As we listen in on the 2016 semi-annual General Conference of the Mormon Church we remember how Mormons sound like us but believe very differently. When you are listening in on a group to which you don’t belong it is important you hear what group members hear. The temptation is to import the language of their world into your own, especially if it is familiar, and understand it in your own terms. This is a big mistake. It is why we carefully define terms when witnessing.
This applies not only to the general terms the group uses that we appear to have in common, but to the cultural idioms, buzz-words and phrases that carry special meaning to group members. We know that an apparently innocent encouragement to spend more time in Scripture can come loaded with guilt and recrimination that an outsider may not immediately recognise. A call to greater faithfulness can become a cause for self doubt.
The Mormon Church has come under a great deal of pressure in recent years. They share the concerns of many conservative Christians over the issue of homosexuality. They have so far resisted the call to recognise ‘gay marriage,’ and demand chastity of those not in a marriage between one man and one woman. But their policy has been typically legalistic and they have not covered themselves with glory. The response is equally dramatic, with the church being blamed for a spike in suicides among LGBT Mormons. On this issue the Mormon hierarchy now faces the threat of the Mama Dragons.
At the same time there are calls from liberal Mormons to allow women into the hallowed ranks of the strictly male only priesthood of the church. Ordain Women is an organisation that lobbies for women to be allowed to hold Mormon priesthood authority. Meanwhile, along with other essays addressing controversial church issues, the leadership have issued five essays about women and the priesthood and Heavenly Mother!
A YouTube channel named ‘Mormon Leaks’ has posted more than a dozen videos taken behind closed doors between 2007 and 2012, showing the LDS Church’s top leadership in discussion on issues ranging from cyber-security to homosexuality to the 2008 economic crisis. This is part of a much larger initiative that has leaked confidential internal documents onto the social media site Reddit in recent weeks.
One of the revelations from these leaks is the news that only 25% of single young Mormons are active in the church. Jana Riess covers the story on her Flunking Sainthood blog and writes:
The November 12, 2008 briefing titled, “In Which They Fret over the Young Single Adults,” intersects directly with the issues I’m addressing in my research on Mormon Millennials, so naturally I was keenly interested. Note that this information is now seven years out of date, and if we have learned anything from previous surveys about Mormon retention, it’s that things have only gotten worse over the last decade, so understand that these figures may in fact present a too-rosy picture of the present situation, at least in the United States.
With all this in mind, and remembering the advice to hear what they hear, not what we hear, I have listened to and read the conference talks and found a common theme: only believe. It’s not a new idea, indeed it’s one we find rolled out in times of crisis. With so many Mormons now questioning Mormon policy on a range of issues this is shaping up to be a crisis. Do Mormons find the message of conference encouraging? Questions are coming at them from all quarters, causing anger, doubt, and dismay. The leadership do what they always do, lay the responsibility on the shoulders of the saints.
I recall explaining to my bishop why I was leaving the Mormon Church. His response was to urge me to do more of this, pay greater attention to that, attend this more often, support that more faithfully – pay more tithing. The scales fell from my eyes as I recognised the legalism inherent there and the fact he had no real answers to my sincere questions. This, I suggest, is that scenario writ large in the Mormon conference.
The Saturday morning session illustrates well enough the rising crisis and the church’s response; a mixture of ‘Don’t worry, it will be alright,’ and, ‘as long as you come up to the mark.’ Make no mistake, Mormons were reminded of how high the mark is and where their duties lie. In this scenario Christ’s love is conditional, our efforts pivotal, honest questions inimical to faith.
The Saturday morning session began with Deiter Uchtdorf, second counsellor in the first presidency, urging members they should not take the message of Mormonism for granted. Summarising God’s ‘great plan of happiness,’ he reminded the saints, ‘We are surrounded by such an astonishing wealth of light and truth that I wonder if we truly appreciate what we have.’
What might a questioning Mormon be expected to take away from this message? ‘Maybe I doubt because I am selfish and ungrateful.’ So the attention is drawn away from the questions and the member becomes the problem.
Following on from this we heard Robert D Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve. He reminded members of their duty to be sacrificial in their service of others saying, ‘The disciples were taught to turn from the ways of the natural man to the loving and caring ways of the Savior by replacing contention with forgiveness, kindness, and compassion.’
How might this play in the mind of a doubting member? ‘Perhaps, after all, there is still too much of the natural man in me.’ So people turn from honest reflection to introspection and self recrimination.
Carol F McConkie spoke next, first counsellor in the Young Women’s presidency. Her message on the power of prayer was quite didactic and formulaic. Almost channelling Bruce R McConkie, she reminded members that ‘We pray to our Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost.’
She went on to say, ‘Prayer is essential to developing faith. When the Lord comes again, will He find a people who know how to pray in faith and who are prepared to receive salvation?’ She sums up, ‘Sincere desires offered in a spirit of gratitude for abundant blessings and gratitude for the lessons of life instil in our hearts steadfast faith in Christ.’
How might a thoughtful Mormon feel about this? ‘Maybe I haven’t followed the correct formula for prayer. Perhaps my testimony is weak because I don’t pray sincerely, in faith, in the power of the Spirit. How else do I explain these questions and doubts?’ In this way prayer becomes a daily accusation instead of a lifelong consolation.
Craig C Christenson of the presidency of the seventy spoke of a war between good and evil saying, ‘the Prophet Joseph Smith has both inspired believers who follow him and…antagonists who fight furiously against the cause of Zion and against Joseph himself. This battle is not new. It began soon after young Joseph walked into the Sacred Grove and continues today with added visibility on the internet.’
He goes on, ‘To any who may be questioning their testimony of Joseph Smith or are struggling with erroneous, misleading, or superficial information about his life and ministry, I invite you to consider the fruits—the many blessings that have come to us through the miraculous mission of Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration.’
Did I hear someone say ‘anti-Mormon?’ What church member wants to be landed with this label? Who wants to walk away from blessings? Who wants to be accused of ‘struggling with erroneous, misleading, or superficial information?’ Thus the faithful doubt their own loyalty and come to regard themselves unwitting enemies of the church.
In his ‘official’ account of the so-called First Vision Joseph Smith reports that God says of the Christian world, ‘they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…’ (JSH 1:19) In Moroni’s promise in the Book of Mormon inquirers are told God will answer sincere prayers, prayed with faith and real intent. (Moroni 10:4) This is a story familiar to every Mormon. Whenever the subject of prayer is raised, a Mormon will instinctively think in terms of prayers that are sincerely meant or lip service.
Juan A Uceda of the quorum of the seventy asks the question, ‘When you pray are you really praying, or just saying your prayers?’
Mormons worried about their relations who perhaps missed conference; members concerned because they have been challenged by the essays the church has issued to address thorny questions about church history and doctrine; families fretting over someone’s second thoughts about a mission might grasp at this straw, saying a testimony is weak because prayer is no more than lip service. I must double my effort or, as one former Mormon prophet put it, ‘lengthen your stride.’ Thus their best efforts come back to ask accusingly, ‘Are you really trying?’
J Devn Cornish of the seventy throws a lifeline saying, ‘Sometimes when we attend church, we become discouraged even by sincere invitations to improve ourselves. We think silently, “I can’t do all these things” or “I will never be as good as all these people.”’
Oh, brother Cornish, encourage me, tell me I am not ungrateful, insincere, faithless…
‘It will not work to justify ourselves in our sins by saying, “God knows it’s just too hard for me, so He accepts me like I am.” “Really trying” means we keep at it as we fully come up to the Lord’s standard, which is clearly defined in the questions we are asked in order to get a temple recommend.’
But, brother Cornish, I identify with Paul in Romans 7 who describes being wretched and incapable and writes about being ‘rescued from this body of death.’ (Ro.7:24) I know what he means when he describes having the desire to do good but being incapable of doing the good I desire. (Ro.7:15-20)
‘None of us can do this on our own power. None of us will ever be “good enough,” save through the merits and mercy of Jesus Christ, but because God respects our agency, we also cannot be saved without our trying. That is how the balance between grace and works works…’
Ah, brother Cornish, you give with one hand and take way with the other. I can never be good enough but my effort must be good enough. I depend on the undeserved merit of Christ, but I must merit his merit. Maybe I should settle for being a doorkeeper in the House of the Lord (if ever I am good enough to get a temple recommend). In this way so many Latter-day Saints settle for less.
In the Sunday morning session M Russell Ballard, spoke of ‘when many of [the Lord’s] disciples found it hard to accept His teachings and doctrine, and they “went back, and walked no more with him.”
‘As these disciples left, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Will ye also go away?”
“Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”
“And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”’ (Emphasis in original)
Ballard goes on:
‘In that moment, when others focused on what they could not accept, the Apostles chose to focus on what they did believe and know, and as a result, they remained with Christ.
Later, on the day of Pentecost, the Twelve received the gift of the Holy Ghost. They became bold in their witness of Christ and began to understand more fully Jesus’s (sic) teachings.
Today is no different. For some, Christ’s invitation to believe and remain continues to be hard—or difficult to accept. Some disciples struggle to understand a specific Church policy or teaching. Others find concerns in our history or in the imperfections of some members and leaders, past and present. Still others find it difficult to live a religion that requires so much. Finally, some have become “weary in well-doing.” For these and other reasons, some Church members vacillate in their faith, wondering if perhaps they should follow those who “went back, and walked no more” with Jesus.
If any one of you is faltering in your faith, I ask you the same question that Peter asked: “To whom shall [you] go?” If you choose to become inactive or to leave the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where will you go? What will you do? The decision to “walk no more” with Church members and the Lord’s chosen leaders will have a long-term impact that cannot always be seen right now. There may be some doctrine, some policy, some bit of history that puts you at odds with your faith, and you may feel that the only way to resolve that inner turmoil right now is to “walk no more” with the Saints. If you live as long as I have, you will come to know that things have a way of resolving themselves. An inspired insight or revelation may shed new light on an issue. Remember, the Restoration is not an event, but it continues to unfold.
Never abandon the great truths revealed through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Never stop reading, pondering, and applying the doctrine of Christ contained in the Book of Mormon.’
Its cold out there indeed. Note how the church takes the place of Christ in the original story. The message is:
If you are finding it hard ‘really try!’
If it seems implausible don’t think about it.
If it seems unfair don’t question ‘the Lord’s chosen leaders.’
If you are experiencing inner turmoil because this stuff actually means something to you, if you are having a crisis of faith, just be philosophical and, who knows, you may learn to be satisfied.
Even so-called Doubting Thomas received grace upon grace when Jesus met his doubts, not with recrimination, but with answers. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus appeared and gave Thomas reason to believe (John 19:24-31) Because the doors to answers are locked, Mormons must walk by faith that is blind. Thank God for those who question, who refuse to be content with warm assurances, who refuse to allow others to know for them.
These are the people who come to discover it isn’t cold out there. On the contrary, out here we serve a God who meets our doubts with answers. A God who transforms us by the renewing of our minds, ‘that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Ro.12:2)