Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Reason for My Resolution

The following is the genesis for my New Year's Resolution this past year - and the New Year's Resolution that will post tomorrow for 2009. In order to re-introduce the rationale behind my effort to those who were not here last December to read it, I am re-posting it today:
OK, the title (The Problem with the Popular Perception of Perfection) is intentionally over-the-top alliteration, but it accurately reflects one of the biggest problems of the apostasy - and, I believe, one of the greatest obstacles in understanding the heart of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The great commandment "in the law" is, in summary, "Love God and everyone else." However, the great culmination of Christ's penultimate sermon (The Sermon on the Mount) is a powerful commandment outside the law - and, in a very real way, is the practical application of the command to love. This foundational command is contained in Matthew 5:48: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which art in Heaven is perfect."

Apostate Christianity has addressed this commandment in two ways: 1) by applying a legalistic meaning ("never make a mistake/commit a sin") and, based on the impossibility of that definition, 2) turning it into a suggestion - something one cannot hope to achieve but a nice platitude regardless. ("Try not to make mistakes/sin, but realize it doesn't really matter in the long run.") While this sounds fine - and even laudable - to most people, it totally destroys the power and beauty of the command itself. It is my conviction that someone simply cannot understand the atonement (and the full grace that makes "atonement" possible) if they accept and internalize this apostate definition of perfection.

The footnotes to Matthew 5:48 make a critical definition distinction - one that changes the entire meaning and empowers the command in an amazing way. Footnote (b), which is attached to the word "perfect", defines it from the Greek thus: "complete, finished, fully developed." This means that the verse can be read as follows:

"Be ye therefore complete, finished, fully developed, even as your Father which art in heaven is complete, finished, fully developed." What an amazing difference!

I am planning on delving further into the practical application of this principle in future posts, since I don't want this one to be a novella all by itself, but suffice it to say here that this definition changes fundamentally how our quest for perfection should be understood and approached - and, at the most basic level, lies at the heart of nearly every aspect of the atonement (grace, repentance, faith, works/fruits and, perhaps most importantly for many - especially women - guilt, shame and spiritual/emotional freedom).

If you take nothing from this post but one message, take the fact that you do NOT need to feel ashamed and guilty and overwhelmed by your "incomplete, unfinished, partially developed" state. The world teaches that such a state is irreconcilable with God; Matthew 5:48 says otherwise - saying it can be done - and the practical way to do so is provided, as well.

That practical process is what I will address in upcoming posts about my New Year's Resolution for the upcoming year.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Worshiping Among the Spirits

I believe that the temple structure of vicarious work is meant in part to pay homage to the dead (to recognize and honor every child of God, no matter their worldly significance) and to keep us connected to our ancestors and all of humanity in a way that prevents us from adopting a social evolutionist’s natural arrogance. ("Each succeeding generation is better and smarter than the last.") I also believe that the temple is our own version of the Buddhist shrines in individual houses - our own way to include our ancestors in the greatest blessings of our lives. There we worship among the spirits of our kindred dead.

We visit the graves where their physical bodies were buried, but we also visit a place where we believe their living spirits can see us and attend us and sometimes communicate with us. It is our way of saying, “We have not forgotten you, and we will not let go." I have not experienced open communication often, but I have experienced it on occasion - and there is nothing more sublime and intimate.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Recreating the Christmas of My Youth

Dane, comment #1 on Picard and Bergson on Christmas - Stephen P. (By Common Consent)

“It was the kind of Christmas I can’t seem to capture today. Or do I?”

I’ve struggled with that since my mission, trying to understand why I can’t seem to recreate the sense of Christmas from my youth.

The best answer I’ve found so far is that freedom from responsibility is essential to the “Christmas feeling”. It’s knowing that everything is alright, no one is expecting anything of you, and that if you take a few hours (or days) to sit and read a good book, the world won’t fall apart.

Other people’s Christmas experiences are different from mine (I guess that addresses your words on Bergson), but I believe that peace and freedom from stress are what made Christmas special for me as a child, and what I, as a husband and parent, find much harder to create.


May we recognize our dependence on Him whose birth we celebrate this day and allow that realization to grant us the peace and freedom from stress we used to feel as children. May we celebrate his childhood by rediscovering ours and putting away the stressful counterfeit that the world has built around our childhood celebrations. Our adult responsibilities need not rob us of the magic and wonder of this day, but it requires a conscious decision not present in the days of our youth. Then we simply could experience it; now we must "recreate" it in our own unique circumstances - whether that be surrounded by family or alone.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, one and all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Christmas Wish

My highest wish for all of my kids (including those who were born outside our biological family) is that they remember who they are collectively and learn who they are individually - that they think for themselves - that they be happy with who they are but be willing to let go of who they don't want to be (even if they never accomplish that fully in this life) - that they come to know their Father and His Son - that they come to understand "the grace that so fully He proffers" them - that they see repentance not as a burden of guilt but rather as an exciting process of growth and completion and discovery - that they become truly peculiar treasures, together and alone - that they find that certain someone without whom they will never be perfect (complete and whole) - and that, with that certain someone, they carve out lives that will satisfy and challenge and reward and fulfill and complete.

My wish is that this madhouse our kids' friends call The Hotel will be able to accommodate boarders eternally, even if in both the here and now and the hereafter that simply means a moment here and there as we watch our children establish homes (and perhaps hotels) of their own. If I see this wish fulfilled, I will live and die and live again happily - even if nothing else I desire comes to pass. If they can be as happy as I am, living as half of an eternal whole, I will praise God eternally for the love He has allowed me to experience and the joy He has given me.

Monday, December 22, 2008

My Dream: A Collective Mighty Change of Heart

I would feel like I had died and gone to heaven if every member in my ward and stake openly and sincerely invited everyone they knew to sit with us as we worship in Sacrament Meeting simply because they love them and want to share our worship with them - no other strings attached.

I would love to see our chapels packed to overflowing during Sacrament Meeting, even if many of the attendees left the building and didn't stay for the other two hours - because they weren't interested in the instruction that occurs in those meetings.

I would love to sit with a gay friend and his partner and their daughter, to smell cigarette smoke residue in the pew behind me, to wave to the girl in the tank top in the back, to see what tattoo or earring the man in front of me had added the previous week, to be surrounded by every shade of skin imaginable, etc - even if I had to wish them a blessed week after Sacrament Meeting ended, and even if I had no realistic hope in them ever being baptized and joining the Church.

In all seriousness, I believe that if we lived the true heart of the Gospel better, these friends would be among us - especially if our efforts to share the spirit of our worship were not tied to "conversion" but were focused more on simple friendship and fellowship - on the joy and spirit and peace of our worship. I think many would accept the occasional talk about the Law of Chastity or the Word of Wisdom or Modesty in Dress, if it wasn't directed in a judgmental way at them and their lifestyle - if they knew our standards didn't change our love for them. (I realize many would not accept it, but I believe many would.)

I have no problem telling the missionaries to stay away from a friend who comes to church with me, if that is what that friend wants. What matters to me is that my friend is there with me.

Of course, I want that friend to accept the Gospel, be baptized and receive the blessings of the Gospel that enrich my life - but that's not a condition of my invitation to worship with me. I wish with all my heart that we could open our arms and embrace anyone who walked through our chapel doors, sincerely and lovingly and unconditionally - and that we brought more diverse people with us through those doors. I don't think we have to compromise our doctrinal standards to do so, but we certainly have to experience a collective mighty change of heart.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Not Being "of All Men Most Miserable"

I like to think of faith as the motivation behind our actions - the hope that drives us to do things that otherwise might be illogical or indefensible. When someone asks about why faith is important, I share something like the following:

Faith is critical, because we act according to our beliefs and hopes - and many of our actions are based on the belief (hope) that they will be worth it somehow, even as we can't see exactly how they will be worth it. We can't see the end, but we believe (hope) it will be worth taking action now. Take away the basic concept of faith (removing the religious connotations), and you essentially destroy the motivation for selflessness and sacrifice and service - and society, to a large degree, hinges substantially on selflessness.
On (this) hang all the law and the prophets” was said about love, but underlying love is the asusmption (the faith) that love is a good thing - that acting and sacrificing because of love is worth it in the end. Not seeing the end, that belief is faith.

For example, I know we never would have taken in troubled kids if we didn’t believe our efforts would help them (or, at least, one of them) somehow, somewhere, sometime - since we experienced difficulty and pain along the way. Without that “faith” (the hope in something we couldn't see), those kids still would be living in their own private Hell.

Faith, at its most basic level, has to exist in this world, imo, or life simply isn’t worth living. Those who feel life simply isn’t worth the end result (who have no faith/hope in the outcome, whatever that might be) “are of all (wo)men most miserable”.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Two Halves Make a Whole

I met my wife 26 1/2 years ago this past Sunday - June 14, 1982. I was 16; she was 15. I felt that she was my "split-apart" within two days of meeting her - and that was something I never expected or believed could happen. It was exactly like re-establishing a relationship with a best friend you haven't seen for years. I knew within a week that I would marry her - no doubts whatsoever. Once she turned 16, I never dated anyone else. We were engaged prior to my mission and her senior year in high school - and I mean a real engagement with an actual engagement ring. We married less than 2 months after I returned from Japan - 22 years ago today.


We have never fought - truly fought; we have never yelled at each other; we have disagreed and had to work through disappointment and hurt feelings, but there hasn't been one moment in the last 22 years when I questioned whether or not we would be together forever - whether or not I wanted to stay with her - whether or not our marriage was the right decision.

Literally, she is the half that makes me whole. We the heaven I aspire to achieve.

I posted something months ago - one of the first posts on my then new blog. If you want to read the entire thing, here is the link. (Sleep is Over-Rated) The most relevant paragraph for this thread is the following:

Eternal marriage and family mean just a little more to me at this moment, since I have caught a tiny glimpse of isolated immortality, living as half the whole she and I are meant to be. If I can’t handle each night we are apart, I can’t fathom living endlessly without her – feeling alone in a vast cosmos – sleeping in a great and spacious hotel – forever, fitfully alone. I want to live on with my arm around her – in a universe surrounded by our children – even if that means I only get a little edge of it as my own and never get enough sleep.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

We Don't Know, 'Cause It Don't Say

Book of Mormon Geography - Ardis Parshall, quoting George Q. Cannon (Keepapitchinin)

Monday, December 15, 2008

I Smile Whenever They Look My Way

My father told me as a teenager that, one way or another, it was my responsibility to learn something in each and every sacrament meeting. I have taken that admonition very seriously over the years, but with a slight twist to help make it happen.

I listen carefully and intently to the first couple of minutes of every single adult talk. If I am not getting fed by the speaker, I let my mind wander and pray that the Holy Ghost will feed me instead. This approach rarely has failed me.

I approach youth talks differently. I pay attention to the youth speakers for their entire talks. I smile whenever they look my way. No matter what is being said, I do my best to do whatever I can to help inexperienced, scared young men and young women feel like what they are saying is important - and that, by extension, they are important. I have worked too long with teenagers to give them anything less than that.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I Simply Am a Mormon

In every objectively measurable way, I am a rock-solid Mormon. Those who know me and hear me speak often identify me as a conservative member. They see my current and past callings, my large family, my occupational choices, etc. and make an assumption based on what they observe.

Based on that visual assumption, I get away with teaching much of what is called "liberal" in some meetings without being called "liberal" by my fellow ward and stake members. That absolutely fascinates me. I personally hate these labels, since they almost never capture the full picture for individual members, tend to separate instead of unify and cause argument and contention where none is needed or helpful or uplifting. That saddens me more than I can express here.

How you or I understand our religion is a matter with which you and I need to struggle individually. As for me, I choose simply to judge not, that I be not judged. Even though I disagree adamantly with many people's answers, I have no problem accepting anyone who agrees with them as a believing, faithful Mormon.

So, for the record, I am both a conservative Mormon AND a liberal Mormon - according to how others view my statements and beliefs. To me, I simply am a Mormon.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sharing the Gospel: Sharing Our Stories

There is a new blog that is dedicated to recording special experiences with sharing the Gospel - from both those who have shared and those with whom it has been shared (including personal conversion stories). My hope is that it will become a repository of wonderful experiences - a place where anyone can read of the power of the Gospel as it is shared with ourselves and others.

Please, anyone who reads this post, click on the link below and check it out. Under "Purpose of This Blog", there is an e-mail address to which all stories can be sent. When I receive stories, I will schedule them - and send the author an e-mail letting him or her know when it will post.

Also, for those of you with your own sites, if you like what you see and agree with the vision it embodies, I would appreciate any help in publicizing this blog you can provide. The blog is:

Sharing the Gospel: Personal Stories

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Losing (the Church of) My Youth

I was raised in a small town in central Utah, and many of the sprawling orchards of my youth are now cookie-cutter subdivisions. I used to walk to my grandparents' house on Saturday - including 5 miles where I passed about a dozen houses. I visited a couple of years ago, and the distance walking among the trees and farmland has shrunk to less than half of what I once enjoyed. Some of my parents' neighbors have moved further west to "get back to the country." My four-ward town now has two bulging stakes. I used to know every kid near my age in town - quite well; my brother's and cousins' children now know fewer kids their age than I did - in a town over five times the size.

In many ways, I've lost my hometown - at least the town of my memories. I understand intellectually why it happened, but my heart never will accept it fully. I probably will never be back to live there, but I miss its simplicity, nonetheless.

In the same way, over the years I have lost the church of my childhood. There was a time when it all was easy - black and white - so clear and unambiguous. There was a time I saw "as a child" - and I loved and am grateful for that time of innocence.

Now, however, I have grown and put aside childish things. The church of my youth might not exist for me anymore, but I wouldn't go back to it. The church of my adulthood is messy and nuanced and baffling and frustrating at times, but it also is inspiring and challenging and growth-inducing and joyful. I glory in it, and I find glory in it (even amid the occasional goriness of it) - and I wouldn't go back to the church of my childhood. I am at home in the Church I know and love now, and anyone who has seen my house will tell you I don't mind the messiness as long as I have the love and growth and joy (and challenges) I experience in it.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Communal At-One-Ment

I gave a talk a while ago in which I spoke about guilt caused by expectations based on incorrect perceptions of others' righteousness. I talked, with permission, of those who see my children sitting quietly in Sacrament Meeting but don't see the battles in our home. I mentioned how hard it is for me to remember to pray each day vocally. My wife and I both have rather prominent callings, so it surprised some people, but it would have surprised more people if I hadn't shared similar things in private conversations and other group discussions.

This is going to sound really weird, but the whole struggle to find a proper balance between public vulnerability and private confession - between trying to live an ideal but recognizing and accepting our inability to do so - all of these things that are emotionally difficult - form the basis of one of the reasons I love the Restored Gospel so much.

The Atonement was not an easy accomplishment. It took sweat and blood and tears - at an incomprehensible level - and, I believe, covers millions of years. Accepting and embracing it fully (and its accompanying responsibilities) also is not an easy accomplishment. It also requires blood (sometimes) and sweat and tears, and it requires introspection and repentance and service and sacrifice. Finally, it can't be forced or coerced; it has to be attempted from an internal motivation that perseveres even in the absence of communal support - even though it flourishes best in an atmosphere of communal support. It requires we yearn for community (communal unity) and strive for community but don't condemn each other for our failure to achieve true community. It means I need to be willing to bare my soul and hope others join me, but not condemn or judge them if they don't.

It's complicated and profound and beautiful and painful - just like the Atonement itself was.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Love of My Life

Happy Birthday, Babe!

I love you now more than when we met over 26 years ago - more than when we were married almost 22 years ago - more than yesterday.

If eternity is like the last 26 years (full of ever-increasing love), I will be the most blessed man in it - because I will be with you.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Foundation of Joy

One of the reasons I loved my mission so much was that both of my Mission Presidents emphasized what I already believed about the purpose of a mission – both what it means to be a missionary and how that should direct missionary effort.

The foundation: I have believed a basic concept for as long as I can remember thinking about it. I have believed it from a very early age – even before I remember hearing anyone else articulate it. I finally found the perfect, concise expression of it in the following expression: "People do not believe what they see; they see what they believe."

The missionary application: I approached my mission as an attempt to find people who would accept our version of the Gospel when they heard it (who could catch a glimpse of the vision when it was presented to them) – or, I should say, who would not reject it when they began to hear it and refuse the chance to begin to see it. It wasn't my job to try to convince them intellectually, but rather to touch them spiritually.

Some people I met said, upon hearing various things we believe, "That's crazy. You're nuts. Mormonism really is a cult if you can believe that stuff." Some said, "Say what? Whatever. I just don't get it." Others said, "I don't get it, but I’d like to hear more." Finally, a few said, "That's exactly what I've always thought/felt!" Given what little time I had, my job wasn't to convince the first two groups, but rather to find and encourage the latter two groups – to help them feel the motivating influence of the Holy Ghost. That perspective led me to say, in essence, to everyone, "Follow what you feel – not what you think about it at first. Try it; you'll like it." If someone responded with strong negativity, my response basically was, "OK. I'll find someone else." They almost always spent more time and energy trying to convince me that I was wrong than I did trying to "convert" them. I was looking for a particular type of person - someone who was looking, first and foremost, for joy – either joy they lacked or more joy than they felt at the time. As I had experienced myself, once they found a core Gospel perspective that produced the joy they were seeking, they were able to wrap their minds around the theological and doctrinal details – the other “intellectual” stuff.

The choice: I believe you can tell more about people (both inside and outside the Church) by how they deal with the joy others find outside their own organization (or with differing perspectives that bring joy inside their own organization) than perhaps by any other criterion. One type of person lacks internal joy, constantly finds fault with the joy of others and actively seeks to undercut that joy; another type is secure in his joy and not interested in the differing joy of others; the final type accepts and embraces the idea that others have their own degree of joy - and tries to add to it (and, through it, add to their own joy) whenever possible. I don’t want to argue with the healthy and happy; I want to learn from them. I want to spend just as much of my time administering joy to the sick and searching.

The blogging observation: When I entered the world of blogging, I was struck immediately by two competing forms of discussion: the vast majority of those who participate in the blogs I frequent are sincerely searching for greater understanding and increased joy. Some of them, however, seem to be stuck in a cycle of trying to understand something intellectually before they can accept it spiritually. They seem to be saying, "I will accept this once I can understand it," rather than, "This brings me joy, so I will accept it and do my best to understand it - even if that means my understanding changes periodically, or regularly, or constantly over a long period of time." They say, "My heart wants to accept this, but my mind keeps me from accepting it," rather than, "My heart accepts this, so I will exercise my mind diligently to try to understand what I have accepted - knowing that that process might not end completely in this life, but I will continue to accept it regardless, because it brings me joy."

The personal observation: I am joyful because I have chosen an outlook that brings me joy; I am at peace because I made the conscious choice from among many options. This peace and joy are not primarily intellectual. I still must exercise my mind constantly in order to understand and reconcile the issues with which I am faced daily, and I love to read the nuanced, intelligent and insightful perspectives of others, but I do so from the foundation of belief. I hear someone (anyone - inside or outside the Church) say something, and my first thought is not, “I don’t get it; it must be wrong,” but rather “How can I understand this in a way that is consistent with my understanding of the Gospel – in a way that will add to my joy?” In all seriousness, that approach has not let me down yet - particularly since I am willing to suspend disbelief when I'm not getting anywhere and revisit the issue when my mind has had time to rest and recuperate. Sometimes, what I consider to be a "full" understanding (meaning as close as I believe I will ever get to knowing fully) has taken years to achieve, and there are some questions that still sit on a shelf untouched for a time while I refine my understanding of others. I'm fine with that.

The question: Why is this? The answer: I know I am able to construct just about any intellectual justification I desire that will warrant just about any theological / philosophical / doctrinal construct I choose to accept. Given my ability to adapt a solid intellectual argument for whatever I desire to believe, I exercise my agency by focusing on what I desire to believe – what my heart and soul tells me it wants to believe - what brings me joy. I consider the options and make my choice. Again, since my brain is capable of justifying whatever choice I make, I pick my course (what kind of life I want to live), then I construct / adopt / assimilate the perspective that I feel will lead best to the end of that course.

The result: The only intellectual restriction I place on my mind is that whatever I devise must be consistent with the over-arching and under-pinning principles I hold central to my understanding of joy - in my terminology, the core principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as I understand them. I have been accused of engaging in mental gymnastics, but I believe life is, in very real and powerful ways, an obstacle course. I believe everyone plays within their own gymnasium or on their own steeple chase course (jumps through their own intellectual hurdles - or stops and refuses to surmount them) in ways that look odd to others whose conclusions are different. I understand completely the concerns others express, but the joy I feel now is my own soul's condition – what my heart/spirit has directed my mind/body to accept. I no longer feel joy; I have it - and it has me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Daughters of a King

I was in a ward a while ago that presented a Young Women's program - exactly like a Primary Program but done by the teenage girls. It included the song "Daughter of a King" that literally had me crying in the congregation. I am moved (both emotionally and spiritually) regularly in Sacrament Meeting (in a wonderful stake), but hearing and seeing young women's voices ring and faces glow as they testify that they are royal by birth and worth something in a world that doesn't tell them that nearly enough . . .

I have four daughters, and I bless the fact that they attend a church where they can claim to be literal daughters of a King - and future Queens in their own right.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Truly Hilarious Blog: I Highly Recommend Bookmarking It

Overheard in the Ward

I generally don't do this in a formal post (in fact, I've never done this in a formal post), but the above blog is, as my former students would say, abso-stinkin-lutely hilarious. I don't think I've found a funnier one in the entire Bloggernacle - or anywhere else, for that matter. I recommend bookmarking it for those moments when you simply need to laugh until you cry.

Also, it is participatory - so anyone can submit funny things they have heard that deal directly with the Church. For example, one of the last submissions - no funnier than many:

CTR 8 Teacher on first day of new calling: My wife and I don’t know the rules of your class so why don’t we all work together to come up with some we can follow.

CTR 8 Child: Never swim in bath oil or bisquick!

Enjoy this wonderful blog!

Monday, December 1, 2008

An Ironic Reflection on Exaltation

My oldest son attends college on the East Coast, over 500 miles away. Chances are very good that he will end up remaining somewhere in that area after he graduates. My next son almost surely will study hundreds of miles away and, if his plans come to fruition, will live even further away than his older brother. My oldest daughter will attend BYU (over 1,500 miles from home). I suspect within two years, our immediate family will resemble that of my parents - with half of our kids at home and the other half far away. Once the younger ones graduate from high school, I'm not sure any of them will live near us.

As for myself, I have lived on the other side of the continent (and world on my mission) from my parents for more than 20 years. Of 8 children, I am the only one that is the spitting image of my father physically. As the oldest son, I feel a particular responsibility for the welfare of my parents and siblings, but I live many hundreds of miles from all of them. (Half of us live in Utah, within 100 miles of my parents.) Anyone who read my Father's Day tribute to my father will understand how deeply I love and admire that man - but I almost never get to see him, and I'm not there to share his burdens as his health slowly deteriorates. I would give almost anything to be nearer to Dad and Mom, except the one thing I cannot give - the life my wife and I have created for my own family.

Ironic, yes, but I think both my heavenly and earthly parents understand, just as I understand that my own family will leave us soon - since that is how I picture the eternities, as well.