Thursday, May 6, 2010

Kids Today, Part Two, or Why I Am A Mormon

I was being harsh yesterday. As one of my alert readers pointed out in a private communication, I was pretty insufferable in my Thirties, so maybe I should cut the young guys some slack.  This was one of the English-speaking visitors to the blog; the Chinese contingent continues to mystify with their cryptic comments and links to Asian "friendship" sites.

Maybe I was a tad curmudgeonly.  There are legions of faithful young men and women in the Church, people who shame me with their goodness and their faithfulness. But I do find among some of the young Mormons a discouraging lack of commitment to anything that does not come with a reward both easily obtained and richly remunerated. Mormonism brings some of this on itself: we grow up with a twisted conception of stewardship, constantly being told to take on unsavory tasks "for the blessings," whether it's weeding the Welfare strawberry patch or home teaching or performing in the Buffalo Stake traveling production of "Saturday's Warrior" (Hell for me is an eternity spent watching "Saturday's Warrior". Outer Darkness is being in the cast.) 

Once in a while, it would not be such a bad thing to tell people, "Do this because it is the right thing to do. It's probably going to be hard, and you aren't going to necessarily receive a reward for doing it. Do it anyway." 

The "scratch and win" approach to sacrifice annoys me.  What's more, lots of the people who spring from this tradition are very cavalier about things that are sacred to me.

It’s not their lack of belief. I don’t mind a lack of belief. One of my closest friends is a 50 year old graphic designer who wears a Mohawk and occasionally plays lead guitar for a punk band called “The Spunk Lads” and as far as I can tell, doesn't have much use for religion. He understands my beliefs, and I understand his, and we respect and like each other.  Unlike a lot of Mormons, I am far more comfortable in “gentile” venues than hobnobbing with the Saints: I get more out of reading one poem by Szymborska or Milosz than I do from a week’s worth of “The BYU Channel”. (Truth be told, I pretty much hate the BYU Channel.)  

The young ones' lack of commitment to disbelief is what gnaws.  In or out, guys: either stay and commit, or leave and be free of it.  Don't paddle around in the kiddie pool of Equivocation, mincing around like community theater Hamlets: "To be a Mormon, or not to be?  Well, it's good for my kids...but, Ho! Yon bishop's counselor hath just called me to teach Seminary! This cannot be inspiration, but folly! Oh, bosh, 'tis an ever so difficult choice!"

My faith has been tested lately, tested severely. It was more difficult to be a bishop than you can imagine. Over the last few years I have seen people close to me suffer agonizing, crippling illnesses and trials, things so difficult to watch that it made me wonder if there was a God at all. There were so many times that I doubted, so many times that I was filled with anger and resentment and hurt.

But I never lost faith.  Some event, some whisper of encouragement, some sudden insight inevitably appeared to revive my spirit, and Hope came back, stronger, more certain, the storm giving way to the full force of the sun.

My faith burns brighter, even though my opinion of some early Church leaders is more tarnished than it used to be.  I've read a lot of early Church history.  Church history is messy sometimes. I've turned over more than my share of rocks, and seen more than my share of the ugly, squirmy things wriggling around underneath them. For me, the Restoration is not about Joseph Smith's personal failings, any more than the Declaration of Independence is about slaveholding elites. He was a means, a means of bringing about something transcendent. Hate him if you must, but don't deny the force of his message.

I get discouraged when I talk to Church members who want to reduce Mormonism to a social movement, or a 19th century experiment in communitarianism or, as one associate told me this week, "The Utah equivalent of Kim Jong Il's North Korea." People who adhere to the faith, who really, truly live it, do so not out of fear, or tradition, or because Church membership affords them some reward: the opportunity to teach, say, or to be a leader.  They do it because they know it is True.

Where the disaffected see hairshirts and shackles, I see the beautiful robes of the Temple. Where they see the darkness of fear and false tradition, I see “a wonderful flood of light,” a light that gives me purpose and hope. Where they see oppression, I see opportunity: opportunity to be better, to be stronger, to be more resistant to the weaknesses that too often ensnare me. My faith is not reasonable, or rationale, or reducible: I see things that cannot be seen; I hear things that cannot be heard.

And I follow.

I have ancestors who joined the Church in the 1830’s, in western New York. One of them, Dana Jacobs, was a bishop, and later, one of the seven presidents of the Seventy. Another, Hiram Jacobs, helped build the Nauvoo Temple, and received his endowment there, with his wife Caroline, in February 1846, just before Nauvoo was abandoned. The Jacobs did not like Brigham Young. By 1848, they had been disfellowshipped for apostasy. Hiram took his family back to Niagara, where his daughter married Abriam Pearce. Their granddaughter, Gladys Mae, is our grandmother. Dana returned to Ohio; his son, Moroni, was a 33nd Degree Mason and a community leader, and died in Ashtabula without ever having been a member of the Church. 

In a strange way, their apostasy made it possible for me to be born: the weird cabbage soup that is my gene pool – equal parts kielbasa and corned beef – could not have happened had the Jacobs family gone to Utah.

On the other hand, I believe, with all my heart, that the missionaries found my parents in 1969 because our family was being brought back to the fold. I am a guardian of that flock, a protector of that fold. Too many of the people I love wander down unfamiliar paths, find comfort in the shadows.

It breaks my heart.

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