Monday, December 20, 2021

David's Hallelujah

King David Playing the Harp. Honthurst, 1622
One of the titles Christ uses in the scriptures is “Son of David.” 

This Christmas I was pondering that title. Why would Jesus, the one perfect man, choose a title that ties him to a man as imperfect, complicated, and flawed as David? True, David started out as the boy who once faced Goliath and won, but he still ended up the man who looked when he shouldn’t have looked, and then went on to hide his sin. His actions even led to what amounted to murder. Why would Christ choose to be born in Bethlehem, in the city of David of all places? David seemed like an immensely inappropriate candidate for this title, despite his many beautiful, desperate psalms pleading for repentance. What was it about David that Christ thought worthy of making a key part of His title?

From the union of David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite that David committed adultery with, and she whose rightful husband David sent to the frontlines to die, came Solomon and the line of kings. Ultimately, from THIS complicated marriage came the line that brought us Jesus Christ.

Surely Christ should have come through the line of someone more worthy. Someone like Nathan, the prophet sent to call David to repentance for his sin. He seemed a decent fellow. I am sure there were plenty of other guys who didn’t whore around quite so much, men who didn't kill their lovers’ husbands quite so much.

But He didn’t.

David was indeed a paradox. He did both amazing and awful things.

Not unlike each one of us.

All of us have a little bit of David in us, I think. We all have, once upon a time, fought our own personal goliaths and won. Some, like me, have made covenants with God in spite of the considerable goliath of same-sex attraction. Many still strive to keep it together, often against great opposition midst immense trials of faith.

And yet we are also weak. Painfully so. Some of us struggle with temptations and sins not unlike David. Many of us have found ourselves more than once on the rooftop. Like David, I think we all could write psalm after psalm pleading for a Savior who would one day redeem us from our sins.

And then it finally happened.

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

All of us have a Bethlehem. A miraculous birth. A silent night. Metaphorically, in our spiritual lineage and from the very unholy union of our divine spiritual selves to our natural man, a Savior is born. Despite whatever Bathsheba’s we might have, despite whatever addictions, sins, and mess-ups we might fall into, we each individually have a Savior “born unto us.”

This Christmas and always, Christ chooses to be born again through you. Imperfect and complicated you.

Christ does not condemn us of our mortal shortcomings. He made us this way. He knows all about your “natural man.” He knows exactly what it is like to fight against the weaknesses of the flesh, and He has the power to forgive. What can we do to obtain this gift? What He expects from us is simply to not give up on Him as our God. We keep trying even if, like David, we spend a lifetime trying to get it right. All he asks is that we turn away from the false gods of the world, whatever they might be for you, anything that would lead you away from the priesthood covenants that bind you to Christ.

Jesus Christ asks each of us to keep looking to Bethlehem, to the city of all your mistakes, where “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” in the birth of Jesus Christ. The Son of David. The Son of Christopher. The Son of You.

The little stone we need to pick up and sling at our personal Goliaths this year is always the same one. It is the little stone of Jesus Christ, the one that made its arc through generations of messes and landed in Bethlehem, in the "House of Bread." Jesus can turn your little stones into bread for you.

What was David’s “secret chord that pleased the Lord?” It was that he simply didn’t give up on Christ. That is the music we feel running through us. Even though the Savior David yearned for wouldn’t arrive in His city for many centuries, he didn’t give up.

And He was born to die for Him. And for you.

In the words of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah.”

Friday, December 10, 2021

Converting to The Church of Jesus Christ of Present-Day Saints

 "...And we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God." (Article of Faith 1:9)

This week I am pondering what it means to have a testimony of a church that is always changing. When we say, "I know the church is true," to which church are we referring to? The church as it existed yesterday? The church how it was in 1983? The church of a pre-pandemic 2019? If we mean the church today, what does that mean if the church is different tomorrow?

When I taught the gospel as a missionary, I remember well the enthusiasm of the new convert. Many newly baptized members were willing to take their old beliefs and throw them out the window. They walked away from their old church, old teachings, old books, old friends, and old socio-political alliances to eagerly embrace a new worldview. As the church continues to change through revelation, I wonder if we are doing the same?

I have on my bookshelf a lot of old church manuals. Many of them mean a lot to me. I learned the gospel from those old curriculums, and I gained a testimony for myself from many of those mid-century quotes. I trusted them. And yet, going through them now, I have read things and thought about old interpretations that don't resonate with me anymore. Some make me very uncomfortable. And why shouldn't they? If I am still living in the church of 1992, how can I embrace an ongoing restoration? Old interpretations have given way to new ones, and thank heavens for that. And in the future, our understanding will change again. That's what having a testimony of revelation means, as long as each step is a step closer to Christ.

Does this mean we can't trust the church's correlation department? Should I throw all those manuals away? Well, maybe. Probably. But I don't find it helpful if we just categorize previous teachings as "wrong" and current ones as "right," because I see how our light grows by degrees and our understanding has grown not from wrong to right, but rather from a darker shadow to a lighter one, and today we still "see through a glass darkly." 

But I do think we can abandon some things. For example, we can stop trying to make sense of the "patriarchal order" when it hasn't been mentioned in a single conference talk for over twenty years. We can divorce ourselves from other spiritual millstones, too, like young earth creationism, and some of our anti-evolution, anti-science rhetoric. Digging around in old manuals can bring unnecessary hurt, and preaching them in Sunday can bring unnecessary doubt, especially to our youth. We can throw out our old interpretations of polygamy and the priesthood ban. And when we know more, I can't wait to throw away our current understanding of both gender and race, too, so we can embrace something even better. 

I believe our testimony should be based less on church as much as on the revelation that powers it. I think we can take seriously the mandate to seek revelation on everything that is being taught, and we can have confidence in this process when we do it with a spirit of unity and love. We are taught that it is very good to ask questions and seek for answers in faith. Accepting hook, line, and sinker every sentence that comes from the correlation department as if it were written by the finger of the Lord on Sinai just doesn't give us the same opportunities to exercise faith. 

For context, before there was Israel, there was just Jacob wrestling with the angel. Every problematic lesson plan can be our own personal invitation to wrestle with the angel. Some questions can take years. Others may even take a lifetime.

I used to think, back when the phrase "hastening the work" became popular that it meant God would change the world, but somehow leave me and my church intact. I felt pretty good where I was back then. I had all the answers I needed, or so I thought. Now I realize the Lord meant hastening His work in me. In my community. In the mainstream church itself. And now I believe changing me, and changing us, is prerequisite for God to change the world, because how can He gather Israel if the gathering place doesn't have the capacity to hold them all?

The official declarations in D&C regarding polygamy and the priesthood ban in this week's Come Follow Me lesson remind me that the restoration is ongoing. I also believe that not every degree of light and knowledge gets an official declaration and is canonized, either. As things become more clear by degrees rather than by official declaration regarding complicated issues, such as race and gender, we can still believe in the church, that it is not a static structure, but a developing one. We can have spiritual maturity enough to see that the church can be right on one thing and out to lunch on another, and yet still be the Church of Jesus Christ. This is because it is simultaneously the church of the latter-day saints, and we continue to live in problematic gender and racial contexts, and while still in them we work with Christ who gets us where we need to be.

I know this can be hard pill to swallow, especially for those hurt most by sexist, racist, or homophobic policies that existed (and likely continue to exist) in the church. For me, I take some degree of comfort knowing that God can work with imperfect people, because that means He can work with me. When I choose to "let God prevail" in flawed church leaders and members, I am better able to let God prevail in myself and my own imperfect life. 

Sometimes, this has less to do with staying in the church in order to change it from the inside (which to me is just a setup for disappointment and resentment) and more to do with staying in the church to change me, because I need the growth that comes from forgiveness and patience. I need to let my gospel experience change me before I can expect it to change everyone elseEven more importantly, I have enough experience being wrong about a multitude of things to think twice about relying on myself to interpret complicated issues. I believe following a prophet and staying connected to the body of the church keeps us emotionally, temporally, and spiritually stable.

We have been reminded several times in recent General Conference talks that the Restoration is ongoing. Meaning the church ten years ago was less restored than it is today, and in ten years it will be even more restored. One might fairly ask, what's left to restore?

That's the million dollar question, not just for prophets, but for all of us. We tend to interpret restoration to mean restoring things that existed anciently in the original church structure. But I think that has mostly already been done. Some things, like polygamy, have already been removed, making us less like ancient Israel, not more. Increasingly, I think restoration means restoring things that weren't there before. Maybe things that have never existed among God's people, not ever. As demonstrated in Official Declarations 1 and 2, that may mean things like gender and racial equality.

As human beings, we tend to cling to what we know. We who grew up on 1970s and 1980s CES and Sunday School manuals—ones that taught us that a woman's place is in the home, or that evolution and the gospel are not compatible, or that God was behind the racist priesthood ban—we have a lot of catching up to do. This can feel scary. It was perhaps more comfortable for us to let the manual do all the work, to guide us only to those questions we already knew the answers to. But if we can't trust the manual, what can we trust?

We can trust the Holy Ghost.

The new Come Follow Me curriculum invites us to examine our doctrinal baggage and make adjustments, however painful they might be, by using the Holy Ghost to keep us in line with revealed truths from our current prophet. The new curriculum peels back almost two centuries of scriptural narratives and invites us to study, work, and seek for answers using our most current interpretations of scripture. It is an invitation to be an active part of the Restoration, an agent in its unfolding instead of a passive recipient of it. It is a bottom up approach to revelation, rather than a top-down one.

I am excited to be a part of this as it happens in the Old Testament, which for me is the most exciting book of scripture, mostly because it is also the messiest one. I know not everyone loves the Old Testament, but I like it because when I see the mess of Israel, it helps me put my own mess into proper context. Reading about the hot mess that was God's people, and even seeing that hot mess reflected in the church today, reminds me that I truly belong in this very ancient, very dysfunctional family. If Israel were to read like a pious "museum of saints" I may think I could never belong in heaven with them. Reading the mess of Israel reminds me of all the reasons why I need a Savior.

This year, I look forward to converting once again to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at least as it exists in the year 2022. I will need the enthusiasm of a new convert to do this, and channel their willingness to let go of my preconceived ideas and beliefs. I pray for the humility to allow the Holy Ghost to penetrate the decades of lesson manuals that have been build up around my heart and mind, sometimes working like a much needed protection, but other times like a barricade to further revelation. I will try to let the Spirit sort out what parts of that fence to keep, and what parts should be thrown away.