Sunday, November 26, 2006

Weekend Update--

It's been a long time since I posted anything here, so I thought it was time for an update. Since the last time I posted a lot has happened. I've had a lot of experiences and a lot of time to pray and study and think.

I haven't posted much for several reasons. Not much has really changed in my outlook, although I'm becoming more settled in what I see and how I think this all fits together.

Over the last year and a half some actual living of life has been sacrificed to web surfing and a lot of cathartic writing. I've gotten a little behind at work an in family time, and I've had some things to catch up on. Sometimes I think a well lived life has to be a blend of study and action. Some periods of life will focus more on study and contemplation, and some on living out the conclusions reached. Lately I guess the pendulum is swinging more into the "action" category.

So, after all this time and this wordy introduction, where do things stand?

In general I find that my faith in God and in Jesus Christ is as strong as it was before. I've been reading some of what you would call "liberal" books that attempt to tear down the historical and doctrinal foundations of Christianity, and for me they just don't hold up. Details available on request. I would be more than happy to see this blog spend more time articulating what I do believe rather than focusing so much on the things I don't.

I think it's possible to quibble over the historical details as recounted in the New Testament, but the primary event has to be the mission and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and my faith in those things stands firm.

On the other hand my faith in groups of people collectively has probably suffered irreversible damage. I have become mostly cynical about large churches, political parties, corporations, charities, etc.. As these organizations reach a certain size human nature seems to take hold. The primary focus of the organization seems to become its own survival and expanding its own power and influence rather than blessing its own members. The truth becomes secondary to the public image of the organization. People become secondary to growth and expansion of influence.

In this regard I see the LDS church as being no better or worse than any other organization.

Generally what I come around to is that the LDS church is just not that much different from the organizations around it. The people are no better or worse than most other Christians I come in contact with. Their focus just happens to be more on public morality issues that are more visible. IMHO the true mark of a Christian is probably their charity towards others rather than their personal morality, but this is a characteristic that is much less visible to the public eye. Put another way, other Christians are just as good as Latter-day saints, just in ways that are less obvious.

I spent a week and a half in the Salt Lake City area a couple of months ago. We made three visits to Temple Square, and I made it a point to see the films I hadn't seen before, like the new Joseph Smith film and another related film called, I think, "The Restoration". I went through both Visitors Centers, and I think for the first time was able to actually walk up and touch the outside of the Salt Lake Temple. It was really neat to be able to touch the doors and the doorknobs and to contemplate the pioneer craftsmanship that went into that magnificent building.

We also went to visit the Mt Timpanogos temple (the outside), and it is a wonderful and inspiring building. The pictures I've seen just don't do it justice.

Our visit to the Salt Lake area was extremely positive for me. The only downside was the sister missionaries on Temple Square. They're very nice and mean well, but they invariably pounced on me as soon as they saw me. I went into the South visitors center and was immediately engaged in pleasant conversation that quickly sequed to missionary work and a request for a referral. I was really there to see the visitors centers and not to be put on the spot to come up with a name to give to the missionaries. I told her I would pray about it and let her know.

I was confronted with a presentation on families, which was very nice, but I would expect to be introduced to the worship of Christ, not the ideal middle class suburban family.

The other end of the building was a nice exhibit on the construction of the temple, which was clearly visible through a large glass wall. I was again impressed with the faith, commitment, industry, and skills of the pioneers in building the temple, but I was still looking for some meaningful mention of Jesus Christ.

I then met my second sister missionary, who went through almost the exact same pattern as the first, asking me how the temple made me feel, sequeing to missionary work, and asking for a referral. I mentioned I had already been asked for a referral before and would let her know, and then just walked away to end the discussion.

I paused for a bit to contemplate the temple, and it was truly a wonder for me, once I could escape the sisters.

The North Visitors Center was a lot better. There was the presentation on Christ I was looking for. Only one sister missionary went through the commitment pattern looking for a referral. I ran into another who just talked about the things available on Temple Square and gave me what I was actually looking for, schedules for the films. She was very helpful and seemed guilty somehow, I'm guessing because she didn't ask me for a referral.

You can only view the Christus statue as part of a presentation now, and two sister missionaries pleasantly manned a velvet rope to block the way. I asked when I could go up, and she explained why I needed to wait. I stood there for awhile, and the sisters looked at each other and just let me go up.

The Christus statue is pretty impressive, and the sum total of all the exhibits in the North visitors center more than made up for the absence of much related to Christ in the other one. I just hope folks don't go to the South Visitors Center and then leave, thinking they have seen it all.

I got awhile to contemplate it all before the "official" group arrived and the Asian sisters bore their testimonies in broken English and then whisked those interested off to another presentation.

On a later visit I got to see the Joseph Smith movie at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Some have been offended because the movie plays fast and loose with several historical details. The official First Vision account is shown, to no one's surprise, there's no hint of polygamy, and the context behind all the persecution is completely eliminated, making it look like it was only their religious views that made them targets. The well-known fact that Joseph and Hyrum had pistols and fired back at their attackers is not present either. Joseph runs to the window and appears to be assumed into Heaven rather than being shot and falling into the street, which is what actually happened.

Many people in the theater were crying. I wasn't one of them. The movie was obviously not a documentary or designed to convey facts, so the selective storytelling didn't bother me much. I had a running chronology running through my head most of the time, noting what they depicted and what they sort of filmed around.

After the movie I had my chance to get up close and personal with the Salt Lake Temple. Before I don't think we could touch it, either out of security reasons or because of weddings. I got the chance to run my hands along the walls and doors and to contemplate what an achievement it was to build it. I was really moved by it in a way I can't really express and don't really completely understand. The closest I can come is that temples, especially the Salt Lake one, are probably the supreme monuments in existence to the faith of the Latter-day Saint people. I guess I am moved more by that faith than by the actual ordinances that are performed there.

After an entry this verbose some kind of summary seems to be required, but I wanted to be sure to include some of the experiences that have led me to where I am now.

Which is basically where I was before.

I am re-reading the Doctrine and Covenants along with Michael Quinn's book "Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power". I continue to find inspiration in those early prophetic works like the Book of Mormon, while at the same time being aware of their thoroughly human origins and the extent to which the LDS church has gone throughout its history to obscure those origins.

During my visit to Utah I was continually impressed with how nice the people are and how focused they are. Or at least appear. LDS chapels everywhere, and Sundays were a sea of minivans and white shirts. I attended church twice in one of the BYU wards, and they were some of the best LDS meetings I had attended in a long time. The speakers and teachers testified with power about both the Savior and about the "restored" gospel in a way I haven't seen in years. It was magnetic.

Having said that, the LDS church has always been surrounded by clouds of deception. Retroactively changed revelations. Secret marriage ceremonies not publically acknowledged, even to the members, for decades. Secret organizations like the Council of Fifty. Even today the General Authorities of the church, including the President, publish historical information that everyone who reads unofficial sources knows to be false and denies publicly doctrine we teach openly in the church.

As much as many get stirred up about this, I can't bring myself to see it as evil. Merely human, much as any other organization resorts to dissembling to maintain its public image.

My spiritual center has become much more personal, rather than relying on any human organization for ultimate guidance. I'm in church somewhere every Sunday, yet I treat what I'm presented more as input and perspective rather than fact.

I've come to the conclusion that most people's views on religion are based more on their biases than on the facts. Regarding Christianity, the facts and statements are contradictory, even within the same books of the Bible at times. We all filter out what we don't believe based on our biases, and what remains determines our religion.

God has left us a puzzle to figure out, with the basics in plain view and the details in turmoil. Just to confuse things further, the pieces can be put together to form more than one puzzle, much like a jigsaw puzzle with a different picture on each side. My puzzle may be different from yours, and it's intended that way.

Of late I am much less tortured by having to figure this out than I was before. I am much less hurt and disillusioned by the deceptions of LDS church leaders than I was before. They're only human and doing the best they can to keep a leaky ship afloat, and if I had given my heart and soul to an organization for as long as they have I would probably feel compelled to maintain the illusion also.

The spirit seems to be leading me out of "shock and betrayal mode" and into just living life to the fullest. For me that involves prayer and scripture study, seeking out ways to serve others and Jesus did, learning to love others as Jesus did, and seeking to worship my creator in every way possible.

I bought a motorcycle last month, and I feel blessed by God every day I get to ride it. It's an incredible privilege to just live life on this earth at the time I have been placed here. I don't want to miss a thing. Not one opportunity to revel in God's glory or to reflect that glory to others as best I can.

As far as "which church is true", none of them are and all of them are. Ultimately I'll be judged on my relationship with Jesus rather than what pew I chose to sit in on Sunday. Keeping the commandments or performing charitable acts are merely a reflection of that relationship rather than a substitute for it and are strictly secondary. Churches just enable us to gather together for worship, instruction, and service, and are strictly secondary also. Churches are inevitably repackaging of the source material by fallible human beings, and as such can only be trusted so far and no further. Churches are run by people with normal fears and ambitions and imperfections, and as such can only be trusted so far and no further.

Joseph Smith presented some truly amazing and revolutionary doctrine. Is it completely true? I have no idea. The apostle Paul presented some truly amazing and revolutionary doctrine. Is it completely true? I have no idea. In a way, each was inspired by God in ways normal people don't understand, and they did their best to communicate what they thought God was trying to tell them. Did either get it completely right? Probably unlikely, yet the basics of what they were trying to get across are probably pretty reliable, so the trick is to identify those things that are central and what things are just peripheral details and focus on the central things. To me Jesus said it best. Love God first, and then love thy neighbor. The rest is just commentary.

As Joshua said, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord". I expect to spend the rest of my life figuring out exactly what that means.