Monday, November 26, 2007

The Power of the Church

It is one thing to discuss the power of the Gospel - to analyze JSH 1:19 (which I will do here eventually) and dissect what it means to "deny the power (of godliness)." It is quite another to discuss the power of the Church.

Last week, our ward saw some major organizational changes. The Primary Presidency and the Relief Society Presidency were changed - with two new presidents who felt overwhelmed and
inadequate, I'm sure. They received no detailed training, except for what they had observed in previous callings. They were given the keys that pertained to their callings (the ones that unlock physical doors) and some printed materials to read, told to talk with the persons they were replacing and thrown into the deep end of the pool - with a command to swim. They weren't given the option to sink; they simply were promised the ability to swim - even if they had never been taught to swim.

The power of the Church does not reside in its prophets and apostles - although they are necessary to distill the authority under which the real power operates. The power of the Church does not lie in its Presiding Bishopric, its Quorums of the Seventy, its Stake Presidents or its Bishops and Branch Presidents - although the latter men directly oversee and facilitate the exercise of that power. It is found in the hearts and spirits of all of the average, normal, unexceptional men and women who willingly shoulder burdens and responsibilities they can't carry - and carry them anyway. It is found in the growth experienced by Carrie and Leslie - the same growth that Patty and Shayleen will recognize whenever they hand over their keys and handbooks to their replacements and pick up whatever burden the Lord has in store for them at that time. Church Headquarters provides vision and unanimity and direction for the body of Christ, but the members of each ward and branch do the leg work that builds the muscles that drive the engine that powers the Church - and in that lies the glory and power of God.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

There's Always Room for Thanks

Today could have been a real stinker. Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday - particularly for those like me who like to eat way too much in the company of friends. When you are stuck at home, fighting illness and pain, on a day when you should be kicking back and enjoying the company, it's not quite the same.

Having said that, there are some things for which I am thankful about the day:

1) Being able to spend it with my wife and family, even in sickness and pain. I wouldn't trade that company for any other;
2) Having Brett come over tonight for some "real" Thanksgiving dinner - after being subjected to a "healthy" dinner;
3) Having "Walshie" come over with a pie and spend a few hours being adored by my girls;
4) The power of the Priesthood, through which my pain was decreased almost immediately;
5) Good friends who brought us the leftovers and allowed our children to have a real Thanksgiving dinner;
6) Dave and Corbin, for exercising their Priesthood in our home;
7) The Gospel that provides the foundation for recognizing the blessings of this day.

There is more, but this is enough to make the point. Even though the day was far less than perfect, it still was a day of thanks.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Temple - and So Much More

There are multiple lessons embedded in this story - so many that I won't try to articulate them here. As soon as I read it, I changed the focus of my talks tomorrow (yeah, I will be speaking in two wards tomorrow) and felt impressed to link it here. Please visit the linked site and read it, then return to comment here.

Wedding Story

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Carrying His Load

I had an interesting insight during a prayer this morning in one of the meetings I attend as a High Councilor. In all my years as a member of the Church - in all the countless meetings I have attended and all the countless times I have read the scriptures - in all my pondering over the years, I have not had the same thought in quite the same way. I'm sure it's not earth shatteringly profound, but it was powerful and thought-provoking for me. I also am sure it is a direct result of the contemplation I have been doing concerning the Lord's yoke, His grace and our gratitude for His matchless mercy.

What struck me is that all of us, when we become members of the Church, covenant to take certain responsibilities. We promise to comfort those who stand in need of comfort and mourn with those that mourn. We agree to the sacramental covenants, then Priesthood or YW's covenants, then temple covenants - as well as various callings within the Church's organizational structure. Although these things are meant to bring us growth and understanding and joy, in a very real sense they are "burdens" we agree to carry.

Psalms 55:22 says, in part:

"Cast thy burden upon the LORD, and he shall sustain thee."

Ether 12:27 says:

"And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them."

Matthew 11:28-30 says, in part:

"Take my yoke upon you."

Here is what I learned today: The concepts in these three verses constitute a complete solution; without the first and second, the third is impossible.

In simple terms, the Lord wants us to cast our own burdens at His feet and pick up those that He knows will give us strength and bring eternal life. Please take a moment to create that mental picture. Envision yourself removing a pack from your back or shoulders, setting it aside, then picking up a new pack to carry instead. If we fail to leave our own natural burdens with Him, then all we do when we assume the responsibilities of membership in His kingdom is to pick up a second pack and increase a load we already are unable to bear alone.

Each of us needs to figure out what this means in our own lives, with our own personalities and struggles, but, at a minimum, we need to accept His atoning grace and quit beating ourselves up over our natural weaknesses and tendencies - those things for which He has paid the price already. We need to recognize and accept the forgiveness He has offered already. We need to believe Him and what He has promised us.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by guilt or inadequacy or the burdens of your life, may I suggest a simple solution - not an easy one and not one that always will happen completely and all at once, but the only one of which I know that truly will work. Find a quiet place, where you can kneel totally alone and unable to hear anything else, and pour out your soul to your Heavenly Father - able to approach Him directly because of the grace of His Son. Tell Him of your anxieties, your fears, your weakness, your pain - then ask Him to take the burden from you and help you walk away from it. Repeat that request (something like, "I gave it to you; please help me leave it at your feet.") whenever you begin to feel overwhelmed - even if it means you have to do so sometimes in the middle of the confusion and chaos of your daily life. Take a deep breath, close your eyes if you can, and ask Him to intercede once more and keep you from picking up your natural load.

I have a deep and abiding testimony that if you cast your burdens upon the Lord, He truly will sustain you as you shoulder His yoke and begin to carry the burden He has chosen to make your weakness become strength.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Embracing Grace

"I stand all amazed at the love Jesus offers me - confused at the grace that so fully he proffers me."

I have been struck recently by how little we discuss grace. We talk about the Atonement and faith and hope and works and love and forgiveness and so many other things, but we rarely talk about grace. I understand why, but it disturbs me, nonetheless.

Our understanding of "grace" is found in the Bible Dictionary - linked here. It is obvious from this definition that grace is the heart of the Gospel - that it is the "Good News" that encompasses Jesus' love for us and is the ultimate gift He gives us. It is, in reality, another term for the Atonement, which is why we don't use it much. (We use "atonement" instead.) We believe in grace fully and deeply, but we tend to break it into more easily discussed sub-sections - like those listed in the last paragraph. Again, I understand why we do this, but when we fail to connect the pieces back into the original, complete framework, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer number of pieces and lose sight of the fact that they really comprise only one full concept - the grace that underlies the Atonement of Jesus.

So, why do we do this?

This will be a simplification, but at the time of the Restoration, the dominant doctrinal argument was over faith vs. works. One camp defined faith by saying, "Confess His name and be saved; works are just what He does through you after that confession," or the other, more extreme denial of works, "God has chosen the saved (applied His grace) and the damned (denied His grace) prior to their birth, and nothing can be done to affect that outcome." The other side hearkened back to the Law of Moses and said, "Grace is a gift that is given to all who earn it."

Since both of these definitions of grace represent the extremes, and since each of them depends on a classic Heaven/Hell split, the Restored Gospel rejected each. In reality, however, the repudiation of works was stronger in Christianity of that day, so the focus within the Church naturally tended to emphasize what was missing "the most" - the need for obedience to commandments, often translated as works. In restoring the concept of multiple, differentiated glories, Joseph Smith correctly focused on those things that are required of God's children in order to reach the highest level of glory- again, often translated as our works. In practical terms, however, this effectively eliminated grace from our active vocabulary. This left us floundering for an answer to the age-old Christian question, "Have you been / When were you saved?"

My answer: We have been saved by the grace of God. That salvation started when Jesus voluntarily offered Himself as our Savior prior to the creation of the world, continued when He was born of Mary, deepened in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Golgatha when He hung on the cross, declared "It is finished," and "gave up the ghost" - and culminated on that Sunday morning when He rose from the tomb, appeared to Mary, ascended to His Father, and became the first fruits of the resurrection. The implications of that grace are enormous and too often misunderstood.

Let me say it again, more plainly. **We have been saved by the grace of God.** It has happened already, completely independent of what we do - except in the case of Sons of Perdition. For all of the rest of us, we have, through His grace, been freed from the bonds of physical and spiritual death and inherited a degree of glory in the presence of God. Even those who inherit the Telestial Kingdom have "inherited" a kingdom of glory and can enjoy the presence of the Holy Ghost - a member of the Godhead. Even they will be resurrected and have been saved from endless torment in the presence of Lucifer. That gift, promised to all but a few who accepted The Father's Plan of Salvation and Jesus as their Savior in the pre-existence, has been purchased already - and all of them have, in a very real sense, "confessed His name and been saved by His grace" prior to being born.

So why do we not discuss this? I believe it is because all the other Christian religions of the day already taught a limited version of this, and the Restoration was about adding more to what they taught - restoring a knowledge of the potential that had been lost. It was all about going beyond the Telestial Kingdom (with the Holy Ghost) and the Terrestrial Kingdom (with Jesus, the Christ) and working toward the Celestial Kingdom (with God, the Father). We stopped talking about grace simply because of how that term was misunderstood by the rest of Christianity - as a way to focus on the ultimate purpose of the gift of grace (becoming like The Father) rather than the prevailing interpretation (praising The Son). [It's like reading the New Testament without any understanding of temples. Temple theology is obvious throughout (e.g., 1 Corin. 15:29 - baptism for the dead), but it is not mentioned explicitly due both to its sacred nature and because those to whom the epistles were addressed understood it without it having to be explicit. It simply was assumed and, therefore, lost when the foundation understanding was lost.]

Why is this important to us - and why did it take me so long to get here?

2 Nephi 25:23 is the most quoted verse about grace in Mormondom. It says, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.” Many people believe that this means we are only saved if we do all that we can do - if we obey every commandment to the best of our ability. That simply isn't in line with the rest of our scriptures and, more importantly, it leads to unnecessary stress and anxiety about whether or not "I am doing enough." I see this all the time in my discussions with Mama and as I listen to and read the blogs of many women, especially. Rather than seeing the grace of God as a freeing, enabling gift that already has been given, they often internalize it as a reward dangling enticingly in front of them, ready to be withdrawn if they screw up too badly and fail to repent immediately. That leads to guilt and pain and lack of self-confidence, instead of the rest that is promised so beautifully in Matthew 11:28-30.

When I read 2 Nephi 25:23, I explain it by employing a common linguistic technique - switching the phrases to reflect the proper emphasis. In this case, the sentence becomes, "(Even) after all we can do, it is (still) by grace that we are saved." Of course, we are to try to do all that we can do, but exactly what we can do pales in comparison to what He has done - saved us by His grace regardless of what we can do. It takes the pressure off of us and puts the focus where it should be - on His incomprehensible grace that so fully he proffers us.

A very insightful friend recently described the process of "taking my yoke upon you" as feeling the purity and power of His sinlessness. I love that construct, but I would add the following: Understanding and truly accepting God's grace occurs when you realize that all of your inherited weaknesses (your temper, your judgmental nature, your fatigue, your lack of self-worth, your never-ending battles with whatever drives you crazy) - everything that keeps you from becoming who you desperately want to become - has been bought and paid for already. He fought that fight for you, and He won. Yes, you were born with things that keep you from being perfect, but He paid for those things - meaning that you truly can take His yoke upon you and walk confidently at His side as a brother or sister with the same eternal potential. It occurs when you realize that, because of the grace that so fully He proffers you, you aren't required to pay for those things; rather, you are freed to pursue those qualities and characteristics you want to acquire to become perfect (whole and complete) - regardless of the tangible outcome of that effort. Repentance becomes an exciting, forward looking progression toward wholeness, rather than a depressing, backward-looking, guilt-inducing attempt to beat the bad out of you and never again make any mistakes. Bad habits and painful characteristics will disappear as they are replaced by good ones, not as they are "subdued and repressed by sheer force of will."

I believe an understanding of grace is fully realized when one stops fighting God's grace - when he realizes that all God wants is his willing mind and heart - when he quits worrying about his individual worthiness and starts focusing on his contribution to communal unity - when he simply lays it all at His feet and says, in essence, "I know you understand my weakness; I know you know my struggles and pains; I know you know how I feel about myself; I know you love me and have bought me, anyway. From now on, I will trust your promise and, despite my continuing frustration and my continuing weakness and my continuing failures, I will bounce back each time and continue to grow. I will not despair; I will accept my weakness and imperfection and failure, knowing you don't care, because you love me, anyway. I will get back up each time I am knocked down and continue to walk toward you, until you embrace me and say, 'Well done, thou good and faithful servant' - knowing I don't deserve it and being eternally grateful for the grace that so fully you proffered me."

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Jessica's Blog

Check it out

I would like to blame her silliness on her mother, but all of you know Mama and me too well to believe that.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Personal Request

Please check out the picture on the following site and tell me what your reactions are to the picture that is there. (NOT the ones at the top right of the blog, but the triple picture combo that is the subject of the post entitled "Daaaa-deeeee!") It is of my niece, taken by my brother-in-law. I know this is a bit of a strange request, but please indulge me by checking it out and coming back here to tell me what you thought when you saw it.

Here is the link: Kate running toward her Daddy

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A Plea for Proper Projects

My oldest daughter explained yesterday why she hasn't posted on her new blog recently. ( As a former school teacher, I understood the reasoning behind the project, but as a parent and discerning oxygen consumer, I was annoyed.

In English, they are studying the transcendentalists and romanticists - those who longed for a simpler time, before the roiling rush of modern civilization ruined the pristine paradise of nature. In order to understand this ideology, the teacher assigned a project wherein the students would experience life without some of the modern technologies that intrude on a "natural" existence.

At first blush, this might sound reasonable - or even like a very good, well-conceived idea, but I personally think it is a waste of time and, actually, misguided. At the most basic level, I think most forms of transcendentalism / romanticism are warped constructs of paradise created by those wealthy enough to sit around doing nothing but spend precious time concocting elaborate justifications for their laziness. At a deeper level, however, I am troubled by two things: first, the inherent pessimism of an outlook that says, "My life would be better if only it were different," and second, the idea that there is something intrinsically bad about any technology that moves us away from our "natural state" - that turns us into something other than the "noble savage" of Burroughs and Cooper and other writers.

To be blunt, noble savagery is crap. People in those situations died early of things that hardly bother us now. Their lives usually were filled from sunrise to sunset with tasks designed simply to keep them alive. They often had little or no leisure time, so they never had time to think and ponder on the things of their soul - and, I contend, the ability to ponder spiritual things is the foundation of the ability to recognize and deepen spirituality. The vast majority of them never dreamed of spending time perusing blogs written by friends and family - keeping in touch with each other across unfathomable distances. Anyone who romanticizes a technology-free life has never lived such a life - or, conversely, has never known anything different. Nobody with half a brain would choose to go through surgery with a doctor who used a steak knife and a hammer (although those who would might end up with half a brain); there is a reason some new technologies are used while others die an ignominious death. Some make our lives more productive and provide joy; others don't.

Which brings me to my original rant. My daughter was asked to live for one week without using a cell phone or a computer (except for homework, which is the most ironic disclaimer I think I've heard in my entire life), watching TV, listening to the radio or an ipod, playing video games, using a microwave - in all, ten prohibitions in the project. In the end, I am left to say, "So what? What's the point?" They will not have gained an ounce of appreciation for life without such technologies; in fact, they will complete this project thinking even more adamantly that those they are studying were stupid and foolish. They are surrounded by thousands of people who are not bound by these restrictions, so they will not come close to experiencing what those they are studying extolled. Finally, they will have not gained any insight into the core principle being espoused - namely, that simplification can bring a peace that frenetic activity cannot. Technology is not the villain; a disconnect from nature is - and there is a HUGE difference between those two.

Ironically, it often is technology that provides the opportunity to simplify, reduce stress and enable increased peace. Some people decry the use of technology in schools without realizing that books and pencils and erasers and chalkboards all are technology that make learning easier and less restricted to the upper socio-economic classes. They decry the fracturing of family and the collapse of communication without recognizing that those who communicate the most broadly and the most often with the most people do so through the use of telephones (in all their varieties), e-mail, instant messaging, blackberries, etc. - all of which are nothing more than modern versions of the ancient couriers and written communication like mail. They decry the use of microwaves and instant foods without understanding that such inventions allow the elderly and more feeble to care for themselves in ways that were impossible just a few generations ago.

As with most things, I am left to decry those who advocate any extreme. I want my daughter to learn how to USE technology properly - how to integrate it into her life without letting it take control of her life - how to exploit its potential for good while avoiding its influence for evil. I want her to learn to strive for balance and moderation in all things, not to consider all things only in their extreme iterations. I want her to appreciate the wonder of nature, but I also want her to grow beyond her natural self. Most of all, as a teacher and educator at heart, I don't want her to waste precious time doing things that will not help her understand and achieve this balance and moderation - that rather, will drive her away from the lessons attainable in a more carefully and thoughtfully constructed experiment. I want it done correctly or not at all. In cases like this, partial exposure is worse than no exposure - and there is a lesson in there somewhere for any other area of our lives.