Mormon Missionaries on the Move

Opening your front door, you’re met by two clean-cut young men. They stand out from the crowd, if for no other reason because of the conservative way they’re dressed.

They wear dark trousers and suit coats, and white dress shirts. Both sport ties, one with red stripes, the other a blue print. A name tag on their lapel gives their surname, with the appropriate title and the name of the church they represent. They grip the Book of Mormon in their hands.

“Hi,” the younger one says pleasantly. “I’m Elder Walz, and this is Elder Morin. We’re missionaries with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today we’re sharing a message about the Book of Mormon.”

Depending on the householder’s reaction, the missionaries either continue with their message or politely turn and walk away. Either way, their part’s done.

Meet Daniel Walz, 19, who is from Provo, Utah, and Alexandre Morin, 21, whose hometown is Saint-Hilaire, Quebec. These two LDS Church missionaries have been living in Bay Roberts for the past several months, following a brief period of training in Provo.

During a recent interview, they spoke openly about their mission.

“As representatives of Jesus Christ, we volunteered two years of our lives to come out and preach to people, to invite them to come to Christ and receive his gospel,” Walz explains.

The LDS Church makes missionary work top priority. At least 50,000 missionaries currently serve worldwide. Most of them are single men and women in their late teens and early 20s. Each one volunteers for a two-year mission on a full-time basis, and is assigned a place, usually far from home.

They travel in groups of two, “as Christ himself told the apostles in the Early Church,” Morin says.

He adds: “It’s a really important step in my life. There’s great blessing that comes from it, and it will help me to grow and learn.”
Men between 19 and 25, who meet standards of worthiness, are strongly encouraged by church leadership to consider a mission.
On the other hand, they have no say whatsoever about where they end up. By signing on the dotted line, they indicate their desire to go on a mission. The church then sends them “wherever they feel we would be needed,” Morin explains. Raised in the LDS Church, both young men are unquestionably committed to the task. “I’ll go wherever I’m told to go,” Walz states firmly.

Bay Roberts is Walz’s first posting, while Morin has already served in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They spend four to six months in a community. A day or two before they are to move on, they get a call from a church leader.

LDS Church missionaries receive no salary, but they or their families usually provide financial support.

“We work and save up beforehand enough money to support us for the two years,” Walz says. They pass over their earnings to the church who, in turn, dispenses it to them over the duration of the mission.

“Yes, it is a sacrifice,” Morin admits. “I left school, family and friends. You never know what’s going to happen before you go back home. But I find that what we learn in those two years is well worth that sacrifice. Still, there are those days when I miss Mom.”

Walz agrees. Though he misses his family, he knows “God is with us. It’s definitely worth leaving my family and friends and school.”

As for their conservative dress, Morin admits, “Yes, we’re obligated to dress this way.” He explains it this way: “If somebody comes to your door dressed in rags and a dirty T-shirt, the first message that comes to your mind is, ‘Who’s that clown?’ It’s not the best way to represent our Saviour.”

At the conclusion of their mission, Morin hopes to train as a high school teacher and Walz plans to go back to university.
Until then, they have little spare time.

“Most of the time, we go door-to-door, seeking people who want to listen or who are interested in learning more about our message about Christ,” Morin says.

Offering service
A sacred text of the LDS Church is the Book of Mormon, commonly dubbed “another testament of Jesus Christ.” The flyleaf describes it as “an account written by the hand of Mormon upon plates taken from the plates of Nephi,” transcribed by Joseph Smith Jr. “It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas.”

A second sacred text is the Bible.

“We believe both books to be of equal value,” Walz says. “They are both the Word of God. But the Book of Mormon is something we want people to know about because most people don’t. We sometimes seem to put a bigger emphasis on the Book of Mormon because that’s the thing that makes a difference.”

Walz and Morin offer their service to residents in very practical ways, whether it be shovelling snow or digging ditches. “We try to involve ourselves in whatever opportunities show up, to help whoever’s in need in the community,” Morin says.

Their other activities revolve around Sunday.

At 10 a.m., the faithful gather in the church, located on Central Street in Bay Roberts and where all are welcome. The first hour is a public meeting. In the second hour, children, men and women divide into study groups.

About 19 people – five women, eight men and six children – attended the meeting on Oct. 24. It was presided over by President Gary Young.
Everyone is known as either “Brother” or “Sister.”

Prayers are complemented by congregational singing, accompanied by a piano. No offering plate is passed. The saints believe in the “law of tithing,” with members willingly giving 10 per cent of their earnings to their church.

A meeting highlight is the blessing and passing of the sacrament by the priesthood. Participants eat bread and drink water, the latter in individual cups, as a way of remembering the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

“We view it as a renewal of the covenant we made during baptism,” Morin explains. It’s offered to the entire congregation, whether LDS or not. “It’s up to the individual.”

In a surprising variation, the liquid element of the ordinance is water, not wine or grape juice. This is reflective of the LDS Church’s prohibition against the consumption of alcohol.

The congregation was informed that a local young man, Jordan Norman, had “received his call to a mission.” His assignment will take him to Anchorage, Alaska. The announcement was received by the congregation with an audible note of approval.

Cameras and recording equipment are not permitted in LDS Church meetings. The reason? “To keep the church sacred,” Walz says.

Varied reactions
The missionaries’ presence in the community evokes varied reaction.
“Around here, I find people really give us a warm welcome,” Morin says, “They are very respectful of what we do and what we’re here to share. We do encounter all kinds of people, from the really nice to those who are a little more aggressive. But if I’m able to help at least one person and make his life a little bit better by sharing the message with them, that will be worth my while.”

At the end of their day, Walz and Morin return to their basement apartment. Even there, though, their activities are limited.

“We don’t watch TV or movies during the two years of our mission,” Walz said. Morin adds: “We do live a really straight code.” They spend their spare time studying the sacred texts of the LDS Church.

Assumedly, they don’t read newspapers. Which is rather too bad, because they’ll miss reading this feature on their lives and work.

Fighting Over God*

In Newfoundland and Labrador in the late 1990s, the debate over constitutional protections for denominational schools was a big deal–I remember vividly the sense of righteous indignation.

Memories of this battle royal came back to me while reading Fighting Over God: A Legal and Political History of Religious Freedom in Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014)–a new book that reminds us religious freedom has long been a defining force in Canada’s narrative.

Author Janet Epp Buckingham, a lawyer by training, is associate professor of political studies and history at Trinity Western University. She draws on at least 20 years of reflection and experience with the topic of this book.

Her intent here is to summarize, rather than analyze, and you can’t help but be impressed by her encyclopedic scope–she surveys over 600 legal conflicts across nearly four centuries. The chapters are arranged under themes such as education, broadcasting, employment and family life.

What is the place of religion in a pluralistic society challenged by secularism, where religious people often feel marginalized? Buckingham suggests “space for diversity” is crucial. Dialogue and negotiation are preferable to imposition.

“Canadian society,” she concludes, only impoverishes itself if it banishes “religion when it is perceived to be a source of conflict.”

This book will appeal to historians, political scientists and lawyers, as well as religious leaders and adherents.

*Originally published in Faith Today, September/October 2014

Churchman reflects on life of teaching, traveling, ministering

PayneA large percentage of the books in my personal library are memoirs of the great, the not-so-great and, in some instances, the ingrate. Both biographies and, especially, autobiographies can be self-serving, presenting their subjects in the best possible light. Such foible-free works, which are called hagiographies, are of limited value in creating well-balanced portraits.

I recently read the reminiscences of a great man, Stewart Payne. He retired in 1997 as Anglican metropolitan of the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada and archbishop of the Diocese of Western Newfoundland. He is one of the Church of England’s most respected clergymen in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Cut from the Cloth of Fogo, which is published by Flanker Press of St. John’s, is refreshing by its very transparency. Payne recalls his life in a modest and engaging manner, paying tribute to those who helped him on his peripatetic journey.

“My story,” he writes, “is made up of a number of short stories of events that happened to me growing up on Fogo Island and along the way, which have moulded and nurtured my physical and spiritual growth.”

Two incidents in particular resonate with me.

First, soon after the federal government declared a moratorium on the cod fishery in 1992, Payne joined the Roman Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Grand Falls, Faber MacDonald, in forming a coalition for fishing communities to help its unemployed fisherfolk and fish plant workers. Such social awareness is to be commended among clergy who, all too often, restrict their activity to spiritual matters.

Payne’s stated priority in life has been to “contribute to the common good.” It is worth noting that he sees his life as a way of serving “in the corporate life of the church and outside.” The church coalition he helped form reflects the twin foci of his religious and social sensibilities. To their credit, several churches, including Pentecostal, the denomination I served as an ordained minister for 35 years and which typically shies away from ecumenical activities, sent representatives to the formative meeting.

The coalition determined to listen to those affected, represent them to governments, and do all within their power to ensure conservation laws were followed. Payne is convinced that the coalition “made an intensive and effective effort in bringing the tragedy of the moratorium and the plight of our people to the attention of governments and the Canadian public.”

The second feature of Payne’s memories which especially registers with me is the loving tribute he pays to his wife, who late in life developed dementia and sadly had no comprehension that her husband was even writing his autobiography.

In a short but moving chapter, entitled “Selma,” Payne recalls that, by 2006, it was patently evident that she was having significant memory-related issues.

“She has progressed to the point of seemingly having no recognition and no real communication, though one can never be sure of those things.”

In his own twilight years, Payne perceives his ministry to be caregiver to his Selma, nothing more nor less.

“God’s will,” he suggests, “is always for our wellness and healing.” In a profound addendum, he writes, “Healing takes place again and again, not always resulting in a cure.”

In his Foreword, Don Downer describes Payne’s book as “a sensitive amalgam of the personal and of the professional.” The churchman “has served his family and the people well” and, I might add, in that order, family first, other people second.

There is much more about this book to capture the reader’s attention and admiration, but these two alone–Payne’s social awareness and devotion to his ill wife–make its reading eminently worthwhile.

A Not-so-effective Treatment for Colic

For the first six months of her life, our daughter, Krista, suffered from colic. For those of you whose children have never been afflicted with this condition, congratulations are in order. For those who have walked this road, my sympathies are with you. For those unfamiliar with this malady, please allow me to explain it.

Our family medical bible defines colic as “acute pain in the abdominal cavity…. An attack of infant colic is usually mild, although it may look severe and be accompanied by prolonged crying, abdominal distension, reddening of the face, and legs drawn toward the abdomen.”

Our adorable daughter cried day and night as she exhibited all the above symptoms. Sucking in and expelling air, she cried plaintively, “Ah-laah! Ah-laah! Ah-laah!,” with the emphasis on the second syllable.

Sherry and I did all within our power to alleviate her pain.

After three months of Krista’s steady screeching, our family doctor felt her belly and said, “It’s as hard as a drum…a sure sign of colic.”

Gripe Water was our first remedy of choice. Sometimes it worked–most times it didn’t. We often walked through the Avalon and Village malls in St. John’s with Krista in her stroller. The steady movement helped her, but she cried her heart out whenever the stroller stopped.

My visiting sister, Karen, would ask, “Where’s the Gripe Water?” Unscrewing the cover, she would poke the dropper into Krista’s mouth. We now wonder what shoppers must have thought, Whatever are they giving that poor child to drink? It isn’t white, so it can’t be milk. If it’s water, then why is she gagging on it?

A second remedy was to place Krista on my stomach while I reclined on the chesterfield and gently rocked her to sleep. The warmth of my girth worked a temporary miracle. As long as I was in motion, she slept soundly. But the moment I stopped…”Ah-laah! Ah-laah! Ah-laah!”

CastoriaA third remedy was a dark substance called Castoria. This mild stomach medicine for children is used to break up gas.

I had recently returned to Memorial University to begin graduate studies. The three of us–Mom, Dad and Baby–became exhausted from the perpetual crying, lack of sleep, and study. Sherry and I were at our wit’s end.

Arriving home from class one day, I opened the door and heard the inevitable “Ah-laah! Ah-laah! Ah-laah!” Sherry, hearing me enter the house, ordered, “Burton, bring in the Castoria.”

“On my way,” I promised dully.

I knew exactly where the Castoria was located. I had grabbed it from the fridge numerous times. It had never been moved from its coveted spot in the corner of the door shelf.

In a daze, I stumbled to the fridge and yanked open the door. Without looking at what I was doing, I reached inside, located the elixir, removed the cover, and poured the requisite amount–well, perhaps a little more this time–into a dropper.

I trudged to our bedroom. Sherry was sitting up in bed, cuddling Krista, humming, rocking her back and forth, trying to sooth her. I passed her the dropper. “Here, give her this,” I said.

Sherry touched the dropper to Krista’s lip, waiting for her to adjust to the taste. The substance started to spread across Krista’s lips.

Suddenly, she began coughing, sputtering, choking, gagging. Sherry moved the dropper away from her. Krista clamped her lips, which had turned black by now.

Oh, my glory! I thought. What have I done?

I knew from experience that Castoria tasted rather pleasant. In fact, the manufacturers prided themselves on its “original root beer taste.”

“Burton,” Sherry said, with a look of horror on her face, “what did you give me?”

“Castoria, of course,” I responded.

“That’s not Castoria!” she exclaimed.

“It is,” I insisted.

“It can’t be–it’s too thick.”

“I tell you, it is. I found the bottle in the same place as a hundred times before.”

Gravy browningI ran for the bottle to double check. Skeptical, Sherry touched the substance in the dropper to her own lips. A grimace, then she stated flatly, “This is not Castoria.”

“Well, then, what is it if it isn’t Castoria?”

“It’s gravy browning!”

Forgotten Bookmarks

Dollars0002I’m sure all of us have had the same experience at some point in our lives. We grab a book and sit down to read when, all of a sudden, something interrupts us. What to do? We reach for the closest thing at hand to mark where we left off reading. It might be an actual bookmark. Or, it might be something more prosaic, like a bus ticket, card, letter, envelope, receipt, recipe, photograph, flyer, advertisement… The possibilities are as varied as the people who use bookmarks.

Eventually, the book might find its way into the world at large. It might be donated to a public library. It might end up in a flea market or a garage sale. Or, it might land on other people’s bookshelves or in a used bookstore.

But, I often wonder, what becomes of those so-called forgotten bookmarks? What stories could they tell?

I have a story to tell. Several years ago, I had my own experience with a forgotten bookmark.

I was standing in front of a library shelf. The entire collection of books was being sold. One book in particular caught my eye. I pulled it off the shelf and riffled through it. It was definitely one I wanted for my personal collection. The asking price–a mere 50 cents–was no object. However, on second thought, I changed my mind and returned the volume to the shelf.

The next day, temptation strong assailing me, I went back to the library to see if “my” book was still there.

It was, so this time I forked over the half dollar and took the book out to the car with me.

On my way home, curiosity got the better of me. As I lifted the book and idly flipped the pages, a sealed envelope dropped out. I stopped the car and ever so gently opened it. Imagine my surprise when, from within, there fluttered to my lap a sizeable collection of bills in varying denominations, beginning with the lofty $100 and descending to the lowly $1.

I was faced with a quandary. I knew the book was now mine, as I had bought and paid for it. But were the unexpected contents within mine, as well?

I allowed my mind to do the wondering for me. If a bus ticket, card, letter, receipt, recipe, photograph, flyer or advertisement had emerged from the book, would I have returned it to the seller? No. There was no relative value to such common objects. Well, I rationalized, why should I return the envelope containing the money?

Meanwhile, I wanted to do the honourable thing. After all, there is, in the book I had bought for 50 cents, a section headed “Honesty,” and another on “Conscience.” According to the author, “The conscience in man is his Holy of Holies.”

I began an intense search for identifying marks. There were none on the book showing the original owner. The envelope was pristine both inside and out. And, the bills were in mint condition. So, I convinced myself, there’s no way to track down the owner of the book, a first edition with a copyright date of 1953.

Recently I was reminded of my lucky find when I read Forgotten Bookmarks: A Bookseller’s Collection of Odd Things Lost Between the Pages. The author, Michael Popek, presents a veritable scrapbook of his most interesting finds. There are, for example, ticket stubs, notes, valentines, unsent letters, four-leaf clovers, and various sordid, heartbreaking and bizarre keepsakes. This collection of lost treasures offers a glimpse into other readers’ lives that they never intended for us to see.

Back to my find: in my most reflective moments, I wonder about the owner of the money I found in the book. Why was it placed there in the first place? What was it intended for? What did the owner do when he or she realized the envelope and, especially, the money were misplaced? How did they deal with their loss?

Meanwhile, I have no qualms about admitting what I did with the money: I took it home with me and used it to buy groceries. However, I still wonder if what I did was right. Was there something else I could have done? For example, even if I had returned the book to the library, would the librarian have been able to identify the owner of the book?

The Problem of Evil

I am profoundly disturbed about the problem of evil. Indeed, it would be the one single factor that would cause me to question the existence of a loving God. I often wonder why there is such pain and suffering in the world. To be perfectly honest, I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to this problem that plagues the human race.

We do not have to look far to see evidence of evil. Any list, be it every so lengthy, would still be incomplete. Nevertheless, please allow me to provide you with some examples of the evil that surrounds us every moment of every day. A cursory glance at any daily newspaper would result in multiplied examples of human suffering.

Why do individuals suffer unbearable pain? Why are children born with birth defects? Why are people daily diagnosed with cancer and other diseases? Why are there droughts that lead to the starvation of innocent millions? Why do tornados, hurricanes and other natural disasters strike, leaving carnage in their wake? Why are there nuclear threats? Why are there suicide bombings, often in the name of God? Why do sadistic tyrants attack and destroy entire villages, and even countries? Why is there rape, mutilation, torture, dismemberment and murder? Why does much of the world still live in grinding poverty? Why are children killed in car accidents? Abused by those in positions of authority? Senselessly taken by leukemia and other diseases? Flu epidemics, Alzheimer’s disease, genocide, racism, sexism, Rwanda, civil war in Iraq, malaria. Why are animals abused? Why is there divorce and broken families? Why do individuals suffer the pain of lost jobs, lost income, failed prospects? Before long, you will lay aside the newspaper. The examples of evil in our world are too many and varied to barely contemplate.

In short, where is God in all of this evil and then some?

There was a time when I felt I knew all the answers to life’s most thorny problems. But that was when I was much younger and immature. I look back with shame and embarrassment when I recall the times I analyzed the problem of pain and offered answers that today I would regard as pat and inadequate. With age and experience, though, I now have fewer answers and more questions.

Admittedly, there are those who are not bothered by the problem of evil. I envy those individuals their confidence. At times, I wish I could put aside my questions and accept unquestionably the pet pious platitudes I would have dished out in the early days of my ministerial career.

In wondering about the problem of evil again in recent days, I turned my attention to reading the book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer by Bart D. Ehrman. He takes the reader on a tour of the Bible, pointing out all of the answers given therein to the problem of evil. There is not, he suggests, one definitive answer to this problem. Instead, it offers several answers. And, in his opinion, none of them are adequate to explain suffering.

There is a logical problem that needs to be solved to explain the suffering in the world. This problem is made up of three assertions that appear to be true. However, if they are true, they appear to contradict one another.

First, God is all powerful.

Second, God is all loving.

Third, there is suffering.

Of course, the question naturally arises: How can all three be true at the same time? If God is all powerful, then he is naturally able to do whatever he pleases. Which means, of course, that he is able to remove suffering. If God is all loving, then we can assume he wants what is best for people. Which means, of course, that he does not want them to suffer. But the harsh reality is that people do suffer. How can this assertion be reconciled with the first two assertions?

The classical view of suffering is that God is punishing people for their sins.

A second biblical view is that some suffering is caused because people have the free will to hurt, maim, torture and kill others.

A third view is that God can bring good out of suffering.

A fourth view is that suffering is caused by forces opposed to God.

A fifth view is that suffering comes as a test of faith.

A sixth view is that suffering is simply the way things are, so just accept it and move on.

A seventh view is that God will eventually make right whatever is presently wrong with the world.

One problem–many answers. Perhaps there are many answers simply because any one answer fails to adequately answer the question of suffering.

While I am fairly confident about many aspects of Christianity, I must remain what Leslie D. Weatherhead called a “Christian agonstic” when it comes to the problem of evil in the world. Actually, one could be a lot worst than agnostic about certain aspects of one’s faith. I have made a conscious decision to leave the problem of evil in a mental box labeled “Awaiting further light.” In all likelihood, I may never come to a rationale for the problem of evil that will answer the question to my satisfaction. So much in the world is unintelligible, and the problem of evil is, in the end, insoluble.

Meanwhile, one question of great importance remains: How do I, as one who lives in a world where evil is endemic, work to alleviate suffering and bring hope to individuals devoid of hope? How can I do more to deal with the problems people experience in our world? Am I working to my utmost to make the world a better place, not just for myself, but for others? What am I personally doing to alleviate suffering?

Whatever became of Pearson’s Peak?

Pearson's Peak0002As soon as I spied the postcard at an auction, I knew I wasn’t “losing it.”

It’s a depiction of our province’s so-called Trans-Canada Highway Tower, more familiarly known as Pearson’s Peak. According to a notation on the reverse, the rock pillar was erected at the halfway mark between Port aux Basques and St. John’s to commemorate the completion of the TCH in Newfoundland.

I vividly remember as a child driving with my parents and siblings past this imposing object which towered above the trees just off the highway. Truth be known, I seem to recall leaving the road and driving up the 100 or so metres to take a closer look at it.

However, in recent years, I haven’t seen Pearson’s Peak in my frequent trips across the island. I often wondered what had happened to it. Had it fallen down or been dismantled? Or, as seemed more likely to me, had the highway taken a different course, bypassing it altogether? Will I ever learn the truth? I asked myself.

Not long ago, while on a research trip in Alberta, I asked my brother about Pearson’s Peak. Being older and, I suppose, wiser than me, David suggested the answer would probably be found on the internet. All he had to do was type these words into a search engine: “halfway marker across Newfoundland.” Everything I wanted to know about the monument was there in plain sight.

Mark Richardson, in a blog about a trip he took on the TCH, explains, “When Premier Joey Smallwood drove west from St. John’s in 1965 to greet Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, who was driving east from Port aux Basques, they met just outside town (i.e., Grand Falls) here at the halfway point of the fully paved Trans-Canada Highway. In doing so, the TCH was declared complete across Newfoundland. ‘We finished this drive in ’65,’ declared the signs and posters. ‘Thanks to Mr. Pearson.’ ”

Pearson had agreed to fund 90 per cent of the total cost of constructing the road. His intention was to finish it while he was still in office. According to Richardson, “the province set to with vigour while Smallwood knew the funds were available.”

The Newfoundland premier, wanting to show appreciation for Pearson’s largesse, decided to erect a monument at the halfway point. A rock pillar, roughly 25 metres high, was put in place. Named Pearson’s Peak, it commemorated the generosity of the feds.

Incidentally, Maclean’s magazine published a photo of Pearson preparing to unveil his plaque at Pearson’s Peak.

That was the very object I had seen as a child crisscrossing the province with my family.

“But there’s nothing there now,” Richardson notes. “Nobody here is quite sure what became of it. Longtime residents recall that it fell into disrepair after the two backslapping Liberals left office; it became unsafe, with pieces of rock sometimes falling from it near the cars that were parked by amorous couples. There was nothing else to do there, after all–no picnic area or green space, just a circle of asphalt surrounded by bush with a pillar in the middle, about 100 metres up from the road.

“The province chose the cheaper option by dismantling it instead of repairing it; again, nobody is quite sure when, though it was probably 15 or 20 years ago. The entrance to the paved drive was dug up to prevent cars from going in, and aside from some rubble and firewood sticks, there’s nothing whatsoever to mark the spot.

“What happened to the bronze sign on the peak? Apparently, it was found at a landfill site, but where it went then, no one can–or will–say.”

Perhaps it’s reflective of my age, but I lament the destruction of Pearson’s Peak. Meanwhile, my personal postcard collection now contains a pictorial representation of the marker.

My brother, ever the wag, quipped, “You will have to worship elsewhere!”