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.
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