Friday, April 9, 2010

LDS Lesson #12

So today I once again walked down to meet with the LDS missionaries. I got another surprise when I learned that Demophon had been transferred, being replaced with another missionary whom I'll call "Cresphontes". We got a ride back to campus with Epaphos, whose family had driven me to church the time I went last month. Epaphos, Kallinos, and Cresphontes accompanied me to the campus chapel, where we found an empty classroom in the basement to occupy. On the way over, Cresphontes and I chatted about where he'd been before his transfer: not too far from my hometown, as it turns out. He'd served with a predominantly Spanish-speaking ward in the county seat. Cresphontes, like Demophon and Kallinos before him, were in awe of the grandeur of the chapel; as I found out from Kallinos on the walk over, Demophon had been blown away by the pipe organ in the sanctuary.

When we got to the classroom, we chatted for a bit about a couple classes I'd had in the room before, one of which was Religion in America, and I explained to Epaphos that I'd actually taught the material on Mormonism in that class, since I knew more about it than the professor. I then, of course, had to explain yet again for Epaphos and Cresphontes how I first came into contact with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and then Kallinos opened us in prayer. Then I told them what the church building in Greece was like, how my discussions with Creon and Orestes and Admetus went, etc., etc., and eventually how I came to continue things here. The missionaries were somewhat surprised to hear that the missionaries in Greece couldn't get their hands on an English copy of the Doctrine and Covenants for me. And I also talked with them about fires, riots, and economic collapse - Greece in a nutshell, in other words.

Then, of course, Kallinos had to go and ask the question about what in particular got me interested in the Latter-day Saints, and I again gave my feeble answer of interest in the different range of exegetical and theological views that one finds there that aren't present in mainstream Christianity, etc., etc. I always have a hard time with that question. Then it went on:

Cresphontes: So you've read the Book of Mormon, ah, did you take Moroni's promise at the end? How'd you feel after that?

JB: Uhhh... I'm still working on persisting in prayer to know if these things are true. I haven't yet heard anything definitive either way. So I'm going to keep praying about it and keep working at it "by study and also by faith", I think is the phrase.

Kallinos: If you were to receive that it was true, what would you do?

JB: I would immediately begin moving in the direction of becoming a baptized member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Kallinos: Good, so you have the 'real intent' down....


Cresphontes: Do you mind if I share with you the experience I had, how I got my answer?

JB: Go for it.

Cresphontes: Well, I was raised in the church, so I mean, I was fed this stuff by my parents from an early age [...] but everyone needs to prove (?) it. Because we're not born Mormon, Buddhist, Taoist, anarchist. We find the truth by how hard we search for it [...] Um, when I was about fourteen or fifteen, and I was attending seminary - which is kind of like a class [...] high school, where [I learned (?)] gospel doctrine, I learned the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine & Covenants, the Old Testament and New Testament. I personally thought that the Book of Mormon was false, because there wasn't any scientific proof of it. Something I became very aware of is that trying to prove God exists with science might be fun but won't work. How I got my answer was, Gordon B. Hinckley - the prophet at the time - told us to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year. So this was around August [...] like every teenager [...] I read little bits now and then. Around Christmas break, I was like, "You know what? If I read this, and if it's true, then what I believe is true, Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, the authority of God is back on the earth in the priesthood, [...] Jesus Christ's true Church, the Church he set up, is back on the earth. If it's false, then I guess I gotta [...]." So for me it was kind of hit or miss. (?) [...] I prayed, and... there was no voice. And immediately I got choked up. Immediately I thought of my family: my mom, my dad, my brothers. I thought of the family I would have someday. It was like I saw my whole life, how it could be if the Church is true. And then right [...] I heard a voice, very small, very silent [...] 'it's true'. And after that I was like, "Well I guess I know the direction my life's going." [...] We are where we are today because we received those answers. What's nice is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is today being more and more able to provide proof intellectually that it's true... but ultimately Heavenly Father wants us to know spiritually that it's true. Because you can change your thoughts, you can change your opinions, but you really can't-- it's really hard to change your feelings about something. So if you get a burning within yourself, a feeling, especially that something is true, that changes your whole point of view [...] the course that God wants you to go. [...] Your answer will come, and it will be something you'll never forget.

Kallinos: So, how do you think that you can know that it's true?

JB: I think that ultimately I'll find the answer in prayer. I will pray earnestly to God with all of my being to know if it is true, and by persisting in doing so and making sure that I have real intent, pour everything that I am into it, eventually I believe that God will show me - whether it be like that, or whether it be by pointing me in the direction of things that will indicate to me one way or the other whether or not it's true - that God will reveal to me what the answer is.

Kallinos: Alright. Um, good, that's good, you're on the right track. Um, [...] you read the Bible, we know that you love the Bible, so [...]

I can't recall exactly what came in at this point, but Kallinos quoted James 2:19 and started saying things like "belief involves more than just faith", and essentially the gist of his monologue was that since I'm clearly doing everything else right, the problem must be some sort of moral failing, because that's the only thing they can think of that would explain why God hasn't told me that theirs is the One True ChurchTM. In retrospect, the whole general tone of the conversation - well, monologue - had an uncanny resemblance to certain large swaths of the Book of Job. Now, even I found this portion at least somewhat insulting, indicating to me that perhaps Kallinos dozed off when the Missionary Training Center taught the lesson on this little thing called "tact". Tip to LDS missionaries: try to avoid making baseless insinuations that God isn't talking to your prospective convert because your convert is rebelling against God. Instead, maybe you could try something that would go a bit more like this:

A: Hmm, so you're clearly a believer in the Bible, you believe that Jesus is Son of God, Savior, and Lord... You know what's at stake in this, I can see that you have 'real intent', and you're praying in earnest to God to reveal this to you. Hmmm... may I read a few passages from the Bible with you?

B: Sure.

A: [select a few passages of moral exhortation] How would you currently rate yourself against this?

B: Well, I could always be doing better. But I am abiding by what you call the Law of Chastity and the Word of Wisdom, and I strive to devote myself to following God's commands and living by grace through faith.

A: Very good! Well, I can't tell you just what it is that might explain why God isn't answering your prayers, although I'll certainly pray about it and pray for you. In the meantime, the only thing I can think to suggest - and, again, I don't claim to know what's in your heart at all - is to continue working on living up to God's standards insofar as you know them, and I'm sure that when you do so, God will reveal even more to you.

Not perfect, of course - it still smacks of a bit too much works-righteousness - but at least more tactful and less presumptuous. Kallinos, however, didn't go this route. Instead, what he said was filled with statements like these:
  • "You've got a sincere heart, you've got the real intent... but there are lots of people with good intentions that don't really lead to very much."
  • "You've got a lot of faith [...] and then it comes to the second part, which is repentance. And that's kind of the biggie, and a big preparation step. And that's what we would invite you to start working on now. You have all the faith in the world, that's definitely true, and now you need to start acting upon that. You know, there's a lot of things you could do besides just praying that will lead you to your answer. You know? It is within your capacity to come to church. It is within your capacity to study the [Standard Works (?)] and to pray. It is within your capacity to keep the Word of Wisdom. It is within your capacity to do a lot of other [...] gospel principle [...] right there?"
  • He went on to cite Stephen R. Covey again to make the point that "the Church is true to you to the extent that you are true to the Church. If you're not being true to the Church, it's not going to be very true to you".
  • "If you want to know whether this came from Joseph Smith or if this came from God, do it. Okay? More than just praying. You know, Moroni 10:3-5, you know, that's a great way to receive revelation, I use it a lot of the time, it does work, sometimes additional effort is required. 'To whom much is given, much is required' [Luke 12:48]. You've been given a lot [...] start acting on it."
  • "Don't just wait for the answer to come to you; go and look for it. Search for it and keep the commandments of God. You know, don't just read the Book of Mormon for information's sake, read it with the intent of reading what it instructs you to do, and then do accordingly."
In the course of all of this, Kallinos talked some about how he'd gained a testimony, and how:'s not like the answer came all at once, it's not like it was a grand revelation or [...] a distinct feeling that this is true. That came later. It did come, but it didn't come at first. At first it was simply impressions or feelings that I should do this or I should do that - just little pieces and bits of the truth, you know - [...] and I had seen in the Book of Mormon or Doctrine & Covenants where it says that the Lord teaches you "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little" [2 Nephi 28:30; D&C 128:21]....

We also discussed a few other passages, like John 7:17 and Alma 7:23-25. Kallinos also grilled me some more about whether I'd really be willing to tithe, things like that. So anyway, after Kallinos was done lecturing me, he asked if I'd come out to their church again soon and I naturally agreed. He then assured me:

I just want you to know that, as you faithfully live the gospel of Jesus Christ and the principles that were brought forward in this modern dispensation - the dispensation that we know as "the fullness of times" - that you will know it's true.

And then Kallinos related the story of Glenn Beck's conversion, wherein Beck decided to try to disprove the "law of tithing" by following it and watching his life get worse, but instead was confounded when he found himself increasingly blessed by it. And eventually Kallinos qualified his previous lecture by acknowledging that I'm hardly an exceptionally sinful wanton, and he asked if I'd strive to live in accordance with God's commandments insofar as I know them. I said yes, and he replied, "Good, because I know that as you do so, you will receive an answer that it's true [...] because everything that's true is light, and light is discernible, that it's true. Truth has a familiar ring to it."

(I, on the other hand, would bring to mind passages like Jeremiah 17:9 and the simple patent fact that we humans have a nearly endless capacity for self-deception, especially when it comes to following our feelings - and, contrary to what Cresphontes suggested, beliefs obtained by reason are more properly stable than beliefs obtained by feelings. By that I mean that relatively seldom is, "I get a good feeling when I consider this", a good warrant for a belief in something. That's the overall problem that I have with standard LDS epistemology. I have little fundamental complaint at the notion of some beliefs being warranted by religious experience in certain situations, at least not so long as those beliefs are potentially defeasible. If we accept a general rule of, "Religious thoughts that bring a feeling of peace are true; religious thoughts that bring the opposite feelings are false", the result is absolute chaos if we're even a slight bit consistent.)

Cresphontes - the more tactful and easygoing of this missionary pair - then talked a bit about the usefulness of setting goals. And then he said something fairly interesting:

In the short time I've gotten to know you, and everything that we've both experienced, I've felt the Spirit probably a little more strongly than I have in my mission in this room right now. You have a wonderful testimony of these truths, you have an open mind, you have a soft heart - your heart isn't hardened, which is wonderful, I wish more people could be like that. I testify to you that as you start to set goals, as you start to make the leap of faith (as many people describe it), that God will prepare every step of your way - especially if this is true, especially if you make that leap. I promise you that as you do this, as you're setting goals, and especially [...] prayer [...] setting goals along with noble works, that those two will go together beautifully and that you will receive your answer. As a set-apart servant of the Lord and his messenger, I can promise you that you will receive one.

After that was done, I got to hear the story of how Epaphos had come to become a Latter-day Saint. He and his wife were converts from a nominal Lutheran background. One day when he wasn't home, some missionaries had dropped off a copy of the Book of Mormon with his wife, and when he got home, she said to him, "Some men dropped by today, and I think they were sent from God!" He was initially "rebellious", to use his word, and didn't much want to have further contact with them, but the missionaries were very persistent in sticking with him and suggesting times to meet until he couldn't duck them anymore. Eventually he got to the missionary discussions and reached the part where they taught about the LDS doctrine of the spirit's pre-existence, and Epaphos said that it was something that he'd always thought about but that his Lutheran church never discussed. "If we're spiritual, if we have a spirit, where was our spirit then? Before we're here? And I always thought about that, something missing in it, and that closed the gap right there, that was something that was missing, and I-- it was a familiar thing, too, when they taught it." And he went on to discuss some of his own experiences with being blessed through tithing, and then told a story about the second time he went to an LDS temple. (He said that the first time he was there to get his temple marriage and his endowment, it was all so new and strange to him that he doesn't even remember it well any more.) He said that when he sat down in the Celestial Room, "every question that entered my mind was immediately answered. Immediately! With answers I had never even thought of". He said that the questions had ranged from issues with raising his kids to interpretation of assorted scriptural passages. "And I knew the answer was coming from the Holy Spirit, I just knew it, because it was just things that I'd never thought about, never even imagined". He also said that he never forgot it because "it's never happened since, it was just this one time. And I guess God was giving me a special experience to strengthen my testimony. Because I do get answers from the Holy Ghost, just... not that way, a flood of answers". He also mentioned that, since it was nearly three decades ago, he's completely forgotten what the questions actually were. Epaphros went on to talk about how the Spirit doesn't speak to our physical bodies but to our own spirits, and how testimonies usually start out relatively little and grow over time.

Anyway, the missionaries talked for a bit about their stories, I think - I seem to recall Cresphontes talking about his dad - and we then covered some other topics, and in the process of explaining why I wasn't sure where I was in the Book of Mormon (I'd been going through an audio version), I described how my computer had just completely gone to pot - or, as I described it this time around, that "I guess you could say my computer joined the sons of perdition". And then I mentioned that I'd gotten a new computer recently, but that the upshot is that I no longer was certain what files I'd listened to and what files I hadn't.

Cresphontes then said that it had been a privilege talking to me and asked if I had any questions. I said that I did have one that I was curious about after visiting their church last time, and that was why water is used in the sacrament, rather than "something more grape-based" like wine or grape juice. They explained that it had been revealed to Joseph Smith (cf. D&C 27) not to use wine in the sacrament, since that would be contrary to the Word of Wisdom. Kallinos, after noting that they don't drink wine since they don't drink alcohol, simply said - in keeping with D&C 27:2 - that "it doesn't matter what we eat or drink; honestly, we could drink orange juice and eat a bagel if it came down to it, if we had nothing else, but what matters is that we do it 'with an eye single to the glory of God' and that we do it in remembrance that Jesus has died for our sins". Cresphontes added that in his ward back home, there are some people with gluten allergies, and consequently they have a special tray with rice cakes for the sacramental bread.

Eventually things took some interesting turns (I mentioned that very soon I'd be taking part in a big panel discussion on Christianity and homosexuality, so I'd been doing a lot of extra reading and preparation to "speak the truth in love" [Ephesians 4:15]), and I ended up as the recipient of a 'priesthood blessing' at Cresphontes' suggestion. (Kallinos half-rebuked Cresphontes by saying that "we don't solicit blessings", but Epaphos remarked that a person can hardly request one if they don't really know about them. In the end, I requested it.) So all three of them - Kallinos, Cresphontes, and Epaphos - all stood up and gathered around me and laid hands on the top of my head while I remained seated. I had chosen Kallinos to actually deliver the blessing, and so it went something like this:

[JB], in the name of Jesus Christ and by the power of the holy Melchizedek Priesthood which we hold, we give you a blessing of comfort and of peace from your Heavenly Father. [JB], your Heavenly Father is well aware of your circumstances. He loves you. He wants you to be happy, he wants you to experience all the joys and the privilege that comes to his children in this life. He wants you to taste of his love and his mercy in your life. He recognizes the difficulty of the schooling and education that you're going through at this time, and he will bless you with knowledge, with wisdom according to your needs, as you exercise your faith in him and as you turn to him in prayer. [JB], your Heavenly Father wants you to be at peace. He wants you to feel the Spirit. Always be willing to do that which will invite the Spirit. Always be willing to follow your savior Jesus Christ, and he will give unto you peace. Continue in the path that you are walking, because it is the correct path. As (?) you will continue to exercise your faith in Jesus Christ, he will continue to bless (?) you. We leave you with these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

Anyway, that was how things wound down with our meeting, and as we walked upstairs and out of the chapel, we continued to hear the lovely singing of a large choir that had begun performing a concert about midway through the priesthood blessing. I parted ways with my friends on the sidewalk, looking forward to seeing them again at church the next Sunday.

1 comment:

  1. Cool! Thanks for sharing that experience. I've blogged about some topics you touch on (LDS epistemology, homosexuality, etc.). I appreciate your account here as well as all the links. No posts since April?