Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

"I promise you that if we will do our best to restore the correct name of the Lord’s Church, He whose Church this is will pour down His power and blessings upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints, the likes of which we have never seen." (President Russell M. Nelson, October 2018)

I reluctantly took up the challenge to try and use the proper name of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more. My initial thought, I confess, was that there just seemed to be so many more important things going on than our name.

I thought I understood the reason, three years ago. I get it, President Nelson. It helps us focus more on the Savior and our identity as Christians. It helps others understand who we are, and gives Christ the center stage. "But," I protested, "how we act should already be doing that, more than what we call ourselves." The ensuing rollout of that initiative that kind of turned our name into a marketing tool annoyed me, because I thought we need something so much more than marketing PR project to fix the shenanigans and what I saw as decidedly un-Christlike behavior going on in my church.

But thinking and engaging with that request to use the full title taught me something unexpected. I feel differently about it now, and not for the reasons I thought I would. For me, focusing on our name brings to the forefront a tension that just fits the latter-day saint experience.

The tension is not just because it is so dang long to say, though there is that, but also because there is an obvious conflicting claim in the name itself. The little preposition "of" in the title suggests ownership. "Of" can be possessive. In Spanish, which is my mission language, we don't say, "John's house." We say, "The house of John." So the name of the church claims that the church "belongs to" not only Jesus Christ, but that it also belongs to the saints.

So, whose is it? Is it the Church of Jesus Christ or is it the church of the latter-day saints? How can it be both?

Jesus taught, "And how be it my church save it be called in my name? For if a church be called in Moses’ name then it be Moses’ church; or if it be called in the name of a man then it be the church of a man; but if it be called in my name then it is my church, if it so be that they are built upon my gospel."

And yet, for some reason, the church has our names printed right alongside Christ's.

I have often heard it said that "The church is perfect but the people in it aren't." But that doesn't make any sense when you think about it. The church is definitely not perfect. The policies, the teachings, the structure, even the ordinances are sometimes changing and adapting, and certainly the church as an institution makes plenty of mistakes along the way. I literally can't think of anything about the church that I would feel comfortable calling, "perfect." President Nelson even quoted Joseph Smith in the last conference regarding temple ordinances saying, "This is not arranged right, but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed." You could say that about a lot of things in the church. "This is not arranged right." While it is the Church of Jesus Christ, it is at the same time also the church of a group of very flawed latter-day saints.

The title of the church suggests that the tension is not really between imperfect saints and a perfect church, the way we often frame it, but rather between imperfect saints and a perfect Christ. We both claim ownership in this wild experiment that is the church. What happens when you become co-owners of a church with a literal God, with Jesus Christ Himself? What drama unfolds when you frame our relationship to the church this way? What happens when Christ shares His responsibility and priesthood with imperfect women and men, and lets them learn to practice His power to heal and bless? What chemical reaction happens when Christ is connected and paired, for better or for worse, with a group of deeply flawed men and women? What happens when He asks weak and simple people to be His hands?

Well, looking back on the past 200 years, a lot of stuff happens. Not all of it good. It's perhaps like teaching a five year old how to drive a car. We spend a lot of time in the ditch. But with Christ in the front seat directing things, we can expect to see good things. Like growth and learning. Repentance. Change, albeit at a glacial pace. Certainly not rapid growth, especially with such a large, international, and diverse group that are not always listening to the teacher. But steady growth.

I believe and have a testimony that this is the Church of Jesus Christ, but I also know it is, right now, also the church of the latter-day saints. That combination is complicated. Christ has made an ancient promise to gather Israel in the last days, and He is doing it through an imperfect group of people, and not always even the most qualified ones. Sometimes even fairly stupid ones, like myself, who perhaps most need this opportunity to grow up.

Accepting the invitation to be co-owners of this church makes it inappropriate for us to sit back and "let Jesus take the wheel" while we just keep showing up and let things happen on their own. I can't rely on others, either, even if I really like them. If this is really my church, too, it should not be a passive experience. Our actions truly determine the direction this ship goes. We can speak up and act and engage, and most of all, learn to love and include and minister to the marginalized. We must learn to serve in all the ways Jesus would.

And that is really hard to do.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

A Wrapping Paper Church

I am terrible at wrapping presents. I really am trying to be better, but sometimes it feels like such an unnecessary hassle, and for that reason I have been known to bypass convention and just skip that part. It's just wrapping paper, right? My lame present is thrust into the receiver's lap (sorry Becky) and they look at it and say thank you and that's it. That's the present. There is no performance, no ritual, no expectation, and no mystery. They either like it or they don't. It takes seconds to decide. Sometimes I go so far as to leave it in the plastic bag with the receipt in case they want to take it back to the store. We don't actually need wrapping paper or any of that commercial crap anymore. We're beyond that. Right?

Well, it turns out, gift presentation is actually a bigger deal than I thought, and I'm coming around to this truth. I have learned that you lose something when you take that presentation part away. The magic just isn't there. The way in which a present is given can be as much a part of the gift as the gift itself. Especially for the kids.

Case in point: last month, my in-laws gave my son his birthday present in a gigantic box. It was pure genius presentation, and walking through the door with a box that barely fit through it was a major part of the thrill for him. He whooped and danced and pranced around it, and thus the ceremony of opening his present had begun. When he tore the wrapping off the box and opened it, there was another box inside it. And then another. The comedy and build up of getting to the real present through a series of well-taped, sealed up boxes held marvelous tension and expectation for this boy. Would the present at the end be worth all this work? As the boxes became smaller and smaller, I could see doubt creep into his face, and sometimes even a hint of frustration that he hid well with a forced smile for Grandma (particularly when he got to the final envelope layered with packing tape!) and I could sense his growing question—what if what's inside is a huge let down? What if he keeps opening and opening and the final gift isn't worth it? Or worse, what if when the last box was opened, there is nothing in there at all?

Luckily for him, it was worth it. It was an Amazon gift card buried and sealed at the end of all those boxes, and he whooped for joy again because that was exactly what he wanted. (Thanks Mom and Dad.)

God gives us gifts like that, I think, where the wrapping is a part of the gift itself. He knows a lot about giving "good gifts" and that involves providing us with good wrapping paper. Christ comes to us in layers, revealed to us over time as we grow, like a series of nesting dolls. 

Jesus taught, "If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?" (Luke 11:11) In truth, Christ is the good gift from the Father. In fact, He is every good gift. He is everything we can ever get from the Father, be it stone, bread, fish, or serpent. Or how about all of them put together? Jesus Christ is the bread of life, but he is also the "stone of stumbling and rock of offense." (1 Peter 2:8) He is the fish that breaks our nets to overflowing, but he is also the serpent on the staff. He is everything we could ever want, and everything we never knew we needed.

Christ reveals Himself not in a plastic bag with a receipt still attached, because His cost is truly beyond our comprehension, neither is His gift something that can be returned. He is not presented to us already reaching His full stature and glory on our baptism day. He is carefully wrapped, with layers of meaning and a lifetime of ritual. He is cloaked in a multitude of religious tensions and contradictions that alternately comfort and provoke us as we grow. This is as much a part of the gift as He Himself is. He is both the process and destination, the Alpha and the Omega. He is form and substance, both the wrapping and the gift. He reveals Himself to us most fully in His church, the Church of Jesus Christ with all the wrappings. He is found buried within a priesthood structure "after the order of the Son of God" that He specifically organized when He was on the earth, and that He chose to restore again through Joseph Smith. For whatever reason, He chooses to present Himself to us in the symbolism and layers of interpretation as found in priesthood ordinances and covenants. "In the ordinances thereof is the power of godliness made manifest." (D&C 84)

A significant part of the wrapping is the church. This is a wrapping paper church consisting of the international body of Christ made up of its imperfect members. It is designed to match a spiritually diverse people and a broad spectrum of maturity and immaturity. For better or for worse, it matches us today. Christ presents Himself as the individualized unopened gift to every person who takes upon them His name. He matches our understanding and our yearning, and He grows only as fast as we do.

My kids, when they were babies, always liked the wrapping paper best. They crinkled the paper and toddled off with the box, and sometimes the present itself was tossed aside or lost in the thrill of the tissue paper. What did they know about the cost of that Fischer-Price playset, or the possibilities of a remote control airplane? They were content with just the box.  But as they grew older and matured, the expectation and joy over what was in the box grew, too. That is not unlike our experience with the Church of Jesus Christ. The box and wrapping that Christ reveals Himself in can be our initial intrigue, we might love the church before we love the Son whose church it is, but it is meant to point us to the real gift of Jesus Christ inside. Making the church the focus of the gift is a sign of spiritual immaturity.

More and more, I am learning that our experience in the church of Jesus Christ is like unwrapping a present. Traditionally, we are a people who love ritual, tradition, and culture. In other words, we love the wrapping paper—the ward potlucks, the classic jokes over the pulpit, the holy foyer banter, the suits and ties and the big hairdos, the roadshows and dances, and all our recipes for green jello and funeral potatoes. Digging deeper we get to a more meaningful layer of the gift—our sacrament meetings, inspiring talks, and beautiful hymns; and a lifetime pledged to serve and minister "to the one" through countless callings and assignments, both formal and informal. But as my son learned on his birthday, we must keep unwrapping. As wonderful as it is, or as important as each box is, we are not at the gift yet. There are many more layers to go.

Lately, we have been forced in this pandemic to peel the church back further and focus on the basic ordinances and covenants of our faith, even if it is just pieces of bread and cups of water on a paper plate in our living rooms while church meetings are on hold. But even those things, as sacred as they are to us, are only another layer of wrapping paper still to be removed in order to reveal what the gift truly is. Beneath the swaddling clothes and lying in the manger of all our sacraments, and waiting for us on the other side of that slightly parted veil that separates us like wrapping paper, is the final gift. The gift is Jesus Christ Himself.

In the last year and a half, I have been unwrapping this present with renewed vigor, maybe even with some degree of desperation at times and because of some galling questions. We all have been forced to do this, I think, in one way or another. The church has been peeled back, and then it was peeled back some more. The time spent in our chapel-sized box was reduced, then taken away completely. The giant box we loved to play with has been unwrapped a little more and now the gift looks smaller and perhaps even unfamiliar to us. More simple. Less pomp and more circumstance. We are left with the expectation, the tension, and perhaps even the discomfort of wondering what might be left at the end of all this, how much further the unwrapping will go, and what will be revealed as the ultimate heart of our faith.

The tension of opening yet another layer can be painful, especially when we need more than just showy wrapping paper and another box to get us through our trials. Some have gotten to this point—yet another box within a box within a box—and wondered if this process of unwrapping the Savior in the Church of Jesus Christ is really worth it. Who wrapped this thing, anyway? And why can't we just skip to end? Let Him appear to us now; we don't need Him to reveal Himself by degrees and clothed in ritual and metaphor. Sometimes, I admit, I just want to see Him. Yes, I have found some of His boxes beautiful, like that one experience I had at a youth camp, or that one lesson that was just what I needed to hear on that particular day, or my mission miracles, or that opportunity to serve that created a bond of love with someone completely unexpected. These are some good boxes. But as I grow, I know I need more than that. "Ask and ye shall receive." Turning my focus away from the wrapping paper and onto Christ has helped deepen my faith in the gift wrapping of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My faith has grown in both the wrapping and in Christ as He reveals Himself to me in this church. He has helped me find joy again in it.

I recognize that I am the type to pause and get caught up in admiring the shiny paper and beautiful patterns. In my discipleship, I know there have been times when I have focused so much on the wrapper and the pretty box that I forgot to keep on digging for the gift. Sometimes, like my kids used to do, I have toddled off with a piece of wrapping paper and called it Jesus. At least, I thought it was until I realized the wrapping I was holding wasn't enough to get me through a particular trial or question, and I had to go back to opening the gift further to find more.

While some things about this church are beautiful and inspiring, we all can recognize that there are some boxes, cultural boxes, ones that are not divine but have been added by men to the unwrapping process. Others maybe weren't wrapped very well, like of the way I wrap a present with bulky corners and crooked paper and an ugly tape job. Some boxes are completely unhelpful. Learning to separate the godly from the ungodly, the good boxes from the bad in this church, is a part of the process.

Sometimes we get to a box like my son did, and it is labelled Fischer-Price and we are turning 11 and we hate baby toys, and we wonder why Grandma and Grandpa would get us such a stupid present. Sometimes the gift wrapping of the church can feel like that, especially when we all parrot off baby milk questions, the kind we already know the answers to, and shy away from the harder, meatier questions that would make us grow and extend the margins of our understanding of who Christ is. I have even balked at boxes within boxes that I have come across labelled homophobia and patriarchy, as well as messy church history, and have almost stopped digging when I found them, because I couldn't imagine a Savior coming out of those particular boxes.

But with faith and determination I still keep showing up. I keep unwrapping this gift I was given, and I keep finding more boxes. Some of those boxes are taped up tightly, impossibly so, like that envelope my son found at the end that was layered in packing tape. Because of the stubbornness of our traditions I am learning that some boxes, like patriarchy, aren't going to open until we are collectively trying to open them, and are collectively ready for them to open.

But going through the process of unwrapping Christ with my questions has helped me grow. Most importantly it has connected me to someone who knows more about injustice and suffering and bureaucratic red tape than I ever could. I still feel powerless and without scissors to cut my way through these tightly sealed boxes, and sometimes I wonder if this must be it, the present of the Church of Jesus Christ is done giving. It can never open any further. And then I want to weep because sometimes the crinkling of opening this gospel gift has lost its joy and it sounds more and more like the crinkling of disillusionment, and I wonder why I wasted so much time opening this box labelled baby toys. Or maybe, as some warn me, it's anthrax. 

But we are not done unwrapping this gift yet. I have evidence based on the scriptures and on my own past experiences that there are so many things more beautiful and more healing to come, and in the latter days we need to work together to get to the end.

I have discovered beauty and meaning in some wrapping paper I previously could not understand, or was even repulsed by. Truth grows by degrees, and so does light. I still have confusion with some of the wrapping, and some boxes I am convinced should never have been there in the first place. But this is not the end. The restoration is ongoing and the complete body of Christ is still making itself manifest, both in us and through us. And sometimes the wrapping paper is more like a mirror, a way to learn difficult things about ourselves.

I am reminded over and over that the wrapping paper itself is not the gift. Even the most basic doctrines, the most essential ordinances from baptism to temple, are still just the wrapping paper to the eternal gift of Jesus Christ. How long does it take to get to the bottom of this? Will it ever end? Are we going to be stuck singing the millionth verse of "If You Could How to Kolob" forever because "there is no end to unwrapping?" Is the gift worth the struggle of opening it? And always there is this nagging question, "Will I leave this world having wasted my time on an empty box?"

The most important thing I have learned as I persist to unwrap this present is that I am not only unwrapping my Savior, but I am also unwrapping myself. I am making discoveries, often painful ones, about who I am, and about my weaknesses and strengths. I am also learning my limitations, and how much I need Christ. I see myself reflected in the patterns, some that are ancient and others that are entirely new. I have found myself in the wrapping paper in ways that are sacred to me.

Like the time I saw myself dressed in white with Becky in the temple, and we saw ourselves reflected eternally in those two mirrors on either side of that beautiful box that is a sealing room. We opened the box almost 15 years ago and learned, to our chagrin, that it may or may not have belonged to Pandora. We can never unopen that box—it has changed us forever in painful yet meaningful ways. As it turns out, it has not only been about getting to know Christ, but also about getting to know ourselves. It has been about learning love. It has been about finding connection to the Savior, less through joyful experiences than the painful ones, the kind that point me to His tokens of suffering and help me to hear, as Joseph Smith did in his hardest trial, a voice whispering to me, "Art thou greater than He?"

Christ's gift to me is not just Himself, but what I can become through Him. The gift is Christ, but only as far as I allow Him to be made manifest in me. "Now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." (1 John 3:2)

He is the good gift from the Father. The best gift, in fact. I know that sometimes we wonder why this box we are unwrapping is labelled a stone when we asked for bread, but as we keep going we may find out how much we needed a stone, too. We might give a little shriek to find a serpent box when we were really just hungry for fish, but then again we may learn how much we needed a serpent. As John teaches, the most surprising part of the gift may be to see ourselves reflected in it, that we will reflect His light when we finally get to the end of opening this thing. We will see Him with our own eyes and touch Him with our own hands, and it will be all the more glorious because of all we had to go through to get to Him, because when we thought we were unwrapping Him, we were also unwrapping our best selves. 

That is the best part of the gift.