I hope everyone had a happy and serene Thanksgiving. If you have had the patience to stick around this blog for a year or more, you'll know that Christmas is A. Big. Deal. here at bradenbell.com. At our vast corporate headquarters, the maintenance staff has been working around the clock to get the building decorated. The marketing department is having a Christmas trivia with the legal offices, the tech support folks are wearing Santa hats to work, we have days where everyone wears their pajamas, eats sugar cookies, and drinks egg nog is on tap in the employee lounge.
Of course, as a believing Christian, Christmas is the birthday of my King, something I enjoy for profound reasons that go as deep as my soul. But, I also just love it all! The fun, the music, the decorations, the food--you name it. It's just a wonderful time of year and I like to celebrate that. So, throughout the month, I'll be posting some of my favorite music or movie suggestions and so on.
Last night, the denizens of Mockingbird Cottage hopped in the car and went and got our tree. After letting the branches fall overnight, we put the lights and decorations on it this evening. We have our favorite Christmas candle burning (Yankee Candle Bayberry. Seriously. It's what Christmas smells like), the nativity sets are up, the stockings are hung--it's time to make merry!
Tonight, since it is Sunday, I thought I'd start out with one of my all-time favorites. Besides being a beautiful song, there is a fascinating human story behind this oratorio. I'll write more about it later. For now, just enjoy the magnificence of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."
I am not going to get into politics on this blog. For one thing, I have dear and respected friends on both sides of the aisle. For another, I think most political conversations just get people mad and usually accomplish very little.
I don't generally talk too much about my faith either. I used to but now that my readers skew younger, I'm uncomfortable doing that because I think that it is a parent's role to teach their children about faith and their religious heritage (actually, ditto with politics) and anyone outside the family ought to tread very lightly in these areas.
All that being said, let me briefly wade into the highly charged waters of religion and politics.
I am a Mormon (actually, that's not the preferred name of the Church, but that's okay). I am the only Mormon that many of my friends and acquaintances know.
As the presidential campaign has heated up, I have sensed in many of them a curiosity about my beliefs. Usually, I sense that they want to ask something but maybe don't quite know how to go about it. If you are my friend or acquaintance and want to ask me something, it won't offend me. The only thing I ask is that you be willing to listen to the answer, and understand the context, which might take more than a few words.
Beyond that, though, being the only Mormon many people know, I have been increasingly frustrated by reports about my religion in the press. There is a spectrum of stories out there from maliciously false to just sloppy. There have been some very fair pieces, as well, but these have been in the minority.
I don't like having my faith be a political football, or a weapon to be used in what will be a hard-fought campaign.
There are so many beliefs and practices in any faith that could be made into scary or strange without the right context. Any faith could be made to seem bizarre or threatening with very little effort--not only faiths, any deeply held belief system or ideology.
So it bothers me that people I know may hear weird things about my church and believe them, or think I believe them.
At the same time, I have too much to do and no desire to respond to every half-truth, inaccuracy, misunderstanding, or distortion about my church--and, as I mentioned earlier, I don't want to do that on this blog.
Happily, there is an answer! My brothers--both very smart guys--have started a blog in which they respond to incorrect and unfair statements and characterizations. One brother has a law degree from Georgetown, the other has a Master's in International Affairs from Columbia.
Anyway, if you are interested, here is a link: www.mormonamerica.com
So, if you hear something crazy, I encourage you to go there and see their response.
Years and years ago, when I was in grad school, there was an important play that took the theatre world by storm. Some of the characters were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints aka Mormons. I read the play and was unimpressed. They were not real to me. That it is, they didn't talk or act like any Mormons I had ever known. It seemed clear to me that the playwright had been making choices based on limited knowledge and exposure.
I've had similar feelings during this whole interminable presidential primary season. I read pieces written by various press outlets about the church and it's members and just roll my eyes. Sometimes it's not that they are even inaccurate--although they often are--it's just that they don't get the entire picture.
I'm not talking here about the people who are openly hostile or mocking. I just ignore them. I'm talking about the sense of hearing people just not get it. Focusing in one a few strange or controversial folk-beliefs or doctrines that really have very little to do (if anything) with the day-to-day lived experience of those who belong to my faith.
Of course, I can't necessarily fault the media for being incomplete. I understand that they may be on short deadlines and it's difficult to shrink everything about a particular faith into the limitations imposed by column space or air time.
Still, I have yet to recognize myself, or the Mormons I know, in most of the coverage. I've heard very smart people telling me what I believe--and then discussing whether or not I ought to believe it--but have never really had the sense that they totally understand what they are talking about.
Because of this, I was excited to hear about a project developed by one of my friends. Sixteen bloggers and writers who are all Mormons contributed essays to an anthology. This is not a theological work necessarily--although it does touch on theology sometimes. It's a book about the day to day life lived by members of my church. It talks about love and loss and laughter and families and how Mormons see themselves and what their lived experience is like.
As I read it, I recognized these people. I recognized myself. Not because we are all homogeneous and do everything exactly alike. That's not true. But rather, because we are all dancing to the same music, so to speak. That is: our shared history and beliefs allow us to hear the same song. We each dance in our own unique ways, of course. But as I read this book, I could at least hear the music they were dancing to.
Some chapters made me laugh, some made me cry. Some made me think. I disagreed with some of what I read. But it was all real and honest, words that flowed from the depths of a lived experience I recognized. And I felt that finally, someone got it right.
Tell Me Who I Am is available on Amazon and you can find it right here.
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To be very candid, I was not all that excited about Mitt Romney running for President last cycle--and it has nothing to do with his policies. I am fairly flexible politically. There are elements and thoughts in each party I relate to and agree with and elements and people with whom I disagree. I remain personally agnostic about the election next year. Moreover, I don't like to talk about politics on this blog too much.
So, I'm not addressing Romney's candidacy as a political matter. I'm approaching it as someone who happens to belong to the same church as Romney. And that is why I was not thrilled to see him run for President.
I suspected then that such a candidacy would create all kinds of opportunities for "Mormons-are-weird" snarkiness. Some would be inspired by political opponents, some would be cloaked as hard-hitting investigative journalism, and some would just be people trying to be funny.
Well, I was right. It happened then, and now that Romney appears to be a more viable candidate with a real shot, it's happening again.
Let me be clear, to borrow a phrase from another politician of national standing: I am not afraid of this. My own faith is not dependent on what late night comics say or whatever conventional wisdom the editorial page of the New York Times decides to reify. I believe my faith will survive and I think the larger Church will survive just fine. In fact, it's a pretty open secret that opposition and anti-Mormon sentiment has historically yielded periods of growth in the Church.
Still, I didn't and don't relish this because my faith is of great value to me and we can all pretend that we are tough and don't care, but I don't think that any of us humans like it much when one our loyalties or identity markers is mocked. And let's face it: there are plenty of things for someone to mock about ANY faith or lack of faith. In fact, I maintain that you can take any philosophy or belief system and mock it or even frame it in a way that makes it appear crazy and scary.
It remains a matter of great disappointment to me that enlightened people who would never consider laughing at a joke about women or ethnic minorities will chortle at jokes about unenlightened rubes like Mormons. But whatever. I think it's hypocritical, but that is for other people's own consciences to work through.
What I really do abhor, though, is bigotry. I think it is ugly , ugly, ugly--and it is equally ugly when it's directed at Jews or Mormons, Irish, Catholics, or African-Americans, men or women.
So, I particularly appreciated Walter Russell Mead's take on anti-Mormon bigotry occasioned by an op-ed in the NYT by Prof. Harold Bloom. Mead is someone I find very much worth reading on any subject because he is tough-but-fair minded and does not hew to the pieties and dogmas on either side. He's as close to an intellectually honest commentator as I've ever found (something that, in my opinion, is absolutely necessary to civil dialogue and is as rare as it is important). I think his whole piece is worth reading (here), but I liked these paragraphs especially:"This is not about Governor Romney, and it is not about the faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). Via Meadiatakes no view at this early stage about the merits or demerits of the various candidates, and our inveterate Anglicanism gets in the way of embracing the Mormon faith. But bigotry is something that needs to be fought in all its forms; unreasonable fears and prejudices based on religion will always be with us, but such fears belong in the gutter among the wackos, the haters and the tin-foil hat brigades on both the right and the left. When they rise from the sewers and the swamps into mainstream publications and can be casually uttered in polite company by distinguished professors, something is going very wrong, and people who believe in the American way need to speak up."
And this one in which he lays bare the partisan bias of the bigotry: "I say nothing about the motives of Professor Bloom or the New York Times. But so far as I know, neither has ever expressed any concern over the stout Mormon faith of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. If creeping Mormonism is a threat to our secular way of life, shouldn’t we be critical of those in both parties who are members of this allegedly terrifying church?
"There are scores of other Mormon congressmen and elected officialsfrom both parties who escape the censure of Professor Bloom and the Times. The only one who seems to worry them is the one who might end up getting the Republican nomination for president. In some circles, this would look like a cheap shot: stirring up religious bigotry to slime a candidate you feared. It would look like the kind of thing that any Yale professor would be ashamed to do, and the kind of piece that a great newspaper would refuse to run."
Well done, Professor Meade. Thank you for your candor and honesty--and for realizing that bigotry is ugly no matter which target it decides to smear. Agree or disagree with Romney, vote against him or for him--but do so based on the positions he holds and the policies he espouses. Not on your perception of what he believes.
This post has been percolating for a while now. There's a lot about Mormons in the news right now. There's a major musical on Broadway and two presidential candidates who are Mormons. This has led to heightened interest.
I am the only Mormon that most of my friends and acquaintances know. This leads sometimes to questions that are asked of me. More often, it leads to questions that I sense people want to ask, but don't because they are worried about being offensive.
Most people know some of the "dont's" that guide the lives of active Mormons: no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, no alcohol, no pre-marital sex, and so forth. We are expected to keep the Sabbath holy--abstaining from work or recreation on Sundays. We tithe and contribute money to help the needy and poor.
Beyond that, some people know that we have a lay clergy, which necessitates us to spend a great deal of time helping run the Church in various capacities which could include supervising the nursery to presiding over nine congregations. This takes a lot of time.
All of this seems very restrictive to some people and makes them wonder what in the world we get out of it. Or, why in the world we do all this?
I suppose there are many reasons--perhaps as many reasons as there are Mormons--that people believe and do this stuff. Incidentally, the name of the church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There are specific reasons and meanings attached to that name. However, it is a bit of a mouthful. So, we have been given a nickname (this nickname comes The Book of Mormon, a record of scripture we believe along with the Bible. I'm too tired to write anything about it at the moment, but you can find more about it here if you like).
But I was thinking about my answer to the question I see so often in the eyes of my friends and co-workers. Why do I do this? Why do I believe it?
First of all, I truly don't see myself as giving up anything of real value. I don't feel that my teenage and college years were any less enjoyable because I didn't drink or smoke or do weed or have sex. Actually, I feel like I probably had more fun in many ways than others I know for whom those were important features of growing-up. I certainly have no regrets.
It's amazing to me how my life can be so joyful to me, but seem so restrictive to others. So, I thought I'd try to come up with a few of the benefits of my faith--a few of the things I get in exchange for giving up some others.
S0, what do I get in exchange for giving up all that stuff? My faith gives me a sense of security and grounding. I know God. He is real to me, near, and involved in my life. He is a source of strength and guidance, of comfort, solace, and stability. Living as we do in uncertain and troubled times, the reality and intimacy of my relationship with God is precious to me beyond words.
Mormons believe in a God who is watchful and aware of us--a Father who happens to be in heaven. We believe that He speaks through a prophet today--just as he did in ancient times when Abraham and Moses and Isaiah and Elijah and Peter and others walked the earth. That provides more comfort and security as the world seemingly spins out of control.
Mormons believe in the eternal durability of the family--that husbands and wives can be married for time and eternity, partners forever, and that the children who come from their union can likewise continue to be part of their lives.
If you were satisfied, deeply and thoroughly in your soul, that those things were true, and could be yours, would it not be worth nearly anything to have? Jesus taught a parable about someone who spent all he had to buy a pearl of great price. To me, I've not given up anything of much worth. I've simply exchanged some things for something of far greater value.
There are many more things, but those three--the personal presence and influence of God, the blessing of having a living prophet, and the assurance of an eternal family unit--are at the top of my list. They provide me with tremendous joy now and the anticipation of better days to come. They remove completely from me the fear of death and give me peace in chaotic times. It's not easy to live my faith, and I certainly fall short. But the rewards are so much greater than the effort that it's not a difficult equation for me.
So, having access to this joy, I am more than happy to make some very small sacrifices.
The other day I posted some thoughts about what Mormons believe. (My initial thoughts, and my rationale for posting them are here.)
When I was young, there was a particular Broadway star I idolized. I had pictures of this star. I had every recording of every performance I could get my hands on (no small thing living in Farmington, UT in pre-iTunes, pre-cd days). I tried to sound like this star when I sang. Everything I did was based on my admiration for and desire to be like this star.
Had someone told me that I wasn't a true fan, I would have laughed. Imagine that the official fan club had called me and told me I wasn't a fan because I did my own thing and wasn't in their organization. It would have been ridiculous to me, and to anyone who knew me. Given the fact that much of my life at the time was informed by my admiration for and my desire to emulate this star, it would have been ludicrous to say I wasn't a true fan.
Several years ago, I was at a social function for work. Being in the South, the committee in charge of the event decided they'd like to begin with a prayer. Knowing I was leader of my congregation (Mormons have a lay leadership--another post, perhaps), they asked me. Keep in mind this was a brief blessing on the food--short and non-denominational.
A colleague heard this and literally hyperventilated. She had to be helped to take slow, deep breaths. "He's...he's...he's...a Mormon!" she finally managed to spit out. "They're not Christian." She insisted on standing next to me to "help" me pray. I'm not sure what she thought my prayer might do to the food or her soul, but I said something like, "Dear God, thank you for this food and for a wonderful place to work. Help us to have fun together and let the food do our bodies good. Amen."
She literally stood next to me the whole time and I could feel her tension. I guess she was ready to jump in if I sacrificed a goat or something. Anyway, at the end she told me I did a great job. The level of relief and surprise she obviously felt surprised me.
This was someone I worked fairly closely with, someone I knew well, and thought she knew me. Yet, she didn't consider me a Christian. Mormons hear this a lot and it's true we are different in our practices and beliefs than other Christian churches--evangelical, mainline Protestant, or Catholic. So, in that sense, I understand the point and perhaps I'll address this in another post.
On a more recent occasion, I happened to be in a church service with a large number of colleagues from work. As part of the service, the pastor administered the Lord's Supper and invited those present to come and partake. I chose not to, simply because I hadn't prepared for it and didn't feel spiritually ready to do so. Mormons take the Lord's Supper very seriously and consider it the most sacred moment of our week when we take it at our services, so it's not something I wanted to do lightly. But I found out later that some people assumed it was because I was a Mormon. I've regretted that ever since because it played into the stereotype that we're not Christians.
One of the most fundamental, integral, and essential aspects of Mormon belief is in Jesus Christ. In terms of what informs my day-to-day life, my thoughts and feelings, my comings and goings, a belief in the living reality of Jesus Christ is paramount.
Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and that he lived on the earth as recorded in the New Testament. We believe that he suffered for the sins of humanity, died, and was resurrected. We believe he lives today, a glorified being of flesh and bone and that he has infinite love for and intimate, personal interest in each member of the human family.
Belief and faith in Jesus Christ is the foundation of everything Mormons do. Everything. My interactions with others--my family, my employer, my neighbors, the people I run into on the street, even the person who cuts me off in traffic--are governed by my desire to act according to how Jesus taught--to love, forgive, to be patient, kind, and caring. Yes, I fall short all the time, more often than not, but I'm always evaluating and assessing my actions based on my understanding of his example and expectations.
Mormons do not simply believe that Jesus is a real personage somewhere. Our belief in him compels us to try to be like him, to follow and emulate him. For a Mormon, becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ--in word, in thought, and in action--is the main task of life.
Jesus is a living reality in my life. He is the source of inspiration and motivation. He is my refuge and comfort in times of illness, despair, or difficulty. He is my anchor and rock in times of joy and success. He is the unchanging North Star by which I try to navigate and he is a real and personal presence in my life. I know he lives as I know what the sun's warmth feels like, what a bird's song sounds like, and the way I know the scent of a rose.
So telling me I'm not a Christian because the Council of Nicea said x and I believe y will always amuse, intrigue, baffle and occasionally annoy me. I may not be a traditional Christian, and I may not be certain type of Christian. And, goodness knows, there are times when I haven't been very good at practicing what Christ taught, moments where I fall far short of his standard. So, I will own to not always being a good Christian.
But I continue to try. I believe in Christ. I've built my life on the foundation of his teaching and living reality. I've hitched my wagon to his star and staked my life and soul on the belief that what he said was true. I continue to try to shape my actions and character into compatibility with his.
If that doesn't count, then I suppose I'm not allowed in the official club. But that doesn't negate the fact that I'm a big fan.
Well, with Mitt Romney running for president, and Jon Hunstman (former governor of Utah) probably running, there is growing chatter in the media about Mormons and what they believe.
I'll tell you a secret: as an active, believing Mormon, I really don't relish this. What it means, in my mind, is that political opponents and the press will kick around some of my most cherished beliefs and then, by focusing on marginal, obscure and unusual elements, make Mormons seem crazy. There will be some who make us seem like lovable, quirky eccentrics, while others will portray us as dangerous lunatics. But either way, it's not something I look forward to.
Here's the thing. Every religion, and I do mean every religion, can be made to look foolish if you want to try. What religion doesn't have doctrinal or historical elements that look strange to those outside the faith? I would add, that you don't even need to be religious. I have heard secular humanists made fun of in the same way. Any belief system or sub-culture can be mocked and made to seem crazy.
My experience, incidentally, is that the kind of stories I am referring to usually pick something that is fairly small in terms of significance, some marginal idea or doctrine, and then frame it in a way that makes it sound like a bigger deal than it is.
At any rate, since I don't like the way Mormons and our beliefs are often portrayed, and since I am the only Mormon many of my friends and associates know, I thought maybe I'd take the chance to explain some of the basic things we believe. I note that I'm focusing on the pillars of belief that inform the daily life of your average, practicing Mormon, not on the more exotic and arcane theological points or historical events that might interest scholars and historians.
Let me start with what we don't believe in and what we are not. First of all, since this is precipitated by two presidential campaigns, let me note that not all Mormons are Republicans. Many are, but I have a great many Mormon friends who identify as moderate to raging liberal, believing fully the doctrines of the Church and participating in full fellowship. It is interesting to note that Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate is an active, believing Mormon. For some reason, that never gets much play.
Another thing. We do not believe in having more than one wife. That ended in 1893. For a relatively short time, some Mormons did have more than one wife. I don't understand why. I've heard a lot of theories over the years, some make sense, some don't, but the point is no one really knows and everyone who was involved has been dead for a very, very long time.
This is a great example of what I was talking about. The day-to-day impact of polygamy on contemporary Mormons is about nil. But it's exotic, mysterious and therefore, it's something people tend to latch on to and it gets a lot of play. To be honest, I don't really like that they did practice polygamy. But it's so far out of anything that is relevant to my life today as to be basically meaningless in practical terms and so I don't spend much time thinking about it. But, others do. I was surprised recently when someone who knows our family well and has been to our house numerous times, asked if we did polygamy.
I note that you canNOT be in the Church and practice polygamy. It is the quickest way to get excommunicated. One hears from time to time about splinter groups in the West, and there have been some TV shows that highlight this practice. Mormons are embarrassed and offended by this stuff. Polygamists are not Mormons and vice versa. Period.
So, what do we believe? Since this post is already longish, I'll make this brief: the main, day-to-day fundamental of my faith is that God lives, that he is real and personal. We believe he is the father of our spirits and that he loves us more perfectly than the most loving earthly father. We believe he is interested in our lives and that he has a plan for us, a plan that encompasses the proximate circumstances of life, but also a plan so expansive it reaches in to eternity. We believe--I believe--that God sent us to earth as a parent on earth sends children to school: to learn and grow, and then return.
One of the most beloved songs in the church today is a very simple children's song called "I Am A Child of God" and I think it says it all:
I am a child of God, and he has sent me here
Has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear.
Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way.
Teach me all that I must do to live with him some day.
I put a clip of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the song below.
P.S. I'm happy to answer questions people have. I sense sometimes that people I know often want to ask me things but are worried about being offensive. You needn't be worried.
Last night I had a profound experience: I heard a prophet of God speak.
I know that sounds crazy and I thought about not writing this. But this is my blog, a place for me to reflect and ponder. And that's what I'm in the mood to do. I'm always a bit reluctant to be too personal on the blog, since I have such a wide variety of friends who visit--different ages, faiths, political beliefs--still, I suppose it's my blog, so I can be reflective when I choose.
One of the distinctive beliefs (I think it's unique, actually, but am not positive) of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (aka the Mormons) is that God speaks to the earth through prophets again--just as in ancient times with Moses and Elijah and John the Baptist and Peter.
When I became old enough to really understand the boldness of that claim, and mature enough to be aware of all of the implications, I was stunned. I realize that is a pretty big claim to make. It's not very safe. Such a claim inevitably brings derision, accusations of mental illness, and an incredible amount of pressure. People will expect an awful lot from someone who says they are a prophet. That is true both of the prophet, as well as of those who follow the prophet. I realize it is an immense--some would say insane--claim to make.
But before writing me off as either crazy, consider: why wouldn't God send prophets today. And, perhaps Braden is crazy--but what if he's not? Would it be valuable to know that? (If you find yourself curious, feel free to learn more at Mormons.org it's a very non-threatening, easy way to do so.)
I've always found a quiet, internal logic to this claim. If one accepts the Bible and accepts that God used to speak to the world through prophets, then there is a question: why have things changed? Goodness knows that life is much more complicated than it was back in those days. Surely God didn't just get tired or bored? Does He just love us less now?
I've always found that point compelling. It seems logical to me that God would not leave us without living guidance in our day.
But logic and reason aside, there is something deeper--something inside my soul.
Last night I heard a man speak--the man that members of my church believe is a prophet. And as I heard him speak, a spark ignited in my soul. I knew, deep down, that what I was hearing was true, and that it was coming to me through a prophet.
It wasn't that the content was unique or radical or even new. He spoke about marriage--to the young men about preparing for marriage, and for those who were married, being good husbands. Most people of any faith, would probably agree with much of what he said on the merits, without acknowledging anything special. (Cool! I just realized I could link a video of his talk).
But for me, it wasn't the content as much as the source. I heard and just knew in my soul: This is a prophet. Follow him. That was last night, but the feeling continues this morning. A deep and profound peace and knowledge, rooted in the soil of my soul. I feel comfort and surety washing over me in waves, and I know this in an elemental way, the same way I know that God lives and loves me, the same way I know I love my wife and children--it's something in my core.
In a world as topsy-turvy as ours, I find great comfort and joy in knowing that there is a safe channel, a place I can tune to hear God's word, to find safety and peace for myself and my family.
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