Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Understanding “Understanding the Handbook”

One week after the LDS Church’s new policies on same-sex couples and the children of same-sex partners caused quite a kerfuffle, Michael Otterson, the Managing Director of Church Public Affairs for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, issued a public statement. The statement was titled “Understanding the Handbook,” referring to the Church Handbook of Instructions, which is the official policy guide and operating manual for the church. What follows is my response to that statement. The statement will be shared in its entirety throughout the course of this blog post, although I will stop after every paragraph or so to share my commentary. The indented block quotations are, of course, taken from the LDS Church’s public statement itself. Let us begin:

If there’s one thing that virtually all Christians agree on, it’s Jesus Christ’s tender love of children. Both the Bible and Book of Mormon deliver touching accounts of His love for “little ones,” blessing them and forbidding His disciples from keeping children from Him.

Good. The LDS Church is aware of the parallel many people have drawn between the church’s new policies and what happens in the tenth chapter of Mark in the Bible. In case you don’t know, this is a passage of scripture in which Jesus’ chosen disciples try to shoo away the many children that are flocking to see him, as if those children are a nuisance. Jesus rebukes his disciples, saying, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (v. 14). The fact that it’s the disciples who need correcting is rather poignant, of course, and I’m sure the LDS Church is grimacing at just how easily and unflatteringly this whole snafu can be likened to this passage from Mark. And so, with this opening paragraph, the church tries to gain control of the narrative by implying that they agree with Mark’s sentiments—and hence must not be guilty of doing what they are accused of.

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the family is reverenced and children are its centerpiece. Yet last week an instructional letter from Church leadership addressing the sensitive topic of how to respond to same-sex relationships sparked a wave of inquiries from Church members. Most of the questions were about children.

I’m amazed how often the LDS Church tries to do something I see my own children do, which is to make something true by fiat. “Be careful or you’ll break that,” says the parent. “No, I won’t,” says the child. And in the child’s mind, it really is that simple. They won’t break something simply because they’ve decided they won’t. That’s all it takes. And that’s the gimmick at play in the first sentence of the paragraph directly above. The LDS Church says it reverences the family and makes children a “centerpiece,” so there you go! It must be true! How can you complain about that? The lyrics of a popular ballad by 1990s hard rock group Extreme seem apropos here: “More than words / is all I ever needed you to show / Then you wouldn’t have to say / that you love me / ‘cause I’d already know.”

Because the letter was an instructional document to leadership throughout the world, and not a Church-wide announcement through LDS.org or through Church Public Affairs, there was no additional information or context on the usual Church websites. That prompted questions from many Church members, who were mostly reading media headlines portraying the instructions as a rejection of children and refusal to name babies. Members understandably had specific questions about how the announced change might affect their loved ones.

No additional information or context? What additional information or context do you really need? The new policies are pretty much just lists of rules. It’s the rules themselves that are the problem. Make a rule that the children of black parents cannot be baptized and we don’t really need any more “context” to know there’s absolutely nothing okay about it.

The episode demonstrates clearly the dangers of drawing conclusions based on incomplete news reports, tweets and Facebook posts without necessary context and accurate information. The Church quickly responded to many of those concerns with a video interview with Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. By the end of the weekend, that interview had been viewed by millions.

Translation: “It’s your fault if you were offended or found the new policies objectionable. We didn’t do anything wrong. You did! The only reason someone could be bothered is if that person is going about this all wrong. The problem is most definitely not us!” Note that we are several paragraphs in and not getting anywhere in terms of making sense of or defending the new policies. All the LDS Church has done thus far is say “all we do is love people” (without really backing up the claim) and “if you’re upset, it’s your fault”—classic victim blaming. Granted, as the Managing Director of Church Public Affairs, Otterson can dish this stuff up with a smooth enough coating that many people won’t even realize what they’re swallowing. But spit it out and take a look—there’s little substance here. Otterson cites a videotaped interview with LDS Church Apostle D. Todd Christofferson as providing answers to many of the questions people have raised—which, in my opinion, it did not do—but that’s just hand-waving. Otterson tries to obscure this fact by announcing that millions of people have now watched the video—which means what, exactly? I don’t know. But that’s an impressive number, right? So, surely that means the video answers a lot of questions and does so satisfactorily. Right? Right???

Today, a letter clarifying what the Handbook changes mean and do not mean has been posted on the primary Church website, LDS.org.
One difficulty was a general lack of understanding of the Handbook itself, which is a guide for lay leaders of the church in 30,000 congregations across the world. A purpose of the Handbook is to provide bishops and other leaders with a standard reference point when they make decisions. Because it is a policy and procedural manual, the Handbook is not written in language that is necessarily contextual or explanatory. Church leaders are encouraged to use the Handbook in conjunction with the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Sensitivity to individual circumstances is learned through the Spirit, Christ’s teachings and example as found in the scriptures, from talks and teachings of General Authorities, and from the leaders’ own experience and exposure to real-life situations. No handbook can answer every question or address every circumstance.

I might discuss the “clarifying” letter in a future blog post. For now, let’s stick with this press release. This paragraph I see as particularly sly. I believe that it is deliberately designed to give the impression that the new policies aren’t as harsh as they appear because they aren’t necessarily binding, and because ultimately the Holy Ghost will determine in each case what precisely happens—and who can argue with the Holy Ghost? The paragraph suggests that there is a lot of flexibility, and that the Handbook is just one small piece of the puzzle—next to but outranked by the teachings of Christ and the guidance of the Spirit, etc.—as ecclesiastical leaders decide how best to tend to their flocks. Sadly, I think the paragraph is purposely misleading. This may sound like paranoia on my part, but there is precedence for what I’m saying. Consider other lines of thought familiar to Mormons: teach by the Spirit, but stick to the lesson manual; rely on personal revelation, but only insofar as it conforms to what church leaders tell you. I see a persistent mistrust of church members to rely on their own consciences and spiritual sensitivities. The bottom line seems to be always to fall in line with the church. So, yes, by all means, rely on the Holy Ghost when applying the policies outlined in the Church Handbook of Instructions—but only insofar as doing so conforms to those policies. If you ever think the Holy Ghost is telling you to go against policy—well, stick to the Handbook. (“Follow the Handbook, follow the Handbook, follow the Handbook, it knows the way!”) All the talk in the press release about the Handbook not having any context is beside the point because the dictates of the Handbook do not require context. For example, one policy states: if a child has a parent who is in a same-sex marriage, that child cannot receive a baby blessing. What other context matters? Does it matter what brand of shampoo the parents use? What is the LDS Church pretending will make a difference here? You cannot come up with a scenario involving a child with a parent in a same-sex marriage where any other details are going to change the fact that the child is, according to the policy as stated, prohibited from receiving a baby blessing.1   Throwing in language to suggest the matter isn’t already decided is meant only to distract and to assuage complaints. It is disingenuous and manipulative.

Here are the key points to understand as background to the recent changes and additions to the leaders’ Handbook:
• It is not a sin simply to feel attraction to another person of the same sex. Some faithful members of the Church experience those attractions yet participate in the Church without breaking the Lord’s commandments. They serve missions and attend the temple. The Church teaches its members to embrace these brothers and sisters and encourage them in their faithful lives in the Church.
• There is no change in the doctrinal position that sexual relations between people of the same sex are sinful.
• There is new information in the Handbook that addresses a narrow range of situations involving the children of same-sex couples.

I don’t see how this information is helpful. I honestly think it’s meant to distract from the issue immediately at hand. As for the claim that the Handbook addresses only a “narrow range of situations,” I once again feel the Church is trying to mislead. What’s so narrow about it? Is it narrow because the new policies only touch a handful of items: baby blessings, baptism, confirmation, participating in the priesthood, and the serving of missions? From birth to adulthood, that pretty much covers the gamut of benchmarks and rites of passage that most members of the LDS Church experience. Denying all of these things to all children who fit the description in the Handbook hardly qualifies as a “narrow range of situations.” It’s offensive to suggest otherwise.

With same-sex marriage now legal in the United States and some other nations, the Church felt the need specifically to address such marriages in the Handbook to draw a firm line and encourage consistency among local leaders. In particular, Church leaders are concerned for children–whether biologically born to one of the partners, adopted or medically conceived.

Unless you’re looking at things from the macro level, the legalization of same-sex marriage is not that new in many countries other than the United States. I believe the LDS Church is making changes now only because it is becoming particularly relevant to the U.S. Rarely does the church seem to care about things that don’t affect us here in good ol’ ‘Merica, often Utah specifically. You can bet your bottom dollar that if an issue is going to affect Utah, that issue is what these modern-day prophets, seers, and revelators—for the whole world, mind you—will be talking about. If it’s not hitting close to Utah—meh. Regardless, I’m offended that the church keeps couching things in terms of concern for the children. I think that is blatant bull crap. I hate to think what other organizations have excluded and discriminated against certain groups—of innocent persons, no less—“for their own good.” That’s a red flag if ever there was one.

In reality, very few same-sex couples would bring children for the formal Church ordinance of naming and blessing, since this creates a formal membership record. But Church leaders want to avoid putting little children in a potential tug-of-war between same-sex couples at home and teachings and activities at church.

I’m quite bothered by the first sentence above. I don’t get it when harming or discriminating against people is justified by saying you’re only doing it to a few. Not when it’s possible to do it to none. It’s sort of like saying, “In reality, very few people of color would bring their business to this restaurant owned by racists, so it doesn't really matter that the restaurant only lets white people order certain items off the menu.” What does the amount of people harmed by the policy have to do with it being okay to cause that harm? And finally, the tug-of-war remark. As countless others have pointed out, this excuse just doesn’t fly. There are numerous ways in which families can and do diverge from the official teachings of the LDS Church, and yet the children of those families are not excluded from any of the practices now being denied to the children of same-sex couples. The post hoc nature of the proffered excuse is pitiful.

This next paragraph needs to be taken a bit at a time. I’ll go even more slowly here.

This sensitivity to family circumstances is practiced elsewhere. For example, the Church doesn’t baptize minor children without parental consent, even if the children want to be associated with their LDS friends.

Okay. But what if both or all of the child’s parents want and/or support the baptism? Is the child excluded then? Only if the child’s parents are gay, per the new policy.

A married man or woman isn’t baptized if the spouse objects.

But what if each party in the marriage wants and/or supports the baptism? Is anyone excluded then? Only if the person’s parents are gay, per the new policy.

Missionaries don’t proselytize in most Muslim countries or in Israel, where there are particular sensitivities with family.

Almost any instance of trying to convert somebody away from their religion involves “sensitivities with family.” Can you honestly tell me the restriction on proselytizing in these particular areas does not stem from either legal or severe social backlashes that the LDS Church itself would face, rather than from the LDS Church’s overwhelming sensitivity to families???

In some African and other nations where polygamy is practiced, anyone whose parents practice polygamy needs special permission for baptism so they know that a practice that is culturally acceptable for many in the region is not acceptable in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Special permission, but they aren’t barred from baptism altogether. Not unless their parents are gay, per the new policy, that is. But regardless, what do any of the “parallels” offered in this paragraph of the church’s press release have to do with prohibiting innocent babies from being blessed? The answer: not a damn thing.

Of course, there are always situations that fall outside general guidelines and principles, which is why local leaders may ask for guidance from more senior leaders in particular cases where they may have questions.

Finally, near the end of the press release, something is said that actually seems useful for those wondering about the Handbook. Of course, it has little or nothing to do with the scandalous policies that actually inspired the LDS Church to send out this press release. So, again, how is this helpful? It’s not, really.

Let’s take the final paragraph a bit at a time, as well.

The vast majority of Church members understand that there has been no doctrinal change with regard to LGBT issues. Church doctrine is consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know that I’ve heard anyone complain that doctrine has changed. I think most people understand that this is pure policy … although I appreciate the LDS Church pointing out that one way we can tell this was a policy change rather than a doctrinal change is because doctrine is consistent with the example of Jesus Christ, which this policy clearly isn’t. Okay, okay, I’m sure that’s not what they meant. But isn’t that almost what’s implied, in a rather comical way?

There is a strong tendency today for many to talk of Jesus Christ as if His teachings on love were somehow inconsistent with his teachings on divine commandments. Of course the Savior’s love was never withheld from anyone and His words on the cross exemplify that. But, He also expressed love by teaching clear doctrine and standing firmly against sin with sometimes-tough lessons for which people rejected Him.

I honestly don’t know what “clear doctrine” the LDS Church is referring to. I certainly don’t remember Jesus teaching anything about shunning or forbidding people to come unto him. Quite the contrary. In fact, some of Jesus’ clearest teachings were specifically about children and the importance of including them. If that weren’t enough, Jesus was perhaps at his most clear when he instructed us to love God and our neighbors. How in the world is this new policy doing anything remotely loving?

That is where Church leaders stand today – holding firm to the doctrinal position of right and wrong, while extending love to all people.

I’m sure comparing church leaders to Jesus is an effective rhetorical tool, but again, it takes more than saying something to make it true. You’re not extending love to everyone just because you say you are.

Church members who believe in modern prophets and apostles understand and appreciate the intent of their leaders to guide the Church through the complexities of diverse societies and rapidly changing social circumstances.

Another low blow. Here, the LDS Church insinuates that anyone who complains about the new policies does not believe in modern prophets and apostles. This is a cheap way to (try to) win an argument. It seeks to delegitimize any dissenting voices from the start, allowing those voices to be ignored because they can’t possibly come from “faithful” or “believing” members of the church. No doubt this is how many Mormons will treat those who oppose the new policies, dismissing them as woefully misguided, if not literally under the influence of Satan. It’s a conversation stopper and nothing more.

Make no mistake, there is plenty of manipulation in this press release. Don’t fall for it.

Since I started writing this blog post, the LDS Church has altered the policy under the guise of “clarification.” The new version of the policy forbids a child from these ordinances only if the child’s primary residence is with the same-sex couple. This does not affect, in any meaningful way, the heart of the criticisms raised by my blog post.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Why I Cannot Support Supporting the LDS Church

It has now been just over one year since I attended my first church service with Community of Christ. The changes that have taken place in the last year have been staggering. Never would I have predicted where my life has led over these last twelve months. Not only have I officially joined Community of Christ, but I spent a summer working for them, am currently taking courses to prepare for the ministry, and will be serving in the pastorate for 2016.

As part of the journey I mention above, I officially resigned from the LDS Church in July. About a week ago, I jotted down some notes for what I hoped to turn into a blog post. I wanted to write about my feelings on the LDS Church now that I’m no longer a member. Even though I’ve said stuff in passing about the LDS Church and culture (for example, in my series of blog posts from Nauvoo), I haven’t written a post concentrated on my personal feelings and attitudes toward the LDS Church in quite some time. So, that was what I had planned on doing—and then last Friday happened.

On Friday, November 6th, news broke that the LDS Church had revised its Church Handbook of Instructions to include policies that bear directly on those in same-sex marriages and their children. The first item to gain wide circulation on the Internet is a new policy stating that anyone in a same-sex marriage is ipso facto guilty of apostasy. This was upsetting to me, but I saw it only as making explicit what many Mormons already believe. Thus, I wasn’t nearly as upset as I was by what followed: a policy stating, among other things, that the child of anyone in a same-sex marriage is prohibited from receiving a baby blessing (a Mormon tradition that most people find incredibly significant despite not being a “saving ordinance”) and getting baptized.

I was livid. I had so much adrenaline pumping through me at the news that I got a terrible headache. I heard about the new policies while Melanie was gone with the boys. When they got home, I could barely process anything that anyone said to me, so upset was I. For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking that the LDS Church is an evil institution that needs to be brought down. I posted about the news on my Facebook wall, with the following message attached:

LDS Church, I wash my hands of thee. If God hadn’t already led me somewhere else, I’d be done with you now. How quickly and easily you ignore your own scriptures and foundational teachings—Articles of Faith #2 comes to mind—and make “obedience” (to your own non-scriptural rules, no less) a god before God and of greater importance than love. Revolting, wicked, and morally inexcusable. May your tithing and membership numbers plummet even more quickly than they already are. It’s a good day to be an ex-Mormon. I am disgusted.

I made my post viewable to the public and included several hashtags that have been used in LDS campaigns in the past, such as #sharegoodness and #becauseofhim, all in an attempt to reach as many people as possible. I was truly furious.

A week has passed since then, and yes, my anger has diminished. A few days ago, I had calmed down enough to post a gentler message to my LDS friends and family, begging them to think cautiously and clearly about this issue in light of the many (inadequate) justifications being offered by devout members of the LDS Church. (That post was later published at Worlds Without End, a blog of some renown among intellectual Mormons. I was humbled and flattered by the invitation to have my post appear there.) But feeling less irate is far from feeling okay about something. I am still mad. I am still offended. The more I think about it, the more riled up I can get. But even in my calmest moments, I think it is safe to say that my overall attitude toward the LDS Church has forever changed. I might not call the organization itself “evil” as I did a few days ago, but the new policies certainly are. They cause harm. They divide. They exclude. Worse, they do these things to innocent children, who are specifically and purposely targeted by some of these policies. There may be greater atrocities in the world, but if that’s meant to elicit my support for the new policies, you’re out of luck. These policies are 100% out of alignment with the message of Jesus Christ as I understand it. In that regard, they are quite literally anti-Christian policies. And that’s the bottom line for me. The LDS Church has blatantly anti-Christian policies as a part of its official, authorized, and sanctioned modus operandi. It is inexcusable, and I’m no longer sure I see being a part of that organization as morally justifiable. For anyone.

Okay, slow down. I should be careful here. I don’t like speaking in absolutes. To rephrase, I’m not sure being a member of the LDS Church is morally justifiable for anyone with a proper and adequate understanding of the relevant issues and who isn’t somehow avoiding a greater harm by remaining a member of the LDS Church. That probably doesn’t sound much better. I probably still sound arrogant. But I’m just being honest. I would never assume that just because someone is a member of the LDS Church, that person is bad, or morally bankrupt, or anything of the sort. I know many Mormons are trying to do what’s best, and they truly believe that endorsing and supporting whatever the LDS Church does—literally whatever—is synonymous with following God. I don’t think such people are bad people. I think such paradigms are bad paradigms. They are dangerous, damaging, and founded on error. For a long time before I left the LDS Church, I felt rather uneasy about my own participation in the church. How could I pay tithing to an institution that I knew was doing so much harm to others? That was perpetuating what I saw as unhealthy and harmful mindsets? I was aware of the problems, and yet I remained. I hope I wasn’t morally culpable for supporting the system as long as I did. I was trying to figure things out. I was wrestling with things. I opposed the bad things in my heart and strived to be an influence for good within the walls of an imperfect institution, honestly believing I could make a difference. That was my motive, and I hope that means my participation was morally acceptable.

Based on where I am at today, I no longer find the idea of remaining in the LDS Church in order to make it a better organization tenable. The church’s new policy is indicative of why not. To me, it makes little sense to be a part of an organization that so egregiously and consistently harms its members. Some would point out that the new policies affect relatively few Mormons, but that’s only partially true. The fact is, the mentality that underlies the new policies is dreadful, and the LDS Church is perpetuating that mentality among all of its members. So, yes, it does harm the entire membership, the same way a patriarchal system harms men and women alike by perpetuating erroneous ideologies concerning the relative values of certain groups within the system. Now, I can certainly understand wanting to rid the world of harmful systems. But I don’t see how being a part of the system, when you don’t have to be, is the most helpful solution. A woman in a Facebook group I frequent said that she plans to remain an active member of the LDS Church because, if she leaves, there will be one less person for those who are hurting to sit by when they come to church. I appreciate the general sentiment here. But it seems the better thing to do is to walk out the door and take the hurting people with you, telling them they don’t need to sit in a building every week where they are denigrated and viewed as less-than. Let them sit next to you, sure, but why make them do it on enemy territory? Imagine there were a restaurant that allowed only white people to order certain items off the menu. Why give that restaurant your business? What compels you to say, “You know what? I’m going to go to this restaurant every week, so that the non-white customers who go to the restaurant have somebody there to support them. And I’ll fill out the comment card every week and tell the restaurant owners they should let people of color eat whatever they want. And maybe one day, this will be the best restaurant on the planet”? There’s something perverse about that thinking to me. It shows a bizarre allegiance to the harmful restaurant. It is too accommodating of the harm taking place in the here and now. Why not take your business to the restaurant next door and make sure the non-white customers at the first restaurant know they are welcome to come sit by you in a place where they will truly be valued and wanted? Excuse the hyperbole, but I don’t want to be part of a hate group just to help it become a love group. That strikes me as having one’s priorities out of whack. It is too institution-centric, as if the organization one affiliates with is what matters first and foremost.

One reason I used to feel loyalty to the LDS Church is because I believed it was the “true” church. Over time, my understanding of that became increasingly nuanced. At one point, my attitude was that if God ever had something significant to reveal or a great call to action to extend, it would be through the leader of the LDS Church. The strange thing about Mormons is they have a tendency to believe and accept from their own what would strike them as outlandish, absurd, and/or “cultish” in others. If Danny No-name down the street has a group of followers and says that God only speaks to the world at large through him, Mormons would find such a thing patently ridiculous. But they believe it was true of Joseph Smith nearly 200 years ago, and they believe it is true of Thomas S. Monson today. If the Seventh-Day Adventist next door claims to have seen an angel, no way. But it’s true of faithful Mormons who share such sacred stories. If the Scientologists tell you not to read books and articles that say negative things about their organization, to be leery of any material that isn’t published by the organization itself, and never to doubt what the organization tells you, even if what they teach flies in the face of what scientists, former members of the church, and common sense tells you, it’s clearly a cuckoo form of mind control. But out of the mouths of LDS leaders, this exact same advice is heralded as “prophetic warning” and “good counsel.” The point being, I have come to recognize that the LDS Church, and Mormonism more broadly, is just one small fish in a great big ocean of religious traditions, many of which are completely on par with each other. That is, Mormonism is just one expression of humankind’s understanding of and interactions with the divine. As such, I do not see it as inherently more or less true than any other religious tradition. Yes, there are things I believe are beautiful and valuable and perhaps uniquely found within the wider Latter Day Saint tradition (including Community of Christ). I wholeheartedly believe God has been an active influence in much of what has taken place in this tradition. But that’s a far cry from viewing it as the only true tradition on Earth, or the most true tradition, or the one on which everybody’s eternal welfare relies. That being the case, I see no reason to remain loyal to one particular flavor of Mormonism (or of religion in general) when that particular flavor also happens to be poisoning its members.

In addition to everything else just stated, last Friday’s policy leak solidified for me the futility of betting on the LDS Church ever to be at the forefront of Christlike ministry, including issues of social justice, inclusion, and the like. Let’s not kid ourselves. The LDS Church has an abysmal track record. I was disappointed to learn this summer in my studies of polygamy just how rampant and widespread dishonesty was among early leaders of the LDS Church. I knew Joseph Smith’s own practice of polygamy involved extensive lying to the public (and others), but I didn’t realize just how much that dishonesty carried over into the presidencies of Brigham Young, John Taylor, and others. And the more you learn about the presidency of Brigham Young in general, the more you have to wonder where God was in all of it. Moving ahead several years, you have the issue of blacks and the priesthood. Like the abandonment of polygamy, change didn’t happen until social and political pressure pushed the LDS Church to the breaking point. A tiny skip ahead in time and we have the LDS Church fighting against the Equal Rights Amendment, which sought to ensure equal rights for women. The LDS Church has consistently been behind the times and yet been so resolute in its attitude of moral superiority and self-professed correctness that it willingly sacrifices its already marginalized members on the altar of stubbornness. This latest bout with the LGBT community is more of the same. And, if it follows the course that others have, the LDS Church will eventually change its tune and renounce the discriminatory attitudes and practices of its past leaders, proving that one of the only ways in which the LDS Church is consistent is in its efforts to exclude somebody or another—it just depends on the decade who it is that they claim God wants to see ostracized. Why anchor yourself to that?

There are other, smaller issues that continually arise. It may seem petty to point at them, but they happen with such regularity that they testify of the toxic mindset I mean to address. When you hear of mental health, you usually think of emotional health. But there is something I would like to call rational health. It’s not rationally healthy to subscribe to paradigms that are true or useful only by coincidence. For example, it’s not rationally healthy to adopt the principle that you should obey a certain religious figure no matter what. Such a principle only has its desired results in those cases where the religious figure is telling you to do good things. But the principle has the effect of bringing about great harm if your religious figure happens to command horrible things. And yet nothing in the principle itself excludes that possibility, and so the principle itself is useful (when it is useful) and beneficial (when it is beneficial) only coincidentally. As I see it, the LDS Church fosters a great deal of rationally unhealthy attitudes. Key among them is that whatever the church puts out is good and right and should be hearkened to. Sure, you sometimes hear church leaders admit that they have made mistakes or advise you to pray about things and gain your own testimony. But these messages are far outweighed by messages saying the church cannot go wrong and you’re better off just listening up and doing as you’re told. And because everything put out by the LDS Church is accepted by certain members as the word and will of God, even when the church leaders themselves do not claim such, you get some really damaging results. When the church’s children’s magazine, the Friend, suggests a little girl is sinning if she wears a sleeveless dress, that’s a problem. When a top church leader says the church isn’t in the business of apologizing and that apologies are not supported by scripture, that’s a problem. When another top church leader tells an audience that he is scripture, that’s a problem. And when the church puts out a policy that shames and excludes innocent children, all while saying it is an act of love that exemplifies the ministry of Jesus Christ, that is a huge problem.

I know the opinions expressed here are likely to hurt those friends and family members who are still actively dedicated to the LDS Church. If I’ve offended you somehow, I am sorry. But keep in mind that much of what I’ve said above is factual. If those factual statements make you sad, I wholeheartedly agree. They should make you sad. Please know that I do not judge you negatively for being a member of the LDS Church. These things are highly personal, and I don’t know where you’re at in your mind and heart. The way I see things, it is morally unconscionable to support the LDS Church as it engages in these atrocities. But I realize that your perspective may be different—I would hope it is, if you’re remaining in the church—and one’s perspective is really what matters here. Not because all perspectives are equal—I assume one of us is more correct than the other, if we disagree on this issue—but because morality is so intimately tied to perspective. Your motives and beliefs bear greatly on whether or not you are acting honorably. I will assume the best of you. I hope you will do the same for me. I just hope we will both treat these issues as seriously as they need to be treated. They really do matter, because people really matter, and people are really hurting over these things.

And that’s all I’ve got for now.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Halloween 2015

I don’t suppose Halloween needs much of an introduction. You know how it goes. Parades, costumes, candy, decorations. Yada, yada, yada. On with the photos.

Creegan's preschool parade was held on Thursday, October 29th.  Parents were invited, but the note they had sent home about it was ambiguous enough to make it rather unclear what exactly was meant to happen.  Unlike at any Halloween parade I've previously attended, the parents who came to this parade ended up following their kids around from room to room.  I followed suit, although it seemed a little bit strange to do so, since I wasn't really next to Creegan most of the time.

Note the word "die" as part of Creegan's decorative touch on his Halloween bag.  Such a cutie!

Creegan kept posing for the camera, and that's exactly what he's doing here.  He adopted this stance and held still until I snapped a photo.  Nothing natural about it.

Creegan blowing me a goodbye kiss after the parade had concluded.  What a great kiddo!

Melanie, Eddie, and Peter had their Halloween parade on Friday, October 30th.  Melanie and her fellow Kindergarten teachers dressed as Pete the Cat.

Peter beamed when he spotted Creegan and me (and his grandma) in the audience.  Ever since I first saw it, Peter's smile has been among my very favorite things in the world.

Eddie was also in very good spirits, which made me happy.  He's much, much cuter here than he is with his Halloween mask on, as the next photo will make clear.

On Friday night, Melanie and I took the boys to Scheels for a Halloween scavenger hunt.  Peter almost always has red eyes in photographs, but it works quite lovely on this particular occasion.

The boys with Uncles Kaleb (left) and Tom (right).

The hallmark of Scheels is, of course, the Ferris wheel.  The scavenger hunt concluded with a free token for each kid to ride the Ferris wheel.  We're saving our tokens for a future visit, as the line for the Ferris wheel was waaaaayy long.

Halloween evening (around 6 PM, not dark yet).  Heading out for some trick or treating.  Melanie and I are dressed as Peanut Butter & Jelly.

My family, with Kaya (Kaleb's longtime girlfriend, who works at Scheels), Grandma, and Uncle Tom.

The coolest house on our trick-or-treating tour featured this scene.  The garage door was open and a black screen was hanging over the opening.  Inside of the garage, a projector was displaying a film on the black screen.  This created a kind of 3D effect.  What you see here is a skeleton band playing music.  Some scenes portrayed were much more frightening, such as the scene of a grim reaper who stares menacingly at you and eventually swipes at you with his scythe.  Or her scythe.  It's hard to tell with skeletons.

And that's that!  Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Creegan Turns Five

Birthday celebrations started nice and early for Creegan yesterday. In some ways, it was a necessity. Melanie, Eddie, and Peter had to rush off to school, and that meant either we had to postpone birthday celebrations until the late afternoon or Creegan and I would be doing some celebrating on our own. We didn’t want anyone to miss out on anything major, and so we started the day with Creegan opening gifts. Truth be told, it was Creegan’s idea. He had told us the day before that he wanted to open his presents first thing in the morning. Melanie and I were totally fine with that. Fortunately for Creegan, Melanie and I had decided to let him stay home from preschool so he could spend the day enjoying his gifts. Which he did, immensely. But I’ll say more about that in the context of sharing photos, which will dominate the rest of this post. Enjoy!

One of Creegan's requested gifts was a wristwatch.

Creegan nearly filled this thick drawing pad with illustrations throughout the day.  He did most of it while listening to his new mp3 player, which you can just make out to the left of the drawing pad, standing upright and still in its plastic case.  The most played song of the day was Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," which came pre-loaded on the mp3 player.  Did I mention this mp3 player has a speaker and doesn't require headphones?  Despite his young age, Creegan requested the mp3 player for his birthday.  Makes me kinda proud.

A plethora of plush puppies produced peals of pleasure from Creegan.

Melanie made her famous cornbread for a delicious birthday breakfast.

Creegan was quite enamored of his puppy collection.  He took many photographs of them himself, including this one.

Uncle Tom crocheted this Pikachu for Creegan.  What an awesome and sweet gift!

Creegan chose "Jason's Belly" for his birthday dinner.  He has called Jason's Deli "Jason's Belly" since we lived in Florida.  It's so cute, most of us call it that now.

This is the first time I've made a birthday cake for one of my kids.  Creegan requested chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and chocolate sprinkles and chocolate chips.  I just sprinkled the chocolate chips on top, rather than placing them nicely, which I guess doesn't look so fancy.  But I'm proud of myself nonetheless.

Disclaimer: Creegan is faking it.  He'd already blown out his candles, but we filmed it rather than snapping a photo.  Afterward, we had him pose like this so we could take a photo.  Don't tell.

Creegan was very proud of himself for being able to pour his own milk.  He just started doing it in the morning, informing me, "I can pour my own milk now because I'm five.  I couldn't do that when I was four."  It must be pretty cool to wake up with special new abilities.

Not sure what Creegan had in mind with this photo, but he posed and insisted we take it.  So here you go.

Happy birthday, Creegan!  I love you tooooooooooooooo much!

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Parliament of the World’s Religions, Part III

After three days at the Parliament of the World’s Religions, I had seen a grand total of only six presentations, plus snippets of a couple of others, and the Jewish Havdalah service. That isn’t much, considering the possibilities, but it was draining in its own right. As I mentioned in my first Parliament post, I was sleep deprived to begin with. I had trouble staying awake in several of the sessions I went to. Thus, I was torn about what to do on Sunday. I had already decided to attend church rather than Parliament in the morning hours. Nothing on the Parliament schedule compelled me to skip church, where guest visitor Steve Shields (an author, historian, and minister of Community of Christ, who converted from the LDS Church in the early 1980s) would be teaching Sunday school and Melanie would be giving the sermon. There were two Sunday afternoon Parliament sessions that interested me, and one that I was slightly curious about but also leery of. (I feared the latter would be more new age oriented than I wanted it to be.) Of the two presentations that really appealed to me, one of them could be watched live online. I packed up my backpack with everything I would normally take to Parliament and put it in our trunk before heading to church, but once church ended, the benefits of going downtown didn’t outweigh my motivation to have a relaxed day at home. I had hardly seen my family for three days, and that drew me in as well. I went home with my family and never regretted that decision.

Steve Shields and I, taken at the Community of Christ church in Salt Lake City, UT.

Monday, October 19th was the last day of Parliament. I was back in the game, showing up for an 8:30 AM session called “A Practical Vision for the Second Axial Age.” This had been one of the presentations I had most looked forward to. I was disappointed. I guess I’m a party pooper, because I wasn’t keen on breaking into small groups and tossing ideas around with other people. As an introvert, that kind of spontaneous intimacy makes me uncomfortable. But aside from that, I had really hoped that the presenters themselves were going to say a lot about the theory that was outlined on the program, which was all about us being in the midst of a great shift away from individualism and toward globalism in our religious and ethical sensibilities. They talked about this for a little while before having us break into groups, but it was all very generalized. Nothing they said made an impression on me, and when they started to divvy us up into groups, I decided to slip out the back. Like my decision to go home on Sunday, I didn’t regret this choice. It provided me an opportunity to explore the art exhibits on display at the Parliament, which had thus far been largely ignored by me. In turn, I once again had an opportunity to put my digital camera to use. Here are some of the things that I saw:

The mandala being crafted by the Tibeant Buddhist monks is nearly complete.

A small Jain temple was constructed for Parliament.

One of my favorite photos from Parliament.

Ordain Women had an interactive art piece on display called simply "The Keys." Those who wanted to show support for women's ordination in the LDS Church could choose a key, write their name on the key, and affix it to the display.

I realized at Parliament just how much I am drawn to art that incorporates glass.

Parliament gave me the opportunity to walk my first meditation labyrinth.  I've long wanted to try a labyrinth.  I'm not sure this was the ideal setting—the fact that it was the final day of Parliament is evidenced by those packing up in the background—but I can see the potential for it to be a reflective and tranquilizing activity.  

The "Remembered Light" exhibit featured the art of Frederick A. McDonald. As a chaplain in the U.S. Army during WWII, McDonald gathered pieces of broken stained glass from destroyed churches and the like as he moved around Europe. He then transformed those fragments into beautiful pieces such as you see here.

I wish I had taken a photo of the description of this piece.  It said something about the "improbable" note sequence and the fact that the line of notes endlessly repeats, all of which is meant to symbolize our striving for world peace.  Or something like that.  Trust me, it was all very profound when not paraphrased by a jack ass.

At 10:30 AM, I went to the plenary session called “Spotlight on Indigenous Peoples.” My friend Dan went with me. The plenary was good, from what I saw, but I was quickly fighting off sleep. (Dan passed out almost as soon as the meeting started, making me feel better about my own struggles.) Eventually, I felt I needed to call my mom to check on her picking up Creegan from preschool, which she had agreed to do so I could make it to Parliament. I was also very interested in a session that would be starting right after the plenary session, so I thought I should eat sooner than later. I woke Dan, told him I needed to go, and left. All was well with Creegan and my mom, so food became my next priority. I wandered in the direction of a sandwich shop I used to enjoy many years ago when I worked downtown, but I wasn’t fully convinced I would eat there. I kept my eyes open on the way. Melanie and the boys were going to pick me up that night, and we were all going to go to dinner, so I didn’t want anything too filling. I soon spotted, just across from the sandwich shop I had been considering, a hot dog place. I thought of the hot dog place I used to frequent in Atlanta that had awesome and unique hot dogs. It sounded fun to do something like that, and I thought it would be slightly less filling than something else. And so, I headed over to Redhot and had a “Hawaii Five-0” and some fries. The Hawaii Five-0 consists of a bacon-wraped Kobe beef hot dog with teriyaki sauce, pineapple salsa, and Japanese mayo. It was good. The fries were good, too, but I had no idea I’d be getting such a large plate of them. It ended up being a rather filling meal after all.

A crap load o' fries.  They were tasty.  The fry sauce was really good, too, and not typical.  It reminded me a little bit of the fry sauce I've had that's made with BBQ sauce, a touch on the sweet side.

I made it back to the Salt Palace just in time for a 12:15 PM session titled “Pathways to Peace: Different Perspectives.” The session included brief speeches from representatives of various faiths, including Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. I’m not sure how much it was part of the original plan—I had the impression it wasn’t—but the session concluded with a woman singing some selection from an opera. She was quite good.

I was scheduled to be at the Community of Christ booth from 2 – 4 PM. The “Pathways to Peace” session ended just before 2. I hurried to the exhibit hall and found that most booths were already being deconstructed. The Community of Christ booth had itself been dismantled. To be fair, I had never received confirmation that I would be “working” the booth that day, but I had volunteered to do so and had it in my head. I just assumed they’d need me. Apparently, they did not. The unfortunate thing was that Melanie wasn’t going to pick me up for another two-and-a-half hours. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself, and so I wandered. It ended up being a good experience. Some rock band was cranking music out in one of the foyers. It was extremely loud, but people were loving it. There was quite a large crowd dancing around immediately in front of the band when I arrived. I stuck around for a handful of songs. The crowd dissipated between songs, but there were always people dancing. I filmed some of the performance, but it seems rather subdued when I watch the videos. You can’t tell that it was bloody loud. I don’t know much about technology, but I wonder if the music was so loud that my simple cell phone microphone couldn’t adequately capture it. (Does that even make sense? I don’t know.) It just seems like much of the music is magically missing in the video. Even so, I’ll share some of those videos now.

I want to say, "Watch for the Jew who comes in at the 0:22 mark and steals the show!" but I fear it will be misconstrued as racist.

I loved the slow, deliberate dancing of the Indian (?) woman in pink at the center of the frame when the video begins. I wasn't really looking at my camera while filming, so I noticed her a bit later and then refocused the camera on her for a few moments, not realizing she had already been showcased pretty well at the beginning of the video.

Hanging around, I also had the chance to film one of the Tibetan Buddhist monks working on the mandala I wrote about previously. If you don’t know the method for creating these amazing works of art, just watch. The patience and precision it involves is mind-blowing. It was also around this time that I had my final angelic visitation at Parliament.

With all the angels hanging around, naturally the queue for the angels-only restroom grew quite long.

I soon found myself outside, enjoying the cool late afternoon air. I took some final shots, read a little tiny bit, and listened to podcasts while waiting for Melanie to call and tell me she was nearby—something that wouldn’t happen for at least an hour. But I was content. And that brings me to the end of Parliament. Just so you’re not completely wondering, I’ll mention that dinner at Blue Iguana was yummy as always.

Parliament in Panorama.

At Blue Iguana.  I think the skeleton is to warn customers that the service is kind of slow.

My adventures for the night didn’t end with Mexican food. After dinner, Melanie and I went to our monthly book club meeting at the SLC Community of Christ. That was a very enjoyable meeting in and of itself, and it seemed an appropriate way to top off my Parliament experience. The book we had read is Living Buddha, Living Christ, written by the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh, who argues that Buddhism and Christianity, when lived to their fullest and properly understood, are really teaching the same things. I saved a whole bunch of quotes from this book, but I’ll conclude by sharing just one small portion of one quote that I particularly enjoyed. It captures the Interfaith spirit that the Parliament of the World’s Religions is all about, and I find it quite profound.

It is good that an orange is an orange and a mango is a mango. The colors, the smells, and the tastes are different, but looking deeply, we see that they are both authentic fruits. Looking more deeply, we can see the sunshine, the rain, the minerals, and the earth in both of them. Only their manifestations are different.

I’d like to add my amen to this. Although I’ve long been a kind of universalist—someone who believes salvation will ultimately come to all and that myriad legitimate and equally effective religious traditions exist—the quotation above really struck me. Most of my life was spent in a religious tradition where, I believe it is safe to say, the assumption is that conformity and uniformity are evidence of God’s influence in your life. If you are truly in touch with the Spirit and being directed by God, you will be the same as all of the other people in a select group in terms of how you understand, believe, experience, and express your spirituality. Such was the thinking. But the quote from Thích Nhất Hạnh made me realize just how much this type of mindset presumes that we humans are all the same. And yet we’re not the same. And if we’re not the same, then we won’t become identical just because the same God is working in all of us. A lemon and a blueberry are quite different from each other, and yet it truly is the same sun and the same rain that gives them life and makes them what they are. Isn’t that a beautiful thing? I think it is. I think it is.

Goodbye, Parliament!  I'll miss you!