Two Degrees off Center: The big picture
April 13, 2020
“Two Degrees off Center” is a monthly blog by Rich Keys about the personal struggles, issues, and topics that speak to the LDS/LGBT experience. Sometimes it will be serious, sometimes humorous, but will always approach things from a slightly different perspective.
by Rich Keys
Most members know the name of James E. Talmage as the author of Jesus the Christ, a book commissioned by the First Presidency themselves, originally published in 1915, one of the most widely read books in the Church and still popular today, a book that stands in many home libraries next to the Scriptures themselves. He was also a renowned scientist and active member of the Church who believed there was nothing incompatible between true science and true religion. He once wrote, “Within the Gospel of Jesus Christ, there is room for every truth thus far learned by man, or yet to be made known.”
Our LDS culture has always valued truth and proclaimed ongoing revelation to all and at all levels. Joseph Smith taught whenever we discover new truth, it is embraced as part of the gospel, and Brigham Young defended the independence of truth by saying the devil himself could tell you the truth and it would still be the truth. Neither statement limits truth to religion, nor do they limit the scope of true religion. It’s not a matter of either-or—it’s more. It’s part of our ongoing desire to get the big picture.
We’re now going through a coronavirus pandemic that is bringing out a lot of counterfeit truth on both sides. Scams and misinformation abound on the internet. Many cities and countries didn’t take the warnings seriously enough and have become the latest epicenter of death, their healthcare systems overwhelmed by a tsunami of the sick and suffering, their hospitals turning into morgues for lack of space to house the dead. Even today, some political leaders in different parts of the world still call the coronavirus nothing more than “a little flu,” while some religious leaders ignore the stay-at-home orders and defend their First Amendment right to rearrange their deck chairs on the Titanic any way they want, and giving God the credit for things He doesn’t want to take credit for. All of these “leaders” have something in common with the unseen mouse in the above photo: They focus on the cheese and ignore the consequence. They don’t see the big picture.
Cedar City, Utah, learned this lesson the hard way. Cedar City was originally built about 20 miles from its current site because it was more central to the area. But it was also in the mouth of a box canyon, and every heavy rain would bring a flash flood that would wash out the town. They’d band together and rebuild the town, only to have the next flash flood wash it out again. Finally, they figured it out and moved the town to its current location.
Before the move, Brigham Young was speaking at a conference there, when a pony rider ran into the meeting and yelled, “There’s a flash flood coming, a flash flood is coming!!” One of the members in the meeting called out, “Let’s pray Brigham, let’s pray!” The prophet thought for a moment and then proclaimed, “I prayed this morning, let’s run.” Brigham had the big picture.
I’m writing this while observing a Good Friday fast and prayer called for by President Russell M. Nelson, the prophet of our Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He issued the call during the recent general conference. I watched all five sessions, partly out of curiosity (how were they going to pull it off in the middle of this worldwide stay-at-home pandemic) and for content (how would they address the corona crisis). I sat unimpressed and uninspired throughout the conference, until the very last talk of the very last session. For some reason, I was drawn much more to President Nelson’s closing remarks, listening with real intent. When he suddenly announced that a temple would be built in Shanghai, People’s Republic of China, my jaw dropped and my mind was flooded with pieces of the puzzle that magically came together, and its picture gave me a greatly increased respect for the Prophet with a capital P.
A prophet has a gift, a key, to get the big picture, to sense what’s coming before others see it, and uses it to help others. Sometimes he doesn’t even realize the picture himself, but God has an even bigger picture of what’s going on. So God asks the prophet to do something, and the prophet may be clueless—it doesn’t make any sense to him—but he does it anyway based on faith that God’s always been right before. A prophet is sometimes as clueless as we are. We don’t know why God asks us to do something that makes no sense, but we have faith that we’ll understand somewhere down the line, because that’s how faith usually works.
Almost 50 years ago, Russell M. Nelson, then the Church’s General Sunday School president, was sitting in a meeting led by President Spencer W. Kimball, who at one point made the odd recommendation to the people there that they learn Chinese. That’s all he said about it. It didn’t make any sense at the time, but it stuck in Nelson’s mind and wouldn’t go away. So he learned to speak Mandarin. It led him to learn more about the Chinese people and their culture, and he gained a greater love and appreciation for them. Meanwhile, his career took off and he became a world-renowned cardiothoracic surgeon, at the forefront of bypass surgery and valvular repair and reconstruction. His reputation led him to speak at medical conferences throughout the world…including China. He also developed ties with the medical community there and made several trips to China training their surgeons.
Then in 1985, the Chinese Communist government asked him to perform cardiac surgery on their beloved opera performer Fang Rongxiang, and he performed a successful quadruple bypass. As an appreciation, he was the first person ever awarded an honorary degree at Shandong Medical College. Ten years later, he received an official invitation from the Vice Premier of China to visit him in Beijing, and Nelson came, not with a medical team, but with Neal A. Maxwell and other Church leaders.
Now, 25 years later, Russell M. Nelson, now the prophet and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announces the first temple to be built in mainland China—a country run by a government that worships only itself, who sees organized religion as a threat, and puts all kinds of extra controls and restrictions on all such people and their leaders, whether it’s Pope Francis or the Dali Lama. But this guy—the heart surgeon who learned Mandarin, who saved the life of their beloved opera singer, who trained their surgeons to be better surgeons, and forged a two-way personal respect and admiration with the Chinese people and their leaders, not for any ulterior motive but just because it’s the right thing to do—this Mormon guy gets to build a temple in Shanghai.
The announcement came with some unusual “terms and conditions” attached to it: a modest, multi-purpose meeting place, initially by appointment only, for exclusive use by the Chinese people with no tourists or foreign visitors allowed, no change to the current legal status of the Church, no change to the current ban on proselytizing missionaries there—it seems obvious that these were negotiated and agreed to by both parties. In spite of all the mutual respect, a handshake still isn’t enough. You still gotta get it in writing and run it by the lawyers. But it indicated a working, ongoing win-win relationship that builds on what’s happened, and lays the groundwork for what’s to come. During the conference, President Nelson even acknowledged continuing, ongoing revelation, indicating that there’s more to come. He sees the big picture.
Do I believe every word that comes out of a prophet’s mouth? No. Anyone who’s a regular follower of my blog will understand that. Modern prophets have claimed man would never set foot on the moon, and that “darkies are wonderful people,” and from my view at the intersection of LDS and LGBT, their track record is certainly less than perfect, even dismal at times. But their ability and accuracy in getting the big picture when it counts are better than anyone else, and if I were a betting man, I’d put my chips on him. Out of all of this chaos, I, too, have gotten a bigger picture. When an Old Testament prophet challenges you to “choose you this day,” it doesn’t have to be an either-or thing when it comes to science and religion. It can be both.
So I’m sitting in my Lazy-Boy on Good Friday, part of a worldwide plea to God, fasting and praying for help in ending this pandemic, pleading for the medical workers and first responders and grocery clerks and all the others putting their lives on the line, to bless the dead and dying, comfort and heal, restore health to both people and the economy, and nurture us while we’ve been humbled and brought to our knees by this plague. Meanwhile, I stay at home, trying to do my part to protect myself and the lives of my fellow man by flattening the curve, and I ask myself how true science and true religion fit together in this chaos. For the true science, I look to Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci during President Trump’s daily virus briefing. They speak truth, clear and simple, a breath of fresh air, avoiding the propaganda, replacing fear with facts, and translating the scientific buzzwords into a language for the common man. They give us a true and accurate big picture of things as they are and as they are to come (and Dr. Fauci is a hero in the LGBT community for the work he did on infectious disease during the early days of the AIDS crisis). For the true religion, I look to a Prophet who also has the big picture, and a church that allows me to search for truth, wherever and whatever it is.
More than three years ago when I was thinking about beginning this blog, deciding what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, I made two commitments to myself: First, not to get involved with politics, no matter how tempting it is; and, second, to stay at the intersection of LDS and LGBT, and avoid wandering too far away in either direction. As soon as I become pro-this, I become anti-that, and that’s not where I am. I’m trying to sort it out, to make sense of that intersection where the interests of LDS and LGBT converge, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I fully respect that it’s not where everybody is on their journey, but it’s where I am, and God’s okay with that. He and I personalized and customized a plan for me when I first found myself at that intersection, a plan that He could sustain and that satisfies all my needs, and I’ve never been happier. Out of that relationship has come a deep and mutual love and respect, and I’m grateful to God most of all, because He really does have the big picture.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out all posts in the Two Degrees off Center blog series.