Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sharing My I Don't Knowamony

I’m talking with a neighbor about forming a little book club to read some Mormon history articles. They are here at I don’t know him well but I thought he might have interest. He is well informed and engaged in the ideas he presents in church. He responded positively but took a moment to let me know where he stands with the church. He is a content happy Mormon with no interest in upsetting the apple cart. He basically said that he was ok with the getting together if I could accept that he is what he is, a solid dutiful believing Mormon. Yeah, I’m ok with that. I don’t have definitive answers but I do like to discuss ideas and I love Mormon history. And I don't need others to share my semi dis-functional approach to the church.

Here is what I wrote him back.

Thanks for letting me know where you stand. Here’s where I am Mormon wise. I am drawn to Mormon history because it is my story and my family’s story. It’s why I am here at this time and place. I grew up in an active family, enjoyed church and community, and served a happy successful mission. But that was a long ago and my strict belief default has given way to considering the church’s truth claims on the merits. Teachings and practices must make sense for acceptance. I have struggled with Mormonism for many years and regularly consider checking out but I return week after week. I guess I get enough needs met that it compensates for frustration.

I do often feel that my presence at church is a distraction to others and I wonder if I should be quiet or stay home, but I think/hope people see me as a sincere if eccentric member and take a charitable approach to my quirky participation. And there have been many comments from the brethren about welcoming all people. I suppose that includes me. I do disagree with the brethren about some things I feel my integrity requires that I deal with it, but I try do so honestly and appropriately.

While I don’t have any sort of conventional testimony neither do I know that Mormonism isn’t true. In fact, I’m not sure of what is true and what isn’t or if I am even interested in seeing the world in those terms. I mostly search for meaning and leave truth alone. I know I must sound like one who is ever searching for the truth but never able to find it, but I’m ok with that. In fact, one of the things that drives me batty in the church is the absence of and disdain for uncertainty. I mistrust people and institutions that claim to know all. I am moved by declarations of not knowing more than knowing. I think it’s harder and perhaps better for people to realize what they don’t know . As you can imagine, that makes Mormonism a challenge.

Having said all that, I am a reasonable person who enjoys exchanging ideas with a broad range of believers and non-believers and am pretty agenda free. I think getting together to read the articles will be worth the effort.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Church Ain’t Radiolab

Is anything more satisfying than a piping hot serving of Radiolab? Brainiacs Abumrad and Krulwich seldom disappoint. Whether it’s the velocity of a falling cat or the brain’s capacity to retain random numbers, they transform the esoteric into the accessible and do it with a grin. I mean come on, would I normally care about how prairie dogs communicate the approach of someone dressed in a sweater? But there is joy, yes joy, in listening to them dissect practically any topic. Radiolab is like healthy mind food. It’s tasty and low cal.

Which brings me to Mormon church meetings. How is that we church goers are content to sit though presentations largely devoid spark and wonder? Are we not co-conspirators in what passes for instruction? And why is that an institution that bills itself as God’s church can't do better than have members essentially repeat 4th grade over and over again? Is it fair to move beyond the question, is the Church true, and instead ask how a true church can be so free of interesting material?

Now I know that people experience meetings differently and that I am generalizing my experience to others. So please feel free to ascribe the above to Sanford world, but I think that my comments may be valid beyond my own experience.

Two weeks ago I attended a ward conference where the stake Sunday School Presidency gave a presentation on improving teaching. The presenter asked who in the audience remembered a great teacher and what made them so good. One person offered her father as an example. She said his technique was to ask questions she didn’t know the answer to. Another person told of a scientist in his ward who invited ward members to his home to discuss how science and Mormonism work for him. A third man said that he had a scout master who took the boys on fun and novel outings. The presenter listened to these stories and then opined that they were great teachers because they followed the spirit. I guess we all hear different things but what I heard was three people saying that their teachers were great because they gave new experiences, new information and challenged their students.

Maybe I have been watching too much CNN, but if the average Egyptians can foment change, why can’t we. Yes, the manuals are mundane and simplistic, yes, correlation dictates the shape of the curriculum, and yes, we honor and sustain our leaders, but pew sitting Mormons are also the church and we don’t need to be a bunch of enablers.

For the record, I know how egocentric and irrational I sound. But that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Dramatic, yes, but not necessarily wrong. Come on people, speak up.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

When Is Cash King?

It was another great lesson in the Gospel Principles class I attended.  I jokingly refer to the class as Mormonism for Dummies because it is meant to be a very basic treatment of basic gospel beliefs.  But the core class attendees have been going to the class for more than a year now and there are no investigators or recent converts in the class.  In fact, most people in the class are lifelong members.  We seem to know each other pretty well by now and we each have sort of carved out our turf when it comes to discussing the gospel.  It is an uncommonly open and inquisitive class and I have enjoyed it as much as any class I have ever attended in Church.

Today the lesson was about prophets.  We discussed how Mormons see prophets and what prophets are expected to do.  There were a variety of opinions as to what the role of a prophet is and how a prophet’s humanness (is that a word?) plays into our expectations and their behavior.

We also talked about what it means to prophesy. One member of the class mentioned that she had recently read a talk given by President Hinckley 10 years ago in which he told people to get out of debt.  She said that had those prophetic words been headed, some of today’s economic problems might have been avoided.  The teacher, who is commercial and residential real estate developer, somewhat jokingly responded that if we had paid off debt and not leveraged out 10 years ago, we would not have participated in the economic boom that preceding the downturn.  I think he made a pretty good point. 

I talked to the developer after class about his comment.  I know that he has had a great deal of turmoil as a result of the downturn but he seems to keep his sense of humor in spite of it.  I told him I wasn’t sure that I considered President Hinckley’s debt advice to be prophetic.  I thought it great advice but not really prophesy.  He concurred and we both jokingly agreed that a really helpful bit of prophesy would have been to expand 10 years ago but to go to cash 2 years ago. 

In retrospect, I’m not sure that I think the Lord would have a prophet say specific things that would help us avoid financial problems or conversely aid in getting ahead.  I’m just not sure financial matters help or hinder the Lords ways.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Liken with Care

An article in this month's Ensign,  Likening the Scriptures to Our Personal Lives, espouses what I believe is an increasing popular method in the LDS Church for reading and understanding scriptures and teachings of the Prophets. The unattributed piece offers suggestions for making scriptures applicable today. It begins:

Likening the scriptures to our personal lives helps us discover gospel principles and receive revelation. Nephi testified, “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23). Even though the scriptures were written long ago, they provide inspiration for our modern-day dilemmas when we learn to liken them to ourselves.

In my experience with LDS church meetings, I a see great deal of likening.  An example of this is a typical Sacrament Meeting talk.  A speaker reads a scripture and then explains how he applies the text of the scripture to his life. 

Sunday School and Priesthood/Relief Society manuals also promote likening very heavily.   Lessons mostly begin with a story and then turn to scripture quotes or sayings from Prophets.  They generally conclude with a list of potential questions for the class.  The questions are heavily geared toward asking how something in the lesson applies to the life of a class member. 

I experienced likening in action in a Sunday School a few months ago.  The teacher began by explaining that the lesson would cover Doctrine and Covenants Section 9.  She explained that that section dealt with how the Holy Ghost communicates to us.  She said that the Holy Ghost confirms truth by allowing us to feel a burning in the bosom when something is true and by giving us a stupor of thought when something is not true.  She then asked the class if anyone could share an example of this in their lives.  A few brave souls shared personal stories.   I think the teacher was pleased with the lesson and class participation but I went away feeling something was missing.  The problem was that never once during the lesson did the teacher mention that D&C Section 6 was given specifically to Oliver Cowdery.  She didn't even mention his name.  It was apparently not relevant to the lesson.  She did a great job of helping the class to liken but entirely omitted any instructions about the context in which this section of scripture was revealed.  

The result was that the class lost the opportunity to learn about how one of the most important figures in early Mormonism was instructed by the Lord directly through Joseph Smith on how to utilize the gift of the Holy Ghost.  And while I liked the way she got class members to share their experiences, what I would like to have seen was an explanation of why Oliver Cowdery was given that particular revelation.  What prompted it?  Did it work for him? Did he ever talk about the experience?  Is the burning in the bosom and stupor of thought universal to all revelation seekers or was it specific to Oliver Cowdery?  And then moving on to the likening stage, she could have asked something like this – is there something we can learn from Oliver’s experience that can help us develop our ability to have the Holy Ghost confirm truth to us?

Another experience with likening occurred recently in my Elder’s Quorum.  The instructor began his lesson by letting us know that we would be studying the lesson on apostacy from the Joseph Smith manual.  After referencing a few items from the manual he put it down and stated that the stuff in the manual had happened a long time ago and that he was more interested in what apostasy meant today (which he equated with inactivity) rather than what the manual said.  I was troubled by that because I thought that the lesson offered the opportunity to get a glimpse of what Joseph Smith thought about apostasy (actively tearing down the Church, holding yourself above the Brethren, professing false authority to govern the church).  In his effort to apply principles to the here and now he missed the opportunity to first understand how Joseph Smith felt about the matter and then apply the principles. It was almost as though the historical context of the Prophet’s remarks got in the way of the more critical likening.

Now you might say that each teacher has their own style and that some stress history while others stress principles.  I get it that not all teachers are the same and that different teaching styles appeal to different learners.  I also understand that teachers have very different levels of interest and education in the historical setting in which scriptures have been received.  A friend of mine characterized the two Sunday School teachers in her ward as the history teacher and the spiritual teacher.  She enjoys both styles and gains different things from the different methods of instruction.  I guess my issue is that I see the likening approach being stressed more and more and supplanting the contextual approach.  I believe that the Sunday School manual, which teaches the Doctrine and Covenants by topic rather than sequentially, promotes likening at the expense of context. 

I think likening is being stressed heavily institutionally because it is a method for helping learners to adapt the scriptures to themselves.  It is a potentially freeing exercise which puts the burden of interpretation on the reader.  It presupposes that the reader has an obligation and right to receive divine guidance in drawing meaning from scripture and then acting upon the inspiration.  That is a good thing.  But I think it is even better to understand as much as possible the reason why a scripture was given in the first place.  I think context is important to gaining insight as to why the Lord speaks to a certain person or people.  Not all revelation is universally applicable.  We certain don’t expect people to liken Nephi's instruction to kill Laban as a commmandment to us.  Understanding the context in which Nephi received the order helps us draw appropriate wisdom from the episode.

As usual, I am not sure if I am just quibbling over things that don’t need fixing, or more fittingly I suppose, things that I have no ability to control or influence. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A New Sheriff In Town?

Is it my imagination or is the Church taking the gloves off in the public arena?  Specifically I refer to Church PR head Michael Otterson’s recent letter published in the Tribune.  He has some pretty harsh words for reporter Rebecca Walsh.  Walsh, a few days earlier, rather snarkily called out the Church for its yearly pre-legislative session with lawmakers.  Walsh sees these meetings as proof that Utah is just short of a theocracy.  She thinks the meeting is a violation of the separation of Church and State.  I don’t really agree with her but I can see her point, and her criticism is nothing new. 

But the response from the Church PR -- now that caught my eye.  Otterson, the managing director of PR for the Church, blasts Walsh for thinking the Church isn’t entitled to its say in public issues like everyone else.  He makes some valid points but his manner in doing so it pretty surprising.  He gets a little personal and mean about it.  He doesn’t do a full Glen Beck on her but he comes close.  He even makes it personal, calling her "someone who invariably sees a conspiracy behind every pew.

Now I have to think that something like this gets run up the Church flagpole before it gets sent to the newspaper, so what gives?  Is this PR or is this a dog fight?  It almost seems like the Church has decided that it is not going to be a punching bag anymore.  Could it be that with PR savvy President Hinckley’s passing, the new leaders have decided they are not going to take it lying down anymore?  Is President Monson less willing to turn the other check?  Or is this just an angry manager making what I think is a poor PR move?

I don’t think President Hinckley would have authorized such a response.  I can see him reading Walsh’s column and shaking his head a little bit and then saying leave it alone. When I was just starting college my brother and I were canvassing our neighborhood to drum up business for a lawn fertilizing company.  We knocked on the door of our neighbor, Gordon B. Hinckley, and he invited us right in.  He was very friendly and curious about what we were doing with our lives.  I told him that I went to the U. of U. and mentioned that the university newspaper, the Daily Chronicle, had been running some stories that were critical of the Church.  He nodded a little and said that that was nothing new and what could you expect?  He wasn’t particularly upset; he had seen it all before. He just shrugged it off.  I think maybe that’s how he ran the Church as well.  He may not have liked criticism of the Church but he was careful not to encourage more by issuing angry responses to it. 

Which brings me back to Walsh and Otterson.  Have the brethren decided to quite shrugging?  

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or My Day at Church

I can’t remember the last time I had such a good and a bad experience in Church on the same day.

The Bad – Sacrament Meeting

It was high council Sunday. I don’t know our high councilor well but he seems a really good person. He is gentle and down to earth and I like what he does for a living – he’s a veterinarian. So I was pleased to see that he was speaking today. Only he didn’t really speak, he was assigned a general authority talk and that is basically the talk he gave. He started by saying that while the Stake President doesn’t usually assign topics, in this case he was instructed to talk about Elder Dallin Oaks recent General Conference address about Sacrament Meetings. So I think he was just doing his job.

This was the second time I've heard the talk. The first was during conference. I didn’t like it then and it didn’t get better with repetition. I realize that this statement may be proof positive that I am completely void of the spirit but that is how I feel.

The talk included a number of admonitions about how to behave during sacrament meeting. The points that jumped out at me were:

Deacons should always wear a white when passing the sacrament
Clothing is indication of who a person is
Clothing that the draws attention to the wearer should not be worn
You should bear testimony in a certain way
You shouldn’t read books or text message during sacrament meeting

Here’s my beef

White Shirts -- Why do we insist on a dress code for our young men? Some people don’t like to look like everybody else and institutionalizing a mode of dress pushes non-conformists out the door. Why do we want to have a church were you have to look a certain way? What could your church attire possibly have to do with important eternal principals? Can’t we just let kids wear what they feel comfortable in and not give them a reason to look someplace else to spend their Sundays.

Testimony – Can we please treat people like they are adults? We talk about listening to the spirit all the time. Why not let people decide for themselves what the spirit prompts. I feel like most of the interesting testimonies have been stage managed out the door. Why do we want people to say the same three or four things everybody else says? Why are we afraid to just let people say what they think? We claim the spirit will prompt people but then we institutionally formulate scripts for them to follow.

Books – This is where my selfishness will show. I long for engaging interesting meetings. Ones where people are honest about their struggles and challenges. I want to know what a speaker thinks. I don’t really want to hear a speaker tell me what someone else thinks. I don’t expect them to be polished but I do hope that they will use their own thoughts and words. Is that fabulously unrealistic to want that? One reason people read in church is because much of what is interesting has been institutionalized out of the meetings. More and more people are expected to only say certain things and in a certain way. Church should be a forum for exploring faith and belief rather than a place where honesty and individuality are checked at the door.

The Good – Sunday School

I love my Sunday school class. I attend Gospel Principles. I like the small size (around 10 people) and the informality it allows. People feel free to say what they think and there is a great deal of discussion. I also like it that it includes converts. Converts often have not been correlated to the point that they say all the right things in the right manner. Plus converts made a choice at some point to become Mormon. I like their ability to compare and contrast membership with non-membership.

Today we had a lesson about Heavenly Father. The teacher is a newish member who just got sealed in the temple. We had an engaging discussion about God, evolution, faith, science, time, dinosaurs, chemistry, intelligent design, atheism, agnosticism, and the witness of the spirit. The teacher is a scientist and is very comfortable bouncing ideas around. Some things he had an opinion on and other things he put down to faith. He was just very relaxed and conversational. I particularly found enjoyable a discussion about the space where faith can emerge from agnosticism.

He took the last 10 minutes of the class to tell his conversion story. He had flirted with atheism when young. But later spent a lot of time in the mountains and came to feel that there was a god. Once he found that god was plausible, he began to be open to religion. Over a number of years (with the help of his wife) he explored Mormonism. He thought Mormons were very weird (he still does) but eventually found his faith morphed into belief. It was very moving and you could hear a pin drop as he told his story. I wish all my meetings could be like that.

The Ugly – Priesthood Meeting

Ok - the last part isn’t ugly but I was worried that it might be. Today’s lesson centered on the oft repeated Joseph Smith statement “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.” The instructor asked what we thought about that in relation to Church leadership today. Because I was still smoldering a bit from sacrament meeting I raised my hand. I tried not to be too snippy but I wanted to give me two cents worth. I told him that I liked the concept of letting people govern themselves but that we didn’t really practice that in the Church. I cited as an example the talk from sacrament meeting in which we were told point by point how to conduct ourselves in sacrament meeting. I said that Joseph Smith was a leader and not a manager and that we would better off  if we let people decide for themselves how to implement truths. I was worried that I was too strong in my comments but the discussion moved along quickly much to my relief. I think the quorum members chalk my comments up to my quirky personality which is ok with me. I didn’t want to offend anybody, most of all the high councilman who was attending the class, but I do believe rank and file members are entitled to voice their opinions even if they are at odds with the management. 

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Satan – A Man with a Plan

I found myself in downtown Salt Lake yesterday with a few minutes to kill so I dropped into the genealogical library to do a quick bit of research.  Sitting across from me was a couple doing the same.  They bantered back and forth as they worked.  The man told his partner that there were several very large families in his lineage.  One family, he noted, had 18 children.  The man opined that Satan’s Plan must be working because we do not have large families like that anymore.

In the recent Prop 8 debate, I heard the phrase Satan’s Plan used extensively by LDS members trying to explain the push for same sex marriage.  Not so much from the top of the Church, the Brethren I think are careful about that type of speech in a setting that involves non-Mormons, but I heard it a lot from the rank and file members.  Although to be fair, Mormons provide a slew of reasons why the family is under siege and how the attack is part of Satan’s Plan. 

Today in Elder’s Quorum we had a very timely and helpful presentation from a ward member who is a banker.  He made a brief presentation about the state of the economy and the causes of our current recession.  He then provided a number of measures we can take to be prudent in our financial dealings and enhance our financial well being.  He talked about staying out of deal, measuring risk when investing, the need for collaboration between spouses and children when managing a household budget, and being charitable with money.  It was one of the most on point lessons I have experienced in a very long time.  But of course this was church meeting, not a Suze Orman lecture, and the context was very much a religious one.  He equated debt free living as being in tune with God’s plan and being debt ridden as being beholden to Satan’s Plan. So, family planning, same sex marriage and debt --- part of Satan’s Plan?  Depending on the type of Mormon you are, you might see Satan’s Plan in any or all of these examples.  Or perhaps you don’t think everything you happen to view negatively is the devil’s doing. 

I personally don't think family planning is inspired by the devil and I don’t believe that Same Sex Marriage is in the devil’s play book.   But debt – that’s tricky – I am pretty down on debt having spent of good portion of my professional career representing bankruptcy filers in court.  Ok – I am willing to say that debt is part of Satan’s Plan --- whatever that means.