Friday, March 27, 2015

A Conversation We Have Far Too Infrequently in the LDS Church

"As I have loved you, love one another."

Jesus actively spent his time serving (loving) the people in his society whom everyone else rejected and judged. ("the least of these" - the leper, the sinner, the publican, etc.)

Identify the people in our own society who are the outcasts and those rejected and judged by people - and especially by us as Mormons. (the poor, the immigrant, the gay, the unwed mother, etc.) 

Now, ask yourself, based on the account we have in the Gospels:

What would Jesus do?

That can open a conversation that we have far too infrequently in the Church.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Evaluating the Book of Mormon: The Power of 1 Nephi and Ether

I believe that the best evaluation of the Book of Mormon has to include a careful analysis of 1 Nephi and Ether - that those two books are the only parts that can be evaluated objectively to any degree.  I say that for the following reasons:

I think 1 Nephi shouldn't be dismissed reflexively, given how well it fits what it is supposed to be in lots of instances. It's also the only part of the book where there is a clear, unambiguous location associated with the account itself - and the descriptions of that location and the flight from it to the sea is more than merely plausible. The cultural references also are striking and remarkably accurate, if the account is viewed as nothing more than fiction. 

As for Ether, it is a radical departure from the rest of the record, in multiple ways - and it also fits well what I believe it purports to be. I might be wrong about the original location (the Northern Asia steppes), but it fits extremely well the general culture of where I think it occurred. Without preconceptions based on what others have said about it, it really is a remarkable part of the Book of Mormon.

To illustrate this further, one of the most common reasons people have dismissed the Book of Mormon as being completely the creation of Joseph Smith is the mention of elephants in Ether.  For a long time, the assumption was that horses and elephants (and other animals) became extinct in the American continents sometime around 12,000-8,000 BC.

Two things:

1) The assumed chronology of Ether is based on the assumed chronology of the Old Testament, putting the time of the Jaredite migration around 2,500 BC or so. That chronology, however, assumes a literal acceptance of the ages and experiences described in the Old Testament, which I personally don't accept. Without that foundation, there is absolutely no way to say when the Jaredite migration is supposed to have happened - especially given the fact that the word "descendant" (not "son") is used multiple times in the genealogical chronology in Ether. That listing literally skips any number of generations, so there is no way to determine, with any authority, when the record would have started and how many years it covers.

2) There is lots of evidence now that elephants and similar animals existed on the continents well after oral traditions started that were active into the 1900's. There also is at least one archaeological discovery that shows an animal that would fit the "horse" classification around 100 BC - and that designation wasn't given by a Mormon. Coupled with the Native American Indian practice of calling the horses the Spaniards brought with them "deer", "elk" or even "dogs" and ""elk-dogs" (meaning that any of those terms could have been translated adequately as "horse" later, especially if brevity was paramount), a whole level of translation possibilities gets opened. 

I'm not saying those verses don't constitute possible anachronisms or that the most recent information proves the Book of Mormon to be historically accurate, but they certainly aren't the smoking gun that critics have claimed they are ever since the book was published.

It's hard enough to pull off a record of one ancient culture, but to embed another record of a radically different culture is even harder. That is what happens with 1 Nephi and Ether.  As a history teacher by inclination and original training, those two books are really hard to dismiss out-of-hand - and the more closely I studied the actual narratives in them, the more I became convinced that the Book of Mormon was recorded by the gift and power of God - however that phrase is interpreted.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

When a Missionary Returns Home Early: So This Is What Zion Is Like

A friend of mine shared the following experience with me.  I wish it was true in every case, but it is a standard for which we ought to strive:

I have always felt fortunate to be in a good ward filled with imperfect but basically good people. To illustrate:

A few months ago, a young man in my ward returned early from his mission after only a few months. I don't know the details surrounding his early departure except that it wasn't a worthiness issue. It probably had more to do with the stress associated with the mission experience. He was so ashamed that he didn't come to church for the first two weeks he was home and after that only to sacrament meeting for several weeks. Finally, he started attending the other meetings as well, sitting in the back as unobtrusively as he could. So many young men who come home early struggle with remaining active, I wondered what would happen to him. I found out last Sunday.

At the end of fast and testimony meeting, this same young man walked up to the podium. You could have heard a pin drop. Haltingly, he explained that he'd come home early from his mission. He briefly described the shame he had felt and how he had not wanted to come to church for a long time. With tears in his eyes, he thanked the ward for being so kind to him when he did return. He thanked the bishopric and his parents as well for their support during this difficult time. It was not the most eloquent testimony I ever heard but definitely one of the most sincere. I listened with tears in my own eyes and thought to myself:
"No recriminations or speculations. No awkwardness or judgment. Just good people concerned for the welfare of one of their own. So this is what Zion is like."

Monday, March 23, 2015

People Will Flow to Zion: Service Should Be Unconditional, Not a Means to Conversion

I believe the greatest "missionary work" we can do is to devote more time and effort to service, but I believe we can't do so with the idea or goal of increasing church membership.  I believe we need to "share the Gospel" of Jesus Christ more by modeling Jesus' actions than by preaching what he taught - as important as it is to share what he taught.  I think if the overall membership stopped trying to “do missionary work” and started serving others more actively (not just each other, like so many “service projects” are focused on doing) – with no conversion focus but simply for the love of other people – we would end up with a situation where the full-time missionaries would be teaching much more than they currently can. I believe if we truly worked to establish Zion, people would “flow unto it” – and “missionary work” would be available for the full-time missionaries without their having to seek it nearly as much. 

I am talking about service by regular members like me, given in the communities in which we live. Those opportunities are abundant and nearly overwhelming in many communities, and everywhere I’ve seen it approached humbly and meekly (“How can we help, no strings attached?”) the local government and community leaders have been grateful. In areas like where I was raised, where over 90% of the citizens are members, it would be a bit different, but if we stopped serving with an agenda and simply looked for those who need help (and provided whatever they need, not what we want to give), things would be radically different even in areas like where I was raised.

Serving in soup kitchens and shelters of all kinds – conducting parenting courses for young parents – mentoring and tutoring students (of all ages) – sitting with hospital patients and nursing home residents who have no family who visit – volunteering in schools – delivering Meals on Wheels – providing temporary shelter for abused women and their children – teaching budgeting and nutrition skills – cleaning senior citizens enters – helping Habitat for Humanity – volunteering at the local Boys and Girls Club and YMCA – cleaning and beautifying cemeteries – clearing land that poses a fire hazard – providing childcare for welfare recipients attending classes – helping with military veteran rehabilitation – organizing or participating in drives to gather food, clothing, school supplies, etc. for needy children and families.

The list is endless – and I believe that it would take a paradigm shift to allow members to spend less time at the church building and more time in the community. With the advent of modern technology, there is so much we could do administratively without having to have traditional meetings – and we could substitute service of this type once a month for some of our secondary meetings (even the second and/or third hour of our Sunday meetings). It’s just a matter of decoupling culture and tradition from Gospel, in many cases – and I use “just” knowing it’s not easy.

The issue is sustained effort and commitment, even if no baptisms result immediately. It really does have to be for nothing more than love of others. If nothing else, it would turn us into better Christians and not just better Mormons – but I really do believe a lot of the misconceptions and stereotypes (many of them deserved, unfortunately) would break down and interested people would find us as a result of more exposure and our own internal change.

As I’ve said previously, we tend to focus so much on not being of the world that we forget to be fully in the world – and that, I believe, is our biggest challenge to both building the kingdom of God on earth and to establishing Zion. So, while I believe that how missionaries serve is an important issue (and that it can’t be the same way they served previously as itinerant preachers), I believe the solution in our own time lies in how we (the membership) serve, first and foremost.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Importance of Trying to Understand People in the Scriptures as Real People

Too often, I have heard people in our scriptures described almost as caricatures, with little or no thought given to analyzing and understanding the "little details" in the stories about them.  I believe strongly that his tendency is not good - that it covers wonderful lessons that are available through a more thorough examination of the records and even through a willingness to speculate a bit and make educated guesses.

Take Lehi and his family as an example:

I have said in multiple places that I feel for Laman and Lemuel and how they are portrayed by Nephi. I read a lot between the lines in Nephi's account, and I think the situation was way more complicated than most members assume.

First, I think Lehi's sudden conversion has to be factored when dealing with the family dynamic. 

There is no indication he was a religious man (in the classic sense of that term for Jews of his time) before his vision - and there is evidence that he was an absentee father, to some degree, during Laman and Lemuel's early years. I read Nephi's family narrative as describing a situation similar to that involving Jacob and Joseph - the favored younger son and the anger of the older brothers, right down to "birthright / ruler" issues. 

To take the vision situation further, as a prophet-type Lehi was an "outsider" to the people in Jerusalem - much like Samuel, the Lamanite, preaching repentance to the Nephites. Lehi wasn't a Jew, so preaching repentance to the Jews would be a lot like someone from a Mormon offshoot group preaching repentance to the LDS in SLC - or LDS missionaries preaching in the Deep South. It's no wonder he was rejected, from a psycho-social standpoint. They had a hard enough time accepting Jewish prophets calling them to repentance, much less someone who lived in the general area and probably was considered a rich foreigner, to a degree. The condemnation of "the Jews" by Nephi is natural, given his own outsider status and his relative youth and probable lack of age and social maturity. 

As another example, based on the general tone of his writings, and especially 2 Nephi 4, I believe Nephi might have been bi-polar or subject to depression of some kind - and I think, if that is true, that it's an important aspect that influences my reading of his narrative greatly.

I see a very complicated, very dysfunctional situation, and I believe the power of the stories gets lost when the family dynamics are ignored - when "the prophets" are viewed as next to perfect and their narratives are viewed as objective.

For what it's worth, I also think Alma, Jr. was influenced greatly by Alma, Sr. - and the fact that Old Alma had been a bit of a Sith Lord in his earlier days probably had a lot to do with how he worked with Young Alma during his dark force time before his vision and conversion.  I also believe those rebellious years and his guilt for them haunted Little Alma until his death and played a huge role in how he spoke to Corianton when he screwed up on his mission. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"The Church" Is Different Things to Different People - and to the Same Person at Different Times

I think it's important to determine (at any given time) what "The Church" is to each of us - but also be open to the idea that "The Church" actually is different and often competing (or even opposite) things for different people - or for us at different times. "The Church" really is an amoeba in many ways.

For example:

"The Church" is global - but, in a very real way, "The Church" is local even more so than global for many people. Some people leave "The Church" due to things that happen at the local level much more than over things that are taught at the global level - and they make claims about "The Church" that mystify members who have not experienced those things in their own local "The Church". The difference in many cases is so extreme that each person, attending "the same church", speaks about "The Church" in radically different ways.

To be more focused, for some people, "The Church" is the hypocritical Bishop or Relief Society President who preaches love and respect from the pulpit and attends the temple regularly but abuses spouse and kids in the privacy of their home - while, for others, "The Church" is the Christlike Bishop or Relief Society President whom they love and revere. For some people, "The Church" is the overly-strict and controlling parent, while for others, "The Church" is the mean drunk who changed his life completely after conversion and became the astounding parent who is an example of redemption and repentance. For some people, "The Church" is the judgmental neighbors who refused to let their children play with the non-member children in the neighborhood, while for others, "The Church" is the family who befriended and loved those who were very different.

Most of us have no power to have a significant impact on the global LDS Church, but we have enormous potential to impact (positively or negatively) our own local LDS Church - both in how we view it and in how others perceive it.  May we be good examples of the believers, even as we struggle to overcome our own weaknesses and limitations.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Conversion Is an Individual Experience We Should Never Limit Based on Our Own Experiences

I believe strongly that God speaks to each of us in our own language and according to our own understanding. Therefore, I believe we make a critical mistake when we try to tell someone else how God will speak with her and how conversion will occur for her. I have seen enough different examples in my life that I am loathe ever to say, “This is how it will happen in your life.”

There is a long missionary lesson in that belief, and I think it is critical to change the way we approach some things in that field, but, for the purpose of this post, I simply will say that conversion happens differently for different people – and the key, in my opinion, is to be open to just about any conversion method (or time table) God might use for any particular individual.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Violating One's Conscience

I draw a distinction between something that is in opposition to my conscience and to something that I don’t want to do. After all, one of our core articles of faith is that we allow everyone to worship according to the dictates of individual conscience. We don’t honor that as well as we should, especially among ourselves within the Church, but that is the foundation of our standards and theology in this sort of discussion.

If I have a thought or feeling that says I should do something that violates my conscience, I am very wary of doing so – and I have to take a long, serious look at why it might be okay to do it. There are multiple reasons why I still might do it, but I would have to study it out in my mind, find a reason I could accept and then re-examine it in my heart before I would do it – and that is true no matter the source. I believe doing something that violates my conscience without such soul searching is relinquishing my agency in a very real way. If I make a mistake in that arena, I would rather err on the side of my conscience than on the side of violating it.

If, however, I consider something that I simply don’t want to do, the consideration becomes much easier – based on whether it would violate my conscience to do so and what the impact of my action would be on others.

In a nutshell, I try to base my actions in these situations on how I believe those actions would “hang” under the two great commandments – and it takes a truly extraordinary situation and what I consider to be indisputable, extraordinary revelation to make me go against those two commandments and/or my conscience (and how I view the two great commandments might be a good definition of my conscience). 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Paying "Back Tithing": Why I Don't Believe in It

I have known of quite a few situations where someone has not paid tithing for a while, for multiple reasons, and then decided to return to paying it.  In one case, an active member thought she had set up an automatic payment process, so she hadn't focused on it for a few months and only realized belatedly that the process had not been activated and, therefore, she actually hadn't made the payments.  There was no way for her to pay the entire amount that would have constituted a full tithe for that period, and she was distraught about it - going so far as to consider giving her Bishop her temple recommend for a period of time.

This friend asked me for my advice, and the following is a summary of what I told her:

1) Honest mistakes are honest mistakes. There is no need whatsoever to "make up" payments that can't be paid.

Think of a convert who is baptized in September. No reasonable person would insist that she pay tithing for the first eight months of the year. You are in the same situation, in principle. If I was your Bishop, there is no way I would tell you that you are "behind in your tithing". Some would; many wouldn't; I absolutely would not.

3) Honest mistakes are not sins and, thus, do not require confession or repentance in the same way that intentional actions do - and there is nothing in our theology that says people are punished by God for honest mistakes. Read our 2nd Article of Faith. It says we are punished only for our own sins - and your situation is not sin in any way I would define that word.

4) Since honest mistakes do not require confession, there is no absolute need to see a Bishop about this situation, unless you feel you need to do so. Now that you are aware of this, it is fine if you start paying tithing again and leave it at that. I can't say that strongly enough. You do not need to "confess" this or speak with your Bishop about it, unless it is important to you that you do so. Realize that if you do talk with him, there is a chance he will take a hardline stance.  Most Bishops will not; yours might.  His reaction is out of your control. 

5) My most personal advice: BREATHE! Take a long, slow, deep breath and use this as a learning experience to understand grace better and feel the power of our construction of the Atonement. You didn't do anything wrong, and you aren't going to be punished by God for an honest mistake.  Even if it had been a conscious decision, there is nothing in our theology or the Church Handbook of Instructions that dictates payment of "back tithing" if you are unable to do so.