Monday, July 31, 2006

Obedience –
After mostly writing the previous entry last night I listened to a talk from a non-LDS church on the way to work this morning. When I heard his subject was “obedience” I almost turned off my mp3 player. I had had enough of obedience in the last 24 hours. Here comes the to-do list and the guilt trip, I thought.

His take on obedience was quite interesting. He quoted from 1 John and pointed out that obedience can be summed up by 1) love God and 2) love your neighbor, and spent about thirty minutes on #2. He didn’t say a thing about personal morality, standards, or serving within the church as directed by the pastor. What he talked about was reaching out to others with whom we come in contact and simply loving them as Jesus did. He used the example of a man who spent three months serving the poor in India and then came home and began taking in the homeless, in his own house.

What a breath of fresh air. It was a blessing to finally hear some true Christianity.

Here’s a link to the sermon:

The Five Hour Block –
I have had many good Sundays in church lately. Today wasn’t one of them. It started off with the youth speaker in Sacrament and went downhill. His first sentence somehow related to having to perfect ourselves in order to feel the spirit, and I was glad Wife of Bath was not there, because I believe she would have headed for the door. The next speaker presented an eight point program for achieving something. I couldn’t figure out what, other than it was a lot of work to get there, involving scripture study, prayer, and the usual “do”s, other than actual contemplation. The concluding speaker talked about how the family was the foundation for our nation. I basically consider the extreme emphasis on the family in many conservative Christian churches today to be a modern idolatry, merely because we seem to place our focus on the family ahead of our focus on God. We try to lure new people in by talking about families instead of God and put them up on the pedestal that properly belongs to Christ. Our families are not the ultimate source of happiness or salvation. That would be our relationship with Christ. But I digress.

Sunday School was on Elijah and Elisha and covered the healing of Namaan the Syrian from leprosy. Through the lens of correlation this became a lesson on “follow the prophet”, no matter what small thing he says. Somebody in the class protested against blind obedience, and the class agreed that blind obedience is bad, and we should do everything the prophet says with our eyes open. Okay . . . and this differs from blind obedience how?

Priesthood was a pioneer day lesson from the Wilford Woodruff manual on the pioneers, including familiar stories of Joseph Smith raising people from the near-dead.

After the three hour block I had to wonder if we had talked about God at all, let alone Christ.

Later on I attended stake priesthood meeting, where we talked about the importance of performing our duties and obligations, returning and reporting, and the evils of pornography (which was quite appropriate, FWIW). The lone substantial reference to Christ was from a 16 year-old who talked about how serving in the church brought him closer to Christ and helped him feel the savior’s love. The rest of it was duty, obligation, and the importance of worthiness.

By and large it was a draining day. I found myself wondering if there was a morning worship service during the week at any local church, just so I could feel a spirit of group worship rather than being instructed on more things to do, while being reminded of the importance of doing them in order to remain “worthy” of the spirit, my eternal reward, etc..

I found myself wondering just how much more of this I can take. My main reason for staying in the LDS church is that most churches just don’t teach morality and commitment anymore, and I think that’s important. Even Baptists teach about sin and morality without the guilt load the LDS church imposes. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is quite simply not one long to-do list, however well intentioned this might be. Even if we load ourselves down with this to-do list for fully altruistic reasons, I don’t think this is what Christ really intends.

My impression from the scriptures is that Christ did not over-program himself. We don’t see Jesus racing from place to place trying to heal everyone, trying to convert everyone, trying to pack just one more thing into a crowded day like we do. Christ focused on relationships, both with his Father and with his people, and relationships take time. True relationships and being excessively schedule-driven and task-driven are at odds with each other. I knew a stake president once who bragged about planning his family home evenings a year in advance. In what way does this allow for the still small voice to suggest a particular message needed right now? Likewise our packed schedules. A day full of work commitments, family commitments, and church commitments does not lend itself to being interrupted by someone who either needs our help or needs us to listen. Jesus paced himself and focused on the people in front of him, and maybe we can learn something from this. He balanced rest, service, prayer, and worship. So should we.

I’m coming to believe our concept of worthiness in the LDS church is very destructive. It’s like a cartoon where the dog has a stick tied to his head with a bone on the end, just out of reach. As he moves towards the bone it moves away, because it’s attached to the stick which is attached to his head. No matter how hard he tries the dog will never reach the bone.

Likewise worthiness. It’s always “lengthen your stride”, “stand a little taller”, “do a little more”, “be a little better”. Based on what we hear from the pulpit we will never be good enough. We will never be “done”. We will never be able to satisfy all the obligations laid on us from the pulpit, thus we will never feel “worthy” of the companionship of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Youth Conference Report –-

Wife of Bath and I were heavily involved in stake Youth Conference this weekend as a result of my stake calling. We were also a host family for five young men. The combination kept us going pretty much constantly from 5pm Thursday to the end of the testimony meeting Saturday evening. We drove kids, we cooked hot dogs, we served food, we painted blocks, we sang songs, and generally handled a lot of behind the scenes logistics.

The theme was “I walked where Jesus walked”. Given my current state of mind this conference had a lot of potential to sway me either way. Last year’s conference was basically a tribute to Joseph Smith, so something a little more Christ-centered was definitely in order.

This was a good conference. The presenters did their best to present their messages about Christ, there were inspirational murals of the empty tomb and the city of Jerusalem, the food was good, and the youth were almost uniformly spiritual and well-behaved.

A couple of things really jumped out at me, though. Christ’s message was very complex in character, sometimes talking about social justice, sometimes talking about worship of God, sometimes talking about sin. His role was multi-faceted, subverting the political/religious hierarchy and teaching us how to express our love for God as well as our love for each other. He exemplified obedience, love, service, and personal righteousness, as well as taking upon himself the role of sacrificial lamb for our sins.

Almost uniformly the presenters at the conference focused on the atonement to the exclusion of other things. We have a tendency to see everything in the gospel through the lens of personal righteousness and morality, which reduces Jesus’ role to mainly paying the price for our sins. I think this tends to elevate the consideration we give to sin way out of proportion to the emphasis Jesus placed on sin. The gospel is not just about our personal behavior, keeping ourselves free from sin, and our righteousness. It’s mainly about relationships. Our relationship with God, and our relationships with others. Especially our relationships with the poor and those who suffer in other ways. This aspect of Jesus’ life went largely unexamined in the sessions I went to. We basically reduced Jesus’ life to a laundry list of things to do. Obey. Refrain. Serve. Be ye therefore perfect.

Another thing that struck me was the testimony meeting at the end. After two and a half long days, the testimony meeting is the payoff. The depth of the testimonies of the youth of our stake is always inspiring. Sitting on the stand you can see their hands shaking and their heavy breathing as they walk the long walk up to the microphone. Their strength is always inspiring.

I thought it was interesting that, after two and a half days of talking about Jesus, they rarely mentioned him in their testimonies. They bore their testimonies of the church, of President Hinckley, of the Book of Mormon, and Christ got a couple of sentences at the end. Only one young man really centered his remarks on Christ’s love and how the conference had helped him appreciate that better.

This reinforced my feeling that the members in general have a knowledge of Jesus and an appreciation for the atonement, but most of their loyalty and their attention goes to the church and church leaders, because that’s what’s in front of them most of the time. Rather than putting Christ at the center of our worship, I think we really have “the restoration” at the center of our worship much of the time, with Christ as kind of a component part of that. If you asked most of our youth who their hero was and who they wanted to emulate, I bet President Hinckley would edge out Jesus Christ.

In their defense I think most members consider it one package, and that their devotion to the church encompasses devotion to Christ, but I believe this is a dangerous lack of discrimination. We have elevated our leaders, our founders, and the organization of the church to a level where it seems to be on a par with Christ and the events of his historical ministry, and this is a big problem.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Ensign Moment That Wasn’t—

Wife of Bath and I went on a backpacking trip this weekend with an old friend from church. I was his home teacher for about eight years, through the death of their third child and some very tough times. James used to be the only person I could really discuss the LDS gospel with, because he was and is infused with the spirit and was serious about it. Most LDS shy away from spiritual discussions (at least men) because the subjects are considered “private” and people just don’t open up that much. At least not with me anyway. James was different, because he lived and loved the gospel.

One of my consistent prayers through all this is for intervention. “Lord, if I am on the wrong path, send me a sign. Have my bishop call me in for an interview. Have my elders quorum president schedule me for a PPI and ask me how I’m doing in a way that suggests he really cares, i.e. by allotting more than 10 minutes for the meeting. Send me a friend to ask me how things are going.”

As of yet, nothing. I have met with my bishop several times about mundane administrative things and tithing settlement, and he has never had a clue, other than our last meeting where I laid it all out. Since the evolution of my belief I have only had one PPI from my quorum presidency, which was last month after I had already decided to talk to my bishop.

This weekend was another “intervention” opportunity. Two days in the woods of Kentucky, with nothing to talk about but God, angels, and the restoration. James has been a seminary teacher for years, and is probably the most doctrinally knowledgeable person in my circle of acquaintance. He has pulled at least one person back from apostasy that I know of. Would this be my turn? Would he be prompted to reel me back into the fold?

Apparently not. Gospel subjects really never came up, other than he repeated a standing joke between us about me being called to be a bishop, which WoB and I found to be kind of grimly amusing, considering what is actually going on.

I have to believe that 1) if the LDS church was true, 2) if those around us are blessed with a spirit of discernment 3) if we have a father in Heaven who wants WoB and I to remain as fully active members of the LDS church, and 4) if we have a father in Heaven who answers really important prayers, that somebody around us would be inspired to stop us from going down the path we’re headed.

Instead, the spiritual witness I keep getting is that there is a God in heaven who loves us and wants us to look after each other, and that a good portion of what the LDS church teaches is legalistic pharisaical bullcrap. In some ways it leads us to God in ways that we might not otherwise be brought there, but in many ways it causes us to get caught up in the minutia of details and structure and human organization in ways that obscures a fuller and more nuanced relationship with the divine.

So, another chance to pull us back from the brink of apostasy passes without incident. Onward we continue into the unknown . . .

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Service --

Our Elders Quorum had a service project yesterday. A member had three trees taken down in his back yard, and he needed the wood hauled away. The Elders Quorum President talked to the bishop and got the name of a needy sister in the ward who needed the wood.

When we went to deliver the wood, I was surprised. I expected to find an older sister living in a rundown small home somewhere. What I found was a single sister living in a modest home in a nice subdivision. The thing that got me is that she's in the process of building a pond in her back yard.

In my experience we rarely render what I would consider meaningful service in the church. We rarely serve the truly needy, even in our own community. Most of our service goes to each other. I.e. it stays within the church. We are not as concerned with relieving the plight of the poor and hungry as we are helping widows with their landscaping.

I don't doubt that the sister in our ward was needy relative to others in the ward, but I hardly think somebody putting in a pond is on the edge of survival. We can do better than this. Jesus did not call us to merely look after those within our own group, no matter how comfortable that might be.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal church we visit sometimes had a meeting today totally devoted to the Appalachian Service Project mission trip the youth took. They spent a week in Kentucky repairing people's houses. They were hot, sweaty, dirty, and tired for a week, but they rendered what I consider meaningful service for people who are unable to help themselves. These kids came back with the light of Christ in their eyes.

And I bet not one house needed a pond built.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Meeting with the Bishop --

I had a very positive discussion with my bishop last night.

I didn't really intend to do this, but I ended up pretty much unloading all the historical issues, from the 1832 first vision to the mysterious disappearance of the pistols from the modern rendition of the Carthage Jail story. He didn't really attempt to deal with any of that, but I didn't really expect him to. He didn't attempt to argue or try to discredit the information. He allowed as how our church leaders aren't perfect and have never been perfect, and he bore his testimony of the humility of the apostles, their inspiration, and that they do what they feel is in the best interests of the church. We don't always have the big picture or understand the circumstances behind those decisions, but in his case he had faith in the Brethren to make the right choices most of the time. I reiterated that my issues aren't with the events themselves as much as the intentional deception of the membership. I mentioned that it was a punch in the gut to get blindsided with information like the Council of Fifty, Helen Mar Kimball, and the use of seerstones in translating the Book Of Mormon when we had never been told any of this before, and I expressed my feelings of betrayal at not having been told these things.

He reiterated that I was a good and honorable person and was grateful for my forthrightness in wanting to make him aware of my situation. He felt comfortable with what I was doing in my callings and trusted that I wasn't going to teach false doctrine to the youth or members, seeing as how this has been going on for over a year right under his nose and he wasn't even aware of it. I mentioned I could no longer sustain the 1st Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers, and revelators. I continue to believe they are inspired, in the same way that the Pope, Billy Graham, Mr Rogers, etc, are inspired, but I don't think their actions in misleading the membership about our history meet the standard for prophet, seer, and revelator. i.e. inspired by God to lead the One True Church. I mentioned I believed the church was true, but there are many sources of truth out there, and the church is not the exclusive, or even the best, dispenser of wisdom. Despite having said all that he left up to me whether I qualifed for a recommend, and if I had asked for one he would have whipped out the book and given me one.

He mentioned his sadness, not that I was being unfaithful to the church or anything, but that I was going through this, and he understood my position given the information I had been exposed to. We both agreed that this should be discussed with the stake president. He asked me to say a closing prayer, and after an hour and a half we parted on an extremely positive note.

So, round 1 is complete. I'm not expecting an interview with my stake president to be so touchy feely. He's more stern, and being raised in the church he's a scriptorian. We'll see what happens next.

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Road Taken --

I thought about titling this "Coming Out", "Kicking Over the Ant Hill", etc., but this seemed more classy.

I sent this e-mail to my bishop on Saturday. Here we go . . .


Bishop X,

I currently find myself in a place I never expected to be, nor really sought out.

In summary, over the last year and a half of prayer, study of the scriptures, and study of church history, I have developed some serious problems with the foundational history of the church and the way it's presented, as well as with many of the foundational doctrines. It seems unlikely to me that I probably still qualify for a temple recommend.

It really hurts me to have to say this and to place this burden on your shoulders, but given that I hold positions of responsibility at both the ward and stake level, I have to be honest and up front with this.

I have no desire to leave the church or anything like that, but you have a right to know where I stand, and I have a need to quit hiding my concerns.

At this point we can proceed however you feel is most appropriate. Maybe this is sufficient to establish my situation in the ward. If necessary we can meet, or I can lay my concerns out via e-mail so you have something to forward to President Y if you so choose. I'm assuming he will need to be involved because of my stake calling. My emotions about this are extremely mixed, and I can probably express this better in writing, but that might not be the best use of your time. I can lay this out in whatever level of detail you're most comfortable with, as these are not pleasant subjects for anyone who has devoted the best of their adult lives to the church as we have.

One of my goals in this is to make this as easy for you as possible. I'm conscious of laying a burden on your shoulders, but I'm not sure what else to do at this point. It's time to get this out in the open.

Please let me know how you would like to proceed from here.

At this point Wife of Bath is fully aware of my concerns, but I have not shared them with [DS], [DD], or [DD’s husband]. One condition I would request is that I would like this to remain between us, President Y, and your counselors, until [DS] has left for school the middle of August. I don't want any hint of this coming out through the rumor mill. i.e. PEC, the high council meetings, etc., until he has left for college. At that point you can tell whoever you want. It would be unrealistic to expect it to remain a secret.

Thanks for your loving service to our ward,