Thursday, July 11, 2013

Mormons: Martyring and Bartering

[For readers who are not Mormon, a few definitions.

In the LDS sociolect, a “ward” is a congregation of approximately 300 people, assigned by geography. It is roughly equivalent to a Catholic parish.

A “stake” is composed of around 8-12 wards, again grouped by geography. It is roughly equivalent to a Catholic diocese. Frequently 3 wards will share a single building, rotating their use of the main chapel and the other classrooms. This means that some wards meet from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. Yes, that’s very hard on nap times, but it saves a lot of money. Things get complicated when wards from two different stakes share the same building.

“Priestcraft” is a term from the Book of Mormon. It refers to ecclesiastical leaders treating their positions as a corrupt profession. If ministers abuse their offices for personal glory or gain, if they care more about their own interests than the welfare of their congregants, and if they demand payment for administering ordinances, they are guilty of “priestcraft.”]

When too-warm June, in Texas, with rare rain
To hot July and awful August yields,
And tender crops seek moisture, all in vain,
From drought-dried earth in blistered, blighted fields;

As Nature stirs, each person loses courage
And, to avoid the fate of "burnѐd martyr,"
Then long we all to flee on "pilgrimage"--
But first we must our church assignments barter.

Apologies to Chaucer. For the original opening to The Canterbury Tales, printed and pronounced in Middle English and also translated into Modern English, click here.

I know a woman who flees Texas for eight solid weeks, every summer. (O that I were an angel and could have that wish of my heart....)

Lots of other families go on two- or three-week vacations, frequently to Utah or Idaho to visit relatives. These trips legitimately take on an air of “pilgrimage” as we visit the ancestral lands of our pioneer ancestors, and camp out in summer cabins with extended clan.

Many of us do this because we are Mormon. There's just one problem: we're Mormon.

Imagine asking a co-worker to take your calls for ten days. Imagine asking a neighbor to watch your dog for two weeks. Now imagine calling a friend and asking, “Would you mind spending six hours over the next three weeks attempting (unsuccessfully) to teach and (even more unsuccessfully) to quell the riots of a dozen hyperactive four-year-old kids?”

You see, Mormons don't have a paid clergy; instead, we subscribe to an ethos I call "pioneer-era barn raisin'." Everyone has a job, and everyone contributes. Church assignments are about helping the entire community, and should not be about ego. "Let no one shirk; put your shoulder to the wheel" says one of our signature hymns.

As Howard Tayler said, it evokes a spirit of men working together to push a wagon out of the mud. (He also said that a modern update "Put your stylus to the screen" lacks the same spirit.)

[Note: I can't find the original blog post where Howard Tayler said that. I dug around in his archives without success. I believe my paraphrase was reasonable, but if I find his original quote, I'll fix it here and link it. --Gail]

As Howard Tayler said, "the hymn evokes the image of burly, happy men unsticking a stage coach from the mud....Interestingly, 'Put Your Stylus to the Screen, There's a Deadline' failed completely to catch on with the religious folk." [The original quote came from a footnote to this online comic strip: I quote from a printed edition of the webcomic, Schlock Mercenary: Under New Management, page 55. --ed]

The women's organization, called the Relief Society, does a marvelous job of meeting needs quietly and unobtrusively. We volunteer to help each other, out of genuine love. Failing that, out of guilty duty. Whatever--things generally get done, and with minimal fanfare.

People are responsible to find their own substitutes when they are sick or out of town. In general, this system works well.

…Except when we're all simultaneously on vacation.

For the few weeks, an unofficial Facebook page for my congregation has been besieged with people begging for and swapping favors.
It is particularly difficult to find replacements for 1) nasty assignments, like babysitting twenty two-year-olds in nursery or 2) tricky assignments requiring unique skill sets, which, being translated, meaneth “the rare person who can play the piano.” (We are in great demand. Drat my mother’s foresight.)

The good news is that Facebook has made the swapping process much easier, creating a more centralized star-cluster rather than an amorphous network. This is far superior to how things were a generation ago, when people made and received dozens of redundant phone calls.

It could be better, though. A few days ago, I suggested a SignUpGenius page to track everything. Then I realized it could be even more efficient. While listening to Planet Money and considering the world from the perspective of economics, I had an epiphany: “We should set up a market!”

Part of the problem is that we try to trade only intra-ward, with acquaintances. If we expanded to an inter-ward system, things could improve drastically.

Here’s an example: my church building is shared by three wards: Leander, Vista Ridge, and Carriage Hills. Let’s say that Leander Ward has two people who can play the organ, while Vista Ridge has three and Carriage Hills has one. The poor Carriage Hills organist is not allowed to go on vacation—or even to get sick. Ever. It’s impossible for him to find a substitute within his ward. If we broadened the exchange, though, he could swap favors with people in other wards. The Leander ward organist could put in a double shift one Sunday and call in his repayment later.

(Speaking of emergency substitute musicians, did you know that I can play the organ in Spanish? I wouldn’t have believed it myself until “the very hour of my need,” but that’s another story.)

The poor Carriage Hills organist doesn’t know people in other wards, though. He’s actually in a different stake. This leaves him calling people he doesn’t know. And the poor guy has social anxiety issues.

Time to try CraigsLDS!

I will set up a centralized website where Mormons can go to “exchange” assignments. You type in your zip code and ward name, and post requests. You also read through other requests and respond to things you’re willing to do. Maybe you’ll discover a kindred spirit in another building (Georgetown, or Round Rock). The possibilities are endless!

Some exchanges are more complicated, though. What if you’re willing to teach a lesson but you don’t want to be repaid in kind? (“But what I really need is someone to take the eleven-year-old scouts on a five mile hike....”) Once you’re looking at multiple trades, across stake and city boundaries, you need a model more like the New York Stock Exchange--and a common currency to make a string of trades more fungible.

We could try some kind of  “social credit” system, but let’s be honest. Who wants to track a second currency? It would be ever so much more efficient to use the system we already have.

Yes, that means money. Cash. Greenbacks. Filthy lucre.

I first thought of this several months ago when my family was handed an assignment to help clean the church building on a highly inconvenient weekend. I was willing to swap, but we were going to be out of town a lot, which limited our availability for a trade. The thought occurred to me that it would really be worth it to me just to pay someone $10 to mop the bathroom and kitchen floors for me. Welfare at its best, right? I get a guilt-free weekend, somebody else earns some pocket money, and everybody benefits from the clean floors. After all, the bishop will sometimes hand out similar chores (“Could you repair the curtains in the chapel?”) so that the needy can “earn” church assistance (“…and here’s your food order”). While not always an explicit quid pro quo, it is an exchange of sorts.

The whole idea of money is to make bartering more efficient. That’s what I propose to do.

Okay, fine. I admit this is a terrible idea. A few slips down that slope, and we’ll be looking at people who say “I’m too busy to serve, but I’ll just pay 20% tithing.” A few more skids and we’ll have a paid clergy. Then the inevitable freefall into corruption and “priestcrafts.” It’s just so tempting in the short term…

I love Geoffrey Chaucer. I once wrote a twelve page paper about “The Pardoner’s Tale.” In that story, the Pardoner is a corrupt man who wanders the countryside, selling indulgences. He drums up business by preaching “sermons” about venal vices, deadly sins, and the Plague. “Death comes unexpectedly!” he announces. “You, sir—you look like a particularly sinful man, and a bit fat. Heaven knows that you might fall off your horse at any moment and die. Can I interest you in purchasing an absolution from your guilt…?”

As priestcraft goes, any form of “selling” salvation is wrong. It sounds horrible to say “I’m going to let your croupy child burn in hell, because you can’t afford to pay for his baptism during his final moments.” It somehow sounds even worse to say “And this is a real bargain! Pre-emptive forgiveness for pre-meditated sin! Two indulgences for the price of one—you can now commit adultery and then lie to your spouse about it, without any spiritual consequences!” (You’d think the former would appall me more than the latter, but it doesn’t. I’m not sure why.)

I guess we’re stuck with the old fashioned favor exchange on a non-monetized basis. In other words, bartering. The system has worked reasonably well for 150 years and ought to withstand several more.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be playing “Come, Come Ye Saints” on the organ pedals with my feet. While doing that, I will simultaneously sub as emergency Primary chorister, teaching the kids the signs for a song about how “Pioneer children sang as they walked and walked and walked…until they all collapsed from heat stroke.” With my third hand, I’ll hold my wiggly baby, and with a fourth ear, I’ll listen for any breath of heresy or simony.

Ha! You think I’m exaggerating?

My frantic juggling will make me perspire, but three hours of this is still better than five minutes outdoors. Better to "sweat for the stake" than to "burn at the stake."

It’s all just part of being a modern Mormon Martyr.


Krenn said...

The schlock mercenary footnote about shoulder to the wheel was below this footnote, but it's been removed in a server migration or something.

it's the first schlock mercenary book to be printed: you probably have the original footnote in your copy if you check.

Gail said...

Ronald--you're right, thanks! I own a copy of the book and I looked it up. Corrections coming forthwith.