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The revelatory power of Gentiles

Imagine this scenario, if you will:

Somewhere, on the East Coast of the United States, a young, prominent feminist, well respected by her peers and community and considered a good, honorable person, is sitting in the breakfast nook of her Boston home, meditating. She is meditating on how she could heal the bridge between the patriarchal (in a bad way) influences in Western religion and women who seek spirituality within the Christian context but cannot feel like they are full participants in certain denominations. As she is meditating, the Holy Ghost descends upon her and she sees a vision. A man clothed in a white robe appears before her and says, “Your meditations have been heard by God and you will receive your answer. Send word to a man named Thomas S. Monson, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He will tell you what to do.”

At the exact same time, President Monson is sitting in the celestial room of the Salt Lake City temple. He has been fasting for several days now, and in the middle of his prayers, he falls into a type of trance. He sees the heavens open up above him and a strange vision appears before him wherein God commands him to do something He explicitly told the Prophet not to do. President Monson refuses, wanting to stay strictly adherent to the rules. This vision appears three times, each time God commanding President Monson to disobey a previous commandment. After the third time, President Monson puzzles over this when President Uchtdorf, one of his counselors, comes in and tells him someone wants to see him.

President Monson meets with the messenger, who tells him of our stalwart and good feminist, and of her strange request to receive word on what to do. President Monson decides to return with the messenger to Boston and meet this faithful sister who was not of our faith, and when he meets her and finds out what she seeks, President Monson is moved upon by the Holy Ghost and decides that now is the time for women to receive the priesthood. He baptizes the feminist and ordains her to the office of a priest.

This story sounds kind of crazy, huh? And yet, it basically happened 2000 years ago, according to Acts chapter 10. Of course, then, it was the centurion Cornelius, and the prophet at the time was the apostle Peter. Still, this chapter in The Acts of the Apostles presents an interesting conundrum, and that is, a Gentile (someone outside of the faith, even marginalized at that point) not only receives visions and is visited by heavenly messengers, but helps to interpret a vision the head of the Church had received, which results in the historical reversal of what was once considered God-ordained procedure.

Could this happen in our Church today? Theoretically, yes. But is it feasible? That’s for you to decide.

When Peter decided to reverse the current long-standing tradition that Jews and Gentiles not mingle, and instead declared the famous stance that God supposedly takes, specifically that He is no respecter of persons, it was not only a seismic cultural shift wherein this strange Nazarene cult would eventually break away from its parent Judaism and become a world religion and a force to be reckoned with on its own, but it also led to explosive growth in the Church, the charge spearheaded by Paul.

However, it also did not take long for Paul to issue this warning in Romans to those very Gentiles who helped the Church’s ranks swell with larger numbers. Comparing the Gentiles to wild branches grafted into a host tree, Paul warned, “Boast not against the branches…. Thou wilt say then, the branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well: because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee” (Romans 11:18-21).

Paul’s warning and Peter’s experience with Gentiles brings about a good lesson that we as Church members could learn for ourselves. We sometimes as a culture take a combative stance towards anything not Mormon. We forget, like some white Americans do today, that we are all immigrants, and essentially, our religion is a religion of converts. Cornelius is a good example that the world is full of people who, Gentile as they are, can be good people. In fact, they can be good people that have the potential to receive the Holy Ghost as well as we (Acts 10:47) and even spur massive cultural shifts in the Church for our own good.

Be not highminded, but fear — for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he spare not thee.

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Mormons dating heathens

I listen to a podcast called Catholic Stuff You Should Know (because I am a closet Catholic wannabe), and at the end of the podcast during their email section, a Catholic dating a Jewish girl asked, “Am I allowed to date outside the faith?”

I perked up to listen. Inter-religious dating and marriage is such a touchy subject in the LDS Church, so I wanted to hear the Catholic perspective. The answer they gave shocked me.

Absolutely, they said, absolutely you are allowed to date outside of the faith. You need to understand that God put this girl in your life for a reason, and you need to explore that reason, one of the hosts said. The other, about to become a priest in a few days, also said that they should seek out activities they can do together; for example, one cultural crossroad is reading the Old Testament together. Try to pray together to the best of your ability. Because Catholics see Jesus as a fulfillment of Judaism, there’s a lot of history and commonality together, so you should take advantage of the opportunity to explore Judaism and learn more about your own faith at the same time.

Of course, it’s all not unicorns and rainbows. They also told the young couple to really talk seriously about marriage and what they would do if they did tie the knot. What religion would they raise their future children in? Are they okay with the other not attending religious services with them? Understand, they warned, that there will eventually be divisive cultural issues between the two of you that you will have to work through if you want to be with this woman, but it can be done, if you work hard.

And lest you think these are a bunch of liberal hippy Catholics (they’re not), immediately, they root their advice in scripture. The first thing you need to do, one of them said, is read the story of Ruth.

This, I admit, shocked me quite a bit. Mormons are incredibly insular, and dating is no exception. We warn against dating outside of the faith, and that if you get married outside of the temple, woe, woe, woe be unto you! You will probably get boils and your husband will probably get leprosy, and don’t be surprised if your kids turn against you and try to raise up an army to overthrow your kingdom or something. Seriously, some of those warnings can be that dire.

Catholics want Catholics to marry each other, and they want Catholics to get married under the Catholic tradition, of course. Marriage for Catholics, just like for us, is an essential sacrament. On top of that, they don’t believe in second chances after this world, like we do with the spirit world. So why the liberal attitude?

If any religion were to be open to inter-religious dating, you would think it would be ours. We believe that one can receive essential sacraments after this life (that’s what half of the temple is all about). We believe that we believe in anything that is good, lovely, virtuous, or praiseworthy, even if it’s outside of the faith. So why are we so terrified of our kids dating outside of the faith?

I can think of two reasons.

The first reason, we can’t really help right now. We’re a small demographic. We just are. There are only 12 million of us in the world, in a world of 5 billion people. We literally make up 0.24% of the world. That’s not a lot. Because of this, we’re constantly in self-preservation mode — if we let too many of our numbers get diluted, we stand a good chance of disappearing forever.

The second one is a little more disappointing. We’re incredibly, totally, wholly insecure about our religion and beliefs. We don’t really believe in its power.

I had an experience on my mission that changed my life forever. I was talking to a colleague of mine about how I was afraid to talk to people about my faith because they might tear it apart. It’s a legitimate concern every missionary has, an existential terror we carry with us every time we knock on a door. He thought for a minute and asked, “Do you really believe that this can help people in their lives?”

“Of course,” I said.

“Then why are you scared?” he asked. “Truth is truth and beats lies and falsehood. Truth has the unique ability to stand on its own. If you really, honestly believe that it is true, then what are you really afraid of? If you really, honestly believe that it is true, then who can prove you wrong?”

I want to say that after this advice, any anxiety disappeared and I went on my merry way. Of course, not true. But it did make me think about why I was on a mission and what my role as a missionary was. Did I come out here because I was expected to, or do I really think the gospel can improve someone’s life?

I don’t think we really believe in what we say we believe in. We’re constantly afraid people will think we are weird — probably because we understand that we really are weird. We’re constantly afraid people will think we’re a cult — probably because at some fundamental level we feel like one sometimes. We’re constantly afraid people will think our church services are boring — probably because we are bored ourselves. We’re constantly afraid people will reject our gospel — probably because we reject it ourselves every day on a minute level that builds over time. I’m not saying we should be closed minded and cocky; that will definitely make less people join the Church. But do we really believe in what we believe in?

It’s the same reason why parents are terrified of letting their kids make decisions. They don’t really trust their children. I know that my parents trust me in some areas because they give me independence and leeway; but when it comes to areas in my life they don’t trust me in, they will open the sluices and unsolicited advice comes gushing out. I know that I will do that to my children, too, because it’s human nature.

Let’s take it back home to dating. We’re constantly talking about how strong our youth are. We talk about how our youth stand for right and morality, how they are so brave and honest and strong. We talk about how valiant they are. But when you look at the litany of rules and regulations we plaster our youth with, do we really believe in them?

LDS youth -- valiant, charitable, wonderful, strong, capable -- and ready to bolt and run away from the Church at a moment's notice. (Image via Church News)

These guys who run Catholic Stuff You Should Know are self-assured that Catholicism can enrich anyone’s life and will bring peace and happiness to those who follow its precepts. To them, they have no real reason to think that their Catholic inquirer will feel compelled to follow after his girlfriend’s “competing” faith; Catholicism already provides everything he needs. Why would he need more? Date outside the Church if you run into people you happen to fall in love with, they say. Be a good influence on others and allow others to be a good influence on you. No need to be reckless, they warn, but at the same time, there is no need to lock yourself up like a monk, ironic since between the two of us, they’re the ones with monks, and we’re the ones with strong youth and young adults we don’t really believe in.

This leads me to wonder sometimes. Are all of these rules and regulations really there to protect us and hedge up the law, or could they be symptoms of an overall dissatisfaction with our spirituality and a way to keep people firmly inside the tent so they can’t wander or run away? Do we really believe the gospel is powerful enough that anyone who encounters it should obviously see its power, or are we worried that we might be proven wrong someday by another system of thought that might provide more fulfillment than we  can?

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Legalistic Mormonism and the Mystic Savior

One Sunday School, the teacher introduced the subject of the Sabbath. As a huge fan of anything Judaism, I flinched reflexively as the class devolved into what can only be considered as “Shabbat bashing,” the usual litany of railings detailing why the Jewish interpretation of the Sabbath had become burdened with “made up rules” restricting the specific number of steps you could walk and whether or not you could heat a kettle of water. “They even criticized Jesus for healing a sick man on the Sabbath!” the collective cried out. “How backwards can you get?”

How backwards can you get indeed? If the first part of the lesson consisted mainly of “Shabbat bashing,” the second part (which made up the majority of the hour) could only be considered as “Sabbath legislating,” a most ironic twist of events that couldn’t get any more ironic even if a hipster attempted to be as intentionally ironic as she could possibly be. Not even stopping to take a breath, the entire class devolved into quarreling schools of thought debating what exactly was allowed and what was not allowed on the Sabbath. Are video games okay? Television? Movies? What if it’s a Church movie? What if it’s not a Church movie, but it’s a family movie like Disney? Should they be Disney movies that have morals or not? Is secular music allowed? What is more Sabbath appropriate (and thus more righteous), Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Mindy Gledhill? Are walks allowed? Should walks be restricted in some way, such as only with family, and you have to take a walk as a family in church clothes? Should you wear church clothes all day? Is that respectful, or disrespectful to the sanctity of the Sabbath? Should we schedule Church meetings on the Sabbath? What about Family Home Evenings? Are multi-generational family gatherings too boisterous and chase away the Spirit? And don’t even bring up the idea of napping.

Even when the presiding priesthood leader, our local bishop, stepped in and said under no certain terms you should play video games on the Sabbath, people still continued to argue. We never really progressed any further in the Sunday School lesson.

If you’re a Mormon, this should sound pretty familiar. Like the Jews, we have a lot of commandments — maybe not comparable to the 413 Mitzvot, but still pretty close — and a lot of them sound like the “legalistic Judaism” so often cried out against in Sunday Schools and Priesthood and Relief Society meetings everywhere. How many earrings should girls wear in each ear? At what age is it appropriate for a teenager to start dating? Is facial hair appropriate for upper-echelon positions in the Priesthood hierarchy? Should men wear a white shirt and tie or not when performing public Priesthood functions?

Granted, some of these seemingly silly rules help protect the wholeness of symbolism within our sacred rituals (“An entire body must be submerged during a baptism. If so much as a pinky toe pokes out of the water during the submerging, re-do the ritual”). But others are often criticized as stumbling blocks for members already struggling with larger problems and weapons for the self-righteous (“No flip-flops in church meetings”). And others seem to exist simply to drive a Mormon into a frothy, contentious rage (Mention caffeine around a Mormon and watch them hastily express their very strong-worded opinion about it).

Our Church, in short, has become incredibly parallel to the legalism we oft criticize Jesus-era Judaism for having. We have an interview before baptism — the candidate must undergo a thorough questioning process in order to determine whether the person is “ready” to be baptized. The same thing occurs if you wish to enter the temple of the Lord. Interviews, in fact, are a frequent tool that Mormon leaders use to “keep their fingers on the pulse” of which they are now accountable for, but interviews (especially standardized interviews) are rarely flexible or creative enough to assess the needs of every person (which doesn’t stop us from designing some especially thorough interviews). And all too often, we use the interview more to keep certain people out rather than to assess need. Discontent with the freedom Christ won for us and which Paul celebrates over and over again in his epistles, we are quick to saddle ourselves with more and more rules in order to (let’s be honest, here) parse out who the “real Mormons” are as opposed to the false ones, the weak ones, or at the very least, the ones who are trying really hard but just aren’t quite to the level of Mormon we as a collective whole are satisfied with in order to qualify for such a ranking title.

Which is quite curious when one of the main themes of the Book of Mormon spoke harshly against this very type of extreme codifying the rules. Alma’s explanation of the baptismal covenant does not include a waiting period to see if you are really committed or not. And that Alma’s son of the same name certainly stood stupefied and flabbergasted at the discovery of the apostate Rameumptom and its correlating prayer, which included such classically diabolical lines as, “And thou hast elected us that we shall be saved, whilst all around us are elected to be cast by thy wrath down to hell” (Alma 31:17).

Even more curious is that we worship a Jesus who was more rebel than authority, more mystic prophet than clean-cut salesman. Sometimes I wonder what Jesus would do if he came down today? I imagine that he’d shock a lot of Mormons. Imagine going to the temple for your weekly temple trip and watching in shock as Jesus drove out the temple workers with a homemade whip, roaring about moneychangers, or some business like that. Imagine walking into a restaurant and noticing Jesus sitting a table, gently reassuring expensive escorts that God loves them and wants them to come to the local ward while sipping a glass of wine (of his own make, of course), and then startling the entire restaurant by standing up suddenly and denouncing publicly your Stake President that he and his cohorts were a den of vipers. Imagine watching Jesus walk into a McDonald’s (on a Sunday!) to buy some hamburgers to give to a homeless man, or Jesus chiding your father for working too hard to provide for his family and not taking the better part, or taking your iPod, throwing it into the ocean and telling you to render unto Steve Jobs what is Steve Jobs’ and to God what is God’s, or Jesus sitting down to play Halo if it meant the surly seventeen year old priests will talk to him about what they want out of their lives, even if it’s a Sunday?

Which is not to say that our current temples need cleansing, or that your Stake President stands in need of rebuking, but this is the kind of anti-establishment stuff that Jesus did all the time. He was a jobless, hairy hippie wandering the streets of Jerusalem, convincing people to quit their jobs and leave their homes and spouses and children and to literally follow his wanderings and help him spread a message of peace and love. When he walks up to you and extends his hand, his jeans dirty and his t-shirt ragged, and tells you that the birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to place his head, would you invite him into your home? And would you then sell all of your belongings and leave your spouse and kids and walk away from your house and your job and your responsibilities to preach the bigger message that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand?

Often, we forget how absolutely radical our religion is, and I don’t mean this in some terrible 90’s slang way, but in the revolutionary sense. We work hard to dumb things down and to dress things up, to make our doctrines more palatable to the American markets (and markets and consumers we treat them). We can recite our religion’s “specs” and special features and what makes our product so unique and enjoyable and valuable and we design ad campaigns and pamphlets and websites and Twitter accounts and YouTube videos, but I would venture that very few of us could muster the courage and sheer grit to really commit to to the gospel, to do the things that Jesus asks us to do, to really walk away from the world and all of its trappings and shiny things and prizes and bells and whistles and really live it. We do what we can with the lives that we have, making small compromises here and there, promising ourselves that even if we seem (and feel) a little self-centric now, we’ll serve a senior mission later and besides, we served a mission already so will you please leave us alone we’ve done our time, darn it. We live uncomfortable double lives, one foot firmly planted in Babylon and one foot firmly planted in Zion, trying to negotiate some middle way. And in order to feel like we still belong to this tradition, even though we’re not fully committed just yet (though we are working very hard to get to that point, promise!), we must legislate who is in and who is out, even though, really, all of us are never really in and never really out. We’re all just grasping, trying to reclaim and model after the divine which has touched our lives in some form at some point in some way that transcends space and time.

And so, in the midst of all this legalistic battling over what is and is not permissible for a good Mormon on the Sabbath, may I suggest we take a page from Judaism’s book? I suggest that when such a fight begins in a Sunday School, one of us brave folk will stand up, throw out his or her arms wide and declare, “We shall have a large dinner tonight at our house; all are invited and will be treated as family! If you know anyone, bring them along! Come, celebrate the Sabbath with us and share with us our food and love and company! We shall light candles, give thanks to the Lord, break bread, and raise our glasses of wine (of our own make, of course) and shout with all of our muster in the company of angels, To life! To life! L’chaim!”

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Great Audiences

While visiting the famous Powell Bookstore in Portland, Oregon the other weekend, I saw a giant quote painted on one of their walls that stopped me dead in my tracks:

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”
– Walt Whitman

I have since then learned this is a fairly popular quote, but it was the first time I had ever seen it, and it flipped my thinking upside down and then spun it around a couple of times for good measure.

As Mormons, and especially as Mormon creators, there’s a lot of angst about whether or not there will ever be good art. If the next Great Mormon Artist writes the Great American Mormon Novel, and nobody reads it, did it ever make an impact? In fact, that’s the common complaint among Mormon artists — there already is good stuff out there, but nobody ever reads it/listens to it/looks at it.

The question I’ve struggled with now for the past few weeks is less whether or not I will create Great American Mormon Art — I figure I’ll do my best and if I succeed then that’s great and if I don’t, welp, at least I can be a good father and husband. The question I have struggled with now is, How do we tap into a community that has been accused of being insular, resistant to controversy or paradigm shifts in thinking, or even light constructive criticism, or even questioning of the happy bubble we’ve created around ourselves?

On the one hand, I believe, like others, that we are on the cusp of a great perfect storm of Mormon Art. I constantly tell my wife that I am excited, and I can think of no better time to live as a member of the Church.

On the other hand (and perhaps because of this other hand the one hand can exist), we stand at the precipice of a rapidly changing world, and we will have to redefine ourselves or swiftly become irrelevant. We face a great many challenges in the future, as a people, as a culture, and as a religious church. Mike S. on the blog Wheat and Tares writes about what could be seen as a chilling trend in our Church — that our growth is not only slowing down, it may actually be reversing. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about our youth and especially our young single adults; it’s no surprise to many that we are hemorrhaging them, and that the programs we have in place are at best a temporary stop gap measure (and are debatable if they even work). We are baptizing like crazy in lesser developed countries, especially in Africa and South America — but we’re still lagging behind other Christian denominations, and our retention rate is abysmal, to say the least. The I’m A Mormon ad campaign is a (not so) quiet acknowledgment that we have a severe problem; not just an image problem, but a cultural problem.

In short, we’re having a pretty significant mini-existential crisis here. We are not sure how to define ourselves and reach out and relate to the young single adult generation. We cannot retain our newly baptized members easily. We try to promote an image of diversity through our ad campaigns, but our wards and branches rarely reflect such diversity. We become increasingly incapable of communicating with the world we live in, and many long-time members used to the Golden Age of Hinckley when everybody (we thought) absolutely adored us don’t want to deal with a shifting reality that we’re one of the most unpopular religious groups in America.

Enter artists, stage right.

The top-down approach is not working; the Church’s recent emphasis in ward councils during the Church Handbook of Instructions update shows that we now realize this. My brother sometimes gets frustrated that the prophet doesn’t use General Conference as a “bully pulpit” to whip Mormons in the right direction, but even if President Monson got up and said, “We need to accept all forms of diversity and stop judging,” which they already do on a regular basis, would this change the deeply rooted Church culture — especially in America — overnight, or even gradually? No, it wouldn’t.

Art, however, has an incredible ability to change society, to influence culture, and sway public (or Church) opinion. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he remarked, “So, this is the woman who started the War.” Sinclair’s novel The Jungle sparked the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is widely acclaimed of bringing to light the horrible plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression during a time when the rest of the nation preferred to ignore it. And as a Mormon example, it is a little known fact that most of our modern Mormon theology derives from the works of James E. Talmage, notably Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith, which though not traditional works of art, shows the tremendous power of the medium of print.

Like the children of Israel wandering in the Sinai, we are resistant to instruction, rebellious against chastisement — but we love a good yarn. The propensity and ability of Mormonism to assimilate mainstream American folklore and put a Mormon spin on it says as much. I believe that we already have a good deal of Great Audiences — but they aren’t what we think. They are the Mormon housewives living lives of quiet desperation, perhaps wondering, as the 1950s housewives did of yore, if there was more to life than this but afraid to question out loud. They are the Mormon young single adults, alienated and unable to connect with a religious institution that caters almost exclusively to the nuclear family, but still so very much in love with the restored gospel and the inspiring Mormon narratives. They are those who don’t fit in, who struggle to remain true to the religion they fell in love with and the God they worship and also the personalities deeply embedded in them and the quiet conscience that whispers in their heart that the “standard” Mormon cultural path is not for them.

And then there is the murky underbelly of Mormon history that has for so long been whitewashed by our unwillingness to face our own demons. The explosion of information over the Internet has now rendered our suppression ineffective and impotent. We, as artists, must steel our hearts and souls and put on the armor of God and face those demons head on, rushing in with our pens and brushes and musical instruments, and we must show others around us that it really is possible to question, to reason, and to learn from our dark patches of history, rather than run from them or simply ignore them.

But it is not just enough for us to write and paint and draw and script and photograph and sing and play about Mormonism. We must evangelize Mormon art. We must organize and distribute and reach out and encourage. We must take our copies of The Lonely Polygamist and start Mormon literature book groups. We must find talented Mormon musicians and blog about them. We must share good Mormon short stories on Facebook. We must find every medium and art form, from fine art to video games, to tell our stories. We must show the rest of the Church that, yes, we are faithful, and, yes, we are quirky and different, but more importantly, so are you. And that’s okay!

In time, I firmly believe our demand for challenging, faithful, thoughtful, good Mormon art will grow. As we share what is already there and build upon the foundation stone upon stone, more and more members will ask for it, because these stories we have to tell feed the soul; we often forget that the scriptures we love so dearly are not just simply a collection of sermons or a treatise on human behavior; they are stories that resonate deep within our imperfectly devout bones. They are stories of broken families, of desperate parents seeking to keep their children in the faith, of children learning to build off of their parents’ sacrifice and learn from their parents’ mistakes, of the hubris of pride and greed, of the power of love and service. They are deeply contradictory, sometimes controversial stories that puzzle and confuse us.

The Book of Mormon’s stories are our stories; the Bible’s stories are today’s stories, and we must seek out these Great Audiences and tell them, “Look at this good that I have found. These stories are Mormon stories. We are past the days of perfectly perky housewives with stacks of canned wheat and six children running around freely and happily while father works at his nine to five upper-middle class white collar job. These are stories of broken families, of the hubris of pride and greed, and the power of love and service. These are stories of trial and heartache, of the universal pains we experience which bind us together as Mormons and as humans and as children of  God. These are our stories.”

I now firmly believe that if anything is going to save this Church which has been promised to never be taken away from the Earth until the Second Coming, it will be art. It will be art that shows us a new, nuanced way of viewing our mythology and theology; it will be art which questions and prods, but also gently guides our Church from an age of polygamy and isolation, to an age of rapid expansion, and finally to our age today of globalization. It will be art that lovingly tells and re-tells the stories, that teaches the lessons, that takes eternal principles and wraps them in meaningful packaging, and that beckons to those who may feel alone and cut off from the Church to return once more and sup at the table of Christ. Like Nephi, we will echo the Savior’s cry to the world to “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.”

In our Church, we have the unique tradition of encouraging everyone to re-appropriate the Joseph Smith story for our own. Like the 14 year old farm boy, we must all go into our own Sacred Groves and pray to the Father for answers. We must all gain divine communication and open up a celestial channel. We must brand the story as our own personal story. We must all become Joseph Smiths. As artists, we must tell our own stories, and we must tell others’ stories as well. We seek all that is good within our tradition, and when we find that which is good in other traditions, we bring it under the umbrella of Mormonism, even if it means rearranging what we already have to make room for the newly discovered.

In a religious tradition that encourages and mandates such deeply intense and intimate personal relationships with the Divine, how could we possibly keep those stories to ourselves? And how can our starving souls not yearn for them?

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Family: Isn’t it about…gender roles?

The wife and I gave talks in Sacrament Meeting today, the wife on the Book of Mormon and mine on the The Family: Proclamation to the World. I’ll admit, talking about family in a public gospel setting is something I don’t really enjoy, mostly because there are a million ways to legitimately offend someone. However, lots are lots, and I drew this one, so I decided the best way to talk about the family is to be upfront about what kind of family we will most likely turn out to be.

If we were to put our family on a resume, it would actually look really Mormon. When we got married, one of us was almost finished with a degree in accounting, so the other spouse decided to delay school for the accountant to finish and start a career to support the family. One of us is, on the Meyer-Briggs personality test, an INFP, a rare, classic nurturer. The other is an INTJ, a rare, classic career person. When our baby is born this July, we’ve arranged it where one of us will stay at home with the child, and the other will continue to work. We try hard to live frugally, and we’re happy that we’ve found a great arrangement to complete the things we need.

There is no resentment in our current arrangement. The soon-to-be child-rearing spouse finds children adorable and loves to teach things. This spouse finds the monotonous schedule of housework Zen-like and fulfilling. The other spouse loves working and advancing in a career. This spouse finds the fast-paced office life exciting, and enjoys shouldering the responsibility of providing.

Of course, by now, you’ve probably figured out that my wife is the provider, while I’m the nurturer. It’s just how God created us. One time, we tried to live the traditional gender roles, and it was an unmitigated disaster. The wife stewed at home, bored out of her skull, while the husband toiled in a thankless office job, wondering how he found himself in such an existentially demeaning anomie. We soon switched again and never looked back since.

As a completely unintentional gender role smasher, life can be hard in the Church. You’re constantly having to justify your very existence and membership and faith. For the first few years of our marriage, we would evade questions with vague answers and try to keep up the facade. Finally, we decided with this ward, we’d stop trying. Go figure that this Sunday I would have to talk about our Church’s teachings on the family.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t love the Church’s teachings on the family, because I do. Joseph Smith had a sweeping vision of what family life’s potential could be. He lived in an age where industrialization and unmitigated capitalism was ripping the extended family system apart, in favor of the more isolating nuclear family structure. He saw a visionary end goal for humanity — to be saved as a family of God, working together in perfect harmony on Earth as well as in Heaven. For Joseph, Zion was more than just an economic utopia or a political theocracy, but a radical re-thinking of what and who family is. This obsession with family permeates every level of everything we do, and as an INFP, I love it.

The ideal Mormon family, circa 1860s.

Which pains me when I see the Church emphasize that all families must look cookie-cutter, because that’s not what Joseph had in mind. Ironically, the Church, which so repudiated the nuclear family in the early days, now wholly embraces it, sometimes at the expense of everything else. Families come in all shapes and sizes, made up of all kinds of people. Does it really matter whether it’s the wife or the husband who does the job, if both are working their hardest to provide the best home possible for their children? If husbands and wives are really supposed to work equally, side by side, as Elder Cook recently said in General Conference, then does it really matter if the husband passes off the provider duties to the wife and the wife tosses the baby into the father’s arms?

In the end, family is greater than what husbands are supposed to do and what wives are supposed to do, or specifically, what boys are supposed to do and what girls are supposed to do. Families are about love, charity, experimentation, adaptability, of teaching and discipline, of working together and learning to be a team player. It’s about never turning your back on family, even when times are tough, and yes, in our crazy Mormon family, about how everyone is a potential brother or sister that you just haven’t met yet.

So let’s not get hung up on the little things and focus on the big things — of the eternities, of creating heaven on Earth, of the immortal soul and the heritage of the Lord that we’re all a part of. In a trillion, billion, million eons, when we’re all hanging out in heaven still, sitting around with our eternal family, rubbing shoulders with the trillions of people who’ve lived and died and passed on, basking in the presence of Ultimate Goodness, will it really matter that I did the dishes and my wife worked in the office a trillion, billion, million eons ago?

Ideal Mormon family, circa today (not pictured: The six other children).

Or will it matter more that when the clock was ticking and the odds were stacked against us, my wife and I pulled together as a team and pulled out our brilliant Hail Mary play for an upset victory against Team Satan? That when times were tough, we knew each others’ strengths and weaknesses enough to consult Coach Jesus, and trust him enough to do what he told us what to do, even if it seemed to fly against common convention?

I expressed these thoughts (expressed is a generous word; in reality, I fumbled awkwardly through them) and sat down.

Later, a bunch of people came up to us, saying they enjoyed their talks, as usual, introducing themselves. But near the end of the line, one good sister came up and said, “In my family, we had a disabled child, and I had to work as a teacher because it was the only way to get insurance. I worked as a teacher for 35 years. And I have never regretted my decision, because I gave my children the best gift I could — a father. We do what we need to do to get the job done.”

I loved how she put it — we do what we need to do to get the job done. I want to make this our family motto, write it in fancy calligraphy on our family crest. Of course, the wife and I prefer the way we’ve assigned “gender roles” to each other, but it’s more than that. They’re family roles, at this point, regardless of gender. It doesn’t matter if the husband or the wife does them, as long as they get done. We’ve divided the tasks and now shoulder them the best we can, because we do what we need to do to get the job done. We don’t do this to make some kind of political or social statement; we don’t do this to break gender barriers; we don’t do this just to gratify our own selfish desires. We do this because we’ve found a perfect medium that maximizes our individual gifts while minimizing our individual quirks and shortfalls. We do this because we’d rather be realistic and work for the best outcome rather than have false hopes that God will somehow miraculously change us to match some 1950’s American cultural ideal. We do this because we love each other and we love our child and we love our family, and we are determined to make this work, come hell or high water, even if it means I’ll be scrubbing toilets and changing diapers, and the wife will be working overtime occasionally.

I honestly don’t think God asks for more than that.

Our Mormon family, circa 2008.

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Steampunk alternate Mormon history fiction

I’m running a d20 Modern campaign. For those not well versed in geek lingo, it’s basically like Dungeons and Dragons except with a rule set for modern times. So every week, a group of us get together, sit around, eat snacks, roll dice, and make up stories based on set dice. It’s loads of fun.

This time around, I am running the story as the Game Master (GM); basically, I run all of the background characters, devise the world, and interpret the dice results into narrative fiction. I’ve done this for a while now, since I was roughly 19 years old, so I wanted to do something I had never done before, especially since my group was all Mormon.

I weaved a world based on my religion.

Well, sort of. The world that my friends delve into every week is steampunk alternative Mormon history. Basically, I ran with the idea of “What if Joseph Smith had successfully fled to the West instead of being martyred in Carthage Jail?” Suddenly, it’s the year 1899, and the Northern American continent has split into three basic political entities — the Federal Union, the Confederacy, and the Mormon Territories (during the Second War of Independence). Joseph Smith is still the prophet, operating out of Deseret, the capital established next to the Great Salt Lake, while Brigham Young is the governor of New Nauvoo, west of the Mississippi (the ruins of old Nauvoo lie just across the river). The two major Mormon cities are connected by a network of dirigibles, called the Mormon Line. Also, there’s magic, swashbuckling adventure, and sweet steampunk goggles and gears and stuff.

I’m planning on running strong themes of order versus nature, freedom versus security, justice versus mercy, the law versus the Spirit. In the background are the two gleaming diamonds of Mormondom — the alabaster, orderly, cosmopolitan city of Nauvoo and the dusty, rough-and-tumble, frontier city of Deseret. Two political leaders, the charismatic Joseph and the managerial Brigham, will butt heads as they both grapple with problems both mundane and fantastical and wonder what to do. In the midst, our plucky hero-adventurers will make decisions that will alter the course of alternate Mormon history forever.

When I ran this idea excitedly past my wife, she seemed reluctant. “Your friends are pretty liberal when it comes to Mormonism, and they’re pretty used to your blasphemy by now,” she warned with a wink, “But this might be crossing the line.”

“There’s a line?” I replied. Of course, I knew there was a line. This unsaid line runs deep through Mormon culture, separating the wheat from the chaff, the wholesome media from the seditious, libelous, faith-breaking, irreverent material deemed unfit for goodly Saints’ eyes and ears. A conservative, faith-promoting portrayal of Joseph Smith in Gerald Lund’s series, The Work and the Glory is appropriate. But a gun-toting, charismatic-but-too-trusting, Wild West Joseph Smith who wears steampunk goggles and swoops about in a steam-driven mini-glider shooting down invading Danite dirigibles? That’s too, well, irreverent.

But why is that? There’s a pretty fine line between parody and homage. One is lampooning, and the other is sincere respect. Sure, there can be elements of both in either, but I had considered this fantastical world I cooked up an homage to Mormon history, of which I have a deep appreciation for. And in every audience, in every niche, the fans’ parody-homage meter is finely tuned; we can’t explain it, but we can tell when someone is laughing at us, or smiling with us. Somehow, however, our parody-homage meter in Mormon culture tends to be hyper-tuned towards parody. If it doesn’t read like a Sunday School manual, you’re making fun. Or hurting the Church. At the very least, you could destroy someone’s testimony. Harsh consequences abound for any writer who decides to take liberties with Church history.

It could be because we’re still young, and we still take ourselves way too seriously. It could be because we’re still somewhat ashamed and confused about our own history and self-identity. It could be that we’re still too insecure about ourselves as a culture, afraid to appear fractured or to appear less than perfect. Maybe we just need time to mature, to mellow out, to realize that it doesn’t matter what the world says because the world will never like us anyway so we might as well have some fun at the expense of ourselves because we’re not really that perfect either.

Whatever the reason (and I believe it’s a complicated ball of cultural neuroses that would be fun to dissect but would turn this blog post into a dissertation), I ran the game, and afterwards, despite the skeptical looks, everyone had fun and look forward to see where the story goes. So far, nobody wants to burn me at the stake for heresy (talk about an awkward end to a get together). And I’m 85% confident than when I die and go to the Spirit World, Joseph Smith will come up to me, dice bag in hand, and say, “You know Brother Ted, I’d like to play in that steampunk alternate Mormon history game you ran several decades back. Pull out your campaign notes.” And I would, because we would both understand that we’re smiling together.

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Mostly Correlation Friendly Prayer Alternatives

During one memorable Sunday School lesson, the instructor proudly spoke on how our Church discourages “rote and memorized” prayers. He emphasized that we encourage prayers to come from the heart instead, spontaneous and sincere. “Except in important instances, such as in the priesthood ordinances like baptism and the Sacrament, we don’t use memorized prayers.”

“But we do,” one student responded. “’Please bless this food so that it may strengthen and nourish our bodies,’ even when we’re eating ice cream for refreshments.”

“How about ‘Please bless us that we’ll all drive home safely’?” another student said.

“Or ‘Please bless those who are not with us today that they may be with us next week,’ when we don’t even know who they are, or have any intention of encouraging them to come,” said another.

It’s clear that even though the Church does not give out prescribed prayers for every instance of the day and night, we still fall into the trap of rote, memorized prayers that we recite out of habit, but not from the heart. Prayer, at least prayer available in the lowest common denominator of Church culture, just hasn’t been cutting it for me the past few years. I’ll admit, my prayer practice began to fall apart over time, until it was almost non-existent. This isn’t to say I had nothing to discuss with God, nor that I had grown cold and unappreciative of life. My life was actually getting better in every single way. But I didn’t know how to communicate with God sincerely when I found myself saying the same phrases over and over again. I didn’t know how else to communicate.

Of course, receiving the news that we were expecting changed my lazy dynamic. When the kiddo came around, what family traditions of prayer did I want to teach? I didn’t want my child to suffer under the same lackadaisical, stiff, boring prayer traditions I had found myself mired in. I needed to change the routine up while still keeping true to the spirit of what prayer is supposed to be. And so, I began to experiment.

Prayer of Thanksgiving – I picked up this practice during my time in the Missionary Training Center, and I sadly only practiced this sporadically. We often make a lot of demands in our prayers; in fact, I would think that often our demands outweigh our praise and gratitude in our prayers. We always need something to go well – to find a job, maybe for someone to get better, or for just general safety and wellness. We want to be happy, for our friends and family to be protected, for whatever we’re eating to magically become nutritious and nourishing. But often times, we don’t thank enough. I know for me, I make really general blanket statements of thanks – thanks for this food, thanks for this Sabbath, thanks for the opportunity to be with family, or if I’m in a real rush, thanks for all of our blessings, whatever that means.

The adage to count our blessings really does help lift moods and bring appreciation for everything we have. In a prayer of thanksgivings, lay off on the demands for a while. Only thank God in the prayer. And when you do thank him, thank him individually for everything. Thank him for every friend and family member by name. If there’s a particular favorite food you like, thank him for that. Thank him for the sun, the sky, green grass, a song you heard that especially touched you. Sometimes I find myself thanking him for things that I might never have otherwise brought up in prayer – (thus far) mostly proper DNA replication in the body, or maybe for that really great deal in potting soil to start our patio garden. I have no idea if God made Costco give a great deal on potting soil; I have a feeling he actually doesn’t really care about the market price of potting soil (then again, he could?), but I’m grateful for potting soil and I’m grateful for the ability to grow a garden on our patio, so why not? It can’t hurt.

You’ll be surprised how powerful a periodic prayer of thanksgiving can be. Sometimes we feel like God isn’t really looking out for us. And though times certainly get really tough sometimes, I think the vast majority of us still have an incredible lot to be thankful for (especially if you live in the States!).

Meditation – My first encounter with meditation was during a world religions class in high school. My friend Kim sat next to me, still, silent, serene. I, however, couldn’t tame my highly active monkey mind for more than a minute; my mind kept getting distracted by, yes, shiny things, among other distractions. Over the years, I’ve never developed as strong of a meditation practice as I should, but I’ve noticed the benefits whenever I do it.

I know of Mormons – and Christians, for that matter – who get wary around the idea of meditation. Recently, meditation has come to the American cultural spotlight as a mostly Eastern religious practice. However, Western religions also have a strong meditation practice, especially in the all-important monasteries. One of the activities we are told to do with the scriptures – along with praying, pondering, and reading – is meditating. Meditation is simply the practice of sitting down and clearing the mind. Many focus on a mantra, a phrase or word to repeat over and over in order to train the mind to clear out all distractions.

If any word could aptly describe our fast-paced, post-industrial, modern life, it’s “distracting.” We have a million distractions vying for our attention, and it takes a toll. Meditation is a way to step out of those distractions and focus on the divine. Combine meditation with scripture memorization. Pick out a verse that brings comfort, and use that as a mantra. Many people don’t know how to start. Others are embarrassed that when discovered, people will make fun of them. But meditation is easy. Just sit down, try to clear your mind of thoughts, and be still, and know that God is God. If you’re afraid people will make fun of you, literally take the advice Jesus gives – meditate in a closet. Sometimes I’ll lock myself in the bathroom. And it doesn’t have to be a marathon meditation session. Try meditating for just a minute. Then two minutes. Then five. You’ll be surprised how quickly the time passes, and how often times, how reluctant you’ll feel to leave that peaceful meditative bubble. Sometimes, words are clumsy and fail in communicating to the divine. Wrapping yourself up in the present moment with meditation can help us interact and experience the divine when words don’t seem to come.

One extra benefit from meditation is a new-found ability to forgive myself. It’s nearly impossible to try to clear your head of thoughts, just as it’s impossible to muck through this life unspotted from the world. In meditation, when a thought enters my mind, I acknowledge its presence, then dismiss it and focus on the mantra. It’s unproductive to self-castigate or flagellate yourself for your failure. This practice of self-forgiveness has spilled into other parts of my life, where if I make a mistake, I acknowledge it, then continue on, refusing to dwell on it. Focus on the larger goal and move on. It’s a nice feeling.

Hymns and psalms – a hymn is a prayer to the Lord, as the saying goes. If you don’t feel like praying (and who doesn’t feel like this from time to time), just sing a hymn. If singing isn’t your thing, try reciting a psalm instead. The book of Psalms is a collection of Hebrew poetry, originally used for singing. When on the Cross, Jesus quoted Psalms. Many Christians memorize their favorite psalm to recite when feeling distressed.

Sometimes, we don’t know what to say. My wife often feels that she doesn’t have any pressing demands, nor is she really bursting and overflowing with gratitude every minute of the day, and so she often prays to simply “check in,” like a college student calling her parents once in a while to make sure they know she’s not dead. But she doesn’t like doing that with God. We’ve decided if we ever feel like we’re shortchanging him, or feel like we’re just simply “checking in” with words, but not with our hearts, we’ll either sing a hymn, or if we’re too tired, recite a psalm. And maybe it’s just years of conditioning from the Church, what, with hymns usually preceding prayer, but sometimes singing hymns just helps you get into that prayer mood.

Change up the time – During the mission, I struggled making the transition from night owl to early riser. The mission schedule is brutal to night owls, with its daily 6:30 in the morning wake up call. Often times, I struggled just to flip over onto my stomach, push myself up, and pray with my face pressed into my pillow. Often times, I’d fall asleep mid-prayer and just lie there, in some kind of twisted, bizarre Child’s Pose, for fifteen minutes or more, sleeping under the guise of prayer.

One of my friends on the mission hated this; I wasn’t the only one who did it. He eventually told me that what I should do is get up, take a shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, and then get down on my knees for my morning prayer. God appreciates a clear head and a sincere prayer, not half-mumbled phrases I can’t distinguish from my dreams the night before. I tried it, and it helped a lot. Not only did my prayers make more sense (I remember sometimes praying for help from the bears that are trying to eat me), but I found my prayers to be a little bit more…different. More real. More about what I was about to do, and less about vague generalities (or man-eating bears).

Sometimes all you need is a break from the routine. The general times of praying are in the morning, at night, and before meals. However, praying outside of those times can help break the monotony. Instead of praying right before bed, try meditating a little in the evening. Instead of praying right when you get out of the morning, try praying in the car right before taking off for work. Often times, limiting ourselves to certain times when we must pray makes prayer start to feel like a chore, our predetermined times as some sort of quota. If we want to make prayer spontaneous and sincere, more of a lifestyle rather than a commandment, we must also break free of the idea that prayer should be done at specific times in the day, an idea that quickly becomes a prison. If you don’t pray immediately in the mornings, but pray during lunch for help in the unexpected things you must finish that day, I wonder if God cares much about the time discrepancy.

Hugh Nibley once wrote that “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to write a bad book than to get up at nine o’clock to write a good one.” We could also amend that to say “We think it more commendable to get up at five a.m. to say a bad prayer than to get up at nine o’clock to say a good one.” This is a dangerous attitude to have about prayer, one that holds us back from any real spiritual progression.

Prayer, and communion with the divine in general, helps us develop a deeper appreciation not just for what is in store, but also for our lives now. One of the greatest blessings of Mormonism is its celebration not only of the future afterlife, but also the nitty gritty, dirty, dusty, mortal life we live today. True, sincere communication can help us secure a place in the next life, but it can also bring love and joy in the now, despite its difficulties and heartache.

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