Conference in a…nutshell? That’s not quite right. Some sort of nut-based analogy.
This past October the LDS Church held its first general conference since I somewhat left the Church last summer, and, like always, I tried to listen to the whole thing (I missed part of Saturday morning’s session because sleepytime is good times). Long-time readers of this blog may know that I used to do a “conference in a nutshell” post every time one came along, running down a bullet-point list of things I wrote down while listening to the talks. This time I’d like to return to that general idea, but instead of just listing a whole bunch of things, I’d like to take just a few bits from conference and flesh out what I think and how I feel about them.
This past conference was a more interesting one than I think anyone was expecting. I wasn’t expecting quite the level of controversy that sprung up over the new apostles (three white guys from Utah?!? Apparently that’s terrible!), but I’m not going to talk about that, simply because I don’t really care. The brethren can call whoever they want to as apostles, and either it’s a call from the Lord, or the whole organization is uninspired anyway, so either way quit complaining.
I really hated this talk. Not because it’s necessarily a bad idea (the basic gist behind it is “memorize a scripture each week, and also, like, think about it a lot”), but because it was presented in such a way that you were forced to admit, “Wow! If I don’t do this just like this random Sunday School Presidency counselor said, I’m not as good of a person!” It’s one of the many examples from the Church leadership that espouses more the philosophies of Stephen Covey than any actual spiritual leader: do this highly effective thing that works for businessmen, and you’ll be a better saint. Instead of, “Here’s something that I’ve found works for me. Give it a shot, and if you and I are the same type of person it may work for you too, but if you don’t think like a businessman you’ll probably do better with a different way of studying,” we got, “This thing will work. I don’t care if you’re terrible at memorizing, or you’ve already found a way to study the Lord’s word that fits your life better. Everyone must do this. Also, I’ve coined a phrase so that your home teachers/bishops/annoying roommate at BYU will pound this concept into your brain until you have no willpower left! Buy the T-shirt!”
Seriously, he structured this talk in such a way that listeners had no choice but to accept this as the best thing ever. He started his talk with an admittedly good piece of advice about saving money, thereby drawing a connection in our mind that his next piece of advice was similarly sound. Then he gave examples that weren’t actually examples. “Nephi was a ponderizer,” he said, then quoted a verse that said Nephi likes scriptures (and not one that said Nephi picked one each week and memorized it). Then he addressed “objections” like this: “It’s too hard, you may say. But hard can be good!” Oh, OK, thanks, that cleared it up. And finally, he actually said, “Will you ponderize a verse of scripture each week for the rest of this month? For the rest of this year? Longer maybe?” with a pause after each question, so that everyone listening in had a chance to say, “Yes! I will do this thing I just barely heard about that has a catchy slogan!” without actually thinking about it. I imagine that hapless home/visiting teachers will be trying to do the same thing to their poor home/visiting teachees for the next six months, whether or not it’s actually something that will help them.
Please note: I’m not saying that the act itself is a bad idea. For those who want to memorize scriptures and ponder them, by all means, go for it. It’s just that the message was couched in the most blatantly manipulative way possible as a one-size-fits-all solution that drove me crazy. And that’s not even getting into the controversy that popped up immediately after the session, what with the “Ponderize” T-shirt sales and so on. Somehow, I believe that wisdom that fits on a bumper sticker may deserve some more scrutiny before I’m forced to make a commitment to do it.
Guys, the Church is not a business. At least it shouldn’t be. But attitudes and worldviews like those expressed via this talk are what worm their way into Church curriculum, then Church culture, that cause a lot of people to have a beef with the faceless, monolithic “Church” while still adoring the apostles on individual bases. Manipulating people so that they have to do this “righteous” thing or feel guilty about it, even though yesterday they didn’t even know it was a thing, is not a plan based on free agency. Just sayin’.
2. Pres. Monson finished his talk and sat down unsteadily
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this occurrence. I think it’s great that the apostles love Pres. Monson enough to catch him if he falls, yet let him retain enough dignity to finish his talk without literally holding on to him. I also find it odd that many people are taking this as a sign of supreme love and sacrifice and so on when it’s really just a demonstration of basic human decency (or at least I’d like to think that most of us would try to help an old man up if his strength failed). But what I find most interesting about this is that, though members online and off are all atwitter about this great spiritual experience and how wonderful it is that the Lord supported him with angels so that he could finish his talk, substantially fewer of them could tell you without looking it up exactly what the important message was that was so important that angels had to help him deliver it.
I did not hate this talk. (In fact, I don’t think I hated any of the talks other than “ponderize” to be honest.) But it was this talk that raised some ire among the post-Mormon groups (of which I am an observer, but not really a member. Kind of like the Church itself at this point). Not because Pres. Uchtdorf was specifically targeting ex-Mormons (though he kinda was), but because he was painting their experiences with a broad brush that trivialized them more than anything else. If you want to know why people leave the Church, it’s almost never because they didn’t “choose to believe.” It was because their experiences didn’t jive with what they had been taught was true, and eventually that either breaks a person in half or causes severe cognitive dissonance. If you want actual examples, here are about 100 people or so who left the Church and why. Their individual reasons are all over the map, but you’ll rarely find one of them saying, “It was easier to disbelieve.” Many of them say “It made more sense to disbelieve,” or “I really really really wanted to keep believing.” And, while it’s true that, yes, some of them are jerks and unfairly disrespectful to the religion they left behind, the majority are just trying to follow their conscience. Pres. Uchtdorf made an analogy about unbelievers: “If we make no effort to believe, we are like the man who unplugs a spotlight and then blames the spotlight for not giving any light.” I bet a lot of those who left would reword it thusly, “We made all effort to believe, to plug in that spotlight. Imagine how we felt when we realized that the light bulb never got installed in the first place.”
What really made me take notice of this talk, however, was the attitude behind it and how prevalent it is in the Church. Or, more specifically, how even I used to espouse it. Come, dear readers, back in time to when I first started examining my own faith and Mormonism in general:
“Do you guys know what’s easy? Not being a member of the Church! Aw snap! You can do whatever you want on Sunday, you get to keep that 10% of your income instead of giving it up to build more chapels or whatever, you don’t have to worry about that whole dumb Word of Wisdom thing telling you what you can and can’t eat and/or drink, that one guy down the street who thinks Obama is a secret Muslim out to burn the country to the ground can’t tell you how to improve your relationship with God just because some other guy called him to be your bishop, and if you want to watch porn while drinking cheap scotch and swearing loudly, nobody’s gonna care! You arrive at your own morality based on your own experiences! You’re an adult, not some little five-year-old! You can figure this stuff out!
I’m (half-)kidding with those extremes, but a lot of people do leave the Church because it’s simply easier not to have to deal with a lot of crap that gets thrown at active members, whether it be requirements of active membership, outside criticism of the faith, inside judgement from nosy ward members, or personal disagreements with church leaders and/or doctrine. […]It’s a lot easier to say that the Church leaders are wrong, or misguided, or have a different belief system (and good for them), but in my life I’ll believe what I feel is right, than it is to say that maybe I’m wrong, even though I don’t understand why yet and possibly never will until I die. It’s easier, more rational, and from a purely intellectual standpoint, probably the correct thing to do.
Am I saying that everyone who leaves the Church because it’s hard is somehow a lazy bum or a hedonist? Of course not! Being a Latter-Day Saint is hard work, and I don’t just mean the physical things like going to Church, or tithing, or obeying commandments, praying, scripture study, service projects, home/visiting teaching, fulfilling callings, etc. etc. but a lot of the mental, social, and emotional wringers that people are put through in a lot of Church environments. I mean, where would you rather be: a place where people either look down upon you or (even worse) make you into a project to save the “one lost sheep” just because you happened to wear a slightly shorter skirt, or admit that you like video games, or once said that Ewan McGregor is damn smoking hot (and you’re also a guy)? Or a place where you’ve got a bunch of friends who couldn’t care less what your lifestyle is and accept you for whatever you are? I can tell you this: one of those scenarios is certainly much easier than the other one. But does picking the easier scenario mean that you’re somehow weak, or does it just mean that you’ve got a measure of sanity? Am I a lazy good-for-nothing because I didn’t join the Marines? I don’t think so.”
I made those arguments when I was still an active member (even though I hated going to Church for mostly social reasons). And, as I often do when trying to justify someone else’s opinion as if it were my own, I made quite a mess of it. I hadn’t really done any research into ex-Mormons or had an open discussion with any of them; I just said to myself, “What would make me leave the Church right now?” and extrapolated, based on what I had been taught within the Church, how those without the Church obviously feel. I thought I was being unbiased about it, hence the “Marines” line near the end: I was trying to sympathize with those who felt that way without realizing that most who have left don’t feel that way. It’s hard to be unbiased about something that you have no actual experience with. I actually got called on the carpet on this by someone who had left, and to her I responded, “This is what I see. Please correct me if I’m wrong.” It was an earnest request, even if perhaps I wasn’t quite ready for the answer.
Some within the Church who, perhaps, have some issues with it, can point to an example of someone who has left, who also is perhaps disrespectful, or hot-headed, or otherwise imperfect, and say, “See? If this is the kind of person that leaves the Church, then that gives me more reason to stay!” It’s easy to point at those people for justification. (There’s that phrase again: “it’s easy.”) But for every jackass who rails against the faith they once shared, there are more who simply up and left. Their upbringing and sense of morals is still part of their lives, and it probably always will be. They still believe in the spirit of what the Church professes, even if they can’t accept the letter of what the Church does. Staying true to a moral system when you no longer believe in the source of said system is not easy. But most people are decent. Most people are good. And most people who leave the Church do so because they can’t reconcile what they learn with what they’ve been taught in the Church. And when the best defense the Church gives is “Give Joseph a break! God knows more than a search engine!” it’s not much consolation.
Please note: I’m also not trying to trivialize those who join the Church despite opposition. Often they have an equally difficult time leaving behind their old life in pursuit of something they believe in more. That was the crux of a lot of Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk, actually: remaining faithful despite difficult circumstances. But don’t condemn anyone for taking a stance in accordance with their own conscience despite opposition, simply because that step is away from what you believe instead of toward it.
Neither is easy.
4. Spiritualism and The Spirit (not actually related to any specific talk)
I am not an atheist, in the sense that I don’t only believe in empiricism. I have had spiritual experiences that I cannot write off as pure emotion. I have felt what the Church terms “the Spirit” many times. But what I’ve realized more and more, especially since leaving, is that often the things I’ve felt spiritual about have had little to do with the Church specifically. That’s not to say that I’ve never had a spiritual experience in relation to the Church. But when I really examined my spiritualityy, I found that my truly powerful experiences have been, let’s say, perpendicular to the Church. In other words, when I feel the most peace, joy, and love, has had nothing to do with my standing in the Church, my amount of tithing paid, my scripture study time, or any of that. In fact, the times in my life that I have thrown myself headlong into trying to keep the commandments has usually turned me into a judgmental jerk who can’t stand the fact that anyone around me holds a different opinion. I hate being that guy. And it’s certainly not a healthy mindset.
My spiritual experiences have had to do with my amount of service and selflessness. They have had to do with what I can do for others. One of my most spiritual experiences on my mission occurred when I was serving in Cartagena, though it had almost nothing to do with the Church or traditional missionary work. One of our investigators was a poor Nigerian immigrant (I really wish I could remember his name) who was having some health problems one night, so my companion and I accompanied him to the hospital, along with our ward mission leader. I had to translate for him with the doctor (this was in Spain, and he only spoke English), and afterward my companion, the ward mission leader, and I were waiting out in the waiting room to hear if he would be OK. During that time my zone leader showed up and demanded that I go back out and do some street contacting. It was the end of the week, you see, and my companion and I hadn’t quite fulfilled our goal yet. I refused, because I really wanted to see if our investigator was OK and help him back home if he was discharged. This wasn’t what missionaries are supposed to do, though. Surely the ward mission leader could handle it (despite not speaking English). We argued back and forth and finally came to a compromise: we’d swap companions for the evening. My zone leader and my companion would go out street contacting (so he could count it toward our numbers), leaving his companion behind at the hospital.
I was left with his companion and the ward mission leader. Alfonso Sanchez, a man who I had worked with for quite a while, both him and his family. Of all the families on my mission, I felt probably the closest to them, having eaten at their house many times (it also helped that his wife reminded me a lot of my sister Annelise). And as we sat in that waiting room in a small medical facility in the town of Cartagena, he turned to me and said something I’ll never forget (though I’m paraphrasing it here): “Elder, I’ve been in this ward for a long time, and I’ve seen missionaries come and go. Many have been great, faithful missionaries, dutiful and true to their creed. But, perhaps only once every ten years, a missionary comes along that actually loves the people he serves. Elder, you have that love in you.”
I didn’t know what to say. For most of my mission, I thought I was a terrible missionary. It was all that my zone and district leaders could do to keep me out on the street every day. I didn’t study as much as I should have, I had a hard time keeping the rules with exactness, and I really really really hated telling strangers how to live their lives. But, for that brief moment, I felt like, maybe, I had done something important out there. Despite what the Church said I should’ve been doing, despite what my zone leader wanted me to do, despite the fact that that particular investigator never joined the Church (at least when I was there, though we did convince him to move out of a living situation where his roommates were pretty abusive) — despite all that, I followed my conscience and sense of human decency. For one moment, Elder Parkes the terrible missionary became something better. And that made the difference.
That’s a spiritual experience.
Now, understandably, that particular experience is certainly emotion-based. But it was still stronger and happier than anything else I had felt on my mission up to that point. For me, actually, most of my spiritual experiences both in and out of the Church have had a musical component to them. A certain piece of music can pierce my soul much more deeply and effectively than any talk by Boyd K. Packer (especially since he did his best to squash any kind of music in the Church that he didn’t like; look it up). An evening spent with someone you love doing something you love is time much better spent than an evening at a fireside with a stake president who tells you to get off your lazy butt and get married or start ponderizing or whatever. Not to say that such firesides are worthless or impossible to feel spiritually fed by (I think that mostly depends on both how invested you are in the topic and what the topic is), but diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks. I cannot trivialize the great spiritual feelings others get in the Church any more than they can trivialize the great spiritual feelings I get when I drive to a rest stop near Delle, Utah, and contemplate the Northern Lights.
The Church preaches a lot of great things. Principles that, if followed, will make you a better person and help the lives of those around you. But it doesn’t mean that everything the Church preaches is the same. The same is true of most religions, philosophies, and lifestyles. It’s that discernment that I seek.
Spiritual experiences can still be otherworldly even if they’re not specifically related to Mormonism. I still remember the intense spiritual feeling I got the exact moment that my niece Ivy was born, even though I didn’t know that that was happening until much later. That wasn’t just an emotional response to something I was doing at the time (I was on my mission, and at that exact time we were trying to reactivate a sister who hadn’t been to church in a long time and still didn’t return after our visit). There is more to existence than just this life. I can’t prove that, and it is based on faith. So take it for what it is.
I feel like I’m turning out to be a terrible ex-Mormon. Oh, well.
It was interesting listening to conference as more of an outside observer than a participant. I felt that I could finally look at the talks, not in the light of “How can I start applying all of this inspired message from the Lord in my life?” but in the light of, “Wait, does this make sense? What message is actually being offered here? Is it a good one? What part of it do I believe will make my life and the lives of those around me better? What part of it is good advice? Is any of it non-applicable? Bad advice? Just some guy’s opinion?” I was finally able to hear things like how unbelievers “…are like the man who unplugs a spotlight and then blames the spotlight for not giving any light” and think, “Yeah, that doesn’t actually make any sense,” without feeling bad for “speaking against the Lord’s anointed.” And, even for an unbeliever, there were plenty of good messages to take away about how to become better people. In fact, some of them had more power with an eye of skepticism: examining the messages being taught instead of merely accepting them all meant that you really did figure out what would be helpful and good in your own life. For the record, Pres. Monson’s important message was to be an example and a light of goodness to those around you, a message I believe is equally applicable and good for everyone, regardless of your belief.
But I’ll be damned if I ever use the word “ponderize” in a serious setting.