Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Moneychangers at the pulpit?

Revised: September 5 & 19, 2011

Some friends offered some insights into the original versions of this post that I hadn't considered before so I've chosen to revise it. -JLP

A man got up to speak in a church meeting. The topic was supposed to be "The Law of the Harvest." The speaker then went on to talk about his personal business ventures. He sounded as though he was basically reciting his resume to the congregation. I quickly lost interest in what he was saying. I waited to hear him segue into a gospel topic but by the time he said anything related to doctrinal matters, I was so distracted by a plug I could just as easily have read on LinkedIn that I just couldn't follow along anymore.

So, I posted the following comment onto the Flippin' Utah Mormons Facebook page:

I'm asked to come to church to be edified... So why am I expected to sit through a "talk" where someone basically recites their business resume and somehow divine some nugget of Gospel truth from it?

I continued my thoughts in a comment:

I deal with business people all week. I do my best to not bring my earthly business with me to Church where I want to learn of celestial things.

This sparked some interesting comments from the forum. First there was speculation that the speaker was asked to talk about "this subject"–ostensibly referring to his business. I explained that the subject was "The Law of the Harvest" and while the principles of work are certainly integral to discussing that topic, it's not a green light to start talking about one's business dealings.

A key component to being a successful businessperson is to take advantage of opportunities to promote oneself and one's business. However, there is a time and a place for everything. I don't feel that a talk in a church meeting is an appropriate place to promote one's means of acquiring wealth, especially if it is happening at the expense of edifying one's brothers and sisters in the Gospel. The speaker lost both my interest and my respect by treating a house of worship as if it was his own personal trade show. I mentioned this to a friend who helped me put it into some perspective and I realized that saying that I lost my respect for this person probably wasn't the right thing to say. I honestly don't know him very well and respect is something that should be earned before it can be lost. I didn't give this man a chance to earn my respect so it really wouldn't be fair to withhold it just because he committed–in my opinion–a faux pas that he might not even be aware of.

One Facebook follower inferred that I was calling this speaker out as a sinner for what he did. I clarified that I didn't think that he sinned, only that such behavior raised some ethical concerns. Another thought that I was not being fair for broadcasting someone's failing and that I might be crossing an ethical boundary myself for talking about this person on the internet and possibly embarrassing him.

I never shared this man's name–which would have been unethical–so he had nothing to be embarrassed about. I honestly doubt that this person is even aware of me, my blog or the Facebook page that's associated with it. I did not intend for anyone to take offense at my observation.

The point of Flippin' Utah Mormons is to make observations–often in an admittedly stream of consciousness style–about a culture that at times is glaringly inconsistent with the faith it claims to embody. Mormon culture–as distinct from Mormon theology–is not always synonymous with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

So, why would someone feel that talking about their personal business endeavors was appropriate for church?

A traditional symbol of Mormonism is the beehive. It's considered to be a symbol of "industry." But industry is not necessarily the same thing as entrepreneurialism. And there's something to be said about the optimism of Mormons and their business endeavors, which brings me to the cliché of Mormons and their fondness (or is it susceptibility?) for "multilevel marketing"–née pyramid schemes that espouse in their recruitment tactics the idea of maximum return for minimal effort (a direct contradiction to the law of the harvest). It has become a cliche because so many Mormons have fallen victim to them. It's not unheard of for some Mormons to make use of their ward directory in order to recruit sales people–despite clear instructions that the directory is to be used only for Church business. I have personally experienced the Mormon MLM sales-pitch: "I know it's multi-level marketing and a lot of people are nervous about that but everyone that I know who's involved with this is a member of the Church in good standing." As if being a Mormon makes one immune from scams, greed or greedy scams.

Perhaps some of the Facebook followers who commented felt I was being unfairly judgmental of the sacrament speaker. I admit that I do make a fair amount of judgments in this blog but I try my hardest to weigh those judgments against basic gospel principles. Many people are fond of quoting Matthew 7:1 "Judge not, that ye be not judged." Mormons have the added benefit of the Joseph Smith Translation of the bible which reveals some key points that have been lost through the ages: "Judge not unrighteously, that ye be not judged; but judge righteous judgment." It's simply impossible to go through life without making judgments. God knows this. So he counsels us to be careful in the way we go about it.

I try very hard to make sure that I am making righteous judgments and I feel that the judgment I've made in this matter is a righteous one because I have turned to the example Christ Himself set when He came face-to-face with men conducting earthly business in a House of the Lord. "...Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, 'It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.'" (Matthew 21:12-13)

Frankly, I think that my response was pretty tame compared to Christ's.

Christ Himself made His feelings about mixing business and religion very clear when He chased the moneychangers out of the temple and caused quite a ruckus when doing so. Were those business people embarrassed? Probably. I imagined they were pretty pissed off as well, some stranger causing a huge mess in their place of business--of course it didn't matter to them that it was the House of the Lord, they followed profits, not prophets. This, I've observed, is true of a lot of Mormons as well. Their priorities are earthly, not celestial. They look upon the wealthy and say, "They are so blessed." This puts pressure on them to do everything they can to amass their own "blessings" so that they can show others how "blessed" they are while completely ignoring Christ's admonition to "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth... But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Matthew 6:19-21)

They might very well quote the Book of Mormon as justification for their entrepreneurialism: "...after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them..." (Jacob 2:19) Of course, that's where many wealthy Mormons that I know stop reading the Book of Mormon and start quoting Ayn Rand to find a moral justification for their own selfishness–they either are not aware of Rand's atheism and hostility toward religion or they simply choose to ignore it, the same way that they choose to ignore the rest of Jacob's teachings: "...and ye will seek [riches] for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted."

This experience was just another example of something being said in Church that caused my eyes to roll but also gave me reason to pause, think and–more importantly–ask, "Why would they say something like that?" I know a lot of "former" Mormons who left the Church because they strained their eyes rolling them at ridiculous things that "devout" Mormons say that have no basis in doctrine, scripture or just plain common sense but they recite them in Sacrament talks, Sunday school, priesthood and Relief Society meetings as if they brought them down from Mt. Sinai themselves. I confess, that in those first moments of hearing some stupid remarks relating to anything from homosexuality to politics to economics spouted from the pulpit or in the classroom and "mingled with scripture" to give it an air of divine legitimacy, I have to restrain myself from taking offense or dragging those people out of the chapel or classroom by their ears and pointing out every scripture that contradicts whatever earthly ideology they hold to be true, but I don't. Most of the time I just sit quietly and roll my eyes, sometimes I will step out of the room and maybe vent to the Bishop who is very understanding about these things and after those feelings cool down, I'll ask the question, "Why would they say something like that?" And that's basically how I got started writing this blog. This allows me to put the silliness of the culture into a gospel perspective and keep going to church–because despite the few stupid things I hear, most of what I get from the experience of attending church is uplifting and enlightening.

I'm very grateful for the differing comments that I read on the Facebook page I created for this blog. I'm glad that it is a forum for discussion and respectful debate and not just an echo chamber where everyone agrees on everything that's posted. To paraphrase the late journalist Walter Lippmann, "Where everyone thinks alike, very little thinking is done at all." Having and expressing differing views and opinions is a hallmark of Christ's Gospel–if not Mormon culture–and getting people to come out of their shells, to not be afraid to speak up when they see a disparity between Mormon practices and Mormon teachings will help make it possible to foment positive change in the culture.

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