What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Unveiling Grace by Lynn Wilder

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The Costco’s in Utah are different.  For starters, the one nearest our house has a permanent and massive display of pictures of some white guy pretending to be Jesus.

More than that the entrances are on the left and exits on the right.  At every other Costco you enter on the right and exit on the left.  The store format follows this pattern, so that everything in the store is backwards.

I have no idea why the Utah Costco’s are backwards but as I wandered around trying to find free samples, in what should have been the freezer section but was, in fact, the outdoor area, it occurred to me that the Costcos are very much a microcosm for all Utah.  Things are just backwards here.

Many non Mormons blame the Mormons and I think there is some truth to that.  The Mormons, like any other religious sect, do things differently.  Some might say that they do things backwards.  Be that as it may, living here is like walking through the familiar territory of a Costco but not understanding any of it.

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When I moved here last Spring, it occurred to me I would probably have to study, engage and just plain deal with Mormonism before too long.  And sure enough, it has not been too long and I have met Mormons, talked about Mormons and read a little about them.

Just last week I finished reading “Unveiling Grace” which is the autobiography of a former BYU professor who left Mormonism in 2008.  Over the course of 300 pages she explains in great detail how she converted, became immersed by earning her temple recommend, moved to Utah, taught at BYU and then left Mormonism.

It is a fascinating tale which makes room for snippets of cultural and theological descriptions of the LDS faith.  Yes, Mormons do have special underwear.  No, they do not practice polygamy any more but they do seal single men to multiple wives for the hereafter, an “eschatological polygamy,” if you will.  Yes, they believe they are the one true church but that doesn’t mean the rest of us are going to hell, or outer darkness.  And no, they do not believe in the historical expressions of the Trinity.

All that aside, I find I am struggling to respond to Wilder’s story.  I imagine if I was a Baptist, especially a more fundamentalist or Pentecostal one, I would be pumping my fist in the air in celebration of a family who left a false church and false faith for a true(r) one.

On the other hand, if I was a dispassionate and unbiased observer (if there ever could be such a thing) I might find the book an intriguing description of how and why people change religious preferences.  In another 100-200 years some PhD candidate might cite Lynn Wilder in a dissertation on proselytizing and religious conversion in the 20th century.

If I was a Mormon, I imagine I would be very uncomfortable, a little bit sad and possibly outright angry that an entire family who once knew the “truth” had now fallen away into the “outer darkness.”

And if I was more universalist, preferring no religious preference, I might think I had just wasted my time wading through the nonsense of one religious fundamentalist bouncing between religions.

I am none of those things.  Instead I am a disenfranchised and discouraged young minister who has been struggling mightily of late with what I call “false religion” which is religion that pulls us away from God.

It is very true, especially from Lynn Wilder’s testimony, that Mormonism might be in the running for the chief of all false religion.  Their leadership, their temples, their doctrines and their structures have all taken the place of God, so that good Mormons are encouraged to get along with God by staying in the system.  Wilder puts it very poetically but also a bit bluntly when she testifies, “The Mormon life was just too exhausting to allow for much prayer.” (p. 155)  I am not sure you could say that even about Buddhists and Muslims

But, unfortunately, you can say that about many Nazarenes, or Baptists, or Methodists or other Christian groups.  The Nazarene life is just too busy for prayer.  The suburban evangelical life is just too busy for much prayer.  The Christian pastor’s life is definitely just too busy for much prayer.

That isn’t the only sentence in Wilder’s book that works that way.  When she talks about the gossip ridden and judgmental Utah County Mormons, she may as well be describing the people at my home church in Idaho.  I imagine it is true of most of the Bible Belt suburbs as well.  When she talks about strict dress codes and worship styles she is describing much of modern Christianity.  When I read her accounts about secrets being kept by those in the upper echelons of power I thought of several scandals that have plagued my denomination over the last few months.  When she tells about the excommunication of Mormons who were involved in sinful lifestyles or who bucked the authority of the church, it quickly brought to mind many of my friends who have been driven from their Evangelical churches over such things.

But don’t get me wrong, false religion disgusts me more and more everyday.  I am just not so sure we can point at the Mormon specks without acknowledging our own planks. Like most other things, comparative religion should start at humility, not at pride.  Or more simply put, we need to confess our own sins and shortcomings as we seek to understand other religious groups.

With that in mind, I am at a point in my life where maybe I needed to hear Wilder’s testimony.  As I used my disenfranchised and disgruntled mind to contemplate her story, I heard the needed voice of God, whom Wilder describes as the “great dancer.”  My calling from that God is not to sustain the forms and structures and buildings and programs of “the church” as if they were the Divine Presence.  Instead, I want to cooperate with the God of grace who is calling, inviting and pulling us out of our chaotic and busy lives and into the great mystery that we call “faith.”  For Wilder’s part, she seems to have stepped into the dance.  For that, I guess I do celebrate.

Now if can just figure out how to get others, whether they be Nazarenes, Baptists, Mormons, Atheists or any other group,  to follow in her footsteps.

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