Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Testimony Time

Once a month, the part of a Mormon church service that usually contains scheduled speakers on scheduled topics is opened up to the congregation, and anyone who wants to get up and speak may do so. People talk about their religious experiences, about ways in which the Lord has touched their lives. We call this "bearing testimony." It is usually done in conjunction with our monthly fast, on "Fast Sunday".

I rarely get to participate in this-- it seems like I'm always taking Sonshine to the bathroom or trying to get Bagel to settle down in the mothers' room*. On the few occasions when I get to spend the entire meeting in the chapel, it's usually not Fast Sunday. And when I feel ready to bear my testimony, it's usually not Fast Sunday. If I were fasting on a schedule, I might be ready to bear my testimony on schedule too; but I can't fast at all when I'm breastfeeding and running around after preschool boys. So I'm going to get up on my own little podium here at the Organic Baby Farm, and bear my testimony right now, because I can.

I know that a lot of people have doubts about the origins of the Church. And quite frankly, I'd wonder about you if you didn't have any doubts the first time you heard the story. It is, by any measure, a quite fantastic and unusual story. If you are credulous enough to believe it all the first time you hear it, you should probably be kept away from television commercials.

And yet, I have no doubt now that it is true. This was not always the case. I thought that Joseph Smith must have had a hallucination instead of a vision, but the Gospel was nevertheless true. Then I realized how absurd that was. If Joseph Smith had a hallucination and yet was in touch with the God who could give him eternal truth and would not lie, then surely God would have told him the truth about his hallucination. Either it was a hallucination and the Gospel was the work of men, or it was not a hallucination and the Gospel was the work of God. I had no doubt that the Gospel must be the work of God-- its design and principles bore none of the imperfective hallmarks of the work of men, although its implementation by men did.

Shortly thereafter, I was having hallucinations myself from a medical condition. And I had also had a vision, a very small, very personal one, in answer to prayer. And then I knew that Joseph Smith must have had a vision, and known that he had a vision, because there is no way anyone who has had both could confuse one for the other. They are very, very different. The best way I can think of to describe it is a hallucination seems real because your brain is trying to connect the hallucination with your real life; you see things as if they were real. With a vision you see the real things, and you see the vision things. It's like you open up a second, orthogonal set of eyes. Hallucinations are "seen" with the same eyes that you use every day.

I did not understand how I could believe so strongly that Joseph Smith had had a vision, and at the same time not have the slightest clue why or how he had. It was very confusing. But with a lot of scripture study, I was able to figure it out.

The early members of the church stand in stark contrast to today's clean-cut Mormon image. Some of them did some very dubious things. Sometimes they made up stuff, like people living on the moon, and other people believed it and thought it was part of the Gospel. (Even today some people still believe it's part of the Gospel, although they're mostly anti-Mormons.) Often they misinterpreted scripture or behaved in ways that don't make sense in today's world. How could the Lord possibly work through them to build His kingdom? Surely He could have found better people, who would never misunderstand what He said, who would never willfully act out of anger or malice, who under His tutelage would never make a single mistake?

Well, actually, no. How many perfect people do you think there are on this earth? How many, if confronted with a request from the Lord, could actually perform to that kind of exacting specification? The early members of the Church were people just like you and me. They found themselves in the exact same position that I found myself-- they knew they had the truth within their grasp, but their human failings kept them from fully embracing it. Their cultural traditions (which were different from ours) got in the way. Their emotions got in the way. Their physical needs got in the way. Their own ideas got in the way.

And that is what the Gospel is really, fundamentally all about. It is about transcending our cultures, our emotions, our needs and our own ideas. And it is a learning process. It was a struggle for them, as it is a struggle for us today, to set aside everything that is non-essential to our spiritual development-- and even more so for them than for us, because they didn't have an institution or tradition to fall back on when they needed a rest from their demanding labor.

This is mankind's universal struggle. It is present in every religious tradition. The Buddha was once a man who, like me, strained at the yoke of his immaturity. Mohammed thirsted for truth in the desert, and received it at the hands of an angel. It has been the one desire of all mankind to connect with something higher than themselves. Whether they are taught to call it Truth, God, Enlightenment, or what have you, they all yearn for the same thing: to master themselves in pursuit of the divine. We all yearn for the same thing. And we all find ourselves in the same situation: we fail at it, and fail miserably, and yet the Lord still loves us and forgives us our sins and, most importantly, still shows trust in us to get up and try again, to do it better this time.

Joseph Smith and the early church members were no exception.

When we look at it from that perspective, then, we can get to know the early church members and Joseph Smith as people, not as paragons or archetypes. We can see where they failed and where they succeeded. We can learn from their example. And we can understand how terrible they would feel if we uncharitably hung their failures on the wall and pointed to them as proof that the Gospel can't be true.

It is my sincere desire that all who seek knowledge will not listen to rumor, but will go straight to the source of Truth and ask Him for guidance. He will never lead us astray, but like the Father he is, he will embrace us and answer our sincere questions.

I write these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

*Lest anyone think women are segregated off from the general Mormon experience, I should explain that the mothers' room is a room for mothers with crying babies. Ours is equipped with a diaper change table, a sink, rocking chairs, and a loudspeaker so the mothers can hear the meeting. The object of the mothers' room is to help the mothers' duties interface with their attendance at the meeting.