A few days ago I responded to a knock on the door with the expectation of seeing my granddaughters. Instead it was Elder Pace and Elder Roberts making their door-to-door visits on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day-saints (the Mormons).
After my initial surprise I immediately engaged them with a series of questions: was either of them from Utah? (They were not; one was from Fresno, the other from Ontario, Oregon). How far were they into their mission? (Elder Roberts only four months, Elder Pace eight). Was the mission now 24 months or 18? (24 for males; 18 for women). I had them off balance; my guess is that they weren’t generally greeted with such enthusiasm. At this point I should probably add some background.
In the early 80’s Pat and I moved our family to Utah for me to pursue a Ph. D. at Utah State University. USU is in Logan, which is in the Cache Valley in northern Utah. The Cache valley was 90% LDS. I shared this with Elders Pace and Roberts and explained that in the six years we had lived in Utah I gained both respect and affection for LDS folk.
We were the only Gentiles in our ward save for one older Jewish man who lived down the street (only in Utah can a Jew be a Gentile). I shared that we had found the LDS people to be very good neighbors. They asked me for examples and I told a couple of stories.
Only in Utah can a Jew be a Gentile.
One was our first few minutes in our new neighborhood. We had only just pulled our rented truck into the driveway of our new house when our next-door neighbor, Merla, greeted us and asked if we need help unloading. I said no we could probably handle it but immediately remembered that the last item we had put on the truck was a piano that required four strong men to move. Her husband Keith was standing on the door step in his stocking feet and, looking over her shoulder, Merla instructed him to call so-and-so, so-and-so, and so-and-so. Within five minutes I was instructing as they did the heavy lifting. I went on to share how for the next week the neighbors brought meals to our doorstep.
If I’d have thought more I would have shared the story that forever has sealed my affection for Mormon folk: one of the most beloved members of our small, Lutheran congregation, an older woman named Lois, was dying of cancer and wanted to spend her last few week at home. The LDS women in her ward arranged round the clock care for her including providing meals to her husband, Chuck. In the last two or three days before she died they suggested to Chuck that now was probably the time to bring in people from her own church to be there to comfort her. I was holding her hand when she took her last breath and was able to whisper the words of the 23rd Psalm to her as she passed.
As I was engaging Elders Pace and Roberts in conversation (it should be noted that most LDS members embark on their required mission at age 19) they briefly remembered their rehearsed protocol and asked first if I had been visited previously by LDS missionaries. I didn’t tell them that when we first moved to Utah we had had extended conversations with the missionaries sent to us – there I felt it would be inappropriate to turn them away and we had several regular visits with them as well as their supervisor before they discerned that we were not likely candidates for conversion and broke off the discussions.
(Note: the young men who visited us in Utah were, respectively, from Texas and British Columbia and at the time I thought how odd that in a valley that is 90% Mormon they imported missionaries; it was then that I understood that the institution of the LDS mission is more about discipleship than evangelism. I think this is one – of many – lessons a Christian church can learn from the Mormons).
Mission is more about discipleship than evangelism.
I did tell them that shortly after moving to Ypsilanti we had been visited by two young men who had met our son’s best friend, Mark Cowley, when they were together at BYU for mission training. Mark was on his way to Mexico for his mission but when he heard they were assigned to the Ann Arbor area Mark gave them our address, I took this as a kindness. Elders Pace and Roberts then asked if I had a church affiliation? I replied, yes, that I too was an elder – in a Lutheran church. They asked if I was assured of salvation and what was the source of this assurance. My response was literally: Oh! – well — and I said something about Jesus.
It was at this point, I believe, that this became a “God breaking in” moment. It is at this point in the conversation that the LDS mission protocol is to begin what they hope will be an ongoing conversation. They asked me if I knew the story of Joseph Smith and his discovery of the Book of Mormon? I told them that I was familiar with the story, and at this point broke off the conversation by saying that the LDS church and the Lutheran Church have different theological understandings of who Jesus is. I found myself saying that what was important was that we were each pursuing Jesus. I had never said this before in my many conversations with LDS missionaries (I go out of my way to hail LDS missionaries and engage them in conversation when I see them in public). After declining their offer to help me clean up my yard I sent them on their way with my usual “God’s blessings on your mission.”
I suppose I could be taken to task for this last blessing. It may be taken that I am encouraging them in their attempt to gain converts to the LDS church. My prayer is that God bless them, in this case Elders Pace and Roberts. I love 19-year-olds; I spent most of my teaching life working with this age group; and I admire LDS missionaries who put their life on hold as they take on this lonely and difficult task. But it was my comment about Jesus that surprised even me. I believe I said it in part because I have been reading Carl Medearis’ Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-evangelism, a book recommended by Pastor Rossow. Medearis developed his approach while living in a Muslim community, but I believe the same application can be made to Mormons.
It was my comment about Jesus that surprised even me.
It took me a long time to gain my affection for Mormons. I went through several stages in my relationship with my Utah neighbors including fear, contempt, and avoidance before I finally got over it. What you begin to see, of course, is that every Mormon is different. In my years in Utah I learned several lessons.
One is that you cannot argue theology with a Mormon. They feast on argument having been taught to expect rejection and to take rejection as confirmation they are doing God’s work. This is why I chose not to take the bait offered by Elders Pace and Roberts.
I also learned that if you take your own relationship with God seriously, you will gain the respect of serious Mormons. I learned that when you build a trusting relationship with a Mormon neighbor they will seek you out, genuinely curious about what it is you believe. My “God breaking in” moment was when I saw that instead of the temptation to talk about different theological understandings with Elders Pace and Roberts, I simply wanted to talk with them about Jesus. I wanted to know who they thought He was and how they viewed Him in their lives.
I simply wanted to talk with them about Jesus.
One final note. In the mid 90’s after about ten years absence I found myself back in the Cache Valley browsing through books in the Deseret Book store; the authorized book store of the LDS church. I picked up a book by Stephen E. Robinson entitled Believing Jesus. Robinson, I read, had recently joined the religion faculty at Brigham Young University (the flagship university of the LDS church) after receiving a Ph. D. in Biblical Studies from Duke and being the chair of Religious Studies at a Christian College.
As I read the book I couldn’t put it down and proceeded to buy it. In the preface of his book Robinson writes: “Since coming to BYU . . . I have noticed a peculiar and unexpected thing. [Students] know a surprising amount about tithing, the Word of Wisdom, genealogy, LDS dating, food storage, and so forth. . . . [and] were even more comfortable defining themselves in terms of what they didn’t believe (predestination, original sin, and so forth) . . . [but] A significant minority did not understand scriptural doctrines such as salvation by grace, justification through faith in Christ, sanctification, atonement and the meaning and terms of the gospel covenant.”
As I continued to read I discovered that Robinson was presenting a pretty clear statement of the gospel, albeit in the context of Mormon terminology and doctrine. He disclaims works righteousness and at one point writes: “The greatest expression of God’s love and of his universal and unconditional grace is in his providing a Savior for those who sin. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16) The atonement of Christ and its offer of mercy are there for us whether we are righteous or not, whether we deserve it or not” (earlier using references from Deuteronomy 27:26, James 2:10, and Romans 3:23 he had established that none are righteous in God’s eyes). I had never heard this from a Mormon before.
Mormon doctrine teaches that those of us who don’t know any better, who have not had the opportunity to hear the word of the latter-day saints, can still be admitted to the “Celestial Kingdom” (heaven), albeit at a lower level of glory. But the apostate will be rejected. In this world, “the Terrestrial Kingdom”, members of the church, including family members, are to shun them and the Celestial Kingdom is closed to them. To ask a member of the church to leave is to ask them to reject family and community.
This is a hard thing. It’s a hard thing to ask a member of the LDS church to turn her back on everything she is. Before and especially after reading Robinson’s book I have been inclined to pray that Jesus be manifested within the LDS church. This is a hard thing because Lutherans (this includes me) have held that correct doctrine (Reine Lehre) is foundational to understanding our relationship with God. But it is Jesus who saves and it is the gospel that restores and brings peace. So I find myself praying for Elders Pace and Roberts that God bless them and use them to make Himself manifest in the lives they touch.