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.