I’m nine years old, and it’s Ash Wednesday. My mother drags me to mass at 7 AM, so I can get there before school. I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t want to walk around, all day, with dirt on my forehead. I went to public school at the time, and I was already teased enough; I didn’t need to give anyone any new ammunition. Before going to school, I fussed and fussed and fussed, and my mom told me, “Don’t you dare wipe those ashes off your forehead.” I didn’t know how she automatically knew that I was planning to dash to the bathroom the second I hit the door, running, but she did. She knew I wouldn’t be the only one with them on my forehead, but I didn’t. All I knew it was a gym day, that was bad enough, let alone having to run around, looking like you didn’t bathe the night before.
It’s funny what we remember when in certain situations. That memory came flooding back as I sat in a rather confused service this morning where I had to hear about something I was completely not expecting: Lent.
For those who aren’t aware of the tradition, Lent marks forty days, from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday before Palm Sunday, excluding Sundays. Actually, the Sunday exclusion was something I learned about in Catholic school, as a suggested “cheat” day where you were able to do all the things you’d given up for Lent, but that’s just a side point I learned thanks to the everything-you-ever-heard-about-Catholic-school-kids-is-absolutely-true experience I had. It is a period of sacrifice, with the goal to remove negative habits and distractions from one’s life and, instead, focus on principles of penance (repentance from sin), prayer, fasting, and abstinence. In the Catholic Church, all adult Catholics without medical issues were required to fast as part of Lent. Not many that I knew did that, however. Most focused more on the abstinence end of Lent, which was required for all of us, fourteen and over. Being in Catholic school, all of us, over about second grade, practiced abstinence, or giving up of something as a Lenten practice. Most of us gave up candy or chocolate, some said they’d give their allowance for the church offering, and there was always the favorite, “I’ll be nice to my brother/sister.” One year, I announced that, for Lent, I would give up my diet. My teacher didn’t find it funny. She sternly said to me, “Lee Ann, of all people, I would expect you to take this seriously.”
If she could only see me now…
Seldom did we keep it to the letter of the law. I don’t think as kids we understood the severity that was Lent. Of all the seasons acknowledged in the Catholic Church, Lent was probably my least favorite. Everything about it was empty and barren: the church was undecorated, there were no flowers, we couldn’t say the word “alleluia,” we often started the service with the same song, week after week, people were solemn and miserable, and there was this overall stench of…I don’t know…death. Every week, we would go and stand and kneel and stand and kneel to do the Stations of the Cross, which is a long devotional about the steps of Christ to the cross and the crucifixion…heavy stuff, especially at such a young age. It felt like every year, we all meditated in death until Holy Week, which was nothing short of Hell Week. Reading after reading was about Christ’s death, and by the time you got to Good Friday, you were ready to sit around and cry, or kill yourself. So much was about guilt, about sin, about wrongdoing, about feeling bad, about imposing penalty and punishment…it was a weight no one should bear, year after year.
A few years ago, I was most shocked (and greatly upset) to learn that many lower Protestant churches (such as Baptists and evangelicals) were now practicing Lent. They might not have been doing it with the same austere flair that we did in Catholicism, or that high Protestants observed, but there they were, donning the color purple, requiring people to give things up, and smearing ashes on everything with a forehead in honor of the season. I think the reason why Lent has started spreading is because people are striving to get back to something in their lives with some meaning, and sometimes our church experiences can seem kind of empty. Years of messages on the same things, focused on ourselves and not enough on getting out of ourselves so God can fill us with Him has made the church seek for something more. The problem is that in a strange way, Lent still remains all about us, it’s just in a more penitent statement. It’s still about us doing something instead of letting God do something and lead us to where He desires us to be. It’s self-generated, rather than Spirit-generated.
Speaking of that…
A few weeks ago, the traffic on the way to the post office re-routed me a way I usually don’t go, and I drove by a denomination I had no idea was in my midst. So I flipped out.
“Oooh, look what’s there, look what’s there!!! That’s the Community of Christ!”
My mother had no idea why I was going nuts. You probably don’t, either. From the name, the Community of Christ sounded like another evangelical church that I avoid like the plague. But it’s not. Maybe if I state the name it went by prior to 2011, it will have more relevance:
The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS)
For all you out there who are scratching your head, keep reading. For those who know their religious history, you are correct. It is an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormons.
Yes, today, I went to a Mormon offshoot, and we could say it is the largest of the Mormon offshoots. For those who are unfamiliar with Mormon history, let’s just say it’s something I know forwards, backwards, and inside out. When studying religion years ago, I did a specialization in the religions emerging from the Second Great Awakening, one of those being Mormonism. I can recite Mormon doctrine forwards and backwards, and to this day, almost 20 years later, whenever I hit my head, the first thing I do to make sure I haven’t incurred memory loss is recite Mormon doctrine, from the history of its founding. If I can’t say, “Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in western New York State…” I know something’s wrong.
The Community of Christ, however, is not something I am as familiar with. When studying Mormon offshoots, it is more common to study the fundamentalist groups that still practice polygamy, adhere to traditional doctrines, especially those taught by Brigham Young, and avoid the law while having too many children. The RLDS was not one that was studied in depth, and some of that is because there are parts of it that aren’t quite so Mormon anymore. I will explain more of that from my experience, but to properly understand the church, let’s review a little about Mormon history.
Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830 in Fayette, New York. It was not, however, a religion that’s origins are as cut and dry as someone starting a new church. Without getting into the more lengthy aspects of Mormon history (that are quite lengthy), Joseph Smith was praying in the woods one day in 1820, asking God as to which of the churches to join. At this time, Joseph claimed that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him, telling him not to join any church, because they were all corrupt. He was told he was forgiven of all his sins, and that he was called to be a prophet, to restore the “true church” in his lifetime. Over the course of several years, Joseph claimed to have several visions, including a visit from an angel named Moroni, who revealed to him the location of some golden plates, a breastplate, and some seer stones for interpretation, buried in a hill near his home. Between 1823 and 1827, Joseph returned to the spot with the plates, and was finally able to remove them, in order to interpret them and publish them for translation. The claim was that the language of the writing was in a sort of reformed Egyptian writing, and contained a religious record of ancient Native Americans, who were actually the descendants of the ancient Hebrews. This work became known as what is now the Book of Mormon, considered another testament of Jesus Christ. As the proclaimers of this new writing, they instituted a church, joined with some followers who also claimed divine revelation, citing that the work was true, and all were baptized, formerly establishing the church and printing the initial copies of the Book of Mormon in 1830. The result was the Church of Christ, later identified as the Church of the Latter-Day Saints.
Joseph Smith’s so-called revelation did not end here, however, and in addition to changes in the initial visionary experience, editorial changes to the Book of Mormon, taking multiple wives (including girls as young as 14), Masonic elements, general power and control, and his own elemental history with the occult (among other things), the early Mormon community were frequently disliked and forced to relocate, multiple times. One of those times was to Independence, Missouri, and another to Kirkland, Ohio. It is in these two locations that the decisiveness in the Mormon movement began to surface, especially as Joseph’s doctrines became more and more controversial. The result of the division was the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which claims the Kirkland, Ohio temple and Independence, Missouri settlement as their own. From 1844 (after Joseph Smith’s death) until their formal incorporation in 1860, this church believes the organization went through a period of “disorganization,” thus leading to their identity as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This church varies from the mainline Mormon church in that it never practiced polygamy and never accepted certain doctrines and revelations as its own, especially those introduced by Brigham Young. The RLDS, however, does accept the Book of Mormon, their own version of The Doctrine and Covenants, and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (portions of the Bible interpreted by Joseph Smith, known as The Inspired Version). Obviously, they believe in his claims and visions, and embrace him as a prophet, who started the restored church, and the lineage, from that point onward, through their own tradition, rather than that of the mainline LDS church. The RLDS was the home for Emma Smith, wife of Joseph Smith, and Joseph Smith III, Joseph Smith’s son. Up until not all that long ago, every president of the RLDS was a direct descendant of Joseph Smith.
The church maintained its uniquely Mormon flair, maintaining its own interpretations of just what that was, up until around the 1960s. At that time, the church examined its movements outside of the United States and felt called to change its beliefs and practices, even further, to the point of resembling a loose concept of Protestantism. The changes included ordination of women to the priesthood, open communion, and a change in their name (Community of Christ), finalizing such in 2011. This caused a notable rift, however, and over a thirty-year period ending in the 1990s, baptisms declined by about a third, and donations dropped by about half. Approximately 25,000 people left the RLDS in thirty years.
It is not a big secret to say the RLDS never set the world on fire, and as with much of the Latter-day Saint movement, the differences in its origins, its foundational beliefs, and its uniquely American flair set it so apart from other churches, it was never easily accepted. Changing their doctrine to make themselves seem more like every other church turned off those who belonged to it, and understandably so, hurt it more than helping it. The question remains, though: just what is the RLDS, especially given it is now part Mormon, part Protestant, part something else….so what is it?
I didn’t know what to expect when I went to the service, because I didn’t know enough about the RLDS to make an assessment. I’d done some reading to find out they seemed to follow a reading cycle similar to that of the Reformed Church, but that was it. I had no idea where their Mormon identity came in, and went out. But I was excited to go. Not having much idea of what I would find made it interesting. I always love new things. Sometimes.
Prior to the service, I went for a photoshoot in a local Cary park, because it had been awhile since I took new pictures. I dressed for that more than the service, although it probably goes without saying that I was overdressed. In fact, driving up to the church, I had a totally different reaction than when I’d discovered it a few weeks earlier. It seemed…small. And rundown. And it looked like not very many people were there.
I was worried about being late, but I didn’t need to. The service opened with what was at least a fifteen-minute piano solo, where the people in the congregation were encouraged to read a couple of Scripture passages and reflect on some passages from a book. It seemed like a mighty long reflective period.
As soon as we got in the door, a very solicitous woman wasn’t very far behind. I was a little off-put because she seemed to be comfortable with a lot of touch, when we didn’t know her from a hole in the wall. As while shooting pictures we also found ourselves in front of a church, to which no one even said hello on their way in, I was willing to overlook her solicitousness in favor of her being at least friendly. I figured it was a safe assumption they didn’t get a lot of visitors.
I was right.
There were approximately twenty-five people in the relatively bare sanctuary, and the average age for members was about seventy-five. I will say, however, the placement of ages among the group was a little unusual. They had a majority of much older members, a handful of teenagers, and one or two people who were there with children…and that was it. There weren’t many families, there weren’t any single people, there weren’t any young couples or middle-aged couples. It was a smattering of people here and there, with the vast majority well in their senior years. They weren’t active seniors, either, but most seemed very ill or severely incapacitated.
My mom realized she left her glasses in the car, so she went to get them. It turns out the woman who hounded us at the door followed her outside, wanting to know what she was doing. As I sat there, I braced myself for the people there to swoop in and overtake me with questions and pursuits to join. Nobody came over. Nobody said a word to me. Not. A. Single. Word.
This was starting to feel weird. I felt like I was in a nursing home sing-a-long.
After asking for our contact information, I gave the woman a business card, to make her go away. I felt like she was watching me, which made me uncomfortable with taking pictures. I wanted to get one of their communion table, in particular, as it was located under this huge screen and was covered with things: a big candle, a picture of something, some leaves, and a plastic bowl. This was of particular shock to me, because I was yet to be in a church where the communion table wasn’t left empty unless it was communion Sunday. In contrast with the rest of the Mormon world, the RLDS does not partake of communion every week. Yet it was so surprising to see so much stuff on a table specifically for communion, and in a place that so thoughtlessly seemed to be located under A/V equipment.
The service itself was…unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It had a Unitarian Universalist feel to it: rather laid back, lighting a central candle, and a lot of talk about peace and social justice. Nobody preached. Nobody read Scripture. After the piano solo and a hymn, the church digressed into a long period of announcements and sharing, and a call to community worship, read from the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 11:55-66). Then they sang a hymn, did an invitation to worship, and a short prayer response, which was the hymn, “Blessed Assurance,” with a whole bunch of new words. Actually, all their hymns were to the tune of classic Protestant hymns, but the words were different. If I was looking to figure out what made them different as a denomination, I had to look no further than their songs. They made references to peace, the “Good Spirit,” “Jesus our Brother,” and talking about carrying a “new word” and a “new revelation.” Buried under a strange concoction of rituals from different traditions, there was their uniquely Mormon identity, talking about what they really believed underneath some of the more distracting fluff.
Onward to the “focus moment,” a female associate pastor of the church got up and gave a short talk on distractions in connection with…get this…Lent…and the need to give things up to get closer to God, to restore relationships with others, and to do important things. An older woman, her choice of a “giving up” example was to throw a cell phone in the bowl on the communion table, and place one near the picture on the communion table. It wasn’t the best presentation I’ve ever heard in church, but it certainly wasn’t the worst, but I must admit, the push for Lent was a little surprising to me. Lent was not a part of the Latter-day Saint tradition, and according to what was said in the service, it is not a part of the tradition of the RLDS, either. Everything that related to teaching during the service felt like a commercial for Lent, urging and pushing the members to accept this new tradition, one they were clearly unfamiliar with and didn’t properly understand. Like most things when such change comes up, the church didn’t teach on the true background of Lent or where it came from, but instead, tried to praise its virtue of helping the church to venture into a new, or different, territory.
After this talk, they sang another hymn, lit the big candle on the communion table, read a prayer about peace, and then segued into another commercial, this time a video from headquarters about the importance of giving financially to the church. This was followed with a prayer, another hymn, and a time to “greet your neighbor.” The service then segued into a “morning message,” which was another video from headquarters. This entire video was about Lent and why the church was now practicing Lent, with no background, nor history, on the practice, except to say that it was “very ancient.” The members were urged, once again, to participate in the practice. They then sang, again, prayed a benediction, and then declared a “Sending Forth,” which was from the Doctrine and Covenants 158:11a, which is a book of revelations of the church (it is embraced by the mainline LDS church, as well, but at a certain point in time, the revelations deviate from one another, and are no longer the same).
One thing I noticed when we were besieged at the end of the service was that the membership was much more solicitous of my mother than they were to me. This was a little unusual, as people usually want younger members, so they typically chase after me, instead of after her. I explained it to my mother like this: they made a judgment about her, and about me, based on their unusual membership patterns. They felt she was better suited to their company, and I was not, by virtue of our ages. It wasn’t about reticence of doctrine or interest in what they taught, but their perception that she was, because of her age, more apt to be interested than I was. Needless to say, neither of us were particularly interested. It was like Universalism-meets Mormonism on the down-low-meets Lent. It felt wrong, It felt weird. It felt…confused.
What I saw was the product of a church that wants to divorce itself from its origins just enough to make people think it’s really not what it once was anymore. There is something inherently dishonest about this, not to mention, the product becomes thorough confusion. When you start picking and choosing what you like from this tradition or that one to incorporate it into one practice, you start divorcing things from their origins and removing them from their context. Lent is not a practice that falls into understanding with Joseph Smith’s “revelation” that all existing churches are corrupt. The concept of the worth of all persons, of their theology as pertains to Zion, their ecumenical attempts at open communion and interactions with other groups, is not a part of the Latter-day Saint message. Yet the RLDS still embraces the concept of revelation exclusive to their denominational prophet and embraces alternate gospel revelations that are a part of that lineage. They herald their new word and new writing as unique to them, and they read from their own books, without reading from the Bible. On the surface, they seem like most other churches. Careful attention to their own thoughts and words, however, reveals something else.
In many years of studying the LDS movements, the deception present in the RLDS is disturbing, but not surprising, in the long run. Deception has long been a seed of the Mormon faith: embracing one thing, but appearing to embrace another, and keeping a lot of things secret and on the DL (as we would say) is just a part of the way Joseph Smith and his followers operated. While I do believe that there is an idea that the RLDS is trying to make a better way, the realities of what have always been are still there.
Our parents used to tell us, “Honesty is always the best policy.” Honesty starts when we are honest about who we are and we figure out what we believe, instead of chasing after many different things. To be efficient in whatever it is that God has called us to be, we must first embrace whatever that is.
Yeah, the concept of Lent might sound great to an outsider, but it can’t transform us through our own powers and our own good works. That is a fundamental aspect of our faith that we can’t escape. As a much younger version of myself, I learned this about Lent. Yes, it’s great and desirable to re-evaluate and change as is needed, but it’s a lot more important that we learn how to follow the leading of the Spirit, so we don’t become void of truth and simply rearranging things around to disguise just who we really are, on the down-low, right under the surface.
© 2018 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.