A Question to my Pitiless Friend

Evolution, my pitiless, pragmatic friend, I have a question.

They say you favor the strong and most able. Beauty you permit only if it gains you something. The fleeting Flower is acceptable because it attracts the Bee. The bright color of the Monarch would be objectionable but for its utility in deterring the Predator. Never deviating from your course, you dispassionately consume the weak and spare the fit, fecund, and resilient.

I don’t take this personally. Your dominion is impressive. It reaches the ends of the earth and the depths of the sea. Surely you could not retain all of this under your control without a Law, and steadfast obedience to it.

To my question, though. The Tree is surely under your dominion and yet it seems to defy your Law. As the sunset leaves the heart glad at the onset of night, as the rainbow heralds the return of Light after the oppressive gray of the storm, the Tree transform its leaf into a beautiful rainbow before casting it upon the ground at the end of Summer. It’s as if, in imitation of the Sun, it wishes to cheer my heart before the onset of Winter.

They say there is only one Law in Nature and that is survival and perpetuation. Anything else, if it does not contribute to these, is superfluous, trivial, and should be discarded. So, why does the Tree transform its Autumn leaf into a rainbow just before casting it to the ground? Why go to the trouble when it appears to confer no advantage upon its own survival or the survival of its kind?

If I did not know better, I would think this an act of civil disobedience. Subtle, but pointed, it would suggest the Tree’s loyalty actually lies elsewhere, somewhere outside, even above your realm. The Tree, in this merciful, altruistic act, seems to obey another law altogether. One that gives without thought of reward or benefit for self. Like the light of the Sun, with its array of resplendent effects, the Tree makes its own meager offering, as if to declare it does not belong to you at all, but to the same Light that lights the whole earth.

Autumnal Park. Autumn Trees and Leaves. Fall

Attribution for the picture: https://www.lifeinminnesota.com/20-best-places-to-see-fall-colors-in-minnesota

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02. Jehovah’s Witnesses

As I walk back out to my car, there’s still almost an hour before the Jehovah’s Witness meeting begins. The service at Covenant Presbyterian Church, which started at 10:30 AM, lasted about an hour and a half. While satisfied at having just attended my first non-LDS church service in over 20 years, I can’t help wondering if I should be heading home now to spend time with my family. After a quick text home to my wife to see how things are going, the kid report comes back as “grumpy” but manageable, since they probably just need lunch. With that, I decide to stick to the original plan and head over to the Kingdom Hall on the other side of town.

In rather striking contrast to how I felt just before arriving at Covenant Presbyterian, I feel much more at ease, even confident, this time as I drive into another unknown. Could it be because I’ve already attended a Jehovah’s Witness meeting before? This seems unlikely since that was a lifetime ago, as a 20-year-old Mormon missionary. Is it because I managed to survive my experience at Covenant Presbyterian? Perhaps. Surely it must help that my appearance won’t be entirely unexpected, at least for the two Witnesses that invited me here a month or two ago.

But there also seems to be something more visceral. For one thing, I suspect that in contrast to the service I just attended, I’m not going to be the only one in a white shirt and tie this time. That at least eliminates one source of anxiety that was, however silly it seems, a significant theme of my last experience. But, there’s more to it. As much as members of either denomination would probably not like to admit it, I believe that Mormons and Witnesses share a similar religious psychology. They are equally sure of their own rightness and everyone else’s wrongness. For both, it’s not “my” or “our” church, but “The Church”.

While this would seem to make the experience more intimidating and more onerous, I feel like I’m stepping into my own world, just at a different venue. These are not my enemies, but my brothers and sisters. And I’m not here to argue. I’m here to learn, observe and absorb. Will I be seen by some as a project? A prospect? Probably. But, I just don’t care. Why should I expect someone to be willing to come to an LDS meeting when I’m not willing to be subjected to the same? So, I’m here to be prospected. I’m here to give them the floor. I’m here to hear them out. And perhaps I’m even here to make a friend or two, if that’s possible between a Mormon and a Witness. Continue reading

Ideological Boxes

In the last few years, I have become increasingly averse to and rebellious against attempts to define religious and political orthodoxies that draw ideological and philosophical lines, dividing the world into ever smaller, dogmatic boxes of mutual incompatibility.

As a case in point, I did this interesting Belief-o-Matic quiz to see how I line up with different religions. On some questions, I wanted to select more than one answer, others I didn’t like any of the answers. Still others, I thought, if I could only revise the wording on some of these, I’d feel good selecting them.

This reinforces my philosophy that we must not allow ourselves to be stuffed into distinct categories and forced to fit into a specific ideology. We have to think for ourselves, come to our own conclusions and follow what *we* believe. No one should *ever* dictate what we should and should not believe.

Not long ago, I attempted to articulate my broad, unifying view of religion: Seeking One Faith.

Anyway, here are the top 12 religions that I aligned with: Continue reading

“Mountain” Church

In a recent text exchange with a friend, I got on the topic of my plans to visit 29 local churches over the next several months. He more or less left the LDS church about 8 years ago, but around this time, he visited a number of other churches as he was trying to sort out his feelings about religion. Here’s a smattering of what I wrote to my friend over the course of this exchange:

I actually went to almost 5 hours of church on September 2. I left after our own sacrament meeting… went to Covenant Presbyterian… Then I went to a Jehovah’s Witness meeting…. I’m going to start visiting different churches every so often just to broaden my perspective. I really want to see what it’s like out there in that wilderness of other churches. I put together a list of 29 churches… and I’m going to gradually visit all of them. I’ve got 2 down now, 27 to go….

“…I’m going to spread it out…. I’m kind of looking to just have my mind stretched a bit. You know, break down the prejudices or preconceived notions I might have about other churches…. I’d also like to diversify and try out Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist…. I took this ‘Belief-o-matic’ religion test to see what I align with and Hinduism was my top one. Mormon was 3rd…. I’ll let you know how the other experiences go. I’m just going to let the experiences kind of wash over me and see what kinds of impressions they leave on me. I think it should be a valuable experience.”

At some point, my friend commented that one “church” he enjoys is mountains. At first I didn’t catch on to what he was saying: Continue reading

01. Covenant Presbyterian Church, Part 3

[This is a continuation of 01. Covenant Presbyterian Church, Part 2 and probably the last part in this series of posts. Subsequent posts about my church-visiting project will be numbered 02, 03, etc. for each new church that I visit. This is a long-term project and my plan is to document every experience, narrating each in the present tense, as though it’s happening right now.]

Walking out to the parking lot after sacrament meeting today (September 2, 2018) is not out of the ordinary. I always put our backpack of kid stuff in the car after the first hour of church so I don’t have to carry it around for the next two hours. What’s unusual about today is that it’s not a round trip out to the car and back into the church. This time, I get in, start the car and make my way out of the parking lot, all the while glancing around to see if anyone will see me leaving church early.

It’s definitely not the end of the world if anyone sees me. There are a dozen acceptable reasons why I might be leaving church early (I’m not feeling well, I have company in town, I’m going home to check on one of my older kids who is home sick, etc.). But, knowing none of these are true and that I’m actually going to visit another church (not an LDS one), I’m a bit more mindful of who might see me. I’m taking the long view of things. If I’m going to be doing this on a regular basis – perhaps once a month, perhaps every other week – how long can I go before people start noticing the routine? Today, I’m glad no one is outside the church to see me drive off. Even if one early departure would likely not register appreciably on anyone’s radar, I figure the longer it goes unnoticed, the better.

Out of the parking lot, now, and safely out of view, I cruise comfortably down the lushly tree-lined road toward my destination. I didn’t get to the car as quickly as planned, but I think there’s still time to get to Covenant Presbyterian Church around 10:30 AM, give or take a few minutes. It feels oddly liberating as I drive, like the relief and utter calm you feel after finals for school, or after you’ve finished a stressful project for work. During this brief euphoria, I notice, as if for the first time in years, just how beautiful this area is. And I’m filled with gratitude to God for the gift of this place. I pass a church and think to myself, cheerfully, almost whimsically, “yeah, I’ll visit that one too at some point.” It feels good to be doing something on my terms. My thoughts turn to God, almost prayer-like. In that moment it feels as though the full intention of my heart is laid bare to God. And I don’t feel ashamed. In fact, for the first time in a while, it feels as though God and I are on the same page – almost like he’s been waiting patiently for me to catch up.

Continue reading

01. Covenant Presbyterian Church, Part 2

[This is a continuation of 01. Covenant Presbyterian Church, Part 1. I’ve started a project to visit churches in the area. I grew up Mormon/LDS and still attend an LDS congregation weekly. But, my plan is to periodically skip out on part of my own church meetings (which last from 9:00 AM to noon) so that I can drop in on worship services of other churches. I’m taking my time describing this first church-visiting experience, because there is background information I want to provide for context. As I get further into the project, I expect there will be less need of background information and more focus on the church visits.]

Today is “fast Sunday” in the LDS church, the first Sunday of the month (September 2, 2018), which gives members of the congregation the chance to get up, as they feel the desire, and share special experiences and statements of personal belief or conviction. One man tells of the struggles of a son who, at a young age, started down a path that led him out of the church and even got him in trouble with the law. For years, his son followed this wayward path until a young woman he was involved with took an interest in the church and wanted to be baptized. The two of them eventually married in an LDS temple, the ultimate symbol of righteous living and activity in the church. It was a classic “prodigal son” type story, in which one who had been lost was found again.

In our church, such stories are a witness to us that this is God’s true church and that all who humble themselves and truly seek the Lord will be led here to receive baptism and other saving ordinances offered by God to man through His church. As I listen this morning, feeling grateful that this man’s son found faith and peace in God, I wonder to myself if the LDS church is indeed the only one that offers a path back to God’s presence. This is a question I grapple with regularly these days – almost weekly, in fact. A lot has changed in my views of the church over the last 5 – 10 years. I’m no longer convinced that God even needs a church in the sense that we typically think about a church – that is to say, an organization legally established according to man’s laws.

Actually, I could put it more bluntly. The idea that God offers one path to salvation by way of a man-made organization sounds rather ridiculous to me now, particularly when that organization spends a great deal on building projects to beautify downtown Salt Lake City, publicity campaigns, glossy pictures of attractive, perfectly-groomed people on magazine covers, and so forth. There seems to be an inordinate attention to outward detail. In our general conferences, men are in full suits, women in beautiful Sunday best, both women and men well-coiffed, well-practiced in delivering prepared talks, which have been reviewed by employees of the church to ensure that nothing unacceptable or embarrassing makes its way into a message that is going to be heard by a worldwide LDS audience (and surely an appreciable non-LDS population that has been invited by LDS friends to tune into conference). Continue reading

01. Covenant Presbyterian Church, Part 1

[Note, the following is written in narrative fashion in the first person (myself being the narrator) as though the described events are happening right now. I have embarked on an experiment of sorts that I have wanted to do for many years, arguably for the last 20 or so, off and on. Writing of my experiences in this way is meant to open a window into my thoughts and feelings, since I think the internal, introspective aspects of the experiment will be among the most meaningful results to come of it.]

It’s Sunday, September 2, 2018. Something feels particularly appropriate about this date to mark the beginning of my experiment. This is something I have contemplated since I was a missionary for the LDS church over 20 years ago, but it’s only in the last 5 years or so that I have become serious about making it happen.

My interest in attending other churches as a Mormon missionary was not necessarily what one might guess. A Mormon missionary is always looking for people to baptize. And there’s something appealing about the idea of going into another church, preaching the good (correct) word and converting people to your own church. But, I don’t think this was the main thing on my mind at this time. Early on, I think it was just plain old curiosity. I wanted to see how others practiced religion. After all, I had grown up in the LDS church and knew just about nothing of what other churches were like.

Now, as it seems I’m finally making this a reality, I’m shocked to realize I can probably count on one hand the number of worship services I’ve attended besides my own. I’m almost ashamed now as it dawns on me. But, this is how it works in the LDS church. You don’t try out different churches when you’re Mormon. When you move to a new area, you look up the congregation you’re assigned to based on your address and that’s where you go. It’s a strange concept perhaps for most church-goers, but not for a Mormon church-goer Continue reading

I Am the Lord’s

“…it shall come to pass in that day that the churches which are built up, and not unto the Lord, when the one shall say unto the other: Behold, I, I am the Lord’s; and the others shall say: I, I am the Lord’s; and thus shall every one say that hath built up churches, and not unto the Lord.” (2 Nephi 28:3)

I grew up Mormon, in a church that says “I, I am the Lord’s“. This church, which I typically refer to as the LDS church, is the largest that was built up around the Book of Mormon and the prophet Joseph Smith. I believe that the Book of Mormon contains an authentic record of a people ministered to by angels and eventually by the Lord himself. I believe that Joseph Smith was visited (literally) by the resurrected Lord, that he saw into heaven and that he received revelations by the gifts and power of God.

But, I do not believe that salvation comes by way of the LDS church. I believe that ordinances it administers in its temples and which it claims are essential for salvation are but pedagogical tools, symbolic of encounters that mortals must have with heaven in order to come into fellowship with the hosts of heaven. God, not man, is in charge of such encounters, because only God can judge our hearts. These encounters occur in the Lord’s time and there is no man-made, worldly substitute for them. They might be simulated, imitated, counterfeited and then bought and sold, but they can never be replaced, replicated or otherwise brought to pass by any earthly mechanism. God owns the ordinances of salvation, not man.

To emphasize the impossibility of the LDS church being possessor of the gates, checkpoints, milestones, hoops, songs or dances required for admission into God’s presence, consider the requirements for one to enter into an LDS temple (where LDS ordinances are administered). One must be a current tithe payer. This means that a tenth of the individual’s income must be given to the church. One must affirm they do not support or affiliate with any whose teachings oppose those accepted by the church. One must “sustain” the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve as “prophets, seers, and revelators”. In other words, there are requirements for entry into the temple (to receive “essential” ordinances) that I believe have little or nothing to do with personal worthiness or the condition of one’s heart. And nowhere in this process do I feel that Jesus Christ is found to be the mediator (2 Nephi 9:41). Rather it is men who are the mediators (2 Nephi 28:5). Continue reading

Common Ground

I think often about the things that divide and unite us. Of all things that I think *should* unite us, religion is at the top of the list. Paul, the Christian apostle, had the hope that followers of his religion would come to a unity of faith. The reality, though, is that questions and issues of faith and religion, more often than not, are among the things that divide us.

How is it that three faiths whose stories begin in a garden where all was at peace and in a state of unity – plant and animal, God and man/woman – and whose hope is to bring us back into reconciliation with each other and attain the unity that existed in the beginning, have been a source of so much bitterness and bloodshed? If there is a God and if faith and religion are meant to bring us into reconciliation with God and fellow being, then we should think carefully about how well the religions we follow are serving us in this respect. Continue reading

Wall of Differences

Something I recently posted in a discussion group composed of LDS and non-LDS Christians:

When I first discovered this group, I was excited, because I thought (based on the group name) that it would be a place where LDS and non-LDS Christians had agreed to build on common beliefs, to love and respect each other, and to seek to understand each other better. Perhaps that’s an accurate description of the silent majority. But it’s certainly not the mantra of the vocal minority that I see posting here.

This creates an atmosphere where I don’t know how we can feel the influence of God and grow together into a unity of faith. In the early days of the LDS church, there was a lot of talk about “Zion”, a condition like what existed among the inhabitants of the city of Enoch. In an 1834 revelation to the LDS church, the Lord said: “...Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom…”. Elsewhere in LDS scripture, it says: “…the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.”

It seems this group is used as a place for both sides to advertise complaints they have about the others’ beliefs. Joseph Smith once said the following: “I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine…. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.”

If this group were composed of Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. in addition to Christians, I’d say the same thing. The same spark of divinity runs through all of us and we have the same access to the spirit of God. This is confirmed to me in all the goodness and purity I see in people of every sort and religious profession. Continue reading