Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How Do You Remain United in the Body of Christ When A Leader Abuses Power?

I have a good friend who was hurt quite badly by a pastor who initiated a harmful program and insisted that my friend help him administer it.  When my friend refused, he faced serious consequences at the practical level within his church community.

That friend asked me, after the fact, the following - and my response follows his question, with a nod to Mormon-speak for this blog:

The reality is that church leaders are just regular people. As such, sometimes they abuse their power in their leadership positions. Generally this is minimal or not a problem - however sometimes it can be extreme and even abusive.

How do you deal with this? How do you reconcile it with the command to be united in the body of Christ?


1) by recognizing and admitting exactly what you just said. There's nothing "magical", in and of itself, that changes someone who is in a position of leadership in a church - man or woman. The only thing that changes automatically is the power and influence they are able to wield - the scope of their potential unrighteous dominion.

2) by recognizing that increased responsibility pushes "the natural (wo)man" toward increased unrighteous dominion. It pushes "the unnatural (wo)man" forward to greater at-one-ment. It pushes most people who live somewhere between those extremes either or both ways.

3) by defining "unity in the body of Christ" as "doing my best to help the entire community" - and realizing that sometimes the best help I can provide is a different perspective - or a simple refusal to do something.

4) by not being a jerk about it or refusing to do anything for the person but continuing to do everything I feel I can do in good conscience and balance.

5) by going above the person's head in extreme situations, if possible - always calmly and meekly and humbly, but clearly and precisely (and pointing out that I take my commitment to sustain God and the overall church community above my commitment to any one person).

Within the structure of my own religion, if I were to go to a Stake President, for example, about a Bishop, High Priest Group Leader, EQ President, etc., I would make it crystal clear that I am doing so out of genuine concern for the Stake President, the other person and the LDS Church itself - that I believe the problem I am trying to address is serious enough to be talking with the Stake President AFTER I've tried to talk with the other person. Again, as I say a lot, tone, attitude and appearance mean a lot in situations like this. I won't contribute to someone being stomped on, but I'm not doing any stomping on or punch throwing at any point in the process.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Dangerous View of Bishops, Stake Presidents and Leaders Generally

I know of a Stake President who once said the following to a member of his stake: 

"Your Bishop represents Christ. If people understood that they would be excited to talk to him and willing to do what he asks." 

If I was the Bishop about whom the Stake President was talking, I would have been VERY uncomfortable with the Stake President's statement - and all of the Bishops I've know personally would have been uncomfortable, as well - except one. Instructively, he was the worst Bishop I've known.

I have no problem with the idea that the Bishop represents Christ in a unique way - in some specific situations. However, in most situations, a Bishop does not represent Christ any more than any one of the members of his congregation does.  To say it differently, all of us represent Christ, but the Bishop has certain unique responsibilities in the way he represents Christ. It simply isn't one or the other; we aren't Catholic Priest of the Dark Ages and parishioners

"They would be excited to talk to him." 

Generally, that's a function of him as a person, not his office or calling. People usually like to talk to nice, good people; they usually don't like to talk to jerks or harsh people.  The vast majority of Bishops are nice, good, sincere, loving people - but whether or not most regular members are excited to talk to their Bishop has little to do with representing Christ. 

"They would be willing to do what he asks." 

This is where my biggest concern lies - and it is a HUGE concern. It's dangerous to put someone in a position where they can expect obedience just because of their position. It's too easy to fall for the allure of the power.  Our War in Heaven narrative and the explanation of unrighteous dominion in D&C 121 ought to eliminate our tendency to say things like the quote above, particularly without any qualifications whatsoever.

I wouldn't have a problem with,

"They would be willing to consider seriously what he asks."

but I cannot accept the quote as worded and the all-encompassing implication of someone giving up their individual agency and doing something just because a mortal leader asks them to do it.

I believe in "obeying" God; I believe in "sustaining and supporting" righteous leaders.

Those two beliefs are not the same thing, and we should NEVER confuse or equate them.  Any leader who does is on the path toward unrighteous dominion. 

Period.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

God Is Not As Offended As We Tend to Think He Is

I sometimes think of Joseph's statement shortly before he died that his conscience was free of offense toward God and man. I know he offended people regularly, but I believe he was sincere in that statement. That used to puzzle me - greatly. What I have come to believe is that each of us only can answer to our own understanding of ourselves - to our effort to live the best we understand - to be whatever we believe we are supposed to be.

I know I also have offended people at times - sometimes through what I have written here on this blog. I've done things that I believe "should" be offensive to God, but I've come to believe that they might not be - that he might look down and sigh as he watches me muddle through my life, but that he also understands I'm doing the best I can do. I have come to believe he appreciates that, and I am grateful for the peace that belief brings me as I also try to accept my own weakness and understand that I am worthy specifically because he has deemed me to be so.

That perspective gives me peace, so I accept it and keep on keepin' on.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Becoming More Like Christ; or, Our Focus Should Be on Us, Not Others

The topic for this month is "Becoming More Like Christ". The lesson outline we discussed last Sunday was entitled "How Can I Help Others Be More Christlike?"

I started by asking the lesson title question. Some of the responses were:

Read the scriptures about Jesus with them.
Help them learn about prayer.
Show them that I love them, so they can begin to know that God loves them.
Invite them to come to church with me, so they can learn about Jesus there
.

I told them that those were good answers, but that, first, if we want to help others become like Jesus, we need to know Jesus ourselves - or, at least, know about him - and be striving to become more like him. The best way to teach someone else about becoming like Jesus is through example - showing them what it's like to become more like Jesus. They all understood that, so I then asked them how they can become more like Jesus.

After some discussion, we focused on gaining a better understanding of his actual life. I mentioned that there are other sources of information about him (particularly his pre- and post-mortal life), but I emphasized for the lesson the Gospels in the New Testament - since that is the only account we have of something that we can attempt to model in our own mortal lives. For the rest of the lesson, I had them open randomly to somewhere in the Gospels, read for a few minutes, then describe what they had read, one thing they took from those passages that taught them what Jesus was like and how they could become more like Jesus in that specific way.

What we discussed included:

Jesus taught that we need to be prepared for difficult times.
Jesus taught in parables and analogies.
Jesus blessed even people who were enemies of the Jews.
Jesus suffered in silence when it wouldn't have done any good to rail against people who were persecuting him. He had a lot of self-control.
Jesus grew and learned just like we need to grow and learn.
Jesus loved and helped outcasts in his society.


I told the students at the end of the lesson that we cannot become more like Jesus if we only study about him - that we have to take the things we learn about him and internalize them into our own lives. I told them it is better to know a little about Jesus and then actually live it than it is to know a whole lot about Jesus and not live any of it. I asked them to pick one thing about Jesus they admire and focus on getting better at that one thing - then, when they feel they have gotten better at that one thing to pick one more thing and repeat the process - and to do that for the rest of their lives. I told them that they can't become like Jesus overnight but that, if they work on it one thing at a time, relentlessly, that they will become as much like Jesus as it is possible for them to become by the time they die - and they will become a person who is becoming godly - and, given all eternity to learn and grow, they eventually will become like Jesus.

Friday, October 17, 2014

We Judge People Way Too Much, Even When We Try to Judge Righteously

I've always differentiated between judging people (making decisions about their individual worth here and where they will end up after death) and judging actions (what people do).

There is no way to get around judgment of actions - except for psychopaths, who don't have the capability to judge actions. That type of judgment is unavoidable. There also is no way to get around having those judgments influence our interaction with others, since, for example, if I know someone has sexually abused children, I simply must consider that fact at the very least if I have children the same general sex and age as those s/he abused. To not consider those actions and make a judgment about subsequent actions in such a situation is unthinkable.

However, "to judge someone" means, legally, to act like a judge and make a final determination about someone that determines official standing for that person - and which, in real terms, imposes or does not impose limits on that person. It is making a decision that literally affects someone else's agency in situations that don't involve the one making the judgment. I do not judge someone in this way by keeping my kids away from someone who has abused kids in the past - but I do judge someone in this way if I assume s/he will not and cannot change ever, assert that nobody who has done such a thing ever can repent and insist that Hell is the only possible outcome for all of "them".

Did Hitler do horrible things? Yes. Does a part of me assume he will end up in the Telestial Kingdom? Sure. Am I open to the possibility that there are things about his situation that I don't know and, therefore, that he might not end up in the Telestial Kingdom? Yes. Can Hitler be saved? I believe he has been, since I believe in the Biblical statement that all are saved by the Atonement of Jesus Christ in a very real and important way. Can he be exalted? As much as I want to be able to answer that question in black-and-white terms with a resounding, "Absolutely not!!" I just can't put myself in the position of his judge and make that call.

That is the judgment I try to avoid, especially when it comes to projected results after death. That's why, "Damn you!" is such a heinous curse in our scriptures - in that it puts someone in the place of God and pronounces final judgment on someone else.

I always try to remember that I have no freaking clue, really, why others act as they do. I have a hard enough time figuring out why I do what I do. Thus, while I can't avoid judging actions in a real way, I try very hard not to presume to know the motivation or cause of those actions - which leaves "final judgment" to God.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Can I Support a Gay Family Member or Friend?

The following are suggestions that were given in a thread in which I participated about how to support a gay member, focusing especially on the question of how to do so in the LDS Church.  I came across that thread again and want to share the suggestions, of which the first three are mine - and the last one comes from a friend who has struggled mightily to stay actively involved in the Church despite what he hears regularly in church from people who don't realize he is gay.  It's hard to express how much I admire and respect him:

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1) Don't approach the member about it proactively, if that member has not told people that s/he is gay. The decision to share one's sexual orientation should be a personal one, and forcing it before someone is ready to deal with all of the reactions is cruel and simply wrong.  Don't take it upon yourself to ask the person about it, especially if you aren't 100% certain.

2) Talk in the person's presence about acceptance and unconditional love generally (not specific to homosexuality), regardless of whatever issues might exist, but don't be obsessive about it - and do it in other situations, as well, so it's not obvious you are targeting one person and/or family with that message.

3) If the person comes out, offer support immediately and openly - and charitably. Damn the consequences with other people in the moment; support the person. Having said that, do it in a way that doesn't alienate others simply as a result of how you respond - in support of the person, not by attacking anyone else.

4) Keep an open mind, and learn to deal with your own feelings before it becomes a problem - then be ready to help others. A person who is gay is just like the rest of us in every other way, looking for love and acceptance. If two humans love and respect each other, that is enough to overcome all differences.

5) Let the person know that there are people who love him and will support him no matter what. He needs to know that he will have somewhere to turn if he needs help.

6) Support people who are gay by just treating them like you treat all your family members and friends, with lots of love and respect. You don't have to do anything different, and they don't want anything different.

7) As a gay man myself, I think it's very important to stress that gay people will talk when they're ready, and not before. They also won't talk about it unless they either a) have felt out the situation/person well enough to feel it's safe, or b) have come to such a deep crisis that they either have to talk about it, come out, or self-destruct. The self-destruct part can take a couple of forms. One is the obvious--suicide attempts. Other ways of self-destructing include developing addictions to numb the pain, self-mutilation, participation in highly risky sexual behavior, and internalized self-hatred.

There is a great resource that you can download from a group called the "Family Acceptance Project" that might be helpful for you to read and keep in mind. Here is a link:  http://familyproject.sfsu.edu/LDS-booklet

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I also want to add the link to the Church's own website about this issue.  It is worth viewing, especially by any members who struggle to accept and love people who are homosexual for who they are:

Mormons and Gays (mormonandgays.org)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Describing How I See Things

I have been asked a number of times over the years how I have come to see things the way I see things.  That is true especially of people who have known me for some time and had a chance to see how impossible it is to stereotype my religious views adequately and, in some cases, know how I think about some topics - since I am all over the place on the conservative-liberal spectrum when it comes to lots of random, individual topics.

The shortest response I've been able to construct to describe how my brain operates is that I am a "thinker tinkerer".

My father and brothers are excellent mechanics - and one of my brothers loves working on computers. I have no desire to do any of that. I take things apart mentally and reconstruct them in my mind. That's just who I am. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An Alternative to the Terrible Licked/Handled Cupcake / Chewed Gum / Nail in the Board Analogies for Sexual Purity

The Gold Coin: or, how we should teach our youth about their worth - Kaimi Wegner (Times & Seasons) 

In discussing this post, a friend shared the following: 

I collect coins so I plan to get out 5 coins that have personal meaning to me. I will show the coins and explain where the coin comes from and how it came to be in my possession (some my dad brought back from his voyages as a merchant marine, some I collected on my mission, some were inherited from my uncle's collection etc.)

I will ask the kids (7 and 5) to pick out their favorite coin. Then we will go outside and get the coins dirty. Then I am going to ask if we should throw the coins away now that they are dirty ("of course not!") The coins are just as valuable both in material worth and in sentimental value. Then I'll reveal that each coin represents a member of our family and that Our Heavenly Father knows and loves each of our unique attributes. His love will not wane because of a little dirt. Then, I'll explain that because HF loves us so much and wants us to shine like only we can shine – He sent Jesus to die for us so that we could become clean again and return to our Father in untarnished glory. We will clean the coins and show that the once dirty coins can be just as shiny and valuable as they were before they got dirty - that they can be spotless once again. 

In the thread following the post, the following was quoted from Elder Holland, including the link:

We learn that when repentance is complete we are born again and leave behind forever the self we once were. To me, none of the many approaches to teaching repentance falls more short than the well-intentioned suggestion that “although a nail may be removed from a wooden post, there will forever be a hole in that post.”

We know that repentance (the removal of that nail, if you will) can be a very long and painful and difficult task. Unfortunately, some will never have the incentive to undertake it. We even know that there are a very few sins for which no repentance is possible.

But where repentance is possible and its requirements are faithfully pursued and completed, there is no “hole left in the post” for the bold reason that it is no longer the same post. It is a new post. We can start again, utterly clean, with a new will and a new way of life.

Through repentance we are changed to what Alma calls “new creatures.” (Mosiah 27:26.) We are “born again; yea, born of God, changed from [our] carnal and fallen state, to a state of righteousness, being redeemed of God, becoming his sons and daughters.” (Mosiah 27:25; see also Mosiah 5:1–12.) Repentance and baptism allow Christ to purify our lives in the blood of the Lamb and we are clean again. What we were, we never have to be again, for God in his mercy has promised that “he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.” (D&C 58:42.)

May we, collectively, discard the horrible analogies we have used in the past and neither imply nor state that needing repentance is less desirable than not needing repentance in the first place - that it is better not to sin than it is to sin and repent.  After all, all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, so repentance is a necessity for all.  There is no such thing as "not needing repentance in the first place", so we ought not teach it.  Period.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

What Does It Mean to "Sustain" Church Leaders?

The concept of "sustaining" is an important part of the LDS Church, but it is one that I believe generally has been weakened greatly from what it can be and is meant to be.  I believe it is much more powerful than often is understood, and I believe the gap between how it commonly is understand and what it is meant to be is extremely important.  I believe the full depth and power of the organizational structure of the Church is compromised when the membership fails to sustain the leadership in the fullest sense of the word.

The following are the definitions found in the Oxford English dictionary that have a person as a direct object: 

Sustain
3a. To support the efforts or cause of; to give assistance to, back up; (in later use usually military) to support (other troops).
8. To keep (a person, the mind, the spirits, etc.) from failing or giving way; to strengthen the spirits or resolution of; to give encouragement or psychological support to.
10a. To play the part of; to keep up (an assumed role) competently; to represent (a dramatic part or character) convincingly.
10b. To hold or be invested with (a title); to fulfill or discharge the functions and responsibilities associated with (a position).
11a. To endure (something painful, difficult, or unpleasant) without failing or giving way; to bear, withstand.
13a. To tolerate the existence or presence of; to permit, abide.
13b. To permit oneself or consent (to do or be something)

I believe there are all kinds of issues involved in the lay leadership structure of the Church. I've called it the genius and idiocy of the Church, and I've called it the best and worst thing about the Church. I've taught my children that they don't have to agree with or obey church leaders just because they are church leaders (that I'm just not into Lucifer's plan). My children know I don't agree with some things I hear in church - at all levels. I can't support every leader I've had or seen in every way they would like me to support them . . . but that's not what sustaining means.

There are enough definitions of sustain listed above to cover how I work with leaders at all levels and of all kinds, especially when "to give encouragement to; to endure (something painful, difficult, or unpleasant) without failing or giving way; to bear, withstand" is included in those definitions.

Therefore, I can and want to sustain church leaders whole-heartedly.

If I disagree with something a leader says on principle, according to the dictates of my own conscience, I am sustaining that leader in an important way if I let that leader know of my disagreement - and that can't happen if I withhold my complete sustaining. I want to hear that type of sustaining voice when I'm a leader, sustaining me by speaking up, so I provide that voice when I'm not a leader - privately, not publicly. I've disagreed verbally with leaders in the past, they have thanked me for it, and I'm sure I'll do it again - but that is not the same thing to me as not sustaining them. I have sustained them specifically because I have been willing to share my "counsel" with them when I see things differently than they do - and, again, they have appreciated it. 

I try to treat leaders (sustain them) how I want to be treated when I am in a leadership position (be sustained) - and that means I sustain them in every way listed above, including ones that too many people would see as negative.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Commandments - Measurable or Subjective; and, Changing Our Discourse about Modesty

While putting the finishing touches on my Sunday School lesson prep tonight, I realized that it has been a few weeks since I've posted a summary here. We had Stake Conference; my wife taught the following week; we had General Conference last week; I forgot to post the summary from the last time I taught the class. Here is a VERY abbreviated summary of that last lesson:

With the topic being "commandments", we talked about the difference between commandments that are fairly objective and easily measured and those that are more subjective and impossible to measure consistently or universally. Since the students had mentioned the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity in the first week's lesson, we focused on those commandments again - and added modesty as another discussion point.

First, I asked the students to list the things that are part of the Word of Wisdom. All of the first answers they gave were the things from which we abstain, with the things that are encouraged coming after the forbidden things. We talked about how easy it is to define and quantify the prohibitions in the Word of Wisdom - how they are easily enforced - and how that contributes to them being the focal point of most discussions about it. We talked about how impossible it would be (or how bad it would be) if local leaders had to try to enforce the more ambiguous aspects of meat, fruit, vegetable and grain consumption, for example.

We then talked about the Law of Chastity and how there are some things that clearly are forbidden for everyone, while there are other aspects that are more open to individual interpretation - and how local leaders often view and enforce the more subjective aspects differently, especially with respect to teenagers.

We spent most of our time talking about the principle of modesty and what it means in its fullest, purest sense - moderation, in all things. We talked about how we focus almost completely on how we dress when we talk about modesty- and how we focus inordinately on how women dress. Every student, male and female, understood that distinction and thought it was wrong without any need for convincing from me - and their conservative / liberal orientation didn't make any difference in that regard. We talked about how there is almost no way to "measure" modesty of dress universally and have a definition that everyone will accept and upon which they will agree. (As a simple example, I had the shortest and the tallest students stand and asked how long a modest skirt would be that both of them could wear. That caused some serious laughs, but we talked about how even anatomy-focused measurements [like covering the knee] are arbitrary standards that are culturally-based.) We talked about modesty in language - and in house size - and in car purchase - and in cost of clothing - and in any other way that deals with moderation as a principle.

I finished the lesson with a direct statement to all of them. I told them flat-out that we need to quit blaming women (of any age) for the thoughts of men (of any age). I told them that I believe in the principle of modesty, but that I do NOT believe in it as a way for one group to control the thoughts of another group. I told them that if a man lusts after a woman he is not justified in blaming the woman for it, no matter what she wears or how she acts. I told them the way we often talk in the Church seems to blame the women and/or put the responsibility on them to keep the men's thoughts in line - and that such statements are wrong, and the students need to help put a stop to it in their own spheres of influence.

Two of the young women in the group thanked me specifically after the class for that part of the lesson.