Monday, August 26, 2013

How far away is Heaven?

As my work schedule has changed my luck has run out and now I work Sunday's on a regular basis for the first time in my life.  To still have the day mean something a bit more to me I've been taking books on religious subjects with me to read between calls.  Today I read a passage in which the author asserted that God's presence is always within us and that our belief that God wasn't present was a major block to being able to tell He was there.  The author argued that to really commune with God on a regular basis is more like always being ready to open the door to Jesus who is standing at the door knocking.  And that there is nothing really hard about opening a door.

One thing that struck me was how simple the idea was.  I grew up understanding that my ability to have God's spirit with me was based on performing rituals and living righteously.  Once these were accomplished, the Holy Ghost's presence would be so typical in my every moment that I probably would never notice it was there unless I was excommunicated and lost that access completely.  Since this presence was so hard to detect, I was to learn to communicate with it by watching for impulses that weren't evil in nature and experiment with not controlling them until I learned how to identify a specific reverent feeling that was supposed to go with the correct impulses to follow.  Figuring out which feeling was supposed to indicate God's will and which were just random could be kind of chancy at first.  I've done some kind of random things as a result.

The other thing that struck me was that the author didn't suggest that any predetermined level of righteousness was required, only an attitude of humble reverent listening.  I've always been told that just like how I feel uncomfortable being around people who aren't doing the right things, God doesn't like spending time with people who were preoccupied with sin and would therefore refuse to spend any more time than necessary with them unless they were meeting some general requirements first.  Some sins were supposed to be so bad that I was taught that it would be impossible for me to enjoy the Holy Ghost unless those sins were gone first.  I heard repeatedly from missionaries that I associated with that they could always tell which investigators were committing sexual transgressions because those were the people who couldn't feel the spirit at all and who wouldn't feel the spirit unless they repented first.

In other words, the God who spent his time ministering to the spiritually sick, who was criticized for spending time with drunks and prostitutes, and who let a woman-so deep in sin that the Pharisee thought it would be wrong to be touched by her-wash his feet with her tears and hair thinks that the Holy Ghost is so skittish about being around sinners that the Holy Ghost only ministers to the spiritually clean who don't need a spiritual physician very badly?

I think I'm going to have to say this is a concept that makes no sense to me.  If Christ ministered to the most vile of sinners and sought to inspire them to repentance but kind of ignored the already righteous and attacked the self righteous, then I should expect the Holy Ghost to also spend its time ministering to any vile sinner who will listen humbly, ignore the already righteous, and attack the confidence of the self righteous.  In my own life I've felt the Holy Ghost in response to when I've been penitent and humble and listening, no matter what stage of righteousness I was in at the time.  At times when I've felt condemned by my sins I've felt the most gracious senses of forgiveness and love even if I hadn't completely mastered the rejection of the sins yet.

A prolonged attitude of penitence and humble listening that create intimacy with God should also help to produce righteousness.  But I think it is a mistake to assume that the Holy Ghost only spends time with the already righteous who only need mild repentence.  Those who are well don't need a physician.  The belief that the spirit of God shuns us if we sin will indeed create a mental roadblock.  If you don't have faith that God wishes to spend time with you why would you reach out to open the door to Christ's spirit knocking on the doors of your heart?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

If ye have love...

In my ward growing up there was a fast and testimony meeting where many of the members expressed their love for each other.  An investigator got up and proclaimed his desire to be baptized because he felt we had demonstrated what Jesus taught when he said that his disciples would be known for having love one for another.  Ironicaly, he couldn't be baptized because he traveled around a bit and his primary residence was in another state.  Even though his recent travels had brought him to our congregation on a regular basis, the church would only allow him to be formally taught the discussions in a way that counted towards baptism and join the church from his primary place of residence.  But our ward was where he had felt that spirit of love and he expressed some confusion why the rules were so technical that even though he was converted here he could only be baptized there.

Hopefully he eventually found his way to his home ward and he could join in communion with God through us and feel that same spirit of Love.  We'd always like to assume that every ward is equally loving and amazing.  Of course, that isn't always the case.  I was talking to people recently about some experiences they had in a ward where the members had been cold hearted towards them, apparently more interested in belonging to upper class cliques than in love- leading to a real sense of exclusion.  And I could relate to feeling excluded from a ward family.  I've been in a ward where mostly no one seemed to think it was their responsibility to love me or my family because I wasn't planning on living within the ward boundaries for the rest of my life.  I didn't really count to them.  I've been in an Elder's quorum where the teacher clearly only wanted participation of returned missionaries.  It just didn't occur to him that I counted as a member of his Quorum even if I didn't go on a mission for medical reasons.  And my own experiences are more minor compared to some.  One of my friends growing up once was disruptive in our youth Sunday school, probably because his older brother had just died earlier that very week.  The instructor came right out and told him that it didn't matter if he was having a hard week because he just had a family member die, but that if he was going to behave that way he wasn't welcome and should just leave.  So he left... and to my memory never came back to that class.  After being treated that way I think I can understand why, he was rejected when he was needing acceptance.

Because we are fallen human beings, there are often some reasons that we give ourselves excuses not to love other people.  If you've ever read C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" you can easily think of some examples, like the woman in the story who loves her son so much that she hates everyone else.  Or people who love their country so much that they hate foreigners, love a sports team so much as to hate rivals, love a church so much as to hate anyone their perceive questioning it or fear non members, love their views on chastity/marriage so much that they hate or are afraid of gays, or love anything you can imagine so much that they hate what they think the opposite is.

Christ's apostles serve as great examples of how this lofty concept of universal love is so hard to attain, even when taught every day at the feet of the Master.  There are accounts of the apostles bickering with each other over who was the greatest or would receive particular honors in the kingdom of heaven.  Their love for each other and love for God could be eclipsed by a striving for importance and stature in the Kingdom of God.  Just because Jesus commanded them to love each other didn't mean they automatically just got the concept.

Similarly, just because Love is supposed to be written into the programs of the church doesn't mean that any particular group of church members have actually adopted commandment to love one another fully into their lives.  It can become like a character says in "The Brothers Karamazov," the more love one has for universal mankind the less one has for anyone in particular, with organizational or ideological love replacing love for individuals.  Just being stamped with membership in any church has no relevance on whether you have mastered loving others.  No matter what memberships we have, it is the love that indicates discipleship.  Without love for others we won't deserve to be known as disciples of Jesus. We will be just one more of that group of people that say to him that we have performed many mighty works in his name, just to be rejected with the condemnation that He never knew us.  And how could we know him without a fullness of love, when God is Love?

In the end, we fulfill the commandment to love as individuals and hopefully form communities of faithful that together exercise this love.  If we do not love, no membership in Mormonism or any other Christian religion will make all men or God know that we are disciples of Christ.