Sunday, April 8, 2018

Maundy Thursday and Feet Washing

For the last several years we have tried to attend a few additional services during the week before Easter than the year before.  There are so many beautiful traditions and experiences to explore that even after having been an Episcopalian for several years I still sometimes feel like a religious tourist, trying out new things for the first time.  For perspective, our Parish typically hosts or participates in at least eight worship events between the Sunday before Easter and Easter day.  One new event for us this year was attending Maundy Thursday church services.

Maundy Thursday is a unique worship service celebrating the last Supper, the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus washing the feet of the apostles, and looks forwards to the events at the Garden of Gethsemane.  Probably the most meaningful part of the service for me was encountering the foot washing ceremony.  As a Mormon, I had always been taught to view Jesus’s washing of the disciples feet as being a part of the LDS temple ceremonies.  Jesus’s statement that the apostles didn’t know what He had done to them but would understand it in the future was supposed to mean that Jesus had performed a special priesthood cleansing ceremony on the Apostles without explaining it to them.  The ceremony in essence becomes a sort of supplemental or elite baptism, washing away the sins missed the first time around and blessing many parts of the body in preparation for a glorified resurrection.  The LDS temple ceremony itself identifies the washing ceremony as being a reinterpretation of the consecration of priests in Exodus 29-4-7 and fails to mention Jesus’s teachings at all.

It is not uncommon to meet Mormon’s (or ex Mormon’s who are often more willing to talk about it) who found the LDS washing ceremony to be a traumatic or disturbing experience, especially if they went through the temple like I did before 2005 when the LDS church changed the ceremony to be less disturbing.  Being repeatedly and somewhat intimately touched by strangers who don’t ask permission or give warning first while you are inadequately dressed just doesn’t always come across as a sacred experience.  While I sympathize with these concerns I did not personally find the LDS washing ceremony to be personally disturbing, perhaps because someone (in violation of Mormon social taboos) told me partially what to expect and the officiator didn’t accidentally touch or see more than they meant to.  However, even without that sense of trauma the washing was a bit of an empty place for me because the temple ceremony had lost its sense of meaning.  I could hardly even think about the last supper and Jesus washing the disciples without thinking about the temple.  It feels sad when a scripture passage is only associated with memories that no longer have a sense of purpose.

So it was a special occasion for me to hear the story again of Jesus acting as a humble servant or perhaps even in the role of a slave, washing the feet of his disciples to put an end to their arguments about which disciple was more important by showing them with his own example that leading in the church is about serving those underneath you, not by being served.  This is what the apostles hadn’t realized but would realize afterwards, that Jesus had taken their expectation of what it meant to be important and turned it upside down.  The very greatest of all was insisting on taking on the role of a servant to prove to them that they needed to be servants as well.  Being important in the church should be about serving others, not yourself.  After recounting the story the priest proclaimed that in their position of as priesthood leaders they needed a special reminder to live the kind of humility that Jesus taught and so invited us to allow them as our priests to wash our feet.  There was no command, no mandatory participation, no surprises.  I joined the line and had the intimate and consent governed experience of having a priest wash my foot, with its surgery scars still clearly visible, and tell me God be with you as she dried me.  Another of the priests told everyone he washed to go and serve everyone as Christ served them.  After the foot washing was over we were reminded that if the priests of God’s church served us in this way that we were to serve each other with humility just as we had been served.  Just like the apostles we had submitted to being humbly served by our religious leaders, so like the Apostles we needed to learn to serve everyone else in our lives with humility.

While there is a powerful symbolism in letting Christ serve us by cleansing us from sin, foot washing was and is in itself an act of humbly offering hospitality that helps counteract the sin of pride.  I didn’t come away from the foot washing feeling that I had experienced an elite cleansing from sin in a ceremony whose design (at least till 2005) didn’t fully take into account whether the cleansed felt violated.  Instead, I felt humbled, having intimately experienced a priest humbly wash me and then tell me to serve and love those around me with the same kind of humility.

Friday, March 30, 2018

My Journey with the Bible

I received my first set of scriptures at 8 years old as a baptism present.  They consisted of a bonded leather brown King James bible with a matching “triple combination” containing the other Mormon scriptures.  I was expected to read from them regularly as well as bring them to church in a grey vinyl carrying case that came with them.  Telling an eight year old to read a King James Bible might seem a tall order, especially since I only learned to read in 3rd grade. 
My First Scriptures
However, I am one of the autistics who has the mixed blessing of hyperlexia.  That means my anxiety level about reading things I don’t fully understand is very low and I love to read, so where other kids would have given up in frustration I dove eagerly into authors like Tolkien and Asimov.  I promptly read both the entirety of the Bible and the Book of Mormon when I was too young to understand them thoroughly but that didn’t matter much to me, I liked reading and could often get the gist of what was happening.  I remember reading the Book of Daniel as a youngster and proudly discovering that unlike the version I was taught in Sunday school the evil wise men got fed to the lions.  I kept it up and became very familiar with the Book of Mormon and passingly familiar with the Bible.  While the LDS version of the scriptures leave much to be desired in terms of the commentary and footnotes they provide I made thorough use of what they had.  One of my childhood Sunday school teachers taught us how to make color coded marks to help us identify what category of assistance each footnote represented and before entering my teens I read through the almost of the LDS scriptures to mark all of the footnotes using the system she taught.

As I approached my teenage years I became aware that daily scripture reading wasn’t just a good habit, in the LDS worldview it is a commandment from God.  I was afraid if I didn’t read my scriptures daily I was rebelling against God’s command so I became very strict in performing my daily reading no matter how late I was getting to bed.  This need to be reading was reinforced by the popular and repetitive challenge from LDS leaders to read the Book of Mormon from start to finish within certain time frames.  You could barely finish reading the Book of Mormon due to the challenge of one leader before some other leader would reissue the challenge.  Scripture study was viewed as synonymous with reading the Book of Mormon.  I felt that the Book of Mormon was true because I had always assumed it was true and felt that God pointed that out to me when I prayed about it in the classic Mormon fashion.  Always assuming something isn’t the same thing as it being so, but I was satisfied enough to keep enjoying it the way I always had before.

As I entered my teens I had read the Book of Mormon so many times that it became less meaningful through sheer repetition and reading from the bible felt much more meaningful.  I still felt I had to follow my leaders command to read the Book of Mormon daily so I doubled my scripture reading time so I could start to read both from the Bible and Book of Mormon regularly.  My scriptures became so well used that the vinyl carrying case fell apart and was replaced by a black canvas bag with a special compartment for extra study materials.
My Seminary copy and Black Canvas Case

Starting around age 14 I started attending a daily Sunday School class in Mormonism called “early morning seminary” and received my second copy of the LDS scriptures, an all in one volume (or Quad) in a Burgundy cover.  The purpose of this second set was to allow me to have a copy in the Sunday school room to be used there and virtually nowhere else, so I never became very attached to this copy.  I never succeeded in memorizing the scripture passages expected in this Sunday School class but I took pride that I didn’t just read the assigned selections but I read the entire text while keeping up with the class.  I was able to keep this up until in the year we were studying the bible we got to the book of Isaiah.  Mormon’s put a special emphasis on Isaiah being important but most of the Mormons I have talked to are positively terrified of it.  It is common to hear people say they only read the parts from Isaiah that are copied into the Book of Mormon and even some skip those parts.  When our class reached the Book of Isaiah we spent one day talking about how to read Isaiah and then skipped the entire book.  That wouldn’t do for me, I wanted to read everything.  Isaiah scared me too, but I took it slowly and prayerfully, reading the same passages over and over again until I felt I had some level of understanding.  I became passionately involved with the text and would get into a zone of contemplative worshipful reading.  I could only zone in like that if I had a quiet place to study, so I often found myself staying up late at night after the rest of my family had gone to bed to have time to study without any distractions.  This drove my family a bit crazy, especially when I suggested they should hurry to bed so I could get on with my night of scripture study and journal writing.  No one thought to buy me ear plugs or noise isolating headphones to help me study earlier in the evening, so I just stayed up late, sometimes very late. 

This was a very dark time in my life and emotionally these late night study sessions became extremely important to me.  I learned to write from practicing in my journal.  I learned that even if I was afraid to trust anyone else in life I could still trust God.  I had a sense of spiritual rebirth and developed a sense of a personal relationship with Jesus while contemplating the suffering servant passages in Isaiah, particularly chapter 53.  The spiritual practices of scripture study and journal writing are probably the main reasons why I survived my teenage years without attempting suicide.  In fact, I directly used them  as a tool to escape from a cycle of child abuse that intensified after I started homeschooling.

My mother hated not being in control.  I loved being obedient but hated being strictly controlled and could never really function well trying to do anything exactly like other people did them.  My mental anatomy as an autistic is different enough that I often need to find my own ways and times to learn things.  Unfortunately my mother had a strong need to believe she was perfect and she was very sensitive to other people questioning or acting outside of her perfect ideas and needed me to learn things on her time table instead of mine.  She often yelled at me demanding to know if I thought she was stupid because I wouldn’t or couldn’t do things exactly her way without having a prolonged discussion about why and how.  I recall one memorable incident when I washed some dishes in a different order than she thought was correct and she came into the room screaming at me, asking how dare I rebel against her when she had never even specified the order in which to wash them and had no reason to need them done in a specific order.  Everything was black and white, good or evil.  If you really wanted to be good you would do everything she expected right the first time.  If you failed to be her version of perfect on the first try it was because you weren’t really trying because you were a bad person.  My assumed evil personality justified whatever she found necessary to force compliance.  At this point in my life I was larger and stronger than she was so she virtually always resorted to emotional manipulation and abuse.  She moved quickly from offering rewards to offering punishments to trying to damage or even crush your sense of self esteem in hopes that you would start performing the task at hand correctly to prove her wrong about how worthless you were.  Once when I begged for time to learn my daily chores without dramatic punishments because I wasn't trying to be lazy or rebellious but simply needed more time to learn how to remember everything and my parents told me that they felt if they didn’t take me strictly in hand I’d end up just like my brother, by which I think they meant a college dropout with no job and no girlfriend living in the basement.  Due to my unique circumstances, I took it worse than that and became very scared of myself.

Among the many things she didn’t like, my staying up late to read my scriptures and write in my journal weren’t on her approved list.  She didn’t like that I was sleep deprived.  She hated that I used my journal writing to emotionally cope with life instead of pouring out my soul to her as if that idea made any sense at all.  She didn’t understand why I needed peace and quiet to enter into intense contemplative scripture study.  I don’t think she saw my scripture study as any different from doing my math homework which she expected me to be able to do while she indulged in screaming matches or worse against my little sister who she treated in the much same way as she treated me except with differences resulting from my being so much larger and stronger.  In any case my mother started a campaign to try to stop me from writing in my journal or reading my scriptures at night.  I decided that thought there was no chance I could defend my dignity when it case to the normal chores or school work, there was a real chance I might undermine her opinion of me when it came to my scripture study.  I determined to make a point to fight her on this one issue where winning might mean something.

So the fight was on.  She’d prowl into the basement where I would study at night or look to see if I had lights on in my bedroom.  She tried to monitor and punish me more and more strictly until my father found out what was going on.  Suddenly something clicked.  Their evil rebel son wasn’t rebelling to sneak off to be promiscuous or use drugs or hang out with gangs or any other notorious evil.  He was rebelling… to worship…  in the tradition of the family faith.  I intentionally used my worship behaviors to create a situation that made the emotional abuse look and feel absurd.  It broke me out of the cycle of abuse and created a space where they respected me and became almost willing to bend over backwards to accommodate my life and needs.  Things were still black and white but now I was considered to be good instead of bad.  Unfortunately my victory didn’t apply to my little sister who they generally still viewed as deserving what she got even when I tried to explain otherwise.  Life worked best when I depended on my parents for as little of my emotional or physical needs as possible since my mother still had trouble with things she didn’t control and was not above hurting me in dramatic ways just to get revenge for some annoyance years gone by without stopping to think about what she was doing.  Like killing my pet hamster by pretending to forget to buy clean bedding for it until it died of infection to get revenge for the way my ADD had been really horrible before I started medication for it in third grade.  She explained that she had always needed me to know what it felt like to raise an obnoxious person like me but hadn’t realized that her actions would result in its death.  Overall though, my gamble had paid off.

Unfortunately it also felt like the most cynical thing I had ever done.  I intentionally used a pious behavior that had been an honest act of worship to manipulate someone into doing what I wanted.  I felt intensely ashamed of my actions and stopped being able to enter the intense contemplative mindset I had enjoyed before while doing scripture reading.  It felt more like I was just reading words rather than communing with God, though I still needed peace and quiet for even what I had left.  It wasn’t until the last few years that it occurred to me that since the scriptures are supposed to be for our benefit, why would God feel I had betrayed a trust by using them to escape from child abuse? 

One way or another I kept reading that brown bonded leather set of scriptures until grime from my hands accumulated on the cover, the binding broke, and the pages started to fall out. 
My original scriptures were loved to death.  Click to see my footnote highlighting.
Many pages are crumpled from falling asleep while reading.  My wife and I read the Book of Mormon one last time together and started to feel distinctly uncomfortable with it.  Some of the doctrines preached in it simply felt overly black and white and the development of culture described in the text felt unreal.  We decided to try out reading the apocrypha next which was a very satisfying experience, if I recall we made it though maybe the Book of Tobit before we ran out of time to work on it.  Our faith lives went into a tailspin over the next few years.  In my personal reading I tried reading the Book of Mormon one last time to ground my faith again and found I couldn’t stomach it, at least not while trying to maintain a belief that it was literally and fully what it was supposed to be.  I wasn’t able to enjoy reading the scriptures again until we were settled in the Episcopal church and started to read the bible in the tradition of the Daily Office Lectionary.  Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to read my tattered brown king James bible.  The translation problems in the King James are now obvious to me and the study aids in the LDS version of the King James bible aren’t spectacular.  We tried reading from my wife’s study NRSV bible but found we had trouble navigating the unfamiliar book abbreviations, especially when apocryphal readings came up.  I bought an ESV translation pocket new testament to read from on occasion at work but it didn’t fill the void that was left by my old tattered brown bonded leather scripture set.  I wanted a study edition that I could learn from easily and a feeling that I could place my bookmarks where ever I wanted to because the book was mine.

Example of the study aids in a modern study bible
After all this time I have finally replaced my copy of the scriptures.  I purchased a fifth 5th edition of Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard edition of the bible that was just recently released, the thumb indexed version so I can quickly find passages even when the book abbreviations are unfamiliar.
   I have started to learn about the meditation practice of lectio divina where bible passages are read repeatedly creating a contemplative sense of communion and conversation with God.  It reminds me of contemplative experience of the bible I had the year that I read Isaiah until I broke through into my parent’s respect.  Perhaps that wasn’t some kind of unique peak experience but something I could learn to do again.  I probably only lost my hold on the experience because of my needless shame and because I didn’t really understand what I was doing.  While I appreciate that all the flaws of humanity are on display in the Bible, it is still where I met God and where I gained the strength to emotionally survive from day to day.  I hope to spend years yet enjoying its pages.
My new bible

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Beauty and Styles of Reverence

One thing that has stood out to me as different between our experiences in the LDS church and the Episcopal church is how differently the two communities express respect for sacred spaces.  In many ways this would be obvious the moment a visitor walks in.  The Episcopal church uses a complex and traditional priestly uniform.  For Mormon men and boys their priesthood dress code generally is indistinguishable from a business while shirt and tie or maybe a suit.  Next you might notice the amount of art work on display.  The LDS church bans all artwork from its sanctuaries and baptistries, viewing it as distracting from more important parts of worship.  The Episcopal church, on the other hand, uses a wide variety of types of artwork notably including influences from Orthodox Christianity.  The Episcopal Church also uses candles in their worship spaces.  Lit candles, by contrast, are banned from LDS worship spaces.

The next thing you might notice is the noise level.  While Mormon’s in practice might socialize a good deal in their sanctuaries and the many babies and small children are always making noise the ideal is always held out to be that in sacred spaces social conversations shouldn’t happen in worship spaces or should be whispered.  In the Episcopal church there are fewer small children to make noise and children too small to keep quiet are often in a nursery during services.  As a result the silent moments during worship are often more profoundly silent.  However, socializing is not forbidden and is in even indirectly encouraged when the priest invites us to “Greet one another in the name of the Lord”.

In Mormon sanctuaries much of the physical act of reverence is defined by what you are not to do.  Don’t speak, don’t laugh, don’t play on your smart phone, don’t run in the hallways, etc.  There are few positive physical acts of reverence.  Physical actions are restrained to make room for a reverent mindset, as a popular LDS children’s hymn states “reverence is more than just quietly sitting, its thinking of Father above…”  By contract the Episcopal church has a rich tradition of using physical acts of reverence as well as a worshipful mental frame of mind.  At quite a number of times and places people kneel, bow, genuflect, or make the sign of the cross to express reverence to God and to where they are. 

The music is also different.  In some respects a typical Episcopal and Mormon church might seem very similar with traditional hymns sung to organ music.  One prominent difference is in the number hymns sung.  A typical Mormon worship service might include 4-5 musical pieces if you count the prelude music.  Virtually all of the music will be from the one and only approved hymnal.  Special musical numbers are occasionally used but brass and percussion instruments are banned.  Music is never performed during “the sacrament” or Eucharist for fear that it would be distracting from maintaining a mental attitude of reverence.  By contract in an Episcopal service virtually the entire service might be performed to music depending on the tastes of the congregation.  In our parish there could easily be as many as 9 or 10 pieces of music from either a small library of approved hymnals or any other source desired and we always have music during communion.  Though Episcopalians are generally very fond of traditional organ music there are parishes who worship to jazz or hip hop music.  About the only common form of worship music I am aware of that has little presence in the Episcopal church is praise band music.

What took me most by surprise in the differences between how Mormon’s and Episcopalians express reverence is that in our parish there is no rule against giving applause and if a special musical number or the organ postlude is particularly beautiful we very likely will give applause.  In Mormon worship spaces applause is considered so inappropriate the ban is even mentioned in the official church handbook of instructions.

While my preference for the Episcopalian worship style is in some respects a matter of my own personal tastes, I think that the LDS church’s top down rules regulating how many things are done prevents local congregations from freely searching out ways to experience beauty in worship.  If you explore the history of the LDS church you can find time periods where musical selections from outside of the one hymnal were allowed, artwork was not so tightly restricted, and music was performed during “the sacrament”.  The personal tastes of the church leaders has become a list of centralized rules that have accumulated over time.  While all these rules in some respects meet the social needs of the LDS church I think they have been over applied limiting the flexibility and beauty that could be experienced in favor of a very mental form of worship reverence.  There are so many kinds of beauty to be experienced in worship.  I prefer how the Episcopal church allows and encourages so many more ways to, as it says in the psalms,  “worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.”

Monday, January 8, 2018

Monson in passing

I admit I have mixed feelings about the passing away of President Monson.  He honestly wasn't someone I felt much connection to.  I respected and loved him out of a sense of duty when I believed in Mormonism, but his leadership wasn't a great fit for me.  His behind the scenes style of leadership left me without much to strongly react to.  I often got lost in his story telling sermons, feeling as if the sequence of stories didn't always have a clear theme or thesis that they were supporting.  All the stories of helping widows were nice but I've felt awkward about how much he talked about it.  Seems it would be better to let someone else sing your praises.  He was in charge at a time when changes of direction were made that severely undermined my faith and that caused intense suffering to many.  I also recognize that he is intensely loved by many people.  I honestly can't summon up feelings of righteous indignation against misdeeds performed during his administration or feelings of tragic loss at the passing of someone viewed as an righteous individual by many.  It feels like learning that someone's grandfather just died but not only is it their grandfather he is the grandfather of practically everyone you've known for your whole life even if he made you feel unwelcome when you hung around.  It is a big deal in the community but personally I don't know how to feel about it.

I'm just glad my coworkers didn't try to talk to me about it.  I don't go around advertising that I am an ex Mormon so generally speaking my coworkers don't know that I am one.  I didn't want to deal with people trying to explain to me why President Monson was special to their faith when I already understand that in painstaking detail.  And I didn't want anyone to expect me to show any particular outpouring of interest or sympathy.  I mean, if one of my religious leaders passed away I doubt any Mormons would care and they would think it odd if I tried to insist that they care about it the same way that I do.

In some ways I feel kind of puzzled by the outrage over the New York Times article.  LDS people may feel that criticism of their leaders is inherently spiritually wrong and this leads to a culture where LDS leaders are only ever written about or spoken about in a hagiographic style where only their positive traits are spoken of while holding them up as moral examples.  At a time of death and sadness it should be no surprise that Mormons might feel this impulse especially strongly and feel a kind of culture shock and a sense of sacrilege when it isn't followed.  So in a sense I sympathize with their feelings.  It is downright jarring to read about your own culture and leaders from a different cultural perspective.

That being said, the New York Times is not the Deseret News.  It isn't owned by the LDS church nor does it share the political and spiritual priorities of the LDS church.  The New York Times is not writing for a predominantly Mormon audience and is under no obligation to follow Mormon cultural norms.  They are a liberal newspaper discussing the public affairs of the country from a liberal perspective.  So it should be unsurprising for them to view President Monson, a conservative leader of a conservative church who led his church into newsworthy political clashes against liberal causes, with a goal of interpreting how his public personality interacted with social issues important to liberal non Mormon readers.  Which is exactly what the New York Times article did.

While it is natural for Mormon's to want the world to honor their beloved dead the same way they do, that isn't the way the world or newspapers work.  It would be as odd as Hillary Clinton dying and expecting the Deseret News to publish a glowing obituary talking about her being a devout Methodist who believed in the power of forgiveness, valued marriage, provided a public example of sticking together through hard times even when things go wrong, and spent her life trying to follow the example of Jesus by making sure that people could be healed from their diseases just like Jesus healing the sick.  If Mormon's want to read another story of all the widows President Monson visited they know where to find them, but they shouldn't expect the New York Times to write it for them. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Baptism

Several months ago our oldest son was baptized.  In some ways the Episcopal ceremony is very similar to a Mormon baptism.  Both ceremonies involve joining a community of faith, establishing a covenant relationship with God, the forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Holy Ghost.  Of course they differ in many ways.  For example, in a Mormon baptism you specifically join the Mormon church, whereas in the Episcopal church, baptism joins you to the Christian faith.  Also, unlike the Mormon church, the Episcopal church allows people to officially join the community of faith at any age.  In the Mormon church, active participation in a baptism ceremony is limited to the person being baptized plus three priesthood holders, whereas in the Episcopal Church the entire congregation participates by praying for and making promises to help the person being baptized in their life in Christ.


The most obvious difference in the ceremonies, whether or not immersion is used, seems to me one of the least significant.  While I appreciate the seriousness with which immersion baptism takes the baptismal symbolism, the aesthetic completeness of a symbol isn't all of what make a symbol meaningful.  I find changing the amount of water used in baptism no more objectionable than the LDS temple initiatory ceremonies changing from including a full literal washing to a symbolic drop of water.  From the moment John the Baptist performed ritual washings at the river instead of in the temple, the baptism ceremony has been changing, so I'm less concerned with imitating a specific moment from the past.  Episcopal baptisms can actually be by immersion or not, as desired and as is convenient.  While the architecture of our church doesn't easily allow for immersion baptism, this spirit of flexibility showed in other adaptations our priest offered that might help our autistic son participate comfortably in the ceremony.  As long as the symbols and covenants of baptism are understood, I think flexibility in how exactly it is done is admirable.

The covenant making in baptism is one portion of the service that I found particularly meaningful.  While there is much I honor in the Mormon vision of the baptismal covenant, I do have serious concerns about it.  For example, while covenanting to obey God's commandments is an idea that makes good sense, there can be a problem in my view when that covenant is interpreted by an organization that wants to have all the answers to life's questions and all the questions as well.  Also, while it makes some intuitive sense that it is easier to be guided by the Holy Ghost if you are trying to be obedient, I believe this concept often leads a misunderstanding of God's love.  I can remember that I was taught in preparation for my baptism that sin was like dirt in the electrical contacts of a flashlight keeping the battery from working.  Just like the the flashlight can't guide you in the dark if dirty electrical contacts are in the way, the Holy Ghost won't guide our lives if we are sinful because the Holy Ghost just doesn't like being around sinners.  Another way I was taught this concept came out of the Book of Mormon.  In 1 Nephi 10:21 it says: "...no unclean thing can dwell with God..."  Also in Alma 36:30 it says "inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God ye shall be cut off from his presence."  Since uncleanness can't dwell with God and God cuts off the unclean from His presence, the Holy Ghost is forced to limit His contact with sinners.  On the contrary, in Mark 2:16-17 we find Jesus intentionally seeking out sinners:
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
I appreciate that the Episcopal baptismal covenant theology places fewer limits on where we might expect to find God's love and presence operating in the world.

To really understand the Episcopal Church's baptismal covenant coming from a Mormon perspective, it is important to realize that even the style of how the covenant is made is different.  In the Mormon church, with the prominent exception of the sacrament (or communion) prayers, covenants are rarely recited in public.  If the sermons made at the time of baptism failed to explain the baptism covenant, a non Mormon could attend a baptism or watch Mormons remake their baptismal covenants during Sunday worship and learn almost nothing about the covenant being made.  Of course, the Mormon baptism covenant is no great secret and anyone can learn the basics with a quick review of a Sunday School manual posted on the internet.  However, the specific words of the covenant are not culturally emphasized.

Unlike the Mormon baptismal covenant which is made without being spoken, the Episcopal baptism covenant is spoken publicly during the baptism service.  On a daily basis, Episcopalians may review the beliefs they have committed to during their morning and evening prayers.  The covenant is also recited publicly when it is renewed during special church services.  Perhaps because the covenant is designed to be spoken out loud, it is much more detailed than the Mormon version, which doesn't even officially exist in a spoken form.  The only written form of the Mormon baptismal covenant is two sentences in a sermon on baptism found in the Book of Mormon and a discussion of who is to be baptized in D&C 20:37, rather than a directly enacted covenant.  The physical act of baptism, not a spoken promise, is the method of covenanting.

I believe the focus on the specific details in the Episcopal Baptism covenant invites contemplation and decision making in what it means to live the covenant.  Without the specific details, the Mormon covenant of obedience is harder to turn into concrete action and depends overly much on interpretation from leaders.  In the Episcopal baptism ceremony, the following are the commitments made, omitting commitments made by parents and by the congregation, starting with the examination of the candidate for baptism that comes just before the covenant:
• Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

• Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

• Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

• Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
I do.

• Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

• Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do. 

Then later in the ceremony is the actual baptism covenant:

• Do you believe in God the Father? I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 

• Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended to the dead.  On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 

• Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit? I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. 

• Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers? I will, with God's help. 

• Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? I will, with God's help. 

• Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I will, with God's help. 

• Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God's help. 

• Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God's help. 
Part of what I love about this covenant is the rich variety of ways that this covenant commits you to loving and serving other people.  Not that the Mormon baptismal covenant doesn't have that idea, but it sums it up as follows: "bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light... to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort"  While serving, empathizing, and comforting others are wonderful commitments, they seem inadequate on their own to describe the radical love that Jesus taught.

There is one last difference from the Mormon baptismal tradition that stood out to us as especially important.  After the baptism, while anointing with oil, the priest states:

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. Amen.

There is something beautiful about the relationship with God established in baptism being permanent.  Perhaps it is knowing that any local Mormon leader without even knowing us could try to "cancel" our relationship with God at any time that makes it especially meaningful to be a part of a church that views baptism as being something that can't be taken from you.  Because really, nothing can come between us and God's love.  When I consider my son's baptism, my hope is that I have brought him to a place where he will be able to understand this simple fact about God.  Nothing can come between us and God's Love.  Not for us.  Not for anyone else.

Monday, May 8, 2017

What can Prayer be?

As an Episcopalian, many of my prayers fall into what Mormons refer to as "set prayers".  The Mormon community I grew up in didn't have a high opinion of this kind of prayer, preferring prayers that try to hold a conversation with God.  Looking back, it seems odd that in the culture of Mormonism there are so much talk of how spontaneous "prayer as conversation" is superior since Mormonism has many set prayers, especially in baptism, sacrament, and temple work which are all seen as perfectly legitimate despite being set prayers.  I don't think this criticism of set prayers is really about whether Mormons believe in set or spontaneous prayers since they believe in both.  I think the criticism occurs because Mormons find that a "set prayer" used outside of an LDS "saving ordinance" simply doesn't fit their expectation of what prayer is supposed to be.

At a fairly basic level, Mormons and Episcopalians don't define prayer in the same way.  Here is an except on prayer from the LDS Bible Dictionary
.... As soon as we learn the true relationship in which we stand toward God (namely, God is our Father, and we are His children), then at once prayer becomes natural and instinctive on our part (Matt. 7:7–11). Many of the so-called difficulties about prayer arise from forgetting this relationship. Prayer is the act by which the will of the Father and the will of the child are brought into correspondence with each other. The object of prayer is not to change the will of God but to secure for ourselves and for others blessings that God is already willing to grant but that are made conditional on our asking for them. Blessings require some work or effort on our part before we can obtain them. Prayer is a form of work and is an appointed means for obtaining the highest of all blessings....

We pray in Christ’s name when our mind is the mind of Christ, and our wishes the wishes of Christ—when His words abide in us (John 15:7). We then ask for things it is possible for God to grant. Many prayers remain unanswered because they are not in Christ’s name at all; they in no way represent His mind but spring out of the selfishness of man’s heart.
If, as in the Mormon perspective, prayer is supposed to be a conversation between a literal Father (in heaven) and a child (on earth) to bring their minds together so that the child knows what to ask for to be able to get what the father really wants to give, why would you use predetermined phrases out of a book?  It would be like trying to ask your parents for a birthday present by reading quotes out of Shakespeare.  Except in special circumstances it simply wouldn't make sense.

For contrast, here is a description of prayer from the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer:
Q. What is prayer?
A. Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.  
Q. What is Christian Prayer?
A. Christian prayer is response to God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  
Q. What prayer did Christ teach us?
A. Our Lord gave us the example of prayer knows as the Lord's Prayer. See page 364.
Q. What are the principal kinds of prayer?
A. The principal kinds of prayer are adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition.  
Q. What is adoration?
A. Adoration is the lifting up of the heart and mind to God, asking nothing but to enjoy God's presence.  
Q. Why do we praise God?
A. We praise God, not to obtain anything, but because God's Being draws praise from us.
Q. For what do we offer thanksgiving?
A. Thanksgiving is offered to God for all the blessings of this life, for our redemption, and for whatever draws us closer to God.  
Q. What is penitence?
A. In penitence, we confess our sins and make restitution where possible, with the intention to amend our lives.  
Q. What is prayer of oblation?
A. Oblation is an offering of ourselves, our lives and labors, in union with Christ, for the purposes of God.  
Q. What are intercession and petition?
A. Intercession brings before God the needs of others; in petition, we present our own needs, that God's will may be done.
Obviously intercession and petition are very similar to the Mormon definition of prayer, but that that is only one portion in a much larger picture.  Obviously a definition is only a definition and in real life most all Mormons do more in their prayers than just ask for things.  However, I believe the emphasis in the definitions represents a real cultural difference.  Contrasting with this idea of prayer being a form of work used to earn conditional blessings, Episcopal Priest Christopher Weber in his book "A Users Guide to Morning and Evening Prayer" describes prayers known as the Daily Office as follows:
...we are sanctifying time by framing each day with prayer.  No matter the setting, the goal of the Daily Office remains the same: to provide opportunity for every Christian to offer each day to God.
In some respects the daily prayers of a Mormon and an Episcopalian have similar roots, both going back in some sense to ancient Jewish rituals of regularly praying at different times of the day.  These traditions were in new forms passed into Christianity where they later became highly developed in the prayers of monks and nuns.  During the Reformation when monasteries were dissolved, the English church adapted these prayer rituals for use by every day people.  The Episcopal church, like many others, carries on a beautiful version of this tradition.  For an example of the beautiful prayers that can be found in these services, consider the following from an Evening prayer:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.
or another example from evening prayer:
O gracious light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of Life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.
While this prayer is not asking for anything it works beautifully to sanctify the day.  This particular prayer is often set to music.



Another form of prayer that I am fond of is the Christian meditation practice known as Centering Prayer.  The deep sense of calm I gain from this practice makes it one of the spiritual highlights of my day.  Of all the kinds of prayer I now enjoy, it is probably the farthest from the Mormon experience because it isn't focused on trying to speak with or for God.  Instead it is resting one's mind in God.  What is that like?  This video provides some perspective.



I still at times practice prayer as conversational requests, but only as one dish in a much larger spiritual feast.  My prayer life has changed so much I'm not even sure my coworkers can tell I am praying when I make my morning and noon prayers.  Instead of the typical Mormon posture of bowed head and closed eyes I perform these prayers consulting either a physical or electronic copy of "The Book of Common Prayer."  Instead of taking care to be inventive in how I phrase of my daily requests to avoid meaningless repetition I worry whether I am pondering the my words sufficiently to recite them with full intent of heart.  Instead of worship through moving my body only happening in temple ordinances I worship that way regularly.  Prayer can be many more things than it used to be.  Instead of judgement regarding whose prayers are best, I wish the Mormonism I grew up in had been more open to exploring the diversity of spiritual practices in the world.  I am not sure how this would have been possible.  Most of the cycle worship I practice now would need some modification to work for Mormonism, though not very much.  The one piece I very much wish was shared more broadly is Centering Prayer.  While the chief proponent of Centering Prayer is a Catholic monk the practice and generally the theology of centering prayer is non denominational.  There is no good reason that I can see why Mormons could not participate in the Christian meditation tradition.  If I could give a gift to the prayer life of the Mormons that I know, that would be it.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Cultural Bilingualism

One of the advantages I have heard of being bilingual is that each language has its own peculiar way of defining the world and so learning a new language helps you think more flexibly.  I think the same thing can be said of learning to think in more than one cultural language.  I think the first time I discovered this was when I took a tour through the beauty of Le Guin's books, particularly the Hainish Cycle, and started to understand the beauty and possibility of looking at the world from a secular humanist viewpoint.  It didn't mean that I chose not to be religious, but instead of viewing the ideas of humanism with angry suspicion, humanism became another layer of potential and alternate meanings.  I could start to look at many given situations and understand them from both a conservative religious outlook and also from a liberal humanist outlook.  This was by no means a comfortable transition, but it increased the richness of how I saw the world.

Later, I found that I was studying myself right out of the radical conservative extremism I had been brought up in.  Things that had seemed impossible to question about the Mormon brand of Dominion theology politics I had grown up with (the theocratic idea that Jesus did not fulfill the political structures and commands in the Law of Moses and therefore to favored by God government should be changed to reflect the Old Testament) simply failed to work anymore.  I can still understand the value of much of conservative politics and appreciate many of the noble goals involved, but I became more of a centrist liberal.  Maybe if I had gone to a higher quality conservative school I would have been perfectly happy being a more moderate conservative and it is the radicalism that really broke the system for me.  Perhaps knowing this is what keeps me a centrist, I can understand political problems from conservative and liberal mind sets without assuming either one to be completely invalid.

Later, as Mormonism no longer held its meaning for me and I have become an Episcopalian, there is a whole new religious language that I am learning.  There is a whole new vocabulary involved, even when the words are the same the definitions change.  When I discuss Mormonism these days it can feel distinctly odd, I either have to intentionally switch back to speaking in Mormon speak or I end up discussing Mormonism from a religious vocabulary that simply doesn't match.  Even though it hurts to change, I believe I have become a fuller human being from the experience.

Fundamentally changing your sense of self hurts.  Finding that entire aspects of your culture or sub culture no longer accept you and you no longer accept them hurts.  It isn't something you could really wish on anyone.  However, I believe there is a value in that sort of pain.  It can force you to learn the language of a new cultural outlook.  Even if you don't accept that outlook as your own, being able to understand the richness of possibility in the world brings its own humility and sensitivity to the wonder of all that might be.