Facing Our Challenges

Interview: Facing Our Challenges
Questions and Answers (Part One) ~ Web archive

In 2009, in response to President Stephen M. Veazey’s address to the church, “A Defining Moment”, he was interviewed by Apostle Linda L. Booth, World Church Director of Communications.

What was your primary purpose in addressing the church on April 5th?

My primary purpose was to put a number of issues facing the church in perspective so that we can focus on what matters most. Given the fact that we have gone to a three-year World Conference interval, I decided it would be important to communicate with the church about important issues and opportunities on a more regular basis. After discussion in the Presidency, we decided that an annual address would be appropriate. We also decided such an address would occur on or around April 6 because of the significance of that date as the anniversary of the church’s organization and the 1860 conference of the Reorganization where Joseph Smith III accepted his call to prophetic leadership.

What types of responses have you received?

The majority of the responses have been positive and supportive. I am especially appreciative of communications from individuals who are increasing their giving to World Ministries Tithes or have decided to re-engage as World Church contributors. I have received some responses that expressed concern and disappointment over different aspects of the address in terms of what I said or didn’t say that people hoped I would say. It is very difficult to speak to every issue in ways that please everybody. I am appreciative of all the feedback that has come.

In your address you provide assurance that the church’s long-term financial viability is not in jeopardy. Yet, the church is making significant budget reductions that impact staff and ministries throughout the world. How do you reconcile the two statements?

The two primary sources of church income are World Ministries Tithes and earnings from investments and assets. The global economic recession has negatively impacted both income sources. Our World Church financial principles, investment policies and spending rates, and five-year sustainable budget model require us to make budget adjustments during times of economic downturn. Such steps ensure that when the economy improves the church will be in a much better financial position sooner than it would be if we had not applied such discipline.

You referred to the current economic situation as “a spiritual issue that will require a spiritual response.” What does that mean?

I think this question needs to be answered on two levels. Generally speaking, the economic crisis has revealed the rampant nature of greed, consumerism, and individualism in various societies and nations. These values are the opposite of Christ’s call to “seek first the kingdom of God” as the highest aim of one’s life.

In terms of the church community, the current economic situation is an opportunity to evaluate our true priorities and to discover our ability to be generous even during difficult times. Such generosity is a spiritual attitude and response to God’s ever-flowing grace, especially as revealed in Christ. In this regard, we are reminded of inspired counsel in the Doctrine and Covenants:

Stewardship is the response of my people to the ministry of my Son and is required alike of all those who seek to build the kingdom. —D. and C.147: 5a

Many are fearful and believe their security is to be found in the accumulation of possessions. The answers you seek are not inherent in the things of this world but in a faith that places its trust in the promises given to all who would follow Jesus Christ. You have been given the principles of generosity, rightly interpreted for a new time. These principles call for disciples to tithe faithfully in accordance with means and capacity. —D. and C. 162:7b-c

If the central focus of our life is on the mission and message of Jesus Christ, and if we truly have the heart of the disciple, then giving generously to local and worldwide ministries of the church will occur naturally from the overflow of our loving, compassionate, giving spirits.

Your address called the church to put our early history into informed perspective, including being open to new information and insights. You cited how we have typically talked about violence in the early church as one example. What is another example?

Another example is how we have viewed the origin of celestial or plural marriage in the early church. There is no doubt the early Reorganization endeavored to distance Joseph Smith Jr. from the doctrine and practice of plural marriage. Such separation was viewed as critical to church identity and survival.
However, during the past fifty years or so, RLDS/Community of Christ historians cautioned us not to be so certain in our conclusions. Unfortunately, many ignored their findings. Even worse, some attacked their integrity and harassed them and their families.

The vast majority of church historians have persuasively concluded that Joseph Smith Jr. was involved prominently in the doctrine and practice of celestial or plural marriage. There is also some evidence that shortly before his death, Joseph approached William Marks, Nauvoo Stake president, and said that he (Joseph) had “been deceived” in the matter of plural marriage and that every effort must be made to rid the church of the doctrine. Unfortunately, he was killed before anything could be done.

So, where does this leave us? The Reorganized Church has always said that plural marriage in the early church was wrong, regardless of its origins. We need to let it go at that. Reigniting old debates over this issue will be unproductive and only serve to distract us from more important endeavors.

There is another step we can take. As we continue to take the path of healing and reconciliation, it would be good to say how sorry we are for the hateful actions of some toward those who sought to bring uncomfortable historical information to the church’s attention.

Why might the idea that “our history does not have to be without blemish to reveal the hand of God working in the movement” be so difficult for some in the church? How does affirming both their shortcomings and triumphs reveal the true character of Christian discipleship?

As I indicated in my address, we have had a tendency to write church history in a way that placed the church and its leaders in the most favorable light possible. This kind of approach is not unique to the church, but can be seen in various biographical, cultural, and national histories that are meant to affirm certain origins or ideals. Unfortunately, one outcome of this approach is that we do not always hear “the rest of the story” that may include information that is not as favorable. If we have placed our faith in a person or institution based on a polished version of history that is eventually found to be incomplete, we can become anxious or fearful that our faith has been misplaced.

The church’s “History Principles” offer a different perspective that I think is helpful as we attempt to be more open about our history. [See October 2008 Herald, p. 10; http://www.CofChrist.org/OurFaith/history.asp.%5D Instead of placing our faith in a particular version of history, we are encouraged to see the ultimate source of our faith as God’s revelation in Jesus Christ. Having established “first things first” we are then able to put our history into proper relationship with our faith. This frees us to view personalities from our past as inspired without having to deny their humanity and struggles which is also part of the story. In fact, their humanity and struggles become an opportunity to see more clearly how God worked in their lives and in the movement. This hopefully encourages us that we too can become instruments in God’s hands despite what we perceive to be our human limitations or weaknesses.

During your address you talked about focusing on the significance of the Reorganization in terms of its impact on our sense of identity, mission, and message. Please expand on why this is important.

I have always found it interesting that we seem to focus most of our time on the first twenty-four years of church history (1820s to 1844). In a way, this is understandable because of all of the founding experiences that occurred during that short time frame. However, the story of the Community of Christ is the story of the Reorganized Church which is over one hundred and fifty years of history. Proportionally, we need to spend much more time exploring how God has shaped the church through the fascinating, sacred story of the Reorganization that continues into our time.

Also, I believe that the later part of the Restoration era of early church history reveals theological speculations that were not grounded in God’s true nature and will, especially as revealed in Christ. The Reorganization can be seen as a way in which God provided a spiritual “corrective” to theological tangents that had emerged. This can be seen especially in the wise leadership of Joseph Smith III and his successors as they guided the church over time to emphasize the best aspects of the Restoration movement while remaining open to continuing revelation.

A key component of the Reorganization’s history as been the tension between being “scattered” and “gathered.” How has the growing internationalization of the church impacted this understanding of “Zionic living?”

“The cause of Zion” in the early church was taught as the necessity of gathering to one particular place to establish the “new Jerusalem” as the exclusive place to which Jesus Christ would return. The prophetic leadership of Joseph Smith III and his successors moderated and enlarged this view to be more inclusive of other places and cultures where the Saints might gather to be community in Christ. This direction is illustrated in the inspired counsel given to the church by Joseph Smith III in 1909:

…living and acting honestly and honorably before God and in the sight of all men, using the things of this world in the manner designed of God, that the places where they occupy may shine as Zion, the redeemed of the Lord. —D. and C. 128:8c

During the early 1900s and into the mid-century, many church leaders and members continued to teach that the principle of gathering included moving to Independence, Missouri, as the actual location of “Zion.” This expectation placed a heavy burden on church members who lived in other parts of the world who felt that they were not being faithful unless they relocated to the USA.

In 1950, President Israel A. Smith, while visiting in French Polynesia, presented a revelation to the church there. In it he counseled that some should gather from more remote islands to islands of larger concentrations of membership and closer to centers of trade and business. The revelation included the promise that “I will at the last day stand upon these islands with you who are faithful and who endure to the end.” In other words, the principle of “gathering” could be expressed in various locations throughout the world.

Apostle Alan Tyree wrote an article for the Herald in 1974 addressing the basic beliefs of the church about “Zion and the world.” In it he stated: “The church is called to gather her covenant people into signal communities where they live out the will of God in the total life of society” (Alan Tyree, “Council Comments on Basic Beliefs,” Saints Herald, April 1974, p. 210). The concept of “signal communities” was recently lifted up again in Section 163:5a as the worldwide call to establish “signal communities that reflect the vision of Christ.” (See also Steven E. Graffeo, unpublished paper, “God’s Concern for All People,” 2007.)
The growing internationalization of the church has blessed the church with an enlarged understanding of how the principle of Zionic gathering can be expressed in multiple (scattered) locations throughout the world through a focus on establishing “signal communities” of disciples who express the gospel of Christ in their cultural contexts.

Interview: Facing Our Challenges

Questions and Answers (Part Two) ~ Web archive

What did you mean when you said that when the principles in the “We Share” document become the “descriptors of our behaviors rather than just ideals, we will become the Community of Christ God is calling us to become”?

I hope this statement will be seen as a call for each person to take seriously the vision, principles, and concepts outlined in the We Share: Identity, Mission, Message, and Beliefs document. Embracing the  principles stated in the document will stimulate personal spiritual growth that will transform and strengthen the church. When others see our behaviors and use terms like “grace and generosity;” “unity in diversity;” and “pursuit of peace” to describe us, we will be living authentically as the “Community of Christ” God calls us to be. In other words, we will move from “becoming” to “being.”

You spoke about Community of Christ’s official view of scripture. There is discussion in some parts of the church about the origin and status of the Book of Mormon. What comments would you like to make about the standing of the Book of Mormon in the life of the church today?

First, I want to reemphasize the statement on “Scripture in the Community of Christ”. The principles provided in the statement equip us to more responsibly study, interpret, and apply all of our books of scripture. A fundamental idea to keep in mind is that the most-decisive revelation of the nature of God’s Word for Christians did not come in words printed on paper, but through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The first readers of the Book of Mormon read the text in a literal or “plain sense” way, as was usual then. By reading it in that way they experienced a text that spoke to them with scriptural authority and clarity about pressing historical, social, and doctrinal issues of the early nineteenth century. As a result, many adopted it as a superior book of scripture, and it became a primary missionary tool of the early church.

Over time, more historical, scriptural, and scientific information became available. New methods and tools for exploring the historical background and literary makeup of scripture were developed. As a result, the Book of Mormon, like the Bible, became the subject of much-closer examination. Issues about the Book of Mormon were raised. The issues included questions about historical accuracy, anachronisms (a person, thing, idea, or custom that seems to belong to a different time), parallels to other books of the era, and doctrines that did not emerge in Christianity until much later than the presumed historical setting of the Book of Mormon.

Today, there is a spectrum of belief in the church about the Book of Mormon. Affirming room for differences of belief about the Book of Mormon is a hallmark of the Reorganization and the church today.

It seems the Book of Mormon defies any simple explanation or theory. The book invites the reader to explore the gospel of Christ with the spiritual eyes of faith in an increasingly skeptical age. The Book of Mormon’s witness of Christ is not finally dependent on external confirmation, such as archaeological evidence, but on the witness of the Spirit in the faith community. Beliefs about the Book of Mormon are matters of personal conscience and faith. However, it is important to remember that we are not called to believe in a book; we are called to believe in and worship the Living God revealed in Jesus Christ.

We use the Book of Mormon as scripture to support the Bible because it played an important role in our history, it was set as part of the scriptural canon by Conference resolutions, and it bears the fruit of scripture when interpreted responsibly. With that said, as the Presidency reiterated in 2007, how one views or uses the Book of Mormon is not to be used as a test of faithfulness, fellowship, or membership in the church.

You just said that we use the Book of Mormon as scripture in the life of the church “because…it bears the fruit of scripture when it is interpreted responsibly.” What is an example of the need for more responsible interpretation of the Book of Mormon?

Here is an obvious example: The Book of Mormon states in several passages that “dark skin” is God’s curse on some people because of their sinful ancestors. It associates dark skin with “loathsome” human characteristics. It also says that when dark-skinned people are converted to the gospel they “become white and delightsome” (Alma 1:104–107; II Nephi 4:35–38; II Nephi 12:84; and III Nephi 1:52). Over the years these passages have been used to condone racist attitudes toward various populations, including Native Americans, African Americans, Africans, and Hispanics.

To uphold a literal reading of these passages is morally, spiritually, and theologically wrong, no matter how you view the origins of the book. The church has a responsibility to interpret such passages in light of the larger scriptural witness, centered in Christ, that leaves no doubt about the inherent worth and dignity of all people, regardless of skin color or ethnic origin.

It is not pleasing to God when any passage of scripture is used to diminish or oppress races, genders, or classes of human beings. Much physical and emotional violence has been done to some of God’s beloved children through the misuse of scripture. The church is called to confess and repent of such attitudes and practices.—Doctrine and Covenants 163:7c.

You said the importance of the “Conditions of Membership” prayer, dialogue, and discernment process is much greater than how we will resolve the particular issue. Could you provide more perspective on what you meant and how the discernment process will unfold?

God is calling the church “as a prophetic people…to discern the divine will for your own time and the places where you serve” (Doctrine and Covenants 162:2c). Responding to this call is not just a matter of good intentions. To respond fully, we need to gain experience with the use of prayer, discussion, dialogue, and discernment principles that will help us grow in our ability to “listen together” to one another and the guidance of God. Gaining such experience takes time, discipline, and practice. Honing such skills will prepare us to navigate other sensitive issues effectively in the years ahead.

The current church-wide discernment process about “Conditions of Membership” will continue through November. Then, the Presidency will begin to frame guidance to the church that we hope will be released before the 2010 World Conference.

We were reminded in your address of the struggles faced by many of our members in countries where poverty and disease are rampant. You posed the question, “How does the hope of God’s peaceful kingdom become more than a faint dream for them?” How would you respond?

We must move beyond our idealistic words about love, community, and peace to create tangible demonstrations of communities of economic and social justice in multiple cultural contexts. Such efforts are unfolding and bearing fruit in some parts of the world. We must make sure that these efforts succeed and endure. The “Peacemakers Summit” scheduled for September will bring together church leaders and the heads of our affiliate organizations to see how we can enlarge our efforts to this end.

You used your address as an opportunity to reach out to young adults and to stress the church’s need to include them in ministry and leadership. What are your hopes for response?

One of my hopes already is being fulfilled. Building on the conversations occurring in some areas, we have raised the level of discussion about young-adult ministries. We also are planning more opportunities for the Presidency to interact with young adults face-to-face and through technology to mutually shape the church’s future.

Also, I hope that more congregations and mission centers will develop young-adult ministries that begin with building relationships among the generations. Often, we think a solution lies in some new, magical program, when the need is more about relationships.

I am concerned about the frustrations of young adults who feel the call to serve and lead, who are prepared to serve and lead, but who are not given the opportunity to do so in congregational life. Or who, if given such opportunity, are not supported when they try to introduce creative ministries to reach younger generations.

My hope is that many congregational leaders will partner with young adults in mutual mentoring relationships so the gifts of all can bless the church. I also hope, as President David Schaal recently put it, that we will “withhold our veto” and be encouraging when young adults are responding.

What is the status of the words you shared at the end of your address that you described as giving “voice” to what you sensed the Spirit was saying to the church?

The words I shared at the end of the address are “pastoral counsel” to the church in response to the impress of the Holy Spirit. As I prayerfully pondered the challenges and opportunities before the church, the Holy Spirit touched me in a way that encouraged me. I shared the resulting words with the church in the hope that they would be a blessing to others, as well.

As the old hymn goes, “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again” (Hymns of the Saints, No. 147, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”). The words of pastoral counsel are an expression of the “reviving” ministry of the Holy Spirit, which is available to all who open their lives to it. I have no other destination or status in mind for the words beyond simply sharing them with the church.

Because of the challenges before the church, how can you say there is a way into the future that holds the promise that our best days are yet before us?

We must not allow immediate circumstances to dictate our future. The preferred future for Community of Christ holds great promise for the response of the church to the mission and vision of Jesus Christ. It is a future in which we embrace our fundamental call to be the promoters and implementers of Christ-like community grounded in the enduring principles of the church.

However, to realize that future we must make brave choices about who we are and what our priorities are. If we focus our energies on being the best possible expression of the “restoring Christ” who builds healing, generous, inclusive community, we will be freed from years of uncertainty about our identity and begin to realize our destiny.

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