An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for December, 2012

Christmas Warfare

For those of you who are tired of the annual War on Christmas rhetoric, check out a delightful post by Jana Riess, “Have Yourself a Very Pagan Christmas.” 

Why Don’t They Like Us?

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, closed his interview on PBS’s Religion and Ethics   by stating  that Christians have an obligation to convert non-Christians—specifically Muslims, Jews, and Mormons. He repeated the often-heard assertion that “Mormonism is at the very least another religion. It’s not the Christian faith.”

I suppose any group is free to define its terms and decide who does and who does not belong. Certainly, mainstream Mormons bristle when polygamous splinter groups are referred to as Mormon, although these groups accept Joseph Smith, the First Vision, the Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants—at least through the 132nd section.

I do think Land is right that the church Joseph Smith founded was different enough from mainstream Christianity to be considered an entirely new religion. Joseph Smith introduced some radically new doctrines to American religion. His First Vision account of seeing the Father and Son as individual personages conflicted with the Christian notion of the trinity. Identifying Missouri as the location of the Garden of Eden and of Adam-Ondi-Ahman—the place where Adam shall return to bless his people—was certainly an innovation with no biblical source . Eternal progression, via plural marriage, enabling men to become as gods through obeying the principles and ordinances of the restored gospel was also extra-biblical. Even the emphasis on knowledge as a key to salvation was closer to ancient Gnosticism than to Christianity.

Current Church rhetoric avoids most of these non-mainstream topics. I haven’t heard a conference address or a Gospel Doctrine lesson about Adam and Eve residing in Missouri for many years. Likewise, polygamy has been officially repudiated—although temple sealings to more than one woman still occur if a previous wife has died. Eternal progression is no longer a standard part of Mormon rhetoric. And like most Christian faiths, Mormonism now emphasizes faith and obedience to gospel principles and ordinances rather than knowledge as key requirements for salvation.

Except for the concept of God as three individuals working as one rather than three aspects of one being, few Mormon doctrines now differ radically from those of mainstream Christianity. So, why do evangelicals refuse to regard Mormons as fellow Christians? Possibly, since the Church hasn’t officially renounced any prior teachings other than polygamy, some may believe LDS leaders plan to reinstate some of these previous teachings.

I suspect, however, that it is not Mormon doctrine that troubles evangelical leaders so much as Mormon proselytizing. Most Christian faiths restrict their missionary work to those outside the Christian fold. Mormons overstep that boundary and frequently draw members away from their previous Christian faith. Because Mormon and evangelical cultures have common elements, they are likely competing for the same group of people. It’s not easy to love a competitor.

Feeling the Spirit Differently

I left my ward Relief Society Christmas party last night thinking, “If Relief Society lessons were this spiritual, I would show up every week.” I always attend RS dinners and parties because I like my ward members, but I don’t always stay for the program. Sometimes the president feels we need a message and arranges essentially a lesson with sisters sharing their most “spiritual” Christmas memories or sisters presenting ways to keep the “true meaning of Christmas” in our holidays. Last night our entertainment was eating, talking, and impromptu acting out of Christmas songs. Lots of chatting and laughing. I left feeling full of love for my RS sisters.

Didactic lessons and lectures may be spiritual for some people, but not for me. I usually end up feeling less spiritual when somebody tells me how I should feel the spirit. I’ve tried all the suggestions: I gave up swearing, wore dresses to all my meetings, accepted callings I hated, obeyed the Word of Wisdom, read my scriptures daily, prayed, attended the temple, encouraged my children to serve missions, and restricted myself to one earring piercing. I did all that and more. It worked for several years, and I felt spiritual in meetings. Gradually that changed. I think I mastered the basics which the Church had to teach me and needed to move on.

In his popular book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey emphasized the human need for daily spiritual renewal. Unlike Church lessons and sermons, Covey did not prescribe the activities which bring spiritual renewal. He stated that spirituality is “a very private area of life. . . . And people do it very, very differently.”

One place I go for spiritual renewal is the PBS program, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.  In an interview on that program last week, Anton Armstrong, director of St. Olaf’s Choir said,  “ . . . still small voices and burning bushes don’t seem to work with me. You know? But in the minute when that chord locks and we’ve been struggling with it and it finally works, it’s as if, yea, God is there.”

If Armstrong were Mormon, he would be expected to devote a minimum of three hours a week to Church meetings, do home teaching, attend the temple, research his genealogy, and probably teach Primary or serve as scoutmaster. Would any of these elements of Mormon culture be as spiritual for him as his musical experiences with St. Olaf’s Choir?

 We are all different. I wish Mormons would take Covey’s wisdom to heart and give ourselves and others permission to find God in our own way.

Works in Progress

Peter Matthiessen’s 1978 book, The Snow Leopard, helped me survive an arduous month of playing granny-nanny in two households with newborns, mothers recovering from C-sections, and toddlers. In the early mornings or late evenings, I escaped crying children and traveled to Nepal with  Matthiessen’s powerful descriptions of the Himalayas:

Toward four, the sun sets fires on the Crystal Mountain. I turn my collar up and put on gloves and go down to Somdo, where my tent has stored the last sun of the day. In the tent entrance, out of the wind, I drink hot tea and watch the darkness rise out of the earth. The sunset fills the deepening blues with holy rays and turns a twilight raven into the silver bird of night as it passes into the shadow of the mountain. Then the great hush falls, and cold descends. The temperature has already dropped well below freezing, and will drop twenty degrees more before the dawn.

I had little time to sit and meditate for long periods as the author did while his companion, a naturalist doing field research, studied the blue sheep of the high mountains. I did, however, use time pushing a stroller with a napping toddler to free my mind to delight in the peace of a country road—to gaze in awe as clouds swirled and finally released their load of water droplets from the North Pacific onto the hills and vales of western Washington.

Connection with nature fortified me for the three Cs of my life—child care, cooking, and cleaning. While performing my seemingly endless tasks, I thought of the loyal Sherpa porters serving the crazy Americans who insisted on traveling into the mountains in late autumn. In the words of Matthiessen:

The Sherpas are alert for ways in which to be of use, yet are never insistent, far less servile; since they are paid to perform a service, why not do it as well as possible? “Here, sir! I will wash the mud! “I carry that, sir!” . . . Their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake—it is the task, not the employer, that is served. . . .They know . . .that to serve in this selfless way is to be free.

Those words buoyed me as I caught up housework left undone by a high-risk expectant mother, did diaper duty, and told endless tales of the three bears to send toddlers to sleep. Another thought from Matthiessen’s book which helped was the advice given by his Buddhist roshi before he left on the trip: “Expect nothing.”  

Expect nothing! Such a liberating thought. How often we set ourselves up for disappointment by anticipating rewards and blessings so great that only our imagination could fulfill them. Expect nothing leaves us open to simple joys that come our way.

Despite glimpses of enlightenment while meditating in the lofty mountains, Matthiessen retained his human failings—as we all do. Reading his book helped, but no way could I keep a positive attitude for an entire month. Let’s face it—human beings are not perfectible. We can search, study, pray, and meditate, but we always remain fallible mortals—works in progress. I suspect that the most we can hope for is to catch glimpses of something greater than ourselves and try to detach ourselves from things of lesser importance.

Talking to God

I like the way our sons have learned to pray since joining evangelical churches. Folded arms, learned within our family circle, have been replaced by joining hands. If the main purpose of folded arms for Mormon family prayers is to keep the kids from smacking each other, hand-holding takes this security measure a step further. Joining hands in prayer also gives a feeling of unity. Our daughter-in-law adds three gentle hand squeezes following the “amen”—signifying, “I love you.”

Our sons no longer use formal Mormon prayer language. Instead of the ritual, “Our Father in Heaven” and “In the name of Jesus Christ,” they speak as if they are talking to a person in the same room—not to a distant deity on a heavenly throne.

When our younger son was seeing his wife through a potentially dangerous childbirth, then dealing with her recovery, the newborn, their two-year-old, and a demanding job with a long commute—his prayers were brief: “God, we thank you for getting us through this day and pray for your continued help. Amen.” (Yes, I came to help their family, but the strain on him was still considerable).

Our elder son prefaces prayer by asking each member of the family who or what they want to pray for. Sometimes the answer from his young daughters includes a favorite toy or food.

Prayer is a unifying experience for a family. I’m glad our sons make meaningful prayer a daily occurrence in their homes.

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