Sunday, August 14, 2016

If I could change one moment in time... talking about the temple

I was in early morning seminary at the time and someone said "what about the changes in the temple?"  Let's just freeze that moment, press pause.  There is so much awkward tension at that moment, the temple is so sacred that it is mostly secret.  So I knew practically nothing about the temple and had virtually no way to learn about its history.  I knew supposedly there were "anti-mormon lies" circulating about the temple but had been taught to ignore them.  I had picked up a few tidbits from searching in an electronic LDS reference library, but knew virtually nothing.

Press play, the teacher is responding, a man I look up to tremendously as an extremely educated and as a religiously mature man... "The wording of the temple ceremony has only been modernized and the words of the covenants themselves has never been changed."

Let's stop.  One reason I've managed to keep from feeling as angry about my time growing up Mormon is that there are very few times important to me where I feel like I was intentionally deceived.  Many of the untrue things I was taught, I fully believe the people who taught me them believed them fully and were acting with good intentions.  Unfortunately, this is one situation where I'm honestly not sure if I was intentionally lied to or not.  Significant changes to the covenants had been made within recent living memory when this moment happened.  Unless you define some of the covenants as not covenants, because they don't feel important enough to count, this statement should have been obviously not true.  Maybe that was how he viewed the subject, feeling that unedifying covenants should be viewed as ceremonial in nature and not truly part of the covenants as he understood them.

If you go back through the history of the temple there are many changes, covenants added and removed, doctrines added and removed, elements that no longer seemed helpful or useful being removed or replaced.  I would have expected that if anyone knew the basic history of changes to the temple, he would, since he claimed to know answers to questions about it.  You don't normally make bold proclamations like that regarding anything unless you have actually studied up on the subject.  But maybe that is my own personal bias showing up... I know this teacher was fully capable of forming very strong opinions about historical events that no one has any way of knowing about based on his feelings.  Typical Mormons have virtually no access to information about the temple's history, so maybe he thought he knew about the temple because of how his idea of the past made him feel but hadn't ever learned the real truth.  One way or another, I'd never really felt betrayed except by that one moment.

As a result of believing what he said, I assumed the temple ceremony had been preserved pristine as handed down from the mind of God.  Why wouldn't I?  If it had only been "language modernized" then of course the influence of man and the culture of man should have had almost no effect.  When I went through the temple the first time, I imagined the ceremony existing in a chain of unbroken existence back to Adam, imagining the sacred secrets being passed down in caves or on mountain tops, imagining everything being perfect...  But the one place I expected to find virtually uninfluenced by man had so many changes and man made influences, I was astonished.  The temple fell dramatically from representing the very pinnacle of what it meant to be LDS as I understood it to, well, I wasn't sure what.

I wish I could rewind back to that cursed moment and change it.  Here is what I wish someone had told me:

God speaks to us through and knowing the culture we are in.  Our culture is imperfect.  So, historically many things in the temple have inevitably been of human origin.  As a result, human imperfections affect it and our leaders try to respond to those imperfections by fixing them.  So yes, the temple has changed, generally in ways you'd appreciate if you knew the details.  In general the changes have allowed the ceremony to focus more on God and less on cultural things that the early church leaders found fascinating or influences from their personal flaws that they tried to project back on God.  Church leaders are human and make mistakes even sometimes in how they set up the temple.  The important thing to realize is that God accepts and redeems us despite our tendency to make mistakes.  So if something in the church past or present, even in the temple, doesn't seem right and you wonder whether  God or man is responsible, feel free to wonder.  Maybe its a genuine mistake, maybe you simply don't understand enough yet.  We don't know all of where God is leading us or where he might still be finding us lacking.  But the journey to God that we undertake in life and through the temple is a beautiful and a vital journey to undertake.

I know there are many reasons conversations like that don't happen in the LDS church.  It would undermine the entire concept of why the leadership needs to be taken as seriously they do.  But I wish it could have happened that way.  That kind of humility in teaching about leadership and history would heal quite a few of the problems in the LDS church.  I might still have left the LDS church, but it wouldn't have been anywhere near as traumatic to have tried to have stayed in.  And if I felt the need to leave, it wouldn't have been so traumatic.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ministry of Reconcilliation

Being a religious minority in Utah can make some things obvious.  Like how being part of a majority makes it hard for people to realize when they are being openly critical.  At my job its not uncommon for me to hear LDS people gossip about how they disapprove of people whose religious opinions they disagree with, whose life choices have taken them in different religious directions, or who they feel don't live up to the tenants of the LDS religion in some ways or others.  I don't think it ever occurs to them that anyone in the room might think about life and religion differently than them and might take exception to this kind of criticism being thrown about so casually.  Most of the criticism is pretty tame, being constrained by the professional environment we are in, but the naive lack of sensitivity reveals both the power of a hyper majority to influence how people think and talk and also how distant I feel from much of the surrounding culture.  I feel estranged in many ways from most people that I interact with at work and at times with family.  It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, having gotten used to being part of a dominant close knit culture only to end up so far outside of it.  I don't want to be such an outsider, but there isn't much help for it.

The coworker whose desk is in front of mine often plays religious material of some kind through the speaker on her phone while she works, just barely loud enough that I can tell what it is without quite being able to hear most of the words.  I don't mind terribly much, especially since its so quiet, though I have to wonder how quickly I'd get reported to HR if I practiced my own devotional habits out loud instead of quietly reading to myself or using headphones to listen to scriptures and sermons.  I think it only irritates me at all because of the rest of the religious gossip I've heard from this coworker.  Often after eating my lunch I'll sit at my cubicle and silently read over a noon time prayer devotional.  One passage that comes up often is the following-

If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has passed
away, behold the new has come. All this is from God, who
through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry
of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5:17-18

This passage has a lot of power for me in more ways than one.  When I was a teenager I had what I think would be called in some religious traditions a "being born again" experience.  I came back out of that experience feeling such a deep emotional "reset" to the world that I walked back into the toxic environment of my home and instead of being part of the toxicity I was able to stand apart from it, feeling like a stranger in my own house because I largely no longer participated in the petty hatreds that surrounded me. I gained the strength to fight back against abuse directed towards me by attacking the perceptions and situations that allowed the abuse to occur rather than by being consumed by emotional warfare.  It was as if I was a new person and helped me act as an agent of reconciliation with and between other people in my life as a result.

Now in my life I've again gone through another huge transition of becoming a new person.  Except this time its not about letting go of old hatreds and bitterness.  Its about letting go of the identity that had been built around being Mormon and especially the parts of me that were unnecessarily judgemental and unemphatic as a result of how I had lived out that tradition in favor of a new sense of community and identity much more flexible and embracing than I had before.  I'm becoming again a new creature.  It's a bitter irony that the reconciliation part isn't automatic.  Letting go of fear and bitterness is a fundamental change that makes reconciliation a pretty direct result.  Changing your group identity can include that, but if the group identity is the biggest part of you that is changing, the reconciliation that happens is a matter of group dynamics.  Mostly there is nothing very personal about it.  The part of me that was born when I decided I could trust God enough to abandon holding onto my bitterness and pain is still here, that part of me doesn't change.  I was big enough to fight back against intentional emotional abuse without being consumed.  I'm big enough to glide past unintentional petty gossip without being consumed by that either.  Emotionally its small stuff, I'm battle hardened to a lot worse.  But it still hurts to feel so estranged from family and the surrounding culture.

It is all to easy to toss off this feeling with a sense of holier than thou snobbishness.  Matthew 10:34 comes a little too easily sometimes:
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.
While that is a comfort to think that some level of estrangement is a natural sacrifice to doing what I think is right, it doesn't negate Matthew 26:52:
Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
I am all too familiar with how emotional combat can consume people's lives and destroy happiness and relationships.  Victoriously sulking in the pain of being estranged from others breeds contempt and conflict.  I was dwelling on these tensions during my noonday devotional when I was reading in Romans 14 about the conflicts regarding the Jewish Law-
Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister?  For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God.  For it is written, As I live says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.  So then each of us will be accountable to God.  Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.  I knew and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

Its an ideal to strive for, that we should acknowledge the integrity of people trying to live a good life the best way they know how, even if any given tradition, including my own, can have their frustrating blind spots and refusing to white wash over the very real pain and damage caused by those blind spots.  That is in a sense, the beginnings of a ministry of reconciliation in the heart.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

First Good Friday and Easter Vigil services

So I made it to a Good Friday and Easter Vigil services this last week, thought I'd write up a few impressions.

Good Friday commemorates the death of Christ.  We attended an interdenominational service at a local ELCA Lutheran church which was holding joint services with our own church.  The style of worship between the two churches is actually similar enough that we feel pretty comfortable there.  It was actually our number 2 choice of where we might have gone after Mormonism if not the Episcopal Church.  The biggest stylistic difference you'd notice immediately other than the differences in the building and vestments is that the local Lutheran congregation uses chant more in their worship than our parish normally does.  We chanted psalm 22, the one Jesus quotes while on the cross.  We also read New Testament passages describing the trial and death of Jesus.  The songs were mournful and the emotions raised were intense.  At the end of the service they brought out a large cross which I assume they normally use for both processions and as a room decoration and laid it on the floor.  After remembering the death of Jesus in ritual, song, sermon, and scripture we all filed out of the room almost silently after one by one pausing to give reverence at the foot of the cross- some by simply touching it with their hand, some by crossing themselves, or a few by bowing their head to touch it.  It was a solemn and beautiful occasion.  I'm certain this service would make many of the LDS people I've known uncomfortable since they are used to priding themselves in "focusing on the living Christ" and not Christ's death or the cross.  However, I honestly don't see it as fundamentally different than the remembrances of Joseph Smith's death performed at the tours given of Liberty Jail.  Other, of course, than that this is about Jesus.  Remembering the death of Jesus in this was was deeply moving and I'm glad I went.

I attended Easter vigil by myself, since its held at night after the kids bedtime.  We started outside, lighting a new fire to represent the light of God coming into the world, lit a ceremonial candle from the new fire, and then lit from that candle individual candled that we held through most of the service.  Much of the introductory and explanatory words which normally might be spoken in our parish were sung instead in a beautiful chant setting I had never heard before.  Old testament prophecies dealing with Christ were read.  The story of the Israelites passing through the sea was recounted and discussed in the context of baptism.  Baptismal covenants were renewed by literally repeating the promises, Baptism as a symbol of Christ's death and resurrection was discussed, and many songs were sung.  Easter Vigil is celebrated in the evening as if it is part of Easter itself, following the Jewish tradition as counting a new day as starting with the sunset of the old day.  So the tone started out silent and solemn but progressively turned joyous with shouts of Alleluia and laughter.  We shared a communion meal together and enjoyed a sermon about what it meant to be "dead to sin" and resurrected in Christ when one is most definitely still a sinner.  It was again a very beautiful event.

Despite having attended church 3 times over the last 6 days, I still haven't experienced the full cycle of worship in Holy Week.  I still have yet to attend a Maundy Thursday service which commemorates the Last Supper, the night watch service (which I have yet to learn about), stations of the cross commemorating Jesus's walk carrying the cross,  or a ceremonial stripping of the altar (which I have yet to learn about).  With so many opportunities for worship, there is a reason that the last week before Easter is called "Holy Week."

Saturday, February 13, 2016

My first Ash Wednesday Service

This was the first Sunday we managed to attend an Ash Wednesday service.  It was a beautiful event, full of emotion and a real depth of spirituality.  Since I had been focusing on my preparations to sing in the choir I failed to notice before hand how thoroughly non denominational the occasion was.  Four priests from the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches jointly administered the service, taking turns officiating in different aspects of the service and even jointly administering the Eucharist.  As something I knew very little about before joining the Episcopal Church I thought I'd write up my thoughts of both Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent.

First off just a brief explanation of where Ash Wednesday came from since I saw some information being passed online which was not very useful.  In the very early church very public sinners could face excommunication and because of the public nature of their sins they were made to perform a public penance in "sackcloth and ashes" before Easter to be readmitted to membership.  As time passed, a decision was made that instead of publicly singling out individual sinners everyone could participate in a special season of repentance and penitence in preparation for Easter.  It was recently argued in an article that the true reason for Ash Wednesday was to socially coerce people to attend confession by making it very visible who didn't show up because they wouldn't have ash on them.  If you accept this line of reasoning, I'd say you also have to accept the argument that the LDS church denies the sacrament to severe sinners and bans disfellowshiped members from praying in church in order to publicly make an example of them.  While people can always find ways to use public observances to shame people who won't or can't participate, jumping to the conclusion that this is the purpose of a publicly visible practice is disrespectful.

One of the things I love about worshiping in the Episcopal Church is that as the seasons change the theme and attitude of worship changes.  This allows the entire emotional experience of worship to be experienced from different points of view.  Since I grew up experiencing a fairly limited range of emotional approaches to spirituality, I find this very enriching.  For example, when we first visited it was during the season of lent.  A professor and friend of mine who worshiped there spotted me and made sure I knew what was going on.  He explained that the worship service was much more somber because we were in the season of lent, so for example we weren't shouting Alleluia.  And let me tell you, if the only Alleluia shout you've ever heard is at a temple dedication, you should hear our parish at Easter time.  Compared to the worship I was familiar with, the service seemed positively joyful.  I was particularly moved by this section of the service:

      The Lord be with you.
People        And also with you.
Celebrant    Lift up your hearts.
People        We lift them to the Lord.
Celebrant    Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People        It is right to give him thanks and praise.

It is right, and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
  Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven, who for ever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name:

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
    Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
    Hosanna in the highest.

It seemed these words beautifully captured the essence of what worship should often be like, a celebration of the love and glory experienced in God.  I wondered at the time that if this were a solemn version of worship, what would a joyful service be like?

So in my first Lent season, I honestly didn't feel the spirit of penitence very much, distracted by the overall joyfulness of the service.  Since that time I've also experienced what an overwhelming overflow of joy Easter can be.  Also, when we first showed up our Priest had only been in his position for less than a year and I believe may have been going for just doing the basics as he was getting settled into his position.  The next year's Lent services had additional elements added which emphasized the penitential nature of the season.

To be honest, Ash Wednesday and Lent make me uncomfortable.  To give an example, listen to a group called Vox Reflexa singing a piece that our choir performed during Ash Wednesday.

It's beautiful music, but the Latin translates to "Spare your people Lord: Be not angry Lord with your people forever. Spare O Lord thy people, for thou art just and merciful, hear us lord forever." While God's justice and mercy are invoked, fundamentally the words are pleading to be spared.  It takes a step back from the consoling image of the ultimately loving God, to remind ourselves that there is a reason that God's love is so surprising and powerful.  We're not all that good at acting like we deserve Love all the time.  Its easier to focus on the happy and immediately consoling modes of worship.  Trying to find ways to improve yourself, dwelling on your imperfections and failings, and intentionally depriving yourself in order to better focus on worship and repentance isn't a comfortable thing.  As another example of how this focus comes out, a normal church service completes the confession of sin and absolution relatively quickly, and the text of that part of the service can be read in about two paragraphs of text.  On Ash Wednesday the confession goes on for some time.    To give a sense of it, here is a quote of just part of it:

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done:
for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our
indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our
neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those
who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of
concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

While I would not appreciate it if this deep level of introspection was the constant theme all year round since it would either lose meaning from constant repetition or cause an unhealthy depression of the spirit, I believe it is very healthy from time to time to focus on repentance more closely.  I remember once in my ward growing up the Bishop declared a season of repentance and spiritual improvement, focusing on ways the ward could spiritually grow.  It made for a beautiful experience as the spiritual depth of worship in the ward grew and became more meaningful.  Lent does the same thing except instead of it being a one time event happening because of the inspiration of one good man, Lent and Ash Wednesday are a yearly tradition, with aesthetic and spiritual practices reaching back through centuries of development and refinement.  I wouldn't say that I "believe" in Lent as was discussed online recently because its not a specific doctrine.  I'd say that it is a tradition that I am finding ways to practice and incorporate into my life because its beautiful and enriching and brings me closer to God.