Sunday, September 13, 2009

On Being "Mormon"

What it is to be a “Mormon.” I thought I would talk about that for a bit today. I'm at home, dealing with various sick people, and so wanted to take this time to write my feelings about the church and about what it means - for me - to be a member of the church. I also thought that I would write this so that anyone could understand it, not just members of my church.

First of all, I would like to say straight off the bat that I am not an official spokesman for my church. Nor am I perfect. So please bear that in mind as you read this. Anyone looking for the “official” stances of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints* is probably best-served by doing one of three things:

1) Go to on the web. This is a website run by the church that is designed primarily to answer basic questions about the church by those who are not already members.

2) Go to on the web. This is another website run by the church. It is geared toward the members of the church, but can be freely searched by anyone, and carries within it virtually all of the major writings of the church’s leaders and its theology.

3) Invite a pair of missionaries to talk to you. These are the young men you will occasionally see biking around town, dressed (always) in a white shirt, tie, slacks, and wearing a black name tag. Or perhaps you will have seen sister missionaries: young ladies with ankle-length skirts, nice blouses, and also wearing black name tags. This is perhaps the best way to find out the church’s official beliefs because a) they are the church’s designated spokespeople in charge of preaching to those not of our faith, and b) it’s a bit more “personal” than a webpage.

Having bored you to death, I’ll now talk about what it is to be LDS, and more specifically, what it is to me to be LDS.

First, a short history:

Like the majority of the world, we believe in a Supreme Being, whom we call God. We believe that God is our creator and our father. We believe that He loves us. Because of this love, He designed a plan that would allow us to return to Him when we die – to be reunited as an Eternal Family.

However, God knew that a) He was perfect and without sin, b) no being with sin could live with Him, and c) in our time here on earth, we as his Children would make choices contrary to His commandments.

And so He sent His son, Jesus Christ, whose mission was to bridge the gap between us and Heaven by making it possible for us to be cleansed from our sins and stand pure before God and thus return to His bosom.

After Christ’s mortal ministry, He continued to speak through prophets and those duly authorized by Him to preach His gospel. Many of the words of the prophets of Jerusalem are collected in the Bible, which we believe to be the word of God.

However, there were also others in the world, specifically those people who were living on the American continents, and we believe that just as He spoke to prophets in Jerusalem, so also God called prophets to preach His word among the American peoples. These words were collected by an historian prophet named Mormon and then entrusted to his son, Moroni, who finished the compilation. Unfortunately, the people at that time were so wicked that they were killing all those who would not deny belief in Christ. This, we believe, happened around 600 a.d.

At the command of God, Moroni hid the sacred record, and for many years it was lost to those who had turned their backs on God by refusing to live by His word.

As most people know, following the death of Christ’s apostles in Israel and its surrounding nations, the church that Christ had founded split into many different factions and sects. Luther, Calvin, and other reformers proposed changes to the established Bible-based churches of their times, as did others. As a result, many different churches were established, guided by the precepts of the Bible as best understood by the people at that time.

In the 19th century, a young man named Joseph Smith was concerned for his immortal well-being, and wished to unite with a church. His own family was a church-going one, but even within the immediate family there was disagreement as to which church best represented God’s will and Christ’s teachings.

Joseph – at this time only 14 years of age – was convinced that Christ had founded a church, and that he must unite himself with Christ’s church, whichever that church might be, in order to be able to secure salvation.

But the many different sects and religions offered such diverse points and teachings that he was hopelessly confused. They could not all be true, he reasoned, since each had points of practice and belief in which they disagreed.

About the only thing they all seemed to agree on was that the Bible was the word of God, and so it was to the Bible that Joseph turned for answers. One night, he read a passage in the book of James, which stated “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5).

Young Joseph took these words to heart. He entered a grove of trees near his home, knelt down, and prayed to ask which of the churches was the true church of Christ. In response to this simple prayer of faith, he received the actual, physical visitation of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. The Father spoke to Joseph, calling him by name, and then said, pointing to the other Heavenly Visitor, “This is my beloved son. Hear Him.”

The resurrected Christ then informed Joseph that he must join none of the churches, for none of them held the entirety of Christ’s gospel, which had been lost when the early apostles and most of the faithful disciples of Christ were killed for their beliefs. This mass murder deprived the early church of the leaders authorized to act in Christ’s name and left behind leaders of churches who, good-intentioned and righteous though they might be, did not have the required authority to act in Christ’s name and perform necessary ordinances required to enter into the kingdom of Heaven. This power was called the Priesthood, a necessary power to perform holy ordinances with validity and the power to seal both on earth and in Heaven.

Joseph was instructed further at a later time that there was a record of the peoples of the American continent and Christ’s dealings with them. Eventually Joseph was led to this record – the same record which Moroni had hidden up centuries before. Joseph translated the record through the power of God, and because of the great work the prophet Mormon did in compiling the records of the American prophets, the book was called The Book of Mormon, and like the Bible, it stands as a testament of Jesus Christ and His teachings.

Later, Joseph received further divine revelations and visitors. He was visited by the resurrected John the Baptist – the man who had baptized Christ himself – and was given the Priesthood authority to baptize. Thereafter, he was visited by Peter, James, and John, the three men who presided over the church after Christ’s crucifixion, and was given by them further Priesthood powers.

With the Priesthood restored to the earth, and with direct communications with God once again open, the Lord commanded Joseph Smith to organize and restore the Church of Christ. This occurred in April 1830.

The name of the church was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The Church of Jesus Christ” because it was not the product of man-made thought or invention, but rather a restoration of the actual church Christ founded in His time on earth; and “of Latter-day Saints” to distinguish the two eras.

This new – or rather, old – church was well-received by some, and grew quickly. Unfortunately, this rapid growth was seen by many as a threat – either to their political or theological power – and so persecution of the church began early and grew in intensity, with the “Mormonites” or “Mormons” as they were called by their enemies being driven from place to place. Eventually they settled for a time in Missouri, their numbers now large enough to found one of the largest cities in the state. However, this political clout antagonized the people in the surrounding areas enough that they complained to both the state and federal leaders that the Mormons were killers, rapists, and insurrectionists.

Once again, the Mormons were driven out of the lands they themselves had purchased, developed, and built up. This time, the governor of Missouri even wrote an extermination order – a document which essentially called the Mormons enemies of the state and authorized any and all people to expel them from Missouri, even if it meant killing them.

Through the course of this persecution, Joseph Smith himself was murdered with his brother while under “protective custody” – something of a joke since the jail they were being held in was run by anti-Mormon sympathizers who allowed the murderers free access to the jail – and the church members themselves were driven completely out of the United States, settling in the area of the Great Salt Lake, which is now known as Utah.

However, the church continued and endured. Before he was martyred, Joseph Smith called and ordained twelve apostles, just as Christ had done in the ancient church. After Joseph was martyred, one of these apostles was called and succeeded Joseph as the prophet and president of the church.

And this has continued through today. Though the church continued to know privation, tribulation, and persecution, at this time there are approximately 13 million members worldwide. It is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, and one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States.

Additionally, because of the many threats to their safekeeping in the early years of the church, it developed a sophisticated welfare program. This means that in the event of natural disasters almost anywhere in the world, LDS members are usually either first or among the first relief responders.

Now, all this is to give an introduction into the history of the LDS church, because in so doing one catches a glimpse of its culture. It is God-centered. It is durable. It is willing (as a whole) to sacrifice everything – home, well-being, life itself – to follow the commandments of God. It is family-centered, for God has revealed that families can be an eternal unit, and so we value family above all save God Himself.

And knowing this, is to know much of what it means to me to be “Mormon.” Among my ancestors was the prophet who succeeded Joseph Smith. Among my ancestors were numerous who had their homes burned down or were forced from them at gunpoint. One of my ancestors died because he carried several hundred women and children over a half-frozen river in the dead of winter (the Missourians agreed to give the Mormons until spring to get out, but in reality the mob-killings and forced expulsion began that winter).

And me?

Nothing so grand as that, perhaps. I served as an unpaid missionary in Paraguay for two years. I did nothing but proselytize, speaking to anyone and everyone who would listen to me about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I worked between 60 and 100 hours a week, every week, for two years on this endeavor. I was hospitalized several times, nearly dying more than once. I was threatened by brutal people who tried to hurt me physically. I was attacked and bitten by a dog that I later discovered had been specifically trained to attack LDS missionaries.

I also met more friendly people than I ever knew existed. I saw the depths of joy at marriages and births. One family named their first son after me. I saw sorrowing families draw together at the death of a loved one, mourning the loss but rejoicing in the knowledge that they would see their loved one again. I saw many people choose to join the LDS church, and saw their lives change forever in ways that I cannot even attempt to describe here.

After my mission, I continued to serve the church. This is not unusual. In the church, we have no paid clergy, so all worthy members (and by worthy I don’t mean that they have studied extensively, but rather that they can affirm that they are following the commandments) are expected to serve in whatever capacity they are called to.

As a result, I have been in charge of all of the men in a congregation (we call our congregations “wards”). I have taught 8-, 11-, and 12-year-old boys and girls in Sunday School. I have been in the bishopric of a ward, serving as one of the three men who preside over the entire ward and oversee the spiritual and physical well-being of its members. I have been called at two in the morning to minister to a person who is ill and has requested a Priesthood blessing. I have been called out of work to go see a person who is going to die and who has asked for someone to provide words of comfort and friendship.

I have been married to a beautiful woman whom I met in church, and who has given me three beautiful children. Two still live with us. One has gone ahead to prepare a home for us in Heaven. Losing her was terrible, but again, was wonderful because of the security both my wife and I held at knowing we would see our little Grace again. The two other children did not ever know her, but we take them to her gravesite from time to time, and teach them about Jesus, and about God, and about how they want families to be together forever, so if we are all good and do what Heavenly Father says, we will all get to see Grace again, and they will be able to play with their big sister.

I have been lead away from certain jobs, and lead to others, because of my religion. I am a lawyer by trade – a profession that many know is demanding in terms of time and emotional and mental strain – and have at every job interview I ever went to told the people that I would not work Sundays. This has lost me many high-paying jobs, and lead me to jobs that pay less but allow me to come home if my wife or child is sick. A better way of life, I think, than grinding away for 80 hours a week for a paycheck that will not cover the cost of things sacrificed for that job.

In every aspect of my life, my membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has informed and enlightened my choices. It has given me opportunities to meet people I never would have chosen to interact with on my own – and my life has been brighter for it. It has given me a security in knowing that, no matter what happens or where life takes me, I have only to find an LDS church building on a Sunday to know that I am home and among friends.

Above all, it has given me hope to see through the darkness that can sometimes cloud our lives, a ray of light to pierce the darkness of everyday living, a road to walk which is difficult but which leads to a place well worth the work.

I believe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be the one true church of God on the earth. I say this not with pride, in an “I’m better because I’m right sense,” but rather with humility, because if I believe that, it means that I must act at all times in a way that will glorify God and give Him credit for teaching me well: the pupil’s actions will always cast a reflection – for good or ill – on the teacher. I also believe it is my duty to live in a way that will show people that the way I live can bring them, too, happiness and joy. In saying I believe I belong to “the true church,” I am saying that I believe it is my duty, my responsibility, and my privilege to help those around me, so that together we may all draw closer to God.

For if I believe the LDS church to be the true church, then I must believe its teachings. And it teaches, above all else, that we have a Father in Heaven who loves us, and that everything He does is with an eye single to seeing that as many of us return to His presence as possible. And so to follow Him I also must concern myself with my fellows – my brothers and sisters (all 6 billion-plus of them) – and see that I do all I can to help my Heavenly Father in His work to glorify and perfect His children.

I am a “Mormon.” I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Everything I have and everything I am flows from that.

And with this fact, I am well pleased.

*The Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints is the official name of the “Mormon” church. Referring to someone as a “Mormon” was originally intended to be an insult, but in a good example of “rewriting your own script,” the church members adopted it as their unofficial name. Members of the church will also call themselves “Latter-day Saints” or LDS for short.

1 comment:

monika said...

Well said. I think we are scary to people because they don't know the basic facts about our history. Time after time, for many different races and creeds, this has lead to fear and hatred.
I think that it is upsetting to a lot of Christians to think that we have a different understanding of Jesus Christ's role. We believe that He is God, the Lord of this Earth, but that He acts for and in behalf of His Father. I know this makes sense to me, but is hard for others to get around. I have always wanted to know why it is impossible to believe that God has a Father.
I do not believe that those who feel and believe differently are in any way less than those who agree, but I guess it is one point that has been extremely comforting to me.
We are, not a one of us, even Christ Himself, not here alone. We have the companionship of the Holy Ghost available to us, and the love and guidance He brings from Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
Some of the blackest moments in my life have been lifted and lightened by that knowledge. I am not alone, you are not alone.