Tuesday, October 20, 2009

General Conference Aftermath

Every year, twice a year, during General Conference, faithful Mormons gather to hear from the prophet and the LDS authorities. And this year was a doozy, especially for the denizens of Brigham City. I'll explain more about that shortly.

General Conference is an opportunity for outsiders like me to peer into the world of the Mormon culture. First of all, for the uninitiated, you should know that "General Conference" is a bi-annual event, held in April and October, in the enormous 21,000-seat LDS conference center, across from the Salt Lake City temple. For tens of thousands of Mormons, from across the country and around the world, this is somewhat like making The Hajj to Mecca. I'm not trying to be droll or disprespectful. It really is somewhat of a pilgrimage for many Latter-day Saints. Those faithful Mormons who aren't fortunate enough to attend the weekend-long conference in person can watch it on television (in areas with Mormon-run television stations) or beamed by satellite into LDS meeting houses around the world, simultaneously translated into countless different languages. It is a phenomenally well-0rganized, big production.

Non-Mormons like me often scratch our heads and wonder what on earth the big draw seems to be. It is, after all, a conference. That lasts all weekend. Aside from an occasional hymn expertly sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, there's little to break up the long litany of octogenarian speakers, most of whom are in the upper echelons of the Mormon hierarchy. They all speak with a peculiar rhythm and intonation, almost an iambic pentameter; it sounds like a poetry reading. It's a hypnotic cadence that is so characteristically Mormon.

General conference, at least to outsiders' ears, is 95% dull and 5% inflammatory. One of the more inflammatory talks was given by one of the leaders of one of the Women's societies. She spoke about what is needed for salvation. Here's a quote:
"Heavenly Father has not left us alone during our mortal probation. He has already given us all the 'safety equipment' we will need to successfully return to Him. He has given us personal prayer, the scriptures, living prophets, and the Holy Ghost to guide us. At times, using this equipment may seem cumbersome, awkward, and horribly unfashionable. Its proper use requires our diligence, obedience, and persistence. But I, for one, choose to use it. We must all choose to use it."
Does something seem to be missing here? This is the chief reason why I am completely perplexed at Mormonism's incessant claim of being "Christian." Setting aside for a moment the unbiblical doctrine of the pre-existence, which this quote alludes to, the only "safety equipment" needed in biblical Christianity is Jesus himself. That's it. That's the end-all, be-all of Christianity. That's the whole point of Christianity. And yet Jesus is not even hinted at in her list. (Just so you know, the "Holy Ghost" to which she refers is not an analog to the biblical Holy Spirit. But that's a topic for another day.)

This lack of Jesus, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, isn't unusual. In Mormonism, it seems you rarely hear the name of Jesus, except as a bit of rote punctuation when closing a prayer. In fact, on those occasions when a practical reference is made to the person of Jesus, more often than not, he's referred to in a distant, sanitary way as the Savior. And yet most Mormons bristle if you suggest that Mormonism is not Christian, and the first thing they usually say in response to that challenge is the fact that "Jesus Christ" is in the name of the church.

But putting "Jesus Christ" in the name doesn't make something Christian, any more than putting "Tide" on a bottle of laundry detergent gives it the gravitational pull of the Moon. Likewise in Mormonism, the name of Jesus seems to be used more like a brand name, and not an identifier of its true substance.

I should really stop here and make sure that you understand me: I mean no disrespect to Mormons. I have many Mormon friends and I love them dearly. But I do get upset that people I care about are being lied to by the organization to which they've pledged allegiance and which exerts such a huge influence over their lives. And it's not just lies, it's lies about eternal things. Things that really matter. This to me is inexcusable. And that in a nutshell is the reason why we have worked hard to address those untruths that have been propagated by the LDS Church. Okay, I'm running off topic just a bit.

The thing, however, that has Brigham City all atwitter, literally, was president Thomas Monson's announcement in his opening remarks that Brigham City was to be among five places in the world where a new temple has been designated for construction. I don't think anyone in Brigham City heard another word of the conference after that. Walking around town for the next couple days was like being surrounded by happy little puppies, all yipping and nipping and peeing on the carpet in mind-numbing excitement. "Where were you when you heard that Brigham City was getting a temple?!"

Another bit of explanation for the uninitiated. A temple in Mormonism is not really your typical meeting hall. Actually, it's not a meeting hall at all. It is a place where all the secret rites and rituals of Mormonism, including marriages, baptisms for the dead, and "endowments" are performed. It is the central focal point of the religion, the doorway by which eternal life is achieved. So naturally, not just anyone can get into the temple. In fact, not even just any Mormon can get into the temple, only those who have proven themselves worthy and submitted to a lengthy examination process to make sure that their lifestyle is in keeping with temple-worthiness. (Yes, that is a real word in the Mormon vernacular.)

Temple marriage is perhaps the crowning event in any Mormon's earthly life. If the temple is the doorway to eternal life, temple marriage is the key. (Originally, it was polygamous temple marriage that was seen as the key to eternal life, a belief that is still upheld by the Mormon fundamentalist groups.) So woe to Mormons who die unmarried, for they are usually destined for lesser glories in the hereafter.

In fact, if you visit cemeteries in the Mormon belt, you won't find crosses, but you will find images of temples inscribed on gravestones. You'll find date of birth, date of death, and date of temple marriage. That is their hope of eternal life.

Anyway...so that's what we're getting. A Temple, Right Here in Brigham City. And I don't really know how I feel about it. Don't get me wrong, there's no part of me that wants the proliferation of anything that holds people in bondage and distorts the amazing, freeing, good news of Jesus--the news that the fullness of eternal life is available to anyone who will receive it. Not simply to those precious few who have been found to be in compliance with a long and exhausting list of requirements.

But there are those who received the announcement of the Brigham City temple with utter horror, as if the Black Gates of Mordor have been opened and the hooded Ringwraiths, swords drawn, are riding through downtown Brigham on their sinister steeds with glowing red eyes. (Cue the Wagner music.) Now that would be a scene to witness while sipping your Grape Nehi and eating your reuben sandwich at the Idle Isle cafe on Main.

I would rather see the new temple as another opportunity to "speak the truth in love." There's a lot of "truth" being spoken (and sometimes yelled), but it's not always done in a loving manner. And for those of us who aren't naturally drawn to polemics, the temptation is to go soft on truth in order to seem more loving. Which is equally fatal, and not truly loving. Of course, even the most lovingly-wrapped truth can come across as hateful to those who will fiercely cling to a lie. That is always a huge challenge. Just how do you do that? How do you walk that balance?

Well, needless to say, for ministry-minded people in Brigham City, the next few years will be providing plenty of opportunities work on that. And as long as God has me here, I think he's called me into that fray. Please pray for me! Pray for all of us!

Monday, October 12, 2009


A couple weeks ago, I mentioned a concept that I was introduced to in Portugal called saudade (pronounced "saow-DAH-duh"). Of course, to be more authentic, you must say it with passionate angst, fists shaking defiantly in the air, tear-stained face raised to the sky, eyes closed. It forms the basis of fado music, characterized mostly by its mournful, minor-key, richly-ornamented style, typically sung by one person, accompanied by a classic guitar and a mandolin-like Portuguese guitar. It's something that's sung late at night in back-alley bars near the docks of Lisbon. This is not noisy snacks and beer music. This is music to be listened to with a tissue to dry your eyes, a piece of good crusty bread, and something old, dark, and red.

Saudade is often explained as an unrelenting, unfulfilled, and sometimes unidentifiable yearning...the agony of unrequited love, the mourning of a broken heart, the weary homesickness of a sailor far from home, that undefined longing we have for something better, something different, something other than what life is dishing out now.

So why all the brooding, you might ask? No, I'm not going through any particular crisis at the moment. I've just been listening to a CD of fado music I got in Portugal, and I like it, even though I don't understand much of it. The few places where Portuguese and Spanish intersect are on words like "heartbreak" and "tears" and "suffering" and "agony" and so forth. Cheerful stuff. But I think it's the music itself that breeds contemplation. It kind of scratches that universal itch we all have.

Saudade. I think it's an absolutely spectacular word, a must for the English lexicon. It reminds me of something I read in C.S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy. Lewis tells how as a child, he would sometimes experience these mysterious, elusive glimpses into something beautiful and other-worldly that were in sharp contrast to the dreariness of ordinary life, and provoked in him a sad longing that he had no idea how to fulfill.

I suspect that in one way or another, it's a universal human experience...grieving over that which is fundamentally broken and wrong about this world...and about our lives...and dreaming of something better.

I think one of the most compelling evidences for the reality of The Fall (that is, that there was an actual moment in time when corruption despoiled a perfect creation) is the fact that somewhere in the back of all of our minds, is the understanding that this is not how it should be. That things could have been better. Some distant human memory, embedded within the image of God in which He created us, knows this.

I think our culture often tries to naively pin hope on some kind of future Star-Trek Utopia, believing we'll evolve and finally get it right. Serious problems will be solved by our own ingenuity. Ha. Holodecks, replicators, and transporters (oh, my!). We'll cease our wars, eliminate poverty, stop crime, cure every illness, and all live free, healthy, productive, prosperous, happy lives. Sure, we can do that. Just look at our track record thus far.

That such hopeful concepts even exist is further evidence that deep down, we know that something is fatally wrong today, that something is horribly askew, regardless of what we believe the solution is.

And so we chase after those things that we think will quell our saudade. But saudade can never really be quelled; it can only be satisfied, and then only by the very object of its yearning. And most of us don't even know what that is, much less believe it's within our grasp. Even when the daydream comes true, when the sailor sails home to open arms, when the unrequited love is finally returned...the saudade still remains.

Blaise Pascal knew about it. He once wrote, "What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself."

I must say (at the possible risk of ruffling some feathers) that I've always disliked those schmaltzy, waltzy major-key hymns whose message is some variation of "When we all get to heaven, what a wonderful place it will be." And any hymn that contains the line, "And now I am happy all the time" needs to be summarily dismissed from any hymnal intended for use on planet Earth.

When I was younger, the idea of pinning all our hopes on heaven--even though I believed it was a reality--seemed like kind of a trite source of comfort for the here and now. But as the reality of mortality looms ever larger, looking beyond this life and toward the next seems less and less like a cop-out. I think part of that is an increasing recognition that the true--and only--object of our saudade is God himself...in whom we find the culmination of all of our longings, desires, and yearnings. What an inconceivable, cruel torture that knowledge would be, if there was no hope of fulfillment.

That is one of the things that most saddens me about the Mormon culture in which I live. Mormonism's view of the afterlife seems so hollow to me. It does not really take a longing to be with Jesus all that seriously. The idea of being with Jesus Christ in eternity does exist in Mormonism, but it is anything but central; it pales in comparison to the real Mormon eternal goal of achieving godhood, with your family at your side. That's what's behind the modern Mormon motto of "Families are Forever!"

Now, I'm worthless to fix a leaky faucet...do I really think I'd ever be qualified, much less would enjoy, being god of a whole bloody planet? But that's the Mormon goal. Being with the Lord, in the Mormon mindset, often seems like an afterthought, just a bit of gravy. But authentic Christianity recognizes that Jesus is not gravy; he is the entire banquet. And I find myself growing increasingly hungry.

But even so, we aren't filled. Not yet, anyway. Even if we know that our lives are placed in His hands, and we live with that certain hope of the "infinite abyss" finally being filled, we are still intimately familiar with saudade. Despite the glimpses we may experience today, we still slog forth in the broken world. Satisfaction is still yet to come.

Paul tells us we can rejoice in our saudade. The Psalmist promises that God will turn our saudade into dancing. So while we wait for the banquet, we'll put our saudade into song, remembering and celebrating that hope with dry bread and something old, dark, and red.

I think I can live with that. For a little while, anyway.