An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for April, 2011

Changing Churches

I was intrigued to learn that our youngest son, Techie, and his wife have changed churches—not beliefs—just churches. Belonging to an evangelical, Calvinist church is not the same as belonging to a hierarchically structured church such as the LDS. The doctrine at their new Reformed Baptist Church is basically the same as that taught at the Mars Hill Church they formerly attended. Their reasons for changing are social. Their former church had very few minority members and Techie and Techie II are in a mixed marriage. They find couples like themselves at their new church. Techie also likes the sermons better. The Baptist pastor has a Ph.D. in religion and is given to thorough dissection of biblical verses.

The interesting thing I found when visiting them, is that they still attend the Bible study group affiliated with the Mars Hill Church. This small group meets on Tuesday evenings in a member’s home to share a pot luck meal, Bible study, and prayer. Attendance is voluntary and the Techies enjoyed the group and continue to be part of it.

I saw the upside to participating in two different churches when I visited after their baby was born. Members from both churches brought meals in for two weeks or more after the birth. I was amazed at the plenty. The downside (at least for me) is that they belong to two groups to which they must now return the favor. Meal assistance in both churches is unassigned, so they can do it on their own schedule.

I see some real advantages to flexibility in attending the church or the portion of a church that meets the needs of individual families.

No Regrets

On a long car trip together, my friend Sheila confessed she was four months pregnant when she married her first husband. “You can never put that behind you,” she said. “I was chaperoning the kids in our ward on a Youth Conference when Cole sat beside me on the bus and asked when his dad and I got married. I told him and he looked and me and said, ‘You were married November 22 and I was born March 16. Were you . . . ?’ That was not the time I would have chosen to tell him. If only I hadn’t been stupid enough to have sex with that jerk I thought I was in love with.”

“But then you wouldn’t have Cole,” I reminded her. “And that would be tragic.”

Mortals make mistakes while muddling through an often confusing, indifferent world, and mistakes have consequences. But mistakes need not be tragic—and mistakes that were not deliberate attempts to harm someone else are not sins. Mistakes are effective, albeit painful, teachers. Sheila moved on, made a better second marriage, raised a good family, and became a high school teacher with wise compassion for kids struggling with peers, parents and hormones. Her youthful misstep is one ingredient in the mix that made Sheila the person she is today.

As a young sailor, George met his first wife while hanging out with lowlife buddies. That was one knot he wished he hadn’t tied while serving in the Navy. A few years ago, his stepson from that marriage contacted him. Skipper paid us a visit and re-established the bond he’d felt with the only real father-figure in his life. George no longer regrets the marriage that provided a bright spot in a boy’s sad childhood.

In Buddhism the pure and perfect lotus, growing from impure, stagnant water, is a symbol of enlightenment. Like the lotus, we can draw nutrients from the muddied water of poor choices and, with that nourishment, grow stronger and better.

Nobody would deliberately choose to mess up her life just for added strength; of course, and we don’t need to. We all make plenty of non-deliberate, poor decisions. So long as we learn from our errors and don’t keep plugging quarters into the same broken slot machine, mistakes move us along the path to spiritual and emotional maturity.

The Work Jesus Loved

Last Sunday, Lolly and family arrived to watch General Conference on our TV (by choice, they live in a house devoid of television hook-up). Feeling compelled to join them in front of our screen during the morning session, I survived by amusing myself with the grandkids. When Presiding Bishop, H. David Burton, took the podium wearing a pink necktie, I snapped to attention. His genial, cherubic face signaled a spiritual message, and I was not disappointed as he described our duty to care for the poor, to do “the work Jesus loved.”

Critics have pointed out the discrepancy between the $3 billion the Church has spent on City Creek Center development and the $13 million the Church spends annually on aid to the poor, but I no longer expect perfection from organizations or their members. In the most moving part of his talk, Burton quoted President Heber J. Grant who, during the Great Depression, pledged the Church would not let members go hungry even if it meant closing the seminaries and temples and shutting down missionary work. While that may not be literal policy today, it is a lofty goal. Of course, the institutional Church as well as individual members fall short of attaining the standard set by Jesus, but Bishop Burton did a good job of reminding us where our priorities should lie.  

Reflecting upon why Burton’s conference talk moved me while most others seemed irrelevant, I realized that Burton was speaking about the application of a universal principle—one of Jesus’s core teachings. Most conference addresses tell listeners how to become better Mormons.  Burton told us how to become better human beings. While the two goals are not mutually exclusive, neither are they identical. Conference addresses typically admonish members to greater diligence in temple attendance, missionary work, obeying church leaders, Family Home Evening, and reading the Book of Mormon.

Many great people do none of these things, yet relieve suffering and provide opportunities for those trapped in poverty and despair—people like Greg Mortensen who builds schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lesser know, but equally dedicated people include: Father Tom Hagan who builds and operates schools and feeding stations for Haiti’s poor, Somaly Mam, who operates a rescue for girls exploited in the sex trade in Cambodia, Dr. Anthony Lazzara who operates Villa la Paz, a hospital which cares for impoverished sick and handicapped children in Peru, and Scott Neeson, who gave up a successful film production career to establish schools in Cambodia.

Burton’s talk came close to being nondenominational. Compassion transcends church and national boundaries. Love and cheers to the Presiding Bishop with the pink necktie and generous spirit.

Borderlands

Plan B Theatre in Salt Lake has extended the sold-out run of Eric Samuelson’s play, Borderlands until April 17. For those interested in exploring religion, honesty, and tolerance, this play is well worth your time and money.

The inhabitants of Borderlands are four Mormons of varying degrees of faith and activity expressing hidden doubts and fears within the security of an “honesty car” on a used car lot. In the powerful concluding scene, the gay teen gives a blessing to a distraught, dying woman who has grievously injured him.  Assisted by a woman and an excommunicated Mormon, the boy voices a heartfelt and painfully honest prayer. By this act of faith and love, the characters redeem themselves.

Maybe the reason I found this scene so moving is that I have a hard time believing anyone else can redeem us. I think everyone must atone for his or her own sins—most likely by learning not to be attached to the self that is so willing to sacrifice others in order to achieve its own ends.

Since I saw this play Sunday afternoon during the final General Conference session, the audience presumably was not made up of devout Mormons. At the QA session with director, playwright and cast, no anti-Mormon rhetoric was expressed. Several people thought the topics of doubt, hypocrisy, and intolerance applied to any religion.

This play offers a window through which audience members can examine the depths of their own religious and moral commitment. I hope Eric Samuelson takes care of his health and continues to write plays that look beneath the surface of Mormonism. I’m glad Plan B Theatre exists to produce these kinds of plays.

We Need More Worlds Than This

Turning on the news this past winter and early spring has required a stiff drink or prescription tranquilizer as Mother Nature rampaged: First with blizzards that limited travel to snowmobile or dog sled through the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. for days on end—then Australia suffered devastating floods; mud slides tore out hill side housing in Rio de Janeiro; earthquakes struck New Zealand. Finally, an 8.9 earthquake in Japan sent a tsunami soaring over sea walls, destroying entire cities, and wiping out power for the cooling system in four nuclear plants causing (so far) a partial meltdown and radiating deadly contamination to earth, air, and water.

With Nature battering us, we humans hardly needed to stir up trouble on our own. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop us. Human caused disasters this past season include: Ongoing war in Afghanistan, suicide bombers in Iraq, Pakistan and Israel, Middle-Eastern dictatorships from Libya to Yemen to  Syria firing upon their own people who had the audacity to demonstrate peacefully for democratic reforms. In our own country, state workers in Wisconsin staged a prolonged demonstration against their governor. Throw in personal problems like job loss, illness, and sour family relationships and there isn’t enough Xanax in the world to help us cope. We need someone to be in charge, someone to care. John Updike sums up our needs in the following poem:

              Religious Consolation 

One size fits all. The shape or coloration                                                                                                                                 

Of the god or high heaven matters less                                                                                                                      

than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing                                                                                                                                                                         

the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite                                                                                                                                                                                                  

the widow brings to the temple, A child                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

alone with horrid verities cries out                                                                                                                                                                              

for there to be a limit, a warm wall                                                                                                                                                                                         

whose stones give back an answer, however faint.                                          

Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs

those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints

whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,

those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books

Moroni etched in tedious detail?

We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.

Updike, like the author of Ecclesiastes, knew, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  When this world fails us—as it too often does, we need something to clutch, something to offer comfort, explanations. Even if they do nothing else, religions—including those we find exotic or strange—provide hope for their believers.

Have we the right to tell others their belief system is wrong and ours is right? Sharing our faith with those who are happy with their own is an unwelcome gift—worse than the hand-painted ceramics I feel obliged to display whenever Aunt Handi visits. At least Aunt Handi’s white elephant gifts do not come with the built-in criticism intrinsic to the uninvited sharing of religious beliefs—“My faith is better than yours. You’d be a better person if you adopted my religious practice.”

Comfort and hope are in short supply in this world that fails so many of its inhabitants. Let us not attack faith traditions which sustain their believers.

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