Friday, September 30, 2011

Prophetic Expectations

Next to the atonement of Jesus Christ, the claim of having a living prophet gets right to the heart of Mormonism. Expectations about prophets are all over the place, and my sense is that sometimes our expectations (and our rhetoric) outpace reality.

I am one of many who have undergone a slow evolution over the past few years in terms of how I view prophets. [More on my faith transition here.] Perhaps as a kid I might have believed that the prophet could do no wrong, but as a kid I was also naive. Unresolved questions and examples of prophets being wrong on doctrinal matters never even entered the radar.

I go on as a Mormon appreciating what I can, not hesitating to take personal responsibility for what I personally believe rather than what "the institution" says I believe. I once shared my prophet/parent analogy, but at the same time I recognize that there are a lot of great parents in the world. Yet Latter-day Saints expect that there's something unique about the prophet. Some Mormons use rhetoric such as "mouthpiece of the Lord" and that "God speaks to a modern day Moses". Naturally, that kind of rhetoric can lead to high expectations. And naturally, there is also a wide diversity of belief about how literally to take that. (I've shared some of my feelings about overdoing the mantra to "follow the prophet" here and here and here.)

Aaron B. once shared his experience teaching Sunday School about the Priesthood ban and subsequent 1978 revelation. In "Teaching OD-2" he articulated some important points concerning prophets: "As the hour drew to a close, the conversation turned to the nature of prophets, how to trust prophets if they are partly products of their time (capable of giving us erroneous instruction), the role of personal spiritual confirmation in evaluating truth claims (even when they come from prophets), and the limitations of this approach as well. This was an inevitable turn in the conversation, and for some, a potentially troubling one. I refused to give everyone easy answers where there are none."

Upholding a certain mystique about how (and how often) God actually speaks is probably to the advantage of our "prophets, seers, and revelators". I think this was illustrated when apostle Howard W. Hunter met with new Church Historian Leonard Arrington, shortly after Arrington was called and Hunter was made his advisor. Hunter "said that he felt the church was mature enough that our history should be honest. Our faith should not overpower our collective memories and documented experiences."
He did not believe in suppressing information, hiding documents, or concealing or withholding minutes for 'screening.' He thought we should publish the documents of our history. Why should we withhold things that are a part of our history? He thought it in our best interest to encourage scholars--to help and cooperate with them in doing honest research. Nevertheless, Hunter counseled me to keep in mind that church members reverenced leaders and their policies. To investigate too closely the private lives of leaders and the circumstances that led to their decisions might remove some of the aura that sanctified church policies and procedures. If the daylight of historical research should shine too brightly upon prophets and their policies, he cautioned, it might devitalize the charisma that dedicated leadership inspires. I accepted Hunter's counsel as a mandate for free and honest scholarly pursuit, with a warning that we must be discreet."("Adventures of a Church Historian" by Leonard Arrington, p. 84)

I do believe Hunter knew what he was talking about. In my case, learning about our history has actually changed the way I view prophets and their policies. While I respect and sustain our prophet leaders, I no longer feel the same reverence or mystique I did even just a few years ago. As I've adjusted expectations I've also had to let go of that aura--some of that Mormon mystique which surrounds those holding apostolic positions. I have come to identify with what Mormon historian Richard Poll once said: "History tells me that leading any organized religion is more of a priestly rather than a prophetic function."

In an article by Peggy Fletcher Stack published just days before the last spring General Conference (Infallible? Mormons told to ‘follow the prophet’ in the Salt Lake Tribune and Mormon president can do no wrong to religion's members in the USA Today), John Fowles spoke of those whose faith is sometimes shakened because of “unrealistic and unnecessary expectations” for our prophets. I agree 100% with what John said. But I still wonder what realistic and proper expectations of our prophets should look like.

Philip Barlow, Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, was also quoted by Peggy Fletcher Stack in the same article. He said that disillusionment with LDS leaders "would evaporate if people saw the church not as essentially divine, marred only by the weaknesses of human administrators, but rather … [as made up] entirely of human beings — with all of their limitations—who are trying to respond to the divine with which they have (in faith) been touched.”

He best articulated my view of the Church. (This is also why I no longer prefer to conflate the Church with "the Kingdom of God on earth" and necessary to separate the Church from the Gospel). Not everyone shares the same experiences or arrives at the same place when it comes to learning about Church history, the way things work, or even their level of religious enthusiasm/commitment. Some might have once sang "We Thank Thee Oh God For a Prophet" with zeal but now feel a bit more restrained. Others have felt the need to lower their expectations of a prophet in order to still maintain a connection to the Mormon prophetic tradition. Those with reasonable expectations of prophets can even feel out of place when attending church with members who still have expectations that go through the roof--including those who believe that the prophet literally speaks directly with God in a way the rest of us cannot/have not, or those who think that when the prophet speaks the thinking is done.

While I personally have no insight into the perfect or ideal set of prophetic expectations, Adam Miller does. And I do agree with John Fowles in the sense that "unrealistic expectations" exist and may make people ripe for a faith crisis.  Ironically, by wanting to tell only the "faith promoting", as if everything prophets do is inspired, leaders can further perpetuate the "unrealistic expectations" that set people up for a faith crisis. Like a balloon going high in the sky, those expectations might just end up popping--or simply deflating. Would that we could just embrace all truth from the get go, not just the comfortable truth.

Andrew S. (a thoughtful self-described atheist and "cultural Mormon") probably had those once-overly-inflated-the-point-of-popping people in mind when he remarked: "For some people [it] isn’t that “the grass will be greener” outside [of the Church], but rather, for a church that claims divine revelation, the true gospel, inspired leaders, it’s surprising that the lawn *is* just the same as everyone else’s, if not quirkier in some areas (while other lawns are have quirks in other areas.)" Or in other words, "If we are taught that the church’s grass is superior, restored, and full, then shouldn’t finding out that the church grass is just on par with everyone else’s grass be a great let down?"

Ultimately, we Latter-day Saints sustain our leaders as prophets, seers, and revelators, although the meaning given to those very words vary according to each believer. And as Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote, "Mormons have to decide for themselves how much deference to give the words of their leaders and deal with the consequences of their choices." It can indeed be a sausage maker's faith.

Some may question the benefit in having a prophet "to guide us in these latter days" if we as individual agents must ultimately rely on our own combination of "inspiration and perspiration". However, the prophet's role is not for us to rely on him, notwithstanding the rhetoric, but to point/guide people to Christ, and to rely on "the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah". Placing faith in Him--our ultimate "Prophet, Priest, and King"--means that we'll always have expectations that will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Rethinking Modesty

Putting a spotlight on what should be required LDS reading:

Perverting Modesty

(By Tracy M--

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Church Signs: Second Edition

Ever since I took a picture of my favorite church sign, I've been on the look out for others I can capture and share.  Here are a few that have caught my eye recently for one reason or another:

I really like this one from a local United Methodist Church, (although not likely to show up in front of an LDS Church):

On the other hand, here are a couple that would fit in quite well at an LDS church, especially the sign as you leave the parking lot of the local John Calvin Presbyterian Church ("You are now entering the mission field"):

Another LDS type sign, since we know how much LDS folk love focussing on "self-improvement":

A little sign caught my eye inside the kitchen of the Stake Center where I attend (definitely NOT one of my favorites):

Still haven't found one to rival my favorite sign, but I've enjoyed snapping the pictures none the less.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Improving Our Sacrament Meetings

Several months ago our bishop started off a combined 5th Sunday (3rd hour) meeting showing a PowerPoint of data his counselor had crunched. Sacrament meeting attendance (along with home teaching and other statistics) has been trending down ever since our ward was created over a year ago.

The bishop, who isn't known for his sense of humor (or warmth, for that matter), asked: "What does this mean?" I quietly leaned towards my wife and jokingly said: "Time to fire the bishopric". Thankfully only the couple in front of me heard, and I'm glad they laughed because it truly was a joke--obviously it's not all the bishops fault. Yet at the same time, while sacrament meeting "worship" is largely a personal experience, I do feel more can be done to improve the quality of the group "worship" experience during our sacrament meetings (and consequently improve the attendance at those meetings).

The bishop then asked us all why we thought this downward trend was happening. A few answers were given, none of which seemed to resonate with anyone, including the bishop. He went on to speak about "rescuing" and how we need to "rescue" others so that they come to church--which struck me as the wrong answer simply because they're not falling overboard--they're jumping ship. People have come to expect lifeless and sub-par sacrament meetings and don't seem to miss much of a spiritual experience when they're not present. As the bishop continued, he mentioned that it's his responsibility to oversee gospel teaching in the ward, and I agreed and raised my hand. Here was my chance to say what I was thinking by piggybacking on his comment.  I said:

"I think you've hit the nail on the head with the importance of teaching. Too often we content ourselves with boring and lifeless meetings rather than fill them with meaning and making them truly edifying. I'm reminded of the quote by President Kimball where he said that "We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come".

I recited it by heart because I had just barely looked it up on my smart phone to make sure I got it right. But the full quote would have been great too:

"Stake presidents, bishops, and branch presidents, please take a particular interest in improving the quality of teaching in the Church. The Savior has told us to feed his sheep (see John 21:15-17). I fear that all too often many of our members come to church, sit through a class or meeting, and they then return home having been largely uninformed [Elder Holland uses the word uninspired]. It is especially unfortunate when this happens at a time when they may be entering a period of stress, temptation, or crisis. We all need to be touched and nurtured by the Spirit, and effective teaching is one of the most important ways this can happen. We often do vigorous enlistment work to get members to come to church but then do not adequately watch over what they receive when they do come." ~ Spencer W. Kimball, "Ministering to the Needs of Members," Ensign, Nov 1980, 45.

In response to my comment, the ward clerk (who admits to being a grumpy kind of guy--"I don't smile") states from his seat up on the stand a familiar platitude, something like: "It's our fault if the meeting is boring, because it's an individual responsibility to get something out of the meeting".

I secretly roll my eyes and wait for him to finish before offering a rejoinder:  "I agree with you but only up to a point.  I do believe I have a personal responsibility to worship and get the most out of a meeting--yes. But if I were sick and go to a doctor, the doctor isn't going to tell me 'well, it's your responsibility to get well. Come on--what's wrong with you?!' There is a TWO way relationship and responsibility there. And sometimes I think the sentiment you expressed is used as a cop out to go ahead and be content with boring meetings."

Thankfully another sister, whose husband is not a member but attends sacrament meeting with her, spoke up and agreed with me (although she put things much nicer and far less bluntly)--mentioning that her husband can't possibly be expected to know how to "get something out" of a sub-par meeting by himself and feel the spirit on his own.

Apparently it took my speaking out to break the ice. A friend and former counselor in the pre-ward-split bishopric then spoke out and shared something with the large group he had shared with me before privately. "I personally feel, Bishop, that I'm getting that spiritual nourishment in our Sunday school class. [He's told this to my wife before too because she was the teacher of the class]. But I've been struggling with our sacrament meetings".

Felt good that I wasn't alone.  Another stalwart sister in the ward, who also happens to teach some popular institute classes in our stake, chimed in to say probably the one positive thing she could: "I do feel that this ward does an excellent job, better than any ward I've ever been a part of, of having a very reverent passing of the sacrament. It's always so quiet and reverent during that special time". (What she didn't say is that it often feels like a funeral the rest of the time.) But after the meeting she quickly came up to me, shook my hand, and simply said "THANK YOU". It felt good to have her validate my comment.

My point in sharing all this is that I sense there is much room for improvement in our sacrament meetings. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way, for in that very discussion...well, out of the mouths of two or three witnesses.

And just this past Sunday during a dinner conversation with some new members in our ward, they began talking about the great Sunday School class they had attended, which up through that very day was taught by my wife (she was a magnificent gospel doctrine teacher for all the right reasons but after church on that particular Sunday accepted another calling), and how the atmosphere was exactly what teaching improvement coordinators had aspired to.  I decided to ask the question: "How can we get our sacrament meetings to be more like that?"

I was thrilled to hear this new ward member (who had served in a bishopric in Louisiana prior to moving to Texas) tell me that in his previous stake, the stake presidency and bishoprics had begun receiving training from their area presidency on how to improve the talks in sacrament meeting. Apparently they were using Gene R. Cook's excellent book/CD "Teaching by the Spirit" and focusing on changing the culture of sacrament meeting talks so that people more often share how a particular gospel principle has affected their life rather than just present some research compiled on the particular topic (and which is quite impersonal and boring).

I thought this sounded like a step in the right direction, and was glad that any area presidency would be trying to emphasize this important approach in the stakes and wards throughout the church. I'd like to know if that was just a local area emphasis or if it might also be receiving more widespread attention throughout the Church.  While it's a good start to emphasize this first to stake presidencies and bishoprics, I'm not quite clear on how bishoprics are to then transfer that perspective and train the members in the ward who'll be speaking.  Perhaps a sacrament meeting improvement class could serve a need similar to the "teaching improvement coordinator" concept of yesteryear. Whatever the case, I'm sure smart people can think of something. Obviously this isn't a "new" idea, but about now I'm open to ANY ideas and approaches that might make our meetings more edifying, nourishing, vibrant, and worthwhile--as they should be.