But they did not believe the women….

It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and several other women who told the apostles what had happened. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. (Luke 24: 10-11)

I’m so heartsick to learn of another case of sexual abuse in our community. Foremost, I mourn for the victims. In their vulnerability, they were manipulated and sexually exploited by the people they most trusted. With the deepest part of my heart, I wish them healing and peace.

I’m also troubled by how rarely these women—and women like them—have been believed. For 3 decades, this woman’s allegations were dismissed. The first leader she told did not nothing because, as he recently told a reporter, he “wasn’t going to risk sullying the reputation of someone based on that kind of report.”

This pattern is all too common. Men in power control the narrative—usually in ways that preserve the institutional structures from which they derive their power.

What happens when a disempowered woman dares to challenge that narrative? When she accuses a good man of doing something bad?

Just last month, when now-disgraced White House Press Secretary (and fellow Mormon) Rob Porter was first accused of emotionally and physically abusing his ex-wives, Senator Hatch (R) lashed out at anyone who’d raise such charges as “morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name.” Only when the photographs of a blackened eye surfaced did Hatch give credence to what the wives had been saying–and understood he’d most certainly lose power if he continued defending the man.

And now, after 30 years of being disbelieved or ignored, a woman has recorded her perpetrator admitting to sexually exploiting young women like her while serving as the President of the Missionary Training Center.  Until now, it was easier to disbelieve that woman than to believe her.

Men protecting men, because they can’t risk “sullying the reputation of someone.”

Men silencing women so they won’t “sully a good man’s name.”

In the same decade that President Joseph Bishop has admitted to exploiting vulnerable young women, two Mormon scholars were silenced after writing Mormon Enigma, a historically-responsible book about Emma Smith that included uncomfortable details about her husband, Mormon founder Joseph Smith. These women were banned from speaking about the book to Mormon audiences. When challenged, the apostle Elder Oaks explained “if Mormon Enigma reveals information that is detrimental to the reputation of Joseph Smith, then it is necessary to try to limit its influence and that of its authors.”

A man’s good name.

Sometimes even when apostles believe the women, they make sure no one else does.

This is not good news.

 

 

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Finding My Father’s Bones

 

One week ago, at age ninety, my father passed away. Several years ago, while pursuing a graduate degree, I flew out to see him. It was fall and fur-trapping season was in full swing. I left him a poem and when I returned to school, I wrote this piece.

 

MY DAD’S PLACE IN THE WOODS could pass for an 18th century fur trapper’s lodge. Pelts of coyote, fox, and coon hang like laundry above the wood stove. Against the paneled wall a few fleshing-boards lean, taut with the pale undersides of hides waiting for a final rubbing of salt. Rifles and shotguns and pistols are crammed in every nook and cranny of his single-wide. The only things out of character in this trailer deep in the heart of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are my red suitcase and me.

I’ve come to see my dad. It’s not a good time really, not with the crush of deadlines in my first year of grad school at USU. But when summer passed and I couldn’t visit, I promised I’d get here in the fall. Besides, he’s getting older. His buzz of white hair is familiar enough–he was in his mid-sixties when I left for college the first time–but now, a decade later, his leathery skin has changed to a transparent tissue.

He’s still tramping through the woods, though. Early last spring he fell through the ice, setting beaver traps. He clawed his way out, stripped down, and spent the afternoon buck naked before a fire of twigs and marsh grass waiting for his clothes to dry. He tells me this one evening when we’ve settled into easy chairs. “Pa,” I say, “one of these days you’re not going to be so lucky.”

In my mind I conjure the scene I’ve always imagined for his death: He’ll be deep in a cedar swamp tracking the faint smears of blood from a buck he’s shot, when he’ll stop mid-stride, clutch his chest, then slowly crumple to the ground. The shifting snow folds over him. Whenever my dad talks about dying, he says, You won’t find my bones till spring.

I look at him resting. He’s strong. Always will be, I assure myself. Doesn’t even catch colds like normal folk.

Lately, his death takes on an unsettling twist. As I imagine it, Dad’s hemorrhaging under an old white pine, praying one of his sons will find him in the pathless woods. My brothers, drawing on the woodsmanship they learned over the years from our father, rescue him. But when it’s on my shoulders,  I’m not so lucky. I try to follow his steps, but I just can’t.

***

OF MY FATHER’S FOUR SONS, I’m the only one who didn’t become the hunter and trapper he’d raised us to be.

“Dad,” I said when I was 14, “I don’t want to get my buck permit.” He looked confused, as if I’d turned down a driver’s license. “And I don’t want to go trapping anymore, either.”

Even as the words left my mouth, I knew they had left like arrows. The rift had come. His face turned ash, and he said nothing for a long time.

That was that. I’d taken the one thing he consciously passed on to his sons, the one thing that embodied his values and heritage, the one way he knew to raise boys, and said thanks, but no thanks. If trapping and hunting were my birthright, I’d just spat and turned away.

At the time, I applauded my decision for its moral courage. By refusing to kill, I had defied the traditions of my father and chosen the lonely path of enlightenment. The idea resonated, but it wasn’t an honest assessment, as I look back. The truth is, my dad had become repugnant to me.

It was a new feeling. As a boy, my father’s mastery of the woods enchanted me. He could outwit coyotes and fox, track a wounded deer with nothing to go on but a streak of blood and a hoof-slot stamped into a patch of moss. My dad could read the woods the way a scholar deciphers ancient texts.

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But my dad was no scholar. In fact, he scoffed at book smarts, and held a bitter contempt for college types. Educated idiots, he called them, with the same venom he reserved for liberals and bunny-huggers. As my own interest in books and erudition flowered, quite unaccountably, at about 12 or 13, I found myself wincing. I was becoming one of them.

I suppose I come out the hero if I put the classic spin on this . . . Boy Raised by Savage Teaches Himself to Read Greek, Goes to College! . . . but that’s not how I feel now, sitting next to my father in the sway of the evening.

Sitting next to him now, I sense how needlessly I’d breached that apprenticeship so many years ago. I let my pretensions repel me from a man who had mastered something. Blind to so much of what he knew, I only acknowledged his crude grammar, his utter lack of sophistication. My father lacked any of the Athenian grace I sought for myself. Beauty and truth? The man wiped his butt with ferns.

***

I DON’T REGRET my college degree, but I understand what little value it holds in my dad’s world. I think of the Indian chiefs declining an offer by the government to teach their sons. Those who’d returned from universities in the past, the chiefs noted, couldn’t build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy – they were totally good for nothing. The chiefs countered, Give us your sons, and we will make men of them. I don’t know what I’m good for yet, and I wonder what I could do if I’d given my dad a shot at raising me.

On my last night, I give my dad a poem I’d worked on in my graduate- level poetry class. I read it aloud. It’s about a fur-trapper, maybe more. I’m certain he won’t understand it. Every line is a kind of deception, a trap waiting to be stepped in. He shifts kind of awkwardly, then says, “That’s real nice, son. Real nice.” I tried to reach out somehow. This was all I had.

In the morning, as I’m leaving for the airport, I see the poem mounted on his wall. I guess he understood it well enough. We both understood well enough. I stop in my tracks and take a good long look before saying goodbye.

 


This piece originally appeared in Utah State Magazine, summer 2005.

Ashes to Ashes

THE PRIEST SMEARS ASH PASTE across my forehead with his finger. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I think of Adam. That prelapsarian promise of power, of godhood, still hissing in his postlapsarian ears. And now God says, “Chew on this. You came from the mud and that’s where you end up. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” 

I’ve been Adam. In another lifetime I was tapped to represent the man Adam in the temple. I knelt at the altar while we, fledgling gods, winged our way to exaltation and glory. And thus the mud dreams of immortality.

Two distinct destinies: Intimations of immortality or a worm’s next lunch. 

I return to the pew while the other parishioners present themselves to Father Peter. One by one he daubs their heads with the oily cinder of last year’s palms. A parishioner in his eighties shuffles into place. Remember that you are dust. A mother presents the bobbling heads of her three little girls—one on her hip wriggling to get free. Remember that you are dust. The well-dressed and the well-heeled, the homeless man coming in from the cold. Remember that you are dust.

I sense a deepening kinship, a more elemental connection with everyone here. We sprang up, each of us, from Mother Earth. Some day she will take us back. And in that consummation, surely our notions of being significant or insignificant, of mattering more or mattering less than anyone else, will dissolve. Just a drop of water in an endless sea, to quote from a song I’m hoping against hope will be included in today’s service.

For many Buddhists, meditating on our own eventual decay is a key practice. I am of the nature to grow old. I am of the nature to get sick. I am of the nature to die. Some say this is a bleak and pessimistic point of view. But here, on Ash Wednesday, my fellow Christians have come together to be reminded that we are mortal. Remember, Father Peter intones, remember

In Pali (the language preserving the Buddha’s teachings) the word “remember”—sati—is often translated as “mindfulness.” As I hear Father Peter repeating this mantra, Remember, Remember, I hear an invitation to life, to a sacred awakening. Like Mary Oliver, I’m no longer sure what a prayer is. But I do know how to pay attention, how to kneel in the grass or to kneel here, now, beside a wooden pew at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, refuge of outcasts, sacred pile of compost.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

 

from “The Summer Day,” by Mary Oliver

We kneel and receive the bread and wine. When we stand again, it’s to offer thanks, “for assuring us in these holy mysteries that we are living members of the Body of your Son.” Communion with the Cosmic Christ, our indivisible Buddha nature, empty of a separate self. Saints and sinners, snails and slugs, wombats and wildebeests. The whole of life. As in Adam we die, so in Christ we live.

Ashes to ashes, we all fall down. Ashes to ashes we rise again. 

Morning Sequence

The following essay was written one week into the presidency of Donald J. Trump–in the wake of the controversial travel ban and ensuing protests. The essay appeared in Sunstone, Spring 2017.

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photo credit: Amy Goalen

Morning Sequence

By Lon Young

Tree Pose

For a minute or two, we’ve created our own sacred grove—twenty of us swaying in the sweaty breeze of the gym fan, arms drawn heavenward. Our left legs are lifted off the floor, knees swung wide, heels propped against the inner thigh of our standing legs. I feel a slow burn in my foot and ankle; sense the hum of a thousand gyroscopes steadying me.

We are practicing the art of staying centered, of remaining rooted yet supple, yielding to the gusts of life, trusting in the strength of our core. When a woman two rows up starts to topple, I hear my thoughts reassuring her: Don’t panic. Find your drishti—your focusing point.

This was my posture just after the presidential election. Equipoise. Balance and counterbalance. I consoled myself by trusting in the core values we share as Americans. Surely our commitments and traditions ran too deep to be uprooted, no matter who occupied the White House. Certain protections were enshrined in our Constitution, weren’t they? And a safeguard of checks and balances? The new president’s bluster and bravado were simply that, and would be drowned out by swelling choruses of Kumbaya. We who are committed to peace and justice comprise a vast forest: we breathe in what is noxious and breathe out what sustains.

And then came the inauguration. As I write this, it is the sixth day of the first week. The sixth day of smashing things, breaking things, uprooting things. A tornado full of chainsaws. And God saw everything he had unmade, and behold, he declared it was very very very good. The best ever.

And how can I stand now, safely planted in my privilege as a straight, white, non-Muslim male, humming hymns in arboreal bliss while chainsaws are buzzing in the borderland?

The Warrior

I move into Virabhadrasana, Warrior Pose. My stance is charged: thighs taut like crouched panthers, arms extended, hands blades. Once, when his beloved Sati was persecuted, Lord Shiva tore a lock of his hair and threw it to the ground. A moment later, Virabhadra sprang up from the earth—the incarnation of Shiva’s wrath—and hacked his wife’s tormentors into pieces.

For much of my life I didn’t allow myself to feel anger. It was an emotion unworthy of the narrative I was writing for myself. I would begin each day with the prayer of St. Francis in my heart: Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. But it’s getting harder and harder to know what peace should look like. And this warrior posture feels . . . well, it feels kind of right.

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photo credit: Amy Goalen

Pema Chodron says we should be bodhisattva warriors: warriors of wisdom and compassion who do battle against ignorance and hatred. And Paul says the struggle isn’t with flesh and blood but against rulers of darkness, against wickedness in high places. But these metaphors make me wary. I know our history, both as Mormons and as Christians: we sing strike for Zion, flash the sword above the foe, but whenever we have too zealously wielded the “Sword of the Spirit,” it has become stained with real blood. And I know my own heart. I know how readily the kindling of righteous indignation flares into the searing heat of hatred.

But what would it say about our moral conscience as Mormons if we were not angry, not roused to action? What if we sat upon the throne of our privilege, to use Captain Moroni’s blistering phrase, in a state of thoughtless stupor? I hear him now in my head. Yea, will ye sit in idleness . . . while there are thousands round about in the borders of the land who are falling by the sword, yea, wounded and bleeding? Do ye suppose that God will look upon you as guiltless while ye sit still and behold these things?

When I shift into Warrior II, I remember the bodhisattva warriors and the apostle Paul and Captain Moroni, who did not delight in bloodshed. And I think also of Virabhadra, and a mountain meadow in southern Utah, and the oath of vengeance that our Mormon progenitors swore in the Temple of the Lord. I catch myself in the mirror, arms locking into a horizontal plane as bright as a spear.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

The Corpse

We are led through what seems a lifetime of asanas: forward bends, backbends, chest openers, twists, up-dogs and down-dogs, poses for balancing, poses for binding. It’s a sequence of battles in a campaign we seem to be losing. There’s no way to flush out the lactic acid fast enough. Our muscles stiffen from the onslaught until we are unable to deflect the next attack—to decry, denounce, or defend; unable to uphold truths we mistook to be self-evident.

We ease our backs onto our mats as if they were stretchers.

Our yoga teacher says Savasana is our chance to relax, to pamper ourselves with a few minutes of peace and quiet. We go along with this fiction because we prefer it to the truth: this is the part where we are supposed to die.

Closing my eyes, I stretch out my arms and wait for it, following the rise and fall of my breath.

My first attempt at dying was at age eight in a makeshift baptismal font of stacked cinder blocks lined with sheets of clear plastic. It failed, of course. As a Mormon, I have been taught to strive, to multiply and increase, to rise through the ranks, to seek the validations of worthiness that qualify me for thrones, kingdoms, and exaltations. But I have not been taught how to let go, how to subtract myself, descend below, forfeit status and standing. Teach me how to die like a god—how to stretch out my arms in profound love and say Father, forgive us all, for we know not what we do.

For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

It is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

You must reduce yourself to zero, Gandhi said many times and in many ways. He lived in India, of course, where the only number that can hold infinite emptiness was invented. This surrender, this annihilation of the ego, became the source of his spiritual victory, but it also generated the energy—the soul force—that sustained his courage, his resilience, and his unfailing faith as a satyagrahi, or truth warrior. As I lay here in the darkened room on my mat, body splayed out in defeat, I wonder if I can reduce myself to zero.

A voice in the darkness says, “Turn your wrists to the sky.”

We are left in corpse pose for I don’t know how long. I congratulate myself on surrendering my own ego—not my will, but thine be done—even as I’m listening for the flutter of dove’s wings and the rending of the temple veil. (Shouldn’t there be some kind of fireworks?) But when our teacher tells us to wake our fingers and toes, to regain a seated position, I suspect it’s still the same old me rising from the mat.

Half Lotus with Anjali Mudra

The lotus flower blossoms where there is mud. It rises up from the muck, through the murky water, until its flower, floating on the surface of the pond, blooms with such sublime beauty that religions throughout the East have adopted it as a symbol of purity, enlightenment, and the transcendence of suffering.

Last night we took our children to “Meet the Muslims.” The imam spoke of his congregation’s anxiety-ridden decision to hire security guards to protect them as they gather to pray. But then he gestured to the room of non-Muslims—mostly Mormons—who had come. He said that because of the election, because of the attempted Muslim ban, hundreds of us have been coming each week to express our support. I remembered the Utah March for Refugees and how State Street leading up to Capitol Hill had become a river of solidarity. Love flowing uphill. Lotuses rising from the mud.

We end in a seated posture. I’m in half lotus because I’m still not flexible enough for full lotus . . . and my head still hasn’t cleared the mud. (Someday.) My left foot is cradled in the fold of my right hip; my right foot is supporting my left knee. Everything embraces and sustains its opposite and the result is a balanced, upright posture.

I am trying to listen to people whose perspectives are different than mine. I am trying to remind myself that we are not separate, that our well-being is not separate. If I have learned anything as an unorthodox Mormon over the last few years, it is to be aware of the harm we do when we reject one another, when we deem some people acceptable of our fellowship and others not.

As we join our hands together in anjali mudra—prayer gesture—I think of Jesus inviting us into a relationship of wholeness, teaching us that the space we create in our hearts must include the whole human family. No one excluded. I have room for the downtrodden, but do I have space for the bully stomping on them? And is there room for the 63 million voters who handed him the boots?

Until our hearts can stretch that wide, we sit half lotus. We pray for the supple grace of a tree, the fearlessness of a warrior, and the pure heart of a flower that blooms in the mud. We lay our pride and self-interest on the altar and practice dying a little more each day. And when we rise from our mats, morning after morning, our sacred work awaits.

 

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photo credit: Amy Goalen


“Morning Sequence” first appeared in Sunstone, Spring 2017

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To the Wounded and the Weary . . .

Savior, may I learn to love thee . . .

I WANT TO LOOK OUT into their faces. It makes me lose my place in the music for a moment, and I garble a lyric. But the faces. These are my brothers and sisters and I still love them more than words can express, even after all these years since I was their bishop. They are good people–kind and caring–and I’ve seen them welcome all kinds of people into their hearts.

I wish I’d done a better job. A bishop is a shepherd. In that, I fell short. And looking into some of the faces, I remember pain I couldn’t diminish or understand. Each bishop falls short, I suppose. But as a bishop, I never forgot that the members of my congregation, my flock, were not mine. They belonged to the Good Shepherd. And it was not to the handbook, nor to policies and procedures, that I looked when I needed to understand how to take care of them. It was to the life and ministry of Jesus. Whatever the situation, the moral authority of His example carried greater force and clarity than any handbook ever could.

It’s hard to get through this duet. My arm is around Rebecca and I feel her support. She has been at my side through the thick and thin of my spiritual journey and she knows my heart. Singing this duet with her couldn’t feel more natural. But today, this day when so many people are in pain—it is bitter sweet. Because I want them so badly to feel peace and love, but they are not really welcome here. Not anymore.

Walk the path that Thou hast shown . . .

MY SON SHARED A STORY he’d heard last week in Primary about a boy who foolishly strayed from a path to help someone. The moral was this: “Beware of leaving the path, even to help someone.”  As we sat around the dinner table, I offered my own parable. It ended something like this:

“But Father,“ said the son, “if I’d helped those people, it would have required leaving the path.” And the Father answered, “My son, helping those people WAS the path.”

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Pause to help and lift another . . .

DSC_0054WHEN OUR FAMILY LIVED AMONG the outcasts in India, we saw wounds deeper than any leprosy bacteria could have wrought. These people had been cast out. And their children, we were told, reeked of the same stench. Stigma, it seems, passes from parent to child. We could not smell it on them. To us, their children were beautiful and whole. And so were the parents. In my life, I expect no sweeter memories than the ones of my children embracing the leprosy-affected, seeing past the fetid rags and seeping bandages. Seeing my children playing soccer with their children and all of them laughing together. We had to leave our comfort zones, our neighborhood, our flock, to be with them. And in return, they taught us to discover Jesus in every face.

Finding strength behind my own . . .

THERE IS A PRAYER ATTRIBUTED to Saint Francis that I used to say in India. I think of it now.

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

Savior may I love my brother . . .

REBECCA IS CARRYING THE MELODY now, and I’m singing a third below. The piece is actually for SSA, but we made it work. I have to sing up an octave here and there, and I jump from the alto to the second soprano and back now and then. It’s not what’s written, but it’s working. It’s the music that matters, after all. The message of love we’re trying to share.

I’m thinking about all the people in pain. My friends who are getting married this upcoming weekend, one of them a believing Mormon who wants her children to grow up to cherish the gospel as she cherishes it. And hearing how this policy stabs them to the core. Other straight allies who’ve invested years reaching out to their gay loved ones to assure them they can find God’s love here in our Church. And of course the children. For them, an official policy of exclusion which isn’t even applied to the children of rapists, murderers, ex-mormons, felons, or even (shudder) Democrats.

I don’t know why these policies were put in place, but I do know how they will affect the children. It will be just like India. They will be made to feel as if something about them is contagious, something reeks, and the only way to rid themselves of the stench will be to move out of their homes and disavow their parents’ disease.

I want the history books to include this detail: When this policy was leaked to the public, my Facebook feed was filled with good people, mostly Mormons, letting the gay community know their phones would be on all night, that they could call, could reach out, in case any of them were thinking of taking their own lives. I want the history books to show that the policies of our leaders did not reflect the highest values of the people they have been asked to lead. They issued policies and we posted suicide hotlines.

My voice breaks. I’m supposed to join Rebecca on the last stanza. I’m supposed to sing, Savior, may I love my brother. I can’t get it out. There is literally nothing that will come out of my mouth. The piano accompaniment slows down for the last line.

Lord, I would follow Thee.

I’M TOLD THIS IS A TIME for choosing loyalties. That we need to stand with the Church and its leaders, that this is a war, and we have to choose which side we’re on. I don’t know what that means. What do they mean when they say my commitment is being tried? My commitment to which values? Higher laws, or lesser laws? What do they mean when they say I must remain loyal? Loyal to whom? To man or God?

I’m disappointed when the highest principle my Mormon friends can point to at times like this is obedience to rules and policies. Jesus’ example stretches my morality beyond rule-following to something higher. To love. His example calls me to recognize when lower laws ought to yield to higher laws. His example suggests that sometimes we too must put ourselves in a position to stop the stones of judgement from bruising another brother or sister.

Forgotten ManSo whom will I follow? And if Jesus, where am I willing to follow Him? Am I willing to leave the ninety and nine? Am I willing to leave the path to lift the wounded and the weary?

For all who have left and our leaving, I understand. I love you. I know you have not left the path. For the true path is discipleship, and that may lead some of you to the leper, the lonely, and the outcast. He may lead you from gilded temples to soup kitchens, from mega-malls to homeless shelters. You may lose the upper seats in the synagogues, but you will recover your soul. And to those who stay, you too are disciples. You make sure there is space, even if you have to push the boundaries and stretch the tent cords to make room for everyone who shows up, no matter who they are and what others say about them.

My voice isn’t back when we come to the final phrase. Rebecca’s hand squeezes mine. But I’m singing it in my heart. No one else can hear it, but it’s there:

“Lord, I would follow Thee.”

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #6

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

Postcard #3 There are many paths up the same mountain

Postcard #4 I sense that feeling the Spirit is a universal, not exclusive, gift

Postcard #5 My faith doesn’t obligate me to believe anything that isn’t true

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Postcard #6 I’m committed to following my own moral compass.

What will you do?

The day is September 11th, 1857. A wagon train of 120 emigrants has been trying to make its way past your settlement and on to California. Normally you would be anxiously engaged in commerce—supplying provisions to these wretched folk at a handsome profit. But not this morning. This morning finds you and fifty of your Mormon neighbors escorting the emigrants into a mountain meadow. You hear a militia leader promise the travelers they will be safely conducted out of the settlement, but you know the truth. At the signal, you and your brethren are to turn on the emigrants and open fire. Shoot them in the head—every man, woman, and child.

What will you do? 

In your gut, you know this is cold-blooded murder, even if you did hear them uttering foul oaths and slurs. And yet the orders are clear. If this were a matter of military protocol, you could refuse to obey this unlawful command from a superior officer. But the group of men issuing the orders are also your religious leaders, and your allegiance to them is unconditional and absolute. Submission to priesthood authority signifies your faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion to God himself. A scripture comes to your mind: Whether by mine own voice, or the voice of my servants, it is the same.

So, what will you do?

Until a few years ago, I wasn’t sure how I would have answered that question. 

I was taught to believe that obedience to my Church’s leaders was always right, even if they asked me to do something wrong. I accepted this way of thinking because those leaders taught me that obeying them was the same as obeying God. I should trust them, they said, because they would not–could not–lead us astray.

Surely no Stake President would order me to shoot unarmed men, women, and children. And surely no prophet would persuade my 14 year old daughter she’s been chosen as his next wife and that by accepting his proposition our family’s exaltation would be guaranteed. These disquieting scenarios from history are easy to dismiss because they seem so improbable in today’s church. But they could teach us much. We have learned by sad experience . . .

Now that I am less naive about human nature and Church history I’ve become more cautious about surrendering my moral agency to human leaders. 

This willingness to ignore the whisperings of our own conscience frightens me. I’ve come to believe that yielding our agency to mortal men ignores basic realities about human nature. For one thing, it eliminates the need for moral discernment. For another, it renders us extremely vulnerable to potential acts of unrighteous dominion. 

Fortunately, our ecclesiastical history shows, on the balance, a preponderance of virtue. But an honest account must also admit to injustice, violence, and vice–and these were often perpetuated precisely because members were willing to violate their conscience out of loyalty to someone whose words they believed to be equal to God’s. 

Leaders are human. I say this with generosity. Like the rest of us, the men tasked with leading the Church don’t always see beyond their cultural biases and paradigms–despite what I trust to be their earnest desire to be faithful to what they view as God’s will. Mormon theology permits no doctrine of prophetic infallibility—for it would render agency inoperative. 

I’m grateful for the combined wisdom and counsel of Church leaders–I would be foolish to esteem it lightly–but sustaining priesthood leaders does not justify me in violating my own conscience. The Nuremberg defense (“I was just following orders”) was an insult to the memory of 6 million Jews and I find myself shocked whenever I hear friends and neighbors admit that they would choose to obey the prophet even if they knew he was wrong, because they felt God would reward them for their obedience.    

As a child, we would sing “Choose the right, when a choice is placed before you. In the right the Holy Spirit guides, and its light is forever shining o’er you…” I don’t hear that song much these days. There is a risk, perhaps, in encouraging 14 million people to develop the moral discernment necessary to work through the rightness of each choice. The Spirit, after all, bloweth where it listeth.  Still, part of me grieves to hear our children bellowing Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet, Follow the Prophet; He knows the way!  

I suppose a part of us prefers to be unburdened of the moral responsibility for choosing, for working through the moral calculus of life’s toughest choices. But don’t we abdicate our moral birthright when we allow another to be the keeper of our conscience?  

the-moral-compassI readily admit that my sense of right and wrong is limited–I’m as susceptible as anyone to biases, paradigms, and ingrained cultural attitudes–still, I am ultimately accountable. I can’t shift the burden of moral responsibility on another, even in the name of obedience. I must follow the moral compass within my own heart, the one that points to kindness, to mercy, generosity, equality, and love.

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Post Script: The Mountain Meadows Massacre  involved many factors besides Mormon settlers being steeped in a culture of obedience. I don’t wish to oversimplify this tragic event. Mormon readers may find a sympathetic but historically responsible explanation in the Ensign article linked here.

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Postcard #5

Postcards from a Spiritual Journey: Introduction

Postcard #1 I’m finding goodness from many sources

Postcard #2 I want to see the whole elephant

Postcard #3 There are many paths up the same mountain

Postcard #4 I sense that feeling the Spirit is a universal, not exclusive, gift

Postcard #5 My faith doesn’t obligate me to believe anything that isn’t true.

faith-and-reason

“Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”  – Pope John Paul II

FAITH CONTINUES TO BE A BEAUTIFUL and animating force in my life. I’m not one of those who feels contemptuous of anything that can’t be proven; the things I value most are, by nature, subjective: the love I feel for my family, the sense that my life has purpose, a belief in the worth of every person. These are things I hope are true, and I choose to live accordingly.

Let’s be honest, we live in a world in which many things can neither be proven nor disproven through the faculties of reason. A spiritually vibrant life, in which faith propels us forward, allows us to sail the seas of uncertainty, to navigate the unknowable.

But some things can be known. Some claims can be tested. 

When it comes to investigating religious claims—particularly those truth claims upon which we have built our lives—we tend to have some trepidation. Few of us could say, as Thoreau, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats.”

If I’m committed to truth, it means I must be willing to look, in an honest, unflinching way, at the very foundations of my belief. “If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation,” J. Reuben Clark said, “but if we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” I agree with Clark, but I also acknowledge that what we call belief is actually a composite of many beliefs—some sound and others based on false assumptions. I am learning to uproot the false, without also tearing out the true.

In this, I’m inspired by sincere seekers of truth such as Henry Eyring, the world-renowned Mormon scientist. He displayed the true scientist’s trait of openness to new ideas and an ability to cast aside old theories if they no longer proved faithful to new data; likewise, he displayed the true spiritual seeker’s trait of openness to new ideas and an ability to cast aside commonly-held beliefs (or even scriptural accounts) if they were contradicted by reliable and compelling evidence. His own father gave him permission to approach any of the Church’s teachings that way:

“In this church,” he told the young man as he was leaving for college, “you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.”  

I no longer cower behind faith as an excuse for ignoring, suppressing, or denying information that may challenge my current beliefs. Faith may fill in the blanks when not all evidence is available, but more often than that, my faith plays a more positive, active role. My faith fills me with courage to face difficult issues. And to the extent that we must all “see through a glass darkly,” faith allows me to move forward, trusting my feet to find the way.

When we are told by leaders not to look closely at an issue, but instead to doubt our own ability to discriminate between truth and error, I wonder if we are really being invited to exercise faith, after all.  It is precisely because I have faith that I am willing to examine problematic issues. The avoidance-based approach only dulls my soul. If I want to truly awaken, I must stop humming the lullaby of certainty to myself.  

When I occasionally feel discouraged by the contempt some in the Church express towards independent thinking, I remind myself that the impulse to challenge the prevailing wisdom is not a failing, but an admirable trait, as Hugh B. Brown pointed out to young college students in the 60s. I’ll close this Postcard with his words ringing in our ears, an anthem to faith:

I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent—if we are informed . . . We should be dauntless in our pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity.

P.S. I have written a piece on intellectual freedom and the tension between an undaunted spirit of inquiry and institutional insecurities. Here’s the post.