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Monday, July 20, 2009

What Do I Mean By "Pure" Mormonism?


Some time ago I asked a class of LDS teenagers what they felt were the most important qualities that should be inherent in them as members of Christ's church. Here is a list of their answers as I wrote them on the chalkboard:


1. Be a good example to non-members

2. Obey our leaders

3. Follow the Prophet

4. Obey the Word of Wisdom

5. Dress modestly

6. Attend all your meetings

7. Don't do drugs

After listing their answers, I handed them my scriptures and asked them to find the verses that would back up their assertions. None of them could. Some thought they could show proof of a requirement to obey the word of wisdom, but when they pulled up section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, they could find no evidence of a commandment to obey. The males in the room laughingly admitted they remembered reading item number seven off a urinal mat, but that was the closest any could come to citing any source.

All of the items on the above list are some of the trappings of Mormonism, but none of them are salient to the restoration. God didn't appear to Joseph Smith to remind him to attend his meetings.

Likewise, blindly "following the Prophet" and "obeying our leaders" are 20th century constructs. Joseph Smith said that "a man of God would despise the idea." He often reminded the saints that he was a prophet only when speaking as one, and warned them that because they were depending on the prophet they were darkened in their minds. God never assigned us any "leaders" to obey, although if you feel the Holy Ghost is inadequate in your life, you may feel compelled to assign some to yourself. You do have your free agency.

Americans didn't require a new religion in order to learn to dress modestly or be good examples, and as for not doing drugs, the Lord placed certain plants on the earth as medicines, and it doesn't require divine revelation to realize that taking medicine for fun may not be such a good idea. (Not to mention that earthly governments have used such abuse as excuses to keep God's medicines out of the hands of His children entirely, and to further their control over His people. But that's a rant for another day.)

Joseph Smith's famous epiphany occurred at a time of great religious upheaval when the various professors of religion were blustering and threatening each others' flocks with eternal damnation; their own parishioners ever fearful that the devil was just waiting for them to make one false move. There were hoops to jump through and rules to obey, and if you failed to do every little thing just right, Jesus would damn you to burn in hell for all eternity.

Into the middle of this shoutfest stepped a young farm boy who quietly announced that Jesus would rather we return to His original gospel of goodwill to all men; that the followers of Christ should be defined not by fear, but by love.

Pure Mormonism, under Joseph Smith's tutelage, was nothing less than pure Christianity, which is defined as love of God and love of neighbor. Anything that does not endorse or amplify that love is mere religious baggage. "In reality and essence", said Joseph of the various denominations, "we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love."

So the one true quality that should define a Latter-day Saint is the same as would define all Christians: Love.

Well, that should be easy.

Oh, wait. Jesus puts a condition on that love. That condition is this: Your love for your fellow man must be unconditional. Just like His love for you.

That may seem like a difficult quality to attain at first, but I can tell you it gets easier with practice. You can start by purging yourself of all judgment of others. As I mentioned in my previous post, unconditional love cannot exist simultaneously with judgment. I'll give you an example.

Not long after after my wife Connie and I had both made a conscious decision to more fully live in the spirit, we were sitting in a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in West Jordan, Utah. Across the room from us I noticed a grossly overweight woman sitting in a booth eating alone. On the table before her was a massive array of food.


Now, in my old days, I might have allowed several thoughts to take root in my mind:
  • If that woman didn't eat that much food, she wouldn't be so fat.
  • No wonder she's alone.
  • It's a miracle she can even fit in that booth.
  • You'd think she'd be embarrassed to be seen in public looking like that and eating like that.
  • I'll bet she's LDS. If she lived the word of wisdom properly she wouldn't eat like a pig.
  • She should show some self-control.

Those are the kinds of thoughts I'm ashamed to say used to come all too easily to me. Those are thoughts of judgment. When it comes right down to it, this kind of judgment is what you display when you feel others aren't up to speed like you are. Why can't they get it together? Why doesn't this woman control her appetite? Why can't she be just a little more like me?

What happened on this particular visit to Ruby Tuesday, was that instead of entertaining such thoughts of judgment, I looked briefly over at this woman, this stranger, and felt pure, overwhelming love for her. If I felt anything else, it was compassion for the difficulty of her path in life. I had nothing in me that could blame her for the situation she found herself in. That was not my place. If she hadn't been fully accountable for her habits, she suffered enough every day for that. Maybe she could help it, maybe she couldn't, but her weight was absolutely none of my concern, and so I didn't concern myself with it. I simply and quietly let myself love her.

Connie leaned over the table and asked what was wrong, because by now I was weeping into my napkin. When I gained enough composure, I choked out a whisper that I was "just loving that woman over there", and Connie understood at once. She was becoming accustomed to these little episodes, because she was frequently experiencing such moments herself.

Unconditional love would appear to be an essential element in attaining "Christ Consciousness", a concept I admit I'm not yet capable of competently articulating. Christ Consciousness encompasses that wonderful feeling we experience when we are "at one" not only with God, but with all the sons and daughters of God. It embodies that ineffably sublime feeling we have of being completely enveloped by the spirit.

That glorious, wonderful feeling is attainable as often as you want it. All you really have to do to experience Christ Consciousness is to approach every person with the same absolute acceptance that Jesus would. I don't quite know how to explain this, but when I allowed myself to completely love that woman in the restaurant, I felt I completely understood her. Indeed, in a way that's impossible for me to describe, I knew her. A part of me actually remembered her.

I had tapped into that unconditional love that Jesus feels for me every minute of every day, and I had passed it to my sister. For a few glorious minutes I was at one with the illimitable love of Christ.

I never used to believe I was worthy of such experiences, but guess what? You don't have to be worthy of Christ's love. You'd think I'd know that after a lifetime preaching the gospel, but I've been a little slow about allowing myself the privilege.

C.S. Lewis reminds us that "The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs." And to what purpose would that be? So that we can learn to love one another in the way that He loves us.

In the last year of his life Joseph Smith declared that "friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism."

So there it is. Mormonism distilled to its pure essence is simply friendship. Unqualified, unconstrained, unwavering, unreserved, no strings attached, no ifs-ands-or-buts, unequivocal friendship toward God and all his children. Total and complete.

Love, unconditional.

Once you begin to love without judgment, kindness flows effortlessly from you. Next thing you know, joy is your constant companion. You can know what it means to "live in the spirit". Every day, if you want to. Believe me.

Jesus tells us that He stands at the door and knocks. And what do we do? We hide behind the couch.

We don't want Him to see us like this! We're in disarray, we're not decent, the house is a mess, we haven't finished our home teaching -we're just not ready! We're afraid to just open the door and accept his embrace. Better to find someone else, someone with office and title and standing in the church to answer the door for us, find out what He wants, then come back and tell us.

Here's my advice: Just open the door!

You know what I'd do? I'd take the hinges off that door and permanently remove it so there is never, ever, any obstacle or any "authority" between me and the Christ again.


UPDATE, July 31 2009:

After I had finished the above piece, quite by accident I happened across a three year old copy of Sunstone containing an article by Don Bradley entitled "The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism: Joseph Smith's Unfinished Reformation" which is so pertinent to the foregoing that some of his conclusions are well worth sharing:

"Since Joseph Smith's assassination, the world in which Latter-day Saints live has changed, and the church has evolved...Still, the grand principles of Mormonism he declared have never been revoked.

"On no less authority than that of Joseph Smith, these principles provide foundation stones of the faith, as well as standards for defining the 'pure Mormon' -for distinguishing between what is and what is not purely, or legitimately, Mormon.

"Joseph preached that 'friendship, if truly taken as a foundational principle, would weld all together like Bro. Turley [in his] Blacksmith Shop'. It would 'revolutionize and civilize the world.'

"In its final formulation by the Prophet, Mormonism...is generous, open, and expansive. Whether it is so in its embodiment in the world depends on the willingness of individual Latter-day Saints to continue their prophet's reformation by reforming Mormonism as it exists in their personal faith and lives...Mormonism will 'revolutionize and civilize the world' no faster than individual Mormons receive erstwhile enemies and strangers as friends and brothers and sisters. Mormonism will...build a heaven on earth no faster and more effectively than individual Mormons shoulder this responsibility themselves."
-Sunstone Issue 141, April 2006

***

What Do I Mean By "Pure" Mormonism?


Some time ago I asked a class of LDS teenagers what they felt were the most important qualities that should be inherent in them as members of Christ's church. Here is a list of their answers as I wrote them on the chalkboard:


1. Be a good example to non-members

2. Obey our leaders

3. Follow the Prophet

4. Obey the Word of Wisdom

5. Dress modestly

6. Attend all your meetings

7. Don't do drugs

After listing their answers, I handed them my scriptures and asked them to find the verses that would back up their assertions. None of them could. Some thought they could show proof of a requirement to obey the word of wisdom, but when they pulled up section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants, they could find no evidence of a commandment to obey. The males in the room laughingly admitted they remembered reading item number seven off a urinal mat, but that was the closest any could come to citing any source.

All of the items on the above list are some of the trappings of Mormonism, but none of them are salient to the restoration. God didn't appear to Joseph Smith to remind him to attend his meetings.

Likewise, blindly "following the Prophet" and "obeying our leaders" are 20th century constructs. Joseph Smith said that "a man of God would despise the idea." He often reminded the saints that he was a prophet only when speaking as one, and warned them that because they were depending on the prophet they were darkened in their minds. God never assigned us any "leaders" to obey, although if you feel the Holy Ghost is inadequate in your life, you may feel compelled to assign some to yourself. You do have your free agency.

Americans didn't require a new religion in order to learn to dress modestly or be good examples, and as for not doing drugs, the Lord placed certain plants on the earth as medicines, and it doesn't require divine revelation to realize that taking medicine for fun may not be such a good idea. (Not to mention that earthly governments have used such abuse as excuses to keep God's medicines out of the hands of His children entirely, and to further their control over His people. But that's a rant for another day.)

Joseph Smith's famous epiphany occurred at a time of great religious upheaval when the various professors of religion were blustering and threatening each others' flocks with eternal damnation; their own parishioners ever fearful that the devil was just waiting for them to make one false move. There were hoops to jump through and rules to obey, and if you failed to do every little thing just right, Jesus would damn you to burn in hell for all eternity.

Into the middle of this shoutfest stepped a young farm boy who quietly announced that Jesus would rather we return to His original gospel of goodwill to all men; that the followers of Christ should be defined not by fear, but by love.

Pure Mormonism, under Joseph Smith's tutelage, was nothing less than pure Christianity, which is defined as love of God and love of neighbor. Anything that does not endorse or amplify that love is mere religious baggage. "In reality and essence", said Joseph of the various denominations, "we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love."

So the one true quality that should define a Latter-day Saint is the same as would define all Christians: Love.

Well, that should be easy.

Oh, wait. Jesus puts a condition on that love. That condition is this: Your love for your fellow man must be unconditional. Just like His love for you.

That may seem like a difficult quality to attain at first, but I can tell you it gets easier with practice. You can start by purging yourself of all judgment of others. As I mentioned in my previous post, unconditional love cannot exist simultaneously with judgment. I'll give you an example.

Not long after after my wife Connie and I had both made a conscious decision to more fully live in the spirit, we were sitting in a Ruby Tuesday restaurant in West Jordan, Utah. Across the room from us I noticed a grossly overweight woman sitting in a booth eating alone. On the table before her was a massive array of food.


Now, in my old days, I might have allowed several thoughts to take root in my mind:
  • If that woman didn't eat that much food, she wouldn't be so fat.
  • No wonder she's alone.
  • It's a miracle she can even fit in that booth.
  • You'd think she'd be embarrassed to be seen in public looking like that and eating like that.
  • I'll bet she's LDS. If she lived the word of wisdom properly she wouldn't eat like a pig.
  • She should show some self-control.

Those are the kinds of thoughts I'm ashamed to say used to come all too easily to me. Those are thoughts of judgment. When it comes right down to it, this kind of judgment is what you display when you feel others aren't up to speed like you are. Why can't they get it together? Why doesn't this woman control her appetite? Why can't she be just a little more like me?

What happened on this particular visit to Ruby Tuesday, was that instead of entertaining such thoughts of judgment, I looked briefly over at this woman, this stranger, and felt pure, overwhelming love for her. If I felt anything else, it was compassion for the difficulty of her path in life. I had nothing in me that could blame her for the situation she found herself in. That was not my place. If she hadn't been fully accountable for her habits, she suffered enough every day for that. Maybe she could help it, maybe she couldn't, but her weight was absolutely none of my concern, and so I didn't concern myself with it. I simply and quietly let myself love her.

Connie leaned over the table and asked what was wrong, because by now I was weeping into my napkin. When I gained enough composure, I choked out a whisper that I was "just loving that woman over there", and Connie understood at once. She was becoming accustomed to these little episodes, because she was frequently experiencing such moments herself.

Unconditional love would appear to be an essential element in attaining "Christ Consciousness", a concept I admit I'm not yet capable of competently articulating. Christ Consciousness encompasses that wonderful feeling we experience when we are "at one" not only with God, but with all the sons and daughters of God. It embodies that ineffably sublime feeling we have of being completely enveloped by the spirit.

That glorious, wonderful feeling is attainable as often as you want it. All you really have to do to experience Christ Consciousness is to approach every person with the same absolute acceptance that Jesus would. I don't quite know how to explain this, but when I allowed myself to completely love that woman in the restaurant, I felt I completely understood her. Indeed, in a way that's impossible for me to describe, I knew her. A part of me actually remembered her.

I had tapped into that unconditional love that Jesus feels for me every minute of every day, and I had passed it to my sister. For a few glorious minutes I was at one with the illimitable love of Christ.

I never used to believe I was worthy of such experiences, but guess what? You don't have to be worthy of Christ's love. You'd think I'd know that after a lifetime preaching the gospel, but I've been a little slow about allowing myself the privilege.

C.S. Lewis reminds us that "The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs." And to what purpose would that be? So that we can learn to love one another in the way that He loves us.

In the last year of his life Joseph Smith declared that "friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism."

So there it is. Mormonism distilled to its pure essence is simply friendship. Unqualified, unconstrained, unwavering, unreserved, no strings attached, no ifs-ands-or-buts, unequivocal friendship toward God and all his children. Total and complete.

Love, unconditional.

Once you begin to love without judgment, kindness flows effortlessly from you. Next thing you know, joy is your constant companion. You can know what it means to "live in the spirit". Every day, if you want to. Believe me.

Jesus tells us that He stands at the door and knocks. And what do we do? We hide behind the couch.

We don't want Him to see us like this! We're in disarray, we're not decent, the house is a mess, we haven't finished our home teaching -we're just not ready! We're afraid to just open the door and accept his embrace. Better to find someone else, someone with office and title and standing in the church to answer the door for us, find out what He wants, then come back and tell us.

Here's my advice: Just open the door!

You know what I'd do? I'd take the hinges off that door and permanently remove it so there is never, ever, any obstacle or any "authority" between me and the Christ again.


UPDATE, July 31 2009:

After I had finished the above piece, quite by accident I happened across a three year old copy of Sunstone containing an article by Don Bradley entitled "The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism: Joseph Smith's Unfinished Reformation" which is so pertinent to the foregoing that some of his conclusions are well worth sharing:

"Since Joseph Smith's assassination, the world in which Latter-day Saints live has changed, and the church has evolved...Still, the grand principles of Mormonism he declared have never been revoked.

"On no less authority than that of Joseph Smith, these principles provide foundation stones of the faith, as well as standards for defining the 'pure Mormon' -for distinguishing between what is and what is not purely, or legitimately, Mormon.

"Joseph preached that 'friendship, if truly taken as a foundational principle, would weld all together like Bro. Turley [in his] Blacksmith Shop'. It would 'revolutionize and civilize the world.'

"In its final formulation by the Prophet, Mormonism...is generous, open, and expansive. Whether it is so in its embodiment in the world depends on the willingness of individual Latter-day Saints to continue their prophet's reformation by reforming Mormonism as it exists in their personal faith and lives...Mormonism will 'revolutionize and civilize the world' no faster than individual Mormons receive erstwhile enemies and strangers as friends and brothers and sisters. Mormonism will...build a heaven on earth no faster and more effectively than individual Mormons shoulder this responsibility themselves."
-Sunstone Issue 141, April 2006

***

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Michael Jackson Taught Me Something

I never really liked Michael Jackson. I don't care for his music, and I'm certainly sick of all the hype over his death. So imagine my surprise to find myself writing a tribute of sorts on a blog that's supposed to be about LDS theology. But bear with me, it all ties in.

I shouldn't say I never liked Michael Jackson. I was a monster fan of his way back when he sang lead with The Jackson Five during the golden age of Motown. I even bought their Best Of album some thirty-odd years ago and played it to death. But the Michael Jackson then and the Michael Jackson of today don't even seem to be the same person. I don't recognize any connection between his voice then and his voice later, which seems to me a collection of shouts, hiccups, and staccato chirps.

But then, that could just be my age. When I emerged from my mission in 1975 at age 23 (most young men complete their missions by age 21, but I had to stay over two years for detention) I no longer had any attachment to the popular music of the time. A prolonged period with little exposure to top 40 radio had left me with little interest in any of it.

So when Michael Jackson hit the scene as a solo artist, I was unimpressed. I didn't understand how Thriller could be the greatest selling record of all time; it seemed pretty mediocre to me. And I thought the Beat It video was ridiculous with this frail, androgynous creature trying to look tough by doing a little dance in the middle of a gang fight.

But my distaste for all things Michael Jackson reached a zenith following his recent death when it seemed that half the population was going ga-ga over him. I had no more patience for the ceaseless celebration of the late Michael Jackson than I had for the former hysterics displayed at the passing of other supposed royalty like John F. Kennedy, Jr. or Princess Diana.

And that brings us to why I'm addressing this subject on a blog devoted to the core teachings of Mormon theology. I recently came to the realization that my irrational feelings of aversion for someone who has done me no harm at all are indicative of my penchant for unrighteous judgment. And that kind of judgment is a sin, even when directed at a popular entertainer.

What changed my thinking about Michael Jackson was when I wandered into the bedroom yesterday to find Connie watching the previously recorded memorial service for him. After rolling my eyes in disdain, I sat on the bed and watched for a moment as Michael's brother Jermaine was trying to get through the song "Smile, Though Your Heart Is Aching". While his own heart was breaking.

Suddenly I wasn't watching an extravagant tribute to a self-indulgent pop star. I was seeing a sad old man grieving the death of his little brother.

I got Connie to rewind to the beginning of the service, and we watched the whole thing together. What I saw touched my hardened heart: friends and family simply mourning the loss of a loved one who was taken too soon. This experience forced me to reassess my feelings and think about exactly why I get annoyed for no reason at certain people I don't even know.

Let's take a second look at one of the attributes of Michael Jackson that I used to think was so annoying: his notorious immaturity.

Much has been written about Michael Jackson's lost childhood as the reason he spent so much of his adult life trying to live like a child. But let's face it, there are much worse things one can be other than child-like. So what if he was in many ways stuck with the mind, emotions, and desires of an eleven year old boy? He could afford to be.

When I was eleven, I wanted a monkey. When Michael Jackson was rich enough, he got himself a monkey too (technically an ape, but let's not quibble). I'd probably still want a monkey today if I hadn't already had children of my own and realized what a horror it would be to own an animal that was just like them, except perennially retarded.

And you think it's weird that anybody would want an amusement park in his backyard? What did you want in your backyard when you were eleven? A circus? A carnival? When I was eleven I wanted to turn our sizable backyard into a replica of the Disneyland jungle cruise, and the only reason I didn't was my mom wouldn't let me. (Specifically, she wouldn't help me. I felt entirely capable of digging the canal myself but I needed a grown-up to pay for all that expensive jungle foliage. The audio-animatronics I could figure out later.)

If Michael Jackson grew up and could afford to build the amusement park he'd wished for as a kid, who am I to fault him?

There are a couple of other things I saw Michael Jackson do that could be considered evidence of self-indulgent immaturity, but on closer inspection I have to admit wasn't anything I wouldn't have done myself if I could have.

I saw a clip of from a concert where he made his dramatic entrance by being suddenly shot from a trap door in the floor of the stage, landing firmly on his feet in front of the crowd. He stood stock still, shoulders back, head erect, wearing a costume that made him look like a superhero from the future. The audience went nuts. He continued to stand like a statue, serious and heroic, then gradually reached his hand up to his face. The crowd went nuttier. He slowly removed his sunglasses and stared straight ahead. The fans ate it up. They cheered until they were exhausted. And he still hadn't done anything.

Welcomed by a cheering throng as a conquering hero for simply arriving on the scene! Looking at that through the eyes of an eleven-year-old, I'd have to admit it was pretty cool. Especially if that had been me up there.

On another occasion, at the end of his concert, stagehands strapped a helmet and a jet pack on him and he flew up into the air, disappearing amid cheers, screams, applause, and weeping. Nobody wanted him to leave. Don't tell me you wouldn't want to experience that kind of adulation. Forget an eleven-year-old's fantasy, I'd do that today.

So if Michael Jackson's biggest sin is that he could afford to indulge his childhood fantasies of being the most popular kid in school, what's the harm? What is that to me?

Of course, Michael Jackson's childlike naivete is what got him in the most trouble. He wanted the boyhood sleepovers every normal kid had, of staying up with a group of friends snacking and giggling and watching TV together late into the night. His naivete was his downfall, as he was unable to recognize the impropriety of a man in his forties cavorting with young children. Although he was exonerated of charges of child molestation, many people still believed he was guilty. My own gut feeling tells me that he was simply too trusting and naive. He spent the entire trial in a state of stunned bewilderment that anyone could interpret his "sleepovers" as anything other than innocent get-togethers between friends. The very fact that he was quoted as saying that sharing one's bed with a child was a beautiful thing was evidence enough for me that he was a simple child in a man's body. A real pederast would never say anything so foolish and so culpable.

The biggest reason I have for the recognition of my sin in judging Michael Jackson unrighteously is because I once knew Michael Jackson intimately. So did you. Same as you once knew every person on the earth today, and everyone who has ever lived here.

Ages before he became Michael Jackson and eons before I was ever Rock Waterman, we lived together, all of us, in a pre-existent state where we knew one another for who we really were, not for what we would eventually become on earth. Eternities from now, when I bump into Michael Jackson again, we'll probably reminisce about the memories we had together of our pre-earth life. If we bother to touch on the subject of our short time on earth -his tragic life as an overachiever and my tragic life as an underachiever- it will probably be to simply shrug and say "Boy, that was a weird time, huh?"

If we compare notes at all, it ought to be on how well each of us accomplished what we were actually sent here to do: show love and kindness to our fellow sons and daughters of God.

Among the songs Michael Jackson recorded that I just heard for the first time is a number entitled "Heal the World", an appeal for each of us to work toward making this planet the kind of home God hoped we would. There was a time I would have considered that song hopelessly naive. Now I hope it becomes the legacy that represents his life.

Is there really any harm in my having engaged in snarky celebrity gossip? I think there is. Every ugly word that escaped my lips in describing Michael Jackson, or anyone else I didn't understand -"odd", "weird", "crazy", "creepy", "freakish" -hangs in the ether and somehow adds to the defilement of the universe. It certainly defiles me. Such negativity prevents us all from attaining the "oneness" that God wishes us to aspire to. No one can hold judgment in his heart for a fellow being and still have room for love. One will always cancel out the other.

I heard that the song Michael's brother sang at his funeral, "Smile, Though Your Heart Is Aching" was Michael's favorite song. It that's true, it speaks volumes about his personal loneliness. Michael Jackson's trust was betrayed again and again by those he hired to look out for him. Still, by all reports, he remained a loving, trusting, and generous man-child. Michael Jackson's lack of guile caused him countless problems in his life. But then, my cynicism has caused me a few setbacks too. He may have spent a lot of his life reckless and self-indulgent, but he was also incredibly generous and forgiving.

And me? I've spent a lifetime critical of those I had no business judging, ignoring the huge beam embedded in my own eye. By the end of his life, my old friend Michael Jackson was miles ahead of me in the "become as a little child" department. Maybe I still have time to catch up.

_

Michael Jackson Taught Me Something

I never really liked Michael Jackson. I don't care for his music, and I'm certainly sick of all the hype over his death. So imagine my surprise to find myself writing a tribute of sorts on a blog that's supposed to be about LDS theology. But bear with me, it all ties in.

I shouldn't say I never liked Michael Jackson. I was a monster fan of his way back when he sang lead with The Jackson Five during the golden age of Motown. I even bought their Best Of album some thirty-odd years ago and played it to death. But the Michael Jackson then and the Michael Jackson of today don't even seem to be the same person. I don't recognize any connection between his voice then and his voice later, which seems to me a collection of shouts, hiccups, and staccato chirps.

But then, that could just be my age. When I emerged from my mission in 1975 at age 23 (most young men complete their missions by age 21, but I had to stay over two years for detention) I no longer had any attachment to the popular music of the time. A prolonged period with little exposure to top 40 radio had left me with little interest in any of it.

So when Michael Jackson hit the scene as a solo artist, I was unimpressed. I didn't understand how Thriller could be the greatest selling record of all time; it seemed pretty mediocre to me. And I thought the Beat It video was ridiculous with this frail, androgynous creature trying to look tough by doing a little dance in the middle of a gang fight.

But my distaste for all things Michael Jackson reached a zenith following his recent death when it seemed that half the population was going ga-ga over him. I had no more patience for the ceaseless celebration of the late Michael Jackson than I had for the former hysterics displayed at the passing of other supposed royalty like John F. Kennedy, Jr. or Princess Diana.

And that brings us to why I'm addressing this subject on a blog devoted to the core teachings of Mormon theology. I recently came to the realization that my irrational feelings of aversion for someone who has done me no harm at all are indicative of my penchant for unrighteous judgment. And that kind of judgment is a sin, even when directed at a popular entertainer.

What changed my thinking about Michael Jackson was when I wandered into the bedroom yesterday to find Connie watching the previously recorded memorial service for him. After rolling my eyes in disdain, I sat on the bed and watched for a moment as Michael's brother Jermaine was trying to get through the song "Smile, Though Your Heart Is Aching". While his own heart was breaking.

Suddenly I wasn't watching an extravagant tribute to a self-indulgent pop star. I was seeing a sad old man grieving the death of his little brother.

I got Connie to rewind to the beginning of the service, and we watched the whole thing together. What I saw touched my hardened heart: friends and family simply mourning the loss of a loved one who was taken too soon. This experience forced me to reassess my feelings and think about exactly why I get annoyed for no reason at certain people I don't even know.

Let's take a second look at one of the attributes of Michael Jackson that I used to think was so annoying: his notorious immaturity.

Much has been written about Michael Jackson's lost childhood as the reason he spent so much of his adult life trying to live like a child. But let's face it, there are much worse things one can be other than child-like. So what if he was in many ways stuck with the mind, emotions, and desires of an eleven year old boy? He could afford to be.

When I was eleven, I wanted a monkey. When Michael Jackson was rich enough, he got himself a monkey too (technically an ape, but let's not quibble). I'd probably still want a monkey today if I hadn't already had children of my own and realized what a horror it would be to own an animal that was just like them, except perennially retarded.

And you think it's weird that anybody would want an amusement park in his backyard? What did you want in your backyard when you were eleven? A circus? A carnival? When I was eleven I wanted to turn our sizable backyard into a replica of the Disneyland jungle cruise, and the only reason I didn't was my mom wouldn't let me. (Specifically, she wouldn't help me. I felt entirely capable of digging the canal myself but I needed a grown-up to pay for all that expensive jungle foliage. The audio-animatronics I could figure out later.)

If Michael Jackson grew up and could afford to build the amusement park he'd wished for as a kid, who am I to fault him?

There are a couple of other things I saw Michael Jackson do that could be considered evidence of self-indulgent immaturity, but on closer inspection I have to admit wasn't anything I wouldn't have done myself if I could have.

I saw a clip of from a concert where he made his dramatic entrance by being suddenly shot from a trap door in the floor of the stage, landing firmly on his feet in front of the crowd. He stood stock still, shoulders back, head erect, wearing a costume that made him look like a superhero from the future. The audience went nuts. He continued to stand like a statue, serious and heroic, then gradually reached his hand up to his face. The crowd went nuttier. He slowly removed his sunglasses and stared straight ahead. The fans ate it up. They cheered until they were exhausted. And he still hadn't done anything.

Welcomed by a cheering throng as a conquering hero for simply arriving on the scene! Looking at that through the eyes of an eleven-year-old, I'd have to admit it was pretty cool. Especially if that had been me up there.

On another occasion, at the end of his concert, stagehands strapped a helmet and a jet pack on him and he flew up into the air, disappearing amid cheers, screams, applause, and weeping. Nobody wanted him to leave. Don't tell me you wouldn't want to experience that kind of adulation. Forget an eleven-year-old's fantasy, I'd do that today.

So if Michael Jackson's biggest sin is that he could afford to indulge his childhood fantasies of being the most popular kid in school, what's the harm? What is that to me?

Of course, Michael Jackson's childlike naivete is what got him in the most trouble. He wanted the boyhood sleepovers every normal kid had, of staying up with a group of friends snacking and giggling and watching TV together late into the night. His naivete was his downfall, as he was unable to recognize the impropriety of a man in his forties cavorting with young children. Although he was exonerated of charges of child molestation, many people still believed he was guilty. My own gut feeling tells me that he was simply too trusting and naive. He spent the entire trial in a state of stunned bewilderment that anyone could interpret his "sleepovers" as anything other than innocent get-togethers between friends. The very fact that he was quoted as saying that sharing one's bed with a child was a beautiful thing was evidence enough for me that he was a simple child in a man's body. A real pederast would never say anything so foolish and so culpable.

The biggest reason I have for the recognition of my sin in judging Michael Jackson unrighteously is because I once knew Michael Jackson intimately. So did you. Same as you once knew every person on the earth today, and everyone who has ever lived here.

Ages before he became Michael Jackson and eons before I was ever Rock Waterman, we lived together, all of us, in a pre-existent state where we knew one another for who we really were, not for what we would eventually become on earth. Eternities from now, when I bump into Michael Jackson again, we'll probably reminisce about the memories we had together of our pre-earth life. If we bother to touch on the subject of our short time on earth -his tragic life as an overachiever and my tragic life as an underachiever- it will probably be to simply shrug and say "Boy, that was a weird time, huh?"

If we compare notes at all, it ought to be on how well each of us accomplished what we were actually sent here to do: show love and kindness to our fellow sons and daughters of God.

Among the songs Michael Jackson recorded that I just heard for the first time is a number entitled "Heal the World", an appeal for each of us to work toward making this planet the kind of home God hoped we would. There was a time I would have considered that song hopelessly naive. Now I hope it becomes the legacy that represents his life.

Is there really any harm in my having engaged in snarky celebrity gossip? I think there is. Every ugly word that escaped my lips in describing Michael Jackson, or anyone else I didn't understand -"odd", "weird", "crazy", "creepy", "freakish" -hangs in the ether and somehow adds to the defilement of the universe. It certainly defiles me. Such negativity prevents us all from attaining the "oneness" that God wishes us to aspire to. No one can hold judgment in his heart for a fellow being and still have room for love. One will always cancel out the other.

I heard that the song Michael's brother sang at his funeral, "Smile, Though Your Heart Is Aching" was Michael's favorite song. It that's true, it speaks volumes about his personal loneliness. Michael Jackson's trust was betrayed again and again by those he hired to look out for him. Still, by all reports, he remained a loving, trusting, and generous man-child. Michael Jackson's lack of guile caused him countless problems in his life. But then, my cynicism has caused me a few setbacks too. He may have spent a lot of his life reckless and self-indulgent, but he was also incredibly generous and forgiving.

And me? I've spent a lifetime critical of those I had no business judging, ignoring the huge beam embedded in my own eye. By the end of his life, my old friend Michael Jackson was miles ahead of me in the "become as a little child" department. Maybe I still have time to catch up.

_

Saturday, July 4, 2009

The Worst Testimony You Can Possibly Have


Any Latter-day Saint with open eyes and an internet connection can't help but notice that the church has been hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate in recent years.

I'm not even talking about the occasional Jack-Mormon who slips away unnoticed, or the 25-40 percent of converts who stop attending within their first year of baptism . What I'm talking about here are the those who have made the active determination to have their names permanently removed from the records of the church. They're often vocal about their antipathy for the church over what they consider a betrayal of a lifetime of their trust.

Many of the folks I'm referring to all have several things in common: Many are multi-generational LDS and descendants of pioneers; most have served missions, been married in the temple, were full tithe payers and 100 percent home teachers. Some had important callings in the relief society presidency; some were bishops, institute instructors, gospel doctrine teachers, and stake high councilmen. They were valiantly active in the church, the True Blue members of their wards. They were the very last persons anyone, including themselves, would have expected to ever abandon the faith.

Every one of them will tell you this: They once had a rock-solid, unshakable testimony of the church.

And that, in my opinion, was their problem. In having a strong testimony of the church, their focus was in the wrong place. "The Church" never was true, and never can be.

I'll give you a moment to catch your breath here. You may even want to take this opportunity to put your arm to the square and intone "get thee behind me, Satan".

Fine. I'll wait.

The truth is, "The Church" is not "The Gospel". It's merely a vehicle for the delivery of the gospel. What we ought to have a testimony of is The Restoration. Of Christ. Of the Atonement.

The great mission of the church is to bring souls to Christ, so once that has taken place, why not testify of Christ? Why would any of us want to bear testimony of the truthfulness of a corporate institution?

In general conference of October 1982, Elder J. Thomas Fyans related the following fable:

"There’s an ancient oriental legend that tells the story of a jeweler who had a precious pearl he wanted to sell. In order to place this pearl in the proper setting, he conceived the idea of building a special box of the finest woods to contain the pearl. He sought these woods and had them brought to him, and they were polished to a high brilliance. He then reinforced the corners of this box with elegant brass hinges and added a red velvet interior. As a final step, he scented that red velvet with perfume, then placed in that setting this precious pearl.


"The pearl was then placed in the store window of the jeweler, and after a short period of time, a rich man came by. He was attracted by what he saw and sat down with the jeweler to negotiate a purchase. The jeweler soon realized that the man was negotiating for the box rather than the pearl. You see, the man was so overcome by the beauty of the exterior that he failed to see the pearl of great price."


Growing up in the mid to late 1960s in the Anaheim First Ward, my testimony of the church developed and solidified during my teen and young adult years. I loved the church and everything connected to it. At that time "The Church" meant a lot of different things to me: It was The Book of Mormon and the other Standard Works. It was Priesthood meeting, Sunday School, and Sacrament Meeting. In those days the meetings were held at three different times of the day, so between Priesthood and Sunday School, while our fathers drove home to get the other family members, my Aaronic priesthood friends and I had an hour and a half to hang around with each other and bond as friends. So "The Church" also meant the friends I had at church. It meant my teachers, my bishop, and all the grown-up members of my ward. It meant the church building itself.

Often Chuck Anderson and I would stay after our own ward to attend the Fourth Ward Sacrament meeting just so we could sit by Carolyn Watts and DeeAnn Mcnear, because "The Church" also meant foxy Mormon girls. Sometimes Butch Matulich and I would drive over to Cypress because the Cypress ward had such examples of fascinating womanhood as Jeri Sachs and Cheryl Boberg and Helen Young and Little Vicki Robinson. It would not be unfair to say that in my teenage years, the best thing about the Mormon Church was Mormon chicks.

"The Church" also meant M.I.A. on Tuesday nights, and Boy Scouts and Explorers. Before that "The Church" had meant attending Primary with my friends. There were Road Shows, Stake Plays, Pancake Breakfasts, Scout Camp, Church Camp, Stake Dances, Ward Firesides, Stake Firesides, Regional Firesides, Ward Beach Parties, Ward Dinners, Seminary, and even summer trips to BYU for Youth Conference. "The Church" was basketball games and annual Scripture Chase Competitions, and Saturday drives over to the city of Orange to browse the only Deseret Book Store in the county. "The Church" was also represented in my bedroom by a growing collection of church books I bought and read.

"The Church" was the life I was totally immersed in six days a week and thrice on Sunday.

Later there was Institute and Young Adults, bigger Firesides and bigger Dances, a two year Mission, BYU, and a Temple Marriage. "The Church" also meant Temple Square and The Brethren and General Conference and Church Headquarters at 50 East Temple Street in Salt Lake City.

Throughout all this time I experienced the burning in my bosom countless times. I felt the Holy Ghost and I heard the still, small voice. If you had asked me if Jesus had a place in my heart, I would have told you yes. But I have to admit that the presence of Jesus was quiet and subdued compared to all that was going on about me in "The Church" as a whole, and let's face it: Jesus was invisible, while "The Church" was a huge, tangible, omnipresent stew I was swimming in all the time.

So it's probably understandable that when I bore my testimony, I often testified that I "knew" The Church was true, I "knew" that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and I even "knew" that my Mormon friends were the bestest friends in the whole wide world. I don't remember how often I or any of my teenage friends actually thought to mention Jesus Christ in our testimonies except for the part at the end where we'd recite the obligatory mantra "In-the-name-of-Jesus-Christ-Amen".

Not long ago I sat in Fast and Testimony meeting conducting a quiet little experiment. I took out a pen and made a mark on my program for every time someone testified of the truthfulness of the church. I made another mark for every time someone testified of Christ. You might want to try the same experiment. If the mentions of Jesus or the atonement outnumber the mentions of the church or of Joseph Smith, well then, I'd say you live in an extraordinary ward.

The problem with having a testimony of the church is that eventually you'll find that "The Church", whatever that represents to you, may disappoint. Some of those charged with being the gatekeepers of Christ's earthly institution have at times, in a well-meaning effort to spare the flock from some embarrassing facts and "to protect their testimonies", covered up and distorted some of the more uncomfortable and contradictory aspects of our history and doctrine. Many disaffected Mormons tell of an incredible sense of betrayal after awakening to the realization that much of what they had been taught all their lives had not been the complete truth.

Now in my opinion, to discard all of the marvelous realities of the restoration because of a few historical and doctrinal anomalies is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, not to mention taking a giant step backward in one's understanding of the attributes of God and the workings of the universe. However, I respect everyone's desire to come to their own understanding of truth even when their conclusions differ from mine, so more power to them. All of us are on our perfect paths. We do, after all, "claim the privilege of worshiping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege."

I'm endlessly fascinated by the theo-cosmology of the gospel message, of the mysteries of Godliness, of the "oneness" of the universe. Our scriptures reveal things only now being discovered through the science of quantum mechanics, such as that all matter, when reduced to its smallest element, seems to consist of some kind of an innate consciousness, or what we Mormons call "intelligence".

It's been a long time since I heard Cleon Skousen's famous talk, "The Meaning of the Atonement", so yesterday I dug out my old cassette player and gave it another listen. It's still absolutely mind boggling! Brother Skousen was one of the greatest teachers this church ever produced, and I understood better and got closer to Christ from that one presentation than I ever did during a lifetime of sitting in Sunday School class.

The finely carved, ornate box we call "The Church" contains treasures of knowledge that you can barely conceive of in a lifetime of learning. But you won't experience any of it if you spend your life holding the box on your lap admiring the fine workmanship of the outside container. That box is just the handiwork of men. No matter how elegant and rich and impressive it may appear, it's really only some pretty pieces of wood slapped together.

Why would you want to keep focusing on that box? Lift the lid and look inside.

The Worst Testimony You Can Possibly Have


Any Latter-day Saint with open eyes and an internet connection can't help but notice that the church has been hemorrhaging members at an alarming rate in recent years.

I'm not even talking about the occasional Jack-Mormon who slips away unnoticed, or the 25-40 percent of converts who stop attending within their first year of baptism . What I'm talking about here are the those who have made the active determination to have their names permanently removed from the records of the church. They're often vocal about their antipathy for the church over what they consider a betrayal of a lifetime of their trust.

Many of the folks I'm referring to all have several things in common: Many are multi-generational LDS and descendants of pioneers; most have served missions, been married in the temple, were full tithe payers and 100 percent home teachers. Some had important callings in the relief society presidency; some were bishops, institute instructors, gospel doctrine teachers, and stake high councilmen. They were valiantly active in the church, the True Blue members of their wards. They were the very last persons anyone, including themselves, would have expected to ever abandon the faith.

Every one of them will tell you this: They once had a rock-solid, unshakable testimony of the church.

And that, in my opinion, was their problem. In having a strong testimony of the church, their focus was in the wrong place. "The Church" never was true, and never can be.

I'll give you a moment to catch your breath here. You may even want to take this opportunity to put your arm to the square and intone "get thee behind me, Satan".

Fine. I'll wait.

The truth is, "The Church" is not "The Gospel". It's merely a vehicle for the delivery of the gospel. What we ought to have a testimony of is The Restoration. Of Christ. Of the Atonement.

The great mission of the church is to bring souls to Christ, so once that has taken place, why not testify of Christ? Why would any of us want to bear testimony of the truthfulness of a corporate institution?

In general conference of October 1982, Elder J. Thomas Fyans related the following fable:

"There’s an ancient oriental legend that tells the story of a jeweler who had a precious pearl he wanted to sell. In order to place this pearl in the proper setting, he conceived the idea of building a special box of the finest woods to contain the pearl. He sought these woods and had them brought to him, and they were polished to a high brilliance. He then reinforced the corners of this box with elegant brass hinges and added a red velvet interior. As a final step, he scented that red velvet with perfume, then placed in that setting this precious pearl.


"The pearl was then placed in the store window of the jeweler, and after a short period of time, a rich man came by. He was attracted by what he saw and sat down with the jeweler to negotiate a purchase. The jeweler soon realized that the man was negotiating for the box rather than the pearl. You see, the man was so overcome by the beauty of the exterior that he failed to see the pearl of great price."


Growing up in the mid to late 1960s in the Anaheim First Ward, my testimony of the church developed and solidified during my teen and young adult years. I loved the church and everything connected to it. At that time "The Church" meant a lot of different things to me: It was The Book of Mormon and the other Standard Works. It was Priesthood meeting, Sunday School, and Sacrament Meeting. In those days the meetings were held at three different times of the day, so between Priesthood and Sunday School, while our fathers drove home to get the other family members, my Aaronic priesthood friends and I had an hour and a half to hang around with each other and bond as friends. So "The Church" also meant the friends I had at church. It meant my teachers, my bishop, and all the grown-up members of my ward. It meant the church building itself.

Often Chuck Anderson and I would stay after our own ward to attend the Fourth Ward Sacrament meeting just so we could sit by Carolyn Watts and DeeAnn Mcnear, because "The Church" also meant foxy Mormon girls. Sometimes Butch Matulich and I would drive over to Cypress because the Cypress ward had such examples of fascinating womanhood as Jeri Sachs and Cheryl Boberg and Helen Young and Little Vicki Robinson. It would not be unfair to say that in my teenage years, the best thing about the Mormon Church was Mormon chicks.

"The Church" also meant M.I.A. on Tuesday nights, and Boy Scouts and Explorers. Before that "The Church" had meant attending Primary with my friends. There were Road Shows, Stake Plays, Pancake Breakfasts, Scout Camp, Church Camp, Stake Dances, Ward Firesides, Stake Firesides, Regional Firesides, Ward Beach Parties, Ward Dinners, Seminary, and even summer trips to BYU for Youth Conference. "The Church" was basketball games and annual Scripture Chase Competitions, and Saturday drives over to the city of Orange to browse the only Deseret Book Store in the county. "The Church" was also represented in my bedroom by a growing collection of church books I bought and read.

"The Church" was the life I was totally immersed in six days a week and thrice on Sunday.

Later there was Institute and Young Adults, bigger Firesides and bigger Dances, a two year Mission, BYU, and a Temple Marriage. "The Church" also meant Temple Square and The Brethren and General Conference and Church Headquarters at 50 East Temple Street in Salt Lake City.

Throughout all this time I experienced the burning in my bosom countless times. I felt the Holy Ghost and I heard the still, small voice. If you had asked me if Jesus had a place in my heart, I would have told you yes. But I have to admit that the presence of Jesus was quiet and subdued compared to all that was going on about me in "The Church" as a whole, and let's face it: Jesus was invisible, while "The Church" was a huge, tangible, omnipresent stew I was swimming in all the time.

So it's probably understandable that when I bore my testimony, I often testified that I "knew" The Church was true, I "knew" that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and I even "knew" that my Mormon friends were the bestest friends in the whole wide world. I don't remember how often I or any of my teenage friends actually thought to mention Jesus Christ in our testimonies except for the part at the end where we'd recite the obligatory mantra "In-the-name-of-Jesus-Christ-Amen".

Not long ago I sat in Fast and Testimony meeting conducting a quiet little experiment. I took out a pen and made a mark on my program for every time someone testified of the truthfulness of the church. I made another mark for every time someone testified of Christ. You might want to try the same experiment. If the mentions of Jesus or the atonement outnumber the mentions of the church or of Joseph Smith, well then, I'd say you live in an extraordinary ward.

The problem with having a testimony of the church is that eventually you'll find that "The Church", whatever that represents to you, may disappoint. Some of those charged with being the gatekeepers of Christ's earthly institution have at times, in a well-meaning effort to spare the flock from some embarrassing facts and "to protect their testimonies", covered up and distorted some of the more uncomfortable and contradictory aspects of our history and doctrine. Many disaffected Mormons tell of an incredible sense of betrayal after awakening to the realization that much of what they had been taught all their lives had not been the complete truth.

Now in my opinion, to discard all of the marvelous realities of the restoration because of a few historical and doctrinal anomalies is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, not to mention taking a giant step backward in one's understanding of the attributes of God and the workings of the universe. However, I respect everyone's desire to come to their own understanding of truth even when their conclusions differ from mine, so more power to them. All of us are on our perfect paths. We do, after all, "claim the privilege of worshiping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege."

I'm endlessly fascinated by the theo-cosmology of the gospel message, of the mysteries of Godliness, of the "oneness" of the universe. Our scriptures reveal things only now being discovered through the science of quantum mechanics, such as that all matter, when reduced to its smallest element, seems to consist of some kind of an innate consciousness, or what we Mormons call "intelligence".

It's been a long time since I heard Cleon Skousen's famous talk, "The Meaning of the Atonement", so yesterday I dug out my old cassette player and gave it another listen. It's still absolutely mind boggling! Brother Skousen was one of the greatest teachers this church ever produced, and I understood better and got closer to Christ from that one presentation than I ever did during a lifetime of sitting in Sunday School class.

The finely carved, ornate box we call "The Church" contains treasures of knowledge that you can barely conceive of in a lifetime of learning. But you won't experience any of it if you spend your life holding the box on your lap admiring the fine workmanship of the outside container. That box is just the handiwork of men. No matter how elegant and rich and impressive it may appear, it's really only some pretty pieces of wood slapped together.

Why would you want to keep focusing on that box? Lift the lid and look inside.