Monday, December 15, 2014

On Being Seasick While Staying In The Boat

Based on a recent stake conference talk by a visiting area authority and subsequent comments I've overheard, Elder Ballard's General Conference message to "stay in the boat" seems to have become quite the catchphrase. Elder Ballard includes the solid admonition to "keep our focus on the Lord," but the title "Stay in the Boat and Hold On!" ensures this will be what's most remembered.

Keeping with the water metaphor, Brigham Young is then quoted as likening the Church to a ship carrying passengers across the ocean--"the Old Ship Zion". Elder Ballard then asks the following: "Given the challenges we all face today, how do we stay on the Old Ship Zion?" For the vast majority of church members, staying in the boat is a lovely experience and the question of how to stay isn't much of a concern. But there is a significant group of passengers experiencing seasickness for whom this question of how to stay is a lot more poignant (maybe even painful) than Elder Ballard probably imagined.

The honest truth is that for seasick Mormons, "stay[ing] in the boat" is often made more difficult from fellow passengers within the ship--sometimes even from the crew. Desiring more diversity and living authentically with nuanced views can lead to frustrating encounters and even judgement from church family and friends who are generally satisfied with the way things are. If one is not content with the status quo, many assume something is wrong with the one. At times it feels as though the one must develop superhuman love and patience to continue in the boat healthily, or at least to avoid hitting someone over the head with an oar. When seasick, it's natural to question if we'd be better off not being in the boat, or at least to question why staying in has to be so hard.

To those who are already hurting or seasick, the exhortation to "stay in the boat" isn't likely to be the most helpful message. The weather and conditions outside the boat often look quite lovely in comparison to the conditions endured onboard. A rare but unfortunate reality is that some prideful passengers attempt to throw others overboard whom they have judged to be unfit for the "Old Ship Zion". I use the word prideful deliberately because there's a certain degree of pride among passengers who take it upon themselves to pharisaically remind others of the ships rules and culture and care more about the boat itself than the condition of the passengers in the boat.

In her book What a Friend We Have in Jesus, Chieko N. Okazaki (former counselor in the Relief Society General Presidency) wrote:
There is in an older edition of our LDS hymnal a warning to those who assume ‘all is well in Zion.’ It is a hymn we don’t sing anymore, but perhaps we should. It is entitled ‘Think Not When You Gather to Zion,’ and it reads in part: 
Think not when you gather to Zion,
That all will be holy and pure;
That fraud and deception are banished,
And confidence wholly secure.
No, no, for the Lord our Redeemer
Has said that the tares with the wheat
Must grow ‘til the great day of burning
Shall render the harvest complete. 
...Ed and I understood why it was hard for people to look past our skin color and slanted eyes to our smiles and our hearts. We heard many hurtful things. We had to deal with the fact that we couldn’t get car insurance or buy a home and that even at church, people hesitated to approach us. Ed and I said many times to each other, ‘If we were going to lose our testimonies, it would be right here in the heart of Zion.’  
...And that’s perhaps why we loved this hymn, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ and heard its echoes every time we sang ‘Israel, Israel, God Is Calling’ [the two have the same tune]. 
What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In His arms He’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.
The point is that just being on the "Old Ship Zion" doesn't guarantee all is well in Zion. And if all we do is constantly reassure ourselves of how wonderful and "true" the ship is, we too easily become complacent and forget that we each have a responsibility to make things better in Zion. Perhaps we'll even forget our covenant to mourn with those who mourn and comfort seasick passengers needing comfort. We all would do well to become better acquainted with Jesus, the Master Healer, or as Elder Ballard put it, to "keep our focus on the Lord."

When we start focussing on other things, I start getting seasick. In my Mormon experience, too often the focus has been on the Lord's church, even more than on the Lord. It seems to have become commonplace at church to speak of the church as though the church were the actual "good news". The gospel is the "good news." Church and gospel are not synonyms. We gather together because of the gospel--not for the sake of the gathering itself. If the gathering is only focused on itself, it's missing the life-giving gospel that brought us there in the first place.

When month after month after month people continue to speak and testify of "the church" as though it were the actual "gospel", you know we have a problem with our focus. Overemphasizing the church while at church (more than the actual gospel of Jesus Christ) is like being mesmerized so much by bathwater that people forget there's an actual baby in the bath. Even worse, if we keep our sights solely on the condition of the boat, we all run the risk of loosing sight of the One who calms the waves and walks on water.

Elder Ballard likens church leaders to "experienced guides" of a river rafting trip, no doubt intended to instill confidence. This would be benign enough if only Mormon culture didn't presently have a such a problem with hero worship and turning our prophet-leaders into idols. I wish I could minimize the degree of this crisis, but too often the grass-roots take-away message is that listening to the guides is naturally the same thing as listening to the One who created the water--or in other words, that trusting in ecclesiastical leaders is the same thing as trusting in God. This is idolatry, and it too makes me seasick.

Joseph Smith once said the people were depending too much on the prophet and "hence were darkened in their minds". Notwithstanding, before long emphasis/focus began to be placed on following the mortal church leaders even more than on following the perfect Savior. Maybe there's a healthy and mindful balance, but I'm pretty sure we're out of balance when it's assumed that by following certain mortals in certain church callings we're automatically following Christ. Autopilot substitution of the former for the latter creates an idol, and some Latter-day Saints turn our prophets into idols without even realizing it. Is it any wonder some of us are getting nauseous? The scriptures warn about trusting in "the arm of the flesh," yet how many equate "trusting LDS priesthood authority" with "trusting God?"

I can trust that God is perfect, but my trust in prophets is different. I can trust the prophet to have inspiration when acting as a prophet, and I can trust that prophets are doing the best they can in their unique stewardship and have our best interests at heart. But I'm not trusting them to be infallible. The pseudo-doctrine that prophets "can't lead us astray" exists in tension with their expressed fallibility and leads some to mistakenly believe that prophets are perfect in the administration of the things of God. I get seasick when we oversell expectations for prophets, even to the point that some Mormons forget that it's not the (false) fourteen fundamentals of following the prophet that constitute the fundamental principles of our religion, but rather the atonement of Christ

This isn't to say that I don't respect the crew. They have a unique job and it's not an easy one. I love and sustain them. But I'm not on board because of the crew. Moreover, if the fundamental principle of our religion is the atonement of Jesus Christ, then it's definitely not fundamental that I agree with or even like everything coming from the crew, regardless of how many times I'm told they won't lead the boat "astray". It puzzles me how often that word is used, and yet I'm not convinced we're all on the same page as to what "astray" is even supposed to mean. Some assume this is a "promise" that the ship will never be guided wrong, and some assume it was the Lord who made such a "promise" in the first place. It's clear that we need to work through some tensions that inevitably come from living with fallibility.

My understanding is that the Lord chooses human beings to steer the ship, leaving to them their personality, humanity, talents, and weaknesses (see both D&C 1:24 and D&C 124:1.) The Lord has set the destination but gives the keys of the ship to mortals and grants them their agency to steer the ship to the best of their ability and with the faith that we'll reach our ultimate destination. I believe we should support the crew as best we can--after all we're all in the same boat, and no one wants it to fail. But everyone--prophets included--works out their own personal itineraries with a unique blend of perspiration and inspiration, and sometimes mistakes are made--undeniably even big mistakes (such as denying access to the temple and the priesthood because of race.)

As President Uchtdorf put it: "I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings...but He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes." Why, then, do so many Mormons (including leaders) seem to want us to ignore that the ship is imperfect? Why insist our "guides" will never cause us any "sad experience", despite what D&C 121:39 says?

I don't expect infallibility from the crew anymore than I expect infallibility from the Old Ship Zion. Once upon a time there were some authorities who wanted their passengers to take comfort in the "fact" that the Titanic was "unsinkable." Knowing from sad experience how history played out--that it too proved to be fallible--prevents me from taking much comfort in even the most well-intended assurances from our authorities.

I personally don't need a perfect boat to stay afloat, so I'm not expecting a perfect boat ride. I know I'm not perfect so I don't expect perfection from anyone else. Maybe it's true that God will not let this particular ship crash into an iceberg and go completely under--maybe he would replace the captain before that happened. But based on past travel history, it's apparent to me that "not being led astray" does NOT mean the guides can't take confusing detours or chart a longer than necessary route that delays our progress. Perhaps the guides will attempt to navigate a particular wave that makes me want to throw up. The ship may spend more time in shallow waters than I'd personally prefer, or get uncomfortably close to the cliffs. I may yet feel like strapping on a life-preserver and heading for the lifeboats. The ship's destination may very well be guaranteed, but there's no guarantee that I will always enjoy the ride.


Mike C said...

Lovely post. Thanks.

Clean Cut said...

Thanks, Mike. That means a lot coming from you.

Clean Cut said...

I should add that I think a better analogy is one in which we all are in our own kayak. Experienced guides might initially point out the way but eventually we all need to do our own paddling

Unknown said...

I think members of the church would be shocked, my household included (on which I've been overruled on this decision), when I suggest that hanging photos of prophets about their homes is a form of idolatry. Hang a photo of yourself or your family next to the temple and realize they are the same things.

They are also shocked when I reveal to them prophets and apostles receive revelation just like us.

You pointed out Elder Uchdorf's admittance of infallibility. It's basically the age old the gospel is perfect, but the church is run by men...sort of thing. Members use this as an apologetic excuse all of the time. They just don't or won't include prophets and apostles amongst those men. It really is amazing.

Nice post.

Lon Young said...

Outstanding post, Clean Cut. Captures a feeling common among many of us and would go a long way towards helping the captains and fellow passengers understand this. Isn't it interesting how some of these platitudes (like stay in the boat) stick, and then, instead of becoming shorthand for a nuanced idea, they become a convenient substitute for coming to understand something much more complex. It can feel quite patronizing to hear bumper sticker "solutions" from ward members or occasional leaders who aren't the least interested in understanding the problems. I'm sure I'm also guilty of this. Your post will help!

Anonymous said...

We pay homage to the theory of personal revelation, but in practicality we turn over our trust to the arm of the flesh. The doctrine of prophets has replaced the doctrine of Christ. Read 2 Nephi 31, 3 Nephi 11, or 3 Nephi 27. Where in "the only and true doctrine" of the Father and the Son do you hear about trusting in prophets? Not once. It is all about the Holy Ghost leading us to Christ.

Here is the doctrine most members of the church believe:

“President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel – said the Lord had declared by the Prophet [Ezekiel], that the people should each stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish Church – that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls – applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall– that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves...”
(TPJS, pg. 237-238)

I believe in the divinely-sanctioned role of prophets and I love the brethren, but I see that we are simply repeating the mistakes of the past by failing to believe that we can connect with heaven on our own.

NOBODY comes between you and the Lord. That is the beauty of the story of a 14-year-old boy who asked of the Lord in faith and entered into His presence to receive truth for himself.

Unknown said...

Hi Spencer! Patrina Garza here. I really enjoyed Elder Christofferson's talk from this past October conference about the power of our agency, both to the men we sustain as prophets, and to those of us who are average "everyday" members. I have always had a difficult time with the focus put on 'the brethren' instead of Christ.

While I revere and respect the brethren (and sister leaders), and the offices to which they have been called (and humbly chose to accept, neither being elected nor campaigning as a candidate), I feel very strongly about focusing on Christ. This is not Moses's church or the Church of Thomas S. Monson or the Church of any of the other Leaders (read servant-leaders), it is Christ's church. Personally I have had to defend myself to a close nonmember friend who tried to convict me of worshiping Joseph Smith. Personally I was pretty upset by that presumption.

Just as much as I was upset by this friend's accusation, I could see how my former Islamic coworkers would be upset if I accused them of worshiping Mohammed, or if I accused my Catholic family members of worshiping 'Holy Father' Pope Francis, or any other religious group for worshiping or idolizing their leaders/servants/founders of their particular group.

It is such a fine line we walk as peculiar members of the LDS Church. I always emphasize to friends and coworkers of mine who do not share my faith that my faith is in Christ, not in any imperfect man or woman called to lead the LDS Church or any church (or group of people). A scripture I have found recently that sums up my feelings well (ironically it is quoting an Old Testament time prophet Zenos) Alma 33: 8-11:

8 Yea, thou art merciful unto thy children when they cry unto thee, to be heard of thee and not of men, and thou wilt hear them.

9 Yea, O God, thou hast been merciful unto me, and heard my cries in the midst of thy congregations.

10 Yea, and thou hast also heard me when I have been cast out and have been despised by mine enemies; yea, thou didst hear my cries, and wast angry with mine enemies, and thou didst visit them in thine anger with speedy destruction.

11 And thou didst hear me because of mine afflictions and my sincerity; and it is because of thy Son that thou hast been thus merciful unto me, therefore I will cry unto thee in all mine afflictions, for in thee is my joy; for thou hast turned thy judgments away from me, because of thy Son.

The phrase "because of thy Son" just sums up perfectly. Everything about this life is because of the Son.

Laura said...

I have a FB friend who posts every day about his interpretations of gospel matters, either scriptural or based on GA talks. Often his posts will show up right next to posts from far less "correlated" Mormons. The juxtaposition is very interesting.

Today, it occurred to me that almost everything he says is about believing in the church: not believing what it says, but believing in its veracity. And I thought, this is really a church obsessed with proving itself. The purpose of the religion is pushed aside as we perseverate about its accuracy, supremacy, and infallibility.

That's why some talks, like Elder Uchtdorf's, are such a breath of fresh air. They are about the actual beliefs, not how we should feel about the beliefs. It's like the difference between reading the review of a novel and reading the novel itself. I am happy to learn about its author and context initially, but I am hardly going to spend my time reading reviews again and again. Let's get on with the story!