Doubting in Public and Fragile Minds

Image result for doubts and unbelief
Earlier in my life I was taught in church, one of the admonishments I received was that I should refrain from questioning because by questioning or doubting in public, I might be influencing others of less spiritual strength and causing them to lose their faith.

This never made sense to me. I had always assumed that my own spiritual strength was something given me from God, not loaned to me by someone else inside or outside any church. It was also important that I do not portray myself as a wiser authority on God than anyone else. The idea that I have power in and of myself to overrule God’s influence in the life of someone else belittles God.

As persons of faith, perhaps our faith is most tested when we are tempted to not trust God’s processes. Like overbearing and over-protective parents, do we hover around someone else thinking we know more about what is spiritually best for them than God? Are we then failing to trust that God is at the helm?

This is not license to move about testing God by presuming to speak for Him and insert ourselves in between God and another soul. It also is not license to willfully decry the spirituality of anyone else as not equal to our own – AND – if we are not persons of faith, it is not license to go about tearing down religious attitudes in others.

For if we are not persons of faith, then why would we struggle to attack something we ourselves do not believe exists?

There are many Christians who are quite content to live in the simplest arenas of belief – who feel no need for deeper spiritual and mystical experience and have no hunger to come any closer to God than they are right now.

There are others who are so secure and established in a fixed and unchanging spiritual mode, that they truly are afraid of really exploring and testing what they really believe. In some cases, people like this will be critical if they encounter explorers, questioners and testers who are on a quest to come to know God as God knows them – in a highly personal and spiritual context.

Traditional formulas full of shoulds and should-nots are like paved roads. There is much to see from the road, but you never know what meadows and mountains exist if you do not step off the road and make your own trail into a wilderness of opportunity.

What comes out of a “cannon” of scripture

Chrisitanity bullying people for 2000 years

So much of what is preached and publicized in the name of Jesus today consists of encouraging and sustaining nothing much more than opinionated moralizing as the basis of Christian belief.

In fact, one might hear the proposal that morality is theology.

Morality is not theology- because it consists, as Alan Watts wrote, “of telling people how to behave.”

Does not focusing on morality – telling people how to behave – impact public or private thinking only as it relates to control of behavior? So long as the emphasis is on morality is not the emphasis is on control?

Preaching morality rather than the virtues of goodness – particularly the common good we all ought to be seeking – seems merely to give us mostly sermons and exhortations that limit themselves to issues defined entirely by judgmental thinking.

Humans also have repeatedly demonstrated how judgmental thinking drags the positive and negative aspects of human behavior into morally gray areas where actions seem more governed out of a concern for reward or punishment.

Judgmental thinking have at its core the idea of worthiness. In fact we often reinforce so-called acceptable moral behavior based on reward and punishment. Worse, judgmental thinking drives a comparative that pretends to justify one person’s superiority over another. Reward/punishment involve the use of fear, shame and guilt which – if ever used successfully – almost always results in the “right” things being done but for the wrong reasons. There is value in reward and punishment if the only goal is that of deterrence, intimidating those who would commit acts that would harm another person. Such is a concept within a code of civil justice.

In that regard then what is the relationship between a use of deterrence to coerce obedience and someone’s genuine un-forced willingness to do good because it is the right thing or the compassionate action upon which Jesus preached?

Could we not say that this sort of spiritual construct only works in a religious sense if God is likewise viewed as judgmental and punitive; a divine being who responds to human behavior in a manner that creates deterrence and control?

Whether spiritual or civic, such control is nothing more than legalistic in thought and assumption – it is both spiritual and civic governance by the letter of the law. Does that not cause sin – in a context of an offended God – to become greatly exaggerated, even elevated into the realm of criminal activity?

Subjugation to the letter of religious law is precisely the deadly environment into which Jesus was born and ministered. To deal with a fixation on controlled behavior, Jesus demonstrated a Christ Path as a divine alternative for a society totally immersed in literal and letter-of-the-law thinking.

In that society and in our own today, many literalist spiritual leaders have done something terrible to scripture, turning it into a device of menace focused on control and deterrence. Sacred writings that inform humanity of its relationship to God lose most of their capacity to spiritualize individual lives if they are reduced to a canon of inflexible statutes born out of rigidity and possessed of a very narrow range of interpretation?

Because a canon is essentially a document intended to preserve a status quo with as little change as possible, can we not assume that a writing that has been canonized is a document of censorship? Canonization of spiritual writings lets the controllers retain control. A document of censorship preserves the benefits of those already in authority at the expense of the culture itself?

In the 21st Century it seems that scripture – as many view it – is not much more than an instrument of control; a tool and a means by which conservative manipulation of the status quo is now more important than the spread of the philosophy of the Sermon on the Mount, The Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.

The more influential among religious authorities now seem concerned with subjugating the simple philosophies of Jesus’ parables. We seem to be caught in the 19th century with a monarchical vision of God that capitalizes on a wrathful Cyrus or Nebuchadneezer.

Many of our influential Christian celebrities have blended that God-of-wrath image with that of imperial power and the legalistic imagery of the Caesars and Roman civil administration. Has not the kingdom of today’s literalist scriptoral authorities come to resemble almost entirely the negative aspects of Judaism into which Jesus was born 2000 years ago?

To many it feels like when a Bible is waved from a pulpit, it resembles more a cudgel than an olive branch. Jesus did not describe his Father in the punitive monarchical sense that pervades Christian fundamentalism today. Theological writings existed in the medieval church, but what filtered to the masses was moralistic manipulation – a device for sustaining ecclesiastical and civil authority. Such was possibly the most powerful factor that allowed a church to persecute, torture and kill heretics – all the while pretending that Jesus in Heaven was applauding their actions.

Do we need for theology to include a “disobey and you’ll go to hell” in order to describe humanity’s relationship to God?

Is there a fear that morality in and of itself will fail without that kind of deterrence?

Can one not be moral out of nothing more than a concern for the highest good of all concerned?

Can we not consider it important to understand that so long as scripture is viewed as inerrant and written exclusively by God with the assumption that God’s eye is single to obedience first and punishment as the otherwise consequence?

The Bible as Jesus utilized scripture for himself is an instrument for search, ponder and pray – for spiritual growth through choice. It should never be an instrument of spiritual, emotional nor civic coercion.

Should we not elevate our thinking toward doing good for the sake of goodness with a genuinely sincere desire and no expectation of reward or public recognition?

Is not faith something more than timid trusting of what orthodoxy insists we practice as we remain dominated by literalist interpretations set forth and canonized centuries ago?

Is there so much orthodox peer pressure in our congregations that the esteem of the self-righteous crowd is worth more than a sense of personal esteem with Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ?

When the Father of the Prodigal Son responded to the judgmental and resentful score-keeping older brother, he applauded neither the older son’s literal thinking nor the son’s blind obedience. Had he done so he would have agreed that the younger son didn’t deserve the treatment the Father was about to give.

He would have been The Judgmental Father of a Judgmental Older Son and justified centuries of later Christian moralizing. It does not take fundamental literalism to realize this. It does not take conformity to a group think of orthodoxy to realize this.

These concepts and the internal spiritual reactions they generate are and have always been in Scripture. Are they not what Scripture is really about – facilitating growth toward making the right choices for the right reasons and toward a common desire for the highest good of all concerned?

Aren’t we supposed to work out salvation in fear and courageous trembling?

Or are we to be therefore commanded in all things and limited to what comes out of a “cannon”?

 

Dancing With The Episcopals

When I’m feeling orthodoxically cultural I return to the church of my childhood and early parenting years.

When I’m feeling desirous of joy and community, I tend to dance with the Episcopals.

Back in our early years in Pacific County, Washington (circa 2000) Lietta and I found ourselves yearning for some sort of church connection. I was no longer a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but the yearning for a spiritual community was there.

We decided to visit St. John’s Episcopal Parish in  South Bend as Episcopal was the church of  Lietta’s mother, Joy Ellsworth who lived in University Place next to Tacoma.

We encountered a very small and aging community in an Episcopal building on a hillside overlooking the Willapa River as it flowed through South Bend, Washington on its way to the Pacific Ocean.

There were two priests serving the congregation, Dick Kindle and Gretchen Gunderson.

During the first service we participated in, one of them (I don’t remember which) told us we were welcome to receive communion when that time in the liturgy arrived. Aware that with the recent removal of my name from LDS Church records, I remember having no reluctance to receiving communion for the first time in my life. I was aware of coming face to face with a wafer and a chalice of wine and looked forward to it.

However, as the liturgy was presented to me for the first time I found myself caught up in the passages as Dick or Gretchen recited them. When the time came I realized that I was being invited to receive communion in a literal re-enactment of the Last Supper. The liturgy does that and by the time I stepped to the altar rail and knelt, I was in tears, caught up in the spirit of the thing and listening to the organist play communion music.

The LDS Church has a bread-and-water Sacrament Service that is not exactly the same thing. There is reverent kneeling by a male priesthood holder and a set prayer consisting of a small paragraph that is read and must be read correctly lest the Bishop ask you to try again. Then trays of bread and then water are passed to the congregation by male priesthood holders who carry them to the stand and then the pews. No music is played during the passing of the Sacrament. Only silence.

The communion was the recent I wanted to come back again and again. And we did. We learned that having already been baptized earlier in our lives, the Episcopal Church had no requirement that we be baptized Episcopals. Eventually we went to Aberdeen one Sunday where The Right Reverend Bishop Sanford (Sandy) Hampton placed his hands on the sides of our heads and intoned “Remember your baptism.” I was confirmed a member of the Episcopal Church

We were in fact the youngest active members of that St. Johns Parish and in short order were put to work involving Ladies Guild, Music and where I eventually became the Senior Warden while Lietta was the Vestry Secretary. I also shared organ duties and both Lietta and I went into a kind of training-to-ministry program as lay preachers.

 

Lay Preachers
Lietta preaching her first sermon and Arthur at the Organ

 

By 2004 Lietta and I had become politically active for the first times in our lives. Lietta shortly became the Washington Coordinator for a national organization, Military Families Speak Out.

We attended a large rally in Seattle where I was nervous while Lietta had no compunctions about speaking to a crowd at the Seattle Center.

Don’t be nervous Honey

Thousands rally to protest Iraq war,

As military families go, Lietta Ruger said, she is as red, white and blue as any proud mother.

But how could she reconcile her loyalty to the armed forces with her disdain for the Iraq war?

For months, she kept silent — until her son-in law faced mortar attacks every night at his Baghdad compound. That’s when the Episcopal preacher in her came out.

Ruger, 53, of Bay Center, Pacific County, spoke out against the war on PBS’ “The NewsHour” with Jim Lehrer last fall and to her congregation at St. John’s Episcopal Church in South Bend, Pacific County.

And again yesterday: On the second anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, she gave an impassioned speech explaining why she believes the war in Iraq is unjust, before a crowd of anti-war protesters at Seattle Center. Organizers put the number of participants at 5,000.

The Seattle protest, put together by the Church Council of Greater Seattle, Washington State Jobs with Justice and Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War, was part of a worldwide movement designed to place pressure on the military and get attention from Washington, D.C.

After the Lehrer News hour team showed up in South Bend to interview Lietta and tape her sermon, we found ourselves sort of on the outs with the local congregation. They did not appreciate the political publicity and seemed to think it would lead to notoriety.

We eventually talked to the congregation advising them we would be absent on many Sundays and advised that we needed to give up our callings to serve. They were gracious about it but we both knew they were disappointed.

A few months later Lietta was in Crawford, Texas supporting Cindy Sheehan whose group maintained a vigil outside President Bush’s ranch waiting for the President to explain why Cindy’s son had to die.

After the vigil ended, Lietta participated in a speaking tour from St. Louis to Washington D.C.

Lietta on  the Bring Them Home Now bus tourfrom Crawford, Texas to Washington DCAug 31 – Sept 24, 2005 
                                          Lietta speaking in Columbus, Ohio
                                                  September, 2005

Well, lost in the shuffle was any dancing with Episcopals until we moved to Spokane and fell in love with the St. Johns Cathedral. As Lietta had requested baptism and I requested re-baptism, we started having feet in both worlds. We attended an LDS ward in South Hill at the same time we were part of the congregation at St. Johns.

After moving to Coeur D’ Alene in 2018 we stayed home on Sundays until we decided to visit the Coeur D Alene LDS 2nd Ward. After a few weeks we thought we might visit the Episcopals in CDA, found St. Lukes online and attended for the first time early this year.

Ten minutes into the first service at St. Lukes … you guessed it. The liturgy was so familiar, the building reminded us of St Johns Parish in South Bend and we felt like we had come home.

So here we are a part of two spiritual communities. Each offers something unique which we both appreciate. In the LDS ward I find linkage to my culture and heritage (I have authored a historical novel about the Martin Handcart Company of which my mothers ancestors were members). At St Lukes, I find a more familiar and relaxed community that keeps us as busy as we’d like but is willing to respect things when we are unwilling to join in whatever is going on.

We are both studying in the Education for Ministry program which for me is the college level religion classes I had never been exposed to. The texts are informative, provocative and inspire enthusiastic commentaries from us with responses/rebuttals offered by some pretty cool folks.

I suspect that we will stand in two communities and perhaps seek others in different venues before we are satisfied.

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A Recovering Mormon Dancing With Episcopals

My Brothers and Sisters,

I write as one who has been perceived by many as having a foot in two different worlds. Perhaps it’s true. I  maybe even have enough different worlds I live in to have at least the toes of one foot in each.

I write as aparticipating member of the congregation at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho as well as the Coeur D” Alene Second Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

More on my St. Luke’s connection to follow in another writing.

To be more accurate I write as a re-baptized member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who in  1999 had my request to have my name from the records of the Church approved. Twelve years later, in the Spring of 2011 I was re-baptized when my wife Lietta made a decision to join the church.

I had spent the previous years feeling somewhat inadequate and in a state of exile regarding my inability to express a testimony which is what Mormons consider witnessing. By 2011 while sitting once again in Church services, particular to that feeling  of exile was personal awkwardness after re-baptism. I recognized once again an environment that seems to encourage only a bare minimum of experiences of a personal nature. I recognized that members for the most part seemed to express what I called a scripted and somewhat corporate testimony that  involves testifying only of Church-related truths that is supposed to edify the members.

However, having come to grips with what we all seem to think we must bear testimony to ( as opposed to what we really know and feel in the most personal corners of our hearts), I’d like to take this opportunity to bear my personal testimony of the reality of  the Divine in my life.

I’d like to testify about my awareness that the Creator lives and loves us. My experience of The Divine’s love for me is one of the most consistent and real experiences in my life.

I’d also like to testify of all those things that I know to be true. I’d like to testify of the truthfulness and the power of the Holy Spirit as it invigorates and inspires human life.

Long ago, as a young adult I entered into the mission home in Salt Lake City in preparation for serving 27 months as an ordained minister called to preach the gospel. Emotionally I stumbled at the start. I came very close to walking out of the mission home within the first day or so as I became painfully aware of my unpreparedness for ministry and a missionary’s life of total devotion and commitment to teaching truth.

I had not prepared myself. My prime motivation was to complete a mission in order to be worthy of a certain young lady who I believed wanted me to serve a mission.

I felt that I had no testimony of the truth of any particular LDS narrative or teaching. I felt that I stood at the precipice of a dangerous leap into a pretense that – if maintained – would lead ultimately to a self-revealing as a hypocrite.

I did not want to be seen as a man who could mouth words and phrases regarding things of which I had no internal convictions – and about which I had received no divine prompting.

Back then, rather than give in to that temptation to walk away, I took steps that led to my own “Enos moment ,” if you will from the Book of Enos as found in the Book of Mormon,

3 Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart. 

4 And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.

And my soul hungered and I felt my spirit suffer because of that unfulfilled hunger for God.

The first step of my “Enos Moment” was true to the missionary training I was already receiving. I began a process that took much longer than the one all-day-all-night period described by Enos. I’d have to say that a fullness in that regard did not come to pass until I was in Texas and already going through all the motions as an missionary called to preach the gospel. Eventually, in a form only I might be able to understand (since my prayers were personal and pertinent to me and my own standing before The Divine), I came to a place where I felt I could honorably serve as a missionary.

The intensity of life as a missionary can do much for the intensity of spiritual experience. For me a missionary should work for a constant flow with the depths of scripture; with the constancy of looking for the Spirit in every moment and event of mission life. This seemed to be the most logical way toward an inspired life permeated by that peculiar Mormon revelatory attitude that attempts to experience The Divine in every venue.

Not totally aware of the difference between how I experienced life spiritually as a missionary and a life of lesser focus on god-talk and religious stuff, I found it hard to understand how others might not be experiencing life in the same way. I assumed that what was happening to me had for the most part already happened to every active adult Mormon. I assumed that I had finally arrived into the Mormon spirit-driven way of living that I had envied for so long in others.

I returned home to Idaho as an on-fire returned missionary; ready for the next steps the Lord was preparing me to take. Like most active and participating members of the Church, I accepted as literal the LDS narratives about our earliest history, the LDS doctrines and assertions regarding my belonging to and being an integral part of the One True Church on the Face of the Earth.

It was a heady time and did not seem to dissipate for almost 20 years.

Consistent with my missionary personality of the mid-sixties, I for the most part with ease accepted and maintained the narratives, doctrines and commitments as a priesthood-holder, father and temple-wed husband.

– until there came a time when events, people and historical narratives came to my attention in ways that I had heretofore and perhaps subconsciously and deliberately avoided or ignored.

Eventually, a mindset came over me that hearkened back to 1965 and my frightened humanity in the Salt Lake Mission Home. That mission-home desperation of 1965 had driven me to a personal humility in the presence of The Divine that seemed so necessary in order to attain ministerial honor as a young missionary. That then was the only personal experience on which I could rely to help me deal with all these pieces of new information tumbling, as it were, into my awareness whether I was ready or prepared or not.

At that moment what I now call the “Moroni Promises” as described in Chapter Ten of the book of Moroni asserted themselves.

Ask God if these things are not true. Ask with a sincere heart, real intent and faith.

I possessed (as we all do) tangible spiritual experiences. Although these tangible and emotional experiences had served me well for years. I just seemed to have forgotten the import and meaning of those experiences. I seemed to have forgotten how I had made them work for me as a young missionary and a young father, husband and priesthood holder in every ward in which I resided

In the face of new information, confusing narrative conflicts and rising doubts, I seemed to have forgotten the next-step applications of wisdom regarding my experiences with the Moroni Promises. For me, the Moroni-Promise process in reality has nothing to do with whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet nor with those true-church narratives that intersect with LDS attention spans much like the chatter coming from a television set left on in the background.

The essence of that process is purely and simply the formula for success for every religious mystic in every setting (Christian or otherwise) going back thousands of years.
What appears to be the expectation a church has for what happens when we attend meeting where a spiritual domestication is on-going that feels relentless. In Chapels and Temples the domestication is at its most intense  with all the priesthood-correlated management of sacrament meeting topics/ talks, Sunday school, priesthood, youth and primary lessons and testimony-bearing

What sort of expectations do active members have as conditioned by Church narratives, procedures and patterns of activity/worship?

Does the Church expect membership to actually achieve experiences or moments of union with The Divine?

Would those kinds of experiences run counter to the hierarchical flow of information in which Leadership functions as necessary middle men between members and The Divine?

Do Church members as a whole understand spirituality or spiritual satisfaction as that feeling of “confidence waxing strong” (Doctrine & Covenents, Section 121) that comes from obedience and conformity?

Are  Church members as a whole satisfied with such prescribed feelings as being all there is or all that one could expect?

I agree with all those who by experience have learned that to be alive spiritually we only need personal union with The Divine that is  not a blessing dispensed as a consequence of obedience. In my experience being conscious or aware of that personal union is a natural event that comes from search, ponder and pray. This is not an impossible  task  and does not take years of patience, meditation or suffering to obtain.

Most important is the realization that gaining an awareness of union with The Divine is not based on worthiness. The Moroni Promises are proof of that and in their own right a powerful tool toward such achievement.

Without a personal awareness of the constancy of communion with The Divine, I do not see how religious life has much greater value than some sort of conscience-easing drudgery. Such a kind of religious life leaves more on the Lord’s table than anything consumed by repetitive activity which to me feels like nothing more than imitation of the real  spiritual things.

Why attend Church at all if the only thing that occurs is a never-ending repetition of things we have all heard at an almost kindergarten level of depth.

Why attend and participate if – as a result- we are not taught to swim in deeper water. How many feel like we are told only to continue wearing our water wings in the shallow end of the pool and splash harder – and make sure everyone else is splashing?

Shallowness and failure to offer any meaningful counsel regarding that trickle of confusing and contradictory information eventually brought about an unavoidable challenge of almost the entirety of truth claims made by the Church.

I felt that I had never attended Church in order to listen to exhortations to spiritual unity based on unquestioned acceptance of cookie-cutter spiritual-mindedness. Suddenly I recognized that such was the principle reason I as a younger man had attended and participated in Church.

I had thought for years that I was attending and participating with the idea that on any given moment – especially in a religious or worshipful environment – I could expect an enhanced awareness of personal union with The Divine.

This is not an unreasonable expectation for anyone unless perhaps a human being finds himself or herself lost in the artificial environment of a performance-based belief system. Such a system brings to imagined reality a god obsessed with obedience; a god who makes a big deal of worthiness; and a god who then is accepted as the Divine rewarder who may bless or withhold blessings based on obedience and conformity.

In such a religious context, Sunday school only needs to teach obedience. The Gospel needs only imply that the highest spiritual feeling one can obtain is that of being personally obedient. One could hardly notice the conditional circumstance that causes one to believe that The Divine will be present or withdraw based on one’s personal condition of worthiness which we are taught to believe.

I hope you can see that I am not describing a Heavenly Father who loves unconditionally.

Rather we see portrayed a Heavenly Father who must be pleased and satisfied before blessings are given. At some level adults ought to see that model as flawed because we learn almost daily how mortal fathers and mothers cannot parent children wisely in such a manner.

It is possible to enjoy membership and fellowship with the Saints without belonging and striving with a life focused on quiet desperation about reaching a Celestial Kingdom?

I say it is possible. I say that community in and of itself ought not be underrated or dependent on cookie cutter thinking. Most active members will disagree with and not understand that notion. Community and culture matter much  more than the dogmatic promises of church narratives urging conformity.

I live within two communities.

The performance-based  Mormon Community based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

St. Lukes Episcopal Church in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho (about which I will write shortly.)

It  has been said that my wife and I have feet in two worlds. I find that to be a misleading cliche. I feel that we have both feet firmly planted in the reality of everything on this planet and brought to us by The Divine.

That’s what repair and reconcile really means in each of our lives.