.  

Of course, the cynics reading this will think, "Sure the Church wants me to stay.  They want another membership statistic, and they want my tithing money."

Well, there is probably some truth to that.  Who can know what the intentions of the Church leaders are?   Maybe some Church leaders do want to excommunicate all the doubters or non-traditional believers.  And maybe some Church leaders would like to see the Church become a bigger tent, where members can pretty much believe and do whatever they want.

Some Church leaders want you to stay because they really believe in the Church, and they think that your salvation depends upon your membership in the Church and your faithfulness to it.  That's a pretty good reason to want people to stay in the Church.

I don't have any inside information, but I suspect that some Church leaders do not believe that the Church is all it claims to be.  And those leaders still want people to stay in the Church because, well, it's a pretty good church, and a pretty good lifestyle.

But here's how I really know that the Church really wants you, whether you have a testimony or not.  They said they want you! They said they wanted you in a Mormon Stories podcast a while back (This one, to be precise.)

John Dehlin, the creator of Mormon Stories, said that he met with an Apostle.  John claims that he asked the Apostle, "Do you want me and people like me in the Church?" and then tears came to the Apostle's eyes, he reached his hands towards John's and said, "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!"  Or maybe the Apostle said something like, "even if you can no more than pitch your tent door, yea, verily verily, even as in the days of King Benjamin of old, towards the Church, then... that would be swell."  OK, I don't remember the exact quote and I really don't feel like listening to that whole 4 hour long podcast again to get the exact quote, but the Apostle said something along those lines.

I don't have any connections with any General Authorities or anything like that.  The highest ranking Church member I've ever met with was my mission president, on my mission.  But I do have some experience talking about sensitive historical issues with my local leaders.  And what were their responses?  They want me to stay in the Church, and they want me to regain my testimony.  I don't think that I've "regained my testimony" according to their satisfaction, but we've reached a workable compromise.  Basically I keep my mouth shut and everything's fine.  (Laugh out loud.  Seriously, though, I'm happy with where I am.)  None of my local leaders have ever asked me to leave the Church.  They've told me they want me to stay.

But probably more important than the way church leaders feel about you is the way that your family feels about you.  After all, you see the General Authorities of the church twice a year on TV.  You probably see your family everyday.  Your family and friends in the church want you to stay.

And the Primary children you teach want you.  And the choir you direct wants you.  And the students in your Sunday School class want you.  And your home teaching families want you to visit them.  They like you.  They like the warmth and the positive messages that you bring once a month.  They like it when you offer a prayer in their home.

Doesn't it feel good to be wanted?

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# 26: Maybe the Church Really Is True

When I was a TBM (That’s Internet lingo for "True-Believing Mormon") I was 100 % sure that the Church was 100 % true.  It made logical sense to me.  I thought that the chiasmus in Alma chapter 36 proved the Book of Mormon true, and if the Book of Mormon was true, then Joseph Smith was a prophet.  I thought that the stick of Judah and the stick of Joseph mentioned in Ezekiel chapter 37 obviously referred to the Bible and the Book of Mormon.  And the angel flying through the midst of heaven in Revelation 14: 6 - 7 was none other than the Angel Moroni.  It all made sense.

Then Al Gore invented the Internet, and then a bunch of people got on the Internet and started talking about the Church, (and Zelph and seer stones and polygamy and other forbidden topics) and then my testimony melted like a stick of butter in the summer sun. 

So, is the Church true?  I'm not sure... um... but I kind of don't think so... um...

But I don’t want to go from one extreme to the other.  I don’t want to say that I’m 100 % sure that the Church is 100 % false.  Maybe it’s mostly false, or maybe it’s mostly true. I don’t know.  The way I like to put it is this: the Church has a very high level of truthiness. 

Another way I like to put it is represented in the drawing accompanying today's blog post.  On the truth-o-meter, the Church is neither in the red "false" zone, nor in the blue "true" zone, but rather in the pink zone in the middle, labeled, "squishy realms of fog."

And what does the word “true” really mean anyway?  

One definition is, “loyal or faithful,” as in, “he was a true friend.”  Is the Church loyal or faithful?  Well, it’s been around my whole life, and for the most part it behaves in predictable patterns.  Every Sunday I go to the same building and sit in the same pew and see mostly the same people and hear the same sacrament prayers.  And the members of the Church have always been helpful and friendly and such.  So, yeah I'd call that loyal and faithful.  So... I guess that means the Church is true.  

Look, if we’re going to stay LDS without burying our heads in the sand, we need to discard the “either it's all true or it's all false” way of thinking.  Instead of insisting on a black and white reality, we need to embrace the Supreme Rainbow of the Universe.  

(Is it merely a coincidence that Joseph of the Old Testament, who is a type of Christ, wore a coat of many colors?!  I bet Joseph's brothers, who were less favored of the Lord, dressed in dreadfuly monochromatic clothes.  Is there a message here? Laugh out loud.  Let’s not get crazy.)  

Seriously, though, here’s a quote from Neil Postman’s book, The End of Education, on pages 6 - 7, that should shift our understanding of "true" and "false" when it comes to religious claims:  

We cannot do without [gods]… whatever else we may call ourselves, we are the god-making species.  Our genius lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labors, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future.  To do their work, such narratives do not have to be “true” in a scientific sense.  There are many enduring narratives whose details include things that are false to observable fact.  The purpose of a narrative is to give meaning to the world, not to describe it scientifically.  The measure of a narrative’s “truth” or “falsity” is in its consequences: does it provide people with a sense of personal identity, a sense of community life, a basis for moral conduct, explanations of that which cannot be known?

To answer Postman's questions, yes, the LDS Church provides people with a sense of personal identity.  Yes, the LDS Church provides people with a sense of community life, a basis for moral conduct, and explanations of that which cannot be known.  

So in the sense that Postman is talking about, the LDS Church is true.  

And maybe the Church is literally true, too.  Maybe there really were Nephites and Lamanites and Jaredites and all manner of -ites.  Who knows?  The world is a crazy place.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

# 25: Five New Essays from the Church

The Church is releasing five new essays about religion, and publishing them on the Newsroom portion of their official website.  It looks like these five essays will help folks like me stay in the Church.

The first one is called, Why Religion Matters: The Longing Within, and it talks about the universal appeal that religion has.  I recommend reading it.  Here's a link to it.

Notice that the Church is not saying (in their official press releases, anyway) that the LDS Church is the one true Church on the Earth with exclusive priesthood authority.  Notice that the Church is not claiming to have a monopoly on spiritual truth.

Notice that the essay begins with a quote from Reverend Samuel Rodriguez.  I don't know who that is, but the title "Reverend" lets us know that he is a non-Mormon spiritual leader.  Now take a look at the notes at the bottom of the essay.  It quotes a Reverend, a Rabbi, the Bible, a philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein, some scholar publishing in the "Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion," and then a few other people.  What's interesting about the people quoted for this essay?  Not a single one of them are members of the LDS Church.

What does all this quoting of non-member religious leaders and scholars communicate?  It communicates that the LDS Church is trying to situate itself as a good religion among many good religions.  It communicates that the LDS Church considers itself to have a lot to learn from inter-faith dialogue.  It communicates that the Church is breaking down the wall between Zion and Babylon, between the Chosen People and The Rest of the World.  Instead, the Church is becoming a little more open to all the wonderful things out there in the world.  

My favorite line from this first essay is "religion and the spirituality it inspires... connects us to the moral foundations that undergird the best of our shared humanity."

So, the authors of this essay assert that there are moral foundations to society, and that religion, in a mysterious way, connects us to those moral foundations.

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