Saturday, January 29, 2011

Epilogue --

  I got a reply back from my stake president, and it looks like I'm not going to a church court after all.

  It would be inappropropriate to quote the letter without permission, but I'll summarize as best I can.  I really disagree with some of his points, which I'll address later.

  He apologizes that my spiritual needs are not being met by the LDS church and that I felt I needed to join another church.  Based on an interview we had a few years ago he expresses understanding that I have concerns.

  Just disagreeing with the leaders or mere loss of belief is not generally a reason for having to hold a church court.  Generally when people decide the church is no longer right for you, the right thing to do is to resign.  He doesn't encourage that, but if I really feel the church is inconsistent with my beliefs and I'm unlikely to return, it's the best thing.  A simple signed letter to my bishop will do the job.

  Remaining a member of the LDS church causes others to need to seek me out.  My baptismal and temple covenants still remain in force.  This may not be what I want, but if I want to keep contact and would welcome attempts to reach out I can keep my membership in the LDS church, regardless of whether or not I am active.

  Church discipline is reserved for situations where members openly defy the LDS church, such as publishing articles against the doctrines or leaders or attempting to lead others to adopt incorrect doctrines or leave the church.  He doesn't feel this is what I'm doing, nor what he expects me to do.

  This situation is my choice and he has no wish to force me, except he would want to keep my fellowship in what he firmly believes to be the church of Jesus Christ in its fullest form.

  Regardless of what I decide, he wants to remain my friend and welcomes any opportunity to discuss my beliefs and spiritual journey. 

  He signs the note,

  "Your brother in Christ,  H____ M______, Stake President"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Writing My Stake President--

I sent this e-mail this morning:

President M_____,

I just wanted to inform you that I am now a member of Vintage21 Church in downtown Raleigh.

I have no interest in resigning my membership or severing my LDS connections. Mormonism was and is extremely foundational in who I am and how I look at the world, even as an adult convert. I could just as easily take out my liver as remove the “Mormonness” from my worldview.

I am giving you this information because I am aware that the more recent versions of the Church Handbook of Instruction mention joining another church as grounds for excommunication, although I’m told there is a lot of latitude for local leaders to make their own decisions. I have done what I have done, and if you choose to take this to a church court I would rather just get it over with and not have it hanging over my head as some random event to be worried about in the future.

I am informing you directly because my bishop, Bishop A___, is one of the best men I have known in the LDS church. He has enough problems of others to deal with, without having to decide how to handle this and feeling responsible for any negative consequences. As a Melchizedek priesthood holder you have jurisdiction over this anyway, so you are the best person to decide.

To be clear my “issues” are not with Mormonism as I interpret it from the Book of Mormon and much of the Doctrine and Covenants. Nor have we been offended to any great degree by anyone locally. It has more to do with the institutional church and the oversimplification of the gospel, to include the rich history we have as a people and the breadth of the doctrines preached in the standard works. I cannot sustain a church president who largely remains in Salt Lake City and preaches simple Christian ethics to the faithful and seems to mainly go to temple dedications, as opposed to a lion of the Lord who preaches Christ crucified at every opportunity to audiences both hostile and friendly. And much much more.

Accordingly I can never serve a meaningful role again in the LDS faith community, so I have to belong somewhere I can serve without being considered such damaged goods. Honestly, I feel like Vintage21 Church is closer to the spirit of the Book of Mormon than the current LDS church is, which is why I have taken this step.
Enough about my “issues”, I think. I respect your dedication to serving the Saints in our stake. You have always gone the extra mile in everything you have done, and I think you are truly one of the “good guys” here. Despite everything I have said, I think we have some of the best leaders in this area that can be found in any area of the LDS church. I will respect and abide by whatever decision you choose to make in this matter.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Crossing the Rubicon --
Well, I did it.

I've been attending Vintage21 Church for about two years, served, tithed, volunteered, attended the required membership class, met with the pastors, etc.

The final step was filling out the on-line membership covenant.

It was a very different experience. When I joined the LDS church I was baptised in front of new friends by priesthood holders who had met with me in my home for a period of months. Previous missionaries came back from other places to share the day with me. I still remember it well.

The process of joining Vintage21 church was much more 21st century. There was a web form to fill out with my personal information, a tithing pledge, radio buttons to click on indicating that I agreed to certain doctrinal and behavioral norms, and finally, at the bottom of the web form, a button labelled "Submit!". Whether that was intentional irony I have no idea. i.e. "submit the form", "submit to the Lord", or all the above.

Since this affected Sarah I wanted to share this with her, so we sat down at the computer together while I filled out the form, we held hands, and I clicked on the "Submit!" button.

The form rejected my entry because I left out a required field. Apparently the angels were not going to descend in rings of flame at this point.

I corrected the entry, Sarah and I held hands, and once I again I attempted to "Submit!".

This time I was successful, and I am now a member of Vintage21 Church, Raleigh North Carolina, with whatever privileges come with that.

The fork in the road has been taken.

Next up: the letter informing my stake president. Will that lead to some kind of disciplinary action, or just become lost in his in-box? Time will tell.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Gospel Unchained --
I spent about an hour and a half on Wednesday doing scripture study, basically correlating accounts from different gospels, reading scholarly material on their origins, and writing my own notes and thoughts on what I think it all means.

It's just a blessing to be able to think for myself and to not be constrained by "official" interpretations of what it means. Rather than having the chance to just repeat someone else's opinions or be silent, I can weigh the evidence and make the Gospel mine. I can rely on the Holy Spirit as my guide to figure this out and not some long-dead LDS general authority like Bruce R McConkie or Marion G Romney.

I can draw on any author I choose to expand my understanding, whether it be Billy Graham, Bart Ehrman, or Joseph Smith, and I can acknowledge the truth I find, wherever it may be.

It's great to be unleashed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why Stay, Part 3 --
I was reflecting on this a lot in church on Sunday.

From the LDS perspective I am damaged goods. I cannot pass a temple recommend interview because there's no way I could sustain the current general authorities as "prophets seers and revelators". I think they're entitled to the same inspiration as anyone else who prays to God with real intent, but I don't see them as the Lord's special witnesses, any different from any other preacher, pastor, or evangelist seeking to humbly spread the truth about Christ.

As such I am really not able to be a full part of the LDS community. Most serious callings are off-limits to me, not that I would really want them anyway. I'm forever in a support role, like the Christmas cookie delivery from December, the second banana carrying the plate supporting someone with more credibility. In the LDS church what matters is serving within the church, either presiding or teaching, and I can do neither. The most I could aspire to would be generally made up jobs serving within the LDS community performed under the watchful eye of someone with more credibility.

I contrast this with the opportunities for service in front of me as a member of the church we attend now.

Before the service on Sunday they showed a video about a Boys Club ministry in downtown Raleigh. There are possibilities in front of me for making up packages of food and supplies for less fortunate students at a downtown elementary school. I may go to a meeting tonight for people putting on a chapel service in a local homeless shelter. I can help teach and encourage fellowship in my community group. As a member I could become a deacon and help lead and organize ministries in the church, for example the parking ministry I'm part of now. I can actually make a difference to the less fortunate outside the church and minister in some way to those in it, even if just a greeter helping people find parking spaces and carrying their babies into the building when their hands are full.

I can do something meaningful and not just take notes at someone else's meeting, accompany someone else to a home teaching appointment that nobody wants to be involved in anyway, or haul furniture for people who already have lots of helpers and could realistically afford to pay movers if they chose to.

I can never make a difference in the LDS context. I can make a huge difference in the church I attend now.

Why would I trade meaningful ministry for marginalized irrelevance?

Friday, January 07, 2011

Why Stay, Part 2 --
I’m part of a community group in the church I’m on trajectory to join.  There are three families in our group, because we are the furthest out geographically from where the church meets and there aren’t many others out that far.  One family was sick, so that left me and the leaders, a young couple with two small kids.  We typically meet weekly.

We read the bible together and talked about the sermon.  One of the couple seemed distant and focused mostly on the kids.  I finally had to ask, “is anybody mad at me?  Am I disrupting something I didn’t know about?”  It turned out that this person was struggling with some personal issues and just needed space.  We’ve discussed some of these issues before, and we prayed together and went our separate ways.

I had to reflect for a minute on how genuine and honest our meeting had been.  We enjoyed each other’s company for the most part.  We shared from the scriptures and other related works.  I asked an honest question about whether I had given offense, and I got an honest answer back.  We prayed together that burdens would be lifted and the pure love of God revealed.

How unlike the similar LDS experience of home teaching this was.  We meet because we choose to.  Nobody is keeping score.  There is no “report” to higher authority.  We share.  There is no facade that the home teacher is somehow the superior in the relationship and has authority to instruct and to demand accountability (i.e. the quiz the home teacher is supposed to administer about family home evening, family prayer, etc).  There isn’t the awkward moment where the home teacher has to give some lesson the family hasn’t had the chance to think about, while the kids either run wild or are forced to sit quietly, meanwhile hoping lightning will strike the home teacher so they can go back to playing normally.  We don’t meet out of a sense of dull obligation, all the while checking our watches and hoping the home teachers will shut up and leave.  No, this is a mutually satisfying relationship.  We meet weekly so we know each other and are honest about our feelings and opinions.  Sometimes we share our frustrations about things at church, but not much.

This is just a warm familiar experience, every week.

I have typically been a big fan of home teaching, but this is better because it’s not done out of obligation.  It’s done out of the pure love of Christian community.

Why would I trade it for the drudgery of most home teaching visits?

I have no idea.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Why Stay? --
We attended a great service at our current church on Sunday. I'd like to describe it by way of proving my point, but I know some roll their eyes at listening to others talk about how great their church is. Totally understandable, but please indulge me. If you want, just skip to the end, where I make my point.

The pastor delivered a thoughtful message about defining ourselves. Do we define ourselves by our relationship to those around us? By our relationship to material things? By our relationship to institutions? Or do we define ourselves the way God sees us, by our relationship to Christ? Defining ourselves the way God does allows us to weather a lot of storms at work and in life. Suddenly worldly success doesn't mean that much, so we don't need to stress when job and position and health and wealth are taken away, as they ultimately will be. He tied his sermon to the Bible rather than his own authority, and based his comments on several verses rather than things scattered all over the place quilted together to make a debating point. If you don't believe him, read the words for yourself and see if you see something different.

The music afterwards was phenomenal. Not just the quality, but the response. There was energy in the room, people singing loudly, clapping, raising their hands, and responding with joy at the chance to worship. Not charismatic or anything, but just very enthusiastic and emotional. People were involved in the service.

I just had to contrast this to the times I've attended LDS services lately.

Now, I'm not one who claims that sacrament meetings have to be hugely entertaining. I enjoy listening to talks and generally comparing them to the same talk I have heard dozens of times before on the same subject, considering what I might have said in their place, and singing the hymns. But I fear I'm in the minority. Looking out at the congregation from the stand is usually not much different from sitting in a doctors waiting room. People are not smiling, they look vacant, and they clearly want to be elsewhere most of the time, especially these days when most sacrament talks are just rehashed general conference talks. When the speaker puts themselves into the talk they are hugely enjoyable, but that seems to happen less and less. More and more people just quote large sections of the general conference talk and then bear a short testimony without adding much of their own thoughts.

Regardless of the quality of the content, most people are just not that engaged. They want it to be over. Likewise the singing. I'm embarrassed sometimes to sing in LDS congregations because I sound so loud compared to the few people around me who are singing, especially in the back. In our current church people often sing so loud you have no hope of hearing yourself, no matter how loud you are.

So, here's the point.

I really had to ask myself on Sunday. Sound scriptural teaching and not just somebody's opinion glittered with proof texts from the scriptures or general authorities quoting general authorities quoting general authorities. Energetic emotional worship that engaged the congregation. I was free to be myself and not worry about what other people thought of what I dressed or did during the service. I could just open my heart and respond.

Why would I trade this for an LDS service? Why would I give up this kind of true worship for leaden LDS sacrament meetings where people are just going through the motions? Why would I trade this passionate experience for the equivalent lifeless one?

I really couldn't think of a good reason.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Decision Point --
Most of the last few posts I have made here have been leading up to a church service I went to at the church I attend now, Vintage 21 in downtown Raleigh NC. I used to use the phrase "mostly attend", because my wife and I used to divide our attendance between this church and two others: our LDS ward and whatever our current Anglican/Episcopal church was. For various reasons these other churches have kind of fallen by the wayside, and when we attend church we go to Vintage 21.

We went the Sunday before Christmas. There had been a four week sermon series from Isaiah 9:6 during Advent where Christ was elaborated as "Wonderful Counselor", "Mighty God", "Everlasting Father", and in this last sermon "Prince of Peace".

Honestly so far the series was interesting, but not revelational. I've been around the block a few times, and there was not much new to me in the series. It was great to review the names and attributes of Christ, but these were familiar concepts and not earth-shaking.

The last sermon was different.

What I was expecting from "Prince of Peace" was a feel-good sermon about how Jesus will make us get along better with the people around us, love one another, and teach us all to have happier lives by being nicer to each other. We can be happy and just rest from the cares of the world by abiding in the warm glow of his love, sort of like sitting next to a warm fire with a glass or cup of your favorite beverage, with a companion of your preferred gender on one side and a Labrador Retriever on the other. There's a nice picture of Jesus over the fire, portrayed in your preferred ethnic extraction, and he's smiling down at you approvingly.

Except this was not the sermon preached.

Basically our idea of "peace" is the absence of conflict and trials, and that's not a part of the human condition we can realistically ever expect in the long term. In general, even on their best days people tend to be self-centered and difficult, and the human condition is fraught with trials. We are only ever a short time removed from the diagnosis, the suspicious wet spot that appears in the ceiling under the bathroom, the cold morning where it's suddenly 58 degrees in the house, the morning when you check the news and discover that your 401K has dropped 20% in value overnight, the funny little glass pipe you find in your teenager's drawer, the piece of e-mail left up on the screen where your son or daughter is desperately discussing the results of the pregnancy test with someone else. Any other outcome is the world's view of "peace", and it doesn't jibe with reality.

True peace is being reconciled to God, which can only be accomplished through Christ. It's a healed relationship with God, rather than healed relationships with the people around us and with our investments and the house we live in. With a healed relationship with God the other things fall into their proper secondary place. Without it, other things can never compensate, can never paper over the deep crevasse between the spiritual life we want and the one we actually have.

I realized that basically every organization or system I had been a part of before served to focus me on healing my relationship with the organization. I was to align my outward behavior to whatever the leaders dictated or to what the group as a whole expected. There was really no sense of the inner healing described by this sermon.

I don't expect this to necessarily resonate with you, but it did with me. Without getting all preachy, other religious paths were basically closed doors to me for different reasons, and this one was suddenly an open door leading down a path I was being slowly and powerfully drawn to.

The rest of the service was a wonderfully positive experience of pure worship I really can't describe if you weren't there. It just was.

I went up to one of the staff members I had met with before. For the last two years I have been told I can't join this church because of my continuing LDS connection and because my wife and I had to join together or not at all. As a result of the last meeting we had, suddenly the door to membership was being flung open, should I choose to walk through it.

So, all this was going through my mind this past Christmas week. The doors that were closed. The door that was opening to me. Should I walk through it or not?

By the time I got to Christmas Day, the choice seemed clear. I'm walking through it.