15 June 2014

Useful Truth

This morning our stake got a new stake president.  In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, local congregations are presided by a lay minister (not professionally trained, unpaid) called a bishop and several congregations are presided by a lay leader called a stake president.  IMHO, lay leadership is one of the amazing parts of the LDS faith, and it is always cool to be part of a transition that happens in each stake about every 10 years.

Our now-released stake president, President Nielsen, was a man that I came to look up to over the years.  He was a staff in a changing landscape that I could always look to for a reference.  Specifically, my appreciation for him grew when I received a personal email from him about a month ago.

Back in August 2012, I sent the stake presidency an email with a question:
Dear Presidents - 
I've been pondering a question for a long time, but haven't come up with a good answer.  Elder Jensen recently said that more people are leaving the Church today than at any time since the Kirtland period.  I can't help but wonder who in the stake might be on their way out the door or have already left due to issues surrounding Church History. 
How can we create faithful settings for members to discuss the literature that they are inevitably finding online and in books? In the past, when I have come upon a Church History fact that doesn't jive with what I've learned/been taught over the years (whether the writer's intent was malicious or purely historical), I feel the following emotions: 
1.  I probably shouldn't bring this question up in Gospel Doctrine because people will judge me for being doubtful2.  I probably shouldn't bring this question up in Gospel Doctrine because it might hurt/confuse a fellow member with a more fledgling testimony3.  I wonder who else has struggled with this particular issue?4.  I wonder how I could generate a faithful setting where fellow members could come to discuss what concerns they have and find some resolution? 
Years ago, I taught seminary.  The seminary classroom was my faithful setting where youth could bring up their concerns about Church history, science vs. religion, and anything else that was bothering them.  I don't know of any avenue that adult members have other than a conversation with their bishop. 
I think that the extra focus that has been placed on the Church over the last 18 months has probably magnified this issue.  To that end, I have joined mormonvoices.org, keep a devotional blog of my own, and engage people faithfully in online discussions, but I feel like there is more that can be done at the ward or stake level.  What do you think?
I never heard a response, and I forgot about it.  However, on May 21 of this year--nearly two years later-- President Nielsen sent me an email explaining that I'd inadvertently sent the email to an outdated email address and my message had only been recently recovered by the their secretary when he was digging through old email archives (secretaries do that??).  Once he saw the email, he responded immediately, asking (due to the email's age) whether or not I had anything to add.  I replied saying:
President Nielsen, 
I'm very impressed that this email found its way back to you given the circumstances and even more impressed that you took the time to respond to it. Thank you. 
The only thing that I would add is a bit of my own personal story. It may be of some help to others.
I am a Latter-Day Saint to my bones. When I was 16, I had a personal witness of the truthfulness of the gospel, and nothing has ever been the same since. 
Three years later, a few days before I was turning in my mission papers, I found a website online that was antagonistic towards the Church. It attacked my faith on the grounds of some things that Brigham Young had taught as President of the Church. As I read, fear, anxiety, and bitterness filled my heart until I ran upstairs into my room to cry for what seemed a very long time. The Church was like a dear friend to me, and in that moment, I thought I might have lost her. 
To make a long story short, I turned in my mission papers by sheer force of will.  About two months later, I finally chose to talk with my stake president, to whom I owe the 15 years that followed. It hadn't occurred to me that President Riches would know about what I had read; I simply knew that I needed to talk to someone or I was going to burst. He showed love, reserved judgment, and came from a position of faith. More importantly, I was overjoyed to find out that he had answers to some of my questions.  He had helped me find room for faith, and I was able to use that as a springboard to a faithful mission. 
During that time as well (between my call and my send-off), I took an Institute class from Craig Frogley at the U about the Prophet Joseph Smith.  He also came from a position of faith. He talked very openly about some of the "less-glamorous" parts of church history. It was from him that I learned about the stone in the hat, the four accounts of the First Vision, the issues with the translation of the Abrahamic Papyri, and on and on. He taught them with as much faith as he did the Three Degrees of Glory, the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, and all the wonderful parts of church history that make our legacy so beautiful. 
Fast forward about 10 years to 2010 where I had a second crisis of faith. My mother died after lingering in a hospital bed for six months. This time, my concerns were much more fundamental than whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet or not  Being the computer geek that I am, I scoured the Internet for advice and counsel. I read The Reason for God, The Language of God, The God Who Weeps, several C.S. Lewis books--The Great Divorce, The Weight of Glory, The Abolition of Man, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters (and the movie The Shadowlands was also very helpful :) )--and more. I blogged about my faith, participated in online discussions, and read countless FARMS and FAIR articles, testimonies on the Mormon Scholars Testify blog, and still more. I kept a journal of my thoughts and even went to counseling for a few sessions with LDS family services. I prayed. 
Eventually, I found answers to my questions and room enough to exercise faith again.
In March 2011, I wrote a letter to Elder Holland (that I never sent) describing my turmoil and asking for guidance. Imagine my joy when he, in April 2013, as he has done so many times before, scooped me up out of the audience of 15 million, took me by the hand, and told me the story of the uncertain father who told the Lord "help thou mine unbelief". Oh, President, no talk has ever resonated with me so powerfully as that talk! An incredible release of pain, hurt, and bitterness completely left me. I felt peace! 
I stand on solid ground again. My testimony is firm. I love the gospel more every day.
If you have read this far, you have earned even more respect from me! I don't expect you to take so much time on my story. I relate it, though, to demonstrate what principles worked for me: 
- Talk with church leaders (President Riches)
- Find open settings where issues can be approached from a position of faith (Brother Frogley)
- Find faithful literature from our faith and others'
- Trust and Lean on church leaders (Elder Holland)
- Share what you know (this letter, my blog) 
I hope you find the above helpful.  Thank you again for your example of faith and devotion.
His reply was immediate, heartfelt, and sincere.  I felt peace as I read his message of faith and encouragement that he'd taken the time to personally write despite his admittedly busy schedule.

This came up so late in his presidency that I doubt he was able to do much with it.  It's likely that this was a minor issue in the closing weeks of President Nielsen's service.  Still, he took the time.

Over the next few weeks, I thought more about his question and whether or not I did have anything more to add.  I remembered Richard Turley's recent explanation about why the records regarding the Council of 50 had not been made available for scholarly study until recently if everything in them was relatively mundane:
Near the end of the session, a question was posed as to why the minutes have not been made available for study until now, as they seem rather innocuous. 
“I think the best answer is tradition,” Turley responded. “I think over the course of time, people kind of lose understanding about the significance of things, and when they lose that understanding, there is a sense of uncertainty that surrounds it. When there is a sense of uncertainty, people can be very conservative about how they handle it.”
Combine this with what the Salt Lake Tribute quoted Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens having said about our approach to Church History:
For those who discover unwelcome information about the church's history online, Bushman said, "the whole picture changes in a flash — like those optical illusions that show a beautiful woman and a hag."
The best way to prevent this from happening, Bushman said, is to give Mormons "the whole story from the beginning. If the disruptive facts are worked into the history Latter-day Saints learn as they grow up, they won't be turned upside down when they come across something negative."Indeed, said Givens, "if you tell a 12-year-old child that Joseph Smith used a 'peep stone' in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon, he'll think that's cool or interesting." 
But when Latter-Day Saints find out about that on the Internet at age 50, he said, they'll ask, "Why didn't the church tell me?"
I began to wonder about why certain elements of Church history are largely unknown to the mainstream members of the Church today.  The time when Joseph Smith used a seer stone to translate the Book of Mormon to me seems like historical minutiae, and in an effort to simplify the message for a global audience, that piece fell out of the oral tradition.  Now, when an adult member of the Church finds it, he may "be very conservative about [he] handles it."

Imagine, for example, if the gold plates themselves had fallen out of the oral tradition over the years.  Of course, it still happened, but for one reason or another, it became a fact that was little known by most LDS.  How would a church member react when they found out about the "gold bible" from a less-than-favorable source? Would they experience the same cognitive dissonance, feelings of betrayal and doubt, etc. simply because it was different than what they'd read up until that point?

And so, I recently made two decisions.  1.  When presented with history, the best thing I can do is to try and find out what really happened.  If it happened, no amount of worry or hand-wringing on my part is going to change what happened.  2.  When I teach youth, I'll do a better job telling the "whole story".

I believe I'm in line with what the church is currently undertaking.  Over the last several months, the church has published many articles about various historical issues, including an explanation of Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Priesthood Ban.  Church leadership is sending the clear message that it is better to talk about these issues from a position of faith than it is to allow those who "lie in wait" to pounce on faithful members with sensational information.

I experimented recently with this at a recent priesthood lesson that I taught to our ward's deacons and teachers.  We were talking about the various worries or concerns that a young man has when he is deciding whether or not to serve a mission.  I told them about two of mine.  One was when I was about their age.  I was nervous about having to be responsible for running my own life (e.g. I was a home body).  The other came--can you guess?--a few days before I put in my papers for my mission.  (Read my first message above for a brief outline of my experience back then).

We got on the topic of Joseph Smith and my personal testimony of the reality of his vision.  In the course of my telling, I related the fact that over the years there were recorded four different accounts of his vision, one of which only mentions Jesus Christ.  Because they learned about it from a faithful individual, they took it in stride.

(My wife reminds me at this point that this is precisely what we do with our children when they turn eight.  Along with the other special things that happen when our children turn eight--baptism, the family budget, etc.--we take our child out to a special dinner where we have the birds and bees conversation.  We do it at eight years old so that they hear it from us first instead of via dirty jokes on the playground.)

There is still more to think about; I feel like this is a good approach to prepare the rising generation, but what about that 50-year-old who learns about a nuance of Church history that upsets his testimony.  Where can he go? What can he do? While the "crucible of doubt" has been helpful to my testimony, the path I took through it in hindsight seems to have been unnecessarily lonely and riddled with hazards.

I think Terryl and Fiona Givens's "Crucible of Doubt" firesides are a good idea.  I'm unsure if there is enough of a knowledge base at the local level for most bishops to do the questions-in-the-tissue-box thing.  What could be done during the second hour of church alongside Gospel Doctrine? Maybe a "Gospel Questions" class?