Friday, December 31, 2010

Aloneness and Community --

  I found this quote in a book I am reading by Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity.  For some years he was the ringmaster for a website named  He died of cancer this year, but I think this book sums up his philosophy pretty well.  Mine also.

  A lot of the journey I'm on is described by this quote:

"I want to be one who values relationships and community, but who is not defined by them.  I want to have the certainty, confidence, and contentment that come from knowing who I am in the eyes and heart of God, not just who I am in relation to people.

"At the foundation of the Christian life, there is a kind of sacred individuality, a sort of holy aloneness that cries out to be left alone with God.  This isn't all of the Christian life.  It doesn't erase those parts of a Christian's experience that happen in the context of relationships, but this sacred solitude nees to be discovered, respected, and protected".

Possibly this is a major area the LDS church falls short.  So much of the LDS experience is defined by the group that there is really not much structure for establishing a personal relationship with God.  Certainly the necessary practices are described, which would be foundational and sincere prayer and scripture study.  Yet maybe the end goal isn't laid out very well, nor is a sense of spiritual individualism really valued.  Your primary value in the LDS church is your value and relationship to the group, rather than your own intrinsic value.  It's not possible to sit in an LDS meeting for more than five minutes without receiving a list of ways to "lengthen your stride" to conform more to the goals of the group.

Alas this is just not who I am as a person, nor is this the Jesus I see in the Bible. The true gospel is about earnestly seeking out the desires of God and conforming to those, as imperfectly as we understand them, and not merely conforming to a group.
The Christmas Eve Service --
My wife had to work on Christmas Eve, so I went looking for a Christmas Eve service on my own. There's a large Baptist church in a neighboring town that I've been to before. I know a few people there from a Bible Study Fellowship class I was involved in for about three years.

The first time I went to this church's Christmas Eve service it was a real eye-opener. As a Latter-day Saint we are familiar with being instructed, guilted, and exhorted to do more. The idea that Christ has done great things for us is largely presented as evidence that much is expected in return. Very few LDS meetings end without the feeling that you're just not doing as much as you could be doing. They really don't want to encourage a comfort zone, because people need to be busy doing the Lord's work.

The service I went to three years ago was different. Rather than motivating people out of guilt, obedience, or threats, they simply worshiped. The pastor read passages from the Bible and interspersed with that were several devotional musical numbers, a combination of hymns and contemporary worship music. As this church is mixed generational, there was a little something for everyone. It did a really great job of communicating the feelings of hope inherent in the Christmas season, culminating in a candlelight exercise.

They turned out all the lights, leaving one large candle up near the pulpit. It represented the light of Christ. The pastor lit a single candle from the larger one and used this to light candles for a small number of ushers. The ushers went down the aisle and simply lit the candles of the people on the row ends, who lit the candle of the person next to them.

All in all no one did a great work. Each helped maybe six other people light candles, but this produced a wave of light in a room of several hundred people that worked its way back. Before, the room was in darkness. Soon, it was bathed in light, and for the most part all we had to do to achieve that was to share the light with one other person.

Hopefully the message in all this is clear. Generally if we can just share the light of Christ with the people around us, soon our entire surroundings will be bathed in the warm glow of Christian light.

Three years ago it was a beautiful service.

I went the following year, and it was likewise beautiful.

This time was different. Not so much because the service had changed at all, but because I had. As much as I love this church and what they do, I realized that half the musical numbers were the same ones from the previous services. I also noticed that most people didn't really respond much to the performances. Although we sang the hymns together, there was a sense of passion missing.

Probably the thing that hit me the hardest was how comfortable the service was for the people there. Most of the people there (now in a new building seating 600 - 700 people) seemed to know each other. Families sat together. As a stranger sitting by myself I had a boundary of three seats on either side of me until the room just began to fill in completely. The fact that this service was being enjoyed by groups of people, of friends, of families, was not lost on me. The one person who spoke to me was there with her husband and was likewise not a member of this church.

The scriptures were familiar, the songs were familiar, and being part of a family-oriented church was familiar. Although I was a stranger there, were I to join I would know exactly how to play the game, to laugh and make friends and pleasant conversation. There were lots of people my own age, my own race, and my own class. This room was full of people just like me. All I needed to do was to roll the audio tape and put on the mask and I would fit right in. This was a church I could settle right into, know people, come twice a week, get involved in the social groups and Sunday School classes, and would have no need to venture outside for anything.

The one fly in the ointment here is that the gospel was never intended to be comfortable for us. I think we can point to the examples of Jesus and the apostles as confirmation. The apostles were instructed, they were equipped for ministry, and they were sent out. They were never granted a comfort zone, other than the ultimate promise of salvation and the Second Coming. Nor should we expect anything different.

In many ways I think a church should be like a bicycle seat. It should provide a place to sit, yet not be so comfortable that you want to remain there for any length of time. A church is a place of worship and rest from the cares of the world, but it's not a destination. It's a beginning.

The worst thing a church can do is to present an attractive compelling sub-culture that causes you to be a faker to fit into. God made us as individuals, and I think churches should serve to rub off the rough edges that interfere with our ability to be relational with others, yet not interfere with those differences that make us who we are as people.

So, as much as I enjoy the church I attended on Christmas Eve, it was readily apparent that it was not the place for me.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Addendum: the ward Christmas party --

Another confirming detail for me was the ward Christmas party. I know we had one. I found out because they sent e-mail to the Elders Quorum at the last minute looking for people to do set up and takedown. The one personal invitation I got to it was from the automated notification system on the ward calendar, which showed up two days after the party. It was kind of sad to me that neither my home teachers nor my home teaching companion thought enough of me to invite our family to the party. A trivial thing, and not something I'm really offended by. Just kind of disappointed. An indicator that people really don't care about us that much.

We got some e-mail and a Christmas card from people in our previous ward, but not a single communication from people in our own ward.
The Dry and Weary Land --

Even though we haven't been to LDS services since July I'm still assigned as a home teacher, companion to someone in a leadership position. I specifically asked to be assigned as a home teacher because I wanted to maintain that connection to the community. Likewise we have always tried to welcome our own home teachers, the missionaries, or anybody else who would like to engage us.

Practically this hasn't worked that well. We're not in the social whirl of the ward, which is a generally young ward, and we are "out of sight, out of mind". Practically folks are busy with their families, and people have been ingrained with the culture of obedience, so that's what the leaders get. Obedience, without a lot of passion.

I went about three months without hearing from our home teachers and finally e-mailed them to set up an appointment in November. We had a nice visit, and they shared a thoughtful message. I didn't e-mail them in December, and we found a plate of cookies with a post it on it wishing us a Merry Christmas on our doorstep. Now, that was a nice gesture, and I appreciated the thought, but our primary phone is my cell phone and I am never more than about twenty minutes from e-mail. I would have really appreciated some kind of personal connection more than cookies and a post it, but we are "inactive", and everybody knows the way you home teach inactives is the non-threatening plate of cookies that will not offend them.

On the other hand, we are friendly, so maybe a message connecting us to the Christmas spirit with the goal of providing spiritual nourishment and maybe even bringing us back?

Sadly we just don't fit into people's pre-defined categories, so too bad for us.

On to my own home teaching appointment this past Wednesday.

We also did the drive-by with plates of cookies, although my companion had segregated the route into people we should make appts with and people we shouldn't (because they wouldn't be home if they knew we were coming). The father of one family in the latter category had a general look of astonishment for the minute we were on his doorstep, like "why are you people doing this?"

The other two families were happy to see us. One family was very active and the other friendly, but not so active. We made really pleasant conversation, and I found myself slipping back into the role of home teacher, telling stories from past visits, talking about "church things", "church people", etc. I can play this part, because I did it well for 20 years. Mostly I loved home teaching and loved the LDS church, but many home teaching assignments are just exercises in getting it over with because the families are either busy or don't want to be bothered. So you talk the talk, touch all the bases (message, "is there anything we can do for you", prayer, and run for the car).

When that was all there was, it was enough.

Now it feels like a dark shell. Although we shared cookies during these visits, we didn't share any of the spirit of Christ. Our mission was obedience. We are supposed to visit, so we visited, but we stayed off of possibly offensive topics which are the true theological reason we are supposed to be visiting in the first place.

I guess the worst thing is that I realized what a fake I am. I can talk the talk of an active home teacher, but I will never fit back into this group again. The signal to noise ratio is too low, by which I mean the ratio of real spiritual experiences and enlightenment to just "busyness", going visiting just to fulfill assignments, sitting through meetings as an act of obedience, hearing the exact same lessons over and over again because of the exhortation for teachers never to stray from the script and follow the Spirit. I don't believe in the absolute authority of the leaders. I believe in the authority of God and of Christ, and trying to hear that message of the still, small voice is increasing like trying to communicate with a Mars probe. Through LDS channels it is still out there, but there's too much intervening interference to get a clear signal.

I can pretend all I want, standing on someone's doorstep with cookies in my hand, but I am really not cut from the same cloth as these people anymore, and we all know it. My perspective is too different, my behavior is too different, what "the gospel" is to me is too different. I will never fit again, even if I wanted to.

I wanted to reference the First Presidency message from January, which arrived in my home just before Christmas, but it's not online yet. I'll add a link to it when it comes up. It was very deflating. I opened it hoping for a Christian message, and instead got a regurgitated exhortation for more missionaries for the LDS church from the church President.

Really the December message was no better: December First Presidency Message

Although it at least references Christ, this is the limpest possible message that could be imagined. It doesn't actually testify of Christ, but instead merely challenges people to think about Christ in the Christmas season. This subject should be a sonnet at Christmas-time, but instead is a little to-do list written on a post it. "Buy milk". "Vacuum the stairs". "Think about Jesus".

One interesting thought is this. Why is the most important message that could possibly be delivered to mankind offered by one of the counselors to the President, while the "Lord's Prophet" instead offers a useless message in January trying to convince people to merely do things? Why wouldn't the Lord's true prophet on the earth take advantage of this opportunity to stand on every street corner, visit every homeless shelter, preach non-stop in the tabernacle, the Conference Center, on BYU-TV, to buttonhole every visitor to Temple Square, to walk through the streets of Salt Lake City, Orem, Provo, and every other populated town in Utah begging people to share the message of Jesus with their neighbors? Why isn't this man acting as Peter, Paul, John, or even Joseph Smith, intent on sharing this message of hope and salvation? As opposed to what clearly interests him most, advocating the institutional needs of the church for more warm bodies filling seats at the MTC and filling the corporate sales force of LDS incorporated?

There is just no content to this any more.

I can do better.

I am going to.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Choosing a Fork --

This blog has been largely dormant for awhile because I didn't have much different to say. I've been in about the same place spiritually for awhile, kind of stuck between the LDS church on one hand and trying to figure out where I fit into biblical Christianity on the other.

Maybe "stuck" isn't necessarily the best description. I sort of am what I am spiritually and theologically. Functionally I am a star-shaped peg, and what I have available to me are different shaped holes, none of them being star-shaped.

I remain converted to the spirit of Mormonism, or at least that spirit that has so far been most compactly described by Mormonism, which I find exemplified by the first vision story. A 14 year-old boy went into the woods, seeking truth and an answer from God, and he got one. In fact he got a personal appearance from both God and Jesus Christ.

Now, this story has so many versions to it that it's impossible to know what actually happened, or whether anything really happened, but the story itself remains magnetic to me. The prevailing philosophies of the day had "truth" described by authority. Either the authority of a religious institution or the authority of a book that was the physical product of a religious institution. Whether that religious institution was guided by the hand of God is known in the heart of each individual. I believe it was.

But various institutions certainly reserved the right to tell each individual what the meaning of the text was. Did the words empower the apostle Peter, and thus validate the Catholic church? Did the words constrain the aspiring Christian to keep commandments as the pathway to Heaven? Did the words empower the believer through grace so that commandments were really no longer binding? Pick your preferred institution, and thus choose your yoke and your master.

The essence of Joseph Smith's first vision story is that God cares about individuals apart from institutions. Revelation comes to the individual directly from God. The institutional yoke is broken. The heavens are open, to the extent we choose to listen.

That right there is the underpinning of my faith. Whatever we might choose as a church, a creed, whatever, the driving force behind it must be that direct connection to God, achieved through the Holy Spirit. Institutions have value to the extent that they foster that connection, and they are damned to the extent that they impede it.

Modern day mormonism has become everything Joseph Smith's first vision story was supposed to overcome. It has become a large powerful bureaucratic institution that tells people how they must behave, and it supposes to be the conduit through which most meaningful revelation flows from God to the individual.

It has taken its place alongside many other large and powerful religious institutions that choose to use people to serve their institutional ends. It's better than many, if not most, but the fact remains that it impedes that channel of revelation, much as the life-giving waters of the Colorado river are siphoned off, bit by bit, until a mighty river becomes a muddy trickle at its disappointing endpoint, somewhere in Mexico.

So, my star-shaped peg no longer fits into the hole of institutional Mormonism. So where does it fit?

Largely I'm a scriptural Christian. I believe that God has spoken to men in various ways over time, and the most enduring records are found in the scriptures, primarily the books we consider the Old and New Testaments. These books are and always have been the core of my faith. I believe the Book of Mormon reflects a lot of biblical truth, yet there is no shred of historical proof that it is what it claims to be, a record of an ancient people. Nor does the translation process really seem designed to persuade the vast majority of people that a loving God would want to draw to himself. I don't think the Book of Mormon is the cynical fraud that many, if not most, do, because the principles in it reflect such inspired biblical truth. I find it to be a derivative work, inspired fiction, worthy of reading as one of the most influential books of the 19th and 20th centuries, a clear expounder of truth, yet not one that can doctrinally go beyond its biblical foundation.

So, where does all this leave a star-shaped peg in search of a hole to fit into?

Until recently, just sitting on the workbench. I no longer fit into the LDS church. I have a hard-won distrust of denominations and institutional churches. Yet as Christians we cannot stand alone. The core of Christian practice must happen in communities. No church that I felt drawn to would accept me, because my LDS connections and some resulting life circumstances were not acceptable. The points on the star would just not go down the holes.

Thankfully that may have changed.

This has been a pretty influential holiday period, and my direction seems increasingly clear.  I'll devote the next few posts to sharing the story, and following that to whatever happens next.