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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Manifestations of My Faith: Why I am a Mormon

I am a very flawed person with a very limited perspective on life. In no way should I be anybody's lens to see life in a precise manner. However, I have sought for "meaning" all my life, especially in the realm of my religion. I'm a practicing Mormon, but I also refuse to simply take any element of my faith for granted . Nor do I trust any other earthly person, even people who I consider to be inspired leaders, to be my yardstick regarding what I believe or to dictate to me my behavior or to correlate my worldview. My mother would be the first to tell you that I can be one stubborn boy that way. So when I declare myself as a "Mormon" (my preferred term because of its immediate and recognizable distinctiveness, although many or my faith prefer to be called Latter-day Saints, LDS, or Latter-day Saint "Christians"), I make that declaration after a long and hard struggle to investigate the faith and its history, search my own experiences, and seek my own experiences of revelation with the Divine.

Lately I've been startled by just how many people have personally approached me about my faith and asked me why I believe what I do. Non-Mormons, former Mormons, struggling Mormons, anti-Mormons... they have all asked me some very sensitive and sincere (or at times very pointed) questions about why I believe in Mormonism. Many of them do so because they know I talk very openly about it, try to be non-judgemental with those who doubt, and that I have put a in good deal of research to understand the context of whatever aspects of the Mormon story that they're struggling with.

Especially in this so-called "Mormon Moment" with presidential candidates, satirical Broadway musicals, and intense media scrutiny, it's becoming an increasingly sensitive (and sometimes defensive!) time to be a Mormon, which makes these questions posed all the more urgent. Honestly, I find aspects of this questioning a little intimidating, especially coming from loved ones, family and friends who are looking to me with some shard of hope, thinking that I may be able to assuage their doubt and resolve their concerns. To have a person handing me their eternal identity and ask me what I think of it... it's like holding a beautiful glass sculpture and hoping that your sweaty hands don't drop it.

In this regard I really hope not to be a disappointment. But I also know that I dare not deny any of these requests, although I sometimes hesitate in order to gather my thoughts. Here, however, is a very personal essay to answer my loved ones. It's not apologetics, nor hard hitting academic scholarship, nor anything nearly so sophisticated as any of that. It's my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences, my testimony, in a VERY truncated source (despite my long, typical wordiness, this is definitely only the smallest of shards when it comes to how I've experienced my faith).

MANIFESTATION 1: HISTORICAL MORMON

Just like my Christian identity ties directly back to what I think and feel about Jesus of Nazareth and whether what is purported in the Gospels is essentially true, so does my Mormon identity directly tie to the historical context of Joseph Smith and those long suffering pioneers around him and whether their spiritual experiences (including the events surrounding the coming forth of the Book of Mormon) are essentially true.

When I was just entering the youth program of the Church (the Mutual Improvement Association, or "Mutual"), my Church held an annual scripture reading "marathon," where the youth came to the Church on a Friday night and took a book of scripture (New Testament, Old Testament, Book of Mormon, etc.. depending on the year) to study intensely for the whole night, including presentations, digging into specific chapters, and, of course, dinner. Then we would come back the following morning to have a testimony meeting, where the youth and their Church leaders volunteered to stand and speak about their feelings and their experiences. During that particular "marathon" we read Joseph Smith's account of his First Vision of God the Father and Jesus and then Joseph's account of the visitation angel Moroni and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

I was already familiar with the story, my parents and Church teachers had taught me well, but I can't remember if at that age (12 years old) I had have ever read Joseph Smith's account of his experiences in the Pearl of Great Price in its entirety yet. But as I read it that night, something very personal and beautiful happened to me. A peaceful "burning" was happening in my chest ("Did our hearts not within us burn?" the two followers of Jesus asked each other when they encountered Christ on the road to Emmaus in the New Testament) and a light was expanding my mind. I was drawn into the narrative of Joseph Smith, relating to his youthfulness in the First Vision, and overcome by a beautiful power and grace that I was feeling in this moment. The Holy Spirit testified to me that this story was true, literally for Joseph and symbolically for me, and when I stood in the testimony meeeting on that early Saturday morning, the Spirit bore witness to me again that Joseph Smith was all that he purported to be in that story and that those events really, actually happened. Some may call that emotionalism, but I know better. Up to that point in my life, I had never had an experience like that, although I have had many since. There's a distinct difference between the Spirit and the emotional ratcheting that we often put ourselves through to make ourselves feel something that we want to feel. Those who experienced that distinct sensation know what I'm talking about.      

A couple of years later when I was in Jr. High, I was curious about a copy of The History of Joseph Smith By His Mother which my mother owned. I borrowed it from my Mother and read it with great curiosity and desire. It was my first exposure of the serious historical scholarship surrounding the history of Joseph Smith and I found that it certainly was a taste that I liked. Years later in high school my friend Alex Parent had bought me a book about Joseph Smith's martyrdom which I devoured, and then he lent me a set of Truman G. Madsen's series of lectures on Joseph Smith's life which I, again, devoured. My heart was hungry for these things, to gain a better knowledge of the context of my faith and the intriguing, dramatic and inspiring history that surrounded it.

However, as any serious student of Mormon history can tell you, not everything in Mormon History is as rosy as some would like to paint it, and as the years progressed I naturally came across the "controversies." Polygamy/polygyny/polyandry and the subsequent complexity/messiness it caused in the early Church (and in modern offshoots who have broken from the Church since its abandonment of polyagamy). Seer stones, treasure digging, and the early folk practices of Joseph Smith's family. Differing versions of the First Vision. Questionable uses of power. Imperfections in the Brethren. Problematic race and gender issues. There's no doubt that it can cause many people dark and troubled nights of doubt and unease.

However, as I encountered these issues, I encountered them in the context of the larger fabric of Mormon History into which I could place them, instead of the isolated attacks which you'll find on the internet or from anti-Mormon literature. If you're just dabbling in History, especially from antagonistic sources, it can be a dangerous thing if you want to be a person of faith. For people will tear those facts away from their context and, broken off like that, those facts can acquire sharp edges. But when the fuller context was brought into my worldview, I understood these issues, I could place them in their time and their place and appreciate the contradictions, while understanding the greater scope.

So, instead of Church history pushing me away, it has pulled me further in, feeding my faith, increasing my knowledge, expanding my soul. Certainly, it made my views more complex, as life is complex even in the Church, and I couldn't go back to the simple, blind, suppressing attitude that I had before. But I prefer it this way, for I find questioning and researching and digging to have been more lucrative in my relationship to my Lord Jesus Christ and my Heavenly Parents. The more I have questioned, the more they have answered. The more I have asked, the more I have received. If I was willing to persevere, not throwing in the towel at the first sign of opposition or controversy or persecution, then I received glorious blessings of knowledge, revelation and the Spirit. Questions are only dangerous if you see them as an end in and of themselves, using questions to keep yourself in indecision, doubt and maze-like circular logic. Yet if you, like the young Joseph Smith, see questions as a road to eventual answers, then they will be your liberation.       

Joseph Smith, at the end of his life, had a way to flee his enemies and go West. The Lord had shown him a way of escape and had been promised that no one would come to harm if he escaped... it was Joseph Smith they were after, not the Saints. He, his brother Hyrum, Porter Rockwell, John Taylor, and Willard Richards were on their way West to the Rocky Mountains to prepare a place for the Saints. However, a message was delivered to Joseph from his wife Emma and the Nauvoo Stake President William Marks, pleading for him to turn himself into the authorities who were seeking his life, repeating those same authorities' false promises of safety. Joseph was not fooled, but he was downtrodden by the message. "If my life is of no value to my friends, it is of none to me," Joseph said. With that last declaration, Joseph went to Carthage Jail, knowing he was going to his death. He was murdered by a ruthless, lawless mob, with the State of Illinois's secretive (and sometimes not so secretive) participation (yes, I'm looking at you Governor Ford). At the request of his loved ones, he was willing to die for his beliefs and his people rather than ignore their pleas, despite the assurances he had been given from God of their safety.

This event, Joseph Smith's willing martyrdom, is one of the bedrocks of my faith. This event was the natural culmination of everything I have read about Joseph Smith, showing his utter sincerity and the truthfulness of what he declared to the world about his experiences with the Divine, and what that meant for the rest of humanity. A charlatan, a deceiver, an opportunist looks after himself, protects himself. But, again and again, Joseph Smith put himself into the line of fire to declare his message and protect his followers. This was the pattern of his life, he was the first in line for persecution, the first to offer his breast against the musket. The study of Mormon History taught me this and many other things about him and those great women and men that surrounded him. A deceiver does not meet the bullet, an opportunist does not sacrifice his life.

MANIFESTATION 2: VISIONARY MORMON

In the Book of Mormon these verses have stood out to me throughout the years:
"And again I speak unto who deny the revelations of God, and say that they are done away, that there are no revelations, nor prophecies nor gifts, nor healing, nor speaking with tongues, and the interpretations of tongues; Behold I say unto you, he that denieth these things knoweth not the Gospel of Christ; yea, he has not read the scriptures; if so, he does not understand them. For do not we read that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and in him there is no variableness neither shadow of changing? And now, if ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who doth vary, and in whom there is shadow of changing, then have ye imagined up unto yourselves a god who is not a god of miracles...the reason why he ceaseth to do miracles among the children of men is because they dwindle in unbelief, and depart from the right way, and know not the God in whom they trust" (Mormon 9:7-10, 20).   
The Book of Mormon reiterates this theme of spiritual gifts and miracles, especially from the writers Mormon and his son Moroni. The early missionaries in the Church (especially, I've noticed, Parley P. Pratt) also made this a major theme in their teaching. And those miracles followed those that believed in their day... Parley P. Pratt healed a woman of her blindness (which was one of the moments that convinced the third Mormon president John Taylor to seriously investigate the Church, since he had known this woman for years and knew that it was no trick). The first president of the Mormon quorum of Twelve apostles (and its first martyr) David W. Patten was famous in his day for such healings and miracles. I have even read stories of the dead being raised (I found an especially poignant one when Matthew Cowley was amongst the Polynesians). And the visions, inspired dreams, angels, and heavenly visitations weren't only constrained to "prophets" like Joseph Smith... Joseph Smith said that anything he had received could be received by any member of the Church.

Yet there are those, even within the Church, who seem to think that the "day of miracles has passed" and encourage people to rely less on manifestations and miracles and that those may have been for different times and that we shouldn't seek these things. I once heard this argument in Sunday School class and I was astounded. In response I quoted the above passage in the Book of Mormon and implied that the opposite is true. The scriptures are explicit... first comes faith, then signs follows those that believe. Does that mean that those who haven't experienced something "dramatic" have less faith? No, of course not... think of Christ's response to Thomas the Apostle. Greater is the faith of those who haven't seen, but believed. But, through dramatic or subtle means, the Spirit WILL follow those who exercise faith. Whether it is a gift of faith, tongues, healing, dreams, visions, angels, miracles, "burning in the bosom," or a private, spiritual witness from the Holy Ghost of the truth a witness of the truth in one's mind and heart... whatever the case, spiritual gifts MUST be in Christ's Church, or it is NOT Christ's Church. 

And, I can testify, the day of miracles has NOT passed among the Mormons. I think of the spiritual Pentecost that happened among the African Saints right before the priesthood was extended to people of all races in the 1970s. The miracles, visions and dreams that were happening among them, leading them to the very Church that had been stereotyped as racist, but was about to have a blossoming change-- their stories of faith and endurance and pioneering against racism in the Church are remarkable and powerful.

And I have had many friends and family who have experienced powerful things, sacred things. They do not speak of these things lightly, reticent to put the sacred up to ridicule, but I have known those who have seen angels and spirits of light, who have immediately healed the sick, who have accurately prophesied dramatic and subtle things, who have burned with the healing and strengthening power of the Holy Ghost.

I have experienced many powerful spiritual events, too. I have also felt, seen and confronted the power of the "Adversary." I have seen the spiritual power and spiritual conflict that exists in this world. I have experienced prophetic dreams which came true in their details; healed others immediately and dramatically through the power of God; have had spiritual manifestations; been protected against severe food poisoning when nearly everyone else around me was effected, because I had been promised that I would have my health protected by a stake president; felt the burning of the Holy Ghost; been attacked by an evil spirit that I was literally shown; confronted a person literally possessed by an evil spirit, which confronted and talked to me, and which the priesthood was able to expel; and had many personal, expanding experiences with the principle of personal revelation. I do not share these implications lightly-- I know it weirds some people out and I have experienced a good deal of doubt, skepticism, even hostility when I've shared them-- but it's a vital aspect to my faith and identity as a Mormon, so I must share it here to give a proper context and contour to my faith. The God of Miracles still exists, does not slumber, nor is stingy when bestowing blessings upon their children.

MANIFESTATION 3: CULTURAL MORMON?

A friendly and positive reviewer of one of my plays once called me "thoroughly Mormon Mahonri." I thought that was clever, but also fairly accurate. With a name like Mahonri, I couldn't hide my Mormon heritage even if I wanted to. I come from pioneer heritage, with a great-great grandfather Alvin Franklin Stewart who personally knew Joseph Smith and was trusted to be a part of the group that accompanied him to Carthage, IL, where Joseph was murdered. I was born and chiefly raised in Provo, UT, the heart of cultural Mormonism (my father was even mayor of Provo for a few years). I grew up one of 11 children from parents staunch in the faith (and have basically given their retirement years to the Church, serving as mission presidents, senior missionaries, and now in the MTC). I was active in Church (even though I loathed the scouting program and the pernicious problems being involved in it brought into my life) and loved early morning seminary. I grew up in a community that not only encouraged me to live the Gospel, but also tow the line with cultural Mormonism's inherited quirks and remnants from past traditions, many of which have no real correlation with our actual doctrine. My mother even made an inordinate of Jell-O (my favorite was green Jell-O with cottage cheese and pineapple). I was a Peter Priesthood, true blue, through and through, dyed in the wool cultural Mormon.

But at certain points I became very aware of the trappings of that culture I had grown up in. Serving a mission in Australia, living out of state as Anne and I started raising our small family, working in the culture of Theatre (which has a very secular edge), expanding my reading and education... I increasingly started becoming aware of who I had been raised to be and wondering what was simply inherited as part of my cultural identity and what was born out of my spiritual experiences and hard earned beliefs.

Over the years, starting probably when I was in Jr. High and was in the process of expanding my reading and thinking, I confronted a wider world beyond the "bubble" of Provo. At that point I began to interrogate myself. I have seen many people coast through cultural Mormonism, going to Church on Sundays, reaping the cultural benefits of going on a mission, or speaking the lingo, or spouting off the cultural catechisms of a good Utah Mormon... thus allowing them to marry an attractive Mormon spouse, or be trusted in the Utah work place, or progress uninhibited in Utah society. Yet in their eyes, in their behavior, in their attitudes I at times could perceive very little that showed me any great commitment in knowing their religion or striving to immerse themselves in its chief principles.

I have also seen people who grew up knowing nothing else except the Utah culture and then after they get their first encounter with anti-Mormon literature, or a tough piece of Church History, or the first hyper-critical person against the Church they find on their path, suddenly they go all to pieces and throw away all the good and truth the Church has offered them and turn their back on the whole lot of it.

I was intent that neither of these things would happen to me... at least not without being informed. At least not without showing both God and myself that I was only going to be a Mormon if I truly believed it. Not a blind belief, not a passive belief. But an informed, vigorous, hard earned, wrestling-with-the-angel belief.

So as I've studied the scriptures, as I've dove into Mormon history and cultural studies, as I've asked myself the hard questions, as I've dug deep into my mind, heart, and soul and compared, contrasted, inquired, prayed and sought both secular knowledge and spiritual revelation, I have strived to be balanced and fair with my approach to Mormonism. I have not given either side too much credence until they have earned it from me. I have tried only to give intellectual assent when I feel like I have struck upon what I feel comes near to historical and spiritual truth, and I have only given true faith and devotion when I feel as if I have studied it out in my mind and in turn God has touched my mind and heart and given me a revelation. Obviously, I have not been perfect in this process, but I have done my best to get to the bottom of things.

I have not come out of this process unscathed. Safety was not what I was looking for, so safety is not what I found. I was scarred and sometimes fundamentally changed because of the process. I sometimes look at the simpler days of my life with a great deal of affection and longing and realize how much easier that little Eden was before I was thrust into the lone and dreary wilderness. But, in the end, I know that because I have faced the adversity, I have in return gained strength, commitment and knowledge that I did not have before. I have progressed, which, to a Mormon, is a one of the chief goals of our existence... eternal progression.

As a sad part of the process, however, I sometimes find myself at odds with my beloved culture. I have become more aware of certain attitudes, mindsets, and cultural blind spots that I had once indulged in myself, but cannot go back to, at least not in good conscience.

But I have also learned how to separate my culture from my religion. Religiously, I'm now more Mormon than ever, having found an enduring fire that burns within me and lights and warms me. Ironically, a lot of what some of my fellow Mormons find "off" about me are the very things that happened to me in consequence in studying my religion deeper and more seriously. For example, my feminism, which some have found repellant lately, is rooted in the attitudes I found in Jesus Christ's statements about (and relationships with) women in the New Testament, as well as the statements and revelations of Joseph Smith in the early Church, as well as vibrant and powerful women I find in Church History and the Bible. When I started reading those things in my own scriptures and in my own Church's history, it made me re-think my position on a number of gender issues.  As a result, I also feel closer and closer to my Heavenly Mother, like I have felt close to my Heavenly Father and my Savior as I travel down this path. I want her more in my life, want to celebrate, not hide Her place which is rather unique in Mormon Doctrine, just as I believe Joseph Smith meant to bring Her closer to us, not farther away.

But whatever struggles I've had with the culture, the "weightier matters" of the Gospel bear even more fervently on me, as compassion, mercy, justice and charity, all things taught to me since my childhood, but are harder to implement than merely say. And the scriptures, as well as modern prophets, have been encouraging all of these beautiful principles every step of the way in my journey within the Church. Culturally, I have changed, sometimes bringing me to be more skeptical about cultural matters. Religiously, however, I believe I have only matured, bringing me more and more commitment towards my ultimate faith, my ultimate conscience, my ultimate love for Christ and His Gospel. There is nothing that I would want to divorce me from Mormonism. Nothing would be worth separating myself from the fellowship of the Latter-day Saints, and the common faith we have in the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the modern, living prophets.

MANIFESTATION 4: CHRISTIAN MORMON

As evidenced from much of Evangelical Christianity's reaction to Mitt Romney's run for the U.S. presidency, it is plain that the old prejudices within mainstream American religion about Mormons are still tenaciously hanging on. That so many are still so reticent to allow the title of "Christian" is very telling about the fear and misinformation that hang over perceptions about Mormons. I know there are many significant theological debates between "us" and "them," but, ironically, just as with Joseph Smith's experience that led him to pray in a sacred grove so long ago, the competing religions are both using the same Bible to cite their theological worldviews.

One thing that still sticks in my craw, however, is when Christians have told me that I don't believe in Christ's grace... I certainly believe and accept Christ's grace!... or that I believe that my works make me self-sufficient... I believe no such thing! There is no salvation without Christ. Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon are explicit on that point. As the Book of Mormon states in 2 Nephi 10:24-25:
"Wherefore, my beloved brethren, reconcile yourselves to the will of God, and not to the will of the devil and the flesh; and remember, after ye are reconciled unto God, that is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved. Wherefore, may God raise you from death by the power of the resurrection, and also from the everlasting death by the power of the atonement, that ye may be received into the eternal kingdom of God, that ye may praise him through grace divine. Amen." (emphasis mine).

We are not saved through our dead works. They are but a drop in the eternal bucket needed to purchase our salvation, and it is Christ who purchased that salvation. To Mormons, works aren't as inconsequential as to some Evangelical Christians, for Christ said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments." Our works are our evidence of our love for Christ. And Christ was pretty explicit about the importance the word "doeth" has in in his lexicon. As we read in the New Testament in Matthew 7:21-23:
"Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in Heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock..." (emphasis mine).
But do these works, ultimately, have any saving power? No, not one bit, for it's Christ's sacrifice, Christ's ransom that has saved us from an eternal gulf. Again, from the Book of Mormon:

"I say unto you, my brethren, that if you shall render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace with one another--I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another--I say, if ye should serve with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants." (Mosiah 2:20-21)
Does that sound like a theology that over emphasizes works? Our insufficient works are only the meagerest offering we can give to show our love for a God who has already saved us from our multitude of sins. It's like a struggling worker offering his life's savings to pay off the national debt. It ultimately doesn't even make a difference. But it's the sacrifice, imperfect as it is, that Christ commands. Jesus says pretty explicitly in the New Testament to keep His commandments, to "be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect." And, although we cannot reach that perfection ourselves, through his atoning Grace Divine, he opens up the path for that possibility. Christ is the center of Mormonism, without Whom, we would be eventually as spiritually and physically dead as iron. It is His Grace that saves us, not our dead works. I couldn't be any more fervent about that.

My belief in Jesus Christ as my personal Savior and the Son of God is a huge part of my faith. So when people call that into question, I do take a certain amount of offense and believe that they do not ultimately understand true Mormonism. I have never heard a Mormon de-emphasize the Atonement of Christ as the gateway to Salvation and Exaltation. Any discussion of works to a Mormon has that fact already implicitly understood within its context. 

One of the spiritual highlights of my life was when in 10th grade I finally read the Gospels in their entirety for the first time. The writers of the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, had a huge impact on me. I had been brought up on these stories in my home and in Church, but reading them on a personal level, touching into that Divine Story in a such an intimate way... it changed my life and made my desire to follow Christ and keep his commandments even stronger. Since then I've had a fondness for any film or story that takes a serious approach to the Gospels, whether its the LDS Church's recent, artistic New Testament videos they have been releasing on their website, or whether it was Mel Gibson's controversial Passion of the Christ, I have a powerful reaction to depictions of the story of Christ found in the Gospels. I have shared my Christian faith in a number of my plays, whether it is Swallow the Sun, my play about C.S. Lewis's conversion to Christianity, or a more recent, unproduced play I finished called Yeshua, which is my dramatization of the Gospels. I resonate with and feel the Holy Ghost with the stories about Joseph Smith, about Book of Mormon prophets, about Moses or the Patriarchs... but it is the Gospel story of Christ's ministry and life that makes me burn with truth, love and light the most. It is the story I feel most personally passionate about.

MANIFESTATIONS' END, ETERNITIES' BEGINNING:

So as a historical Mormon, as a visionary Mormon, as a cultural Mormon (?), and as a Christian Mormon (!), I am in the the faith for the long haul. I utterly respect those whose experiences have led them to a different belief than this , but this is where my experiences and my conscience have brought me, and this is where I stand.










3 comments:

  1. Beautifully written -- thank you for sharing. I share many of the sentiments you express here.

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. Great explanations! My #1 Reason to stick with it: Despite all the relativity of history, I rely on my OWN SENSES and LIFE's experiences: that is, simply, that I like going to church, I like the people, I love what the church does for my CHILDREN. Every week (99.8% of the time) I've gone to church, I leave feeling good, happy, fulfilled. I get to serve and forget my own selfish narcissism. Once in awhile I get frustrated with some weirdness/”judgmentalness” , but I love the wide variety of people I meet and interact with (including, for example, this excellent blog). History is relative, unreliable, tentative. Study, learn and consider the history, BUT rely on your own impressions/feelings/rewards. That's my philosphy

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