Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We Need to Move Beyond "Church Approved" to Live Meaningful Lives

"We need to develop the capacity to form judgments of our own about the value of ideas, opportunities, or people who may come into our lives.

We won’t always have the security of knowing whether a certain idea is “Church approved,” because new ideas don’t always come along with little tags attached to them saying whether they have been reviewed at Church headquarters.

Whether in the form of music, books, friends, or opportunities to serve, there is much that is lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy that is not the subject of detailed discussion in Church manuals or courses of instruction.

Those who will not risk exposure to experiences that are not obviously related to some Church word or program will, I believe, live less abundant and meaningful lives than the Lord intends.

We must develop sufficient independence of judgment and maturity of perspective that we are prepared to handle the shafts and whirlwinds of adversity and contradiction that may come to us.

When those times come, we cannot be living on borrowed light. We should not be deceived by the clear-cut labels others may use to describe circumstances that are, in fact, not so clear.
Our encounters with reality and disappointment are, actually, vital stages in the development of our maturity and understanding.” (Elder Bruce Hafen, “On Dealing with Uncertainty”, Ensign, July 1979)

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Beautiful Talk about Inclusion Despite Fundamental Differences, even Marriage and Sexual Orientation

A friend of mine gave the following talk yesterday in church.  It is a difficult talk to address in Sacrament Meeting, but it is message that we all should understand, accept and internalize. 
Good Morning Brothers and Sisters,

Let me share with you the message from the Stake Presidency about our speaking topic this month:

“Brethren, this month’s topic is one that will need to be approached with sensitivity and prayerful consideration. We have provided for your preparation several different talks on the topic of Same Sex Attraction, Inclusion, and The Eternal Nature of Marriage. Our desire is for you to review these topics and prayerfully develop a talk that incorporates each into a single message. Your goal is to help those within our stake understand the position of the church as it relates to the eternal nature of marriage as outlined in The Proclamation to the Family while still maintaining an attitude of loving kindness and acceptance of all as brothers and sisters in The Lord.”

As I mentioned to a friend what I would be talking about this month, his reply was something about walking into a “mine field.” Perhaps, but I think we will be uplifted together as we discuss the true essence of the gospel.

To start, here is the Church’s position on marriage and same sex marriage: This is taken from the Topics session on LDS.org and this document is titled: Addressing Same Sex Attraction

“The Church’s doctrinal position is clear: Sexual activity should only occur between a man and a woman who are married. However, that should never be used as justification for unkindness. Jesus Christ, whom we follow, was clear in His condemnation of sexual immorality, but never cruel. His interest was always to lift the individual, never to tear down.
In short, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms the centrality of doctrines relating to human sexuality and gender as well as the sanctity and significance of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. However, the Church firmly believes that all people are equally beloved children of God and deserve to be treated with love and respect. Church apostle Elder Quentin L. Cook stated, “As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.”

And from the church’s website Mormons and Gays.org:

“The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.”

And again from the previous document:

“Accordingly, the Church favors measures that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. However, “protecting marriage between a man and a woman does not remove Church members’ Christian obligations of love, kindness and humanity toward all people.”

So let me make re-clarify a few points:
• The Church teaches that the family is ordained of God
• The church’s position is that sexual activity should only occur between a man and woman who are married.
• The church’s position is that marriage is the lawful union of a man and a woman
• Many individuals do not choose same sex attraction
• Regardless of the church’s stance on marriage, we are obligated as Christians to love, be kind, and understanding to all people.

These are the official positions of the church.

Are some members going to have different opinions than the official church position? Yes. We are a big church. We cast a wide net. People will have different viewpoints and feelings about certain topics.

In a statement by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve published on June 28th they said:

“We understand that from time to time Church members will have questions about Church doctrine, history, or practice. Members are always free to ask such questions and earnestly seek greater understanding. We feel special concern, however, for members who distance themselves from Church doctrine or practice and, by advocacy, encourage others to follow them.
Simply asking questions has never constituted apostasy. Apostasy is repeatedly acting in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its faithful leaders, or persisting, after receiving counsel, in teaching false doctrine.”

We are encouraged to seek understanding. D&C 107 vs. 7 says:

And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom, seek learning even by study and also by faith;

Whatever our feelings on the doctrines I have discussed, we can advocate for tolerance, kindness, and good will with those of differing viewpoints. Inquiry, debate, and free expression of ideas are hallmarks of a free society; coercion is acted out when losing the battle of ideas, and thwarting free expression through authoritarianism. For those that preach tolerance, it must be a two-way street, and we are completely within our right to ask for such. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks has observed:

“Tolerance does not require abandoning one’s standards or one’s opinions on political or public policy choices. Tolerance is a way of reacting to diversity, not a command to insulate it from examination.”

Let us error on the side of kindness but always fight for the freedom to discuss, think, and advocate for ideas and policies that we deem valuable.

Let me spend a few minutes talking about the importance of families:

Throughout time strong families have served as essential institutions to teach and convey knowledge to future generations about morals, ethics, traditions and values that are vital to robust and free civilizations.

Marriage, in a civil sense, is an affirmation of a couples love for each other, a contract to work together, provide for each other and their children which comes with legally binding obligations. Marriage and the rearing of children within the obligations of marriage is the most optimal institution in a world governed by agency. Unless we believe that authoritarianism is the best relay point to transfer the necessary knowledge to the next generation, the family is the best alternative.

The Proclamation on the Family says:

“Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. . . . The family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.”

This is a theological and spiritual view on marriage with temporal implications. From a secular perspective, the data on marriage also tells an interesting story. The creation and sustainment of marriage provides the best opportunity for children, not only in an eternal sense, but for temporal growth and personal fulfillment.

Over the last decades there has been an erosion of intact families.

“In 2012, 40% of all births in the United States were to unwed mothers. More than 50% of births to mothers under age 30 were out of wedlock. Further, the marriage rate has been declining since the 1980s. These trends do not bode well for the development of the rising generation.”

A study found on fatherhood.hhs.gov says:

Children raised by single parents have lower levels of social and academic well-being, and more behavior problems than those from intact families. "…adolescents who have lived apart from one of their parents during some period of childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be 'idle' - out of school or out of work - in their late teens and early twenties."

Charles Murray, in his book Coming Apart, wrote an in-depth analysis comparing different survey and data trends. In one observation based on his analysis he says:

“The raw material that makes community even possible has diminished so much in some parts of the country that the situation may be beyond retrieval. That raw material is social trust-not trust in a particular neighbor who happens to be your friend, but a generalized expectation that people around you will do the right thing.”

We can help reverse these trends by advocating for strong familial relationships, helping those in our community, and working to make our marriages and families to be places of happiness, learning, growth, and faith. One of the most important things that we can do as members of the church is to create as Celestial a marriage as possible.

The Proclamation of the Family states:

“Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities…In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners. Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation.”

As couples we are obligated to help each other as equal partners and to decide as a family what will work best for us; whether that be more traditional roles, or whether that be a working mom and stay-at-home dad, or somewhere in between. We have the ability to receive our own personal revelation of what will work best for our family. And any relationships that are built on forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, teamwork, and wholesome recreational activities are bound to last for the eternities.

To cite Charles Murray again he notes:

“The relationship of marriage to happiness is simple as can be. There’s hardly anything better than a good marriage for promoting happiness and nothing worse than a bad one.”

The ideals of the LDS Church around family formation and the eternal nature of families can work really well for a lot of people. But it can be a very difficult concept and idea for others. What happens if someone’s situation falls outside this neat little box? What if we were sealed in the temple but now our husband or wife is no longer active in the church? What if our children have chosen different theological, personal, or spiritual paths than our own? What if we have family members, children, friends who are attracted to members of the same sex?

For many of us, we feel left holding a bag of disappointments, burdened by our inability to reconcile a God of agency and unmet promises of obedience. I have no easy answers for you, only a willingness to stand with those in need of comfort and faith and hope in an expansive view of the mercy of our Creator.

Chieko Okazaki, former first counselor in General Relief Society Presidency said:

"I don't want anyone to misunderstand what I'm going to say next. The First Presidency has made its opposition to same-sex marriages very clear; as a member of the church I support them in their position. But I want to stress that we can be opposed to a piece of legislation or to a practice and still behave with courtesy and decency toward those who hold other opinions. I would not want anyone to use the First Presidency's stand as an excuse for being hateful or disrespectful toward others..... It is very likely that every person in the Church knows someone - a family member or a friend - who is gay, lesbian or bisexual…I think there is much we do not understand about how such conditions come to be, or what resources are truly helpful. In the meantime, nothing has suspended the commandment of Jesus to love one another and to bear one another's burdens."

In my view it's understandable that the depression and suicide rates among gay people, in general, and in the LDS Church are significantly higher than in the general population. Many of our brothers and sisters feel alone, isolated, different, and in pain. Really loving someone who is different, in any way, isn't just a nice idea or a good concept; in many cases, it might bring a measure of joy to someone who has precious little happiness and, literally, help save lives.

I remember one particular service activity as a youth when we lived in South Florida. Our activity was to help clean up a hospice center where people who had contracted HIV and AIDS lived for a while before they passed away. This was during the early 90’s when AIDS was relatively new to the public and was wreaking havoc among the male homosexual population. I remember feeling conflicted during our service project. Many of the people who had inhabited the hospice were there because of choices that were not in agreement with the doctrines of our church and so why should we be spending our time at that particular place. On the ride home I expressed this conflict to my father and in his wisdom affirmed the centrality of the gospel message to me. His reply, and I am paraphrasing a bit here, was, 

“Son, we are all sons and daughters of God. As such we are all deserving of His love and it doesn’t much matter what choices others have made, we should serve and love everyone.”

I know that many of us can feel out of place, unsure of how to assimilate into such a performance based culture. Many of us are at different points on the spectrum in our faith journey, our life experiences, and the growing pains of mortality.

I find comfort in Elder Wirthlin’s words:

“Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.
Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.
This variety of creation itself is a testament of how the Lord values all His children. He does not esteem one flesh above another, but He “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God.””

Our message as members of the church should echo the message of Elder Uchtdorf in the October 2013 General Conference. He said:

"To those who have separated themselves from the Church, I say, my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here. Come and add your talents, gifts, and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result."

And to those of you with doubts:

"It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith. We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."

I love that line: "We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner." Wherever we are at with our faith, let us act on the things we do believe. If all you believe to be true is that we should be charitable with each other, that sounds awesome! Act on that. Don’t let the other things hold you back from helping and serving others. If all you believe to be true is that we are a part of a great cosmic unity, then let that belief flow into action of viewing others as a part of that journey and loving your neighbor.

And he addresses those who worry about living up to the standards:

"All the more reason to come! The Church is designed to nourish the imperfect, the struggling, and the exhausted. It is filled with people who desire with all their heart to keep the commandments, even if they haven’t mastered them yet."

I interpret that to mean, no problem. We come to church to work on our relationship with God and to work on being better. Don’t worry about what other members think, your journey is yours. It’s not our place to judge. And if we are being judgmental, call us out on it. And for heaven's sakes, let's cut ourselves and each other a break.

More from Elder Uchtdorf:
"Some might say, “I know a member of your Church who is a hypocrite. I could never join a church that had someone like him as a member.”
If you define hypocrite as someone who fails to live up perfectly to what he or she believes, then we are all hypocrites. None of us is quite as Christlike as we know we should be. But we earnestly desire to overcome our faults and the tendency to sin. With our heart and soul we yearn to become better with the help of the Atonement of Jesus Christ."

And this!

"If these are your desires, then regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us! If you seek truth, meaning, and a way to transform faith into action; if you are looking for a place of belonging: Come, join with us!...If you are tempted to give up: Stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here.”

Elder Orson F. Whitney, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve said this:

“…The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were his before they were yours-long before he entrusted them to your care; and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them... Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable, than even the best of his servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend.
The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. … Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.”

I believe as C.S. Lewis that:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

I believe we are eternal and as such we have an obligation to treat others as Christ has instructed us to do, and to love regardless of others personal choices. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with others choices, but we must love as best we can. The gospel of Christ is one of faith and hope, charity and love, experience and progression. Let us remember the example of Christ in our interactions with others.

In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Baptismal Covenants; or, Serving Only "Our Own" Is Not Following Jesus

Last Sunday, we talked about only one aspect of ordinances and covenants: the baptismal covenant to bear one another's burdens, mourn with those who mourn and comfort those who stand in need to comfort.

We spent the entire lesson talking about: 1) the fact that the Gospels detail a LOT more time spent serving people than time spent preaching; 2) exactly whom Jesus served during his mortal ministry (lepers, the sick and afflicted, the unclean, the despised, the poor, the powerless, etc. - his "kingdom of nobodies", as a friend of mine once wrote) and whom he did NOT serve (the religious leadership, the rich and famous and influential, etc.); 3) whom he might serve if he was born and ministered now; 4) how all of that relates to our own baptismal commitment to bear, mourn and comfort and, overall, to take Jesus' name upon us and become more Christ-like.

The list of whom he might serve now was created by the students and included: the sick, the poor, unwed teenage mothers, alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, the homeless (especially those who are mentally disabled). I pressed them to keep adding to the list, asking them to consider those who are marginalized specifically by our current Mormon culture and not already on the list, and they added homosexuals and the divorced. I personally added church members who see things differently than a locally dominant culture, struggle with aspects of faith and remain silent in order not to feel rejected in their congregations.

We talked about how natural it is to try to avoid becoming unclean or hurt (and how, in some cases, that is an unfortunate necessity) and how that translates inter-personally and socially into avoiding people who we see as unclean and/or dangerous - either physically or spiritually. We talked about how doing so is diametrically opposed to becoming Christ-like (except in the extreme cases when it is necessary), since he spent his entire ministry interacting with, serving and physically touching the people whom everyone else labeled as unclean and avoided in order to remain clean.

To end the lesson, I quoted my oldest daughter after she went through the temple for the first time. She said:

Dad, we spend so much time trying to build up the kingdom of God on earth that we forget to establish Zion.

I told them that we aren't really fulfilling our baptismal covenants if we aren't serving people who live outside our comfort zone - if we aren't helping people in a deeply personal, individual way who are rejected by other people, even people within our own church circles. I mentioned how much we construct our service projects around helping "our own" and too often ignore the people around us who are carrying the heaviest burdens, mourning alone and need comfort the most desperately. I asked them to think about the people on the list we created and look for ways to reach out to SOMEONE - actively and directly - who would be on that list. I told them that such an effort was vital to being a true disciple ("follower") of Christ - since, to do so, we have to be willing to go where he went and serve whom he served.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why Can "Outsiders" Sometimes See the Beauty Among Us Better than We Can?

I was participating in a group discussion once in which one of the people asked the following question, and my response follows the question:

Why does it take a non-member sometimes to remind us of why Mormonism is so wonderful?

Because a non-member can admire Mormonism from (somewhat) afar without having to work in the trenches amid the tension between the ideal and the real.

He can be the observer; we are the farmers - working in the mud and the muck and the manure trying to grow something beautiful and sweet. We need the observers, but we need the farmers just as much, if not more. Without the farmers, the observers would have nothing to observe.

I also loved the focus on "pure Mormonism" in his article. Yes, it gets messy in the trenches, when "The Church" (the collective "We actually are") doesn't match the ideal for which we long - but the underlying grandeur and mind-blowing expansiveness of the core, pure theology shines through our pitiful attempts to understand and live it when the light hits the diamonds just right, so to speak. Even after all these years, I still get blinded by the light when I step back a bit and let it shine.

To change analogies, it's even more brilliant when the full orchestral sound washes around me and penetrates my soul (body and spirit combined) - when I experience those moments of communal harmony that make my heart-strings hum and vibrate in tune with it all.

I wish so badly that the entire Church was like that - even if only somewhat regularly. I wish each ward and branch and stake had those moments on a somewhat regular basis - when Zion emerges and flows inward and outward - when the concept and the principle of the City of Enoch (another grand allegory and symbol, in my opinion) comes into focus a bit more clearly and I actually can understand what it might be like to be caught up into heaven with people I love and who love me. I know it's not like that fully, even in my own ward that really is wonderful in so many ways - and I understand why others get disheartened when they never experience it week after soul-numbing week - but I have seen it, can see it and know it's possible - and "pure Mormonism" is why I have seen it, can see it and know it's possible.

It's easy to forget our own positive experiences in the middle of other, more difficult experiences, and, sometimes, it takes an observation by someone not immersed in those difficulties to remind us of why it's all worth it. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Our Revealed Truth Should Teach Us How Much We Don't Know

"We have been blessed with much knowledge by revelation from God which, in some part, the world lacks. But there is an incomprehensibly greater part of truth which we must yet discover. Our revealed truth should leave us stricken with the knowledge of how little we really know." (Hugh B. Brown, "An Eternal Quest - Freedom of the Mind," BYU Speeches, May, 1969)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sharing Different Opinions in Non-Destructive Ways

I had a fascinating discussion a while ago with one of my daughters. She mentioned two things she's trying to understand better: polygamy and the Word of Wisdom. We talked for quite a while about those things and how I see them compared to how she sees them.

The points I want to make here:

1) This is a girl who was born and raised in the LDS Church, has been totally active her entire life, has parents who are "believers", wants a mission and temple marriage, etc. - and, despite all of that, has questions about things that are hard for her to understand.

2) She came to me to ask those questions for two reasons: a) she knows it's OK with me to have and ask questions (she knows she won't be condemned or scolded for asking); b) she knows I respect her and want her to try to understand things on her own, even if her conclusions aren't the exact same as mine.

People who are struggling with a faith crisis of some kind tend to get myopic sometimes and assume they are the only ones who don't understand or struggle in some way. They aren't. The self-assured, confident, young woman sitting behind you at church, next to her High Councilor father and YW President mother, might be more like you than you think. She might need to know other people also question and want to understand, and she might need a "positive" role model from among her fellow-saints - especially if she doesn't have that type of acceptance at home. She is somebody's daughter, and that somebody might or might not want everyone to think alike, but s/he probably doesn't want her/his daughter hurt unnecessarily as she tries to craft her own faith.

I'm not saying anyone who sees something differently than someone else needs to shut up or hide; I'm saying all of us need to speak up and share even when we see things differently - but in a way that isn't destructive of others who are trying to discover their own views and testimonies. We need to love ourselves enough to try to understand ourselves as well as we can and live according to the dictates of our own consciences, but we need to love others enough to avoid hurting them unnecessarily in the process.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"No Family with Homosexual Members Should Exclude Them from the Family Circle."

Clearly the hardest thing that I had when I was stake president is I was president when the medical community first became aware of AIDS. We had a significant number of our men who found that they had AIDS, some of them had not been in the Church, the majority of them, a few had. We found that we had seventeen men with AIDS, and at that point there was no cure. And all seventeen of them ultimately died of AIDS while I was stake president. 
I learned some incredible lessons through that process, that as a Mormon community, it’s a loving and compassionate community. I watched Bishops who made incredible sacrifices to take care of some of these young men who were dying. I watched them try very hard to reconnect them with their families and to have their families take care of them, and again at that time there was no cure, and no abeyance of it. I watched them take care of each other. And I watched some of them, one of them comes to mind in particular, a returned missionary, in a single incidence of conduct, took it upon himself to take care of the most difficult situations, those that were the most ill, and he was the last one to die. 
I think the lesson that I learned from that is that as a Church nobody should be more loving and compassionate. No family who has anybody who has a same-gender issue should exclude them from the family circle. They need to be part of the family circle. 
Do we teach the Proclamation on the Family? Do we teach Heavenly Father’s plan? Do we teach the first chapter in the second handbook? Yes, we do. We have a plan of salvation. And having children come into our lives is part of Heavenly Father’s plan. But let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion, and outreach to (homosexual members), and let's not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender
I’m sorry [for the tears]; I feel very strongly about this, as you can tell. I think it’s a very important principle. (Elder Cook, "mormonsandgays.org") 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Analyzing Scripture: Mosiah 3:19 - "The Natural (Wo)man"

The full wording of Mosiah 3:19 is:
For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Here is the parsed version, phrase by phrase:

“For the natural

(“natural” is not defined here, but the term “natural man” is found in other passages in our canon [ironically, once and only once in each book of scripture in addition to Mosiah 3:19]. In each case [1 Corin. 2:14, Alma 2:21, D&C 67:12 and Moses 1:14], the term is used to reference those who are not in tune with the Spirit.

In that light, the best definitions from the dictionary are: “in a state of nature; uncultivated” and “having undergone little or no processing”. It appears that “natural” in this usage applies to those who have not been cultivated by the Spirit – who have not been involved in the repentance process. The other Book of Mormon verse is the most relevant, having been included by the same abridger, Mormon – and that verse clearly defines the “natural man” as that man who is unrepentant.)


Due to the subsequent discussion of becoming like a child, it is clear that this “natural man” does not refer to children when they are born. Rather, it applies to those who have have reached adulthood without previously having been “cultivated” and “processed” by the Spirit – who are unrepentant once they are accountable and no longer exempted from condemnation as children are. Also, this obviously is a generic use of “man” to include all “mankind” or “humanity” – including women.

“is an enemy to God,”

“Enemies” are those who fight or oppose someone. God’s work and glory is to change us [cultivate and process/refine us], so the unrepentant stand in direct opposition to that work and glory. Thus, they are “enemies to God”.

“and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever

ALL unrepentant adults – no exceptions


leads into examples of how not to be “natural”

“he yields

“gives up or surrenders” – This is the perfect word to describe what an enemy does to cease being an enemy.

“to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,”

Again, the Holy Spirit is the key, since it is the Spirit that drives repentance. “Enticings” is an interesting choice of words, since it means “things that attract by arousing hope or desire”. So, putting off the natural man means surrendering to the cultivation of the Spirit, because of an attraction to something that causes hope or desire - not as the result of a threat. Alma’s statement that a simple desire to know is enough of a catalyst to exercise faith is reflective of accepting the enticings of the Holy Spirit. Read Alma 32:27-28 in this light; the similarity is striking, especially since there is NO shared vocabulary of consequence in the two verses.

“and putteth off the natural man”

“Putteth off” is a description of action, similar to the concept of laying one’s burden at the Lord’s feet (Psalms 55:22) or taking his yoke upon you (Matt. 11:28-30). Interestingly, “putting off” a garment can be termed “changing clothes” – and repentance at its most basic level simply means “to change”. Therefore, putting off the natural man is the direct result of yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit and repenting.

and becometh a saint

“saint” means, at its most basic and common level, “a person of great holiness, virtue, or benevolence” – which all are listed in various places as manifestations of the Spirit and characteristics of godliness. Again, the qualifying factor is one’s willingness to quit fighting God and follow the Spirit.

“through the atonement of Christ the Lord,”

This occurs through the atonement of Christ, the Lord – and is reflective of Jesus’ statement that if He had not gone from the disciples, the Holy Ghost would not have come to dwell with them. [John 16:7]

“and becometh as a child,”

Given the focus thus far on a connection to the Spirit being the cure for the natural man, this could be a bit confusing if not followed by an explicit explanation.

“submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love,”

Each of these characteristics is central to the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount as a whole, and about every other description of godliness. More importantly, they all are characteristics associated with listening for and following instructions – of a malleability that children possess but that is lacking in many adults who have been “hardened” by mortality.

“willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him,

“submit” means “give over or yield to the power or authority of another” – another perfect choice of words, given the use of “enemy” and “yield” earlier in the verse; “inflict” means “to impose as something that must be borne or suffered; to impose anything unwelcome”. This is fascinating, as it refers back to “the natural man” as not “welcoming” of anything that might be considered to be unfair or forced or demanding adherence simply due to another’s authority. It also is fascinating that the majority of definitions for “impose” are negative – showing how “natural” it is to not accept anything that is “inflicted” upon us 

even as a child doth submit to his father.”

What an amazing way to come full circle and highlight what happens when the Spirit changes the perception of a “natural [unrepentant and combative] (wo)man” who is an “enemy to God” into that of a “child” who submits to the authority of his “father”. The uncultivated, unprocessed man fights the cultivation and processing; the trusting child submits to that cultivation and processing. 


This verse does NOT describe children being born in a sinful state – or a blank slate. Rather, it describes children as being willing to obey the parents they see as authority figures – to allow those parents to shape and cultivate them through a process of alteration. The challenge, it seems, is for adults to transfer that childlike willingness to submit to an authority figure they can see into FAITH in somewhat hidden heavenly parents through feelings and promptings of the Spirit that can be dismissed as nothing more than emotions.

In other words:

Children act in full view of their earthly parents. The challenge is for adults to let go of their “hardness” and “intelligence” and “certainty in their own understanding” and become “pliable” and “teachable” and more “uncertain of their own expertise” once more (like little children) – turning to the Holy Ghost to help them “see” their Heavenly Parents and submit to that authority as they once submitted to the authority of their earthly parents.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: The Power of Ordinances through Covenants - Part 1

I just realized I didn't post yesterday the summary of my lesson last Sunday. Here goes: 

The topic this month is Ordinances and Covenants. I really like the first verse cited in the first lesson outline - the "theme verse" (D&C 84:19-20), which says:

And this greater priesthood administereth the gospel and holdeth the key of the mysteries of the kingdom, even the key of the knowledge of God. Therefore, in the ordinances thereof, the power of godliness is manifest.

I began by casting ordinances as symbolic actions within the administrative Priesthood (what is performed by others - currently only ordained men) and covenants as the responsibility of the "priesthood of believers" (things men and women both do through the authority and power of the priesthood we discussed last month when analyzing Elder Oaks'' talk). I told the students we would be talking for at least a couple of weeks about specific ordinances, what they mean (the symbolism of each one), the covenants associated with them and what "power of godliness" they manifest. To set the stage, we talked about the relationship between ordinances and covenants - focusing on the idea that the ordinances symbolize, in a tangible, physical manner, the covenants we make with God and ourselves and that living covenants is how divine power (the power of godliness) is manifest. To illustrate that relationship, we covered baptism, the sacrament and confirmation after baptism.

In the spirit of a summary, the following is the result of our discussions. Keep in mind that what follows was not presented in a lecture format but rather through discussion, as I try to do nearly every week.

Baptism means, literally, immersion. (The original meaning of "to baptize" means "to immerse".) The symbolism of baptism is the burial of one's old life and a birth as a "new creature in Christ". By being immersed in water, the person symbolically is immersed anew in Christ and emerges as a "Christian" - or, in Mormon terms, a god in embryo or a developing God, someone who is following Jesus in an evolutionary, progressive way. S/he is born into godhood, so to speak, and begins a journey toward perfection (completeness, wholeness, full development) in Christ.

The covenants we accept at baptism all deal with actualizing (making literal) the symbolic meaning of the ordinance. We promise to take Jesus' name upon us, always remember him, stand as a witness of him, keep his commandments, etc. (I skipped the comfort, mourn and bear burdens covenants, since we are going to devote as much of the lesson as possible later today on that concept.) The power of godliness that is manifest in baptism is NOT in the physical ordinance itself, and there is no magic / sudden / automatic power involved. Rather, the power is activated when a person acts on the covenants: becoming a real disciple of Christ, always remembering him (and acting on that remembrance), standing as a witness of him (not just in word but in deed, as well) by doing the things he did and asked us to do (loving, not judging, serving, teaching, supporting, embracing, etc.). The power is the metamorphosis that occurs when a "natural (wo)man" becomes unnatural or godly - literally becoming a new person, just like the ordinance symbolizes.

The word "sacrament" means "a visible sign of an inward grace; something regarded as possessing a sacred character or mysterious significance." The "inward grace" symbolized by the sacrament is being cleansed by Jesus' blood and body - and we normally talk about it in terms of remembering Gethsemane and Golgotha and what occurred there. However, it is more than just remembering Jesus during the ordinance; it is supposed to be remembering his sacrifice for us and being cleansed anew (renewing our baptismal covenants). Thus, the power of the sacrament is the exact same as being baptized - the continuation of the metamorphosis to which we commit initially, contingent on us actually living the covenants on a continual basis. The exact composition of the sacramental elements can change (wine to water, for example, or military rations, when bread and water are unavailable), as long as the meaning and power remain unchanged.

"Confirm" means "establish the truth, accuracy, validity, or genuineness of; corroborate; verify". Confirmation, at its most basic level, simply validates publicly what is performed privately (or in front of a limited number of observers). Part of that is for the person who was baptized, so s/he can claim a cleansed state without disputation from others, but the primary focus is on the rest of the community - an official stamp of approval by the leadership certifying acceptance into the group. The added Mormon element is the second part of the ordinance - the charge to receive the Holy Ghost. That symbolizes the beginning of divine assistance in the new journey of discipleship - and the power of the ordinance occurs, just like with baptism and the sacrament, when we act in such a way that we really do "receive the Holy Ghost" (or, more generically, listen for and follow what we believe to be God's will in our lives).

I made a point to talk about why it is wrong to say that we are given the gift of the Holy Ghost when we are confirmed. That wording makes the primary "actor" (the one who is active as the primary subject) the person who performs the ordinance, while the wording ("receive the Holy Ghost") clearly puts the responsibility for the actualization of the power squarely on the person who has been baptized.

We also talked about how baptism does NOT bring anyone into the Church, since a person who died immediately following being baptized would never have been, officially, a member of the Church.

Finally, we talked about how the blessing that commonly is pronounced along with the confirmation is NOT part of the ordinance itself but rather a cultural practice to provide guidance and revelation to the person. If the person performing the ordinance ended it right after the admonition to receive the Holy Ghost, it would be considered a full and proper confirmation.

To wrap up the lesson, I simply pointed out that the power of each of these ordinances is manifest ONLY if the person on the receiving end takes the covenants seriously and uses the ordinances as a symbolic launching pad toward developing the characteristics of godliness that allow God to make us what we would not become on our own - that the power of godliness is a transformative process of continually lived and internalized action, not symbolic actions performed once or even periodically.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Hitler and Stalin: Do We Really Believe in "Judge Not"?

I need to emphasize right at the beginning of this post that I am inclined to believe that Hitler and Stalin will not be in the Celestial Kingdom. However, I have to leave open the possibility that they will - simply because I believe deeply in the concept of, "Judge not, that ye be not judged." It's much less about their eventual fate and much more about my current condition. It's not what becomes of them; it's what "I am and become". It's staying open to accepting that which I can't see - and, in some cases, what I can't imagine.

I don't know what caused people like Hitler and Stalin to be who they were - and I personally have to remember that simple fact.

We talk all the time about those who are not accountable being saved from their lack of accountability. We apply it without reservation to children and the mentally disabled, but we often are less willing to apply it to the "perceptually disabled" - those who have ears and eyes to hear and see but can't do so in the way we want. The best example I know is the psychopath.

We readily admit that there are people who appear to have been born without a conscience. If, in fact, that is true, then I include that condition in the same category as someone who is born "retarded" (the accepted term from my youth), like one of my cousins. The foundational reason why we exempt my cousin from accountability is that he lacks the ability to understand, independently and internally, the difference between right and wrong with regard to most things. In "Mormon-speak", his "obstacle to accountability" can be described as a result of "Adam's transgression"; hence, we teach that he is "redeemed" despite his inability to understand, since his limitations were not of his own choosing and are outside his ability to control and change.

Perhaps Hitler, Stalin, Dahmer, et.al. were just like my cousin - except that their unchosen disabilit(ies) were manifested in evil instead of gentleness and love. Maybe they lacked the ability to feel the type of remorse that leads to repentance. Maybe they are examples of the need for opposition in all things - and, as opposite ends of the same condition, merely represent the touching points of an eternal round.

I have no idea about each individual person, but I like the idea that all of us are on the same circle when it comes to accountability (that all of us are sinners and fall short of the glory of God and, thus, need salvation and redemption) - since it means all of us are more alike than different when all is said and done. That belief helps blunt my natural pride and helps remind me that I'm not really "all that" - except in the eyes of a loving Father.