The Empty Carton

(This entry is made By Hal Mitchell, who is a frequent contributor to LAMP.)

 

I remember when I was 17 I worked on a farm in southern Utah for a summer job. I had a brother on a mission and in the middle of the summer, my next oldest brother was leaving on his mission.  My parents had written to me from our home in California saying they would pick me up in southern Utah on the way to drop off my brother at the mission home so I could say goodbye to him. When the time came to say goodbye, we all cried, and my family returned to California and I went back to southern Utah on a Greyhound. The way back was long, stopping at every dusty town along the way. As we traveled I contemplated my brothers’  decisions and the fact that from now on all would look to me to be the next male in our family to serve a mission. My parents would expect it, my friends expected it, any girl I had ever dated expected it. I fell into a funk of sorts, contemplating the seemingly inevitable event. I had never thought about not going, but did I really want to go, or was it something that I had just assumed I would do? Since it had always seemed so far into the future, I had never thought very hard about it until I had the realization that in a little over a  year I would have to either go or stay home. If I went, I didn’t want to go just to please those who expected me to go. I didn’t feel a passion, but instead, I felt mostly fear to do all the things a mission requires. Possibly learning a new language, being far from home for two years as opposed to three months, perhaps living in poverty, talking to many people that would have no interest and may be annoyed to have me interrupt their day, were all contributing fears. For several days back on the southern Utah farm, I was troubled by these issues.

A few days later, I was out on a tractor about ten miles outside of town baling hay, surrounded by flaming-red, rocky cliffs, and a stark blue sky, with no one around for miles. I decided I would formally take my concerns to the Lord in prayer. I told him that I had decided not to serve a mission if I was going to go only because my family and friends wanted me to go.  I informed the Lord  I would only go if I had a burning passion to serve, and felt he, the Lord himself, wanted it for me. I said that others’ experiences or others’ persuasion, despite how exciting or profound, would not budge me, but instead, I had to feel a genuine feeling coming from my own soul that it was God’s will that I go.  I think I realized that without passion, fear would cause doubt, which might impair my future ability to succeed, and that it wasn’t worth the sacrifice if my insecurities would be the predominant emotions guiding me.

Before I had even finished my prayer, I felt a spirit come to me that filled my heart with energy to not just go, but to jump in with enthusiasm from a divine call to serve God and myself in a spectacular way. From that point on, I looked forward eagerly to my time in the mission field. That fervor filled my heart and never wavered.

I played sports in high school and college, and had coaches encourage me not to go so as to not interrupt my college career, but I could not be persuaded in the least.  And, as it turned out, my mission was filled with spiritual growth and amazing experiences.

I will compare my marvelous mission experience to the common day-to-day life I led going to college, in order to make a hopefully meaningful point about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Upon returning home, I returned to college. I adapted to my lifestyle of being a roommate with five other young men of my same approximate age.  We all shared space in the fridge for our individual food supplies.  Mysteriously the milk would disappear whether the person who bought it was using it or not. This is where something profoundly meaningful would occur. At some point, surreptitious milk drinkers would put the empty carton back in the fridge.  When this occurred the owner of the now empty carton would invariably ask the other roommates why in the world they would put the empty carton back in the fridge. The guilty would look down and turn red, and ultimately laugh at this behavior’s foolhardiness. What is the motivation behind such behavior? Why would anyone ever think this was a wise or even explainable decision to put an empty milk carton back in the fridge? If we could interview the person who drank the last drop and decided to put the empty carton back into the fridge, what might be his explanation? I was hoping that you would never learn the carton was empty? I thought an empty milk carton is a nice decoration for the inside of a fridge? Even though I drank your last drop without permission, I would have felt very guilty for my deeds if I would have thrown the carton in the garbage where it now belongs, so I left it in the fridge, creating the appearance, at least, that all was OK.  If everything looks OK I am not bothered, so even though the milk is gone, if the carton were actually missing, that would be disturbing to me and I couldn’t live with myself. 

All of these answers are nonsensical, but only the last is honest. I believe that this weekly occurrence in student housing, and my experience regarding my decision to serve a mission, can be a lesson to Mormons, and many from other faiths, about our witness of Christ, the motivating forces in our lives, and why we do not progress spiritually. Do we do things out of conviction, or is our behavior only to create an appearance without substance?

How many times do we and our leaders feel satisfied only because something looks right, not bothering to thoroughly ascertain if there is any substance, character development, or meaning in a doctrine or program?

The following are a few examples of when this phenomenon occurs in the Mormon church:

 

Why don’t Mormon prophets, when they purport to receive revelation, state that it is the will of the Lord? They want us to think it is, but they are shy when it comes to saying that the Lord has spoken. If they are the Lord’s spokespeople, why wouldn’t they announce boldly THUS SAITH THE LORD? Prophets of old were not shy. Wouldn’t that bolster the Saints’ faith if they declared this when making a revelation? It seems this would be automatic.  Is it too sacred for them to utter what the Lord says to his living prophets? How else would we know they are prophets if they don’t say they receive their revelations from the Lord? I think they are just being honest knowing full well they are just doing what they feel is best.  LDS Church president Russell M. Nelson contradicted many of the things his predecessor, President Ezra Taft Benson, said about the many inspired aspect of the Home Teaching program in his 1987 conference address.  (See Why the Home Teaching Program Does More Harm than Good elsewhere on this website.)  Did President Nelson feel uncomfortable doing this? Did the Lord change his mind after President Benson said those things about how the Lord fully endorses the Home Teaching program? Which prophet (Mormons regard their church president to be a prophet of God) should we decide is inspired, and is speaking the will of an unchanging God?

Why do we fast? In the scriptures, fasting is never suggested as a great way to help people who need money for their financial problems.  We call it a fast offering, and the law of the fast. But offerings to the church have nothing to do with fasting. It is not a law and never has been even dating back to the ancient Mosaic law. Why do we schedule fasting once a month? Fasting is to be done when it is needed for spiritual growth, insight or faith. It is good to fast whenever you feel the need to better concentrate your spiritual communication with God.  In that circumstance, the church doesn’t seek an offering from you. But one day a month the church emphasizes that it expects us to pay the church the cost of the two meals the church expects us to miss. But an institutionalized “fast Sunday” is never mandated in Christ’s church, nor has fasting ever been scheduled.  Fasting is not a “law”of God.

Why have we corrupted a sacred practice of fasting?  Are we not giving the appearance that their might be some milk in the fridge when there really is none? Fasting has never been for giving money to the needy. Giving money to the needy may be a good thing, but what does it have to do with fasting? Fasting is to bring one closer to God by sacrificing the physical in order to find the spiritual. An offering from fasting should be that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit, not a church contribution. (See 2 Nephi 2: 7) The appearance is there that fasting is noble because it generates money for the poor, but the appearance doesn’t reflect reality.  There’s no substance to that appearance, or at least not the substance the Lord intended.  People who follow Jesus’ teachings and give to the poor out of the goodness of their  hearts, do so without any need for institutionalized fasting, and they will likely give more, since they won’t associate the amount given with the cost of two meals.  And those who recognize the need to fast to focus their spiritual communion, will get so much more out of the practice if they do it when they feel the need, rather than when the Church tells them to.  Is the institutional program for fasting to generate proceeds for the poor, made up by men in the Church, better than the practices the Lord intended?

My wife’s cousin-in-law was a stake president in the Salt Lake Valley for many years. He told us once that in his stake of generally well-off  Mormons, there was a net influx of fast offering funds from church headquarters, compared to the contributions people made in his stake. In other words, the wealthy stake generated less money for the poor than it consumed in spending on needy church members.  By comparison, he said there was a net outflow of fast offering funds from the entire country of Mexico, a third world country. I have no proof of this other than his words, but it suggests what one might expect when a program is created to alter a practice accepted by the Lord and make it sound to Mormon people that it comes from the Lord. Why do our leaders think they can make a better program than Jesus?

“Redeeming the Dead” when We’re Taught It’s Unnecessary

The practice of performing vicarious ordinances for the dead is an interesting concept.  Jesus never mentioned such a thing, or the need to do vicarious work for the dead at all, to the Jews or the Nephites.  In scripture, the practice is mentioned only in the New Testament, and is not taught as a necessity for anyone’s salvation. It is referenced only once by Paul, and even then, obliquely in Corinthians 15:29, as being practiced by some unidentified people.  But it is neither explained, endorsed, nor even encouraged.  (See LAMP article Baptism for the Dead: True Christian Doctrine and Practice, or LDS Construction? elsewhere on this website.)  Notwithstanding this lack of scriptural foundation, the Mormon Church performs baptisms for the dead in its temples.  LDS Church president Wilford Woodruff said all such vicarious temple ordinances for the dead not done in this life will be done in the Millennium anyway, but nevertheless maintained that we will be damned if we don’t do it here during our lives (See LDS Church priesthood and Relief Society manual, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff (2011), Chapter 18: “Temple Work: Becoming Saviors on Mount Zion,”, 184–94). Why would God condemn us for not doing temple work for the dead, when Jesus never taught us one word about it? Do we believe God is that capricious?

Nor is work for the dead ever mentioned in the book we believe will bring us closer to God than any other–the Book of Mormon.  In fact, in Alma 40 the practice is not only not mentioned, but neither is the Mormon concept of the spirit prison, though the prophet Alma is describing to his son Corianton the very subject of what will transpire after we die. How can anyone imagine Jesus visiting or being aware of a spirit prison, and categorically denying souls the right to leave the prison and follow him, solely because some person on earth has not done the imprisoned soul’s temple ordinances for them? No one believes this in their hearts, do they? Is Jesus a being who loves us, or one who enjoys seeing suffering for no rational reason? Why do we do temple work when we know in our hearts that God could not be so cruel, illogical, uncaring and tyrannical as to say, “You will suffer in spirit prison waiting for some earthly mortal to do vicarious ordinances for you, but the length of your suffering will be purely a matter of chance, bearing no relationship to your own behavior”?  Is there milk in that carton?

The Doctrine and Covenants, which Mormonism has canonized as scripture, in section 137 states that man will enter or not enter the celestial kingdom based on the intent of his heart during mortality, regardless of whether temple ordinances are done or not done on his behalf after he dies.  No baptism on his behalf will be necessary if he lived a righteous life and never had the opportunity to be baptized.  Joseph Smith’s question to God that resulted in the claimed revelation, was to ask why those who had lived righteous lives were in the celestial kingdom when they had not been baptized during mortality.  The Lord’s answer seems plain enough, but Mormon doctrine and practice suggests baptisms for such dead persons is absolutely necessary.

Ostentatious Temples When we Believe in Humility

Jesus was born of humble birth. He had no prominent family. He had no access to wealth or to worldly power or influence. He was trying to make a point by coming to the humble sinners, forgiving them, healing the sick and dwelling with the common folks. His followers were usually simple and unpretentious. He rebuked the rich man because he placed his riches as a higher priority than his spiritual development and said the rich who act this way cannot enter the kingdom of God. His gospel is simple and easy to understand. He was executed on a cross between thieves. Jesus is the opposite of pretentiousness and ostentation.

Mormons purport to know all this.  So where did we get the idea that a magnificent building, costing millions of dollars, decked out with the finest furniture, the finest materials, the finest location, usually on a hill, with the finest artwork, constructed in scores of cities and towns across the globe, bearing the inscription THE HOUSE OF THE LORD is somehow appropriate, when the works performed within those buildings are illogical and scripturally baseless?  Did Jesus instruct his church to do this in Palestine, or in the Americas? It doesn’t seem like the Jesus I read about in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Ostentation without substance? Again we Mormons put the empty carton in the fridge.  We seem to display our temples prominently to signify our auspicious presence in that place.  Why do we prefer glory from men rather than God? What would we think if we met God and he just went on and on bragging about his expansive, ornate, expensive, magnificent houses all over the world? Is that what this is about? Not one Mormon anywhere would be impressed that such a God was worthy of our worship. Why does the church do this? We prominently display Jesus’ name in the title of our church, then we don’t follow his simple example and we invent new gospel.  Do Mormon leaders value the praise of men over that of God? Is there another explanation for putting the empty carton in the fridge?

“Ministering” by Assignment and Reporting our Obedience

What’s really changed for us milk drinkers now that we have heard the “profound” revelation received from the prophet retiring the home teaching program? We can now “count” a phone call, or saying “hi” at the grocery store, or use other brief and casual methods of communication.  Is this different from before? The Lord allegedly changed the name for the fourth time in the program’s history.  First Block Teaching, then Ward Teaching, then Home Teaching, now “Ministering.” We have been informed that we don’t need to report back anymore to generate numbers or statistics. What a relief that is, but in our ward, we were informed we still would be asked if we did our home teaching.  [Oops! “Ministering,” I mean.] The stake still wants statistical reports, though. Why is this? Is it to determine if we’re ministering to each other by checking statistics reported by ward leaders?  Is this supposed ministering, by which we purport to evidence through numbers our Christian concern for each other, not just another way to make sure the empty carton is still in place? I am still asking someone to step forward with the answer to the question of why the church needs these statistics for some reason other than a measurement of how tall or wide the empty carton in the fridge really is. Though bishops still desperately need information about their ward members, in my adult life of home teaching a bishop has never relied upon me to obtain valuable information on the people I home teach. In practice, it’s not a program to help us care for each other. It’s a program to monitor loyalty and compliance with leaders’ requests.

Alma, when he was preaching to the Zoramites, gave some wise advice about how to ascertain if something comes from God.  From Alma 32, we read:

28 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves—It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.

In this scripture, I find a powerful message from Alma of the Lord’s expectations when we are asked to do something in the church, or by our boss, spouse, friends, or others, or by the Lord himself.  It concerns the results we get when we seek to do things for the right reason, out of a sincere desire to do good, and not just look good.

As the Lord made very clear to my soul his will for me to serve a mission, I believe he will give us the same assurance with everything in our lives if we go to him expecting him to follow through. I believe he is teaching this principle in the following verses from Matthew 7.

¶ Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you:

For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.

Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?

10 Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent?

11 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

 

As I was troubled in the decision to serve a mission, my going to the Lord with a petition that he demonstrate to me in a real and powerful way what his will was is exactly what the Lord is saying in Matthew above . . . and it is the essence of faith. Home teaching or “Ministering,” reeks of something not of the Lord to me. We have always been compelled to do it by church leaders. We are told that the bishop needs the information derived from the visit we do, but we see in the month-to-month observance, that no one asks, no one cares about the substance of the visit. We also know in our hearts that very few people look forward to these encounters.  We notice our souls are not enlarged by the program, nor are the people’s hearts we visit enlarged, when the ministering is part of some program, as opposed to being spontaneously generated by a disciple acting of his own accord. The advice given by Alma says that if we don’t feel like the issue in question is enlarging our souls, it is not a good seed, regardless of our leader’s insistence on our compliance. If it doesn’t enlarge your soul, it is a sign you shouldn’t do it.

If there is no milk in the carton, it isn’t the Lord’s will you keep the carton cold and prominently displayed in the refrigerator.

So what can we learn? The Lord in his wisdom, as mentioned in other LAMP articles, wants the hearts of mankind. He wants our real intent, not a facade. Instead of pretense or superficiality, he wants a milk carton filled with spirit and energy of conviction to live the precepts of his pure doctrine . . . to repent of our sins, to be as a little child, willing to learn and grow, to be open-hearted and have contrite spirits.    That is his doctrine, and no other philosophy, practice or program can improve upon this.  Anything other than this cometh of evil (3 Nephi 11:40).

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