Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Thoughts on President Hinckley, part 3 --

As a sort of memorial I am trying to listen or read all of President Hinckley's conference talks. I guess I am giving him one last chance to try to convert me. So far I would have to admit it's not working terribly well.

I have several years' worth of conference on CD, and while I was grabbing talks for my iPod I also ripped President Faust's talks also, as I always loved his talks and his plain-spoken and gentle way of making his points.

Last night while walking I listened to these talks:,5232,23-1-19-1,00.html,5232,23-1-19-6,00.html,5232,23-1-19-20,00.html,5232,23-1-19-22,00.html

It was sort of an interesting view of the gospel. In summary the church is a large and impressive organization that requires a lot of skill and resources to manage. Primarily the gospel seems to be about my behavior. I need to be faithful and obedient and work hard to move the kingdom of God forward. I need to reach out to others and serve. I need to be a moral and spiritual person. I need to work on being perfect, which admittedly I can only completely achieve through the atonement, but there is a long list of things I need to work on.

Additionally, Bishops are caring, capable people and need to be respected and venerated as they carry out their many challenging responsibilities. More than the rest of us they are to be held to an incredibly high standard, serving not only their congregations, but being exemplary in the workplace and not letting their families down either.

By contrast, I also listened to this talk:,5232,23-1-19-26,00.html

Now, of these people and these talks, which one is the special witness of Jesus Christ?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

As sort of a postscript to yesterday's entry, I had kind of a trifecta yesterday. I listened to one of President Hinckley's conference talks, I went to an Ash Wednesday service at our Episcopal church, and I listened to a sermon from a local Baptist church while I walked in the evening.

I realized that I spent a lot of yesterday in kind of a funk, which I often do when I get drawn back into LDS church issues.

President Hinckley's talk reminded me that the church is less a congregation of worshipers than a large management training exercise for priesthood leaders. Probably the best thing the church does is to train people who can speak in public, teach classes, and run groups. After all, is BYU known for its school of social work, or for its school of management and its business programs?

The doctrines of Joseph Smith, expanded on by those who followed him, creates an organization that is really one large food chain leading to godhood for those with "demonstrated ability" and being put out to pasture in the telestial kingdom for the lesser.

I am not one with "demonstrated ability". I'm a passable speaker, but at the time of my disaffection I was the oldest person in the Elders Quorum. I'm a counselor, not a presider. When I was 1st counselor in the EQ presidency the president moved, and they called the 2d counselor to be the president. It was hugely embarrassing to me, and a tremendous lesson I won't expand on now.

If the church is really true I will always inhabit the lower rungs of whatever kingdoms are present. I will never rise in the food chain, because of my lack of "demonstrated ability". Thus the closer I get to it the darker my mood.

Despite all that I still want more than anything to belong to the church the missionaries taught me about. That vision somehow won't go away. I was talking to Wife of Bath last night, and I told her that I would go back to full activity and give my heart to the LDS church if it would only do two things: tell me the truth and let me think for myself. If it would be honest about its history and the frailty of its leaders and allow me to follow my own spiritual witness about doctrine and practice, I would go back. I just don't see that happening anytime soon.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Thoughts on President Hinckley, Part 2 --

This is going to be kind of a multicultural day for me. I started out by doing my Bible Study Fellowship homework, listened to a general conference address from President Hinckley on the way to work, and I'm going to an Ash Wednesday service in an Episcopal church this evening. I should find something Buddhist to do after the Ash Wednesday service just to round things out.

Anyway, as kind of a personal tribute to President Hinckley I decided to listen to as many of the general conference addresses he gave as president of the church as I could find, and read the others from the church website. I have the October 2001 GC on CD, so I started with those.

So far I have listened to his talk from the Priesthood session and the Sunday morning talk he gave. This was the first general conference after the introduction of the Perpetual Education Fund and after the September 11th attacks.

I'm used to listening to podcasts from Protestant ministers, so the differences in content were pretty apparent. In these two talks President Hinckley doesn't really dwell on God or spiritual matters much. His September 11th talk starts on the theme of defending ourselves from evil and the sacrifices involved, and segues into fairly familiar themes of getting out of debt and self-reliance in the face of global economic uncertainty. The PEF talk was designed to boost support for that program and talks a lot about the mechanics of it and gives some vignettes of the participants.

A couple of things that caught my ear were the way he described the two men running it, John K Carmack and another emeritus GA, (Richard ?) Cook. He venerated their worldly accomplishments as an attorney and a former comptroller for the Ford Motor company and described them as men of great ability.

He likewise talked about the beneficiaries of the PEF as returned missionaries of faith and ability who need a little help to get started so they can start careers, raise families, and become future leaders of the church.

You can tell from these talks that he really judges success in terms of character. Thrift. Self-reliance. The ability to work hard. Obedience. He doesn't really describe the PEF administrators as men of compassion. He admires them as good managers and men of ability. Likewise the PEF is not about homeless people or the desperately poor. It's about returned missionaries who need a little help to become successful. Always the scorecard. Those who have, get. Those who qualify, prosper. Those who don't are like the 5 slacker virgins. Unless you make it over the line, the lifeboat with the more worthy pulls away and leaves you behind. Always the church is about venerating the successful.

The talk finished before I got to work, so I listened to a MoTab choir hymn from the same conference, "Nearer My God To Thee". That hymn always reminds me of my mother's funeral. There were six people at the graveside, including Wife of Bath and I, pretty much everybody left in the world who cared about her at all. We couldn't find a minister, we couldn't find an LDS bishop, or anybody else to conduct, so the funeral home asked me to do it. Having been in an Elders Quorum presidency and having spoken in church several times this was not a great stretch. I conducted, assigned prayers, WoB and I picked the songs, I gave the eulogy, and either the opening or closing prayer. I had the skills to do all those things because of the skills the church had developed in me as a priesthood holder.

As I pulled into a parking space I had just a few moments to reflect on the many ways I have been shaped as a person by the church and the many things I have learned. It certainly refined my character and taught me how to speak and preside in religious meetings. I have always been blessed in the experiences I have had exercising my priesthood. I would certainly not be the person I am today without those things.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I just wanted to record a few thoughts about Gordon B Hinckley.

Wife of Bath and I went to the broadcast of his funeral Saturday, and it was a moving experience. My father died when I was 17, and my mother died about six years ago. I wasn't that close to my father, and my mother was clearly ready to go home. I didn't cry at either of their funerals, and wasn't really that upset at their deaths. Both had had long illnesses, and I was just worn out by the experiences.

President Hinckley's funeral was a very emotional experience for me. He touched me deeply in many ways. His practical wisdom and gentle humor was very endearing. Much of my vision of what it means to be married comes from his relationship with Marjorie. Several parts of the funeral just made me gasp out loud in tears. One was after his coffin was wheeled into the Conference Center and they showed the First Presidency with his empty chair. Another was at the end of the funeral after all the tributes about him, when after having watched his coffin placed in the hearse, without warning they cut to a documentary of him being with the people of the church around the globe, loving them and being loved by him.

I never actually met him, but I saw him in person three times. Once at a regional conference where he spoke with Sister Hinckley and twice at the dedication of the Raleigh NC temple. In all those occasions you could tell he really wanted to speak to and touch each person individually, but time and numbers just wouldn't permit.

At the funeral they recounted his legacy. They talked about the hundreds of thousands of miles he traveled. The growth of the church. The number of temples he built. The number of temples he dedicated. His warm and folksy humor. His love for the people of the church, and their love for him. His testimony of the restored gospel. His accomplishments were numerous.

Having said all that and despite my feelings for the man personally, it just seemed to me like there was something missing.

Given all his personal accomplishments, is all this really what prophets of the Lord are known by?

What does it really mean to be a special witness of Jesus Christ?

The one thing that seemed conspicuously absent to me was much discussion about his testimony of Jesus Christ. He obviously had a burning testimony of Joseph Smith and the "restoration" of the gospel, as we tell the story in the LDS church. His last General Conference talk, his last message before being called home, was essentially a recital of the Joseph Smith story. I counted, and there were 12 references to Joseph Smith and 6 to Jesus Christ. So, at least at the end, who was he a special witness of? He recited facts about Jesus Christ in his talks, and he clearly understood the mechanics of the atonement and Jesus' role as savior. It strikes me that the primary love he always expressed was his love for the church, the "restored" gospel, and Joseph Smith. A few years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer he gave what sounded so much like his eulogy that he included a disclaimer that it wasn't. In it, in his warm personal way, he talked about the many ways in which the church had blessed his life and the inspiring people he had met and served with as a result. Any serious discussion of the nature of his personal relationship with Jesus Christ seemed particularly absent, as though the saving relationship were the one with the church, the one that prepared us for judgment, and Christ was a distant figure we only meet at the end, the one with the scorecard in his hand.

In the Baptist bible study I go to we discuss the concept of saving faith. Their definition of saving faith is an understanding that we are saved by faith in Christ alone, and works are an inevitable byproduct of that faith. Unless we truly understand that we are saved through the atonement and not as a reward for our own works, we don't understand Jesus as our savior and we are not truly "saved". At this writing I'm not totally sure what I think of that, but it's an interesting concept to think about.

During the funeral, despite the love I have for Gordon Hinckley as a person, I found myself wondering whether he really thought he was saved by the atonement, or whether in his heart he felt saved by his relationship to the church, through the doctrines expounded by Joseph Smith, and through the ordinances performed through the priesthood authority of the LDS church. Did he really have "saving faith"? Only God knows for sure.

Gordon, God be with you until we meet again. I pray you had saving faith in Christ. Give my love to Marjorie, because I'm sure that wherever you are, she is there also. The alternative would be hell for you, whether it was the highest degree of celestial glory or not. Tell Jesus how much we love him, even though we don't show it very well or very often. Help him understand how hard it is to sort all this out sometimes, and encourage him to have compassion on us sinners who are just trying to figure all this out. Thanks for everything you did for us. Thanks for doing your best to lead us down the road you thought led to Christ, even if it was a long and circuitous path at times.