This story seems to keep circling death like a vulture. Is mortality ultimately what religion is about? Imagining elaborate solutions to save us from our creaturely fates? In a sense, I welcome any evidence that a fear I have experienced so intensely and privately, that has made me feel terrified and alone, is shared by so many. People gather to indulge in identities that will live on and on forever. We think up ways around death and disease, giving ourselves unspoiled bodies or spotless souls endlessly, which, in a sense, is to acquire the characteristics of God.
Because what is God if not flawless and eternal? It seems most believers, regardless of what shape their almighty takes, can agree on at least those two characteristics.
Although stating plainly this underlying desire for humans to achieve God-like qualities seems to be frowned upon, making the clarity with which it is expressed in Mormon theology almost a relief. Joseph Smith, the founder of Latter-day Saints, made no bones about it: man is on an epic quest to become a god. He was equally clear about the flip side of this equation: God, the Heavenly Father of this world, was once an ordinary man.
Technically, the building I’m visiting this morning is not called a “church.” Mormons refer to their places of worship as “meetinghouses.” In many larger metropolitan areas, Mormons also have “temples.” These are usually big, elaborate buildings on a hill with smooth stone surfaces and tall otherworldly spires. Sometimes they’re lit at night so that you can see them from faraway, like the headquarters for some fantastical Oz. If you look closely, you might see a figure at the tippy top of the tallest spire. This is the angel Moroni, who visited Joseph Smith Jr. and led him to the golden tablets from which he translated the Book of Mormon. A lot of times the statue is gold and holds a bugle.
The temples are the sites of special ceremonies and baptisms, not ordinary Sunday services. Every region has access to a temple even if you have to go a ways. The closest one to me is about an hour and half drive. But regular weekly services take place in the meetinghouses, which often look like regular churches.
One day I drove past a newly constructed Mormon “meetinghouse” about eight miles from my house. The fancy-looking church building seems to have sprung up overnight behind an Office Depot. I was curious so I pulled into the expansive parking lot and got close enough to read the simple stone placard: The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Then and there, I made up my mind: this is where I wanted to attend Mormon services. It was so pretty and new. The only task was to determine what time to show up on Sunday.
I discover Mormonism doesn’t work like that. Unlike other denominations where you can decide where you worship based on a whim, where and what time on Sunday you attend Mormon services is tied strictly to the location of your home. Online at the official Mormon website, I type in my street address and zip code and up pops the identity of my small geographical zone, or “ward.” From this I can find out which meetinghouse to attend and at what time. The bad news is I’m not assigned to the one behind Office Depot, but to a much older place closer to my house. The good news is my meeting time is not until 1 o’clock. I can sleep in.
Maybe I can have my brunch and be a Mormon too!