Coming Home

My first time in a Community of Christ congregation, I felt like I had arrived at home.  As a faithful Mormon, who was also really frustrated with his church, such was an immensely scary feeling.  But tucked between the seats, I found a copy of Section 163, and these words calmed and challenged my heart: “Be vulnerable to Divine grace.”  I’m in Community of Christ today because I responded to those words, despite the fear I felt at the time.

Love involves vulnerability.  When you open up your heart to love, you are opening yourself up for the potential of being hurt, too.  Often, this lesson is learned in reverse: after being hurt, we put up walls around our hearts so that we’re not vulnerable again.  Those walls protect us, but come at the cost of not being able to make true and deep connections.  Being vulnerable is key to marriage and community, friendship and discipleship.

I know many who don’t feel at home in church, Community of Christ or otherwise.  For some, it’s been because they were hurt in one way or another; and as a protective posture, they’ve put up a wall around their hearts.  Within Mormonism, it’s been said that people can leave the church, but they can’t leave it alone.  Well, it’s because it was their home!  It meant so much to them, and they had so much invested.  Having loved the church gives them some ownership, a right to lament when they’re alienated from their home.  I accept the same for those who lament changes in Community of Christ.

As one who lives in a literal desert, I’d take the hottest day in the Mojave any time over the harshness of a spiritual desert—of not being able to re-enter the faith of one’s religious awakening.  Perhaps a journey into the desert is necessary, in each of our paths to understanding life.  As one who chooses to believe in God, I hope, however, that others can find their way back home.  Coming full circle has brought so much joy and peace into my life.

T.S. Eliot, in the last of the Four Quartets, writes:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from….

We shall not cease from exploration.

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time

(Little Gidding, V)

There is a great deal of meaning, and power, and beauty in making the full circle from unquestioned faith, into the desert, and then back into the faith with one’s eyes opened.

But that takes some vulnerability, the kind I think the Prodigal Son would have to have had when he returned.  Sure, the Prodigal had shame to deal with; but to enter into the sort of living he entered into, he must have blocked out the love that his father had for him.  To return meant undoing the alienation and distance between him and his father in both geography and the heart.

God is all about tearing down the walls around our hearts, about bringing us back, bringing us home.  But we have to choose whether we will allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough that such a transformation can take place.

I love that the Restoration’s sacred geography has Eden and Zion in the same locale: it’s always been about coming home, eyes opened, but coming home.  And it is thrilling to end where we started, and know it, appreciate it, truly love it, for the first time.

Holy Tentles of the Restoration

Community of Christ produces a special edition of the Hymns of the Saints hymnal, to commemorate the dedication of the temple.  It’s bound in blue, rather than red, and has a large picture of the Temple in Independence within the first few pages.

I’m telling you this to relate a story involving my three-year-old daughter, Ella.  Never willing to go to the nursery, but preferring to make mayhem during the service, Miss Ella was flipping through the hymnal last Sunday during the sermon.  Seeing the picture of the temple, she turned to me and said, “Daddy, that’s the tentle.  I want to go back.”

I’ve taken Ella and her older brother Lincoln to many temples: Kirtland, Nauvoo, Salt Lake, and Independence.  And I’ve tried to teach them, at their level, that these are places where the Saints have sought to encounter God and a message of purpose of peace.  Someday, I hope that they, too, will be able to rejoice in the temples throughout the Restoration as efforts by the Saints to capture a glimpse of what existence is and should be about.  I hope that they will especially find the temples of Community of Christ meaningful to their lives and cosmosviews.

In any event, last Sunday I wasn’t sure what the speaker was saying at the moment that Ella pointed to the picture of the Temple, but I was struck that my daughter was paying attention to my efforts to share with her something that has come to mean a great deal to me; but more importantly, struck that perhaps she had caught the power of that holy place, and that it had become something important in her life, too.  It is this type of identity development which will be crucial in our effectiveness, as Community of Christ members, to pass on to the rising generation the message of peace and Zion that the Temple symbolizes.  God’s efforts will not be frustrated, but ours likely will be if this sort of passing of the torch doesn’t take place.

Is Mormonism Christian?

I’d like to revisit the theme of the most recent Restoration Studies, while keeping my comments largely to the LDS Church (although with obvious implications for Community of Christ).

For most Mormons, to be “Christian” means being a believer in Christ.  But orthodox Christianity has higher standards, not unlike the standard of “the one true church” of the Latter-day Saints: Christian churches are true expressions of salvation through Christ; and to admit a church into this elite category requires recognition that it falls within the doctrinal, spiritual, and sacramental traditions of the universal church, handed down and preserved from Christ to the apostles, the apostles to the bishops, and the bishops to the present-day.  Before being recognized as part of this “one true church,” Christians are as exclusionary as Mormons, for, for both groups, salvation is on the line. Continue reading

Do you get it?

Awesome is the only word I can think of in describing a Christmas celebration I attended yesterday.  It was indeed a worship service (although some there might not have realized it) involving loud rock, long hair, and shooting jets of fire.  The enlightened readers will immediately perceive that I speak of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra or “TSO.”

In the midst of the lasers and fireballs and dueling electric violins, I was struck by a verse from Ecclesiastes.  While The Preacher might not have intended it to be used this way, it was nonetheless compelling:

What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been,
in the ages before us.
Eccl. 1:9-11 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

While there is nothing new under the sun, many try to disguise the ways in which their creations are indebted to another. Continue reading

National Expansion

I’ve just returned from a nearly month-long summer trip with the family, during which we saw a great deal of the United States including Kirtland, Springfield, Nauvoo, Independence, the Great Plains, the Rockies, and Salt Lake.  Our last stop before returning home was to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, better known for the St. Louis Arch which sits atop it.  It was, perhaps, a fitting place to end the trip, being known as the Gateway to the West (from whence we had just returned, and indicative of traveling against the grain of traditional histories).

Dedicated to the history of national expansion, especially the Louisiana Purchase, the memorial and arch are located near the spot that Lewis and Clark started their famous expedition.

While I now have a much more nuanced and sometimes negative view of national expansion (and the exceptionalism that was fueling and justifying it), I found myself caught up in the story, and telling the story to my children–especially Lincoln, who’s becoming old enough to understand such things on a basic level.  Surprisingly tribal, it became a very moving experience–a rediscovery of my people’s past, or a story I was telling myself to understand myself.

But, unlike the stories told to me in elementary school, the simplified history I shared with Lincoln wasn’t whitewashed of the negative elements.  Rather than promoting exceptional history, I acknowledged “our” past mistakes–and the need to learn from rather than repeat them.  Linc learned that the Native Americans weren’t dealt with fairly; that it was bad to kill all the buffalo.  But he also learned of trappers and explorers and pioneers and how they courageously climbed and settled the backbone of the continent.  He learned of his people, warts and all.

I once believed in and was taught about one great nation separated and set above all others by God, with a divine destiny and calling; I now see one nation among many, but with unique histories and capabilities and certain global responsibilities.  Being divorced from the exceptionalism has not made the history any less important, only more honest.  In fact, I think my commitment to history has become more important even as it has become decentered from national, westward, traditional narratives.

I think there is a lesson to be learned here for the Restoration.  Many once thought in terms of “one true church.”  And many now recognize the dangers of exceptionalism and the problems with sacred histories that are as much whitewash as fact.  But the past need not be any less important simply because of more nuanced and honest approaches; in fact, it is all the more important to understand who we are, and where we ought to be going.

Log Cabins and New Churches

Along with my wife and kids, I visited Montgomery Bell State Park last weekend.  I went for amazing $3-per-hour jon boat rentals, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the park is home to a historical site of importance to 19C American religious history.  In fact, I was so overcome with the history of the place that we’re going back this weekend, but this time to camp for a few days.

Replica of Log Cabin Where Church was Founded, 1810Preview

The historical site is a log cabin where three ministers—the Reverends Samuel McAdow, Finis Ewing, and Samuel King—founded the Cumberland Presbyterian Church on 4 February 1810.  Without permission from the “mother” Presbyterian Church, the three were reorganizing the Cumberland Presbytery, which had been dissolved for following the “New Light” trends within early 19C American religion. Continue reading

Unity in Diversity: Congregational Life

It’s an odd thing to move to a new congregation. I think that most Community of Christ members expect change, subtle to dramatic, should they move and change congregations. But with my previous background as a Latter-day Saint where everything—and I mean everything—was correlated at the general (or world church) level, I knew exactly what to expect when we moved. While the people are different from congregation to congregation, the programs, buildings, and worship are all consistent.

So when a Mormon moves into a new ward (congregation), they can expect that their Sunday School and other class instruction will be from the exact same book, and often the lesson plans will be the same from week to week no matter which church you attend anywhere in the world. Worship formats never change, and the physical spaces where the worship is held, the actual buildings, are often identical to other buildings of the same period for the last thirty years or so (with most of Mormon growth occurring in the last three decades). Older buildings exempted, I can walk into a Mormon chapel just about anywhere and know exactly where the bathroom is, the bishop’s office, the chapel, etc. Continue reading