In the wake of a column written at the start of the year, one detailing the 20 things I would change about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints if I were put in charge of the whole shebang, a reader suggested that I also write the 20 things I like about the church, the church of which I am a lifelong member, the one from which I have not yet been given the heave-ho.
Warning: Yeah, we’re going to talk religion here — this is for The Salt Lake Tribune’s pre-General Conference special section, after all, so hang in there, roll with it if the only faith you find or feel in this bleak earthly existence registers at 0.005 or lower on the Richter scale of religiosity.
This won’t kill you — not intentionally.
1. An emphasis on the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Every Latter-day Saint meeting I’ve ever attended — except for the ones that wander off into the weeds of recounting vacations to the Greek Islands or to Bora Bora or to southern France, and the ones stressing food storage and emergency preparedness, and the ones filled with testimonies bragging about Little Johnny’s football prowess and how God is blessing him to crush all of his less-righteous opponents — centered on what Christ did for you, for me, for all of humankind, and what those efforts and sacrifices mean.
That emphasis has always been inspiring, captivating, moving, encouraging — that on account of a loving Son of God, the absolute rock star of the New Testament, who was always the smartest and most powerful and kindest and humblest and wisest and most compassionate one in the room, we all have a shot at redemption in this life and the next.
It’s simply the coolest and most important teaching in the church (and I realize the Latter-day Saint faith has no corner on this belief), the heart and soul, the very core, of the whole system. Everything else, every doctrine, every action, every meaningful principle and element of life, rests and depends and exists upon Christ’s atonement.
Can’t get enough of the belief that no matter how much sin or pain or injustice or injury or suffering or imperfection there is in this world, the mistakes that we make, all of it, all of them, can be healed through faith in the Only Begotten. Love it.
2. A sense of community.
No matter where members go in the world, they can attend a Latter-day Saint meeting and feel a sense of familiarity, a sense of belonging, a sense of comfort. It’s not always flawless — there are jerks everywhere — but often the reception is warm, creating a place of welcome, of connection with like-minded believers.
3. Nearly every church building I’ve seen has a basketball court attached.
In church parlance, it’s called a “cultural hall,” but to normal people, it’s called what it is — a gym. We skip over the deeper realms of the whole “ward-ball” phenomenon here, but having a gym connected to a chapel is a good reminder that surrounding yourself with the spiritual doesn’t preclude the physical, that individuals should do what they can to recite both the Lord’s Prayer and the rules to James Naismith’s game.
Working to keep yourself physically fit, however, does not include license to go berserk because another ward team beat your ward team. There’s a scripture in Ephesians, I believe, that reads: “Thou shalt not punch the obnoxious, short, pudgy guy from the 14th Ward in the face.”
4. Belief in the preexistence.
We came from somewhere before. Don’t know how many religions teach such a doctrine, but there’s something intriguing about that idea, that life on Earth is just one more step forward in an ongoing process. Everyone who comes to this terrestrial orb has already accomplished notable things to be here, and we’ll leave it at that, plain and simple. Everybody done good, so far. Those who love evil in this second stage will talk that over later on with God.
5. Fathers’ blessings of infants.
We can debate the idea that, at present, only men in the church can be ordained to and hold the priesthood. But there is something powerful in the privilege a father has in the Latter-day Saint tradition to stand in front of an entire congregation and give his newborn child a name and a blessing, Kunta Kinte-style.
Even though it doesn’t always play out the way it should, it is a hopeful pronouncement to the world that the man is the father of this child, that the man is taking this baby under wing to provide and care for him or her, to take responsibility for the infant, asking God to pour his blessings upon the child throughout his or her entire life.
6. Chatter at church.
Anyone who has been at a Latter-day Saint Sunday service knows that the people in attendance have a habit of stopping and talking to one another, jibber-jabbering away, asking one another how they are doing, what’s going on with their families and friends, if everything is OK. It’s a beautiful thing, people caring about their neighbors and sharing conversation with them.
7. Life goes on after death.
This is the second stage of the atonement rocket. Not only that all things can be healed and made whole through Christ, but that because of him, life does not end with the grave, rather everyone is an eternal being to be resurrected and to live on and on and on.
8. Together forever.
The concept that, as a matter of doctrine, people who form a family, parents and children, sisters and brothers, moms and dads, grandparents and grandchildren who are sealed as individual units can be together not just in this life but throughout all the aforementioned eternity, is pretty darn cool.
We can argue over exactly how and what that family unit should or could look like, and argue we will, but a doctrine that provides hope for loved ones to be together forever in one form or another is powerful stuff.
9. There’s a reason for life, beyond just existing.
This is perhaps another widely held belief in some way among other religions, but the plan formulated in Latter-day Saint doctrine spells out a reason for being here in the human form and a best hope for meaningful things to come.
10. Opportunities for regular Janes and Joes to speak at church.
This is a double-edged, double-barreled deal, that in the church there is no professional clergy to preach to the congregation each week. Instead, amateur speakers are culled out of individual wards and (regional) stakes. They are asked to prepare talks and share their research and experiences, their wisdom, if that’s the right word, with everyone in the meeting.
It’s a great way to get to know other ward members, to hear their thoughts, and to learn from them. On the other hand, it can be an absolute boat crash. Either way, it’s a win. It’s either inspiring or it’s downright laughable in its mediocrity. If it leans in the direction of enlightenment, fantastic. If it bores the snot out of people trapped in the pews, that’s one of the reasons God let cellphones be invented. One of his tender mercies. They can check the news and sports of the day, or send off and receive messages.
Or they can ponder the meaning of life on their own by ignoring the speaker and talking in their mind’s eye to themselves. Some of the best talks I’ve ever heard were my own, given to myself.
One other positive thing about this: the chance for young people to get up and stand behind a microphone and speak to a largely adult group. It’s an experience a whole lot of kids in other churches rarely get a chance to do.
11. The welfare program.
The church implemented this in 1936 as a means for members to contribute to and receive help from one another in moments of temporal need. It’s an effective way for individuals to stay productive in various roles as they “earn” food and necessary funds in more difficult periods of life so they and their families can gain the sustenance they need.
12. The brotherhood and sisterhood of priesthood quorums and the Relief Society.
When a ward functions the way it’s set up to function, if a congregant is sick or afflicted in some other way, if there’s a project that requires attention, or if other help is needed … man, this is where members are at their best. Maybe not every time, but many times they are quick to understand what needs to be done to take care of a person or problem.
I’ve seen members do everything from providing meals to mowing lawns, from shoveling driveways to painting houses, from laying squares of new lawn to sitting bedside to keep a lonely person company.
13. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.
Or is it now The Temple Choir at the Tabernacle? Beats me. I get it all confused with what used to be known simply as the MoTab.
Not that it’s any kind of competition, but that group of singers is about as good as any I’ve ever heard. You want to be inspired, then give a listen to that choir sing Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. Good lord. It’s like listening to angels floating down to sing their hearts out.
I always wondered what it would be like to hear the Tabernacle Choir sing “Stairway to Heaven” or “Let It Be” or “American Pie” or some other rock anthem. It’d be darn good, I know that much.
One of the most inspiring moments I ever experienced at a sporting event was shortly after 9/11, when the choir assembled in plain clothes on the court during a Jazz game at what was then the Delta Center and sang a patriotic song that nearly lifted the building off its foundation.
Whew. The Rain Birds in everybody’s eyes went off on that night.
You have to understand, I hate goodbyes, even if it’s just for a week or a month or a year, let alone at the end of a mortal existence.
But let’s say it, then, like this: No other church members do meaningful goodbyes like Latter-day Saints. These services are all about comfort, not just in giving it to family members and friends of the dearly departed, but in proclaiming good hope for reunions in the future, reunions that will swamp with great joy the sadness of a relatively brief adios.
In some cases, these funerals are like a stellar Broadway play — you laugh, you cry, you walk away giving deep thought to what you are doing with your own life, how you can do it better so that when your day of departure comes, you, too, will share in a most joyous of reunions, as you subsequently await additional reunions in times ahead.
15. Modern prophets.
While I’m not all that enamored with too much power or adoration being given to or thrown at any imperfect human, I do like the idea of somebody having a direct pipeline to the heavens.
The problems with that are obvious. Humans sometimes get drunk with power, and that inebriation is dangerous, especially when it comes to government and religion. Sticking to the latter, some of the happenings in the Old Testament scare the bejeebers out of any sane person. Anyone who has researched some of the doings and sayings of more modern prophets — Brigham Young, for example — it’s not always a pretty picture.
But advantages come with continuing revelation as well, allowing the church to change for the better, if it will.
If there’s a chance that a righteous man does guide a church via that kind of ongoing communication with the Almighty, even if he sometimes is flawed because, yes, he’s a real person, it’s a good feeling, at least to those who believe.
16. The significance attached to honesty.
As Billy Joel sang it, “Honesty is such a lonely word, everyone is so untrue. Honesty is hardly ever heard, and mostly what I need from you.”
Amen, Brother Bill.
There’s too much deceit in this world, and I’ve known a few (thousand) liars inside the church, too. But the teaching is there, even if it isn’t always learned. And let’s give a little credit for the effort.
17. King Benjamin is a stud.
He’s a character in the Book of Mormon whom I admire, and there are others, too. Some are a little much. Nephi — God bless him — is on the fanatical side. He’s the one who kept the record over the span of his life, and I always wondered whether his version of the story is completely objective. It was Winston Churchill who said, “History will be kind to me because I wrote it.” Captain Moroni? Yeah, too much.
But King Benjamin is a crusty, buzzard-tough, sweet dude, a man of the people, an authority figure who wore the crown but who also picked up tools to work with the common people, not getting full of himself and not starting to bark out egocentric orders that found only him in good favor.
This well-known — at least in Latter-day Saint circles — scripture came from Big Ben, from a speech he gave to the people: “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom, that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God.”
18. The vast chances for service.
The church stresses service. Whether from the aforementioned opportunities to care for people, or missionary service, educational service, health and humanitarian service, food service — myriad ways exist for folks to learn firsthand about the personal blessings and advantages that come from keeping in mind what the good King said.
On one occasion, I witnessed four church members voluntarily working side by side on a large plot of ground designated as a kind of communal “ward garden.” They were all sweating, working and weeding together. The image stood out to me. One was a janitor, another a mechanic, another a lawyer, and another the CEO of a major corporation. In those hours, though, they were all the same, all the same in God’s eyes, all holding the same servant’s hoe.
19. Belief in miracles.
In a world where things go haywire, at times, tragically even, it’s a nice thing to believe, as the church teaches, that on occasion someone doing God’s work can call upon heavenly power to give help when necessary. It doesn’t always turn out the way those involved hope, and that’s the other side to the miracle deal. These things are usually left up to deity, and if the miracle doesn’t happen, please no judgment about what the afflicted deserved or didn’t deserve.
God only knows, with any exactness. Everyone else has to leave it alone.
20. Reliance on forgiveness.
This brings us full circle, back to No. 1. And it swings both ways. We forgive others, God forgives us — as we believe and do what we can. Without getting into the far reaches of the balance between justice and mercy, understand this: We screw up at times in our lives, but because of the way the whole thing is meant to be, we can be forgiven.
That’s the way it is, and the only one who can judge us in matters of righteousness, regardless of what the zealots among us scream, is … well, You Know Who. The smartest, most powerful, kindest, humblest, wisest, most compassionate one in the room.
It’s something worth believing and believing in.
Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.