Thursday, July 30, 2009

Health care reform

Last night I caught part of a newscast in which someone from Congress was being interviewed about the health care reform bill. I don't remember who the Congressional representative was, whether they were Republican or Democrat—that's not relevant here. The interviewer wanted to know how many people this particular representative's preferred health care proposal would "leave behind" or "leave out" (I forget the exact wording). I expected the representative to sidestep the suggestion that he was leaving anyone behind by couching his response carefully in terms of how many people his preferred proposal would cover. So I was thrown when he responded by matter-of-factly throwing out various numbers of people who might be left without insurance depending on the final configuration of the bill: 30 million, 17 million, 8 million.

Judgment: Watering down what was originally intended to be a universal health care plan into something that unashamedly leaves out some number of people is a case of turning your back on the poor (Alma 5:55) or turning the beggar out to perish (Mosiah 4:16). As someone who has accepted a divine charge to "plead the cause of the poor and the needy" (D&C 124:75), I feel moved to say: We will be judged by God and found wanting as a nation if we turn our backs on the uninsured at this juncture in history. We are happy to watch our nation's leaders shovel billions of dollars at the task of making war; it's time to reevaluate our priorities.

Predictably, the conservative fearmongers (I'm looking at you especially, Brother Beck) have raised the specter of "rationing" medical care; I'm sure it's a fear that resonates with a lot of politically conservative American LDS. Since what's being proposed at this point is a public option that would exist alongside of, rather than replace, private health insurance, this fear seems unjustifiably paranoid (or calculatingly propagandistic). But what if it were true? From a Latter-day Saint perspective, why would that be a problem? Here would be a chance for us to step up and live out the principles of the law of consecration, to which in theory we have committed ourselves. "Rationing" health care, if such a thing were to occur, would mean that those of us who have ready access to health care on demand because we have the luxury of being able to pay for it would be asked to sacrifice that privilege—that wealth—so that everyone could have equal access to services they need. That's the basic distributive principle of the law of consecration, the law which we are told we must learn to live in order to receive God's fulness (D&C 78:6-7; 105:3-5).

So to any American LDS who may be within the reach of my virtual voice: I beg you, step up to the challenge! Say yes to the call God is issuing to us at this historical moment! Instead of retreating from the specter of socialized medicine, let's seize this moment to call for even more than our timid leaders in Washington are willing to contemplate.


God of justice and equity,
God of power and might—

You know the prayer of my heart.
If I try to put it into words here, it will just get all cerebral and careful and technical.

So I simply lift to you the desires of my heart.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A family reunion, far in the future

My D&C readings for this week were on the topics of the Nauvoo Temple and work for the dead. There's a lot to reflect on there. But my thoughts ran this week in the direction of producing what you'll find below. I'm a bit embarrassed about posting it, for fear that it's pretentious, or sappy, or just silly. ("On the other hand," he added with a cynical grimace, "when has that stopped me before?")


We’re sitting on a beach around a campfire as the sun sets into the ocean—me, my parents, my three brothers. My mother chose this place for our reunion. It’s a not-yet-peopled earth: a telestial world, not a paradisiacal one, so the natural conditions are like those we experienced during mortality, the air heavy with the smells of both life and decomposition. A maritime climate, on a westward-facing coast, this beach is a close match for those of the Pacific Northwest, where my parents retired to spend the last years of their earth life. The flora and fauna of this world are somewhat different; but the sounds and smells of the ocean are familiar, the feel of the air, the cloud formations painted with the colors of sunset, the glassy smooth beach and the tidal pools my mother is fond of. It reminds me, as it’s meant to, of family vacations we took back on earth when my brothers and I were growing up.

By agreement, this reunion is strictly for our nuclear family. No ancestors, no posterity, not even spouses. There is one exception. We’re expecting to be joined later by my niece Christine and her husband, whom she met and courted posthumously. They also “happen” to be on this world, doing a running tour as R&R following their latest mission—the kind of diehard athleticism they both relish. We all understand that my mother chose this world for our reunion in large part for the opportunity to see Christine, too. We don’t begrudge her that. We’re long past begrudging each other anything.

But for the moment, it’s still just the six of us. We don’t get together as a family very often, contrary to what we may have once imagined the slogan “Together Forever” to imply. We’re each busy with different projects, ministries, stewardships, our own families, and ever-widening circles of other relationships to keep track of. Even within mortality, we naturally grew apart as my brothers and I left home, built careers, became coupled, started families; in immortality, those divergences have widened exponentially.

Still, it’s a joy to come together. It’s important. The little net of relationships that binds us together is at the core of who we are as embodied beings, just as our relationship with our Heavenly Parents—“I am a child of God”—was at the core of who we were in the premortal life.

After the resurrection, there was a long, long period of judgment, a period that at that early stage of our immortality seemed interminable. It took us millennia to come to terms with the white-hot, seething instant that was our mortal life—unfathomably short but incredibly eventful and utterly significant for determining what can follow, like the first infinitesimal fractions of a second in a Big Bang, when a new universe explodes into being. We spent the equivalent of lifetime upon lifetime sifting through everything we had done and everything that had happened to us during mortality; learning to know as we are known; growing in charity and empathy for those with whom we had crossed paths over the years; taking accountability for the myriad ways we had wounded or failed our fellow beings; seeking out those we had wronged to apologize, and forgiving those who came to us to do the same.

Like all families, we had a lot of work to do together during that period. One of the slogans of that time was that “our nuclear family was a nuclear reactor.” For my brothers and me, this family was the atomic reaction—the Big Bang—that brought our embodied selves into existence. It was the source of our particular genetic identities and the setting in which our psyches first started to take shape. For my parents, this family was the crucible in which they forged their married lives and undertook for the first time the role of parent, a role they've prized for almost as long as they have had bodies.

But the “nuclear reactor” metaphor was also supposed to convey that family relationships are “radioactive.” As members of the same nuclear family, we were more intimate with one another than we were with anyone else in earth life except, for my parents, the nuclear families from which they had come, and for my brothers and me, the partnerships and families we formed in turn as adults. Given the uniquely raw conditions of mortality, we will never, in all eternity, be intimate in those particular ways with anyone else ever again; we will never again create relationships with those same particular capacities for joy. But living for so many years in that kind of hothouse intimacy also meant that we could and did hurt each other—a lot. We faced up to some of that during earth life, which made it easier for us to work together after death. But there was a lot more reconciling still to do after the resurrection, especially after the judgment made our lives entirely transparent, which they never were during mortality—every secret revealed, every cruelty and betrayal, great or petty. Not all families make it through that process; or at least the work of reconciliation has to be laid aside, incomplete, until family members are ready to come back and take it up again.

So the joy of being with one another here on this beach is a joy we’ve worked hard together to make possible. It’s partly the joy of nostalgia—of coming together to share the memory of a past we once shared, to recreate that past the best we can at this remove in time and space. But it’s also the joy of a long-time intimacy that has endured and evolved. We’re not the same people now that we were even by the end of mortality—thank God! But whatever we now are and are becoming builds on foundations we created together during earth life, even if clumsily, or often thoughtlessly, or by sheer happenstance.

That’s what we honor and celebrate as we sit on this beach around the fire. We sing songs that we haven’t sung, literally, in ages. My father plays his harmonica—badly, the way he used to do in earth life, to make us laugh, not the virtuoso performances he’s learned to give since then. We narrate favorite memories, diplomatically overlooking discrepancies between what have become the standard dramatic renditions and the actual facts as our perfectly restored memories now recall them. We talk about the present—our spouses; the activities of our posterity, those of us who have them; our current labors in the vineyard. We savor the peace of having passed beyond wounded hearts and malfunctioning bodies. Night falls as we enjoy the sensations of being on this world that is both like and unlike the earth where we were born and died, reminding us of what used to be while pointing toward futures still to be written.

In the moonlight shining on the water, I can make out two figures in the distance, running across the ocean toward us. Any moment now, my mother will see them too, and run out to meet them.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Liberty Jail, certainty, and ambivalence

My D&C reading for this week was the Liberty Jail sections—two of them, anyway. (The assigned reading omitted D&C 123, which surprised me a little since church leaders have stated that they continue to regard that section as binding on the church; the First Presidency cited this section as the rationale for the Strengthening Church Members committee.)

Before I go any further, I want to say that I have prayed in the words of D&C 121 and 122 on many occasions. See this past post for one example. I feel I should say that because the tone of where I think I'm going to go with this week's post is in a critical vein, and so I want to make clear that these sections speak to me in addition to my speaking back against them.

I was asking myself this week: What do we learn from these sections about Joseph Smith's spirituality? We see his thirst for knowledge: a big part of the vision that evidently keeps him going in the midst of this miserable time is that someday he will know if there is one God or many gods; he will know the outer limits of heaven, earth, and sea, if they exist; he will know the revolutions, days, months, and years of the heavenly bodies (121:26-32). That's eternal life for him—to have his intellectual horizons expanded to the utmost; to know everything there is to know.

We see his hunger for ministerial authority, for followers who will turn to him for counsel and blessing (122:2). We see his hunger for faithful friends and for a people who will be unfailingly loyal to him (121: 9-10; 122:3).

We see his yearning to make his enemies fear and tremble (122:4), to see their hopes blasted (121:11). We see the intensity of his anger, an anger that makes it comforting to him to imagine his enemies—and the enemies of his people—stripped of their possessions and made to suffer everything that they have made him and his people suffer (121:13, 20). He feels that they deserve to be drowned with a millstone around their neck (121:22). They and their posterity, he feels, deserve to be wiped out from the face of the earth—and he derives a grim satisfaction from his conviction that someday this act of utter destruction will be accomplished (121:15).

I can't fault Joseph for his anger without implicating myself; anger looms large in my spiritual life, too. That's a big part of why these sections speak to me. But with the recognition that the judgment falls on me as well, I will voice my opinion that the anger we see being vented in these sections needs to be swallowed up in the pure love of Christ.

There's one more important thing we learn about Joseph's spirituality from these sections that I want to point to—and this is the main idea I wanted to get to today. We see in these sections Joseph's absolute certainty that he and his people are in the right and that God is going to give them the victory in the end. D&C 121 begins with a prayer of protest, perhaps even a prayer of despair: but it isn't the kind of despair that would prompt Joseph to doubt the existence of God. Joseph has grown weary of waiting to see God intervene; but he doesn't doubt that God is there to intervene, and intends to intervene, on his and the Saints' behalf.

I have very mixed feelings about a faith that intense. Part of me envies Joseph for his certainty. His faith and hope survive Liberty Jail intact because they rest on bedrock convictions. I don't know if I could survive similar circumstances. I suspect not. I sense too strongly the plausibility of the conclusions that there isn't really a God or at least that I've misapprehended God's will. I sense that faith comes a lot harder for me than it does for Joseph. I have to labor at it; for him, it seems more natural, like breathing. He's certain who God is and what God wills and where he (Joseph) stands in relation to that.

As I say, there's a part of me that envies that. But there's also a part of me that's repelled by it. I'm reminded of Michael, the man who served as my spiritual mentor for several years in Salt Lake after I stopped attending the LDS Church and came out of the closet. Michael had certainty, and that's what drew me to him. His certainty was based on mystical experiences that left him without any doubt that God is real and death is not; that God shines through each and every one of us if we can just stand out of the way. Michael had no doubt that God had nothing against my homosexuality. He had no doubt that my itching to go back to the Dominican Republic was a call from God. I did have doubts about those things. I desired to believe, as Alma 32 says. But I still felt the rhetorical and psychological force of the LDS Church's teachings against homosexuality; I suspected that my urge to go back to the Dominican Republic was just nostalgia or romantic idealism better ignored. I leaned on Michael's certainty while I developed my own leg muscles, so to speak. Without him, I probably wouldn't have had the experience of going back to the Dominican Republic in 1997, an experience that I now see as profoundly important in my spiritual journey.

I often wished for Michael's certainty. But then he would say or do something that would make me realize, "No. I don't want this." I was grateful that he had that gift, and that he was willing to make his gift available to me. But I could see how my propensity toward ambivalence and self-doubt and "problematizing" everything, as we say in academia—I could see how that was also a spiritual gift. Michael's certainty could be very frustrating at times. It blinded him to certain realities. It could make him very difficult to collaborate with, since he was not inclined to compromise. It eventually contributed to something of a falling out between us, which didn't get reconciled before he died, something I regret very much.

I have similar feelings about Joseph Smith's certainty. It's a gift, but it's also a liability. Joseph comes out of Liberty Jail as convinced as ever that he is God's uniquely appointed servant and that his people are threatened by enemies who want to destroy them (a fear he's harbored since back in New York). If anything, his "us versus them" siege mentality has become even more intense, and his theocratic vision gets ratched up a notch (or several). It's not just about communitarianism and a safe place to wait out the endtimes anymore, with "judges in Israel" and a "School of the Prophets." In Nauvoo, he builds up a virtually independent theocratic city-state, with an army at his command, and a Council of Fifty to administer the affairs of the as yet hidden but literal earthly kingdom of God, and eventually himself crowned king, with aspirations of actually running the United States as president. Eventually—I think it's safe to say, inevitably—that theocratic vision got him killed.

What if Joseph had had more ambivalence, or had been more willing to listen to those among his followers who had more ambivalence? What if the Liberty Jail experience had prompted him to reconsider his sectarian, theocratic millenarianism—to wonder if he had accurately apprehended God's will? What if he had been moved to see his initiatives and rhetoric as helping to contribute to the Missouri conflicts, rather than seeing the Saints as purely innocent victims? What if in Nauvoo he had implemented a policy of greater accommodation toward the rest of American society, like that which the Latter-day Saints were finally forced to adopt at the end of the 19th century as a result of the federal campaign against polygamy? It could have dramatically changed Mormon history. Possibly Joseph wouldn't have died at the hands of a mob in Carthage Jail. Possibly there would have been no trek west. Possibly the Saints could have kept Nauvoo and returned to Missouri, as the RLDS did. Possibly Mormonism's growth would have been more modest, more like the RLDS/Community of Christ than like the LDS. Possibly contemporary Mormonism would have shed many of its doctrinal and ritual distinctives (by no means an obviously good thing). Possibly there would have been no polygamy and therefore no polygamy crisis. Possibly there would never have been a Mountain Meadows Massacre (an unquestionably good thing).

Obviously I'm trafficking in hopelessly speculative hypotheticals. But I think the possibilities for historical alternatives are worth contemplating because I don't take it for granted that the way Mormon history actually unfolded—and is currently unfolding—represents God's ideal scenario. D&C 121:33 tells us that "as well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints." Yes, but with a crucial caveat: receiving new knowledge requires being open to new knowledge, which means being open to rethinking, reconsidering, questioning, doubting what you already think you know. It requires a measure of ambivalence.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Iran update, and the Episcopal general convention

I was encouraged to read about former Iranian president Rafsanjani's Friday speech criticizing the crackdown on protesters. It's important for people at that level to voice solidarity with the protesters; it prevents the regime from dismissing dissenters so easily. It also helps to expose rifts among the elite, which in turn helps undermine the "taken for granted" quality of the dominant ideology.

And I was encouraged that so many people are still willing to come out to protest; I was afraid perhaps they had been cowed into submission.

Ignoring the reformists is increasingly not an option for the conservatives, it seems to me. They're either going to have to make concessions of some kind, or they're going to have to crack down ruthlessly. The terrifying question hanging in the air at this point is: Are the conservatives cruel enough to pursue the second option? Or will a glimmer of conscience prevail?

Earlier this week, I got to wondering why I've felt so invested in what's happening in Iran. I have a hunch it has to do with my own identification with a religion that has a history of theocratic aspirations, and with a church run by conservatives who have shown themselves willing to take relatively repressive measures against dissent (e.g., secret files, firings). As an addendum to the much larger good it would do for Iranians and the Middle East, a shift toward a somewhat more progressive government in Iran would be a sign of hope for a more progressive Mormonism.


Also in the news this week: the Episcopal church's general convention approved the ordination of gays and lesbians and the blessing of same-sex unions. As someone who's been worshipping with Episcopalians for several years, including participation in the Utah chapter of Integrity (the Episcopal ministry for and with gays and lesbians), I've been frustrated by what's seemed to me like the church's waffling on these issues. They were all so excited and pleased with themselves about Gene Robinson's ordination—until Anglicans elsewhere in the world started breathing out threatenings, a turn of events that seemed to take American Episcopalians by surprise, at which point the Episcopalians started wringing their hands about preserving the unity of the communion and backed off. It was maddening. I felt like: Either you people lack the foresight to have anticipated the inevitable conflict your full acceptance of gays and lesbians would occasion, or you're fair-weather liberals who lack the gumption to stand by your principles; either way, I'm not impressed.

From this latest round of resolutions (cautious though they be in a way), it looks like the majority have resolved to screw their courage to the sticking place. My sense is that the moderates have finally realized that their efforts to meet the conservatives halfway are doomed to fail since the conservatives won't settle for a meeting halfway. A schism seems inevitable, but it will have to be the conservatives who initiate it—they will, of course, blame the liberals, but it will be the conservatives, not the liberals, who actually turn around and walk away. A vindictive part of me I'm not proud of is pleased that after all the times, as a Mormon, I've seen religious conservatives expel or pressure liberals to leave, now I get to witness a case of conservatives getting something that approaches a taste of that medicine. I need to pray for forgiveness for enjoying that.


God of justice,
God of love,
God of hope,
Maker of wonders,
Healer of wounds—

I pray for the protesters in Iran.
I give thanks for their courage and continuing resolve.
I pray for a shift that will give moderates and reformists greater influence in that country.

I give thanks for the Episcopal Church's witness for and with gay and lesbian people.
I pray for those who are frustrated or angered or grieved by this development.
I confess my vindictiveness.
I pray for that love which you bestow on all who strive to follow your Son.

In Christ's name, amen.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Haitian development plan

I learned a couple of days ago that the Haitian island to which I made a mission trip a year and a half ago has been targeted for development by private investors. The extremely ambitious plan is to turn the island into a giant resort. Supposedly every person living on the island is to be guaranteed a job. It's by no means clear that this plan will ever come to fruition, but the investors are pushing for cooperation from the Haitian government.

My feelings about this are, at my most generous, highly ambivalent. Part of me feels that since I don't have to eke out a life for myself on this island, I'm not really entitled to have objections. People there need to decide whether they think this proposal will benefit them (assuming, though, that they'll have any kind of democratic voice in the process, which probably shouldn't be assumed). I'm sure lots of people living there will see the investment as a godsend.

On the other hand, it makes me furious that we live in a global system where this development is happening because some investors want to turn the island into a playground where rich people can be waited on by poor black people. This plan arises from a system of unequal wealth and privilege that is by definition evil, even if good can be made to come of it. My mind is drawn to D&C 49:20—"It is not given that one person should possess that which is above another; therefore the world lies in sin." Or D&C 104:16—"This is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints: that the poor shall be exalted in that the rich are made low." I believe that. The Lord didn't say he would provide for the poor by securing them jobs bringing cold drinks to the rich as they lounge on the beach. This is not the way the world is supposed to work, and I resent feeling like we have to settle for it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Zion's Camp and quiet dissent

This week I read the revelations written during the first Missouri crisis, when the Saints were driven out of Jackson County (D&C 101, 103, 105). In the spirit of declaring the things that I have seen (1 Ne. 1:18), here's what I see happening in those sections.

Joseph is trying to make sense of this unexpected disaster. At first he is convinced that God is telling him: Stick with the original plan. The Saints are to keep buying up all the available land, and once they've done that, then the Lord will send Joseph at the head of an army to conquer their enemies and take back what's theirs. The setback, he's convinced, is due to the Saints having been slow to carry out the plan, contentious, etc.—but if the Saints will keep raising money to buy land, and raise an army for Joseph to lead, then from this very hour things are going to start turning around. At the same time, there are signs of doubt: What if the Saints won't raise an army big enough? So right there in the middle of the revelation, expectations downshift: Raise an army of 500... well, see if you can get 300... or maybe 100... at least 100, minimum. And then when Joseph finally gets his little army to Missouri and it becomes clear that they're not going to be able to prevail by force—then a revelation comes that says: Actually, you don't need to fight for Zion; God will wipe out your enemies for you in his own time. Anyway, Zion can't be redeemed until you've been endowed with power from on high in the temple—so go back to Kirtland and get that finished. At the same time, the new setback is once again blamed on the Saints' disobedience—though the revelation hastens to clarify that this condemnation doesn't apply to Joseph and other church leaders.

If I were telling this story about the charismatic leader of some other religious sect, instead of about Joseph Smith, I trust that Mormons would readily recognize the self-serving nature of these revelations. On the other hand, there's a sense in which I can't fault Joseph. He's doing what anyone does who tries to live by ongoing revelation, including me: He tries to discern God's will according to his best lights, and when events don't unfold as he expected, he adjusts his understanding. And given human nature, it certainly shouldn't come as a surprise that there's a self-serving dimension in all this. I'm sure readers of this blog wouldn't have a hard time pointing out the self-serving dimensions of my efforts to seek personal revelation.

But of course there's a hugely important difference. Joseph is professing to receive revelation to guide an entire community. People's lives are at stake in this process. And it's therefore dangerous that the revelatory process being followed is so unilateral. Whatever Joseph thinks God is telling him to do, that's what the commnuity's supposed to do. There's no check-and-balance for the perfectly human tendency for Joseph to conclude that his will is God's will. Clearly not all the Saints were convinced by Joseph's revelations on this subject. That's why the revelations keep complaining that the Saints aren't doing what they're told. Significant numbers of Saints aren't convinced that they should keep on raising money to buy land in a region where their coreligionists are being driven out by mobs, and they're hanging back from enlisting in Zion's Camp. They're not convinced this is God's plan.

Joseph is completely uninterested in other Saints' reservations. He knows what God wants them to do; end of story. The doubters need to fall in line—and when they don't, well, that's why things didn't work the way the revelations promised. That's how Joseph understands the situation, and how his loyalists understand the situation—and it's the loyalist account that becomes offical church history, since it's the loyalists who stick with Joseph through the schism produced when the continuing deterioration of the situation in Missouri, coupled with crises in Kirtland like the failed "anti-banking society," convince many Saints, including high-ranking church leaders and long-time friends, that Joseph has become a fallen prophet.

I wonder: How might things have been different if Joseph hadn't insisted on making pronouncements about God's will unilaterally? What if he had followed the principles laid out in D&C 88:122: "Let not all be spokesmen at once; but let one speak at a time and let all listen to his sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every [one] may have an equal privilege"? What if Joseph had sat in council with other church leaders—or even better, if he'd held an even more public forum, a "town meeting"—in which he said to the Saints: "Here's what I think the Spirit is telling me God wants us to do in response to this crisis... But what do you think?" And then all the Saints who had reservations about Joseph's understanding of God's will could voice those reservations, and Joseph would listen, and people would express differing opinions back and forth—and then Joseph could go reflect prayerfully on what he'd heard and come back to the leading councils of the church and said, "All right—as the person ultimately responsible to seek God's will for leading this church, here's what I think God wants us to do."

But that scenario would have required a lot more humility on Joseph's part than the historical record shows he had.

I'm intrigued to know more about the Saints who quietly dissented from Joseph's revelations on this subject—who didn't donate money to buy land, who didn't enlist in Zion's Camp. I'd like to know how they understood the nature of Joseph's prophetic calling. I'd like to know what they understood as the essence of being Mormon. Clearly they did not take the loyalist view that being Mormon means committing to believe and do whatever Joseph Smith tells them they're supposed to believe and do. So what did their commitment to Mormonism consist of? From the point of the loyalists—then and now—these quiet dissenters were simply uncommitted, unfaithful, apostates, unwilling to make the sacrifices God required of them. But I'd like to have the chance to hear what the dissenters (would it be too much of a stretch to call them "conscientious objectors"?) would have had to say for themselves—"to listen to [their] sayings, that when all have spoken that all may be edified of all, and that every [one] may have an equal privilege."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Models of priesthood

My readings this week from the D&C/Church history curriculum were on the subject of priesthood. I remember as a deacon learning to define priesthood as "the authority to act in God's name." That central preoccupation with authority was reflected in my readings as well, especially D&C 107 and 121 (though 121 at least has the redeeming quality of being a statement condemning the unrighteous use of authority).

There are better ways for us to talk about priesthood than in terms of authority. Priesthood is about service. It's about being commissioned and empowered to help carry out God's work—about being able to tap into the powers of heaven to be an instrument for bringing blessings into others' lives. And understood in those terms, priesthood is something that every Latter-day Saint has or ought to have. Or better yet, priesthood is something that every Latter-day Saint ought to live.

Here are the two models, or images, of priesthood drawn from LDS tradition that speak to me most powerfully:

1. "Lord, pour out your Spirit upon your servant." In Mosiah 18, we read about Alma baptizing the community of believers who have met at the Waters of Mormon. Before performing the first baptism, Alma prays, "O Lord, pour out your Spirit upon your servant, that he may do this work with holiness of heart." The text then reports that "when he had said these words, the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he said: Helam, I baptize you, having authority from the Almighty God..." (18:12-13). To resolve the problem of how Alma can baptize without himself having been baptized, he immerses himself at the same time he immerses Helam. (Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery will opt for a different solution to that problem.)

Later, scriptorians like Joseph Fielding Smith, who want the scriptures to be a consistent exposition of contemporary LDS doctrine, will have to invent answers to the question: Where did Alma get the authority to baptize? And their inevitable answer will be: Well, somehow, sometime, somewhere, he must have been ordained to the Aaronic or Melchizedek priesthood. But what we're actually seeing in this passage is a model of priesthood that predates Joseph's thinking about the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. Alma's authority to baptize is the outpouring of the Spirit he receives in response to the prayer he offers immediately preceding the baptism. The Spirit authorizes him to baptize—or to put it another way, the Spirit empowers him to baptize. The Spirit empowers him to minister.

(Note, incidentally, that the question of authority in Mosiah 18 isn't a question of having the right office. The question is: How can Alma presume to minister as a sinful human being? Hence he prays that the Spirit will give him "holiness of heart"—that holiness being what will authorize him, or qualify him, to do God's work.)

I regret that Joseph wasn't content to keep priesthood that simple in the LDS movement. But he—and his male followers—loved holding office, loved getting promotions, loved heaping title upon title. When he ran out of titles from the Bible to graft on his awkwardly sprawling system of priesthood offices (a system that LDS and RLDS leaders would spend decades trying to figure out how to make actually work), Joseph turned to Masonry as a source of further degrees of aggrandizement. If I force myself to interpret this charitably, I can understand why marginalized people would long for the power exercised by their society's elites; I can even warm to the neverending expansion of priesthood offices and degrees and anointings as a way to enact the principle of eternal progression. But I also yearn for the simplicity of a faith community where the Spirit is recognized as pouring out gifts that enable people to serve in a variety of capacities, without this preoccupation for the proper line of authority, the proper channels, who is and is not eligible to be ordained, etc. Mosiah 18 points toward that vision, even though the LDS community quickly moved in a very different direction.

This past Friday I led a Taize worship service for members of the Episcopal church Hugo and I attend, as I do on the first Friday of every month. And as I do on many occasions when I'm about to begin something I'm conscious of as an act of serivce, I silently prayed the words spoken by Alma: "Lord, pour out your Spirit upon your servant, that I may do this work with holiness of heart."

2. "Kings and queens, priests and priestesses." The symbols of priesthood as they're used in the temple are another place in LDS tradition where I sense God pushing us away from models of priesthood as hierarchical authority and exclusive privilege. We haven't gone as far, yet, as I sense God would like us to go. But the temple ceremonies get us moving in the right direction. In the temple, priesthood is for women and men both (although there are still vestiges of 19th-century gender inequality, despite the helpful 1990 revisions). All are anointed to be priests or priestesses; all are told that they are "prepared to officiate in the ordinances" of the priesthood. All exercise what in the Bible is reserved as the exclusive privilege of the high priest: to pass through the temple veil into the presence of God. This is a priesthood open, in theory at least, to anyone who is willing to make a lifelong covenant commitment to the principles of the gospel, including sacrifice, charity, modesty, temperance, fidelity, service. Everyone who makes that commitment is a minister of God, endowed with power from on high.

In other words, the temple uses symbols of priesthood as a way of illustrating for us what commitment to the gospel entails. In baptism, that commitment is portrayed for us as death and rebirth—beginning a new life as a member of the body of Christ, enlivened by Christ's Spirit. In the endowment, that same commitment is represented to us as a priestly commission—a commission to be priests and priestesses, ministers of God's grace, to those around us. In the world, we're plainclothes priests; but in the temple we dress the part so we can see what our true calling is, and outside the temple we wear the garment under our street clothes so we won't forget.

That's why I keep wearing temple garments, even after being excommunicated, even though I have to wear garments that are 15 years old and falling apart. (I need to come up with a solution to that problem soon.) It's how I remember that I've committed to be a priestly person. I'm a lousy priest, but I accept the obligation to serve.

That's what priesthood means to me.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Summer Snowman

Okay, I feel this post is only loosely related to the theme of this blog—except it does have to do with family history and family traditions, which are certainly important in LDS spiritual practice. But mostly I'm posting these photos here as an easy way to share them with members of my family.

But for other readers, let me explain: When I was growing up, my family had a Fourth of July tradition based on the book The Summer Snowman, written back in the 1950s by Gene Zion. The book's about a boy who makes a little snowman during the winter and can't bear for it to melt, so he stores it in his freezer. Then he brings it out on the Fourth of July, and the townspeople are all really tickled by it, but in the midst of the excitement, the snowman melts away, which as I seem to recall is kind of sad, though I haven't read this book in, like, a quarter century.

Anyway, our family custom was that near the end of winter, we'd make a snowman about a foot high, wrap it in tin foil, and store it in the freezer. On the Fourth of July, we'd bring it outside, Mom would read the story, and we'd eat popsicles while we watched the snowman melt. One year we ended up having a snowball fight, which was great fun. I don't remember when the tradition stopped.

This winter, there was an unusual amount of snowfall for this area (which is the same as saying there was snowfall, period). And for some reason it occurred to me to make a summer snowman. So today I dug it out of the back of the freezer and took it outside, near our apartment complex's pool, and sat under a tree with the dog, doing some editing work while the snowman melted. I'd hoped it might attract the attention of some of the kids in the complex, with whom I often interact while walking the dog, but in the end it was just me and the dog watching the snowman melt.

Once there was a snowman, snowman, snowman.
Once there was a snowman, tall, tall, tall.

In the sun he melted, melted, melted.
In the sun he melted, small...,
(The dog finished it off as a snack.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Iran update, and anti-anti-immigrant missionaries

Iran remains in my prayers. I'm praying that leaders of other nations, especially the European Union, will be inspired to place appropriate, effective pressure on the Iranian government.
Break in pieces the oppressor, Lord; execute judgment for the oppressed (Ps. 72:4; 146:7).


This week I came across a Salt Lake Tribune story that was actually written a couple of weeks ago about a group called Missionaries for Compassion Toward Immigrants founded by returned LDS missionaries. They've been working to counter SB81, a Utah bill, now law, that aims to clamp down on undocumented immigrants. From what I've seen of the group, it demonstrates the transformative potential of the LDS missionary experience. These are individuals who, because of their missionary service, have developed solidarity with individuals and families who have, or have considered, immigrating illegally to the United States. These returned missionaries' perspective is therefore more empathetic—more charitable, in the "pure love of Christ" sense—than that of the anti-immigration activists, who judging from comments quoted in the Tribune story conceive of undocumented immigrants simply as a faceless invasion of greedy, law-trampling foreigners.

I'm realizing as I write this that I don't often feel proud of being a Mormon: it's a personal commitment that typically feels like a burden (like a bad marriage, perhaps). Missionaries for Compassion Toward Immigrants give me reason to feel proud. It lifts my heart, quite literally, to see their anxious engagement in this good cause.
Give them success, Lord; when their hearts are depressed, give them comfort, and help them face setbacks with patience (Alma 26:27).