Sunday, November 21, 2021

On Pandemics and Prophets

Listening to the prophet is as important in a pandemic as any other time, if not more so. But what does that mean, exactly? Can a prophet, whose job is to keep as safe spiritually, also act as a medical authority? Can he speak with authority about politics? Can we listen to him about spiritual matters, but ignore him when it comes to temporal ones?

Prophets often talk about laws and temporal affairs, especially when they see how certain political issues will have spiritual consequences. After all, they are "seers." They see things. This includes prophetic knowledge that is both spiritual and temporal. In a time when divides in our church over masks and vaccines are causing spiritual damage to our congregations at least as much as the ongoing physical loss, their voice is vital to maintain unity, navigate truth, and show us correct principles that can heal our wards and stakes. Their teachings point us to Christ.

And yet, I don't believe that when the prophet speaks "the thinking is done." I know what it feels like when you struggle to agree with something and someone comes in and instead of listening to what you have to say they fly at you with a bludgeon telling you to "follow the prophet!"

I know the hurt. I have felt it at certain times in my life when some of my political and social views did not line up with the church, like when I was a student at BYU during the church's campaign with Proposition 8. I can validate that feeling of confusion and hurt, especially when members marginalize you because you have a different perspective.

This is a learning experience for all of us. For me, it is a reminder to balance seeking truth with compassion. I am still trying, and I am truly sorry when I fail at this, because I still remember that feeling of rejection when you find yourself outside of the status quo of prophetic authority.

For context, here is the quotation that I heard a lot and had to wrestle with at a difficult time for me during Proposition 8, especially when it was hurled at me like some kind of spiritual weapon:

“You may not like what comes from the authority of the church. It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life…[but] your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow.” (President Harold B Lee)

This quotation means something different to me now than it did then. I still believe it is true, but now I believe getting to that place of truth and safety is less about blind obedience and more about experiencing a "wrestle in the spirit" as we learn to truly listen and work through our differences with each other and with God, and learning to do this with integrity and faith.

I know that for many years and for many members, following conservative radio and websites and following the prophet looked a lot like the same thing. For years, members felt it was always "those liberals" who struggled to follow the prophet. And maybe so. But in the end, that wrestle was good medicine. At least, it was for me. It deepened my faith and taught me compassion. It stretched me in soulful ways and kept me in a place of tension that brought me closer to the Savior. Following the prophet became less about changing my opinion and more about changing ME. Wrestling with difficult questions in the gospel helped me grow, and holding liberal views in a conservative church was a catalyst for much of that growth.

Now, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. For complicated reasons I don't fully understand, a vaccine has become a political lightening rod. After a discouraging political saga including Trumpism and an increasingly polarized newsfeed, the shoe is on the other foot. The prophet is now, in the strongest and most consistent messaging possible, urging us to comply with public health measures and government mandates, and this has been a hard pill to swallow for many conservatives friends.

No longer does the voice of the prophet align with the conservative news pundits and talk show radio hosts that were our closest allies during the cultural wars for religious freedom and traditional family values. But perhaps they weren't the horse we wanted to hitch our Zion wagons to, after all? At any rate, we know we can't keep one foot in Zion and the other one in Babylon any longer.

I am generally a positive person, and I want to first say that most church members I know have fallen in line, heeding the counsel of the prophet. Recognizing their quiet faith and obedience should not be lost to a vocal minority. Besides, I don't believe at all this is a "goats and sheep" type scenario, anyway. There is so much good in every single one of my friendly neighborhood anti-vaxxers to avoid categorizing any of them as apostate or unfaithful. They are good, decent disciples of Christ, every last one of them. Whoever is without fault here, cast the first stone.

But let's just say, I don’t hear the phrase “follow the prophet” taught quite as vigorously as I did in 2008. For some, that's because it's hard to say with an unmasked straight face.

Again, I know the difficulty in following a prophet when it conflicts with your political views. I know the pain, and I can validate that difficulty and intellectual stretching. But here is the thing: I learned for myself that it is not faith if everything you are asked to do is what you would do anyway. Where is the growth in that?

Today, my testimony is that marriage is ordained of God. My faith came because I kept listening to and wrestling with prophetic authority. I want to share my testimony of prophetic authority with the same people who lent their testimony to me when I needed it, because following the prophet has richly blessed my life. It has given me protection at a vulnerable time.

I admit that I feel hurt and little surprised as I watch the same people who taught me to follow the prophet even “when it contradicts your political and social views” apparently unable to do the same for me, a registered nurse, when it is their turn. My feelings are sometimes raw as I witness a letdown of my community that chooses not to do what they once demanded me to do so persuasively. 

For many members, especially LGBT members, following the prophet meant to turn away from a fundamental part of their identity, to exercise considerable faith to accept a teaching that contradicted feelings that ran so much deeper than politics. And then for us to not even put a piece of fabric on our faces? And what a disappointing attitude about the miracle that is a vaccine! Seeing us balk at something so simple when others gave up so much is difficult for me.

Actions speak louder than words. Today, the message from some (though not all) is less about obedience and more about convenience. From some (though not most) church members, the message is this: “Follow the prophet, but only when it doesn’t interfere with your political views.” When the message comes from a respected member in a position of authority, for the spiritually immature youth it can undo a decade of primary lessons to “follow the prophet” in no time flat.

We can’t be surprised if, when all this is over, our youth do exactly that—ignore prophetic counsel in favor of their own feelings or political orientation, especially when it comes to issues far more complicated than saving people’s lives by getting vaccinated.

So please, if you still don't agree with vaccines or masks, keep wrestling. Do what the prophet asks by going to the right sources. Seek good information. Just as you told me once that spiritual questions need spiritual answers from God, scientific and medical questions will need scientific and medical answers from peer reviewed sources.

Now, as much as ever, "your safety and ours depends upon [it.]"

Friday, November 5, 2021

What Is To Be Done?

Ivanka Demchuk, Pilate Condemns Jesus

As always, we are living in a world of a million complexities. As we witness the roiling political and ideological waters—this latest frantic recruitment into teams—and as our different ideologies narrow us and break us into "all manner of -ites," and as the world prepares for its foretold and inevitable spiralling conclusion, we might feel like Joseph Smith did facing such divisions when he wrote, "What is to be done?" (JSH 1:10)

What can we preach in such a climate? Where do we start after so many earthquakes of social and political change? How do we renovate the temple that is ourselves? "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." (T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland) How can we preach our old cherished latter-day saint ideals and shore up "these fragments" of belief against the ruins of a culture that is shifting, and old ways of knowing that are rapidly crumbling away? 

How do we move forward in such a time?

At some point, now or later, all of us will be faced with the great and terrible questions and forced to look into the eyes of the beast of the world's impossible binaries, the winnowing down of our lives into one choice or another, in which neither solution truly captures who we are. How do we choose between church and our loved one who is hurt by it? How do we choose between conformity and identity? Between family and sexuality? Between obedience and our mental health? Between politics and prophetic counsel? Between history and our traditional faith narratives? In my mind, these are just some of a million derivatives of the same basic and timeless question: How can we preach the heavenly ideal while respecting and acknowledging the pain, complexity and disappointment of a mortal life spent dabbling in a cave full of shadows?

And just to belabor a point, how do we teach eternal families and celestial marriage when so many find ourselves in family arrangements and personal situations that bring so much disillusionment and pain? How do we choose between teaching a gospel of joy and peace and blessings, while also preaching a gospel of suffering, growth, and sacrifice? How do we navigate so many competing narratives on history, psychology, theology, and science? Do we bury our heads in the sand and persist in our old narratives of celestial idealism? Or do we focus instead on teaching a narrative of how best to endure a lifetime of pain, abuse, and disappointment, and somehow manage to make this all sound very sane and desirable to ourselves and to our children?

The way forward in these impossible spiritual predicaments, these crises of faith, to me it is not to frame it as a choice between one or the other, between good and evil, ideology vs reality, since there are innumerable devilish decoys in both, and our own biases and human limitation can only ever lead us to eventually choose between one evil over some other lesser one. As Joseph Smith learned, "it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong." (JSH 1:18) Neither can the answer be found by an appeal to intellectual authority or tradition alone, however well they may have served us in the past.

Rather, we are faced, again and again, with a choice between Christ, and everything else in the world that is not Christ.

By preaching Him, instead of choosing between either idealistic or humanistic narratives, we rightfully end up preaching both the malady and the cure. This is how healing begins. We teach and preach the divine validation for every mortal struggle, the everlasting embodiment of every mortal pain and complexity. No matter what you are going through, Jesus Christ is the resolution for the tension we all face in this mortal experience. He is the narrative that includes us all, the Alpha and the Omega, the whole alphabet that we might use to speak or write what we think and feel. He is infinite, as He has borne every human suffering which anyone can experience. He is our way out of every possible human paradox, the Rock of Ages who clefts wide open for us to fit our sorrow in, the answer to every life chock full of tangled questions. 

Christ knows how to appear to each of us in our own unique sacred groves, but as Joseph Smith learned, this comes only after the unique crucible of our question has been formulated and articulated, sometimes after hours and even years wrestling in the dark over it. In that moment we exercise our faith to call out to Him, He is the light that breaks through. He can overcome every demonic fight for our souls in a world hell-bent on recruiting us to a side. Christ alone asks us to join "none of them." He is the Light, the Life, and the Way. He invites us to take His name upon us, to become a member of His body, because no other name we could call ourselves can quite cover the gamut of diversity and difficulty of human experiences.

I have watched friends and loved ones walk many paths that are not Christ (and I am not talking just about those who stop attending church. There are a million and one ways to sidestep Christ at church.) I have walked those paths, too. I imagine I am still walking some of them. At times, we all might follow our more cherished ideological pathways to their inevitable conclusion in order to learn that they don't achieve a resolution to the question within ourselves. Nothing this world offers can fully resolve what it means to be a child of God in a lone and dreary world. Sometimes we must experience this knowledge for ourselves, by trial and error. 

When faced with a difficult path in our discipleship, we might ask, "Isn't there some another road besides this one?" Even Christ shrunk from the bitter cup and asked if it were possible that it be removed. Eve asked, as we all do, "Is there no other way?"  Especially in our greatest suffering, anything may feel more comfortably suited to our tired feet than this burning road through the wilderness to the promised land, and so we might temporarily seek for something more comfortable, whether it be gospel of conformity and platitudes, or a gospel of rebellion and disillusionment. Both are easier than personal growth with Christ. Both are easier than walking His lonely path that passes by Gethsemane.

But every path that is not Christ eventually becomes a brick wall. Every ideological breakthrough, even when it may feel new to us, degrades over time to yet another version of the same old, well played human drama wrapped up in new packaging. It leads to the same, because only Christ can walk with us though our life beyond this one. Only He can keep walking with us beyond our own mortality and to a new life and resurrection.

Once we have chosen Christ and have yoked ourselves to Him by covenant, we will still have our work cut out for us. It is not a once and done experience. We will continually find ourselves required to choose Him again and again, as each and every alternative is placed before us. Some alternatives may hold greater appeal to one than to others. There is always something else at church that may temporarily hold our appeal. But when the loaves and the fishes inevitably dry up, will we follow the Savior all the way? Will we take up our cross and follow Him to Calvary?

One of the hardest tasks and greatest responsibilities as disciples of Him is to stand as a witness of Christ "at all times and in all places." For those of us who spend a lot of time standing around with other latter-day saints, we may be surprised and even disheartened to find how frequently our witness of Christ is needed. There are sometimes more members of the body of Christ converted to the cultural, political, or social aspects of our church than there are converted to Him whose church this is. Truth be told, at different times this is all of us.

In the end and after so many words, my commitment to Christ means more to me now than it did one year ago, or five years ago, or ten years ago, or twenty. I imagine the crucible of doubt comes more than once to all of us. At least, it has for me. While I would never go so far as to say I am grateful for my trials, I also know that my time spent underwater has made my faith in Christ all the more meaningful, because after acknowledging better the depths and the waves, now I see better the miracle: that with Christ, I can walk on water. 

When I stay focused on Him and not on the boisterous waves around me, and though I will inevitably sink at times, His hand is always there.