Friday, November 21, 2014

Helpful thoughts for Members of the Church

For those who want to stay in the LDS church and want to avoid making people feel pushed from the church if they are struggling, I wanted to give a few thoughts. Steven Covey wrote about how if you really want to communicate a readiness to love people, you have to do it to those who act as if they deserve it the least. That way everyone who sympathized with that person for whatever reason will understand that love means them too. That is the basic principle to keep in mind if you want people to feel loved when they are secretly on the fringe of a community. Here are just a few thoughts about what that might mean.

How does your ward talk about former members or critics of the church? Are they spoken of with love, a desire for empathy, and respect? Or are words and motives assigned to them based on convenience? Are they thought of as a kind of painful constipation that the church really ought to forcibly expel from its body?

The statements of early church leaders regarding their detractors model much of how the church today views its former members and critics. Over time, these one sided stories were warped from reality to become inspirational stories rather than history as is predictable for any history written by the winners of a conflict. This is important because Mormon's having a crisis of faith these days often become obsessed with church history and might know a lot of background information about these issues. Does your ward talk about historical ex Mormons and critics with respect, a desire for empathy, and a willingness to research beyond the motivational stories to truly understand? Or do they view historical ex-Mormon's and modern ex-Mormon's by extension as bad people fighting against the church because they are filled with a evil spirit?

Do your ward members express fear of non-members, ex members, or questioning members? Do they talk about the need to keep their children away from non-believers? Do they express beliefs that only the Mormon Church teaches basic goodness? Do they speak condescendingly about the morals of non members or people in places without as many Mormon's in them?

Does your ward commonly conflate its religion and its politics? If someone brings up politics, do they do so in such a way that it is clear that they believe a good person could fundamentally disagree with them?

The LDS church has many external worthiness indicators, which are fertile places for gossip to fester. Does your ward gossip about people who haven't achieved external worthiness indicators like missionary service, taking the sacrament, garments, wealth, callings, and temple service? Would someone who smelled of tobacco smoke be truly and comfortably welcome in Sunday school?

The LDS church talks a lot about an ideal path in life including educational choices, missionary service, heterosexuality, early age at first marriage, number of children, not getting a divorce, women not working, and other issues. Does your ward speak respectfully of people who choose to live differently? How about towards people who live differently through no choice of their own?

No congregation is perfect, but if your ward stumbles on these issues, then probably somebody in your ward is getting a loud message. They hear that they do not belong and would never truly be loved if they showed you who they truly are. If you want your ward to be united in love, these might be some excellent blind spots to start checking. Its not about being politically correct or overly sensitive to nit picky issues. It matters because of what Jesus said in Matthew 25: 44-4: “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The "Are Mormon's Christian's?" debate

One thing that kind of sticks out as amusing to me looking back on Mormonism from the outside now is the amount of effort Mormons put into arguing about whether or not Mormon's are Christians or not.  Probably the most even handed answer to that question I've ever seen was stated by a theologian interviewed by a newspaper who said something along the lines of that Mormonism is not part of the heritage of traditional Christian belief systems.  I think very few Mormon's would have any problem with that sum up.  Mormonism is proud not to be protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox.  Mormonism, in reaching for a restoration of pure religion throws out a lot of traditional Christian beliefs in ways that come across to other Christians as strange.  The theological differences between Mormonism and traditional Christianity are profound, but difficult to characterize fairly because Mormonism has never really had a systematized theology and how far Mormonism departs from the trends of traditional Christianity change depending on which time period in Mormonism is in question (and which branch of traditional Christianity is being used as a comparison).  In any case, it is important to contextualize which groups tend to make the most noise about claiming that Mormons aren't Christian.  It tends to be conservative evangelical Christians- some of whom are in the habit of declaring any group of Christians they substantially disagree with to be fake Christians.  Liberal protestant churches have been accused from time to time of being non-Christian because they tend to focus less on missionary work, accept homosexuals, ordain women, or care too much about the environment.  Some Christians believe that any religions that broadly disagree with their theology must be in communion with the devil and are therefore evil.  While being a victim of this hatred, Mormonism is not immune to responding in kind though it has definitely become better over time in its ceremonial behavior in this respect.

There are two levels at which these kinds of judgmental attitudes are very problematic.  The first and more important one is that it encourages a lack of love and respect between people in their disagreements.  The second one is that there is a trend in conservative US politics to try to define the United States as being a Christian nation in which the theology and social practices of Christianity are supposed to be given social and legal precedence over the desires of people who disagree with them.   It sounds all nice and good to say that America is a "Christian" nation because it invokes ideas of Christian virtue and love, and this is perhaps what many who repeat this rhetoric mean by it.  However, it becomes clear that for many this is an attempt to control the government for the benefit of specific branches of Christianity to the detriment of atheists, agnostics, actual non Christian religions, and any Christian religion that is out of favor with the group trying to achieve power.
To explain why I see the "Christian or not" debate as funny, I need to explain that the Episcopalian church is another one of the "liberal" Christian churches that is accused of being not a true Christian church.  If you google search the term "Episcopalian not Christian" you'll find many search results claiming that it is a church straight from hell, a church led by the devil, satanic, not a "Jesus" church, or pagan.  Mormonism reacts to this kind of vitriol by doing big advertising campaigns and by giving talks in General Conference loudly proclaiming their belief in Jesus.  It almost seems like a kind of a mental inferiority complex for some Mormons who want the whole world and especially the conservative Christian world to acknowledge Mormonism's Christianity.  As a result, Mormon's talk about their Christian identity a lot.  However, the Episcopal Church hardly seems to react to the noise at all.  That is what is so funny to me.  Perhaps Episcopalians have self-confidence rooted in their ancient yet new worship structure. I've never heard an Episcopalian talk as if they had anything to prove on the subject.

Probably what is most offensive to me regarding the whole argument is that Christ didn't say that his followers would be known as those who obeyed, belonged to a particular organization, or accepted a specific creed.  In fact, Jesus was tolerant of those inspired by him but who weren't technically affiliated with him.  Mark 9:38-39 reads, "John said to Him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle in My name, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me. "For he who is not against us is for us."

Jesus gives one criteria for being known as a disciple in John 13:35.  "A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.  By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another."

Anyone who is inspired by the love of Christ to try to love as Christ did and taught deserves to be known as a Christian.  Credentials, memberships, and belief systems help us as humans to organize and apply what we think Christian life is supposed to be all about in very important ways.  Nevertheless, it doesn't define what it means to be a disciple of Christ.  Love alone does that.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Where are we now?

Leaving Mormonism is huge.  Sometimes it makes me feel lonely, afraid almost everyone I knew from my past might be ready to cut me off over this.  We're just stepping into letting people know who wouldn't be friendly to us having made the decision already.  For someone like me who has a very high need for a sense of community, just cutting ties off without going somewhere else would be nearly unthinkable.  For a lot of reasons, we made a kind of slow transition.

When LDS church services were being so overwhelmingly spiritually and emotionally exhausting for me, we hit a time period where the kids were getting a lot of colds and so one of us would either have to take that kid with us to our own meetings or we'd have to stay home to keep all the other nursery kids from getting colds.  Neither of us felt like we were getting enough out of church to want to go on our own so we spent a lot of Sunday's with no church at all.  Eventually I got the idea that we could use these Sunday's to visit other churches.  The Episcopal church was the first one we tried.  From spiritual, intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional dimensions we felt an immediate and powerful appeal.  They were in Lent season and they explained to us that as a result the services were more subdued than normal.  Even their sad and subdued services felt to me to be full of joy compared to what I was accustomed to.  We decided we wanted to share their Easter celebrations with them no matter whether the kids were sick or not because if their lent was that joyful, what would their Easter be like?  We weren't disappointed.  Though we did consider other churches either by looking up information about them online or by visiting, we've stuck with the Episcopalians when we made our break with Mormonism.

So what about them was so compelling?  Well, for one thing the priest is a superb sermon writer.  We'd gotten very used to bad quality talks in church- such as a ward deciding to have all the talks for an entire month in a row be on the same subject with no differentiation, or to have talks be nothing but a summation of a talk given by someone else.  To hear sermons given delivered by a trained  clergyman with a background of having a history phd was amazing.  For another matter, the worship structure in the Episcopal church is a work of art.  From simple yet profound public affirmations of faith to the organ music played by a real organist, to the ornate stained glass, the services are Christ centered to a degree we'd hardly imagined possible, emotionally moving, and spiritually satisfying.  For the first few months of attending I was often crying with happiness because of how overwhelmingly I was able to respond to it.  After spending months and months resisting emotional engagement with worship because of so many of the negative things I found there, I was able to worship with my whole soul again.  There are many other things I also enjoy about worshiping with the Episcopalians- many of which can certainly be found in many other healthy denominations.  After suffering for the lack of a spiritual community for so long, its been good to find a place I can call my own.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tapestries- unraveling and learning to weave

Life can be experienced like a tapestry, where everything that happens and everything that exists is like a little thread in a broader narrative of your life and of the broader cosmos.  It can be beautiful and powerful, giving a sense of purpose and order.  Occasionally there will be a tangle, some kind of problem or discord in the pattern.  These can be painful, but not necessarily a problem.  Just how discordant notes in music can provide tension to be beautifully released in renewed harmony, the problems you hit in life aren't necessarily a reason to thrown away the tapestry of how you see life.  Somethings are just endured and eventually become better.  Some pictures in a tapestry can simply portray a painful or a sad story.  But painful and sad stories aren't necessarily bad.  They just are- which is how I viewed the consequences of my being denied missionary service.

Sometimes some parts of a tapestry have to be rewoven.  Some problems can be fixed and create a greater harmony in life.  Its just part of life.

Sometimes the discord shocks you.  You desperately try to recontextualize the discord within the greater tapestry, but find that to make all the pieces fit the tapestry has to be taken apart and put back together again.  The picture is never the same afterwards.  A permanent worldview shift is triggered.

Probably one of the most prominent times this happened in my life was when I was attending EFY as a teenager.  My life had a very large accumulation of pain in it, things that hurt to such an absurdly deep level that the burden was simply enormous to bear.  In a moment of pondering on the scriptures, I learned to accept divine grace and simply give up the burdens of pain and hatred that festered inside me.  I was fuller and more healed as a person than I had been in years.  When I came home suddenly it was as if I weren't even a part of the same family anymore.  As a new person, I no longer really felt that the animosities and petty absurdities of an emotionally abusive home life really had any meaning to me any more and I started focusing on reestablishing relationships in a more wholesome way.

Another such time when I had such a world shift was when I learned I had Asperger syndrome.  I had always struggled with many basic social interactions.  When you suddenly have an explanation for why every single social interaction in life had such difficulty in it and can examine that from a new perspective, the tapestry of what life means has to be rewoven.  I was essentially paralyzed from being able to do just about anything for about two weeks because I was so obsessed with figuring out who I was and why life had gone the way it did.  I came out of those dark weeks with an intense rebirth of self.  I was no longer the same person, because I suddenly understood why so many of the things that made up who I am were there and could learn not to be ashamed.  It was deeply healing.

Over the last year and a half I've gone through another such transition.  Instead of it being a flash in inspiration or two weeks of darkness, I've been at it for about a year and half- obsessively learning and reinterpreting my religious worldviews.  I learned  things that were shocking and contradicted  many of my expectations.  I had to figure out how to put all the pieces together again.  If I misunderstood things so badly, what other things had I misunderstood?  Where else could I trust my assumptions?  Where could I hold on my previous assumptions as sure truth and where could I hold onto them as just useful or beautiful?  I had to tear apart the tapestry of my life and reweave it with new information.  Being reborn has both destructive and constructive sides to it.  The destructive side hurts like hell.

Over the last 6 months or so I've been working a lot more on the constructive side.  The entire time I've undergone tremendous personal growth.  I've become a better person- more humble in my ability to accept the gaps in my knowledge instead of paving over those gaps with beautiful assumptions.  Less judgmental of the diversity of human experiences and conditions.  Less accepting of social traditions and practices that cause pain or stigmatizes people.  At first I tried to balance my new self with my spiritual home in Mormonism.  Not everything has to be true to be beautiful and useful.  This was a difficult balancing act, in part because the social structure of Mormonism is often intolerant of such diversity in views.  The balancing act was also difficult in that I was suddenly much more aware of the traditional enemies the church defined for itself in its culture and the traditional cultural unchristlike ways such enemies are often viewed and treated.  Near the end, it was difficult because our ward leaders picked up on some untrue rumors about us and decided that we met some of the classic criteria of "enemies of the church" as defined by Elder Packer and began trying to save our souls in ways that we experienced as bullying.

All of this tension created an enormous amount of stress for us and for me in particular.  It was worse because I worked a very stressful job and no longer had Sundays off.  So I went directly from a very stressful ward to a very stressful job and by the time the day was over I was emotionally and spiritually exhausted.  We almost left at that point just because it was being too much of a burden to carry for me.  But giving up the only spiritual home we'd ever known is extremely painful, so we held on.  I simply ignored most of what went on in church and just brought spiritually inspiring books to read during the service- doing my best to ignore my surroundings except on rare occasions when I tried to give thoughtful input to contribute to the lesson discussions.

In the end it simply wasn't worth it.  In our ideal vision of church membership, we'd eventually find a ward where we could openly discuss our concerns about the church and its history in a respectful way to try to make it a healthier place for everyone.  But instead, the church very publicly disciplined people whom we had a great deal of respect for how they lived those ideals.  Since our full and healthy participation would never really be welcome, and we felt it was no longer worth trying.  If you don't believe that a church is necessary for your salvation or has any divine mission beyond what could be argued for many good churches, there is no particular reason to endure its toxic behavior towards you.  We've left Mormonism and have no intention to ever return to it.  We've found a healthy worship environment elsewhere where we are better spiritually fed.  Life is too wonderful to waste in needless suffering for a human institution that doesn't return your love.  I have no desire to tear anyone else away from the LDS church.  I'd be satisfied if they were simply humble in how they lived their religion to avoid inflicting pain on others in the name of institutional loyalty.  I know too well that the destructive side of being reborn in faith is extremely painful.  But for me I think it was worth it.  I wouldn't be true to myself or the kind of person I've always wanted to be if I hadn't been willing to take the plunge to acknowledge that I might be wrong about the church and that my assumption that I was right might be keeping me from being a better person.