Our Way of Life

When I write about my church, it’s usually to analyze some aspect of belief or to defend it from critics. But today I just want to celebrate the beauty and joy of the kind of life practiced in the Mormon church.

For months now I’ve often looked back from the end of a day and thought of just how amazing it was. It’s crazy how many days make me laugh and smile and think, how many days have a little bit of me helping someone else and someone else helping me, how many days see me witnessing and participating in the best and hardest moments in an ever growing number of lives. This isn’t meant to say that any other way of life is worse than this or bad at all; this post is for me to simply say that the practice of Mormon discipleship is a truly wonderful way to live.

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For numerous specific anecdotes of exactly what I’m talking about in the daily lives of ordinary Latter-day Saints, please check out the series of posts tagged “on the sweetness of Mormon life” over at the excellent Junior Ganymede blog. Dip into any of those slices of homemade gourmet living and you’ll find your heart filled with a rich light.

The most recent entry:

An old cowboy bears his testimony. he is being released from the bishopric. It is his 3rd bishopric. He cries when he speaks. He say’s he’ll miss the friendship. His successor is a dirt contractor who “grew up rough.”

The first speaker says he’d been working at the temple a few days back. The Temple President came and pulled him from his duties. Unusual. “We need help in the baptistry.” There was only a father and son. Also unusual. They ran a session of baptisms for the dead and then confirmations for the dead, with just the Temple President and the speaker and the father and the son. Very unusual. The father was fighting back tears.

After, the Temple President explained. The son had turned 12 that weekend. A day or two later, the man received his 7-day notice that he was ordered to Afghanistan for one year. The temple had made special arrangements so he could do his son’s 1st baptisms for the dead.

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Or you could refer to this summary from the end of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option for a remarkable parallel to the kind of life I have in mind:

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Two Months in the Life of President Russell M. Nelson

elder-russell-m-nelson-mormonWhat major tasks have you completed so far in 2017? How much of your total strength has that taken? How much good has it produced? Consider just some of what Russell M. Nelson has done in the first two months of this year.

Nelson is the leader of the twelve apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He works full time as a minister, only getting a stipend for living expenses. And he’s 92 years old.

He’s been doing this for over 30 years, since 1984. Before that, he was an accomplished heart surgeon. He has over 50 grandchildren and over 100 great grandchildren.

On January 8, he gave a 40 minute speech to an auditorium of thousands of young adults about leadership and faith. The speech was broadcast online. How much time and effort went into preparing it, do you think? Watch it to see how much passion went into sharing the message. Note that his demeanor is always funny, witty, and pleasant–there is no scolding or negativity coming from him. He loves what he does and whom he serves.

One week later, on January 15, he visited my congregation in North Las Vegas. He spoke for about 45 minutes here, about a variety of spiritual topics. His remarks were prepared, but he worked without notes. Afterwards, he slowly exited the chapel, shaking hands with anyone he could reach on the way out, and even picking up small children to embrace, including my four-year-old daughter.

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My Conversion Story

An old friend recently asked me to tell this story, and I realized that I hardly ever do. I guess I don’t think it’s very special. But still, it’s mine, so here it is.

It starts in 8th grade, when the emotional problems that had always plagued me drove me to some anti-social behavior so severe that my poor parents had to withdraw me from school and place me in a mental health facility. By the time I was released to go home that summer, I knew that I was missing something and needed some kind of major change.

I’d always been a pretty religious kid, though my family never went to church much. I went to a kind of church class after school in 3rd grade, and enjoyed it. I tried reading the Bible a couple of times. I felt like there was some kind of spiritual truth out there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.

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The Sacrament Prayers As A Heroic Epic

The promissory elements of the sacramental prayers, especially the prayer on the bread, can be seen as an enactment of a typical heroic arc.

I’ll illustrate here with images from that typical hero’s journey, the Star Wars saga. It’s not perfect or in order, and I hope you don’t find this irreverent, as this analogy makes Darth Vader into Jesus (though there really are clearly some aspects of the Savior used in the character of Anakin Skywalker). In these pictures, Luke Skywalker is each of us as we take the sacrament.

The first thing we as individual participants do is to eat “in remembrance of the body of thy Son.”

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“in remembrance of the body of thy Son”

A great hero has fallen, his life given for the good of others, and the young disciple (or in our case, disciples) who must now carry forward the legacy of his work must, first of all, mourn and find strength from the sacrifice of the elder master.

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“they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son”

The fallen master’s legacy is now conferred on the next generation, who “take upon them” (physically, spiritually, or both) some talismanic aspect of the master (be it a lightsaber or a holy name).

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“and always remember him”

Here’s another example of becoming literally more like a great heroic mentor through continual remembrance–Luke’s bionic hand. In our case, eating the sacramental bread itself could fill this role. (The work and clothing of the temple fit here as well.)

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“and keep his commandments which he has given them”

Armed with committed resolve and the basic emblems of the way, the young disciple(s) now must live the way with increasing fullness, through a life of practice, tests and trials, and general faithfulness as they embark on their own version of the master’s journey. This training is ongoing and episodic, like a series of scenes in a movie franchise, or over the course of our daily lives. Either way, growing in strength through regular obedience to the laws of the way is expected.

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“that they may always have his Spirit to be with them”

The reward for demonstrated faithfulness to practicing the way of this order is to have the eternal, spiritual presence of its holy divinities with the young disciple along the path of the dangerous journeys ahead. These spiritual guides offer blessings and gifts that aid the hero on his ever-maturing way (“Use the Force, Luke” or “Choose the right,” perhaps).

This pattern could also be illustrated with scenes featuring Obi Wan more, or figures like Gandalf or Dumbledore. The point here is to invest the great words of our compact little sacrament prayer with the majesty they deserve. It’s a simple routine for us, but one that can and should have profound meaning.

Keeping in mind this pattern of a heroic journey as each of us takes the sacrament each Sunday might help us realize its importance and power. It may only last a few minutes, but this ordinance has the ability to orient and refresh us after a long week of heroic journeying, and prepare us to continue fighting forward.

An Easy Template For Your Next Angry Rant Against the Mormon Church

It’s tough out there for a progressive Mormon these days. Reacting with horrified indignation on the Internet to current events has nearly become a full-time job! It’s almost enough to make one re-examine one’s passionately believed liberal assumptions. Almost.

But before you do something drastic like that, here’s how to deal with the exhaustion of always needing to rant online. After all, there are only so many synonyms for “sad” that you can dredge up in the service of your public moral vanity.

Just use this easy, user-friendly template for your next angry tirade against the LDS Church. It’ll even work for those trendy new rants that poorly veil their murmuring under the guise of being diplomatically disappointed.

Here it is:

I am (outraged / shocked / depressed) by the recent event in the LDS Church that everyone’s talking about. It (sickens / offends / discourages) my sensitive and compassionate conscience. Once again our leaders have shown themselves to be (out of touch / tone deaf / afraid of change / consistently faithful to their calling).

When will the Church finally (evolve / wake up / get with the times / become as good as I am)? And when will they finally start thinking about all the (minorities / non-Mormons / children / sensitive and compassionate progressives)? When?!

Don’t they know that this is the last straw and that oodles and scads of people are now (leaving the Church / not joining the Church / speaking out against the Church / scribbling stale criticisms online for cheap social capital)?

How do I know the Church is wrong on this issue? I’ll tell you: (insert string of logical fallacies here; begging the question, straw man, reductio ad absurdum, ad hominem, and false analogy work especially well). The Church’s stance on this one issue is obviously (a radical conspiracy by old white men / inspired by some conservative politician my friends and I don’t like / based on decades if not centuries of doctrinal precedent).

Now that the Church has thrust us into a dark age we will have just have to hunker down and patiently (wait for change / pray for our leaders’ enlightenment / waste time showing off online / seek faith while quietly serving others).

Hopefully I’ll never have to write anything negative about the Church again. (NOTE: when posting this in future years, remember to use updated references to whichever Church leader / social conservative / Republican politician is being called stupid by the media at that time. You don’t want your rants to start sounding predictable!)

If the Mormons Accepted Gay Marriage, How Would the World React?

Imagine that the Mormon church announces tomorrow that they’ve received a revelation from God telling them to accept gay marriage.

(Please note that I am absolutely NOT “agitating” for something like this.  This is merely a thought exercise to make a point.)

In a perfect world, mainstream society would react like this: “They’ve worked so hard for so long to make sure we all know that they love us and want to be friendly with us, we can’t deny that only fidelity to their beliefs was what led them to the policies they had.  Their efforts at explaining those beliefs kindly and reaching out to everyone in welcoming were nothing short of amazing.”

Of course, the more realistic reaction would be: “Well, it’s about time those morons decided to stop being so mean and hateful.”

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Exposing What Mormons “Really” Believe

I’ve lost track of how many articles lately, and how very many comments on articles,  claim to reveal to the world the secret, sinister beliefs of the LDS Church.  Their attempts at scandalous revelations tend to revolve around the same few topics, and they’ve all been squarely addressed (I covered the whole “Mormons want to become gods who rule their own planets” trope last summer), so I don’t want to analyze them one by one here.

What most strikes me about these alleged controversies, though, is how deep into obscure arcana the critics have to dig in order to find objectionable stuff.    If the worst dirt you can find on an organization is based on a handful of rumors, gossip, and secondhand quotes from 19th century figures, how bad can the organization really be?

Imagine a make and model of a car that someone wants to take down.  So they write some snarky blurbs about it online that show the world the truth: the company logo on the rear end is kind of derivative.  And the antenna is a bit hard to unscrew.  And don’t even get me started on the horrors of the rubber coating under the front passenger floor mat.

“Trust me,” says our automotive Internet muckraker, “I know all about the dark, seedy underbelly of this scam.”

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Sunday School Honors?

Something that critics of the LDS Church, both those on the inside and on the outside, like to say is that the Church doesn’t openly teach what it “really” believes.  They accuse the Church of hiding the truth about its more challenging doctrines and history behind a facade of bland pablum.

I could easily argue the problems with this view: that church materials and General Conference talks are actually deeper than many suppose, and that the church does nothing to hide anything related to it and even facilitates such research far more than people give it credit for (Some critics like to “shock” Mormons by revealing that Joseph and Hyrum Smith  defended themselves with pistols when attacked in Carthage Jail; the Mormon church is so scared of this fact and works so hard to cover it up that the pistols in question are on display in their official history museum, at Temple Square, free and open to the public).

Besides, if church-produced materials are so facile, I suppose I could quiz you on them and you’d know them all backwards and forwards.  Wait, what?  You mean you haven’t really squeezed every drop out of them yet?

Or consider this: the textbook used in church history classes is already an oversized monster and more than 600 pages long.  You don’t think the Church is trying hard enough to teach people about its history?  Good grief, just how much longer do you want that book to be?

But I think the biggest flaw with this criticism is that it simply isn’t the Church’s job to make sure that everybody everywhere knows everything about it.   Continue reading

A Response to Salon’s “But I’m a Good Mormon Wife” Article

UPDATE 9.14.15: This post periodically blows up online. Today it got three times more hits than the whole blog gets on an average day. People keep bringing it up on social media, apparently.

I’ve looked over some of those comments, and the biggest thing they tend to say is that I’m being judgmental. I’d like to address this with three points:

  1. I didn’t judge her value as a person. In fact, I diplomatically phrased much of this essay to specifically avoid the false appearance of condemnation. Sadly, it seems that some will see moral judgment, even in its obvious absence, no matter what someone actually says. To castigate me for an imagined insult shows not just a lack of charity, it shows a lack of reading comprehension.
  2. I wasn’t criticizing her as a person; I was analyzing her essay. Written documents, publicly published, are all fair game for discussion. That’s how discourse works. There are no privileged texts, immune to analysis. To suggest such is to create a caste of secular scripture, and to demonize someone who dares to analyze such a text is to practice an intellectual inquisition.
  3. Where I speculate about the author’s possible (possible!) motives and background, it is always in light of what’s explicitly or implicitly in her text. Criticize my analysis, and do so with better evidence and reasoning, but there’s nothing here to warrant an attack. Certainly, I have yet to see a substantial criticism of this post that uses actual citations and clear reasoning–nothing more, in fact, than simple invective. Anyone who wants to engage in civil dialogue is always welcome to, though.

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This article made me sad.  Not because it mischaracterizes my church, which it does, and not because I think Maren Stephenson, the author, is an awful person, which I don’t, but because I think she totally misunderstands what she rejects and needlessly misses out on something wonderful because of it, even though she must have been so close to it.

The author writes about how her husband, and then she herself, became intellectually disillusioned with the LDS Church, and became happier after leaving it.

For someone who calls herself a “scholar” in her own article, she doesn’t seem to know the difference between doctrine and urban legends, and she seems ignorant of some obvious facts that contradict her new worldview.  It isn’t the factual errors that are heartbreaking, though–it’s the personal drama that accompanies (and perhaps fuels) the skepticism, which seems to lead her to a badly warped view of the LDS Church:

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What Was the Mark of the Curse in the Book of Mormon?

A comment on a news article last week called the Book of Mormon racist because of its references to dark skin in conjunction with a curse.  I responded with the usual explanation: the curse is spiritual separation from God (2 Nephi 5:20), and the dark skin was just a useful way to distinguish those who’d been cursed.  However, the more I looked at what I’d written, the less satisfied I was.  I felt like I was missing something.  I went back to the text.

I don’t think the Book of Mormon references to dark skin are literal anymore; I think they’re only a poetic idiom.  Subsequently, I now have a different theory for what the mark of the curse really was.

The Controversial Verses

First, look at the relevant text.  There are three passages in the Book of Mormon that specifically mention dark skin as the mark of a curse (in 2 Nephi 5, Jacob 3, and Alma 3), and a fourth that bears on them (3 Nephi 2).  Here are the most controversial verses:

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Upcoming 200th Anniversaries

In 2005, the LDS Church celebrated the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth.  As major an event as that was, the next big milestone is far, far more important, and as it’s only a little over eight years away, I wonder if plans are already being made to honor it adequately.

The 200th anniversary of the First Vision will be in the Spring of 2020.  General Conference that season will likely be on Saturday, April 4th and Sunday, April 5th.  I imagine celebrations could most conveniently coincide with that.  Certainly it’s what all the talks will be about!  But this will be a celebration that the whole world should know about, and be included in.  It should, conceivably, be the biggest event the Church has ever undertaken to organize and present, with the possible exceptions of the pioneer migration and the construction of the earliest temples.

Some other important 200th anniversaries that we might already start keeping in mind:

  • Thursday, September 21st, 2023:  Angel Moroni appears to Joseph Smith and mentions the Book of Mormon
  • Wednesday, September 22nd, 2027: Joseph Smith receives the Book of Mormon plates
  • Tuesday, May 15th, 2029: Restoration of the Aaronic priesthood
  • Tuesday, March 26th, 2030: Publication of the Book of Mormon

And, of course:

  • Saturday, April 6th, 2030: Organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

So at least one major event’s anniversary will actually fall on a weekend!

Irrational Anti-Christian Hatred Is Real

Last month, my college classes had an assignment to write a problem/solution essay.  Being young adults, almost all of them wrote from a politically liberal perspective.  Now, some of those papers were clever, articulate, and well-written, even if I personally disagreed with their premises and conclusions.

But not many of them.  Many of them were angry, juvenile rants with no more basis in reason or reality than the most fevered stereotypes of leftist loonies.  One guy wrote three pages about how global warming puts “all life on earth in danger of destruction very soon,” for example.  Several wrote about cheerfully banning anything they don’t like, from fast food to cigarettes to belief systems.  One student summed up that philosophy like this: “If people can’t make the choice to stay away from it themselves, it should be banned.”

I admit, I find this tendency to automatic tyranny scary.

But wait, belief systems?  They wrote that they want to ban belief systems?  Yes.  The most popular subject was gay marriage, and some writers were quite assertive in their condemnation of anything that wouldn’t agree with them.  By far the scariest lines in any paper I read were these:

“[He] was picked on because of his sexual orientation and now those who believe that his sexual orientation does not go along with their religious beliefs can bully him.  Apparently Al Qaeda was completely okay and the Holocaust can be justified too.  Al Qaeda occured because of religious beliefs…Then the Holocaust killed millions of Jews simply because of Adolf Hitler’s moral beliefs.” 

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The New York Times Admires Joseph Smith’s Civil War Prophecy

In a blog post last week about Mormons and the Civil War–focusing on the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Brigham Young–the New York Times mentioned this:

Fascinatingly, Joseph Smith had prophesied in 1832 that an immense civil war would someday transform America, and that it would start in South Carolina.

It is fascinating, isn’t it?  A couple of commenters noted that there were good reasons in 1832 for predicting such a thing, but that hardly does the prophecy justice.  I submitted the following as a comment, but it hasn’t been published yet:

Joseph Smith’s Civil War prophecy is impressive.  As Jeff Lindsay notes, in 1832, Smith predicted that:

  • The war would begin with the rebellion of South Carolina.
  • It would cause the death and misery of many souls.
  • The Southern States would be divided against the Northern States.
  • The Southern States would call upon other nations for assistance, even upon the nation of Great Britain.

And that, later, Great Britain would enlist help from other nations in wars which would “be poured out upon all nations.” 

For those who think this was a lucky guess based on 1832 politics, one would be hard pressed to explain why the opinion wasn’t common, and why Smith repeated the claim eleven years later, in 1843.  The original prophecy is in a Mormon scripture called Doctrine and Covenants 87; the reiteration is found in D&C 130:12-13

Not only did Smith predict the war, but he even foresaw details like the South calling on Great Britain, which it did (this fact is even mentioned in the second National Treasure movie). 

There are plenty of other instances of recorded prophecies by Joseph Smith which came true:  http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/FQ_prophecies.shtml

Daily Beast Praises Mormons For Embracing Science

Excellent.  Today, the Daily Beast recognizes Romney and Huntsman’s uniquely pro-science stances in this presidential campaign as reflecting the nature of their faith.

One of many great quotes:

From the very founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its leaders have allowed scientific thought to coexist with their teachings, sometimes in ways that were radical for their time. Modern Mormon scientists, for instance, are quick to quote Brigham Young, who said in 1871, “In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular… whether the Lord found the earth empty and void, whether he made it out of nothing or out of the rude elements; or whether he made it in six days or as many millions of years.”