Monday, July 29, 2013

Why I'm Staying: Replying to CNN's "Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church"

As a part of the "millennial" generation, I read CNN's religion blog post "Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church" with great interest. The author explains how churches are trying to appeal to my generation through casual services, pastors in skinny jeans, and coffee shops in the meetinghouses--at the cost of teaching what constitutes the heart of Christianity. With the ongoing cultural wars, pretentiousness, and seeming exclusivity, young people my age are struggling to find Jesus when they go to church.

Reading this article made me think carefully about how my faith, the Mormon church, is instituted. While I admit that our church leaders have their own struggles in retaining some who are my age, I think that the Mormon institution solves many of the problems that other millennials experience when attending church. This is my list so far, though it is hardly exhaustive:

1. We are taught to view our fellow members as our brothers and sisters.
Just as we don't choose who our siblings are, neither do we choose whom we will worship with (it's all contingent on location). In fact, the first feature a visitor to a Mormon congregation may notice is that we address our fellow members as "brother" and "sister." This practice consciously reminds us that we should love and accept others in our faith as part of an extended family--regardless of socio-economic background, political affiliations, race, etc. To partially accomplish this, our bishop (our congregational leader) assigns each member to visit fellow members at least once a month to share a spiritual message, as well as watch over their spiritual and physical welfare. Moreover, we feel a sense of responsibility in helping our fellow members who may be experiencing health difficulties, family crises, or just need an extra hand with housework. I believe that this set-up has taught me to be more loving and accepting towards others, as well as emulate Christ's behavior in my life.  

2. We are asked to participate in a given capacity to help the congregation.
Every member is given a "calling" or responsibility to help sustain the congregation's needs. While being a member, for example, I have had callings that range from directing the ward choir, planning monthly activities for over 200 people, and arranging musical numbers for church meetings. It has not always been easy balancing these callings while pursuing graduate studies and working part-time. But I believe that my personal efforts to assist my congregation has reminded me that religiosity is far more than simply attending church; it requires sacrifice on my end. Moreover, since Christ spent His life serving others without worry of "purse or script," I am grateful that I can learn to become more like my Savior through serving His children.

3. Having a nonpaid clergy, our church leaders are refreshingly sincere.* Being a bishop or a Mormon church leader can be emotionally and physically exhausting. Without monetary gain, however, I know that my leaders are serving me because they genuinely care for my well-being. I don't expect my church leaders to be perfect (see my previous post on this), but their efforts to do the best they can for my sake makes me greatly appreciative of them in my life.  

4. We are taught to ask questions. 
Joseph Smith's first vision (and subsequent visions) occurred because he had a question to ask God.  One of our books of scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, is a collection of revelations based on someone's question. Moreover, we are taught to seek for personal revelation from God, through asking God questions in our prayers, or through searching for answers in our scriptures. In some ways, I would argue that the heart of Mormonism is asking questions. I would also say that my faith has helped me answer the deepest yearnings of my soul.

5. Our doctrine is not a laundry list of what we can and cannot do.
Ultimately, we believe that we are on this earth to return back to God, who is our Heavenly Father. While our faith, actions, as well as certain ceremonies play a significant role in our salvation, God ultimately judges us by our hearts. Our church then, strongly emphasizes a gospel that is based on becoming like Jesus Christ. 

These are my thoughts so far. Please respond as to why you are staying in your faith either on this blog or on social media, using the hashtag #whyimstaying.

*In no way did I mean to offend those of other faiths who have paid clergy. I have definitely seen exemplary leaders of other faiths show genuine sincerity to their congregations. I am only speaking from my own experience. For me, knowing that my leaders are working for my sake without any thought for monetary gain is a strong indicator of their sincerity.

Photo by bterrycompton.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How I Confront Doubt: A reply to "Some Mormons Search Web, Find Doubt"

This past week, the New York Times published an article about Hans Mattson, a Mormon leader struggling to understand thorny segments of Mormon history. While this article spurred unusually vibrant discussion online, most of Mattson's questions are ones that many members, including myself, have naturally wondered at times. So, how do I deal with these religious uncertainties? I address my thoughts and include resources for members who are coping with doubt, as well as those not of our faith who are interested in this subject.

1. There are myriad resources available to understanding the "less appealing" parts of Mormon history.
With all due respect to Brother Mattson, I don't think that he is aware of all of the books and articles at his disposal. I would argue that we have the best scholarship in Mormon history than we ever have had before. Those who want to know more about our history should strongly consider the following (this list is not exhaustive):

Encyclopedia of Mormonism click here
A wonderfully comprehensive website on Mormon history and doctrine.
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, by Richard Bushman
A renowned historian's cultural biography of Joseph Smith
The Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Juanita Brooks
A collection of eyewitness accounts surrounding the event
The Latter-day Saint Experience, by Terryl Givens
A thorough reference to Mormon doctrine, history, and culture
Elijah Abel, by W. Kesler Jackson
A book about one of the first black men that Joseph Smith ordained

In addition, BYU Studies has been publishing groundbreaking articles on Mormon studies, including blacks and the priesthood, polygamy, and Joseph Smith's translation process for decades (for more information on Joseph's use of the hat, click here).  I don't believe that it is the Church's ultimate responsibility to hold our hand and teach us our history. We need to be proactive and study it carefully, as well as prayerfully. 

2. Our church leaders, though divinely called, are nonetheless fallible people.
In Doctrine and Covenants 21:5, the Saints are told to accept Joseph Smith's words in "all patience and faith" (my emphasis). The use of "patience"is a clear reminder that Joseph's extraordinary calling did not preclude him from being imperfect. Moreover, God clearly says that he chooses the "weak things of the world" to do his work. Is it any wonder that we are asked to pray for our church leaders, then? Mormons who expect church leaders to be void of mistakes will be severely disappointed. 

3. Take comfort in your past spiritual experiences.
In the Book of Mormon, a prophet named Nephi groans under his present challenges in 2 Nephi 4. Yet he immediately recalls his past encounters with God: "My God hath been my support, he hath led me through mine afflictions in the wilderness"(vs. 18). Similarly, when we face tumultuous periods of doubt and uncertainty, we need to take comfort in our past spiritual experiences. We often enjoy speaking of righteousness bringing about happiness, but Jacob 7:26 (another Book of Mormon prophet) explicitly describes his righteous family as "a lonesome and solemn people...wherefore we did mourn out our days." Being a disciple of Jesus Christ will not necessarily shield us from doubt, heartbreak, and even anguish. Rather, the gospel is a means to expand our perspective, and gain the proper knowledge to return to our heavenly Father's presence. 

4. Ultimately, the potential for doubt is essential for truly making faith a choice. How in the world could we truly exercise faith if doubt was not a viable option? You can see my previous post for further elucidation on this.

5. Gaining an appreciation for this church does not stem from knowing all the answers.  It comes from living the principles of the gospel to the best of our ability. Even if we are not entirely sure whether we know everything is true, we can still follow Alma's counsel in the Book of Mormon and exercise even "a particle of faith," through trying to live certain principles anyway. I have had confirmations of things that I hope to be true only after I have attempted to make them a part of my life.

In closing: I'm not sure if I will ever receive answers to all of my questions. But I know that I have the most important answers. I have the capacity to understand the nature of God and his son, Jesus Christ. I have access to additional scripture that can give me paramount instruction for my life. I know that I can receive personal revelation, as long as I am worthy to receive it. And most importantly, I have the information needed for me to return back to God. There is no greater blessing I have than to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Author's Note: A gross oversight on my part: I neglected to include Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and The Juvenile Instructor as additional helpful resources. In addition, FAIR (Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research) provides important scholarship on examining Mormonism's history and cultural issues.

A response to recent criticism erupting from this post can be found here:

Photo by Don McCullough.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Can Secularism Help Make Faith More Meaningful?

 I am an avid David Brooks reader, and one of his pieces made me think more carefully about the correlation between faith and a secular society. Here, Brooks attempts to summarize Charles Taylor's academically dense book, A Secular Age. Whereas most would point to an increasingly secularized society as obstructing faith, Taylor argues that a secular society has made faith more of a choice, making it more meaningful for the believer.

I believe that Taylor is correct.  People 500+ years ago could only imagine the cosmos from a purely religious standpoint. For them, faith was intertwined with fact, making it less of a conscious choice to believe. Conversely, we have the opportunity to discover and perceive our place in the world from a variety of perspectives. While I am immensely grateful for my religious views, I am edified from Tolstoy's insights into the human condition, a study of photosynthesis to understand the natural world, and Margaret Fuller's philosophies to help me contemplate women's societal place.

Because of our increased access to knowledge in myriad fields, faith becomes a much more deliberate decision. We have the opportunity to consciously choose a faith-based perspective as a means to interpret our world. And that's how it should be. If faith is an imperfect knowledge of things,  it would not mean much if we did not experience a propensity for doubt. I think it is a shame that doubt is often feared by the faithful, while I have come to realize that the greater chance for doubt, the better opportunity I have to increase my faith. Perhaps that is why Joseph Smith's vision is so intensely meaningful for me, as there are myriad reasons to dismiss the story. And yet I do believe it with a fervent intensity.

I am grateful for prayer, probing, and pondering to find the answers I am seeking, to mitigate my gaps in knowledge, as well as confirm what I hope so earnestly to be true. And I am grateful to be on a lifelong search to find nuggets of truth, wherever I find them.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, July 15, 2013

What we can all learn from John Milton's blindness

Having been more acutely aware of my inadequacies recently, it is often easy to wonder if we are really "enough" to do all that God expects of us. Perhaps we struggle maintaining relationships, balancing our quotidian tasks, or exercising sufficient patience. John Milton addresses this very issue in Sonnet 16: "On his Blindness," where he frankly admits that his blindness may impede him from serving God in his fullest capacity.

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
  E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
  And that one Talent which is death to hide,
  Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present         5
  My true account, least he returning chide,
  Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
  I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
  Either man's work or his own gifts, who best  10
  Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
  And post o'er Land and Ocean without rest:
  They also serve who only stand and wait.

Here, Milton explains the crux of his struggle: he believes that his blindness may even render him "useless" in God's eyes. He loosely refers to the idle servant in Christ's parable of the talents, as he certainly does not wish to hide "that one Talent" from God himself. Yet Milton's literary prowess is ostensibly useless without his eyes. Or is it?

At the apex of Milton's despair, Patience teaches him that God does not need man's inner gifts. Rather, God is best served by those who "bear his mild yoke," or courageously submit to His will. Then of course, we have the last line that incites myriad analyses: "they also serve who can only stand and wait."  For me, this image conjures an image of a standing servant, actively waiting to perform his or her master's bidding when called. The act of being ready to serve God when called is just as noble as those who "at his [God's] bidding speed and post o'er Lands and Oceans."

I love this poem because it reminds me that a genuine desire to serve, not necessarily talents, makes me useful to God. In harboring this desire, we can further develop that necessary attitude for submission. And in turn, our souls can be recreated to become more than we can possibly imagine. Milton, for example, transformed into a Homer-like writer, composing two of the most seminal works in English literature while in physical darkness: "Paradise Lost" and "Paradise Regained." Though we may not feel nearly as capable as others, we are nonetheless capable of bearing whatever contents of God's "mild yoke" may be.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Why should we know our origins?

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit two small towns in Massachusetts where my 17th-century ancestors inhabited. As my family is composed of ardent genealogists, I have tended to be more passive about family history. However, I am reconsidering why I, a 26-year-old in 2013, should take part in the spirit of Elijah, and study my ancestors who lived almost 300 years ago. This list is not exhaustive:

1. It de-centers me as an individual. In this increasingly self-centered society we live in, I think it is emotionally and intellectually healthy to remember that we are simply a part of a long line of individuals who were born, lived, and died. It also gives me a greater sense of humility, realizing that I can't take full credit for how my life has turned out. I live in this country, for example, as a result of my French Huguenot ancestors who risked a tumultuous sea voyage to settle here and enjoy religious freedom.

2. It puts my struggles in perspective. When peering down at one of my ancestors' graves, I realized that she was buried with 5 of her children, none of whom lived past the age of five. I was immediately ashamed of how comparatively comfortable my life has been. Yet if my ancestor could bear this struggle, I can withstand trials too. It's literally in my blood.

3. It gives me a sense of belonging. Looking at my family history makes me realize that I am inextricably tied to a greater family than I can imagine. As a single woman living far from home, it gives me comfort knowing that that I live an hour away from my ancestors' hometowns.

4. It makes me aware of the impact that my decisions will have on future generations. Having looked at my family history, I am increasingly cognizant of how my ancestors' decisions have affected me. I am an American, a Mormon, and a book-lover, partially because of them. Subsequently, I try to keep in mind that I am living not only for myself, but for later generations.