Monday, December 22, 2014

We Need to Stop Treating Adults in the Church Like Children or Youth

I really like most of what's in the For Strength of Youth pamphlet - and the points where I have any concerns at all tend to be minor points that aren't worth nit-picking.  Each of my kids has a pamphlet, and I would love it if they followed the spirit of almost everything in it.

My primary concern is the idea that what's right for youth is automatically right for adults - the idea that the For Strength of Youth pamphlet is appropriate for adults and ought to be viewed in the same way by those adults.  My concern is addressed perhaps most beautifully in the following words of Paul, the apostle, in his wonderful treatise on charity in 1 Corinthians 13:

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."  (verse 11)

One of the central parts of Mormon theology is the idea of eternal progression - of growing from grace to grace and learning line upon line, precept upon precept.  This vision depends on individual and communal evolution, on putting away childish things (things that are completely appropriate for children) and picking up adult things instead.  It requires our willingness to be children and youth, with standards applicable to those stages, and then move into adulthood, with a lessening of external constraints, a strengthening of internal control and a recognition of the need for "opposition in ALL things" - including the appearance of nuance and ambiguity that breaks down the former black-and-white boundaries of childish and youthful absolutism.  It requires a broader view of what is "virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy" than what sustained us in our youth. 

For example, as a child, I might have insisted that God does not recognize or honor the religious efforts of those who lack "The Priesthood" as we accept it in the LDS Church - but adulthood has brought me the ability to recognize and honor another religion's baptisms, for example, and still hold to the need to perform temple baptisms for the people who were baptized.  I am able to believe in both the symbolic and literal power of such ordinances (or either the symbolic or literal power) without devaluing or dismissing in any way the faith of the people outside the LDS Church who don't understand or accept temple ordinances.  That is an evolution of understanding that can occur with age and maturity, and I can believe in teaching the principle in different ways to children, youth and adults. 

"Standards" are the same.  I can have no problem with other people living "according to the dictates of their own conscience" - and even grant that some of our modern Mormon standards are not universal and better than other standards for other people.  I can have no problem with the general outlines of our dress standards (and I chose that phrasing carefully), but I also can have no problem with another culture that chooses to wear no clothing at all, as long as their sexual practices also value chastity, fidelity, loyalty and the rejection of sexual objectification. 

"Standards" are not the same thing as "the Gospel" - and whenever we tend toward treating adults as children, I believe we move away from treating them as developing gods.  (Some of the practices of our Young Adult and Single Adult programs are the best/worst examples of this, in my opinion.)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Turning the Verbal Cheek: Avoiding Forceful Defense When Not Required

We are wired biologically to attack and defend whenever we perceive threat. Therefore, it's easy ("natural") to fight about things; it's much harder to prove that you have no desire to attack - or defend forcefully. Often, perceived threats are not meant to be threats and only become such because of our reactions to them.  In other words, we often start arguments when none need occur simply by defending what isn't being attacked.  (and this occurs online much more often, because there is no way to see someone as they type and judge the intent of their words based on their body language - and because anonymity breeds aggression that often would not occur in person)

In situations where someone says something with which I disagree (even strongly, but not enough to feel I have to refute what they say), I usually just grin broadly, let my eyes twinkle a bit and say, "I like you WAY too much to fight about this" (sometimes with a hand on the other person's arm or shoulder, depending on the person) - then turn and walk away or start another, safer conversation.

It either calms the person down or makes him even madder - but, in a group setting where everyone hears what I say, it's impossible for the other person to keep arguing without coming across as a total jerk. I hope for the calming response, but if the madder response is unavoidable, so be it. At least the argument ends - or doesn't occur at all.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Jesus' Private, Intimate, Romantic and/or Sexual Life - and a Tribute to the Woman I Love

My 28th anniversary is today, so I have been thinking a lot the last few days about my marriage and how grateful I am that I met my wife 32 1/2 years ago - and the life we have shared since then.

I linked previously to a post by Jacob on By Common Consent entitled "Men, Sex and Modesty".  I came across an exchange I had in that thread with another commenter and felt like I should copy it as a separate post.  

The other person said:

“To the best of our knowledge, Christ loved women in a non-romantic way. He wasn’t dating them, trying to get their attention, wooing them, courting them, much less marrying and eventually having sex with them.”

I responded: 

We have nothing (absolutely nothing) to tell us one way or the other whether the assumption above is correct or not. Given our actual historical record, “to the best of our knowledge” can mean that Jesus did every single one of those things – and every argument I have heard that claims he did none of them is based on prior assumptions and not grounded in historical reality. Sure, he might have been celibate and lacked natural attractions – but that would deny an important part of how we view and talk about the Atonement, in my opinion.

Thus, I reject it and the argument flowing from it. 

The other person then accused me of being snarky, to which I replied (edited to combine three comments into one comprehensive comment): 

My response contains no snark whatsoever. None.

I reject the statement I quoted simply because it is based on an assumption that is not supported in the scriptural accounts we have. There literally is no way to say one way or the other, or anywhere in between, what Jesus thought, felt and did in regard to those things (how he loved women [romantically and/or non-romantically] and how he felt about “dating women, trying to get their attention, wooing them, courting them, much less marrying and eventually having sex with them"), since there is no context given of his life prior to his ministry. In fact, without the reference to Peter’s mother-in-law being sick, we would have nothing whatsoever about the intimate, private, romantic and sexual lives of any of Jesus’ closest disciples. We simply don’t know, and we ought to admit that rather than claiming we do to some degree.

In other words, there is no “to the best of our knowledge,” since there is no knowledge at all about those specific things. Lack of knowledge does not equal knowledge of anything except its lack – so there is nothing that can be extrapolated knowledgeably about things for which we have no detail.

Thus, “to the best of our knowledge” is useless when talking about how Jesus approached women romantically or sexually. The best of our knowledge in that field is the same as the worst of our knowledge – non-existent.

I personally believe Jesus was married and that he had a romantic, intimate and sexual life that he "laid down for his friends" when he became a minister and went on a mission, so to speak.  I might be wrong about that, since there simply is no way to know for certain, but I believe he experienced all we experience, in some way, and I believe that means he experienced our greatest joys as well as our greatest sorrows and sins.

Looking back on the last 32 years of my life, since I met my wife, and the last 28 years, since we were married, I choose to believe he experienced my greatest joy - that of being married to a woman whom I love with all my heart and soul.  I don't believe his life could be "perfect" (complete, whole, fully developed) without that experience. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

28 Years Ago Tomorrow

Tomorrow is my 28th anniversary.  The following is not original but rather an adaptation of something I heard a long time ago: 

When my wife and I got married, we agreed that I would make all the important decisions and she would make all the unimportant ones - since she already had made the most important decision in my life by agreeing to marry me.

28 years later, can you believe there hasn't been a single important decision since then? 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The LDS Church Is Anti-Intellectualism but Not Anti-Intelligence: The Importance of Light and Truth

I have read numerous charges that the LDS Church is opposed to "too much education" - which is demonstrably false when real data is studied.  Unlike most other religious denominations, within the LDS Church the higher one's educational attainment, the more likely one is to remain religiously active.  Also, there are clear and nearly innumerable statements about the importance of education and getting as much education as is possible.  There even is the oft-referenced verse in Doctrine & Covenants 93:36 that says:

The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth. 

One blogger summed up the LDS Church's view by saying that the glory of God is (not-too-much) intelligence, and the following was my response:

Yes, the title is correct – and it should be, if “not too much” means “an intellectualism which brings the person to obsessiveness or extreme pride and inflexibility”. There is a huge difference between “intelligence” (especially as our canon defines it) and “intellectualism”.

I like the D&C clarification of “or in other words, light and truth”. That gets missed in many conversations about what it means to be intelligent within the framework of the Restoration – and it defines the heart of the tension between being intelligent and being an intellectual, as those terms are used most often by the top-level leaders of the LDS Church. Intelligence becomes about clarity and real understanding, not the accumulation of information alone. Thus, my father who hated formal education and rejoiced when he escaped high school can be more intelligent than many of the students with whom I studied at Harvard who could recite all of the information they had read in classes and debate with anyone but who had no clue what it all meant and had no clarity and real understanding of the subjects they had studied and the people around them.

I think the Church, as an entity, encourages the type of intelligence described in the D&C – but, since it is comprised of individuals, that ideal gets emphasized, watered down or even rejected at each level moving throughout the organization. Thus, it’s difficult to make a generalized statement about “The Church” as a whole that is intelligent in nature without including a level of ambiguity that recognizes the tension of competing extremes and the widely varying mid-points most of us actually live.

The distinction I make is the extremes of intellectualism and emotionalism.  We are taught to study things out in our hearts AND in our minds.  When we rely on either, alone, without a balance of the two, we are prone to error.  Again, it's not intelligence to which the Church is opposed but rather the sort of focus on the mind alone that denies the heart and, eventually, all things spiritual.  It is when intelligence becomes an "ism" of its own that problems occur - and I say that as someone who greatly values study, intelligence, insight, science and the intellect. 

My only concerns when intellectualism is mentioned or discussed in the Church are when the impression is given that academic learning is bad in any way and when emotionalism is not discussed as the opposite extreme.   The ideal is a balance of heart and mind - intellect and emotion, not either one alone. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Feeding Individuals and a Community Isn't Easy

My family has a history of physical issues that make it hard for us to eat meat without choking - unless we are very careful to chew it extremely well before swallowing. I haven't had that exact issue, but one of my little brothers almost died of choking on a relatively small piece of meat, and I have an aunt who choked to death at the dinner table. Thus, discussions of teaching meat vs. milk at church mean something different to me than to many members. 

I share that only to emphasize that every person has unique dietary needs and issues of some sort - some that are critical to health and continued life and some that deal only with taste and preference. For that reason, I am wary of describing anything as universally "milk" or "meat" - or insisting that "The Church" teach or not teach something specifically because it constitutes milk or meat to me or to someone else.

I believe strongly that we should be engaged in "meatier" conversations and classes as adults of God, but I also realize that there are many physical adults who still are children of God spiritually - and that, to some degree, that is true of all of us. Thus, I throw out really small portions of "meat" in most group settings carefully to see if it is digestible before putting a larger chunk on the communal platter - and I often "chew on" the meat I put out there by taking a moment to frame it honestly but carefully as something a friend once said - or something I've thought about over the years - or something an apostle once said - or some other phrasing that makes it less likely to cause someone to choke.

Finally, I stopped expecting or requiring "The Church" to feed me a long time ago and shouldered that responsibility myself. Seriously, I wasn't getting "fed" at church with what I needed for my own growth before I left Primary - so I've been feeding myself for a long, long time. I still get a really good meal quite frequently at church, in one form or another, but it usually is dessert to me - not the main course.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recaps: Serving Effectively in the Church; or, Focusing on Building Zion

The topic this month is "Building the Kingdom of God on Earth", and we focused last week on "Serving Effectively in the Church". We did so by talking about five things:

1) We talked about the meaning of "effectively".

Effective can mean efficient - meaning doing something with as little wasted energy as possible, but it also can mean "causing an effect" - meaning achieving a desired result. Both are important in the context of serving effectively in the Church, but I pointed out that all actions have effects. One of the critical aspects of leadership is to identify the desired effect and act in such a way that the desired effect occurs. I simply said that the ultimate effect from service in the Church should be a closer relationship with God and each other - or, in other words, the establishment of Zion. Anything that takes people away from that effect is not in harmony with the stated goal of service in the Church.

2) We talked about the importance of callings in the operation of the Church.

I asked the students to rank church callings in order of importance. After a brief discussion about the "natural (wo)man" view of callings, we talked about how the most important calling is the one that they are doing at the time. We talked about living in the present and valuing the contributions and efforts of all members - and I mentioned how much I like the fact that a Bishop can get released and serve next in the Nursery, for example.

3) We talked about the difference between being a leader and being a worker - not relative to importance but merely to emphasize the necessity of each type of calling.

Concerning leaders, we talked openly, with the Bishop in the room, about how some callings are through inspiration, some are through perspiration and some are through desperation. We talked about how callings are important no matter which category applies in each case - and how, as a leader, it is important not to present a calling as being in one category when it really belongs in another one. I told them they should never tell someone a calling was inspired, for example, if there wasn't clear, undeniable inspiration in the selection process.

Concerning workers, we talked openly about how their honest input is important - and how it's okay to say no to callings and/or give qualified acceptance, meaning doing the best they can even if it isn't ideal. One of the students mentioned living in a small ward where his mother had three callings (two of which were leadership callings) while being pregnant. When she was asked to do one more thing, she had to say no for her own health and the well-being of her family. I mentioned a couple of instances where I had said I would accept a calling, but I shared some things about my situation at the time that would not allow me to perform the calling the way they probably wanted.

4) We talked about councils and their centrality to the serving effectively.

We talked about the importance of input from council members - and I stressed that the best councils are those where the participants have differing perspectives and views, since that allows the leader to hear ideas and suggestions (and concerns and objections) that s/he wouldn't consider naturally.

5) We finished by talking about the need to respect others who are doing their best, even if that best isn't what the leader would like.

I told them bluntly that people are more important than numbers and that if they ever lost sight of that and started focusing on numbers over people they would lose effectiveness and, more important, hurt people and lose their support and respect.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Evolution of Perspective: Homosexuality as an Example

I have thought a lot over the years about how perspectives evolve over time.  If I were to try to simplify the process as much as possible, I might frame it as follows: 

1) We see things one way because it's the only way that makes sense for us - the only way we can see things "naturally". Thus, we begin with "the natural (wo)man". 

2) We are exposed to something that makes us realize how "personal" that natural perspective is - that it's not as obvious and natural for someone else.

3) If we are fortunate, we know and love people who see things differently than we do - which forces us to see that "normal", "good" people see things differently than we do. It's harder to marginalize and dismiss people if we know them and realize they are good people doing the best they can according to the dictates of their own consciences.

4) In the end, we still hold to what makes sense to us, personally, but we begin to understand the difference between personal perspectives and societal rules - those things that we choose to let govern us, those things we choose to let govern those who choose to be part of our various-sized circles and those things we choose to let govern the largest, non-voluntary associations of which we are a part. Hopefully, we realize and accept the idea that the rules get looser and looser as the circles get larger and larger and less "self-selected".

To use a practical example from my own life's experiences that is controversial enough to illustrate a definite change in perspective:

1) I used to oppose all forms of official gay unions.  I believed that giving official status and rights would confer a sense of legitimacy and encourage homosexual activity.

2) I went to college at Harvard and was exposed, for the first time, to people who didn't see the issue the same way I did and, importantly, who could articulate sound, logical reasons for their different views.

3) Throughout those years in college (and as I grew older), I became friends with gay people and realized that my view was built on a faulty foundation - that it was based on ignorance of homosexuality.  I had formed my view without ever talking with gay people directly - without any input from people I loved, respected and admired who were gay.

4) Currently, I do not have the same view that I did in my adolescence and earliest adulthood - but I also don't have the same view as many of my gay friends.  I have developed my own view of homosexuality and how I view various options for gay unions - and it truly is my own now and not something borrowed from anyone else.

This is not the proper post in which to discuss all the details of my current views, but, as a rule, if I'm going to err on either side of anything, I'd rather err on the side of understanding and love. I'd rather be a little too "liberal and upbraid not" than a little too uncharitable.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Perhaps the Best Post about Joseph Smith I've Ever Read

Playing the Ball as It Lies - David Niclay (Rational Faiths) 

As someone who loves golf but is a lousy golfer, this analogy really works for me. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"I am that I AM." -- "It is what it is."

I know quite a few people who have struggled at some point in their lives with feelings of pressure and guilt from situations that were not within their control.  This pressure and guilt were the result of unrealistic expectations about how their lives "should be" - feeling like they should be able to handle things differently and have lives that were closer to "ideal" in some way.  

I understand such feelings, but, in cases where the cause of the struggle is not chosen or intentional, those feelings must be addressed and understood positively and proactively in order for those people to be healed in a meaningful way. 

If that description fits you to any degree, I hope the following helps somehow:

The first thing I would emphasize is that our 2nd Article of Faith says, in my own translation, that we will not be punished for struggling with things we do not choose - that come to us simply as a result of the Fall of Adam, so to speak.  This means that there is no "guilt" attached by God to the existence of those things in our lives - that they are covered automatically and freely by his grace and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.  That recognition alone can be powerful and emotionally healing.  

I would reframe that concept as a clear recognition that there is absolutely nothing "wrong" with struggling with lots of things - simply because you can't avoid them. Just as the best name for God is "I AM", often the best answer to something is simply, "It is". That recognition won't eliminate anything automatically, even the guilt felt right away, but it is important to recognize unrealistic expectations and learn to know when they are hitting "in the moment".

On a very practical note, my wife started writing a weekly blessing list on her personal blog a few years ago. Despite the struggles in her life, which aren't few for her, that has forced her to look back and "count her blessings" regularly. What she has discovered over the past few years is that knowing she would be writing such a post has made her more aware of the blessings as they happen - which has given her the ability to recall them in the moments of hardest struggle - which has given a degree of perspective she didn't have before she started compiling her blessing lists. She still struggles with some things that are her own "thorns of the flesh", but she is able to break out of those struggles more quickly and even avoid them at times.

However you can do it, counting your many blessings and naming them one-by-one is a good idea.