Saturday, December 31, 2011

My New Year's Resolution for 2012

Over the past four years, I have established only one new year's resolution each year: to become more Christlike / godly than I was at the end of the last year.  I have done this by taking specific passages from scripture that articulate multiple characteristics of godliness and pursuing one characteristic each month - not in an attempt to become "perfect" at it that month, but simply to "become" more (fill in the blank) by the end of that month than I was at the beginning of the month.

In essence, my resolution has been to "be" better each and every day, in some meaningful way.  I have phrased it in terms of "becoming" - but, in a very real and important way, it really is all about "being" in the here and now.  It has been an amazing experience - one I wish I had started in my youth. 

In 2008 ("New Year's Resolution") and 2009 ("New Year's Resolution - 2009"), my focus was on the characteristics listed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 in 2008 and Matthew 6-7 in 2009); my focus for 2010 ("New Year's Resolution: 2010") was on the aspects of charity listed in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; my focus in 2011 ("New Year's Resolution - 2011") was on the questions about being spiritually born of God and receiving his image in our countenances asked in Alma 5.

This year, I have decided to take a slightly different approach.  I still want to focus on becoming more Christlike, but I am going to do so by considering each of our Articles of Faith, one-by-one each month, using the 13th Article of Faith as the analytical foundation of my contemplation and application of each of the other Articles of Faith each month.  In practical terms this means the following:

The 13th Article of Faith says:

We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things. 

I want to focus each month on how I can understand and internalize what is taught in each Article of Faith a little better - to "become" more "complete, whole, fully developed" with regard to the core "fundamentals of Mormonism", if you will - but I want to do so with the explicit understanding that:  

"If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, (I must) seek after these things." 

Therefore, my resolution this year is not limited to understanding better what our Articles of Faith say "we believe".  Rather, it is focused on understanding better the broader tapestry of God's revealed word to all His children and gaining a better understanding of and appreciation for "(everything) virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy" that deals with the principles and concepts articulated in the Articles of Faith.  In other words, I am resolved to understand what "we believe" in the broader context of how both "we" and "others" have interpreted God's revelations / inspiration to them concerning those things that "we believe" - with a direct nod to Article of Faith 9, which says:

We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. 

It is my resolution this year to "seek after these things" more directly - in a more focused, intentional, planned manner - and, as I have done for the past four years, to write about my contemplation and practical experiences each Saturday here in my "spiritual journal".

With that introduction, my monthly focus will be:

January: The Godhead
February: Individual Accountability 
March: The Atonement of Jesus Christ
April: Principles and Ordinances
May: Preaching and Administration
June: Religious Institutional Organization
July: Spiritual Gifts
August: Scripture
September: Revelation
October: Mortal "Zion" (Unity) and the Post-Mortal Life
November: Worship
December: Civic and Social Responsibility

Friday, December 30, 2011

I Achieved Less, but Became More

The following is a thought-provoking post - and it summarizes, in a way, how I feel about my New Year's Resolutions over the past four years.  

Running the Numbers - Maralise (Segullah)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Real Measure of Charity

I see "pure Mormonism" as the most charitable of all Christian theologies - both in the way it treats God and His children. (and I think very, very few people understand what I mean by a charitable treatment of God - but that's for another post)

I see various problems in the Church at all levels and in all eras in understanding, internalizing and living pure Mormonism - but that's true, unfortunately, of ALL ideals taught everywhere. People generally stink at living ideals. Therefore, all I really can do is strive to become more charitable and help others to do so, as well - all the while continuing to be charitable to those who aren't charitable themselves. That, I believe, is the real measure of charity - how we view and treat the uncharitable.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Discussing Sex and the Word of Wisdom With Our Children

I am very open about sex with my kids - and I tell them why I believe what I believe. That, to me, is more important than listing do's and don'ts - explaining why I hold the values I hold.

A simple example of something about which I feel passionately and explain to my children very openly:

I don't want any of my children to drink, but I approach it slightly differently with my girls. I tell them directly that they don't know their own limits until they've passed them, and that if a girl passes her limit publicly, she is at the mercy of the boy(s) who are with her. Boys sometimes do horrible things when they are drunk, but girls often have horrible things done to them. (I know the reverse if true, also, but, generally, girls risk more when drunk than boys do.) 

This is NOT a "scare tactic" in my eyes, and I tell them without pulling any punches that public drinking is one of the leading causes of rape. It's just not worth the risk in my mind, so I tell them I associate the Word of Wisdom in that way with the Law of Chastity - especially for girls.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

Be Charitable to Leaders with Whom You Disagree

Whenever I have a leader who says something with which I don't agree to some degree, I always try to put myself in the position of that leader - then treat that leader and their words like I would want others to treat me and my words.

I don't want others to accept everything I say as God's own word and "follow" or "obey" me blindly, but I also don't want them to disbelieve and doubt everything I say. If I am in a position of perceived authority, I want to be taken seriously and have my words accepted generally - simply out of respect for my effort. If I'm ignorant or a jerk, that's different - but if I am trying my best, I want to be challenged lovingly and privately (whenever possible) when someone disagrees. (and I really do want to know when others disagree) 

Ultimately, if I am leading an organization, I want my final decision to be accepted generally by those who aren't in a position to know of and understand all the details that affected my decision - especially if they didn't let me know of their concerns at the time of my decision. If hindsight proves I was wrong, so be it. I just hope others will understand I did the best with what I knew.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

An Incredible Musical Performance: Enjoy on Christmas

The following blew me away when I first saw it:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Christmas Story Might Have Happened VERY Differently than We Think

The following is a wonderful explanation of how our traditional understanding of the Christmas story might be wrong - and I really like the overall picture it paints of Joseph and how he cared for his beloved Mary.  I have no idea how accurate it is historically, but I really like the thought experiment it represents and its conclusions: 

The “traditional interpretation” of the story of Jesus’ birth gets many obvious things wrong. The image of Joseph and a 9-month pregnant Mary, riding by themselves, pulling into Bethlehem during the snowstorm night of December 24th, going from inn to inn, and then Mary giving birth by herself in a stable, doesn’t work. Using Matthew and Luke, and the proper interpretation of words, we get the following:

1) Joseph puts everything on the line – reputation, standing in the community, etc – because of his love for Mary. He doesn’t want to make her “a public example”, so he puts her “away privily” (i.e. privately out of view).

2) The way he does this is by taking her away from Nazareth, probably before her 5th month or so when she really begins showing. Nazareth is in Galilee, Bethlehem is just outside Jerusalem and we know she is near Jerusalem because she meets with her cousin Elizabeth, who’s husband is a priest at the temple in Jerusalem.

3) We are told that Joseph traveled to Bethlehem because that’s were his “house and lineage” is, i.e. brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, etc. In the time of Mary, giving birth was the single most dangerous thing a woman would do in her lifetime. Joseph brought her down safely with his kin long before she was due, with people who loved him and would not mock Mary as they did in Nazareth.

4) From archaeological digs, we know that houses in the village of Bethlehem during the time of Jesus where typically 3-level, and often built into the hills. The lowest level was for the animals, the next level was for living/cooking. The top level was for sleeping and was referred to as the “inn”.

5) Mary, then, in the spring of the year – while surrounded with support and loved ones -gave birth to Jesus in the sleeping area of the home, who was then “wrapped in swaddling cloths”, taken downstairs and “laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (to sleep). 

Thanks, "Larryco" for sharing it. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Recognizing, Understanding and Valuing Current Prophets and Apostles

I think it's next to impossible to judge how much of what happens in any organization is "prophetic" or "inspired" or "innovative" or "transcendent" (and, especially, "lasting") in the moment. Just like in my own life, sometimes the best benefit of enduring comes from looking back with the perspective of time and realizing why I felt impressed to do something that I didn't understand in the moment. That happens all the time to me now, but I have multiple decades of adulthood and marriage and parenthood which I can ponder now.

Personally, as I look back and try to see the fuller picture of the Restoration, I think I can appreciate the chaos of the genesis of the Church, the entrenchment that followed as the leaders dealt with the splintering that occurred as a result of the chaos, the move to correlate what was believed to be the core of the "restoration" and systematically stop teaching the speculative stuff that flourished amid the earlier chaos - and the current move to shift focus back to much of the original that is considered to be unique AND non-speculative.

My point with that long sentence is that "prophecy and seership" can take different meanings in different times, but I think, just like how a prophet is often without honor in his own land, it is easy for us to discount "current prophecy and seership" because it seems so common and non-fantastic to us. Personally, I have seen a HUGE shift over the last 20 years to push the responsibility for practical prophecy and seership down the ladder and ask local leaders and members to become prophets in their own sphere - and that is an exciting return to a former time, albeit with correlation that attempts to control the chaos and limit collateral damage so that the earlier splintering doesn't happen again. Having to manage that type of shift probably would give me ulcers, and it is an incredibly dangerous thing from an organizational development standpoint, so I appreciate it as truly inspirational.

Again, however, that is hard to recognize from the perspective of limited years. I dare say it might be almost impossible to see the staggering amount of change without at least 20 years of adulthood in the Church, which automatically excludes nearly all of those who yearn the most for change - the 18-35 year old group.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

It's Not "Being" on the Rock; It's "Building" on the Rock

I can relate to the verse that says, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased" - since I have six children in whom I am well pleased.

The following link is to a post written by one of my daughters when she was 15 years old - an amazingly profound thought about building our houses upon the rock.  I know I am biased as her father, but it truly is profound.

The Wise Man Built His House Upon the Rock - Reine (Walking on Sunshine)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Learning to Dance in the Rain

One of the students with whom I was communicating as part of my job a while ago had a tagline for her e-mails that I absolutely love - and I think it encapsulates beautifully and succinctly something that really is profound.

All of us are born into a world of struggle and turmoil - of some sort and to some degree. In the middle of all of that, I hope we can understand and remember something very simple yet profound:

"Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It's about learning to dance in the rain!!"

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why I Like the Jewish Custom of Not Using God's Name

The reason I personally like the custom of not using God's name is that it doesn't tie God to one name - allowing God to be all names to all people. I absolutely think God would allow and appreciate that - and I have a personal experience as to why I say that.

My name is Curtis Ray. I grew up as Ray to my friends and most family, since my father is Curtis. However, I also have an uncle Ray on my mom's side of the family - so my mom's side of the family called me Curtis Ray. Professionally, I often am called Curtis - and I sign using my full name. I was Dad to my kids until a few years ago, when my wife was the YW Pres. in our ward. One of the YW started calling her Mama DeGraw, and, by default, I became Papa DeGraw. My own kids now call me Papa most of the time, and my Google name is Papa D. (Which was a result of the abbreviated way Mama DeGraw ended up being used.)  At Church, I am Brother DeGraw or Ray - but when I served in a small branch in Ohio I was Brother Ray. When I taught high school, I was Mr. DeGraw - or Mr. D.

So, I am:

Curtis Ray
Papa D
Papa DeGraw
Brother DeGraw
Brother Ray
Mr. DeGraw
Mr. D

I really don't care what people call me, as long as they are comfortable with what they use - and they are being respectful.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Best 25 Years of My Life

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow Mama said "Yes" to a simple question in the Provo temple.  It changed my life, and I will be grateful eternally for her answer.  She loves "our songs" - so I thought I would pay tribute to my eternal companion in a way that she does regularly on her own blog for special occasions.  

The following are two of "our songs" that express very well how I feel:

Colin Raye is one of our favorite singers.  He has a lot of our favorite songs, but this one has a wonderfully appropriate message: 

Air Supply sang many the romantic songs of our teenage dating years.  The one below came out just before I left on my mission - and Mama listened to it regularly while I was gone, since it applied so well to our situation at the time.   


I love you, Michan! 

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Dance of Opposition Within Us

When we begin to awaken to the light of the soul, life takes on a new depth. The losses we have suffered, the delight and peace we have experienced, the beauty we have known, all things belong together in a profound way. One of the greatest treasures in the world is a contented heart. When we befriend the twilight side of the heart, we discover a surer tranquility where the darkness and the brightness of our lives dwell together. We gain the courage to search out where the real thresholds in life are, the vital frontiers, the parts of our life that we have not yet experienced. Beyond work, survival, relationships, even family, we become aware of our profound duty to our own life. Like the farmer in spring, we turn over a new furrow in the unlived field. We awaken our passion to live and are no longer afraid of the unknown, for even the darkest night has a core of twilight. We recover within us some of the native integrity that wild places enjoy outside. We learn to befriend our complexity and see the dance of opposition within us not as a negative or destructive thing but as an invitation to a creative adventure. The true beauty of a person glimmers like a slow twilight where the full force of each color comes alive and yet blends with the others to create a new light. A person's beauty is sophisticated and sacred and is far beyond image, appearance or personality.  - John O'Donohue, "Beauty: The Invisible Embrace"

2 Nephi 2:11 says that there must be opposition in ALL things.  "All things" would include the Church, would it not? It also would include opposition within each individual member.

Perhaps the lack of struggle we crave so much isn't a good thing in the long run - or even possible. Perhaps learning to be at peace with external AND internal opposition is one of the great liberators of the Gospel ("Good News") - the idea that the inherent turmoil that "must needs be" is unavoidable and reconciled ("atoned for") already in the eternal scheme of things. 

In that light, a good friend of mine once wrote:

We devour the beautiful and enticing fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. It is no longer on the tree, shining in appearance. Have we destroyed it? No. We took it inside ourselves. We digest it, and it is assimilated into our being, into every cell. The experience is described as the assimilation of opposites. In order to truly live, we must also die. In order to have joy, we must weep. It's a tension of opposites that plays out like a fractal diagram expanding, creating a life experience. We can fear this. We can find beauty and wonderment in it.

I say we are on a hero's adventure, not sitting in a study hall taking a pass/fail proficiency exam.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Truly Profound Post: Becoming an Adult of God

A friend of mine, whom I admire greatly for her insight into life and the Gospel, wrote the following almost three years ago.  I thought it was one of the most profound things I'd ever read at the time, and I came across it again and decided to post it here.  I hope it resonates as deeply for those who read it here as it did for me when I first read it: 

We talk in the church about being a child of God, and there are many scriptures about becoming childlike or having the faith of a child. But I think many of us have found that at some point, child-like faith isn't sufficient for us. We want the promise of eternal progression implied in the most basic LDS doctrine. We want to become adults of God. We no longer want to be spoon-fed history or basic doctrines, but we want to become responsible for our own spiritual journey. We want to lead and to have our own vision.

The stage between childhood and adulthood is called puberty. And it can be ugly and difficult. In that stage, we think we know much more than our parents and teachers. We enjoy smarting off to authority figures. We see every mistake our elders made as evidence of them not getting it. We know we would never be like that if we were in charge. When I was a teenager, I was pretty mouthy and disrespectful at times. As an adult, I was able to go back to one of my Sunday School teachers, and I apologized for how awful I was when he was teaching us. He put up his hand and said, "Never apologize for what you do as a teenager. It is a necessary part of becoming a responsible adult. You have to distance yourself from the adults who are in authority over you so that you can become an adult. You have to make many attempts at this before you are ready to be an adult."

All humans, including those of us on this site are at various stages toward spiritual adulthood. This analogy helps us to know that there is progress to be had through the seeming regression of the transitional age between "simple faith" and "mature faith". As it says in Corinthians 13:
9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How I Would Describe My Testimony and Feelings for the Church in Non-religious Terms

I am convinced the LDS Church literally provides what it claims to provide for many of its members - an assurance that they need in this life based on a vision of the next life. I believe it literally provides for me what I want from it - a wonderful theological framework, a community in which I find joy in serving, a symbolic compass that enthralls me, a flawed community and organization that still manages to provide great leadership opportunities to many, a place where improvement is possible and multi-faceted evolution can occur, etc.

I really don't care much about it being "literal" in a universal sense and from an intellectual standpoint, as long as I literally can get from it what I want to get from it (and become through it what I want to become through it) - and, even though I want to get some things that aren't available yet, the LDS Church does so (for me) far better than other Christian constructs and has provided some deeply personal, spiritual, cosmic experiences for which I am grateful.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Understanding Better the VIsit of the Resurrected Lord to the People of the Book of Mormon

The Great and Marvelous Change of 3 Nephi 11:1 - Jeff Lindsay (Mormanity)

I don't agree with all of the conclusions of the author whose paper Jeff links in this post, but I agree whole-heartedly with the major conclusions and with Jeff's interest in it.  There is much that is assumed about Jesus' visit that simply doesn't match the actual text, and it's good to read a paper and a post that address some of those assumptions.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Judging Others As Being Judgmental

I have lived in two wards where judgmentalism was a big issue, but I have lived in at least five wards that were anything but judgmental. It's a mixed bag, and we need to acknowledge that to begin to understand the big picture, I believe.

I just want to point out the danger of describing others in judgmental terms while railing against those who are judgmental. I had a friend who left the Church because, in his own words, "They are hypocrites" - because they didn't live perfectly the ideals they taught. That ward was FULL of loving, caring, kind, Christians - but my friend left because "they" dared to teach an ideal they couldn't live. I failed completely in helping him see the disconnect between what he condemned in them and his own reaction to their imperfections - and it haunts me to this day.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Different Look at Sheep and Shepherding

Traditionally, sheep have been used in many ways to personify unthinking obedience.  "Like lambs to the slaughter" and "mindless sheep" are common images, but that image is not what is described in our scriptures when a shepherd enters the picture.

In our scriptures, the use of sheep to make a point about our relationship to leaders (principally, the Good Shepherd, our Lord and Master) does not give such a portrayal - and I believe the exact nature of the relationship between a shepherd and the sheep gets glossed over too much.  If I am to "watch over the flock more diligently" this month, I first need to examine that portrayal more closely before I can model it more effectively.

The following are a few verses that describe the relationship between a good shepherd and his sheep, with my comments about each verse:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  (John 10:27

To watch over the flock more diligently, first my voice must be heard - and recognized.  Second, I must know them well enough to lead them to where they need to go.  Those whom I "shepherd" in some way must know me in such a way that when they hear my voice they understand that I know them - and, understanding I know them, they will follow me as I lead.  (That is a powerful picture many people don't consider - that a good shepherd doesn't "drive" sheep anywhere from behind; rather, he leads in front and they follow.)  In a way, what I say must be relevant to them and touch them in such a way that they know I have their best interests at heart - they must trust that I know them well enough not to lead them into harm.

That should concern me enough to be extra "diligent" in the way I speak to them.

I know my sheep, and they are numbered. (3 Nephi 18:31

There are multiple verses that mention how the sheep are "numbered".  The most obvious definition of this word is "counted", but there is another connotation that I really like - to be "included".  If I know the flock and watch over them diligently, in a very real way I must "include" them in my life and be "included" in theirs.  I can't shepherd without spending significant time with the sheep. 

Shepherds don't lead sheep from afar; they walk among them.  They serve them.  They are not distant, authoritarian rulers.  They serve their sheep.  In fact, their entire job and purpose is to protect the sheep and allow them to thrive.  If there is a totally self-less position, it is that of shepherd - and this is exemplified in the idea of "numbering" them.

The thread that runs through all of the possible references is encapsulated in the following scripture, to which I will not add any commentary:

So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs. He saith to him again the second time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my sheep. He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, Lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee. Jesus saith unto him:

Feed my sheep.  (John 21:15-17)

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Effect of Personal Debt on Zion

Many people don't stop and consider the service side of debt - that every dollar I pay in interest is a dollar I can't give to someone in need. Thus, every dollar of personal debt inhibits my ability to help establish Zion fully. 

That alone is worth being debt-free, imo - although I certainly understand the need for some debt for a house, an education and, perhaps, a car. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Different, Simple Look at Unrealistic Expectations

I think we set ourselves up for failure when we set others up for failure.

"Unrealistic expectations" is just another name for judgment.

Monday, December 5, 2011

"By Common Consent": Validating Those Who Sustain AND Those Who Oppose

When I am at the stand asking for a sustaining vote and any who object, I make it a point to look over the congregation thoroughly - and, for the objection part, look behind me at those sitting on the stand, as well. I just think I should do what I can to make sure everyone knows I take the time to look and grant the possibility that there might be someone who would object.

In most situations, with most callings, the sustaining will be automatic and almost unthinking (which is not the ideal, but is what it is) - but there can be situations where someone knows something not available to the person extending the calling and hidden by the person accepting the calling, and I believe that such a possibility is important to validate in the minds of the members.

"By common consent" should not be an empty phrase.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Regular Members as "Counselors in Zion" to a Bishop Who Is a Shepherd and Judge

Alma 5:59 says:

For what shepherd is there among you having many sheep doth not watch over them, that the wolves enter not and devour his flock? And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him. 

When I chose my New Year's Resolution for this month ("Watch over the flock more diligently."), I knew that I was stretching the technical definition a bit by focusing on this verse near the end of a chapter that talks so comprehensively about things that individuals need to consider with regard to their own spiritual growth.  The surrounding context of this verse makes it clear that it refers to Jesus, the Christ - the Good Shepherd - the one who watches over his flock and guards his sheep from predators.  The final section of this chapter is radically different in focus than the rest of the chapter, and I don't mean to minimize, twist or overlook that difference by taking verse 59 a bit out of context and "likening it unto (my)self".

When I made this particular resolution, nearly a year ago, I had no idea the posts I would read recently around the Bloggernacle - the multiple posts that would be written about pastoral care, the role of Bishops within the LDS Church and how members should and can interact with "shepherds" who are appointed to watch over them.  I was struck HARD as I contemplated this resolution how much Bishops are protectors and guardians - and how much that role is part of and impacts their duties as Judges in Israel.

I know I instinctively want Bishops to be counselors, and I know many Bishops who are good counselors - but, at the most basic level, I also know that a Bishop must be aware of and diligently on guard against potential dangers to his flock.  That role as protective shepherd sometimes can be at odds with my desire for him to fill a role as confidante and counselor - and it can cause a tension in situations where I or other members "confide" things that are not necessarily "confessions" of incorrect action or sin.

The expression of uncertainty and/or doubt is one of these situations.

The ideal Bishop-as-counselor/confidante would view such expressions as a chance to explore nuance and individual perspective - focusing strictly on the individual in question and not seeing anything in such expressions as "dangerous" or "harmful".  Such expressions of uncertainty and/or doubt would not be seen as "confessions" - since there is NO "sin" attached to uncertainty or doubt.  Thus, ideally, a Bishop would be able to listen to someone who was experiencing a crisis of faith (struggling to maintain hope in what cannot be seen) without any kind of "protective reflex".

However, as a "shepherd", a Bishop is required to be vigilant in seeing potential dangers to his "flock" - and it is easy for Bishops to see a questioning, uncertain and/or doubtful sheep as such a potential danger.  After all, what if that sheep talks with other sheep and plants questions, uncertainty or even doubt in their minds?  I acknowledge that such an outcome is a real possibility; hence, there is an inherent tension between a Bishop being an unbiased, objective "counselor/confidante" and a dedicated "shepherd/judge".

How does this relate to my personal resolution this month?

I am resolved this month to be more diligent in the protection of all who might turn to me for counsel, advise, perspective, insight or assistance of any kind.  I have more than one natural "flock": my children (and, in a way, my wife - although I am of her "flock" in that regard, as well); the students I serve in my role as a college admission counselor; the students whom I serve as an Institute teacher; people in my community who look to me to see how a Mormon acts and believes; those online who read my blog and my comments on other sites; etc.

I am careful in my use of the term "flock" - since I have NO desire whatsoever, in any of those roles, to "build a following" in the classic sense of the term "flock" - so I am using it much more loosely in the application I use for myself.  It simply has registered more deeply than ever before, over the course of this past month leading up to this month's resolution, that all of us who are members of the LDS Church and have committed to take His name upon us and act as His disciples in our day can share in His shepherding role to some degree and, by so doing, reduce the heavy burdens Bishops (and Branch Presidents) must bear by taking responsibility for those parts of a typical Bishop's burden that he doesn't have to bear strictly by virtue of his calling.

Being a counselor/confidante for others is one such way in which I believe I can help to lessen or remove an unnecessary burden - and, in the process, help build Zion in a very real and practical way.

God bless the Bishops (and Branch Presidents) of the Church - and God bless each of us to do what we can to love, listen to, counsel with and serve the sheep better (especially those who are uncertain or doubt) so Bishops can focus on protecting them more easily and not be put in positions where they must mitigate their own counseling in order to continue to protect and judge.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Finding Your Blessed Abnormality

I understand the need for organizational conformity with regard to certain things, but I absolutely LOVE the concept that nobody is "normal" - and that part of fulfilling the measure of MY own, individual creation is finding where I have a "blessed abnormality" and magnifying it.

I really believe each and every one of us can accomplish **something** unique in this life - and I believe part of why we are alive is to find and accomplish that unique aspect of our own individual creation.

Harvard explains its objective as working to admit and create "well-lopsided" students - meaning students who can follow any non-technical discussion about any topic but who understand one topic deeply. It is a recognition educationally of this concept - that everyone is unique in some way, and part of being truly educated is finding and magnifying one's uniqueness. I believe in the spiritual manifestation of that concept as much as I believe in the educational effort.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Menial As Important

I think menial service is incredibly important - another one of life's great paradoxes.

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I believe in the servant model of Jesus' life - which makes all service important, especially the stuff that those who won't deign to do it call menial. To me, the menial is the heart of the Gospel - the Good News that our menial concerns matter to He who controls the universe and should matter equally to His children.

I also think this probably is where we fail to understand Jesus the most in our practical lives.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Why I Attend Church

When I attend church, I have NO expectations of being fed myself. I don't mean this to be boastful in any way, but I have been attending for over 40 years - so I rarely hear anything new. However, I do hear certain things phrased in interesting and "new" ways fairly regularly in my current ward, so when I am enlightened it is nice.

I attend consciously to help others - to find ways to phrase things that will be inclusive rather than exclusionary - to hug someone who looks tired or upset - to smile and talk with everyone - to contribute somehow to the community and the peace of individuals.  

I truly enjoy it, since it has become, truly, a way to find myself by losing myself.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

On Thanksgiving Weekend

Although my wife and I are not richly blessed in material things, we are richly blessed.  We have enough to live; we have children we love and who love us; we have a religious foundation that gives us peace and great joy; we have friends and extended family who are a blessing in our lives; the list goes on and on. 

One thing for which I am grateful that applies directly to this forum is my discovery of blogging five years ago.  I dove in headfirst to the world of the "Bloggernacle" (the online Mormon group blogging community), and I started writing this blog in 2006.  At first, I posted sporadically, then weekly, then three times per week, and now daily (except Sundays).  I commented on lots of blogs, very frequently (lol), before focusing on writing this blog. 

All of that leads me to express my gratitude for all of you who read this blog.  As I said recently, I don't publicize it actively (since that's not the main reason I write it), but I am thankful that there are people who read it regularly and whom an occasional post seems to help.  I truly do appreciate the comments and responses I get - even almost all of those with which I disagree.  I appreciate the civil tone that prevails in those comments, and I appreciate the opportunity to make new friends I otherwise would not have the wonderful fortune to know in any traditional way. 

So, on this Thanksgiving weekend, I say simply:

Thank you!  You have enriched my life and that of my wife, and I am grateful for you. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

I Am Sincere and Loving and Kind - and Stupid and Clumsy and Wrong

I've said often that I try to see others from the past the same way I hope people in the future see me - stupid and clumsy and wrong oh so many times, but sincere and loving and kind and trying my best.

I really do think that describes the VAST majority of people, and I'd rather be wrong with this view about individuals than be wrong with a more condemning view - since it really isn't about them in the end but rather about how my perspective affects who I become.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

God Bless Those Who Serve in Lonely Callings

 Helping Those with Lonely Callings - Jeff Lindsay (Mormanity)

I know this is not a typical Thanksgiving post, but it hit me as I read Jeff's post that often we overlook people who are performing "lonely callings" - and we ought not do so.  We ought to be thankful for everyone who does anything that helps our religious lives move more smoothly - and we ought to be aware of those who want to do so but don't know how. 

I love the thoughts expressed in Jeff's post - so I would like today to say:

Thanks to everyone who serves in a lonely calling!  Wherever possible, may we make it less lonely by our recognition, attention and care. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How I Approach Giving Priesthood Blessings

When I give a Priesthood blessing I go into it expecting to give comfort - NOT healing or saying anything uniquely profound. I try to be open to whatever might come out of my mouth, but I don't intend to perform miracles.

Call it what you will, but I have found that doing so "works" or is "successful" 100% of the time - since I am open to those times where the Lord chooses to speak through me. Of the hundreds of blessings I have given, there have been hundreds that offered comfort and counsel, a dozen or so that mentioned healing that might or might not have been remarkable and three that have blown me away as I thought afterward about what came out of my mouth.

It was worth giving comfort in the hundreds just for the comfort's sake - but it absolutely was worth it to have those three experiences.

I think life is like that in a lot of ways.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

Some Things I Want and Don't Want to Be for My Children

I want my children to know that I am always here for them, but I don't want them to always be here with me.

I want them to feel comfortable asking me anything, but I don't want them to ask me everything.

I want to be a resource for them, but I don't want to be the source for them.

Eventually, I want them to be agents unto themselves - and to become for their children what I was for them.

I want them to be part of an eternal round.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Helping Those Who Are Poor: Self-Reflection

As I have contemplated further how to recognize and help those who are poor (especially in non-monetary ways), I have been struck by the need to step back a bit and make a very simple but profound point.  I hope I can do so in a way that is instructive.

For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.  (Romans 3:23)

In other words, in very real and critical ways, all of us are poor - especially in non-monetary ways.

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:3

In our striving to become more Christ-like - and to be able to be "saints" or "disciples" of Jesus, it is easy to get so focused or caught-up in that attempt that we lose sight of the fundamental, foundational reality that all of us are non-monetarily poor - and that we actually are counted as "blessed" if we remain or become poor in some ways.  It's easy to view our "wards" at church more like political wards (which was the original meaning behind the organizational term) and forget that we also can see gatherings on Sunday like hospital wards - where sick and hurting and needy people gather for care and healing.

That, perhaps, is the greatest failing I have seen in too many congregations within our modern church - a lack of conscious, intentional, comprehensive, openly expressed recognition of our own "sinnerhood" and the  accompanying masks we too often wear to cover it.  Sometimes we preach the ideal so much that we fail to acknowledge the real - and we too often end up hurting those whose "poverty" is harder to hide than our own. 

Yes, I need to strive to recognize and help those who are non-monetarily poor - but I must do so from the standpoint of someone who is not yet non-monetarily rich (from the position of someone who is "in the same boat", so to speak, and simply is trying to help others find and wear the life-jacket he has found).  I need to understand that, in relative terms, I might be less poor in some ways than others - but that, in absolute terms, I still am a poor beggar who, ultimately, will need to rely on the mercy of He who is mighty to save.

Friday, November 18, 2011

How Can We Recognize When (If) God Is Shouting At Us?

I once was asked the following:

"How would you know, or what would it be like, if God were yelling at you or disciplining you?"

That is a fascinating question, especially since I think we have two VERY different paradigms in our canonized scripture - and because we tend to extrapolate our own experiences with our parents onto God (both the positive and the negative ones). First, the background:

1) The God of the Old Testament is a yelling, destroying, jealous, vengeful God - the ultimate alpha male. God's "love" in the OT seems to be more centered on "protection" than on "feeling" - and that makes sense given the history of oppression and conquest of the Israelite and Jewish nations. In short, the God of the OT is the God of "a people" - loving them by actively and directly protecting them in times of obedience and actively and directly punishing them in times of disobedience.

The same description exists in the BofM prior to the Lord's appearance to the people after his death - a very clear "prosper in the land during righteousness" and "suffer during unrighteousness" distinction. It also exists throughout the D&C - again, during the formative years of the Church when "protection" was paramount.

When protection is the foundational paradigm, it is EASY to see when God is "yelling at you".

The parenting application is that the same paradigm tends to be in place in our own families - that we yell at our kids when they are in the early developmental stages - when perhaps our primary purpose and goal is to protect them and teach them how to live on their own. I'm not saying it's right or correct or good to yell then - only that it's what tends to happen often.

2) The God of the New Testament is a compassionate, meek, merciful, loving, patient, PERSONAL God - the classic man who is in touch with his feminine side - or, interestingly from a Mormon perspective, what normally would be considered a "complete couple" (combination of full masculinity AND femininity). Jesus spoke directly and harshly sometimes, but it was directed almost exclusively to those who were hypocritical leaders who rejected him. The woman taken in adultery ("He who is without sin . . . neither do I condemn thee.") - the Caananite woman (first classified as a "dog" but then blessed anyway) - the unclean (whom he touched and blessed) - etc. All of these were INDIVIDUALS - and it is clear he came to serve, teach and validate them, not to protect the nation.

The same emphasis can be seen in the post-resurrection visit to the Nephites in the BofM - where "punishment" consisted of walking away and letting people alone (withdrawing), rather than direct, active punishment. I think the same can be seen in the modern Church, where the hyperbolic and harsh pronouncements of the Brigham Youngs of the world generally have disappeared and been replaced by the current apostles who serve, teach and validate much more than scream warnings (and it explains why strong warnings grate so much on so many, since they aren't used to hearing them on a regular basis).

When service and validation and teaching are the foundational paradigm, it is HARD to see a need to yell very often - if ever.

The parenting application is that the same paradigm tends to be in place in our own families - that we DON'T yell at our kids when they are in the later developmental stages - when perhaps our primary purpose and goal is to pray that we have served and taught them in such a way that they are able to live on their own in a productive manner.

SUMMARY: I think we, as adults, aren't going to recognize God yelling at us very often - simply because I think he doesn't yell at us very often. I also think if he does yell at us, we will recognize it - unless we've totally stopped trying to listen and completely tuned him out.

If we are trying to be able to recognize whispers (even if the practical application is nothing more than "following our consciences and what we feel is right"), I believe we will hear the shouts.

Finally, as adults, I think we will consider, at the very least, WHY the Church leaders appear to be shouting when they do on rare occasion. (I'm not saying we ultimately have to agree, but I think we should consider the "why" at least. Too many people reflexively brush it off as the rantings of out-of-touch old men - and I can't express how much I disagree with that characterization. I think that reaction is reminiscent of a childish tantrum toward someone in a position of authority, and I think a good indication of one's spiritual maturity is how s/he reacts to counsel or statements with which s/he disagrees reflexively.)

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mormon Theology: God's Paternal Love

[NOTE: This post is about theology, not about people. It is about what religions and denominations teach in their official creeds, not about what members believe and practice at the individual level.]

Ultimately, one of the reasons I love Mormon theology so much is that it is such a loving theology - FAR more loving than any other Christian denomination of which I am aware. (I don't count Unitarian Universalists, frankly, because, as much as I admire them, I see them as a non-denominational church with a denominational name only.) By a "loving theology", I mean:

1) God does what He does out of what I call "true parental love" - not some condescending "love" that is more like a master has for his pets. I mean that literally. Think of the ultimate end in mainstream Christian theology, and it's incredibly self-serving of God. I want to say this carefully, but it boils down essentially to:

"Adore me. Tell me how much you love me. Praise me. **Give me the glory.** After all, I deserve it; I'm God, and you aren't."

In Calvinism, it can be taken to the extreme that yields:

"Dance for me - all of you. DO your best to please me, and, at the end, I'll let you know which of you I have already chosen to bless and which of you danced your darnedest just so I could take pleasure in your dancing - before I roasted you forever in that fiery lake over there."

In Mormon theology, however, God's entire "work and glory" is to do all he can to make sure his children grow to become like him. His "glory" is the same "glory" I receive when my kids grow up to be good people - the pride and joy and accomplishment I feel when I know that my actions have helped produce something beautiful and good and uplifting and enlightening and wonderful and OF ME. That's true parental love and true grace (at-one-ment) - and it simply doesn't exist in most Christian theology.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Sex and Bishop's Youth Interviews

[NOTE: In this post, I'm not talking about "confessions" to a bishop; I'm talking about discussions in an interview format about the details of the Law of Chasity.

I believe a Bishop should NEVER ask something specific about sexual practices of a minor unless he has permission from the parent(s) or guardian(s) to do so. It is fine to ask the question EXACTLY as it is worded in the Temple Recommend interview. "Do you obey the Law of Chastity?" essentially covers it perfectly.

Just for the record, I am most concerned about the way the conversation should occur. I believe fully it should occur in some cases - and, if parental requests are required to make sure certain questions are not asked, then those parental requests can be made in friendly, non-threatening, supportive and sustaining ways. Personally, I would say something like:

"Bishop, I just want you to know that my wife and I want to be the ones who talk with our children about all sexual matters - about details of the Law of Chastity. I support you in your calling, but PLEASE only ask my child if they are obeying the Law of Chastity. PLEASE don't ask ANY specific questions. That's my responsibility as a parent, and I honor and respect that responsibility highly. I promise you, we will talk with our children about it, so you don't need to do so."

If he objected or insisted, I would ask to be allowed to sit in on the interview and, at the appropriate time, talk with my child about any issues the Bishop felt needed to be asked while the Bishop stepped out of the room. I would ask him to tell me what those issues were prior to the beginning of the interview. I then would reiterate my request to ask only the general question once he returned to the room. How much I said to my child while the Bishop was gone would depend totally on the child - and, with my oldest, it probably would have been something like":

"R_______, Bishop ___________ wants us to talk about some specifics of sex - like ____ and ____________. We've talked about these before, and you can talk with me again at any point, so we've talked about it now. Is there anything you want to discuss? If not, let's talk about other stuff for a few minutes, let him back in and have you answer his question when he asks it. OK?" 

I believe totally that some parents do a lousy job of talking about sex with their kids, but that responsibility should not be the Bishop's.  I understand that many youth don't have parents who will talk with them about sex (or, if they did, it would be in a totally inappropriate way), but I would MUCH rather that discussion be had in a group setting conducted by the Bishop than behind closed doors with just the Bishop and a young man - and especially with just the Bishop and a young woman.  I also would prefer the conversation to be between a youth and a called youth leader of the same sex, if a more private conversation would be better. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Helping Those Who Are Spiritually, Informationally and Professionally Poor

Toward the end of last week's New Year's Resolution, I said the following:

My initial resolution this month is to recognize the non-monetary needs of the poor (including the non-monetarily poor) and share more readily what I have that will alleviate their poverty.

This has been an interesting week, for a number of reasons I want to share in this post:

1) I was able to give blessings to a couple of people who really needed to hear what was said to each of them in the blessings they received.  Most of the blessings I have given in my life have ended up being basic blessings of comfort and general counsel, while a handful have been true, undeniable revelatory experiences.  The blessings this week fit the latter category, since they included things I had no intention of saying when I opened my mouth and addressed aspects or their past, present and future lives that were not within my natural power to understand.

I have realized since the blessings that, in a very real and important way, those blessings were an opportunity to share what I have with those who are poor in that regard - whose lives do not allow them the richness of the Spirit that is available in moments when Heaven opens and God speaks to and through his children.  I hope they feel spiritually richer than they did prior to receiving those blessings, and I hope those blessings give them sustenance in a real and powerful way.

2) I have had the opportunity in my job as a college admission counselor to talk with a number of students not just about the college I represent but also about education in general - and those opportunities, more than has been normal, have included some very direct giving of advice and counsel that I generally don't verbalize when I meet with students.  It wasn't anything that I went into those discussions intending to share, but I found myself doing so naturally and incisively in a way that I can't help but feel is related directly to my resolution this month - since I believe each case was an example of sharing something that was needed by those who were "information poor".

3) It has hit me harder than ever that I can choose to share things I have learned from my professional past in what I do now with those who lack the experiences I have had - or I can choose to withhold that help and focus instead on injustices and inequalities.  I have found myself being more open about my perceptions of needed change, but I also have found myself doing so in a manner that I hope is productive and has a chance to be effective - to help those who are "professionally poor".  Nothing objective has changed about the situations that are impacted by this new focus - except my own attitude and what my changed attitude has allowed me to do.

What struck me as a result of this epiphany is that, to a degree, I had been blaming others for my unhappiness and difficulty, while now I realize that much of that unhappiness can disappear as I work to serve despite the difficulty.  I am grateful for that epiphany, even though it is not new or unique in any way.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Celestial Marriage Is Not Exclusive to Mormons

[NOTE: I wanted to change the normal post time today, to have this post at 11:11AM on 11/11/11 - but old habits die hard, so I changed it to 12:11AM where I live instead as a compromise. However, it was 11:11 in Utah when this posted. Just sayin'.]

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming: 

I personally believe that the core, fundamental, highest command relative to marriage ever given was to "cleave unto her and none else". In our terms, it is to become one as a couple in all ways. Frankly, I don't think ANY temple marriage in which the spouses do NOT become one is a celestial marriage - and I believe ANY non-temple marriage in which the spouses truly do become one IS a celestial marriage. The latter simply hasn't been ratified by God yet (when viewed from a classic Mormon perspective). I view proxy temple work as a validation of this concept - that God will ratify those marriages where the couple became one, even if they were not sealed in this life.

I know there are situations in which becoming one simply isn't possible, for one reason or another - and I also recognize that there are some marriages from which one spouse simply must flee in order to have a chance at the type of relationship I am describing.  However, I can't fathom God tearing apart a couple that has managed to become one solely because one of the partners wasn't totally on board with the religious theology of their time or their spouse. I personally think those who become Christ-like / godly in this life (or who strive to become so) will have "a multitude of sins" covered by the Atonement - and becoming one as a couple, where possible, is a key part of that "covering", imo.

Also, I HIGHLY recommend watching the movie "What Dreams May Come" - and focusing intently on the part near the end where the husband explains to his wife why he won't leave her in (literal) Hell (after leaving her in her previous figurative Hell) - why living in Hell with her is better than living in Heaven alone. (It's instructive that Adam chose to leave "paradise" in order to be with Eve, when the other choice was to remain in the presence of God without her.) If wives and husbands could see the incredibly deep and profound message I took from that scene . . . I think much, if not all, of their collective angst and concern would vanish - and they could tackle life together with faith that they will remain together eternally simply because they won't accept anything else.

(Fwiw, that's how I feel about my wife: ain't nobody going to split us apart, 'cause we are welding ourselves into one being.)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Most Touching and Heart-Warming Picture I've Ever Seen

 A Mormon Image: Greater Love - Julie M. Smith (Times & Seasons) 

Read the caption; read the obituary linked in Julie's comment #1; go back and look at the picture and read the caption again.  If your heart isn't touched in a special way, examine your heart. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Homosexuality and the Most Basic Double Standard

I need to start with a critical disclaimer:

I have no problem with the LDS Church's position opposing gay marriage, even if I might approach it differently. This post is not about that issue; it is about what I see as a more fundamental issue.  Please, if anyone comments on this post, do NOT try to make it about anything but the point of the post.

With that out of the way:

My most fundamental, foundational issue when it comes to the way homosexuality is addressed in the Church is that there really is a double standard in place right now - NOT the one that many people assume, but a real and important one, nonetheless.

First, based on the way that the Church addresses "fornication" in all its forms, I think it is a HUGE stretch for the leadership to accept homosexual sexual intercourse and the other old terms they use when talking about "things like unto it". (petting, necking, etc.) I don't want that traditional standard changed - although I wouldn't cry if "necking" disappeared from the published works. Frankly, if they are asking unmarried heterosexual members to abstain from that type of activity, I have no problem with them asking unmarried homosexual members to do likewise.

The issue for me is that the Church's current position, while MUCH better than it has been in the past (especially since it openly admits that sexual orientation often is not a choice but rather is biological and strong), still contains a double standard. Single, heterosexual members are allowed to develop an intimate relationship with someone of the opposite sex in many ways - as long as specific lines are not crossed. Those lines are drawn so narrowly for homosexual members, however, that developing an intimate relationship with a member of the same sex is next to impossible - even if the "heterosexual lines" are never crossed. (I know that it is not a bright line, obvious standard that is published and enforced everywhere, but it is the common view in most units of the Church, imo.)

For example, I was able to hold hands with my girlfriend, kiss her, sit arm in arm, gaze into her eyes, etc. - all in public AND privately, without any fear of punishment. Iow, I was able to show my affection and love for her in various ways without ever crossing into any inappropriate activity. That simply is not true for homosexual members. They are asked to avoid that type of loving, intimate bond - even if they never cross the lines that would be considered inappropriate for single, heterosexual members.

I believe that it is this discrepancy that lies at the heart of the issue for the Church - and that if we simply eliminated that double standard, the discussion would change in fundamental and important ways.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

He Saves Us from the Paths We Don't Want to Take

My oldest daughter wrote the following during her freshman year in college.  She wrote it after reading the Biblical verse quoted at the end of the poem.  I was blown away by the imagery then, and I decided I should share it now:

He Saves Us, Anyway

You're drowning. And no one is there to care.
Trapped under the ice. You pound on it, desperate to break free.
But all you do is crack the ice. It does not break.
That always happens. You come so close to being free, but regardless
You're still stuck. Miserable, lonely, crying.
You start to sink lower and lower. Looking side to side, wanting help.
But finding none. Only seeing darkness.
You look down. Darkness. Reminder of your misery. Reminder of your
Longing to be happy. Reminder of the path you are heading to.
The path that you do not want to take. 

You keep pounding on the ice. It does not break.
You try to not take the path you so desperately hate, but you sink
Further and further.
You reach as far as you can towards the ice. Your fingers touch it.
You gather strength enough to pound once more. But to no avail.
Why can you not break free? Are you not good enough?
Thoughts of worthlessness. They are the death of you. Pulling you
Even lower than you were before.
You are ready to give up. Just follow the inevitable, follow the path
You do not want to take. 

You stop yourself from glancing down again. You almost look side-to-side.
Then you remember that you have not truly looked up. Only to pound on the ice.
But if pounding has not worked in the past, why would it work now?
You look up anyway. You do not pound on the ice. You see the cracks that
Your seemingly futile efforts have made. And beyond the cracks, there is light.
You wish you had the strength to break the ice.
To go beyond this place of darkness. To a place of warmth and comfort.
But you do not pound. You think about how worthless you are.
But then you think about how there was no light before you started pounding.
Maybe your efforts were not worthless after all.
You realize that you can not break out on your own from  

The path you do not want to take.

And when you stop trying to do it on your own, and you look at the light,
You realize there is a hand stretched out.
He breaks the ice for you. He pulls you out of the darkness.
He provides you with warmth you never imagined.
And that is when you realize that you tried your best,
and although your best was not enough to save yourself, He saved you, anyway.
Because despite your loneliness, He was there. He was always there.
You stopped trying to save yourself from the path you don't want to take
and learned to trust Him, who loves us all. 

2 Samuel 22:29 - "For thou art my lamp, O Lord: and the Lord will lighten my darkness."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Helping Those Who Struggle When You Struggle, Too

A friend of mine once asked me the following question:

Is there any advice you can provide on how to talk to my kids about their doubts when I'm riddled with my own?

My response to him was:

Repentance means nothing more than "change" at its core. What you are going through is a true repentance process - NOT in the classic "bad man becomes good man" construct that most members picture, but in the wonderful "good man examines self to become better" process.

Frankly, I'd share your experience with your kids - in an age and individual child appropriate way, of course, but openly and honestly. I'd start out by talking about how you used to take everything at face value and just believe - because that's what you thought was expected of you and because it's easier to do that. I'd mention that you went through an intense and difficult time of doubt - where you weren't sure what you personally believed. I'd mention that you are gaining a PERSONAL understanding and testimony of many things that you took for granted before - and that you still are trying to figure a lot of stuff out. I wouldn't go into specifics unless someone asks, but I'd end by talking about what repentance really means - that it is more about changing who you are in a positive, intentional way than about beating yourself up over past mistakes - that Jesus paid for our past mistakes and freed us to pursue progression and positive change and joy.

Actually, I'd end by telling them that you now understand deeply why people have doubts and concerns and struggle with various things - and that you are willing to talk with each and every one of them at any time about any doubts or concerns or struggles they are having. I'd tell them that it's perfectly fine to struggle - that having real faith actually is founded on being willing to work through struggles and not just "give up" when we don't understand something. It's not passive acceptance, but proactive and focused effort to figure it out and learn - to "gain knowledge" by both study AND prayer/contemplation.

That's my gut reaction. It is a scary proposition in many ways, but I think your children can gain tremendous strength and insight if they know they aren't the only ones who struggle - and that, conversely, they can feel inadequate and even "bad" if they think they are alone in their struggles.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Recognizing the Needs of the Poor and Sharing More Readily with Them

My New Year's Resolution this month is to "recognize the needs of the poor more and share more readily with them."  It is taken from Alma 5:55, which says:

Yea, and will you persist in turning your backs upon the poor, and the needy, and in withholding your substance from them?  

Honestly, in theory, this should be an easy resolution for me.  I grew up poor, the second of eight children with a school custodian father and a mom who didn't work outside our home - and rarely inside it.  (That's not an insult of any kind or "bad" in any way.  For more detail about my parents' situation, see this post.)  As a teenager, I paid for most of what I wanted - and my father opened the checkbook for us to see the inadequate balance whenever we asked for something we simply couldn't afford.

Most of our married life, my wife and I have been relatively poor.  I walked away from significant opportunities when I graduated from college to teach high school - a decision that flabbergasted my college friends.  I have been unemployed more than once, due to multiple changes in career paths.  We had a few years of plenty, when I had a career sales year, but a bad investment ended that period of prosperity.  I now work in an industry I absolutely love, and it provides a wonderful tuition benefit for our children in college - but I have had to start over at the bottom of the totem pole, so to speak, and, therefore, once again, we are relatively poor.

My wife's upbringing was not quite as strapped as mine, but it certainly wasn't anything above moderate-middle class.  

Given our lives, it should be a simple thing for me to recognize the needs of the poor and share more readily with them.  After all, being relatively poor makes it much easier to recognize the needs of the poor - since they are, to some extent, our own needs.  However, being relatively poor also makes it hard sometimes to let go of what we do have and become relatively poorer as as result.

I believe neither the absolute nor relative poverty of one's situation contributes automatically or predominantly to one group sharing with others in a "personally significant" way, since I believe the rich who share often don't share to the extent that the poor do (meaning that when the rich share, it usually is not as much of a sacrifice as that of the poor), but I also believe the poor sometimes justify their lack of sharing more quickly than the rich.  I think there are impediments to sharing freely and meaningfully for each group, and, most importantly for this post, I think the focus (almost obsession) with finances in our modern society leads us to over-emphasize monetary sharing and de-value non-financial sharing.

So, my initial resolution this month is to recognize the non-monetary needs of the poor (including the non-monetarily poor) and share more readily what I have that will alleviate their poverty.

The possibilities are endless, and, therefore, the need for discernment and inspiration is paramount.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Loving and Accepting Those Who Don't Fully Love and Accept Us

It is SO hard for many people to truly give up the idea that they know what's best for everyone else.

I think as we talk of any topic relative to the Church that we simply have to keep in mind that "my way is not others' way". If we can't do that, if we hold onto the idea that those who do or see or believe or act differently than we do are completely wrong, or less informed, or less enlightened, or any other pejorative judgment, then we are doing to them exactly what they do to us that causes us to complain. I'm not addressing only those outside the LDS Church when I say that. I'm talking every bit as much about our fellow pew mates in many cases.

For example, there is NO guarantee that differences among members in intellectual and spiritual and emotional struggles have ANYTHING to do with the afterlife or our end result, since it seems to be more about how we handle them than that they exist. There is no guarantee that those who appear to float blissfully along in life, attending meetings without any doubts or concerns or angst, doing what they are asked to do, never turning down a calling, etc. aren't better off in the long-run than those who struggle; however, there also is no guarantee that they actually are growing and progressing and becoming better. Maybe they spend their time serving others, while others spend their time obsessing on the internet; maybe they are acting automatically with no conscious decision simply out of a mindless following of the patterns of their youth, while others who serve less do so more consciously and purposefully. Maybe God appreciates and rewards unthinking dedication. Maybe not, but maybe. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe.

The point is that we don't know for sure, so we need to try to let go of our own self-righteousness and allow others within the Church to be whoever they are - loving and accepting them for who they are, not whom we want them to be. We talk of how we want that from others - being loved for who we are; we need to be willing to give them that first - even if it never is returned to us by them.

After all, "We love Him, because He first loved us."  That is a godly characteristic that is hard for many, but it is so important as we muddle along together while seeing through our glass, darkly. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

We Know Far Less of Life Than We Tend to Think We Do

One of the most baffling aspects of life for me is the stark difference in experiences among humans. I can't explain it - other than to state that I am positive it has little if anything to do with effort or sincerity or even "faithfulness", since I know of any number of people who are more of each of those things than I am but who have not had experiences like mine. It truly baffles me, and I don't hold it up as proof of anything - except that we know far less of life (both here and not here) than we tend to think we do. Of that, I am certain - and, ironically, that is one of the things from which I have found great comfort and strength and peace.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Am I Accomplishing My Mission in Writing This Blog?

I don't actively publicize my blog much - except when I provide a link on another site to something I've written here.  I could spend more time in efforts to expand my readership, but I spend as much time as I am able in good conscience already - and I never have felt the need to market it more vigorously.  However, I have wondered occasionally who reads it of whom I'm not aware and how they find it - specifically because I wonder sometimes if I am accomplishing the mission I set for myself when I started writing actively back in 2007.  

By Common Consent has a series of posts that list search phrases people use that end up pointing them to that site.  It's quite hilarious in some instances, and one of those posts was published recently, so I decided to take a look at what brings people here who don't know about my blog.  I assumed there wouldn't be any truly hilarious cases, but I figured I at least should check and see what appeared in my queue for the last 24 hours.  The following is what I found, along with my commentary:

"becoming a more forgiving person" 

(Cool.  I like that one - a lot.  It was a post from March 2009.)

"how to teach forgiving others in a sensitive way" 

(This search led to the same post as the search above.)

"tongue can be sharp sword" 

(I couldn't remember which post that would have been, so I checked.  It was a post I wrote almost 3 years ago.  Wow!) 

"Mormonism and reincarnation" 

(This one was from March of this year.)

"What is the difference between sin and transgression?" 

(This query is the most common I have seen over the years.  That is fascinating to me - and it is something I would not have guessed when I began blogging.) 

"to be less envious" 

(This one is from June of this year.)

"What is the meaning of vaunteth?" 

(This one is from March 2010.)

I know there is nothing profound or funny in this list, but I was struck by two things:

1) When I write something here, it is accessible for years to come - and, assuming nothing happens to alter that situation, I am achieving my primary objective in writing this blog.  My descendants (and others) will have a record of my beliefs - a spiritual journal, if you will - when I am gone.

2) People whom I don't know are being led to my writings - and, while I don't have any idea if that is a net positive for any of them, I hope it is. 

Those are the two main reasons I write daily posts - to record "the things of my soul" for my children and their children ad infinitum and to leave my own testimony, in a way, for others to read and, hopefully, find comfort and some measure of help and support.

It isn't much, but, especially, in the case of those I don't know, it constitutes "all (I) can do".

Monday, October 31, 2011

There Is Something Outside of Myself That Understands and Knows

I have had a handful of experiences that can be explained rationally in no way except that the heavens were opened to me and I saw or sensed or spoke prophetically of the future or of things unknown to me - very directly and explicitly, not vaguely like a fortune teller. I'm not saying they prove the existence of God, and I'm not saying they are "visionary" in the way that most members would interpret that word - just that they proved to me that there is something outside of myself that understands and knows more than we do in the moment.

One was an amazing experience while blessing our second son as an infant (giving him a name and a blessing) that is so obvious that my oldest son now refers to it as our own Star of Bethlehem - something shining brightly as a sign that God's great work was being accomplished - something to which we can look and which we can remember as we make our own life's journeys. There was absolutely no rational reason for me to say what I said in his blessing, and I had no intention of doing so when I opened my mouth, but what I said was spot-on and prophetic of the life he has lived in the last 21 years - and uniquely so.

I have a gift in that regard that manifests itself occasionally, and there really is no way to explain it rationally. I can't control it, and there are plenty of times when I offer blessings or advice when I wish it would show up and not make me do my best all on my own. I don't understand it (really, almost at all), but it's real in a very objective way.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

I'm Sick, So Here Is a Top 10 List (kind of) that I Hope Will Make You Laugh

1. Nothing "normal" is worse than that moment during an argument when you realize you're wrong.
2. There is great need for a sarcasm font.
3. Map Quest really needs to start their directions on # 5. I'm pretty sure I know how to get out of my neighborhood.
4. Bad decisions make good stories. 

5. You never know when it will strike, but there comes a moment at work when you know that you just aren't going to do anything productive for the rest of the day.
6. I'm always slightly terrified when I exit out of Word and it asks me if I want to save any changes to my ten-page technical report to which I swear I did not make any changes.
7. I keep some people's phone numbers in my phone just so I know not to answer when they call.
8. I wish Google Maps had an "Avoid Ghetto" routing option.
9. Sometimes I'll look down at my watch 3 consecutive times and still not know what time it is. 

10. Even under ideal conditions people have trouble locating their car keys in a pocket, finding their cell phone, and Pinning the Tail on the Donkey - but everyone can find and push the snooze button from 3 feet away, in about 1.7 seconds, eyes closed, first time, every time.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Church's Flaws Make It True

A friend of mine wrote the following a while ago, and I want to comment about it here:

For me, the whole process of becoming aware of the imperfections and human frailties in the operations of the church (historically etc.) has been a tremendous opportunity for personal growth. It has helped me remove some of my pride, become somewhat less judgmental, hopefully a little more forgiving, focus more fully on love and the essentials of what Jesus taught. For me, becoming aware of the humanity has helped me progress out of a spiritual plateau that I didn’t know I was in (yes, first by crashing down but that is another topic).

If the purpose of the church is to help us progress spiritually - to help us grow personally, I can’t think of anyway that I could improve on its current composition to help it fulfill that goal (at least for me personally) more effectively than it is currently doing for me.

One big step was realizing that in learning to forgive all men (D&C 64:10 - not condone but forgive) I needed to forgive those in the Church who came before me for any mistakes they may have made.

It is the resistance we encounter that makes us stronger – wherever it may exist.

I want to add only that we sometimes lose sight of how radically different the stated goal of Mormonism is than any other Christian religion. (Buddhism's ultimate objective is similar, but that's another topic.) We talk of a literal and extensive conversion of character - of becoming fully something we now are only partially. Compared to the more "mundane" goal of mainstream Christianity, we really are radicals and extreme liberals theologically. I think that's important to recognize and admit openly - that we have a radically liberal theology, taught within a generally conservative organizational structure (mixed with quite liberal elements, like a lay local leadership).

The things that bother me most about the Church are the more mundane aspects of organization and the interpersonal conflicts that inevitably arise when people with different perspectives interact and strive for unity. The things that inspire me the most are the visionary aspects that still blow my mind on a regular basis - the fact that such flawed people still could articulate such a mind-blowing theology and cosmic paradigm. It reminds me of the founding of the United States in some ways - some really flawed people who couldn't live the ideals they wrote (e.g., in theory "all men are created equal" [except in practice for slaves, who only count as part of a man for census calculations - and the women, who aren't even mentioned directly]) but who still created something great and incredibly liberating.

I'm not sure if I would phrase it like my friend did when he sent the message ("The Church's Flaws Make It True") - but I absolutely would say that the Church's flaws make it real and powerful. Maybe, in the end, that is the same thing as "true and living" - perhaps defined as "not artificial and able to grow". In the end, I still define "true" as "pointed in the correct direction" (like "true north") - and, since no other major religion (other than Buddhism) of which I am aware posits what we posit as the ultimate objective and purpose of life, I feel fine using the word "true" in that sense.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How I View the Garment of the Holy Priesthood

I have no illusions whatsoever about the garment being "magical" in some way. I see the "protection" promise as spiritual, not physical. They are powerfully symbolic to me, however, and I absolutely love the concepts of:

1) Being reminded constantly of the covenants I have made - the basic ones of the temple that I think are important and powerful. When I am wearing it, I hardly think about it. It is subconscious in practical terms. However, when I put it on and take it off, I am reminded tangibly of what I am striving to become. That's important to me, so I wear it as a token of my own personal commitment to God - not as some kind of requirement.

2) Being clothed in the Priesthood power of God - and that concept applies to all men AND women who have been endowed. Women who are endowed in the temple carry with them actual symbols of godly power and covenants, and I personally think that is important in the Church - that women literally have the symbols of the Priesthood in a tangible form even though they can't exercise that in the administration of ordinances. To me, there is great power in that symbolism - perhaps even more so for women than for men in our current culture.

3) Progressing toward godliness and entering into the presence of God. That is the symbolic center of the temple for me - that I have the right to approach God and be in God's presence - that I ALWAYS am clothed properly to enter the Bridegroom's feast and commune with them. Even if I didn't find other deep meaning in the temple, I would continue to attend simply to participate in that specific symbolism.

I'm not saying everyone should see these things as I do - not at all. However, I caution people to not throw out the available symbols and their potential power when those things can be used for tremendous enlightenment if only adapted slightly for each individual. I wouldn't think seriously about not wearing the garment right now, because I have a way for it to help me personally. Even if someone else thinks "it's just underwear", to me it isn't "underwear" at all. It is a sacred symbol, and that is important to me.

BTW, as a follow-up to the last sentences, I personally am not opposed at all to the idea of wearing the garment OVER regular underwear - even though I know that is not the Church's default standard. I think that would remove much of the "weirdness" for many people - as it then would be seen as "clothing" without the automatic, negative association with "underwear".

Monday, October 24, 2011

We are not just a church with prophets; we are meant to be a prophetic church.

Joseph Smith once said:

No man is a minister of Jesus Christ without being a Prophet. If any man has the testimony of Jesus he has the spirit of prophecy.

We are not just a church with prophets; we are a prophetic church. At least, we are meant to be, and I think we ARE much more than many people realize - but much less than I believe we can be and hope we will be.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Keeping Zion from Emerging: Classifications Among Us

As I thought this week about my New Year's Resolution this month, one verse from the Book of Mormon jumped into my mind - and, as I have contemplated just how to write about it for this post, it has struck me more forcefully than ever before how comprehensive and concise it is.  As I prepare to wrap up my pondering this month about how I am not better than others to God, I want to begin that wrap up by quoting that verse - and asking anyone who reads this post to consider how it applies to their own life and what s/he can do to make it apply more universally, if in no other way initially than more comprehensively in their own mind. 

The verse is 4 Nephi 1:17, and it describes what Zion truly is in practical terms:

There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.

I do not believe that Zion is a situation where everyone is exactly the same in all ways.  That picture scares me more than the traditional lake of fire, frankly.  It is the elimination of individuality in all ways that matter - which is exactly opposite of the idea of perfection taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  (completeness, wholeness, full development)  The verse does not say that these people were "one"; rather, it says they were "in one".  That is an intriguing phrase, and it gets overlooked almost always. 

As everyone knows who knows me even moderately well, I absolutely LOVE Elder Wirthlin's analogy of the orchestra - where all instruments are valued and unite to create truly "perfect" music, together in full and comprehensive harmony not playing the exact same melody.  Solos can be beautiful, but they pale in comparison to complex and intricate arrangements of harmonic grandeur. 

To me, the idea of there being no "-ites" among us simply means that we don't create divisive classifications among us - that we don't focus on our "otherness" but rather on our "unitedness".  In other words, our differences continue to exist, but, rather than defining how we are separate from others, those differences are used to enhance our unity - to make that unity more "perfect" - more "complete, whole, fully developed".  There are piccolos and banjos and bagpipes and kazoos - but there are no competing groups trying to drown out the different "-ites".  In this situation, differing individuals become "in one" - part of a "oneness" IN which they constitute a critical element. 

That, to me, is Zion - and that is what I have experienced almost fully on at least two occasions in the wards I have attended.  It is a mortal achievement of an "at-one-ment" that is awesome and inspiring and empowering and simply stunning.  It truly is a marvelous work and a wonder, and it is what I want for my family - my immediate mortal family and my expansive, immortal family, as well. 

May we work to ensure that, someday, there will be no -ites among us - and may we have faith and hope that it may happen much sooner and more fully than we naturally could imagine. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

We Need to Stop Asking Our Prophets to Be What They Never Have Been

"It would be wonderful and SO SO much easier if I believed President Monson was a "True Prophet", one that talked to God face to face continuously - not just got revelation - I mean really speaks directly to him day by day. Unfortunately the more I think about it the more I find I can not accept it."

The quote above was something a friend of mine said a while ago. My response is below:

The above definition fits NOBODY within our canon - not even Jesus. On the other hand, our scriptures and our modern history give us a pretty clear picture of very unique, different, flawed, "normal" people who filled a role as "prophets" - a role that actually varies in focus and responsibility over time. Some were administrators (Peter, Aaron, Brigham); some were visionary leaders (Abraham, Moses, Lehi, Jesus, Joseph); some were military men (Samson, Joshua, Moroni, Mormon); some were missionaries (Paul, the sons of Mosiah); some were caretakers in some way (all of them from Jarom up to Mosiah, many in the OT, most of them from John Taylor to David O. McKay); some were . . . controversial . . . to say the least (Samson, Jonah, Paul, Brigham);etc.

There are serious issues that have to be confronted when we stop hanging onto infallibility for our prophets and apostles, but I believe we simply MUST stop asking our prophets to be what prophets never have been.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Sustain and Support" vs. "Obey"

If I am convinced God does not want me to do something, especially if I have received a personal answer of some kind, I won’t do it – no matter what mortal tells me to do it. I still will “sustain and support” my church leaders in their callings, even if I can’t do exactly what I’m asked or counseled to do, but that wording does not say “obey regardless”.

D&C 121 is crystal clear about demanding obedience simply because of one’s position of authority, “as they suppose” – and I’ve never believed we will be blessed for knowingly doing wrong. I just can’t accept that we will be blessed for sinning, and since “sin” generally is defined partially as “knowing right and doing wrong” – I don’t buy the argument that we should obey any leader unquestioningly if they tell us to do something we believe to be wrong.

Having said that, I’ve thought and prayed about counsel I’ve been given with which I disagreed, and I’ve changed my mind as a result more than once. I also have accepted and followed counsel I believed to be poor counsel but not morally wrong in many instances when I have offered my own counsel and the leader reached a different conclusion. That’s just life in a community / organization of any kind.

I don’t believe in reflexive dismissal, and I agree totally with Elder Oaks’ characterization in his talk during General Conference last year in which he said that reflexive disregard for commandments and counsel due to a feeling that one is an exception to rules does not originate from God. At the very least, I would say such disregard is born of pride.