Friday, May 4, 2012

Religion Interviews #1: A Modern Saint

This picture sits in our living room.
Good day folks!  Today I have a guest on my blog.  It is my wife, Jenny Garrett.  I wanted to give folks an unbiased view of Mormonism from someone who would understand what it means to have lived as a different denomination.  My wife belonged to the Episcopal Church as she was growing up and made a choice during her teen years to become a Latter Day Saint (Hence the name of this blog).  For those of you not of our faith, this is one view of how one balances faith with what they know.  I do this same thing differently, however I would like to believe that I am as unorthodox in my beliefs as my wife.  You will meet various Mormons who see things slightly different as in any church, but the teachings through the church itself are the same.  For the orthodox saints who read this, there are no apologies made here for how my wife has chosen to live.  Not from her or from myself.  God has accepted us as we are, and we expect any God fearing man or woman to do the same.  To quote my wife, "We are all products of our life’s experiences and I have settled into my faith and beliefs because of things that have happened in my life, the people I have known, and the trials that the Lord has helped me through."  And within our own doctrine it states:  “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men (including other Mormons!) the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may"(Article of Faith 11).  So without further ado, my first question.

 #1 I've heard that members of the LDS faith are not Christian, is that true?

It depends on how you define the term “Christian.” If by Christian you mean people who believe that Jesus Christ is an actual man, the son of God, who lived a sinless life, ministered to the sick, preached Gods word to the masses, was crucified, and then arose from the dead, and that his death atoned for the sins of mankind - then yes, we are indeed Christians. But if you define Christianity as having a belief in the holy trinity and a testimony of the Nicene Creed and the Apostles Creed, then no, we are not Christians in that sense.

The majority of Christian tradition believes that God came down to Earth in mortal form, and that we called him Jesus Christ. For example, my Grandfather literally believed that Jesus Christ was God in a mans body. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and they taught that Jesus was God; God the son. As a child I found that confusing because I would read scriptures about how Jesus would pray, and I couldn’t understand who he was praying to if he was God.

Us LDS folk believe that God is a separate entity from Jesus Christ, even though they are one in purpose. We are what is called “Unitarianism” as opposed to the Christian tradition of “Trinitarianism.” We are one of several religions under the umbrella of Christianity who believe this way. Some of the others are the Jehovahs Witnesses and the Unitarian Universalists - both are great churches full of great people, we are in good company. I have found that the Nicene Creed is vague enough that it fits the spectrum of the LDS belief system, except where Jesus Christ is described as “being of one substance with the Father” and the declaration about believing in the “one holy Catholic and apostolic Church” However, our LDS prophets have clearly stated that we do not believe in the traditional Christian creeds.

I feel like a Christian. I read the New Testament, study the parables that Jesus Christ taught, try my best (fail though I do) to apply those teachings to my own life, I pray to God in the name of Jesus Christ, follow the commandments, and on Christmas and Easter I ponder the birth and resurrection of Christ first and foremost before I indulge in all the super fun pagan rituals that we all do, like putting trees in our house and hiding eggs in the yard. I call myself a Christian, and if anybody else says that I am not, well, it’s not really up to them to decide what I am.

#2 What is it about Joseph Smith? Is he a prophet or some nut job?

Why can’t he be both? The Lord often calls unqualified men and women to do his work, does he not? From the LDS bible dictionary, a prophet is in a general sense anyone who has a testimony of Jesus Christ by the Holy Ghost. So, many people can be prophets. The question is rather, is he the prophet, seer and revelator he claimed to be?

Joseph Smith restored things to the Earth that were missing. The end result is the church we have today, which is wholesome and good, and has blessed many lives. We know Jesus Christ better, we have the most beautiful music, we have the largest Women’s organization on the planet, we have the tranquility of our temples. After a disaster, the Mormons are often there helping before the Red Cross even gets there. We give humanitarian aid to many impoverished countries. We have the power to do so much good.

But Joseph Smith did some pretty outlandish things in his day, and we often overlook them because they aren’t considered faith building. We sugarcoat many things about Joseph Smiths life. For example, much of the Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith covering his face with a hat and seeing the words on a seer stone inside the hat. Now, if that’s the way it was done, and it was directed by the Lord to be done that way, why then do we hang paintings like the one above in our homes?

Why do we make him out to be so dang handsome?
  He looks like this in photos, yet looks like Adonis
in the paintings. 
Because it seems foreign to us, and maybe even a little weird, how it was really done. Then we make movies about the life of Joseph Smith and don’t include the “hat thing” at all. Then we don’t include the fact that he married so many women, some who were teenage girls, and some who were already married to other men. He was a mayor, started his own militia, and planned to run for president. That’s pretty lofty! We sweep these undesirable things under the rug in an effort to keep people from doubting, but then they find out, feel deceived, and their whole faith falls apart.

I have heard some people say “If Jesus tried to attend sacrament meeting, we wouldn’t let him in because he has a beard, long hair, sandals, and isn’t wearing a suit.” It’s a cute little idea, and it tries to point out that we are sticklers for a tidy church appearance. But I submit this thought to you: If Joseph Smith was a member today, he would likely be excommunicated for his behavior.

Why can’t we have this? Joseph Smith: an imperfect man who was also a prophet of God. We sometimes put too much of our faith in Joseph Smith, when we should be putting it in Jesus Christ, and I think Joseph Smith might agree with me on that. It’s ok that he was not a perfect man. At least, I’m ok with it.

#3 I couldn't help but notice that your husband is black, has that ever caused you any grief during your time in the church?

Within the church, no. The day we were sealed for time and eternity, we were treated like royalty inside the temple. All of the workers there in Manti didn’t seem to care a speck that our skin colors were different. Might be a little surprising considering they were older, white, rural Mormons, but they were all wonderful to us.

The Garrett's outside the Manti Temple in Utah
Before we got married, I received council from my Bishop in New Hampshire. He is Chinese and his wife of a few decades is white, so he knew a thing or two about interracial marriage.

However in the culture of Utah, which is sometimes confused with the dictates of the church, because the two are so enmeshed, I have gotten some dirty looks from people, and confused looks from little children. An uninformed teenager was surprised that interracial marriages happened in the temple. Nothing too bad though. I think the only hurtful things have been said from our actual family, the strangers seem pretty accepting. It bothers people much more that I have tattoos. Now that has been my biggest grief!

#4 Do you have a conversion story and would you be so kind as to share it with us?

Yes, I do have a conversion story. Everyone should! The people who are born into the church should become converted at some point just like us converts. I was baptized in 2000. It was a difficult age to join the church. I was 18 and had finished school, so too old for young women’s. All the sisters in Relief Society were at least 30, the closest institute class was 50 minutes away and the singles ward was just as far.

St. Johns Episcopal Church
As previously mentioned, I was raised Episcopal. I was baptized as an infant, and my Grandmother saw to it that I was fairly active in the church. I received my first communion (around age 8) after taking a few weeks of confirmation classes. I was an acolyte (altar girl) for years and sang in the Jr. Choir. In the summers of my childhood I would attend a Lutheran church with my other Grandmother.

I received several years of sunday school education. I still love the Episcopal Church, very much. I appreciate how progressive they are. We have attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve for the last 3 years because it brings back such fond memories for me, it’s actually my favorite part of Christmas. But as I became a teenager I lost interest in going to church.

When I was 16 years old, something happened in our family that shook me to my core. My Uncle, an amazing man, loving and kind and very good to me, who was serving in the Peace Corps, was shot and killed in a robbery - he was only 32. I never knew anyone who had died, let alone be murdered. I was inconsolable, just devastated. I went through some of the stages of grief, denial at first. When it finally hit me I just sobbed for days, sobbed like a person with no hope. And I was angry. And I was confused. I started to turn to religion to succor the immense pain. My belief system didn’t really have the answers I was looking for. I wanted to know if my Uncle still existed somewhere, somehow. Would I ever see him again?

I began to study religion, anything I could get my hands on. And this was in the days before internet research, I was reading honest to goodness books made out of paper. I studied Catholicism, Judaism, Shinto, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, you name it. I started getting called “Jesus Freak” at school. When I slowed down with the partying I had been doing, a lot of my friends lost interest in me. About 18 months into my search for religion, I picked up a book of Mormon for the first time. It was my mothers book. She and my Grandmother had joined the church a few years before, but fell away. When they joined, I wanted no part of it! I opened up the book, and the first few pages were of men signing their names that the book was true. I had never seen a book like that before. I literally called the LDS missionaries who were in the phonebook under ‘LDS missionaries’ and I said “My name is Jennifer and I want to get baptized” and they were like “Who is this really?” I listened to the discussions, quit smoking, and took the plunge! The LDS church had the answers for all my burning questions.

Some things I remember about my baptism were that my best friend showed up late and missed it, and also a friend of mine, Eugene, who I had not seen in a long time showed up, and he was a member of the church and I never knew. And my dear old friend Ben showed up too. We sang “I Stand All Amazed” because it was my Grandmas favorite hymn from when she was a member, and my friend Sariah gave a short talk. I felt so loved and welcomed by the members, a love that I don’t think I had ever felt before. A love that I feel is sometimes lacking by some of the wards I have belonged to in Utah.

My Mom was there for me, and my cousin Jan was very supportive. My Grandma was thrilled even though she had left the church. She took me to get my first set of LDS scriptures, which are the ones that I still use. Some of my family members were very upset with me, some thought it was a big joke and I lost Susan, one of my best friends. The last thing she said to me was that I was a “self righteous bitch.” And I get it, I understand it now. I was that freshly baptized overzealous teenager, and I was trying to change her.

Shortly after my baptism, I traveled to Washington DC to do baptisms for the dead. It was then that I fell in love with LDS temples and the tranquility inside. It has been 12 years now, my faith has changed, grown and evolved and I choose to stay in the LDS church so that people like me can bring about change. If all the liberals, democrats, intellectuals, and free thinkers leave the church, how will it ever change? The changes I’d like to see are more equality for women, more acceptance and love for our LGBT brothers and sisters, and more love and support for those struggling with addiction.

#5 Are you going to vote for Mitt Romney, cause he's Mormon? I've heard a lot of Mormons plan on doing that.

The last thing I would do is vote for someone simply because they belonged to my church. Being LDS does not ensure that someone is a moral person, nor does it promise that someone is competent enough to run a country. When I first heard of Mitt Romney, in the early 2000’s, I remember thinking that a Mormon politician was an oxymoron. That being said, I believe he is educated enough, experienced enough, and competent enough to run the country. But he won’t run the United States the way that I think is right and moral, which is the main reason I will not be voting for him.

I lived in Massachusetts while he was the governor. If he was still “that guy” the Romney of 2003 or 2004, I might vote for him. But he has changed considerably. The man who instituted the Massachusetts health care insurance reform law, is now against “Obama Care.” He once supported stem cell research, and now he no longer does. He once supported a woman’s right to chose, specifically because a close friend of his died from an illegal abortion - but he has abandoned that also and is now pro-life. I won't stand behind a man who changes his core beliefs to suit his career goals.

#6 How do you reconcile the faith of your childhood and the faith of your adulthood?

The faith of my childhood was based on the faith of the adults in my life. My family was Episcopal and so, that is what I believed. But there comes a time in everyones life when you have to decide for your self what you believe and what feels right to you, and not base your faith on what somebody else has decided is right. In the LDS church, we call it “piggybacking on your parent's testimony.” Even when our prophets speak, they tell us to pray about it and learn for ourselves, through the holy spirit, if what they say is true. I think this is an important step to take because not every word that rolls off the tongue of a church leader is meant for every member of the church. Sometimes the faith journey that we must take gets confusing because we want to please our friends and family. We might want to please them even more than we want to find which path we should travel. As William Shakespeare penned, "Above all: to thine own self be true."

After moving to Utah, something I saw for the first time was children getting up during testimony meeting with their moms behind them. I love seeing children getting up and speaking, but here in Utah their mothers whisper into their ear what to say. They tell them to say that the church is true, that they know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. How does this little child know that? They're not even clear on if Santa Claus is true, or if a flying woman actually removes teeth from under their pillows in exchange for cash. And how will they ever know that for themselves if you have been telling them to say it since they could walk? I would much rather have the children go up there and say what they actually feel and believe.

One of the sweetest testimonies I have ever heard was from a little girl who lost her pet rat and she prayed and prayed until she found it. She wanted to tell everyone listening that day, that Heavenly Father answers prayers and cares about rats.

*    *    *

Thanks Jenny.  For your thoughts and your words today.  I feel privileged to be able to share them with my audience.  And I hope that all of you find something in what she has shared to help you better understand our religion.  This is Jayrod and Jenny Garrett, the OG's, and we hope you've enjoyed today's blog.  If you have any questions that you would like to ask us, please comment below and we'll respond to them as soon as we can.  Thanks so much!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...