Saturday, April 30, 2011

What Does It Mean to Be "Blameless" in How We Walk Before God?

In the previous two New Year's Resolution Posts this month, I wrote about walking (not running or sitting) before God and walking "before God".  In this post, I want to share some thoughts about walking "blamelessly" before God. 

In the context of the usage in Alma 5, "blame" is defined as:

responsibility for anything deserving of censure

"Censure" is defined as:

strong or vehement expression of disapproval

Thus, walking "blamelessly" before God means walking in such a way that God will not strongly or vehemently disapprove. 

Two things struck me as I initially defined the central words and reached the defintion above - one which I have understood for a long time and one that was completely new to me. 

The one I have understood for a long time deals with the nature of the Atonement and my understanding of the difference between "sin" and "transgression".  Essentially, God does not disapprove strongly or vehemently of our best efforts to act according to the dictates of our own consciences.  In fact, I believe our 2nd Article of Faith teaches that we will not be punished for the things we do as a direct result of the Fall - which, in this case, include transgressions of eternal law we commit out of ignorance or as a result of things we simply can't control.  If we do not choose consciously to do things that are contrary to our best understanding of what we believe God wants of us, those actions are paid for through the Atonement of Jesus, the Christ - and I believe the magnitude of those things for which we have been redeemed already is MUCH larger than most people realize. 

The second thing that struck me was not new in theory, as it is something I have believed for a long time, but it was new to me in the context of walking blamelessly before God.  It really is just a re-statement of the first one I just explained, but I think it is important to phrase it the way it came to my mind.  It is:

God does not expect us to walk "perfectly", nor does he expect us to walk without stumbling and falling and getting skinned up in the process.  He simply asks us to avoid those things of which he would disapprove "strongly" or "vehemently".

The best example I can give is how I view my own desires for my children.  I expect them to make mistakes in their lives.  In fact, I believe that is the only way they will learn many important lessons in life - by experiencing the opposition that must needs be and failing occasionally (or more than occasionally, if they are like me).  I am not about to react strongly or vehemently to the vast majority of mistakes they make.  However, there are some things they might do to which I would react strongly or vehemently.  Those things are so serious in my eyes that I would go outside my normal principle of teaching correct principles and watching them govern themselves to actively begging them to stop. 

The thing that struck me is that there really are relatively few things that fit that category that I believe are "universally accepted", but, even with my own children, the underlying principle would be things that violate their own consciences.  Thus, the things toward which I would react strongly or vehemently in relation to one child would differ somewhat from the things that would cause the same reaction in relation to another child - assuming I know my children well enough as differing individuals to understand what and how much they understand about the things they believe and the choices they make. 

I can't "blame" them for things they do out of ignorance, and I refuse to "blame" them for things they do with which I disagree simply because I disagree - as long as I believe they are acting in accordance with their own understanding and conscience.  Most importantly, the list of things they might do that would bring my strong and vehement disapproval and cause me to "blame" and "censure" them is much shorter than many people probably think. 

What I gained this week from my contemplation of this concept of walking "blamelessly" before God is that the assignment of blame rests with GOD, not with us - and that, in my opinion, that assignment will be based MUCH more on how well we walk in accordance to the dictates of our own consciences than on the exact steps we take in our walk before God.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Personal Relationship with Christ Is NOT the Ultimate Objective

Many non-Mormons with whom I've talked over the decades talk about the need to have a DIRECT relationship with Christ as the ultimate objective of life - not one "filtered" through prophets and tradition and buttressed by doctrines of institutionalism. They see a "no-intermediary relationship" as more "personal" and, therefore, more "pure".

I appreciate that stance (truly), and I agree with part of it (truly), but, as a total goal, it simply is too anti-Biblical for me, ironically. Jesus taught that He was the Way, the Truth and the Light - in bringing people to His Father. I believe taking the Father out of the picture and focusing solely on Jesus destroys much of the Gospel he taught. 

He preached an intermediary Gospel, and, if the New Testament is to be believed, He established (through the earliest disciples), an intermediary church structure with prophets and apostles as the leaders or guides in the journey to the Father through the Christ.

Again, I appreciate the need for a personal connection to the divine, and I'm not advocating that we view prophets and apostles and religious leaders as surrogates in any way, shape or form.  When it comes right down to it, I'm not even saying that they are absolutely necessary to "come unto Christ".  I do believe, however, that they play a vital role in the type of religion Jesus accepted and generated - and I just can't see the wisdom of eliminating everything Jesus and the earliest disciples appear to have established in favor of something it appears He and they never advocated.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Real Fathers Wanted - and Needed

When young mothers are able to provide a reasonably comfortable living for their children within a welfare system (and are economically advantaged by that system for having more children), any historical provider role for men vanishes - leaving them far more exposed to the natural tendency to sire offspring with no concern for consequences. That has a terrible impact on families, in general, but it also has a terrible consequence on young men - who are able to escape much of the responsibility that for thousands of years, from a purely biological perspective, has helped "civilize" them and curb the natural man. (and, all charges of sexism aside, there are collective natural MAN tendencies that are different than collective natural WOMAN tendencies - whatever their genesis). 

That's one of the reasons I sympathize with the dilemma the Church faces in reworking the traditional view of presiding - that I really do believe eliminating much of the responsibility that historically has tied a man to his mate and his offspring has disastrous consequences, as evidenced in the communities in which I have spent many of my professional years.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Enough Talk. I Can Do Better.

This post was written largely in response to the post about unrealistic expectations in marriage to which I linked last week. I love the practical application of a lesson learned:

The Facebook Status Update My Wife Didn't Send (but should have) - Scott B (By Common Consent)

Monday, April 25, 2011

Understanding Scripture Is Not As Easy As It Seems

I read ancient stories and try to understand why they happened as they are recorded as having happened, but that doesn’t mean I am trying to insert meaning into the text that fits my own preconceived notions. It only means I’m trying to understand by parsing the text, considering the context and looking for the bigger picture that makes the most sense.

Lionizing someone and demonizing someone else (creating two-dimensional caricatures) rarely yields answers that actually work in many three-dimensional situations. How might we view Nephi without II Nephi 4 (where Nephi expresses pain and anguish over his weaknesses) - without wondering what caused his DEEP anguish in that chapter? I like to consider the family dynamic of a youngest son who insisted on leading his family and rebuking his older brothers as I try to understand the record that youngest brother recorded.

I wonder about a lot of things, because I know I don’t know much - and I look for things that will help me understand and be more compassionate (less judgmental) toward others. For example, was Lehi a traveling merchant - as Nibley believed? If so, was he gone for long periods of time while the older kids were growing up and, therefore, never developed a close relationship with his older boys? Was he retired by the time Nephi was a very young man, and did he dote on him like Jacob doted on Joseph? Did the tension among the brothers go deeper than just an easy “good guy / bad guy” stereotype?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think they are worth considering.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Talk I Gave The Easter Sunday Our Branch Died

Easter Sunday is the ultimate celebration of life - the glorious victory over death and Hell - the rising from the tomb and ushering in of unimaginable joy. I love speaking in church on Easter - having the opportunity to highlight the life, death and resurrection of our Savior and Redeemer, since the spirit is so strong and powerful and affirming on such a transcendent day. I spoke three years ago in the little branch my family attended on assignment - and it was the hardest, most emotionally difficult talk I have ever prepared.

You see, our branch died that day.

How do you convey to a small group of friends - people who have bonded in a way that is almost impossible in a typical large ward - that their small house of spiritual refuge (the place that they have come to bless each Fast and Testimony meeting as their anchor in the storms of life) will be locked and unavailable next week? How do you tell them that their dedication and sincere effort and sacrifice appear to have been offered for naught? Most wrenchingly, how do you do so on Easter Sunday - a day when they should leave church rejoicing in the grace and condescension of God?

Even more to the point, how do you do this when you can't do so openly? How do you address an Easter talk in Sacrament Meeting knowing that they will be weeping for a different reason in just over an hour - knowing that the joy and hope and love you pray they feel as they listen to your message will be replaced by pain and sorrow and disbelief and real, deep grief as they learn that their congregation (established only three years ago amid great joy and hope) is being dissolved? How do you preach of life and eternal happiness when you will help officiate that same day at the funeral they can't possibly anticipate? How do you kill an entire congregation on the day set aside to celebrate new life? 

The following is the talk I gave that day.  I hope it helps someone now, somehow. 
By all objective measurements, Jesus of Nazareth was an abject failure. His mortal ministry lasted three short years. The hopes of a nation (nay, of God's own Chosen People) had been recorded for centuries, trumpeting a future arrival in the following words:

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6)

Only thirty-three years earlier, the angel had appeared and proclaimed:

"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:10-11)

Immediately following this announcement, the heavenly multitude exclaimed:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." (Luke 2:14)

Prophets extolled the importance of His birth and life; they stressed the deliverance He would bring. He would justify the brutality of their former oppression by establishing peace and mercy and power. He would reclaim their rightful place in the kingdom of their God, humbling once and for all those who had reviled and scourged and persecuted them as they awaited their great day of glory. They still wait, nearly two thousand years later, since Jesus of Nazareth failed to fulfill their expectations so utterly and completely. Easter Sunday did not bring them joy and peace and deliverance; it brought them only more oppression and misery and separation and death.

What then of Easter Sunday - of a sealed tomb and a sobbing, despondent discipleship? Amid their continuing pain and terrible turmoil, amid the persecution and upheaval that would not end, how could they possibly find peace and joy and hope? They found it in the following pronouncement - one of the simplest, most concise statements in all of recorded history:

"He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. " (Matthew 28:6)

All of us are born to die. All of us live this life knowing it will end. Every person who has ever lived - every organization that has ever been established - every group that has ever met - every family that has ever existed - everything that has ever been created has begun with an inevitable end in store. However, through the birth and life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, all of us can look forward with hope and joy and love and longing to that day when it shall be said of us, as it was of Him:

"[They] are not here; for [they are] risen."

Just as Jesus' ministry was too short for many to understand it as a glorious success, and just as the results of that ministry were too seemingly inconsequential for many to recognize their eternal significance, our own growth and success and efforts often are too short and seemingly inconsequential to recognize as the glorious successes they truly are. We celebrate Easter not just to honor the resurrection of our King, but also to pay our humble respect to the grace that transfers his victory to us - that allows us to see and understand and feel gratitude for the successes embedded in our own apparent failures. We celebrate Easter to celebrate not just the risen Lord, but also to honor the death and suffering that had to be offered in order for the resurrection to occur. As a friend wrote: 

"Christ was suffering servant as well as glorious victor, that, like the sinners the rest of us are, he had to die [and apparently fail] before he could be resurrected [and ultimately succeed]." 

On Easter, we celebrate life and a newness of glory, but we also celebrate death and the ending of one ministry for the beginning of another.

What can we take on this Easter Sunday from the first Easter Sunday so long ago? As we honor and praise and worship our Lord's victory over death, how can we "liken [even this thing] unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning?" (1 Nephi 19:23)

In all we do - in all our efforts and associations and organizations - may we recognize and accept that our meager efforts to become like Him are undertaken with failure in this mortal life as the inevitable end - but that the growth we experience in our mortal efforts and associations is all He requires. May we focus on the joy of the journey and accept the unexpected detours and heartache along the way, willing to say as He said, "Not my will, but thine, be done." (Luke 22:42) May we live so that we too may be able to say, as we draw our final breath, "It is finished. (John 19:30) Into thy hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46)

May we realize that our efforts, no matter the objective outcome, are not offered and accomplished in vain - they are not viewed by our Lord as failures. Rather, let us look forward to that great and glorious day when we shall hear those gentle, soothing words,

"Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord." (Matthew 25:21)

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Symbolic Power of the Garden of Gethsemane

I have no clue whatsoever the mechanics of the part of the atonement accomplished in the Garden of Gethsemane, but I really believe that the symbolism of a scapegoat (the ancient concept of figuratively loading a goat with the sins of the people and releasing that goat into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with it) is powerful. I'm not trying to imply that the suffering in the Garden was soley symbolic, but that representation would have resonated deeply with the people of that day.

The key for us, I believe, is to take that basic idea (of truly casting our burdens upon the Lord) and finding a way for that to resonate with us. If that means someone believes He actually suffered every exact pain and sin she does, great; if someone else believes He suffered extreme representative pain (the worst of every type of pain), great; if someone else believes it all is figurative (that Jesus' sinless suffering typified pure obedience and submission regardless of the actual pain), great. All I care about at the most fundamental level is that I accept Him as the Lord and Savior and Redeemer - that whatever He did, it covers my sins and imperfection and allows me to pursue growth and eventual perfection.

I care FAR more about what we take from it than the actual mechanics of the event.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holocast Remembrance Day: A Tribute to an Amazing Woman

Holocaust Remembrance Day April 21st - JA Benson (Millennial Star)

I so want to make a particular statement about the information at the end of this post, but Irena deserves better than that. I’m sure God has blessed this amazing woman with something much more eternally valuable than the worldly prize she should have received in mortality.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

We Can't Teach "Abstinence Only"

I am a practical idealist. I want my children to remain sexually inactive prior to marriage, and that is the standard they have been taught since before they could walk. I don't EVER phrase it as "sex is bad and dirty" (since I abhor that belief and phrasing), but they know what I believe - no question about it. 

Having said that, I also teach them that they can come to me and talk about anything - and I mean anything. After my oldest son completed the process to receive his mission call, we had a very open conversation about his future after he returns. It included some advice that would surprise some who read here and assume things about me, and it is indicative of how I would approach a conversation with my daughters AND sons about birth control and pre-marital sex.  

[Post-script note: There was some misunderstanding originally as to the nature of the conversation I mentioned in the above paragraph.  It was NOT about sex and birth control.  I used it simply to illustrate what "type of conversation" I would have if one of my older / adult children came to me to talk about sex and birth control.  It was "indicative of how I would approach" such a conversation.  Thank you, R. Gary and others, who pointed out that misunderstanding of wording that wasn't as clear as it should have been.] 

My short answer:

Yes, I would encourage them to use birth control if they decided they were going to have pre-marital sex.  

They know I don't condone it, and they know I would be disappointed in that choice, but if they are going to make that choice . . . I certainly don't want them getting pregnant or getting an STD or causing that for someone else. They all know that we use birth control and that we used it to plan their own births perfectly, and even my 8-year-old has made comments that lead me to believe she is hearing stuff at school - so I have no hesitancy talking with my kids about sex and birth control. I think it's irresponsible in this day and age not to do so. 

Bottom line:

I want them to be able to talk with me about anything, no matter what their choices are about that anything. I tend to think that openness and honesty and trust and recognition of them as adults and real education is part of true parenthood.

To phrase it differently, I think what works for Mormons is that we don't teach "abstinence only" as the comprehensive answer for chastity. We teach mission and temple marriage and eternal marriage and on and on and on that ground the PURPOSE for pre-marital abstinence in something other than "mere" abstinence. We give it an eternal purpose that is absent in other theologies. It's grounding sex in the context of eternal creativity that makes it unique and literally empowering, in my opinion. If kids "get it" (even if only in simplified, outline form), they are less likely to engage in pre-marital sex; if they don't, they are more likely to engage.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Unrealistic Expectations in Marriage

The discussion thread following the post is better than the post itself:

Unrealistic Expectations - Martin (By Common Consent)

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Should We Marry Younger than the Modern, Industrial World's Average?

Strictly from a practical standpoint, the effects of marrying at 27 - 30 include:

1) Waiting to marry decreases the available pool from which to marry. That's simple mathematics.

2) Postponing marriage to someone whom you love and want to marry increases the potential for pre-marital sex exponentially - especially if you find that someone and feel that way at 22 and have to wait for 5 years or more to get married.

3) Waiting to have kids until after 35 radically increases the risk of lots of birth defects. Marrying at 30 leaves a window of only five years for those who want to have their kids prior to that age.

4) Having three kids in five years certainly is doable and not at all harmful for many, but it will derail the wife's career in many cases - and will be hard on anyone who has extended post-partum issues.

5) Waiting to get married at such an age that 3 or fewer kids is the only "safe" option doesn't leave any room for those who want more - especially if they want 5 or more. Our kids are 14 years apart, spaced and planned meticulously, and our oldest was born almost two years after we were married, so my wife would have been 43 years old when our youngest was born if we had married when she was 27. Our last two would have been born after the 35 year target and been subject to increased risk as a result.

6) If our youngest had been born when we were 43, she would not graduate until we were 61 - at which point I would be considering retirement. Not only do I not want to be dealing with a teenager when I am 61 and multiple times a grandfather, but I also want to have a few years left in my 50's to be alone with my wife and have some freedom BEFORE I contemplate retirement. Currently, we have 6 kids, and the youngest will graduate when I am 54. That's a BIG difference.

7) A mature 24 is much better in a marriage and family than an immature 30.

There's more I could add, but starting that much later has consequences that must be considered - especially when the data suggests marrying after 21 removes almost all increase in divorce rate that can be attributed primarily to age. 

[NOTE: I am NOT saying in this post that everyone should marry before the modern average age mentioned in the opening sentence.  That is a personal decision and each person should marry at whatever age is best for him or her.  This post is about a general societal trend and its very real implications and complications.]

Saturday, April 16, 2011

To Walk Before God: Two Contrasting Images That Convey One Important Characteristic

Last weekend in my New Year's Resolution post, I highlighted the idea that we are to "walk" blamelessly before God - as opposed to running or sitting still.  This weekend, I am focusing on the idea of walking blamelessly "before God".

The phrase "before God" appears in our canonized scriptures just over 200 times - which should not have surprised me, but it did.  The following general categories are among the descriptions I compiled of what happens before God:

Things"are found" (discovered or found through examination).
We "are brought" (freely or bound).
We do or act in some way.
We confess.
We are changed or become.
We bow or worship.

As I read the references mentioned above, I was struck by something I had not considered previously:

In all of these passages and verses, there are two broad categories into which the descriptions fall.  The first is comprised of those instances where we are brought before God, while the second is comprised of those instances where we proactively, freely act before God.  What struck me quite hard as I contemplated that distinction is that the first category is said to be universal - a moment all of us will have occur as we stand to be judged; the second category, however, does not carry with it a sense of judgment or compulsion of any kind.  The instances where we freely choose to act "before God" present an image of God, in those instances, not being a "judge" but rather a father, a companion, a guide, a friend, a Lord or Master, a mentor, an example, etc.

The act of "walking" before God ALWAYS is presented as something that fits this second category - something that we CHOOSE to do outside of and prior to the formal judgment.  It is what separates the manner in which we eventually will "stand" before God at that judgment ("uprightly" or "with head bowed down in shame") - and it affects most importantly the person we "are" or "become", which, in the end, really is the actual judgment itself.

The image that came into focus for me as I pondered all of this was two-fold - and the first one turned a traditional image completely around for me.  "Before" can mean "in front of" in two very distinct and different ways: first, in front of someone who is behind you; second, in front of someone who is facing you.  I always had pictured the second image (as in standing before a judge), and there is great power in that image, but there also is symbolic power in the first image (being "ahead of" someone else) - and it is that image that was new to me. 

1) In the famous and popular poem, "Footprints in the Sand", the image is one of the Lord walking beside someone and then, during the particularly difficult periods, carrying the person instead.  What I saw as I contemplated the verses I read this week, however, was radically different.  In this image, the person was walking "before" (in front or ahead of) the Lord who walked along behind - listening for directions as to the path to take, avoiding many pitfalls as a result of those directions, stumbling and falling occasionally as obstacles got in the way but rising as a result of the encouragement and strength of the person following along behind, steadily walking and learning and experiencing and "becoming" by walking "before" (in front or ahead of) the Lord.

In "Footprints in the Sand", the person is carried through the most difficult parts of the journey, but in the journey described above the person gains far more strength and ability to navigate those difficult parts of the journey specifically as a result of the assistance he receives to be able to continue to walk and, thus, not just make it through but **overcome** those most difficult parts.

2) I also envisioned someone walking along a path, speaking on a cell phone with someone in front of her - someone who had walked the path already and had turned to face those who were walking that already-walked path.  By turning to face the other walkers, the person had placed them "before" himself - allowing them to face him and be "before him" or "approaching him".

As I said in a couple of my most recent posts, I believe the core factor in our judgment will be how diligently we strive to hear God's words to us and follow them (or to ascertain God's will or path for us and act upon it, for those who struggle with the idea of hearing God's words) - no matter what those words or that will might be.  "Blame" carries a strong sense of acting differently than one knows he should act, since it is commonly understood that we can't "blame" others for things that are outside their control and/or comprehension.  Thus, the image that arose for me this week is one of someone who walks with a listening ear and attempts to walk according to what she hears as she listens.

To have a more listening ear and a more seeing eye (discussed last weekend), and to act according to what I see and hear, are my goals thus far for this month.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Accepting Differing Levels of "Faith" and "Knowledge" in the Church

Perhaps those who "reject" a religion's truth-claims should withdraw; perhaps not. I tend to believe there are reasons for many to remain affiliated with a religion (in this case, the LDS Church) even if they can't embrace the truth claims. Those reasons might include things as simple as, "It's the best I know, even if I don't believe it's exclusively true," and as complex as, "My wife (or husband) and kids are happy in it, they embrace it, and I am willing to participate as a non-believing member of record in order to maximize their peace and happiness."

What really concerns me is any exclusion of those who believe truth-claims are "unknowable" - since I believe they actually ARE unknowable to many.

Our own scriptures say that some are given the gift "to know", while others are given the gift "to believe" those who know. I think there is great selfless service that can be provided by those who either believe those who know or even don't believe those who believe or know - if they stay in the Church. I have NO problem whatsoever with members who reject exclusive truth claims retaining their membership, as long as they don't fight the Church. I have no problem with those who think things are unknowable staying the Church - with no disclaimers whatsoever. I think they belong in the Church every bit as much as someone who feels they know everything - or even as someone who actually might know everything.

Fighting the Church is one thing; simply not accepting certain claims is quite another. Simply saying certain things can't be known is at a completely different level. Personally, I would hope that NOBODY whose only "issue" is an inability to accept truth-claims or feel they are knowable would face excommunication over it or be encouraged to leave. I would feel a deep sense of loss and injustice if that were to happen.

To say it differently, I don't think accepting all truth-claims (especially the exclusive ones) even is a requirement of worthy temple attendance (or even ward or stake leadership), much less regular membership. I know a highly visible member of leadership in a stake where I have lived who doesn't like the "only true church" phrase because of how it can be and is interpreted by many - inside and outside the Church. I understand his concern, and I share it to a degree. He is a faithful member, with a truly miraculous conversion story, and to think that he should give up his membership simply because he can't accept that particular "truth claim" is abhorrent to me.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Foundational Advice for Investigators

If you are serious about trying to reach an understanding of Mormonism, you should be considering everything with an open heart AND mind and praying sincerely to the Father in the name of the Son to feel the confirmation of the Holy Ghost - so you have your own personal prophecy / witness from God. It really isn't much more complicated than that. If you sincerely believe God is telling you to accept Mormonism as restored Christianity (as the closest thing we can get to what Jesus himself actually taught), you have an obligation to act on that; if you sincerely believe God is telling you NOT to accept Mormonism as restored Christianity (as the closest thing we can get to what Jesus himself actually taught), you have an obligation to act on that, as well. It's between you and God, and it's up to you to act according to your own inspiration / prophecy / direction from God.

My only advice:

Try to set aside all previous interpretations and give our beliefs the benefit of the doubt. Too often, people with whom I have discussed these things can't get past what they have been taught in other denominations, even when it seems clear from a simple parsing of the Bible itself that those teachings aren't in harmony with the words of Jesus himself. That is true especially of evangelical denominations.

My standard is simple:

When dealing with the Bible, ALWAYS grant top priority to the words of Jesus. Interpret EVERYTHING else through the lens of his words. For example, if there seems to be a discrepancy between what Jesus says in the Gospels and what a prophet or apostle or disciple or early Christian father says, Jesus wins - EVERY TIME, regardless. If there is a discrepancy between what a NT prophet or apostle says and what an early Christian father says, the NT prophet or apostle wins - EVERY TIME, regardless. If you do that honestly and scrupulously, I believe you will see that the teachings of "The Restoration" are aligned very well with the original teachings of Jesus, slightly less well with the teachings of Paul, slightly less well with the teachings of some of the most influential early Christian fathers, not all that well with most of the Protestant reformers and not well at all with most 19th, 20th and 21st Century Protestant ministers.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Non-Mormon Prophets

Mormonism defines "prophecy" loosely as "what is revealed through the Holy Ghost". That is my own definition, but it comes from the Bible Dictionary that is included as a part of the scriptural helps that are in the KJV Bible that the Church publishes. Under "Prophet", it says:
"In a general sense a prophet is anyone who has a testimony of Jesus Christ by the Holy Ghost, as in Num. 11: 25-29; Rev. 19: 10."
and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease ... (and Moses said) would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!
I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

Given this definition, Mormonism has no problem accepting non-Mormons as "prophets" in that most expansive sense - as someone through whom God chooses to speak through the Holy Ghost. In fact, this is very consistent with the OT perspective, when numerous "prophets" lived at the same time and seemed to come out of the woodwork prior to great calamities. There is a difference between that, however, and the "calling" of someone to the "Priesthood office" of prophet. 

Those who have been called and ordained as prophets and apostles are "set apart" to prophecy (to share the word of God as moved upon by the Holy Ghost). They aren't "perfect" (complete and whole and fully developed) in this responsibility (meaning they aren't infallible), but they do "read the signs of the times" and share their inspiration with the world as a result. That also is why, frankly, we should have little problem letting go of things that were said in a different time than our own (or even in a different culture concurrent to our own) - since what God communicates with his children can change according to the needs of the people at any given time or in any given culture. He also communicates according to their willingness to listen. 

For example, if highly addictive substances are unknown in one society, there is little reason to expect God to prompt a prophet to speak of them; if, however, those substances exist or will be introduced shortly in another society, there is every reason to expect prophets in that society to mention them. This also explains why the Jewish priests in Jerusalem at the birth of Jesus had no idea about the prophecy regarding the star, while "wise men" from the east did know of it. One group was open to being told about it; the other group was not - so, apparently, God simply didn't inspire any prophets from that area to mention that upcoming sign. 

Was Muhammad a prophet? Given the totality of what he taught, I have no problem believing he might have been. I feel the same way about Confucius, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, and any number of other seemingly inspired preachers. I don't view them as Prophets or as having been called and ordained through the Priesthood as prophets and apostles, but I have no problem with them proclaiming the word of God through inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Frankly, I include many rabbis in this category, despite their lack of faith in Jesus Christ - since they do have faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom we believe to have been the pre-mortal Jesus.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

To Walk More Blamelessly before God

My New Year's Resolution for the month of April is "to walk more blamelessly before God" - taken from the first sentence of Alma 5:27, which reads:

Have ye walked, keeping yourselves blameless before God? 

As I began to contemplate this question and how to internalize it a little more fully this month, I separated it instinctively into three core concepts:

1) We must walk our life's journey; we cannot sit, nor can we run.

2) We must walk "before God". 

3) We must strive to be blameless in "how" we walk.

I will attempt to address each of these points each Saturday this month and try to wrap them together on the final Saturday of the month.

1) We must walk; we cannot sit, nor can we run.

A number of scriptures come to mind immediately when I consider walking - not sitting or running.  Among them are the following:

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. 

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. 

The central idea in these and other passages is that all things must be done with patience at a proper pace - that "enduring to the end" most often is a case of continuing to walk a long journey steadily and humbly rather than sprint to a near finish line.  The interesting thing, to me, is the differing imagery that is employed in these three passages to address the same general topic.  

The first passage (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) presents an image of someone walking through life at a pace that allows him to look around and see each "time" and "season" for what it is.  There is no rushing around in such a hurry that he misses the signs that tell what he should be doing at that moment.  He literally is strolling and observing - and, thus, acting according to what he observes in relation to his own life.  

I believe the person who walks thus is tune with the things that he sees, is more likely to see all that is put before him and, thus, less prone to miss what God wants of him.   

The second passage (Mosiah 4:27) adds an element of stamina to the first image.  In this verse, the person not only is in tune with what is placed before her, but she also walks at a pace that does not exhaust herself - that allows her to continue to walk without needing to take long pauses but at the maximum pace that she is capable of accomplishing.  She does not walk faster than she is able, but she does walk as quickly as she is able to do consistently for the length of her journey.  Thus, she covers the maximum distance possible for her - regardless of how that distance compares to the distance walked by anyone else.  

I also love the inclusion of the phrase "in wisdom and order" - as it implies, to me, an active and conscious prioritization on the part of the walker.  She acts as an "agent unto herself" - using her wisdom to "order" her life appropriately - again, regardless of how others order and prioritize their own lives.  

The final verse (Ecclesiastes 9:11) adds a truly unique and important element to the discussion.  The first part is a nice restatement of the others. However, the last part is a reminder that there really is enough time for ALL to accomplish what is set before them, if they but continue to walk - AND it emphasized an important disclaimer, if you will.  It is not just "time" that happens to all; "chance" happens to all, as well.  

"Chance" can be nothing more than "luck or fortune" - and that might be a legitimate reading of this verse.  However, given what is stated in the first part of the verse, I prefer to define "chance" as "opportunity or possibility".  With this interpretation, the last part of this verse would read: 

but all have time and opportunity

[In stating it this way, I believe it also is important to recognize directly that, when comparing life to a race of some sort, ALL can "walk" figuratively (since "walk" when juxtaposed with "run" connotes a difference in "pace or speed" rather than "manner") - while all cannot run.]

In summary, my resolution this month includes the commitment to strive to walk with my eyes open, seeking to see and recognize this "time" for what it is - to see the Lord's purpose for my life this specific and unique month.  It includes the need to use wisdom to order / prioritize the activities of this month.  It includes the faith that, if  I strive to walk in this manner, that there really will be time for me to accomplish whatever the Lord wants me to accomplish, that I really will have the chance to do so - that I truly may be more than I am now when I finish my mortal journey. 

Friday, April 8, 2011

When Someone Challenges My Christianity

Whenever someone asks me if I am Christian (or claims that I'm not), I try to say something like:
"That term ('Christian') means different things to different people. I believe I am a Christian, but I'm not sure if you would or not. Do you have a few minutes to listen to me explain my beliefs and see if you think I am?"
If they are serious and really want to know, they will listen - or pick a different time to do so. If they aren't interested in making that decision for themselves (or have made it already), they will turn me down - and that will be it. No debates, no hard feelings, no arguments, no change from before the question was asked. Nothing gained, but nothing lost. 

We had a training meeting for the bishops in our stake a few years ago, and one of the points that was made to them was to invite in such a way that it is easy for the other person to say, "No." Don't challenge; rather, invite - but give them a dignified and easily accessible way out in the invitation itself.  

That's what I try to do when someone questions my Christianity.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Blessings Include the Prayer of Faith

This is a very personal topic for me, since some of my most intense and enlightening experiences have been associated with Priesthood blessings. I have had at least three experiences that simply can't be explained in any way other than the opening of the heavens and having divine messages delivered through my mouth. (I really mean that, and I guarantee that nobody could construct a reasonable argument with that conclusion if I did share the details.)

Having said that, I also believe strongly that there is a "gift" associated with healings. I don't mean a gift to be able to heal everyone of everything, and I don't even mean a "gift of healing power". What I mean is a gift to be able to ascertain the will of God in situations where the person will be healed or not healed - but where God has something He wants said regardless. I’m not certain it is a permanent and constant gift, but I am sure it is a targeted gift in those circumstances when He really does want to speak directly to the person (or even those listening). I really don't know how to describe it properly, but I do believe in it.

In my own case, there have been lots of times when I simply have not felt any particular inspiration - where I have not felt like a conduit for His words. In those cases, I simply have stated that I am the one blessing the person as a Priesthood holder ("I bless you . . .") and hoped that my sincere hope would be granted - and I have avoided making specific promises about healing. However, there have been lots of times when I have felt prompted to make certain clear and astounding statements - and often I have seen them fulfilled. Those instances could be explained away as just the natural healing process, and perhaps they were, but I take comfort in them, nonetheless. That, in and of itself, makes giving blessings worthwhile - and the possibility that God will, for whatever reason, rend the veil once every few hundred blessings makes the concept and the practice sublime to me.

I think ALL worthy individuals (inside or outside the Church) have the right and ability to bless others and pronounce promises of hope and faith, dependent on the will of God (whether through the Priesthood or not), but I am deeply thankful for my own experiences where the heavens opened and I spoke the word of God. It's hard to explain what that feels like, but I'm glad I waded through the "common" ones enough to experience the "uncommon" ones.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Difference Between Organizational Priesthood Authority and the Authority of God

I was really glad to hear Elder Bednar's discussion of light and revelation in General Conference yesterday.  I've thought a lot over the years about the Priesthood power and authority - and revelation - and how it is available to so many people outside of our modern Priesthood structure, and I loved the way Elder Bednar addressed that issue - even though it wasn't direct but more tangential.  

Let me try to explain what I mean:

For as long as I can remember I have agreed with the classic definitions of the Priesthood as "the power and authority of God" and "the authority to act in the name of God" - but I have disagreed that such a definition is limited to men who have been ordained to offices within the administrative Priesthood structure. I have believed that there is a huge difference between "the comprehensive power and authority of God" and the implementation of organizational Priesthood authority. 

I believe ALL who covenant to take the name of God upon them (inside or outside the Church, irrespective of sex or age and no matter what specific name they use) have the authority to act in His name in some way and to some degree (unless they lose it through the type of abuse described in Doctrine & Covenants 121) and all who have access to the Holy Ghost can exercise His power (to some degree). In fact, I believe that is inherent in the very words of the sacramental prayer, the way that the Priesthood is exercised in the temple and our beliefs concerning revelation that can be received by all.

Given this fundamental belief, I define "the formal, organizational Priesthood" as it currently is implemented in the LDS Church in administrative terms - since that is how our own Article of Faith presents it. Therefore, I would tweak the definition of that Priesthood as follows:

"the authority to administer (oversee the performance of) eternal ordinances and to administer (oversee the performance of) the activities related to those ordinances, including preaching the Gospel"

I'm not arguing against the current structure of the organizational Priesthood responsibilities; not at all.  I'm just saying that there is a difference between the fullest definition of the power and authority of God and how the Priesthood is exercised currently within the Church - and I'm OK with that. 

Also, I'm not sure that everyone will understand what I am saying in this post (and I am concerned a bit that some will misunderstand), but I really don't think what I'm saying is controversial in any real way. 
The definition above allows for MANY actions to be performed without organizational Priesthood authority but still through the more general authority of God - and, I believe, it is much truer to the actual way the Priesthood is used in the Church than the more common definition. I believe this is part of what Elder Bednar was saying in his talk about light and revelation, even though he didn't address the specific application I am making in this post.  

[Also, in the interest of full disclosure, my belief that women who have been endowed in the temple by the administrative Priesthood leave the temple with real power and authority as a result of that endowment also influences how I have tweaked the organizational, formal definition to focus more narrowly on "administrative rights" (as assigned responsibilities) rather than the more comprehensive "power and authority of God".] 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

No New Year's Resolution Post This Weekend - So Stop By and Read an Old Post or Two

I have been traveling with my job this month, and I am exhausted.  I also have extended family in town visiting, and I need to spend time with them.  Therefore, I am not writing a New Year's resolution post tonight. 

If the title brought you here, go ahead and browse in whatever way you want.  I'd hate to have you visit and not read something that took some thought and contemplation, as this post certainly did not.  *grin*

Friday, April 1, 2011

Spiritual Time Thieves

When I speak, I don't like to waste any time - mostly because I believe in the importance of what I am saying. Every second I spend not dealing with the topic and my own take on it is a second I spend wasting the listeners' time - and I don't have the right to waste anyone else's time.

Introductions, jokes, sappy analogies, visual aids, long quotes, even scriptures - all of these things are not important when compared to the insights I can offer. My own life is far more important and interesting and enlightening than these other things that make me a spiritual time thief if I let them take precious moments from my allotted time.

This is true especially if Sunday falls on April Fool's Day.
*GRIN* I hope I gotcha with this one!