June 13, 2016 by Ron Madson
“What demon possessed me to have behaved so well.”
This past year my “ward” —-for some reason that word reminds me of the movie “One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”—but I digress. Anyway, as I was saying my ward had the privilege of none other than ex-meritorious General Authority Gene Cook of Mick Jagger fame come speak in our Sacrament meeting. The excitement was palpable.
Even at a 1 P.M. starting time, I am wired to come late to church but I was at least on time enough to hear the essence of Elder Cook’s message—-“We show our devotion to God by doing the small things such as being on time for sacrament meeting”, and I guess sensing we were ready for even a higher law he challenged our ward to be even “more obedient to the Lord by being ten minutes early to each meeting.” I was awestruck at our ward’s response. Members and leaders, obviously possessing a spiritual nature beyond my comprehension, spoke of how inspiring the message was and how important it is for God to see that we are punctual.
Perhaps because I was late (which could prove Elder Cook’s point) or maybe the spirit dissipated before it could reach me at my usual seat on the foyer couch, I did not share in the spirit of the message until I had my own personal revelation: Meeting attendance IS the central “active” metric of nearly all churches— “Do you go to church?” is the most oft repeated question. For reporting purposes our church defines one being “active” if one attends at least one sacrament meeting per quarter. Woody Allen nailed it—“90% of life is just showing up”
So let’s consider why is it that we have to be encouraged or even challenged to attend church meetings? And what is it that causes some of us to become chronic attenders? And is this something endemic to an ever increasingly modern and secular world? As to the last question my favorite life observer Mr. Thoreau shared what draconian measures had to be taken to compel even a professedly deeply religious people at the birth of our nation to attend church:
“In 1665 the Court passed a law to inflict corporal punishment on all persons, who resided in the towns of this government, who denied the Scriptures.” Think of a man being whipped on a spring morning, till he was constrained to confess that the Scriptures were true! “It was also voted by the town, that all persons who should stand out of the meeting-house during the time of divine service should be set in the stocks.” It behooved such a town to see that sitting in the meeting-house was nothing akin to sitting in the stocks, lest the penalty of obedience to the law might be greater than that of disobedience.” –
Church: It is just a building after all
Some would suggest we need more inspiring messages in our sermons. Maybe, but in fairness to those sharing the word, they start off with two handicaps—the confining venue in which they are asked to speak, i.e., a church building about the liberation of the gospel, and more often than not, they/we are assigned to parrot an already given general conference talk that was not all the insightful the first time—- and then be surprised that members are searching for some meaning on their electronic devices. A few years ago church was starting in a few minutes and I asked my fourteen year old son if he wanted to try out a different church this Sunday that was being held outdoors—he said “yes” before even knowing what it entailed because it was being held outside.
After spending more time in recent years on the outside of church doors as part of my Sabbath ritual, I began to see for the first time how limiting church has always been in a very structural way. We sit in straight rows (at least if they are not “straight” we try to pretend they are—“why would God allow non-straight rows”) like sardines. The little natural light at church we see is filtered through windows at the front of the chapel. Those on the stand or at the pulpit have to compete with it—or least draw our attention away from it to them lest we feel drawn to any light outside the church.
The “Good” News?
What messages do we get at church? And how does it compare to the passion of early Christianity that challenged an empire and changed the world?
There is something about first century Christianity (Jesus radicals) that fuels my faith. I am an arm chair historian (which means I have read some books) when it comes to the first few centuries of the fledgling Christian uprising founded on the literal words and example of Jesus’ life. There was an untamed wildness in their approach to the world. They did not consider choosing the lesser of two evils in the world (“sure Caligula is not our first choice but at least he is not Nero”) —-they played long ball. They refused all military service and shared all they had in common with the least. And they spoke of a “kingdom” that transcended churches for they met in homes, meadows and gave their sermons on mounts—- for where even “two or more” were gathered in His name there was His “church.”
Because they took on the systemic evils of the world they were persecuted—and I do not mean the pretend persecution of someone saying “Happy Holidays.” They renounced social injustices and they stood boldly speaking truth to power for the oppressed, those cast out of society and even thrown out of their churches/synagogues for having non-approved thoughts and words. They took Jesus’s invitation to love one’s enemies so literally that they refused to serve in their nation’s military and condemned any form of violence upon another human being. Their faith could penetrate the heart of all people who were willing to hear because their message crossed all borders and ethnic, racial, sexist and all social divisions created by a world that did not know the God who loved all humanity unconditionally.
So what is being taught in church now? If one had never heard of the LDS church and were required to sit in our meetings and lessons for an entire year, what would their notes show was the objective of our most emphasized messages? Would the basic behavioral objective be summarized as: “Pray, pay, and obey authority?” Would the “good news” be reduced to “you too can overcome your addiction to coffee, tea, and tobacco. You too can become a holy, chaste, commandment keeper, personally worthy and feeling really, really good about yourself as a member of The All Is Well For You & Me Club?” Reduced to its simplest desired objective, would the message be that you too can know those warm feelings that come from reading the scriptures, praying three times a day, attending church, wearing white shirts, modest dress, excellent hygiene, home teaching, taking cookies to the new neighbor—all wrapped up in the warm blanket of personal spiritual health? Is this what it means to be “true.”?
All these things are nice, but if in the end one’s spiritual development never matures beyond the pharisaical narcissism of “personal” self-righteousness, then what do we have? What we have are members of a Church, but nothing remotely resembling The Kingdom of God. One graduates spiritually when one takes off his or her church training wheels and becomes a contributing member of Jesus’ Kingdom by doing as Jesus did -standing in the breach for the least among us, denouncing the evil done to others, giving voice to His words on behalf of the Samaritan, the sinners, the outcasts and yes, even one’s enemies. That is the price of admission to his Kingdom and the beginning of genuine discipleship, even if it means unpopularity within one’s religious community or national tribe.
For if my religious activism is to be real then it must be a “Way” of life (the early Christians did not claim to be a church but rather practiced what they called “The Way” which meant a “Way of Life” that had no church dogma or any defining indicia of membership other than having a desire to be like Jesus every day evidenced by baptism.
Such simplicity transcends any Sabbath cult. Ironically, if we really began to practice “The Way” all week, then the Sabbath might even be considered a rest from one’s demanding Christ activism to refuel for another week of discipleship—-and I cannot think of a less refueling or rather life sapping experience than modern day LDS Sunday church meetings and correlated lessons that seeks to trivialize, control and limit Christianity to the sex and appearance obsessed Victorian values rather than the unbridled, radical in every way, message of an itinerant preacher in Galilee that was introduced by a wild man dressed in camel’s hair, eating locust and wild honey.
While most churches stand for who should be excluded from their holiness, Jesus specifically sought to include all those that society had deemed unfit for their association. The former a heavy task, while the latter is liberating as Jesus described it—“my yoke is easy and my burden is light” —a Sabbath of rest from having to exercise judgment over the sins of others that can be enjoyed all week long.
The Stocks/Shackles come inside
When allegiance/obedience to an organization wanes and attendance is in decline you have two approaches—-get a better product/message/vision or increase control over your subjects.
To have actual human beings created in the image of God stand outside a church house looking totally happy and free was something that could not be tolerated lest those inside see that those outside are not as unhappy, evil or condemned as advertised so historically the stocks/shackles served their purpose. But now what happens when some inside the church building begin to question the necessity of the theological and cultural stocks/shackles? Or worse they are not willing to be obedient based primarily, if not solely, on appeals to authority? Now what? They come to church but then they have the audacity to think and act as if they are as free as those outside of church to speak their mind and their conscience.
Thought policing and personal threats of God’s judgment thus becomes the spiritual stocks/shackles more powerful than its physical counterpart. If you do not think, believe or do such and such then we will withhold our stamp of approval and if “we” withhold your good standing, “we” obviously being God’s “keepers of the gate”— then no salvation for you.
But the brilliant thing about in house church stocks/shackles is how damn nice those that seek to restrain the untamed member are in clamping down the restraints. With dolce voices dripping with sweetness—“We love you” and “We are so sorry for you and your family” –they slowly lead us to the stocks/shackles, our hands and neck are slipped into place and the bolts secured. Keeping us tethered to the church, they tell us, is just another “tender mercy.” And as if the threat of our own personal salvation is not enough the most exquisite form of compulsion is teaching recalcitrant members that all their relationships with parents, siblings, children and grandchildren will be eternally lost if they quit attending church.
I have some serious claustrophobia issues. The thought of being confined physically— even temporarily– causes me anxiety. But the prospects of someone trying to enter my mind and police my thoughts and words creates an aversion which no promised eternal award could assuage. And if we think the actual historical stockades were a barbaric form of compulsion such punishment is nothing compared to teaching that if you are not perfectly obedient then you lose the most valued relationship you have ever known—your family. Brilliant! At least those outside the church were released once church was over and no one could see them resume their normalcy and return to their families—-but the exquisite threat of “eternal” consequences? Who would have thought of such a powerful weapon to compel obedience and church attendance or for that matter obedience to a list of duties as daunting as Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables—or in our times church bathrooms.
But the power of fear, particularly the threat of having all family relationships eternally lost, can only hold its power for so long among a strong-minded people that have witnessed the unconditional love of family. For the same source of that familial love springs from our Father and Mother in Heaven which no earthly nor unearthly power could sever—- even if men taking God’s name in vain tell us otherwise. For the compulsion founded in fear has been and always will be a false priesthood and once exposed it loses all of its’ power upon the mind and hearts of real men and women of faith.
A Day of Liberation
So I am sitting in church and once again the lesson is on Sabbath day observance aka “church attendance” as if that was the sum and substance of our theology. Apparently, the shepherds of Israel seeking to lead us to Zion, even the City of Enoch, have as their vision from the throne of God what exactly? Attendance at church” meetings!
Are you telling me that the vision that will lead us, His people, to His Zion focuses not on renouncing all forms of violence, torture or inhumanity in its various manifestations nor addressing aggressively and systematically the gross inequality that exists among all mankind when a tiny fraction hold more resources than the billions on this planet that suffer each day to just exist?
….and the God of the universe and creations without numbers is concerned whether you, I and all of us are attending our meetings?
So the beatings, I mean lesson drones on once again this particular Sunday. Same old same old, but the teacher seeking to guides us to further light and knowledge asks: “What is the history/genesis of the Sabbath?” Easy question.
As in Egypt the taskmasters of this world would have their hirelings/slaves etc. work everyday as long as possible. The Lord of Host was like the first Union boss who spoke up for the common worker and declared a day of “liberation” from oppression. Like a jubilee, the Sabbath was to be a liberation from the bondage of others.
So then the teacher had me read a quote from a General Authority about not “playing” on the Sabbath; Pres. Kimball told us not to “lounge” about; then a quote about the necessity of going to church 3 hours, do this or don’t do that. Now the walls were closing in on me—-that suffocating feelings that comes at times at church where there are only a few windows letting some limited light while the ever present, immovable walls and roof stand like sentinels to block out more light than what is allowed in.
Then the teacher invited us to consider what we should do or not do on the Sabbath personally. I started thinking of Jesus and His declaring a year of Jubilee and liberation of the oppressed and captive and His demonstrating over and over again that the Sabbath was for “man” and not “man for the Sabbath”—a Sabbath corn picking Deity that demonstrated how a liberated man really approaches this day despite the constant protestations from his church’s spiritual guides.
I finally realized during the lesson that we have created our own specialized forms of correlated “spiritual” bondage. Then it became clear what “I’ should do to find true liberation this very day to prepare for the week to come—-I needed to set my sails and let the wind be my guide–today! So I motored out to the middle of Utah Lake, put up the main sail, and then un-furled half of the Genoa Jib and watched the mild winds immediately fill the sails. Warm sun mingled with cool breezes.
I sailed into the early evening and following my every turn were the shadows of my sails on the water. The sailboat effortlessly glided over the water. The sun set on the mountains creating a purple glow in the East and a red sky in the west. A Zen like feeling set in as I locked my sails in place, and then, like a second wind for a runner, that sailor high set in when I became one with the water, the wind, and the sail boat.
There seemed to be no time but the present moment all afternoon and evening. Hours passed, the sun disappeared over the west, and it seemed like one seamless moment.
It has taken me decades to finally see the beauty of the Sabbath and embrace its’ truth. I hope to no longer dishonor the Sabbath personally by inflicting any form of bondage on others or myself. Like the Truman Show ending I had to step outside of church and the idolatry that it demands to realize that “it”, i.e., the church demanded allegiance to it—as the end in and of itself rather than inviting us to really live in similitude of Jesus and the real liberation and vision He offered.
I think it would only be right to share this same liberation and peace I have found by inviting my family, friend and fellow members of my faith community to discover for themselves how to set their own sails to find Him and become One with Him. Lehi discovered that following a man “dressed in white robes” (clearly symbol of priesthood) led to a dead end. Not until Lehi ignored the man and those pointing the finger of scorn and called upon God directly did he find the Tree of Life where there exists no intermediaries nor any form of compulsion—only unconditional love for him and any of his family that desired to partake.
Of this much I can share as my testimony—there is no peace nor salvation that comes from any forms of compulsion or explicit or implied threats to the bonds of love found in one’s family no matter how much those using compulsion/fear are trying, in “good faith” to get you to be obedient to the commandments—as they see it.
There is available to all of us a transcendent peace once we throw off the shackles that anyone—and I mean anyone—tries to place on us in order to censor or suppress in any manner our thoughts, words and behavior short of persuasion.
So cut the dock lines and let the wind fill your sails.
Lost On a painted sky
Where the clouds are hung
For the poet’s eye
You may find him
If you may find him
There On a distant shore
By the wings of dreams
Through an open door
You may know him If you may
—Jonathan Livingston Seagull