Friday, August 04, 2006

New

I am contemplating moving my blog to wordpress. Please take a moment, visit http://tylerpaul.wordpress.com, and let me know what you think. Which format do you like better. I will be happy with either and will base my decision, in large part, on your comments. You may leave comments here or on the accompanying wordpress post.

Thanks,

Tyler

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Beautiful

I first knew him as Brother, then Bishop, then President.

Mostly, though, I knew him as Bishop. He interviewed me to receive the Aaronic Priesthood, become a Teacher, and become a Priest. He counseled with me while I navigated the tumultuous waters of puberty and adolescence. I remember him from a June afternoon playing baseball at Sunnyside park. He was pitching: "Ed, you his this ball over the fence just one more time and you might be looking at going back to being a Deacon."

He is a bit lanky, like a scarecrow, with auburn hair, always finely combed. While orthodox in his approach to Mormonism, he wears clothes that skirt the edges of the Utah norm: a baby blue seersucker suit, for instance, with a red and white striped bow tie. He walks with a bit of a lilt, his tall shoulders stooping in a fashion reminding me of my image of Abe Lincoln. Like Abe, too, his face is creased and sallow from years of bearing the concerns of the masses.

When I was 14, he ran for the Utah senate. I attended the state convention where he vied for his party's nomination. I heard him rouse the crowd with his speech--there amidst the elephants, popcorn, and lawn-signs--and then sighed because I knew, as I then reasoned, that he didn't have enough money to win; darned millionares own the senate, he just didn't have a chance.

But the Lord moves in mysterious ways and, after losing, he became my Bishop and then my Stake President before finally accepting a job in Washington D.C. as head of the President's task force to enforce laws against pornography.

About a week ago, though, his father died and he returned to my--and his--home ward for Sunday services.

My dad and I were running late, we pulled in just in time for the beginning of the meetings but, before I could get out of my car, I noticed my old Bishop lumbering lightly up the sidewalk, then the stairs, then into the door of the church. His walk was slow because every few feet brought an embrace, a delighted face, or, so far as I could see, a vocal expression of joy at his return. He had to stoop a bit to return the hugs and, though he was out of earshot, in my mind I could hear him returning the greetings in his soft, beleaguered-sounding voice. A smile spread across his weary face, visible even from the parking lot.

I watched the reunions and thought:

How beuatiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

An Open Letter to Anonymous (on Mormons and Evangelical Christians)

Dear Anonymous--

Judging from your recent comments, I sense you hold very little esteem for Mormons. I also perceive, in fact you have stated explicitly, you are a believing Christian. In a sense, your feelings about my Church reflect a general divide between those who consider themselves mainstream Christians and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I find this divide both ironic and unfortunate because I do not believe we stand that far apart on many important theological issues--indeed, I consider myself both an Orthodox Mormon and a born-again Christian. I hope I can persuade you, even if only for a moment, that I can be both of these things and that this does not create an issoluble paradox.

Mormonism, it seems to me, is thoroughly Christian. I could attempt to prove this through many methods, but I will choose to focus on three here: 1) the Book of Mormon brings me to Christ, 2) Joseph Smith was a witness of Christ, and 3) the Temple focuses my life on Christ. These three, each an important pillar of Mormon belief, demonstrate together that Mormonism functions to bring souls to Christ.

My parents raised me on the Book of Mormon. Growing up, I often listened to a Mormon Prophet (Ezra Taft Benson) talk of flooding the Earth with the Book of Mormon; President Benson spoke with a distinctive, high-pitched, rural-accented, staccato voice and I can still hear him pronouncing the name of the book. President Benson's words inspired me to study the BoM, searchingly, from a very young age. Through the years, I have read the book many times and I have learned two overriding truths: the BoM teaches me about Christ and the BoM makes me more Christlike.

My knowledge and testimony of the Savior come, in large part, from reading the Book of Mormon. Many of my thoughts on this subject can be found in my "Jennifer 3" post. For space's sake, however, I will quote just one BoM verse here:

"and he will take upon him their infirmities , that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities."

This verse teaches me that Christ willingly suffered each pain and sorrow I suffer so as to understand, intimately and individually, the secret sadness of my heart. This verse teaches me of the mercy, charity, knowledge, and care of the Savior. The BoM contains hundreds more scriptures like this one.

Beyond this, however, the BoM makes me more Christlike. I do not mean that I read the book, learn of Christ, and commit to become more like Him, though that is also true. Like those of the Bible, the words contained in the BoM transform those who read them--the words themselves are powerful, they change my heart. When I read, I have greater desires to treat others as the Savior would.

Joseph Smith testified of Christ. Some seem threatened by the idea of a modern Prophet, as if the existence of such a man would somehow diminish the importance of Jesus Christ as the Savior. This line of reasoning seems strange since the Bible is the record of Prophets. Some also point out that Joseph Smith acted, at times, in ways not consonant with currently accepted religious practices. On the one hand, of course, Joseph had flaws--as do all men and all prophets. On the other hand, many Biblical prophets engaged in activities that, by today's standards, seem utterly foreign. All of which leads me to conclude that these things, in and of themselves, avoid the more important question: did Joseph, by his words and life, brings people to Christ. My answer is that, though Joseph was not perfect, he founded a people and a culture filled with imperfect individuals who strive to bring themselves and others to Christ. It was, after all, Joseph who proclaimed: “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.” The very ire “traditional Christians” rouse when they accuse Mormons of not being Christian demonstrates something about the Mormon commitment to Christ. Joseph's claims, though bold, were nevertheless focused on Christ--as is the Temple.

As you doubtless know, anonymous, there are many parts of the Temple ceremony about which we do not speak outside the Temple. While this seems to be of great concern to you, there are various points in the Bible where the Savior instructs people not to speak of the things they have seen or heard--not all truth is meant for all people immediately. What strikes me about the Temple, however, is that Christ plays a central role in all that happens there. Everything done in the Temple is done in the Lord’s name and the things that occur everyday in the Temple occur both in concert with ancient ritual and ancient Biblical prophecy. Indeed, I echo Elder Marion G. Romney, who wrote: “My testimony [is] that…everything in the temple points ultimately to Christ and to our Father. The efficacy of the ordinances and covenants is in his atoning love and delegated authority.” I was struck, as I attended the Temple twice this last week, that the Terrestrial room is dominated by an enormous picture of Christ descending in glory and light at the second coming—in a sense, everything in the Temple is a reminder that, one day, we will all kneel to acknowledge there is no other name nor way whereby salvation may come except through Christ Jesus.

It occurs to me, as I mentioned with regards to Joseph Smith, that some outside of Mormondom feel threatened by Mormonism’s acceptance of so many people, principles, books, and practices as holy. It is as if some feel that our acceptance of Temples, prophets, the Book of Mormon and the like somehow lessens our reliance on, trust in, or faith in Jesus Christ. Quite the opposite, however, is true. Instead of these leading me away from Christ, they lead me to the Savior. There are some Mormons, to be sure, who set their sights beyond the mark of Christ. Some of these saints have gone astray because they fail to center their faith on the Savior. The central principles of Mormonism, however, anchor me, and many others, in Christ. These principles are like planets orbiting the sun—their existence does not detract from the sun’s brilliance, it merely reflects the Son’s light and helps us to focus our gaze, ultimately, on the Son’s central role in our Salvation.

Hoping for reconciliation,

Tyler

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Elissa

One muggy summer night, I emerged from one of the homogenous, burnt-orange, brick MTC buildings. I had returned from my mission to Mexico only a few months earlier and, that night, I had just finished my first session of MTC teacher training. The air in the room had been thick with the Spirit and I savored the sensation as I walked toward the crosswalk.

It was about 9:00 and the missionaries were returning en masse to their dorms. A wearying day of classes had largely quieted the Elders and Sisters and, though they thronged about us, a relative stillness wrapped itself around us.

As I passed the wrought-iron gate, I heard a familiar voice, though I had to turn to place a face and name with the sound: it was Sister Wiscomb, though I had always known her as Elissa. "Tyler--I mean," she stammered, looking at my nametag, "Brother Johnson."

"Sister Wiscomb, how are you?" I inquired as I extended my hand. I had known her fairly well as I grew up in Salt Lake City. We attended the same Elementary and high schools and, though we had never been particularly close, ten or so years had formed between us some significant friendship.

As the sun cast it's long refleciton onto Utah Lake to the West, tinging the top of Mount Timpanogos to the East with sprigs of pink, we spoke quickly, cramming as much information into three or so minutes as we could: how was her Spanish? How was the food? How was her companion? What about her district? Did she get along with her branch president? How was my family? How was Salt Lake (strange how a place so close can seem so far removed)? Had I seen her family? Did I like being back?

The minutes slipped quickly away, and then:

"Sister Wiscomb, when I get home, I'll call your mom, what would you like me to tell her?"

"Tell her I love her. Tell her my Spanish is coming along fine. Tell her I'm fine, but mostly, tell her I love her."

With that, we said good night.

I had things to do, but, upon arriving home, some beautiful urge prompted me to call, right now. So I grabbed an old directory, looked up the Wiscombs and called the elder sister Wiscomb.

"Sister Wiscomb, I don't know if you remember me, but my name is Tyler Johnson, I went to high school with Elissa and I saw her tonight in the MTC. She said to tell you she loves you, and she's fine, and her Spanish is coming along well but, mostly, she loves you."

Sister Wiscomb lapped up every detail about her daughter like a puppy does milk: what was she wearing? what did she sound like? did I hear her Spanish? Did she look healthy? Did she smile? Did she seem happy?

We spoke and, inside, we both glowed, softly, like candles.

Some weeks later a friend wrote my mom the following note:

"Today I spoke with my friend Jill Wiscomb whose daugher...is learning Spanish in the MTC. She and Tyler were classmates at East. Jill had been missing Elissa, her eldest child, terribly and has been concerned for her. Just last night she was praying tearfully for Elissa. As she arose from her knees, the phone rang. It was Tyler, who had seen Elissa at the MTC and was delivering a message for her. Elissa had told Tyler, 'tell my mom how much I love her and I'm doing just great.' Jill wept as she told me how Tyler's phone call was an answer to her prayer."

Friday, July 14, 2006

Jennifer (3 of 3)

You, observant reader, have probably noticed that this post will have three, not two, parts. Perhaps you are hoping the last chapter in this saga contains a miracle, an epiphany, the story of Jennifer running into the chapel just at the end of Sacrament Meeting and later explaining to us the resurrection of her testimony after a long night of doubt. I, too, wish the story ended that way; and perhaps that will happen some day. For now, however, the story ends as I have already described, with a "letter of resignation" delivered to the Bishop (Jake and Jennifer, incidentally, drifted apart and eventually broke up some months before these latest events).

This story, however, affords us an opportunity to look to ourselves and learn. Jennifer says she left the Church because we do not accept Christ's grace in the way she believes we must. Such a belief is complicated, as are all perceptions, by the fact that it is, by definition, of dual nature. Every perception involves both the perceiver and the perceived. I can do little, I suppose, to change the perceiver in this case. What processes play themselves out in Jennifer's head I do not know; what complexities she brings from her former religion, experiences, friends, and family are mostly a mystery to me. I can, however, at least comment on the belief she perceives we have—on her perception that we downplay the importance of Christ's sacrifice. This belief, of course, is hardly unique to her; many of the Church's critics site this same supposed problem.

My brother, for instance, was once teaching an investigator in a public library when an unknown lady approached the missionaries and the investigator and said, "Don't listen to them—Mormons remove Christ from his thrown and place themselves there instead!" That this belief holds such wide sway troubles me deeply because I believe our canon so clearly refutes it--we, of all people, should be quick to affirm the infinity, grandeur, depth, breadth, centrality, and uniqueness of the Atonement.

For me, one of the most telling scriptures as to the importance of the Atonement in LDS theology comes in section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants. This section, after all, is very "Mormon," describing, as it does, the spirits "assembled awaiting the advent of the Son of God into the spirit world." The concept of the Spirit World, as described here, is, so far as I know, unique to the religion(s) restored by Joseph. Furthermore, Joseph F. Smith describes a uniquely Mormon congregation of prophets and righteous leaders, including, as his list does, "the prophets who dwelt among the Nephites and testified of the coming of the son of God," as well as, "The Prophet Joseph Smith, and [Joseph F. Smith's] father, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, [and] Wilford Woodruff."

That a modern Mormon prophet should have a vision of his predecessors--Biblical, Nephite, and American--does not surprise us. What might be surprising to some, however, is what I consider the focal verse of this section. For, after viewing this vast assemblage of the Savior's faithful servants, Joseph sees the arrival of the Son of God into the spirit world, which he describes this way: "And the saints rejoiced in their redemption, and bowed the knee and acknowledged the Son of God as their Redeemer and Deliverer from death and the chains of hell."

When we learn that "every knee shall bow," then, we are not speaking only of the small and simple among us, but also of the spiritually mighty--even the light of the “noble and great ones” pales before the brilliance of the Bright and Morning Star.

The expansiveness of Mormon theology invigorates me; it is, as Elder Maxwell would say, "inexhaustible." As W. W. Phelps wrote near the dawn of this dispensation: "The visions and blessings of old are returning, and angels are coming to visit the Earth.... The knowledge and power of God are expanding; the veil o'er the Earth is beginning to burst." Joseph Smith responded to Emerson's call for modern prophets and the Pentecost that subsequently burst upon Kirtland, Independence, and Nauvoo is surely one of the great spiritual outpourings in the Earth’s history. For the believing Saints, a window of some twenty-five years included the opening of the heavens, the restoration of Priesthood, the bestowal of new scriptures, the return of the sealing power, the introduction of vicarious ordinances, and the return of the new Testament Church. Let us assure, however, that we always remember that this glorious burst of Gospel light nevertheless does not negate the importance of the central act of history: the Atonement of Jesus Christ. As planets circling the sun, or as spokes turning about the hub, all aspects of the Gospel are, as Joseph once wrote, appendages to the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Without that, everything else—from the creation, to the fall, to the restoration, to the Latter-days—is for naught. Christ is, indeed, the Life; for without Him nothing else breathes nor moves. It is his sacrifice, which ultimately gives meaning and substance to all the rest.

This testimony I have gained, mostly, from my study of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. I share President Hinckley’s incredulousness that the Christian world does not embrace the Book of Mormon (though I guess I’m not surprised, since the Book of Mormon prophecies of the same). For me, there is no greater testament to the divinity of the Son of God than the Book of Mormon. For a partial list of scriptures that affirm the centrality and importance of the Atonement, I might read the following:

Title Page
1 Nephi 8:10-12
1 Nephi 10:10-11
1 Nephi 11:13-24, 31
1 Nephi 19:8-10, 23
1 Nephi 21:10, 15, 16
2 Nephi 2 (esp. 7 and 8)
2 Nephi 4:31-34
2 Nephi 6:9
2 Nephi 7:7
2 Nephi 9 (esp. 5-8, 41)
2 Nephi 10:24
2 Nephi 11:4-7
2 Nephi 17:14
2 Nephi 19: 2, 3, 4, 6, 7
2 Nephi 25:19, 20, 23-27
2 Nephi 31:5-21
2 Nephi 33: 4, 6, 9-11
Jacob 1:7, 8
Jacob 4:4-18
Jacob 5:47
Jacob 7:11-12
Jarom 1:11
Omni 1:26
Mosiah 3-5 (esp. 3:5-11, 15-17, 19; 4:2-9; 5:1-8)
Mosiah 13:27-35
Mosiah 14:2-7
Mosiah 15
Mosiah 16:6-10
Mosiah 27:24-32
Alma 5:6-16, 19, 21, 26-27, 33, 48
Alma 7:3, 9-15
Alma 9:11, 26, 28
Alma 11:40-44
Alma 16:19
Alma 18:39-41
Alma 19:6, 13, 14, 29
Alma 21:7-9
Alma 22:12-18
Alma 24:10-11, 13, 23
Alma 25:15-16
Alma 30:39
Alma 31:31, 38
Alma 33:11-17, 22
Alma 34:8-16
Alma 36 (esp. 17-21)
Alma 38:8-9
Alma 39:15-19
Alma 42:14-24, 26-27 (esp. 23)
Helaman 5:12
Helaman 8:13-23
Helaman 14:11-17
3 Nephi 7:16
3 Nephi 9:14-22
3 Nephi 11-28 (esp. 11:11-15; 15:8-10; 22; 27:13-27)
Mormon 3:21
Mormon 5:14-15
Mormon 7:5-10
Mormon 9:12-14
Ether 3:1-20
Ether 12:4, 41
Moroni 4:3
Moroni 5:2
Moroni 7:22-48
Moroni 8:12, 22, 23
Moroni 9:22, 25, 26
Moroni 10:30-34

It is partly because I so dearly love these verses that Jennifer’s defection from the Church stings me so deeply. My study of the Book of Mormon has given both birth and wings to my testimony of the Savior—I cherish the knowledge the Book of Mormon gives me about Christ.

One final theological note: Mormon theology’s insistence on our giving our “all” does not detract from the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice. As I have already articulated, Jennifer specifically quoted “by grace we are saved, after all we can do” as a major reason she left the Church. Her argument was that Mormons think less of the Atonement because we believe our utmost is also necessary for us to gain salvation. Someone much smarter than me could write a full treatise on the interplay of grace and works in Mormon theology. For my purposes, however, suffice it to say that Christ has always made clear—in the Old and New Testament, in the Book of Mormon, and in modern scripture—that we must offer up a contrite heart if we are to be exalted. That is, nothing less than all we have to give will suffice.

While this commandment is demanding, however, it also actually reminds us of the Atonement’s vast power to save. For us, after all, “all” we can give will often be relatively little. Only perfection merits God’s presence, and all of us fall woefully short of that mark; only through the Atonement can any of us enter into the presence of God. Just as importantly, it will not matter, at the judgment day, how much our “all” was. For some, especially, this all will have been very little—circumstances, environment, genealogy, and weakness dictate that many of us fall even more short of the mark. At the judgment day, however, it will not matter how much our all was, as long as it was everything we had to give. The Atonement makes the objective sufficiency of our effort irrelevant—Christ, who has descended below everything we face—will know perfectly how hard we tried. And, in the end, it will be that—our effort, not the result—along with the perfection and infinity of His atonement that will ensure those who come unto to Christ and find perfection in Him a place in the Kingdom of God.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Homecoming

This afternoon I attended a homecoming that reminded me of the core of missionary work. The missionary who just returned shared spectacular stories about angels, ancestors, and the working Atonement. In the end, though, it was not his stories but his demeanor that most captivated my attention. His face shown with love and testimony—those ineffable spiritual forces emanated from his face like sunbeams. There was something is his facial expression, and in the way he focused his eyes and cocked his head when he spoke of those he remembered from Brazil, that testified to the mighty change that transformed him while he served the Lord. Even before he spoke, watching him on the stand, the Savior’s countenance was apparent in his face.

In the end, isn’t that what missionary work is about? That mighty change? That sweet song of redeeming love? That forceful molding of a willing heart? That kindness and hope that press themselves upon us, like sun from behind the clouds? Like the Spirit, the change that comes in beyond adjectives and nouns, it lies within the realm only knowable through experience—an experience like hearing a recently returned missionary speak in an English highlighted by a Brazilian lilt of the glory and power of the Atonement and the Restoration.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Jennifer (2 of 3)

Sometime in June, I received an e-mail fron Jennifer inviting me to come to a dinner at her house. I was preparing for an exam and probably would have ignored the e-mail completely if Jennifer had not written, explaining the reason for the dinner: "I have some things to share with all of you." Probably because we had been studying cancer in school that day, the idea of a dinner to "share some things" struck me as ominous and I immediately began to fret about what that Saturday would bring.

I spent the next couple of days holed up in the school lab rooms studying for our GI exam. Saturday came quickly, in a blaze of new-summer glory, and I rode my bike from campus into center city. I'll sumarize the nights happenings by quoting from an e-mail I wrote to my parents early the next morning:

"She had asked us to her home night last for dinner and to 'share some things with us.' We ate dinner and laughed and carried on jovially--either unaware or obstinately forgetful of what was to come. Sensing what was [approaching], I braced myself for a lull in the laughter, especially after I saw her leave the room and return with her Bible. Pauses came and went and she said nothing. Finally, seemingly having gathered her courage, she began:

'I've asked you all here because I've wanted to share with you the direction of my spiritual journey of late...'

She proceed to read a psalm, open with prayer, and then explain to us that, during the past weeks she had begun being troubled with aspects of the Church's teachings. The air was so fileld with love and concern that I hoped against hope she might say--'I've brought you all here to ask for help, to see if you can answer my questions.' Alas, it was not so. Instead, she told us she had already spoken with many of us, with her home- and visiting-teachers, with the Bishop, and that she had gathered from those conversations that, while she believes in the saving power of Jesus alone, we believe that we must do something to gain salvation. Like a dagger to my heart, she even chose a scripture [possibly my favorite] to encapsulate the tenets of our faith with which she has been unable to come to grips: 'Guys, you know that scipture that says, "by grace ye are saved after all ye can do?" I just don't believe that.'

Then, in measured, tempered tones, she said, 'I visited the Bishop on Wednesday and gave him my letter of resignation from the Church.'

It was like watching a friend die. She asked us to say or ask anything we wished; we all spoke in turn, cried, pleaded, and tried desperately to understand. She adored our friendship, she said. She wants to keep meeting, to keep having spiritual discussions. But, amazingly, she now claims 'I actually have problems with essentially every teaching of the Church, in some way or another.'

So mature. So courageous. So kind. So respectful. So appropriate. No slinking away. No cowardice. No letting the news trickle through the grapevine. No unkind words. No calls to abandon our faith. Just this twisted testimony that months of thought and prayer seeking the Lord's direction had lead her to leave the Church."

That is the end of the e-mail.

A few hours after that discussion at her house, the Sabbath dawned and we attended church. That was one of the few times in my life I have felt a person's absence at the chapel. The chasm left by the disappearance of Jennifer's light gaped at us like a small black hole. A letter of resignation? It sounded like something you give to your boss, not your Bishop. How do you resign from the Church? Don't misunderstand, I certainly subscirbe to the 11th article of faith: "let them worship how, where, or what they may." Still, such a meteoric rise and fall: from investigator to powerful new convert to ex-mormon in less than six months left me startled and confused. More than anything, it left me sad. Sad that Jennifer would reject something so dear to me and sad that I, or we, or someone, had seemingly failed.