Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why the Church is as True as the Gospel

Several years ago, Eugene England published a series of essays he titled, Why the Church is as True as the Gospel. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1986). It's a serviceable title, and remains intriguing as I borrow it for today's post. He also wrote another compilation entitled, Dialogues with Myself. (Midvale, Utah: Orion Books, 1984).

Eugene England
Said England: ". . . the Church community is blessed, not fractured, by those who express themselves sincerely and openly — even their disagreements and their vulnerability — rather than those who keep silent in public but criticize in private or harbor resentment or guilt or gnaw alone on the bones of their failures and hurts." (Dialogues, 55). I believe that's a useful message for us to consider.

In the Church we encounter imperfection in all its stripes and hues. Each month that diversity is on full display in our fast and testimony meeting, where anyone in the audience who feels so inclined can either walk to the pulpit and testify, or stand in their pew and share whatever they feel inclined to discuss. It's free-wheeling unscripted worship at its best and routinely inspiring, as it was again today in the Woodland Ward. Some people who leave the Church say they still can have Jesus without His Church. I guess that's true for them, but I have always rejected it.

We are prone to believe in the Church that the gospel in its purity and perfection is somehow superior to the messiness we find in the organization of the Church. It isn't so much the institutional organization itself with which we take exception. The organization of the Church is really rather tidy in its vertical top-down efficiency. Rather, it's the people who are messy. We give them all stunning responsibility to administer in all facets of the ordinances necessary to salvation. We teach and instruct on a regular basis, then we get out of their way and allow them to do their very best using their agency and their divinely-appointed gift of revelation. It's awe-inspiring to me that we entrust all these truths in the hands of eighteen-year-old young men and nineteen-year-old young women and turn them loose throughout the world to invite all who will to come unto Christ and learn more.

In conversation late one night last week with a visiting son-in-law who is currently serving as a bishop, this theme was re-born in my mind, inviting further examination.

He spoke of a dear friend who had left the Church after being shattered by a book written about plural marriage (popularly referred to inaccurately as "polygamy.") I commented that I had read the book years ago when it was first published, and felt it to be not only faith-building for me personally, but I believed it represented the de facto best book ever written on the topic. It's highlighted at the right on my recommended reading list, entitled In Sacred Loneliness, by Todd Compton.

I was inspired and deeply edified by the multiple accounts and compelling evidence of the supernal spiritual gifts of these incredible women. That their lives were hard is an understatement. That they endured what they did is testament to their faith. That's what I was focused on, to the exclusion of what to some would seem abhorrent behavior in the Victorian age. Seriously, compared to what we observe today, can what happened in the Mormon experience in Nauvoo in the 1840s even be compared?

We mused together about the differences in his friend's and my reaction to Compton's book. It has been my experience with many, many people over the years that a little knowledge about Joseph Smith is a dangerous thing. Reading one book about plural marriage is not advisable. If you want to know, really know, about the Prophet Joseph Smith, you're advised to do a very deep dive. Get your hands on everything you can find about the man, the times in which he lived, the contemporaries who knew and studied him carefully, and then calculate the long odds against the stellar achievements of one so young.

Joseph Smith
If you are the least bit objective after that degree of effort, even if you can't muster the faith to believe he was a divinely-appointed prophet of God, you must conclude Joseph Smith was no ordinary man. What made him tick? Why did he do the things he did? Where did he find his motivation, his devotion, his native optimism in the face of the almost insurmountable opposition he routinely faced?

He was dead at age 38, assassinated by the hands of men who believed they were doing the will of God to dispatch this pretender from the face of the earth. Gather your sources as you research his life from his avowed enemies, his devoted apologists and his staunchest advocates. Consider long and persistently his mission and his legacy. It isn't enough to encounter your first jolts in the ride, then leave it alone and wander off disillusioned with your first taste of something sour. I've described my journey of discovery in that advice to you, and I can testify the man was everything and more he purported to be, imperfections and all. What he left for all of us was solid gold revelation from God and he penned it in spite of his imperfections.

With Joseph and all his successors, one must overcome the initial bite of the bitterness of lemons, it seems, until one acquires a taste for lemonade.

The reason one must persist in their quest for understanding of mortal men who are called to the work in this dispensation is the perfection of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the Church we rub shoulders with one another to learn to forgive our contemporaries. It isn't enough to come to know the gospel is true. That's the easier task. No, we must learn on a deeper more cognitive level by experimenting on each other in overlooking the sins and follies of our fellow saints, nurturing, serving and loving them as Christ would and did in the meridian-day Church of Jesus Christ.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell
Frankly, in some people we encounter in the latter-day Church there is little of "saint" and a lot more of "sinner." It seems we must see the Church as a hospital for sinners, not a rest home for saints, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell once reminded us. We can learn to love one another in spite of the stench of each others' sins. That includes most of all our leaders. I remember being seated on a plane years ago when I traveled a lot and was routinely upgraded to first class. Across the aisle was a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, who was served a cup of coffee "black without sugar." That was his order and it was not decaffeinated. Shock. Bitter lemons. But who was I to judge that act? I had my own list of cherished sins that maybe weren't quite as obvious.

That's why the Church is as true as the gospel. One must come to appreciate and value the mess in organized religion. Be wary of those who say they have no use for organized religion. I used this rejoinder to some who told me that: "Then come join the Mormons, we're as disorganized as you can imagine!" When we have learned by long years of experience to validate one another despite everything that is so obvious in shortcomings and backsliding, then and only then are we becoming "truly converted" mature disciples of Jesus Christ.

I routinely ponder the imperfections I observe in how the Church gets administered. Yes, I see things done differently than how I would do them, but for the most part these are minor irritants and don't amount to much. For some it's a parlor game to point out the obvious dereliction so readily available to all observers. On the macro level, think of all the departures from the procedural norms one has observed from Joseph to Thomas S. Monson. Avowed enemies of the Church love to point out the differences in the statements of earlier dead prophets compared to the living oracles among us. It is a test for many to follow the living prophets.

On the micro level, regardless of which granular ward to which we belong, there are sometimes jarring experiences to which we are exposed that try our faith and challenge our testimonies. To those who are jarred by their discoveries of the dereliction of others, including Joseph and all his successors down through and including local leaders, I would say hold on, anchor yourselves in the scriptures, and continue your search for truth on both the macro and the micro level.

Seek to become flexible enough that your testimony is not "brittle," as son-in-law Phil Sharp described it. Brittle testimony seems unable to allow for imperfection in others. Making that accommodation and pointing it out publicly without harboring and festering in quiet solitude or whispered gossip is what an active faith requires. I have little use for private critics of others and Church policy, and I routinely have to remind myself to bite my tongue when so tempted. I hate that fault in me when the words escape my lips and I work to stifle those expressions. I've noticed my negativity when allowed to escape my lips rarely affects anyone but me.

In both cases at the micro and the macro level, change is inevitable. Change in individuals comes in the form of repentance, and in the institutional Church it also involves almost constant adaptation in policies and procedures in a changing world as the growing Church expands around the globe.

Being anchored in absolute unchanging doctrine, however, will help you absorb the shocks that often accompany a dynamic organization filled with people who routinely are mired in addiction, ineptitude, sin, even deceit and fraud.

I grew up in a home where scathing criticism and judgment of others was routine. As I got to know those people later in life, I discovered that many of the faults and frailties of which they had been accused by my father were simply not true as I formed my own opinions of those people. To the degree my own children may have detected that fault in me, I am repenting. Please forgive me. To them and to myself I would say, don't be the voice of private criticism. Instead, be the public voice for testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel principles as they are being tested and tried in the hearts and minds of imperfect people among whom you serve, love and follow in faith.

That's why the Church is at least as true as the gospel. I don't believe you can have one without the other.

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