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Looking for understanding in the Mormon spotlight

Published: Friday, July 1 2011 12:49 p.m. MDT

With the bright spotlight of national media scrutiny clearly focused on all things Mormon, the LDS Church's Public Affairs Department has joined others in the media — most notably this week's CNN story and video — in trying to help people understand Mormonism.

"Permanent Things: Toward an Understanding of Mormons" is a new commentary on the church's Newsroom website that addresses "the deeper foundations of spiritual life."

"Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints understand their message to be the full gospel of Jesus Christ, as set forth in the Bible and other scriptures," the essay notes. "What transcendent ideals do they aspire to? How do their beliefs answer the needs of contemporary religious seekers concerned about the great, permanent questions of human life?"

The commentary answers those questions in three written sections — Identity: We know ourselves by knowing God; Community: No man is an island unto himself; and Eternity: How we fit in the big picture. In each section, church doctrines and beliefs that relate to those critical concepts are explained in a tone that seems to be aimed at providing both context and comprehension.

"From time to time Mormons are thrust into the public spotlight," the commentary says. "Yet the permanent things that ground their inner lives in this changing religious landscape are often left out of the picture. The Mormon understanding of what it means to be human and belong to the larger human family rarely finds a place in the public narrative. That bigger picture is essential to understanding who Mormons are."

The essay quotes Dr. Jan Shipps, one of the foremost non-Mormon scholars of LDS history and theology: "Mormonism is a really complex theological system. All of its parts fit together beautifully. But if you just know a little bit about one of them, or part of them, it seems weird."

"Yet," the commentary concludes, "it is these same beliefs that animate Mormons' public engagement, inspire good works and bless their interaction with family, friends, co-workers and neighbors. Indeed, theirs is an enduring pursuit."

Michael Otterson, the head of the LDS Church Public Affairs Department, is a regular contributor to the Washington Post's "On Faith" web site.

His current column tries to do a little more explaining and illuminating — this time about what he calls "the Mormon retirement plan."

"While most people think of Mormon missionaries as young men in iconic white shirts and ties or conservatively dressed young women, few realize the scale of service at the other end of life," Otterson wrote. "Yet an increasing number of older couples from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are serving in a multitude of ways around the world. At last count, that number stood at just over 4,000 retirees. Their "missionary" service, lasting from six months to three years, is as varied as relief work in Africa or Central America or staffing the church's temples, employment centers and welfare facilities. Some help in the church's global effort to preserve and identify family histories; some serve at one of many visitor centers at church historical sites.

"They're doing it all," Otterson continues, "and some are returning for two, three or even more missions, filling their final years with additional purpose and meaning."

Otterson explains that older couples are willing to do this "because they believe in the kind of active faith that the Bible calls 'pure religion.'"

"While nature's law is survival of the fittest," Otterson writes, "God's law is to use our personal power and possessions for the benefit and advancement of others ... . For these thousands of couples in their sixties and seventies, labor for the good of others is what brings luster to their golden years."

For a bit of compassionate understanding flowing in another direction, LDS (and Deseret News) blogger Mark Paredes offers five insights to the Middle East he wishes he could share with his Mormon brothers and sisters in "Mormons, Empathy and Palestinian Nationalism: An Unholy Mix" on JewishJournal.com.

"The fact that God loves all of His children is useless as a means of analyzing what is happening in the world," Paredes writes. "If we can't criticize evil leaders or groups because we believe that God loves them, we can't be a force for good in the world. God loved Hitler and Eichmann, but moral people still needed to oppose Nazi Germany in WWII. There's no doubt that God has unbounded love for Syria's President Assad, but I certainly hope that all thinking Mormons (and Jews) oppose the brutal war that he's currently waging on his own people."

Speaking specifically to Latter-day Saints, Paredes says he doesn't believe "that the Book of Mormon prophets wrote about the Gadianton robbers (a secret band of robbers and criminals) just to fill space on the metal plates. There are evil groups and movements in the world, and it is irresponsible to pretend that we are obligated as Mormons to put on our blinders and pretend that everyone is equally moral and just. Just because there are competing narratives doesn't mean that they are all equally valid."

EMAIL: jwalker@desnews.com

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