Thursday, December 08, 2016

ADVENT OF THE LIGHT: HOPE

And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons…’” (Genesis 1:14)

Throughout all of recorded history, the human imagination has been fueled by what was observed in the heavens. Around the world in all cultures and among believers of all faiths, the daily rising and setting of both the sun and the moon brought forth rich religious symbolism. Likewise, the passing of the seasons and the changing movement of the stars with those seasons, inspired symbols and myths.

The winter Solstice which usually occurs during the third week of December in the earth’s Northern Hemisphere is the shortest day of the year. And yet from ancient times, among virtually all people, this Solstice was venerated as a time marking the return of light to the world. From this date, onward, the days become increasingly longer, culminating in the longest day of the year six months later. In regions that experience cold weather or intense winters, the light also symbolized the eventual return of life-giving warmth. Light also became a powerful metaphor: light dispels darkness; light reveals what was hidden; light bring clarity of vision.

When pagan nations embraced Christianity, they continued their solstice celebrations as Christmas, interpreting the return of sunlight as symbolic of the coming of divine light into the word, embodied in the birth of Jesus Christ. The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which is also celebrated during the same of the year, commemorates the return of light to the ancient temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Maccabees.

As the Winter season sets in, a reminder that, despite the darkness and cold, the days are becoming longer and brighter, can be a source of hope. The coming of light to a darkened world is found throughout scripture:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” (See Isaiah 9:2 and II Nephi 19:2 )

The Advent Season—the four weeks leading up to Christmas—encourages us to look forward with eager anticipation the coming (the Advent) of Christ and his Light into the word. The theme of Advent’s first week is Hope.

HOPE

Hope is one of the three spiritual gifts and virtues extolled in the writings of the Apostle Paul and in “The Book of Mormon”—the other two being Faith and Love (Charity).

The first followers of Jesus embraced a belief in the resurrection of the body—a belief that death itself was only temporary; that God would bring about a renewal of the heavens and the earth and establish an eternal realm of justice, righteousness and peace. All who had died would be restored to life and be invited to take part in God’s eternal Kingdom.

But despite this belief, the world remained unchanged overall. In fact, many who converted to this new faith became objects of scorn, ridicule and outright persecution by the legal authorities of the time. Despite a belief in a future of Light, the present remained Dark.

In such a time, the concept of Hope became important to these believers. Despite the advances of the past two thousand years since, the world can still be seen as a dark place. Violence, injustice, ignorance and hatred are as potent in our day as they were in millennia past. Hope for a world over which peace, justice, knowledge and love flow like a river is still a powerful force—not only in the struggle to maintain an individual’s private faith but also in the advancement of the human family generally.

“Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.” (Ether 12:4)

FOOD FOR THOUGHT
How have you used the symbols of “light” and “darkness” in your thinking and in your faith?
How is ‘hope’ different from ‘optimism?’
What could be the downside of always being ‘optimistic?’
What is the relationship between ‘hope’ and ‘knowledge?’
What is the relationship between ‘hope’ and ‘faith?’
To be a force for good in your life, where should your hope be focused? Why?


SHARING FOOD FOR THOUGHT:During the coming days, in conversations with three different friends or family members why not try bringing up these questions and see where the conversation goes:

Do you think hope different from optimism? In what do you have hope? What would your life be like without this hope?


Don’t argue; don’t attempt to convince or convert one another to any particular idea. Just discuss your thoughts openly and honestly. Seek to understand one another first and then try to make sure your ideas are understood. The objective is to create a bond between yourself and the other person in which such ideas can be expressed openly and without fear; in which each person can be true to what they believe while still feeling respected by the other person. The objective is to strengthen the sense of community between you and others.

For more information on Reform Mormonism visit www.reformmormonism.org

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

FOR THE BEAUTY OF THE EARTH


In our previous lesson, we explored how most religious traditions, by focusing focus of going somewhere else after we die (Heaven, Hell, the Celestial Kingdom, the presence of God, etc.), overlook the very thing upon which Christ, Prophets and Scripture focused: that of our character—the type of person we are and the type of person we’re becoming. Our focus should not be on going somewhere but on becoming someone—someone who has within them all the qualities and virtues we envision God having.

A second effect of focusing on where we go when we die, is that the value we give to life here and now on earth is diminished.


Often in gatherings of devout Christians, one will hear people say: “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through; heaven is my home.”

Popular Evangelical songwriters Bill and Gloria Gaither expressed this in one of their popular songs, “Going Home”:

“Going home, I'm going home!
There is nothing to hold me here!
I've caught a glimpse of that Heavenly land!
Praise God, I'm going home!”


The line, “There is nothing to hold me here” expresses a very dismal outlook about life on earth. For many Christians—and for many believers in other religious traditions—this world is seen as a “vale of tears”—a cursed, fallen state of corruption to be escaped or overcome. But how many of us—regardless of our professed religion—can actually look around us and, in all honesty, say that we see nothing that we value—nothing to “hold us here?”

Such a belief also affects how we view ourselves. It is common for many Christians and Evangelicals to describe themselves as just “damaged earthen vessels” in which their spirits reside. While these same people are usually very vocal in declaring themselves “Bible-believing Christians” the idea that one’s spirit is one’s “true self” and that the body and physical existence is faulty, sinful and something to be discarded is NOT Biblical at all. Such an idea is found in the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato and in the mysticism of the ancient Gnostics, but it is anathema to the beliefs and views of the ancient Israelites and first century Jews—those people who wrote the Bible.

The popular religious view of seeing life on earth as something to which believers should joyfully bid farewell is contrasted in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Our Town.”

The play follows day-to-day life in a tiny New England town—Grover’s Corner—where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. The heroine—a teenage girl named Emily—grows up, marries the boy next door but then tragically dies in childbirth. The play’s final act takes place in the town graveyard where Emily’s spirit watches her own funeral. Before letting go of the earth and moving on to whatever awaits her in eternity, she attempts to relive one day of her life—her twelfth birthday. Only then does she fully realize how quickly times passes, how little time people take to actually look at one another, listen to one another and connect. Only then does she realize the true beauty life on earth. Only then does she fully appreciate how precious every minute of even the most mundane day was.

“I didn't realize it. So, all that was going on in life and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover's Corner—Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking and Mama's sunflowers…and food and coffee…and new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” (“Our Town” by Thornton Wilder)



Unlike the Gaithers and so many other believers, Emily is overwhelmed by all the beauty of the earth, of her relationships with her loved ones—all of which have a profound hold on her and define who she is at the deepest level.

In Hebrew the word for “Adam” (which is initially used in scripture to define both man and woman) is a play on the Hebrew word for the earth—“Adama.” So while it is commonly translated into English as “Adam,” “man” or “human,” it more accurately could be translated as something akin to “earthling”—a word which sounds ridiculous given its use in Science Fiction. But this Hebrew play on words conveys an essential truth: to be human is to be part of the earth. Earth is the rightful abode of human beings.

That idea can be seen as positive or negative based upon the story that your religion tells.

Every religion tells a story of some kind. Whether that story is historical fact, myth or fiction is really of little importance to the living of one’s day-to-day life. What is essential—the thing by which “the truth” of the story is found in the meaning that it holds for the believer—in the values that the believer develops based upon the story.

For example—

Drawing from the Bible, a religion tells this story: Adam and Eve lived happily in Eden with God, but because they ate the forbidden fruit, God cast them from his presence and now they are lost in a sinful word, doomed to Hell unless God saves them.

If this is the story one’s religion tells, then the focus of that religion is simply to be saved from sin so that one can return to God’s presence.

But the religious tradition that begins its story with the Fall of Adam and Eve has already ignored the story that the writers and editors of the Bible told.

Their story begins with God organizing the earth and bringing forth all life upon it—including human beings who exist in the image of God. God declares earth and all life upon it as being good. Later the humans eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and in doing so, God declares that now they can discern good from evil in the same way He does. Because of this, He casts them out of Eden. On their own, they are now responsible for their own choices—for they know good from evil. When they are inhumane toward one another—when they cheat, steal, harm and kill one another—God condemns these actions as evil, sinful and ungodly. But God does not give up on humans and their capacity for righteousness and holiness. Neither does God condemn or denigrate the earth and nature because of the evil committed by some. Instead God sets about to restore human beings to the relationship He intended them to have with Him and with one another. God sets about restoring the entire earth to reflect His original intention for it.

As the ancient Israelites and the earliest followers of Christ saw it, yes there was suffering and evil on earth—but this was not the earth’s destiny. Justice, goodness, mercy and love would triumph in the end. The earth would be renewed—and what good we do now would remain eternally as a part of that renewal.

Reform Mormonism embraces this message. That message was central to the lives of the first Mormons, who gathered together for the purpose of building up a New Jerusalem—of establishing Zion, which was defined as “the Pure in Heart.”

Jesus taught his followers to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

The Kingdom of God is not some far off ethereal realm beyond the grave—some fairyland of puffy clouds and angels with harps. The Kingdom of God is here on earth—and it is established when we open ourselves to the influence of God’s Spirit and begins to cultivate the virtues we envision God possessing.


Far from denouncing this life in hopes of life after death, the earth and all things in it are to be embraced with thanksgiving! Every moment of our lives has value! Our relationships with others here and now are the very things that define us as individuals and they will extend into eternity! So, give thanks!

This view is celebrated in the words of Folliot S. Pierpoint's beloved hymn "For the Beauty of the Earth":

"For the beauty of the earth,
for the glory of the skies,
for the love which from our birth
over and around us lies...

"...For the joy of ear and eye,
for the heart and mind's delight,
for the mystic harmony,
linking sense to sound and sight...

"...For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,
friends on earth and friends above,
for all gentle thoughts and mild;
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise."



Questions: How can viewing the earth and our life upon as good influence our choices, the formation of our character—and how might these things impact the lives of others and society at large?
How can we live lives of thanksgiving?


Challenge: In your conversations with three different family members or friends bring up this question:

What if religion focused on valuing our life here and now; on valuing the earth and nature; of valuing other people—how differently would we live our day to day lives? What kind of people would we become if we at least tried to do this?

Don’t argue; don’t attempt to convince or convert one another to any particular idea. Just discuss your thoughts openly and honestly. Seek to understand one another first and then try to make sure your ideas are understood. The objective is to create a bond between yourself and the other person in which such ideas can be expressed openly and without fear; in which each person can be true to what they believe while still feeling respected by the other person. The objective is to strengthen the sense of community between you and others.

For more information on Reform Mormonism visit www.reformmormonism.org



Saturday, November 19, 2016

WE'RE NOT GOING ANYWHERE

When twenty-five-year-old Alvin Smith died suddenly on November 19, 1823, his family and the community were shocked.

Alvin had always been the picture of health: a hard-worker, he had spent the previous three years clearing the land he had leased for his aging parents and leading the efforts to build a house for their large family. Tall and athletically built, he loved to wrestle and was known for his physical strength. For recreation, he often accompanied his father, younger brother Joseph and other local “money diggers” on night-time hunts in the local forests and hills for buried treasure.

The Smiths were newcomers to Palmyra—having moved there from Vermont only six years earlier—and while long-time Palmyra residents tended to look down upon them as uneducated, superstitious and lazy, most locals admired Alvin for being hardworking and practical-minded.

When in November of 1823, Alvin complained of abdominal pains, no one could have imagined that his death was imminent. A local doctor administered what was then a common treatment—one which contained mercury. Within days Alvin died—not from disease but from mercury poisoning.

The entire Smith family was stunned by Alvin’s death. Father Smith—Joseph Smith, Senior—had struggled for years with alcoholism. Mother Smith—Lucy Mack Smith—had for years swung from periods of frenetic, hard-working determination to periods of near crippling self-doubt and depression. Father Smith was a liberal-minded Universalist while Mother Smith tended to be a theologically conservative Calvinist. Throughout their marriage their differences and arguments regarding religion were on full display, and their children were caught in the middle—each having to navigate their way on their own. Being the oldest child, Alvin had been the one stabilizing influence not only for his younger brothers and sisters, but also for his parents.

Now he was suddenly gone.


Alvin’s funeral was held at the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra. Though Father Smith opposed any family members joining any existing religious denomination, Mother Smith had been friends with many of the women of the Presbyterian congregation. Given that fact, it seemed only natural that Alvin’s funeral be held at Western Presbyterian and that his body be interned in the Presbyterian cemetery.

Rev. Benjamin B. Stockton conducted the funeral service. William Smith, who was twelve at the time, later recalled that in the funeral sermon Rev. Stockton “intimated very strongly” that Alvin had gone to hell because he had never professed the Christian faith and joined a church.

The very idea that someone as kind, upstanding and hard-working as Alvin would spend eternity in hell because of religious differences infuriated Father Smith and his seventeen-year-old son, Joseph. For them the idea seemed to undermine the concept of a just and loving God.

Arguments were probably made then—as they are now by Christians who hold such beliefs—that because God is so holy and righteous, He can’t tolerate any degree of sinfulness in His presence. Such arguments rang hollow with Father Smith and Joseph.

It seems reasonable to conclude that Rev. Stockton’s consigning of Alvin to an eternity in Hell, troubled Mother Smith and other Smith children. Over time, however, their reaction to Rev. Stockton’s beliefs were the opposite of Father Smith’s and Joseph’s: Mother Smith and her eldest children, Hyrum and Sophronia, became Presbyterians.

This no doubt led to even more intense divisions within the family. One can easily imagine Father Smith being not only outraged but hurt that his wife and oldest children could accept the faith of a minister who had publicly suggested that their beloved Alvin was in Hell.

“Where did Alvin go when he died?” The question was a bombshell—one with the potential to rip apart a family already under tremendous financial and emotional stress.

Discussion Questions: How have questions, beliefs and feelings about where one goes when one dies affected your relationships with family and friends?
What have been the negative effects?
What have been the positive effects?
How were the effects of this question upon the Smith family like or unlike those on your family and friends?


WHERE DO WE GO WHEN WE DIE?

That question is at the heart of most religious thinking—even today. Most people—religious and non-religious—assume that the purpose of religion and faith is to get them somewhere else after they die.

How often has a Christian asked, “If you were to die today, would you go to heaven or hell?”
When people talk about “salvation” or “being saved”—this is what most of them are talking about. To “be saved” is to go to heaven when you die—or so they assume.

Believers from other traditions might talk about “Returning to the presence of Our Heavenly Father” or “entering the Celestial Kingdom.”

GOING SOMEWHERE ELSE has become to be-all/end-all of religion.

And to GO TO THIS PLACE people are told that they need to…

…believe the right things…

….or have faith in the right things….

.....or say and pray certain things (such as the so-called sinner’s prayer)…

….or join the right church and remain faithful to it until they die…

...or participate in some ceremony, sacrament or ordinance...

…or embrace a certain lifestyle….

…or turn from a certain lifestyle.

Regardless of the religion or the prescription, the focus is all about going somewhere else when you die. Believe, say or say, join, do this or don’t do that and you will be rewarded when you die by being admitted to a good place for eternity—rather than being sent to a bad place for eternity.

Discussion Questions: How much of your time and energy has been devoted to thinking about or worrying about where you will go when you die?
If you believe in an existence after death, how central to that belief is the idea of “going somewhere else?”
How could you separate your ideas about an afterlife from the idea of going somewhere else when you die?
In your own life and in your relationships with others, what have been the effects—both positive and negative—of thinking that the central purpose of religion or faith is to make sure that you go to some particular place when you die?
How can focusing on going someplace else when you die negatively affect your life here and now?


IT’S ABOUT BECOMING SOMEONE—NOT GOING SOMEWHERE

The Smith family spent years worrying about believing or doing the right things so that when they died they would go to Heaven and not Hell. In many ways, these worries and anxieties undermined their day-to-day efforts to work their way out of the grinding poverty in which they lived.

Early in his life, Joseph Smith, Jr. shared his parents’ anxieties and attempted in various ways—some irrational and some reasonable—to address the questions that plagued not only his family but many religious seekers in the early 19th century. During the course of his life, Joseph embraced, explored and then discarded or altered many different theological premises regarding the nature of God, human nature, existence, life’s purpose and life after death.

The theology that he developed later in his life switched the focus from going somewhere else when you die to becoming a particular type of character.

This theology is the foundation of the good news proclaimed by Reform Mormonism…

…And that good news is this: There is no need to worry about where you are going when you die. Yes, there is life after death, but the focus of Reform Mormonism is not about going somewhere else when we die. The focus is on becoming a certain type of person.

And that doesn’t mean changing yourself to conform to some cookie-cutter mold created by others. It means to progress, to grow and to develop within yourself those virtues and qualities that you envision God possessing.

How many people calling themselves Christians—people who go around talking non-stop about Christ and salvation—are actually like Christ himself? The name “Jesus” is constantly on their lips, but when you think of Jesus and then look at them, there are few if any similarities in their character.

How many people go around talking about God, claiming to act in God’s name—and yet when you think of God’s character—God’s Love, Grace, Forgiveness—you don’t see that character reflected in these people.

Because most religions focus on going somewhere else when we die, they completely overlook the most important thing that Jesus, prophets and scripture addressed—that of our character. Indeed, many of those who are the loudest in proclaiming their faith in Christ, declare that human nature is so corrupt that to focus on character at all is wrong and misguided. It is just assumed that when we die and move on to that better place (if we do what we are told to do in order to be admitted there), that our character—our emotional and ethical makeup—will somehow miraculously change.

Reform Mormonism holds that character matters. In fact, character is the thing upon which we should all focus.

We envision God possessing certain qualities and virtues—and it is these virtues that entice us to love God. It is these virtues and qualities that we should develop within ourselves.

By doing this, we impact the world here and now. Eternal Life begins this very moment. The seeds of Heaven are planted here on earth and they begin to grow.

We’re not going anywhere.

The purpose of religious faith is not to go somewhere.

The purpose of religious faith is to become someone.


Challenge: In your conversations with three different family members or friends bring up this question:

What if religion focused on what type of person we’re becoming instead of where we’re going when we die?

Don’t argue; don’t attempt to convince or convert one another to any particular idea. Just discuss your thoughts openly and honestly. Seek to understand one another first and then try to make sure your ideas are understood. The objective is to create a bond between yourself and the other person in which such ideas can be expressed openly and without fear; in which each person can be true to what they believe while still feeling respected by the other person. The objective is to strengthen the sense of community between you and others.


For more information on Reform Mormonism visit www.reformmormonism.org






Wednesday, February 11, 2015

ON ORTHODOXY, APOSTASY, JOHN DEHLIN & KING BENJAMIN

First consider the following:

You are approached by someone who is clearly in a desperate situation. This person begs for your help. What do you do?

Could you easily help them without any great personal sacrifice? What if in helping this person your own well-being or that of your loved ones is compromised? What do you do if you know the person begging for your help bears full responsibility for his desperate situation? Do you help this person anyway—knowing that in the future he might do things that will again bring him to another desperate situation?

How you respond to this person’s plea for help will not only affect him. It will also reveal something essential about you—about your values and ethics; your relationship with others generally; your views on human nature; your ideas regarding justice; your emotional makeup and the content of your character.

To find one’s self in this sort of situation is to come face to face with many of life’s biggest questions. It is to find one’s self in that place where one’s ideas of right and wrong are challenged—where they must be put into practice or discarded. If one believes in God, this is the sort of situation in which one might contemplate the will of God and the relationship of God to the human race. If one is not religiously inclined, this situation could nevertheless cause one to contemplate one’s place in society and the duty—if any—that citizens owe one another.


Now consider the following:

On this past Tuesday (February 1, 2015), John Dehlin—the creator of the hugely popular and socially impactful podcast “Mormon Stories”—was excommunicated for apostasy from the LDS Church—Mormonism’s largest denomination. The decision by John’s local LDS Priesthood authorities to excommunicate him for apostasy was unanimous. In the official LDS Church statement regarding the nature of John’s so-called apostasy, these LDS Priesthood authorities cited John’s statements that “The Book of Mormon” and “The Book of Abraham” — part of the LDS canon of scripture — are fraudulent and works of fiction.

The LDS Church teaches that “The Book of Mormon” is a divinely given, literal translation of ancient American writings that had been engraved on gold plates prior to 425 AD. The LDS Church teaches that Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, was led by an angel to a spot on a hillside in New York State where ancient American prophets—themselves descendants of earlier Jewish refugees from Jerusalem—had buried the book in the fifth century AD. The LDS Church teaches that “The Book of Mormon” contains a thousand year history of two great ancient American peoples who were the descendants of ancient Israelites. It also teaches that some of these ancient Israelites were the actual ancestors of some Native Americans.

A great part of John’s so-called apostasy is that he accepts the findings of traditional mainstream archeology—which asserts that there is no evidence whatsoever for the existence of the two great cultures which makeup the central plot of “The Book of Mormon.”

John also accepts the findings of research in Native American DNA. There is no DNA evidence of a link between Native Americans and the population of ancient Palestine.

John has also studied early Mormon documents, accounts by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries—both Mormon and non-Mormons; he has explored the history of American society and American religion in the early 19th century—and all of this study has convinced him that “The Book of Mormon” is not an ancient American historical document but an early 19th century American work of religious fiction.

Because John not only came to these conclusions but broadcast and discussed them publicly in “Mormon Stories Podcasts,” the LDS Church has labeled him an apostate and has excommunicated him from their organization.



HOW ARE THESE TWO THNGS—John Dehlin’s excommunication from the LDS Church from apostasy, and having someone in a dire situation begging your help—RELATED?

“The Book of Mormon” contains an account of an ancient American king of Jewish ancestry named Benjamin who, shortly before his death (supposedly in the late second century B.C.), preached a great sermon to his people, regarding their relationship with God and their duties to their fellow human beings. In this sermon, King Benjamin taught the following regarding helping others in dire situations:

“…ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish.
“Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—
“But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God.
“For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
“And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.”
(Mosiah 4: 16—21)



Now whether one accepts King Benjamin’s reasoning or not, one must admit that he puts forth very succinct, very clear principles that one could consider when one is approached for help by another in a dire situation. Rejecting King Benjamin’s principles or acting upon them will reveal much about the content of one’s character and how one views his or her relationship to the human family.

One is approached by someone in need; one must decide how to respond that person’s cry for help; in deciding how to respond, one considers King Benjamin’s principles; one makes a decision and acts upon it; one’s actions reveal much about one’s character and one’s spiritual and ethical state at that time.

Notice the one thing absent from all of this—the one thing that is completely unimportant. It is this question: Was King Benjamin a real person who lived in ancient America, or is he a completely fictional character created in the 1820’s by Joseph Smith?

In the end the answer either way is completely irrelevant to the actual situation at hand: how does one respond to another’s plea for help.

In the context of ethics, of personal spiritual progression, of human relationships, of how one envisions his or her relationship to God—how one responds to a beggar’s plea for help is of immeasurable importance. The role that King Benjamin’s principles play in that response are much more important as far as one’s relationship with “The Book of Mormon” is concerned that one’s beliefs regarding the historicity of either the book and King Benjamin.


If an international religious organization like the LDS Church continues the Dark Ages tradition of excommunicating members for apostasy, it might consider using the principles found in their scriptures as the basis for those actions rather than beliefs and opinions regarding the historicity of those scriptures.

But like so many orthodox, fundamentalist or literalist religious organizations, the LDS Church does not teach a religion that is based primarily on principles. Instead it teaches a religion that is first and foremost a religion ABOUT a set of scriptures and ABOUT the LDS Church itself. One believes without doubting and without any public questioning the things that the LDS Church claims about itself and what it claims about its scriptures. To not believe and to publically question is to court excommunication and the label of “apostate.”

Reform Mormonism is a religion that is first and foremost about principles.

When a Reform Mormon is approached by one in need, considering King Benjamin’s principles is much more important than believing that the king was an actual historical figure. Likewise, Reform Mormons might draw upon the principles attributed to Jesus in the New Testament Sermon on the Mount and in “The Book of Mormon’s” sermon at the Nephite temple. Whether the historical Jesus actually stood atop a Judean mount and taught those principles—or whether he actually appeared in ancient America after a resurrection from the dead and taught them—is of no importance.

Reform Mormonism is a religion centered upon one’s quest to develop within one’s own character the virtues and attributes that one envisions God possessing. Reform Mormonism teaches that all human beings—by virtue of their humanity—exist in the form and likeness of the Divine, and thus they have within themselves a potential for Divinity.

Through the living of our lives, through the use of our individual agency, through the manner in which we interact with others and encounter adversity, through the degree in which we engage our intellects and emotions, through the manner in which we navigate our way through the complexities of life---through all of these things we are either developing Godliness within ourselves or we are not.

An orthodox religion that is primarily ABOUT the Bible, “The Book of Mormon,” Jesus or Joseph Smith is simply of no practical use or great importance in this process; thus it has no place in Reform Mormonism.

To label someone as “devout” or as an “apostate” regarding such things is meaningless. One could accept orthodox theologies regarding the scripture, Jesus and Joseph Smith; one could eloquently defend that orthodoxy from all attacks and by that same eloquence convert others to that orthodox faith. And yet those orthodox ideas in and of themselves alone are meaningless in developing a Godly character. Orthodoxy does not equal Godliness.

If one reads “The Book of Mormon” with clear eyes, one might see that such a principle is central to the book’s message.

That message is worth considering even if the book is a work of 19th century American religious fiction.

That message is central to Reform Mormonism—which is an “excommunication-free zone,” in which doubts, hard questions, unorthodox beliefs and a diversity of opinions are not only welcomed, but regarded as essential in the Eternal Progression of the human family.




Friday, August 22, 2014

UNITY VERSUS UNIFORMITY


Unity is a guiding principle in most of the world’s religions. But more often than not, the pursuit of unity becomes a demand for uniformity—so much so that the two concepts become confused.

Religions begin issuing commandments or enforcing policies on everything ranging from the type of clothing worn, to hair styles, to the use of language, to which books should be read, what music should be heard, which movies and TV shows should be watched, what types of thoughts should be entertained and what thoughts should be repressed. Even those who express their faith using words or phrases not in common use, become suspect; other adherents begin to worry that such a person “is losing their faith” or has “lost their testimony.”

Obey. Don’t doubt or question. Follow the fold—or leader—or the prophet. Don’t cause waves. Conform. One’s willingness to negate one’s self and blend into the crowd becomes the litmus test of one’s faith, one’s moral character, one’s spiritual health and one’s relationship with God.

In many Mormon denominations, uniformity is usually mistaken for unity. If one uses the same words used by everyone else when bearing one’s testimony , one is seen as faithful—regardless of one’s inner spiritual or ethical condition. If a testimony is born using phrases, language or images that are not familiar, many listeners become uneasy, looking with suspicion upon the person bearing the testimony. If a little girl wears a sleeveless shirt or blouse, many worry that her moral character could be more easily corrupted than the little girl who wears a top with sleeves that meet that denomination’s dress standards. The same goes for young women and their choice of clothing. Men have traditionally been encouraged to have their hair cut at certain lengths and to avoid beards. Often men are not allowed to pass the sacrament or participate in certain ordinances because they are not wearing white shirts and ties—even though there is no official policy on the matter. Uniformity is such a powerful force in some denominations of Mormonism that many believe—sincerely but mistakenly—that they can spot another Mormon at first sight.

The result is that the sacrifice of one’s individuality comes to be seen as an act of great virtue, while being true to one’s self is often denigrated as “selfishness,” “hard heartedness” “being proud” and “having a rebellious spirit.” In such a culture, hypocrisy comes easy since uniformity is more about outer appearances than inner substance. Most tragic of all is that sincere, well-meaning, highly ethical individuals who crave an atmosphere of emotional and intellectual transparency—a space where there can be a true meeting of the minds; an honest discussion of the actual issues confronting human beings; a thoughtful examination of their faith’s history and theology; a respectful and even loving difference of opinions—become frustrated to the point where they conclude Mormonism is simply not a viable, meaningful religion for them. These individuals finally succumb to the false idea that uniformity equals unity; unwilling or honestly unable to any longer wear a one-size-fits-all uniform, they leave the faith they once deeply valued.

This problem is not unique to Mormonism. One finds it in all religions. The demand for uniformity destroys true unity.

To first century followers of Jesus, the Apostle Paul wrote:

“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.” (I Corinthians 12:4)

Paul believed that Jesus’s followers were united by the same Spirit, which could manifest itself through them in diverse ways. In the midst of strife between Jesus’s followers—usually revolving around how to incorporate the traditions of distinct cultures into the movement that Jesus began—Paul encouraged them to keep in mind the bigger picture…to stay focused on moving forward, on cultivating the image of God within themselves and on transforming the earth so that it was in harmony with the Kingdom of God.

Divisions continued, of course—usually because one group, one church or one body would try to enforce uniformity in the name of establishing or preserving unity.

Shortly before Joseph Smith published “The Book of Mormon,” he revealed the reason that the book was being brought forth:

“…if the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a REFORMATION among them, and I will put down all lyings, and deceivings, and priestcrafts, and envyings, and strifes…” (Book of Commandments 4:5)

The reformation that was the original objective of the movement that became known as Mormonism was a reformation of religion that would end such things as “envying and strifes” and bring about religious unity.

This unity was not a matter of establishing a new system of uniformity. It was to be a unity brought about by the Spirit, which would manifest itself in all people and all cultures the world over in many different ways. “The Book of Mormon” itself declared:

“…I exhort you, my brethren, that ye deny not the gifts of God,
for they are many; and they come from the same God.
And there are different ways that these gifts are administered;
but it is the same God who worketh all in all;
and they are given by the manifestations of the Spirit of God unto men,
to profit them…
…all these gifts come by the Spirit of Christ;
and they come unto every man severally, according as he will…”
(Moroni 10: 8, 17)

Reform Mormonism embraces this concept.

Reform Mormonism celebrates individuality and personal differences, declaring that these need not undermine spiritual unity within a community of faith.

One does not sacrifice one’s individuality in being a Reform Mormon. We declare that the purpose of life is the eternal progression and growth of the individual.

Reform Mormons declare that in developing a relationship with God, people need never put on a uniform.

Rather, Reform Mormons proclaim that in order for the Spirit of God to work in and through people, they must shed all pretentions, discard the labels that have been placed upon them and approach God honestly, as they are—knowing that they are fully embraced as they really are, here and now, by a loving Heavenly Father and Mother.

The foundation of Reform Mormon theology is the old Mormon adage: “As we now are, God once was; as God now is, we may become.”

Therefore human nature is nothing to be repented of, or overcome, or forsaken. Rather human nature—in all its complexity—is our most potent link to God. Existing in the image of God, humans share with God a common nature.

Reform Mormons openly deal with all aspects of human nature, all fields of human endeavor, all episodes of human history—for we declare that God intends for us to deal with reality, here and now; that only in doing so can we grow and progress and become like God.

This does not mean that we all are progressing toward some cookie-cutter image of God, but that the Divine image we are cultivating within ourselves is the result of our unique and distinct experiences, relationships, preferences and points of view—and the interaction of all of these things with the Spirit of God, which is universal and at work in all things.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

REFORM MORMONISM: Excommunication is Excommunicated here


Recently Mormonism has again made the news because the LDS Church has again excommunicated devout, believing members who followed the Light they had received. The LDS General Authorities insist that those who are excommunicated from their church are no longer Mormons: that they have been stripped of forgiveness, of Priesthood authority, of Temple blessings, of their eternal standing within their own families. The LDS Church leaders insist that they, and they alone, determine who is a true Mormon.

In response, we offer the following parable for your consideration:


"A garden (Mormonism) was planted by God, and it began to grow and spread. The few men who had at first tasted the fruit of the garden, erected fences (a church) around the garden to stop it from spreading beyond the boundaries they envisioned for it.
But the men were not the garden; they were not the plants, the flowers or the fruit-bearing trees.


"And so roots crept under the fences and sprouted beyond the small area inside the fences. The pollen from the flowers within the fenced area was picked up by the wind and blown out beyond the confines of that area. Bees, too, came into the garden and gathered pollen--and despite the fact that the men who appointed themselves the protectors of the garden swatted at the bees and drove them from the garden, the bees carried the pollen out into the world, spreading it far and wide.

"Birds also flew into the garden and ate fruit from the trees. The men who appointed themselves the guardians of the garden drove the birds from the garden. But Nature, being supreme, took its course and the birds who'd eaten the fruit, flew in all directions and the seeds of the fruit they'd eaten eventually passed into the soil so that fruit trees grew far away from the sight and control of the men.

"The day came when the men who'd appointed themselves guardians of the garden looked out beyond the fences they'd built and they saw that the whole earth outside had become like the Garden of Eden.


"This was because of the birds they had driven from the garden for eating the fruit; because of the bees who partook of the pollen and were driven away by the guardians; because of the roots of the fruit trees that snaked beneath the fences the guardians had erected.

"The garden outside the fence, unencumbered by the self-proclaimed guardians, was bigger, more lush, more full of good fruit than the tiny fenced in garden. The people of the world enjoyed the outside garden, praised its beauty and goodness; were nurtured by its fruit and cooled by the shade of its trees.



"And on those rare occasions when people happened upon the small fenced-in area, which was now hidden deep within the wide flourishing garden that covered the whole world, they shook their heads and marveled that anyone would think they could control a garden planted by God."

Who determines if you are a Mormon? YOU do.

What determines if you are a Mormon? Your relationship with God--and God alone; your intimacy with the Spirit working within you; the way you envision the universe and your place in it.

God is doing a marvelous work and a wonder in the world. God has revealed the human family's divine potential.

If you have caught a glimpse of this; if it has resonated within your soul; if the principles of Mormonism guide you in the way you live your life, in your relationships with others--then YOU ARE MORMON regardless of whether you belong to this church or that.
No one can excommunicate you from those things that you hold sacred within your own heart--especially your relationship with your Heavenly Parents.

THIS IS THE MESSAGE OF REFORM MORMONISM: there are more ways than one to be a Mormon. Mormonism is like a garden and if you have eaten of its fruit; it that fruit nourishes you, then you carry Mormonism within yourself.In Reform Mormonism, excommunication has been excommunicated.


Sunday, August 04, 2013

OPPOSITION IN ALL THINGS, or "THE TRAUMA OF BEING ALIVE"



A excellent piece appears in this weekend's NEW YORK TIMES entitled “The Trauma of Being Alive.” In reading it, I contemplated something that happened yesterday afternoon.

My partner Cary sang at a wedding and afterwards we attended the reception together. Carey proudly showed friends there photos of his first grandchild, Jadelyn, who was born just two weeks ago. While flipping through some of the photos of the baby on his cell phone and watching some of the young woman at the reception interact with their toddlers, I instantly began to tear up, emotionally overcome. It was a momentary thing, passing as quickly as it came; but it was intense enough that Carey asked in surprise, “What’s the matter?” I couldn’t explain exactly what I was feeling or what images passing through my mind triggered the onslaught of feelings, other than I was thinking (vaguely) about my Mom and feeling (momentarily but intensely) the loss of her in my daily life.

This author of this NY TIMES piece (Psychiatrist Mark Epstein) writes honestly about two common assumptions: that grief is something from which one can eventually recover completely, and that life “normally” is balanced and trauma-free. BOTH OF THESE ASSUMPTIONS ARE FALSE. As human beings, we do ourselves a grave injustice if we don’t reject these assumptions. By continuing to insist that these assumptions as true, we set ourselves up for lives of unnecessary disappointment and frustration, and—more importantly—we do battle against the very aspects of ourselves that make us human.




Epstein’s piece also reminds me why I continue to cling to my Mormon faith—which, when dealing with human nature and the nature of human life on earth, here and now—goes in the exact opposite direction of Christianity and most other religions. While Christianity interprets the mythical exile of Adam and Eve from Eden as a curse; while it declares human nature fallen and sinful, and life of earth as a series of woes from which human must be saved, Mormonism sees the mythical eating of the Fruit of Knowledge (what Christians call “the Forbidden Fruit”) and the exile from Eden as a GOOD thing, as a step UPWARD and FORWARD in the Eternal Progression of the human race.

“There must need be opposition in all things,” Mormon scripture declares. Without conscious awareness of the opposition that is inherent in the natural world, we would be less than human. Mormonism goes so far as declaring that without this opposition, “God would cease to be God.”

The awareness that human love is eternal—that our love for a mother, a father, a child, a spouse, lover or friend does not end when that person dies; that this love continues to be experienced as a potent, deeply-felt, important ongoing relationship even when that person is physically absent from us—means that the sadness and frustration over the loss of that person’s physical presence are realities with which we must deal for the remainder of our days upon the earth. It’s not only foolish but destructive of something essential to our humanity, to try to “overcome,” “get over,” or “get past” those feelings. There is no “closure”—a concept I detest when applied to the real and potent traumas and tragedies inherent in life.

Epstein confirms that “trauma” IS the norm. Life is not predictable, controllable or satisfyingly understandable. The human experience of life is complex, baffling, confusing, mysterious, demanding, sad, painful, challenging and frustrating—and it is EQUALLY beautiful, stimulating, pleasurable, rewarding and joyful. (I was tempted to use the phrase “on the flip side” when describing these contrasting and conflicting qualities; but in fact there is no flip side; all of these qualities—the traumatic and the non-traumatic—are tightly and seamlessly interwoven as equal parts of one great whole.) This is the way life is supposed to be. Human intelligence and human nature are perfectly suited to deal with it. In fact, human intelligence and human nature are unimaginable in any other context.

And so I try to embrace the “contradictions in all things” so that I might “have a fullness of joy”--to use Mormon phrases. Or, using Epstein’s words, I try to “lean into” the trauma. As he concludes, "we are human BECAUSE of trauma, not despite it."