Friday, February 26, 2010

LDS Lesson #11

So today I met with the missionaries outside the local pizza place where we'd had our previous meeting. Upon reflection, I had decided that the place was too noisy inside for me to hear clearly enough what was going on, so I decided that future meetings would be in secluded spots on campus. Rather than try to give directions by phone - reception is notoriously bad around here, and I got disconnected several times during even a brief phone conversation with Demophon - we decided to just meet there and walk over. I had extra free time because all classes were cancelled on the grounds of ridiculously inclement weather. And so I found myself at the shop early to grab a bit of food as a 'light' lunch (actually, it was vastly more filling than I'd imagined), and eventually I glimpsed Demophon approaching with his new partner. Sthenelos, you see, had been transferred just a day or so after I met him; and so I now met a Californian elder (born in Minnesota, though) whom I'll call "Kallinos". We took the trek back to campus, despite the utterly horrid wintery weather, and I showed them to the chapel. (They initially thought that the local art gallery, which used to be a church, was the building in question.) After leading them to the relatively comfortable lounge in the chapel basement and exchanging some chit-chat, one of the missionaries opened with a brief word of prayer.

So first I got to know Kallinos a bit better; he has a rather low and quiet voice, so it wasn't always easy to make out what he was saying. One thing I found is that he really likes to read... a lot. (As he remarked at one point, "I devour books.") Which, of course, really connected to me--I'm the exact same way. He's done mostly fiction, but since going on his mission he's realized how valuable some religious non-fiction could be, so he's excited to have time after his mission to really dive into that. On his mission, he's been mostly restricted to reading the Standard Works, although he did recently read Stephen R. Covey's Spiritual Roots of Human Relations. He said, though, that at times he does tire of reading just the scriptures; he compared it to being made to eat chocolate cake all day, every day--good stuff, but maybe some less rich stuff for contrast would be nice. (Of course, being allergic to chocolate and not at all a fan of its flavor or its aroma, which itself can make me feel ill, I suppose some of that was lost on me.) He's an English major, and he hopes to eventually earn a doctorate in the field and teach at the university level.

Kallinos and Demophon agreed, however, that if they read too much theology--even LDS theology--while on their mission, they might get distracted from the main purpose of their calling, which is to "teach repentance". Demophon then checked if missionaries had ever talked to me about things like the law of tithing, the Word of Wisdom, and a couple other topics; I said yes, since I've been as far through the missionary discussions as a non-convert can get. Kallinos asked if I "understand it all pretty well"; my answer was, "I think so". I am quite sure that I grasp the meaning of what the missionaries provided, but I'm usually relatively hesitant to say that I understand something, because I don't want to be presumptuous or to exclude the possibility (however distant it may be) that I'm completely off-base. Blame my personality type:

A major concern for INTPs is the haunting sense of impending failure. They spend considerable time second-guessing themselves. The open-endedness (from Perceiving) conjoined with the need for competence (NT) is expressed in a sense that one's conclusion may well be met by an equally plausible alternative solution, and that, after all, one may very well overlooked some critical bit of data.
Anyway, they asked if I've "applied what they [Creon and Orestes] taught [me]", and I said yes, because I do strive to live by many of the same general principles as Latter-day Saints do (even if I don't consider tithing a law and don't necessarily consider the Word of Wisdom to always be the required option, or anything like that). They then asked if I've been reading and praying, and if I've come to church; I said that I have been continuing to work through the Book of Mormon and pray for wisdom and enlightenment from God, but that I haven't been to an LDS church yet, but would like to. We're going to see about arranging for me to visit the nearest one on 14 March 2010.

They then asked me "how [my] prayers have been going", which is always a perplexing question for me. I view prayer as communication with God, communication with a real being who listens; asking how prayer has been going is like asking how a phone conversation has been going. It's not necessarily a nonsensical question, but a peculiar one nonetheless. At any rate, I said that regarding the whole Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith thing, I "haven't heard an answer back yet", but I intend to continue persevering in prayer and entrusting myself to God. They then asked me "what [I] usually pray for when [I] pray", and I answered, "I pray that God would grant me wisdom, that he would enlighten my mind, that he would move in me to accomplish his will, whatsoe'er it may be." One of the missionaries asked me whether I "get into specifics at all", and I replied that "I also pray that he would, you know, reveal to me whether or not the Book of Mormon is true, whether or not The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true church, whether or not Joseph Smith was a prophet called by God".

Demophon then decided to ask me more about "the feelings that [I] receive from reading the Book of Mormon", to describe them. Another unexpected question, and one that made me pause to think. In light of my pause, one of the missionaries said he's pretty sure it couldn't have just been emptiness, there had to be some feeling there. Anyway, I said that when I read the Book of Mormon, I generally have a positive feeling, but nothing "out of the ordinary"; I also said that "I do really enjoy reading the Book of Mormon, I learn a lot from it". In retrospect I'm not entirely sure how true that is; I'd probably enjoy the Book of Mormon a whole lot more if it weren't written in an affected archaic style to imitate the King James Version, which I also don't especially enjoy reading, to be perfectly honest. Demophon then asked "what it is [I'm] expecting", and I said that all I would expect from God as an answer to my prayer, assuming that he does wish to communicate to me that the Book of Mormon is true, would be "really anything that would let me know that it is God revealing it to me. It doesn't have to be, you know, exceptionally flashy or anything like that, just simply the 'still, small voice' of God saying, 'This is me, here I am.'" The missionaries seemed to accept that answer.

The missionaries then wanted to go over a few passages of Scripture with me, starting with Galatians 5:22-25. I read them aloud for us, and then Demophon wanted to turn to Doctrine and Covenants 46:7-26. We spent quite a bit of time on this one, going a few verses and then talking about it for a bit. (I was actually somewhat surprised at how fluently I was able to read my parts, since I'm not terribly used to the rhythm and style of the wording.) The section from the D&C was basically about the distribution of spiritual gifts, and I admit that spiritual gifts has been a topic of at least some interest for me lately.

(Perhaps I should interject an anecdote. As I may have mentioned, my roommate Childeric is heavily into the charismatic movement. Very... very heavily into the charismatic movement, in what I consider to be a perhaps unhealthy degree. I have no grievance against charismatic believers, save when there's an obviously problematic excess or imbalance. And my roommate really is a great guy, and very passionate for the Lord. Still, I've heard him speak in tongues roughly 10,000% more than I've heard him discuss the gospel, which has been more on the order of... well, I'm not actually sure if he'd have an answer besides "spiritual gifts" if I asked him what the gospel is. Whenever I say that the center of my faith is Christ crucified and risen from the dead, he actually seems to get a bit uncomfortable and try to shift the topic back to the gifts of healing, prophecy, and personal revelation in the contemporary Christian life. He generally intersperses this with remarks about how much more spiritually enlightened he is than anyone else around here. Anyway, he runs a Sunday morning worship service on campus this semester, and this past Sunday I attended. There were only a few people there. During the service, the speaker's wife said that someone present needed to be healed from back pain; I suffer from chronic back pain, probably largely due to scoliosis and all-around terrible joints, so I raised my hand. (It caught me especially off-guard because on the way to the service, I'd thought to myself that the one thing that would convince me beyond doubt of my roommate's radical position was if he and his friends were to heal my back...) Before I knew it, there was plenty of laying on of hands and praying in tongues - often, I'll add, in ways that are in apparent defiance of Paul's admonitions on the subject - for my healing. Because I'd been caught off-guard, I succeeded in persuading myself that I was healed, which actually did remove the pain for perhaps a day or so, by and large; now that the euphoria has worn off, of course, my back is no better than it was a month ago, although I certainly did strive to follow through humbly and boldly on every bit of advice I was given. The power of suggestion is, I suppose, a powerful thing indeed. A fascinating lesson nonetheless.)

So anyway, we discussed that passage for a while, not really saying much; neither of the missionaries seemed to be totally sure what the phrase "differences of administration" (D&C 46:15) was supposed to mean. The student manual that Latter-day Saints use quoted Sidney B. Sperry's Doctrine and Covenants Compendium (p. 196) as saying on the topic:

What is meant by differences of administration? By referring to 1 Corinthians 12:5, where the Apostle Paul is speaking about the same thing, we may get a suitable answer. Apparently by 'differences of administration' is meant the distinctive varieties of service and ministration by which things are accomplished in the Church. The Lord seems to be saying (vs. 15) that while there are diversities of services and ministers or agents, such as Apostles, High Priests, Seventies, and the like in the Church, they all depend on the same Lord and Savior, who is the head of the whole Church. One who has the gift by the Holy Ghost to know differences of administration is one who discerns correctly the services and agencies by which the Lord works. (quoted in Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, p. 100)
Anyway, after Kallinos told a story about his father and how this gift has played a role in his life, Demophon remarked that this is something important that they wanted to discuss with me because "when [I] do become a member of the Church, [I] will be asked to do things, but when we serve [...] our Heavenly Father, we're blessed and we grow". So from there we continued to work through that portion of the Doctrine and Covenants. I believe that at one point the missionaries asked me what knowledge has done in my life, and I explained that it helps me approach the Scriptures more richly and take from them a greater wealth of practical guidance for living, as well as beholding the truth itself more clearly and thus coming to understand God better. Something like that, anyway. They also asked if I've seen it impact those around me; after I said yes, Kallinos noted that the reason God gives us gifts is for the benefit of those around us. Demophon then referred to 1 Kings 3:11-14, talking about the value of wisdom for Solomon.

Kallinos eventually came to ask me, "How much have you looked into why we do things?" A bit perplexed by the question, I asked him to clarify the relevant universe of discourse. (In layman's terms, I asked him whether he was using "we" as people in general, "we" as believers in God, "we" as LDS missionaries, or whatever.) Upon finding agreement to "humans in general", I answered that a lot of things can motivate us, and that while it's often selfishness, but also by the desire to serve God and others. As I said, "we're motivated by how we mentally rank things", how we prioritize our worlds. The highest form of motivation, of course, is do act sheerly from love of God, which expands also to love of others for the sake of the God who is Love. Kallinos then expounded on the Book of Mormon definition of "charity" as the "pure love of Christ", noting that because we have this love of Christ through love for Christ, we do everything for the sake of the other, and only incidentally for ourselves.

When you show God that you want to do everything you do for the benefit of his children, then he's going to help you do it. If you do it for a selfish cause, like-- there are even people within our Church that try to live the gospel of Jesus Christ for themselves, for the benefit of, you know, receiving their own salvation, receiving their own eternal reward or whatever it is. But the highest form of motivation comes not for serving yourself but for serving others.
He then turned to Moroni 7:5-11 and read it, and then discussed it briefly. Commenting on the statement that praying apart from "real intent" is counted by God as an evil, Kallinos said:

It's like, it says that it is accounted evil unto a man if he shall pray and not with real intent of heart. If you are praying, if you're trying to communicate your desires to God, and it's not with real intent of heart if your motivation isn't sincere, it's not real, then it's counted nothing towards you. You need to make sure that your motivations are pure, that they're-- that they're what God wants. [...] It's like, um, Cain and Abel, you know? They both offered sacrifices. Cain offered the fruit of the ground; Abel offered the firstlings of his flock. It was in the motivation... Cain offered it because it was just what he was required to give, you know, just the fruit of the ground. Abel did it because he wanted to, and so he gave his best, you know? Everything good comes from God, and everything evil comes from the devil. If what we do is good, then it's gonna be inspired of God; if what we do is bad, it's the devil. A little bit where I'm trying to go with this is that we need to make sure that our motivations are pure if we're gonna get what we're asking for from God. If you want an answer to your prayers, you need to make sure that your motivations are pure. It can't be for intellectual gain, it can't be for some selfish desire or anything like that, it's got to be because you want to follow Christ and you want to know that this comes from Christ.
(My cellphone rang while he was talking, but I ignored it. It was odd because I'm not used to people desiring to contact me.) He then went on to talk about how in his own life before he went on his mission, the gospel was basically just "a lot of mental Tinkertoys" for him, not any real devotion. He did things because he was told to, but not because of any deep desire; he would, on the other hand, "look into the deep doctrines of the faith because they were cool and fun and interesting", but "it really wasn't heartfelt, it really wasn't meaningful to me, it had no practical application to my life". Only when his heart was "softened" and he "got down on [his] knees and prayed", "really pleading with the Lord if it is true", did God give him the affirmative answer he sought. Then, of course, came the relatively standard testimony-bearing to the effect that he knew that the experience he had (he described it as "a baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost") could only come from God, and couldn't possibly have arisen from within himself. (I can't speak for others, but I generally don't have a positive reaction to testimony-bearing of this sort, since it largely serves as a discussion stopper. Basically, I don't regard it as one of the more effective ways for a Latter-day Saint to reach a person like me, I'm in good company. I deem it particularly ineffective insofar as it reminds me that many Latter-day Saints hold a view of religious epistemology that I generally consider wrongheaded.) Then came a brief conversation that might not have been the most judicious on their part:

Kallinos: Um, I don't know, you say you've been praying. But have you really prayed? Like, have you really gotten on your knees, and poured out your whole soul into your prayer, and pled with the Lord that he would answer your prayer?

JB: I would say yes. And I shall do so again.

Kallinos: Okay.

At this point, Kallinos wanted to turn to Moroni 7:45-48, which naturally we did. It struck me as a pretty clear borrowing from Paul. Demophon said that this passage amply illustrates "what truly motivates us". After some of Demophon's pontificating on the value of having an other-centered live, Kallinos added that he didn't come on his mission for himself, but rather to benefit others like me.

Demophon at last asked whether or not I had any questions. Now, I had thought a little bit about some of the questions I'd previously posed to Creon and Orestes, but because Demophon and Kallinos had taken far more time for their own things than I had anticipated, I really didn't want to launch into a deep discussion of any sort in the time remaining, and I definitely didn't want things to run over the scheduled time limit, since I had other things to do today. For that reason, after contemplating it for a little bit, I said that I'd think more about my questions and try asking them next time. Demophon asked whether the questions were scriptural, theological, or historical, and I answered that I had some of all three; he said that they'd definitely be willing to do any homework they needed to in order to answer the questions. I think that Kallinos is the one who chimed in with the comment, "I do know that all questions can be answered with the power of the Holy Ghost." Well, then, I may just have to hold them to that. Demophon started saying something about "if [I] come to accept that the Book of Mormon is true", but caught himself very quickly and changed the "if" to "when". They're very confident.

Anyway, we wrapped things up in prayer, and we parted in the chapel narthex; they went out one set of doors, and I went out the other direction. By way of reflection, I will say that I don't enjoy meeting with these missionaries nearly as much as I did with the ones I knew in Greece. Creon and Orestes were more... perhaps laid-back. I suppose I just don't feel the same actual sense of warmth from Demophon and Kallinos. But, time will tell, I suppose.

1 comment:

  1. Hi JB, I'm a LDS. You said you met some missionarys (Creon and Orestes) in Greece. I was wondering where you are living now. Well anywho, my name is Julia and I live in Brazil. I've lived in the U.S.A. before, and I know what its like to meet mormons that you can relate to, and others, not so much. The people may be different in habits, culture, humor... but we all do have the same purpose. Keep on reading the Book of Mormon if you think there is some truth to it and keep on praying. Dont expect angels or other heavenly beings to prove The Book is true, but you will feel a nice, warm, conforting reasuring feeling that you're doing the right thing. I'll check the blog latter but if you want to keep contact my email is