Monday, September 1, 2014

"The Middle Way" vs. "My Way"

I believe strongly in the concept of "a way" - and it is encapsulated beautifully for me in Jesus' statement that He was the way, the truth and the light.  Thus, I have no problem with people talking about "the way" when it comes to religion.  However, I also believe strongly, based on decades of personal experience talking with thousands of people and on my own faith journey over the course of my life, that all of us see many things in slightly or even radically different way - that there are numerous "faith orientations", if you will.  Since I believe in the principle that allows every person alive to worship God according to the dictates of her own conscience, I believe that there are many unique "ways" to worship God legitimately - ways that are acceptable to Him, because they are sincere and the best each person can do.

There is a movement of sorts among some members that has been happening online for quite some time to self-identify as "middle way Mormons".  Having said what I did in the paragraph above, I don't believe in "the middle way" as it is used by this group of people. I believe in individual ways - each person finding what works for himself or herself. I actually dislike the term "the middle way" used in this context - simply because it implies there is one way ("THE middle way") that works or ought to work for those for whom a more traditional, orthodox way doesn't work.

I've known enough members over the course of my life to believe strongly that there is no collective, all-encompassing way that works or ought to work for every member of the Church. For example, there is absolutely no way whatsoever to believe and follow everything that has been taught (or is taught currently) within Mormonism and the LDS Church. It's impossible, and anyone who disagrees hasn't studied what church leaders have said over the years in detail. Even the apostles and prophets and Presidents haven't agreed on many things over the years - so even they have had to construct their own understanding, their own "way", in a very real sense.

On the other hand, I really love the Confucian use of "the middle way", even if, in the context of our own time and within the context of our own church, "the middle way" has come to mean something very different than Confucius' meaning. Confucius focused on an individual path, as I described above - what I choose to term "finding my way"; "the middle way" as used collectively now is becoming more and more a group path that is radically different than what Confucius taught.

To make my point a little differently:

Most members I know, even most members who would be classified as traditionally orthodox, actually do strive for balance in their lives. Of course, there are members who are extremists (on each side of any question), but they are nowhere near the majority, in my experience. Even within the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, that is true. For example, President Packer is a lightning rod due to his stance on moral issues, especially homosexuality, but he also has made many statements over the years that sound like they are straight from Confucius' middle way philosophy. I mean that seriously. I think most members who struggle with his stances on moral issues would be shocked at how dominant his "balance" statements are numerically. The message of balance is taught repeatedly - but the messages that jar the most for some people shock their systems so much that they dominate their memories and distort the other messages that aren't extremist.

"There must needs be opposition in all things." 

Therefore, by definition, every way is "a" middle way - a way between opposites.

When we talk in extreme terms, migrating to an extreme (any extreme), we lose sight, recognition and understanding of the other extreme which must needs be. We become incomplete due simply to being pulled to an extreme. We move from a balanced "way in the middle" from which we can see, evaluate and internalize things from all directions and incorporate anything that rings true for us to a more restricted, unbalanced way from which many things vanish from sight.

Ironically, things look clearer as we become unbalanced, but it's because we are able to see and contemplate LESS than we could in the middle.

I talk of "the muddle in the middle" for two reasons:

1) There is more through which to sift, making the glass through which we see mistier / darker / less clear;

2) Slowing down in order to muddle through everything keeps us from jumping to conclusions about the meaning of what we see - which, ironically, in the end, makes our ultimate decisions more fully ours. True growth and progress, in my opinion and experience, occur from the need to sort through much and make informed decisions - not from seeing only one option and pursuing it unwaveringly.

That, by the way, is a decent, alternate definition of faith.

Friday, August 29, 2014

I Like Joseph Smith, the Man, Much More than Joseph Smith, the Caricature

I have been asked multiple times in my life if Joseph Smith might have been (fill in the blank) by skeptics and opponents of the LDS Church.  Speaking strictly from an intellectual viewpoint, and employing standard psychological perspectives, there are multiple possibilities - and that applies even to something like the translation of the Book of Mormon.  I personally accept Joseph as a visionary prophet who brought forth modern scripture, but, again, from a strictly logical perspective, it is important to me to be able to understand intellectually and emotionally how others see him - to consider the possibilities.  The following list is not comprehensive, but it illustrates what I mean: 

According to his own words, Joseph was a treasure seeker by nature and inclination. Therefore, in regard to the Book of Mormon, the possibilities are not limited to just actual historical record on ancient plates or intentional fraud.

1) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being of ancient origin and buried by Moroni. (i.e., translated/transmitted non-fiction)

2) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being generic plates of unknown origin revealed by Moroni and "translated" by the gift and power of God. (i.e., inspired non-fiction)

3) Exactly as he recorded it, including an actual visit to an actual hill with actual buried plates, with the plates being the prop for divine transmission of the word of God but not literally a translation/transmission of an ancient record. (i.e., truly inspired fiction)

4) Completely visionary experiences, with something physical used as tangible "proof" of what was seen in vision. (could be any of the genres above - and could be visions of "actual beings" or hallucinations, both of which would be "real" and lead to sincere belief in what was envisioned)

5) Made up stories by an intentional fraud.

There are more possibilities, but the above are enough to make my point about trying to understand the perspectives of others. The above (and all the other options I've considered over the years) is much more analytical than an attempt to reach a specific conclusion that includes spiritual witnesses and constitutes a testimony. Having said that, the "simplest" options above are #1, #4 and #5. I can't prove any of the options above, but I've studied everything as a history teacher by nature and inclination, and the intentional fraud option just doesn't work for me. I've known a few "visionary" people in my life, and what I've read of Joseph fits them (and other historical figures) quite well. Therefore, I personally choose to see him as a visionary man - with all of the good and bad associated with that orientation.

Just in conclusion, I also think it's instructive for those who accept the stories literally that the actual quote is that his "name would be had for good and evil" - not that people would say good and bad things about him. When you parse that statement, analytically and not apologetically, it opens up all kinds of possibilities that make a lot of sense - at least to me. It certainly can make him much more complex and "real" than the caricatures that have been created of him over the years - by both passionate defenders and passionate opponents.

Personally, I like and admire the complex man much, much more than any caricature.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

We Need to Develop Both the Gift of Faith and the Gift of Study, Not One or the Other

What happens if you try to paddle a boat using only one oar? You go around and around in circles. If you paddle hard, you go fast. If you paddle slowly, you turn gently. But you still just go around in circles. It’s the same with trying to make study replace faith or trying to exercise faith but without study. We can often find ourselves just going around in circles. I think that the Holy Ghost cannot give us some answers until we are actively seeking knowledge.

Think what great progress has been made in medicine by those who use both oars in their training. For example, Elder Russell M. Nelson, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, used both oars in his former profession as a heart surgeon. With the trained skills of his hands, the knowledge stored in his mind from his study and his experience, and the faith in his heart that he would be sustained by the Holy Ghost as he operated, he has performed modern miracles that have spared the lives and prolonged the vigor and energy of so many people, including Presidents of the Church and many General Authorities. If he had relied only on faith, he still would have been a great man, but he would not have been a great surgeon. If he had relied only on study, he might have been a great surgeon, but I think there are many assignments that the Lord would not have entrusted to him.

It is the same with us. Each woman needs to develop both gifts, the gift of faith and the gift of study, to the utmost of her capacity. We need to exercise both study and faith to become self-reliant. We need to understand their relationship to each other and to us.

Chieko Okazaki (October 1994 General Conference, "Rowing Your Boat") 

I believe this is a very important concept - worded differently, that we need to study things out in our hearts AND in our minds.  Focusing on just one leads to imbalance and distortion - and, eventually, if left unchecked, extremism.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I Like Wearing White Shirts to Administer the Sacrament, but Not "The Uniform of the Priesthood"

I LOVE the idea of making the sacrament more tied to baptism in a visual way, so I have no problem with the desire to have the young men who administer the sacrament dress in white (and only a shirt is less restrictive than fully white attire). I have a friend who used to think that there was no doctrinal basis for asking those who administer the sacrament to wear a white shirt, but she understood better when I referenced the General Conference talk in which that advice was given and talked a bit about the intended symbolism from that talk.

The doctrinal basis is obvious to anyone who accepts the possibility of continuing revelation, changing symbolism and/or apostolic/leadership authority to make a doctrinal basis for new practices. The case of requesting white shirts be worn in the administration of the sacrament is far less radical a change than going from circumcision to baptism as a sign of accepting God and joining "his people".  People might not agree with the doctrinal basis for a practice, but there absolutely is one - and a very solid one in the case of white shirts and the sacrament.

Having said all of that, I really dislike the idea that there is a "uniform of the Priesthood". I believe linking the sacrament and baptism through visual symbolism is awesome; extending and distorting that link by applying it to everything imaginable (even simple church attendance) is planting so many hedges that the principle gets obscured completely - and, given how few members even remember the apostolic injunction against extending it to other things and not making it mandatory even for the sacrament, I would argue the "uniform of the Priesthood" angle actually has killed the original beauty of the General Conference explanation of why white shirts should be worn to administer the sacrament. For too many members, it has become about the shirt instead of the symbolic union of ordinances.

As I said in my response to Anonymous' comment below, I believe we have taken it to such an extreme that we have lost, almost completely, the deep meaning of wearing white for specific things - like *changing* into white for temple ordinances and baptism and wearing white to administer the sacrament.  Putting on ("donning") white for those particular things adds symbolic meaning; wearing white all the time for everything church-related lessens that meaning, sometimes to the point of obscuring it completely.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Lord Created a Human Orchestra to Hear and Value ALL the Instruments, Not Just One Kind

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...

Some are lost because they are weary. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. With all the pressures and demands on our time and the stress we face each day, it’s little wonder we get tired. Many feel discouraged because they have not measured up to their potential. Others simply feel too weak to contribute. And so, as the flock moves on, gradually, almost imperceptibly, some fall behind.

Everyone has felt tired and weary at one time or another. I seem to feel more so now than I did when I was younger. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, even Jesus Christ knew what it meant to be tired. I do not wish to underestimate the weight that members of the Church bear upon their shoulders, nor do I minimize the emotional and spiritual trials they face. These can be heavy and often difficult to bear.

Joseph B. Wirthlin (April 2008 General Conference, "Concern for the One")

Monday, August 25, 2014

Almost Everything Can Be Interpreted Legitimately in More than One Way

I like to consider everything, and I mean everything, in as many ways as possible - literal, symbolic, figurative, allegorical, etc.

I find if I don't close off any possible meaning - if I least consider all possible meanings, I generally can accept more than one interpretation as enlightening and inspiring.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Sunday School Lesson Recap: Practical Ways to Strengthen Marriage and Family

We focused today on practical things that we can do to strengthen marriage and family in our own lives. Most of the kids in my class have two parents at home, and today all of the ones in attendance have traditional families, so I structured the lesson around a series of reflective questions and input from the students. Also, the Sunday School President attended the class, as did my wife. (She was called today to teach the younger class and wasn't prepared with a lesson, so we combined the two classes.)

I asked each question, gave them about a minute to think about it, and got their answers - talking about each one, if further discussion seemed appropriate. The following are the questions and the answers that were given:

1) What do your parents do to strengthen their marriage?

They help each other with the small tasks around the house.
They communicate with each other / talk about everything before making big decisions.
They work things out without arguing with each other.
They look for things to do together.
They still do silly, romantic things - like dancing in the kitchen while the food is cooking.
They go on regular dates.
They talk nicely to each other.
My dad made it clear he loves us but loves my mom more - that she is his top priority and he won't let us disrespect her.

2) What do your parents do to strengthen your family?

They make sure we read the scriptures as a family at least a couple of times each week and have family prayers most nights. (I loved the focus on regularly when "daily" just didn't work, especially since these parents are ward leaders and wold be classified as "TBM" by everyone here.)
They try their best to put up with the kids.
They make sure we eat dinner together, even though my dad works 12 hour days.
They do fun family activities, including my favorite: rides after church on Sunday.
They had fun Family Home Evenings, including things like basketball in the backyard, tag, hikes, etc.
My mom helps everyone. She takes us to all of our activities and volunteers to help others, also - even though that leaves her little time for herself.
They spend as much time together as possible and work hard to have good relationships with us.
They show appreciation for us and compliment us more than they criticize us.

3) What sacrifices have your parents made to help their marriages and their families?

My dad took care of me when I was little and my mom was bedridden with her degenerative disease.
My mom got a job to help support our family, even though she wanted to stay home with us.
My dad started a new job during the day while trying to keep his business open. He would spend hours with us each evening, then, when we would go to bed, he would spend hours each night trying to save his business. We didn't know what he was doing until after his business closed, since he didn't want us to feel bad about the time he spent with us.
My mom gets stressed out easily. She tried to take medication for it, but it made her feel like a zombie, and she couldn't help us while she was on it. She gave up the medication and is trying to find other ways to cope with her stress, even though it's really hard on her. She told us she would rather struggle to be part of our lives than not struggle and not be part of our lives.

I used the responses to that question to reiterate again how we tend to talk about an ideal when we talk about marriage, but I pointed out (by asking the questions directly) that all of them know single, adult members of the ward - and divorced or widowed members of the ward - or members who are married to non-members and attend church without a spouse - etc. I told them that what we were talking about is important no matter what their individual adult lives end up being like - that it's much like in October when we will talk about "Becoming More Christlike".

I finished with one last question, and I told them I would NOT ask for their answers. I told them that it was something to consider now but also over time - and that it might be one thing or twenty-seven things or any number of things. I first reiterated the core definition of "repent" (which they all know by now is simply "change") and told them that this is a great example of a way to approach proactive repentance (making changes NOT because of mistakes / sins of the past but in order to grow moving forward).

4) What do you need to change about yourself in order to be a better husband / wife or mother / father when you are ready to get married and have a family of your own?

Finally, I told them not to try to find "the perfect spouse". I told them, for example, that the apostles and their wives weren't apostles and apostles' wives when they met, fell in love and got married. I told them if they are with someone who makes them feel worse about themselves when they are together to run away from that person and find someone who makes them feel better about themselves when they are together. I told them to find someone who will make them the top priority - who will be willing to sacrifice in some way to support them and to keep a strong marriage.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Individual Adaptation within Collective Norms

 I have a friend who has struggled with body acceptance issues for a long time.  She is working on coping mechanisms to help her overcome this difficulty, but wearing garments exacerbates seriously her struggles.  I can't understand those struggles fully, since I have never experienced them personally, but they are real and, at times, can be damaging and even dangerous.

With reference to the garment, she said something to me once that I thought at the time was very powerful - and I have thought about it off and on since then.  She said:

It's difficult for me to see how a loving Heavenly Father could require something that makes us feel this way.

I had the chance to communicate with her again a while ago, and the topic arose one more time.  Having thought about it since she first shared her frustration, I answered her in the following way:

I don't believe he requires us to do things that make us feel that way - but, if you accept his existence and the foundation of communal rules in any way, he does require some people to do things that aren't "ideal" for those people. There's no way to have communal laws, rules, regulations, suggestions, cultural practices, etc. that are going to be "right" for everyone. They are approximations of what works generally for the good of the collective group.

That's an important, even critical, distinction - and I believe it's vital to understand. "We" don't get everything that would be "ideal" for "us" when we agree to be part of any group. An essential part of learning charity - true charity - is acceptance of that fact. The key is to step back a bit, see the benefit for the collective group, make whatever sacrifices are possible for the group, make individual adjustments and adaptations that are important to you personally and find peace in that balance between serving the collective good and honoring what is vital to yourself.

It's not easy - this embrace of paradox and complexity. Simple extremes are easier - but they also are more destructive. Worship according to the dictates of your own conscience, but find a way to do it within the community you choose as your own. It might take a while, but it's worth it in the end - since the faith you carve out will be your own, and it will allow you to continue being an active part of your own tribe, so to speak. 

In the specific case of the garment and her body issues, I have NO problem with her not wearing the garment in the same way most Mormons who wear it do so.  The Church Handbook of Instruction actually leaves how she does so in her hands, and I love that policy.  If adapting in healthy ways means wearing it only for specific things (like when she attends the temple) - or only for a short period of time each day and/or night - or only one day per week or month - or even not until she has a better handle on her body acceptance issues, so be it.  I would rather have her be working on getting to the point that she can wear it without real damage than be damaged in a very real way on a regular basis.  The key, I believe, is not to wear or not wear but rather to face the issue head-on and strive to find a way to do whatever is possible in the present while working on making the future better.

I think that is a good outline for most things in life. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Deciding How to Calculate and Pay Tithing Is Up to Each Individual

Do I pay tithing on my income before taxes are taken out or on what I receive after taxes?

The First Presidency has answered this question in this way: “The simplest statement we know of is the statement of the Lord himself, namely, that the members of the Church should pay ‘one-tenth of all their interest annually,’ which is understood to mean income. No one is justified in making any other statement than this” (First Presidency letter, Mar. 19, 1970).

In other words, the way you define your income, and consequently your tithing, is a matter between you and the Lord. Prayerfully seek the Lord’s guidance on issues like taxes, gifts, scholarships, and other matters to determine what qualifies as a full tithe. 

New Era, February 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How Many of God's Children Followed Lucifer?

We are told in scriptures that 1/3 of the host of heaven followed Lucifer in the pre-mortal war in heaven.  That generally is believed to be a literal 33%, but there is another view that resonates more with me.  

There is an interpretation of ancient numerology that believes 1/3 is more accurately translated as "a third part" and means "an unspecified minority" - and 2/3 means "an unspecified majority". Along those lines, "none" and "all" would be written as 0/3 and 3/3 (although they are never stated that way).

That changes the whole math of salvation dramatically - and in a way that is very important and foundational for my view of eternity. In that light, 1/3 can mean a few billion, but it also can mean a dozen or so and anything between - and I FAR prefer that ambiguity to the assumption of a literal 33%.