Aces Wild

Usually, the most educational part of Sunday for me is the drive home from church.

That is when my wife and I discuss the Sunday School lesson, and what we learned from the talks in sacrament meeting. And almost every Sunday, my wife notices something that I missed completely. We listened to the same words, but we heard different messages.  I’ve learned to not be surprised, and to look forward to the fresh perspective on the gospel as it is refracted through the intelligence and faith of my partner.

My co-bloggers Stapley and Knowlton have already addressed the way we Mormons define doctrine, and I have nothing to add.  However, I would like to suggest that the process by which we relate to our doctrine requires us to be active participants in its interpretation. Doctrines that seem straightforward enough still require us to assign a relative priority and to decide how we will adjust our own lives to accommodate them. As J. Stapley has also made clear, in the game of doctrinal poker, First Presidency messages are aces. I agree, but will add that we seem to evaluate them, and to either discount or emphasize them. The purpose of this post is to inquire into how and why we do that.

Since January 2008, I can remember four letters from the First Presidency which were read in sacrament meeting:

1. A letter reminding us (again) to counsel with our local bishops and stake presidents and not write letters to general authorities.

2. A letter admonishing us (again) to attend our local political caucuses and participate in the political process.

3. A letter reminding us (again) that visual aids are not to be used in sacrament meeting, and also that speakers should not ask the congregation to open their scriptures and read along.

4. A letter about the definition of marriage which is to be read in California wards this Sunday.

Is one of these letters more important than the others? If so, how do we know? From my perspective, they all fit the pattern of counsel that gets repeated periodically, so they would all seem to be equally important. But I think almost all of us have a framework of understanding which we apply to these messages. For instance, I have never been to a caucus or mass meeting in my life, even though the First Presidency sends out a letter every election year exhorting me to attend. If this is an indicator of my apostasy, I guess I’ll have a lot of company in hell, because 99% of my fellow Mormons don’t attend, either.  However, I usually try to participate in primary elections, which is more than can be said for most of the residents of Utah this past week. And while many U.S. Mormons discount item # 2 heavily, to the point of ignoring it completely, they consider their involvement with item # 4 a matter of personal faithfulness and a litmus test of obedience to the prophet. My point is that they may well be correct, but we cannot deduce that just from First Presidency statements. So how do we come up with that answer?  I am interested in hearing how you explain this.

My own conclusion is that we inject a lot of ourselves into both the questions and the answers, whether we realize it or not. When the bishop read that speakers in church shouldn’t ask their listeners to open the scriptures and read along, I wanted to raise my right hand, shout Hallelujah!, and give a standing ovation, all at the same time. It is something that has bothered me for years, so I was glad to hear that the First Presidency sees things my way. I call upon all right-thinking members everywhere to join with Thomas S. Monson and me in stamping out the scriptures-in-sacrament-meeting heresy.

Comments

  1. Left Field says:

    Maybe my memory is flawed, but 30 years ago, weren’t they actually encouraging having the congregation follow along in the scriptures? I’m not sure the exact origin of the encouragement, but I do distinctly remember it becoming suddenly encouraged.

  2. I put #1 and #3 in the same category. I think they will continually be repeated. For one thing, if GA’s (specifically the President) keep reading letters in General Conference, people will continue to write the letters. The same goes for the visual aids… as long as in General Conference we see pictures, videos, and other things during a talk, people will feel they can to. I wonder if the new FP has given either of these directives to the GAs as well.

    I’m from Canada, so #2 wasn’t read to us, but the general message is also often repeated.

    #4 just seems quite a bit different. Yes, it is repeating the same principles previously stated, but it also adds a very specific call to action. It will be interesting to see how the members respond.

    To answer your question of “Is one of these letters more important than the others?”, in my mind the answer is clearly “Yes”. It’s no different than having kids (extreme example coming up…) You can tell your kids to do the dishes. You can tell your kids to not do drugs. Just because they come from the same source doesn’t mean they carry the same weight/importance.

  3. I think people who are geared toward a black and white mindset tend to gravitate to the extremes in their reactions: Either everything must be done without question or consideration, or everything gets shelved as “just counsel to consider”.

    I think those who are geared to nuances tend to listen and react differently to each announcement – prioritizing them in whatever way makes sense to the hearer and creating a hierarchy of importance.

    I think those are both natural reactions, and I have no problem with either response – at the individual level. It’s when someone who takes one stance assumes that everyone needs to take that same stance that it gets tricky, imo.

    I agree with the idea contained in all four examples. As for relative impact on my own life, #3 probably is the most important – simply because I attend at least one sacrament meeting each week and could be impacted regularly by the lesson I see embedded in it. #1 and #2 are no-brainers to me – and I’m tired of the viscousness of the debate about #4 (from both sides).

  4. In 30 years time, the church will deeply regret having spoken out against using visual aids in sacrament meeting. By 2040, the rights of visual learners will be properly recognised and Mormon apologists everywhere will explain how prophets are just fallible men and that we shouldn’t be alarmed by such culturally-biased attitudes.

  5. Mark IV says:

    Ronan,

    Visual learners are welcome to attend sacrament meeting as long as they behave normally don’t force their visual aids onto the rest of us.

  6. God made me a visual learner, Mark, and I will not hide it any longer.

  7. Matt W. says:

    Visual learners are only 27% of the population, evolution will kill them off by 2040…

  8. That’s hate speech, Matt.

  9. Matt W. says:

    Seriously though, you skipped the FP letter on easter and the one on seminary teachers now being called and not assigned. Did I say seriously?

  10. Mark IV says:

    That is a very good point, Matt. If you asked a ward member out of the blue how many FP letters had come out in the last 6 months, and to describe the contents of them, I don’t think there is one Mormon in a thousand who could do it.

  11. I would have thought the impact of #3 would last longer than 6 days. The letter was read to us on the 15th and one speaker on the 22nd had us doing a scripture chase while the other opened his umbrella in the chapel as a visual aid.

  12. I recommend that the church post all FP letters on lds.org (perhaps in the ward and stake website section) for easy reference by members.

    I don’t recall a previous FP letter discouraging speakers from using visual aids and asking ward members to open their books. It seemed new to me so I’ll probably remember it.

  13. Mark IV says:

    Noray, exactly, same here.

    Scripture chase was lame enough in seminary with a bunch of lame-o teenagers. As for me and my house, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the prophet against this abomination.

  14. Mark IV says:

    Justin, I think I remember seeing one about visual aids about seven years ago. The part about scripture chasing in sacrament meeting was new, although I have heard Elder Packer counsel against it on two different occasions.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Justin is like the Jedi Library — if he doesn’t know of it, that’s because it doesn’t exist.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    …and I am not joking by making that comparison.

  17. Mark,

    I am a strict observer of # 2, at least in election years, so I’ll miss you in hell. Unless maybe I’m going to the wrong party’s caucuses.

    We do tend to bring a lot of ourselves to these FP letters, including our tendency towards either the Iron Rod or Liahona side of our personalities.

    #3 does bring up the difference between Sacrament Meeting, and a GA address in General Conference. We are told repeatedly that our sacrament meetings are different than all our other meetings, so I don’t see a conflict in what we see twice a year from Salt Lake, and the counsel of this letter. And as Noray pointed out in # 11, we are still free to choose to obey or disregard that counsel.

    I’ll comment that #4, the FP letter to congregations in California is unique in that it specifically asks members to work in favor of the amendment defining marriage, whereas other letters, including the one in 2006 regarding the federal amendment, merely encouraged us to make our feelings known to our Senators. That is a definite change, less ambiguous than before.

  18. I should add that I was aware of the visual aids thing from reading the CHI. (Reading the CHI is a hobby of mine.)

  19. BTW, I remember hearing the # 3 letter at least two or three times before, and I agree with you Mark, the counsel is inspired.

  20. Matt W. says:

    Mark IV, the FP letters are somewhat like the CHI. Because they are so inaccessable (sp?) to the members, I think they will never carry the wait they hope to have. The common theme in all of them seems to be praxis in my view and not doctrine, so I don’t know if I can go with the idea that they are all equally weighted in “doctrinal poker” some may be aces, but some are also just 2s. I can think of one or two FP letters which were issues simply to contradict previous FP letters.

    I think the FP letter system as it is is extremely problematic. Case in point, the Duty to God Manual came out several years ago and requireds in it a 30 hour service project. An FP letter says no time should be applied to the project, the requirement should just be that it shows leadership (paraphrasing). I would never have known this except the YMP before the YMP before me had a copy of the letter and gave it to me. These changes are not tracked or maintained.

    I think it would be much more valuable for the Church to have a “living” edition of the CHI online, which kept track of the current praxis and rules. I know there are areas where computer literacy is an issue, but these same areas are going to have issues with paper management also.

    Next time I am able to have a friendly chat with a general authority, this is at the top of my list of questions regarding praxis.

  21. Our bishop chose not to read the letter a few months ago that was attempting yet again to squelch the “generals in heaven” thing-that-would-not-die. We talked about it endlessly online, and it was considered of sufficient importance to publish in the Church News. Yet it was not read in our ward (I know that positively; I’m not just saying it because I didn’t hear it read.)

    How much disgression do bishops have over which FP letters are read from the pulpit? If some California bishop chose not to read #4, yet his ward members were completely familiar with it through the press, would they feel bound?

    (Amen to the utter annihilation of Sacrament Meeting scripture chases — they’re only ploys by unprepared speakers to use up the time, and we must not be complicit in their unpreparedness.)

  22. Peter LLC says:

    Out here in the mission field we never get First Presidency Letters read over the pulpit, or conveyed by any other means–what’s up with that?

  23. sister blah 2 says:

    You guys are killing me with #4-8. lolz (sorry to laugh about such a serious subject, Ronan, but I can’t help myself)

    Ditto Matt #20. I too have by chance inherited important letters from outgoing people in callings, and wondered how on earth I was supposed to have known that otherwise.

  24. Re #22 I’ve noticed that too. The further away I live from SLC, the less frequent the letters get read. The Chinese have an expression for that.

    The mountains are high and the emperor is far away

  25. Mark IV says:

    Matt, # 20,

    I agree with you that we don’t have a reliable way of maintaining the base of knowledge that is available in FP letters. I wonder if that is intentional? Based upon the statements from Ardis, Peter, and BruceC, the church is still apparently communicating by smoke signals in some cases.

    I think the distinction you make between praxis and doctrine is ultimately not very useful. I think it functions mostly as a device for assigning value. COnsider this example: Someone who thinks scripture chase in sacrament meeting is no big deal might be inclined to say that this is just a policy not rooted in doctrine. I, on the other hand, think it is a very big deal, and I will say that this has a sound doctrinal basis, e.g. purposeful worshipping, not trivializing the sacrament and atonement, and so on.

  26. I seem to recall when I was in that loop, that some of the FP letters would include a cover letter, and say that it should be filed with the CHI for future reference. I used to punch holes in them, and put them in the lovely gray correlated binder the CHI was kept in. They could also easily be misplaced, lost, discarded or shredded, as I sadly discovered. Note to conspiracy theorists: There were never any instructions to shred anything sent, except when it superseded or replaced an earlier letter.

  27. Matt W. says:

    Mark IV- something that has a “doctrinal basis” is by it’s very nature not doctrine, because it wouldn’t need a doctrinal basis, it would just be doctrine. Of course, this all ties into a bigger problem of what doctrine actually is and what it means, so I can agree with you to the point that when we call something policy, it’s usually a euphemism in lds culture for “policy I don’t think matters” or “policy I don’t agree with”.

    I once heard someone say of a “ploicy” that President Hinckley said while talking with Larry King, that “If it were important, they’d talk about it in General Conference” I think FP letters are typically also trumped in this way.

  28. There is a current view of doctrine that is popular in church leadership these days that goes by the description of “Doctrine, Principles, Policy”.

    The concept is that doctrine is derived from the scriptures, which inform us of principles. From those principles, policies are formulated. Policies often are at the intersection of multiple doctrines. The problem could arise when doctrines are not always as clear as we would like, and that principles can be derived that can turn out to wrong, as in the justifications for the PH ban. No wonder we get mixed reactions to these FP letters, or what Matt described in # 27. A principle would likely be something that has a “doctrinal basis”. Policies can, and do, change. Theoretically, doctrines do not. Principles, or doctrinally based statements, can become a shifting middle ground, changing slowly over time.

  29. I think Ardis may have answered my question – is that why ward participation in scripture reading is discouraged? I thought perhaps the whole pulling out the scriptures and flipping through might be disruptive.

    In my youth, I remember being ENcouraged to do this because it got people involved (woke them up, you might say) – but that was a different church.

  30. Just to keep it straight, scripture reading, as I understand it, is not discouraged, just asking people to open their scriptures and then waiting for them to all get to page x is discouraged.

  31. There was another FP letter in the past couple of months having to do with not overspending and keeping up with your financial savings…or something like that. If we got to 29 comments, and I’m the first one to remember, I’m guessing that one went by the wayside.

    Ditto to those who mentioned that the FP letters need to be collected and published. It would seem that the new Church newsroom feature on LDS.org would be a great place to do something like that. The lack of publication and access reminds me of Kathleen Flake’s “oral canon” thesis regarding the temple ceremony- if we don’t write it down (record, store, or publish it), then we don’t have to admit if we changed something.

    Two words: plausible deniability.

  32. I think my tongue-in-cheek condemnation of aiding and betting unprepared speakers may have been taken seriously, so I correct that here; I’m kidding, and don’t know why we were asked to stop that. I also correct my blending of “discretion” and “digression” (as in the mangled line in “Choose the Right” about letting “no spirit of ‘discretion’ — er, digression overcome you in the evil hour.)”

    I meant, “how much discretion do bishops have in reading such letters over the pulpit?”

  33. The purpose of the don’t ask, don’t show and tell policy is “to maintain an atmosphere of reverent worship in our sacrament and stake conference meetings” and to “enhance the spirit of our worship services.”

  34. Ardis, I like betting on unprepared speakers, too.

    :-)

  35. I like the drive home from church too. We all “report” on what we learned that day.

    Not related, but sometimes I think high councilman speakers are a test. One I fail miserably.

  36. “Amen to the utter annihilation of Sacrament Meeting scripture chases — they’re only ploys by unprepared speakers to use up the time, and we must not be complicit in their unpreparedness.)”

    Not so. Sometimes they’re because you want to read the scripture in a foreign language but still want the congregation to know what you are quoting*.

    And sometimes they’re because you are going to spend some time with a few verses and want to imprint certain phrases in the minds of the congregation.

    *Yes, I was that pretentious as a recent RM. Not that that should come as a surprise. In my defense, I read a scripture in Romanian instead of bearing my testimony (because I always hated it when RMs did that).

  37. Latter-day Guy says:

    Susan M,

    It might just be that the HC speaker failed miserably! :) I used to feel guilty if I didn’t get something out of a talk. Now, having watched people both prepare and deliver very good talks, there are some hallmarks of preparedness that are missing in many talks that don’t touch me. Also having given some bad ones, they were usually the ones I didn’t put much into. I no longer feel guilty about finding a talk to be sometimes just plain bad. Certainly, I don’t condemn those who deliver them, but I also stopped condemning myself.

    These days (though this sounds awful) I bring a good religious book. In certain social situations, say, for instance, someone’s pants falling down, it is politeness not to notice, to avert one’s eyes, not to stare in fascination and horror. So when a speaker is floundering, I politely turn my attention to something else, like my book. I don’t usually need to, but it’s nice to be prepared just in case!

    end threadjack

  38. re: #20

    “Next time I am able to have a friendly chat with a general authority, this is at the top of my list of questions regarding praxis.”

    Maybe you could just write them a…… (oops!)

  39. Norbert says:

    Out here in the mission field we never get First Presidency Letters read over the pulpit, or conveyed by any other means–what’s up with that?

    We get them all the time. There were three last week: don’t let speaker screw up sacrament meeting, cancel some meetings to save gasoline and the new areas and their leaders (not read in church).

    Maybe your bishop is splintering off? Has he starting wearing a crown and inviting you to join the Order of Jephtha?

  40. Peter LLC says:

    Maybe your bishop is splintering off? Has he starting wearing a crown and inviting you to join the Order of Jephtha?

    He has been acting a little odd lately…I just chalked it up to bishop fatigue–8 years and counting.

    Anyway, the plot thickens. If FP letters manage to get translated into Finnish, I don’t see what could possibly stand in the way of having them read in our English-speaking ward.

  41. Peter LLC says:

    Not related, but sometimes I think high councilman speakers are a test. One I fail miserably.

    8)

  42. Mommie Dearest says:

    I agree with Justin in #12 suggesting posting FP letters at lds.org for member reference. As a visual learner, I need to see something in order to fully internalize and remember it.

  43. StillConfused says:

    I must be a double heathen because I don’t engage in anything political except voting in the elections when presidents are elected (I vote for the other folks too… but I only go once every four years).

    And I love when people use visual aids in Sacrament meeting. I must be absent when they read that letter because I have never heard that one before.

  44. Matt Rasmussen says:

    The Church News has some letters but not nearly all. I think the best place would be to show them in either the Newsroom or “Serving in the Church” section of LDS.org.

    I can see the point of not publicly displaying the letters related to updates in the CHI, but all the others should be available for everyone. How else would you know not to do a 30 hour project when the Duty to God manual says so? (Why not update the manual to remove such a glaring issue is another topic…) Less cynically, how else would you know how to donate to a specific temple construction or the perpetual education fund?

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