Penitence: Some Reflection on Lent  

When they asked us about the meaning of “penitent” at a church group I was attending the other night, I have to admit that the first thing that came to mind was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when near the end of the movie Indiana is going through various obstacles to get to the Holy Grail. The instruction is that “only the penitent man will pass,” and at the last minute, he realizes he has to kneel in order to avoid having his head chopped off. So when I hear “penitent,” I think, “be humble before God or be decapitated,” which seems like potentially useful information, especially if I ever go on a religious quest that involves elaborate traps.

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Calling You to Do Better Rather than Decimating You

I was sitting in church a few weeks ago and noticing how several of the scriptural texts were about God calling people: Samuel hearing a voice and wondering what it was, Psalm 139 (“Lord, you have searched me out and known me”), and the encounter of Jesus with Nathanael. As I was listening to the sermon, which also touched on these themes, and emphasized God’s call to each one of us, and the need for our community to make space for everyone to become what God is calling her or him to be, a question came to mind which I’ve often pondered: how do you discern between a call or a challenge that pushes you in healthy ways, make you grow, and brings you closer to God—and one that simply beats you down and leaves you broken? Read More

Getting Baptized

I didn’t actually have to get baptized as part of my conversion. The Episcopal church doesn’t have a clear policy on what do with Mormons—while Catholics and some Protestants have ruled that Mormon baptism is invalid and converts from Mormonism must be baptized, Episcopalians have been rather less definitive. There are certainly LDS converts to Anglicanism who’ve made the religious transition without being baptized (perhaps most notably a former Episcopal bishop of Utah). When I first started playing with the idea of converting, I figured I’d do it via confirmation only; I liked the idea of holding on to my Mormon baptism as a way of maintaining continuity in my religious journey. Read More

Whither Mormonism?  

Two Mormon-related events in the past week have shaken me up a little. On one level, neither of them were particularly surprising—but on another, I found them both unsettling and at least a little unexpected. The first was the release of the Gallup poll which found that the Mormon approval of Trump was, at 61 percent, the highest of any religious group surveyed. The second was the decision of incoming church president Russell M. Nelson to move Dieter F. Uchtdorf out of the First Presidency and replace him with Dallin H. Oaks. I also found the comments made at the press conference about the leadership transition, especially the ones about women, to be quite jarring. And I’ve found myself asking: whatever has happened to my church? (Yes, I know that it’s not technically mine anymore, since I’ve found a new religious home. But it’s still the church I grew up in, the church that shaped me. I don’t feel all the way disconnected from it.) Read More

A Faith Less Angsty

For most of my life, my religious beliefs have been both deeply meaningful to me, and a source of intense turbulence. I agonized over my relationship to Mormonism for decades, over what it meant to stick with a tradition that did things I so deeply disagreed with but which was such a profound part of my identity, and had played such a foundational role in shaping my spirituality.  I don’t know how many hours I spent writing about those questions, talking endlessly to friends and family about them, even bringing them up in therapy. And because of all that, I think I developed the idea that genuine faith was meant to be difficult, and by “difficult” I meant, something that regularly drove you crazy.

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How to Get Those Darn Gay People to Stop Being So Obsessed With Their Gay Identities

One of the complaints I’ve heard numerous times from Latter-day Saints is that we gay people are way too obsessed with our gayness, that we get caught up in some outlandish homosexual identity (which might eventually lead to the dreaded “gay lifestyle”), and that we need to just stop thinking about sexual orientation as being that big of a part of who we are. We’re discouraged from even using the word “gay,” because it might swallow up our identities and make us think that there’s nothing else to us. Mormons who claim to be especially enlightened have informed me that they just don’t think about people in those terms, that they’ve transcended even being aware of such details about a person, and then complained about gay people who “force” their orientation on others by talking excessively about it, and thereby making everyone feel unnecessarily awkward and uncomfortable. Others have objected to an idea put forth by some church members that gay Mormons have a particularly challenging trial, pointing out that everyone has difficulties in life, and asking, when did we decide that gay people should get all this special attention? Read More

15 Observations from a Compulsive Church-Hopper

As some of you know, I’ve recently found myself engaged in the project of visiting as many churches and other religious groups in my local community as I can. I have a spreadsheet which currently has 143 entries; thus far, I’ve visited 41 of them. (My hope is to see another 60 or so in the coming year, but I’ll have to see how long my energy holds up.) I’ve seen Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Lutherans, Jews, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Unitarians, Pagans, Buddhists, and lots of nondenominational Protestants. These are some random observations arising from my experiences thus far. Read More

Credit, Blame, and the Influence of the Church

Think about these scenarios.

—A man expresses gratitude that his experience serving in various callings in the church has given him leadership skills that have helped him in many areas of his life.

—A teenager navigates high school without trying drugs and alcohol, and credits church teachings.

—Two young adults marry in the temple, after years of hearing how important that is.

—An LDS woman is asked how she survived a very difficult situation. She says that the teachings of her faith were what sustained her.

—A couple is recognized for their humanitarian efforts. They explain that this came from the values they got from a church which emphasizes service. Read More

Things I Like About Mormonism

I went to have a chat the other day with the rector of the local Episcopal church where I’ve been attending services, mostly just because I am manically talkative right now and always looking for a new victim to process my religious journey with. Fortunately, he turned out to be a skilled listener. And something that really impressed me came early on, after I told him my basic background (namely that I was a super conflicted Mormon who’d been recently dabbling in all things Episcopal and loving it). He easily could have used that as a launching point to do a sales pitch for the Episcopal tradition, or plunged into a narrative of Mormonism as an oppressive tradition from which I needed to escape. But instead, rather my to my surprise, the first thing he asked was, “what do you like about Mormonism?” As a lifelong Mormon I am perhaps overly alert to potential proselytizing, and the thought may have crossed my mind that this could be a trick question, part of “building a relationship of trust” or “establishing common ground” so that then you can later pounce and get the person to convert. But as the conversation continued, it was clear that nothing of the sort was happening. He genuinely wanted to learn more about Mormonism (he didn’t know much), and in particular my experience of it. He didn’t have an agenda for me; he just wanted to hear about my spiritual journey. It’s an absolute delight to talk to someone with that attitude.

Anyway, the conversation got me thinking about what I do like about Mormonism, and inspired me to dig out a post I started years ago on the topic and expand it. Here are some of the things I came up with:
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My Holy Week Experience

Palm Sunday

Holy Week kicks off! I’ve been excited for this ever since I found myself not just doing drive-by visits to the Episcopal church, but attending regularly. I’ve dipped in and out of different Holy Week events in the past, but I’ve never gone to all of them. This is actually my first time attending a Palm Sunday service.

We meet in the courtyard outside the chapel, and they distribute palms as we enter. We hold them up as they read the opening liturgy outside. They have a choir with handbells, and the music is just gorgeous. We slowly process into the building. Most of the service is taken up with a reading of the Passion narrative. They’ve assigned different people in the congregation to voice the different characters, which really brings it to life. (I’m amused to note that one of the rectors is playing both Judas and Pilate.) Since that’s the focus, there isn’t a sermon, although they do have Communion. (I’m coming to realize that Episcopalians pretty much do the Eucharist whenever possible.) They don’t read the Resurrection part of the text, of course, since it’s not Easter yet, so the service ends on a rather serious note. The congregation leaves in silence; unlike regular Sundays, the rectors don’t stand near the doors afterward and shake hands with people. But I leave on a real high nonetheless, excited for the coming week. Read More

A Person Who Stays

Like most kids born into the church, I was baptized at the age of eight. I turned 42 earlier this year. (Tangential sign that you are getting at least middle-aged: I actually had to stop and check the year and subtract to verify my current age. But yes, it’s 42.) That means I have a solid 34 years of membership in the LDS church. I was by no means consistently active for all those years. My first foray out of Mormonism happened about thirty seconds after I finished my last class at BYU, and was no longer required to have an ecclesiastical endorsement. That time around, I left for a good year and a half. But looking back, “left” is a very strong word for what I did. I mean, I quit going to church every week (though I’d still drop by for special occasions). But I still did stuff like praying and reading my scriptures, and even (such are the contradictions of life) attending an Institute class for a while. And given that I was living in Provo, with five Mormon roommates, I was still pretty immersed in the whole thing. In a stroke of good fortune, I got to take a night class on Mormon literature from Eugene England, who had found refuge at UVU at that point, and I loved it. It was an environment where there was room for real questions; I found there a constructive and supportive space to begin the process of seriously wrestling with my Mormon heritage and what it meant to me. Given my continuing attachment to the LDS tradition, I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised when I eventually decided to come back to church. Read More

Exploring the Episcopal Church

Several months ago I decided, for the umpteenth time in my life, that I needed a break from church. All the usual factors were at play, from frustration with the expectations surrounding gender and marriage to frustration with the culture of obedience and family-worship. The immediate catalyst for my leaving was not unrelated to these things. My older sister moved into the ward, and we started going to church together. This should have been fun, and of course I was happy she was there. But watching the sharp differences in the ways we were treated by other members of the ward just brought home to me that no, I was not imagining my marginalization in the community. People who barely registered my existence went out of their way to talk to and include her. People would literally talk over me, if I was sitting next to her, to engage her in conversation, without appearing to notice I was even there. I may as well have been a piece of furniture. She was asked to speak in sacrament meeting soon after moving in, and had a calling shortly thereafter—very different from my experience moving into the ward nearly a year earlier. Read More

With God, Nothing is Impossible…Except Choir

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I am our ward choir director. If you knew me in real life you might find this shocking—I am no great musical talent, I have no formal training, and most importantly, I sport no distinguished-looking facial hair—no mutton chop sideburns or flamboyant goatee—the true mark of a virtuoso conductor.

What I can do is read music and play the piano passably well, and that is about it…which apparently qualifies me as choir director. I am a warm body who can keep a beat and carry a tune. Praise the Lord and pass the earplugs! Read More

A Mormon Voyage

In his brief history of India’s geography, Land of the Seven Rivers, Sanjeev Sanyal describes how India’s maritime prowess fell into decline beginning at the end of the twelfth century.

Indian merchants had once been explorers and risk-takers who criss-crossed the oceans in their stitched ships. They could be found in large numbers in ports from the Persian Gulf to China…Suddenly…they almost all disappeared.

What happened? Read More

The Covenant Keeper’s Guide to Attending Church While on Vacation

You may have heard that it has been said by them of old time that covenant keepers will attend the full three-hour block of Sunday church meetings, even while on vacation. But I say unto you that that’s not nearly enough. Simply attending the three-hour block is for slothful, lukewarm covenant breakers who were clearly less valiant in the pre-existence. If you want to demonstrate that you’re a true covenant keeper, you’ll be sure to do the following while on vacation:

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Three wards enter. Four wards leave.

My ward is getting divided this Sunday. Or as you can probably guess from my title, it’s not actually a straight-up split of my ward. It’s that I’m in one of three wards that will have its boundaries realigned, and the result will be four new wards.

churchI’ve been through this process only twice that I remember. One time was when I was about sixteen. My family had lived in the same place for eight years or so, and I was felt pretty comfortable in my ward. Between the time that the realignment was announced and the release of the actual details of who would end up in which ward, I remember being extremely worried about having the ward split cut me off from my best friends in the ward. As I recall, the change ended up making very little difference, at least to me. All my best friends were still in my ward after the split. And in retrospect, it’s kind of odd that I was that concerned. I lived in Utah Valley and the ward was geographically tiny, so even if my friends had been divided away from me, I could have still easily walked the short distance to their houses to visit them.

The other ward division I recall going through was just a couple of years ago, when my wife and I lived in a college town that had two wards that were realigned to make three. I was less worried than I had been as a teen, but I still recall worrying that the people I liked most in the ward would end up split away from me. Again, for me the outcome was very little change. All the people I liked most stayed in the ward with me.

What strikes me about the process of ward boundary realignment is that I know so little about it. The process of how such things come about is pretty much completely opaque to me. So what I’d like to do is pose a few questions about the process and speculate a little about the answer to each, and then hope you, dear reader, will be so kind as to share any knowledge you have in the comments.

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Who Speaks for the Trees?

At the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows and the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows and no birds ever sing excepting old crows…is the Street of the Lifted Lorax. And deep in the Grickle-grass, some people say, if you look deep enough you can still see, today, where the Lorax once stood just as long as it could before somebody lifted the Lorax away.

For several years I have wondered what the future holds for the Church. Before then, I’d always envisioned the stone carved out of the mountain without hands, rolling forth to fill the earth. That is what I observed on my mission in Brazil nearly 25 years ago, where once we caught two buses and trekked up a big hill for 20 minutes to reach the chapel for the baptism of my friend Antonio; now, due to the growth of the Church, Antonio lives a five-minute walk to the chapel and a ten-minute drive to the temple.

What was the Lorax? Any why was it there? And why was it lifted and taken somewhere from the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows? Read More

Is the Church Becoming like FIFA?

I am a huge soccer enthusiast. I grew up playing in my neighborhood parks, at the nearby indoor soccer facility, and on my high school team. My dad would take me to Camp Randall stadium to watch the Wisconsin men’s team play on the hard Astroturf. Later, I served a mission in Brazil and played soccer on many P-days and for a few minutes most other days with the “moleques” in the street, trying to scoot their scuffed up balls into the homemade goals that would be hastily dragged to safety whenever a car came down the street. So of course, I loved the recent World Cup—that one time every four years when the world gathers to celebrate our global religion, and time almost stands still. Read More

Approaching Zion

In my latest post I shared my words from my ward’s latest fast and testimony meeting. It was intensely personal to me; I sniffled through some of it, something I almost never do despite my good Mormon upbringing. Even so, I posted my testimony because I wanted to give encouragement to those members who, for various reasons, love the Church in spite of the sometimes painfully large, angry-red, pus-filled warts that they see. I wanted to provide support to Mormons who desire to be themselves at church, in a church where being yourself can make you undesirable if your beliefs are not mainstream.

In the past I have avoided sharing some of my concerns about the Church with my TBM friends. If the Church is working well for them I do not want to give them difficulty. If they are deriving strength and hope from our community and its teachings, if they are comforted by the certainty of belonging to the One True Church and are learning to know God and love their neighbors by participating in it, I do not want to rain on their parade. Read More

Let’s Make the Hymnbook More of a His and Hers Book

This Sunday in sacrament meeting we sang the hymn O God, the Eternal Father. I noticed this time, more than previous times, the gender-exclusive language:

That sacred, holy off’ring,
By man least understood…

With no apparent beauty,
That man should him desire…

To walk upon his footstool
And be like man, almost…

I understand that when W.W. Phelps wrote these lyrics back in the 1830’s, gender-exclusive language was the norm, it was the way people talked, wrote, and thought. I also understand that in many instances such gender-exclusive language was typically understood to mean both men and women. I suspect that Brother Phelps had no overt desire to leave anyone out; by using “man” he may have been simply using the default term for the word “humans”. Read More