Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cast Away Your False Idols: Use Mine Instead

"So this Sunday I've been asked to teach Relief Society on one of my two least favorite talks from this past conference.....the Dallin Oaks talk entitled 'No Other Gods'."

This was the first e-mail I saw that day. It came from a friend who, as she would later explain, felt like her Relief Society presidency had chosen this talk for the basis of a lesson and asked her to teach this lesson specifically because of how my friend feels about gender issues and same sex marriage1. Her request was that I help her 1) reconcile how she feels politically with how she feels religiously with the things Church leaders say on the topics, and 2) organize a lesson around this talk that wouldn't leave her fuming and unedified after teaching it.

Challenge accepted!

(For the remainder of this post, I'll be addressing my friend. It's just easier to write the post this way)

One aspect of Elder Oaks' talk that was discomforting was that it didn't seem to have much to do with putting God first in our lives except in the context of marrying earlier, having more kids, and rejecting same sex relationships. I remember feeling the same way when I first heard the talk. When I heard it, I kind of rolled my eyes and thought, "oh here goes Elder Oaks again." And then I tuned him out.

Reading the talk again now, it seems less grating to me (though parts of it still make me roll my eyes). Having removed myself from the context of the current events at the time it was given, I am a little better able to see some of the principles outside of the application. This talk was given at the first General Conference after the US Supreme Court issued a decision that upheld the overturn of Prop 8 in California. It was also during the first protest by Ordain Women. Elder Oaks' talk took clear swings at each of those events. It also took up one of his hobby horses from past talks as he spoke against the societal trends of later marriage and fewer children.

So how do you make a lesson out of this kind of material? You don't. In fact, my advice is to ignore all these things in your lesson. They're too controversial and too emotionally charged to lead to any kind of productive conversation in a large group discussion (by large group, I mean larger than 4-5). So just don't do it. Go find some other talks on the same principle of false gods and work from those. You might find such resources here, here, and here.

There's the answer to one question. Now you can go write your lesson. Let me know how it goes.
The harder question is how to reconcile how you feel politically, religiously, and the things Church leaders say on these topics. It's a hard place to be in. One of the reasons I started writing this blog was that, during the height of the 2012 election season, I started to feel that the spaces at church and among the saints were no longer safe spaces for me, or for anyone who felt that US social policy shouldn't mirror LDS moral codes. It's a really scary feeling to walk into church -- a place that should feel safe, and a place where one should be able to open their heart to the Lord and their peers -- and feel fear of ostracism. Especially when you've employed the same processes of exploration and confirmation for your political beliefs as you have over religious truths.

Eventually, all this anxiety over-boiled, and so I started writing. I started speaking out 2.

What gave me the confidence to speak out was a combination of a few things.  An important epiphany I had was that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an organized implementation of eternal principles.  It is an entity that exists in a temporal world and has to deal with temporal issues.  The Church, therefore, lobbies for social policies that are consistent with its mission.  It can and should do that.  I recognize that legalized same sex marriage, and broader acceptance of homosexual couples as part of society, will make it harder for the Church to convert and retain members.  I get it.  The earthly organization has to get involved in politics sometimes.  That doesn't really bother me.

It bothers me more when leaders try to make it seem that spiritual worthiness is dependent on conformity to the political priorities of the temporal body of the Church.  And I feel like Elder Oaks was attempting to do exactly that.  It worked, too.  I had seen people on Facebook commenting prior to conference that they were changing their opinions on legalized same sex marriage because of discomfort with imposing their religious preferences on others.  Then after this talk, some of them reversed course because they felt that Elder Oaks had accused them of not living up to their covenants.  I'm convinced this was the outcome Elder Oaks wanted.

So how do I maintain my faith when I feel like Church leaders are manipulating the members into policy positions that aren't essential to living the Gospel?  With a lot of reading, I've come to the conclusion that even the highest leaders of the Church have opinions and biases that manifest in the way they interpret the Gospel.  Some of those interpretations I agree with, some of them I don't.  What's comforting to me is that, in some cases, not even all of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve agree with each other.

There have been deep disputes over matters of doctrine and policy in the history of the Church.  Hugh B. Brown and Ezra Taft Benson were worlds apart on the priesthood ban (Elder Brown wanting to rescind the ban in the fifties, and Elder Benson being a staunch opponent of Elder Brown's attempts to do so).  And even today, it seems that there is disagreement among the top leaders about how much members are expected to conform their political positions to the Church's.

Take for example, Elder Uchtdorf's talk from April of 2013.  It was praised by members of all sorts.  And one of the most inspiring messages he gave in that talk was "we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences...[and]...The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples."

If the Apostles don't agree with each other in every respect, how on earth am I supposed to agree and conform to every opinion and message given by every one of them?  Simply put, I can't.  But it's comforting to know that I don't have to.  I can disagree with them on some matters and still have absolute faith that the eternal principles they are trying to teach me are true and applicable to my life.

I feel like the notion that we have to obtain perfect alignment of our cultural and social beliefs with every statement the Church leaders make to be a false god in and of itself.  Let's try to keep some perspective3, 4.

1 So far as I know, she mostly shares my opinions on these matters.  If you feel like I haven't been clear enough on my stances in the past, I wholly accept the Church's teachings that marriage between man and woman was ordained of God and that sexual activity outside of such a marriage runs contrary to His will.  And I also wholly accept the Eleventh Article of Faith.  Which is part of why I believe same sex marriage should be legal.  If you want my opinions on gender issues in the Church, you can read up on those here.

2 And since I know someone will want to bring up that if I'm feeling anxiety, perhaps I should change my views. The problem with that idea is that I've never felt guilty for having my views. I've never felt anxiety over my views. I've only ever felt anxiety at the way other members treat me for having my views. That's a pretty substantial difference.

3If you're writing lengthy blog posts about how Disney's Frozen is indoctrinating children to the homosexual agenda, you may want to consider the possibility that you've adopted a false god

4Likewise, if you're repeatedly writing lengthy blog posts about how Mormon culture has it all wrong, you may want to consider the possibility that you've adopted a false god.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Now Is the Time to Repent ... But Not Necessarily of Everything

Those of you who think I'm a raving lunatic would have loved to see my Elders' quorum meeting this week.  We talked about faith and repentance and we discussed the following passage from the manual:

Repentance is a gift of God. … It is not so easy for some people to repent, but the gift of repentance and faith will be given to every man who will seek for it. (Teaching of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, p. 89)
 After reading this, I chose to speak about the difficulty of repenting; to acknowledge that it really isn't always an easy thing.  I made reference to a message from Elder Richard G. Scott to abuse victims in 2008 and used his comments to claim that we didn't have to repent of all of our sins right now.  If there was a sin we really struggled with, or one we just weren't prepared to give up yet, that was okay. We can work on other things until we are ready to repent.

The very next thing we read was "The time to repent is now."  Followed by "do not procrastinate
the day of your repentance until the end" (Alma 34:33).  If you think I need to be put in my place every now and again, you probably would have enjoyed that.

But I'm not yielding (I'm not that humble).  I still believe that it's okay not to repent right now.

Sort of.  To see why I claim this, we're going to have to look a little further than the sound bites.

The relevant portion from Elder Scott's talk is this:
As impossible as it may seem to you now, in time the healing you can receive from the Savior will allow you to truly forgive the abuser and even have feelings of sorrow for him or her. When you can forgive the offense, you will be relieved of the pain and heartache that Satan wants in your life by encouraging you to hate the abuser. As a result, you will enjoy greater peace. While an important part of healing, if the thought of forgiveness causes you yet more pain, set that step aside until you have more experience with the Savior’s healing power in your own life.
At the time I heard this, I was struck by both the challenge and the compassion in this one segment.  I have no doubt that forgiving one's abuser is a difficulty that I will never comprehend.  For some (perhaps for most) in may seem an impossible task.  And what is Elder Scott's advice if this is the case?  "set that step aside."

The Atonement has an infinite capacity to heal, but it doesn't heal all at once.  It doesn't haphazardly pick up the shards of a broken heart and tape them all together all rough at the seams.  Instead, it carefully gathers each piece and carefully, deliberately helps each piece and nurses the pieces to grow together, both minimizing the scars and restoring the original function.

Some pieces may not be ready to be grafted in yet.  Perhaps the heart isn't strong enough to mend in a certain part.  That's okay!  Mend in the pieces that the heart is strong enough to  mend.  Then, periodically, re-evaluate the heart and decide if it's strong enough to mend in that bigger piece.

When listening to Elder Scott speak I realized instantly that his advice didn't apply only to abuse survivors, but to all of us who struggle to repent.  We can piece together our repentance little by little.  There's no need to try to do it all at once (as nice as that would be).

Mostly, I think this principle applies: every time we rid ourselves of any one sin in our lives, we come closer to God.  Regardless of whatever other sins plague us.  It isn't like there is any one sin that is so grotesque that it prevents us from drawing nearer to God until it is resolved.  We can always draw nearer to God, in whatever little ways we choose.  The chasm that separates us from God is more like the sum total of our short comings than it is just the worst of our failings.

Having just put that last thought in writing, I realize that this notion is filled with both despair and hope.  This principle, if true, only widens the chasm between us and the Lord.  But I still think that is merciful.  Because it means that every little victory we accomplish--every small repentance--brings us a little bit closer to God.  And every time we get closer to God, we find more strength to vanquish the larger demons in our lives.

So if I were to put all of it into context, I would say this:

Now is the time to repent.....of something.  Anything.

Are you having trouble paying tithing?  Perhaps you can pay something less than 10%.  Sure, it won't satisfy the strict letter of the commandment, but it will bring you a little closer.  And perhaps a little closer is what you need to prepare yourself to go further.

Are you addicted to smoking/pornography/Facebook and can't find the strength to quit.  Fine.  Maybe you can focus on reading your scriptures, or controlling your temper, or paying more attention to those around you.  And by bringing yourself a little bit closer, you might find strength to kick your habit.

Do you find yourself frequently having unkind feelings toward your fellow saints and church leaders?  (hmmm...who does that sound like, I wonder).  And is your heart too callous to give them the benefit of the doubt, and try to help instead of quietly criticize?  (really, I know this reminds me of someone)  Try softening your  heart through other means first.

The key to this is to re-evaluate periodically.  When I say it's okay to delay your repentance of some sin for now, that grace has a shelf life.  And that grace expires if you neither reevaluate your preparedness to change nor strive to repent of something else in the meantime.  I can't think of anything worse than spoiled, rotting, unused grace.

So just do something.  And feel a little better.  And a little better. Before you know it, you'll feel a lot better.