Thursday, December 17, 2020

Undecorating the Tree

Our Christmas tree has got a lot of ornaments on it this year. It is borderline absurd, but it is full of nostalgia and I love it. I have tacky ornaments I made in kindergarten, mixed together with the delicate glass ornaments that we got for our wedding 14 years ago. There is a creepy Santa ornament from who knows where. We have a glass bulb that says "Adrien" on it, even though we have no idea who Adrien is. There are 'First Christmas" ornaments for each of our children, and then there are the special and carefully chosen ornaments of our kids from their aunt and uncle each year. There are even just random items that our kids thought to stick a hook on and hang it on the tree. It is all quite messy and very lovely. The lights manage to shine brightly through all the ornaments, and I can still feel the spirit of Christmas when I sit quietly taking it all in from the couch in the darkness.

But I have to admit, with all those ornaments, it can be hard to see the Christmas tree underneath all those decorations.


Looking Beyond the Ornaments

When I was growing up, I remember being taught quite forcefully, "No matter what happens, no matter what trials or questions you might have, you always go to church." It was a good lesson, but I laughed just a bit to myself this year when the pandemic hit, and I was suddenly commanded by the prophet to stop going to church.

I wonder if, with all the well-meaning rigor of trying to point me in the right direction, the focus was too much on the church and not enough on the Savior whose church it isa little too much ornament and not enough tree.

The truth is, I love church. I always have. I love the gathering, the rituals, the forced tittering that goes out over the congregation when the same old icebreaker jokes re-emerge at the beginning of a talk. I miss the awkward conversations in the foyers and the crying babies being taken out by their parents. I miss the smiley grandpa ushers at the doors. I miss the rustle of green hymn books. I miss the teenage boy slip-ups over the sacrament prayers and the too-long primary presentations, and that one blessed member who always gets up and bears their quirky testimony. I miss the full pews and the last-minute clanking of metal chairs in the back as more people trickle in. I miss the smiling, mask-less faces. I miss the pulpit kleenex box and the scratchy walls in the hallway and the basketball hoops hanging over the congregation at the back. And oh how I miss the singing!

It filled my soul up.

But, as it turns out, all of that stuff was just ornaments on the tree.

During the past several months, there have been times when, trying to reconstruct my weekly worship, I almost felt spiritually orphaned. Home church was wonderful enough, and of course I loved gathering for the sacrament in my living room with my kids, and being able to participate more intimately in the emblems of the Lord's Supper. But I admit that I felt just a little bit lost without the traditions, the social side of church, and unwritten parts of my worship that have grown up with me right alongside my own hardwood testimony of Christ. 

I never realized how much I would miss "rubbing shoulders with such good brothers and sisters."

But I think the time away was well spent, because it forced me to focus on something even more important than churchmy own personal relationship with Christ.

All that stuff I have been missing you might call the form of the gospel. The ritual, the physical church building, and all the outward expressions of my faith that were expressed therein. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a vessel, a carrier of the message of Jesus Christ, and a very good one, I believe. But I think sometimes I have confused the form with the substance of my Christian faith. I wonder if I have sometimes been guilty of over-emphasizing the church over the Christ. It has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

Form vs Substance

It is very easy to talk about the form of our faith. It is the statistics. It is the number of operational temples, the growing number of wards and branches, the number of missionaries, the callings, the policies, the formal and informal liturgy, the callings, the people in the pewsall the outward expressions of our worship. They are measurable. We can talk all day long about the dollars spent (or not spent) on humanitarian aide, or the growing (or dropping) activity rates, the subject matter of conference talks, the policies, the programs, and even the most sacred and necessary parts of the gospel and why they are important. But it is much harder, impossible even, to measure the substance.

What is the substance?

The substance is Jesus Christ, a very real resurrected being who lives today to change our hearts and our behavior with his everlasting love and grace. It is hard to measure the substance of Christ, because it is manifest in so many immeasurable ways, like an increase of love for a neighbor, a strengthened family bond, the unexpected forgiveness of an enemy, a changed heart, or the redemption of a sinner.

Both the form and the substance are necessaryyou can't have the substance of your faith without having some kind of container to carry it inbut focusing on the form rather than on the substance can be spiritually damaging. Nephi taught:

"And now, my beloved brethren, and also Jew, and all ye ends of the earth, hearken unto these words and believe in Christ; and if ye believe not in these words [the form], believe in Christ [the substance.] And if ye shall believe in Christ, ye will believe in these words, for they are the words of Christ, and he hath given them unto me; and they teach all men that they should do good. And if they are not the words of Christ, judge yefor Christ will show unto you with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day." (2 Nephi 33:10-11)

Nephi's method asks us to put our belief squarely on the substance, on Jesus Christ. If you don't believe in the Church right now, believe in Christ. If you really don't know how you feel right now about this messy church, for whatever reason (many of which may be well justified) well then, try just believing in Christ. Peel back the layers of ornaments and get a glimpse of the tree. Examine the substance, putting aside all the ornaments that may have overcrowded Him. Talk to Him. Listen to His Spirit. Faith in Christ will lead anyone to the path we need to follow Him in, in whatever form that may look like. Focusing on Christ leads us to make surprising changes, and take both the most wayward sinner and ardent believer to some unexpected places.

Basing our testimony on the form can be terribly limiting, because the form does not have any power in itself to save a soul or change a heart. The church's function is only to carry the substance of Christ's body and blood shed for us. The church is the imperfect vessel for the perfect Christ, and it must change, shift, mature, grow, recant, and make mistakes according to the times it is in, the inperfect leaders appointed, and the general sins and blindspots of a generation at any given moment. Having a testimony of the church without qualifying it with our belief in Christ will never end well, because the church is in a process of refinement as much as we ourselves are. Sometimes it leaks. Sometimes it has to change course and adjust the sails. But ultimately, if you want to know if this church works in its mission to bring you to Christ, you have to focus on Christ, not the vessel. In the storm, the disciples didn't turn to the boat to save them. They turned to the Savior who was sleeping in it down below.

Sometimes I think we care more about keeping up with appearances with the form of our worship than we do about the substance of our worship. We often tell those that struggle to keep white-knuckling it, to always go to church, "fake it 'til you make it," as if we are looking to the church itself for our salvation. While I have learned for myself that the ordinances of the church are a necessary step to bring a person to Christ, and that our willingness to engage in the programs of the church can be essential to our spiritual growth, maybe the topic of church should not be the focus when we feel like a loved one is drifting away. Telling someone to believe in the Church and then, hopefully, somewhere along the line they will end up believing in Christ, is exactly backwards to the method Nephi recommends. 

If we make Christ the focus of all our invitations, rather than the Church, I believe He will better shepherd our loved ones back to the covenant path, in whatever way that looks like for His children, and He will do it in His way and in His time. Instead of inviting to church, we should invite to Christ, starting with ourselves.

Over the past few years, our prophet has decreased church by an hour, then cancelled it altogether for most of this year. He has retired and simplified the programs. He has slowly (or not so slowly!) removed more and more of the bells and whistles of our worship, and repeatedly asked us to focus on Christ. President Nelson has emphasized the sacrament, asking us to re-examine the tokens of Christ's body and blood that we take into our bodies every week (which is a beautiful interplay between the form and substance of our worship.) He is consistently reinforcing the foundation we need in order to survive spiritually in this unstable world. That foundation is always Christ, not the church.

I will be the first to admit that this pandemic has been hard on me. I miss very much being able to participate unrestrained in the traditions and weird, wonderful culture that represents my spiritual heritage. I would love a good and awkward ward Christmas party right about now. I ache for the routines and rituals that gave me much needed support for my faith. Having it all stripped back to the absolute basics has felt like lion claws in my spiritual hide. But I think it has been good for me. Even after this pandemic is over, I can't imagine the church ever going back to where it was. This gives me a fair amount of anxiety, but also hope. We have grown out of a shell, in a sense, and I think we are getting ready to move into the next one. I look forward to witnessing that change. 

We really have changed in 2020, and so has the world. Removing the many ornaments that have been accumulating for 200 years on the branches of this tree has been hard, but necessary. 

I will continue to commit myself to the form of this church by keeping my covenants, but I am also grateful for this year that has taught me where I really need to place my focus: on the tree of life, on the evergreen branches of my Savior's grace, and on the only true substance of my faith.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Spiritual Questions, Scientific Questions


General Conference, April 2020
General Conference, April 2020

It feels like a long time since our prophet spoke to us and announced that temple work, missionary work, and church services would be altered significantly, or even put on hold. It was a remarkable thing for a prophet of God, the ultimate spiritual authority, to defer to public health and scientific experts to shape policy for the church.

"After prayerful consideration and with our deep desire to be part of the solution to this challenge, we have recently made many temporary adjustments to the way we worship and serve the Lord."

And then, shortly after, 

"We are grateful for the helpful direction that government, health, and civic leaders have provided to keep us safe. And we will continue to be prayerful and proceed with an abundance of caution."

As a former physician and as a prophet, President Nelson asked members of the church to follow public health guidelines, and to pray and fast for those affected by the pandemic.

Since then, things have changed for Latter-day Saints. We adapted well to church at home, and our  revamped ministering program announced over 2 years ago seemed divinely tailored to this new situation. Our priesthood authority is already planted in individual homes around the globe, and gospel teaching and weekly sacrament continued without interruption for many of us. This was truly our time to shine! Our community centered belief system should have made conquering this virus easy-peasy. Utah could have emerged as a beacon, showing the world a doctrine that teaches us about unity, care for the vulnerable, and cheerful obedience to authority, which could help stem a plague as effectively as rams blood above the lintel.

But that was decidedly not the case.

Right now, Utah has emerged as one of the global hotspots for the virus. The disdain and outright antagonism there for public health restrictions is (hopefully) a vocal minority, but it is much louder than it should be. And unfortunately in a pandemic, it only takes a minority for a contagious disease to spread out of control. And it is also all that is needed for the contagious spread of lies and misinformation.

Oh Say, What is Truth?

In this 2020 pandemic, one of the big questions that is being debated right now is who on earth has authority to proclaim truth about what to do. These are indeed times of uncertainty and social upheaval. To me, one of the prophet's takeaway messages in this pandemic is that when it comes to spiritual questions, he will continue to provide very much needed direction from the Lord. That is his responsibility forever and always. But when it comes to scientific questions, he prayerfully defers to the experts. 

During my lifetime, I have seen the problems that happen when a person rejects spiritual authority in favor of something else. When you reject the prophets, carving out your own truth and making yourself or worldly voices your new authority on spiritual truths, you are setting yourself up for spiritual chaos. Similarly, when you reject scientific authority, making yourself a sudden expert on infectious diseases and epidemiology after some hours spent in the rabbit holes of youtube and fringe media sources and websites, you are setting yourself up for public health chaos. 

And that is exactly where we are right now.

What happens when we begin to disregard scientific authority? Even members who are spiritually anchored can still find themselves "tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of [secular] doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive." (Eph 4:14) Just as we would be in a dangerous place if we were to say, "Prophets don't know what is right for me!" we are also in a dangerous place when we start to believe, "Overwhelming scientific evidence doesn't know what is right for me!"

What We Know

The fact is, we actually do know quite a lot about how pandemics work. We know how a respiratory virus spreads. We also know what works to make a virus stop spreading. We know all about the germ theory, that a virus doesn't spontaneously appear in your body from nowhere, but from contact with droplets of an infected person. This person may or may not know if he/she is infected. The virus doesn't care. We know that these droplets generally come from your nose and mouth. Wearing a mask over said orifices actually does work to stop these droplets from spreading. If you mask is medical grade, even better. Not reusing your crumpled juicy mask in your pocket day in and day out, and then going on to touch things with your unwashed, nose juice hands? That's public health nirvana. We also know that social gatherings is where most of the spread happens. Physical distancing, keeping your hugs and kisses and social gatherings to yourself, and washing your hands frequently is really going to make a difference. Because, science.

We also know that this virus is significantly more virulent than the flu. For example, John Hopkins states that COVID-19 has killed more people in the US in one year than the influenza has killed in the last 5 years. The death rate of influenza has been around 0.1%. The death rate for COVID-19 is more like 3.1%. This is a significant difference. Worldwide, 1.5 million(!) people have died, and this is likely an underestimate. As much as we would like to bury our head in the sand and believe that this is not a big deal, it just is.

Another thing we know is what our capacity is in the health care system. We know how many beds we have, and how many staff we have to care for sick patients. We know our limits, and we know when they are being pushed. We also know what happens when we don't have the capacity to care for sick patients. People die.

In the crass words of one conservative pundit, "Facts don't care about your feelings."

In spite of overwhelming evidence, these facts about the virus are being drowned out by loud and politically motivated individuals and groups that don't care much about scientific authority. This is particularly true in the United States, and for various reasons. Some groups rely on pseudo-science that works to tear down good research, basically the scientific equivalent of passing around anti-Mormon pamphlets. These groups have their own political interests and agenda. They will continue to call the pandemic a liberal hoax or "just the flu" because it is politically expedient to do so, facts and pesky scientists be darned. What do they care for the weight of scientific authority? Their efforts have effectively politicized this pandemic, making it much more difficult to control, and increasing death and loss of livelihood. 

This politicization is not totally unexpected in a world that is becoming more and more divided in the ongoing culture wars.

Truth Embraceth Truth

In the gospel, we are taught that scientific truth and spiritual truth fit together. "Truth embraceth truth" (D&C 88:40), and it doesn't matter whether that truth is spiritual or physical in nature. However, the process for obtaining spiritual or scientific truth are actually quite different. When we have spiritual questions, we go to the Lord. When we have scientific questions, we hunker down and do the research. 

Jesus Christ is the creator as well as the Savior, and he understands both scientific processes and spiritual ones equally well. The Lord can, and sometimes does, reveal things to us that may be considered scientific. President Nelson, for example, relates the time he had a revelation about how to perform a particular heart surgery and save a patient's life. But for the most part, and especially when it is within our ability, the Lord expects us to "study it out with our minds" (D&C 9:8) and seek for knowledge "out of the best books" (D&C 88:118). The Lord sent us to learn things from our own experience, to engage with scientific discoveries and increase our understanding of this incredible world. In short, we came to this earth to learn about things both physical and spiritual.

We get that mixed up sometimes. We rely on feelings when we should be relying on scientific evidence, and we rely on scientific evidence when we should be relying on our feelings. For example, some have pointed to a lack of scientific evidence for the Book of Mormon to justify them leaving the Church of Jesus Christ. The question about whether the Book of Mormon is true is a spiritual question, not a scientific one. On the other hand, some people are relying on their feelings about masks, vaccines. essential oils, or what have you, when we should really be relying on the evidence. We can't let our emotions override the findings. Most importantly in light of this pandemic, we don't determine public health policy based on our feelings.

Neil L. Anderson said, "Spiritual questions deserve spiritual answers from God."

Likewise, we might also say, "Scientific questions deserve scientific answers from the united voice of experts and scientists across many fiends."

(And this should go without saying, but scientific truth is never, ever established in the newsfeeds and comment threads of social media, which is unfortunately where people are turning to more and more for their information.)

The Question of Authority

One of the problems is likely an honest ignorance about what constitutes good authority and good research. Not everyone can be a scientist or a public health expert, so we have to rely on the expertise and authority of others quite often, and this can be tricky. Is there anything wrong with this?

C.S. Lewis said, 

"Don't be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you've been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I haven't seen it myself. I couldn't prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority-because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life."

Unfortunately, some latter-day saints have gotten caught up in dishonest and biased researchunreliable authorityabout various things. This is maybe not their fault. It is hard to know what is good authority based on a surface level perusal of the internet. For example, there is plenty of people with apparent good authority, claiming excellent credentials that state they have evidence that vaccines cause autism. Closer investigation shows that these studies and authorities are definitely not reliable, and their disregard for ethical rules and the basic scientific process becomes quickly apparent.

But unfortunately, it is infinitely harder to kill a lie than to tell one. In the tidal wave of information on the internet, falsehoods spread without restraint, and it can be hard to know what is good evidence and what is not. You can find "evidence" of nearly anything on the internet nowadays, from aliens that place mysterious monoliths in the Utah desert to fairies. How can we possibly know what is true? 

Because we can't know everything, turning to people we trust with background and expertise in that area is always a good idea. Getting out of the echo chambers of our social media accounts is also vital. Admitting when we are wrong, especially when we unknowingly spread misinformation, is difficult but always a good idea. What is NOT a good idea is to dig in your heels when the evidence is against you. It is an even worse idea to reject science outright, and then go on to believe, without evidence, that there is a widespread conspiracy among all the experts in that field, one so insidious as to involve thousands of physicians and medical examiners and researchers across many nations, and that in their everlasting snobbery and greed and hiding behind their degrees and years of academic effort, they are collaborating together to lie to you. This is not only ridiculous, but it is a slap in the face to these people, many of whom are sacrificing much and working hard to keep you safe. They are not perfect, and science is by definition an ongoing process, not an end result, so asking questions and engaging with the research is always a good idea, particularly if you are a scientist and have a way of legitimately entering the conversation. But the authority of science is not something that should be dismissed just because you don't like what it has to say. Evidence based research has brought us incredible progress, and to reject it is to return our society back to the superstitions and social divisions of the dark ages.


One thing we are fairly good at in this church is recognizing spiritual authority. We believe that prophets act as watchmen on the tower, seeing things we can't, and that they know what we must do in order to stay safe. However, culturally, I think we are far too skeptical when public health officials stand at their pulpits as a kind of watchman on the tower, and explain to us the looming crisis based on their research, statistics, and the invisible things they see under their microscopes. Maybe what we are missing is a basic respect for scientific truth and an understanding of the scientific method.

And yes, perhaps we do have good reason to be suspicious at times. In the past, there have been plenty of instances when science was unkind to matters of faith, and definitely overstepped its boundaries. I am not advocating for science worship, or to accept wholesale whatever science is selling to us in every situation. To place our trust in science is not the point. "Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm" (Jeremiah 17:5). We never throw out spiritual truths from God for the transient truths of man.

But God is always interested in evidence. "Faith is the evidence of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1) and "the Spirit speaketh of things as they really are" (Jacob 4). We do not need to throw up our hands in despair, thinking we can't know anything anymore. This just isn't true. Just as we can all gain spiritual knowledge though a defined process, so can we engage with the evidence around us and listen to the united authority of those whose gifts and expertise we do not have in order to obtain a better understanding of the physical world as well.

Spiritually and scientifically, in order to conquer the enemy, we must act together in faith. Not blind faith, but faith based on the evidence of our own critical thinking and judgment, proceeding with careful humility and hope, and without fear. The truth can unite us, while misinformation will always divide. We will need to do better than fringy websites, conspiracy and fear driven belief systems, and crackpot politicians that are more interested in political gain than they are in your safety. In the words of President Nelson, "Good inspiration is based upon good information."

And in this brave new age of misinformation, we need to get a better handle on what good information really is.