Saturday, July 31, 2010

Leaving is Only Temporary; Loving Lasts Forever

I didn't write a New Year's Resolution post last night, because I had been at a professional conference most of the week without access to the internet (don't get me started) - and when I got home, I went with my family to the Nauvoo Pageant last night. We had gone twice already this summer (opening with our oldest daughter's boyfriend and our extended family when they were here for our youngest daughter's baptism and later with our children and our son's girlfriend), but some friends from Cincinnati (Jungkunzs) were in Nauvoo yesterday - so we decided to go again to see them, especially so our kids could see their daughter again. It was great to see them, but it also reinforced how small the Mormon world is.

We were walking into the area where all of the pre-pageant activities occur (the stilts-walking, the sack races, the dancing, etc.) when we started to pass a young boy in period costume. As they are taught to do, he asked where we were from - and, for some reason, Mama mentioned both MO and OH. He told her, "I live in Ohio." She looked more closely at him and realized she recognized his face. His family attends the ward (Hamilton) that meets with our old ward (Fairfield); we know his parents well (mother sang in Christmas programs with us and father served on the High Council with me before being called as the Bishop of their ward just before we moved); I've mentioned his father on this blog in a post about when the former Bishop died unexpectedly.

This young boy took us to where his parents were setting up to run the youth sack races, and we were able to talk with them for a few minutes before the pageant started. It was wonderful to see them again, and the thoughts that struck me immediately were two-fold:

1) What were the chances that we and their son would have crossed paths like we did last night, since we never would have realized they were there otherwise?

2) What were the chances we would have been there a third time this summer, since I have no motivation generally to see or attend the same event even twice within a few weeks?

We finished talking with the Foisters and moved on to find the seats that Jungkunzs had saved for us, placed our stuff on the chairs, and everyone else left to enjoy the activities. As I was standing there looking around (people watching as I often do), I noticed another familiar face - and the white shirt, tie and missionary name tag that accompany his current calling. It was Elder Moore, a full-time missionary who had served in our ward in Quincy, IL. He saw me at the same time, so he came over and talked for a few minutes. He is leaving to return home today, and his parents had come out to pick him up and drive home with him. They decided to attend the pageant before leaving, and his Mission President gave him permission to do so. We were sitting within about five rows of each other, so we had seen each other right away.

Again, the same two questions popped into my mind as I mentioned with the Foisters - with the first question modified to be:

What are the chances that Elder Moore and his parents would be sitting within a few rows of us - directly in front of us - and able to see us amid the crowd?

If they or Jungkunz's had chosen almost any other location, we probably would have missed each other completely.

Now, I'm not saying there was any kind of divine intervention in the course of these events - particularly since I do not believe in a micro-managing, puppetmaster God. All I'm saying is that it made me stop and think about things that naturally appear to be random accidents - coincidences that defy statistical probability - and realize that they occur more frequently in a small, tight-knit community where strong attachments are common. There might or might not have been a bit of Spirit-directed activity at play last night, but it is instructive that we met a family and an individual we knew well and loved largely because we belong to a religious community that promotes such close ties and creates ways for us to make deep, lasting friendships outside of "Sunday worship" services. Our ties to the Jungkunzs, the Foisters and Elder Moore were not forged in church on Sunday; they were created in extra-Sunday associations - musical events, Stake callings, visits to our home, etc.

That is powerful - much more powerful, in my opinion, than merely believing (generally) the same core principles and doctrines and sitting near each other each Sunday. In fact, it emphasizes something I believe strongly - that the importance of the exact nature of the nuances of our individual beliefs pales in comparison to the ties that we create through the lives we live. It is FAR more important to me to share unity in the activities of our lives (to be unitedly orthoprax, if you will - living alike) than to share unity in the small details of our faith (to be unitedly orthodox, if you will - thinking alike).

I would be bored to tears in a world where everyone thought exactly alike (and it would be a pretty good approximation of Lucifer's ideal, imo - since there would not be an opposition in all things); I find great joy and peace and enlightenment in a small community where people live in unity and love even while thinking and believing quite differently about almost everything imaginable. That, to me, is Zion - unity of purpose and shared living despite differences, not exact unity of thought and the elimination of differences. Zion also is reuniting with those we have loved and left - and realizing the leaving was only temporary, but the loving lasts forever.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Spirituality is NOT Emotionalism

The following is the largest reason why I am uncomfortable with a focus on spirituality rather than righteousness:

When the ideal we identify is tied up in how we feel, it is easy to alter "spiritual" into "emotional" - and from there to assume that those who appear to be more emotional (can cry more easily, can empathize more readily, are more prone to share their emotions, are more prone to bear their testimonies, etc.) are more spiritual. I know I am speaking in very general terms with myriad exceptions, but I think almost everyone who reads what I just wrote would have a hard time not picturing women instead of men.

Personally, I think we tend to believe that women are more spiritual than men specifically because we have altered the original meaning of "spiritual". To me, spirituality is not the end; it really is just half of the necessary balance with proper physicality that constitutes righteousness of an entire soul. I'm not sure how to say that properly, since I don't mean to denigrate spiritual things at all, but I just don't see spirituality as an end result of its own - and I am wary of the results that occur when it becomes such.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Brave and Happy Life

"Happiness comes more from loving than being loved; and often when our affection seems wounded it is only our vanity bleeding. To love, and to be hurt often, and to love again - this is the brave and happy life." - J. E. Buchose.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I Never Told My Dad, "I Love You," Growing Up

I loved the song, “Leader of the Band” (Dan Fogelberg) when it first came out, because it described my own father - and my band and choir directors in high school. Whenever I hear that song now, my mind automatically jumps to the following lines:

"He earned his love through discipline: a thundering, velvet hand.

His gentle means of sculpting souls took me years to understand."

"I thank you for the kindness and the times when you got tough,

And, Papa, I don’t think I said, ‘I love you,’ near enough."

My dad never said, "I love you," while we were growing up, so I never said that to him growing up. I knew he loved us - and that he loved my mother indescribably, but he just didn't say those words. He wasn't stoic or anything like that, and he certainly wasn't cold or aloof in any way whatsoever; he just didn't say, "I love you," to his children. He also wasn't physically demonstrative with regard to his affections.

I say, "I love you," every day, generally multiple times each day, to my own children (each and every one of them individually), and I also am a natural hugger. I made it a point a few years ago to start telling my dad openly, "I love you," whenever we talked on the phone. I can't express how glad I am that I made that decision, and how wonderful it is to hear him say it back to me.

He had a stroke a little while ago (from which he is recovering mostly), and it was such a comfort to know that one of the last things he heard me say before that happened was, "I love you."

If there is someone in your life with whom it's been difficult to share your emotions, or someone who has been difficult to love, please consider the situation and see if you can find a way to discover the power of saying a few short words on a regular basis to them. Hopefully, before long, "I love you," will be among them.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Building Practical Unity in Marriage

My wife and I try to operate "by common consent" and unanimity. We talk about everything imaginable and, whenever an "important" decision needs to be made we make it together. If we can't agree, we stick with the status quo.

That means our children don't get most of their last-minute requests, since my wife and I haven't had a chance to discuss it - and, in almost all cases, what they are requesting is not a real emergency situation. I simply tell them, "You know I can't give my permission without talking to Mama. You also know we generally don't make decisions like that the same day you ask us. We need time to think and talk about it. What can you do to rearrange it for next week or this weekend?" If it really is an emergency situation and we don't agree, she allows me to decide - knowing I then am the one who has to deal with the consequences if my decision is incorrect or causes unexpected complications. (and I mean it when I say she "allows" it)

Too many people (including parents) think that decisions MUST be made in the moment. I can't think of a single time we've delayed a decision on which we didn't agree and regretted it later.

Having said all of that, she cares more about many things than I do, so I am fine if most of our decisions reflect what she wants. My boys have learned the "Yes, Dearem Theorem". Very few things are worth making a conflicting issue of them that must be resolved immediately by one person over-riding the other.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Charity Thinketh No Evil: The Power of and Problem with Humming a Hymn

In discussing the idea that "charity thinketh no evil", I would be remiss if I didn't go back to the most basic interpretation of this concept and acknowledge the foundational legitimacy of the most commonly proposed "solution" or coping mechanism - along with its most fundamental flaw. I need to discuss the difference between engagement and replacement as it relates to the idea of eliminating evil thoughts from our minds.

One of the most recognized phrases within the LDS Church's mainstream culture is, "Hum your favorite hymn." This motto is part of a primary song that children learn, and the overall idea is described thus in that song:

If on occasion you have found your language is in question, Or ugly thoughts come to your mind, then here's a good suggestion: Just hum your favorite hymn. Sing out with vigor and vim, And you will find it clears your mind. Hum your favorite hymn.

Before you say an angry word, remember you'll regret it, For once it's said the harm is done, and people won't forget it. Just hum your favorite hymn. Sing out with vigor and vim, And you will find it clears your mind. Hum your favorite hymn.

First, it's important to emphasize that this is good advice to handle those times when "evil" or "improper" thoughts come to mind unbidden. It is good advice particularly for those, like children, who have not found a way to keep those thoughts at bay in the first place. It is, however, a process of engagement - not a process of replacement, so it is only a "preparatory" or "initial" activity.

By that distinction, I mean that relying on humming a hymn, while effective to a degree, assumes that there will be regular thoughts that come to mind that must be engaged - battled in some way. There is no recognition of any need to change the mind - or the environment in which the mind operates - in such a way that the mind itself generally keeps such thoughts from developing to the extent that an engagement mechanism is necessary. In other words, rather than merely engaging an alternative activity every time an improper thought crosses the stage of our minds in order to engage and reject the thought, a replacement approach would be to condition the mind to keep the doors to the stage locked and not allow the improper thoughts to walk onto the stage in the first place. After all, "idle hands are the devil's workshop" - and, likewise, idle minds are the devil's playground.

I'm not certain at the personal level that perfect (full, complete, fully developed) elimination / replacement is possible, since I have not reached that state yet; hence, the acknowledgment that engaging by humming a hymn is a good first step and training model when unbidden thoughts come to mind. However, just as a "Fresh View of Repentance" involves "a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world", dealing with evil thinking in totality must be attempted by changing one's very mind.

How is that possible? How can a mind be changed so fundamentally that it simply ceases to think anything that is evil - either in a purely moral sense or in the sense of not being harmful in nature, as has been discussed in my previous New Year's Resolution posts this month?

Fortunately, there is a simple answer to this question - one that is almost as omni-present as the humming of a hymn. In fact, the humming of a hymn actually is one possible manifestation of this answer - namely, filling one's mind with good thoughts and leaving no room for evil thoughts to crowd in and need to be engaged. This is why humming a hymn is a good practice on those occasions when an evil thought does intrude - but there is much more that can and should fill our minds than just the words and tunes of hymns. I didn't say it is an easy way - merely that it is simple.

Any good and virtuous thought - any contemplation of a positive nature - any act of service (both in the planning stages and in implementation) - any discussion of value - any study of good books - any listening to uplifting or calming or inspiring music - ad infinitum; all these things can fill our minds and bodies with proactive good and keep unworthy thoughts from intruding.

The best approach, therefore, is not to allow "down time" in such a way that unwanted thoughts encroach upon our minds. Rather, even in those necessary down times, we can fill our minds with goodness and right.

How that is accomplished on an individual level must be, of necessity, an individual decision - since exactly what will inspire and uplift and edify and teach and expand spiritually and intellectually and emotionally (what will keep evil thoughts at bay) will vary from person to person. That, in a nutshell, is the most important reason why humming a hymn cannot be the default mechanism on which everyone relies - and it is why full replacement will not occur without proactive, intentional planning and conscious choice.

We are not robots to be programmed; we are souls that need to grow toward perfection. Humming a hymn can take us only so far - and that distance will vary for each person.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Different Way to View Right and Wrong: Considering the Priesthood Ban

There is a HUGE difference between something not being God's ideal and something being "wrong" - in the sense that it could have been done differently. Let me use my own life as an example, first.

There are things I do that are not according to God's ideal. In a vacuum, they are - each and every one - "wrong". There also are things that my wife does that, in isolation, are "wrong". I flat out refuse, however, to insist that she change those things now - and I refuse to nag her and publicly say that she "should" be able to stop right this instant. As long as she (and I) is sincere in her heart and is trying to change, I accept fully her current ability to live the best she knows how - despite those areas where she still falls short of her own and God's ideal. She is who she is, and I love her dearly and unconditionally. I don't apologize for her, privately or in public; that would be judgmental and even more "wrong" than her weaknesses are in and of themselves.

An historical example:

Why do we assume that the early Church (meaning its living and breathing members, NOT the impersonal organizational entity), had to have been able to have our current racial understanding and acceptance - and why do we feel the need to apologize for them? Merciful heavens, they sacrificed and suffered in ways that I'm sure would have destroyed me. Just because they couldn't rise above their racism, why should we condemn them? Why should we insist that God should have MADE them do what they couldn't do - be who they couldn't be - and why do we assume God isn't crying over our own inabilities to live His law even while allowing us to stumble in our own weakness?

I believe, personally, that God allowed the Priesthood ban to exist and continue as long as it did specifically because He is so gracious and merciful and loving toward His children. I know that is counter-intuitive and sounds harsh when viewed from the perspective of those who were denied that blessing, but I desperately want Him to treat me that way, so I strive to allow Him to have treated racist but otherwise wonderful people the same way. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." I can't express how much I desire to obtain mercy, and if that requires that I quit demanding others be who they aren't ready to be - in this case, to quit demanding past leaders not have been racist or demanding that current leaders claim to know what they simply don't know (e.g., why the Priesthood ban happened) - then that is something I am willing to do.

Do I think the ban "originated" from God - that God revealed it to the Church? NO - unequivocally. Do I think God allowed it to happen without forcing revelation that the Church probably couldn't have handled? Yes. Do I believe that inter-racial temple marriage would have caused schisms in a church soon to be torn by the practice then cessation of polygamy - perhaps destroying it in its relative infancy? Perhaps, and I lean toward, Yes. I believe the ban was the product of racism, but I'm not sure it was "totally wrong" - in that I'm not sure it could have been different, given the composition of the membership and the time in which they lived. Just as a start, to avoid the ban, someone else other than Brigham Young would have had to have been the prophet, and I'm not sure the Church would have survived without "The Lion of the Lord" at its helm during those years. The more I study the more I believe that, even with his flaws and speculation and strong- and sometimes narrow-minded opinions, he literally saved the Church during those hellish years.

The point is, I don't know if the ban was "wrong" in that sense, even though I think it was not what God wanted in His heart - not "right" from a moral sense. I just don't know. So I have no problem when our leaders say they don't know.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Convincing the Jew and the Gentile, When They are One Person

"Aviva Levine": The God of Her Fathers - Ardis Parshall (Keepapitchinin)

The original post is powerful, and the comments identifying "Aviva Levine" as Annette Tilleman Lantos are fascinating.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Even for Prophets, "I Don't Know" Is a Reasonable Answer

Too many people simply expect too much from prophets. If we reject our modern prophets because they were spectacularly wrong on certain things, while being incredibly inspired on others, then there have been no legitimate prophets in the history of the world. On the other hand, if we expect our prophets to be infallible - to speak the direct word of God in all matters every time they speak, then there have been no legitimate prophets in the history of the world. If that is our standard, God has never spoken to mankind - and, by extension, there might as well not be a God. That’s not hyperbole; if prophets have to be infallible, even on “important stuff”, there ain’t no such thing as prophets.

Perhaps the best example of this, in my opinion, is the Priesthood ban. The central messages from the 1978 revelation, and from Elder McConkie's subsequent repudiation of the previous justifications, appear to have been twofold:

1) ALL worthy male members now were entitled to the priesthood.

2) God wanted His prophets and apostles to stop speculating about things that had not been revealed. McConkie’s statement at BYU was instructive for that very reason. He said, essentially, that the problem arose from prophets talking about things with only a limited light and understanding. That leads directly now to “I don’t know” when an apostle or prophet has not received personal revelation concerning something.

I probably should follow that advice more often, but I don’t speak for the Church. Apostles and Prophets do. (Look at Elder Benson vs. Pres. Benson. The difference between what he said prior to becoming President and afterward is striking.) Hence, apostles have been much more reticent to give personal opinions lately when asked about things where there has been no direct revelation.

If we criticize Brigham Young and Bruce R. McConkie for their incorrect speculation, then criticize Pres. Hinckley and current leaders for their unwillingness to speculate, we have created an un-winnable situation. They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

“I don’t know” is a reasonable answer - and we shouldn't try to have it both ways.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Freakishly Awesome Book

I’m not sure we ever will be able to know conclusively exactly what Mormon left out of the Book of Mormon, so I stick with my personal impressions and attempts to parse what he included. It’s interesting to me that even a “faithful” interpretation of it as a historical record can be much more ambiguous than most assume.

I accept the Book of Mormon generally as the perception of two men (Mormon and Moroni) who abridged all the records of their time into one concise account. (the small plates of Nephi being the exceptions) Therefore, it is as “true” as they made it - and as the original recorders made their writings that eventually were abridged. I believe it is 'true", but that doesn't mean it is objective "truth". More on that in a minute.

It is said many times within the Book of Mormon itself that the original writers picked and chose only a few things to share (e.g., not a hundredth part), and Mormon and Moroni picked and chose only a few of those things - all dealing with one central theme: How the interaction of God with his people would be best presented to people of a much later day. That’s selective history to begin with; when you add the long practice of “likening these things unto ourselves” and Mormon’s “thus we see” commentary (and the fact that Moroni might have had up to 35 years in isolation to craft and hone his story), it is easy for me to see how the final product could read like “the good parts version” concept described in The Princess Bride. (How’s THAT for a comparison? Am I Mormon or what?)

In other words, I believe Mormon and Moroni recreated a spiritual history record, filtered through their ability to look back at the destruction of their people - which easily could have led to the romanticizing of certain narratives and the actual selection of some things over others. When a writer goes into a historical account with a specific agenda, what he produces OFTEN is closer to “historical fiction” than to “unbiased fact”.

Do I believe the Book of Mormon is “inspired fiction” in the same way that the term commonly is understood? No; I don't. Do I believe it is “true history” in the sense that it is unbiased reporting of fact? No; I don't. Do I think it is historical in nature and the record of an actual people? Yes; I do. Do I think it is a freakishly awesome book? Yes, and that doesn't even begin to describe it's awesomeness. Do I think most members understand the full extent of what it really says and is? Not at all; I know I don't. Do I think there is so much packed into it that it startles me on a regular basis? Absolutely - without a question.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Charity Thinketh No Evil: Harming Not One's Self

In my first New Year's Resolution post this month, I discussed the idea that evil is seen properly more as action in relation to others than in a vacuum - that, in and of itself, it is not merely an intellectual idea. This weekend, I want to describe something else that has struck me as I have contemplated this idea - first by quoting a very commonly referenced passage in the Book of Mormon, then by focusing again on the idea of "evil" being defined best as that which harms or would cause harm if acted upon - but in a different way.

2 Nephi 2:11 says:

For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things.

In my own words, the rest of this verse goes on to talk about how no ideal can exist in a vacuum - that something can be CREATED only in combination with its opposite - that it exists originally only as a reflection of that which it opposes.

2 Nephi 2:12 then says something incredibly profound and important about the theoretical condition of the lack of opposition - something that gets overlooked too often when opposition in discussed. It says:

Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation.

To what "purpose in the end of its creation" might this verse refer - a purpose that would have become "a thing of naught" if opposition did not exist?

Verse 13 expands on this theme, then says:

And if these things are not, there is no God.

This, then, is the ultimate "end of its creation" - the ultimate purpose that would be frustrated by a lack of opposition and cause the entire creation to be a thing of naught (of no worth or value) - ensuring that there can be God.

Verses 14 & 16 take this idea (that the entire end and purpose of creation is to provide a way for God to exist as God) and bring mortals into the picture in a way that describes perfectly our status as His children. It says that he created:

both things to act and things to be acted upon . . . Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself.

All of this points to the idea that we, as children of God, have been created to act "for ourselves" independently - rather than merely as objects to be acted upon.

In Last week's New Year's Resolution post, I discussed the difference between pornography and nudity as they relate to thinking no evil (inflicting no harm) - but this week I want to expand that idea to its full conclusion and include thoughts that harm one's self (only or along with others).

As I have considered what has come to me this week, I have realized that much of what I deem to be indefensible pornography not only represents actions that, if acted upon, would harm others, but that it also harms those who participate in its creation in a very real and critical way. I mentioned last week that the worst harm done by pornography might be the objectification it encourages of those who are the "receivers" of the actions portrayed, but I did not explore the objectification of those who are the "givers" or "perpetrators" of those actions. Even if they play the part of those who act, in reality they are used as objects every bit as much as those they use in what is created - almost always as commercial goods to be exploited for financial profit, but also as images upon which others act. That objectification is in direct opposition to the great plan of creating children to act like their parents - to take responsibility for acting in such a way that opposition is identified, extremes are separated, and new creatures are created who are capable of acting perfectly (wholely, completely and in a fully developed manner) on their own.

This post is not about pornography - which is nothing more than one example of something that frustrates the purpose of creation by removing our ability to act independently as free agents. It is about understanding that the thoughts we allow to carve out a place in our minds are "evil" not only if they lead to the harm of others but also if they lead to the harm of ourselves - if they increase our dependence on forces that act upon (and eventually control) us and decrease our ability to act of our own will and according to the dictates of our own conscience - if they decrease our ability to change our original nature ("repent").

There are myriad applications of that principle - that "fresh view of repentance", and I will try to highlight a few in my post next week. I probably will focus most closely on how our actions must not restrict others' ability to experience this process of repentance, as that is what has come most forcefully to my mind as I have written this post.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Being the Lord's Hands - Rather Than Our Own Hands That He Sometimes Directs

First, I believe the best definition of "obedience" from a Gospel perspective is:

doing the will of the Lord

Our commandments are nothing more than our attempts to provide very basic statements that represent the will of the Lord for ALL - but our own scriptures are replete with examples of instances when individuals understood the Lord's will for them at that moment to be different than a commandment that applied to all. I believe exceptions must by exceptions, and I believe that the person claiming the exception must be convinced it is from the Lord (and I believe many "exceptions" really are not of God but merely justifications and rationalizations of the natural man), but I believe strongly in exceptions that are approved by the Lord in unique or even merely individual circumstances.

There are multiple ways doing the will of the Lord can be pursued, and it is important to consider what works best for you as an individual.

I am going to present two extremes, with the understanding that they are not the only options for true and sincere attempts to do the will of the Lord. This is a thought exercise, not a prescription - since I believe each of us must consider our own abilities, capacities and circumstances to determine exactly what approach we must take to be obedient, especially since it is next to impossible to be obedient to every "rule" that has arisen through the culture of the church.

Jesus said that all the law and the prophets hang on love. Thus, all the other commandments, rules, customs and social norms are supplemental guidelines that, hopefully, lead us to or are expressions of that love. The following, again, are examples of the extremes in how we might show our love and attempt to do the will of the Lord - but there are as many individual ways as there are individual children of God.

When we see someone who needs help, two extremes might show our love and desire to help:

1) Lord, I will help anyone you tell me to help.

2) Lord, I will help anyone I see who needs help, unless you tell me not to do so.

When we see someone who does not understand the Gospel:

1) Lord, I will share with anyone with whom you tell me to share.

2) Lord, I will share with everyone, unless you tell me not to do so.

When we hear something that we believe to be incorrect or misleading:

1) Lord, I will correct anything you tell me to correct.

2) Lord, I will correct anything that I believe is incorrect, unless you tell me not to do so.

Again, I am NOT claiming that one of these approaches is good and the other is bad - or even that one always is better than the other. I am not saying that one constitutes doing the will of the Lord and the other does not. I have been in situations where, in that moment or time in my life, the first was better for me - but I also have been in situations where, in that moment or time of my life, the second was better for me. I believe that determination must be made at the personal level, but I also believe it must be a conscious decision or the default position will be the first approach - and I believe that position, while good, is not ideal as the default for all situations. I believe there must be areas where we are willing to be the Lord's hands (as Pres. Uchtdorf said in a recent talk) and not just our own hands that He directs.

That is a subtle distinction, but it is an important one to me.

I believe it is much more about our attitude with regard to love and service than it is about the specific, exact service we render, and I believe our attitude is FAR more important than the quantitative amount of service we provide - or the dollar value that might be attached to it. I believe we need to be willing to give our all for others - to "be the Lord" for them. I believe that is important as an ideal, even if we never are sure exactly how much of what we do actually is directed by Him or merely constitutes our own intuition and best attempts. After all, the ideal is that we become like Him - doing what He would do (with our own limitations upon Him) were He there to do it.

That parenthetical (with our own limitations upon Him) is easy to forget, but it is vital, I believe, to happiness, joy and peace as we serve and strive to be His hands.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Theological Implications of Popcorn

Draw your own spiritual analogy - Rebecca J (By Common Consent)

Warning: Very mild use of what some people consider to be offensive language.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Don't Let the "Stuff" Get in the Way of the Big Picture

I was fortunate in many ways growing up, not least of which was being raised by very common, “salt of the earth” parents who will never attain any level of acclaim, but who taught us that the Church and the Gospel were up to us to figure out. They took us to church and taught us in our home, but they never claimed to understand everything - and they never expected anyone else to understand everything.

For example, my dad used to say that if he left the Church every time someone said something stupid or offensive, he would never have time to set foot in the church - since just about everyone says something stupid or offensive every single day. He said that prophets were very different - since they said something stupid or offensive only occasionally. He said that the Lord had never said the Church was perfect - just that it was “true” and “living” - and he never defined “true” as related to Truth (”correct in all things”) but merely as “conforming to or consistent with a standard, pattern, or the like: a true copy” or “of the right kind; such as it should be; proper: to arrange things in their true order”.

The interesting things is that my dad NEVER would have said what I just wrote. Those aren’t his words; he is not an academician or “intellectual” by any stretch of the imagination. He hated school and would have been a long-haul trucker if he hadn’t had a family and a wife who desperately needed him home. Instead, he became a mechanic, then a printer, then a school janitor. What I just described is how I interpreted what he said - how it was translated inside me. It gave me a foundation that just doesn’t care much about the details - even though I really like to study and consider and discuss them. I love the learning; I just don’t put much eternal stock in it compared to what I do and the attitudes I develop - what I become.

Finally, “a prophet is not accepted in his own country” for a reason. The people with whom he was raised have seen his humanity - his natural man, if you will. They know he isn’t unique enough to be a prophet, since they either gave him a wedgie as a kid and he swore at them, or they received a wedgie from him and swore at him. We hold our own prophets (and spouses and children and parents and friends) to a much higher standard than we use to measure others whose warts we don’t see as clearly, and that often keeps us from understanding the amazing characteristics that we take for granted as what they really are. That’s natural, but it also is too bad, since we miss out on so much when we let the "stuff" distract us from the big picture.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sometimes We Think Too Much

Sometimes we overlook the simple in our search for the profound.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Charity Thinketh No Evil: Pornography vs. Nudity

In my New Year's Resolution post from last weekend (Charity Thinketh No Evil: A Totally New Thought For Me), I wrote about a new thought that had never hit me previously. It was that:

Perhaps, just as sound might not exist without the ability to hear, wickedness and immorality might not exist without the ability to harm.

In other words, perhaps "thinketh no evil" might be translated more clearly as "thinketh nothing that would harm others if actually done to them"

I want to focus today first on the concept of harm as it relates to thoughts, then turn to actual examples of thought types that constitute "thinking evil" as it relates to harm.

The first thing that jumps to mind is the need to reiterate that causing harm can be done both to others and to self. Thus, "thinking evil" can apply to thoughts that would harm others if put into action, but it also can apply to thoughts that would harm one's self. The most obvious danger in considering this line of thought is that establishing what constitutes "harm" is a subjective exercise. The clearest example of this for a blog focused on religion, spirituality and righteousness is the fact that thoughts about how to preach the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ as understood within the LDS Church would not be considered harmful in any way to a member of that church (or to many people who are members of other churches or religions) - but it would be considered of utmost harm by those who believe Mormons are destined for Hell. Thus, establishing exactly what constitutes harm to others and, therefore, thinking evil is, by nature, not an objective pursuit.

That does not relieve me, however, of the need to attempt to consider the question. If, as Paul asserts, charity includes thinking no evil, then it is critical to attempt to understand what he meant by that statement - and, if harm is tied intrinsically into that prohibition, how to define harm is a central issue. I turn, therefore, to the dictionary again to start.

"Harm" is defined best for this discussion as:

injury; damage; injustice; violation; negative distortion; degradation; abuse

So, "thinking evil" would constitute actively considering ways to injure, do damage, cause injustice, violate, distort negatively, degrade or abuse.

As I contemplated these examples, the first thing that registered was something I had not considered in the context of charity - at least not that charity is the primary principle being "violated" by it. That thing is pornography. I do not want to go into explicit detail in this post, but I do want to explain why that issue came to mind immediately - with a careful distinction between nudity and pornography.

1) I am bothered almost as much by the idea that all nudity is pornography as I am by pornography itself - and the thought process that led me to consider pornographic thoughts as something that is counter to charity led me also to make the clear distinction I mentioned above.

Nudity, in and of itself, is natural. It can be beautiful, although it certainly is not so in every instance. Most importantly for this discussion, however, there is nothing harmful (injurious or damaging) in simple nudity. It is what we do with nudity that makes it harmful - how we think about it with relation to others, particularly, that leads away from charity and toward harm.

2) Pornography can be defined to encompass various presentation methods, but I want to focus this post on the type of presentation method that is harmful in nature.

There are obvious examples of physically harmful presentations, and thinking actively of them probably constitutes the worst violation of charity with regard to this issue, but I believe there are other areas where harm is both real and profound. As I have spoken with people who view pornography of various kinds, I have been struck by how much of what they view is degrading, abusive, injurious, damaging, etc. to their perception of the type of people who are the objects of the actions being portrayed. In other words, many people start to view the people they see in pornographic presentations in the same way those people are portrayed therein.

Objectification is the most insidious result I hear described. Thinking of these presentations literally advances objectification as an acceptable, natural practice - and objectification (the act of impersonalizing people in order to use them for a selfish purpose) is perhaps the worst example of harm that can be done to human beings. This is true especially if one considers humans to be children of God. Removing that divine nature and creating mere things to be manipulated is the height of harm when viewed from a spiritual perspective.

Some people might say that there is no harm done if the people involved are consenting adults, but that argument ignores completely the effect of internalizing some people as those who act and other people as those who are acted upon. It also ignores the central message of Paul's focus on "thinking no evil" - in this case, not a presentation of nudity but a presentation of harmful practices and ideas and perspectives.

In summary, the key, it appears to me, with regard to this aspect of charity is that one's thoughts remain free from those images that, if acted upon, would harm someone - whether someone else or one's own self. Would those thoughts, if acted upon, cause harm in any way? Would they objectify in any way? Would they damage someone's perception of herself or himself as a child of God - of someone of infinite worth? If I allowed myself to do so, I could think of images that would do so; I can think of many images, however, that would not do so - that would not be pornographic or evil in that way.

Frankly, the inclusion of nudity, in and of itself, really has nothing to do with the difference between the two - and I believe, for this post, that is an important conclusion to make clear.

Friday, July 9, 2010

"The Prophet Will Never Lead Us Astray."

Seriously, I have a much more narrow view of that statement than many. “Astray” means “off course”. I don’t think the prophets ever will ask us to believe or do anything that will keep us from whatever higher end we would attain without it - that they will not “lead us astray from” (off course of) our eventual destination. I can’t imagine a prophet saying something like, “It’s OK to go out and commit adultery. In fact, I encourage the membership to do so.” I just don’t see it happening.

I obviously can see mistakes that will cloud our overall understanding for a time (as I view the Priesthood ban, for example), but counsel that will alter our eventual outcome . . . I just don’t see it happening.

Frankly, I think the idea that “never lead us astray” equals “never be wrong” is an unfortunate, indefensible, inaccurate conclusion.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It's All About Respect

We each need to live our lives according to our own light, try to share that light with others who really are interested in understanding it and quit trying to enforce our own light as the correct one for all. I can say that on an individual level even when I believe the overall theology of Mormonism is more complete than any other - that it is “true” in my eyes. I am involved in “sharing the Gospel” because of how it makes me feel and because I believe it can help others; however, I am not involved in belittling those who can’t see and accept what I see and accept, nor am I involved in sharing the Gospel solely (or even primarily) to "convert".

I believe the principles of the Restored Gospel will help and bless others, even those who embrace the principles without embracing the Restored Church. I hope they embrace the Church, but my sharing the Gospel with them is not dependent on it.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Not Every Young Man Should Serve at 19

Today is my oldest son's 22nd birthday, and he has been a full-time missionary for just over a year.

Do the math. He left on his mission at the age of 21 - between his sophomore and junior year in college and after a year away from school. It was his choice - totally, and I honor him for the way he made his decision and what he sacrificed to serve. I don't need to detail all of those sacrifices here. Suffice it to say that we are grateful for the support and encouragement he has been given by those who love him and whom he loves, especially since not everyone understood fully why he chose what he chose.

Elder DeGraw is a wonderful missionary for multiple reasons, but, from the perspective of his father, four stand out:

1) It really was something he chose.

We lived in Ohio when he started college - in South Carolina. He was over 500 miles from home, with very little (or no) support at the college he attended. His time there was classic for a college student far from home - at least in the sense that he drifted out of full activity in the LDS Church for a while. When the meetinghouse isn't an easy walk from campus, when there is no family near to accompany, when basically nobody on campus shares your faith - it is easy to drift into inactivity.

By the time the summer following his sophomore year was approaching, he had found a wonderful young woman whom he loves dearly - as do we. It would have been very easy simply to ignore a mission and pursue his education and their relationship. He made a difficult choice, but the fact that he made that choice with his eyes wide open - and that it was truly a choice of competing goods - is part of why he is such a good missionary.

2) He is older, wiser and more experienced than he was at 19.

I understand why the Church allows young men to begin their missionary service at the age of 19. I understand the probability that many who postpone leaving will end up not serving at all. I know leaving at 19 was the right thing for me to do - as was leaving before I started college. I know that serving at 19 is best as the standard for the Church as a whole. Having said all that, the extra two years gave him benefits he simply could not have had without them and made him able to relate to others with whom he might not have related if he had left earlier.

3) He is his own, unique self.

This, above all else, is what I believe contributes to his success as a missionary. He has a unique sense of humor - which I try to blame on his mother, but . . . He has a real love for others and a deep desire to serve and help and connect. He is not fake or contrived or false in any way. He is himself - the person he found largely during the time between his 19th birthday and the day he left for the MTC.

4) He has found out for himself, in serving and teaching others, the power and beauty of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ.

His discovery permeates the letters he writes home. It shines through the sporadic timing of those letters, although they are no more sporadic than our letters to him - another characteristic I try to blame on his mother. It fills the communications we receive from those he has taught. It is obvious, and it fills his parents with great joy.

I love you, son - and I am SO deeply proud of you. I love you, too, Ashton - and I am SO grateful my son found you.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Honor Their Wishes. Don't Visit Them.

I was asked once by some ward leaders how they should react to those who request that they not be contacted. My response was simple:

"Honor their wishes. Do not contact them. Send a note to them every 6-12 months asking if they still want to be left alone, and honor whatever their answer is. If they request that their names be removed, take is as your responsibility to see that they are removed. They are adults and responsible for their own interactions with God. Let them make those decisions for themselves."

One of the most ironic things I can imagine is that when those who are assigned to Home Teachers request that they not be contacted, performing Home Teaching according to the
PRINCIPLE of Home Teaching (being willing to do whatever your assigned families want of you) means that you not contact them. That's extremely easy to forget.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Charity Thinketh No Evil: A Totally New Thought for Me

I have to admit that it was difficult at first to wrap my mind around a New Year's Resolution lasting an entire month that consists of "thinking less evil". Generally, as each new month approaches I contemplate the wording of each upcoming resolution to gather my initial impressions prior to checking the definitions of the relevant terms and digging into the meat of the resolution. My initial reaction was, "Really - it's not like I think evil all the time" - followed by, "at least not in any way that relates directly to charity" - which meant that I got to the point of looking at definitions without much in the way of a foundation.

I realized by the time I was ready to write this post that my initial reactions and thoughts were wrong - and I am grateful for the chance to consider something that, in all honesty, I had never considered previously in quite the same way as I have this week.

So, without any profound or new insight, I turned to the dictionary for my first resolution post this month.

The noun "evil" (since that is how it is used in I Corinthians 13:4-7) is defined as each of the following:

1) the force in nature that governs and gives rise to wickedness and sin;

2) the wicked or immoral part of someone or something;

3) harm; mischief; misfortune;

4) anything
causing injury or harm;

5) a
harmful aspect, effect or consequence.

Grouped together, this initially yields two apparently distinct categories of thought to which Paul might have been referring when he said that "charity thinketh no evil":

1) "Wicked" and "immoral" thoughts;

2) Thoughts that harm or wish harm on others.

However, upon considering the context of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 in its entirety, which is focused on charity (and particularly the aspect of charity about which I wrote last month - not being easily provoked), it seemed clear to me that these two categories really are one - and the "new" thought that hit me is that perhaps "wicked" and "immoral" really don't exist in isolation - that they are directly and intimately tied to how we think about and act toward others (and, perhaps also, ourselves). Perhaps, just as sound might not exist without the ability to hear, wickedness and immorality might not exist without the ability to harm.

In other words, perhaps "thinketh no evil" might be translated more clearly as "thinketh nothing that would harm others if actually done to them" - with the next thought being the need to consider carefully what constitutes "harm" to us as humans and spirit children of God.

That thought process has brought numerous thoughts to my mind, but, frankly, I'm not ready yet to process them into a coherent post. Therefore, for this week, I simply am going to consider "harm" more carefully - and look for instances where I "think evil" in this way. I know I do so, even if not deeply and steadily, so I know there will be plenty to consider and post next week and throughout this month.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Honoring (Non-LDS) Parents of LDS Youth

Fatherhood and motherhood need to be honored regardless of church affiliation or activity. One of the best Father's Day talks I have ever heard is the one that mentioned that we need to honor the fathers of our YM and YW (particularly) who are NOT members - or active members. We need to involve them, to whatever extent they will allow, in the discussions we have about how to help their children. I can't count how many times I've made that point in council meetings when someone says, "How can we help Johnny?" My response is almost always, "What did his father and/or mother say?"

By extension, we also should honor our own fathers in the same way - even if they were lousy fathers in most ways, and even if we are positive we will end up discarding their advice. We still should honor them as our parents who at least have the right to provide input.