Sunday, May 23, 2010

A spiritual fellowship in exile

Lord, you have commanded us to call upon you,
so that from you we may receive according to our desires.
(Ether 3:2)

Those who have been scattered shall be gathered.
(D&C 101:13)
I have a desire—a vision, if you will. On this Pentecost, the day that liturgical Christians commemorate the pouring out of the Spirit on the body of believers, I want to lay this desire before God publicly in the hope that there may be others out there, within the sound of my online voice, who share this desire. Despite the optimism of the verse from Ether I quoted above, I know that we don’t always receive according to our desires. So perhaps my vision will never be anything more than a pipe dream. But for what it may be worth, I offer the following.

I envision a spiritual fellowship of Mormons in exile. It’s nothing as organized as a "church" (or as preoccupied with questions of ecclesiastical authority). It’s a fellowship, or a loose network of local fellowships, composed of people from the LDS tradition who remain committed to Mormons symbols, texts, and practices as means of encountering God, but who are alienated from the conservative-dominated institutional church.

This fellowship exists to worship together. This is a spiritual fellowship. It’s not a therapeutic support group or an intellectual study group. Members come together to be nourished by the good word of God, to fast and pray, to speak with one another concerning the welfare of their souls, to partake of bread and wine in remembrance of the Lord Jesus (Moroni 6:4-6).

This fellowship offers the full range of Mormon ritual practice. This fellowship in exile believes it is empowered to perform cherished Mormon rituals for its members, independent of LDS Church authorities: baptism, the sacrament, baby blessings, health blessings, patriarchal/evangelist’s blessings, sealings, the endowment, priesthood ordination if that’s something the fellowship decides to do.

This fellowship explores the untapped possibilities of Mormon tradition. The fellowship’s primary goal is to discern what the Spirit has to teach them through Mormon texts and practices. Because Mormon tradition includes an invitation to embrace truth wherever it is to be found, the fellowship might embrace teachings, practices, symbols, music, etc., from other traditions as these seem to resonate with aspects of Mormon tradition. But the fellowship is distinctively, centrally, richly Mormon in character. It isn’t a fellowship of people who are in the process of moving into some other tradition or for whom Mormonism is just one of a number of traditions from which they mix and match. If a Jewish analogy makes sense to you, what I’m envisioning is Reconstructionist Mormonism, not Reform Mormonism.

This fellowship seeks innovative ways to understand and live Mormon tradition. In response to the invitation to conduct their meetings according to the promptings of the Spirit (Moroni 6:9), the fellowship experiments with different worship styles—liturgical, contemplative, charismatic, contemporary. They write new songs, or chants, or liturgies, based on Mormon texts. They forge new traditions for commemorating events in Mormon sacred history or for sacralizing major life events. They find imaginative ways to enact gospel principles such as service and consecration. Acting in the faith that God unfolds truth line on line, precept on precept (2 Nephi 28:30), in ways adapted to our limited understanding (D&C 1:24), the fellowship develops new ways of reading and interpreting the LDS scriptures, and they revise rituals and other traditions to reflect changes in their theology.

This fellowship operates democratically—ideally, by consensus. This fellowship is not for would-be prophets in search of a following, nor for followers in search of a new prophet. Discerning God’s will for the group is the privilege and responsibility of all members of the fellowship, equally and collectively. There is no hierarchy of authority, except to the extent that the fellowship may agree to temporarily delegate certain responsibilities to individuals as “stewardships.”

This fellowship does not insist on the historicity of Mormon claims. My personal preference would be to see the fellowship simply reject historicity, but at least they should develop ways of engaging with Mormon scripture and ritual that don’t depend on historicity—that don’t depend, in other words, on the Book of Mormon being an ancient document, or on the literal, historical reality of priesthood restoration, or the resurrection, or the Atonement, or pre-existence, etc. The fellowship is prepared to welcome those who approach these traditional teachings as symbolic rather than literal truth.

This fellowship is committed to the full, equal participation of women and of GLBT people. Among other things, this means rejecting a male-only priesthood. What to do instead is a question on which the fellowship will have to arrive at some kind of common consent. I’m prepared to adopt a radically “Protestant” position: In baptism, we take upon ourselves the name of Christ; thus all baptized people are empowered to act in the name of Christ, which is the same power that priesthood ordination is supposed to confer. Priesthood ordination is therefore entirely superfluous, although it may offer practical benefits as a way of organizing an institution. The fellowship might agree on a less radical solution than this, but somehow the fellowship needs to break down exclusions based on gender.

I want to reiterate: What I’m envisioning here is a fellowship in exile from the LDS Church. This is not a fellowship of people who are hoping to reform the LDS Church from within. This fellowship is not worried about staying within the bounds of what LDS authorities would find tolerable or about avoiding offense to orthodox sensibilities. It’s a fellowship of people who are prepared to follow the Spirit wherever they decide, collectively, that it is leading them—with the understanding that what they are asking to Spirit to teach them is how to more creatively use the resources made available to us in the Mormon tradition.

Maybe there’s no one out there interested in this vision. Maybe it’s just a quirky, idiosyncratic dream of my own. I often suspect that the majority of Mormons—conservative or liberal—aren’t as passionate about devotional practice as I am; their attachment to Mormonism has more to do with social bonds, or heritage, or intellect. (Or maybe that suspicion is just a kind of arrogance on my part.) Possibly most Mormons who have become as theologically liberal as this vision requires have also moved beyond such an exclusive interest in Mormonism as this vision requires. But I’m going to keep operating on the assumption—the faith, the hope—that someday, somewhere, a fellowship like this might come into being.

The first thing I want to do is develop a new version of the endowment, with which I have been in love since I was first endowed in 1991. I’m creating this new endowment in the faith that someday there will be a community to whom I can take it and say, “Shall we try it out?”—and they’ll read it, discuss it, revise it, perform it, discuss it again, develop yet other versions that innovate in different ways. I’ll be working on this in my Sabbath reflection time, little by little, over the next several months, I would imagine. So I may not post to the blog as regularly for a while, though I’m sure I’ll want to post in response to current events that strike my nerves, and I may post updates to the new endowment project as it comes along.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Helaman 5, edited

For today's Sabbath reflection, I'm posting an edited version of the story of Nephi and Lehi in prison, from Helaman 5. This edit follows the same priniciples as the edit of 1 Nephi 1 I posted earlier: I excerpted phrases to whittle the chapter down to a basic narrative core, then I did some light stylistic edits, mostly to make the language less archaic.

The one major license I took is that I replaced the word "repent" with the word "turn." The idea of "turning" or "re-turning" toward God is at the heart of one of the words used to convey repentance in the Hebrew Bible. I liked the way that word resonated with how the text later has Aminadab and the Lamanites turn to look at Nephi and Lehi. (Watch for it as you read.)

I've shared my reflections on this Book of Mormon story in an earlier post. Next Sunday is Pentecost, so the story strikes me as thematically appropriate for the season.


Nephi and his brother Lehi went out to teach the word of God.
They were taken by an army of the Lamanites and thrown into prison.
After they had been imprisoned many days,
the Lamanites came to take them to be killed.

But Nephi and Lehi were encircled as if by fire,
so that the Lamanites did not dare to lay hands on them.
When Nephi and Lehi saw that they were encircled by a pillar of fire,
and that it did not burn them,
their hearts took courage.
But the Lamanites stood dumb with amazement.

The earth shook, and the walls of the prison trembled
as if they were about to tumble, but they did not fall.
The Lamanites were overshadowed with a cloud of darkness,
and an awful fear came upon them.

There came a Voice as if from above the cloud of darkness.
It said, “Turn, turn.”
It was not a voice of thunder or tumultuous noise
but a voice of perfect mildness, like a whisper.
Yet it pierced the soul,
and the earth shook, and the walls of the prison trembled.

The Voice came again: “Turn, turn.”
Again the earth shook, and the walls trembled.

The Voice came a third time.
It spoke to them marvelous words that no human being can utter.
The earth shook, and the walls trembled.
But the Lamanites could not flee
because of the cloud of darkness that overshadowed them
and the fear that paralyzed them.

There was one among them who was a Nephite by birth,
who had once belonged to the church of God.
He turned and saw, through the cloud of darkness,
the faces of Nephi and Lehi—
they shone like the faces of angels.
They had their eyes lifted to heaven,
and they appeared to be talking to some being whom they saw.

This man cried to the crowd to turn and look.
They were given the power to turn,
and they too saw the faces of Nephi and Lehi.

They said to the man: “Who are these men talking with?”
The man’s name was Aminadab.
He said: “They are talking with the angels of God.”

The Lamanites said to him: “What should we do
so that this cloud of darkness may be removed from us?”
Aminadab said to them: “Cry to the Voice.”

So they all began to cry to the Voice—
they cried until the cloud of darkness was dispersed.
When they looked around,
they saw that they were encircled, every one, by a pillar of fire.
They were filled with unspeakable joy.
The Spirit of God came down from heaven and entered their hearts;
they were filled as if with fire,
and they could speak marvelous words.

There came a Voice—a pleasant voice, like a whisper.
It said: “Peace, peace be to you.”

They lifted their eyes to see where the Voice came from.
They saw the heavens open, and angels came down and ministered to them.

There were about three hundred souls who saw and heard these things.
They went out and ministered to the people in all the surrounding regions.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Priesthood restoration

Today is the anniversary of the date on which, according to Mormon tradition, the priesthood restoration began with John the Baptist's visit to Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith. For me, this is a day to reflect on the commission that all Latter-day Saints have received—irrespective of gender or ordination to any particular office—to carry out the work of God in the world.
Magnify the calling to which I have called you,
and the mission with which I have commissioned you.
(D&C 88:80)
And what is our calling and mission?
To share others' burdens so that they may be light,
to mourn with those who mourn,
to comfort those who stand in need of comfort (Mosiah 18:8-9);
to succor the weak,
to lift up the hands that hang down,
to strengthen the feeble knees (D&C 81:5);
to feed the hungry,
to clothe the naked,
to visit the sick and administer to their relief, both spiritually and temporally (Mosiah 4:26);
to plead the cause of the poor and needy (D&C 124:75);
to declare the truth with a loud voice, with a sound of rejoicing (D&C 19:37);
to do the works we have seen Jesus do (3 Nephi 27:21).

God of holiness—

You have made me a priest after the order, and in the likeness, of your Son.
You have commissioned me to do your work and to help enact your vision for creation.
You have called me to serve you by serving my fellow beings.

I want to serve you more faithfully and effectively.
I don't want to be a hypocrite who basks in a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment derived from knowing that you've called me to a mission, but who's stingy and lazy about actually going out and opening myself up to people and their needs, and giving up time and money and energy to serve.
I don't want to be that, but I confess that's what I am.

Give me the grace to serve you better.
Please keep calling to me, even though I don't pay attention like I should.
Please keep working in me. Fill me with the love of Christ.

I praise you, and give thanks, for the people I know who serve as examples of faithful service.
Bless their labors, and give them strength and comfort.

In Christ's name, amen.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Calling God "Mother"

An interesting thing happened at the Advocate today. In connection with Mothers Day, the vicar invited us to participate in an experiment in which we referred to God as Mother instead of Father, Christ as Daughter instead of Son, Queen instead of King, Her instead of Him, etc. The point was to pay attention to our reactions as we did this. Were we comfortable calling God "Mother"? Why or why not? Since Episcopalians don't understand God as a physical being with a penis, it's not self-evident that God needs to be spoken of as male (though of course theological conservatives offer various explanations as to why we should). In an open-ended way, the vicar was inviting the congregation to reflect on why people seem to find it so uncomfortable to speak of God as female.

On this blog, I tend to favor gender-neutral language for God, though I'll refer to God as male or female or both ("Heavenly Father and Mother") as I feel moved by the Spirit in a given context. I don't believe literally that God has a physical body and therefore a gender, though the icon of God as such a being is extremely important to me—one of the things I prize about the LDS tradition that's lacking in other Christian traditions. As we went through the service today plugging in female language where the prayer book and the hymns come with male language, I found it meaningful to recite the Nicene Creed with God as "the Mother, the Almighty," or to begin the Lord's Prayer with "Our Mother in heaven, hallowed be your name." When they started calling Christ "Daughter," or to say "she" in reference to Jesus, I found that distracting, for aesthetic reasons more than theological ones. At, I've made the case for there being resources in the LDS tradition that let us envision Christ as female, and on this blog I've used gender-neutral language when speaking of Christ as a heavenly being or the incarnation of God. But when we start talking about Jesus as a mortal being, that's the point at which I'm just going to say "he."

It was an interesting experiment, though, adding a new dimension to today's worship. When I blessed the sacrament for myself today, I decided to continue the experiment. So the sacrament prayers (which I normally recite in a tweaked version anyway to trim out archaic King James language) came out like this:
O God, Eternal Mother,
we ask you in the name of your Child, Jesus Christ,
to bless and sanctify this bread
to the souls of all those who partake of it,
that they may eat in remembrance of the body of your Child,
and witness to you, O God, Eternal Mother,
that they are willing to take upon them the name of your Child,
and always remember him,
and keep his commandments which he has given them,
that they may always have his Spirit to be with them.

O God, Eternal Mother,
we ask you in the name of your Child, Jesus Christ,
to bless and sanctify this wine
to the souls of all those who drink of it,
that they may do it in remembrance of the blood of your Child,
which was shed for them;
that they may witness to you, O God, Eternal Mother,
that they do always remember him,
that they may have his Spirit to be with them.
BTW, if you find it artificially p.c. to refer to Christ as God's "Child," that language actually appears in Moroni 8:3.

A species of f***ups

I'm thinking about this disaster with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I've been doing some reading which has somewhat mitigated my apocaplyptic impulses—believe it or not, there have been worse spills in history. Not that that's all that reassuring, of course.

I know it's a cliché to talk about human beings "killing" the planet. But . . . we're killing the planet. Civilizations before ours have collapsed because they destroyed their environments; we have the technology to do damage on an even bigger scale. God made us stewards and free agents, and if we f*** it up, there's no divine bailout, no deus ex machina to rescue us from ourselves at the last minute. We're on our own, except to the extent that we open ourselves up to the guiding, transforming influence of the Spirit. Those are the terms of our existence in this lone and dreary—and dangerous—world. A combination of literalist Christian fantasies about the millennium and a secularized myth of progress have lulled Americans into what the Book of Mormon calls carnal security. We're like kids playing with guns—and in this case we ended up shooting a big hole in the bottom of the ocean, and now we can't stop the bleeding. And Mom and Dad aren't coming home anytime soon.


Enoch heard a voice from the bowels of the earth:
"Woe is me, the mother of humanity!
I am pained, I am weary,
because of my children's atrocities.
When shall I rest
and be cleansed from the filthiness that has gone forth out of me?"

When Enoch heard the earth mourn, he wept.
He cried to the God of heaven:
"Sovereign One! Will you not have compassion on the earth?
When will the earth rest?"

(Moses 7)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

1 Nephi 1, edited

Back on Easter Sunday, I travelled to Charlotte to meet up with a couple other liberal Mormon types from this neck of the woods. We spent part of the day together, and at one point the conversation turned to the literary quality of the Book of Mormon. One person—an English professor and writer—complained that the book overexplains things, hitting you over the head with who's good and who's bad and what the moral is.

That got me thinking. Part of what makes the Bible interesting, from a literary point of view, is that its narratives are often compact, sometimes to the point of cryptic, and characters may act in ways that at least to a contemporary reader seem ignoble or otherwise dubious, which can give the narratives an air of moral ambiguity. With perhaps the occasional exception, none of that can be said about the Book of Mormon. But what if the Book of Mormon were written that way? What would it look like? And more to the point for the purposes of spirituality—what would it be like to engage devotionally with a Book of Mormon written that way? What kind of theologizing would it invite you to do if the authorial voice weren't doing so much theologizing for you?

What was particularly intriguing to me about this conversation was that at the Easter vigil the night before, I had originally been scheduled (before Hugo and I were tapped to read our remix of St. John Chrysostom) to read the creation story from Genesis. And in preparation of that reading, hoping to shorten the tedium of the Easter Vigil (where people read scripture at you for about an hour) I had created what I hoped would prove a subtly edited version of Genesis 1—trimming out words and phrases to streamline the narrative but making no other alterations to the text.

So I thought—what if I tried to do the same thing to a Book of Mormon narrative? The result is what you see below. It's a "trimmed back" version of 1 Nephi 1, the opening narrative of Lehi's first visions. Unlike in other postings where you may have seen me freely re-render scriptural texts, this edited text has been created simply by omitting material but not otherwise altering the original, except for just a few minor instances where for stylistic reasons I replaced a word in the original text with a synonym or transferred a phrase from one place to another. My goal was to winnow down to the gist of the narrative, without overexplaining things (i.e., letting the text have a certain air of mystery) and avoiding, as much as I thought I could, overt theologizing or moralizing around the narrative. Of course, with a project like this, you run the risk of omitting a detail that another reader finds particularly meaningful. But the edited text represents, for me, at this moment, the heart of what speaks to me from this particular narrative.


In the first year of the reign of Zedekiah,
there came many prophets,
declaring that the people must repent,
or Jerusalem must be destroyed.

My father, having dwelt at Jerusalem all his days,
as he went forth prayed with all his heart
on behalf of his people.
As he prayed, a pillar of fire
came and dwelt on a rock before him;
and because of the things he saw and heard,
he trembled.

He returned to his house
and cast himself on his bed;
and being overcome by the Spirit,
he was carried away in a vision.

He thought he saw God sitting on his throne,
surrounded with numberless concourses of angels.
He saw one descending from heaven,
whose luster was above that of the sun,
and twelve others following him.
They came down and went forth upon the face of the earth,
and the first came and gave my father a book.

As my father read, he was filled with the Spirit.
He read: "Wo, wo, to Jerusalem,
for I have seen your abominations!"
Many things did my father read concerning Jerusalem—
that it should be destroyed,
and many of its inhabitants perish by the sword,
and many be carried away captive to Babylon.

So my father went forth among the people
and began to prophesy—
to declare to them the things he had seen and heard.
And they were angry with him, and sought his life.