Saturday, November 7, 2009

LDS Fireside Chat #1

Having been invited to a 'fireside chat' at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I arrived about 40 minutes early (that is, at 6.20 μμ) through a miscalculation and, well, my own impatience to just get there already. When I ascended to the first floor, all the people were in a room off to the side. Orestes caught my eye and waved me in. After a quick stop at the bathroom, I hung up my sweatshirt and was fed with a baked potato, delicious gravy, and some Sprite. Considering that I hadn't eaten yet that day, I was totally fine with that. I handed over LeGrand Richards' A Marvelous Work and a Wonder to Orestes to be returned to the bookshelves upstairs, and I then ate my meal with Orestes and Creon for company. We talked about books a bit - I find that whenever I return a book or mention that I read one, the Latter-day Saints are always extremely eager to find out whether or not I liked it - and when Orestes mentioned that he hadn't yet read James E. Talmage's Articles of Faith, I recommended that he check it out. We all laughed at the irony of a non-LDS (me) recommending Articles of Faith to an LDS missionary.

Creon, when discussing a book he'd read, also related the Parable of the Bicycle, a popular little LDS story that sort of illustrates their understanding of how the atonement works. Basically, imagine a little girl, maybe four years old, who begs her dad for a bicycle. He tells her that she has to earn it, so she needs to save up all the money she can over the next month or two, and then they'll go get the bicycle. So she does, and then they go to the store. As she sees the price tags, she gets more and more disheartened until finally starting to tear up a bit. Her dad asks her how much money she has, and she reaches into her pocket and pulls out 64 cents - clearly not enough for a bicycle. The father says, however, that because he promised that she'd get the bike, he will gladly make up the difference in the cost between what she can provide and what it'll take. In short, the father purchases the bicycle after all the girl can put forward. The one perk of the parable, I think, is that the disparity in the figures emphasizes just how necessary God's grace is; however, I personally think it'd be more biblical if she pulled out a button, a hard candy, and a clump of lint.

After meeting a few other Latter-day Saints - including some from here in Greece as well as Nigeria and Cyprus - I was among the first to be greeted by our speaker for the evening, Elder Johann Wondra. Since he's an Area Authority Seventy, he's a public figure, and so I'll refer to him by his actual name, since there's no real anonymity to protect. He was a bit surprised to hear that I wasn't a member of their Church, interestingly. Around this time, the Latter-day Saints were having some problems with the front two rows of lights in the room, which had apparently been working perfectly fine just this morning. They never did get them to work.

I sat in the aisle seat of perhaps the fourth or fifth row on the right side. Across the aisle, I had some conversation with an older Latter-day Saint whom I'll call "Alcibiades"; I believe he was the president of some other church group, perhaps the local Mission President. I meant to ask him at some point, but forgot. [EDIT: I have since learned that Alcibiades is this year's Mission President for all of Greece. This of course means that his name is actually a matter of public record, but since I started with a pseudonym, I think I'll stick with it.]

The fireside chat kicked off with a Latter-day Saint hymn, #27 in the hymnal. Orestes sat next to me, and Admetus and Alcestis were behind me. I'm always curious exactly how the songs of any particular religious group tend to sound and what selections will be picked at meetings, as I suppose regular readers of this blog - as if there are any - will know. Imagine how I felt, though, when Orestes opened to the hymn and I read the title: "Praise to the Man". Yes, the infamous "Praise to the Man", a hymn devoted to Joseph Smith, the founder of their sect. Allow me to quote the lyrics; the chorus is italicized in what follows and repeats after every verse:

Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah.
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer,
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.

Hail to the Prophet, ascended to heaven,
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain,
Mingling with Gods he can plan for his brethren,
Death cannot conquer the hero again.

Praise to his memory, he died as a martyr;
Honored and blest be his ever great name!
Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,
Plead unto heaven while earth lauds his fame.

Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.

Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven;
Earth must atone for the blood of that man.
Wake up the world for the conflict of justice.
Millions shall know "Brother Joseph" again.

This is the sort of hymn-style that, in orthodox Christianity, would be reserved for the Godhead, but would seldom be used for any particular prophet, regardless how venerable, at least not as the focus of the whole hymn. Now, I suppose I have no objection to honoring a particular human figure - say, a prophet, an apostle, a saint - in a hymn. So long as the focus of the hymn is not that person, but points beyond them to Christ, or to the Father, or to the Holy Spirit. This, I think it plain to see, has a big, flashing, neon arrow pointing straight to Joseph Smith, and nowhere else. It really is no more than "praise to the man", without a lick of praise to God. That's my take on it, at least. Your mileage may vary, I suppose. So it was a rather awkward way to begin, from the perspective of a non-LDS attendee.

After some special music (something or other by Bach, I believe) and a prayer delivered in Greek, the talk began. I had been wondering, before I went, what language it would be in. As it turned out, the talk was entirely in English, but some of the missionaries translated it into Greek quietly into a microphone, with that translation being transmitted to earphones given to Greek-speaking attendees. A good tactic, though the missionaries doing so (Creon was among them) had a tough time with some parts.

Elder Wondra began his talk with, as I suppose is customary, a statement about how glad he was to be in Greece, how wonderful the Greek people are, how great the Greek heritage is, etc., etc. He then launched into a brief recap of his own journey into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which you can also read about here. Elder Wondra was once a philosophy student at the University of Vienna a long time ago. Back in those days, he was at home when a pair of men knocked on his door and told him that they had a message for him from God. Although he was quite irreligious and uninterested, he decided to invite them in anyway. They explained their message about the restoration of the gospel to him, and gave him a copy of the Book of Mormon. He read some of it, prayed, and 'received a testimony' of its truth. He decided that it all made quite a bit of sense, and thus he accepted the message and was, in due time, baptized.

The remainder of the talk essentially centered on stories of how the LDS Church had grown and spread in the Communist nations of eastern Europe. Since I'm relying solely on memory, I have to confess that the bulk of the message has sunken into the recesses of my mind and refuses to peek its head back out. I recall some stories of the evangelistic technique that sparked LDS growth in Czechoslovakia. A LDS on a train asked a woman if he could see her hand, and he pretended to read her palm. He said that she would hear messages of great joy, and then he invited her to find out more by visiting a LDS meeting. Clever. She asked if she could bring a friend, and he said of course. In the end, she didn't convert, but her friend Olga did, and became a great missionary leader in Czechoslovakia. I believe it was Olga that he mentioned had been a philosophy student, and as another example of a philosophy student, he mentioned me by name from the podium. It was actually quite cool. There was another story about how the LDS Church entered Yugoslavia in the conversion of a popular basketball player who became a national hero when he led the Yugoslavian team to victory over the Russian team. Thus, his popularity sheltered him from persecution to a sufficient extent. The first converts after him were teammates and the families of teammates, so for a while the leadership of the LDS Church in Yugoslavia were basically all over two meters tall, haha.

There are two other stories I recall. The first involved some Polish Latter-day Saints who had moved to the western United States, and who finally decided that they felt called to return to Poland as missionaries. So they approached their bishop, and he heard them out and said that they should start going through paperwork to get everything approved, and whatnot. They protested, asking what the need for all the red tape was, when the phone rang. It was a call for the bishop from a bigwig in the European LDS Church, asking if the bishop knew the couple in question. The answer came, 'of course, in fact I'm talking to them right now', and the European authority said, basically, 'We need them in Poland as missionaries as soon as possible.' And so they went. The second story was about a challenge in a part of Utah where the Saint families were supposed to introduce someone new to the faith by such-and-such a date. Or something like that. Might've been a challenge by the prophet at the time. At any rate, for the Smith family (who were in attendance this evening, I think), they had a hard time even finding any non-LDS neighbors, so the date was getting closer and closer, and they were on the verge of giving up. But, in the nick of time, Mr. Smith (a doctor) got a letter in the mail from a Hungarian doctor in the same specialty. The Hungarian doctor had seen a documentary or something about Utah and wanted to learn more about the religion he'd seen mentioned, so he looked in an index of people in the profession for a nose, ear, and throat doctor in Utah, and that's how Smith got the letter. They promptly sent materials over to him in Hungary, and eventually had a chance to go over and meet.

The last thing I can recall is the story of how the first LDS temple was built in a communist land. A European church leader was told to make connections with the communist government, to which he protested that he couldn't stand them. But he obeyed and had to continually seek permission for Latter-day Saints to cross the border - this might've been in divided Germany - to do temple work. The communist official in question didn't get what the big deal was, so the church leader explained why the temple was so important to Latter-day Saints. To this, the communist official said something like, "Well how come they have to keep crossing the border over to there? Why can't you just build a temple here?" So a communist official suggested the construction of the temple, and the church was just tickled pink by the idea; they'd just sorta figured that if they had asked permission to do it, they'd be laughed at. (At best!) As Elder Wondra said, the news probably spread through the entire church in the area within about six hours. This is the story of how the Freiberg Temple came to be.

After plenty of other stories, Elder Wondra invited some questions. Heh, as he said, he'd be glad to handle easy questions, and he'd make Alcibiades answer the harder ones. (Impossible questions would be given to yet another elder.) Heh, and as Elder Wondra also put it, "There's no such thing as a stupid question. All questions are good questions. But some are better than others."

One of the questions asked was by a young woman sitting directly in front of me who was evidently tired of being hounded by other members of the Church about when she was going to get married, so she wanted to know how she could answer. Elder Wondra deferred it to some attractive missionary sisters sitting in the last row of the other side; they answered that a good way to deal with it is to say that, since she's not God, she doesn't know the future, but that when it does happen, she'll be glad to invite the inquirer to the wedding.

Another question, which had to be translated from Greek into English and got deferred to Alcibiades, concerned patriarchal blessings and whether they pertain to this life or to the life to come. The answer, put simply, was "Both."

A further question came from Admetus and dealt with which European stakes are growing the fastest. I hadn't given it much thought, but I was interested to find that many of the fastest-growing stakes are in Spain, with Ireland also experiencing a great deal of LDS growth. Elder Wondra had the statistics on hand.

Finally - there were a few other questions that I just forgot - I asked if we could maybe have more details about the story of his own personal conversion and progress into the faith. He deemed it a very good question and proceeded to lay out, basically, the message of the restoration that the missionaries had told him. At first I didn't think it was going to answer the question, but in the end it came together and did; I suppose the answer really was just that he heard the message, mulled it over, prayed, got a testimony, and went with it.

Since time was running out, the last hymn was axed, and the meeting concluded with another prayer in Greek, some of which I actually understood, to my surprise. I helped some of the missionaries clear the room of chairs, and after that I spent some time chatting with various elders. Alcibiades caught me off-guard by asking, quite seriously, whether I planned to wait to get back to the States before getting baptized into their church. I wasn't quite sure exactly how to react to it; I said that I'm not ready for that step, being unconvinced as yet of all of their teachings. However, I did say yes when he asked if I considered it to still be worthy of looking into, and of value. After all, there is true value within the confines of Mormonism; it just so happens that, in my opinion, every truth found within those confines can be found quite clearly outside of it, without the contamination of being held so closely together with falsehood (or, at least, what I consider to be false). But, like I said, the question caught me by surprise, and so I need to remember to think up gentle, forthright answers to these things beforehand. Alcibiades said that he's quite convinced that I'm very, very close to accepting their church. (Gee, the Jehovah's Witnesses say the same thing about me with their religion...)

Over in the area where we'd dined previously, I had a cup of water, and the missionary sisters struck up a conversation with me. I'm going to call the taller one from Connecticut, "Lysistrata", and the shorter one from Finland, "Sappho". (Perhaps not the most suitable Greek names, but they'll do for this purpose.) I think both did fair amounts of talking, but they were very nice. Most of what I recall from the conversation is Lysistrata saying that she acquired a love of reading and history from her late father, and that one lesson she'd learned is that sometimes seeking the answer to a question we have can be an obstacle in the path of finding the answer or of attaining personal growth.

After some more chatting with Creon and Orestes, I bid them farewell as they headed off, and I went upstairs to catch Admetus. From the bookshelf in the third-floor office, I'm now borrowing Five Classics by Truman G. Madsen, a rather philosophical LDS author. I don't have any plans to complete it before my next meeting with the missionaries on Wednesday, though since I'll be traveling in the Peloponnese this weekend, I should get it done then, and hopefully another one as well. Also, they had some gravy from the dinner left over, so Alcestis sent a container of it home with me.

Reflections on the fireside chat? Well, Elder Wondra was certainly a nice man, well-spoken with a nice Austrian accent and a great sense of humor. I was kind of caught by surprise by the topic of the speech; it just wasn't what I expected. The meeting was a lot smaller than I'd figured. There weren't that many rows of seats, and even these were filled perhaps 60%-70%. If this is even close to representing the LDS population of that ward - and considering the size and shape of the church itself, I think the available seats really did indicate the church's capacity - it was fairly small, so they no doubt are a pronounced, close-knit minority. The selection of "Praise to the Man" was very unfortunate if this was intended to be an outreach event in any sense, but understandable otherwise. The questions weren't as deep as I expected, but it also wasn't a very theological or doctrinal talk, so those would've been sorta out of place. (If it had been doctrinal, you bet your bottom dollar I would've been inclined to ask some fun questions.) All in all, I caused no controversy, since it's not my style to do so in that sort of setting. It was an interesting experience and a nice talk, but nothing... powerful. It seemed actually somewhat mundane, perhaps. I'm not saying it wasn't a good talk, by any means. It was. I enjoyed it quite a bit. I suppose that perhaps I was just hoping to hear some 'hard doctrinal stuff', which is more my cup of tea. But, those are just my thoughts.

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