Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Why the Church will Move to Missouri

Technology has changed the way we live. I can sit at home and access information from around the world. For years I’ve been able to see world news on TV. Now I can read the news and watch videos, send notes and talk to people across the globe and even read books while never leaving my sofa. Distance is no longer a barrier to communication. Even residents of the remotest islands can communicate with the world for a few dollars a minute. The church can communicate worldwide via e-mail and phone calls with only a few moments delay. They can fly leaders to formerly remote lands or bring local leaders to Utah in a matter of hours and for a few thousand dollars. Location-wise it appears that there is no need for the church to move, as one place on the globe is so much like another.

But there is of course a very good reason why the global church should move—it needs to get away from the Mormons. Those following the gospel of Christ and those living the Mormon culture have begun to travel two distinct paths and the church cannot let the culture slow it down.

Something has gone wrong

Let's look at local politics here in Utah. I had a neighbor who was taught by her father that if she would always vote Republican she would never go against “The Brethren.” That sums up the local perception that the church is aligned with the Republican Party. For years some people outside the church have complained that the church controls the Republican Party. That is simply not true. My observation is that in some circles it is the Republican Party that controls the church. Utah Republicans have become so isolated from active political discussion and debate that they have lost the ability to judge their positions in relation to common sense and, more significantly, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Consider what happened with Salt Lake decided to pass a rule that would allow same sex couples to have benefits. Did the church oppose that? No. The church supported it. Did the Republican legislature follow the example of the church? No. The legislature didn't know what to do. They were so far down a religious path of their own invention that they could not longer understand the right thing to do when the question was placed in front of them.

What is the religion of the Republicans? It is, of course, money. A few days ago I read an essay in an online publication that purported to address Mormon issues. It didn't take long to see that by Mormon they meant cultural Mormon, not members of the church who follow Christ. The author of the article professed to be “a capitalist and a Christian.” I assume this was not satire. His goal was to understand the intersection between these two facets of his life. I have no doubt this author was sincere, but he was also clueless. This very question is clearly spelled out in the scriptures. One cannot serve God and mammon. There is not intersection between the two paths. You are on one or you are on the other. Two thousand years of history and an MBA do not change the nature of this human dilemma. If this brother really believes he can understand his life and serve Christ through capitalism he has his agency. If he wishes to share his rationalization and the editor wishes to promote his views they are welcome. But they should know they are leading people astray and righteous people should have the courage to call them out for abandoning the gospel.

The belief that money is moral has become so widely pervasive in Mormon culture that we as a society have no idea what true morals are. Right has become wrong and wrong has become right. Those were my thoughts as I listened to the radio one morning. The state legislature had just passed a bill that could take away health care from poor sick children. Jesus said, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." Utah said, "Let the children suffer. Someone else can take care of them." It sounds petty, but as I listened to a woman talk about the moral choice of saving a little money, the moral value of a possible small reduction in her taxes that would make her free I was touched by the joy in her voice. Joy, pure happiness, rapture brought on by what she saw as the moral goodness of the legislature's actions. It was a cold heartless chill that made my soul ache. Utah cared more about a few cents a year in taxes than children in pain. Utah thought the possibility of saving a few cents, which the typical taxpayer would probably never actually see, was the moral choice over providing a few minutes with a doctor that would change the entire lives of hundreds of children. It was wrong. There is no gray area in judging the good and evil of this. In my world people voting to share a few dollars to change the lives of children is good. In their world making a show of saving a few dollars is righteousness. Let someone else help the children.

Good has become evil and evil has become good.

Greed is bad. We sit and watch as our governor helps a mining company get approval to mine on the same day that company gives him thousands of dollars. His staff tells us it's not a bribe and it appears that our community believes it! And why not? Perhaps we respect him for it. He lives larger than most of us so his ethics should compensate for the situation. I've watched people I had always looked upon as moral leaders cheat the system for pennies and congratulate themselves for being savvy. People work around the tax system to save a few dollars on their home or they ask for a water cup at a restaurant and fill it with soda. Our ancestors learned to be frugal out of necessity. Our generation is just cheap. And cheap has become a virtue we prize above honesty. We all know the phrase "Save money, live better." That is a tag line for a big store; they are not the words of Christ.

For a long time I did not understand how I could belong to the same church as these people.

Maybe I don't.

We've been raised to read the scriptures each day. It’s a habit that was instilled in me from when I was a child. Today I know people who spend hours a day listening to the scriptures as they work. For a while I shared a workroom with two men who listened to different things as they worked. One man listened to the scriptures each day. He was smart and kind and gentle. After a few months I watched as he changed the direction he was going in life and began looking into a career where he could help children. Another man at work spent just as much time with his headphones on, but he was listening to talk radio wags. He was smart, but he was controlling and narrow-minded. I don't know what happened to him but I've met a lot of people like him recently. There are so many people in our community who listen to this radio personality or that one and then watch another one on cable TV that they think the craziness these people spew is normal. Hour after hour, day after day, into weeks and years our neighbors have handed over the hours that make up their lives to people who have no interest in helping their fellow man. Their only interest is hooking enough ears and catching enough eyeballs to make their sponsors happy. And what about these people who follow them? They are angry about things that aren’t true. They worry about problems they don't have. They say things that no decent person should say. And because there are so many of them in our community people accept it as normal.

Consider sitting in Sunday school where we learn how the good people in the Book of Mormon took in and protected their threatened neighbors. They gave land to their neighbors and defended them from their enemies. Their neighbors would die before they would offend God. They were different, and they were good. In that same classroom a few days later someone will offer their small-minded rant on the dangers of illegal aliens in America. Illegal to whom? They are not illegal to God. They are only illegal because one group of people have labeled them as such. The message from the Lord is drowned out by the message of people who are paid to anger. I was never baptized a member of the Church of Sean Hannity and the Limbaugh-day Saints but some days it's hard to tell. We as a people should take a few moments to quietly ponder the wisdom in the words of King Benjamin. Instead we spend hours listening to the kookiness of Glen Beck. I don't think our brothers and sisters are any better off following these people that they would be following any other worldly ills—tainted sports, beer & booze, drugs, and pornography. Let's add useless anger and hate to that list. Hating immigrants or liberals or gays is a great way for Satan to crowd the love and charity out of our hearts. You can sit at home and get worked up. You can talk to like-minded friends who will reinforce your adopted views, and you can point to popular people across the country who share and promote these "values." But you won't be doing God's work. To paraphrase an old saying: for evil to succeed all it needs is for good people to grow hateful.

I know there are many arguments for hate but they are all wrong. Racism is not righteous indignation. Gay hating is not loving your neighbor. Being “liberal in your giving” is not a communist plot; it is a commandment from a prophet. Why don't we understand that there is no more a righteous political party than there is a righteous car company? The Lord doesn't ask us to be Republicans or Democrats any more than he asks us to drive Fords or Chevrolets. People who say otherwise are liars. When the church authorities tell us that they do not support any specific party and we nod and wink to one another that we understand what they really mean, we are following the liars not the Lord.

Try this: those who market politics have told us that we have to choose the left or the right. It is us against them. Well, that isn't the case. Politics is not a spectrum; it is not a line where we stand in a row judging our neighbors by how distant they are to the right of left of us. Imagine that politics is a ball. Either you have your life in balance or you are falling off one way or another. It doesn’t matter if you fall to the left or the right or the front or the back, you end up at the bottom with everyone else that has fallen off. Look at the news today. No one can tell the liberal crazies from the conservative crazies. People on the far right are buying books written by the people on the far left. They don't know what they believe. They are just angry and they hate the government, but if you believe in democracy, the government is us. That's right, we have become a nation that hates itself, but won't admit that we have any flaws. We can't move forward like that. It won't work for our nation, it won't work for our neighborhoods, it won't work for our church.

The Church of Christ is not the same as Mormon Culture

Mormon culture at church is also holding the church back. Martin Luther nailed his list to a church door when the Catholic Church needed to change. Hopefully our church can move on with less damage to the architecture. Mormon culture needs to shed its baggage. We truly have a beam in our eye when it comes to loving our neighbors. I shudder inside when I hear sisters explain that the shoes they've worn to church are not flip flops because they have two millimeters of heal. Who cares? Why are we worried about whether someone has a wafer of a heal on her shoe or not? Are they happy? Are they sick? Does their family have an income? Are their children lonely or hungry? Is their heart broken? I don't know, but they aren't wearing flip-flops and that's what counts.

The brethren with their white shirts are no better. When we see a man at church that we know abuses substances and cheats on his wife it is fine. Maybe he is trying to improve his soul, and as long as he wears a white shirt he will be accepted. Unlike a brother who is honest, kind and caring but wears a shirt with stripes or even a t-shirt. He is suspect and probably shouldn't pass the sacrament, say a prayer, or give a talk. Something has gone wrong.

Many religions have a defining fashion moment that establishes what righteous people wear. For Greek and Catholic monks that day was in the middle ages. For fundamentalists in the west it appears that the 1930's set the trend. And for some reason Mormon culture picked the mid-twentieth century corporate attire as the divine garb. I suppose that makes sense. We assume our grandfathers were righteous men and they wore dark suits and white shirts so we must conform. The truth, I suspect, is that the adoption of the white shirt as the uniform of the priesthood coincides with the transformation of the church structure from a religious brotherhood into a corporation. As the church worked its way out of the poverty of the early 20th century it promoted the values of business. By absorbing so many business people into church leadership the religious culture was blended with business culture. In a time when the divine law of consecration was easily confused by outsiders with communism the church culture was also quick to embrace capitalism. We are now paying for that rationalization.

Two thousand years ago Jesus walked the hills and shores of the holy land and invited his followers to be shepherds and to become fishers of men. I imagine today he would walk the halls of convention centers and hotel ballrooms to invite his followers to become multi-level marketers of men. The scripture about the joy of bringing one soul vs. the joy of bringing many souls unto Christ really makes me want to build my downline. Spiritually speaking of course.

My concern about business and the gospel is not a joke. During Sunday services I often look around at the dour faced leaders in their drab suits. My eye circles the audience looking for light but it finds only tired, worn, and resigned expressions. Our meetings are meetings of form not substance, reiterations of policy, not celebrations of good news. Our talks and sermons are well patterned and acceptable, but there is no sign of happiness. I hear church leaders order us to do better, but better often translate into a need for a better number for their reports, not finding and filling the needs of our neighbors.

I find myself thinking I don't want an eternity in a heaven without flip-flops and where men wearing white shirts count up their numbers as a form a praise and worship and conform to pointless fads. My secret wish is to go to a hell with writers and artists and fallen but kind-hearted people (you know, they kind of women who wear flip-flops and men who wear t-shirts because that is all they can afford). How bad would eternity be if we were surrounded by people who lived the best lives they could and who would not be defeated in their desire to do good despite the obstacles our society put in front of them? People who somehow faced the ugly trials of the world and kept a little joy in their hearts? I compare that to the people we hold up as social and political leaders. I look at them and wonder if I really want to meet God. I don't know God, but I've met his kids and some of them—including many who claim to represent him—are jerks.

Why do I feel that the canned lessons in our manuals and the businesslike form of our local leaders are not going to bring me to Christ? Those dour-faced leaders are just the first line in rank after rank of dour-faced leaders who bring us program after program, write manual after manual, and give talk after talk in and endless succession while I think of a kind-hearted woman who cares for her adult sibling week after week. And after years of dealing with another woman who is a friend of hers, I discover that she takes take time to help the sister who cares for her sibling when she sees a need. These women are not related. She is not her visiting teacher. There has been no assignment, no program; neither committee nor council met to create a sign up chart to be filled out to show that they cared. I don't even know if all these women are members of the church, but they, not the dour-faced men, are the people who taught me what it means to be Christ like.

Royalty or Aristocrats?

The modern church with its success has raised this concern: by working to be a world leader have we encouraged people to be worldly leaders? Is business success considered spiritual success? I know it's not. Utah is still a small community in many ways, and I've met too many people who have crossed paths with worldly successful Mormons who do not behave in a manor that is in any way more appropriate than other wealthy people who lack the gospel. By becoming a global church and not a Utah church the foibles of Utah Mormons may be less of a distraction to those seeking to do good.

Along the lines of worldly Mormon leaders are those who consider themselves Mormon royalty. How strange that a god who loves all his children would pick a few to love more. Of course he doesn't, but that doesn't stop people from using their church calling or their family history as a prop to set themselves above others. It is not unusual to meet people who, after long days of contemplation and prayer, have joined the church. Their actions lead to the sacrifice of relations with family, friends, and employers. These people appear to be among the chosen for their sincerity and devotion in following in the footsteps of Christ. They are often an example to members who were born into church families. Then these people cross paths with "Mormon royalty" and they cannot reconcile the love the Lord has shown them with the disdain in which they are held by people who appear, through earthly social conventions, to be examples of the church in action. Long time church members and residents of the Wasatch front know from experience that anyone who boasts of their church connections is an ass and a liability to righteous living, but new members often lack the understanding that even people who are born in the church need to be born again. It appears that some families go generations without understanding this fact. These people are not royalty in the divine sense that they will take the lead in serving the downtrodden. They are the royalty like the gadflies surrounding a decaying court. They are too proud to serve and to prominent to discard. They are the baggage that we must carry as a legacy and tribute to their ancestor who served well in a time of crises. The burden of these "aristocrats" can be reduced as the church's history expands beyond the pioneer tales and the leadership pool grows deeper than the east bench of Salt Lake City currently allows.

As the church moves away from the small enclave of Mormon culture it can move away from the traditions, customs and attitudes that local members have allowed to cloud their view of the gospel.

Why do I think the church will move? Because in a way it already has. When I travel I see congregations with a different feel. When I talk with visitors to Utah I hear their happiness at being around so many members and then as time goes on I see them yearn for the active church in their home ward. I see that the church has two branches. The old traditional branch that has deep roots but there is little growth left in it and much that should be pruned. And I see the new branch that is grafted onto the roots. This branch, the living church, is growing rapidly and holds the future. In time this branch will need more root than the old church can supply. The new branch deserves fresh soil where it can be tended. In the end it may grow to provide the shade and shelter the old church needs to survive the buffeting the world will bring.

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