Category: religion

Under the Banner of Heaven Episode 1 Review

I’ve already had a couple of friends ask me what I thought about Under the Banner of Heaven, the new mini-series that’s out, adapting Krakauer’s book of the same title. It’s focused on a murder investigation in 1984 in rural Utah, and it very much delves into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, portraying events both from the church’s history and its “present” (in 1984). As an active media review and active member of my religion, it makes sense people would ask for my take.

I’d read a fair bit about the show before I watched the first episode last night. All about how much effort had been put in to “getting it right” when it came to how my religion is portrayed. I was hopeful, based on many of the reviews I’d read, as they said the faith was treated quite favorably in some aspects. I haven’t read the book, but I know there’s a fair bit of “not favorable” in it toward Latter-day Saints, arguing that much of the church’s history has a direct impact on some of the bad things in the church’s present. I actually agree with that premise: I do believe there are things in the faith that can lead some to get really carried away into whackadoodle land. You just have to look at the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping to see that’s still going on. I also acknowledge that for a long time, the church at best looked at its history through rose-tinted glasses, and often actually just ignored some of it, or claimed it was misinformation. So I don’t have anything against a show that explores how the history of the church can relate to the present.

I say that on the offset, just to put it out there. I didn’t go into the viewing loaded for bear. With a solid cast and creative team around the show, I expected to like it.

What I got, instead, was something that’s very hard for me to accurately review. I realize that my religion is large enough that many people will have many different impressions of what it actually feels like to be a member. How things were in Utah in 1984 will be different than how they are in Maine in 2022. However, I lived in Utah for stretches of time in the 80s. My family out there is large and sprawling and tight knit. Almost all of them are active members. My mom literally grew up with the Lafferty’s. They’re from Payson, though the town’s never mentioned in the show. She knew them. The murders happened in American Fork, about 10 minutes north of where I lived in the early 2000s. In other words, I don’t feel like I’m so far out of touch with the source material that I can’t evaluate it at least to an extent.

Black (the writer) might have done a lot of research into the religion. He grew up a member, but left years ago. But regardless of the amount of research he put into it, the end result leaves much to be desired.

To begin with, the use of Latter-day Saint lingo by all the members in the show is just off. Perhaps if you’re not a member, it all sounds like how we talk, but it’s sort of like having Google translate do your interpretation of a novel. Yes, the words are technically correct, but they’re used in ways that don’t ring true. At one point, Brenda says “The Savior would want me to go to BYU.” But we view Christ and God as distinct beings. We pray to God for guidance, not Christ. I’ve heard plenty of people ask “What would Jesus do?”, but I don’t remember anyone asking “Where would Jesus want me to go to school?” Again, maybe there are some that do, and so I just am out of touch there, but that’s simply one example.

Characters use the term “Heavenly Father” like it was on sale at Walmart. All the members are throwing it in left and right, to an extent that just doesn’t happen (in my experience). They talk about “vows” and “oaths” and generally come across as wide-eyed idiots, even in the cases where they’re supposedly sympathetic.

I get it. Plenty of people think we are wide-eyed idiots. The religion is definitely on the “Religions we can make fun of as much as we want list,” even with many or most who would staunchly defend any who might try to ridicule Judaism, Islam, or mainstream Christianity. But I’m here to say that while we might have a few whackadoos in the religion, they’re not the flavor of whackadoo being presented by the show, if that makes sense.

Every single member shown on screen acts off. The show doesn’t hesitate to show how strange we are, right down to our garments and (from the screen shots for upcoming episodes) temple rituals. I don’t know who they got to do their cultural sensitivity consulting, but it feels like they were asleep at the wheel. The closest analogy I can think of is a show focused on Islam that has an actor portraying Allah. Yes, you can do it for the shock value, or to really “explore the subject,” but you better realize that what you’re doing is stomping all over many people’s sacred beliefs, and it would be nice to ask yourself if the price is worth the end product.

But like I said, maybe this is how the rest of the world looks at me and my family. There’s a scene where the Lafferty family gets together to clear a field of rocks, and it’s done almost like an Amish barn raising. The men are out working, and the women are providing food. I don’t object to showing that some Latter-day Saint families can be very restrictive when it comes to how they treat their wives and daughters. (Though I’d point out that’s not unique to the faith.) But the show makes a point of saying how respected the Lafferty family is. “They’re like the Kennedys,” is how the main character puts it. And when you say that, and then show the Lafferty family all behaving very bizarrely, then you’re saying that’s the norm for members out there. That’s the ideal we’re all shooting for.

And it just plain isn’t.

Besides, “the Kennedys”? The Lafferty family might have been well known in Payson, but Payson was anything but the center of the religion.

Anyway. I could go on, but I won’t. This isn’t a show (so far) that I would really recommend to anyone. Perhaps it gets better. If my opinion changes, I’ll write about it, but I’ll be surprised if it does. And please, if you’re watching the show as a non-member, don’t assume what’s being portrayed there is par for the course. I can’t say authoritatively that it’s never like that, but I can say I’ve never seen it like that in my 40+ years of living in it. To make it seem like it’s the norm is disingenuous at best.

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Religious Freedom Under Attack?

We had an interesting lesson in church on Sunday, and it’s been banging around inside my head since then, so I wanted to explore it a bit more here on digital paper. It stemmed from a talk given this past General Conference, arguing that religious freedom is under assault. I’d read the talk ahead of the lesson, and I’d listened to it back when it was given live in April. At the time, I didn’t think that much of it one way or the other. As I said in our meeting Sunday, “I’m in favor of religious freedom,” and that seems like a pretty tame assertion.

But when I read the talk again, and as we discussed it in class, I started really delving a bit more into what I thought about the concept. I know that many have argued that religious freedom is under attack, but I also believe often people use that as an argument to try and justify things they want to do, despite the fact that no real religious freedoms are being attacked. I also think it’s becoming a bigger mistake with every passing year to interpret church talks at General Conference as being aimed at Americans and only Americans. As is pointed out time and time again, more than half of Latter-day Saints live outside the US these days.

So to break this down further, it came to a few questions. First, is religious freedom under assault in America? Second, is it under assault in the world? And third, what should we do about it?

There have been many right-wing pundits who have argued that religious freedom in America is continually being eroded. I will say that I personally have never been in a situation where I’ve been denied the ability to practice my religion in a way I see fit, though I’ll add that the way I practice my religion is almost always pretty low impact on anyone around me. I’ll also add that just because I haven’t seen something personally doesn’t make me doubt that it happens. But when I’ve seen this religious freedom debate happen in the states, it’s usually come down to gay marriage, and more recently trans rights. Sixty years ago, it would have been centered around civil rights.

From what I can see, there are many conservatives who continue to believe homosexuality or anything like unto it is a choice and a sin. People aren’t born that way, they choose to live that way. And because it’s a choice, it becomes a pretty clear cut decision to oppose it in any way, shape, or form. On the other hand, those on the left (and an ever-increasing amount of scientific evidence) argue that one’s sexuality is very often not a choice and so when there are laws limiting the rights of non-straight people, those laws are discriminatory.

So when a cake shop decides it doesn’t want to make a cake for a gay wedding because the owner of the cake shop is opposed to gay marriage, the battle lines quickly become drawn. In the case in point, Colorado (where the case happened) has a law prohibiting people being discriminated against due to their sexuality. The cake shop argued it was a matter of religious freedom. The couple in question argued they were being discriminated against illegally.

Is this an attack on religious freedom, or a defense against discrimination? You could see it either way, depending on your politics.

The same happened over the pandemic with churches claiming they were being required by the government to shut down in-person services. Whether it was a question of religious freedom or public health policy again typically boiled down to politics.

I personally don’t believe religious freedom in America is under attack. I believe that certain areas of religion that cause particular friction points are being considered and defined. If I have a religion that says people with brown eyes should be beaten over the head with a club, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get away with going around actively beating brown-eyed people with a club for very long before the government steps in and puts an end to my rampage. It’s not a question of my religious freedom being restricted any more than the ban on running into a movie theater and yelling FIRE is a question of freedom of speech being impinged. Any time you have people with different views gathered in one country, you need a way to ensure there’s a balance between individual rights and the collective good. That balance will feel restrictive on both sides from case to case.

Note that I realize there are some who believe I’m wrong when it comes to the assault on religious freedom. There are many who believe I’m wrong on a lot of topics, and I no doubt am wrong in multiple instances. But until I see a persuasive argument to change my views, that’s where they’ll stay for now.

(This is not to say I don’t believe the concept of religion is under attack. I have personally been ridiculed for my religious beliefs many times, both in person and online. But I see a big difference between someone telling me I’m an idiot for what I believe and someone telling me I can’t worship in a way I see fit (when that way has no real negative impact on anyone else). I do wish there would be more tolerance for religious beliefs in our country, but that’s a topic for a different blog post.)

Onto the second question: is religious freedom under attack elsewhere across the globe? One example brought up in the lesson was the ban on Burkas in France. The majority of citizens in France felt that the practice of wearing a full face-veil was discriminatory to women, and so they made it illegal. There were arguments given by Muslims both for and against the ban. Arguments in favor of it talked about how the Niqab or Burka had no place in Islam. Arguments against talked about how it was a personal religious choice, and as such should be protected. It wasn’t as if people were running around trying to make non-believers wear Burkas.

On a global scale, I do believe religious freedom is in danger. There’s the Uyghur genocide in China (where Muslims are being persecuted) and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East (where non-Muslims were persecuted), to name two significant examples. Any time you have people being literally killed because of their religion, I don’t think there’s much debate about whether religious freedom is under attack. This goes far beyond smaller scale “assaults” like “should I have to wear a mask?” or “should I have to be vaccinated?” And when viewed in this light, those smaller debates feel a lot more trivial. (Though I realize they’re anything but to some of the people involved.)

So the third question: what can we do about all of it? For me, this often comes back to the eleventh article of faith of my religion: “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (Again, this is clean cut when those religious practices don’t impinge on other people. When they do, things get messier.) I do believe living this principle is harder in practice than in theory. It means sometimes letting people do things you might personally not agree with. It’s easy when your beliefs line up with my beliefs. But I also believe this extends to the right of people to not worship or believe in God at all. If “how, where, or what they may” doesn’t include the empty set, then it doesn’t really include everything. And if there are more people who are atheist or agnostic now, then that is what it is. I’d like to hope all sides can get along peacefully, but it’ll take some contested court cases to keep that process in line.

Globally, there’s not much I feel I can do, which feels like par for the course for many issues . . .

What about you? What do you think about all of this, and how do you handle it?

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Like what you’ve read? Please consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks to all my Patrons who support me! It only takes a minute or two, and then it’s automatic from there on out. I’ve posted the entirety of my book ICHABOD in installments, and I’m now putting up chapters from PAWN OF THE DEAD, another of my unreleased books. Where else are you going to get the undead and muppets all in the same YA package? Check it out.

If you’d rather not sign up for Patreon, you can also support the site by clicking this PERFECT PLACE TO DIE Amazon link. It will take you to Amazon, where you can buy my books or anything else. During that visit, a portion of your purchase will go to me. It won’t cost you anything extra.

Yes, Church Leaders Make Mistakes. Sometimes Big Ones

Sigh. Yet again, someone from my church is making waves in the news for saying something stupid. This time, it’s a member of the General Young Men’s presidency, who gave a talk the other day covering a wide range of topics. The talk was Zoomed, and the Zoom recording made its way to the interwebs, and . . . it blew up from there. The part that’s receiving the most attention is when he started to try and defend why there was a priesthood ban for Black members of the church until 1978. Maybe not defend it so much as deflect the issue.

“Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe instead of saying why did the Blacks have to wait until 1978, maybe what we should be asking is, “Why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829?””

That . . . is problematic on a variety of levels. Part of me feels like it’s so problematic, no one should need to outline why it’s problematic. But since apparently some people don’t see it as problematic, I’ll do it anyway:

  • It’s a generally cavalier attitude to have about something that was deeply hurtful for decades and decades to a whole group of people. To dismiss that hurt in such a flippant way (and to do it in such dehumanizing terms–“the Blacks”) is appalling.
  • It’s historically inaccurate. When Joseph Smith led the church, Black members were allowed to have the priesthood. This is indisputable. It’s only when Brigham Young took over the reins that the priesthood ban grew into what lasted until 1978. So the question is actually “Why were Black members allowed to have the priesthood, and then told they couldn’t anymore?”
  • It brushes aside the real problems with that ban, saying essentially that “it wasn’t in God’s timeline” for people of all races to have the priesthood.
  • His talk goes on to touch on other hot button topics in the same manner, dismissing critiques of the church by deflecting with (attempted?) humor time and time again. Whether it’s the way women are treated in the church, or the way the church views other religions. (He says other churches are just “playing religion.” Sort of like kids play house when they’re little. How in the world someone can’t see that would be insulting to the billions of religious people across the world . . . )

I’m sure I’m missing some problems with it, but I’m also short on time, and there’s a lot I want to say. In the end, this sort of thinking isn’t unique to Wilcox. These are sentiments that have been repeated again and again throughout the church. (Not that all church members believe them, but many do.)

Now, Wilcox has apologized for his statement, and I appreciate that:

“My dear friends, I made a serious mistake last night, and I am truly sorry. The illustration I attempted to use about the timing of the revelation on the priesthood for Black members was wrong. I’ve reviewed what I said and I recognize that what I hoped to express about trusting God’s timing did NOT come through as I intended. To those I offended, especially my dear Black friends, I offer my sincere apologies, and ask for your forgiveness. I am committed to do better.”

And BYU (where Wilcox teaches religion) issued a statement around it as well:

“We are deeply concerned with the words recently used by Dr. Brad Wilcox. We appreciate his sincere apology and believe he is committed to learn from this experience. BYU remains committed to upholding President Nelson’s charge to root out racism in our institutions. We are carrying out the guiding principles outlined by President Worthen in evaluating and implementing the recommendations provided by the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging, including the creation of a new Office of Belonging.”

However, (and it’s a big however), this isn’t something Wilcox just said in an off-the-cuff remark. He’s been giving this exact talk for at least two years. There’s a YouTube video of him presenting it to the Lilburn Georgia Stake back in 2020. There’s some slight phrasing differences, but it’s the same message. It would be nice to have him recognize he’s been spreading this same thought for years, and if the thought is so concerning to BYU, one would think there would be repercussions beyond “we appreciate his sincere apology.” Can we somehow come up with something that will tell all the people who heard this talk and accepted it as doctrine that it was wrong wrong wrong?

Set all of that aside for a moment, because (believe it or not) it’s not really what I want to talk about today. What I’d like to focus on is why we as church members seem to be so fearful of admitting church leaders make mistakes. Sometimes big ones. (I mean, case in point: Brother Wilcox just made a pretty big, public mistake. Not nearly as big as denying the priesthood to an entire race for 100 years, but still damaging.)

I think somehow we’re afraid of letting our leaders be human. It’s easy for us to look back in the Bible and say prophets made mistakes. Just this week in Come Follow Me, we’re reading about Abraham going to Egypt and asking his wife not to tell anyone she’s his wife, because he was worried they’d want to kill him and take her. That’s . . . questionable, to say the least. Or we’ll read about Noah getting drunk and lying around naked, or Moses going against the word of God and being barred from entering the promised land. We’ll read about Saul persecuting the church, or Peter denying Christ three times. And we’ll come up with reasons for why those mistakes were justified, or we’ll reason them away in some other fashion.

But while we’re doing that, we’ll also talk about how we know church leaders and prophets aren’t infallible. How only one perfect person lived on earth, and that was Christ. But we seem to be very reluctant to admit church leaders could make big mistakes. There’s no way a latter-day prophet could have been racist, for example, despite being the product of a nation rife with slavery.

The church has been quite vocal recently about its desire to do away with racism, but then it’ll have incidents like this, where blatantly racist, insensitive things are not just being preached from the pulpit, they’re being preached by a BYU professor. And not just a BYU professor, but one of the main leaders for the Young Men’s organization in the church. When you have a thorny history of race relations, can you see how something like Wilcox’s speech could be more than just “he apologized, so it’s all okay now”?

I believe you can make big mistakes and still be a good person. (But that’s mainly because I think so many of us can and do make big mistakes.) “Good” is a very subjective term. You can be a founding father of America, and have been intrinsically part of the creation of a huge step forward in freedom, and yet also be a slaveholder who did very bad things. We can admire someone for the good they accomplished, while still recognizing the huge mistakes they made. Coming up with new and inventive ways of saying those mistakes weren’t actually mistakes . . . does what? How is that helpful for anyone?

I’m disappointed on a lot of different levels today. Disappointed that there’s yet another very public instance of someone in my church making a big blunder. Disappointed that the response feels so lukewarm, especially when it’s clear this wasn’t a one off event. Disappointed that so many, many members heard this same speech, and that it persisted this long in its same form. That no one thought to speak up and say, “This isn’t right.” Of course, I can understand why no one did. The church strongly frowns on its members criticizing people in leadership positions. But when those leaders are making such obvious errors, it shouldn’t take a leaked Zoom video to correct them. Not if we’re in a church that truly believes in rooting out racism.

Is Brad Wilcox racist? I have no idea. I don’t know him at all. But the attitude expressed in his talk is a very clear example of the sort of problematic approach to race many Americans (and church members) follow. It’s white privilege, plain and simple. His discussion of other religions is elitist and wrong. His dismissal of people with actual concerns about the church is actively damaging.

We make a big deal of our pioneer heritage. We celebrate it. Youth groups across the country even reenact it each summer. But at the same time we do that, we seem to want to ignore the big mistakes made by those same pioneers. To say “that was then, this is now,” as if we can sweep all of that under the rug and move on. But the more we sweep things under the rug without actively addressing it, the more those things fester, resulting in talks like the one we’re discussing today.

We want to say we’ve moved beyond it. The evidence says we definitely have not.

Mourning with Those Who Mourn

Having been out of Utah for 14 years now, and away from BYU for the same amount of time, it shouldn’t surprise me that from time to time I’m slow to hear about news from campus. This morning when I got on social media, I was greeted with a few posts about a talk Elder Holland gave at BYU four days ago. He’s usually one of my favorite speakers, so I was surprised to see these posts not generally being about how great the talk was, but rather how upsetting. Naturally, I had to go read it for myself.

In it, he challenges the faculty of BYU to defend the faith more than it has to date. Specifically, he cites the current tendency of some on campus to seemingly defend or condone gay marriage. Though he does go on to state he’s only using that as one example of the types of things he’d like to see the faculty change, he dwells on it for quite a while.

I don’t have it in me right now to write another piece on the church and its polices on homosexuality and gay marriage. I’m in no way a spokesman for the church, and my opinions are only opinions. However, I did want to talk a little bit about why, perhaps, so many of the youth in the church are in favor of supporting gay marriage and LGBTQ+ rights.

We are taught time and time again that we are to love one another. That the second greatest commandment is “thou shalt love they neighbor as thyself.” Up until the last few decades (give or take), it was assumed homosexuality was a choice. As such, it was easy to pass it off as sinful behavior. But as we’ve been able to understand the topic more fully, it becomes increasingly apparent that (at least for a portion of society, and I’m not going to debate how big a portion) it’s not a choice, but rather an inherent part of their person. They’re born that way.

And they’re born into a society that has largely been set against them since forever. LGBTQ+ youth attempt suicide at an an alarming rate. Within the church, they’re told they’re loved (by many church leaders), but the actual way many members treat the LGBTQ+ community leaves much (much!) to be desired. And even the church leaders like Elder Holland who say how much they love them end up telling them they can never live their life in the way they feel they were inherently born to live it. “Hate the sin, not the sinner” is a fine saying for lying or stealing or any number of actions out there, but as soon as the sin stops being a willful choice but rather a state of being, it becomes much more problematic. You can’t say “I don’t hate gay people, I just hate people who act gay” and actually expect anyone not to call you out on it.

Our religion teaches us from an early age that as members of the church, we are under an obligation to mourn with those who mourn. To be compassionate to the downtrodden. Why in the world wouldn’t many of the youth of the church then want to reach out and comfort those who stand in need of comfort? Data fluctuates, but as of a few years ago, one in four LGBTQ+ high schoolers attempt suicide. One in four! These are children who are being treated by a society in a way that makes them think they’d be better off dead than to go on living. If anyone needs comfort, they do.

I have heard multiple people in the church make fun of the LGBTQ+ community, from the time I was a child right on up to my time living here in Maine. Honestly, I would be disappointed in my children if they didn’t speak up to try to protect and support their LGBTQ+ friends.

We have a tendency to weigh sins. To find some to be more onerous than others. And that makes sense. There are different degrees of stealing or lying or cheating or any number of actions. The church has recently spoken out multiple times about its intolerance of racism. In 2020, President Nelson called on members who are racist in any way to repent. But if you’re racist (which is a choice, but is also arguably something you can be raised to believe, and so can be difficult to break free from), you’re not treated like a leper. Just look at how the DezNat folks are treated. You can be a practicing racist and hold church callings, or espouse homophobic ideas and be welcomed at activities. Your Bishop isn’t likely to sit you down for a long talk about the need to repent. (Though I suppose you could argue he would if you were acting on these opinions violently, or regularly teaching about them in church.)

What I mean to say is that it feels to me sometimes that we’re far too accepting and embracing of those people in our religion who are intolerant, unkind, and downright un-Christlike. We are comforting those who don’t need comfort. Mourning with those who are not mourning. And while we do that, we’re ignoring whole masses of mourners outside our doors.

I’m not generally the sort of person who’s looking to grind an axe with anyone. I’ve got plenty of things I need to work on myself, and I’m not calling for any one sin to be called out more than any other. I’d just like us to acknowledge that all of us have issues, and that the church is here for the sick, not the healthy. And we’re all sick. It might make some people feel better to point out the sicknesses of others, but when you’re all in the hospital, it feels like you’re really splitting hairs.

Personally, I would rather be too loving. Too accepting. Too forgiving. It’s coming from a heartfelt belief that I want to do what I can to help those who need help, and support those who need support. I do not know the intricacies of God’s views on homosexuality and why those views are the way they are. And I suppose I’m glad I don’t work at BYU, even though I love the school. Perhaps because the school is church run, its employees are held to a stricter standard in what they can say and do. But I wish that standard were the other way. That BYU faculty and staff were expected to be more loving and kind. And that parents who objected to that kindness were in turn reminded of the need to be more Christlike themselves.

And that’s all I have in me to say today.

Faith in the Time of COVID

As I mentioned last week, I had the chance to head back to in-person church on Sunday. It was capped at 25 people, we all had masks on, and sanitizer abounded. Did I feel safe? Yes. Did it feel normal? Not at all. Was it good to be back? I’m honestly not sure. It felt so different. But I think it was an important first step.

In any case, here’s the talk I delivered yesterday. (I discovered that I breathe more when I’m nervous, and when I breathe more with a mask on, my glasses fog up more, which makes it harder to read my talk. Unforeseen problems. I think I need a different mask.)

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Before 2020, I never really took much time to consider what “essential services” existed in my life. If you’d asked me back then, I probably would have listed things like electricity and groceries. Roads in good repair. Toilet paper wouldn’t have even occurred to me. In a post-COVID-19 world (or at least a world still dealing with it and hopefully getting to ‘post’ eventually), it’s been surprising to see the number of services that have been listed as essential. Services a 2019 version of me would have laughed at. Different countries made different decisions. France, for example, kept its chocolate, cheese, wine, and pastry shops open. Australia made sure its liquor and toy stores would keep running, while here in America, states watched out for gun and marijuana stores, not to mention the WWE.

If nothing else, the pandemic has taught me that we all have different priorities, and what’s considered essential to one person is considered frivolous to others. It shouldn’t have surprised me, then, to have many people upset that churches were being shuttered in the middle of all of this chaos. Somehow, however, it did. Some of this is likely due to the fact that my personal transition from a normal religious life to a socially distant one went fairly smoothly. Our church ended worldwide meetings fairly early in the pandemic, and we already had an extensive curriculum to continue church lessons at home. Not all faiths had that same luxury.

For many people, their Sunday worship services are one of the primary ways they practice their religion. Removing that ability while keeping marijuana stores open has to sting more than a little, especially when by doing so, the government is declaring religion unessential. But at the same time, many of the trappings of church service were difficult to do in a socially distant manner. Just look at how we’re resuming them now. There’s a fifth of the people here who would normally be here. No handshakes. No singing. Lots of masks and a whole lot of sanitizer. Gearing up to go to church today brought whole new meaning to the phrase “putting on the armor of God.”

It was interesting to me, then, that this week’s Come Follow Me lesson focused on the Zoramites, a group I think illustrates both sides of this situation. On the one hand, you had the rich Zoramites who built a tower from which to worship. Once a week, they would all gather and offer up prayers before returning home and forgetting God completely until it was time for church again the next week. In a pre-COVID world, how many of us fell into this category? How much of an actual impact did our religion have on us during the week, compared to the amount it had on us on Sunday?

And then you had the poor among them, who were cast out from these religious practices. They came to Alma and asked him, “Behold, what shall these my brethren do, for they are despised of all men because of their poverty, yea, and more especially by our priests; for they have cast us out of our synagogues which we have labored abundantly to build with our own hands; and they have cast us out because of our exceeding poverty; and we have no place to worship our God; and behold, what shall we do?” For the past four months, our churches have been shuttered. We have had no place to worship our God. So Alma’s response to this group is particularly applicable:

10 Behold I say unto you, do ye suppose that ye cannot worship God save it be in your synagogues only?

11 And moreover, I would ask, do ye suppose that ye must not worship God only once in a week?

12 I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble, and that ye may learn wisdom; for it is necessary that ye should learn wisdom; for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.

A time of crisis can do many things for a person. It can make someone panic or rage. It can bring a people closer together or split them further apart. The last nationwide panic I lived through was September 11th. I remember marveling in the days after those awful attacks how unified our country had become. Who else remembers the members of Congress standing on the steps singing God Bless America that evening? That sort of national unity is missing today. Granted, the thought of a large group gathering anywhere elbow to elbow is a little disconcerting right now, but I can’t picture any Congressional meeting today resulting in such a heartwarming conclusion. Maybe the WWE could arrange something.

It’s telling to me that Alma focuses on how the deprivation of a place of worship made these Zoramites more humble. Humility is a trait that could go a long way to helping us through the days, weeks, and months ahead. It’s the ability to recognize we are not all experts, and that taking advice from those with more knowledge than us is a strength, not a weakness. I feel that one of Christ’s defining characteristics was his humility. He went about preaching and practicing the Gospel without the need to continually draw attention to himself. I still see humility being exercised on a local level, but on the national stage, it goes unnoticed, likely because it’s not the sort of thing that sells papers or attracts eyeballs. But its opposite is much easier to find: pride.

In 1989, President Ezra Taft Benson gave a fantastic talk on the dangers of pride. What it is, why it is so evil, and how to avoid it. If you haven’t read it lately, I encourage you to revisit it, especially in light of today’s environments. Here are a few quotes that stood out to me:

“The central feature of pride is enmity—enmity toward God and enmity toward our fellowmen. Enmity means “hatred toward, hostility to, or a state of opposition.” It is the power by which Satan wishes to reign over us. Pride is essentially competitive in nature. We pit our will against God’s. When we direct our pride toward God, it is in the spirit of “my will and not thine be done.”’

“The proud make every man their adversary by pitting their intellects, opinions, works, wealth, talents, or any other worldly measuring device against others. In the words of C. S. Lewis: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. … It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition has gone, pride has gone.”’

“Another face of pride is contention. Arguments, fights, unrighteous dominion, generation gaps, divorces, spouse abuse, riots, and disturbances all fall into this category of pride. Contention in our families drives the Spirit of the Lord away. It also drives many of our family members away. Contention ranges from a hostile spoken word to worldwide conflicts. The scriptures tell us that “only by pride cometh contention.”’

If we could, as a people and a world, lower the emphasis placed on personal and national pride, a global pandemic would be much easier to overcome, though it would not solve all our problems.

Non-believers often ask the faithful for an explanation. If God is so great, how can He allow bad things to happen to good people? During a pandemic, why would God let the religious suffer? I read stories of examples of congregations who met before quarantine was called. Church choirs that acted as superspreaders of the disease, killing members in the process. I read of other examples during the quarantine. People who met in spite of the ban, believing their faith would protect them from the disease. That did not turn out to be true. If God loves his children and wants them to come unto Him, why wouldn’t He make sure they could do that without catching COVID? Shouldn’t an all powerful being be capable of that?

The answer, to me, lies in another story from the Book of Mormon. At one point, there are two different groups of people living in bondage to the Lamanites: the People of Limhi, and the People of Alma. Both are longing to be free, and both take very different paths to freedom. The People of Limhi faced their trial without faith. They sent their men against the Lamanites three different times, losing each battle. Their time of captivity was difficult to say the least.

The People of Alma, on the other hand, faced their captivity with faith. Instead of trying to rely on their own strength, they prayed about what to do. In response to those prayers, they received comfort and guidance. Mosiah 24:13-14: “And it came to pass that the voice of the Lord came to them in their afflictions, saying: Lift up your heads and be of good comfort, for I know of the covenant which ye have made unto me; and I will covenant with my people and deliver them out of bondage.

14 And I will also ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.”

So there you have it: two examples of people dealing with the same problems. One with faith, and one without. It’s important to remember the ones with faith didn’t have those problems magically removed. Rather, their capacity for dealing with those problems was increased. They were comforted, and they had hope. Our faith isn’t some cheat code to life that lets us escape social distancing and pandemics. But it can certainly help us handle the fallout from them.

That said, I feel non-believers often look at religion as a band aid. A carrot dangled in front of the unhappy masses that tells them things will get better once this life has been endured. One of the teachings I love most about our religion is that this life isn’t supposed to be a burden. Yes, it’s filled with difficult times and situations. But “men are that they might have joy.” Religion isn’t here to help us make sense of things with a casual “it will all get better after this is over.” It’s here to help us make things better now. Today. Even in the middle of social distancing, pandemics, and political unrest.

So how has my religion helped me in the last four months? One major way it has helped is by providing guidance on how I should handle the situations as they arrive. To me, the current debate between personal freedoms and the safety of others has a pretty simple solution: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” If nothing else, wearing a mask is a way for me to show others I care about them and the health of our society. Honestly, I see myself wearing a mask much more often in the future. I always looked at mask wearing cultures as somehow strange. Who would want to go around wearing a mask all the time? Now my views have changed. It’s not strange. It’s considerate.

I wrote on my blog earlier during the pandemic about how masks are the modern equivalent of Moses’ brazen serpent. Growing up, I learned in church all about Moses and the brazen serpent. If you don’t know about the story, the quick overview is that when the Israelites were complaining in the wilderness, poisonous snakes showed up, killing a bunch of them. Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole, telling the people that if they’d look at the serpent, they wouldn’t die from the snake bites. This is referenced again in the Book of Mormon (1 Nephi 17:41), where it says “the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.”

I never got the point of that story. If I was feeling sick, and someone told me all I had to do to feel better was to look at a bronze serpent, wouldn’t I at least give it a shot? I mean, we’re talking poisonous snakes here. I’d look at a bronze elephant if it gave me snake immunity. And yet there were the Israelites, not looking and choosing to die instead.

The pandemic has shown me I had overestimated humanity’s willingness to do simple things to avoid bad things. Today, we’re told that if we would all just start wearing masks, COVID-19 would essentially wither away and die. It wouldn’t spread fast enough to keep going. True, this means a lot of us would need to wear a mask even when we aren’t sick (or don’t feel sick), but if all of us put on a mask (even if just 70% of us put on a mask, according to some studies!) we could go back to the life we all remember in February.

I have often thought about how stories that seem so clear cut are much thornier in practice. We get used to reading those stories with the benefit of knowing what the right answer was. When it comes time for us to apply those stories in our lives, the decisions somehow get tangled.

Like the People of Alma, my faith has helped me find a purpose in the problems. It didn’t shield me from the effects, but it helped me have an idea how best to handle those effects, and the constant ability to pray for support and guidance was always useful to me. The shift to studying the Gospel with my family each week felt refreshing. I didn’t have to worry about lessons that went awry, or awkward comments that needed to be handled or explained. I knew exactly what my kids were receiving for instruction, and it was much easier for us to have frequent discussions about how the Gospel can be applied in our lives.

Back when they first announced the shift to two hour church, I looked at the home study program that was introduced to take its place as a nice thought, but not the real meat of the matter. We were losing a whole hour of church! Every week! There was much rejoicing in the Cundick household. But in hindsight, it seems clear to me the move wasn’t made because God wanted to gift me with an hour of my life back each week. The real reason–or at least one reason–was that a global pandemic was on the horizon, unknown to any of us, and having a home-centered approach to practicing religion would prove to be invaluable. True, I suppose some non-believers would call that coincidental. We’ll have to agree to disagree on that point.

The longer this home-centered church arrangement has progressed, however, the more concerned I’ve become for the health of the church as a whole. When the time comes for us all to transition back to weekly meetings, what portion of our membership will decide those meetings didn’t seem that necessary after all? There’s a reason we’re commanded to gather together oft. I’ve had discussions with members over the years, and we’ve bemoaned the fact that sometimes church can be–I’m going to be blunt here–boring. Boring with a capital B. And I know some of that is my own fault for not being spiritually prepared enough over the week, but I also know that not all talks and lessons apply equally to all types of members. A talk that might really resonate with me might leave the person in the pew next to me snoring in their seat. But there’s something in that mixture–forcing yourself to interact with others and wrestle with the same problems and concepts–that somehow helps everyone involved strengthen their faith. When we’re asked to do things outside our comfort zone or teach things we might not fully understand, that pushes us to grow.

Being around other people who share the same overarching goal of returning to live with God helps us remember our own imperfections. Perhaps one of the reasons things are becoming more and more splintered across the country is for the very reason that so much of our interaction has shifted from the watercooler and public square over to Facebook or Twitter.

We’re not through this pandemic yet. Or rather, it’s not through with us yet. Still, I’m glad to be back in church in at least some form. How has religion helped me through the pandemic? It’s helped me in the same way an answer key helped me learn math. I could struggle through the problems as they came up, but check at the back of the book now and then to make sure I was still on track. Or if you’re more of a humanities than a math person, religion during this time has been my Rosetta Stone, able to give meaning and understanding to things that would otherwise be incomprehensible.

Religion is an essential service to me. I’m grateful I can practice it regardless of where I am or whom I’m with, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that it’s a thing that needs to be a shared experience to be properly understood. I know faith is something that can be disparaged and misunderstood by many, but once again, it’s been one of the few things keeping me sane and focused in these troubling times, and I know it can do that for everyone. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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