Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sunday School Lesson Recap: Truth and Error, Pure Doctrine and the Prieshood Ban

The topic this month is The Apostasy and the Restoration. There are five potential lesson outlines but, due to General Conference and Easter, there are only two Sundays available to teach about that topic. Therefore, I combined two lesson concepts last Sunday: "How can I recognize the difference between truth and error?" and "Why is it important to teach pure doctrine?"

I started the class by telling everyone that I really struggled to prepare this lesson, because I had felt some impressions about structuring it around something that might be seen as controversial by some members - but which I believe is probably the best example possible of why it is important to focus on pure doctrine, why it is important not to stray into the purely / highly speculative and how we should approach understanding anything in relation to truth and error.

We then read the first scriptural passage in the truth vs. error lesson outline - John 8:31-32. I read verses 25-29 to lay the groundwork to understand the context, focusing on the fact that Jesus started by talking about doing the will of the Father and then addressing 31-32 exclusively to those who "believed on him" - a subset of those to whom he had been teaching originally. Thus, 31-32 was said to believers - those who accepted his statement that he was representing the Father and were looking for a practical answer to what they should do with that belief.

John 31-32 says:

If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.

We talked about the most important words in that passage: "continue", "truth" and "free". We discussed the idea that "continuing" means nothing more than "not stopping" - but, in Mormon theology, it also carries connotations of "progress" (which includes an inherent aspect of "growth and change"). It is that continuation of growth and change that, eventually, creates a "new creature in Christ" that is free - specifically from the limitations, restrictions, bonds, etc. that existed prior to "know(ing) the truth". Thus, the ultimate end of knowing truth from error is freedom from ignorance and all of its mortal applications.

We then discussed D&C 9:7-8 (all of 7 and the first sentence of 8), after discussing the context of the section, which reads:

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind.

I mentioned to them how often we talk in the Church about the confirmation of the Holy Ghost in terms of how we feel (our spiritual/emotional/heart experience) but how little we tend to mention our minds as part of the testimony toolbox, if you will. I explained that I don't take anything as "pure doctrine" unless it speaks compellingly to BOTH my heart AND my mind - that there are things that resonate with my heart or mind but not with the other - that I try not to rely on only one of those things in constructing what I believe - that I only accept it as part of my own faith if I like how I feel and think about it. I told them that when there is a disconnect between the two, I try to dig deeper into the disconnected aspect and understand why the disconnect exists by looking more closely at it - not by ignoring it. I mentioned that problems can occur when either the heart or mind is allowed to dominate - that the heart alone can lead to emotional conclusions that aren't true, while the mind alone can lead to an intellectualism that denies feelings and can allow someone to lose sight of morality and humanity.

Focusing on "pure doctrine" is important in this process, because it explicitly is when we leave pure doctrine and move into speculation that things get all kinds of messed up and we become enslaved (not free) by our mistaken understandings.

I told them that this was the point over which I agonized in the preparation of the lesson. I wanted to use a real example of something that was not "pure doctrine" but which mutated into being seen as pure doctrine due to the mortal inability to distinguish between truth and error and the similar mortal tendency to hold on to false traditions and teachings. The best example I know of this is the Priesthood ban, so I mentioned the Joseph Smith Papers Project and the explanations of various things that the Church has published recently on in the Gospel Topics section.

First, I asked the students who was allowed to be baptized when the Church was established in 1830. They all answered that anyone of age could be baptized, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, etc. I asked who could be ordained to an office in the Priesthood and attend the temple. They said all worthy members could attend the temple and all worthy men could be ordained, except for black men. (My daughter wasn't allowed to answer, since we have talked about all of this in the past.) I told them that answer was wrong - that, originally, there were no restrictions based on race and that a handful of black men had been ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood and endowed in the temple. I then summarized the explanation and talked about the prevailing "philosophies of men" and how they worked their way into our teachings - and how uniquely Mormon justifications arose when people tried to explain why the ban was in place. I mentioned the belief in a curse of Cain, the idea that the Church couldn't ordain black men in the political environment of the time, the belief that black men and women had been less valiant in the pre-existence / fence-sitters, etc. - and how those justifications allowed white people to think they were better than black people. I explained that every reference we have in our scriptures that might seem to support those conclusions to any degree occurs PRIOR to the life and death of Jesus - and that there are verses in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon that state, clearly, that, as of that time, ALL people were alike to God - including both black and white, explicitly.

We talked about how we all tend to explain rules, policies, commandments, counsel, etc. in order to justify them - in school, at work, in church and everywhere else. I mentioned Elder McConkie's statement in 1978 after OD2 and the rescinding of the ban about forgetting everything he and anyone else had said about the reason(s) for the ban - that they had spoken with limited light and knowledge and now had increased light and knowledge that repudiated everything they had said in the past. I stressed the importance of not holding so tightly to anything that they might lose the ability to let go when further light and knowledge appears, as I'm sure will happen in their lifetimes.

In the context of the lesson topics, we talked about how the entire thing might have been avoided if the early saints (including Pres. Young) could have let go of their bias against inter-racial marriage, focused solely on "pure doctrine" and been open to new understanding of truth and error. I told them that they never have to accept or believe something FULLY, without question or concern, simply because it is taught in the Church - that, ultimately, they have to receive confirmation in their hearts and minds about anything and, if necessary, hold onto hope and faith that what they can't accept or believe fully at the moment will change in the future - either the thing they can't accept or their personal understanding of it.

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Deeply Personal Post about Stillborn Children and Differing Beliefs

(NOTE: I don't share the following very often, especially publicly, but . . . I will try to do so now, hoping what I type doesn't hurt anyone in any way but helps someone, somehow, and is inspired in that way.)

My mother was a very good secretary before her marriage to my father. She was one of the youngest Church Headquarters secretaries in the history of the church at that time - during Pres. McKay's presidency. (I have no idea if that still is the case, but it wouldn't surprise me.) She has a personalized letter of appreciation signed by the First Presidency given to her when she got married and stopped working. (totally her choice, not policy in any way)

She really wanted to have children and stay home with them, but her first three pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Her fourth went full-term, and she gave birth naturally to a stillborn girl.  My parents had no idea; the stillbirth came as a complete shock. Obviously, they were crushed.

I've written here previously about my parents' decisions after those four pregnancies and how they almost gave up and adopted instead, and I've written a post here in tribute to my father and the choice he eventually had to make for her sake. What I want to share now, however, has nothing to do with those subsequent decisions.

My parents understood that the Church's official position with regard to stillborn children is, "We don't know." It was intensely painful for them, but they (and I) understand that position. It is the best position to take, in my opinion - since anything else would open up all kinds of other issues that are best left closed. My parents knew the official position - and, since it is, "We don't know," they were free to believe they have nine children instead of the eight whom they raised. That was very important to them. It meant and means the world to them.

For me, however, it's strictly academic - since it all happened before I was born. Honestly, I struggle even to type her name or write "my sister". Since it's academic for me, and since that gives me the detachment to think about all the implications of different views, I have a hard time intellectually believing what my parents believe. It's hard for me to type this paragraph in a way in which I am comfortable, as it raises all kinds of emotions, not the least of which is a degree of consternation and even pain that I don't feel more strongly about it. It hurts my heart a little to know that, to me, I have five sisters (not six) and two brothers - and, to me, it's different than if it was a case of an older sibling dying some time after birth.

In that way, I am very different than my parents - and I wouldn't dream of saying that to them or challenging their view in any way. I'm not sure they would understand, and I think they might be hurt greatly. It is my own reality, however - and so I think I understand both views, at least to the extent possible for someone who hasn't experienced it personally.

I honestly am not sure why I felt like sharing that in this post today. This has been the most difficult post to write since I started this blog - since I really struggle to find the "right" words, both for others and myself. In the end, I simply am thankful that the "official position" of the Church allows me to feel differently about such a personal, emotional topic than my own parents do without any "doctrinal" guilt for either of us.

That means a lot to me, actually - and I don't think I've ever thought about it quite in that way previously.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chieko Okazaki on Being Herself

What I understood as the gospel message didn’t match what we encountered so often with the people. There was a big gap in so many ways. Again, my mother’s wisdom helped. She said, “Know that you know the truth,” (She wasn’t a Mormon. She was a Buddhist until she died.) “and others haven’t learned it yet. So just hold fast and let the rest go.” So that’s what we did. We just held on and tried to look at the doctrines of the gospel rather than how people behaved sometimes. . .

. . . When people ask, “How is it that you are able to speak the way you do?”, I say, “I was given a blessing, that I would speak my mind.” It was really interesting, because all of our talks had to go through the First Presidency, and nothing was changed. Nothing in my talks was changed.

. . . I brought Buddhism with me. Buddhism teaches love for everybody. The Buddhist values are not limited just to the people in the Buddhist faith. They include the whole wide world. When you talk to the Dalai Lama, you can feel a love that he has for all humankind. He doesn’t preach, “You must belong to my church.” He preaches, “You must become better people because of what I am telling you.” Christians, Muslims, Buddhists go to listen to him, and they become better Christians, better Muslims, and better Buddhists because of the values and morals that he teaches. He makes you think, “I can become a better Christian because of what I heard.” He is a messenger or a disciple of God, in a different way. I came to the Church having all these values. The Church didn’t teach me that. (Chieko Okazaki: "There is Always a Struggle" 2005)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Not Much in Life Must Be Set in Stone

My wife and I decided early in our marriage that we couldn't shop together without ruining a wonderful marriage. I won't relate the details, but we simply shop in polar opposite ways - and it led to tension and conflict, so we stopped. I shopped one week; she shopped the next. Then, we had kids, life got more complicated and we worked out a different arrangement. Now, almost 25 years later, we can shop together - usually - except when we can't. We now know how to shop in any particular situation, and we choose the best way for us as a unique couple in each situation.

There's a lesson in there that relates to just about everything in life.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Mormonism Should Not Clash with Science

"In these respects we differ from the Christian world, for our religion will not clash with or contradict the facts of science in any particular."  (Remarks by Brigham Young, delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, May 14, 1871.  Reported by David W. Evans.) 

I can think of a few topics where it would be nice if we, as a collective whole, lived up to this simple statement.   We, of all people, should not fight scientific advancement - or be afraid or hesitant to change our perspective in response to "further light and knowledge" revealed (and I choose that word intentionally) through scientific discovery. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Inactivity among Mormon Actors (and Others): Part of It Is Our Own Fault

Why are so many Mormon actors inactive - or, conversely, why are so few Mormon actors active?

Rick Schroeder shared in an interview once that it is very difficult to be successful in Hollywood if you don't socialize like the others in the industry do.

I think that's the major reason - and, of course, the need to be willing to take roles that don't align with basic Mormon standards. People generally don't like to be around other people if they think those other people don't approve of them - if they think those other people are condescending. Having different standards of socializing doesn't mean condescension exists, but impressions are reality for many people. 

Also, it's hard to work regularly at a really high level in Hollywood if casting directors know you won't take a role that has nudity or a sex scene, for example (or where the character drinks or smokes - or swears, in some cases). Generally, you need to have street cred and be highly-desired over others to get away with having personal restrictions. I know not all Mormon actors have those personal restrictions, but I'm sure it's a general stereotype in the minds of casting directors by now. It's also impossible (or, at least, extremely hard) to make a living in film and stage, especially, if you want to attend church regularly on Sunday. It's no harder than being a professional athlete during the season, but there isn't a scheduled "off season" in film and theatre - unless you are a top-level actor who can pick and choose and create your own personalized work schedule.

My oldest son was studying to be an English and Theatre teacher, and he was asked once by the guest artist (a professional actor) who was working with them in their production why he wasn't trying to become a professional movie and/or play writer. He was flattered by the question, but his answer basically was two-fold: 1) he wanted to be a teacher / professor; 2) he didn't want to give up his religious life (the activities of regular attendance) and family life (the ability to spend quantity and quality time with a wife and children). 

Also, when it comes to Hollywood, Proposition 8 didn't help, I'm sure. 

In summary, to get steady work, it's almost necessary to make it clear that you aren't an active, practicing, steroetypical Mormon. Katherine Heigl, for example, has said that she might return to church activity once she stops acting - but that she'll have to give up the alcohol and language in order to do so.   

I wish she felt she could return to activity before giving up those things, and, to me, that's an even more important issue.  The perception that she can't attend our meetings and worship with us while not following the Word of Wisdom and being a stereotypical "good Mormon" is one reason for inactivity that we can address - one constraint that we could eliminate, if we all understood and truly embraced charity for what it really is.

Friday, April 11, 2014

In Defense of "Praise to the Man"

I was telling a friend of mine how I hear various complaints about the hymn "Praise to the Man" from people who feel it presents Joseph Smith as some kind of perfect Being - and how I personally really like the song.  She wrote back to me and shared the following perspective - and I agree with almost all of it.  (I have edited it only slightly, to add a little perspective of my own.

First I sense where and how the song can stick in someone's throat. When everyone else is singing it with all their gusto, some people picture a flawless man in a soft blue coat gazing majestically into the horizon. Once the picture becomes less polished - once someone sees the real, complex man and not just the caricature of an infallible prophet, it can make it harder for some people to shout, "Hallelujah."

If you don't mind though, I've come to think of it another way.
No matter how someone sees him - flawless or fallible, Joseph Smith died an untimely death by assassination. Often we mortals experience an intense response to that. Just look at Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy. At the time of both of their deaths, they were not beloved like they were afterward. It was rumored that Kennedy wouldn't win re-election. Many in America had lost faith in the man. But his death and the morbid events that caused it pushed him to a greatness he may have never achieved otherwise. The images burned painfully in our minds brought something unexpected to the forefront. Though no hymns were written for him, his works and images became land marks for everyone. His PT109 story was the stuff heroes are made of . His "Profiles in Courage" continues to be a go-to book for leadership. All this from a bullet. Lincoln's untimely death was very similar. The South still didn't love him, no matter how we would like to imagine it. The North had questions and concerns, as well. But that bullet shifted many people's feelings toward him and about his legacy.

In the American West this band of people experienced something similar. The hymn itself was written by a man who once hated Joseph Smith - and many people don't realize that. Of anyone who could have decided either to mourn or vilify Joseph, Brother Phelps was close to number one. In his grief he wrote a song, and that song is now an anthem. Why it didn't get lost in history, I don't know. Other songs written for the saints did.
I take a deep breath and try to remember what those left behind might have felt. They lived it. They lived with Joseph. How much they knew, we may never know, but like other leaders his death was a beacon for them. This song was their anthem of hope.

I have not decided what Joseph would think of it. Some of his final addresses would make it seem like he would be thrilled to have his own hymn. But other parts of him lead me to believe differently. For all the ego that we suppose he had, I have found it intriguing that he rarely preached from the book "he wrote". (Those quotation marks are important, since I'm not saying he didn't translate it.)  Many of his addresses were platforms from the bible - especially Paul. I don't read of meetings that began with, "As King Benjamin taught us . . . " or, "Like Nephi of old said . . ." From my vantage point, I would expect an egotistical soul to pulpit-pound his magnum opus. Yes, he never rejected it; he testified of its origin and his conviction of it. However, it wasn't his platform. Something else was.
So, for me, "Praise to the Man" is a hymn I hum or sing in remembrance of a man who inspired bands of people to cross oceans, deserts, and mountains in the hope of something deep that burned in their hearts - and in remembrance of those people whose hope burned so brightly. 

I also should add that Mormons use the word "praise" very differently than many other Christians do, and understanding that simple fact removes so much of the concern.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Gospel of Jesus Christ Embraces All Good

I want to say to my friends that we believe in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it . . . 
[The gospel] embraces all morality, all virtue, all light, all intelligence, all greatness, and all goodness.  (Teachings of the Presidents: Brigham Young; Chapter 2)

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Organizational Leaders Receive Revelation for the Organization - Not Generally for Individuals

To follow-up on my last post, a friend and I were talking a long time ago about how I view the role of revelation and church leadership relative to personal revelation.  After a fairly long, complex conversation, he asked me the following question: 

Are you saying that the leader of the organization can receive revelation for the organization but not for the individuals within the organization?

My response was:

Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying, as the general rule, with occasional exceptions.

Let me give you a real example:

My wife was the Young Women President once. She prayed about who she should suggest to fill positions within that organization, then she gave those names to the Bishop for consideration. The Bishopric talked about each suggestion, then the Bishop told her whether or not her suggestions had been ratified by the Bishopric. Sometimes they were; sometimes they weren't; how strongly she felt she had been inspired had nothing to do with the result. (The same thing happened when she was in the Primary Presidency.)

Why the apparent disconnect?

I don't see a disconnect at all.
I see someone praying for inspiration about who would be the best person for a particular position within a particular organization, and then I see another person praying about whether that person would be the best person for that position given the broader perspective of the entire ward - and then I see that person being responsible to determine if that position is one in which she believes God wants her to serve, given her own position in her own "organization" (whether that be only herself or that be her family). I see three different spheres of revelation, if you will, with three different people approaching God for confirmation as to whether a person would be the right "fit" for the calling - and I see the possibility of one or two people receiving a "Yes" answer and one or two receiving a "No" answer - and ALL THREE being "correct".

The person my wife suggested as her 1st Counselor might or might not be the best person for the Young Women organization; she might or might not be the best person given the dynamics of the ward; that calling might or might not be the best position for her at that time, regardless of the answer to the larger organizations. Three people - three stewardships - two possible legitimate conclusions each and every step along the way.

On a related note:

If I am married, I believe we must act as one in the decisions we make that have any degree of importance - that neither she nor I can receive unilateral revelation for the other or for our family, unless there is some kind of limitation on one of us that renders that one incapable of participating in such decision-making processes. My parents' situation was one such exception (in some but not all cases), due to my mother's schizophrenia, but most marriages don't have that type of limitation, in my opinion. Many, many marriages default to one person making most of the decisions, but I believe that's because, primarily, our culture allows the apostate assumption that it is OK to do so.