I have started a new blog, with (nearly) daily devotionals that are quicker to read and digest. A Voice from the Overflow. Several posts are up already, but I wanted to share today’s:
There was no escaping General Conference this year. My wife and I have been on a “TV Fast” for Lent, and I was jonesing so hard for moving pictures that I would have tuned in to 10 hours of listening to President Ballard read the phone book with his characteristic high-energy delivery. I usually miss one or two sessions (or 5) but I was a literally captive audience this time.
All of us take away different things from conference. As with the scriptures, it isn’t necessarily the words we are reading or hearing that carry the most important messages. Rather, to the degree that we are “tuned in” to the Spirit, there can be a revelatory process by which the important messages for us individually are whispered between the lines.
At other times, the Lord goes about things more bluntly, applying a ministerial two-by-four to the sides of our heads to make sure we don’t miss it. This conference, to me, felt like that. The big-picture message I took from the sessions as a whole was this:
It’s time to go all-in on the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.
To some degree many (most?) of us hedge our bets with respect to the Gospel. We stick around the Church committed to our favorite doctrines, but permitting ourselves doubts about Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, modern revelation, the temple, or any teaching that conflicts with our social, cultural, or political views. Most Sundays we feel pretty good about our testimonies, but if we see “If You Could Hie to Kolob” on the program the pews suddenly seem a little less comfortable.
The dangers associated with that approach to the Gospel are legion, but perhaps the most significant peril arises when our little areas of doubt become the big focus of our attention. We head to the internet and worry at tangential issues or sore spots like a loose tooth until finally something falls out from our testimonies and our commitment to Christ’s restored Gospel.
Based on what I heard this weekend, that approach doesn’t cut it with the Lord.
Belief is a choice, based on faith, understanding, and experience. At some point we choose to believe that the Church is true or it is not. If we choose to believe it is true, then the Lord expects us to push in all the chips, our watches, and maybe the pink slip to our car. We go all-in on the Gospel, not holding back enough to ante up again if it turns out that we are wrong.
We commit fully, not with the attitude of “Well, even if it isn’t true, what do I have to lose?”
Like Lamoni’s father, we give away all of our sins, not retaining our preferred peccadilloes, in exchange for new hearts.
We accept that individual disciples aren’t perfect, but we trust that Christ is, and that He is actually running things.
We see ourselves as His followers, not His counselors.
We don’t put a toe in the water, but instead jump in the deep end of the pool and start swimming, even if all we can manage is a feeble dog paddle.
This kind of unreserved commitment to the Gospel is something I would like to claim, but for the moment I can’t. Rather than harmonize with the Lord, I frequently try to impose my own melody, even though my voice will never qualify me for a celestial choir. But this weekend of General Conference has called me to repentance. I’ve been instructed to hear, hearken to, and heed the counsel of Christ, and not blur the message with my own murmuring.
I think we’ve been warned that in order to maintain a relationship with God, we have to be as committed to the relationship as He is. He has held nothing back, not even His glorious, sinless Son. We will be required to sacrifice as well. As Joseph Smith taught, “Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation.”
I’ve talked to a fair number of people in recent years who are troubled by incidents in Church history or “discoveries” of behavior by priesthood leaders that don’t seem…well…priesthoodly. (I gift to you this brand-new word of limited utility). It’s a reasonable thing to be concerned about, but it operates from a false assumption.
Some folks (including members of the Church) assume that since Latter-day Saints believe in prophets through whom the Lord reveals His will to man, that means that the General Authorities are therefore beyond reproach, otherwise they would be unfit receptacles for inspiration. When we learn that early Church leaders included some people who carried around weird ideas, had checkered pasts, or acted like scoundrels (it has happened), that disproves the veracity of their teachings, undermines their claim to priesthood authority, and pretty much settles the debate: The Church isn’t true. The same pattern of thinking happens when we encounter a current Priesthood leader that seems to be a nincompoop. If that hasn’t happened to you yet, then I would like to extend to you my warmest welcome, as you are likely a new convert. Give it time.
This morning during my personal scripture reading I was in Section 1 of the Doctrine & Covenants. (Such is the nature of my diligence in scripture study that I spend most of my time in Section 1, 1 Nephi, Genesis, or Matthew.) This revelation, which serves as a preface for the collection of revelations that follows, includes a discussion by the Lord of the men through whom such revelations were given.
It isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.
In verse 19, the Lord says that he has selected his leaders in order to fulfill prophecy, specifically that “The weak things of the world shall come forth and break down the mighty and strong ones, that man should not counsel his fellow man, neither trust in the arm of the flesh.” His first adjective for His chosen servants is “weak,” and he tells us why: He doesn’t want the Church to be a personality cult around Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, or Russell M. Nelson. Our fidelity is to Christ, and none other. So He chooses leaders who, at least occasionally, might not completely remind us of Christ.
He then tells us what to expect in the coming revelations, including a record of His servants’ errors (v. 25), their lack of wisdom (v.26), and their sins (v.27). The Lord isn’t warming up the crowd for some hero worship. He reserves words like “true” and “faithful” to describe the revelations themselves, not the men through whom they were given (v. 37).
There is considerable precedent for prophets with peccadilloes, or even worse. The only guy righteous enough to be called to save his family through the Flood is the same Noah who got falling-down drunk and passed out naked in his tent. Lot was a good enough dude for the Lord to try to get him out of Sodom before its destruction, but this is the same Lot who offered to let the men of the city rape his daughters rather than molest the messengers of God. That might not sit right with some readers. Nor with Lot’s daughters.
Moses kind of/sort of committed manslaughter, at best. The guy with the talking donkey was back and forth on his allegiance to the God of Israel. David in his later years seemed to make breaking each of the Ten Commandments his bucket list. Peter denied Christ and Paul persecuted Christians. And even when they were on the same side, the two of them fought like cats and dogs over significant doctrinal issues.
If you are looking for truly Christlike people in the scriptures, at the end of the day you are left with one: Jesus Christ. Leaning on anyone else is foolhardy and dangerous.
So when priesthood leaders disappoint, that’s really just evidence that the Lord is working with us in exactly the way He said He would. That doesn’t excuse misconduct, but it does remind us that miracles performed by flawed men are testaments to the power of the God that they worship. He transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary. It is the miracle of the water and the wine, played out infinitely.
Honestly, we are all hopeless screw-ups whom the Lord sometimes works through to do some pretty amazing stuff. The fact that the Lord can restore the Gospel through, and leave it in the hands of, the weak things of the earth should give us some comfort and confidence. Maybe He can make something of us, too.
Slayer of Dragons
Who is this Philistine
Whose sword and spear make Israel tremble?
Look narrowly upon him
He roars at me—
With fearsome voice and bellicose breath—
To flee the field of battle
He has forgotten his prior losses
He remembers neither my heritage nor his destiny
It is he that should quit the field
In my veins runs the blood of Adam. Michael
Archangel. Ancient of Days.
Slayer of Dragons.
In my spirit resides the DNA of divinity
My Father’s Son. Child of God.
Heir of deity.
I was raised from water a Son of Christ
Clothed in the armor of God
Bearer of His priesthood
In me the Dragon will find no fear or flight
Armed with the smooth Stone of Israel
Victory is assured.
We’ve been counseled that questions are good. That questions help us develop faith. That questions can even invite change where it is appropriate.
So I’ve got a question.
Why are missionaries discouraged from calling home?
It’s been a long time since I served my mission, but I remember being struck almost immediately about how the mission experience was different from what I perceived, what I expected, and what people talked about. I was always told that it was the “best two years” of a person’s life, and there were plenty of heart warming conversion stories to back up that claim. Trouble is, that wasn’t quite the mission I served. Once I hit the MTC, and for the next two years after that, I learned that missions are about uplifting experiences, but they also include disappointment, injuries and illnesses, unreasonable and sometimes uncharitable church members, companions that you loathe, and rules and expectations that made you scratch your head. They also sometimes involve danger. Very real, very frightening danger. Learned that one on the wrong end of a loaded .38.
The one rule that has been of particular interest, and sometimes irritation, for me, is that missionaries are not supposed to call home except for twice a year. I understand in general terms why that rule is in place: We want our missionaries focused on where they are and what they are doing, rather than pining about life before their missions or mooning over what they will do once they get home. Limiting calls home to twice a year certainly can help with that.
But then you hear these allegations about Joseph Bishop, former president of the Provo Missionary Training Center, and you have to wonder whether insulation merits some second thinking.
The story (and I don’t know if it is true, but it early indications are very concerning) is that a former sister missionary alleges that in 1984 she was sexually abused or assaulted by President Bishop at the MTC. The Church has released a statement indicating that at some point they learned of the allegations and turned the matter over to law enforcement when Bishop (who is called “Mr. Bishop” in the official statement, with more than a little implied disdain) denied doing anything wrong. (I’ll withhold any judgment on how the Church handled this…it was 1984, they same year that sexual harassment was recognized as unlawful. Everyone still had a lot of learning to do). I have no idea what the dynamics of the situation really were, but my first thought when I herd this is that I would have wanted to hear from my daughter immediately. But such a call would be a violation of mission rules and would have to have been approved by the mission president. Fat chance.
Then I reflected on some of the other odd things I have known about where things happened to missionaries that probably shouldn’t have waited for a weekly letter or email. A daughter of a good friend was discouraged by a mission president to let her family know she had broken her leg. They only found out when local members contacted them. My own daughter was required to travel alone during a transfer in a foreign country, including waiting for a ride that didn’t arrive on a dark corner in a sketchy neighborhood. It was quite some time before I found out about it, and resulted in several discussions with the mission president and the Area Authority to make sure it didn’t happen again. I’ve personally known missionaries who were encouraged not to report “bad news” back home and instead focus on the positive. Bad news makes people worry.
Again, I get the motive, but in practice it comes off a little weird. Missionaries don’t sign up to join a monastery, and parents often are concerned about the welfare of children serving in harm’s way. We essentially abdicate the parenting role (and, yes, there is a parenting role with your kids even after they turn 18) to a mission president and his wife with whom our only communication is often form letters at the beginning and end of our kids’ missions.
I suspect that some of my concern about open communication is alleviated by email. Don’t know about anyone else, but I made sure to schedule my week so that I was at the computer when my daughter was emailing home on her p-days. Those often turned into chat sessions by email that she and I both enjoyed immensely. That back-and-forth gave us a chance to communicate a little less formally and gave me more insight into what she was doing, the conditions she was serving under, and her dynamics with her companion, other missionaries, and her mission president. All of those things were helpful for me to know, and it gave me an opportunity to provide counsel on specific issues she was facing instead of generic encouragement to work hard, pray always, and wear clean socks. When she was struggling and I could provide a little help…those were the moments during her mission that meant a lot to me.
I also think that the nature of email makes it a little more likely that missionaries will be willing to reach out to their family if they need to. Especially if you have a tablet available to you, it is unlikely to feel like a significant rule violation. (And maybe it isn’t one…like I said, it has been a long time, and we were still rocking rotary phones when I served).
I’m not trying to be a naysayer, nor am I organizing my own version of “Ordain Women” in order to force the “telephone issue.” I just think that missionaries need to be able to get immediate counsel from their mom or dad more than twice a year. And, Heaven forbid, if they need help, they should be able to reach out for it without worrying about getting in trouble with their mission presidents. Of the challenges facing our missionaries, I imagine that open communication is pretty far down the list.
Now let’s talk about those haircuts…
Political agitator and perpetually grumpy guy Steven Bannon took a swipe at Mitt Romney a few days ago, accusing him of “hiding behind his religion” by serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than serving in Vietnam. It was one of the most openly hostile things said about Mormons in years, at least by a political figure. Whatever this reflects about Mr. Bannon’s religious bigotry, it speaks volumes about his ignorance concerning LDS missionaries.
Here’s how it goes, Mr. Bannon. The LDS Church teaches that, as a part of his priesthood covenant, every worthy and able young man should serve a two-year proselyting and service mission. Young women are also invited to serve. Many of our youth go on missions; others don’t. Some are able to serve their full missions; others come home early for medical, family or other reasons. For those of us who do or did serve, we believe that we are acting on a divine commandment to bring a message of hope, peace, and salvation to the world. We believe that, at that age, there is nothing more important for us to do.
Missionaries serve without pay, and at their own expense. Serving a mission doesn’t affect your future position in the Church (file that under “who cares,” since we have an unpaid ministry); doesn’t improve your financial position (just the opposite); disrupts your education; and delays your entry into the workforce. From a traditional “what’s in it for me” perspective, the answer is “not much.”
Indeed, many missionaries have to learn a new language, mostly on their own. You don’t get to date (even sailors get shore leave), you call your family twice a year, and you don’t engage in many other common activities for a teenager (like movies, television, or popular music). You spend most of your time being rejected by people, but soldiering on in the hopes that there is someone for whom you can make a difference.
Missions are often full of drudgery. You have to go to bed by a prescribed time and wake up early. You spend hours in scripture study and prayer. You walk until there are holes in your shoes, and then you walk some more. You are mocked and insulted. You sometimes find yourselves in dangerous circumstances, and, unfortunately, sometimes you never go home.
And sometimes you make a difference. There are days you rescue a soul, lift up a downtrodden spirit, or help someone in need. There are days that you help to instill or restore faith, reveal a path to someone who is lost, or spend some time raking leaves for a shut in. Every success says nothing about you. There are no medals, commendations, or accolades. If you do well, you are honorably released at the end of your service. And you move on with your life.
Missions are not in lieu of military service nor are they an escape from civic obligations. I served with missionaries who were in the armed forces before they served the Church, and I served with others who enlisted afterwards. That many people choose to do both demonstrates their outstanding character and their commitment to God and country.
I never enlisted in the armed forces. I don’t hide behind my religion to excuse that. I never wanted to serve in the military, and so I didn’t. As service isn’t compulsory, I chose to do other things. But I honor those who serve our nation and fight for our freedom because I am confident that such service requires sacrifices beyond my imagination. I don’t belittle them because their commitment was different from mine.
And I don’t expect to be belittled for my two years, either. I wasn’t a great missionary. I was barely an adequate one. But I served in order to fulfill a covenant that I believed I had made with my God—and to follow the example of my brother, who (by the way) honorably served in the U.S. Army following his mission. I did it because I felt that was what integrity required of me. I’m proud of that decision. I’m proud of all who have made that decision.
Not everyone gets it. Not everyone agrees with it. But I didn’t serve to be respected or agreed with. I did it because serving others, even in as poor a fashion as I sometimes did it, is the right thing to do. And I give the benefit of the doubt to all that have served that they acted for the same reasons.
Mr. Bannon would be better advised to pause before insulting those who have made a covenant that he clearly does not understand.
The latest article published by my friends over at Mormonhub.com
New article the good folks at Mormon Hub have published:
The folks over at Mormon Hub just put up a new article I wrote for them, reflecting on my “complicated” relationship with Scouting.