Friday, November 20, 2015

Why I Love the LDS Church Enough to Both Criticize It AND Step Away From It

In March (2015), on the 50th Anniversary of "the March" in Selma, Alabama, President Barack Obama delivered a masterful speech with the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a backdrop. He captured the spirit of America and the importance of drawing inspiration from specific episodes of our history to better shape the present.

 I especially love this quote: 
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this; what greater form of patriotism is there; than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?
I re-read and re-listened to President Obama's remarks, and was moved each time. Not only did it capture my patriotic commitment to speak out against injustice in order to make America better, but it likewise encouraged me to look inward at the imperfections of my church and courageously work to remake it to be better--to be a church more focussed on compassion than righteousness and purity. I was about to blog about the connection between love and loyalty and criticism but Rachel Held Evans beat me to the punch with her powerful column on CNN: “Strong enough to be self-critical: In America AND the church."

She was later interviewed by Valerie Tarico:
Tarico: Some fellow believers see your questioning and critique as a betrayal of Evangelicalism. But in one of your recent blog posts, “Strong enough to be self-critical: In America and the church,” you came down hard on the side of criticism as a sign of love and loyalty. You said, “Mature people and mature communities are strong enough to be self-critical and wise enough to speak the truth in love.” Are there limits on that? 
Held Evans: A lot of cultures set limits on how much you are allowed to ask. They encourage curiosity and questioning up to a point but your answers need to fall within a certain framework of what the answers are supposed to be, and I think I pushed up against that one too many times for some critics. 
Criticism can be hard to do well, and I am often clumsy at it, but those who advocate for reform in the Church often do so out of a deep love for it. I want the Church to be a more hospitable place for LGBT people, precisely because I want the Church to grow and thrive and welcome all of God's children through its doors. I want the Church to embrace science precisely because I want the Church to remain relevant in the world and tenable for those who shouldn't feel like they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith. In my work, I feel it's important to hold both the good and the bad of my faith tradition truthfully, candidly. If I weren't deeply invested, I wouldn't care. I wouldn't speak up.
That right there is a perfect summary of my own personal feelings regarding the LDS Church. I've loved it enough to be critical, however clumsily at times. Yet regardless of one's heart, so many Mormons view any criticism as "anti-Mormon" and jump to question one's motivation. Yet I persisted in blogging and speaking up on Sunday's because my interest in reform was greater than my interest in preserving the status quo.

It didn't matter to me if now and then someone misunderstood my lack of acquiescence as a lack of faith or even compassion. I knew where I stood. And my leaders knew where I stood. I wanted the LDS Church to be a more hospitable place for LGBT people and their families and to welcome all of God's children through its doors. I wanted to add my voice to those concerned about gender inequality. And I wanted to add my knowledge of our history to lend perspective to our present circumstances. Because "to love something is to see it for what it is, flaws and all. To love one's country, or one's church, is to invest in making it better." And I deeply believed that I could likewise love my church just like I love America enough to be critical of its shortcomings.

It's been years since I've believed in such a thing as a "one and only true church." I'm a Mormon in the mold of Gina Colvin of "A Thoughtful Faith." I don't need the church to be true. I just need it to be good. And the infamous handbook change is most definitely NOT good. I don't even need the church to be right. I just need it to be ennobling. And this was anything but noble. In fact, I feel it's exclusive, divisive, and hurtful.

My idea of Zion is so much more inclusive--one that welcomes all of God's children. Thus, I will now use my personal authority to love without conditions and be radically inclusive. Those are my values. And I've never felt more Christian. After all, Jesus was a radical activist, bent on bringing the practice of love and compassion to a religious orthodoxy mired in man-made religious rules. And that's why he was killed--he was seen as a threat to conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom has been that Mormons over-emphasize righteousness and purity over grace and mercy, but the historical Jesus was actually quite subversive to the righteousness/purity system of the contemporary religious establishment. I saw this most clearly while reading Marcus Borg's "Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith". One of my favorite quotes in the book is the following:

"Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God" (Borg, p. 54.)

In other words, "an interpretation of scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity." Borg uses a specific example on page 59 that is particularly relevant to the handbook policy nightmare:
I am convinced that much of the strongly negative attitude toward homosexuality on the part of some Christians has arisen because, in addition to whatever nonreligious homophobic reasons may be involved, homosexuality is seen (often unconsciously) as a purity issue. For these Christians, there's something "dirty" about it, boundaries are being crossed, things are being put together that do not belong together, and so forth. Indeed, homosexuality was a purity issue in ancient Judaism. The prohibition against it is found in the purity laws of the book of Leviticus.

It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code's perception of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. It also seems to me that the passage [Galatians 3:28] in which Paul negates the other central polarities of his world also means, "In Christ, there is neither straight nor gay." Granted, Paul didn't say that, but the logic of "life in the spirit" and the ethos of compassion imply it.
I know that speaking and writing this isn't going to make me popular among Mormons who believe the prophets have got it all figured out and we should just follow them. But as John Pavlovitz wrote, I'm resigned to "be the Samaritan: judged, despised, but merciful." So I appreciate voices such as Marcus Borg above, and Matthew Vines' insights into the Bible and homosexuality. And I appreciate Natasha Helfer Parker, who just a few days ago wrote the following:
I know it is difficult for many within the Church to hear an LDS therapist take the position that homosexual behavior, in of itself, is not a sin and not completely dismiss me. I have advocated for a long time that LGBTQ individuals be held to the same standard as heterosexuals when it comes to the Law of Chastity. And for many this will mean I am taking a blasphemous position. But let’s please remember that we have a history of redefining sin; with several clear examples being interracial marriage/sexuality, polygamous marriage/sexuality, and what is considered appropriate marital behavior for heterosexual couples. Those sins have been redefined largely due to the social pressures and education/research of the time. Not because of God. But because of us. The essay written by the LDS Church on the policies around denying the priesthood to black males explicitly says our own biases got in the way. And now we “disavow” past racist teachings once considered doctrine. So it is completely feasible that we may not currently understand all that will change, shift and be revealed in the future in regards to LGBTQ issues. And when the positions we have taken as a church lead to so much heartache, rejection, unhappiness, mental illness, family & community turmoil, excommunication, and even high rates of suicide – you better believe I’m on the side of ‘we are making a mistake.’ I don’t have the luxury to wait around for authority figures to decide for me, while I’m in the trenches with capable hands to help those who are bleeding.
It has been both hard and rewarding as I've participated in the LDS church post faith-transition. I wouldn't be the person I am today had I not traveled this unique path. I'm glad I stayed in the boat as long as I did, even when I was seasick, because I was able to help fellow passengers and helping felt good. But lately I've been stunned as it appears the crew of the boat, rather than reform the culture onboard, have preemptively begun throwing people overboard in order to "protect" a minority from being exposed to potential hurt. Already, just like in the past, people settle their conscience by pointing the finger at God. I'm too sickened by institutional bigotry and discrimination to stay. Whether the metaphor is a boat or a bus, I'm tired of being confined by a segregated boat/bus, entirely a human construction. Moreover I had already learned and previously written that "I am in the drivers seat of my own search for the divine--not the Church™."

Still, I went along for the ride in the collective vehicle of the church that sustains fifteen men as "prophets, seers, and revelators" (regardless of if or how often they actually do any of those things). And while I wrote that many Mormons have their own "grievous sin" of elevating their leaders into the realm of idolatry, I acknowledged:
It's not my place to grab the steering wheel (not even God coerces the driver), [but] I still have a responsibility to love and help the driver as best I can. I believe our prophet-leaders are entitled to our sympathy, our support, and our suggestions. We're not lemmings just along for the ride. We're free agents. It would be easier to just sit back and trust the authorities. But we've seen what happens when we go down that path. (And that path starts looking a lot more like Satan's plan than God's plan.) 
The easy path is to let someone else do all the thinking for you. It's harder to follow prophets when you have to seek revelation/inspiration for yourself to discern when a prophet is acting as a prophet, discerning if the counsel is inspired and/or applies to your circumstances. If all we do is tell people to sit down and shut up in the proverbial boat, we're no longer expecting people to exercise freedom of the mind and think for themselves, seeking their own spiritual confirmation. Or is the expectation to be told what to do, just obey, and get in line and don't rock the boat? If so, Hugh B. Brown is probably rolling in his grave. 
Obviously there's an extreme line somewhere that I wouldn't want to cross in becoming that annoying back-seat driver. I want to always remain loving and respectful, but I feel I have a duty to alert the driver of dangers I may see out my window, especially if the drivers attention is so focused on the road ahead that he doesn't see what the passengers in the back seat may see. Of course it would be extreme if all someone did was ride along in order to criticize your driving. But there's another extreme of actually having an insight that might help the driver out but failing to speak up because of fear it's not your place. And it would be an extreme driver indeed that was too stubborn to listen to suggestions. I believe in trying to navigate the healthy middle ground between the extremes.
The two underlined sentences above underscore the fact that if I were to continue actively participating, I risk becoming that annoying back seat driver. The gap between my conscience and the direction of the leadership of the LDS church has never been wider. And the truth is that I find as much truth and goodness outside of the LDS church, and far less frustration.

Unlike many who are resigning their membership, I'm not "divorcing" the LDS church--my Mormon identity is too entwined--but I will be separating. As a matter of fact, I think there are persuasive public reasons NOT to resign. They would have to kick me out for loving too much. It's now a matter of principle. As I step away, I commit to extend grace and show love. It's not healthy to be antagonistic, and that would only hurt my family and my marriage. I want to maintain the loving relationships I do have with both friends and family.

I've been active all my life. It's been years since I've believed in such a thing as a "one and only true church" but I've still managed to attend church to try to be a bridge builder, and because I believed in big tent Mormonism, or even better, expanding grid Mormonism. I showed up to look for and contribute to goodness, as well as appreciate the truths that I do find in Mormonism, even while personally rejecting that which I now see causes harm. Mostly I figured it was as good as any place to practice the gospel of Jesus Christ that I do believe in (compassion and grace) among people who are radically different than me. It hasn't always been easy, but I have a local community whom I truly love and who truly love me and my family. Many of them are true Christians who prioritize love over dogma.

But something broke open in our church culture with these recent handbook changes. The culture now officially excludes people I personally deeply desire to include. I cannot in good conscience participate with an organization that stubbornly insists on labeling that which is normal as "grievous sin."

The institution doesn't appear anxious to learn from its own mistakes, such as when it was too stubborn to see how it wrongfully labeled good people and persisted in being too stubborn to change for too long; long after society had awakened to a new truth about racial equality. Society likewise is awakening today to a new truth regarding our LGBT brothers and sisters but the LDS church is reluctant to accept it. It digs in even deeper (because heaven forbid we be influenced by "the world") and elevates its Family Proclamation over the Book of Mormon. It labels good people who commit to each other in marriage as "apostates," and deprives their children (in the present) of the blessings and ordinances it spends countless resources and energy on convincing others (in the present) to urgently embrace.

Unfortunately, when most Mormon apologists read the foregoing they'll dismiss it as an "attack." That's one of the unhealthy aspects prevalent among many Mormons with whom I interact: any criticism is seen as an attack or "anti-Mormon." There isn't much discernment between loving critics and antagonistic critics. Most welcomed are the uncritical lovers. Nevertheless, Mormons are my tribe, my heritage, my people, and I want them to be better just as I know they want me to be better. I don't want to be antagonistic. I want to be compassionate. Moreover, whenever people spew forth antagonistic stuff about Mormons, they just get more and more defensive. I want to extend grace and show love.

But this sucker punch from Salt Lake took all the wind out of me. It's too painful. My wife isn't going anywhere (she's the stake primary president) but she supports my decision to step away from active participation in the LDS church as a way of maintaining my own sanity and well-being and to be able to focus on loving and putting my own family first (because I could easily let this eat at me and ruin my balance.) I don't want to become a stumbling block to the people in the pews next to me, nor to my own family, so it's finally reached that point where I need to take a serious sabbatical (indefinitely) because the gap between my conscience and the LDS church is unbridgeable at present.

I still find inspiration in the teachings of Jesus, but they're often missing or misrepresented in church. But I applaud, as the New York Times put it, those "growing number of churches of various denominations [that] have come to embrace all people" just as God made them. I will now spend my days using my personal authority to INCLUDE rather than EXCLUDE. To embrace ALL people. Because we're ALL broken and we ALL need God's grace. Another friend of mine who has left the LDS church to find her calling in the Lutheran church put it this way: "When we freely admit that we're broken and need God's grace, it opens us up to be vulnerable with each other, to tend to each other in sorrow and pain, to be compassionate with each other, to find growth and healing together in community. The gospel, y'all. It's a thing."

I have a dream that one day the LDS church embraces that gospel of grace, rather than refuse to admit its own brokenness and imply infallibility by never apologizing for its wrongs and mistakes (past or present.) And I have a dream that one day Latter-day Saints will join in singing with their Community of Christ cousins my new favorite hymn: "For Everyone Born, A Place At The Table." I sing of justice, joy, compassion, and peace with great conviction, because it represents everything I've come to believe about the Divine.

For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table

For everyone born, a place at the table,
for everyone born, clean water and bread,
a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
for everyone born, a star over head.


And God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace;
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice, and joy.

For woman and man, a place at the table,
revising the roles, deciding to share, 
with wisdom and grace, dividing the power,
for woman and man, a system that's fair.


For young and for old, a place at the table,
a voice to be heard, a part in the song,
the hands of a child in hands that are wrinkled,
for young and for old, the right to belong.


For just and unjust, a place at the table.
abuser, abused, with need to forgive,
in anger, in hurt, a mind-set of mercy, 
for just and unjust, a new way to live.


For everyone born, a place at the table,
to live without fear, and simply to be,
to work, to speak out, to witness and worship,
for everyone born, the right to be free.


And God will delight when we are creators
of justice and joy, compassion and peace;
yes, God will delight when we are creators
of justice, justice, and joy.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Call For Simple-Minded Mormons To Repent

A family member just shared with me today a public Facebook post by a man named Dustin Sweeten that starts with the words "come on members of the LDS church, be honest..." followed by how this rift in the Mormon family is all about following a prophet of God or not:

I'll be honest. I have a strong testimony and conviction of Jesus Christ. But I also have a testimony of the fact that He doesn't control men like puppets (even prophets). He works with what He's got, but we all have our own bias', including prophets (who aren't infallible). They can and do make mistakes, including boneheaded decisions and policies that hurt real people, because that's what it means to be fallible.

Our loyalty ultimately is to God, not to men. And if you see no difference between God and prophets, then that is the epitome of idoltry. And it's time time for you to repent.

PS: If Dustin Sweeten (or anyone else who applauded his words) reads this, please just skip everything I said and watch this short Brene Brown video to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. Christians in deed (as opposed to just word) show empathy. Showing love is more important than establishing your dogma.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

When The Mormon Church Was Dead Wrong And Too Stubborn to See It

This past week I've experienced a roller coaster of emotions. My wife and I welcomed a baby boy into our family. This most peaceful and good news was followed two days later by the sad and troubling news that our collective Mormon family will now officially exclude many (one is too many) priceless souls from joining the collective church family. Though the gospel of Jesus Christ is radically inclusive, the LDS Church is anything but. Even if you want to hope that the news is okay, you have to admit that the optics of this are brutal. And I'm left with the same question as Arwen Taylor, who hit the nail on the head:
Here's what I want to ask everyone who defends the new anti-gay family policy: What can you imagine the church doing that you would absolutely not support? Can you imagine the church taking an action that would cause you to say, 'No, this violates my conscience, this goes too far, this is not done in love?' Because if not, then you don't get to make moral arguments in support of this; you've ceded your moral reasoning to someone else's authority.
At every single juncture in the past we've been demonstrably wrong about homosexuality. A few months ago I implied my personal belief that our church persists in being wrong about homosexuality in a carefully worded open letter to Elder Christofferson. (A counselor in my stake presidency expressed concern to me about suggesting the Brethren are "wrong", but that just sparked another blog post on how if we acknowledge they're fallible then we should probably stop pretending that they can't be wrong.)

To learn of the problematic handbook changes feels like a sucker punch straight out of Salt Lake. And to be clear, my sorrow lies with Salt Lake, not my local ward and stake. My local leaders have been most loving and kind as well as inclusive and sensitive as we've counseled together. My loving stake president even reached out to me personally Saturday morning because he knew this would cause me great concern (like his counselor, he too had read my open letter to Elder Christofferson and we'd previously spoken in person about some of my concerns.) The thing is I haven't been able to respond--I'm too stunned. I think I'm going to need time to step back and take a sabbatical. In the meantime I simply wish to restate unequivocally my conviction that ALL families, regardless of the sexuality of the parents, deserve to be strengthened. Are we collectively too stubborn to see the harm the Church is now doing to real families and children? Even more sad than the handbook changes is to see so many loved ones try and defend it or pass the blame to God.

I thought we were learning to be better. I'm afraid I was wrong. This much is now clear: a significant number of Mormons--including Mormon leaders--have failed to learn some critical lessons from our collective past. One couple, in writing to their stake president, wondered about how some of the saddest episodes of our past may have played out differently if only someone had spoken truth and reason to power: 
Perhaps if someone in the Parowan and Cedar City stakes had had the courage to voice their opinion to their stake presidents in those fateful secret meetings back in 1857, the Mountain Meadows Massacre could have been avoided. Or perhaps if others in the Willie and Martin handcart companies had joined their voices with Levi Savage who warned against the late travel (and was severely chastised for not having faith in his leaders), the resulting suffering and death could have been prevented. Perhaps if church leaders in Brigham Young’s day had stood up to the policy change he instituted that denied blacks the priesthood and temple blessings (and which the church now acknowledges was based on racist cultural attitudes of that age), our church could have avoided causing untold emotional and spiritual injury to thousands of black people – as well as to the white members who perpetuated harmful racist attitudes (even to this day) because of the false folk doctrines they were taught in an attempt to justify an increasingly unjustifiable policy.
I sometimes wonder who, if anyone, has the ear of the First Presidency. I wonder if they're simply surrounded by "yes men" or if any have expressed to them concern about these handbook changes. I'm particularly concerned that they're not listening to our LGBT brothers and sisters. Most people don't get the chance nowadays to have the ear of the First Presidency directly. The distance can give the impression that the First Presidency doesn't need the collective wisdom of the rank and file church membership--apparently we are to presume inspiration despite a lacunae of any compelling evidence.

Moreover, despite President Uchtdorf's frank admission that there have been times when church leaders have made mistakes, too often we've been too stubborn to learn from those mistakes to be better in the present. Apparently leaders are also too stubborn to apologize for past wrongs. Of all the wisdom in The Lion King, this may be the ultimate: “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.”
The Mormon Past Can Hurt (the Present too), But We Must Learn From It.

It is clear that many Mormons today still have much to learn from our past. I particularly have in mind The Stewart Udall Sequence--"a remarkable tale of conscientious dissent", which is filled with all kinds of customized lessons Latter-day Saints ought to be learning from today. Stewart Udall wasn't the only dissenting Mormon voice shamed for correctly following his conscience over the "authority" of church leaders. Readers of my blog may recall I once shared how brother Lowry Nelson had the ear of the First Presidency but they refused to allow themselves to question whether it was perhaps Nelson who was right while they were wrong. In fact history is filled with other Mormon voices who followed their conscience to dissent and have since been vindicated by history. But as a member of President John F. Kennedy's cabinet (Secretary of the Interior), Stewart Udall was likely the most prominent. I can't help but think about today's parallels and how Mormons who fail to remember the past are indeed condemned to repeat it.

It's already happening. On the one hand, there have been many Latter-day Saints who have responded with compassion and grace in the face of this weeks news. By far my favorite story comes from my friend Lon Young, who exemplified what it means to "mourn with those that mourn". On the other hand, this week I've heard/seen "Latter-day Saints" shame fellow Latter-day Saints for placing greater loyalty to following their own conscience over following LDS authorities. Though the nature of the issue is different, the behavior being exhibited and arguments being made today are almost exactly the same as those you can read in the saga of Stewart Udall (particularly parts 4 & 5), so without further ado, I present The Stewart Udall Sequence: a remarkable tale of conscientious dissent, written by a local friend of mine, Jonathan Streeter, here in San Antonio:

Part I: The Conscience of a Jack Mormon

Meet Stewart Udall and discover how he let his conscience guide his life. His deliberate decision to distance himself from the church is articulated in a note he wrote at the time. Those principles can be seen in his remarkable record of compassion.

Part II: Orthodoxy and Antipathy

When Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall took office, he received criticism about racist Mormon teachings. His exchange with the First Presidency reveals much about the perspective of Church leaders at the time.

Part III: The Letter

After seeing no change in church policy or teachings for years, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall writes an open letter condemning the priesthood ban and racist teachings. It did not go unnoticed.

Part IV: Who's On The Lord's Side Who?

After writing his letter, Stewart Udall received numerous letters from faithful Latter-day Saints. What does the content of those letters tell us about the heart of Mormonism regarding race at that time? (Spoiler alert: We're seeing today some of the same messages of chastisement: "Don't criticize the leadership," "Don't embarrass the Church," "Get out of the Church," "You're too prideful," etc. from both members and leaders.)

Part V: The Apostles and the Primitive Church

In addition to letters from other members, Stewart received letters from two Apostles. Would they echo the sentiments of the many members who castigated the outspoken Udall or take a different tone?

Part VI: By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know

The exchange between Udall and those who wrote him reveal the fruit that Mormonism bore in race relations. By examining 4 remarkable individuals at key points in the history of segregation, we may compare fruit and discover the lesson of Stewart Udall.

Monday, October 26, 2015

On LDS Historical Honesty/Dishonesty

Last week Brian Whitney wrote a post which did a fine job of telling the history behind the telling of LDS history. It's well worth the read. The original title distracted from the solid content, suggesting it was imperative to take a stand on whether or not we've been lied to by the Church. Wisely, the title was changed to: "History vs Heritage: Maybe We Should Stop Saying That We’ve Been Lied to by the Church". (I personally would have titled it something like "History vs Heritage: the History behind LDS History," because I think it solidly explains how church leaders who preferred the "heritage approach" prevailed over over those who preferred a "historical approach" and how we now find ourselves paying the price during the internet age, even as the Church has shifted toward the historical approach.

The debate of whether or not we've been "lied to" really was another issue altogether, and naturally much more controversial. Nevertheless, much of the discussion has steered in that direction. So be it. I believe in open dialogue and the value of letting thoughtful opinions be heard. We mustn't shy away from hard conversations just because they're hard, nor assume that disagreement equates to contention. Ralph Waldo Emmerson spoke a profound truth when he said: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” Likewise, Hugh B. Brown spoke a profound truth when he said we should "respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent–if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression."

While many of the loudest Mormon or Ex-Mormon voices tend to gravitate to either extreme poles of complete adulation of church leaders or complete disaffection with church leaders, I find it far more wise (and compassionate) to strive to exist between either extreme by looking for both positive things to say but also expressing valid and constructive criticism. Emily Grover recently shared a great F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” That, I believeis what most of us middle-way Mormons strive for.

Whether middle-way Mormons attend church because the church is "true" for them, or whether they attend church despite the fact they no longer believe in such a thing as a "one and only true church," they tend to have an ‘eye’s and hearts wide open approach’ to the Mormon community. We sustain and show compassion for our leaders not because we believe they're always wise and inspired, but rather because they deserve love and support even if we believe they're wrong and more fallible than they themselves realize. The following guest post comes from such a middle-way Mormon, writing in response to Brian Whitney's "Heritage vs History" post. It too is a valuable read. The author, who expresses both appreciation and dissent, requested for his name to be withheld:
First off, I would like to say how thoroughly impressed I was with the post. It was well laid out, very thoughtful and it included a lot of historical context, which is helpful in understanding how we find ourselves in this position. The title to the article was sensational, but the content was very sincere and well put together. As I read it, I felt that I gained insight to Brian’s perspective. I agree the issue is complex, however I disagree with Brian’s opinion. I do agree with his assertion that the current leadership were raised on black and white thinking, and it is likely that they believed suppression of the truth was helpful in keeping the faithful, faithful. What I loved most about the article was that it spoke to me as if I was an adult, capable of understanding complex topics. As I read it I couldn’t help but think, why wasn’t this written by the brethren? I respect Brian’s opinion, for those of you who care I want to share my opinion of why I disagree with him. 
I will start with the essays. To me the way the church has handled these essays is dishonest. It’s been nearly three years since they started silently placing them on the internet, unsigned and anonymous. It’s unsettling because it goes entirely against how the church does everything else. This organization is masterful at getting information to members, and the world, that they want to be heard. Have you heard about “Meet the Mormons”, what about the “Family Proclamation”, or the “Church’s stance on gay marriage”? The fact that the majority of members still don’t even know they exist, and those that do, haven’t read them, boggles my mind. I have several friends who are actually afraid to read them. I get it, it’s a red pill, blue pill type of thing, and lots of people opt for the blue pill.

I’ve been in the faith crisis coming up on a year now. That means I have gone through two conferences in my current unbelieving state. Instead of hearing talks addressing the hard issues, and genuine logical responses to these hard issues, I have heard attacks on doubters, and Elder Uchtdorf telling me to stay off the internet. The pompous way they stand there with their brows furrowed, shoulders shrugged, arms raised, shaking their heads at how one could be so stupid to allow Satan to lead them into doubt, all while never acknowledging these essays exist, speaks volumes to me about their character. I see them use fear as their main weapon of choice. The fear of losing friends and family, is real, it is powerful. I will acknowledge that there have been positive messages in these conferences, but these are the talks that focus on universal kindness. Something that the LDS church does not have a patent on. A main theme [among middle-way Mormons] is to take the messages that resonate with you and leave the others behind. This is something I struggle with, the condescending tone of the brethren regarding doubt, renders all of their other words useless and hollow to me. I only wish they could speak to me as an adult, like Brian did in his article.

My second point of focus is on the role of a prophet. As a young missionary I read the book “Our Search for Happiness” by M Russell Ballard. I loved the book. Two stories from the book resonated with me. Elder Ballard was asked the question as a mission president, “what separates your church from the others?” Elder Ballard replied, roughly “If Moses were coming to town and was going to speak, would you be interested in what he had to say? Well we have a modern prophet just like Moses that speaks for God today.” That was powerful for me at the time, it made sense. Of course if Moses was in town we would all want to hear what he had to say. Of course we had a prophet just like Moses on earth today.

He also tells the incredible experience of his grandfather’s (it could be his father, I honestly can’t remember now) meeting the savior. He called it a sacred experience, but one he felt was appropriate to share in this book. I remember reading this account and hoping that one day I could have that experience. It also followed logically that if Elder Ballard’s grandfather had seen the savior, then of course all of the brethren and the prophet had seen him. This book was in the missionary library. All good missionaries were supposed to read it. I believe this story was placed in the book to lead us all to the conclusion that the brethren speak with God. We all want to believe that this church is being led by something more than just feelings. We all want to believe that the prophet is receiving direct face to face counsel with the Lord just like Moses, and Joseph Smith. Stories like this, conference addresses where the brethren refer to each other as the Lords anointed, and even the word prophet, denotes a communication with God that is more than just feelings. The brethren are implying to everyone that they talk with God. The company line now, is that these experiences are just too sacred to share. I believe they have taken this stance so they can feel better about not lying. If these men were honest they would tell us if they had actually seen the Savior or not. When you begin to think more critically, it becomes very difficult to accept 150 years of racist and sexist policies when it was the savior in charge all the time.

Small point on this one, apologists love to cite Russell Nelson’s 1992 talk to mission presidents where he mentions the stone in the hat. Somehow they think this example shows that the church has always been open and honest about its past, to me, this does exactly the opposite. How do you explain Russell Nelson not correcting this image being portrayed incorrectly in literally every instance where the church portrayed it? Blaming the artists is dishonest to my intelligence.

Lastly I would cite the movie “Joseph Smith Prophet of the Restoration”. Apologists love to cite the essays and the Joseph Smith Papers project as proof of the new openness of the church. This movie was first made in 2006 and then redone in 2011, long after the Joseph Smith Papers Project was well underway. If you haven’t watched this movie I highly recommend it. If after watching it you can’t see the dishonesty in it, we will have to simply agree to disagree.

I realize that all of this is just my opinion so take it for what it’s worth, but I believe the church has, and is, currently being dishonest with me. I know most of these men probably really believe what they are saying. However, these men lived through the 60’s & 70’s with the Tanners, (I’ve met Sandra Tanner, lovely woman) the 80’s with Mark Hoffman, the 90’s with the September Six. They know the issues. If they had good answers we would have heard them by now. The truth, in my opinion, is that they have no good answers, so they assassinate the character of those who dare speak the truth, and belittle the intelligence of those who dare to doubt.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The General Conference Buffet: Both Good AND Bad

I really tried--God knows I tried--to not let my skeptical side taint my desire to simply focus on the good and the positive. But implicit in my last post where I referred to General Conference as a "buffet" is the fact that we all pick and choose from multiple offerings what we individually find most appetizing. And sometimes we overdo it and get sick.

This General Conference started great for me. The music and President Uchtdorf's opening message to simplify was spot on. It was refreshing to have him remind the Church to "focus on 'the simplicity that is in Christ' and allow His grace to lift and carry us" rather than get bogged down by the behemoth of the institutional church. Not as refreshing was the implied fear of the internet, especially when the faith crisis of many a church member begins not from being bamboozled by the CES Letter but because they feel bamboozled by the Church itself after encountering the Church's own online historical essays. Many awaken to the realization that they hadn't been given the whole story until the internet forced the Church to become more transparent. Case in point: art commissioned by the church on the left versus art actually closer to the real history now acknowledged by the church on the right:

It's not that there was some vast conspiracy, but there was deception leading to really bad history. The folks in charge who favored a "heritage" approach rather than "historical" approach won out, and then the internet age happened and we're paying the consequences now. (I would like to believe those leaders would’ve changed their minds if they could have actually looked into the future of the internet age and see what consequences we’re paying collectively as a church by going with that approach. But of course that would have taken the actual gift of seer-ship. Today we sustain them to be the guys to seek such gifts, but typically we don't enjoy the actual fruits of those gifts.)

I was, however, delighted that in revisiting the Old Ship Zion analogy I actually sensed progress from Elder Ballard. I felt like he had actually read or heard feedback about my post "On Being Seasick While Staying In The Boat" after his last conference talk. In addition, version 2.0 was arguably an unprecedented acknowledgement of apostolic fallibility. I saw this as a very positive sign for the Mormon culture still desperately in need of repentance for its idolatry of infallible leadership.

However, soon after the afternoon session commenced, I felt embarrassed--even mad--that I had allowed myself to get my hopes up with such a historic opportunity to call in some diversity among the three open positions among the Twelve, only to be stunned as three white men from Utah were called. Again. I confess my initial reaction was a big letdown. I even confess I was too stunned to enjoy much of the rest of the session. The good news is, like Jana and Kalani and others, I've already found lots of good about them and their commitment to compassion--especially Elder Renlund and his wife--and there's no question that I'll sustain all of them, keeping in mind what sustaining really means. Nevertheless, despite great international growth, this remains a predominantly white Utah church led by white Utah men. This is particularly jarring in light of our indefensible and embarrassing racial history.

Elder Anderson may be Joseph Smith's biggest cheerleader these days. Last conference he called Joseph Smith "a holy man, a righteous man" even though Joseph Smith himself is on record saying "I don't want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous." This conference he recommended we "give Joseph a break" at which point I began to wonder if Elder Anderson is capable of demonstrating any sympathy for those of us who no longer hold to a white-washed and correlated paradigm of the prophet. History and truth require more than revisionist cheerleading or the dismissal of actual facts.

Russell M. Nelson's plea for women's voices to be heard was significant, though many have pointed out the irony that such few women are asked to speak in General Conference. But I love that he explicitly told women over the pulpit as President of the Quorum of the Twelve: "We need your strength, your conversion, your conviction, your ability to lead, your wisdom, and your voices." Of course this comes a little too late for Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly who was excommunicated for trying to do just that, but it was a great message--and much welcomed by this male Mormon feminist (yours truly) even if I personally am ready for them to go further.

All in all, as Conference came to a close, I found myself at a loss for words. I struggled to articulate how I could feel both inspired but also sickened by the very same conference--sometimes by the very same talk. Thankfully, I no longer need to struggle to find the right words because Emily Grover has done it for me--quite beautifully I might add--with this thoughtful post: "Recovering My Sea Legs on the Old Ship Zion." An excerpt:
My Facebook feed is glutted with polarized responses to the recent General Conference: on the one hand, conference memes are ubiquitous to the point of becoming trite and status updates affect unparalleled enthusiasm for every conference talk; on the other, status updates bicker and criticize, nit-picking at all perceived weaknesses in the talks and the selected speakers. Despite how my feed implies that there are but two poles—unquestioning acceptance or critical outrage—I find myself agreeing with and being repulsed by both corners. I feel like I can’t publicly express gratitude for Elder Nelson’s or Elder Holland’s talks on women, because by doing so I might be seen as ignoring the fact that only 5 of the 39 speakers in this last conference were female (and 3 of those 5 spoke in the Women’s General Broadcast). I want to celebrate Elder Nelson’s call for women to “speak up and speak out,” but in the same breath I also want to argue that this message would have been more convincing had more women actually been invited to speak up and out during this conference. 
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I use this quotation to teach critical thinking to college freshmen, but it seems suitable to my testimony these days, too. Why shouldn’t I let myself see through multiple perspectives at once? Why shouldn’t I be bothered by the lack of a woman’s presence in baby blessing circles while still being able to appreciate the love and beauty already inherent in the current practice? Why shouldn’t I be disappointed that the three new apostles called are all white men born in Utah while still being able to love and sustain these good men in their overwhelmingly selfless and life-changing callings? Why shouldn’t I be inspired, uplifted, and elevated by the same conference talks that also bother me?
I absolutely concur with that. And I also just want to add an "amen" to her conclusion:
What will help many members desirous of staying in the boat in spite of their seasickness is if there is more room for discourse within the mainstream conversations of the church that would allow for questions, concerns, discomfort, pain, and frustrations. I think many members trying to hold on will find their legs miraculously strengthened beneath them just by being listened to and understood, by having their questions and concerns validated. In return, it would be good for those of us yearning for changes in the church to remove those filters that keep us from perceiving what is still already light and good and true before us. Our collective efforts could carve a larger space more conducive for minds that, like Fitzgerald’s, can work amid dissonance: a space that would encompass the fruitful, compromising middle grounds between the poles of dogmatic orthodoxy and full-on dissent. I would love to take my journey on a boat like that.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

LDS General Conference Is Great...Except For The Bad Parts

A metaphor for the Church itself?

Most Mormons view General Conference as quite a treat--I generally do. It's a special treat to stay home and watch conference in my pajamas on my comfortable leather couch. It's also a treat to spend uninterrupted hours with my family while seeking goodness, truth, and inspiration. For me personally, that goodness and inspiration comes most often in the form of the music we hear in General Conference. My experience has been that General Conference music is routinely exceptional--sometimes even supernal (a word sometimes used in conjunction with General Conference.) And from time to time there are a few talks that even reach that point for me. For example, these four from our last General Conference:
Of the latter I could hardly wait to blog about how it was itself a grace to me, like an oasis in the desert. I'm well aware, however, that since we all bring different background knowledge, experience, and even different lenses with us to General Conference, a "great" message to one can fall flat for another. This was brought home to me recently when my brother shared a talk he liked from that same conference in our family group text--Which Way Do You Face?. I didn't want to be a Debbie Downer, but my first instinct was to cringe and think of the Mormonad above. I decided, in the interest of fairness, I should re-read the talk to give it a second chance. There was, indeed, more relatively good stuff than I had remembered. My memory had only held onto the parts that had caused me concern. More on this in a minute.

First a disclaimer. I know most people aren't accustomed to watching General Conference like a film critic watches a movie, but it's a natural occupational hazard for those of us who've undergone a faith transition/transformation. I like the term "transformation" because I think of the metaphor of the caterpillar in its cocoon. The transformation can initially feel dark and lonely but like a butterfly, my personal faith came out on the other end more nuanced, colorful, and even beautiful. I admit it can be frustrating at times still when I encounter those who think I should act more like a caterpillar than the butterfly that's since taken flight.

I still use both my "mind and heart" in order to discern inspiration amongst the hours we spend in the buffet of messages known as General Conference. It's just that I can't quite bring myself to share in the same joy expressed by others who view everything in General Conference as "modern day revelation." My standard for "revelation" is much higher than that, and I would argue that Joseph Smith set the bar pretty high by publishing his revelations for all the world to see. Of course, one could claim that the LDS Church publishes the Ensign magazine for all the world to see, but what I clearly see is a huge difference between the revelations published in the Standard Works and what's published in the Ensign. Considering how little we Latter-day Saints have added to our "open" cannon since Joseph's day (at least the Brighamite branch of the Restoration movement), perhaps the "revelation" bar is too high for today's "prophets, seers, and revelators."

That's not to say that I can't enjoy goodness and inspiration in General Conference. It's just harder when I can't automatically take it all in as equally inspired. There's a lot of "good" in my church sundae, to be sure. But there's some very conspicuous "bad" that I cannot simply ignore.

As I follow the dictates of my conscience, I choose to magnify my individual responsibility to discern if what I'm hearing over the pulpit at any given time actually represents the mind and will of God. It's not an easy job, and naturally it's a subjective process, but all religion is subjective--all of it. And religion isn't supposed to be easy. It's supposed to challenge us, change us, and transform us into more compassionate beings--not passive sheep.

Neither am I passive while watching General Conference. Sometimes there are sermons meant to challenge us, and sometimes there are sermons that ought to be challenged. And as I read over the sermon my brother had recommended I found things that indeed resonated with me and that I generally found inspiring. This quote, for example, was great and still resonates with me: "Trying to please others before pleasing God is inverting the first and second great commandments." That's great advice to put God first over other men/women, and I include in that even institutions such as the LDS Church.

But I also found some things that caused me concern. The first cringe moment came in the form of a quote by the late Boyd K. Packer: “A Seventy does not represent the people to the prophet but the prophet to the people. Never forget which way you face!” This viewpoint is one of a top-down-only hierarchy--a viewpoint which happens to be one of the things I least like about the current institutional church. That top-down-only attitude completely misses an opportunity to have good counsel between everybody else not already in the leadership-hierarchy flow chart. It also contradicts the way things are supposed to work at the local level in terms of ward and stake councils.

But I had stronger reservations with this part: "Thinking one can please God and at the same time condone the disobedience of men isn’t neutrality but duplicity, or being two-faced or trying to “serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24; 3 Nephi 13:24). The obsession with making clear what you condemn or condone in others gets in the way of true compassion, and I believe that can be sin in and of itself. I don't accept the false dichotomy that you're either "for us or against us", the conflation of prophets with God (implied throughout), and also the preoccupation with righteousness and purity.

While Mormons traditionally place much emphasis on righteousness and purity, Jesus himself was historically subversive to the righteousness/purity system of the contemporary religious establishment. I saw this very clearly while reading Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. "Compassion, not holiness, is the dominant quality of God, and is therefore to be the ethos of the community that mirrors God" (Borg, p. 54.) In other words, "an interpretation of scripture faithful to Jesus and the early Christian movement sees the Bible through the lens of compassion, not purity." Borg uses a specific example on page 59:
I am convinced that much of the strongly negative attitude toward homosexuality on the part of some Christians has arisen because, in addition to whatever nonreligious homophobic reasons may be involved, homosexuality is seen (often unconsciously) as a purity issue. For these Christians, there's something "dirty" about it, boundaries are being crossed, things are being put together that do not belong together, and so forth. Indeed, homosexuality was a purity issue in ancient Judaism. The prohibition against it is found in the purity laws of the book of Leviticus. 
It seems to me that the shattering of purity boundaries by both Jesus and Paul should also apply to the purity code's perception of homosexuality. Homosexual behavior should therefore be evaluated by the same criteria as heterosexual behavior. It also seems to me that the passage [Galatians 3:28] in which Paul negates the other central polarities of his world also means, "In Christ, there is neither straight nor gay." Granted, Paul didn't say that, but the logic of "life in the spirit" and the ethos of compassion imply it.
When I watch General Conference now, I can't help but take issue with various "purity" interpretations. For example, from the same talk my brother sent: "Lowering the Lord’s standards to the level of a society’s inappropriate behavior is—apostasy." 

Let me be clear: I have no problem accepting that the Lord has standards that are unchanging and wise. However, our human understanding of the Lord's standards is imperfect and is always filtered through a human brain. History teaches that we've been wrong about His will before. And history doesn't hide the fact that sometimes regular Mormons have greater insight into truth than those sustained as "prophets, seers, and revelators." [See here and especially here, for example.] Our understanding of the Lord's will and His standards constantly evolve and change as we receive greater light and knowledge. And hopefully our moral conscience continues to evolve.

Elder Robbins also makes his own definition of apostasy, and my personal concern is that his statement of what constitutes "apostasy" will be used as ammunition to expel dissenters like me from the body of Christ, not to mention if it even aligns with the explanation of apostasy given recently by the First Presidency of the Church.

Last point of concern: "When others demand approval in defiance of God’s commandments, may we always remember whose disciples we are."

The problem for me isn't forgetting that I'm first and foremost a disciple of Christ/God; the problem is that "God's commandments" have always been interpreted and declared by imperfect human filters, and fallible men often misinterpret/mistake the Divine will. I remember like it was yesterday a General Conference five years ago where I surprised myself by reflexively shouting "That's not right!" as soon as President Packer shared a personal opinion about how homosexuality fit into God's plan. His talk was edited by the time it came out in the print version a few days later.

It's my opinion (and I'm entitled to my own opinion) that just as the Church now "disavows the theories advanced in the past" (such as that interracial marriage was a sin, which was declared to be "doctrine" according to some general authorities in the not too distant past), I personally believe there will come a day when the future Church disavows current teachings that being a happily married gay person was a "sin." Of all people, Mormons with a messy polygamous past probably shouldn't be painting with such a broad brush as though we've figured out the full picture clearly.

love the Brethren, but I disagree that there are no acceptable ways to act on one's homosexuality without it being inherently sinful. My love for the Brethren is not conditional based on whether I agree or disagree with them about homosexuality. I think Mormons who believe that the Church's current stance is "right" deserve for me to show them true love and compassion, regardless of the fact that I disagree with the Church's current stance. It's easier to love people who think like you. But that's why I personally think I need the Church in my life, not because I always think alike, but because I need to learn to love people who are radically different than me.

Of course, ultimately we're all more alike than we are different, whether in or out of the Church. People historically have killed each other over believing the "right" dogma or over behavior deemed "inappropriate" in God's eyes. That's a shame. I believe we mustn't let dogma get in the way of love. Compassion must always come first. Love can be the bridge between people who disagree on dogma (and is preferable than killing, shaming, or even excommunicating people over differences in belief.)

In the mean time, drawing these artificial lines in the sand causes real pain and harm. I believe it to be imperative that we be more focused on inclusiveness and compassion over righteousness and exclusivity. Our differences in belief don't need to matter when we focus on loving each other through Christ's compassionate lens. I hope we can all agree that Christ's main message is one of love and compassion rather than judging others according to our church's current standard of "sin."

Because I believe, with Richard Poll, "that everyone, including Paul and other prophets, sees eternity 'through a glass darkly' (l Cor. 13:12), prophetic infallibility, scriptural inerrancy and unquestioning obedience are not elements of my faith." And that's why I approach General Conference the way I do. If one were to just assume that what we're hearing in General Conference automatically represents the mind and will of God, one is primed to be led astray. Despite frequent assurances that Mormon prophets can't lead us astray, history proves that myth wrong. The scriptures themselves prove the myth of infallibility wrong, yet in spite of common sense, many Mormons continue to imply infallibility without even realizing it--with very striking consequences. Our shared fallibility makes embracing compassion and grace all the more important.

So yes, church really is great, except for the bad parts. We can't expect perfection when the church is made up entirely of human beings. We need to be supportive of each other, especially in our weakness. Last spring I participated in podcast interview about my current faith and some of the difficulties I face within the institutional church. (If you're interested in listening, my segment's in part one of episode 096: Hard to Stay – Harder to Leave and begins at the 29:10 minute mark.) A friend of mine who found the "A Thoughtful Faith" podcast valuable transcribed a quote of mine. I thought I'd include it here for any who may question why I remain in the LDS Church feeling the way I do:
There is something to be said of community. I want to stay in the church because it is a support community of people trying to seek Christ. Not because it’s perfect, because it’s not. And not because it has all the truth, because it doesn’t. But because it can be a good support network to people who are trying to love each other and follow Christ. As long as that’s the case, it’s great. 
But when it starts to get an unhealthy over-emphasis on "follow the prophet, follow the prophet" and all this other business like gender inequality (that frustrates me and I wish we'd change quicker), then that makes it harder to stay. Especially I have hope on the LGBT issue that the church will one day wake up and realize: "Hey, the gospel includes everybody, the gospel is for everybody. Our church though--our policies--are keeping people away. And we're going to continue to lose people and the church might just hollow out unless it adapts. But history gives me hope that it will adapt. It's just sometimes slow to adapt." [ends at 52:48
Unapologetically I embrace whatever is good and I reject whatever causes harm. Mormonism is a sausage makers religion and we each choose for ourselves what speaks to our conscience and what violates our conscience. Whether in this church, another church, or no church at all--the bottom line is all the same. The bottom line is learning to love everyone (even those radically different than ourselves) and serve and do some good. I find that in this church. It may not always be comfortable, but I'm still onboard.

Brigham Young once famously said of a great valley with a few bad parts: "This is the right place. Drive on.” That pretty much sums up how I currently feel about my membership in the institutional church. I particularly love how Sharon Eubank put it last year:
The right place doesn’t mean there is not going to be blinding salt flats and black crickets and all kinds of naysayers and killing frosts and all of those things. But it is still the right place. And I also think we ought to be probably driving on. Rolling up our sleeves and doing the thing that our doctrine allows us to do which is to say: Everybody is valuable. Everybody has unique individual gifts. The Lord’s plan allows for everybody to use their gifts. I can be respectful. I have responsibility to do it and I’m going to roll up my sleeves and go to work.