This Easter I find myself in roughly the same spot I was at last Christmas, being agnostic about Jesus but wanting to believe in Jesus because certain interpretations of the concept of Jesus are wholesome and beautiful. No need to rehash all that again. I went to my old LDS congregation to hear some friends sing. To my delight, the service focused on Jesus, not Joseph Smith or Russell Nelson. One beautiful person spoke between the musical numbers and she gave a mostly beautiful talk about Jesus and I ached with desire to believe most of what she was saying. She didn't mention how Jesus in the Book of Mormon celebrated Easter by annihilating seventeen cities, though, and I can do without that. She surprised me with a joke about how the world she makes (after becoming a literal and not just figurative goddess) will be fall all the time and only have snow in the mountains. It's been probably fifteen years or more since I heard an LDS person joke about creating his own planet - he said he would make it full of ski resorts - and in the intervening time the church has claimed that "few Latter-day Saints would identify with caricatures of having their own planet," but I guess she missed that memo.
Apparently Latter-day Saints celebrate Holy Week now too, despite most of them knowing little or nothing about it. I believe it was a year ago in General Conference when for the first time I heard two apostles acknowledge Good Friday as if it was something that we were all familiar with. It felt disingenuous. From what I've heard about last weekend's conference, they've ramped the Holy Week talk way up and it still feels disingenuous. Instead of saying "Hey, we've received further light and knowledge and decided that we should start celebrating Holy Week" - which I would respect even though I wouldn't believe for a moment that revelation had anything to do with it - they're acting like they've always celebrated it. I don't know why the church is allergic to transparency even when it has nothing to lose. In five to ten years Latter-day Saints will be overtly gaslighting everyone else that they have always celebrated it.
Here, on that note, is a recent post from the mormon subreddit:
I'm Anglican. Grew up Mormon and all of my circles are basically either Mormon or exmormon. Anyways, the past year or two it seems like they've been having a heavy emphasis on holy week. Like, in conference there was a lot of references to palm Sunday. Nothing in a more traditional sense, but there was at least acknowledgement of holy week.
I have no trouble believing that because it's the same dismissive attitude with which I usually heard other denominations discussed while growing up in the LDS Church. (And it incidentally brings me back around to why I felt the speaker's talk today was mostly beautiful, because she made a comment that there's other religions but only this gospel provides the most healing, and unless she's experienced all those other religions for herself she simply does not know that. To be clear, I think the world of her and I don't think she has an unkind bone in her body, but the Mormon superiority complex has probably infected her from childhood.)
The second and probably final trailer for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny dropped the other day and it looks really great because again, even if the plot is trash - and the bar for plot isn't very high on these movies to begin with - it will be a thrill ride and a visual feast and a therapeutic display of Nazis getting what they deserve (aka death). I'm not going to bother with another full-length analysis but I will say it looks like Marion is dead or divorced, which sucks. Indy just can't catch a break.
Speaking of the 1960s, I also watched a documentary on USU campus the other day about a little-known riot by transgender women and drag queens against police harassment in 1966. I find LGBT history fascinating because this is a demographic that has not only been oppressed but has often been forced to hide its very existence, and it's interesting to study how LGBT people through the decades have conceptualized themselves and how they've adapted and carved out their lives in a world that would wipe them out if it could. Ah, how little has changed. And this history has only convinced me further that everything the LDS Church (and in fairness, a lot of churches) teaches about LGBT people is wrong. Its tagline now is "We love LGBT people but..." and yet this supposed love was nowhere to be seen when LGBT people cried out for their right to literally just exist. When they agitated for freedom from police harassment and discrimination in housing and employment, the LDS Church didn't support them one iota or indeed even acknowledge them any more than it had to, and then, of course, only to preach against their wicked lifestyles. However, the documentary interviews a Methodist minister who did minister to the transgender and drag community with love in the 1960s and support its demands for human dignity, so that was really cool. I recommend this obscure slice of history to everyone.
Last week in Elders Quorum, the teacher asked us what things we wish we knew about Jesus. I chickened out of sharing my question because it was too weird. My question was this: since we know that the Atonement covers non-human animals in some way, because they will also be resurrected and inherit eternal bliss, did Jesus also experience their lives and all of their pain as He did for us?
This pain is not insignificant. It was a leading cause of Charles Darwin's faith crisis. He wrote, "With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I wish to do, evidence of design & beneficience on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficient & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."
More recently, militant atheist Richard Dawkins wrote: "The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored."
Non-human animals deserve to suffer even less than most of us do. And in a way, their suffering is all the more cruel, because they lack the mental capacity that most of us have to contextualize and cope with pain. And yet God requires their suffering as an integral part of their mortal existence, just as He does of us. It seems reasonable to me, then, that Jesus was willing to go through everything that was required of them, just as He was willing for us. And as I contemplate that, I have another question: even though non-human animals are (probably) not accountable when they rape or murder each other, does Jesus still have to pay a price for those violations of moral laws, as He does when humans sin in ignorance?
This is all, of course, just a less considered subset of the problem of evil that everyone knows about. Daniel C. Peterson has said: "Consider... this supremely complacent remark, offered by a vocal atheist critic of Mormonism during a 2001 Internet discussion: 'If there were a God,' he reflected, 'I think (s)he’d enjoy hanging out with me - perhaps sipping on a fine Merlot under the night sky while devising a grand unified theory.' Only someone very comfortably situated could be so marinated in smugness about the question of whether or not God exists.
"But the vast majority of the world’s population is not so situated, and, for them, atheism, if true, is very bad news indeed. Most of the world’s population, historically and still today, does not live, well fed and well traveled, to a placid old age surrounded by creature comforts. Most of the world has been and is like the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the slums of Cairo, the backward rural villages of India, the famine-ridden deserts of northeastern Africa, the war-ravaged towns of the southern Sudan and of Rwanda. If there is going to be a truly happy ending for the millions upon millions of those whose lives have been blighted by torture, starvation, disease, rape, and murder, that ending will have to come in a future life. And such a future life seems to require a God.
"Yes, the problem of evil is a huge one, but to give up on God is to give evil the final say. It is to admit that child rapists and murderers dictate the final chapters in the lives of their terrified and agonized victims; that Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot really did triumph, forever, over the millions they slaughtered; that, in the rotting corpses of Darfur and Iraqi Kurdistan, we see the final, definitive chapter of thousands of lives; that there is, really, no hope for those whose health is in irreversible decline; that every human relationship ends in death, if not before.
"This would not be good news, and I see no compelling reason to accept it. In fact, I see numerous persuasive reasons to reject the claim. But that is a subject not just for another occasion but, necessarily, for a great number of other occasions."
First and foremost, I believe in the message of Easter, that Jesus rose from the dead and that all people and other animals will likewise rise from the dead, because without some compensatory afterlife, existence is as depressing and pointless as Richard Dawkins suggested in the rest of his quote: "In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." Wanting to believe in a purpose doesn't mean there is one, but if I'm wrong, I've lost nothing. And faith and hope go together for a reason. (I do recognize that other belief systems about the afterlife exist, Christian or otherwise, and there are reasons why I believe mine makes the most sense, but I don't want to denigrate the others by getting into that.)
The spiritual highlight of my weekend was viewing the early access premiere of "The Chosen" Season Two. I'm not supposed to give any spoilers. Let's just say that it fully measures up to the standard of quality set by Season One. I do still intend to write up a post about this phenomenal series someday when I get around to it.
General Conference was good too. I was happy for all the focus on Easter in this morning's session. It seems that in the past whenever Easter coincided with General Conference, they just acknowledged that fact and moved on. Hearing so much about the message of Christ's resurrection and what that means for us all was nice. Also in that session, they went out of their way to have speakers and prayers and singing from various countries on every inhabited continent, blatantly pandering to my obsession with diversity that eclipses my attention to spiritual messages. I want this level of diversity to be the norm, not a one-time gimmick. Speaking of which, three black men (Thierry K. Mutombo, Ahmad Corbitt, and Edward Dube) spoke in this General Conference, blowing the previous record (one) out of the water. A man who looks like a black man (Taniela B. Wakolo) also spoke, but his skin color doesn't count as black because he's from Polynesia, not Africa or Europe or the Americas. I don't make the rules. I was happy to see that José A. Teixeira's face rash is gone.
Skin color aside, Brother Corbitt's message was most meaningful to me personally. I was moved by his reminder that I can overcome Satan because I've already done it once. Elder Cook's talk about how wonderful bishops are reminded me of my last bishop who was about as inspired as a potato and let me down at every opportunity. A lot of typical stuff ran through the conference about patience and trusting in the Lord amid the unfairness and tragedy of the world. Nothing new, and nothing I wanted to hear, but kind of an oasis to refill my stamina in the endurance test of life. The last few weeks have felt like a slow death of a thousand paper cuts. I continue to wait on the Lord to take His sweet time to fulfill His promises to me, and to ponder how destroyed I'll be if He decides not to keep them after all. The longer it takes, the higher the risk of faith seems to be. But it's not like I have anything better to do.
When President Oaks announced that he felt impressed to talk about the Constitution of the United States, I blanched at how tonedeaf and how counter to the "We're a global church" messaging that sounded, but I reserved judgement and gave it a chance. It was all right. He focused on the Constitution's broader significance to the history of the Church and the principles that people throughout the world can apply from it, instead of preaching the "The United States is God's favorite country" BS I hear all too often. I support the Constitution, but having distanced myself significantly in the past few years from many of the kinds of people who rave about it, the word sometimes rubs me the wrong way when it shouldn't. I believe in the principles the Constitution stands for. I don't believe it's perfect and I don't believe it contains a definitive list of every right that humans are entitled to. I don't believe this country deserves my blind veneration for consistently failing to live up to those principles.
And of course I was happy about President Nelson announcing twenty more dots for Rick Satterfield's temple map. This is a new record for the most temples announced at one time. Of course, it has little to do with recent church growth. I certainly hope nobody listening to these announcements was under the misconception that Norway, Belgium, and Austria have experienced recent surges in growth that have made these temples necessary. In fact, in 2017 Belgium had five of its sixteen congregations (31%) consolidated, including the only ones in a couple of major cities. California, another temple announcement location, has been in consistent membership decline and stake consolidation for several years as people flee in search of a place that doesn't tax them for breathing. And as one would expect under the circumstances, church growth took a nose dive last year to less than half of its usual flat rate. Mozambique has had the most impressive growth of any location on the list, but its actual members aren't exactly placing a strain on the nearest temple in South Africa.
So of course most of these announcements were not driven by numerical need but by a desire to increase convenience for members. President Nelson wants to get all members within two hours of a temple, and that means drastically different things in different parts of the world. I rejoice either way, but since I know that we as a people like to look at faith-promoting numbers and pat ourselves on the back for not doing anything and say "The Church is true because it's growing so fast", I wanted to point that out. The temples announced were:
To be honest, I would have expected the next European temple to be in Scotland, for both distance and numerical reasons. Smithfield is right in my neighborhood, of course, and I admit the numbers here could actually warrant that announcement. I assume they'll build that one as fast as possible so we don't trample Brigham City into the ground when the Logan Temple closes for renovation in the near future. And I've changed my perspective on having more temples in Utah. I used to be as unenthusiastic as anyone else, but now I love them because they make Salt Lake Tribune commenters angry, and I enjoy watching terrible people get angry. Insert unoriginal sarcastic comment about how Christlike I am here.
The senior missionaries who pushed me to get endowed almost two years ago gifted me an Easter lily. I kept it on the kitchen table for a couple days, and then I put it outside because my apartment is perfectly located to prevent any significant amount of sunlight from getting in, so it would probably have fully bloomed by now if I'd done that in the first place, but I didn't and it hasn't. I water it sometimes. I had a thought the other night that maybe, in lieu of a sentient pet or spouse to love and be loved by, I could find purpose in life by devoting myself to this plant's well-being. But then I realized that's too risky. I don't even know yet if I can keep it alive for a week, so I'm not going to invest that kind of emotion into it right off. Maybe later.
Last weekend, President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said, "In my video message, I invited all to join in fasting on Sunday, March 29, 2020. Many of you may have seen the video and joined in the fast. Some may have not. Now we still need help from heaven.
"So tonight, my dear brothers and sisters, in the spirit of the sons of Mosiah, who gave themselves to much fasting and prayer, and as part of our April 2020 general conference, I am calling for another worldwide fast. For all whose health may permit, let us fast, pray, and unite our faith once again. Let us prayerfully plead for relief from this global pandemic.
"I invite all, including those not of our faith, to fast and pray on Good Friday, April 10, that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized."
I'm not sure now why I didn't bother to mention that in my little recap of personal General Conference highlights. Fasting is whatever for me. I do it and I believe it enhances my pleas to heaven but I've rarely found it to be a super profound or uplifting experience. It drains me so much physically and mentally that I usually do little more than sit on the couch until I can eat. Sometimes I eat an hour or two early. I'm skinny, okay?
Certainly I gave no thought to the seemingly superfluous fact that this invitation had been extended to "those not of our faith". Of course they would be welcome to participate, just as they are always welcome to watch General Conference or attend the meetings and activities we used to have before the you-know-what, but I implicitly assumed that few would have cause to notice or care about this invitation, and that their participation in the fast, however welcome and appreciated, would be statistically insignificant.
Well, what do I know about anything? That very weekend a few missionaries made a Facebook group for the fast, which swelled to over half a million members by the time Good Friday rolled around, at least in my time zone which is the only one that matters anyway. It swelled to over half a million members despite Facebook's mindless algorithms freaking out over this rapid growth and blocking many if not most of us from adding our friends because something something spam. I tried to add people at least eight times with no success. That would have been impressive enough, but reading through the posts absolutely blew my mind. Post after post from people who stopped participating in the Church years ago, or actively disaffiliated from it, but now wanted to join with us in this fast. Post after post from people who had never been part of our church, including Catholics, various kinds of Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, pagans, and even atheists, who wanted to join with us in this fast.
I've never seen anything like it before. Interfaith cooperation, sure, but not on such a grassroots and global scale. I also noted that the contempt for Muslims and/or LGBT people which I've witnessed from scores of so-called Latter-day Saints elsewhere on Facebook was nowhere to be seen in this group when Muslims or LGBT people posted to identify themselves as Muslims or LGBT people. This group seems to have brought out the best in virtually everyone. I can't help thinking that if it were to serve as a model for the human race going forward, if the pandemic brought us all together and made us forget our petty differences and live as a harmonious global community, it would be a net positive for the human race by far. Of course that won't happen or won't last more than a couple months but it's a nice thought regardless. At least within this group I hope bridges that have been built that will last lifetimes, especially as it is now being transitioned to the more generic "Worldwide Inspiration".
Today my Easter celebration has consisted of joining a Zoom devotional with my old ward, hiking a couple hours out to a secluded spot to pray, and eating Cadbury eggs. I wish my religious community and society in general made as big a deal out of Easter as we do Christmas, but it is a little harder when it's observed on a different day every year because something something moon phases. Regardless, I believe that because of the hope embodied in the message of Easter, everything is going to be okay in the long term no matter how many people are killed by the you-know-what and whatever else. Each and every one of them will live again. And I'm not afraid to join their numbers. If it were up to me, I would much rather just get the you-know-what and take my chances than be stuck at home alone for God knows how long. But I don't want to cause more avoidable deaths either because that's still wrong even if they are temporary. So whatever. Happy Easter!
Last weekend would have been a nice little stake conference if not for just a couple things: the guy behind me who bumped or jiggled my chair at least eighty times, and the departure of President Fjeldsted (pronounced with a silent j and a silent d) from the Stake Presidency. So just like a sacrament meeting five years ago almost to the day when he stopped being my bishop, this stake conference left me sitting here like
Except without a beautiful princess who's secretly my sister to comfort me despite having recently experienced her own loss of colossally greater magnitude that hardly anybody seems to care about. My life is so empty.
I first met Brother Fjeldsted in September 2012 after a summer of insomnia-induced inactivity from church. My faith was never lost, but it wasn't strong enough to get me out of bed for nine a.m. church after five hours of sleep. When fall semester rolled around, though, I knew I needed the emotional anchor of regular church attendance back in my life, and I also realized that I was an idiot because I could have just gone to another congregation that met in the afternoon. So I did. I went to another ward and I met a couple of really nice people who made me feel much more comfortable than I did in either of my previous YSA wards, and I knew I was at home, and then I met with the bishop one evening and informed him that I wasn't technically part of his ward and he said I needed to go to my real ward because he had no priesthood jurisdiction over the block where I lived. He brought me to the stake presidency, who reiterated what he said and added, "If we let people ward-hop, everyone would just go wherever the cutest girls are."
The stake presidency brought me to my real bishop, Bishop Fjeldsted, who conveniently was just waiting in his office. I was not in a good mood. I thought this business of something as trivial as my address being the determining factor of where I belonged spiritually made little or no sense, but I kept that to myself. I figured I would just sit out this meeting with this guy and then go inactive again.
Since I was already not in a good mood, I put up walls before the conversation even started. I figured this guy would want to know why I hadn't been to church for a while and why, for that matter, I wasn't off somewhere else on a mission like I was supposed to be at nineteen, and I tried to forestall those unwelcome inquiries by somewhat petulantly explaining those things before he could ask. But Bishop Fjeldsted, a meek, unassuming man with a huge smile, didn't care about them. He disregarded them altogether and simply expressed his happiness and gratitude for me being here. Somehow by the end of the meeting I was willing to come back, at nine a.m. on Sunday.
Bishop Fjeldsted recommended I get to know Peter, the Elders Quorum president. I resisted that idea because I wasn't keen on being friends with someone who was assigned to be my friend. But Peter was so persistent that eventually his genuine goodness won me over. This post isn't about him. I should write a post about him at some point. Both of these great men, in any case, became people I could confide in. Peter was a peer, but Bishop Fjeldsted was the first "adult" figure in my life that I could share personal things with and not regret it. He turned out to be from New York and have an Aspie child, so in some ways he was probably better prepared to understand me than I could have dreamed of. I grew to love him and the 36th Ward almost immediately. Not bad for arbitrary geography.
(Since then, I became aware of others who attended my ward despite not living in its boundaries or, in the case of one 37-year-old woman, its targeted age demographic. Years later when I informed a high councillor that I was temporarily defecting to the 35th Ward, he said, quote, "Just go wherever the cutest girls are. That's what I would do." Close quote.)
Bishop Fjeldsted and Peter were there to support me through probably the worst period of my life, when I almost lost my faith, starved to death, got evicted, and/or killed myself on more than one occasion. They helped plenty with my temporal struggles in their church capacities, but also dispensed plenty of advice and priesthood blessings for the emotional ones that seemed even more hopeless. In particular, a couple of quotes from Bishop Fjeldsted will stick with me forever. In one sacrament meeting he said, "Pride has no intrinsic value, but we're willing to sacrifice everything for it." And that blew my freaking mind. On another occasion, as I cried in his office, he mused, "Our society gives women a free pass to lie for their convenience." And that little observation is why he'll never become a General Authority despite being fully qualified.
Of course I felt cheated when he was pulled into the stake presidency. I had built up this relationship with him over a year and a half, and now I was expected to just transfer it over to this new Bishop I'd never even met? It didn't work like that. I had to start over building a relationship from scratch with the new guy, until they replaced him too. I'm not crazy about this system. I'm sure bishops appreciate being let go after a few years, though. Except when they get immediately transferred into the stake presidency.
But as a member of the stake presidency, President Fjeldsted still said hi and asked how things were going whenever he saw me, not in the fake way that everyone else does, but as an actual question looking for an honest answer. I still sought his advice a couple times. When I was running myself ragged doing chores and errands almost every day for a friend with Lyme disease that hardly anyone seemed to care about, he told me that I shouldn't overexert myself because she wasn't my responsibility. At the time his advice seemed callous. Now, however, I wish I had internalized it and followed it when a "friend" from high school who hadn't spoken to me for nine years decided to start asking for my money, because if I had told her where she could go after the first couple times, I could have saved myself from months of hell. I'll never make that mistake again. Anyway.
So last weekend I said goodbye to him and his wife, and they reminisced about how long they've known me, and he said to stay in touch, and he said "I'm proud of how you've handled everything." And nobody's ever said that to me in my life. I thought I would have to wait until I pass to the other side and fall into Jesus' arms to hear that. Sometimes it feels like my mistakes and shortcomings are all that matter to anyone else. So that was cool.
Speaking of death, I dreamed the other night that I went back to New York and found my dog Milo living alone in the woods. I took him to the Kellers' place to play with their dogs, as I often did. But even before I woke up I realized I was dreaming because Milo has been dead for some time and that just took all the fun out of it. In my dream, I almost cried a couple times. I was never able to muster more than a couple tears for him in real life, though I tried. I wanted to experience the normal, healthy emotions of grief. But I had already resigned myself to the fact that he would die much too early and I would have to slog through God knows how many more years of this mortality crap before I can rejoin him. I had this exchange with Bracelets the other day, in fact, after she read through the acknowledgements and blurbs of my book draft that she promised to feedback:
I generally think about the hereafter it in terms of my dog because no humans who were particularly close to me have ever died. My church tends to emphasize the whole "eternal families" thing, but so far I'm much more interested in its additional teaching that animals also have spirits and will be resurrected into eternal bliss. And that makes sense because a heaven without dogs is a poor excuse for a heaven. Maybe I dreamed about Milo because Easter was approaching, or maybe it's just a coincidence, but I've decided to make it meaningful for me regardless.
Also, have a picture of me and him because it seems appropriate. This was taken in high school, so the better part of a decade ago. My grotesquely long arms are a little bit less grotesquely long now.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.