Sunday, June 1, 2014

Sin, Repentence, and Stories

This is mostly going to be a recap of a couple of different ideas that I've very recently encountered and need to find a way to absorb and apply.

Thanks to Mormon Stories, I was exposed to Adam Miller's remarkable nugget of a book, Letters to a Young Mormon, and because of the remarkable interview, I immediately bought and downloaded the electronic book. Adam Miller is a professional philosopher, author and a faithful and devout Mormon who you can tell, by virtue of his background and training has put into practice something he encourages in his book here in his chapter on scripture. In the chapter he encourages the reader to continue the work of Joseph Smith by translating over and over again the scriptures into our own life:
You'll need faith to undertake these translations as acts of repentance. You'll have to trust that the books can withstand your scrutiny and you'll have to trust that God, despite their antiquity, can be contemporary in them. The Lord counseled Joseph that, "as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118). This is good, though circuitous, advice. On one hand, if you lack faith, seek wisdom out of the best books. On the other hand, if you lack wisdom, seek learning by faith. Your ability to translate with power will depend on your faith and it will be amplified by your familiarity with the world's best books. The wider you read in Laozi, Shakespeare, Austen, Dogen, Plato, Dante, Krishna, Sappho, Goethe, Confucious, Tolstoy, and Homer, the better off you'll be. The more familiar you are with Israelite histories, Near Eastern archaeologies, and secular biblical scholarship, the richer your translations will be rendered. Don't be afraid for scripture and don't be afraid of these other books. Claim it all as your own. Doubtless, the world's best books have their flaws, but this just means that they too must be translated. You'll need to translate them so that they can contribute to your own translations. As long as these other books help you to translate repentance, then you're still doing it right. Don't balk at this responsibility or hand it off to church leaders. Our minds go dark and our hearts go cold when we set this work aside. "Your minds in times past have been darkened," the Lord told Joseph, "because of unbelief, and because you have treated lightly the things you have received - which vanity and unbelief have brought the whole church under condemnation" (D&C 84:54-55). Our minds go dark because we've treated this responsibility lightly. We don't sit down with the scriptures and we don't study them out in our minds. And, to our discredit, we've often dismissed the world's best books rather than translate them. As a result, we'll "remain under this condemnation" until we repent and remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon" (D&C 84:57).
 This is a good quote to set up this blog post because you get the sense that these are not idle words by Miller, you just know that he's lived them. Admittedly, he's a professor of philosophy and is a credentialed reader who had to do a lot of it to get to where he is. And unfairly, he just has more time to do this than a normal person. But still, good advice.

I have two points to make from this quote. He uses the word repentance twice in this quote in unexpected ways and I'll get to that later on. Secondly, he doesn't exclude anything. He's willing to learn from all sources. There's no ego in it. He recognizes not just that there is truth in every church, from every culture and country, but he treats the products of other sources on an almost equal footing as scripture themselves. And as we put in the hard work of translation, they become just that for us. We should not reject anything that comes from God and so much more comes from God than we realize.

In another chapter, he talks about sin in another completely unexpected way:
Being a good person doesn't mean you're not a sinner. Sin goes deeper. Being good will save you a lot of trouble, but it won't solve the problem of sin. Only God can do this. Fill your basket with good apples rather than bad ones, but, in the end, sin has as much to do with the basket as with the apples. Sin depends not just on your actions but on the story you use those actions to tell.
Like everyone, you have a story you want your life to tell. You have your own way of doing things and your own way of thinking about things. But "my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). As the heavens are higher than the earth, God's work in your life is bigger than the story you'd like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you'll have to lay down your stories and minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him. Preferring your stories to his life is sin.
Sin is endemic to the story you're always telling yourself about yourself. This story shows up in that spool of judgmental chitchat - sometimes fair, sometimes foul - that, like an off-stage voice-over, endlessly loops in your head. This narration follows you around like a shadow. It mimes you, measures you, sometimes mocks you, and pretends, in its flat, black simplicity, to be the truth about you. This story is seductive. It seems so weightless and bulletproof and ideal. But as a shadow it hides as much as it reveals. You are not your shadow. No matter how carefully you line up the light, your body will never fit that profile. Sin is what happens when we choose our shadows over the lives that cast them. Life is full of stories, but life is not a story. God doesn't love your story, he loves you.
If you get down to it, this idea of stories forms the foundation of the entire book and the primary objective of life is to learn about ourselves, the world and our life within the world as it is, unfiltered. And the lure of an alternative identity, a story to define ourselves is as common as it is limiting. In politics, our positions are defined more by our party membership than by an honest analysis of the issues at hand. We spend more time vilifying our political or religious opponents, rather than spending the hard work of really listening to them, understanding their positions, and using the discussion as an opportunity to wake up, shed our stories and learn more.

And this work of translation should be happening all of the time. The core of any church is not in its leadership, it's in its members. In fact, the pope, prophet, the pastor or the bishop is perhaps the least important member of a particular church institution. These often are positions of management and organization, but "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." James 1:27. In other words, the true power of a religious body comes from the collective action of each and every member of the church. In their willingness to be kind, loving, to assist and to help. Then the church callings that are most vital to the success and vitality of the church, are those callings that put individuals in contact with other individuals, providing teaching, support and kindness.

Today in our church congregation we had ward conference, where church leaders in our stake leaders taught us. In our Elder's quorum lesson today, we had a lesson that seemed to be lifted right out of this book I've been quoting on this blog. The core of the lesson was taken out of the LDS bible dictionary passage on repentance, here:
The Greek word of which this is the translation denotes a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world. Since we are born into conditions of mortality, repentance comes to mean a turning of the heart and will to God, and a renunciation of sin to which we are naturally inclined. Without this there can be no progress in the things of the soul’s salvation, for all accountable persons are stained by sin and must be cleansed in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Repentance is not optional for salvation; it is a commandment of God (D&C 18:9–2220:29133:16). The preaching of repentance by John the Baptist formed the preparation for the ministry of our Lord.
So, isn't that just another way of staying that repentance happens when we shed our own stories for reality. Where we wake up, in other words, become born again, embrace the world as it truly is. If we look at religion this way, it changes the dynamics of our lives in profound ways. For examples, what of guilt? Again from Miller:
Shame and guilt are life's way of protesting against the constriction of the too-tight story you're busy telling about it. The twist is that shame and guilt, manifest in this pinch, end up siding with your story and blaming life. Guilt doubles down on the self-important story you're telling about yourself. Guilt is sin seen from perspective your sinfulness. Even if you feel guilty about how you've hurt others, that guilt remains problematic because your guilt is about you and about how you didn't measure up to your story. Guilt recognizes your story's poor fit and then still demands that life measure up. It recognizes that your shoes are too small and too tight and then blames your feet for their size. Repentance is not about shaving down your toes, it is about taking off your shoes.
Finally, in the church we often talk about how the goal of our life is to return to live with God, to achieve eternal life. Miller has an interesting alternative interpretation of what eternal life means:
If eternal punishment is God's kind of punishment, then we might, as others have, try this same reading of eternal life. Eternal life is God's kind of life. Rather than just checking a life span, 'eternal' names a certain way of being alive, a certain way of holding life as it passes from one moment to the next. Life itself involves the passage of time and, in order to be faithful to it, we must bless rather than dam that flow. We must do as God does and allow the world and our parents and our children and ourselves to grow and change and die and start again. In heaven, all the world's many parts continue moving. Being sealed to those we love doesn't seal them off from change. Rather, it binds us to them as, in their living, they never cease to change. 
Have no doubt, these costs are high. Each of us will sacrifice everything. We will lose everyone and everything and everyplace we've ever been given. Even if we stay put and stay together, neither we nor they will stay the same. All of it will change and all of it will pass into what comes next and there is no going back. The question is, will we greet this passing with a closed fist and a hard heart or with an open palm and a consecrated life?
What is eternal life like? It's like this. It's like now. Eternal life is always for now and never for later. Eternal life is a certain way of holding in our hands the hunger of a human life. It is a certain way of doing whatever you're already doing. Eternal life is just like doing what you're doing right now, but doing it the way God himself would do it.
 And that's what it's all about. To become more like God and we don't have to wait, we try every day to learn more, to grow closer to God. To live our lives like God would have us live them. And this process of waking up, this lifetime process, is hard work and we should leverage all of our resources. Practice acting like God in our homes with our children. Practice accepting gifts of knowledge from all sources. Learn from everyone. The most thoughtful sermon might come out of the lips of a child or out of the lips of the aged, the poor just as easily as from an educated person. As we translate and internalize, we grow and expand.