Monday, April 6, 2009

On Temple Mount - in Missouri

Almost exactly 19 years ago today I stood on Temple Mount in the old city of Jerusalem. It was my first visit to the Holy Land and I was struck by how the most sacred sites of the Western monotheistic religions were all crowded into such a small space. Islam's Dome of the Rock literally sits on the ruins of Herod's temple. Judaism's Western Wall, where all prayers pass through on their way to G-d, seems to be part of the foundation for the Mosque above. Then there is the Christian Quarter with it's Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian sectors. Newer faiths struggle to be close to this most Holy ground. For example, Mormonism is represented by the BYU Jerusalem center which sits on the Mount of Olives and overlooks the Old City from across the valley. It is as close as they could get. All the more sacred real-estate was already taken.

Today I felt that same experience - in Missouri.

On April 6th 1830 a group of about 30 young men and women gathered together in a cabin in Fayette, New York to organize the Church of Christ. This is the official start of the Latter Day Saint movement, so today marks the 179th anniversary of the church. In July 1831, Joseph Smith Jr. traveled to Missouri and felt inspired to write the following:

"Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse. Wherefore, it is wisdom that the land should be purchased by the saints, and also every tract lying westward,"

Soon after these words were recorded, every effort was made to acquire land to build the temple and the city of Zion. Unfortunately, the other citizens of the area were not inclined to accept these new Northern neighbors and the "Saints" (who not entirely blameless themselves) were forced to leave. While that original temple was never built, the 63 acres of land that had been purchased by the early church in Independence has taken on a monumental importance to most followers of the Restoration movement.

Today the original 63 acres are owned by three of the Restoration churches. The Community of Christ owns the largest portion - which totals about 40 acres. Church headquarters, a 1994 temple which is "dedicated to the pursuit of Peace", and the Auditorium- where President Harry Truman signed the UN charter on behalf of the United States in 1945 - are located on this site. The LDS church owns about 20 acres which contain a meeting house and a visitor center. The most highly coveted 2 acre plot - which is claimed to be the site originally dedicated for the temple - is owned by the Church of Christ (Temple Lot). Every square inch of the original 63 acre plot is highly prized by the respective churches, and more recent offshoots of the movement (there are now over 500 churches who claim Joseph Smith Jr. as their founder) are crowded as close to this site as possible. Across the road you have the Remnant church, down the hill are the Cutlerites, Restoration branches are about a block away and so on.

So it seems to be with Faith movements. The same pattern of geography exists between the three Western monotheistic faiths in Jerusalem. Even among the various Churches in the Christian quarter.

Why does it happen? I think it's something like this. In a lonely and barren spiritual environment, God breaks through to someone's consciousness. That person's life is immediately changed and they share their new insights with others. This new consciousness grows and persists among the followers for a period of time - at least until all the original group have passed on. Over years, it becomes increasingly difficult to bring others to that same changed consciousness that occurred in the early group and followers begin to construct an institutional organization to preserve the newly discovered "truths". Unfortunately, the followers can't agree on which "truths" are most worthy of preservation and the organization begins to fracture along line of human understanding.

This pattern has happened within Bhuddism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has also happened to Mormonism - and in this case, it all occurred in the past 180 years.

Unfortunately much is lost through these divisions. In the Restoration movement, the Community of Christ retains the mysticism of the early Seekers movement but lacks the organizational skills of the Utah Church. Church of Christ (Temple Lot) exemplify faithfulness to a sacred trust - and so on.

Today was April 6th - Conference time for restoration churches. Over these past few days parking lots were full from Temple Lot to Salt Lake City - Bountiful BC and beyond.

Perhaps we are not as far apart as we sometimes think.

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