Mormon Temples and the Worth Of a Soul

The central theme of Christianity and Mormonism is that the worth of every single soul is great. There’s not a person alive that is not of value. The sole point of religion is to help each of us recognize the worth of others, no matter who they are, where they are from, what they look like, or what they do. Christianity really emphasizes the message through the life of its central figure, Jesus, whose life was anticipated in Old Testament scripture as someone coming from a place of little consequence.

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

The story of Christ’s birth and life is obviously well known. A virgin birth in a manger, in poverty and obscurity to a people subjected to Roman rule who came not to bring political deliverance but rather living water with a promise that those who drink will never thirst again. Consistently, he hung out with the poor, the underclass, the sick, the afflicted and the sinner and saved his most severe condemnation not for those who are weak, but for those with power, authority and money.  His theology is both hyper-personal and revolutionary, proclaiming that the last shall be first and the first last. This is a challenging example to follow. To take it seriously means we need to take every single person on this planet as individuals with worth.

With that as a backdrop I recently finished the book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”. Here the author describes individual lives in an Indian slum situated near an airport in Mumbai. The author goes out of her way to bring to light the poignant, beautiful lives of the people struggling to survive under severe poverty. Thousands of people crammed between a sewage lake and an airport, neglected, ignored and dismissed by the broader society.

This quote from the book is typical, but also remarkable in how it echos the story of the Good Samaritan only without the Samaritan and with the miserable backstories of each person passing by the injured man:

“One dawn in July, Sunil found a fellow scavenger lying in the mud where Annawadi’s rut-road met the airport thoroughfare. Sunil knew the old man a little; he worked hard and slept outside the Marol fish market, half a mile a way. Now the man’s leg was mashed and bloody, and he was calling out to passersby for help. Sunil figured he’d been hit by a car. Some drivers weren’t overly concerned about avoiding the trash-pickers who scoured the roadsides.

Sunil was too scared to go to the police station and ask for an ambulance, especially after what was rumored to have happened to Abdul. Instead he ran toward the battleground of the Cargo Road dumpsters, hoping an adult would brave the police station. Thousands of people passed by this way every morning.

Two hours later, when Rahul left Annawadi for school, the injured man was crying for water. ‘This one is even drunker than your father,’ one of Rahul’s friends teased him. ‘Drunker than your father,’ Rahul retorted unimaginatively as they turned onto Airport road. Rahul wasn’t afraid of the police; he’d run to them for help when his neighbor dumped boiling lentils on Danush, his sickly baby. The man on the road was just a scavenger, though, and Rahul had to catch a bus to class.

When Zehrunisa Hussain passed an hour later, the scavenger was screaming in pain. She thought his leg looked like hell, but she was bringing food and medicine to her husband, who also looked like hell far across the city in the Arthur Road jail.

Mr. Kamble passed a little later, milky-eyed and aching, on his tour of business and charities, still seeking contributions for his heart valve. He had once been a pavement dweller like the injured man. Now Mr. Kamble saw nothing but his own bottomless grief, because he knew miracles were possible in the new India and that he couldn’t have one.

When Rahul and his brother returned from school in the early afternoon, the injured scavenger lay still, moaning faintly. At 2:30 P.M., a Shiv Sena man made a call to a friend in the Sahar Police Station about a corpse that was disturbing small children. At 4 P.M., constables enlisted other scavengers to load the body into a police van, so that the constables wouldn’t catch the disease that trash-pickers were known to carry.

Unidentified body, the Sahar Police decided without looking for the scavenger’s family. Died of tuberculosis, the Cooper Hospital morgue pathologist concluded without an autopsy. Thokale, the police officer handling the case, wanted to move fast, for he had business with B. M. Patil Medical College in Bijapur. Its anatomy department required twenty-five unclaimed cadavers for dissection, and this one rounded out the order.”

The nameless scavenger who lost his name and significance from birth. Shutoff from education off from an education and eventually even a home – his life is not told in this story. As an old man, he’s hit by a car and left to die on the side of the road. But then, even after death, he’s severed from all ties to whatever family he may have had, discarded and forgotten to history, forever.

And I get why this is so difficult. It’s easy to race on by a homeless man pushing a shopping cart slowly on the sidewalk. In India, more so. I spent three and a half weeks there, in 20001 and felt overwhelmed by the crowd of people and especially the masses of poverty. How do you consider the one individual when there were so many.

I’ve already described Christianity’s core mission. To offer hope, significance and worth to the poor, forgotten, diseased and sinful. That was Christ’s core message and mission. Mormonism  came along much later, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, an American Christian church. Among Mormonism’s innovations is its emphasis on familial relationships. Joseph Smith taught the eternal nature not just of our lives but of our relationships and built temples in which Mormons perform sacred ordinances and make sacred covenants to remember our dead – all of our dead. It’s one of the core missions of the church to bind and seal the entire global family to each other. Not one person forgotten, not one person lost.

But the only way for this to happen is if each one of us noticed just a few more people. And this is why Mormons are asked to do family history work. To bring out of obscurity those in our family tree who would be forgotten otherwise.


Big Tent Mormonism

It’s not news that more and more people are leaving organized religion. Mormonism is not immune, although I think the overall growth rate  trends upward, perhaps largely because of growth in Africa. Personally, I know people who have left Mormonism. And I get why some choose to leave the church, really I do, but I still believe religion matters. Nonetheless, here I’m not going to get into why people should stay, rather I want to dig into what type of person Mormonism is meant for. The answer is, and I hope this is obvious – that Mormonism is for every type of person, and we should want them exactly as they are.

Now this sounds obvious, but I think we are too often terrible at this. There are aspects of our religion that make this kind of openness challenging. For one thing, the first Sunday of every month, we have what basically is an open-mic meeting we call “Fast and Testimony”. For about 30 to 35 minutes of this meeting, random members of the audience, at their own discretion, get up to extemporaneously share something of themselves. Needless to say this can be interesting and beautiful and strange and everything in between. We also rely on lay leadership. Nobody except for, I suppose, the very top leadership, gets paid. In congregations throughout the world, men and women give up precious hours of their own time to pitch in to the church congregation to make it run. Additionally, you cannot choose your congregation, you attend based on where you live. And then every member is asked to visit and serve and befriend other members in that congregation. This all requires some number of highly-functioning, engaged, committed enough to spend hours of their own time individuals to make this all work.

But it’s challenging to accept everyone because everyone is difficult, some more than others. We naturally want to be with people just like us. And church is not a building, it’s made up of people and relationships, working and serving each other. Sometimes we simply do not fit in to the ward we’re assigned, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps we find that we’re politically liberal in a congregation filled with nothing but Glenn Beck listeners. Or we can’t quite accept polygamy was ever of God and wonder how a prophet could have introduced it over his wife’s objections. Or we’re upset that women don’t have more of an equal seat at the table. Or we have a gay brother who will have to fight and work and demand acceptance. Or we struggle with employment or poverty in a congregation filled with those with more success. Or when we’ve been down, we’ve looked at pornography and can’t stomach the shame and the guilt that can come attending church after having done so. Or we just can’t kick the cigarette habit and are afraid others may smell the smoke on us. I could go on and on and on.

But Mormonism needs every one of us and our messy lives and our imperfections and our crazy ideas and our diversity. We all need each other. A few quotes:

“Let me say that we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do. We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work. That is the essence of our missionary service” President Hinckley (meeting, Nairobi, Kenya, 17 Feb. 1998).

“If you experience the pain of exclusion at church from someone who is frightened at your difference, please don’t leave or become inactive. You may think you are voting with your feet, that you are making a statement by leaving. [Some may] see your diversity as a problem to be fixed, as a flaw to be corrected or erased. If you are gone, they don’t have to deal with you anymore. I want you to know that your diversity is a more valuable statement.”
-Chieko N. Okazaki

“Engaged in this work, theology has only one strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity. Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg Machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit – tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. This is their joy. Here, the impromptu body of Christ is a Rube Goldberg Machine. In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide. Charity is a willingness to have our lives made difficult by people we did not have to help, objects we did not have to save, thoughts we did not have to think. Theology is gratuitous because theology is grace, and grace, by definition, is unearned, unwarranted, unnecessary, unconditional, gratuitous. Theology is free. Theology isn’t gratuitous because it receives without giving but because it gives without thought of return.” – Adam Miller from Rube Goldberg Machines

And finally, the baptismal covenant:

8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
Mosiah 18:8-10

So, let me offer a caveat. I think the one general condition is a willingness to participate in good faith in a way that’s cooperative and faith-promoting. I get why the church would not tolerate those who are disruptive or dangerous. But beyond the most extreme examples, yes, we need each other…

3 Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;

D&C 4:3

And that’s it. Mormonism at its core requires desire, a desire to serve God and that’s basically it.  A desire to serve in our imperfections.

How Ashamed Should Trump Supporters Feel?

Anyone on Facebook should know the obvious about me by now. I am not a Donald Trump supporter. We’re approaching two years now, when he threw his name into the ring to run for the Republican party nomination, I assumed it was a publicity stunt that would soon flame out and die quickly. When he started to rise in the polls, I assumed as had other fringe figures in past elections, he would say or do something stupid turning off would-be supporters and be replaced by someone more presidential and acceptable. He did say, do and propose plenty of stupid things, but nothing hurt him. His popularity in the primary rose quickly and just stayed there, no matter what he did. Probably only Trump understood that he could literally say or do anything, perhaps even  shoot someone and not offend his supporters.

The Republican field seemed to have some relatively heavy-weights, at least on paper – Jeb!, Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio. But watching the debates unfold, none of them had the presence or the charisma or the ideas to really excite the base. They all seemed to be reciting the script Ronald Reagan wrote meant for the problems of the 1980’s. Only Trump sounded like someone who believed what he was saying – no matter how idiotic the content of his message – at least he was sincere and authentic. Trump wasn’t afraid to criticize Bush’s Iraq war while everyone else not named Paul defended it. Trump promised to preserve social security and medicare, while other Republicans were promising to gut them. Trump consistently and with passion promised to reverse trends by massive global market forces – trade and immigration – and return America to the glory days of… when exactly? 1950? He never said how, but people believed he could do it.

Meanwhile Donald Trump made horrifying campaign promises, made horrifying comments, and over the course of his life was involved in numerous scandals. Never believing he could actually win the presidency, most people until after the fact, never anticipated the scale and extent of his conflicts of interests and how he’s now in the position to enrich himself through the power of his presidency. Not to mention, his attacking, divisive style guarantees he’ll use his office to push the country into an even harsher, more divisive political environment.

A big part of me kind of gets how Trump resonates with a segment of American voters. A big part of it was that he ran against Hillary Clinton, who was not a good presidential candidate. Everyone had their own reason to vote for Trump or to opt out of this election entirely (many stayed home, others voted for people who had no shot of winning). Some saw the rise of political correctness and saw moments of liberal speech stifling. Hate speech seemed to cover and ever-broadening list of topics now considered off-limits. Others saw threats to religious liberty and the rapid acceptance of gay marriage as a threat to Christian values. The first black president with a Muslim sounding name (and likely a secret Muslim) who once attended church services of the America-hating Jeremiah Wright, who couldn’t even bring himself  to call out the global sins of extremist Islam.

But a bigger part of me is horrified. How could a rational voter consider the span and scope of American successes and problems and think for an instant that Donald Trump was the best person of the available options to address them? Given his obvious misogyny, his racism, his bigotry. Yes, I said it. The man is a racist bigot. There’s no getting around it.

And part of the reason this fact did not sink him was because many Americans just cannot stomach to come to terms with the racism in our country that brought Trump to power, nor do they even want to talk about it.

And even beyond that, Trump’s utter idiocy, in terms of policy and substance.

Let me pause right here. Donald Trump is a great marketer. His business is primarily branding. People pay him to put his name on their stuff – that’s the core of his post-bankruptcy business. He’s good on television. His show, the apprentice, where he could present himself as a successful and wildly rich – the extent of the truth of this is something no one knows for sure because he keeps these facts hidden. But he was unprepared and inarticulate in all three of his presidential debates with Hillary. His schtick worked better in the primary debates when he had to share the stage with far more people and had far less time to defend himself or explain his policies.

But he was never, ever good gaining support beyond a pretty narrow base. He is the most unpopular person ever to win the presidency and he barely won at that. Many people who voted for him, did so for reasons that did not include adoration or support. So, Trump was an obvious, transparent idiot when it comes to running a country and most people could see it plain as day. He was good at marketing, but to be good in business you need to be good at finding a niche. The country is large and diverse, no business needs every citizen to be its customer to be successful. A company just needs a big enough base of support. Trump was good at capturing a loyal base even as he turned off and offended many, many others. You can’t run a country this way, not successfully.

But none of this ultimately mattered. Trump squeeked out a narrow win and I find this horrifying. I find this difficult to understand. I fear for a country that could decide what are country needs is one of the most divisive, hateful, ignorant candidate we ever had. And I’ll say this over and over again, this election just wasn’t rational, but that’s par for the course. Voting is just not rationale.

So let me just say this one more time and hopefully I can stop saying it again and move on to more specifics. History will look back on this election and mark it as a shameful moment in American politics.

I don’t believe Donald Trump will be a disaster in everything. I’m sure he’ll have successes and good ideas mixed in with the regular disasters that will crop up again and again. He has good people on his staff and he has Steve Bannon – among other frightening, unqualified people. The country is a behemoth and a bureaucracy. It’s not easily controlled by a single person and it will largely move along on cruise control. It’s likely we’ll survive Trump. But we shouldn’t have had to.