The Communion of the Saints

 

The Bountiful Utah Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, very near where my father-in-law lives

 

Worshipping with my home congregation today, it suddenly hit me how good it is to be part of such a community.

 

This is especially apparent to me at times of great loss and sorrow, such as my wife and I and her family are now passing through.  But it’s very clear at other times, too.  As I listened to the testimonies borne by members of the ward — including some whom I know quite well — I thought of the history, the sorrows and the fun times, the jokes and the expressions of deep commitment that we’ve shared over the years.

 

To live in a caring community that is both very local and intimate and that, at the same time, is replicated and represented around the world, is a very good thing.

 

We saw the goodness of it as Bishop Richard Johnson, of the Moss Hill Ward, up in Bountiful, Utah, where my in-laws moved after their decades in Denver, took time from his personal duties and interests — we have a lay clergy, and this is what bishops continually do — during a weekday to preside over and conduct the memorial services for my mother-in-law.  We saw it in the kindness of the Relief Society sisters of the ward, who provided excellent food for our extended family at the post-funeral luncheon, and who stayed after we left to do the clean-up.  The ward chorister, Pam Wing, and the ward organist, Jean Weiler, also took time out of their private lives, as such choristers and organists commonly do throughout the Church, to help.  As we exited the building to go home, I saw Bishop Johnson’s first counselor, Brother Sam Kuan, who had been sitting with the bishop on the stand during the service, now changed into everyday clothes and pushing a broom to clean up the cultural hall where the luncheon had been held.

 

Such things are so common — many active Latter-day Saints, if not the overwhelming majority, will have provided similar service in such cases, and probably many times — that we tend to take them for granted.  But we shouldn’t.  They’re a wonderful thing.

 

I found myself thinking of what Alma the Elder said to those who had followed him in fleeing out the land of Nephi, as those words are recorded in Mosiah 18:8-10:

 

“Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

“Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

“Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?”

 

Neighbors and friends have supplied food and caring words to us, and to the other members of Ruth’s family.  We were moved to see so many from our home ward among the substantial attendance at the funeral service, a solid hour’s drive to the north from where we live.

 

On the night that Ruth died, a good friend, a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, felt prompted to drive up with her daughter in order to visit my wife at the hospital where she was keeping vigil at her mother’s bedside.  At my wife’s request, they sang a duet in the hospital room, of “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” by Emma Lou Thayne and Joleen Meredith:

 

Where can I turn for peace?
Where is my solace when other sources cease to make me whole?
When with a wounded heart, anger, or malice,
I draw myself apart, searching my soul?

Where, when my aching grows?
Where when I languish?
Where, in my need to know, where can I run?
Where is the quiet hand to calm my anguish?
Who, who can understand?
He, only One.

He answers privately,
Reaches my reaching,
In my Gethsemane,
Savior and Friend.
Gentle the peace he finds
for my beseeching.
Constant he is and kind,
Love without end.

 

(Our friend actually appears in this video of the Tabernacle Choir performing the hymn.  She’s the one wearing the reddish dress.)

 

It was a very sacred experience for my wife, and, at her request, I pass over the details.

 

“Thou shalt live together in love,” said the Lord to Joseph Smith in a February 1831 revelation given at Kirtland, Ohio, “insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those that have not hope of a glorious resurrection.  And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them.”  (Doctrine and Covenants 42:45-46)

 

And, indeed, the members of this community do “live together in love.”  It’s not without tensions and frictions, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.  When I was a student living in Egypt many years ago, the director of the Fulbright-supported program in which I was studying confided to me that, if he had to make a choice between a non-Mormon, on the one hand, and, on the other, a Mormon who had scored a slightly lower score on the qualifying exam for the program, he would take the Mormon.  Why?  Because non-Mormons tended to arrive in the vast, disorienting, very foreign city of Cairo and, in too many cases, implode from culture shock.  Whereas, he said, you Mormons have an instant and supportive community from the very moment you land.  Which was and remains absolutely true, in Cairo and elsewhere.

 

Some disaffected members of the Church claim to have found it oppressive, to have been injured by it.  I don’t doubt that bad things happen.  We are, after all, a community composed of fallible and imperfect humans.  I don’t discount their stories — though, sometimes, I also marvel at how utterly foreign to my experience in the Church and with the Saints the narratives a few of them tell are.  I mourn for them.  I would like to help them, if I could.  I wish them well.  I wish they would return.

 

Overwhelmingly, though, I consider it one of the greatest blessings of my life to be a part of the community of the Latter-day Saints.

 

I definitely don’t understand the hostile secular critics who want to detach believers from their faith, and, if possible, to pull the Church from its foundations.  I think, in this context, of the words of the high priest Giddonah to the anti-Christ Korihor in Alma 30:22.  Giddonah seeks to know why Korihor wants to destroy the faith of the ancient Nephite saints, and “to interrupt their rejoicings.”

 

I’m curious about the same question.  Do the secularists have anything better to offer?

 

I think not.

 

I’m a believer.  I’m convinced that the claims of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, incredible as they certainly seem to many, are actually true.  But even if they turned out to be false, even if our lives are merely a flickering candle surrounded by an eternity of pointless darkness and soon to be extinguished by it, the Mormon way of life, in the company of the Saints, is a very good place to be.

 

 

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  • Guy Briggs

    Beautifully written, Brother Peterson! I am reminded of a time 20 years ago, on a business trip, far from home, I was stabbed, robbed, and left for dead. A single phone call was made, 5:00 am, to a good Bishop in my home ward. He was suffering from the flu at the time.

    Plane tickets were purchased. The Relief Society president accompanied my wife to the hospital. Ward members attended to the sitting duties at home and brought in meals. Members of the local Elders Quorum – men I have never met personally – came and administered (my heart surgeon assumed Last Rites). Members of the local ward opened their homes to my wife and also my parents, and made them feel at home while they stood vigil.

    Once home I was visited by the Bishopric and Stake Presidency (the only time, to this day, I have been so visited).

    At work, a colleague – who resided for a time in Ogden – commented that my fellow workers need not worry, because “the Mormons really know how to take care of their own.”

    I so agree with your closing statement! The Mormon church is “a very good place to be.”

    • danpeterson

      A wonderful story.

  • Big Brutha

    I do not see that the secularists offer more. Indeed, the secularist argument is grim. I believe most secularists are driven by a misplaced sense of integrity/honesty and a desire not to be hypocritical. They see no evidence of a god so rather than hope that there might be, they destroy those hopes and seek to live in the “real world.” However, secularists are offered only two real secularist positions: either Stoicism in the face of the encircling darkness, “bloody, but unbowed” or Epicureanism. The former is a doomed struggle, heroic, but futile and with no ability to bring lasting change. The other, untempered, leads to dissipation and degradation. The former at least keeps a man noble in his life and gives him hopes to serve a cause bigger than self during the fleeting flash of existence. The latter, wittingly or unwittingly, makes a god of human appetites. Enjoyable in the short term but not a very compelling idol in the long term. The truth is most secularists cannot really bring themselves to stick to Epicureanism because of its meaninglessness. They still seek meaning for themselves and their endeavors. They know there is more to life than simply pleasing themselves and they know there is somehow more than just annihilation, even if it is only in their legacy in history and in their family. They love their families, but they have no eternal hope for them and no meaning to offer them other than to “live a good life.” And what is living a good life? By the admission of most of them it is helping others, loving and serving, even though they do not accept God, His prophets or commandments. There is still a light that impels them to help, lift, and do good to others. It is sad that they disregard the One that might give them additional happiness, additional hope. The doctrines and commandments they reject are less harsh than Stoicism and more full of meaning. They also help discipline a man or woman and stop them from the degradation of unfettered appetite. In short, the Gospel promises a truer pleasure than Epicureanism and truer nobility than the sterility of Stoicism. I have three close family members who have recently turned from the Gospel to the bleak and arid landscape of secularism. I genuinely hope they can find an oasis of some kind to sustain them as none of them are particularly happy and at least two of them seem to have, by their own admission, given up the prospect of being so in the future.

    • danpeterson

      Very eloquent and insightful.

  • Laura Ainsworth

    A beautiful tribute to those who have once again shown kindness and charity; the pure love of Christ. Thank heaven for all those the mourn with us in our hours of need and step in to comfort and provide when we are in pain.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    Big Brutha- We live in a secular society by design because the U.S. Constitution makes clear the separation between church and state, which is why God is not mentioned. Most democracies are secular, with freedom of religion, and if desired, freedom from religion. The writer George Holyoake, credited with the first use of the term, wrote that:

    “Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever.”

    There are countless ways in which personal belief and spirituality are manifested, by religious as well as non-religious people. Just look at the various Christian churches with their varying scriptural emphasis and spiritual focus. Within Islam exist numerous interpretations of the Qur’an which has divided nations and caused unrest. There are those who practice pacifism like the Protestant Mennonites, or the Jaines, yet these two religions are distinct.

    Much about what we hold as spiritual truth depends on ones familial and cultural influence and time and place of birth. For example, there is a small probability that a young man, growing up under the rule of the Taliban, would ever consider converting to Christianity or becoming and atheist or agnostic. It would also be unlikely that people raised in the LDS Church would, in meaningful numbers, convert to Islam, etc.

    According to the Pew Research Center, about 1.1 billion people on planet earth have no religious affiliation. This number would include atheists, agnostics and those who simply do not identify themselves with a particular religion. I hope you would agree that some percentage of this 1.1 billion people lead meaningful and even spiritual lives. For example, a large percentage of scientists working and teaching in all scientific disciplines and belonging to the National Academy of Sciences, are not religiously affiliated. Many of these people have committed their careers to the betterment of humanity through teaching and research and most certainly believe the world is full of wonder, mystery and hope.

    Not believing in a particular set of doctrines, or following the teachings of certain prophets, does not exclude one from living a meaningful life. If such belief was necessary, how would one know which prophets or doctrines were correct, given the tremendous religious diversity which exists? There are countless happy and hopeful people everywhere that simply do not require a specific set of religious beliefs or membership in a particular church, to live happy, meaningful and fulfilled lives.

  • Big Brutha

    Lucy, in general I agree with what you have said. Secularism, in the sense of a democratic society where religious institution are not tied with state bodies or organs, is indispensible for feedom of conscience. The right of men and women to choose how they will believe or not believe should be held inviolate. It is no virtue to believe because of coercion. Nor is a virtue to not believe for the same reason.

    I agree that all mankind has the capacity to lead meaningful and spiritual lives, informed by their beliefs in virtue, in service, in kindness, in the pursuit of knowledge and truth. I have no need or desire to denigrate or lessen the contributions to our society by those who profess no religious belief or who hold none. Questions of conscience are personal and deeply felt. However, the foregoing does not alter my view that Stoicism and Epicureanism are the basic philosophical flavors left to those who reject the existence of deity or any higher power. While those philosophies have certain appeal, my own view is that they are less hopeful and less helpful for their adherents than other beliefs. That does not mean I think those who subscribe to them are evil. I do believe them to be adhering to a belief system unable to account for certain parts of human experience. But, and this is the point, I do not have any desire to take away their right to live and believe that way.

    I do not want the Baptists, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists or the Latter-day Saints proscribing forms of worship/ or the lack of worship because they do not agree with them. Nor do I want radical secularists restricting my ability to live according to the dictates of my own conscience. Based upon public discussion there seems to be a growing sentiment that the public influence of religion and the religious should be more limited in some way. In the United States our separation of church and state has not had the bluntly anti-religious flavor that French or Turkish laïcité or laicism have historically had. (The Turkish situation is different today but that is another discussion.)

    But as I said, there seems to be a movement in that direction, to exclude or expunge religiously informed views from public policy and policy making. To me that seems discordant when there is apparent toleration for allowing the beliefs of socialists, environmentalists, feminists, anarchists, luddites, etc. to publically inform views on government policy. In contrast, the religious are increasingly told to leave their beliefs at the door and restrict their philosophical arguments to those that make no reference to deity. That may please some quarters of our society but it alienates many and makes them suspect that the system is being rigged against them.

    If the most deeply held beliefs of large communities in America are not allowed to publically inform political discourse then there is a need to encourage greater toleration of diverse views in our political sphere or we are at risk of eroding the democratic institutions we believe are the mainstays of our freedom. The views of the public must be adequately represented in the public sphere, be they religious, secular, or other.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    Big Brutha- Because you view the philosophies of Stoicism and Epicureanism to be what is left for those who may reject modern organized religion in part or in full, I did some reading about these ancient schools of thought. In looking at their most basic features, I couldn’t help but wonder how you, a mere mortal, could know what any non religious person holds as truth? How, for instance, could you know or even speculate that the God I believe in is always immanent yet never fully transcendent, or that I believe that there is an innate depravity within people or “persistent evil” in our world? How could you know that I have a cyclical view of history or that my goal in life is happiness which I will find only through the pursuit of virtue? Could you truly be certain that I believe in human equality and brotherhood (I do) or that I believe my soul is a part of the World Soul? Do you not see a problem here?

    It seems that some, who follow their particular doctrines and scriptures, want to ascribe a philosophy to the non-religious, or make judgements about what is going to happen to them after death. It’s almost as if some are saying, “I’ve shown you my religion, in all its detail, but you’ve not shown me what you believe, so I’m going to map it for you”.

    Growing up in a rather conservative community, and having mostly religious friends, I can’t tell you the number of times I was told that my eternal future would be anything but bright. Well, it would be bright and hot, but not filled with bliss. One of my very good friends in youth, was incessantly adamant that my only hope was the Gospel good news, and without it my life would be anything but fulfilled. This sort of rhetoric was on full display in the late 70′s and 80′s with the political ascendency of Falwell’s “moral majority”. I was actually quite relieved when their funding base eroded after the high profile scandals of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Needless to say, I never wrote them a check although I voted for Reagan.

    Lastly, I do believe that everyone, regardless of their belief system, deserves representation. And that is the secular America I enjoy living in, just not as a Stoic or Epicurean.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    In all my three decades of life, I cannot recall ever reading or hearing an atheist bragging about what great emotional comfort and physical support they get from other atheists when confronting poverty, illness, pain and death. Atheists instead brag about their courage in looking down into the abyss of a meaningless existence, and activity that is pretty much a solitary one. That is not to say that there are not secular people who seek to create utopian communities, just that the social goals of those groups become the functional equivalent of religion.

    • Lucy Mcgee

      With your statement, I believe you’ve spoken, at least in part, to a reason for the creation of religion(s). Can you imagine how fearful humans must have been during the early centuries? These people knew very little of the causes of events facing them and would be very keen to listen to any shaman who could provide comfort, or a minor miracle and especially one who might save them from staring into the abyss of a meaningless existence.

      Thankfully, we live in a time where we have a better understanding of ourselves, our planet and the universe. And thankfully, people who are not religious, hundreds of millions of them, can find support and consolation during times of illness, death, poverty and pain. Were this not the case, they would all be searching the marketplace of religions for that support. It is interesting that in many first world nations, religious belief has declined substantially, and yet these nations rank highest in the Human Development Index. Interesting.

      • Scott W. Clark

        So why should we listen to anything Abraham (or Moses or Peter or Joseph Smith) had to say when they didn’t have an iPhone, am I right?
        Benighted and primitive not anything like the enlightened people we are today. We of course are the fruits of an inexorable and inevitable progress to the sunny uplands of enlightenment and understanding. And we stand there firmly today not primitive and not unenlightened. (Of course maybe not tomorrow. Progress goes on and on under this particular world view and future generations have their say about us. So we can’t really come down and say anything with any degree of certainty except that we are better than they were, can we?)
        But you do know there is as much of belief inherent in this as those who are religious profess, don’t you?


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