Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Gospel According to Yoda

Recently, some have asked if they could have access to some of the letters that I shared a couple of years ago chronicling and encapsulating my family’s conversion to the Lord and subsequent departure from institutionalized religion.  This, along with a renewed desire to experience and testify of His grace, is why I am re-posting this and a few other letters.  Some of the writing has been edited to remove references to specific people, while still maintaining the integrity of the original message.  It is my hope and prayer that this may be of some help to others who may be struggling to put their own experiences and thoughts into words.  Please feel free to use and share as the Spirit guides...  -Rex Pettingill

11 March, 2017

Other letters in this series: 

"The Gospel, According to Yoda" (10.22.2014 letter to family)
"Stumbling Over My Beard" (2014 un-delivered letter to Pres. XXXX regarding a Doctrine of Men)
"Walking on Water" (3.16.2015 first public "Coming-Out" letter to friends and family)
"Enjoying the Promised Feast" (5.11.2015 testimony letter to friends and family)
"Moroni's Weakness" (5.18.2015 letter to the Bishop)
"Names Upon the Altar" (5.19.2015 letter to the Bishop)
"Got Wisdom?" (11.18.2015 post/email about the fruits of repentance and need for rebaptism)

Not part of the original letter, but this is fitting

“To seek something is to believe in its possibility.”  
Profound words.  I wish that I could say that I got them from some revered, influential thinker like Gandhi or Locke or Confucius.  Actually, I think probably Yoda or Mace Windu said it during a Jedi Council meeting - the phrase appeared on the screen as I sat down to my daily indulgence of late, watching on Netflix past episodes of Clone Wars – in this case, Season 5, Episode 3 “Front Runners” (Hey! Stop hating and don’t judge me; there is a reason each episode is only 22 minutes long – so that they won’t exceed the attention span of young, adolescent boys or the patience limits of a gown, married man’s wife. They are just long enough to reasonably claim, “Sheez!  I was only watching while I ate my afternoon snack!”)  Anyway, the words struck me.  “To seek something is to believe in its possibility.”  For me, the timing of the message is of no coincidence.   The words epitomize my journey of the last few years, and especially these past several months.  They echo the words of Alma, who said that if we are to find the truth we must first give place for it in our hearts to exist.  
“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.”  (Alma 32:28)  
Believe in its possibility, and the truth will follow.
I read a couple of days ago the letter in which Mom shared her thoughts and feelings with all of you in a recent email about her spiritual journey – one that has led her down a path that some of you may feel is in the wrong direction, one that leads away from the Brethren and the church, one that you may call “apostasy”.  She mentioned that I had accepted the invitation to act on faith and search for the truth that she has discovered.  I would like to clarify:  I have not just accepted the invitation.  I have embraced it.  I have reached out and grasped hold of it with all my might.  And I have never felt such hope and joy in my life!
I have been a good Mormon, and I have been a terrible saint.  For years I have served and sacrificed in my efforts to lead my family.  I have been an Elder’s Quorum President, a Young Men President, a High Councilor, and have served in the bishopric.  I have attended countless Priesthood meetings and delivered numerous sermons, talks, testimonies, and lessons.  Not that I ever believed that service in a church calling qualified a man, but it should count for something, shouldn’t it?  My heart is in the right place, right?  And I have stumbled and failed in many respects.  I know that Christ atoned for my many imperfections; I have taught and testified of His atonement, and know of its power.  But that knowledge seemed unsupported by what I often felt in my heart and what was evidenced in my life.  For several years, and especially the past couple of years, I have felt a great void in my life – and a great deal of sorrow.  And the implications of these feelings, wrought by a lifetime of well-intended indoctrination, terrified me.  I do not want to lose my family, to not be able to protect and guide them in the perilous times ahead.  Yet, I have felt that there is something missing, something that if I lack, I will be powerless to save them.  Call it revelation.  Call it the influence of the Spirit.  Whatever the church calls it, it hasn’t been enough.  I have been bitter at times and blamed God.  Why has God lied to me?  Where is the peace and joy and blessings that faithful LDS families are promised?  I resigned myself to believing that I must not be worthy enough, that I was too lazy, or that my choices in life put me where I am and that this was just my cross to bear.  Choices and consequence and agency and all that.  Maybe someday, maybe later after the “trial of my faith” things would change.  God never promised to deliver us from our trials, after all, but to support us through them, right?  Melendie and I were becoming hopeless, feeling betrayed by the church for which we have and continue to sacrifice so much.  Remember, we still have a son on a full-time mission.  We felt that either we were just unfaithful, or that there was something seriously lacking in what we had been taught.
But I have recently come to understand that feeling an increased influence of the Spirit has much less to do with your behavior, or even changing your behavior, than it has to do with your knowledge of God, and your efforts to know Him.  Knowledge of God leads to sanctification as the desire for anything less diminishes.  And frankly, sitting through week after week of lessons in High Priest Group listening to men drone on about the lives of mortal men and about regurgitated conference talks in which one authority quotes another who quotes another was doing very little to increase my knowledge of God.  Joseph Smith taught that knowledge of God is what will save us.  He was not talking about an understanding of church history, or a mastery of scriptures or doctrinal issues, or a secular understanding of biblical culture and languages and such.  He especially was not talking about gaining knowledge about the lives of men.  He meant knowing God as you know someone else.  Knowing God, not knowing about Him.  Joseph also taught that it is impossible to have faith in God without first having a basic understanding of who He is – of the nature of God and how He deals with His children.  
And so it was that for the past few years I would go to church and endure fast and testimony meetings, taking notes every week.  Here is what I found: Did you know that, on the average, in every testimony meeting there are 11-14 testimonies born, four of five of which are from children under the age of 8 who claim to KNOW that certain things are true?  Did you know that in the average testimony meeting, while President Monson or the church and the Brethren are mentioned in almost every testimony, Christ is given no little more than cursory mention only one or two times, and the prophet of this dispensation, Joseph Smith, is mentioned little more than that?  This may be different in your wards, but it certainly is the case in the wards that I have observed in my stake and in my travels.  I have come to believe that we have placed a man or men between God and the individual – something that Christ never taught, and something that Joseph never taught.  On the contrary, the Prophet Joseph taught, “We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them [even] if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told do by their presidents they should do it without any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves.” (Joseph Smith, Millennial Star, vol. 14, #38, p 593-595)
For years I would hear the mantra, “Follow the prophet! Follow the Prophet!  Don’t go astray!” I would read the church magazines and see article after article after article about the prophet and the Brethren.  I would look in Deseret Book and see volumes about the life of the current and past presidents of the church, written by themselves or their peers, and sold for a nice price.  I was taught that all we need is the Holy Ghost to confirm to us that what the Brethren are saying is true – and if we do not get a confirmation, we should wait and follow anyway.  I was taught not to question, really.  But some questions were becoming too big to be ignored.  The issue of priest craft and celebrity-worship of the Brethren was a huge deal for me, after rubbing shoulders with several of them during my tenure on the high council and watching my bishop get giddy when mentioning his associations with them.  (When I discovered that the area and general authorities, and mission presidents, all make a comfortable living or very sizeable salaries from their service in the church…well, this is too much information for now and for this letter…)
And then most recently in conference, at least 7 of the talks on Sunday were about or spent a significant amount of time discussing– you guessed it – following the prophet – oh, and following ALL the brethren since they are ALL prophets and seers – and cannot, will not lead you astray.  The Church cannot fall, they claimed.  Read the talks if you don’t believe me.  Is that the way to salvation, then?  All we have to do is follow these men and we will be saved.  THEY WILL NOT, THEY CANNOT LEAD US ASTRAY, right?  There is no need, really, to seek to know God personally.  Besides, He will not speak to you, because He already has someone with whom He speaks.  The best you can hope for is a manifestation of the Holy Ghost (good, peaceful feelings, usually, we are told) that what this man and/or the Brethren says/say is true.  That is good enough for ALL of the presidents of the church since Joseph, after all, and it should be good enough for you.  I am not being sarcastic – this is a direct teaching from a recent lesson from the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church.  I can’t remember which one.  Joseph F. Smith, maybe.  But the message should sound very familiar to you all.  We have been taught it for most of our lives.  Regardless, I am sharing this because these are the thoughts and feelings that have occupied my heart and mind the past few years as I tried to serve the church.  Serve the church and follow the prophet.
I did not encounter or begin studying the teachings that Mom mentioned until only a few months ago.  It was not these teachings that led me to feel or think the way I do.  It was the way I have been feeling and thinking that led me to these teachings.  To seek something is to believe that it is a possibility.  I was ASTOUNDED that almost EVERYTHING I have learned since then has addressed EXACTLY the concerns that I have been mulling for three years – and has done so ONLY through and as the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and Lectures on Faith, have been opened and expounded.  (Yes, Lectures on Faith, Joseph’s teachings of the nature of God and how to have faith in Him were at one point part of the official canon of scripture endorsed by the church and by God as such; they were edited, revised, and eventually removed almost 100 years later in 1921 by a committee of the Brethren who felt that they knew better the nature of God than did Joseph.  Again – another topic for another time).   Everything I have learned has come as I have been willing and tried to look at these teachings with a different perspective and an open mind free of preconceived notions.  There is nothing “fringe” or “deep” or even “new”, just basic principles such as faith, repentance, baptism, covenants, priesthood, etc.  No new scripture, but a perspective in which it is not the gentiles that are being warned or condemned, but the members of the church – particularly its leaders; that it is not man who confers priesthood, but God; that God intends, even commands that we seek to know and have an audience with Him while yet in the flesh, and that indeed, unless we do, we will not, we cannot hope to endure His presence or that of His messengers when they return to the earth.  God will not send out His servants to burn the wicked at His coming.  God and his angels simply are, and no unclean thing can exist in their presence.  We must be sanctified and conditioned while yet in the flesh to be able to endure His presence at His coming.  Nothing new here – just forgotten and dismissed.  We are taught, after all, that the teachings of the current prophet (and now, by extension, all the Brethren) supersede previous prophets and scripture.  So there is no need for the words of Joseph, or any other long-dead and obscure prophet.  So let’s remove them from scripture.  Let’s only use the words of the Savior when they are convenient.  Let’s mingle the philosophies of men with the occasional scripture.  And how is this type of teaching received?  Very well, apparently.  But I for one am seeking the further light and knowledge that has been promised me by the Savior.  
Recent attention has been brought to the talk by Ezra Taft Benson entitled “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” as a way to warn and condemn those who would deviate from anything that the Brethren may say.  I would submit to you that most of that talk is a compilation of quotes of men who are quoting other men.  Read in particular the section in which the notion that a prophet can NEVER lead you astray is addressed.  Perhaps it can be said that a true prophet that is faithful to the mission with which the Lord has entrusted him will not lead us astray.  But since when is the prophet also the president of a multi-billion dollar non-profit world-wide corporation and the apostles all paid board members of that corporation’s subsidiaries?  Where is the scriptural or historical evidence for the notion that ANY man is incapable of leading the people astray?  Where are the words of the Lord that confirm this?  What did Joseph Smith say that confirmed this?  Read D&C 121.  Study the ancient churches and their civilizations in all the dispensations and how they fell into apostasy and ruin.  I would suggest that you also take a look at this:
(Please try and dismiss all of the annoying and unnecessary movie clips and inserts of sarcasm included in the presentation, but try instead to listen to the message.)      
I believe that Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of God.  I believe that the gospel was restored through him.  I believe that the Book of Mormon is true.  I also believe that, contrary to current church doctrine, the restoration is not yet complete.  That work remains for the remnant that will hear the Lord’s voice and accept it.  I do not believe that it can be said that because A is true (JS is a true prophet) and because B is true (B of M is a true record), then C must also be true (ALL the presidents of the church since Joseph Smith until now have been prophets and that the church is as true – no, more true and perfect today than it was it 1835).  I will not place my faith and salvation in man or an institution of men, especially one that claims so boldly to be infallible and incapable of wrong.  I will not “stay in the boat”, not when the Lord beckons me to follow Him.  It would certainly be easier to just put on the blindfolds and mufflers and “Follow the Prophet”.  Don’t worry, my dear children, my beloved wife.  All we have to do is go about our lives, and as long as we just follow the prophet and the Brethren we do not need to worry.  He will lead us through all of our trials.  I want all of you to know - my brother, my sisters, my parents, my in-laws - I boldly and unequivocally testify to you that this is NOT what the Lord tried to teach us through his prophets of old.  It is NOT what his prophet Joseph taught.   It is not what the Book of Mormon teaches.  The admonition to follow Him requires a great deal more faith and work than the call to follow the prophet/president.  But that is the only way to salvation.  We must KNOW Him.  We must learn to recognize His voice, to know His will.
In closing, consider this: What did we teach as missionaries when we presented our investigators with the Book of Mormon and with the knowledge about Joseph Smith and the restoration?  We quoted Moroni 10:4, “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost“.  Do we really believe that?  Do we as members of the church claim to have exclusive rights to  deliver that promise, or that it only applies when non-members are seeking to know the truth of one thing, but not another?  How about the admonition of James?  Do we truly believe that God will answer the prayers if, Heaven forbid, a member seeking to know whether what he/she is currently being taught by his/her leaders is true, or whether the new information he/she has received, regardless of its source, is true?  I think we would be hypocrites to think that we have the exclusive franchise on the words of James or Moroni.  And we know how God feels about hypocrites.   
I love all of you.  I sincerely hope and pray that you take the time to read or listen to and study the information Mom has sent you, and that you will do so with an open mind – one free of preconceived notions or a propensity to gauge everything you read based upon what you think you already know; rather, ask the Lord to help you have a sincere heart, to help you have real intent, and to manifest the truth of it unto you.  It is quite a lot, I know.  I have read and studied so far only 5 of 10 lectures, each over three hours long when they were first delivered.  But I love my family.  I want to know of my standing with God, and to receive forgiveness from Him, not through some man, but from Him.  I know that I will need His guidance if I am to navigate my family through the trials and tribulations that are sure to come.  I have been more enlightened and uplifted over the past few weeks than I have been in as long as I can remember – ever, really, and I know that it is the Holy Ghost’s increased presence in my life.  Like Mom, I am coming to love and appreciate the Savior and His servant, Joseph, more than I ever have before.  I am grateful for this.  I love the Lord, and I know that I will answer to Him.  I would love to share with you more of what I have learned and feel, if you are interested.  



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